Thursday, April 28, 2011


I’ve had a string of bad travel arrangements the past two weeks. On my way back from vacation in San Francisco, I had scheduled a flight with a layover in Dallas. As I sat in the airport reading about Proust, I was told that my flight would be slightly delayed because of mechanical problems. Because I am not attentive, I did not realize that this development might affect my connection to New York. It wasn’t until we had been waiting for about an hour and an announcement was made that we would be boarding shortly but that anyone with connecting flights to LaGuardia and a few other destinations may miss their connections, did I understand that I might have an issue. Naturally, the person at the desk wasn’t helpful and couldn’t handle the stress or the speaking skills to attend to the situation. Since my luggage was already on its way to Dallas, I figured I might as well follow it on its way. My flight was filled with people chattering about catching a flight to Fort Meyers from Dallas.  One unfortunate man (who I had earlier been cursing due to the amount of questions he was asking at the service counter right in front of me) had to make his connection in order to meet his family to catch a cruise ship.

“Just get on board and get to that buffet,” said a talkative man from Alabama. “That’s what I always say.”

I sat making no real facial expressions, except maybe slight smiles of amusement or frowns of absurdity. Other than that, I sat thinking about what had just happened to me on my trip.

When I arrived in Dallas, I asked a woman at the counter in the terminal what to do now that I had obviously missed my flight.

“I know I’m not getting to LaGuardia on time,” I said casually enough.

“Gate C38,” she said.

“That’s a flight to?”

“Gate C38. That’ll help you.”

I figured I could sleep somewhere if this lead proved to be faulty, so I decided to go to C38 and see what that meant.  The airport shuttle train worked fast and for the brief moment I rode on it, I looked out over the flat expanse of the area surrounding the airport. I thought about Texas and its bigness; of San Antonio and my father; of riding through Amarillo to Norman, Oklahoma where I was pulled over by a nice cop who told me where I could camp. From the train, I saw the sun setting over some small tributary I knew nothing about.

When I got to C38, a nice woman with an accent that wasn’t quite southern helped me get a ticket on the next plane to Newark.  I texted a good friend of mine to see if he would pick me up there at 1:00 AM—he said yes.  I took my tickets and called another friend to talk briefly about my trip.

“I’m watching Orlando play Atlanta,” he said. “I’m drinking a bottle of wine."

I paced near the gate, watching people type on laptops and drink at the bar of a T.G.I. Friday’s, and told him of all the tumult I had just experienced and listening to him talk to me on the other end made me feel at ease, though I was already calm.  I was at ease, but excited to talk and to know he was out there. But I had to hang up and board the plane, so I did.

The plane made it to the runway when we were told that we would be delayed an hour due to terrible weather in New York so we’d be taking off at 9:30 Dallas time, or 10:30 in New York local time.  As we waited, we had to return to the terminal because a passenger had gotten sick. Finally, we were in the air and I listened to music while my neighbor intently read The Winter’s Tale, making notes on the pages. During the flight, one of the flight attendants came on the loudspeaker to ask if there was a doctor or paramedic on board. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of panic in the passengers. I suppose it was the weariness of travel and the idea of arriving where they had to get that allowed them to think that this problem would be taken care of somehow—it also could have been because we were flying in the air. There was a doctor onboard and the flight attendants rolled out a large oxygen tank while the doctor did presumably whatever he could in the first class section. The doctor seemed to have done his work and before I knew it we were descending onto murky Newark and I could make out puddles of rainwater sparkling on the distant parking lots as we came closer to the earth.  When we landed, a flight attendant told us that our plane would be met by an ambulance and paramedics to take care of the sick passenger and that it would be much appreciated if we would be patient in getting off the flight.  It was almost 2:00 AM, so naturally the entire plane groaned. But it didn’t take long to get off the plane and soon I was walking through the terminal, after splashing my face with cold water and soap in the bathroom, feeling fresh with delirious energy.  My friend was waiting by the baggage claim in a white sweater streaked with rain. I was happy to see him so I gave him a hug and patted him on the back.  I filled out my luggage claim while a dog howled in its carrier, which rested on top of some boxes of human skin and organs for transplant. My friend and I shrugged this off as I was told my bags would be delivered the next day.

Then, we were in his fiancée’s car as rain poured down and clouds rolled across the New York skyline. I wanted a beer but I was relaxed as my friend told me stories. We passed through Tribeca, which was quiet and empty and gleaming from the rain. Tribeca was already preparing for the sacredness of one of its slow Sundays where the morning seems to last the entire day. Quickly we were over the Williamsburg Bridge and my friend left me on the corner with only my carry-on bag. I slid my skullcap back on my head and stepped into a place to get something to eat, knowing that I was back home.

My second bad travel experience was far less involved than the first one. This past weekend was Easter and my father and I would be spending it together. I took the train home on Saturday evening. The train from New York to my hometown on Long Island is fairly tedious, though on some summer evenings it can be quite enjoyable. This was a spring night, so the ride was bearable. When the time came to transfer at Huntington, the conductor said that the train to Port Jefferson had broken down and that it would be replaced with bus service. I got off the train and joined the rest of the confused masses as we aimlessly waited in one area that seemed to be the right place for a bus to stop. After about fifteen to twenty minutes of waiting the crowd started moving—naturally I followed. A man in an MTA uniform informed us that buses would be arriving to go to each individual station. Luckily, since my hometown houses a state university and is usually a popular stop, my bus was first. I boarded with the throng of Asian students and sat in a seat by the window. I wasn’t upset at my circumstance and as the lights in the bus went out and the gears jerked to a start, I felt that this short period of travel would be a good chance to just sink into the moment, disappear into the complete anonymity of being on a dirty bus on a misty spring, Long Island night, pretending to be whoever it was that a stranger might take me to be, even though I was on my way to that most common of places, home.  And when I got there, I was indeed home, talking with my grandparents and being whomever that person was who talked to his grandparents and enjoyed those moments. The next day, I cooked the lamb leg for my father and I to eat along with potatoes, sautéed kale and salad. And I was that person.

Last week, I wrote that I was past the 1967 and 1968 of my life and into some era I wasn’t quite sure of, but for the time being I was calling it “dad-rock.” Those distinctions made sense in the moment for that post, but as I’ve thought longer on them, they don’t particularly apply to anything.  We want to split our lives up into complete and packaged eras and times that we can look back on and say, “that’s when I was like that” or “that’s who I was then.” However, eras never end and neither do our different selves. Who I am now, carries completely with it the ghost of who I was then, the ghost of me with long hair who believed he could recreate 1967 in the year 2002 among all his friends.

Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel has left me thinking about all of these things: travel, identity, time, love. Bookends is very much an album about an end of an era and the beginning of a new age. “Bookends Theme” and “Bookends” are both songs of loss and memory, while a song like “Save the Life of My Child” looks towards modern time and what will be coming in the future. The lyrics to “Bookends” are “Time it was, and what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences/Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph/Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” If that isn’t heartbreaking or melancholy enough on paper, then listen to the melody of the song and you will feel the worn collar of your pea coat walking through the park on an early November afternoon or perhaps a late March morning. The sky is a murky pink and grey and people walk with strollers and kick soccer balls. And maybe you’ve just walked away from someone you love, someone you can’t see again. Or, you’re drunk at dawn in Spain somewhere after sitting at a bus stop for two hours, hugging someone for dear life and knowing that you’ll be leaving them for a long period of time.  The song was used to great affect in 500 Days of Summer

Bookends is a fantastic album, though slightly schizophrenic, considering the first side represents more of a suite or song-cycle while the second half is based on singles like “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and “Fakin’ It.” However, we never really criticize Abbey Road for having the same, but opposite structure. But the song that seems to resonate the most from the album is “America,” which serves as the centerpiece of the suit on the first side.

When I was younger, I used to think “America” wasn’t a great song. It seemed overdone and lacking in any, for lack of a better word, balls. This feeling was only compounded further when Stella used the song to great effect in an ongoing gag in their sketches. So, I overlooked it just as I overlooked Simon & Garfunkel for so many years. Though I’ve enjoyed Bookends in the past few years, its only been until recently that I’ve grown to love the song “America.” Where in my younger days I would have thought that the song diverged from my idea of America, I see now perhaps that it is more in line. There are still plenty of lines that are classic Paul Simon in that they are overwrought, over-literary and over-sixties: “Let us be lovers and marry our fortunes together,” “She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.” However, the final two verses are what really work:

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America

That first verse is simple and powerful writing at its best. We have a good piece of dialogue that evokes and actual conversation that occurs when one travels. Then a direct line of narrative that features a nice change of object or observation when we move from the magazine to a larger, more profound and thought provoking image of a moon rising over an open field. Do we need the color to be explained to us? No, because the simple description of a moon rising over an open field allows us to create the scene and image for ourselves. We’ve known that scene. 

The second verse is where the song matches up with my vision of America. The line, “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” is something I always associate with America, or at least the America I see when I walk around my neighborhood at dusk or when I ride in a car through suburbs or country roads at night when I see lights shining from homes that peek out through the passing trunks of trees. When I was in San Francisco, I walked around the streets of the city alone some days and some nights. The West Coast is obviously very different from the East Coast and I could use plenty of space describing that difference. But what I mainly want to describe is the smell of the flowers and the trees that were already in bloom out there, or seemed to be perpetually in bloom. Each day was sunny and each night was cold, but not in an uncomfortable way. It was cold in that way I can only describe as refreshing, that is to say, as if walking the streets were the same as swimming in a pool in the height of summer. And in the day and in the night, trees stood tall next to the bright colors of apartment buildings and planters were placed outside of homes in neat little patches with benches next to them—safe, clean little spots that could almost never exist in New York. And many apartment buildings had gated entrances that concealed open-air hallways that led to the doorway inside—a completely West Coast phenomenon. The smell of flowers drifted through these gates and above my head. I thought I smelled honeysuckles or hydrangeas, flowers I had seen before. The smell of flowers can only be described in so many ways: different levels of sweetness, freshness; through the memory of a girl, a loved one, a room. But these flowers and the overall scent of the air reminded me of a time or a place that I wasn’t quite sure of. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to get back to it. There were flashes of Saratoga in the spring or the backyard by my pool in the dead of summer. However, those images weren’t what were pulling at my heart. I was in California, presumably in love and trying to understand that, yet thinking of my college, my home, or of houses along Henry Street or Noe Street or the great rolling hills of Dolores Street that I knew nothing about but had to understand no matter what. Needless to say, I was empty and aching and I had no idea why.

One day, I climbed up Bernal Hill by myself. I brought a beer with me to the top and I sat on a rock against an old chain link fence, watching people walk their dogs and make them roll over for treats.  I walked out to one of the flat levels of the hill where you can get a good panorama. There was a pretty girl with sunglasses letting her large, standard, white poodle, Buster, trot around off the leash. Suddenly she rushed over to Buster and started grabbing at his mouth.  I was walking by so I stopped.

“Everything alright?” I said.

“I think he swallowed a dead mouse.”

“Need any help?”

She smiled. “Can you hold him while I try to pull it out?”

I nodded. She tried to get the mouse out of his mouth, but it was no use.

“You ate the mouse, Buster,” I said, letting him go.

The girl laughed.

“Sorry, I heard you calling him before.”

“It’s fine,” she said.

“I’m Matt.”


I walked down the hill with her and into the Mission. I told her I was visiting San Francisco and why. She thought it was a good story. I told her I liked to write but didn’t know what my life would end up being and she told me that sounded OK too. We stopped for a beer and I asked her what she did.

“I’m studying oceanography, but I work as a secretary in a law office.”

“Oceanography,” I said. “Maybe you’ll be an environmental lawyer.”

“Who knows, right?”

She was quite pretty when she took off her big sunglasses in the shade of the bar.  We had two drinks apiece and in the middle of the afternoon and not being who I normally was, I wanted to kiss her. But, I realized that maybe I shouldn’t. I drained my beer and then pet Buster on the head, even giving him a kiss.  Claire laughed and we walked back out into the sunlight.

“If you end up coming out here,” she said. “Look me up.”

I took out the book I was reading. “I’ll write it down here.”

“Don’t you just want to put it in your phone?”

“I kind of like this.”

So I took down the number, we hugged and I waved goodbye to she and Buster. Then I walked to Dolores Park, sat down, tried to read, but instead napped in the sun, getting a terrible sunburn.

What I mean to say is that what actually happened on my trip doesn’t matter, because like Claire or like all those cars sitting on the New Jersey turnpike, I’m constantly out looking for “America.” I wanted to go to California and be like Don Draper. To take on some different persona for even a short period of time—to be a hobo for a week.  And even though America more than any other country had no true identity, all people want to do that. We want to break our lives up into different eras. We want to surprise people and never be pinned down. But that’s not how we actually live our lives. Things carry on. 1967 fades in 1968 and then all of a sudden its 1990 and you still have to answer to those ghosts of yourself that you encounter each day and lay in when you go to bed at night, hopefully next to someone you love.

Bookends is about the end of an old era and the beginning of a new era. We can break up America into different eras or different regions, but its all the same longing and restlessness from coast to coast. We can try to figure out the things we don’t understand or need to understand—why we don’t love something the same way we used to—but it can never be forced. We say "break up" or we say "cut off" or "quit" but that’s never what happens, things carry on, people do things.

Nothing that happened on my trip mattered because all of the same things could have happened on your own trip. We want to lose ourselves in the journey. We say the destination doesn’t matter; it's the journey that’s important. I’ve always believed in that phrase and you can argue that the journey is what ultimately determines the destination. However, as someone who has most closely associated himself with a train ride or a bus ride where he doesn’t have to speak to anyone, where he can be as many identities as he wants to be, all I can say is that we eventually end up somewhere and have to be somebody. And very often that means being Don Draper, Dick Whitman and even a version of yourself you don’t even know all at one time. It means surprising yourself, but never cutting off what is possible or what has happened before.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Puddles of My Guest Columnists Special: David Stern

Welcome back from the holy holiday week and weekend of the Judeo-Christian religions, my Puddlers. Today's post will be starting a run over the next few weeks of a few special guest posts contributed by the non-weekly columnists for the blog. As I've mentioned before, if you ever want to contribute some puddle of yourself to the blog, I would be more than happy to read, review and consider it.

Today's contributor is David Stern of the Sanctuaries who has been on the podcast and has contributed much to my very own life. He has decided to tackle the importance of one specific song and write about it with passion and a narrative—the two focal points of the Puddles of Myself aesthetic. I'll drop the introduction and let you enjoy today's Puddles of My Guest Columnist post.

My Experiences “On Fire”

David Stern

As an appreciator of music, one of the criteria I have—like many of you probably do—for assessing a song’s value to me is how it makes me feel.  Whether the feeling is noticed or is even consciously part of my assessment, the degree to which I feel any emotion and the degree of lucidity of the emotion are directly proportionate to the personal value I give a song.  There is certain music I listen to for the simple reason that I think it sounds cool.  Much of Alvin Lucier’s work is music that I approach with emotions off the court; it is there for sound and sound only.  Pop music however, operates in feeling.  “My Girl,” for example, is a song that has great worth to me because from start to finish it elicits something strong within me; when I hear those first guitar strings plucked over the teasing introductory bass notes and then the finger snaps drenched in reverb that seem to fill any room, it’s all rays of sunshine, nostalgia, warmth, and a few other clear and positive emotions (sometimes I think about Macaulay Culkin getting stung by bees, too). 

While many songs are successful in enhancing what you already feel, the real accomplishment—in my opinion—of “My Girl,” is that regardless of what is already going on inside me, my emotions are slaves to the music.  I think only the best songs, or tracks, have the ability to truly dominate you.  That said, no song has ever ruled me more completely than “I’m On Fire,” the sixth track off of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A..

Before discussing this specific track, I want to talk about my relationship with the Boss.  At some point in high school, when I was less jaded to the idea of the “Boss”, I listened to every Bruce Springsteen album (with varying levels of attentiveness) starting with his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and ending with Tunnel of Love (thank you Napster, Morpheus, KaZaa).  Concerned at the time with only what was considered canonical, I was taking strides in expanding my musical knowledge… trying anyway.  Thing is, I never really fell in love with Springsteen.  In fact, I would say I did not like him very much.  To this day I find there is an element of cheesiness to some of his most appreciated music that I just cannot get over.  “Badlands,” “Atlantic City,” and “Glory Days” are all examples of songs that, to me, have overwhelming schmaltziness and pomp.  I felt that certain songs and sides of Springsteen were heartbreaking, but there was just too much filler for me to really consider him someone I love.  And while my suburban, upper-middle class Jewish high school self just couldn’t relate to his workman’s lyrics, I also found that much of them seemed forced and that they were easy candidates for ridicule.  “Really, Bruce?  By this point in your career you’ve been playing music professionally for over a decade.   Save the ‘I ain’t got a job’ crap.”  (“Working on the Highway” seemed to work almost magically but that is an entirely different Puddle.)

It wouldn’t be until a few years ago that some of Springsteen’s songs would strike chords in me.  Maybe I hadn’t developed the tools or musical muscle needed to appropriately digest what was happening on his albums until recently. “Stolen Car,” the last song on side three of The River, was the first one to really get to me.  On an intellectual level, I was impressed by the economy of its writing.  With the exception of a few chords starting with an E minor near the song’s instrumental fadeout, “Stolen Car” is made up of only G and C—I and IV in the key of G major (Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” in E, is another song that contains only the I and IV chords yet it lacks the depth of “Stolen Car”).  The song also has a binary (AABAB) structure (until the fadeout) with the second B section being slightly altered and elongated. 

Then there are the lyrics.  Without divulging too much or going into detail, Springsteen paints a vivid picture of a love gone bad.  As almost everything the listener needs to know is in the first stanza (“I met a little girl and I settled down/ In a little house on the edge of town/ We got married and swore we’d never part/ Then little by little we drifted from each other’s hearts”), it is the narrator’s lack of specificity that makes the lyrics so relatable; we’ve only heard the first verse and we’ve all already lived “Stolen Car.”  By the time Springsteen describes his fear of disappearing in the pitch black night in the song’s last section, we are acutely aware of the withdrawnness and detachment a spoiled love can make us feel even from ourselves. 

Academic dissection aside, the track hits all the right nerves.  The simple lyrical content coupled with the sparse arrangement makes the narrator’s pain that much easier to feel.  My appreciation and love of “Stolen Car” comes from the sympathetic loneliness I experience after listening to it.  It’s the kind of song that I listen to, get inoculated by, and then ask “how did he do that?” after considering the unornamented material that was used to create it.

As a side note, I must admit a certain preference I often display for what I refer to as “songs that don’t do anything.”  This describes a purely musical aspect of different songs in which chords, verses and choruses, and other musical material seem to morph into each other.  Change seems to be brought on slowly and each section is a miniature meditation.  The antithesis of this is characteristic of songs by bands like the Who, whose chords are punctuating, intentional, and sometimes jarring.  Dana Carvey once joked that when some guitarists switch chords they look surprised as if having just seen a magic trick.  In my opinion, the Who are—and don’t get me wrong, I love the Who—an example of a band whose music lends itself to this “surprise.”  “Stolen Car,” on the other hand, has a certain languidness that my body agrees with, as do the title track off of Paul Simon’s Graceland and most songs by the Feelies (Neu is another great example of a band that employs this but then you’re getting into Krautrock, which I separate from most other popular music).  “I’m On Fire” has it, too.

The first time I ever allowed “I’m On Fire” to get under my skin was in January of this year.  My band, the Sancturies (plug!), were in Nashville recording what is going to be our debut album and companion EP.  During one of our mixing sessions we were graced with the presence of Jake Orrall, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Nashville garage wunderkinds Jeff the Brotherhood.  After chatting in the control room for a few minutes, Jake extended an invitation for the three of us Sanctuaries who were still down there to go to a show he was hosting near the studio.  As soon as the day’s work was done, we armed ourselves with 40s of Old English and headed over.

When we got there, I couldn’t believe how remarkably similar the interior made me feel to being at shows at Death By Audio in Brooklyn.  After all, this was in Nashville where everything had so far seemed alien to us.  Surrounded by tight clothing, beards, the stale stench of spilt beer, and hipsters getting down to crunked out raunch-rap, I was reminded of how Bard College felt when I would visit someone there after graduating from Skidmore: familiar soul, unfamiliar faces.  We had arrived in time to catch the last band, an admitted joke duo who played heavy metal and threw Monopoly money around while wearing suits.  Oh, and there was some fake blood.  In short, everything pathetic and everything fun about a show like that back home was exactly the same.  I was momentarily in Bizarro-Brooklyn.

The band’s set ended when I was about halfway done with my OE and the usual dispersing took place.  I had been expecting some more Major Lazer-esque music to start pumping out of the PA speakers but five minutes went by of overhearing chatter in the otherwise silent room where I could finally enjoy the wall I was leaning on as I treaded in 20 ounces.  As they tend to do when I am nearer to lubrication than moroseness (#stealingfromMadMen ), my eyes followed the movements of a dirty-blond and I wondered if she were the type of person she is because she has good taste or because tight-fitting clothing makes her ass look good.  I wanted to know if I could learn something from her if I ever decided to talk to her. 

And then it happened.  That never-changing barebones drumbeat beneath guitar arpeggios and the haunting synthesizer of “I’m On Fire,” brisk and chilling like January air, started coming out of the speakers.  The opening bars, screaming nothing but focus and forward motion, made me feel borderline psychotic.  By the time Springsteen’s cool, airy vocals entered, I was already as obsessed with whatever was in front of me as the narrator was with his female subject in the second stanza.  “Tell me now baby is he good to you/ Can he do to you the things that I do?/ I can take you higher/ I’m on fire.” I thought it was the perfect song for the moment but I would soon learn that it is the perfect song because it creates moments.

Now, there are always intangibles when judging a track.  This is why cover versions, live versions, alternate versions, and sometimes even studio versions (Tom Petty famously broke his hand by punching a wall after several failed attempts of recapturing the demoed vocal spirit for the song “Rebels” during the recording of Southern Accents) don’t retain the magic of whichever version you originally fell in love with.  The other thing about intangibles is that they are hard to describe.  Luckily, thanks to a rumor I read on the Internet there is a point of reference in the movie Badlands to help ease the ineffability. 

 For those who haven’t seen the movie, Badlands is about Kit (Martin Sheen) who charms the teenager Holly (Sissy Spacek) and, after murdering her father, takes her along for the ride on a cross-country killing spree.  Directed by Terrence Malick, the film uses the big sky backdrop of the South Dakota badlands to illustrate the dispassion of Kit’s violence and his matter-of-fact attitude towards the killings.  It is a well-accepted fact that Springsteen saw Badlands and that it inspired him to write the song of the same name as well as the title track from Nebraska.  According to one possibly erroneous messageboard post, the film also inspired the writing of “I’m On Fire.”  I’m not really concerned with the verisimilitude of some shmohawk’s online claims, but I do see some connections between the two works.

Starting with the obvious, the sweep of the Midwestern sky is present in the sparseness of the track.  There is a stillness in the song, like the stillness that passively observed Kit’s cruelty, that hangs above the male subject who is tempted by “a bad desire.”  In both film and song, the un-judging atmosphere is present before and after the story is told.

Lyrically, there is some ambiguity when it comes to who Springsteen’s character is referring to right in the first lines, “Hey little girl is your daddy home?/ Did he go away and leave you all alone?”  Clearly, the little girl whom he addresses with a rockabilly vocal rhythm is the object of his sexual desire.  But who is her “daddy?”  Considering the competitive sentiment of the second stanza, one might believe that it is the little girl’s suitor.  The fantastic video for “I’m On Fire” supports that idea and suggests that her daddy is really her sugar-daddy.  If the word “daddy” were to be replaced by a word that is not a familiar term for a father, one would be led to believe this even more strongly; the song would fall in line with a long list of others (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him” and the Beatles’ “This Boy,” to name a few) in which the male character not only yearns for the female, but also shows disdain for her current lover.  Keeping in mind the possible Badlands connection however, the little girl (she was a teenager, after all) and her “daddy” may very well be Holly and her father, respectively.  This notion adds a deeper element of desire and obsession to Springsteen’s character.  It would be one thing to question the love a peer of yours has for the girl you long after, but who has the audacity to compete with her father?

If the song was in fact inspired by Badlands, Springsteen did one hell of a job capturing nearly every aspect of the movie in such short time.  Kit’s sexual and violent desires, his psychosis outlined in the bridge (“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby edgy and dull/ And cut a six inch valley in the middle of my skull”), and the haunting landscape are all in there.  If it wasn’t inspired by Badlands, then Springsteen was still successful in using the song as a vehicle for what happens to be the emotional composition of the film. 

 “I’m On Fire” is not the first song that has changed the complexion of a day for me.  Last March, I woke up one morning and put on Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” had a mental breakdown and called in sick.  Though still an impressive feat, it was more of a function of the song’s mixture with borderline alcoholism, nascent depression, dissatisfaction with work, and the recollected loss of a promising person’s friendship and interest.  “I’m On Fire,” as I recently learned, has the ability to work alone (on me).

I had heard the song several times after that night in Nashville but I hadn’t given it my full attention during those subsequent listens.  The song would be on when friends were around, when I was cleaning my room listening to Born in the U.S.A., or when I felt like hearing it but was preoccupied with other responsibilities (I had been obsessing over the completion of the Sanctuaries’ album).  This past Sunday was different.  I had come home from a short band practice at around 9:30, put my guitar and jacket away, and sat down to listen to music.  Our album and EP had just been finished and I could finally enjoy other people’s songs the way I am accustomed to (without any distractions or other activities going on) and give it my full attention.  The first track I put on was “I’m On Fire.”  Seconds after its fadeout, I was struggling against the thirst I had for forward motion but I quickly lost the fight.  My jacket was back on, iPod buds were in my ears and transmitting the song on repeat, and before I knew it I made a left on Broadway heading north.  I didn’t care or know where I was going but with my hood up and feeling insane I would walk straight until something got in my way.  I took Broadway up until it hit Union Square East and continued on through its transformation into Park Avenue.  About thirty-five blocks after leaving my apartment, what got in my way was Grand Central Terminal.  This whole time, listening to nothing but this one song, I felt hijacked; it wasn’t my decision to leave my apartment and it definitely wasn’t my decision to walk the three miles (roughly) that made up the entire trip.  I was a shell of a person, obsessed with reaching an unknown goal.  I turned left at 42nd and then took 5th Ave south until it met back up with Broadway at Madison Square Park.  I was soon back in Union Square, walking through it scared like it was the set of the “Thriller” video and watching skateboarders as if they were riding some alien vehicle.  I made my way down University, left on 8th St, right on Mercer and then back home.  My iPod was put to sleep and, like nothing happened, I was answering my roommate’s questions about our slightly overdue rent check.  The rest of the night was completely normal.

In addition to the ways in which I’ve been affected by “I’m On Fire,” a remarkable feature it has—for me—is its freedom from context.  As fans of not just songs but of actual bands and artists, us listeners tend to either give or take away appreciation of works based on where they come from and the sometimes-cultural settings in which they are experienced.  On one side of the spectrum there is the whole, “every Beatles song is great” viewpoint (save for “Lovely Rita” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” I am admittedly mostly guilty of asserting this), in which an audience member gets wrapped up in the iconic nature of the greatest band of all time and dismisses what would be duds if other bands recorded them.  On the other side, a band like ABBA, despite having some fantastically written pop songs, often gets unfairly shrugged off for their associations with disco.  It’s true that songs, albums, and all other forms of art do not get birthed in vacuums, which is why I am so impressed by “I’m On Fire.”  Springsteen has never been an artist I have been in love with.  Although I now see his lyrics as portraits of a simple life and I adore a good bunch of his songs, I would never call myself a fan of his.  In a case where context seems like it should work against him, one of his songs has earned more of my personal appreciation and value than perhaps any other.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mark Side of the Moon

We've had an action packed week here at Puddles of Myself with plenty of NBA Playoffs coverage as well as a strange rant on the merits of "dad-rock." Today we finish it up with the musings of a sane man and that of course is our beloved Mr. Mark Jack.

So, for a moment forget that there will be hours and hours of NBA basketball to watch tonight, tomorrow and on a glorious Easter Sunday as well as the fact that your plans tonight probably aren't that great and just sit back, relax and let Mark Jack make some sense.

Until next week, my Puddlers.

Change the Subject

Mark Jack

There is far too little time now to recommend you to the structures of the world.

Bach continues writing variations on unworthy themes and the pens of the best and the worst writers are merely filling in what little space is left on the page. Best, I think, to bide our time until the ink is everywhere present, then perform a sort of negative collage. What I mean is, we are all, to begin with, such multi-layered beauties, but there are restrictions and over extension is a problem we too readily approach, and maybe it would be wise to stop short of theorizing a continuation of self into and through every artifact we create or simply handle. A little nakedness, I’m just trying to say, behooves us. It is the certainty of this, perhaps, that calls into being such thoughtful packaging.

However, the multitude is not so much fickle as it is brutish and the atrocities, first suggested by a few men’s speeches, are given coherence by the audience. I do not want, therefore, to extend and fracture my personality through device, though nor do I wish to essentialize the unity of my self—poor back, weak knee, slow and ambling mind.  There is no clear remedy here and so I refuse to name a problem, but like all bodies, we must orbit something.

So, there is a tyranny of self in all our digital outreach. Even as producers, it seems we want less to provide content than produce audience, or, rather, subjects.

Yet I feel cheap and formal and unitary and forlorn.

Soft departures from such subjectivity are the hallmarks of bourgeois expectations of a continuity that is in reality more of a siphoning off of forcefulness. We have, then, two strange actions towards distinction: one is the unity of self, performed by a faux anonymous gaze and the immediacy of polling, and the other is the diffusion of this falsely unitary self through the channels of specialized intent dug sluice-like to accommodate easy, undisruptive flow. We are created falsely, then drained.

In Egypt, bodies are still throwing rocks while the internet revolutionizes calmly, democratically our outrage which we express by following Twitter feeds. The free flow of information is not revolutionary without the critical responses of embodied agents. The still somewhat rhizomatic structure of the internet is only misleadingly revolutionary as it refuses to acknowledge the terrified, fortified, embodied disjunction that is one existing physically in the world. We must not neglect the ethical imperative of spatial and temporal living for the false freedom of digitization.

The limitations of physicality coupled with limitations of such as a metaphor for self require of each subjectivity a recognition (at least) of the ethical dilemma of establishing, for others (as mirror), our subjectivity through events that are not directly reducible to language, as language through said events and others must, and unavoidably does, bend and shift. We must, therefore, rely on points of reference only partially held in common so as to triangulate the location and importance of traumatic/formative event.  This is not ignored in the various protests of the last few months, but we approach a haughty ignorance of it here in the west. We place an importance on the arena of organization where the protesters seem to operate with empowered freedom, but they do not truly exercise this misnamed right until they fill the streets. My only question is whether we in America have recourse to the same forceful physicality. It appears that the Wisconsin protestors were, in their physical presence presented a less ethical preponderance, but then in our civil society, our supremely late capitalist society we have so many outlets for our meek anger. The last time any one lost their temper was Seattle and a lot of the people on the street there were simple assholes; I met quite a few.



Thursday, April 21, 2011

McCartney or the Age of "Dad-Rock"

It was recently brought to my attention that a friend of mine once termed my taste in music as “dad-rock,” a term that would horrify anyone, let alone a great appreciator of music such as myself. At first, I felt a pang of anger, then a sense of quiet, while I wondered if it were true or not. After a few moments I decided that this friend of mine might just be correct.

As I thought back, I tried to figure out how I had come to this point.  In elementary school (5th and 6th grades specifically) I listened to Puff Daddy, Ma$e, Wu-Tang Klan, Notorious B.I.G., the required Oasis, The Wallflowers and assorted 90’s one-hit wonders like Deep Blue Something. Then, in junior high, I listened to scattered tracks and singles (Stone Temple Pilots “Down”? Me First and the Gimme Gimmes?) and slowly focused on jam band music.  In high school, my jam bias continued as I went to see Phish, String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Phil Lesh and Friends in concert. While this happened, I was slowly beginning to unravel the stories, themes and eras of Rock History.  Tenth grade brought heavy study of Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground and the Beatles. That last one ultimately leading me into my first truly psychedelic summer between 10th and 11th grades as I religiously watched the Beatles Anthology on our old Laserdisc player in my bedroom. The following year was when I started making greater strides as I discovered that I loved Wilco, the Super Furry Animals, the Flaming Lips, Supergrass, the Stooges, as well as honing a truly deep love of the Rolling Stones that extended beyond the singles or a Hot Rocks CD. This year also brought the huge influence of the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives (I loved the Stooges and the Stones so obviously this made sense). I can recall one landmark haul back from the record store during this time: Plastic Ono Band, Beggar’s Banquet, Raw Power, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, Something Else, and Veni Vidi Vicious.

My senior year brought even deeper research into the rock canon (though I was still no Lane Kim). I picked up the first two Big Star albums, Pet Sounds, All Things Must Pass, Mutations. I was known to blast Their Satanic Majesties Request as I rolled into my high school parking lot as well as telling people all about this “new Dylan,” someone called Connor Oberst (goo!) who called himself Bright Eyes. I burned copies of Lifted or the Story is in the Soil for my friends and left countless CDs scratched and laying around the floor and back part of my 1992 Chevy Blazer.  All of this was being done while still listening to a heavy dose of Phish’s epic 1993 tour and plenty of Grateful Dead bootlegs.

I floated through that summer on 17 year old romance and sexual fumbling along with a lot of listens to the Dead’s Blues for Allah out by my pool at twilight.  I also listened to the Beatles Anthology 3, which was some kind of soothing accompaniment for my friends Chris and Dan after long, tiring days working in my dad’s warehouse.  When I finally got to college, after supplying an initial psychedelic experience for my dorm, I decided that I was going to enter my “1968 phase.” That meant, no more psychedelia, nothing but booze and the basics of life.  Well, I still indulged in the Zombies’ Odessy and Oracle, but picked up the first two Gram Parsons albums, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and listened to a lot of Big Star as well as Friends, Wild Honey, Sunflower and Surf’s Up by the Beach Boys.

The next fall, I came to school in full fledged country mode, carrying a bag full of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams records, the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums, White Light and No Other by Gene Clark, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, the Band’s first three albums, The Basement Tapes and Rainy Day Music and Country Town Hall by the Jayhawks. Hell, I was also giving Dylan’s Desire plenty of spins and that has the most visionary, William Blake, country song of all time on it in “Isis.” I had country radio shows in both semesters of my sophomore year and also in my junior year, completely reveling in the back woods sensibility that much of upstate New York could offer.

And so I continued on in this manner. Country music slowly turned into roots rock music and all of a sudden I was expounding on why the J. Geils Band were better than Bruce Springsteen or why Todd Rundgren was as influential as any songwriter ever or that perhaps Paul McCartney had the best solo career out of any of the Beatles. Then, as I said, friends starting terming my music taste as “dad-rock.” What this stems from is a feeling or imagery that warm, rootsy music has always conjured up in me. I have successfully tied this feeling to one specific image:

The first night of my freshman year at college, one acquaintance of mine from high school, who was a sophomore, offered to take me around for the night. I’d known him distantly enough in high school to know he was funny, nice and had enough alternative interests that I might feel comfortable hanging out with him without any intermediary friend. So, on a still, warm, September night, I walked over to his dorm room where he introduced me to his suite mates who were playing beer pong in a dorm room that was much more intricately and creatively setup than mine, which told me that they must also be sophomores or juniors. After drinking a beer or two and maybe a shot of Jagermeister, my high school acquaintance said, “Let’s go to this girl’s room.”

We walked to another one of the flat, brick dorms on the campus and climbed the stairs to the third floor. My acquaintance turned into a suite and we walked in an open room where this girl lived. The room smelled immediately of a girl.  It was a mix of from some very sweet perfume, herbal shampoo and fresh air from the still open window—you could hear crickets. The girl was tall and athletic looking. She had tan skin and freckles around her nose and on her cheekbones, though not on her cheeks. Her face was framed by straw-colored hair that suggested the end of her first college summer where she had perhaps had a summer fling with some guy at some idyllic beach town where her family summered. She was pretty and I immediately thought I was better than the fictional guy I assumed she had slept with on summer evenings.  She seemed to be getting ready to go out.

“Fixing yourself up, you skank,” my acquaintance said. I realized he was teasing but still didn’t like it.

“Did you even get laid this summer?” She shot back.

“Too much.”

The girl laughed.

“This is Matt,” my acquaintance said. “He’s a freshman. He went to my high school.”

“Hi,” she said, clearly not interested in my presence. “Sit down. Do you want rum?”

“Sure,” I said. She gave me the rum and I drank it.

She and my acquaintance continued to talk and I tried to keep up, but there was no way a freshman like myself could follow the banter of two college friends who had just reunited after summer vacation. Also, my attention was completely drawn to the room itself. It was a narrow, single dorm room, but the girl had lofted her bed into the window seat and placed a couch along the wall where the bed had been. Across from the couch was a desk with her laptop and also a stereo perched close to the foot of the bed. White Christmas lights where strung around the top of room and instead of using the fluorescent overhead light, she had globed Asian lamps of different sizes hanging from the ceiling and opportune spaces on the walls.  There were red and gold tapestries stretched across the ceiling and over the space for her closet. Then I realized there was music playing. At that time, I had never listened to Carole King, but in my memory the music was Carole King or something that sounded similar.  That 70’s recording sound: soft and immediately upfront, a piano playing chords that would be corny, if they weren’t so poignant; and shuffling drums whose round sound seem almost impossible when heard on good speakers. There was something about that room, which at the time seemed extraordinary, and being in the presence of an older college girl during my first semester in college that stuck with me. It was as if the whole scene turned to sepia, or if translated to art or a photo, would be captured in that color.

That idea of sepia still remains in a vision I try to bring into the world—I feel as though one could make their entire life feel and look like the worn, cardboard cover of a great 1970’s vinyl.  A friend of mine once called me “The King of Sunday,” by which he meant that I always organized Sunday barbeques and dinners where we listened to records all the way through and drank beer or something else and slowly all the color of the room turned to something sepia, or felt that way.

What this all leads me to is a sort of small, but important epiphany I had a month or so ago while riding the subway and listening to Paul McCartney’s first solo album, McCartney.  McCartney is in many ways the archetypal “dad-rock” album, because it is ostensibly an album about being a father and a husband and not necessarily part of the biggest rock band of all time. Many of the songs are half-songs or the melodies just seem to appear and then just as quickly disappear, such as “The Lovely Linda,” “Junk” or even “Momma Miss America,” which basically defines “lo-fi” and lays some fundamental groundwork for Pavement.  The album basically breezes by.  The hits are there, such as “Teddy Boy,” “That Would Be Something,”  “Every Night,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but before you know it the album is over. You are not left moved or blown away, but you feel something strange, some warmth—a feeling that things are in their right place.

As I was riding the subway, I realized that McCartney is the prototypical Sunday album. You put the album on while you are mopping the floor or sweeping. You put it on loud while you are cooking breakfast and the sound of eggs and bacon frying in the pan threatens to drown out the music. Then, you leave it playing softly after you’ve finished eating and you’re leaning back on your couch, listening to a friend talk about the problems in her relationship as you rip off small crumbs from a toasted piece of good, thick bread. Or, while the beer bottles are lined on the coffee table and the sun has completely set out your back windows, and the light from the lamp in your den glints off the brown glass and things seem hazy and opaque; when the smell of cooked steak still lingers in the air and along the painted walls and you sit firmly with your friends, knowing that work is out there tomorrow and there’s nothing that’s going to stop it except your desire to get as close as you can to what you want—you leave the album playing.  You run through “Singalong Junk” and its pretty and delicate and effortlessly melodic and then you reach “Maybe I’m Amazed.” You’ve heard it so many times on the radio and know how sappy and syrupy it is, but Paul let’s his voice roar, squeak and falsetto, while the piano rumbles along and he does his best Ringo impersonation to propel the song along. It’s extremely predictable, just like any Sunday, but sometimes that’s exactly what matters—that’s where the memory sticks.

So, I’ve made my way through rock history. I’ve chased down sepia visions and continue to attempt to emulate the faded and loved cardboard of an old vinyl in my everyday life.  I listen to overproduced or perfectly produced 1970’s roots rock or Paul McCartney albums and drink a beer with the full understanding of why the act of drinking a beer is so great—the full appreciation of the action of the beer and not even the beer itself.  And I keep my apartment neat and even take pride in beating out a dusty rug.  I’m past the 1968 of my life now and into something else. I listen to dad rock, but I’m not a dad.  If all those things are bad, then too bad I like it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Theoharides On the Literary Landscape of the NBA Playoffs

Welcome to Wednesday, my Puddlers. In a break from tradition, I won't be making fun of the 4:20 holiday, so congratulations to you all.

Since it is Wednesday its time to let Alex Theoharides take the spotlight with his own look at things. Since Mr. Theoharides and I are such big basketball fans and the Playoffs have been phenomenal so far, some of you lesser sports fans will have to sit through another basketball post. However, the good news is that Alex's post is much more entertaining than mine and also features some great literary tie-ins.

So, I leave you for now with Mr. Alex Theoharides.

Theoharides on the Literary Landscape of the NBA Playoffs
 Where Literature meets Basketball and … We all win!

Alex Theoharides

Well ladies and gents, it’s been quite a start to the NBA playoffs. In fact, according to my Facebook page it was the best first weekend in the history of the NBA. Of course, my Facebook page is written by an idiot.

Two weeks ago, before our esteemed editor, the Lord of the Puddle himself, Mr. Matthew Domino, left his blog untended to visit, what I can only assume was, some ungodly region of the world, I teased you with the promise of under hyped story lines and fearless predictions heading into the heart of the NBA Playoffs. However, after the aforementioned Mr. Domino’s stellar work outlining the NBA playoffs, I’ve decided to come at you with a slightly different take. Today, I’d like to separate the pretenders from the contenders, while comparing each team in the playoffs to the best and worst of American literary classics. In other words, in the following lines, two titans will collide in an epic battle for control of my mind. Literature meets Basketball. But will we survive?

Let’s go worst to first:

The Pretenders aka (Domino will kill me but...) the John Steinbeck Division

Philadelphia 76ers - Call of the Wild
A team of gentle pups enters the savage world known as the NBA playoffs, only to go all rogue and leave their wizened leader scratching his head as to where he went wrong. Whammo!

Indiana Pacers - The Grapes of Wrath
Long, seemingly tough players, who aren’t afraid to get dirty and at times can compete with the best teams in the league, but ultimately unravel in long tangents, in which they don’t score, don’t defend, and make everyone want to change the channel. Oh yeah, and they don’t know how to finish. Done and done!

Atlanta Hawks - Catcher in the Rye
Angst ridden young men, who seem good at first glance, but always leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Bam!

Denver Nuggets - On the Road
Ironic in a way, considering Denver plays much better at home. However, just like Kerouac's rambling novel, this team makes little sense on paper, somehow manages to over-exceed expectations, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say about anything.

New York Knicks - Catch-22
The only way you can win with D’Antoni is if you don’t play his brand of basketball, but if they don’t play his brand of basketball the Knicks won’t score enough points to win.

 New Orleans Hornets - Lonesome Dove
An aging gunslinger, slowed by injuries, discarded in a barren wasteland, seeking one last hurrah before his knees go out and with them his career. Alright!

Portland Trailblazers meets Sometimes a Great Notion
A big, sprawling, hopelessly flawed team that plays in the Northwest? Shnikes!

Memphis Grizzlies - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A young, gifted team floating downriver, trying to overcome a history of failure, influenced by a coach and GM, both of who seemingly tricked their way into their jobs? Okay, so perhaps, it’s my biggest stretch.

The Contenders aka (Domino might agree) the Robert Penn Warren Division

Orlando Magic - Moby-Dick
A maniacal mad man at the helm, desperately searching for the whale that got away, a team that seemingly has no control over its own destiny, a strange, Middle Eastern man watching over everything … okay, okay …  it’s a stretch, but if you’re casting the role of Ahab you could do a lot worse than Stan Van Gundy

San Antonio Spurs - As I Lay Dying
A team of castoffs and sinners trying to come together to carry their dead leader to his grave. Oh yeah, and they’re boring to boot! 

Dallas Mavericks - The Great Gatsby
Let’s see, who does this remind you of? Man always wanted to be good at sports so that people would love him. Man isn’t good at sports. Man is good at business. Even though no one knows how he made his money or who he had to kill to do it. Man buys sports team and pretends to be one of the players, hoping to be loved. Man puts together the best team money can buy and gives them a shiny new stadium to play in. Man comes up hopelessly short.

Boston Celtics - A Farewell to Arms
A battle they’d thought they could win until they lost their beloved friend, and with him, their desire to fight! (God, I hope I’m wrong).

Miami Heat - All the Kings Men
A little poem I wrote:
Pat Riley made a bold call,
Pat Riley had a great fall,
All the Heat’s money and all the Heat’s men,
Couldn’t win Pat Riley a championship again.

L.A. Lakers - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
A schizophrenic man sets off on a journey across America, trying to reach the promised land. All he has with him is his best bike and his knowledge of how to fix it. But is it too late? Has he already burnt too many bridges?

Oklahoma City Thunder - All the Pretty Horses
A duo of talented young guns rolls into the west, guns blazing, for a romantic adventure. They come away just short, half-alive and scarred by what they’ve seen.

Chicago Bulls - Native Son
A man born on the mean city streets, trying to overcome a giant shadow, surrounded by weak men trying to save him from himself … okay fine, so I only made this comparison because the title was perfect. But it is!

Fearless Prediction:

This is the end of basketball as we know it. All the old boys, the Spurs, Magic, Celtics, Mavericks and Lakers will all go down before the finals. Who does that leave to duel it out? The young guns. Thunder vs. Bulls. Bulls take it in six. Followed by the self-combustion of the evil psycho robot that is David Stern, because he yet again missed out on the LeBron vs. Kobe NBA Finals he wants so badly.