I found a knife today, the blade of which is engraved on each side. One side has the words “ONE IN MY HEART” and the other “ONE IN EACH SIDE.” This would be a terrifying gift to receive from an ex-lover, yet it was a gift from my dear friend and musical compatriot Kevin Brace——mailed to me at my apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn a couple years back. It arrived without note.
The engraved words are lyrics to a song I wrote years ago, 2002, for a band called Leaving Rouge. Back when we believed music could heal everything, that it held the answers. The spell. I thought I’d share that oldie here, the work of a twenty-three year old dreamer and some good friends: You Could Be The Knife.01.22.18
I’ve been taking occasional breaks from this novel-in-progress to mess with some music. Not exactly a reinvention of wheels… more like some late-night blues written last year while living way out in Flatbush, BK. Turned out to be a time or hermitage, fat rusty bars on the windows, occasional break-ins, no sunlight, sirens and all night sub-woofer thumping, and a voracious roach season come spring. Cruising Flatbush Ave in the wee hours gave city walking a whole new dimension and made my tenth year in NY seem brand new, not always in a good way, but it felt like legitimate city life beyond whatever we transplants claim while residing amid the cafes and Citibikes. I came down with pneumonia last winter and was cage-bound for almost three weeks, the brain too foggy to write prose, so I cranked out thirty or so bummer songs and managed to record a couple with some friends. Finally mixing those down. “Get Light” was mean to be Fleetwood Mac—meets—Fugazi but these ideals never add up. Was a time when—to me and my friends, at least—guitar solos were for wankers, but given that kids these days don’t like guitars anyway I figured I’d indulge with a little Crazy Horse. It’s in the white-boy blood. More of this stuff sitting on a reel (uh, computer) waiting to be finalized for my musical pen-pals. Why do we still make this stuff? Oh, only when life stings and it’s what you know to do…12.12.16
I still make music on occasion and it usually sounds like the Midwest. Although I wrote this song last year while I had pneumonia, shut inside my Flatbush, BK cage, it was about Ypsilanti. Neon-night driving, windows down. Midnight cowboy dreams.06.14.16
An indirect endorsement, but an essential (as always) perspective on right now.03.14.16
New Jersey drives Highway 1 like a drag strip. Highway is a facetious term for this stretch, a 50mph boulevard split in two by a three-foot high concrete partition. Lots of computer phone usage, rear end smash-ups, hasty lane changes—surprisingly little road rage, as far as I can tell. I’ve been caught dazing, gazing, usually at a succession of dire old corporate parks lining the way. The lawn of one multi-plex has been overtaken by Canada Geese. Another seems to be the site of a Delillo novel that may or may not have been published. When I pulled onto the gravel shoulder the other day and walked a few hundreds yards towards a structure guarded by signage reading SRI International, the sun lowered behind the branches, threw down a lightshow. I saw a very small black-haired woman there, crouched in the thickets, collecting dead leaves in plastic bags, never once looking up as I crunched right past her. It was her space and place, but as for her plans… I’m curious…
Darkness at 5PM does no good for nocturnal creatures, but don’t we savor those low-flying rays a little more come afternoon? Heard daylight savings time was designed for farmers tending the harvest, or school children when they used to walk their morning walk, or, finally, the bankers, something with the banks… international trades and such. Someday we’ll look into it. Not this Monday. Life on life’s terms. Time on time’s terms.
Been thinking about that tree-dwelling self-appointed god-woman at the end of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters. La Dolce. El-Olam—the Everlasting God. (her words). Her madness means something to her desert village of rags and bones. I have met her many places but never throned in a tree.
Keep an eye on the Keystone Pipeline, the maniacs simply will not stop: https://secure.sierraclub.org/site/Donation2;jsessionid=EA1F51F320BC2BD6B2C823112A76E370.app234a?df_id=24621&24621.donation=form1&SRC=E14LEGF001&autologin=true11.24.14
A Simple, scuffed-up meditation on huge, simple things. I spent a few of this summer’s heatwave evenings singing to the walls of my apartment and to those walking or loitering down below on 8th Avenue. My windows are always open. I’d make up songs, mumbling half-formed words to whoever was listening. On one occasion a group of born-and-raised Brooklynite youth joined together in a chant, calling up to me with a message I couldn’t make any sense of. Maybe they liked the sound. I’d like to think so, but I really don’t. But why not share an occasional song, ragged as it might be, like the days when people gathered in a living room and passed the accordion, or listened to Sweet Cousin Chucky tinkle away on the piano. Now we often gather here in the abstract, screen-to-screen, rarely at the same time. Between writing sessions, I sometimes improvise a quick jingle with no literary aims at all. Just the simplest words, however they come. If you listen closely, you can hear the sirens and the brakes hissing as the buses come and go—I’d gotten so used to the city sounds, only the strangest noises—a howling drunk or a gone-to-madness lovers’ quarrel—would even register. Or those boys, shouting with some groupmind that didn’t understand itself, because they looked so confused once I stuck my head out and shook my fist along with them, offering total solidarity.09.25.14
September 23: sister Caitlin’s birthday. It’s fair to say it creeps up slowly each year, the winds a little cooler than the week before, sometimes an early morning fog and brittle grasses that are warm again by noon. One year—I can’t remember which—I gave her this frame, having snatched the enclosed picture from an old photo album. For thirteen years now, it has perched on my desks and dressers, the thing I’d be sure to grab in the event of a fire.
Strange that it was only last year that I realized John Coltrane—whose records account for a good 15% of my non-collector’s collection—shared the same birthday as Caitlin. Having no finite ideas about things astrological, it’s nevertheless a nice coincidence to ponder, in this case. As much as any writer or thinker, he’s my hero in the realm of art; yet he spoke so few words. He didn’t need to, of course. I suppose Caitlin didn’t need to, either. It’s not language I think of when remembering her, but an essence that’s always changing and full of wide-open feelings I’ve only begun to understand.
Honor to lives lived, the good ones.
Thank you, very kindly, for the inquiries about my musical past.
I was (am) conflicted about any merger between my writing life and the music I’ve made and still, on occasion, make. At times, I’ve attempted to disown the records I’ve taken part in; in the case of a particular album, I’ve bought every copy I can find in order to destroy evidence of its having existed. Obliviously, and despite the musical tales in Songs Only You Know, I hoped I’d be able to keep these lives apart—an ironic notion on more levels than one, if you’ve read the book (and consider the internet).
Though I don’t view Songs as music autobiography, I know a small audience was attracted to the book due to an awareness of my first band Thought of Ionesco (a going concern in the first 2/3rds of the book). To my view, TOI (in which I played from age 17-21) made for good storytelling due not to its artistic merits (if it had any whatsoever), but for the hysteric and pathetic missions we undertook as young men. For those who’d like a sample, my suggestion would be to seek out the song “Figure” from the 1998 album A Skin Historic. Recorded live in one take (save vocal overdubs) and mixed just as hastily, it’s a seven-minute piece of sludge that evokes several things the band was known for, including a narcotic improvisation section. We considered it “headphone music.” The following year, 1999, saw the band’s sound change to a less complex and dare-I-say “rock influenced” brand of chaos. Our listeners did not like these final recordings (made when I was 21), though I felt the “screams” were better captured at these final 1999 sessions, as on the song “Learning an Enemy.” A mentor named Tim Pak recorded each of the band’s four records (in three years) and numerous singles in a former wig shop called Wonder Wigs on Nine Mile Road. Tim worked on a truly proletariat level, making records for pennies, and was invaluable to the Detroit music scene of the ’90s.
Known as a “hardcore” band, TOI operated with the low-budget, DIY spirit of hardcore punk, but aimed for a high form of sonic destruction and did so with the blind conviction of sad, angry young humans. I’ll vouch only for its honesty. If you’d like, uou can read an interview I gave about the Songs Only You Know and Thoughts of Ionesco: HERE.
As for what followed, it’s no exaggeration to say that I wrote and recorded hundreds of songs between the years 2001-2006, under my own name as well as with various bands. Stylistically, it was a nearly schizophrenic turn away from “hardcore,” a change accelerated by my sister’s death and my ensuing reliance on expressive, consoling records by Nick Drake and The Red House Painters. Much of the music I made haunts me, as it was always marred by the troubles of those times. There’s such a keen difference between wild obsession and focused intention—volumes were created, yet so little material was truly realized. Some of these songs, though, thrived in a small community of music lovers and friends, primarily in the Midwest and, especially, in Detroit. Flattered by the book-related interest, I’ve done my best to compile a few songs to supplement “Part Three” of Songs Only you Know.
I’ve called this collection exactly what it is: Old Slow Sad Ones. [download/stream]
What unifies this batch of songs is that they were recorded by David Feeny at his Tempermill Studio. Some of these were written in a Kalamazoo cemetery, and I remember weekly drives toward Detroit on I-94, propelled by cassette copies of albums I loved and a dream that someone out there might someday listen to my songs on a long, dark road—that’s what I wanted it to be, I suppose: music you feel when you’re alone. Sloooow, loooong songs that evoked the wee hours and quiet Michigan terrain. The bands who helped me make this music broke up before anyone heard these recordings. We were in our early to mid twenties. Over ten years later, I still have no perspective on how bad (or good) the music might have been.
A few of these tracks were performed with a band called Leaving Rouge. On others, I was joined by whatever friends I could coerce into learning the songs. Which leaves me with a feeling I should have expressed in Songs, during that hazy moment at the end when the faint rays of Now begin to slowly dissolve the past: The music was never in vain; it gave me friends, and love, connection to what’s right here.
Photos in this post by CJ Benninger, one of a few photographers who documented our corner of the Detroit music scene.07.30.14
The desk at which 98% Songs was written and revised: now in pieces at the curb.
It was an ineffective bit of cheap furniture; even worse was its accompanying chair (chiropractors would do well to keep these items on the market). For the last two years the desk’s legs were held in place by continuous applications of something called Gorilla Glue. On two occasions it collapsed mid-sentence; one one occasion it was kicked apart and reassembled. After beginning its life as a collection of particle board components packaged in and shipped from China, it was assembled by hex key in Brooklyn, NY and then lived in four different apartments over a span of eight years. Five years of cigarettes were smoked at its edge; later, three years of nicotine gum was gnawed here. This desk will not be missed, yet hard-earned money was “gotten out” of it.07.29.14
Tore through Kevin Barry’s short story collection Dark Lies the Island (Graywolf), many gems within, humor that hurts and the employment an Irish-centric tongue that gives the whole thing its own special brand of scintillating brood. Great stuff.
Old friend and Kalamazoo denizen DJ Kray Liotta makes great summertime mixes, feel free to steal them HERE. Themes vary per mix, but it’s always good with Kray.
Thirty-six stories above Sixth Avenue the place was all chrome and glass, windows staring flat-out at another scraper, which from that view looked like a vertical runway shooting heaven-ward to obscure every last smear of sky. I suppose people with thirty-six story window offices get used to this kind of stimuli, but to me the whole world seemed to shift step-by-step as I walked the windowside hallway—a megacity optical illusion. These windows gave a new perspective. The screen in the lobby flashed a video loop over the scene, reflecting in the windows and glass and gleaming surfaces. I sat in the lobby watching multi-mirrored images of Paul Stanley in full starchild black-and-white face paint, the hirsute chest and pouting—oh, baby, do me—lips. Ah, yes, we are in Rock Land, 2014-style. And, I do not lie, within a minute a new face was reflected from the giant lobby screen and it was the face of none other than Jon Bon Jovi. Of course, I know these faces. Everyone does. But do we enjoy them? Get your face out of my face. Building security had escorted me on the elevator ride up, as was procedure when dealing with visitors who aren’t in possession of a photo ID.
Dave Marsh, it turns out, is every bit the veteran rock and roll lover you’d imagine a glory-day’s Creem and Rolling Stone journalist would be, just riffing on Detroit and Iggy and Mitch Ryder within twenty seconds of making my acquaintance. He sat down beside me on the lobby couch and shot right into a conversation, whatever the hell he and I felt like talking about then and there: Detroit Unions, civil rights heroes who’d mentored him out of a hicksville upbringing on the outskirts of Pontiac. As a twenty-year old he’d lived in a house with Lester Bangs, their wild man energies banging around the premises and on one occasion combusting during a living room wrestling match incited by their disagreeing views on the merits of the first Black Sabbath record.
This stuff pours out of Dave. He tells a great yarn.
He talked on our way into the studio, and as the engineer was getting the levels, and as his intro music was playing, and when he got the cue—1, 2, 3, you’re on—he talked right into the first sentence of the radio show, and it was all interesting. It went like that, talking about the book and mostly about whatever crossed Dave’s mind, because the guy just rolls with it and it’s uniquely fun to be around. Much gratitude that Dave liked the book and invited me into his radio zone. Tuesday night, NYC.
A ticket came my way tonight and I took it. My affection for the true-blue screamers, an old-timer like Keith Morris, is all about vitality, the antic Zen-prankster style he has going, his rust and sparks voice, fifty-eight years old, down for life with punk rock ceremony. OFF!’s sardonic bite is pure pissed-off fun, sans pain. The band has too much rock and roll in their groove to settle entirely for old-school rhythms, so everything swings in a trashy fashion [Mario R. is a heck of rock drummer]. Irony seems the self-defense mechanism of the digital age, but OFF!’s videos do a nice job of wagging a forked tongue at punk rock, whatever that is. They’re making fun of the thing even as they’re doing it better than anyone else around.05.18.14
Wednesday, early evening, I came aground to the digital flash and corporate shockwaves of Times Square. Stood there at the foot of the subway entrance blinking at a billboard picturing Anderson Cooper in dimensions ten-times that of the average New York living space—house-sized earnest newsman face—adorned with the all-caps caption: Go There! Just how I like my journalism: boasting god-sized before my eyes, throwing down exclamation points. I was there!—and how easily I forget that I live three miles from this phenomenon, a spiritually obliterated acre or two casting forth our nightmare of a techno-bank future overseen by cheap-thrills stimuli and sub-literate commerce-consciousness. More screens, more noise. No cynicism here, just mystification—who has brainspace for this horror anymore? Who needs more gigantic M&Ms, because Hershey’s is here to rot your jaws and funnel chocolatey pennies to the GOP; it’s all true, check the sources. While all in the visible distance is neon panties and fructose and has much to do with big dollars and expendables assembled in China. Without knowing why, I found myself standing beside a family taking pictures of a grown fellow who’d stuffed himself into a rubber Batman costume, an outfit not at all custom-fit, especially about his hindquarters and nether regions. While I was trying to get a look at his eyes, hoping to perceive what kind of human lived behind the mask, an aspiring rapper came at me fast with the best come-on I’d heard in years, possibly ever: “Hey man, you like black people?” A true American, more so than myself. He stuck one of his home-burned CDs into my hand and said, “Ten bucks, it’s the shit.” Taxis honking, a man screaming laughter at his phone, and way off someone smacking out rudiments on a tuned-too-high snare drum, or a plastic bucket, or whatever they had. Avenue of the Americas.
And two streets West: Broadway between 45th and 50th is a strip I don’t think about until I’m walking it, always with the purpose of finding something I can’t find anywhere else, but never something as spookily lucid as Dream of the Red Chamber, a flickering, dreamland drama in which time cycles through various impressions of round-the-psyche linearity, a live-art specter churning in the basement of Midtown, New York, while the audience—who come and go as they like; who sleep or wake as they like—lie on small beds, in various stages of immersion, so distantly other from the civilization above. I’d walked in off Broadway, following a red carpet lined with static-channel tube televisions, leading you to the stairs, down into the thing, the chamber, the performance. Oblique white curtains partition various sections, forming cloudlike quarters throughout the room but you can see through everything. You move through it, into it, in search of a bed, and there’s more than enough, all dressed in red linen. Some are just crimson hazes, lying feet away but somewhere else entirely, and others are right out in the open. Your bed chooses you, really, based on several incidentals you can’t make sense of. Maybe you lie right down and look outward: Beautiful, sad, vacant, scared women stare out from screens glowing, rippling with light cast by a golden orb machine propelled by a phonograph record player, at which two audience members might sit meditating, glaring into the twirling mind machine as its strobes turn their thoughts into shapes they’ve never taken before—a totally new experience. Sense those around you as dreamily as you ever will; their nearness feels instantly like shadows. Sense some drifting off on the red beds, some curling up fetal, gone completely into their dream. A few others sit perfectly erect and swallowing the whole atmosphere with their face, telling themselves stories about what all these illusions mean. Lulling every inch of space is a nicely amplified tide of melodic bass drones, rich with subsonic properties that radiate underneath the beds; and, listening upward, you hear soaring above an opera-turned-soundscape singing down so many wonderful sorrows.
The beds are there with good purpose, essential to the dark comfort. You lean back, rest your head. Faces and flickers and melodies begin connecting; the actresses seem to be activating some pattern in one another’s responses, their gestures cycling amongst them; each inhabiting the others’ emotional states, they click in and out of expressions on a twilight schedule, but it all happens with elongated, smeary force that makes you wonder if you’re transcribing your own story, dreaming what you want to dream. But it seems so evident that the women, the actresses, are dreaming out a process that has to do with creation and destruction and possession, or is this my process? Am I acting out my own cycle here, dream-style. You have weird ideas on the red bed, good ones. And then you realize the audience members sitting at the phonograph and staring into the light cylinder are also being filmed, projected onto the great rippling sheets of translucent white. And now they’ve become the chimera, they’re real and illusory, same as all of this.
I’d been tipped off about this occasion by Jeff Jackson, author of the very fine, very brilliant meta-mindmelter Mira Corpora, a book of rare aesthetic ambition—a work of art. Jeff was co-writer and conceiver of Dream of the Red Chamber, along with its director, Jim Findlay. The work is based on Cao Xueqin’s 18th century Chinese novel. The hour I spent within was the best of my week, yet I only glimpsed a fragment of this multi-day, multi-dream, multi-sequence experience. This Saturday, one may enter into an overnight performance: [May 17. 5p to 6a]. A slumber like no other.05.16.14
It wasn’t so much a journey home—new ghosts merging with old—but a completion of “goodbye.” So few points of reference along the trail, no one to ask: Hey, soul, how was it for you, waving your memories of darkness-now-passed before the faces you’d once longed to be invisible in the presence of? So much big love, though, also. The huge-hearted ones appear when you need them. They know to set you free, even if they don’t understand why you must ramble. Someday you won’t look back—that’s the aim of circling around now, one more time, convincing yourself its all over. Leaving what’s no longer home with a smile.
Mid-reading last night at KGB, NY—I notice a typo in the first chapter of Songs. A “was” where there was supposed to be a “wasn’t,” degrading the entire, important sentence. I made it through, anyhow, read right over it. My own error, symptomatic of a last-minute change. Far worse befalls the average person on a daily basis, but, still, the selfish mind goes around and around that word, the missing “n’t,” saying: how could you?
Anyway, the sun can be felt lately, the light that does not glare outward from a screen.05.12.14
Flavorwire named Songs their “book of the week”: HERE.
I’m completely grateful to Flavorwire’s Jason Diamond for his words about the book. He managed to reference hardcore obscurities known only to former lurkers of Chicago’s Fireside Bowl, a decrepit bowling alley overtaken by punk and hardcore shows in the ’90s. Haven’t met many people from those days in the world of letters, which makes me all the more thrilled to know that a writer like Jason enjoyed the ride.
BTW: Do I still know anyone in Kalamazoo? If so, come on out this Monday, May 1st to Book Bug.04.25.14