They’re All They’ve Got

Today we have a guest blogger, the renowned podcastress Miette, who sends us this report from far-off Scandinavia:

At the Bergen Akvariet, make your way past the wiry-eyed motorhead feeding dead rats to crocodiles from the safe viewing distance of two rows of chicken wire fencing. Continue past the petting tank and the iguana. Find the big tropical tank of caiman and assorted ancillary amphibians. In the bottom front corner, in plain sight if you’re looking, you’ll see two turtles, no bigger in size than a matching set of Smørbrød saucers. They appear to be beating the carapacial shit out of each other.

Well, that’s a little hyperbolic. But not by much.

This is what’s going on: one turtle is pawing in the gravel and grime lining the bottom of the tank, digging for food, or treasure, or an escape route, at exactly the pace you’d expect of such a beast. Then the other guy (or maybe it’s a girl, but for the sake of this analogy it’s not too important), who’s obviously working hard on his air of indifference, slowly approaches. When the Feigner makes his way within inches of him, the Digger stops, turns around suddenly (again, suddenly being relative here; to these guys, seconds are measured in continental drift), faces his intruder, stretches out his front legs in front of him, and pedals them as quickly as he can to send a quick-beating little dissuasive wave of water thumping in the face of his trespasser. Maybe this is mildly distracting reptilian semaphore for “back off,” or perhaps it fucks with the offender more seriously, sending some sort of echolocative supersonics back to the central wiring. In any event, it’s enough for the unwanted visitor to about-face, leaving our original turtle back to his excavatory devices.

But only for a minute, because the would-be companion is back before long, and back again and again, in continued failed efforts to help with the burrowing, or to come up with an escape plan, or just to collude on a prank against the caiman. The two are stuck in this tank ad infinitum, after all, and may as well get to know one another. But the digger’s having none of it, and will continue to go on this way long after it’s stopped being funny, or curious, or sad, and long after you stop watching and move on to the next thing [the mysterious Dodraugen (Toilet Monster)].

Maybe they’re angry. We don’t know – maybe they have good reason to be mad. Maybe the approaching turtle once made a pass at one of the frogs up on the log, maybe even the cute little Pool Frog whose pain our sad tunneler is now trying to dig away. Or maybe the interloper’s very presence is stealing the thunder that could be met by a bout of educational front-row digging. It takes a lot to compete in a tank of over two hundred species, after all. Maybe there’s not a problem at all; maybe our miner just wants to be left alone. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Actually, there is, and it’s time to let up. In a tank full of the indifferent and the predatory, on full display for otherworldly tourists, fifty feet from the madman protecting you from crocodiles with fencing used to support garden peas, and it’s clear that they’re all they’ve got. Even if there was some sort of cardinal offence involving the world’s most batty-eyed, full-lipped, tongue-darting Pool Frog, they need to reassess the severity of that crime and find their way around it. There’s no such thing as minding one’s own business in a tank like this. They’re going to need each other.

You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Side (Morrissey/Nevin)


Sweetness, I Was Only Joking


A few months back, the Independent had an article about neurobiologists at University College London who were studying the physical nature of hate. After conducting their experiments, these scientists discovered that the “hate circuit” in the brain was located in the putamen and the insula — the exact same regions activated by feelings of romantic love. No way!

In fact, their scans revealed only one major difference between the two emotional states: “Large parts of the cerebral cortex — associated with judgement and reasoning — become de-activated during love, whereas only a small area is deactivated in hate.” Science, you are killing me!

And once again lighting up my own worn and beleaguered putamen and insula, The Rolling Stones. This is me on acoustic, recorded live on Jeff Cobb’s KALX radio show, back in the Berkeley days. I think this later became the very first song the All Girl Band played at our very first gig.

Mixed Emotions (Jagger/Richards)



“Peculiar Way” is from a batch of songs recorded back in the 90s at Kris Woolsey’s apartment in the West Village. In those pre-Garageband days, if someone got their hands on a decent four-track machine you simply had to take advantage. I forget who left the device at Kris’s house, or why, but its very presence in his living room demanded from us a long day of single-malt recording. I think we worked on 3 or 4 songs, new stuff of his and mine that we wanted to whip into shape.

The skeleton of this song came from a bunch of scratch cassettes I made in Florida, at my grandmother’s house, during one of many New-York-nervous-breakdown sabbaticals. I wanted it to foretell of a life-changing encounter, but in reality my life wasn’t changing that way and the song never got finished.

The nominal chorus came later, separately, and was a more characteristic expression of drunken resentment. I thought this provided a nice, truer-to-life counterpoint to the imagined epiphany. So, at Kris’s, with the help of a few tumblers of Laphroaig, I simply stitched the pieces together. And not completely successfully, I might needlessly add. (The All-Girl Band only played this song once, at a Coney Island gig where some poor kid got shot on the Boardwalk and we had to make our getaway dash in a loaner Humvee.)

But the song made more sense to me balanced out like that, despite the slapdash needlework. Occasionally you meet a person whose brief appearance in your life is both decisive and abrupt — someone who simply bowls you over, as instantaneous and elemental as a tidal wave. When the wave recedes (often carrying away many things you thought irreplaceably dear), the effect can leave you feeling disoriented and traumatized, or reawakened and revitalized. And more to the point, sometimes all of the above.

Peculiar Way

What is peculiar ’bout the way
You came to me
Is I had nothing more to say
And suddenly

Knocked my eyes wide open
Like a castle by the sea
You knocked my eyes way out of focus

And then a most peculiar thought
Occurred to me
Going against all I’d been taught
And suddenly

Knocked my eyes wide open
Like a castle by the sea
You knocked my eyes way out of focus

You thought I was too drunk to remember
All the little lies that I was told
But the simple fact is I remember
Every single one
Every single one

A Little Money Riding On The Maple Leafs


People have been asking me when I’m going to post something about Halifax, but I’m not sure what more I can say other than I felt very much at home there, something I rarely feel in The Rotten Apple anymore.

Halifax is a spectacular city (er, I mean “regional municipality”) — historic, cosmopolitan, grimy, gorgeous, soulful and maybe even a little dangerous. Everything New York used to be but mostly isn’t anymore. The downtown is teeming with delicious food, used bookstores, music venues, public gardens, old Victorians, old stone and red brick buildings, a couple of colleges, and some very intriguing people. And it stays open late. All this surrounded by the Atlantic and a huge, ancient, and very active port. (Yeah, I know it’s not perfect — the global corporate revolution has certainly made its incursions even there, and a fair amount of tourist crap abounds, especially down around the “seaport” area.)

And I know we’ve talked before here about “geographical cures” and the very true and unavoidable fact that “wherever you go, there you are.” But a human being is just a coalescence of energy, in a constant state of flux and exchange with the energy of his or her environment. So it makes sense to me that certain kinds of environments would provide more spiritual resonance to some people than others, and that there are other kinds of environments which impose energy exchanges that are spiritually harmful to all.

The song below I wrote specifically for Amanda — her voice, her sensibility — and this version appears on her new album, Union Square. (We ended up finishing the song together, and she wrote about half the verse lyrics.) A song of romantic searching, yes, but there’s a problem: once you’ve reached a certain point of of Devastationalist stasis, is the disturbance worth the effort to go on looking? Put another way, if home is where the heart is, then where do you belong when you’ve got no heart left?

Show Me a Place (Shelley/Thorpe)

Amanda Thorpe

Never wanted anything
And everything was fine
As long as there were cigarettes
And another glass of wine
Nothing in the world out there
Could ever bother anything of mine
I found a place so high
I’m never coming

Down into the wishing well
Is where I cast my eye
I saw my own black silhouette
Reflect against the sky
I stood and watched the pennies fall
Leaned against the cold stone wall
I made a wish so wild

Won’t you show me a place
Like the one in my mind
Where the days are sweet and long
In the green, green grass
With my hand in yours
Where the noise turns into song

Expectations crystalize
They’re scattered all around
I see them lying everywhere
Like my pennies on the ground
But I can’t hide from you
The light keeps shining through
I found a place so high
I’m never coming

Down into to the depths behind
The walls I built inside
The things I never wanted
The things I never tried
Everything was in its place
Everything was once so safe
I hold the glass so tight

Won’t you show me a place
Like the one in my mind
Where the days are sweet and long
In the green, green grass
With my hand in yours
Where the noise turns into song






A Concordance Of Hearts


Around the time that the splendidly unsettling documentary Grizzly Man was released, Werner Herzog gave an interview to Psychology Today where he scoffed poignantly at our cultural tendency to overuse rational introspection as a means of trying to understand those things which, to his way of thinking, are only apprehensible through non-rational means:

Do you have any formal interest in psychology?

I loathe psychology as one of the major faults of our civilization nowadays. There’s something not right about this amount of introspection. I can only give you a metaphor: When you move into an apartment, you cannot start to illuminate every last corner with neon light. If there are no dark corners or hidden niches, your house becomes uninhabitable. Human beings who are trying to self-reflect and explore their innermost being to the last corner become uninhabitable people.

Let’s not forget that psychology isn’t just about introspection; it can shed light on other people.

No, you can understand others by other means. By dint of compassion, you understand other people, and there is a concordance of hearts. That is something different. Move away from psychology and engage in concordance of hearts.

I think that last bit especially is stunning, and true. And even though I believe our society is not nearly introspective enough, I think I know what he means. The act of examination cannot help but alter the thing which is being examined, often to its detriment. And too often, especially when whatever is under examination has been created (and is perhaps being ever-so-delicately maintained) by non-rational forces, rational observation simply destroys, in its blundering way, the thing which is being observed.

Also, because our world is so parodically self-conscious, it does sometimes seem like there’s a whole lotta introspection going on. But self-consciousness and introspection are not nearly the same thing, and what mostly ends up passing for introspection under contemporary circumstances is a fun-house mirror loop of quick-fix, self-help schemes that actually enable one to avoid the arduous process of genuine, non-excessive self-reflection in the pursuit of spiritual growth.

And here are the Mystery Dates again, coming down hard, I think, on the side of anti-introspection. This time Danny is singing, as he normally did, recorded live at CBGBs.


The Mystery Dates

I know it’s you
In the hotel
It’s a little sad
We could’ve had

When we’re together
It’s not much fun
It’s a little sad
We could’ve had

Drips splash and drips careen
They’re all over my windscreen
I don’t mean for this to sound too mean
But when the drips bash I go out for Visine®


Wicker & Palm


This is the Mystery Dates (Danny Wattenberg singing, me on guitar and singing, Gideon Rosen — who, incidentally, makes an excellent case against epistemic relativism here — on keys, John Fousek on drums, and the long-lost John Travis on bass), from a cassette of a demo that was produced by our Mamaroneck homeboy Peter Denenberg. I think this song is about being romantically involved with someone who is becoming accustomed to breathing more rarefied air than you could ever hope to provide. (I also think it’s the only time I ever sang lead in the Mystery Dates.)

I wrote the verse and chorus after a drunken week on Martha’s Vineyard, besotted with a girl called Laura Resen, which accounts for the semi-pun in the chorus. I remember Gideon at rehearsal fancifying and fussing around with the basic chords I brought in. Later on he and Danny came up with the bridge part — maybe the whole band contributed to the bridge, I don’t remember — but it’s definitely Danny’s words and melody.

Wicker & Palm (Mystery Dates)

You got a nice house with wicker and palm
And a chandelier
You got a nice house but I’d change a few things
If I had to live there

Reasons, they’re not so clear now
But they’re happy, happy at home
I’ve got nothing to fear now
‘Cause I’m happy, happy at home

Winter’s coming to this place
Now let’s prepare
Storm doors, storm doors
Can’t predict the weather here
How come there’s no Maypo
For my breakfast, dear?
Casey’s come back from the Cape
But she’s not like I knew her
Not like I knew her

It’s Not The Money, Man


This is a “lost” song from the try-anything time just before the Nightmares were formed. It was recorded for a vinyl compilation of Columbia bands some guy was putting out. I didn’t have a band at the time, so Gid and I just put it together ad hoc with whoever was around from the uptown pool: Dave Capello on drums, Steve “Blood” Bernstein on trumpet, Tex (in our first real collaboration) played all the guitars, John Travis played bass, and Carrie Hamilton sang the backup vocals. Gid basically produced the thing, played some organ and scribbled musical notation on napkins.

An earlier incarnation of this song had served as the cornerstone of the Mystery Dates, the short-lived, post-Student Teachers band I formed with Danny Wattenberg, who had fronted the very popular Casuals. Danny wrote the lyrics for the second verse. The first verse I wrote, and it’s basically true. A girl called Lori Lane did indeed once try to kill me with a BB gun. (She also once toppled a bookcase on top of me. As a matter of fact, she also once had me trapped in an alcove on the stairway landing outside her apartment on Claremont Ave. while she bombarded me from her doorway with what seemed to be an endless supply of Miller pony bottles. All of Lori’s neighbors popped their heads out to witness the calamity. No one thought to call the cops, but they did seem to enjoy the show.)

It’s Not The Money, Man


They had a wicked night
And ended it before they even got in bed
She took the BB gun and loaded it
And pointed it right at his head

She looked so wild he said, I must collect
She said, I haven’t got the bread
She wasn’t being very rational
He looked into her eyes and said

He said, It’s not the money, man
It’s my angel
It’s not the money, man
Give me back my angel

His erotic dream
Was that she danced naked on the fire escape
She held a blue book to each breast
And in her navel there was grape

Now, the cockfights were in progress four flights down
The sound of wagers filtered all the way up
He was impatient as he said this to her shadow
Cast upon the drape

He said, It’s not the money, man
It’s my angel
It’s not the money, man
Give me back my angel