Brandy Does Her Best To Understand

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Wherever I travel, people always ask me if there are any brilliant new Devastationalist musicians I can recommend, preferably someone they don’t already know about. That’s easy. I always say Natalie Robin.

I first stumbled across Natalie and her music while playing MySpace hopscotch. Irresistibly, the headline quote on her page read:

“If you hate yourself, you’ll love my music.”

The songs she had posted at the time were spellbinding, and they swirled around and around in your head like good, strong red wine. And despite their woozy, hallucinatory qualities, the songs were rendered with impeccable precision.

And so for the next few months I raptly followed her new song postings (and the sudden, erratic, dead-of-night deletions) along with the general melodrama and self-deprecation of her elliptic commentary. It was by far the most Devastationalist thing going, and it was all the more impressive in that she made the songs all by herself on an old four-track in her bedroom in her parents’ house (I think she’s 23 or 24): writing the unflinchingly honest songs, playing all the instruments with alarming sophistication, singing the intricate vocal arrangements.

I’ve never met Natalie (she lives in the East Bay), though we’ve corresponded. She comes across as too bright and too vulnerable for her own good, occasionally extremely funny, more often shy, moody, prickly, eccentric, and harder on no one than herself. (You know, the usual stuff.)

The song below didn’t last very long online, and I’m glad I grabbed it before she took it down because it’s my favorite, an anthem of utter disillusionment. It’s hair-raising in its quiet intensity, chilling at its denouement. And it’s also insane the depth of things you can hear echoes of in this song (from Aretha to the Velvets). But I’m going to refrain from playing rock critic — you can listen for yourself. Then pay a visit to Natalie’s MySpace page and leave a comment gently encouraging her to get into a proper recording studio immediately.

Man and Himself (Natalie Robin)

Natalie Robin

Let me swallow your pride for you
‘Cause thats always been something you dont think that you need to do
And until we are buried under the earth
We settle for better, but mostly for worse

And if you were who you think you are
You’d be the only person I know that has it all
And if you were who you think you are
Things would be different and I wouldnt stall
To be near you

Let me follow the lines for you
‘Cause you think that you’re too good to stand here with the rest of us fools
And until you are gone from the touch of the sun
You settle to be the person you’ll never become

And if you were who you think you are
You’d be the only person I know that has it all
And if you were who you think you are
Things would be different and I wouldnt stall

Meanwhile, Back In The States

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Driving into Portland, Maine the other night in a torrential downpour I couldn’t help but be reminded of my first visit to Portland, years ago. Kris Woolsey’s grandmother lived there, and his nuclear family was convening for a long weekend at her house in the woods.

We flew up on the renegade 80s airline, People Express, armed with a couple of fifths of Stolichnaya. I remember we had to wait for over an hour on the runway while President Reagan conducted some of his nasty business at Newark Airport, so I was passed out cold before we even took off. I don’t recall Kris’s family being too overjoyed to meet me.

It was a strange and tense weekend, and I kept pretty much to myself and my guitar. After everyone went to bed, I would raid the liquor cabinet and talk on the phone with my girlfriend, Mary, back in New York, then stay up all night reading. And somewhere in there were a few too-bright-and-too-early canoe trips and other awkward lake-style adventures. (I think things loosened up a bit after Kris’s family left, and we were just hanging out with his grandmother, who was cool. I remember her showing us the harbor and all the little islands that dot the Casco Bay, and even then I was awed at the sight.)

Anyhow, the flight home was even worse than the flight up — a huge, terrifying thunderstorm and an interminable delay. We sat nervously sipping Manhattan after Manhattan in the little airport lounge there, staring out glumly as waves of water crashed against the windows and I silently prayed for the flight to be cancelled. I was sure we were all going to die.

Airport Lounge

The Nightmares

Airport lounge in Portland, Maine
Our flight’s been held ’cause of pouring rain
Pouring rain

Thunder and lightning but it’s warm inside
Everybody’s going for a little ride
Little ride

I wish I could be a little stronger
And I wish I could stay a little longer

Everybody had another round
So they’d be prepared if the plane went down
Plane went down

Finally got our clearance, so we filed on board
I was thinkin’ ’bout the harbor, thinkin’ ’bout the lord
‘Bout the lord

I wish I could be a little stronger
And I wish I could stay a little longer

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A Concordance Of Hearts

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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.

Drips

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®

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Wicker & Palm

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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

Afraid, Ashamed, Misunderstood

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Mike Tyson, who, despite his insane and destructive public image, has always been an extremely honest, thoughtful and eloquent spokesperson for Devastationalism, was the subject of an article in last week’s Sunday Times. The piece concludes with Tyson talking about his sobriety and his ongoing struggle for some of that elusive peace of mind, with a rather stunning example of obiter dictum:

“I just say I’m not getting high today,” he said. “I’m not promising them I’m not getting high tomorrow. I’m trying to figure it out. I’m in an abysmal world trying to figure it out.”

On an eerily similar note (insane and destructive yet honest, thoughtful and eloquent), Philip K. Dick’s last completed novel (published shortly after his death from a stroke in 1982), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, opens with this paragraph:

“Barefoot conducts his seminars on his houseboat in Sausalito. It costs a hundred dollars to find out why we are on this Earth. You also get a sandwich, but I wasn’t hungry that day. John Lennon had just been killed and I think I know why we are on this Earth; it’s to find out that what you love the most will be taken away from you, probably due to an error in high places, rather than by design.”

“Get me to the nearest Barnes & Noble!” right?? The story is told in the first person by Angel Archer, a narrator of such charm and charisma that Dick claimed in interviews that he literally began hemorrhaging and had to be rushed to the hospital upon completion of the novel, he was so distressed to be separated from her after the book’s long gestation and writing process.

Guilty

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What makes unadulterated sentimentality so repugnant is that sentimentality is really just the potentially creepy fetishization of innocence. But what’s astonishing is to realize that we can still have justice in a world like ours that is devoid of innocence. Because human beings will strive for redemption under virtually any circumstances. Despite how awful things are, and the completely miserable and dangerous conditions under which most people are forced to live, we still (for the most part) persist in being polite and even kind to other people we meet. This implies that in reality justice is more a matter of love and forgiveness than of guilt and innocence. Still, we continue not only fetishizing innocence, but, as our culture becomes ever more misshapen, fetishizing guilt too.

The sometime sociologist Philip Slater has recently resurfaced on the Huffington Post as a sort of humanist contrarian, but he struck real Devastationalist gold back in the 1970s with a series of remarkably prescient books diagnosing the increasing pathological tendencies of postwar society. The most famous of these is The Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970. Here he is talking about the prohibitive difficulty of changing paths, and potentially constructive ways of viewing despair, from a later book called Earthwalk (1975):

“I have wasted X years of my life in a painful and useless pursuit; this is sad, but I now have an opportunity to try another approach.”

This is hard for people to [say]. There is a strong temptation either to rationalize our wrong turnings as a necessary part of our development (“it taught me discipline”), or to deny that we participated fully in them (“that was before I became enlightened”). Giving up these two evasions leads initially to despair, but as Alexander Lowen points out, despair is the only cure for illusion. Without despair we cannot transfer our allegiance to reality–it is a kind of mourning period for our fantasies. Some people do not survive this despair, but no major change within a person can occur without it.

People get trapped in despair when their despair is incomplete–when some thread of illusory hope is still retained. When artificial lights are turned off in a windowed room at night, it takes a little time to realize that the darkness is not total, and the longer we are dazzled by the after-image of that artificial light, the longer it takes to perceive the subtle textures of natural light and shadows–to realize that we can, in fact, see.

And this is the All Girl Band, or me and Tex, at least. (Perhaps the rest of the Girls were already at the bar?) This was the song I sang for the Losers Lounge tribute to Randy Newman and somehow it emigrated into the All Girl Band setlist for awhile. Of course, at the time I had no trouble relating to what was — hidden behind a very convincing facade of drunken self-loathing — the song’s disastrously sentimental heart. Famously known to have been John Belushi’s favorite song.

Guilty (Randy Newman)

Yes, baby, I been drinkin’
And I shouldn’t come by I know
But I found myself in trouble, darlin’
And I had nowhere else to go

Got some whisky from the barman
Got some cocaine from a friend
I just had to keep on movin’
Til I was back in your arms again

I’m guilty, baby I’m guilty
And I’ll be guilty all the rest of my life
How come I never do what I’m supposed to do
How come nothin’ that I try to do ever turns out right?

You know, you know how it is with me baby
You know, you know I just can’t stand myself
And it takes a whole lot of medicine
For me to pretend that I’m somebody else

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Hiawatha

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This is the Lockhorns, in a rather expansive one-off configuration, with me singing and playing acoustic, Bob Ducharme on electric guitar, Marc Fagelson on bass, Eleanor Imster and Carrie Hamilton on vocals & percussion, and John Hamilton on drums. The occasion was a benefit for our friend John Scurti whose acting troupe needed money to go to (I think) the Edinburgh Festival.

I don’t remember much about the event — a vodka-soaked barn-burner held in the company’s theater space — though the evidence clearly shows that I was physically present. (My last crystalline memory of that day is actually puking out the side of a moving car on the West Side Highway in the afternoon as we were corralling equipment.) The nostalgic and summery “Hiawatha” is one of Bob’s songs, and it contains one of my all-time favorite couplets.

Hiawatha (Bob DuCharme)

By the shores of Gitchee Gumee
In the summer of ’79
Phyllis’s fast food seafood restaurant
I washed dishes with a friend of mine

Hiawatha, do you wanna
Get some beers and drive around?
You call Kate and I’ll call Donna
We’ll watch TV with the sound turned down

By the shining Big-Sea-Water
The tourist come just to eat fried fish
Me and Hiawatha out by the dumpster
Smoke a joint and make a wish

Two in the morning, close up the kitchen
Pies in the walk-in, Hiawatha sweeps then
Me and Hiawatha and the brand new waitress
Take her blood-red Pinto down to Woodmont Beach

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Gotta Keep Bars In Between Us

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The other day I was sitting at my desk, idly Googling “loneliness human condition” — you know, as one does — and two results jumped out at me. The first was from the novel “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch. I’ve never read the book, but if the following passage is any indication, surely here we have located the bitter and bilious underbelly of Oprah bookdom:

“Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”

God, the first time I read that I laughed so hard it almost made Diet Coke come out my nose. “Murderous with disappointment”! How brilliant is that! That phrase alone makes me want to go out right now and get completely hammered with Janet Fitch. Anyone who could craft such a succinct and pitch-perfect Devastationalist credo is all right in my book. And the crazy thing is, this quote turns up on dozens of blogs and personal web pages where people aggregate their favorite and most inspiring quotes. Apparently some kind of scarily misanthropic nerve has been struck here. I still strongly doubt I could ever bring myself to actually read the book, but the movie is now in my Netflix queue — I’ll happily pay to see Michelle Pfeiffer speak those words.

The second quote, which also turned up in more than one of the Google search results, is by a Seattle-born Theravadan Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho:

“We suffer a lot in our society from loneliness. So much of our life is an attempt to not be lonely: ‘Let’s talk to each other; let’s do things together so we won’t be lonely.’ And yet inevitably, we are really alone in these human forms. We can pretend; we can entertain each other; but that’s about the best we can do. When it comes to the actual experience of life, we’re very much alone; and to expect anyone else to take away our loneliness is asking too much.”

To me the interesting thing is that he’s using almost the exact same words as the protagonist of “White Oleander” but his message is meant to be one of comfort and transcendence, in contrast to her message of embitterment and isolation. It just kills me how tiny and subtle the difference is between these two mortally opposed ways of looking at the world. You can read the entire essay here.

Certainly, I’ve held both viewpoints at various times. Life events and certain kinds of inner temperaments can isolate you and leave you feeling stranded or alienated, but our minds still try to find ways to reach out to each other, across great distances of both time and space if necessary, to feel the reassuring thrum of psychic resonance. Not that it’s always easy to achieve. But as far back as I can remember I’ve never felt completely disconnected, and that’s because of music.

Music made me feel less alone, and I know that’s a big part of why I surrendered so completely to it. And I mean it made me feel less alone literally, in the sense of a community to belong to and lyrics that miraculously were generous enough to encompass my misfit concerns. But I also mean it in the abstract spiritual sense of being at home in the universe and feeling connected to humanity.

Speech and gestures and body language and sex are all wonderful, of course, but sometimes they are simply not enough to communicate the things we need to communicate. Sometimes they are not even enough to provide evidence that we are engaging with living conscious spirits similar to our own. Music (and not just music, of course, but all art) provides that evidence when we need it the most, and communicates some of the things words and gestures are helpless to convey.

Wide Eyed Fool

Bettie Serveert

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One Year Down

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There were — are — some things I definitely plan(ned) to post up here to mark the one-year anniversary of this blog (born November 19, 2006). But, alas, as they are all still in “progress,” this will have to do for the moment. And actually, I think it does quite nicely. A declaration of love undying from a Devastationalist Ur-text, Max Beerbohm’s side-splitting, heart-broke and weirdly beautiful little book, Zuleika Dobson:

“My heart is no tablet of mere wax, from which an instant’s heat can dissolve whatever imprint it may bear, leaving it blank and soft for another impress, and another and another. My heart is a bright hard gem, proof against any die. Came Cupid, with one of his arrow-points for graver, and what he cut on the gem’s surface can never be effaced. There, deeply and forever, your image is intagliated. No years, nor fire, nor cataclysm of total Nature, can efface from that great gem your image.”

And an anniversary song, too, why not? The All Girl Band live, drunkenly defying traditional gender roles! Take that, America!

I Want That Man (Tom Bailey/Alannah Currie)

Go, Go, Go, Said The Bird

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I saw Caitlin Corless play live in a cramped little club and was astounded at how complete and self-contained her talent was. It was not the biggest, most wide-ranging and all-encompassing talent, but it was a talent fully served and fully realized. She knew what she wanted to express and had developed the necessary aesthetic and technical competency to express it. Heart, mind, fingers and voice all seamlessly serving a simple, clear vision.

After her set, I stopped by her table to pay my compliments and see if she had any CDs. I was nervous, intimidated by the audacity of both her youth and ability. At close hand she had that extraordinary shyness and self-possession — almost stuck-uppedness — that I have observed in other extremely talented singer/songwriters. This, of course, only increased my high regard, but between us there was not much psychic ground left for conversation. I stammered something like, “You’re really good at this…” And she replied, “I hope so; I’ve been doing it since I was 10.” (I don’t remember the exact, ridiculously young age she gave.)

Luckily for me, she was sitting with a more tipsy and talkative friend who introduced herself as Caitlin’s “publicist,” and explained that, No, Caitlin had no CDs out, no real recordings at all in fact besides her Garageband bedroom demos. I asked if there was website where I might hear some songs, at least? Caitlin’s publicist shook her head, Sadly, no website, but she was kind enough to scribble the address for Caitlin’s MySpace page on a napkin and send me on my way.

The part that really gets me is that here’s a person who’s been working on her songwriting with evident dedication and diligence for at least a decade, who obviously takes her art very seriously, and yet, for all her investment of time and energy, is almost un-Google-able and has never been inside a proper recording studio. In other words, it seems to me like she makes songs in order to live and get through her days but that she’d almost rather keep it to herself. (Not to overstate the case here — I’m guessing she wouldn’t mind a little more recognition, but clearly, that’s not the main reason why she’s been doing it.) The idea that people commit astonishing art in private that we may never know about is very endearing to me, while also a bit mind-boggling.

Yellow Dress (Caitlin Corless)

Caitlin Corless