Each of Us A Tiny Nation

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Where have I been? (“Got any what?”) Uh, where have you been? Or: Where haven’t I been, more likely. Actually, it’s a rather suspiciously odd coincidence that my involuntary blogging sabbatical just happened to coincide with my return to New York City and its gnatty clouds of debilitating psychic energy. (Even walking down the street is exponentially more difficult here than elsewhere, with the weight of so many people crammed so close together, emitting so much negative mental energy — it’s like being slapped around sometimes just to buy a quart of milk.)

Of course, if I tell people I’m getting the hell out of Dodge because of the bad vibes, they look at me with pity, like I’m crazy. But it’s true. And that’s not only the main reason, that’s the umbrella which covers virtually all the myriad other reasons. Human beings were not meant to live this way.

Allen St. John’s recent book, Clapton’s Guitar, tells the story of a backwoods Virginia musician called Wayne Henderson, one of the tiny and tight-knit community of master guitar builders in the world today. The best of Henderson’s painstakingly handcrafted instruments compare favorably to pre-war Martins, the most coveted guitars in the world, and the book explores the reasons why this might be so, talking a lot about the qualities of different types of wood and the techniques luthiers use to cut, whittle, sand, glue, brace, treat and finish that wood to bring a guitar into being.

It’s an interesting book if you have even the slightest bit of guitar geek in you, but it’s almost all smoke screen. The real truth of the matter doesn’t come out until near the very end of the book, in a scene that takes place over lunch in a shopping-center Italian restaurant in West Concord, MA. St. John is talking to a guy called T.J. Thompson, a gifted and reknowned guitar restoration expert. They are discussing the “Big Question”: “what is it that separates a magical guitar from a merely great one?” What are the reasons that one guitar can channel magic, while its erstwhile twin only sounds pale in comparison? There’s some hemming and hawing (“I could probably list 600 reasons…” says T.J., alluding to the aforementioned processes of cutting, whittling, bracing, etc.), before T.J. finally wears down and confesses the most important thing; really, the only important thing:

“The state of mind of the person building the guitar.”

More on all of this later, but for now here’s a question: If believing T.J.’s statement makes sense to you (as it surely does to me), why not extrapolate from this and work out all the logical implications? Clearly, if you conscientiously did that, your whole life would have to change. And I wonder why our culture can so easily accept isolated glimpses of this aspect of reality, but would seek to ridicule anyone who went ahead and drew the obvious conclusions.

This is the Girls playing “Millionaire,” recorded live at Dick Zigun’s Coney Island Sideshows By The Seashore. It’s like one of those psychological aptitude tests where they try to determine if you know the difference between right and wrong. Sometimes, for years at a time, you lose your perspective — it’s impossible to tell. But if you just took one step in any direction, suddenly it would seem so obvious.

Millionaire

There’s a millionaire underneath the table
I know it’s not right, you know it’s not right
But there’s a millionaire underneath the table

There’s a millionaire underneath the table
Do you think I don’t know it’s not right?
I don’t know anything at all

My Bills and Demands I Keep Too

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Regarding the previous post: Of course, nowadays I would not be (quite) so inanely pleased with myself to be wearing such a pathetically crippling defect as a badge of honor. There’s nothing wrong with memories, but being an obsessive-compulsive emotional packrat is ultimately self-defeating. (Over time, you end up having a giant rear-view mirror where your windshield should be.) And one way of looking at recovery from Devastationalism is as an advanced course in baggage disposal. But still…everyone has a list.

The List

After the service, we were standing around
Down by the harbor, watching the boats
I saw the husband smoking all alone
And the English girls in their winter coats

I don’t pretend things will be the same again
But I believe in something worth holding on to

People were quiet, as we stood at the gate
Ice in the water, snow on the ground
I never realized what we had to lose
Some kids from the theater passed a bottle around

I don’t pretend things will be the same again
But I believe in something worth holding on to

I don’t pretend things will be the same again
And so we grieve for someone we will never see again

You wanna see a list?
The things that I have loved
The things that I believed in
The things worth holding on to

After the service, we were standing around
Down by the harbor, watching the boats…

Addendum

Kristian writes: “Things will never be the same again–from every moment forward. From this moment to the next. Nothing will ever be the same. Even without some benchmark loss. And yet somehow we’re genetically attuned to the notion, or cling to the feeling, or have a soul addiction to needing something to be the same. Some comfort zone, some notion of stability, a kitchen view or a hand you held or a loving glance or a favorite carpet or the flavor of some recipe that you’ve lost. I guess it’s about the darn journey after all. Fuck all those new age babblers that have been trying to get me to hear that darn message all these years, dagnabit!”

Martian

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Alice McDermott that appeared in the online literary quarterly, failbetter.com. It’s from last year, around the time her novel, “After This,” was published:

It’s been said that, to some extent, every novelist writes the same book over and over. Many reviewers have noted how much your novels share: middle-class Irish Catholic characters, and that Long Island setting… Do you ever worry that you are indeed writing the same book again and again?

No. I think the question doesn’t apply to fiction… More southerners, Miss Welty? More Russian émigrés, Mr. Nabokov? Have you considered using your imagination, Mr. Garcia Marquez, and maybe setting your next novel in Finland? We’ve forgotten how to read literature (or even what literature is for) if we confuse the meaning of a piece with its subject…

I like that she finds the question so fucking stupid that she can’t even be bothered to tone down her sarcasm. So, which is more important: The lines of the story, or the story between the lines? Of course, this question applies to much more than just how a person reads literature or listens to songs. Where a person falls on this continuum provides a gigantic clue about how they construct their view of the world.

This mostly instrumental, semi-novelty song, “Martian,” was inspired by a smart-ass retort I delivered to a rude and creepy customer (along with his cappuccino) at the Berkeley cafe where I used to work in the early 90s. I guess that’s the “subject.” But the “meaning” of the song comes from something Beth McGroarty once said about me (in my presence) at around the same time.

We were sitting at an initial-carved table in the back of a grad-student bar and as usual I was carrying on about some or other romantic catastrophe. One young man in our party spoke up, making a genuine attempt to be kind. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get over it.” Kindness being like chalkboard nails to me in those days, I repaid him with a look of almost complete disgust. Thankfully, Beth immediately leapt in to defend my honor. “Philip,” she explained curtly, “has never gotten over anything in his life.”

Recorded by Stuart in San Francisco, with Beth’s brother Mark on the bass. Stuart also played percussion, banging a tambourine and repeatedly slamming a gunmetal file cabinet drawer.

Martian

How do you know how I’d look at a martian?
How do you know what I’m going to say?
I raise a glass for the dearly departed
The things in my head won’t go away

Martian Spoken-Word Intro Live on KALX

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Sockets

My lovely and talented brother very kindly covered my song “Mary” on his first album. He also graciously invited me to sing harmony on it. I remember driving up to some house in Connecticut — it was recorded in a basement studio which was the homebase of the guy from that band where (I swear I’m not making this up) all the songs are about hockey…? Anyhow, they quite mercifully mixed my “singing” just below the threshold of human hearing, but I did manage to make myself useful by going on a pizza run.

I was able to reciprocate a few years later when, on the occasion of a milestone birthday of his, my brother’s wife and his friend Scruffy solicited all of his musician friends to each make a home recording of one of his songs, which they then compiled on a CD as a surprise birthday present. Choosing a song to do was a no-brainer for me, since “Sockets” had been always been my favorite of my brother’s songs. (Most Devastational?) I recorded it one afternoon on a weird little borderline-toy Japanese digital recorder called a ZOOM PS-04 that I bought specifically for the occasion using a now drunkenly destroyed Seagull guitar and one of the machine’s internal beats.

Sockets (Michael Shelley)

It Distresses Us To Return Work Which Is Not Perfect

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When I hit the pay-per-view button I was expecting to be mildly amused by the movie Venus, but I had no idea that it would be very nearly perfect. It wasn’t the movie I was expecting to see at all. I am in awe of writing so intricately nuanced — bleak and unsentimental, yet suffused with real-deal joie de vivre. I can’t help but compare this view of sex, love, friendship and aging against an ostensibly agreeable movie like, say, Knocked Up, and shake my head at how wrong we’ve got it now. Peter O’Toole is pretty much the last of his kind, and the world will be a much greyer and drearier place when he goes. (This recent appearance on Letterman is beyond priceless.)

Sky Blue Bells Ringing

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Here’s a song that did not bubble up from the depths of my iPod. I heard it for the first time just the other night at an extraordinary open-mic show. I was stunned and amazed. The boy/girl, guitar/mandolin duo performing the song there was English, and at first I thought it must be one of theirs. (I had never even heard of the Waifs before.) Later, I went back to my room and downloaded the original version. Resignation or defiance? It’s hard to tell. Homesickness for the homeless.

London Still (Donna Simpson)

The Waifs

Wonder if you can pick up my accent on the phone
When I call across the country, when I call across the world
I see you in my kitchen, I can picture you now
As you toast to your small town when you drink the happy hour

I’m in London still
I’m in London still
I’m in London still

I took the tube over to Camden to wander around
I bought some funky records with that old Motown sound
And I miss you like my left arm that’s been lost in a war
Today I dream of home and not of London anymore

I’m in London still
I’m in London still
Yeah, I’m in London still

You know it’s okay, I’m kinda happy here for now
I think I’ve finally grown up and got myself a lover now
And if I ever come home, and I, I think I will
I hope you’re gonna wanna hang at my place on Sunday still

Oh yeah I hope you will
‘Cause I’m in London still

You know we got it sorted, yeah, we really got it down
To a fine art on Sunday in a sleepy Sunday town
I wonder what I’m missing, I think of songs I’ve never heard
I’m dreaming of your voices and I’m dreaming of your herb

I’m in London still
I’m in London still
I’m in London still

I’m in London still
La-la-la-la-la London still
I’m in London

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And It’s True That I Stole Your Lighter

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When I was making my first baby steps towards recovery from Devastationalism, at the sunset of the 90s, one of the angels the universe sent my way was a gushingly creative, spiritually magnetic man called Steve Pagnotta. Steve was an owner/manager of Tortilla Flats (which made him my ostensible “boss”) and he had the rotten luck to see me at my worst, night in and night out over a period of years. I know he loved me, but he absolutely hated dealing with me too. It must have been murderously frustrating for him trying to get through to a tequila-soaked brick wall that reflected nothing back but a big “Fuck You” in wobbly neon letters. I wonder if he has any idea how much of what he said to me over the years did ultimately get through and how much I owe him.

It was Steve who first articulated for me the idea that life was a gift, that the world was full of unimaginable wonders, that every moment of life was precious. It’s corny, basic stuff, but everybody’s gotta learn it somewhere. And Steve, for all his wide-eyed spaciness was no ingenuous sap. He had a hard core, and no illusions. His motto was not some New Agey mantra, but the grimy and hard-won conclusion of a somewhat rumpled, slightly seedy blackjack dealer. “Life,” he used to say to me, “is the best deal you’re ever gonna get.” And the way he said it was a little bit mean, too. Like you had to be an idiot if you were seriously holding your cards waiting for something better to come along.

He was right, of course. Being a human being is the best deal going we know of. And to not take responsibility for bearing that gift is beyond pathetic — it’s a bloody tragedy. To refuse desire is to refuse everything that is rewarding in life. And to disdain active agency — the freedom to choose and go after the things you want — is to turn your back on the ultimate joy and privilege of being a human being. Not that you always get your heart’s desire, of course — but it really is all about the journey.

Thanks to the magic of iTrip (the magic being that the cheap little hunk of plastic works at all) I am becoming well reaquainted with the thousands of songs that dwell in the murky depths of my iPod. So many little Devastationalist wonders about which I had forgotten completely.

To Cry About (Mary Margaret O’Hara)

Mary Margaret O’Hara

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That’s When I Threw The Bottle In The River

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A Devastationalist spends way too much of his or her life being blown about like a leaf, drifting passively in and out of jobs, homes, relationships, rarely if ever daring to actively exercise the power of choice. To choose, of course, implies desire, and desire is the bane of a Devastationalist’s existence — at best, a path to potential disappointment, and at worst, the seed of all ruin lies there. Who needs the responsibility? So much safer to just sit back and rail at the winds of fate!

The night before we hit the road, the topic over dinner (mediocre salads and crummy service, by the way) was how scary and overwhelming it is to actually try and choose what to do, how to live — to impose agency on your own life. But if you don’t get over that, what’s the point of being alive?

And now, halfway through and over a thousand miles in, I really don’t have much to report — not yet anyway. For once, we have thankfully shut down the processing unit here at Devastationalist HQ, running strictly on intake mode at the moment. Though I can safely say there are infinite pleasures to be found in the world out there (pleasure, now that’s an interesting concept, eh?) and also, Liam has a new favorite restaurant.

So, here’s a road song, the All-Girl Band does Dylan. I learned this song off a mix-tape Andrea Kannapell made for me at the outset of another road trip, years ago, at the dawn of the 90s. Tex liked playing it — the half-step intervals and minor-to-major changes, stuff I almost never use in my own songs — so we kept it in our set as a second-stringer until the bitter end.

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (Bob Dylan)

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It Ain’t That Barbie Doll

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There is an essay in the new American Scholar by a poet named Christian Wiman (I’d never heard of him, but he is the editor of Poetry magazine, if that means anything to anyone out there) that is basically a description of Devastationalism and his subsequent deliverance from it. I wouldn’t normally read a journal essay by an academic poet, especially one relating how he found the “meaning of life,” but I was lackadaisically skimming through the magazine one evening and Wiman’s piece hooked me when I realized what he was actually writing about. And though there is the to-be-expected ick-factor, the ratio of insight-to-ick is quite impressive — around 90/10. Here is the key paragraph:

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy,” Weil writes, “in order to find reality through suffering.” This is certainly true to my own experience. I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love. To come to this realization is not to be suddenly “at ease in the world.” I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable. Though we may be moved by nature to thoughts of grace, though art can tease our minds toward eternity and love’s abundance make us dream a love that does not end, these intuitions come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing. I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

Of course this made me curious to hunt down Wiman’s poems, but, hater that I am, I’m still worried that I’ll, um, hate them. Anyhow, you can read the entire essay online here.

And to balance things out, something a little more altogether fizzy, on the outlandishly deviant drinking habits of Antarcticans from an interview with a guy who works at the South Pole:

Sometimes the Air National Guard guys have a keg-tossing contest outside the bar at McMurdo Station. One time some folks held an exorcism for one of the machines that kept breaking down, where they drank whiskey and played songs for the machine. And this one guy came up with the idea to have a bunch of Depends adult diapers sent down so that everyone could stand around drinking beer and pissing themselves. I didn’t make it to that party, but a friend of mine did. He hooked up with this amazing woman after the party. He picked up a chick while wearing a diaper!

This guy apparently wrote a whole book about living and working in Antarctica (“Big Dead Place”), which is currently at the top of my to-do list. The interview comes courtesy of the ever-incisive Modern Drunkard magazine, and you can read the rest of it here.

Or of course, you could always go to the Raytheon website and simply apply for a job in “Polar Services” yourself.

Everybody’s Gotta Have Something

I wrote this song in my head wandering home drunk after work one night — from 97th and Madison to the East Village. Sometimes when you have a band, it makes it easy to write this way — what’s playing in your head will somehow be pre-tailored to the musicians’ individual styles and strengths, anticipating what everyone will do with their parts. Or rather, everyone’s styles and strengths will inform (and dictate to a certain extent) what’s playing in your head. At any rate, it’s distinctly different from going in with just chords and a melody and working it out.

The verses were my sincere attempt to write a love-that-nobody-else-understands song, a sideways homage to Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” which I played endlessly in those days. (That would be the Tracy Ullman version, of course — I had barely heard of Kirsty MacColl back then.) I found the notion of unsanctioned romance utterly captivating. I did not know then what I know now, which is that if no one you know approves of your paramour it’s usually because he or she is bad news or the relationship is wildly unhealthy. (Though there are exhilarating exceptions, god knows, and thank god for that.)

The chorus was meant as a semi-joke: a list of over-the-top romantic attributes followed by a verbal shrug. I vaguely had in mind the famous scene in “Caddyshack” where Bill Murray talks about caddying for the Dalai Lama and being given the gift of total consciousness on his deathbed in lieu of a tip. As virtually everyone reading this already knows, Bill tries to play off his bragging with typicallly masterful nonchalance and says something like, “So I got that going for me, which is nice.”

Everybody’s Gotta Have Something

People talking about you, baby
Saying you’re no good
I pay no attention, darling
Though I probably should

‘Cause I see something special
When I look into your eyes
I see a burning pool of fire
And a love that never dies
And everybody’s gotta have something

All the things that they’re saying, darling
I don’t wanna hear
I’ll meet you in the Marlin, baby
And we could have a beer

And we could sit in the back and they’d leave us alone
For a little while
‘Cause nothing’s ever wrong when I’m holding your hand
And I see you smile