Tuesday, September 18, 2012

All the Music

We lay in bed curved around each other like a pair of intertwined question marks. I threaded my arm around her and pulled her closer as we drifted off to sleep. In that quiet haze of unawake and unasleep I kissed her neck and the back of her head, the unfamiliar bristle of her short hair the last thing I remember. Earlier that night we had wandered into a street fair. It was a warm summer night and the wide avenue was a beating heart. All manner of people were out and of course it was the young people that wanted the most attention. They spoke loudly to each other in stupid platitudes but they were no less sweet and charming for it. Bands of every style and genre occupied their own little corners, half moons of people standing in audience before them. We went from band to band listening, dancing, laughing. It was loud, and we tried to carry on a conversation over the noise but a lot of what we said got lost in the tide of sound. Sometimes I would put my arm around her waist and pull her in some direction or other. She kissed me in the middle of the street. We went from one end of the fair to the other, looping from one side to the next in an affectionate pilgrimage amongst the music, the drunks, and the loudmouths. By the time we returned the whole thing was breaking apart. The place was emptying and garbage displaced people as the most noticeable thing on the pavement. Earlier still that evening she had come home with me for the first time. We kissed the whole way there. The sex itself was terrifying and inelegant, as first times are when you are with someone you care about. Afterward we had lain in bed sweaty and shy talking, talking, talking as the vertical shadows from the blinds grew longer and were eventually swallowed up by the night. “Let’s go out,” I said. We dressed, and a little later we saw the roadblocks and the crowd milling just beyond them, and we plunged smiling into the torrent of people. So it was after we had been naked and alone that we drifted through all of the music and noise. I wanted to hold her hand but somehow it didn’t seem right. And this is why adulthood is so fucked up sometimes: it is only as adults that holding someone’s hand seems more intimate and personal than sex. After everything we had already done I could not find the courage to take her hand in mine and interlock our fingers in the way that we interlocked our bodies later that night as we fell asleep. For reasons I don’t understand and that at any rate are beyond my control, I'll probably never see her again. But I will remember the street full of music and the way her body fit mine and that I never held her hand.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The End of the Beginning

Unlike literature, music doesn’t really require interpretation. In Truth and Method, Gadamer gives a convincing account of how the interpretative dimension of reading works. The brilliance of Gadamer’s description of what he calls the hermeneutic circle paradoxically illustrates the poverty of considering music in literary terms. In Gadamer’s thinking, interpretation happens through a series of projections that guide the process of reading but that are also consequently revised by it. What a text means, therefore, is not something that is passively revealed by the literary work; rather, interpretation requires projecting hypotheses that at first limit our engagement with the actual heterogeneity of text. Continued reading, however, transforms and enriches those original hypotheses and those reshaped possible interpretations open the hermeneutic circle yet again. In other words, as soon as you start reading you think you know where it’s all going to go but then, SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKER, THINK AGAIN! Interpreting the meaning of something is the dynamic mediation between the reader and the text.

While music has the same temporal dimension as literature—its experience involves the passage of time—it doesn’t involve the same kind of interpretive projections. The anticipation is experiential not semantic, more bodily than cognitive. Take for example the arresting yet completely enigmatic Super Beagle sample that opens Kanye West’s “Mercy.” The question one asks is not “What does that mean?” but “What is he saying?” But even without understanding one word, you experience it musically as counterpoint to the heavy, deliberate, and minimalist beats at the songs opening. It’s a stunning intro. The first time I heard it I could feel my body dilate to the song to feel where it was going. I anticipated affect not meaning, an ending but not a resolution. If it plays any role at all, interpretation is something that happens in music only after most of the somatic sensations that connect us to music dissipate. (This might sound like an odd claim in this blog, but if you notice carefully I hardly ever interpret songs here. Mostly I describe what they do and then use them to illustrate the social/aesthetic/theoretical/personal context that I want to write about.)

Listening to a song for the first time is not like reading a novel for the first time. It’s more like kissing someone for the first time. In such a situation you are very present and aware of your body and what it is feeling. You feel that transitory instant when the space between you and the other person changes from a border separating you to a substance that contains you both. The unshakeable terror of the moment makes you move cautiously and so you sense if your movement towards her (sorry, I can only write this from the perspective of a man who kisses women) is reciprocated. You close your eyes, and if you are moving slowly enough you can feel her breath on your skin and all of the little hairs on your face electrify just before your lips touch. After that, all the situations are different. Some lips are soft and inviting, some oscillate between reserved and daring, some are fixed and unyielding. With some people you know that they will always like the way you kiss them because of the way they kiss you, others you know will never enjoy the way you want to kiss them, and others still seem like mysteries that only time will tell which way the kissing situation will go. Generally though, after that first pause you know how you feel about kissing someone, and when a song ends that first time you have a pretty good idea about how you feel about it also. The first time you hear a song and the first time you kiss someone are similar in one last way: because it’s about newness and raw sensations rather than analysis and reflection, the experience usually doesn’t mean very much.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Time to Party

It’s three in the morning on Highway 30 in what used to be known as Industrial Northwest Portland, and we are watching runners go by in some ridiculous race called “Hood to Coast” that involves teams of competitors running through the night.  We’ve been drinking since four in the afternoon the day before, and we stare at these good, sober people in wild disbelief and bemused outrage. We had poured out of a house we called The Diner (because it had once been a diner) an hour earlier in order to get one last round of beers before they stopped selling for the night. Now we’re each holding partly drunk six-packs of Hamm’s and Rainier’s laughing over-loudly as we watch these goofballs go by in a hurry to somewhere they don’t need to be. We begin drifting back to The Diner past warehouses and train cars. We’re screaming and throwing empties at each other. At some point I fall over and my buddy Joe picks me up and puts a fresh beer in my hand. He says, “watch this,” and with the strength of a very strong and very drunk man he pulls a manhole cover out of the road and throws it through a plate-glass window. We roar and run away. A little later I walk next to Jimmy Gallentine smoking Kools not because I like menthols or am even a smoker but because he had offered me one, and I was so full of love for him and the other boys that night that I couldn’t imagine saying no. A year or so later Jimmy moved to San Francisco in hopes of kicking heroin. I wished him the best but had my doubts about the move: you can’t get away from yourself and novelty only distracts the appetites, it doesn’t satisfy them. So when I came home one day and there was a message from Joe asking me to call him back, I knew before I dialed the number what it was all about. The funeral was in Eastern Oregon, on the other side of Mount Hood, where those idiots we saw on the highway had started their stupid race. It was a long drive back and everybody was happy to get to The Commodore Lounge, the place where Jimmy and the rest of us loved to get drunk. It was less than a year later when we met up there again.  Such little time had passed that there were people that I hadn’t seen since Jimmy’s funeral. This time we were there after Mike Ford’s funeral. Mike had been drunk when he crashed his bike into a concrete traffic divider on the Morrison Bridge. He had cracked his skull and bled to death just out of sight of the traffic that passed by all night until someone found his body in the morning. We closed down the bar that night, tears turning to laughter. It was only later while I lay in bed watching the ceiling spin that I cried thinking about Mike’s lonely death.

Good morning and good night/I wake up at twilight/It’s gonna be alright/We don’t even have to try/It’s always a good time,” sings Owl City. Believe me, I understand boozy decadence so it’s not the subject matter that I find alienating in this song. Nor is it that I have repented the sins of my youth and so I find its message about careless partying against my moral code. I can guarantee you that I have learned very little from my mistakes and though I happily admit that God is great, for me Satan will always have his charms. It’s the general attitude of the partying in this song that I don’t get, the happy joining of friends whose only purpose is to have a good time. Is that the way people drink after work? The way young people socialize at bars? Where is the desperation, the shared loneliness, the brackish taste of death that alcohol either puts in your mouth or washes away? Without these things, I have no interest in your good time.