Thursday, September 30, 2010

"I wish it was a small world/Because I'm lonely for the big towns."

The Song: "Raining in Baltimore," Counting Crows. Words & Music by Adam Duritz. Track 10 of August and Everything After, 1993.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1994
Listen/watch here.

It is, in fact, raining in Baltimore as I type this, according to the news and an email I just got from my friend Sue Lin. We're supposed to get that rain, but not until tonight; right now it's just overcast and muggy.

This album will always be my soundtrack for 1994, beginning with New Year's Eve 1993, when it was playing at my friend Joanna's as we got ready to go to a party/concert. Almost 17 years later (!), it still holds up. I never got tired of it, although by the summer of 1994 Adam Duritz was apparently so tired of these songs that the versions they played in concert were almost unrecognizable.

I don't know how I feel about that. I respect an artist's need to keep material fresh for himself, but fans pay large sums of money to hear the songs they love. I fell asleep once at a Little Feat concert that turned into an extended jam session, with no melody I recognized as a song; shades of "Spinal Tap Mark II."

There's so much I love about living in a small town, but on days like this I wish I were closer to my family and friends. Here it is 2010 already; where's my teleportation device? Where's my jetpack? In a perfect world, I could spend my days in Gardiner and step through a door at 6:00 p.m. that would deposit me in Greenwich Village, or Cleveland Park, or Westwood.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"May the angels bright/Watch you tonight/And keep you as you sleep."

The Song: "Lullaby of London," The Pogues. Words & Music by Shane MacGowan. Track 11 of If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987.
How/when acquired: Illegally copied cassette tape, 1989. (Purchased import CD, 1997.)
Listen/watch here.

We live in a world of marvels and wonders, if we let ourselves pay attention and believe it. The Catholic Church doesn't talk much about angels any more, but today is the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, who by tradition has primary responsibility for defending us from "the wickedness and snares of the devil."

"Angel," of course, is a feeble human attempt to explain the fact that sometimes forces we don't understand seem to be looking out for us. The Catholic Catechism quotes St. Augustine: "'Angel' is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is 'spirit'; if you see the name of their office, it is 'angel': from what they are, 'spirit,' from what they do, 'angel.'"

Although I'm sure I heard this album earlier, it imprinted itself on me during a snowy weekend in Williamsburg in February 1989, during a visit to my friends Scott and Nancy. We played board games and hung out at the Green Leafe and watched college basketball and listened to this album more or less in a continuous loop. I was newly single, baffled and at sea; what I had were good friends and the unjustified but unshakable suspicion that I was going to be fine.

And I was. And I am. The angels probably get some credit for that; according to St. Basil (also quoted in the Catechism), "Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life."

On a related subject, the extraordinary Claire Bea will be making her national television debut on "Jeopardy!" tonight. Check your local listings for details, but in the meantime, you can see her "Hometown Howdy" here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Stories and cigarettes ruined lives of lesser girls."

The Song: "Strange Condition," Pete Yorn. Words & music by Pete Yorn. Track 2 of musicforthemorningafter, 2001.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, c. 2002.
Listen/watch here.

This album is forever linked in my consciousness to Thanksgiving 2001, when a group of my friends and relations and I rented a cabin in Yosemite National Park and spent a long weekend hiking, drinking, eating, drinking, singing, drinking, playing goofy board games, drinking and trying to figure out what it meant to be an American after September 11. And drinking.

I think it was Meredith who brought this CD along, although it might have been Moira (if either of you check in, can you clarify/confirm?). I'd heard a few tracks on KCRW, but had not listened to the whole CD, and was enchanted. My sister Susan gave me the CD a few months later; it might have been for Christmas, but I think it was one of those "no reason" presents, which made it even more precious.

It's no exaggeration to say that I am addicted to stories. Books, movies, TV shows, drunks in bars — tell me a story and you have my attention, for as long as the story lasts. I am even willing to ignore or bend facts in the interest of improving a story, which is one of many reasons I will never (and should never) seek public office.

Doesn't everybody love a story? I think so. I think that is what distinguishes humans from other animals: the need to find reasons and predict outcomes, so that our lives are narratives and not just a string of sensory events. Dizzy doesn't do narrative; he goes from walk to cookie to car ride with few expectations and no context, just a series of unrelated incidents that please him. It's not a bad way to live, and sometimes I envy him; his whole life is a cascade of happy surprises. But I, like most human beings, want it all to mean something.

What I've Read Lately

It's been a while since I posted a reading list, and most of what I'm reading these days are manuscripts. But these are the highlights of the published work I've finished in the last month or so.

Alexandra Sokoloff, BOOK OF SHADOWS. I started this book a couple of months ago, but didn't finish it until a few weeks ago — not because it wasn't good, but because it was on my Kindle, and my Kindle's battery died. (Do I need to underline the moral of that story?) But it was a great summer read. Detective Adam Garrett and his partner investigate a gruesome murder with Satanic overtones. The obvious suspect is a college student who dabbled in witchcraft and was in love with the victim, but a local witch tells them they've got the wrong guy — and that the killer plans to strike again. Sokoloff does an excellent job of blending police procedural elements with the supernatural, leaving the nature of the attacks in doubt almost to the end.

Olen Steinhauer, THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS. I'm late to this book, but how glad I am that it finally reached the top of my reading pile. Steinhauer's debut introduces young homicide inspector Emil Brod, whose first case is a politically sensitive murder no one expects (or wants) him to solve. The identity of the killer is not as important as the ways people behave in this new, post-WWII society. Corruption is an inevitable byproduct of totalitarianism, but it might just be human nature. Brod does the best he can in pursuit of justice.

Harlan Coben, JUST ONE LOOK. The discovery of an old photograph, randomly inserted in a batch of new ones, sets Grace Lawson on a path of inquiry that leads to violence, death and the revelation of 15-year-old secrets. Grace is such a compelling character, and the action moves so quickly, that I had a hard time putting this book down — but the explanation of how it all happened is complex and hard to follow. It didn't entirely hold together for me, but I was so entertained along the way that I didn't care.

Victor Gischler, THE DEPUTY. Toby Sawyer is a part-time deputy in Coyote Crossing, Oklahoma. He has a toddler, an unhappy wife, and a teenaged girlfriend. A routine assignment to stand watch over the corpse of a murder victim turns into the worst night of Toby's life; when he sneaks off for a quickie, the body disappears, and Toby's efforts to find it reveal a tangled, sordid web of corruption. Fast, smart, violent and darkly funny, with a most satisfying ending.

Laura Lippman, I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. Eliza Benedict has a loving husband, two smart children and a beautiful home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. What almost no one knows is that 20 years earlier, she was Elizabeth Lerner, the only survivor of a serial rapist/killer. Weeks before the killer's scheduled execution, Eliza gets a letter from him, asking for contact. This extraordinary book is less a crime novel than a meditation on how people survive the unimaginable, how we become who we are, and what we owe the living, the dead, and ourselves.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather."

The Song: "Like the Weather," 10,000 Maniacs. Words & music by Natalie Merchant. Track 3 of In My Tribe, 1987.
How/when acquired: Illegally copied cassette tape, 1987
Listen/watch here.

This morning's news reported that the rest of the country expects record temperatures today. Here in Maine, it's rainy and cold.

Almost six years after I moved here, I am still not used to how quickly and abruptly the summer ends. Leaves are turning, and my heat's come on a couple of times already. The days are noticeably shorter.

At this time of year, I can point to Maine's change of seasons as a major advantage of living here. I like the reminder that the earth is traveling around the sun, that we're all getting a little older, that everything sleeps and wakes, lives and dies and lives again. Ask me again in January, and you might get a different point of view.

Having praised my brother Ed in yesterday's post, I'm poking him today with this one. His distaste for Natalie Merchant is violent and vocal, though I'm not clear on exactly what he objects to; maybe he'll leave his views in the comments section. She seems to be a polarizing figure, but I've always liked her. I suspect that you would find a copy of this album in the collection of most white, college-educated American women between the ages of, oh, say 38 and 45.

Do you own it? Admit it in the comments section.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"For the ones who had a notion,/a notion deep inside/That it aint no sin/to be glad you're alive."

The Song: "Badlands," Bruce Springsteen. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 1 of Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, 1981
Listen/watch here.

Happy birthday, Bruce Springsteen. He is 61 today, and as far as I'm concerned, his importance in American pop culture cannot be overstated.

He's saved my life more than once, with this song among others. Darkness on the Edge of Town, released the year I turned 13, was my first real exposure to Bruce Springsteen. I'd been dimly aware of Born to Run, but I was too young to understand what he was talking about. Darkness, released around the time I started ninth grade, distilled everything hopeful and magic about what might lie on the other side of adolescence.

I still own this album on vinyl. It was a gift from my brother Ed — reparations, really. He'd cracked one of the two discs in my copy of The River, and I'd reacted exactly as you'd expect the 14-year-old sister of a ten-year-old brother to do. Ed, gracious and honorable beyond his years, tried to replace the album, but the Exchange had sold out; he bought me Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town instead. So thanks for that, Ed, and I owe you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"It is time for you to laugh instead of crying."

The Song: "Stop Your Sobbing," The Pretenders. Words and music by Ray Davies. Track 7 of Pretenders, 1980.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2007
Listen/watch here.

I sang this song to Dizzy all the time when he was a puppy, and when I played it this morning he grumbled and whined along. He almost never pays attention to the music I play; he must remember this song.

Anyway, the last ten days have had more than their share of bad news, and I'm ready for it to stop. Tonight I start rehearsals for yet another show — My Three Angels at Gaslight, November 12–20 (closing night is my birthday, so you have an extra reason to come). I'm looking forward to sitting around a table and laughing for a couple of hours.

It's mildly alarming to think that this album is 30 years old. (This song, by the way, is older than I am; this version is a cover of The Kinks' original, released in 1964.) It's also a little strange that I didn't own it until recently, because it was an important piece of the soundtrack of my late teens. But this was one of those albums everyone owned, so I didn't need to; my best friend had it, my boyfriend had it, my roommate had it, my next boyfriend had it . . . now Dizzy and I own it together. I would put it on a short list of best first albums of all time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch/He called out to me, 'Don't ask for so much'..."

"...And a young man, leaning on his darkened door
He cried out to me, 'Baby, why not ask for more?'"

The Song: "Bird on a Wire," Jennifer Warnes. Words and music by Leonard Cohen. Track 2 of Famous Blue Raincoat, 1987.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1987.
Listen here.

Happy birthday, Leonard Cohen. He's 76 years old today, and still touring; he's on a short list of artists I've never seen live and would really, really like to.

At the risk of heresy, however, I'll say that Leonard Cohen is a better songwriter than singer, and is not always the best interpreter of his own songs. I own five different versions of this song, and this is my favorite.

I bought this cassette in the spring of 1987, at Olsson's Books & Music in Georgetown. It was an unjustifiable extravagance. I was working two jobs that paid just over minimum wage, and picking up as much extra babysitting as I could. I was living alone in a basement apartment, my student loans had come due, and I've always been terrible with money anyway. I never had any cash in my pocket, and am pretty sure I bought this cassette on impulse, just because I had a ten-dollar bill.

The cassette's still in my car. Remarkably, it still plays. I probably listened to it every day for the first four months I owned it, and it's been in heavy rotation, in one format or another, ever since.

Recently I saw a comment on a friend's Facebook page about how $250,000/year shouldn't be considered wealthy, especially for people with mortgages to pay and children to send to college. The median household income in the United States was $52,059 in 2008; in Maine, it was $46,419. I don't make that much, but I'm just one person, and I don't need to (see previous comment about being bad with money).

It would baffle me, if Leonard Cohen hadn't explained it all so elegantly. As birds on the wire, we shouldn't ask for so much — but why not ask for more?

Monday, September 20, 2010

"And the leaves that are green turn to brown."

The Song: "Leaves That Are Green," Simon & Garfunkel. Words and music by Paul Simon. Track 2 of Sounds of Silence, 1966.
How/when acquired: Illegally copied from a friend's LP, c. 1981; CD acquired c. 2000.
Listen/watch here.

The autumnal equinox isn't for another three days, but fall's already here in central Maine. The temperature when I woke up this morning was 40F, and has now risen only to 48F, although it's supposed to be much warmer later in the day.

I didn't get enough sleep last night, because I stayed up to watch the encore presentation of "Mad Men." The current season is set in 1965; last night's episode happened in June, still at least five months before my twin sister and I were born. But I'm starting to see things in the show that evoke my earliest memories, and a surprising number of those are media-related.

My father, a Naval officer, was at sea for most of the first five years of my life; my mother was a de facto single parent when they were rare creatures. She loved music (she had worked for Capitol Records before her marriage), so my earliest memories all include the radio in the background. She kept it on for company, and when we were colicky, drove us around in the car until the music and the movement put us to sleep.

This song was the B-side of "Homeward Bound," which made it to #5 on the Billboard charts (although "Homeward Bound" wasn't even on Sounds of Silence, but was included in the next album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme). It's quite possible that this is one of the first pop songs I ever heard.

Simon & Garfunkel played this song the one and only time I've ever seen them live — in 2003 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a birthday treat from my friend Gary. Thirty-eight felt old, which makes me laugh seven years later.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Don't confront me with my failures; I have not forgotten them."

The Song: "These Days," Jackson Browne. Words and music by Jackson Browne. Track 5 of For Everyman, 1973.
How/when acquired: I have no idea. I can't remember not owning some version of this song, in some format. I currently own eight different versions, including two by Jackson Browne and covers by Nico, Gregg Allman, and Fountains of Wayne, among others.
Listen/watch here. (That's an acoustic version; Nico's original cover is here, and Gregg Allman's version is here.)

Yes, I own eight versions of this song. It's important to me, and this line in particular surfaces in my consciousness once a day or more. Jackson Browne was only 16 when he wrote it. When he was 19, he sold it to Nico, who recorded it for her album Chelsea Girl (that's Browne on guitar accompanying her). The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Kenny Rogers' band Gator Creek and Iain Matthews also covered the song before Browne recorded it himself. The version on For Everyman credits Gregg Allman for the arrangement; Allman recorded it around the same time for his first solo album, Laid Back, which changed this line to "Please don't confront me with my failures; I'm aware of them." I like the original lyrics better.

As an editor, I spend a lot of time pointing out other people's mistakes — not failures, exactly, but things that could be improved by adjustments large and small. It's a big responsibility and can be a stressful one, as what everyone really wants to hear is that their work is good, that I love it, and that they don't need to fix a thing. Clients ask "Do you like it?" and "Is it good?" Those are questions I usually can't answer until the very end of the process. While I'm editing I'm often almost hostile to the work, because if I let myself get sucked into the story I might miss an error or a plot hole. It's best if I don't talk to clients while I'm editing their work; I'm scary in editing mode, sometimes even to myself.

But recommendations for improvement and correction, and queries about plot holes and inconsistencies, are not — and should not be — a confrontation with failure. Writing is less like target practice than like mountain-climbing; you didn't miss the goal, you just haven't gotten there yet.

Anyway, I've never seen a book published without flaws. If you're a reader and have ever been tempted to write an author about a mistake you've found in a novel, I can only say: Please don't. It makes them crazy, as I know from close observation of clients in the wild. An author's ability to correct errors is limited once a book goes into print. If a book doesn't go into multiple printings (and most don't), all your helpful feedback does is remind the author of a failure he or she will never be able to remedy. If you must tell someone, send the publisher a letter. If you really can't let it go, stop a minute to think about how you feel when a stranger approaches you in the middle of the working day to say, "You did that wrong." Chances are, they already know, and have not forgotten.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It's not always going to be this grey."

The Song: "All Things Must Pass," George Harrison. Words and music by George Harrison. Track 5, Disc 2 of All Things Must Pass, 1970.
How/when acquired: MP3 download, October 2007
Listen/watch here.

Woke up this morning to a thunderstorm so violent and close that at first I thought the ruined paper mill across the street had exploded. I had a minute to think about what I'd need to grab if Dizzy and I had to leave the apartment in a hurry, before I looked out the window and saw nothing on fire.

When I booted up the computer, though, disaster of another kind was waiting: the news that David Thompson, manager of Houston's legendary Murder by the Book and publisher of Busted Flush Press, had died suddenly at his home.

Every death diminishes us, as John Donne says, but this blow hits hard. I didn't know David well, but you couldn't know him and not be his friend. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his goodwill seemed boundless.

I first met him over the telephone, probably close to ten years ago. I was behind the counter at The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles, and he was at the store in Houston. We had books they wanted, or vice versa (independent mystery book sellers are collegial that way), but one or the other of us said something about a book we'd just read, and away we went. My last phone conversation with him, in June, was just the same; a quick request turned into a 20-minute conversation about our favorite books of the past year.

The world runs on the passion of people like David, who loved his wife, his dog and his books, and expected the world to share his appreciation. His death is a terrible loss, and my heart goes out to his wife, his colleagues, and his authors.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed/That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed."

The Song: "Sister Golden Hair," America. Words and music by Gerry Beckley. Track 10 of Hearts, 1975.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3 single, December 2008
Listen/watch here. (This is a concert version at a faster tempo than the studio version I have. I like the studio version better.)

Born Yesterday closed on Saturday night. After a strike that went faster and more smoothly than I dreamed it could, most of the cast and crew went over to the Liberal Cup and closed it down. I hadn't planned to do much yesterday, but even those small things wound up neglected; I wouldn't say I was depressed as much as exhausted.

This morning I got up full of good intentions, and took Dizzy for a walk to our usual place, Gardiner's Oak Grove Cemetery — only to find a brand new sign:


A sad, unfriendly way to start the day. Dizzy and I have been walking in the cemetery since we moved here; it's one of Gardiner's few open spaces, especially now that Waterfront Park is closed for construction "until further notice." Now I'll have to put him in the car to take him to the woods or the reservoir in Hallowell, or the new dog park in Augusta. It makes me feel unwelcome, and will probably speed up my decision to leave Gardiner. Well played, town leaders.

This song is an old favorite, and was one of the first things I learned to play on the guitar. (I no longer own a guitar, which is bad. Maybe I'll pick one up in a pawnshop over the winter.) Somehow or other, though, I never owned it, an omission I remedied a couple of years ago when my brother James mentioned it over the holidays. While I miss albums, I do love the convenience of 99-cent downloads.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"I'm not expecting to grow flowers in the desert,/But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime."

The Song: "In a Big Country," Big Country. Words and music by Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki, Tony Butler, and Bruce Watson. Track 1 of The Crossing, 1983.
How/when acquired: Illegally copied from boyfriend's roommate's LP, 1985. (Acquired legally on gift CD, c. 1997.)
Listen/watch here.

In a big country, dreams stay with you. I would hate to see this day turn into anything that ignores just how big we are — how resilient and optimistic and inclusive and righteous this country is supposed to be.

I don't understand the uproar about the proposed Islamic center in southern Manhattan (it's not Ground Zero, please), but now I think it's important that it go forward. America is supposed to be a melting pot, and New York is its most visible face. The surge in anti-Islamic prejudice has many precedents in American history; every new wave of immigrants has met its own customized opposition, from "No Irish Need Apply" to the WWII detention camps for Japanese-Americans. It almost seems to be a necessary stage in the process of assimilating new cultures, but it would be nice if we could skip it this time around.

The United States was the first nation in the world to create a citizenship based on a common acceptance of ideals rather than ethnicity or religious belief. We honor the people who died on September 11, 2001 by remembering the power of the American dream, and the promise of Lady Liberty, who still lifts her lamp beside the golden door.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"I know I'm shouting,/I like to shout."

The Song: "I Confess," The English Beat (yes, I know it's just "The Beat" in the rest of the world). Words and music by The Beat (Andy Cox, Everett Morton, Rankin' Roger, Saxa, David Steele, Dave Wakeling). Track 1 of Special Beat Service, 1983.
How/when acquired: Illegally copied cassette from roommate, 1983 (but now I own this track on a best-of CD I purchased in 2006)
Listen/watch here.

I watch too much television news. Living alone and working at home, I often turn on the television just for white noise, and it's usually tuned to MSNBC. Thus I know far too much about some really stupid things, and nowhere near enough about the things that MSNBC doesn't cover (a lot).

There's been an awful lot of shouting this week about this pastor in Florida who's planning to burn the Qur'an (side question: when did "Qur'an" supplant "Koran" as the standard English transliteration?). It's ridiculous, a crazy plan by a crazy man, and the reactions to it are becoming equally crazy. Send in US Marshals to stop it? Invoke sedition laws to trump this man's First Amendment rights?

Please. Didn't these people have mothers? My own mother gave me the obvious response when I was four years old, and that mean Mark Giampolo was teasing me: "Just ignore him, and he'll go away."

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? And if a book burns without an audience, does anybody care? Printing is cheap. Burning a book in this day and age is meaningless, unless you force people to pay attention. Anyone with a computer can read the Qur'an in 20 different languages, right here. Allah, the great and merciful — who is also the God of the Jews and the Christians — is not affected by the presence or absence of 50 extra copies of a book.

If all the news cameras and reporters left Terry Jones alone, he would go away, or at least be known only in his immediate community as the pathetic eccentric he is. More important things are happening in Gainesville this weekend: the University of Florida's football team is playing the University of Southern Florida, for one. All the camera crews should go cover that instead.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

"I love everybody, especially you."

The Song: "I Love Everybody," Lyle Lovett. Words and music by Lyle Lovett. Track 18 of I Love Everybody, 1994.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1994.
Listen here.

You can't always take Lyle Lovett at face value, but this song works just as well whether you take it sincerely or ironically. In fact, I think it makes a nice lullaby, in 3/4 time:
I love everybody, especially you
I love everybody, especially you
So if you feel lonesome, remember it's true
I love everybody, especially you.

That's pretty much all there is to the song. It closes out an album of mostly quirky songs, older pieces that didn't fit on his earlier albums (including the classic "Creeps Like Me," which I will undoubtedly quote at some point later this year).

Lyle Lovett brought me back to country music. Mary Chapin Carpenter gets some credit, too, but it was Lyle P. who reminded me that country music didn't have to be the loud and glossy stuff being played on the radio. I almost met him once; our eyes met (I swear!) at a PBS reception my friend Sue Lin invited me along to. Ah, Lyle. What might have been.

Wednesdays are Onion Ring Night at my favorite bar (the previously-mentioned Liberal Cup), so I stopped there last night before going to a brush-up rehearsal for Born Yesterday (which got a nice review in today's Portland Phoenix).

An attractive woman who might have been overserved was sitting at the bar, telling her companion, "I just love people. I really do. I love people. They don't always love me, but I love people."

"Don't start conversations with drunk people" is one of my rules for a happy life, so I didn't ask the obvious question: what does this mean? Would she love Hitler? Would she love Jeffrey Dahmer? Would she love Saddam Hussein?

As Lyle Lovett says in another song on his very first album: "God does, but I don't/God will, but I won't/And that's the difference between God and me."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"I know all of this and more."

The Song: "Feed the Tree," Belly. Words and music by Tanya Donelly. Track 9 of Star, 1993.
How/when acquired: Gift cassette, c. 1994.
Listen/watch here.

I just realized that I haven't been identifying the writers of these quotations I'm posting; sorry about that. I'll go back and add that information to the earlier posts . . . but in the meantime, this is the song in my head this morning.

Love and death are the two great subjects of music, and this song combines both. It's about the need to honor our ancestors, I think; the refrain goes, "Take your hat off, boy, when you're talking to me, and be there when I feed the tree." (Feeding the tree = buried under it.)

In this case, a simple quotation of the lyrics doesn't convey its full impact, because the song stutters them over several lines: "I know all of this and — I know all of this and — I know all of this and more." But the official version only gives a single iteration, so that's what I'm quoting.

Belly played the first HFStival at RFK Stadium in 1993, as part of a lineup that included Matthew Sweet, the Stereo MCs, Iggy Pop, X, and INXS. They didn't make a particularly strong impression on me, but my upstairs neighbor, an aspiring rock musician himself, was deeply smitten, and made me a mix tape that included this song. (What is the MP3 equivalent of mix tapes? Do people still do this?) Several of the artists on that tape have faded into well-deserved obscurity, but this song stayed with me, and I bought the track from iTunes last year just because I wanted to hear it again.

Anyway, I like to know stuff. It comforts me and gives me the delusion of order and control. I get a little competitive about it, which is why I play pub trivia weekly at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell.

My team doesn't win all the time, or even that often — in fact, most of the time we come in second, often by a fraction of a point. But last night we won by so much that Quizmaster/Brewmaster Geoff invoked a slaughter rule: any team that wins by four points or more must split its winnings with the second-place team. The slaughter rule is added to the usual practice of splitting the trivia pot between the first-place team and the middle-place team, so the spoils of last night's triumphant win came to $4 apiece. We'd have done better, at least financially, if we'd come in fourth.

I call myself a liberal Democrat, but that kind of income redistribution makes me rethink . . .

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"Fail with consequence, lose with eloquence, and smile."

The Song: "Consequence," The Notwist. Words and music by Micha Acher. Track 10 of Neon Golden, 2003.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, June 2005.
Listen/watch here.

My friend John hands out CDs the way some people hand out business cards. He's an evangelist for the music he loves, and much of my collection in recent years has come from him. This CD, however, was special. He gave it to me at a book signing and said, "If you don't like this, we can't be friends anymore."

Fortunately, I did. In fact, it's one of my favorite CDs of the last decade, in heavy rotation on my iTunes playlist. The Notwist are a German band whose music has evolved from grunge into electronica over the last 20 years; members play with members of Themselves as a group called 13 & God, which I've seen live. They're moody and smart and bizarre, and this CD hit me so hard when I first listened to it — on a drive from Cambridge, MA to Newport, RI — that I had to pull over at one point to listen to one of the tracks again.

The day after Labor Day still feels like the beginning of a new year, 20+ years after I left school. I have a list of resolutions for a new regime of diligence, focus and — especially — risk-taking. I live a safe life in too many ways, a life that seeks to protect me from the consequences of bad decisions by deferring those decisions until they make themselves. Cowardly, and what it gives you is a life without meaning. Failure is a natural consequence of endeavor, part of the process, and nothing to fear. Or so I'm telling myself.

As Samuel Beckett put it in Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Monday, September 06, 2010

"Think of me what you will/I've got a little space to fill."

The Song: "You Don't Know How it Feels," Tom Petty. Words and music by Tom Petty. Track 2 of Wildflowers, 1994.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD (used), c. 1997
Listen/watch here.

Tom Petty's an underrated giant of American music, in part because of his uncanny ability to distill complex truths into simple lyrics. "You don't know how it feels to be me," he says, and that's as true as it gets. But where would we be if we didn't even try?

This weekend I crossed paths with one of the handful of people I actively dislike. Dislike is an emotion that surprises and unsettles me. I'm not a particularly benevolent person, but disliking someone takes energy that I don't usually want to spend. It always puzzles me when I realize that my subconscious has made the leap to active dislike, when it would be so much easier just to stop paying attention.

"How would you like it?" my mother used to say when I was mean to my siblings; she taught us empathy by fair means and foul. Weirdly, I've come to the conclusion that it's this very empathy that makes me dislike people, but not in a good way. I do imagine myself in their position, and that's the problem. The people I dislike have this in common: they do things I secretly wish I could get away with. The dislike comes from a sense of outrage that they've given themselves permission to behave in ways I never would (or have, and feel guilty about).

Like every other human emotion, it has nothing to do with the other person. It's all about me. Because Tom Petty is right: I don't know how it feels to be him.

Friday, September 03, 2010

"If being afraid is a crime, we hang side by side/At the swingin' party down the line."

The song: "Swingin' Party," The Replacements. Words and music by Paul Westerberg. Track 6 of Tim, 1985.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1987
Listen/watch here.

Tim is one of the albums I'd need on a desert island. It's one of a handful of records I've owned in three formats; I had to download it when the CD was stolen from the front seat of my car in 2005. I hope the thief loves it as much as I do, or at least got a couple of bucks for it.

At the risk of sounding like a geezer, I miss the structure of albums. On vinyl and cassette, this track closes the first side. The first six tracks of Tim are a self-contained 18-minute meditation on the traumas of young adulthood, running from self-conscious despair to longing to joyful infatuation, anger, petulance and finally resignation. "Swingin' Party" plays with the double meaning of its title, juxtaposing images of revelers in lampshades and victims of a lynch mob. The end of adolescence may be no more than the revelation that everyone else really is struggling just as hard as we are, and that's the point of "Swingin' Party." I still need that reminder.

Gaslight's production of Born Yesterday opens tonight at Hallowell City Hall. I have a small role as a housekeeper, so if you've ever wanted to see me dressed as a maid, here's your chance. Performances run through September 11; call 207-626-3698 for reservations.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

"For the sake of momentum, I've allowed my fears to get larger than life."

The song: "Momentum," Aimee Mann. Words and music by Aimee Mann. Track 2 of Magnolia, 1999
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, c. February 2000
Listen/watch here.

I don't own a lot of DVDs, and approximately half of that collection were gifts. Magnolia is one of a handful of films I bought myself. I watch it when I'm feeling stressed, to remind myself I'm not alone (or even, at any given time, especially bad off).

This song, in particular, was a revelation. People who knew and worked with me in Washington in the 1990s are likely to remember me (if at all) as tense, sharp and angry. I remember myself that way, but it was all about fear. I had one of those Washington jobs that's impossible to explain to anyone outside D.C. (association executive), and had managed to convince myself not only of its importance but of its urgency — fueled by nothing but the fear that I would be discovered as an incompetent impostor. Once people discovered my secret I'd be fired, and without my job, who would I be?

Magnolia came out soon after I moved from Washington to Los Angeles, and the movie's soundtrack became my own for most of that first year. I had many reasons to leave Washington and an equal number of reasons to land in Los Angeles, but in retrospect the most important one was just to find out who I was when those fears weren't driving me.

Of course, I traded in the D.C. fears for a whole set of new ones, but that's life in a Darwinian universe. And my big decisions still require a certain critical mass of fear — because the law of momentum says that objects at rest tend to remain at rest.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

"An ordinary miracle is all we really need."

The song: "The Days of Our Lives," The Blue Nile. Words and music by Paul Buchanan. Track 1 of High, 2004
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, September 2004
Listen/watch here.

Happy September 1. The theme of this year's blog is "Songs of Experience." Every post will quote a line from a song in my iTunes collection — sometimes a song I choose, sometimes one that comes up randomly.

Music seemed the obvious next choice for a blog theme, since I've already done movies and books, and it holds an equally important place in my life.

At the moment my iTunes library comprises 7,013 tracks, which some of my friends will find pretty feeble — male friends, in particular, as music collections seem to be a predominantly masculine obsession. Quite a lot of my music collection are gifts from male friends, going back to cassette tapes I've owned since high school and vinyl albums I haven't been able to play in 20 years (but can't seem to give up). Even now, male friends and relations are responsible for most of the new material in my collection, which I appreciate very much. Women who like (and can talk) music are about as common as women who like and can talk sports, and I am happy to do it with my attached male friends who have long since bored their partners silly on the fine distinctions between punk and New Wave, or the relative merits of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, or the historical significance of the Velvet Underground.

Today's track, however, is one I bought myself. The Blue Nile, a band from Glasgow, is famous for its limited and long-anticipated output. High, its most recent album, came out in August 2004 and was the band's fourth album in more than 20 years. (The first, A Walk Among the Rooftops, came out in 1983.) I bought the CD at the Best Buy in Westwood in September 2004, days after the mishap that kept me in Los Angeles for six weeks longer than I'd originally planned (see the September 2004 blog entries for details). The purchase was an extravagance, as my music purchases almost always are; I needed every penny for the move to Maine, but I needed this album more.

This track starts the album with a lone piano playing a single chord as background to the melody, which is sung by band leader Paul Buchanan. It's a song about the disappointments of midlife whose refrain is "Are these the days/Are these the days/Are these the days/Of our lives?" What saves it from despair is the last line: "An ordinary miracle is all we really need."

My life is full of ordinary miracles that save me every day. Sometimes, that miracle is nothing more than the right song at the right time.