Entries in music (117)
*An ode to Carrie Brownstein’s regular Five For Friday feature on her erstwhile NPR blog, Monitor Mix. Bonus video: WILD FLAG - Romance (live at SxSW). Related: Maggie also has her own Soundtrack Friday up on her site, and Alice has a list of memory provoking songs on her site as well. The internet is giddy with music today.
Bath, February 8th, 2011. First vertical shot taken with Polaroid 250 Land Camera.
This past Monday, while following a white rabbit down some wayward hole in the vast landscape of the internet, I found out that Patti Smith and I have the same camera. A Polaroid 250 Land Camera, compact until its bellows are released, instant as long as you have the patience to wait sixty seconds for development.
I stumbled across mine at the Valley Thrift in southwestern Ohio this past Thanksgiving, tucked away on a bottom shelf with the other discarded film cameras, a grease pencil marking $3.99 on an orange paper tag stapled to the strap of the camera bag. This was months before I knew that Patti Smith had this model, that she’d been photographing with it for years, that she’d had an exhibit of her Polaroids in Paris.
But now, suddenly, whenever I lift the camera to my eye, I think of Patti Smith’s photographs. Like this: slightly blurry, the camera turned on its side.
How can you tell the difference between emulation and imitation?
* * *
Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive.
- Patti Smith, in a recent interview in the Guardian
The "something of worth" in question is the new PJ Harvey album, an album Patti Smith has been listening to and has been inspired by. After reading the interview, I watched the video for "The Words That Maketh Murder" on YouTube. In it, Polly clutches an autoharp to her chest, singing in what I remember her once describing in an interview as her "church voice." On the subway ride home, I played Patti Smith's "Hymn" and heard an echo: Patti, autoharp, church voice. I dig deeper and start to see little hot copper wires of emulation suspended all over the place: Patti admits to once stealing Rimbaud’s Illuminations, admits to loving the gold hues found in Blake’s paintings. Patti/Polly and their autoharps and church voices. A photograph, slightly blurry, a camera turned on its side.
We give and we take. We cast things out and rein them back in, like the nets of fishermen gathering sustenance. A rhythm of influence circulating like currents. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly and back to Patti again.
Throw out the net and drag it back.
* * *
"You know who you remind me of? Patti Smith." Someone said to me once. Once.
I am not Patti Smith. I look nothing like Patti Smith. Brown hair, sure. But the rest? She had edge. She stood out from the crowd. I blend in so hard I'm hardly there. Still, I swallowed that compliment whole and spat it out again to others: "I've been told Patti Smith..." (To which I invariably hear in response "No, not Patti Smith at all..." )
I am not Patti Smith. The Patti Smith who slept on park benches. Who worked at Brentano's. Who cut her own hair. Who had a sandwich bought for her by Allen Ginsberg, and then she saw the best minds of her generation destroyed by madness and AIDS. Patti was there, back then, in her time, and I am here in mine.
I am not Patti Smith. None of us is Patti Smith but Patti Smith.
And yet: I raise my camera to my eye and try to see the world the way she sees it. Borrowing her eyes for the fraction of a second it takes to release the shutter.
Is this imitation or emulation? Is it simply curiosity? Is there worth in what I do? Am I happy to be alive?
* * *
It's easy to drive yourself crazy thinking about these things: about what came before, about what comes next. I'm looking for solace in turbulent waters.
* * *
Je suis un inventeur bien autrement méritant que tous ceux qui m'ont précédé ; un musicien même, qui ai trouvé quelque chose comme la clef de l'amour.*
Where would we be without emulation? Without all those who came before us? Why is there ever shame in acknowledging that something was created out of an attempt to aspire to be like something else? Especially when that new something is of worth to this world? Aren’t we all just different versions of each other?
I'm getting too good at asking all the questions. The answers are the tricky part.
This morning, as I exited the subway station, passing a homeless man curled up next to a copy of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle**, Patti Smith’s cover of The Byrds' "So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star" came on. A song itself about imitation. I tripped out onto 57th street, saw the golden hues of the morning light hit the buildings and construction cranes, the traffic lights and traffic, pulled out my camera, and turned it on its side. Blake to Rimbaud to Patti to Polly to 57th street and back again.
We give and we take. We cast out nets. We emulate, and occasionally imitate, trying to see the world the way someone else sees it. Most of us, in the end, are trying our best to come close to something of worth, because it just makes us happy to be alive.
* "I am an inventor far more deserving than all those who came before me; a musician, even, who has discovered something like the key of love." Yes I pretentiously left this quote in French. I feel it lends to the mystery.
** "Death is this huge, bright thing, and the bigger and brighter it is, the more we have to drive ourselves crazy thinking about things." (pg. 260)
(Patti Smith appears at the 92nd Street Y next Wednesday, February 16th. PJ Harvey’s new album, Let England Shake, is out the day before, February 15th. You can listen to it now at NPR. It’s amazing. I am not currently appearing anywhere, nor am I releasing any albums. Which, if I did, would surely be full of nonsensical, poorly edited ramblings like this one. You probably wouldn't be able to listen to any of them at NPR. Maybe one day they'll invite me to the Y.)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
We are gods and might as well get used to it.
Barry Hansen (The Whole Burbank Catalog liner notes)
Let's talk, Time Travelers.
Is this you? You collect tokens of the past: an old cardigan belonging to your mother, your grandmother's Chaucer, her name penciled on the endpapers, a single turqoise clip-on earring left behind by Great Great Aunt Peg. Little time machines, objects with life breathed into them by other people's pasts: a snag on an old sweater, a used record smudged by somebody else's thumbprint in 1972. It's almost as if a thing must be marred by the past for it to matter.
You surround yourself with the sounds of the past, collected in the albums that lean against the wall, or tucked away as data on our computers. (Don't we all try to leave on that jetplane.) The Byrds. Carole King. Al Bowlly. Petula Clark and Sam Cooke.
The "when" is not important; all of it is just the right time to disappear to, just for a while.
You spend most of your waking hours trying to travel back in time. You obviously have yet to succeed, though you're convinced you've come close. Glimpsed around the corner of another era. Are you lifting a dress off the rack in a vintage shop or touching the sleeve of a woman in 1959? If you close your eyes tight enough, are you listening to a recording of an audience clapping in a field in 1974, or are you in a field? Is it 1974?
Is this you? It's sometimes hard for you to imagine that there might be some sort of membrane preventing you from actually being there, preventing you from actual time travel. (What do you mean, "physics"? What do you mean, "am I on drugs"?) You sometimes imagine it as an old afghan stretched across the opening to the porthole. Other times, it's a hatch blocked by your grandmother's hutch. Or Grandpa's walnut pipe shoved through a door handle, as if they're trying to warn you.
A giant glowing neon sign: DO NOT ENTER. NOT AS NICE AS YOU IMAGINED IT.
A time that's better off dead.
Recently I came across an article written by someone who was contending that rock and roll, as we know it, is dead. This writer believed that we'll never produce the same type of culture-changing music that was produced in the mid-to-late-twentieth century. Which is possibly correct. But my problem is with the grander statement made: how can something be gone forever? How could rock and roll be dead if we're still listening to it?
I don't understand how an idea could die. Then again, to be perfectly honest, I don't understand death in the least.
Is this you too?
* * *
1. The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters
2. David Bowie, Aladdin Sane
3. Jackson Browne, Late for the Sky
4. Elton John, Honky Chateau
5. Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy
6. Joni Mitchell, For the Roses
7. The Rolling Stones, Goat’s Head Soup
8. Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything
9. Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
10. The Who, Odds and Sods
Cameron Crowe’s Top Ten Albums of 1973 (from the Almost Famous bonus DVD, via)
Our relationship with each album we encounter in our lives is entirely unique. I certainly have my own memories and associations. My sister, propping open the gatefold of Michael Jackson's Thriller and lying opposite, gazing at MJ and his baby tiger. A dance theater exhibition performed on our back porch for the entire neighborhood to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, my brother in diapers waddling across the make-shift stage to the disco version of "Beethoven's 5th." J and I, early in our courting days, doubled over with laughter from the ridiculousness of a hand-wound "Walk Don't Run."
Some people collect. Some people listen. Some of us, by simple nature of watching a piece of black vinyl spin at thirty-three and a third rotations per minute, attempt to travel through time.
* * *
And then it appeared before me on a Doobie Brothers album insert: an ad for Loss Leaders, a set of promotional albums released by Warner/Reprise (by mail order only, for $2) throughout the 70s. The Loss Leaders were compiled and annotated by Barry Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento, and were heavy on the T Rex, Beefheart, and Tull. There was also Bonnie Raitt back in the day, James Taylor, too, as well as artists I'd never heard before: Jackie Lomax, who sounds like Paul McCartney on heroin; and Carlene Carter, daughter of June. A song called "Doin' The Meatball."
When I came across these records, I was tickled by the juxtaposition. A pre-Stevie Fleetwood Mac followed by Jethro Tull and Alice Cooper. Todd Rundgren cozying up to Devo. Jerry Garcia and Allen Toussaint sandwiching the country soul of Arthur Alexander. And I knew exactly what it was that tickled me so: It was honest, the seventies not as the media had constructed it, but as a living, breathing soundtrack. The full breadth of a musical zeitgeist condensed, two vinyl discs at a time.
Not all of it as nice as I imagined it, but a split in the membrane nonetheless: my very own little time machine.
You are in a field. This is 1974. For now.
It's worth mentioning that the final Loss Leader album was almost entirely comprised of the kids with guitars from a burgeoning punk scene: Gang Of Four, Wire, Sex Pistols. Because that was how it ended, right? Punk killed rock. Rock and roll is dead. That is, until it dies again. And again.
But I mean really: the end of something.
How can things possibly end, completely, for good? Rock and roll can't die because we still listen to it. Because we're still hearing some of it for the first time. The Jackie Lomaxes and the Carlene Carters. The first time I heard The Byrds' "Chestnut Mare" was two weeks ago, pulling the vinyl from its cardboard sleeve, well-worn from whoever owned it and loved it last. Whoever sat before me with can headphones over his ears, listening to Roger McGuinn profess his equine love. He probably laughed too, casting his laughter into those quivering vinyl grooves. Listened to it again and again. I pick it up and hold it in my hands. This is how we travel through time. And this is how things survive.
Nothing dies unless it is forgotten completely.
(Nobody dies. Unless.)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.