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Entries in nostalgia (63)


The Same Fabric

On our way back from the wedding this weekend ("the wedding by which all future weddings will be judged," as it's been dubbed), we stopped at the outlets on Interstate 71 to visit the Levi's store. I'd been to these outlets once before, with my friend Dana back when we were in high school; we drove the whole 2 hours on our own, feeling brave, most likely with an REM cassette whirring on the Scirocco's stereo. I bought a burgundy button-down long-sleeved shirt from Banana Republic that I ended up wearing well into college.

How strange, then, to walk in there and see the very same colors of that long ago brave car journey. A table of corduroy pants folded neatly, relics of 20 years ago: burgundy, forest green, gray, rust. I picked up a pair of the forest green and held it in my arms for a moment, remembering the last time I wore those colors.

"These are great colors, aren't they?" said the salesgirl, who in all likelihood was born around 1992, the same year I bought that pair of men's forest green corduroys, cut off the legs, and wore them with a "London Calling" Clash t-shirt and combat boots to my first Lollapalooza. "Really different."

"Really nineties," I said, and laughed. I remembered dancing in them to The Jesus and Mary Chain and Lush. Getting emotional over Pearl Jam. (I've wondered before what the music I listened to back then must sound like to the youth of today. If they hear it with the ears of false nostalgia the way I hear music from the seventies. I miss it, even though I wasn't there. The music of the time you were born, the soundtrack to your very own physical realization. How's that for liner notes?)

The most jarring thing about being here in Ohio is trying to fit these old memories into the new pattern of my life. The Cincinnati that exists now is a different place than it was back then, just as I'm a different person than I was back then. I knew I'd have to come to terms with this place in a new way, that my old feelings about it would take on new meaning. But what I didn't expect was how similar I'd feel, how provoked I'd be to remember everything exactly the way I felt back then. The thrill of driving two hours from home to shop at a Banana Republic; the giddiness of spotting someone at Lollapalooza in a Blur t-shirt as we stomped in our combat boots across a grassy hill; the crunch of leaves under foot and the feeling of fists shoved in the pockets of a hooded sweatshirt as we stand around a crackling campfire.

I don't mind the 90s revival trend. This is our chance to do that part of the past over again, and do it better. Acknowledging our bodies this time instead of hiding them. But it's even more than that: this time, when I comb the thrift store racks for crushed velvet in burgundy and come out with a floral printed rayon dress, it's nothing to do with fashion. It's giving physical shape to those memories, allowing them to live in the now. I don't mind the deluge of them hidden in the seams of the same fabric I wore the first time I thought I was falling in love, the first time I heard the words pretty little girl, she shines, knowing she is young, she smiles and was convinced every song was about me. I don't even mind a few reminders of what I've learned since I wore that fabric: that love is not just about crying, that he is not The One, that not every song is about me. Now, when I pull on these clothes, they've been tailored by hindsight, stitched together with the knowledge of the differences between love and longing, between past and present.

Standing there in that outlet store, I put back the forest green corduroys and settled on two different colors: rust and gray. Colors I never wore back then. Colors I look good in now.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


I'll Take My Bad Taste

"[L]istening to music recorded 20, 30 years ago is not living in the past, is not nostalgia. According to my dictionary, nostalgia is "homesickness... a longing for something far away or long ago or for former happy circumstances." The truth is that the Sixties, not to mention the Fifties, sucked in the first place and you wouldn't like it if you were back there [...] No one in his right mind would want to return to either of those eras, which is why the lie in rosy confections like Grease and Beatlemania is despicable. But preferring Hank Williams or Charlie Parker or the Sun Sessions or the Velvet Underground to Squeeze and Rickie Lee Jones and the Go-Gos and the Psychedelic Furs is not nostalgia, it's good taste. Just like listening to Beck, Bogert & Appice or Clock DVA and the Fall are bad taste. So I'll take my bad taste and you're welcome to yours, and maybe someday something will actually happen again and then we'll both be happy."

– Lester Bangs, "Bad Taste Is Timeless," from Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader



(A note on everything: I was trying to describe this blog to someone recently, and ended up confessing that the person I sound like here is very little like the Real Life Me sounds. This post is no exception, and apparently sounds so far from the Real Life Me that I felt the need to write a preface to it. I enjoy writing like this, in twists and memories and purple prose, but it sometimes feels so foreign to my own personality when I read it back that I feel like I should be typing these things while dressed as Kate Bush in the "Wuthering Heights" video. All bug-eyed and mystical, making gestures to the sky and typing away furiously in a velvet cushioned room with scarves draped over the lamps. I don't know how long I've been in the habit of being this other Zan, the billowy philosophical one, but that's what I think writing is: slipping on the costume that feels most comfortable and being content in being someone else for a moment. Whether that someone else is you, 100% you, or, for whatever reason, a billowy Kate Bush. This, apparently, is Kate Bush writing about home design. And NOW you want to read it...)

It begins, as always, with nostalgia. A yearning to replicate spaces from other people's lives. Spaces from the nether-reaches of my youth, an approximation of what I thought adult life should look like. All oriental rugs and tweed couches, something made of porcelain, wooden candlesticks and pewter serving dishes. Even the fictitious spaces imagined in well-loved books. Old habit.

I'm condemned to forever attempt to fill my world with replicas of the everyday items owned by people I love, like calling ghosts at a seance with a lock of hair.

When we moved into this house, even the impeccably designed space of the woman who lived here before us haunted the corners of rooms that still stand bare or burdened with unpacked boxes. Other people's spaces always seemed better than ours. I feared nailing a thing to the wall without longterm consideration. How, with so many ghosts, were we to make it our own?

* * *

Leslie Williamson is a photographer of other people's spaces. I stumbled across her book, Handcrafted Modern, on a search for the cozy wood interiors I'd known from my grandparents's house that overlooked the ravine. Leslie's photographs of the homes of furniture designers and makers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Wharton Esherick, and John Kapel represented the sleek warmth of wood and earth and pottery I loved and wanted to be a part of our own home.

It was John Kapel's cerulean floor tiles and straight-backed chair in particular that got my heart beating faster. I wanted to replicate his living room, tile by tile and slat by slat, down to the hulking brown velvet couch I saw in the background of another view I found when I went seeking out more pictures of his space. I wanted that bookend, those tiles, that chair, the tall thin books that lean; I wanted that hulk of a brown velvet couch.

For a moment. Then we got our real couch delivered, a Bartlett pear colored piece of sleekness with buttons at the back and round tapered legs carried down our stone steps on the shoulders of giants, placed dantily against the east wall, and I wonder how I could have ever considered a hulking brown velvet thing in a place like this.

* * *

A specific style is hard to pin down. I want our home decor to match the sound of the train in the distance. I want our walls to be the color of the waving maple trees. I would like rugs that reflect the rackety-tackety of thunderstorms on the roof. A lamp that looks like Joni Mitchell's Hejira sounds. Bedding made of an autumn circa 1982, throw pillows stuffed with the restless sleep of Christmas Eves.

Where's the quiet little store for things like these?

* * *

I admit to reading design blogs now and again for inspiration, or more often for confirmation that my design sense needs help. Or, more appropriately, confirmation that others have a better sense of what I like than even I do. I page through Reference Library, trying to comprehend the beauty of hand-shapen bits of pottery, and then trawl the internet for vintage kitchenalia on auction sites, and when I lose out there, for newer milk pitchers by Edith Heath. I suddenly start to fear that I won't be able to do this, make a home look the way it should. The way it does in all those magazines.

And then suddenly, it does. The cerulean tiles nudge me to the edge of my imagination, and suddenly the house we ended up living in starts to take shape, even amongst our own old things. Here, where the August mornings can drop below my 54-degree threshhold of comfort, blankets become decoration when they end up draped over a chair in every room. Here, that walnut table he grew up with—the one that came over on a cargo ship from England—fits nicely in its very own room. My recent and accidental fondness for Couroc of Monterey begins to dot table tops and walls each time I bring a new one home from the antique mall; the old green office chairs we bought from a woman on Craigslist who laughed in her outgoing voicemail message happily settle into a corner. The hand-thrown Japanese mug I grabbed on a whim at the Goodwill when my mother said are you sure defiantly tucks itself into the cupboards. I still dream of cerulean tiles*, but even I can see that, here, in this room at least, the brown ones make more sense. As does the Bartlett pear couch and the old long john that traveled across the sea.

Attempting to replicate the spaces of others, I stop and look around and realize that—here, look, there's something starting to resemble a space of our own.

*And how many times have I considered seeking out John Kapel's email address and asking him where precisely he got them. And, while I'm at it, asking if he does pro bono furniture making. Sigh.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Tis, Was: RIP Don Hill

I haven’t been to Don Hill’s in years. Six years, to be precise. The last time I was there was in 2005 for the Squeezebox 10th anniversary party. I walked through the door that night into a thick swell of drag queens and rockers, almost crashing right into Debbie Harry. Sean Lennon was smoking outside, and Kate Moss elbowed me in the back trying to get past, Johnny Knoxville trailing behind her like a lost puppy.

A typical night for me at Don Hill’s wasn't often like that. I was a TISWAS girl, and the TISWAS crowd -- more mod than rocker, dressed in whatever Britpop uniform was in vogue at the time -- wasn’t as glamorous or edgy as the Squeezeboxers. Our music was shiny and bouncy, not raw and grinding. But we always had a good time, and Don Hill’s was the type of place that suited both worlds; it felt right for both crowds, secure in its simplicity: two bars, a stage, a few unpretentious booths, room for dancing. The little box just off the West Side Highway was the place we felt ourselves in our late night skin, drinking our bourbon with Coke, dancing in a circle to “Disco 2000” and “Under My Thumb.” It was the only kind of "scene" I ever felt like I was part of in this city. My little group of friends started going to TISWAS when it was still at Coney Island High, but when I think of TISWAS I think of Don Hill’s. That was our geography: an entire year of Saturday nights in that westside box, dancing until the lights came on.

Don would turn up now and again, walking around in his denim, the oldest guy in the room but never really a sore thumb. He never tried to make himself the center of attention; it was his house, but as far as we could tell, whoever was playing the music was in charge. I know when I think of “Don Hill’s” I think first of the place, then of the music, then finally of the man. But there’s something in the way his name infected my early years in New York, taking over memories of a place and time that once was, to the point where when he goes, that goes too. New York, forever changed. And so: Rest In Peace, Don. You left many happy nights in your wake.

(Elsewhere: Emma Straub remembers Don Hill's Thursdays.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


We Are Gods

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.