Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Strange Beast...?

"What strange beast would turn its life into words?"

When I was introduced to Adrienne Rich at 18, by the only lesbian faculty member on campus, who sadly, was actually just a heretical, dramatic, straight male from the English Department, it was the first time I concieved of poetry (pun intended) as anything practical, as anything useful, as anything necessary.

"Dream of a Common Language" was a manual, a road map, a survival guide for me. I felt her cadence, her word choice, her longing and utter lack of sentimentality so deeply at such an impressionable age, that to this day, they live in the root of my tongue, giving form to the way that I speak to myself. Nearly 20 years later, I know that every line I have written since owes its birth, in some genetic way, to her, just as I do.

Am I a poet? No, not in the way that you mean.

I don't read poetry. Modern poets make me uncomfortable - the endless self examination, (right, I got a lot of nerve) and the experimentation with the mechanics of language, the thesaurausness of it - They give me the same creepy crawlies that beginning songwriters do: too much passion, not enough editing, too much reliance of cleverness instead of simple truth. I clench up the same way I suspect men do just as someone kicks them in the nads.

God knows (and I hope has forgiven me) that I have committed more bad writing than most. Do the math- I've written more (I write about everything- cars, breakfast, sex, the perfection of Lester Bang's caption writing in Creem Magazine...whatever... I have a thought, I'm compelled to write) than most regular people would, so it stands to reason I have committed more crimes against language.

As I've gotten older, I've gotten much less earnest, so I've gotten better. The fact remains though, that if I have loved, lusted after, or longed for you, chances are I have written a song/verse/letter of intent for you. Or maybe simply about you. You maybe don’t know about it, but it’s there, some where in the archives. I have a wicker chest that some ex gave me full of marble notebooks, reciepts, matchbooks, index cards, envelopes and traffic tickets that I have written lines on. Somebody, some day will have to throw all that away.

The final product was probably very sad and likely rendered impenetrable by allusions that only have meaning to me. I maybe brought it to you like a gift, or I hurled it at you like a brick, or it's in that box, waiting to be thrown into the trash by my heirs. A whole history of my brain, heart and labia throbbing together in inchoate misery, the whole unholy triumvirate quivering with the desire to make you understand. You poor woman.

Now, this addiction didn't sprang fully formed from the forehead of Rich- I’ve used this writing thing in conjunction with loving women my whole life. Since 9th grade and my crush on Megan (swoon....), the third string forward on the basketball team. Conversation just doesn’t do it. I just can’t have a conversation with somebody the way that my head really talks. I don't chat, I do blood transfusions. You poor woman. I am sorry.

I actually consider it a sign of health and maturity that I didn't write a damn thing about my most recent ex- not in courtship, not in situ, and not over the break up. No song, no poem, not even a meaningful IM. Yeah, she got some generic lovey dovey cards, but nothing over the top.

I managed to fail in a relationship like a normal person: without literary devices.

It's not the 'not writing' part' that I consider the improvement. It's the 'not giving away everything I've got' part. The 'not expecting some magical response from somebody just because I chose to crack myself open like a geode and show them the rough shiny stuff.' I finally grasped that no matter how well I write/sing/build birdhouses, how much of my truth I expose, understanding is never guaranteed, I am not owed an equally intense, complicated response, it may be impossible and undesirable for someone to really get inside my head, and frankly, having seen the inside of my head, it's a little un-sexy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Listen like Indigo

Ok, so it’s 2007 and I’ve finally broken down and started listening to music through my PC. I haven’t started downloading yet, but when I’m working, I pop a cd in. I finally just didn’t feel like maintaining a whole different stereo system in the office. Really, I didn’t feel like lugging it up from downstairs.

I’m the last person I know who doesn’t do Ipod, etc. It’s not that I’m a luddite, I’ve embraced every new technology as it came along and made music more portable. I’m just tired of changing media formats. My concession has been Mini Discs. Of course, this is the beta vs vhs debate again, and it’s already been won. They sound better, and when I got into them in the late nineties, they were a superior live recording format… any how, I digress.

So, I finally get to see these digital images that the media player creates with the music, and I’m floored. This is exactly what I see when I listen to music. I could never explain it to anybody, and only tried a couple of times in my life. But that rolling , pulsing landscape is what I feel and see inside my head when I listen to music. I didn’t know till I was in college that this was unusual, seeing music or hearing color, or whatever.

I’m extremely sensitive to sound. Tone, more than sound really. Tone and Timbre create physical, visceral reactions in me. Not bad, mind you, just present. Sound has not just vibration, but also color for me. Color by itself also has vibration. Words have vibrations. That’s how you know what colors to use together, what words to use together, before there were words, letters had colors, and that’s how you matched what letters to use together. It’s the vibrations that communicate what the music really means, regardless of what the singer is saying. The vibrations, layered on top of each other, create a landscape, a topography, like layers of the earth surface, but corresponds with my body, vibrating in my torso like layers in photoshop. It moves in your gut, tries to take you with it. So that’s what I feel when I really listen.

When I was about three or four years old, my mother feared that I was going deaf. We were home alone together that year, she was expecting my baby sister, and due to her advanced age, the doctors recommended she take the year off from teaching.

I was a quiet child, easily absorbed in solitary tasks. I think this was something my mother encouraged, too because she didn’t know what to do with a toddler- she certainly never spoke to me like I was a toddler.

During the day, she would sit in the kitchen, listening to the public radio station and doing her crosswords. It must have been that I hadn’t really been exposed to ambient music before- certainly not at pre-school, and at night, when dad was home, the tv blared, and I didn’t have a record player yet. So no one had noticed that I went into a sort of trance when listening to music.

I remember very clearly the day my mother shook my shoulder. She had been calling me from the kitchen, repeating my name for several minutes, getting no response she came into the dining room, where I was sitting Indian Style, playing with a giant jar of change- my parent’s poker money, sorting them into piles. I immediately thought she was shaking me because she was mad that I was playing with the coins. She had gotten down on the carpet, beside me, face level, which she rarely did, even when she wasn’t pregnant, looking panicky, she asked:

“Didn’t you hear me calling you?”

Startled, I said ‘No,’ truthfully, and my mother seemed worried. I thought I might be in trouble so I kept quiet, and went and ate my lunch. I wouldn’t have know to explain that I was swept away watching where the music was going in me anyways.

We went to the pediatrician the next day, and my hearing tested fine. He apparently suggested that I was a little dreamy and maybe needed to interact with more children my own age. My mother decided to start watching other teacher’s kids during her maternity leave, so our quiet little routines were disrupted (it turned out I loathed other kids my age… they were very noisy and wanted to play very stupid games.) But the ‘problem’ abated, or at least was no longer noticeable to my mother, so it was never investigated further, not even when I started primary school and it took a miracle for me to learn to read.

There were tears and tantrums and all sorts of problems. I could never communicate effectively to the teachers or my parents that the problem was that in order to ‘read’ the way they wanted me to, or even worse, write, I would have to use letters together that didn’t ‘match.’ They weren’t the right colors to go together, their little vibrations didn’t blend. Their alleged ‘words’ were not smooth and harmonious. The words THEY wanted you to make were jarring and mismatched and it made me furious. (ok, so there was probably a little OCD going on too, if you couldn’t tell from the whole ‘change sorting’ scene.) I also was truly baffled by how they could be so insensitive to that. It never occurred to me that other people didn’t ‘feel’ letters, and that the alphabet was all the same color, black, to the other children, so was never able to articulate. But I did finally learn to pretend that text was only black and white.

When we made tapes from records and played 'em in the dorm...

I left my toadie level position in the music industry earlier this year, and I’ve been amazed at how quickly the names and titles and stories that were part of my working life for the last ten years and my waking life for the past thirty, have started leeching out of my brain. I actually blanked out on the very existence of an Indigo Girls album. I distinctly remembered the sunny Scranton Tuesday when I walked down to the Electric Mindshaft on Lackawanna Avenue and bought it, but I could not for the life of me remember anything about it. I knew something fit in the slot for that year, but no song, no album artwork came to mind. I was a little ashamed that I would have let something that essential drain from the memory bank.

So, trolling the net for discographies tonight, I found a fan site that hosted some Indigo Girls bootlegs from 1981, and I spewed milk out of nose. Nine out of twelve of the songs are songs that I spent a lot on the early 80’s dropping the needle on repeatedly to figure out chords changes- the Fogelberg stuff in particular. My copy of “Home Free” is gray from overuse on a couple of tracks.

I emailed the mp3 of “House at Pooh Corner” to an acquaintance from college… a woman I’d looked up to my freshman year. She was the first other girl I knew that played the guitar or wrote songs. She hung out with her room mate and sang and played these same songs at the weekly’ coffeehouse’ open stage event at our small parochial school.

Having spent the last ten years or so doing ‘serious’ gigging, I’ve grown into the habit of being mildly embarrassed by that period in my life. I was starstruck by the cooler, older girls, starstruck by the cooler older girls playing guitar, and weirdly exhilarated by a sense of a deeper kinship- yep, it turned out that they liked girls too. It was too much for me. I’d spent most of the 80’s in my bedroom in my parent’s basement writing songs patterned after the 70’s folk rock records that my big sister left behind when she moved out. Too much, I say, too much, and I mooned over the entire package, and I generally acted like a lovesick puppy. So I cringe over that, and I cringe over some of the songs – “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Father & Son”, “House at Pooh Corners.” Even at 17, I knew they were songs you’d never put on a set list, and I was more of a rocker. I thought they were pretty lame, I’d been going to the church of Zep, but suburban as they were, I played them anyways, because those girls were playing them, and I’d never had girls to play with before. To be fair, in the wake of new wave, in the mid to late 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot being added to the Acoustic Rock canon. Sure, by ’88 we had the Tracy Chapman debut, and 10,000 Maniacs In My Tribe, but the beginning of that year, they were too new (in the days before the internet and OLGA) for anyone to have really copped the chords, and those first few weeks of school were total AM Solid Gold.

It’s not just the track listing from this little bootleg that gave my heart a pang, it was the recording itself. It sounded like any one of the tapes that those girls made in the dorm bathroom with a boom box. The voices too, so so young, not yet strong, still very adolescent sounding, and still sounding a little bit like they were asking permission to sing. If you didn’t know it was the Indigo Girls, you would never know it was the Indigo Girls, it could have been Chris and Alice or Me and Kathy or any of a million girls with guitars just waiting for someone to say, "You, yeah, you, you're good enough."

Monday, September 24, 2007

El Kabong Saved My Life

So, imagine you were 7 years old, and someone put into your hands the tool that would define your entire existence. What if it was something that you had never even thought to ask for?

Christmas, 1977, Santa brought me a real Ukelele. Not a plastic one. A real wooden one. I don’t know why. I had asked for tinker toys.

My mother was a music teacher, and my very early childhood was full of things that made sound. We had a xylophone, an auto harp, a French horn, a trombone, and a harmonica so big that even my mother had to hold it with two hands. With the entry of each new instrument into the house, we would repeat the same pattern: I would be fascinated with it and obsessively try to learn to play it. This would last for a few days before my extremely noise sensitive, high strung mother would crack, and the instrument would ‘have to go back to school.

I’m pretty sure the uke would have disappeared as well if it wasn’t for Hanna Barbara. That ukelelle was out of its box for about four hours before my little sister snuck up behind me with it and split my head open with it, yelling “EL KABOOOONG!” and shattering the body into pieces. (From about 1976 to I think 1984, somebody got a concussion at our house every Christmas day - no lie.)

What followed next, is I think, a perfect example of the conflict and ambivalence my mother suffered through over life in general and parenthood in particular. I still haven’t really puzzled out what she meant by it, but to make up for the lost uke, I was given my first guitar the next month for my seventh birthday.

This was a weird gift for a whole buffet of reasons:

1) I don’t think I even knew what a guitar was at that point, and I certainly hadn’t asked for it. I had asked for tinker toys, but those had ‘too many parts.’

2) She really was high strung. Noise of any kind set her teeth on edge. She was a public school music teacher and came home from work every with the shot nerves of a Vietnam tunnel rat and required almost total quiet. People who visited my childhood home recall it as ‘tomblike’ in its silence.

3) She LOATHED, and I mean LOATHED anything that wasn’t opera

3b) She loathed even more fiercely, the guitar. She thought it was a hillbilly instrument, fit only for Okies.

4) It was so much bigger than the uke, that my sister really could have killed me with it, rather than just given me my mild Christmas Concussion.

This year is the first time I ever thought to consider who I might be if I'd gotten the damn tinker toys.

a meditation on hunger pangs

my mother had a pony, all her very own, and
cream filled lady fingers for her tea parties,
doilies, dollies, and real silver.
after mass at the cathedral there was
a driver to squire her around town;
he escorted her on opera birthday-trips,
a stand in for her ever-absent father.

my father spent three birthdays
alone in the charity ward-
juvenile arthritis, cold corn mash
and salted pork with flat soda bread
daily reminders that the coal camp
wasn't worth a trolley track
and his poor mam couldn't walk that far

count chocula and pop tarts
ice cream and coke before bed
i would have died of plenty
before i'd ever have heard 'no.'
who could blame them really,
confusing nourishment with
the quieting of an appetite.

the sweet grainy crust of this life,
rubs my tongue raw
the sugar bores into my heart
firing up lusts, burning out my tastebuds
while i chew, desperate to get to the center,
dense and warm like marrow,
and satisfying, i believe,
but not that sweet.

i wish i had a fast to break
i would bring you hard, tangy apples
gathered from old, old trees.
and honey, still dark and waxy,
for us to strain together.

The House Not at Pooh Corners

In the Irish Catholic 70’s, in Pennsyltucky, there were a lot of things you still didn’t talk about, and my parents were a lot of those things plus some things so odd they hadn't been added to the 'taboo' list yet: Intellectually Gifted, Divorced, Alcoholic, parents of Dope smoking, shoplifting, ‘befriending of the blacks’ teenagers and toddlers (well, the toddlers hadn't started up yet with the dope smoking, but I definitely was fond of the 'chocolate people.) They were older than all the other parents, of different class back grounds from each other, and negotiating that issue poorly.

Those things made them different, made us different, from almost everyone else. They weren’t joiners, and, obviously, I couldn’t have verbalized this at the time, but both of them, with native IQ's that made most Mensa candidates look like shop clerks, had very strong personalities, and a general belief that they just knew better, existed in a just barely sub-clinical state of paranoia and self-grandeur in which neighbors, coworkers and other family members were constantly persecuting them, but were also idiots. They were idiots, but we must keep secrets from them. So, we really didn’t have much of a social network.

Before my baby sister was born, I remember parties and people visiting. Other odd ducks and malcontents came over to play poker. I might mainly remember them because they coincided with a couple of near death/disfigurement instances for me while my parents were drunk, but I generally remember them as happy times.

By the time my sister was born, I was four and a half and my parents were 45. We were ‘late life babies’ or cabooses. Not so common in the 70’s outside of Appalachia. I, in fact, am the product of the world’s oldest shotgun wedding. At the tender age of 40, my parents “had” to get married. For my father’s sake, I still pretend not to know this.

My baby sister, out of all 6 of my dad’s children, was the only intentional pregnancy. They tried to get pregnant with her, there was even some sort of rudimentary fertility drug involved. Somehow, though, when she was faced with two preschooler in her late forties, my mother, a delicate sort, lost some serious steam, cause that’s about when the parties stopped and the world got a lot grimmer. It’s also why I started grammar school way too early.

Her phobias began around that time. I think the one with the most practical impact for me was the ‘not driving over bridges’ phobia. Her sister lived on the other side of the river that divided our town, and we’d visit on the weekends. Her four kids were a little older than me, and were my closest facsimiles to peers, so it was a huge treat to go there.

My aunt’s house was different from ours. The shades weren’t drawn, it was noisy, with kids coming and going, toys everywhere, cookies being made, my aunt’s laughter, my grandmother tickling me. I remember it as being so bright there. When my mother lost the ability to drive over bridges, I lost that.