Wednesday, August 11, 2010


There are many reasons I love the song, "I And Love And You" by the Avett Brothers. The lyrics are not one of those reasons. For every sparse and true line, there are two or three that feel clunky and too easy. I think it was PJ Harvey who said that the first reason we love songs is that they sound like other songs we've heard before. So, the familiarity is a kind of burden on our ability to synthesize new experiences and develop broader, more inclusive aesthetics. I think this is only partially true. When I was in the fourth grade, I loved any song that had a catchy and easy-to-memorize refrain. I would record them from the radio, then listen to them over and over until I learned all of the words. I remember driving around in the backseat of a car with my brother and his friends, listening to the radio, singing the whole way through four or five songs in a row. Whoever was driving thought it was strange that I knew every word. Around that time, my dad asked me if I understood what the lyrics to Papa Don't Preach meant. The video was everywhere that summer and I had no idea. I didn't want to seem unknowing, so I fumbled something about a teenage daughter not wanting her dad to tell her what to do all the time. In middle school, this kid Dave and I recorded at least the refrain for a song for every state, as part of a school project on patriotism, or maybe it was civic duty. My dad had made a list of songs that he knew, and then recorded himself singing what he could remember of them on a tape recorder, which we them mimicked. We got A-minuses for the project, because the teacher suspected that, really, we hadn't done all of the research ourselves, or because the songs didn't exactly meet the requirements of the assignment. We created our first mashup, circa 1989. The 49ers beat the Bengals that January in Super Bowl 23. Dave copied over the tape to record Bon Jovi's New Jersey. I remember one section from our project that went, " bluuuuuuue Hawaii...hey there, Roy, ain't that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo!..."

The National's Alligator has replaced Sufjan Stevens's Illinois as my go-to album when I need to get to writing. I didn't like Alligator, at first. I only discovered it after The AV Club listed it as one of the best albums of the last decade. I was ready to chalk it up as an official "Hold Steady"--songs/albums universally lauded by folks whose taste I respect but that I nonetheless can't get into--when I heard, "Daughters of the Soho Riots," which hooked me in enough to think, well, if they can write one good song, chances are I've missed others. The lead singer of The National has one of those deep, mellow voices that clearly enunciates lyrics I miss wholesale unless I really listen. I went online and read the lyrics to the album. "The Geese of Beverly Road," especially, just knocked my socks off:

Hey, Love, we'll get away with it
We'll run like we're awesome, totally genius
We're the heirs to a glimmering world

We're the heirs to a glimmering world

We're the heirs to a glimmering world
We're the heirs to a glimmering world...

That juxtaposition of awesome, totally, and genius, the idea of inheriting a glimmering world, and the incantatory quality of repeating such simple and optimistic ideas: yes. When I went back and listened to "Daughters of the Soho Riots," I found another line that totally hooked me:

How can anybody know how we got to be this way?
You must have known, I'd do this someday.

I never used to understand why it was that Stevens's "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us" could jump-start things in the writing department. Placing it alongside "Daughters..." I think I get it. Both songs initiate thoughtful, sacred spaces where contemplation becomes generative, possibly sentimental, definitely full of feeling, and is framed by a kind of heartsick optimism that wants to feel its way through, then beyond, experience. The change did me good. After a bit of a dry spell, July was an especially productive writing month.

I'm finally reading, and really enjoying, Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I kept not reading it these last ten-odd years because I figured that if it was so popular, and sometimes being derided by fellow writers for its popularity, then it must be too easy and sentimental a work. And, that title. But, of course, I was completely wrong to be skeptical. AHWOSG is beautiful and singular. It fully inhabits and justifies the claim of its title. Having lived until recently near the 826 Valencia universe, I long admired the wit and post-ironic verve of The Pirate Supply Store, The Believer, McSweeney's, etc., and also secretly believed that it couldn't possibly be legit or serious. In reading AHWOSG, though, I understand that the Eggers ethos gets at a kind of post-traumatic reality that refuses to invent difficulty for its own sake. The world provides enough trauma and suffering, we certainly don't need to invite or invent it. But we can talk about it, engage our experience of it, and in that act of translating, hopefully make honest and clear whatever wisdom we have to offer from our experience. This kind of thinking dovetails nicely with a lot of my own writing ambition. Annie Clark's work as St. Vincent, especially, blurs that line between sentiment and feeling, making wild lyrical turns whose underlying gravity is deftly twinned with seeming whimsy.

Anis Shivani's ridiculous piece, The 15 Most Over-Rated Contemporary American Writers, recently published in The Huffington Post, has already consumed intellectual oxygen well in excess of its worth. I won't justify the posture (snark is good), over-inflated premise (MFAs are bad) or deliberate misrepresentation of authorial accomplishments (Mary Oliver, especially), except to crib what I have said elsewhere. I don’t mind “mixing it up”–it’s fun to argue about writers and writing, and popular writers often get the brunt of the criticism (jealousy?). But when the criticisms are so sloppy and borrowed, it feels more like responding to a Fox News report than to a serious venture in criticism–one wastes too much energy trying to reframe a conversation deliberately misrepresenting its fundamental premise.

Today, Cait is 38 weeks pregnant. She feels well, except for the head cold which has her feeling beat today. Things continue to look good and we keep knocking on wood and trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves. We took the last of our baby classes last night, practicing infant and child CPR on Manikins, dislodging imagined pieces of candy from imagined mouths. If all of our knowledge is hypothetical/theoretical to this point, still it feels right to at least try to learn this stuff. We have made six or seven trips to Target in the last couple of weeks, stocking up, and friends, family, and Amazon.Com have mailed us boxes upon boxes filled with good stuff. We are so grateful, happy, eager. When I try to think of anthems for happiness, I come up with songs about suffering, enduring, understanding. I suppose it is easier to write about heartbreak than love. So many "happy" songs are treacly, predictable, banal. So, instead, I've been trying to celebrate abundance and mindfulness, and to sleep as much as possible.


Miss Mary said...

Hi John! I loved this post. And I love all the music you have posted. We are so excited for you and Cait! Best of everything during this last little bit!

Stephanie said...

That HuffPo piece really pissed me off too. Except, of course, you know how I feel about Junot Diaz.

My own kids are into singing songs off the radio now too - and I finally cut all the kids' songs off our "School Bus" playlist, which was freeing and sad at the same time. It's fun to listen to how they interpret the songs. They have a very interesting version of Train's "Hey Soul Sister" that makes me giggle, even when I try not to.

But never underestimate the power of little ears. When they were 3 I heard them in the back of the van rocking out to Gwen Stefani. I heard, "This shit is bananas," coming out of 3 little mouths. "No, no!" I said, "She's saying 'This SHIP is bananas.' It's a monkey boat!"
It was the greatest save of my parenting career.