Friday, October 12, 2012

Sea Change

A song I hadn't listened to since I moved to San Francisco a little more than four years ago came suddenly to mind this afternoon, as I was putting Walt down for a nap. We were reading a picture book of 100 trucks, which means, really, he was pointing the trucks and I was naming them. He got a little manic about it. He would point at the same truck six or seven times in a row, until the tone of my voice changed. Maybe something about the monotony (tow truck, tow truck, tow truck, tow truck, tow truck) was unsatisfying to him. Or, perhaps it worked like a chant, all soothing repetition in search of an end. The tone of my voice is not always entirely engaged in such moments. The book was incidental to my purpose, which was to get him to sleep and move along to whatever next thing.

Initially I got the song all wrong. Rather, the title that came to mind wasn't a song, it turned out, but this band, The Sea and Cake, which I used to listen to when I would go and write in coffee shops in the city. (This is a strange and narrow time-gap for nostalgia, incidentally. Four years? Already?) The idea in those noisy coffee shops was both to leave the house and also to make an interior space away from it so closed off with sound my mind might drift easily to those places I meant to write about. I wore these high-end noise-canceling headphones my mother-in-law had given to me for Christmas. The silence was like two stale danishes smushed into my ears; whenever I took them off, something granular and messy felt stuck behind my eardrums.

Of the songs by The Sea and Cake still on my computer, I have downloaded but never listened to "Up on Crutches." Digital hoarding, we might call it. There is an old Dr. Katz routine in which a patient explains the advantage of the "Random" button on a CD player was to be able to tell Billy Joel, encountering him randomly on the street, "Mr. Joel, I am aware of the songs on your new album, but not in the order you want me to be!" On first listen, "Up on Crutches" sounds like every other song by The Sea and Cake: tightly orchestrated, mumbly lyrics, high production value. It makes a sort of warm and neutral ambient noise. Probably, "Up on Crutches" is very particularly representative of what The Sea and Cake does very well, since it is the title track from the band's 2007 album, Everybody. I just wouldn't know. I can't distinguish enough of the lyrics to tell whether it's a song about, say, puppies and electric cars, or a serial killer watching said puppies sleep. Damien Jurado's "Amateur Night" is the representative contrast here, a guy who sits in the corner of your party strumming major chords and singing plaintively about necrophilia.

Turns out it wasn't The Sea and Cake I was thinking of, but rather Beck's 2002 album, Sea Change. Here, my digital music index was a great advantage. I have only one song from that album still on my laptop. Like "Up on Crutches," I last played it in Indiana, circa 2007. It's a song I used to listen to all the time. I remember buying the album in Chicago, on a friend's recommendation. When he wrote Sea Change over the course of a single week, Beck was separated from his long-time fiancé, ambivalent about the success of his previous album, and, just turned 30. A couple of years later, Beck would cover "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime" by The Korgis for the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What a fabulous performance that cover is. I came across the music video for it earlier today when Cait was trying to find a clip from the movie for a class she was teaching to her high school students about memory.

When I lived in Miami, I remember listening to "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime" whenever I felt very sorry for myself about making a mistake. Actually, I would drive around Miami listening to three songs over and over: "Everybody's..." and also, Bruce Springsteen's "One Step Up" and U2's "Stuck In A Moment." Good lord. I think the idea then was to correct a mistake as I properly assigned it to a mode of popular rock. Like many vintage rock videos--back when people collectively watched music videos--I drove everywhere soulfully examining either myself in the rearview mirror or the lights of the city as they reflected (soulfully, dimly) off the dash.

Today I was thinking about music I haven't actually listened to in quite some time. I suppose the scale of angst is changing. The directions are cardinal and polar, more often than meandering and self-charted. I spent this morning at the junior museum, trying to explain to Walt why there were no monkeys. Walt, there have never been monkeys at the junior museum, offered no consolation. The monkeys are at home sleeping with their mamas and babies--part abstraction, part lie--did the trick.

Walt is fascinated with deciding who and what has eyes. Hammer eyes? No, the hammer doesn't have eyes. Monkey eyes? Yes, the monkey has eyes. He is making concrete sense of the world, putting words together two and three at a time. I suppose with each new word he moves a little further and more warily from certainty; monkeys at the junior museum, etc. Thank goodness Walt is inheriting his father's rich sense of humor. Confusion can be funny, and funny, even strange-funny, is a relief from longing for missing or insensible things. The song I had stuck in my head this afternoon was "Guess I'm Doing Fine," Beck's soulful and ambivalent address to all the things he is "only" losing: the bluebird at his window, the yellow roses in the graveyard, the moon low in the sky. And, in the end, his unfaithful, never-to-be wife. The whole album goes on like this, and it is a powerful and sad album. Beck's later albums are, for the most part, well-written, thoughtful considerations of his evolving aesthetic and life. He is a serious musician and songwriter. I admire the idea of Beck, though I am stuck a bit on Sea Change. I listen to so little of the rest of his music.

Beck - Guess I'm Doing Fine by mellow1_nate2

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