Search
Reading

 Books:

Widget_logo

 

 Tumblr/Instapaper:

 

Social stuff
Recent Comments
Blog Post Categories
Powered by Squarespace
Administration

When Elvis Died

Named after an essay by Lester Bangs, a rock journalist and one of the my favorite authors, this blog is my scratch pad for ideas, commentaries, and links.

-RSS
-Comments
-Archive
Monday
Dec042006

Smash Mouth A Capella

No, no....I'm not talking about University of Utah's newest men's choir album. I'm talking about pure rock fury.

I got this through Wolf Notes who got it from the blog of the band Grizzly Bear. It's a solo vocal take from an unreleased Smash Mouth song. Ed Droste's favorite line may be "Make the Holidays last", but I have to go for "Just won a million so you drive a brand new benz".

Saturday
Dec022006

The box, or, Letters from my ex's

I keep things. Even things I have absolutely no need of. I guess it comes from having antique dealer parents, but I think that's an easy answer--they threw away as much trash as they did keep antiques. Maybe it's because I'm an archaeologist, and I want to preserve a material record, even one as mundane and trivial as mine. But of course, I've been collecting for as long as I can remember, much longer than I ever considered archaeology as professional (ha!) activity.

Honestly, I have no idea why I am such a packrat--like anything in life, it's tied into a whole series of personal and social processes that I'm only vaguely aware of. Peering into my brain a little bit, I'd probably say that it's because I'm terrified, constantly, of the way the world changes indifferent of my desires, and that holding onto things is a way for me to defray that fear, and root hope in things that mean something to me beyond the moment of their arrival in my life. This idea may sound a little far-out, but everytime I meet people who show me their collections of things, whatever they may be, I believe it more and more, and begin to think that the one thing that most of us share is terror at the changing world.

I have a box. I made it for a class project in high school--a poetry project as I recall. Here it is:

the box

Yeah yeah...it's from high school. Black paint? check. Skull? check. Poetry? Check? Cliched teen angst? Check, check, and check.

After I got it back from my Language Arts teacher, it went onto my bookshelf and stayed there for the rest of my high school (and college) years. I guess I just kind of liked the damn thing, and as morbid and fucked up as high school is, it fit my temperament.

Gradually, I started putting things in it...well, not just things. Tokens really...mementos of relationships. Letters, pictures, drawings--basically anything that a girl gave me while we were dating/talking/hooking up/etc.... anything that had been part of any relationship of ours that had ended. This continued into college, and whenever I'd come home, I'd bring stuff with me and put it in the box.

Today, it looks like this:
overstuffed open box

I want it gone--out of my life, settling the past and living in the present moment. I'm in a healthy, stable relationship now, and I feel the need to commemorate that by jettisoning this collection of oddities from my life. These memories have made me who I am, but I want who I become to come from my life with my girl, and with all the humor and pathos in this box safely nestled in the past.

Plus, the last time I put something in it, the lid split open, and that seemed like a pretty good omen.

Thus, I get the eternal dilemma of all packrats--what to do with stuff that you're getting rid of. I guess I could just throw it in the trash, but that seems too easy, and too cheap for the amount of emotion and growth that lives in that box. The archaeologist in me wants to bury it, and leave it for some enterprising grad student to write a thesis on the idiotic cliches of late 20th century adolescents. But then the question is where? Iowa? My house out here that I won't be living in in five years (PhD gods be praised)? Somewhere else?

Perhaps I need a ritual...some procedure to grease the wheels of the cosmos. Usually fire is involved in rituals, so maybe cremation is the answer. But that seems too final for the lessons I've learned from all those years of crying and laughing over letters from people who's hearts I've broken or who've broken mine.

Thus, in true Creative Commons fashion--I put these ideas out there for remixes. What do we do with memories, even tangible ones like these? How do we wrest them from all those moments that were and transform them into the present moment?

Any and all ideas are appreciated, and if I get any good ones, I'll post pictures of whatever I end up doing.

Sunday
Nov262006

An expatriate yankee in McLaughlin's court

Sunday morning--coffee, an orange, some granola, and.... The McLaughlin Group.

John McLaughlin

When I was in High School in Iowa, and just bubbling up into political consciousness, I woke up one sunday morning to the sound of my dad's infectious giggling. I went downstairs to find my dad drinking coffee in front of the TV, shrieking with laughter.

"What's so funny?"

"Quentin, it's called the McLaughlin Group. It's hysterical. It's a political show, but this guy McLaughlin is just an asshole--he doesn't let anyone talk, tells them when they're wrong, and everyone basically fights to say one sentance."

I sat down and watched it, and have been doing so ever since. My dad and I would get up and watch the show Sunday mornings almost every weekend until I left for college in Massachusetts, and whenever I come home to visit, you can usually find us in the den on Sunday mornings. Out here in New England, unless I'm completely wasted at 10 AM, I usually find a way to drag myself to the TV and flip to PBS. Yes, my name is Quentin and I'm addicted to the McLaughlin Group.

For those of you who don't know, it's a political talkshow/cage match, hosted by a cantankerous and often incomprehensible old man named John McLaughlin. It has four panelists, who are corralled by McLaughlin, and given often impossible questions to answer. Here are the usual suspects:

Pat Buchanan--paleo-con and several time presidential loser. Once debated Ralph Nader. Scarily enough, often a voice of reason against....
Tony Blankley--smarmy and arrogant page editor for the Washington Times, former press secretary for Newt Gingrich, and general far-right mouthpiece.

Eleanor Clift--left-leaning contributing editor for Newsweek magazine. Often fights to talk over the condescending Blankley, but generally holds her own.

Beyond that, they have various other folks who show up to fill the seat and try to speak their peace. I've seen Clarence Page, Jay Carney, Lawrence O'Donnell (always entertaining), and various random talking heads whom I've forgotten.

I guess it's kind of similar to Crossfire, but don't give me no shit about that--not only is TMG way more violent, but it has something that nobody else has--John McLaughlin. I recently described the man as a random number generator, where patterns and meaning occasionally appear, but without the intention of the machine or it's creators. He asks questions that the commentators desperately strive to answer, often to no avail. He continually asks for predictions and rankings, and often prods his guests to rate something like political damage "on a scale of one to ten, one being no damage and ten being DESTRUCTION OF ALL LIFE AS WE KNOW IT!". He has no qualms about cutting off discussion and telling everyone why they're wrong, a trait once parodied with unnerving realism by Dana Carvey on SNL.

I could keep describing him, but honestly, he really defies encapsulation, like any force of nature in human form. I've tried to explain him to various people, and they either get him, or they don't, but usually they have to see the show to understand what I'm talking about. Thus, I recommend to you--put some coffee (maybe with some whiskey in it) on, curl up in front of the TV, and get ready for a half-hour of surreal and hysterical politics.

"Byeeee-byeeeee!"

Thursday
Oct192006

"It's the most wonderful time of the year"

My Boy

Every year, starting about the second week in October, I feel the tinge of my favorite holiday coming on. It's probably because I live in Western Massachusetts, where, as Lovecraft once said "...the hills rise wild...", and the second week on October is right about when the hills start rising, and the trees start changing.

Ah, Lovecraft.... Old H.P. has been a part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my parents bookshelf had a corner devoted to a bunch of ragged black paperback books. Most of them had broken spines, and had obviously been well-thumbed over the years. When I would pull them down and look at them, I was always shocked, disturbed, and fascinated by the covers. For example, here's one of my favorites:

I mean, seriously--what the hell are you supposed to make of that? Even now, decades later, it's still a haunting cover image. Who the hell is that guy? Why is he wearing an eyepatch? Why is his other eye about to fall out of his head?

When I was in the seventh grade, I finally started reading those paperbacks. And by read, I mean devour. I think they had maybe 6 or 7 originally, and I probably worked through those in a matter of weeks. And I read them again, and again, and again.

At the same time that all this was going on, my parents would make semi-frequent trips to New England. We had friends out there, and my dad would find a way to do military shows to coincide with mom's and my vacation time, so we would usually spend a week or two stomping around western massachusetts with our friends. At some point, I made the connection that Lovecraft was writing about the places that we were going, and describing them in a way that drew me even further into the landscapes through which we travelled.

From "The Dunwich Horror":

When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country. The ground gets higher, and the brier-bordered stone walls press closer and closer against the ruts of the dusty, curving road. The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, and the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions. At the same time the planted fields appear singularly few and barren; while the sparsely scattered houses wear a surprisingly uniform aspect of age, squalor, and dilapidation.
...When a rise in the road brings the mountains in view above the deep woods, the feeling of strange uneasiness is increased. The summits are too rounded and symmetrical to give a sense of comfort and naturalness, and sometimes the sky silhouettes with especial clearness the queer circles of tall stone pillars with which most of them are crowned. Gorges and ravines of problematical depth intersect the way, and the crude wooden bridges always seem of dubious safety. When the road dips again there are stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes, and indeed almost fears at evening when unseen whippoorwills chatter and the fireflies come out in abnormal profusion to dance to the raucous, creepily insistent rhythms of stridently piping bull-frogs. The thin, shining line of the Miskatonic's upper reaches has an oddly serpent-like suggestion as it winds close to the feet of the domed hills among which it rises.

And if you've ever been to New England, especially western and central Massachusetts near the Quabbin reservoir, you can sense some of this. Most of the houses are incredibly old, with crumbling stone walls, and trees that seem to just keep growing over your head with no regard for order or shapeliness. Needless to say, if I wasn't hooked before, once I came to New England, I fell more in love with Lovecraft's writings, and New England. I won't say it's the only factor, but it definitely made me want to be out here, so much so that I ended up going to college in Boston, and graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, nestled in those wild-rising hills on the banks of the Connecticut River.

 

Granted, Boston is not known for its rising hills, but Lovecraft did include it in his mythologies. One story in particular, called "Pickman's Model" (you can read it here, but I wouldn't necessarily bother--it's not very good) is set in the north end of Boston, which, for those of you who don't know, is one of the oldest sections of the city, home to its Italian community, a number of winding cobblestone streets, and Copp's Hill Burying Ground, the second oldest cemetary in the city, which figures into the story, and which is a "must-visit" if you ever find yourself in Boston. Every Halloween, I used to get out my copy of Dreams of Terror and Death: The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft , take the Orange line T over to North Station, cross the intersection, and work my way into the heart of the old neighborhood. I would then open the book up to "Pickman's Model", and trace the route of the story through the dark evening streets of the North End, past Copp's Hill and the Old North Church, feeling enlivened and quick of breath with every step. Honestly, I would get so wrapped up that encountering anyone else on the streets made jump. Actually, the worst time was when I took my Scary Songs Tape with me and damn near took some poor sap's head off who passed me on the sidewalk from behind. Sigh....

Now I live in Hadley, on the floodplain of the Connecticut River Valley, in the heart of Lovecraft Country, within easy drive of the Quabbin Reservoir, created in part to destroy the Colour Out of Space , within the area of the shockwaves generated by the destruction of the brother of Wilbur Whateley, also known as the Dunwich Horror, and near enough to the coast that I can visit ill-fated Innsmouth, where, in 1923, a series of shocking and horrifying events events predicated the government destroying half the town and scattering the deformed and abnormal inhabitants.

When my parents decided to move to the Czech Republic, the first thing that I grabbed was their collection of Lovecraft Paperbacks that I first saw on the corner shelf. Now they sit on my bookshelf, and I have spent the last week (and will probably spend another week) pulling them down at random, sitting in my living room with windows open onto the dark Hadley floodplain, and using the text to situate myself in Lovecraft country.

Maybe it's a way to feel like a kid again, when all I cared about was scaring the shit out of myself late at night and looking up words like "ichor", "gibbous", and "cyclopean". Maybe it's the world that's terrifying now, and I want to make where I live someplace that, while still terrifying, is so alien that I don't have to engage with it--unlike the Nov. 7th elections, which scare me for all kinds of reasons, and North Korea, and Iran, and a half-crazy president bent on getting everyone to serve his fickle whims. Stacked against that, the terror of great Cthulhu and the Deep Ones, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, and god knows what-else seem positively quaint, and so illusory that they'll never be able to harm me, even if they're just outside my window. I don't have any good answers to those questions, but then again, Lovecraft's whole corpus is predicated on the idea that the search for answers will lead us only to madness, or death--how many of his protagonists ended their lives in one of those two eventualities? Despite what I said in my last post, I think that kind of escapism can sometimes be okay, especially if we see it for what it is and keep it from controlling our lives.

So here's to another year of Lovecraft, Halloween, and sinking myself into Western Massachusetts, for better or worse.

Tuesday
Oct102006

One Track Mind: "No Surprises" by Radiohead

Maybe this is too easy--this is a great song on one of the greatest albums of the 1990s. I could rattle off lists of awards, "best of" lists, and god knows what else about it, but you know that already. This album is eminently visible--it's in all our radars, a maybe-distant but still-persistant blip that we all recognize, and can reference. We know it's rock and roll, perhaps at its best, and we know that it means something.

...

Rock and Roll and Rebelliousness are dialectically linked; that is, they mutually construct each other, and have for the last half of the 20th century. In the essay from which I took the name of this blog, Lester Bangs talks about how, even at his most pathetic and pandering, there was still something in Elvis Presley that exuded his danger, something that no large golden beltbuckle could hide. But that rebelliousness was always implied, or set against something else. The twin figures of the 1950s that I have in my head are and Donna Reed, and we all take it for granted that one was the norm and the other, the reaction.

Of course, anyone who lived through and/or learns about the 1950s knows that it was much more complicated than that--binary opposites are always simplifications,--but the power of the images persist, and to this day, rock and roll has always embodied that sense of fighting against staid banalities, making some noise, fucking some shit up, breaking the rules.

...

I turn on the radio two years ago and I hear someone say "I won't ever fall in line/ become another victim of your conformity". I haven't turned on the radio much since then, but I think it's safe to say, given the plethora of emo-licious bands that I keep seeing on billboards that the same airs are still being put on and put forth. Punk music, whether on the margins of society or in it's most blinding spotlights, has embodied that rebellious energy, that rebelliousness for it's own sake, without any visible targets (Gang of Four, the Clash, among others excluded). Need to reject something? Reject "society", reject "conformity". These are powerful statements, and have carried many of us through our high school years of doubt and fear and whatever other childhood neuroses we had to overcome. But I've found that since I've gotten older, I've had to make a hard choice--if I am going to continue my rebelliousness (and that's a big if, with bill paying, and stable relationships, and 9 to 5 on the brain), I need to understand more. If rock and roll is rebellion against conformity, where does conformity come from? More importantly, why would someone actually choose "society", choose "conformity"? After all, you can only rebel against something if enough people have embraced it, and you can't convince them otherwise.

...

"No Surprises" tackles this question, and the title gives an answer. The first verse reads like the first half of the Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther's 95 theses; a list of grievances boiled down to a single life's dread and despair:

A Heart that's full up like a landfill/ A Job that Slowly Kills you

Bruises that won't heal

You look so tired, happy/ Bring down the government

They don't speak for us


This is a life experiencing the full pain of 20th century capitalism, with nowhere to direct it, and nothing to understand. There are no antagonists here--it's "the government" and "they don't speak for us"--they're faceless enemies. The power of capitalism as a system of inequality, is that it roots itself in the very nature of our world, and thereby makes it more difficult to fight. As Thatcher so eloquently pointed out in the early 80s, "There is no alternative", and she meant it, because she saw, consciously or not, a world in which capitalism was inevitable and natural (whether it actually is that remains to be seen), and could not be stopped--how do you fight a mountain range, or sunlight?

One response is to flush Thatcher's philosophy down the pipe--"bring down the government", start again and try something new. But the next verse gives another route, and an answer about conformity:

I'll take the quiet life/

A Handshake, some carbon-monoxide/

No Alarms and No surprises


The rest of the song details the sweet sensation of drowning in the face of the overwhelming nature of the modern world--exploited labor, world violence on a scale we've never even imagined, and more than that, the kinds of personal psychosis and pain that such a world inscribes into our souls. This is embodied in the video for the song. We see Thom Yorke's head with a pane of glass between us and him, on which is reflected...something, maybe the words of the song, maybe a stock ticker, maybe just the flicker of a TV screen parading endless horror from across the globe. We see lights, occasionally flashing, movement/no movement. He sings passively, there's no heart in it, just the open and closing of his lips. Gradually, we begin to realize that water is slowly creeping up his neck, filling up what is now obviously a tank surrounding him. It fills the entire screen, but he does not resist. Rather, he stares at us, with no expression on his face, not even resignation, he's just a body, floating and suspended. It's both beautiful and terrifying all at once, and tells us what we need to know about the choices that we can make in the face of the oppression that we live with. When, near the end of the video, the water drains away, we see him gasping like a dying fish--the water was peaceful, it was home, comfortable. And when he does sing the last verse:
Such a pretty house/ and such a pretty garden

we know that this is the only stimulus he has left. Every time I hear that verse, I well up with emotion. After you drown in...whatever, suburbia, conformity, adulthood, your job ...the world is no longer acting on you or pressing itself on you, because it's just a series of images, just pictures on a screen between you and the world, with no alarms, and no surprises.

...

Why would I fight? Why would I speak out? The world looks fucked from every direction, and capitalism is so huge and so much bigger than each of us; more than that, it separates us from each other so that we will always feel alone and powerless to stop it every time it prods and shocks us into submission. Accepting the peace and quiet that I can get from conformity, from embracing suburbia (a capitalist spatial formation if there ever was one), from simply tending my pretty house and pretty garden--this route seems blessedly wonderful and enticing. So what if I have to drown? It's worth it to know that I'll never have to feel again.

...

I won't pretend like the song draws pleasant conclusions. On an album about alienation, it's perhaps the most alienated song, and despite its beautiful lullaby of a melody, it doesn't paint a pretty picture of the world. Still, our only hope of change is to understand why people turn inward instead of embracing each other, and more than that, change depends on us actually embracing each other, beginning to build communities, solidarities, families on which we can both rely and strengthen. The world inside us, of images and reflections will never change unless we break the glass and reach through to take the hand of another person, never to let go.

Tuesday
Jul042006

One Track Mind: "Fidelity" by Regina Spektor

"Shake it up"

Spektor begins the song (and indeed the album) with this quiet phrase, just as the pizzicato strings and loping TR-808 beat kick in. She's making a break with something and informing us not to get comfortable. Comfort and its discontents are an important theme in this song, and in the end, Spektor tackles and (I think) resolves a problem that is an old one in western philosophy: where exactly does truth lie?
In the first verse of the song, she offers one possible location:

I got lost in the sounds
I hear in my mind
All these voices
I hear in my mind
all these words
I hear in my mind
All this music

Here we have someone turning inward and seeking wisdom. The sounds, the voices the words, the music--one can get easily lost in that vast constellation. There is wisdom to found within, and to be explored and cherished. She even outlines the process by which she undertakes this journey. Consider her next verse. She begins by positing various scenarios:

Suppose I never ever met you,
Suppose you never ever called.

When Rene Descartes wrote his Meditations, he attempted something similar. He begins by (supposing?) that every sensation of the world around him is false. Anything that could conceivably decieve him, herejects--his relationships with others, his own experiences and memories, even his own knowledge--until he whittles himself down to his famous maxim: cogito ergo sum--I think therefore I am. He then uses this piece of wisdom to go on and prove all kinds of things. Logic, ethics, even the existence of God. Springing only from the thoughts in his head, pushing away the possibility that anyone might be lying to him, he explores his own consciousness and discovers some truth.

Descartes believed that the only way to know truth was to perform this kind of intellectual exercise--to turn inward, to seek only that which can be proven in the mind, and to postulate only that which the mind can prove. What Spektor argues is perhaps much more profound.

She goes on to list a whole series of possibilities, unmaking an entire relationship in the course of eight bars--supposing they never kissed, or saw each other, or called. But at the end of the verse, her conclusion is perhaps the most startling:

Suppose I kept on singing love songs
Just to break my own fall

Suddenly the song itself becomes implicated in her quest for understanding. Now the voices, the songs, the music in her head are not random abstractions discovered through intense philosophical inquiry, but a defense mechanism, inspired by fear of falling. That's why Descartes had it wrong, or rather, he had it only half-right. Turning inward, as he tried to show, will reveal some truths, but Spektor says that others will always be hidden from us if we choose that path exclusively. She hears all the voices, the music in her head, and it does provide solace, but ultimately she is forced to conclude that "it breaks my heart". Maybe Descartes was running from a broken heart too, but he never had the guts to tell us like Spektor does.

Turning inward is a perfectly understandable reaction to the world we live in. It's a scary place, this Earth. It's full of inequality and hatred and fear, and we're faced with the prospect of having to play by rules not set with us in mind, rules that actively undermine everything we try to create that isn't built around some kind of control and domination. Most of our relationships with other people are conditioned by a cruel and inhumane marketplace, by prejudice and power, and at worst, by a kind of numbing and pleasurable ignoring. Faced with all that, any sane person would find solace in inside them, in songs that tell us allow us escape, and in voices and words that we create in our minds to support our own view of the world. The truths that we teach ourselves are our own crutches.

Ultimately, however, I think Regina Spektor is saying that this will only break our hearts in the end. Turning inward does not remove us from pain, it only postpones or masks it. If we want to live in a world filled with love and not fear, and real relationships, of whatever configuration or volume, we have to build these things. When she says "Suppose I never met you, suppose we never fell in love", it's because she has. She transcends the voices in her head, however safe and secure they may be, by reaching out and creating something beautiful and hopeful. All of us who seek safety inside ourselves will never find it until we choose (and as Bill Hicks said, it is only a choice) to take others with us on the journey to enlightenment; to love, and peace.

Tuesday
Jan312006

No desperation

Sorry it's taken me so long to post, and sorry this post will be so short, but, hey, who really reads this anyway?! :)

I spent some time yesterday calling senators asking them to support the filibuster against Samuel Alito, which has apparently failed. Since it's almost impossible for the democrats to muster enough votes to actually overturn Alito's nomination, given a minority of members, and some of whom actually support Alito (Ben Nelson from Nebraska and Robert Byrd from West Virginia, to name two) this makes his appointment essentially certain.

I was disappointed that only 25 senators voted against cloture, but as someone recently pointed out, 98 senators voted to confirm Scalia, and that was in a democrat controlled senate. The other thing that gives me heart, or rather, a sense of perspective, is this article by Howard Zinn. The summary of it is basically that, in the long term, its important to remember that our rights are not given to us by the supreme court, but are demanded from it, and from elected officials.

Brown vs. Board of education was the culmination of decades of civil rights work and grassroots organizing. The supreme court dealt the final blow (or lit off the fuse, depending on your point of view) to old-style segregation, but they did so because a whole lot of people got together, organized, and made it happen.

I'm certainly terrified of Samuel Alito, and the power he'll have over my life and the lives of the people I care about. But his confirmation is not the end of the world. It adds an extra step in the path toward true freedom, but no system of power is insurmountably vast, and any time we want, we can dictate the course of our own lives, and take what is ours from those systems..

Sunday
Dec112005

"I ain't dead yet, muthafucka"

Maybe I'll write something longer, maybe I won't, but I just wanted to put this out there, in case you haven't heard.

Richard Pryor has died

So many comedians of his generation skirted any kind of social responsibility, or any kind of controversy (Lenny Bruce excepted of course). Pryor reveled in controversy, swam in it, and spit it out at his audiences. And we loved it. I've laughed so hard listening to Richard Pryor that I sobbed. My dad and I would have to pull off the road if we put in one of his tapes while driving, to keep from crashing. When they started giving out Grammys for comedy/spoken word records in the 70s, Pryor's albums dominated that category for nearly a decade.

There have been many since who have taken up his yoke and tried to speak laughter to power (Bill Hicks being my favorite, but also David Cross, and Dave Chappelle, to name a few of the righteous), but Richard Pryor proved that you could interrogate inequality with laughter--a fairly revolutionary proposition, given the long history of sober scholarship on the ills of the world, and something all of us seeking to change the status quo should constantly keep in mind.

Monday
Nov282005

Scary music--about frigging time

Everybody swings on Christmas, but not me. Halloween is, without a doubt, my favorite holiday. I've loved it ever since I was a little kid, and its been one of the few moments that I associate with innocence of youth that I've carried with me into this tenuous terror called adulthood.

It's atmosphere more than anything else. I guess it's the same with Christmas too, but around Halloween, there's definitely a feeling in the air, and all you have to do is prick up your ears and listen for it. It's especially palpable here in New England, where the golden leaves reflect the sunlight in colors you don't see any other time, and where the hills, forests, and rivers have given rise to so much great atmospheric literature (Hawthorne, Poe, and my man H.P. Lovecraft).

I play on that atmosphere every year. I readjust my world in small ways to better attune me to it. I watch certain movies, I read certain books, and more than anything else, I listen to music.

This list represents the contents of a mixtape that I made in 2000, right around Halloween. At the time it represented the spookiest songs in my record collection. I'd probably make changes now, but given that it represents a moment in time, designed to capture an atmosphere, it's kind of taken on a life of its own, and I don't know if I'd dare mess it up. I put this tape in a walkman and wandered around the North End of Boston on Halloween night, past Copp's hill cemetary, down the winding European streets and along the waterfront. Everytime I hear any of these songs, I go back there.

1.)"Good morning Captain"
by Slint

Maybe one of the most perfectly crafted pieces of art I've ever had the pleasure to experience. Someday I'll finish my essay on Slint's album Spiderland , and what they mean to me, but for right now, suffice it to say, this is a ghost story, to kick off my collection ghost stories (to greater or lesser extent), and it's the best. A sea captain crashes his ship, killing the crew. As he laments his fate, alone in the ocean, he begins to see things—a door rising from the sea, an empty house, a child who may be dead speaking to him. All the while, the music tense and tight, building and falling, building and falling until the ocean of the last few chords and the screams wash the whole scene out of existence. What a band. What a song.

2.)Big Empty
by Stone Temple Pilots

I can take or leave the chorus of this song, but the slide guitar reminds me of the beginning of Pirates of the Carribbean at Disneyland, where you're riding through the swamp, listening to the sounds of crickets and backwoods musicians who know that you're going somewhere dangerous. The other great moment is the breakdown after the second chorus, a whirlpool rising from the depths, engulfing you. Note in both cases, Scott Weilland is not singing. Sorry man, but sometimes songs are better when you sit them out.

3.)Riding
by The Palace Brothers

As a template for Will Oldham's later work in Bonnie Prince Billy, this song works. As a frightening morality play about incest and death and desire, it works beautifully. The guys from Slint are actually the backup band here (no surprise, given the ambience of the recording and the musicianship). When Oldham screams “I'm long since dead, and I live in hell”, you can here the soul he represents screeching and warning the living not to make the same mistake.

4.)As You Said
by Joy Division, performed by Tortoise

I'm cursed with a problem— I have a really hard time enjoying music unless the production blows me away. It has to sound full and filling, for me to get lost in it. It's for this reason that, try as I might, I've never been able to get into Joy Division. I think they would scoff at my desire, intent as they were on portraying the world as a fragile, crystaline thing. This song is instrumental, and doesn't have any of the manic nihilism that characterizes Ian Curtis's lyrics. Plus, it's performed by Tortoise, on a JD tribute I bought a few years ago. They turn the song into a bubbling, electronic, gradual decay, and the single note melody is like a pulse from a dead planet floating black and alone in space.

5.)Baby Did a bad bad thing
by Chris Isaak

I've been told that Chris Isaak is basically some great songs in a sea of filler. But what a song this is—if he had an album of stuff like this, I'd be all over it. As such, I got this song where a lot of people did—from Stanley Kubrick's final opus Eyes Wide Shut . The smokey rockabilly-delay intro is like a car driving off into the night, and then Chris tells us that “Baby did a bad bad thing/and I feel like crying”. He never says what she does, but it must've been something awful—certainly its a betrayal of his love, and it maybe something worse. In the movie, it functions to heighten the tension between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, but it stands on its own as a creepy testament to what love can make us do, or even forgive.

6.)Glenn by Slint

Slint pops up way too much on this tape, but that's because they epitomize to me how great music can be, and what kinds of sensastions it can inspire. Plus, they make some sounds that most of us have never heard on a record album—whispers, screeches, and that strange vibration during the chorus of this song. The melody of the verse could almost be a voice, but whatever story it's telling is most surely a little mad. Something is rotten in the state of Spiderland.

7.)Curse of Milhaven
by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave used to raise all kinds of real hell in his original band The Birthday Party, quite possibly the scariest coterie of freaks ever to make an album, with the possible exception of the Stooges. People say that he mellowed out (re: kicked heroin) when he started the Bad Seeds, but one listen to this song, or the entire Murder Ballads album and you know you're in something frightening. I like to think of this song as the polka that will be playing at the gates of hell. The best line: when the murdering child has finally been caught and begins her confession, she comes out with this frightening description of herself... “my eyes ain't green and my hair ain't yellow/ it's more like the other way around/ I've got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming”. The bad seed indeed.

8.)Salo
by The For Carnation

After Slint broke up, the guys all went their separate ways, but Brian McMahon took the torch (or maybe the ember) of Spiderland and formed The For Carnation, which makes even Slint's music sound pleasant and unmenacing by comparison. This song is on their album Marshmallows (and re-collected on Promised Works) , and its essentially a series of frightening viniettes, culminating in what appears to be a rape. All through the song, a single musical note pulses like a submarine ping in the deepest ocean, or maybe a satelite, sending out its last information on a dying battery in the dead of empty space. It's a message of something, but like all great art, it demands our attention because of its ambiguity and because we have to meet it to interpret. The only problem is that we may be horrified by what we end up seeing.

9.)Red Right Hand
by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The problem with making a scary music tape is that some bands have made their careers on scaring the crap out of us. Slint and its progeny did this well, and nobody has mastered the macabre (and also redemption) better than Nick Cave. A lot of people know this song from Scream, and it worked well for that movie, but this is a song that's really old testament, trials-of-Christ type stuff. It's like a legend that hoboes and broken junkies might tell each other over a barrel fire, or maybe two men in prison talking about their lives. Satan, with his red right hand (this is an image from John Milton, apparently), is behind it all, and is constantly teaching us that the worst aspects of humanity come not from the evils that men do, but the greed and desire that they feel.

10.)I put a spell on you
by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, performed by Marilyn Manson

Ok, ok, don't switch off your computer just yet. I know there are far better versions of this song (including the original by Screaming Jay Hawkins, who was probably the original Marilyn Manson of his day), but it's not so much the song that's great as the way the band took to it. When the drums come in, pounding out a sailing rhythm for the galley slaves, it almost sounds like the dead have come up and are marching toward the city. Say what you want about Manson's voice, but at least the guy is somewhat expressive, and when he screams, you can feel it in your bones. When he starts yelping out “you, you, you!!!” it sounds like he's got his love taped to a chair in front of him, and every syllable is the wave of a sharp kitchen knife. Also, Twiggy pulled a great solo out of his ass for this one. If the lyrics are a stalker's diary, the guitar is his car, pealing away into the night after the horror has been concluded. For all the stupid shit he's done, I'll never begrudge Manson for this song.

11.)For Dinner
by Slint

Though part of Slint's magic was the whispers of stories that Brian McMahon would tell, just barely audibly, my favorite Slint song has no words. Not that it really matters, because the energy of this song is so palpable that you could tell any story and the song will take it away from you and transform it. It's dark and rumbling, and walking through Boston on Halloween nights, I would find myself looking over my shoulder at every turn to make sure I wasn't being followed. By the time the single guitar line subsides at the end of the song, you feel like something has happened, but you don't know what. Resolution is the wrong word, but maybe acceptance? Damnit—now I'm trying to tell a story over what is essentially a tone poem. Slint does it again.

12.)Wandering Star
by Portishead

I once heard a Portishead track without Beth Gibbons voice, and it was all I could do to not turn it off after ten seconds. She belongs there, and she makes her presence known at every turn. I have no clue what this song is about, but the imagery—stars, darkness, empty husks—send it into the realm of the frightening. Maybe it's just lonliness—the feeling that you're like a star, casting about the blackness of space, and nothing is around you, nothing speaks to you. Of course, as soon as I start thinking about floating silently in space for all eternity, I turn on every light in the house and call everyone I know, just to have some human contact.

13.)Musica Ricercata No. 2
by Dominic Harlan

This is the first track from the Eyes Wide Shut Soundtrack . Lots of people got annoyed with it, but I dare you, double dog dare you, to turn all the lights off and listen to it all the way through. I've never been able to do it. Every time that high piano note comes in after the long silence, I jump up and hit the stop button.

14.)Stuck in Here
by Filter

This is one of two acoustic numbers on Filter's first record Short Bus . I have no illusions about liking Filter anymore, but this first record (it also has “Hey man Nice Shot” on it) is really good. This song sounds like an old record player, and has a kind of surreal quality to it—the melody is just a little too off-kilter to be anything other than a dream, or a prelude to a nightmare.

15.)Don, A Man
by Slint

This is the last time, I promise! The only acoustic number on Spiderland , this was the first Slint song I sat down and learned how to play. It's essentially two songs held together by a bizarre narrative about partying, alienation, and driving way too fast. It's got some great lines too: “/like swimming underwater in the darkness/like walking through an empty house/speaking to an imaginary audience/he watched from outside”.
I won't say much about it, except that when the distortion comes in, you will jump out of your seat. If that doesn't convince all you bored music lovers to pick up Spiderland , you need some shock therapy.

16.)House full of Garbage
by Shellac

Shellac has dabbled with creepiness through the twisted metallic grind of their albums, but this song stands out in part because it never actually goes anywhere. There's no loud chorus, or a dramatic build up. The song actually ends with (I kid you not) about three minutes of Todd Trainer banging out single hits on drums. I threw this song on the tape because as a kid, I used to have nightmares about abandoned houses full of garbage. I still don't know why the image is so visceral to me, but every time I hear this song, I think of waking up screaming as a little kid, after dreaming about falling through the floor onto a dirty mattress piled high with garbage, and knowing that I was lost forever.

17.)Story
by Tool

I had to close with this. It's after the hidden track on Undertow , and it's also the last sounds that appear on that album, aside from some general cricket noise. Supposedly Maynard received this story/poem/suicide note on his answering machine, and felt it warranted inclusion on the album. I don't know what it's about, really, but the imagery gives me goosebumps, and if I'm listening to this at home, I lock all the doors when it ends. God help me if I'm outside.

What this story, and the rest of the songs make clear is that Lovecraft was right—the supernatural, the unknown, the ambiguous, and the undefinable are so frightening and horrifying to us in part because we have no way of categorizing what they tell us. It's cliché to say that the best scary movies don't show the monster, but it's not because the monster isn't there, it's because we have to engage our minds in what is going on. We are asked, on Halloween and anytime we get the shit scared of us, to entertain the possibilities of our own imaginations, and all great art succeeds, in one way or another, of engaging them to a greater or lesser degree. Hopefully these songs are no exception. If you want to recommend any other scary-assed music for my next year mix tape, I'd love to hear about it.

Monday
Oct312005

Scary music prelude

I'm working on a post about a halloween mix tape I made a few years ago. Every year in mid-october I find myself searching for creepy music. I know it's out there, but no one ever gives me a guide, or a way to think about looking.

Pitchfork put this up a few years ago. I've still never picked up any of these records, mostly because (no surprise, given the arena) they're too obscure to be found in any of my record haunts. Still, if you run across any of these albums, drop me a line and let me know if they live up to the hype:

Pitchfork: Every Day is Halloween

Also see an offering of scary music from another on-line rag, Stylus Magazine