Cave plays Shikaakwa on Chicago River
Cave plays Shikaakwa on Chicago River
Levi’s nanny Sharon came back this morning exclaiming about the weather and singing, “The wind is in from Africa, last night I couldn’t sleep….” Before she left, I dug out my old copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue and played “Carey” for her. We both sang along, eyes closed, me holding my son and dancing with him. It was awesome.
I still know most of the words to most of the songs on Blue. It was one of the first records with which I fell deeply and personally in love. I was 17, I got an original faded copy from Solo Records on Woodward Avenue, “home of the $1 record.” The building was cement block, painted mint green, with SOLO RECORDS painted by hand in black on the side of the building. I used to drive there by myself in my mother’s copper Citation and look for things I’d heard about. It wasn’t a hip place and I don’t remember ever shopping there with a friend. I remember there were records I never found — I was always hoping to score a Velvet Underground LP (respect to Lou Reed), etc. — but it was reliable for a certain kind of unfashionable Boomer pop-folk. While my friend Andrea was buying R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction and the guy I liked was into Pere Ubu and The Stranglers, I bought a James Taylor record, some 70s-era Paul Simon solo stuff, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Nashville Skyline. There were many times throughout my life when admittedly it was the dudes around me influencing what I listened to but these purchases were all mine. Not that these were revelatory choices, I bought a lot of Classic Rock Lite, but they were my choices and not related to connecting with my peers or impressing anyone. This was music to listen to alone in my room. Joni Mitchell’s Blue was the ultimate 17-year-old-girl-alone-in-her-room-dreaming-and-moping record for me.
After Sharon left, I played the record a number of times throughout the day. “Little Green” still kills me, because I remember listening intently to the lyrics and understanding that it was about a lost child. It made me think of my missing father, even though the story in the song doesn’t match my story perfectly. But there’s the man who leaves for California “hearing everything’s warmer there” and that line said it all about the ease with which it seemed people could walk away. The ideal of freedom warmer than a lover’s body. Warmer than a baby’s hand. (A BABY’S HAND!) My parents met in California. I was from California. The fact that my mother returned home to give birth to me in Michigan didn’t change that. Even though I’d never been there, it was where I started.
My mother used to tell me this story when I was young that for a while when she lived in California, she felt a presence around her. She said she felt the sensation of wings brushing against her face. After a while — how long did this go on? I don’t know, I wish I could ask her now — she was overcome with the belief that this presence had nowhere to go. She felt empathy for it, its banishment, and she told me she tried to communicate with this unseen but palpable “presence” that if it needed somewhere to go that she would make room for it inside her own body. The feeling went away. Later she learned she was pregnant.
It’s an odd story to tell your illegitimate daughter.
I never questioned its veracity, she never presented it as a metaphor. She never used words like angels or fairies or anything that would place the story squarely within the language of fantasy. She was very matter of fact about it. She didn’t even preface the story with, “Don’t tell anyone this or they’ll think that I’m crazy, but…” Which is what I would do.
I always remember the line from “Little Green” that goes “there will be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow” — the flower that was the first to come up in front of my grandparents’ house every spring.
Before she left today, Sharon said, “You know, I like Joni Mitchell. I like that she has a relationship with her daughter now.”
I said, “Yeah…”
I didn’t like the footage available for “Little Green,” but this is another song from Blue that I love love love. And the performance is really charming and girlish. And again: California.
In this week’s Lattice of Coincidence: when searching for cultural landmarks of 1972, I found a spooky clip of Bowie performing his song “Five Years” on British television about a month after I was born. Then The New York Review of Books arrived with an illustration of Bowie as Ziggy on the cover and an interesting article called The Invention of David Bowie by Ian Baruma inside, which discusses the artist in light of the David Bowie Is exhibit at London’s V&A Museum. Then this morning, I woke to my husband listening to this record downstairs. He didn’t play the whole thing because it seemed to be making the baby edgy. (The baby prefers the smooth sounds of reggae.) But I woke up to the song “Five Years” and decided to listen to the whole record again tonight, since I’m alone in the house and the baby is asleep.
I picked this out at a used record store in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1989; can’t remember the name of the place, though I could find out. I think my friend who worked there also gave me a promo tape of Doolittle by The Pixies in the same visit. (He described The Pixies as a “college rock” band that sang about eyeballs.) I eventually also bought Bowie’s Low and Hunky Dory, both of which I played more than Ziggy. But this record still reminds me of my first year at university, of the weird dorm room I shared with a high-school friend who was already on her way to becoming a former acquaintance. I was broke, so she bought us matching black bedspreads so that our room would like nice. We had a tiny fridge that always had some stinking leftovers in it. (Mine, I’m sure.)
It also reminds me of the last months of living at home, at the end of high school and the summer that followed. I watched The Graduate twice in a row and thought Mrs Robinson was a hideous monster. I rooted for pretty Katharine Ross’s character, probably, I realize now, responding to the struggle between the dutiful daughter and her sexually competitive mother. I also became obsessed with Manhattan. In one scene Woody’s character defends his age-inappropriate relationship with a teenager to Diane Keaton’s character. After she finds out his ex-wife left him for another woman, she cracks, “That explains the little girl. What is she — 16?” He sputters, “She’s 17 and she’s going to be 18 soon….” I could tell that the joke was that this correction is meant to be seen as an absurd distinction, so irrelevant to the fact that Woody’s character is, as he reveals in another scene, older than his girlfriend’s father. Sixteen, 17, almost 18 — what’s the difference? But to me — 17, about to leave the home I shared with my beautiful, youthful single mother — I thought, fuck, that’s a huge difference. I was really focused on the fact that I would be turning 18 in a few months and I would bring this up to my mother all the time as a way of intoning, “Your reign of tyranny will soon end.” We fought a lot then, but I’d have to look at my diaries to find out what we were yelling about. She hated the guy I was dating. She probably wanted me home at a certain time. Normal stuff.
And this record, especially the song “Five Years, “ it was dark in a way that felt good to me. I had spent a lot of time listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue by myself moping that I didn’t fit in with the people who didn’t fit in. Ziggy Stardust was weird and sinister and closely connected in my mind to the boy who killed himself when were juniors. There were a number of suicides in my time at Berkley High School, but this was the guy I knew best of that unfortunate group, even if I still didn’t know him very well. He was friends with my friends. He was magnetic and funny. He left a big hole in our landscape. And he had been a massive Bowie fan. I remember once being in his bedroom after school one day with a girlfriend of mine who he had been messing around with off and on. He played “The Bed” off of Lou Reed’s Berlin — “this is the place where she lay her head…. And this is the place where she cut her wrists….” — and asked us, “Isn’t this sad?” I thought about that afternoon a lot later.
“Five Years” is devastating to me now when I listen to it, though I don’t think it really hit me so hard back then. It opens the record with a declaration of doomsday, describing an emotional city scene as a crowd responds to the news that “Earth was really dying” and “we’ve got five years — that’s all we got.” The song begins and ends with such a steady, cold beat. It’s so well written. And now that I am one, I understand the power of its haunting second line: “so many mothers crying.”
“I postulate that cats started as psychic companions, as Familiars, and have never deviated from this function.” —William S. Burroughs
Boys made me mixed tapes from the time I was 15 until I was 26. Funny how that is not nearly as long a stretch of years on paper as it seems in my memory. Eleven years between the time I was too young to drive and the night I met my husband at an unfamiliar bar in Chicago.
There were three kinds of tapes guys made me: Courting tapes, We’re Doing It tapes, and You Left Me You Hurt Me tapes. Occasionally there was a You Would Be a Whole Lot Cooler If You Were Listening to This tape. I rarely dated the people who gave me self-improvement tapes, but I always studied the track lists closely.
The guy who gave me my first You Hurt Me tape when we were sophomores asked for it back when we were juniors. We had reversed our power positions and he didn’t want me playing it for my girlfriends to prove he used to like me. We were off and on for the rest of high school, and then he made me a Let’s Try Again tape when I was away at university and he was lonely at home with his parents. We became a steady couple and spent two years together that felt like a long marriage. His tapes included songs by The Stranglers, Pere Ubu, The Police, and The Pretenders. I remember listening to a lot of Camper Van Beethoven in his rented room in Hamtramck when we were 18. Also Syd Barrett and John Lennon. “Oh Yoko” is still one of my favorite love songs.
I can only think of two women who made me tapes. My friend Renee gave me a You Should Listen to Kirsten Hirsch tape when we were both at college in Ann Arbor. And my best friend Heather in Chicago made me a tape with songs by Scrawl and Elevator to Hell on it so we’d have something good to listen to when we drank vodka cranberries and took pictures of each other in lipstick and tight shirts with guns silkscreened on them. She also gave me a copy of Carole King’s Tapestry.
Sometimes the cassette covers were decorated with interesting photocopies, pictures torn from magazines, glitter, nailpolish. I remember one with the maudlin title “kiss/cry” (one side for loving, one side for weeping). Once a guy I had a very brief fling with made me a letter tape by talking into a tiny microphone as he walked around Paris and cracked jokes.
One boyfriend made me incredibly well constructed tapes that had songs by Guided By Voices and Bedhead interspersed with snippets of our favorite dialogue from our favorite movies and outtakes from kitschy instructional records on proper breathing techniques. A clip of Z-Man from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls shouting, “This is my happening and it FREAKS me out!” was followed by “Hot Freaks” by GBV. He was meticulous, everything perfectly timed. He told me that the guys in Guided By Voices were 40-year-old high-school teachers from Ohio. We were in our early 20s and worked at Borders Books & Music on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
A 10-year-old idea for a short story: a document of tapes created by different characters. Overlapping dates, contrasting tastes. Anger, desire, resentment, betrayal, seduction, education, snobbery, feelings. All through groupings of song titles. (Too ersatz–Nick Hornby.)
I had trouble connecting to Mag Earwhig this morning, though I think my husband put one of the songs on one of the many great tapes he made me the first year we were dating. My favorite song on this record is “I Am a Tree.” It’s on a playlist I use for exercising.
It was sensational weather outside today and I was inside all morning and early afternoon puttering. I listened to The Meters and the funky sounds seemed kind of an odd fit with the feel of the day — it made much more sense after I turned the volume UP. The song “Stretch Your Rubber Band” is one of those great songs that say There-is-a-new-dance-and-this-is-what-it’s-called-and-people-love-it-and-you-should-do-it-right-now-do-it-like-this. I love dancing but I’m not very coordinated and have never been able to pull off anything synchronized, like those moments in movies when a line of people all watch the sexy brazen guy from out of town as he takes over the dance floor and then one or two open-minded souls start to follow his lead until even the paralytically shy and uptight have joined so everyone together becomes one single stunning mass moving in total fluid timing. Not once has this happened to me. I guess that’s what the appeal of “Gangnam Style” is, and here I am thinking about Andre Williams’ songs like “Bacon Fat” or “The Greasy Chicken.” Nostaligic for someone else’s past. Funny how infectious dance songs are essentially novelty numbers.
Zigaboo Modeliste, the drummer in The Meters, has one of the best names in music. The Meters are from New Orleans. I’ve never been to New Orleans and when I first heard the news of Katrina I thought, maybe the New Orleans I’ve always been planning to see has been destroyed forever, though I don’t think that now. When I was at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s some friends went down to Mardi Gras over spring break and came back with beads and, in one case, a dramatic magickal-symbol tattoo of unknown provenance. My friend went back to the guy who inked his arm to belatedly ask, WHAT DOES IT MEAN? and was told something along the lines of Power and Domination. I also knew some people who moved to New Orleans, years ago, before the storm, and they loved the fact that you could legally drink cocktails while shopping at the mall.
Another thing about dancing; I read once a theory that the ability to synchronize group movements was possibly an evolutionary advantageous trait because it allowed a cluster of humans to confuse predators by appearing to be one large single animal with many arms and legs moving at once. Oh-ho strange beast.
(In which I listen to a record in my house and write something. I listened to this record a few days ago and wrote this down and forgot to post it. I picked Abbey Road because my husband had been listening to it earlier and it was still on the turntable.)
Couple things. One: I actually went to Abbey Road when my friend’s then-boyfriend (now-husband) was recording an album by the musicians Robert Plant and Jimmy Page there. (You know, the guys from Led Zeppelin.) This was a very long time ago. My friend’s boyfriend made fun of me for buying tacky plastic coasters with Beatles photos embedded in them from someone on the street in front of the studio. I stand by my purchase.
I didn’t think about that while I was listening to the record, though. What I thought about was that when I was a kid, I used to have the song “Something” on a Beatles “Love Songs” compilation record. I bought this record instead of Juice by Juice Newton, a decision I sometimes regretted. (It had “Queen of Hearts” on it!)
I loved the song “Something” but my mother, a major Beatlesmaniac, asked me not to play it. She came from the other side of our tiny rented house and stood at the weird wooden accordion-shutter door of my bedroom and said, “Please don’t ever play this song.” This was so mysterious and fascinating to me, and I wondered if it had something (SOMETHING) to do with my father. I had not yet met my father in 1981. Years later, she explained that it reminded her of some other guy. I don’t even remember who, he was so unimportant in the end. When I listened to this song the other day, I thought the drums sounded really cool. They are softly insistent underneath the kind of painful swell where George sings, “You’re asking me will my love grow. I don’t know, I DON’T KNOW.”
The baby woke up and I didn’t even get to the second side, which is supposed to be the masterpiece part.
I can’t embed this video, but check out this link (as long as Apple will let it stand) — I’m such a sucker for the absurd mythologies built around the Loves of The Beatles (Patti, Linda, Yoko, What’s-her-name) fully indulged in here.
And then there’s Juice.