BRAIN TUBA: The Transitive Nightfall
18 November 2001
I just saw what was, perhaps, one of the most beautiful things I have ever
experienced. I’m gonna hold off on the specifics for the moment, though, and
let that serve as a frustratingly intriguing comment while I ramble off on
tangents and build back to it. That’s the plan, anyway. It’ll all come
I’m so extremely happy that you and Neil are coming down to visit! Yes,
extremely happy. I bounce up and down and tell my friends that the
Lobster People are coming to New York and they look at me strangely.
"They’re not genetically lobsters," I explain. "They just spend a lot
of time with them on boats; you know, catching ‘em." I’m not sure if they
get it. They probably have visions of y’all approaching them at a
maddeningly slow speed, pinchers raised and snapping in slow-motion.
Legend has it (per one of my professors freshman year) that after Jean-Paul
Sartre – or one of those other French existentialists – took acid, he wrote
that he felt perfectly normal, except for the giant lobster that persisted
in following him around Paris. Ah, to be a French existentialist. I haven’t
quite sunk that low yet. In my present standing, I’m still a few levels
above that. I’m pretty sure there are about three or four more stages of
self-loathing depression between geekdom and all-abiding philosophies of
gloom. I’ll let you know, though.
At any rate, this here ramble actually begins (and nearly ends) with the
topic of music geekdom, specifically a couple of precise strains of it. I’m
gonna have to slip into dorky analysis mode for a long moment. In 1965,
there was Bob Dylan. He was it. He was cool. He was the top of the pops,
cream of the crop. Sure, there were the Beatles, but even they were picking
up lessons in Hip from Dylan (who, supposedly, first turned the Fabs onto
pot). Everybody basically followed in his footsteps. They couldn’t help but
be influenced by him.
Beyond his lyrics – which have certainly been commented on enough – there
are two basic elements that make Dylan so amazing to me: his keen sense of
American history (musical and otherwise) and his strange-as-fuck-all notion
of rhythm (which itself probably derives from old forms of American popular
Historically, Dylan is self-consciously aware of where he stands in the
stream of American music. It comes through in his lyrics, which evolved
fluidly out of the traditional material that made up the bulk of his early
songbook. Unconscious, I think, is Dylan’s rough American spirit, the last
remains of a certain brand of populism championed by the New Left in the
’50s – with Woody Guthrie, Bob’s hero, as their model – which would
eventually mutate into full-on hippiedom. Both of these things manifested
themselves in a raw drive that crackled behind so many of Dylan’s great
mid-‘60s songs — Like A Rolling Stone, Maggie’s Farm, Tell Me Mamma,
and tons of others.
To summarize: Dylan’s cool. Many bands took him on as a primary influence,
including The Grateful Dead and The Velvet Underground. Each of these
embodied a completely different aesthetic — yet each was equally born out
of Dylan. The Dead took Dylan’s sloppy rhythms and tightened them up into a
danceable rock groove. The Velvets took the same sloppy rhythms and made
them even sloppier. Each of these approaches, in turn, spawned entire
genres; The Dead birthing jambands, The Velvets birthing punks and, later,
That’s the way my theory goes, anyway. There are two people in my life that
I would be most likely to spring this kinda diatribe on in conversations.
And, oddly enough, each of them represents one of these aesthetics perfectly
and completely. Tommy, for example, is extremely into indie rock, watching
sunsets, deep drones, Jim Jarmusch, and philosophy. Ray, on the other hand,
is deeply immersed in the jamband world (whether he’ll admit it or not),
social politics, and other fun things you can dance about.
In my four years at school, I felt a deep split between the two worlds, at
least as they revealed themselves in own life. This became more and more
apparent during my senior year. One of them was the Phishhead thing: hunting
down tapes for long pieces of beautiful improvisation, trekking around the
country to see bands in exotic locales, all of that. The other part involved
the pursuit of Beauty with a capital ‘B’: taking Polaroid pictures of deep
blue skies and strip malls, exploring the sonic possibilities of feedback in
my basement… those sorts of things.
There’s a poem by Mike Doughty that always summarized it well for me (even
though my friend Dawn told me that it was basically ripped off from a novel
by Italo Calvino), which I now desperately need to read). It’s short, so
I’ll retype it. Hell, I might’ve even sent this before. It’s one of my
favorite pieces of writing… ***
Each city is its own dream life.
In each, the other the dream.
He is awake only on airplanes.
He hurdles weeks
through the calendar
in each city,
longing for the other.
That’s kind of how I felt. And feel. I feel attached to both of these things
— The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead and everything each of the
groups stands for. But I feel these things separately, almost
schizophrenically sometimes. An experience in one "city" is utterly foreign
to the other. In the midst of one kind of experience (say, enraptured in
watching The Disco Biscuits’ play a spontaneous score to "Koyaanisqatsi"), I
have trouble understanding the other kind of experience (examining
interesting looking pieces of garbage on the street, for example), even on
an instinctual level. Sometimes, in the midst of one, I am almost repulsed
by the other — sometimes even to the point of yearning for it to try and
grasp that repugnance. Yet, the two ideas co-exist, and I’m happy to follow
through with each in good time.
A few weeks ago, those two cultures suddenly clashed. Tommy was on fall
break from school, so he came out to New York (as did numerous other
friends). My roommate and I chose the occasion to throw a party. The guests
were about half-and-half: half were my New York friends (meaning people I go
to shows with), half were friends from school. I let Tommy DJ, for the most
part. He chose music that he liked, which I (generally) liked too. A lot of
it ended up seriously displeasing some of the headier guests. I got an email
from Ray a few days later with theme of the "sub-cultural semiotics of the
music selection at your party Friday night". You can imagine where it
went from there. He’s a smart guy, and he certainly had a point.
I’ve always been relatively self-conscious about each of these ideas but,
since Ray sent me that email, I’ve been ultra-self-conscious about
it, probably far more than is healthy, trying to figure out if there is
anything that exists in between – music, books, films, experiences – that
might be considered a waking, lucid state of some sort (to borrow a metaphor
from Doughty and, maybe, Calvino). It’s not so much a question of hip
self-worth so much as an ongoing puzzle, the latest frame of interpretation.
On some levels, it’s a superficial exercise, to be sure, but I’m wondering
if it might reveal anything about the make-up of how and why I enjoy the
things I do.
I went and saw a show by Lake Trout tonight. They’re a band that, I suspect,
might blur the line a fair bit. Tommy has enjoyed them. My friend Johanna,
who is normally obnoxiously critical of jambands (in an amusing way), also
enjoyed what she saw of them at the Wetlands last December. Whether or not
either of them would be enthusiastic about them is another question. As I
was leaving the gig, somebody reminded me about the intense meteor shower
that is going on tonight, telling me that the peak hours were right between
4:00 and 5:00.
By the time I got home, it was about 3:30. I fixed myself a small snack,
checked my email, smoked a bowl. and prepared to go up onto the roof. I
retrieved my discman and a Dead CD, gathered a blanket and a pillow, bundled
up, and was on my way. On the roof, I laid down on the cold cement, cued up
Dark Star, and stared heavenwards. At first, I didn’t really see
anything. I thought I did, though. I squinted my eyes until squiggly lines
wiggled across the sky like translucent worms.
Then, I started to see them. There was no mistaking it, no questioning what
it was. They were shooting stars. Lots of them. They spat thick streams of
glittering dust behind them that streaked and splotched the sky, trailing
beautifully. Sometimes, they would happen minutes apart, sometimes the would
fire in rapid succession. When that happened, it would be particularly
gorgeous. The music turned out to be a perfect choice, sometimes seemingly
playing in synch to the sky. The mix sounded lush and clean in the
headphones, the separation between the instruments nearly perfect. I was at
At some point, more people wandered onto the roof. Every now and then, when
they would see something shoot, they would gasp loudly. I cherished the ones
they didn’t gasp at. I felt that they were mine and mine alone. Somewhere in
there, I felt that I had finally found an objectively beautiful experience
— something that encompassed both aesthetics in their totality with nothing
removed or diluted; something equally steeped in the ideas of beauty as a
transitive property and beauty as a cleanly contained experience.
There is, of course, the old thing about wishing on shooting stars. I
couldn’t help but think about it, obviously. I found that I quickly ran out
of wishes, though…