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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/01/23
by Jesse Jarnow

Five Music Related Moments From My Life, circa January 2003

I’ve never been able to articulate why I love demos and obscure takes so
much — not just live shows, but genuinely secret stuff, songs that never
made it out for public consumption. In his lavish new Songbook,
published by McSweeney’s, High Fidelity author Nick Hornby got at it
in a way I agree with:
"In Victorian London they used to burn phosphorous at sces in an attempt
to see ghosts, and I suspect that the pop music equivalent is our obsession
with B-sides and alternate versions and unreleased material. If you can hear
Dylan and the Beatles being unmistakably themselves at their peak – but
unmistakably themselves in a way we haven’t heard a thousand, a million
times before – then suddenly you get a small but thrilling flash of their
spirit, and it’s as close as we’ll ever get, those of us born in the wrong
time, to knowing what it must have been like to have those great records
burst out of the radio at you when you weren’t expecting them, or anything
like them."
Relatedly, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I also just rediscovered
LimeWire. I was always a big proponent of Napster, not for pirating or even
sampling new music (though there was that) but for having the ability to
utterly hit the spot at the right time. The other night, I was at a bar, and
found a song on the jukebox that excited the hell outta me — "The
Passenger" by Iggy Pop. I hadn’t heard it in a few years at least, I don’t
think. I eagerly pumped a quarter in and waited.
I left the bar before it came up. When I got home, I wanted desperately to
hear it. So, I fired up LimeWire — that slightly deadened,
not-as-good-as-Napster substitute. I found "The Passenger" easily, though I
couldn’t get it to successfully download (at least, not for a few days).
While I was waiting, though, I started tooling around and making other
searches. I ended up spending two hours grabbing stuff, mostly indulging my
recent unbending lust for Bob Dylan.
Soon, I was immersed in Olof Bjorner’s ridiculously comprehensive
catalogue of Dylan’s work. I found myself matching up session dates and
random numbers pulled off of LimeWire, trying to compile a complete version
of the Dylan/Johnny Cash date from 1969. I also stumbled upon a few
soundboard tracks of the Newport ’65 electric performance, and have been
trying to pull that together. And that’s not to mention the cool
versions of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah", The Beatles’ "Yesterday" (with
George Harrison unmistakably playing lead), and a good ol’ fashioned duet
with Joan Baez from ’64.
I’ve been listening to the new Loose Fur disc a fair bit lately —
collaboration between Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche and avant-garde
musician (and recent Sonic Youth member) Jim O’Rourke. It’s a good disc, not
hugely wonderful, but is fun to fit into the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
mythology — it was recorded a few months before YHF, was Tweedy’s
first meeting with Kotche (who was soon drafted into Wilco), contains early
sketches for some stuff that winded up on YHF (early lyrics for
"Heavy Metal Drummer", for example).
Part of the appeal of Loose Fur is how it fits in. I like being a Wilco fan
right now. It’s exciting. Last week, I took stock of what’s about to occur,
as far as Wilco’s output goes. In the next month, besides the Loose Fur
disc, they’re about to issue an EP of new material, as well as a full-on
collaboration album with the Minus Five (a side project of REM’s Peter Buck)
called Down With Wilco. And that’s not to mention the Uncle Tupelo
rereleases, and Jay Farrar’s film soundtrack. It’s enough to keep things
interesting, though not overwhelming.
Downloading and listening to the new Phish shows was exciting, but not that
exciting. It was more surreal than anything else, which was only compounded
by the fact that they sound like stroke victims when they play their old
A copy of the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee landed in my hands this
week. I’d never heard them before, but a friend of mine had been telling me
about them for many months. The album is nothing short of brilliant. It’s
conceptual, at least in the sense that there are characters and places laced
through the lyrics, but John Darnielle’s words feel more like short stories
than rock and roll.
Ernest Hemingway once compared short story writing to icebergs. "There is
seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know
you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg… If a writer omits
something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story."
Darnielle knows everything, at least in Tallahassee.
"I’m not going to lose you. We are going to stay married in this house, like
a Louisiana graveyard, where nothing stays buried," he sings on "Southwood
Plantation Road", the lyrics resisting the urge to be spliced into lines and
verses, coming off instead like genuine prose. From "Idylls of the King": "I
dreamed of vultures in the trees around our house. Cicadas and locusts and
the shrieking of innumerable gibbons."
It reminds me of the kind of packed writing of John Cheever’s "The Swimmer",
sweeping pans over scenes that are simultaneously specific and sociological:
"‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by
the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest
himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from
the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wild-life preserve
where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible
Part of the excitement of hearing them has to do with the album itself, but
part of it has to do with finding a new musician that has clearly invested
himself in a world that is fresh and alive.
Jesse Jarnow is feeling sleepy.

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