I See Myself With Headphones On
It’s late now. December, too, it seems. The re-election of the President was about a month ago, and for a week or two afterwards, I was godawfully upset. A few days later, I saw R.E.M, at Madison Square Garden. They opened with "It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" and I cried, which was only marginally less cheesy than them playing "Everybody Hurts," and considerably less cheesy than the fact that I very badly wanted them to do so. But it felt good.
Maybe too good; a rush of warm self pity to the brain. After that, I didn’t leave home much. I downloaded Grateful Dead shows and stayed away from the news. "I need time to recover," I thought, somewhat preposterously, as if I had been the one running for office. But I felt drained. The recovery, if that’s what it was and not just pathos, was strange, because there was nothing to recover from, with nothing to reset to, because the story is still unresolved. George Bush will still be President next year. So, instead of a recovery, the fear of the next chapters – the Supreme Court, Iraq, the Cabinet – were just subsumed back into the pattern of daily life.
It’s been a weird year, frankly, and – in stopping to think about – the election will probably only be a small cut in a network of nearly invisible scars accumulated over a lifetime. Yes, the election was genuinely stressful. But, the times are turbulent, at least around here. Some friends in Colorado recently had a baby. A friend went missing in Idaho. Couples I know are breaking up. Others are marrying. Another friend has had mysterious seizures. My roommate of three years is moving in with his girlfriend. I had my own ups and downs, strikes and gutters. And, Jesus, Bob Dylan wrote an autobiography, Brian Wilson finished SMiLE, and Phish broke up. Is there nothing stable in this world?
And I guess there’s not. As a child, those immutable national borders drawn on cardboard stock with magic marker – that giant red block on the map labeled "U.S.S.R." in big, unfriendly letters – were presented with authority, as if they had always been that way, and always would be. Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it when I was six. The world’s potential for subtle mutation continues to astound me. I’m having a hard time figuring if this particular year actually has been any crazier than any other year or if I’m just waking to the unstoppable chaos of life.
The concept of "escapism" really bothers me, especially when I suspect I might be guilty of it. After the election, the only routine of mine that seemed to hold any sense was my music collecting — listening, annotating, cataloging, filing, recreating. It was an escape, a world of miniatures and details, but it also served as a grid of normality that I tried to impose on reality. I succeeded, I might add.
I saw a performance of gamelan music at Zankel Hall, an ancient tradition that existed long before the Bush dynasty and will exist long after. I fell in love with a local band – friends of friends – called The Wowz, whose new album – Long Grain Rights – is one of the best I’ve heard by anybody this year. I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead music, watching (and rewatching) The Grateful Dead Movie, and rediscovering the joyous perfection of One From The Vault, the Grateful Dead at the peak of their ambition and relaxed confidence, Garcia’s molten jazz solos laden with emotion.
And listening to my collection on shuffle. Just now, I got a song I hadn’t noticed before: Yo La Tengo’s "Drug Test," off their President Yo La Tengo EP. Ira Kaplan’s lyrics are ambiguous: ‘I think of the things that matter / And I think of the things that don’t / Whatever it is no matter / I hate feeling the way I feel.’ They’re lines guaranteed to resonate with any confused dork — which is to say, anybody listening to a Yo La Tengo EP. But then Kaplan gets oddly specific: ‘I see myself with headphones on / I’m listening to Wake of the Flood.’ It’s a strange detail, and one that rings with surprising accuracy.
Even more than the Internet (er, Internets), music still feels like the world’s true underground railway, because of moments like that: when I know I’m sharing something with the whole network of people plugged into that particular album (or mp3, perhaps). Not coincidentally, the single thing that I am probably most looking forward to right now is Yo La Tengo’s eight Hanukah performances at Maxwell’s in Hoboken.
"I’m glad I fought, I only wish we’d won," Bob Dylan sang on 2001’s ‘Love and Theft’ with some irony (he’s singing, I think, about the South). Yeah, well, so it goes, but at least I’ve still got ‘Love and Theft’. The fighting isn’t over. I mean, not to sound melodramatic, but what else can we do except keep trying? To badly mangle old wisdom, giving up hope that things can change isn’t an option because the alternative is unbearable.
Music as a political tool is passive-aggressive — either as a musician (putting a piece of work into the world in the naive expectation that the world will somehow change around it) or as a listener (listening to an album about anarchy isn’t the same thing as anarchy itself). "Don’t mourn," the Wobbly folk singer Joe Hill said, just before his execution, "Organize!" But sometimes mourning is organizing, an internal reconstruction and an attempt to find some common thread of grief that one can use to reconnect himself with humanity, and what else is there to do but listen?