Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

What came before is absolute history. It is defined by an ending.

92f1582013383cd1dfa259fa86468a10.1000x1000x1 Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked At Me
P.W. Elverum & Sun

I’m not even sure I am fully prepared to talk about this album, but this story is all I can think about lately. In the wake and waves of so much tragedy, horror, terrifying prospects that linger on the horizon it is Phil Elverum’s story of loss and the attempt to move on from that loss that hangs over my head. I seem too, unable to move forward, because here in an album, Elverum captures the exact fear of trying to use the tools we know best to cope and still finding it too difficult. A Crow Looked at Me asks that question, when the motions for getting through this life become so bare and honest, what else do we do to move fowrad?

Last year, master musician Nick Cave dropped Skeleton Tree which contained his misery and longing about loss and relationships not just in the wake of that loss but leading up to that loss. I remember walking under a bridge, graffiti covered and filled with the remnants of vagrancy – empty beer cans, needles, discarded clothes too worn away and dirty – where that album really hit me. I sought a place of solitude to deal with it. I returned to a similar space with A Crow Looked at Me, driving my car north towards Taos. Halfway between Espanola and my destination, I pulled to the side of the road. I placed the vehicle in park, rolled down the windows and sat in the rear, hatchback open. The sun was trying to warm the atmosphere. Looking at the waters of the Rio Grande and eating a lukewarm cup of soup I listened. But for the sound of a few cars passing and the waters flowing away from me, I was alone with Phil and his loss.

When musicians and artists tackle death they often try to make it more poetic and violent than it often is. But nothing in the lyrics of the songs contained within are anything less than stark, honest and straight forward. They are not formed to fit pretty melodies or personify some kind of meaning or mataphor. Instead they are the musings of a person left to live in the despair of losing what they loved. Here, Elvurum’s child seems to pull at his shirt tail, asking him questions, snapping him into a reality he’s so absorbed in that he’s lost. He remembers the birds, the birds all around him that speak to him as omens, as fortune tellers, as creatures that commune with the dead. Ravens and crows sit and watch him work, haunt his daughter’s dreams, show him of a future he will never have, remind him of his wife who is no longer there.

Elvurum takes us through his life, plain and simple. Every moment is a reminder of her, his wife, his lover, the mother of their new child. It’s hard to imagine that this album came with thought and purpose, because the actions and words are almost mundane and resigned. Rather, it feels like this just came to be, through the purpose of motion, the same inertia that propels his mourning life to go on.

I feel extremely guilty too. When art is this striking, it’s only natural to want to explore more work by the creator. But here, with this stark album about death, this absolute truth, what else could exist outside it? Elvurum has a long, well-regarded career and I am sure his music and poetry and art is stunning. But what could reach these levels, for this is a world he’s only lived once and will now live forever? This is not a starting point, at least not yet. What came before is absolute history. It is defined by an ending. Only what comes next seems relevant, but the possibility of what that could be is no more clear than the end of life that gave us such a beautiful coping mechanism.

Idaho – Emily Ruskovich

It’s almost impossible to think anything good could have come of life in this landscape, a judgement I cast with uncertainty. But this mountainside, twice filled with a man’s love for his family only ends in tears, with no one else to help absorb them nor the wave of sadness that is brought by death.

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Idaho
Emily Ruskovich
Random House

A small decision, made without thought of any possible repercussions, after all how could a song end in tragedy, haunts the life of Ann in Emily Ruskovich’s stunning debut, Idaho. Isolated with nothing but history, a deteriorating husband and the time to constantly be their prisoner, Ann struggles to find the truth, the meaning in her life that she is positive she loves but maybe isn’t so sure she signed up for. Equally imprisoned, both literally and figuratively is Jenny, Ann’s husband’s ex-wife, who scrubs floors for decades trying to escape a fleeting moment that resulted in a great tragedy she can never be forgiven for. This is the story we get, between these two women, their lives forever connected, one trying to understand, the other trying to forget.

Ruskovich’s Idaho (and Idaho) is an isolated  place, way up north, set on a mountain side where the lives of lovers tangle and untangle. It’s a place where two young girls never escape, suspended in small moments that lead up to unresolved timelines that capture everyone in the hills, surrounded by various creatures, never-ending forest and the occasional discarded objects. It seems unnavigable, hostile even and perhaps it is not the actions of the players that leads them to tragedy but the unforgiving earth that forces them to their end. It’s almost impossible to think anything good could have come of life in this landscape, a judgement I cast with uncertainty. But this mountainside, twice filled with a man’s love for his family only ends in tears, with no one else to help absorb them nor the wave of sadness that is brought by death. Despite its lush and fertile land, the mountain that keeps this family holds nothing but death.

What makes this book so stunning, so worth my short precious time before I run out the door this morning, exhausted from lack of sleep but invigorated none the less, is the turn of words, the phrases that pieced my heart, the small moments where I sighed and paused and whispered “damn” under my breath in coffee shops and classrooms, trying desperately not to be audible, but too moved not to express something. Many books are described as being so good you can’t put them down, but for Idaho it is so good, so chilling, so sad and moving that you have to put it down. You have to find space from these lives, the lives the characters must endure, in order to move forward. A reprieve is necessary from time to time so that through the long haul you will want to finish. Thankfully, Ruskovich unwraps the story slowly at first with long passages and heaps of memories before blasting away with smaller, more devastating fragments of memory and time.

Every moment in Idaho seems subdued, despite the rich language and exemplary detail. It feels that way because the violence and horror and heartbreak are all too well pronounced. They don’t just sit heavily over the lives entangled and undone in the story, the weigh in the heart of the reader with every turn of the page. The big moments are vivid only in that they break, for a small moment the despair and uncertainty that each player must carry through their lives. I would not have expected the shot in the arm American Literature needed would come from such a tame voice, but Ruskovich’s work here is a truly American novel, finding the small, isolated places we all live, no matter where we might be located. It knows that one instance can change everything, but the likelihood of having the foresight to see it coming is damn near impossible.

On Disorder and Judgement

What makes something a disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder. That word, disorder, stings me. Despite much evidence to the contrary, people have unprofessionally diagnosed me, based on specific behaviors as “being on the spectrum” (so problematic). While I would be the first to admit that my social skills and abilities to pick up on cues lack sufficiently, I am not by any means afflicted with Asperger Syndrome or anything similar. I mostly just don’t like much social interaction. I’m not a huge fan of the human race.

What I don’t like about the word Disorder in said Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis is that it centralizes human interaction as the normal state. It supposes we must be social creatures and that any other means of existence is abnormal. Not being engaged in the world around you, but focused on that which draws your attention is somehow a bad thing.

I’m by no means proposing that those with Autism live some kind of fantasy life. They are trapped in a world that expects them to give a fuck about what is external to their concern and when they are denied by outside forces from doing their work (because it is not work that can be qualified and capitalized on) they reach a level of intense animosity and express it outwardly. We don’t approach people with autism on their level, we expect them to meet ours.

I considered this in the case of judgement. We here in the west have this absurd saying “Only God can judge me” which is a foolish notion considering we have a job in our government that is called Judge whose literal function is to cast judgement. And make no mistake it is not just legal matters but those of social and ethical matters to. We, Americans, are nothing if not judgmental. We are taught not to revel in this, at least not publicly, and yet we do.

If there is a norm, and constructs we navigate have informed me at least that there are, then everything outside that is abnormal. But who makes up normal and how did they get this right? This right which is a judgement is in opposition to what we express and yet casting judgement individually is hypocrisy.

I want to know if this so called disorder is labeled as such because the behavior of the people who exhibit it’s patterns because it is not “productive”? What makes something a disorder? There are certain unethical and immoral behaviors that are ignored because they do not encroach on productivity of whatever system the individual is engaged in. Concessions are made for acts and actions that are actually harmful to others on quantifiable scales.

As the kids say, “what the actual fuck is that all about”?

Snail Mail – Habit EP

If the education system doesn’t collapse I might become a teacher, standing in front of a room full of teenagers like Jordan who were born into a world whose chaos is no longer contained and try as the powers that be might cannot be covered up. Bullshit leaks through the pores of Baby Boomers and the Generation X guard of which I am a part of (and generally disgusted with).

 Snail Mail
Habit
Sister Polygon Records

Music is an important part of my fiction. Characters and stories develop from songs I hear and from their I create a soundtrack to moments of their lives. When a song strikes me so deeply, that’s where my mind goes, into a fugue of imagination and curiosity about the possible lives one might live. Fantasy comes smashing into a brain that probably needs to focus on other, more pertinent and adult things, like getting a real job and perhaps buying my own house or retiring to Port Angles, Washington, a place I have never been but whose waters still call to me.

When I first heard “Thinning,” the opening track on Baltimore dream pop trio’s Habit, I was instantly hit. My brain went cold, put on a hoody, slipped headphones in and felt the moisture not just on a face, but wetting feet as well as cold breath was exhaled. It reminded me, once I came too, of the frigid mornings in Virginia that I would walk to school, the twilight of dusk breaking down under the weight of a rising sun. And considering I was a angsty teenager in the 90’s what better sounds and words to remind me of those mismatched days.

Since the heyday of indie rock when that phrase actually described an ethic rather than a commercial aesthetic, the dream pop trio has kind of faded away. And while people want their Fugazi, Nirvana and Jawbox worship, I always wondered when Velocity Girl, Unrest and Edsel were going to get their due. Finally I found it in Snail Mail with dreamy guitars accompanied by mid-tone bass and understated but excellent drumming. That kinda shit was just as jarring and punk and life affirming as Superchunk but we were left with Shellac and Indie Rock(TM) became a product that watered down the rock aspects and overstated the introspective lonely boy poet to disgusting lengths.

And make no mistake, principle songwriter Lindsey Jordan goes deep inside. She’s ill, she’s love struck, she’s bored, she’s alone in her room staring at the ceiling, dreaming her days away. All of this however is delivered not with a feigned modesty saturated in woo-is-me self loathing, but with the kind of aside you would expect from a teenager wiser beyond her peers but stuck with the same suburban experiences. Unlike the chorus of 1,000 sad boys to afraid to make a move, Jordan is fearless against the apathy and tiredness that seems to overcome her in every song. You might think she was resigned, but then of course if she just sunk into the lulls she sings about she never would have wrote such somber and beautiful tunes. If she gave up we wouldn’t have gotten the half punctured guitar solo on the title track that could give J Mascis a run for his melancholy money.

If the education system doesn’t collapse I might become a teacher, standing in front of a room full of teenagers like Jordan who were born into a world whose chaos is no longer contained and try as the powers that be might cannot be covered up. Bullshit leaks through the pores of Baby Boomers and the Generation X guard of which I am a part of (and generally disgusted with). The anger is not punctuated in today’s youth, so far as my old ass can see. It is resigned, not to the adopted apathy of the grunge era, but to the dismissal  of generations that let shit slide. With the world at their fingertips, today’s kids are a full fledged middle finger, and that’s probably the best stance they can take. So, if this is going to be material in the bridge I used to get across to them, rather than even the echoes of Cobain or Corgan or Deal, than so be it. This is the good shit. Don’t sleep on it.

Music as Code

There are still many things for me to learn in this life. Sadly, I will not learn everything I want in a singular lifetime.

I’m about to turn 40 and that feels like a big deal year to me. Far be it from me to be immune to the hostilities of western culture, but @ a certain point, unless you are creating the zeitgeist, you have been aged out. Since I am languishing in amateur status still, unpublished author, local musician, terribly unfunny comedian, the western world has checked me out. I couldn’t be cool if I tried no matter how many 20 somethings still think I exude youth (thank you Bunny, you beautiful darling).

This hit me the other evening. I was at a bar where a friend of mine had his last hurrah at his monthly DJ night before he moves. At this particular gig a pop up record store sells new and used vinyl to all us old hipster bitches who are too cool for digital (which is a lie, except that I don’t understand why anyone would stream and I don’t really know how to use streaming services). From them I scored, among other treasures, the 12″ EP of Macho Man by The Village People. Now, I don’t actually need to hear “Macho Man” or “YMCA” ever again. Or so I thought. I bought the 12″ because it features a song entitled “Sodom and Gomorrah” which is about (in my interpretation) a person wishing to save those villages of sensual pleasure from God’s irrational and homophobic wrath.

Many of my friends at this DJ night, which is devoted to music found on vinyl, are curious about each other’s purchases. We are constantly pulling our records out of the plastic bags we clutch them in to show them off. In one of these exchanges a new friend of mine began to pontificate wildly and fervently on the Village People. The disco group of yore is at present of particular interest to them. As I listened and learned about some of the curious gender and ethnic identities of the members, I realized that though I may have aged out of being cool and aware of the modern zeitgeist, I now have another role to play, that of historical curator.

In a certain ways music was the internet before the internet. There once existed in a former time and place where people went out and saw music and movies and plays and poets and lectures on a regular basis. Now we have 9 million channels and YouTube videos and other shit. In some ways this is great because everything is available. However, there in also lies a problem with total access, nothing is curated. The roots of now have been severed leaving us with little knowledge of our own histories. Without history, there is no struggle. Without struggle we have no revolution.

It is obvious to us now that The Village People were GAY AS ALL FUCK, but at the time they were not “out”. Their performances were coded in camp and while that was often read by gay and queer populations the straight world didn’t quite get it. Further, the sexuality was presented with a backdrop of disco, the musical du jour of the times, and allowed people to dance loudly and do mounds of coke in the bathrooms of night clubs. I know very little about the Village People beyond their presentation and reading their performance as queer. However, I am sure that many of their coded messages were read loud and clear by certain populations and as such were easily translated and used to increase self empowerment. Their importance to the queer acceptance movement remains important.

So then does ensuring they are not lost in the minutiae of modern, accessible, throw away culture that we exist in today. Very few messages, coded or obvious have lasting power. Trends and communication change quickly. The spokespeople of cultures and movements seem to be different year after year. There is not lasting power in today’s world. While gay and lesbian, queer, and trans lives exist out in the public arena now more than ever, and to some this feels seamless, this is not necessarily the case. Large swaths of western society are still violently opposed to queer identities existing, in public spaces or otherwise. This is not just true of our rural, bible belt America. Black, trans sisters are being killed in our so-called liberal cities at alarming rates. Their lives are taken by members of the communities they grew up in. Those communities of course fight for survival in a white hegemony, that uses economic, civic and social means to inflict terror and violence.

The Village People still matter because even as we gain ground through means of acceptable defiance, subversion, inclusion and dissent (often being forced to use our bodies as weapons against state sanctioned violence, further diminishing our worth and causing continuing wounds) coded messages in public, straight, spaces are still necessary. Even in spaces where it’s “acceptable” it’s still not safe to be gay or lesbian, queer or questioning, trans, non-binary, unsure and afraid. A DJ playing a song by the Village People in one of these spaces can still act as a coded message to someone that lets them know that there is, at the very least, an ally present in the occupied and overwhelming space. The straight world may believe they are in on “the joke” when “YMCA” or “Macho Man” comes on, but the historical context of The Village People still remains. It’s power still exists. It’s necessity still permeates.

There are still many things for me to learn in this life. Sadly, I will not learn everything I want in a singular lifetime. However, I try to take each moment I have as a possibility towards further enrichment while also recognizing the responsibility I have to share what I know with anyone curious enough to want to listen. Not every moment or action can be a hurled brick through the window of tyranny. Not every thing I do will be inspiring and revolutionary, but that doesn’t absolve me of trying. No matter how uncool I might be.

This is an unedited text for now. Please excuse the errors.

DJ Set from Like a few weeks ago

The Disco Before the Break Down – Against Me!
Crowns – Antelope
Valotte – Julian Lennon
Turn It On – Sleater Kinney
Sweet Dreams – Eurthymics
Faulty Metaphor – Mikey Erg
Tobacco Road – David Lee Roth
What’s Love Got to Do With It – Tina Turner
Television – Beatnigs
Cats and Dogs – Gorilla Biscuits
Savory – Jawbox
He’s So Sorry – Alice Bag
I Think We’re Alone Now – Tiffany
I Want a New Drug – Huey Lewis
Not Just Boys Fun – 7 Seconds
Hard Knock Life – Annie Soundtrack
But Does It Work – Drug Church
Mouth Breather – Jesus Lizard
Sussudio – Phil Collins
Land of LaLa – Sex Stains
I Got You – James Brown
Slick Black Cadillac – Quiet Riot
She’s My Ex – All
Private Idaho – B-52’s
Hey Ladies – Beastie Boys
Billy Jean – Michael Jackson
Holiday – Madonna
Great Cop – Fugazi
Never Trust a Cop – Zegota
End the Washington Monument Blinks Goodnight – Q and Not U
What Do You Want Me To Say – Dismemberment Plan
Sound on Sound – Big Boys