Category Archives: music

Goodbye May

Personalia (Mary Ruefle)

When I was young, a fortune-teller told me that an old
woman who wanted to die had accidentally become
lodged in my body. Slowly, over time, and taking great
care in following esoteric instructions, including laven-
der baths and the ritual burial of keys in the backyard, I
rid myself of her presence. Now I am an old woman who
wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dy-
ing to live. I work on her.

The Kookaburras (Mary Oliver)

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage,
asked me to open the door.
Years later I remember how I didn’t do it,
how instead I walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

Poem for Right Now (Catherine Pierce)

In protest I say the word iridescent.
In protest I say the word vesper.
In protest I say that I am in love
with this day, this exact day, this rain
on the thousands of dead leaves
in my backyard and the mourning dove
and the faint growl of the garbage truck
a few blocks over. I am in love with it.
In fucking love. It’s true that now
a mushroom cloud billows behind my eyes
all day. It’s true I fall asleep drafting letters
in my new language of pitchforks.
I know the chopping block is vast. I know
it has room and stomach for everything.
But my tongue and my head are mine.
So in protest I say the word liquefy.
In protest I say the word gloaming.
In protest I will remember how once
my friend and I walked through an alley
in a strange city, and my friend wore
a paper dragon in her hair, and the city
was five o’clock gold all around us.
In protest I say the word dragon.
There are days I’ve carried like candles
to light the rest of my life, and I will not
let the new days snuff them out, though
the new days are trying. Watch me hold
a decade-ago snow night, moon-bright
and silent, right next to my hammering rage.
Watch me house halcyon next to protocol,
lagoon next to constituent. I am trying
to become a contradiction machine.
I am poorly oiled, but every day I creak
awake again. The rain is heavy now
against my screened-in porch,
and the gutter that years ago my husband
patched with duct tape is still holding.
At this point, repaired is more accurate
than patched. It’s still holding, and in protest
I marvel over that. In protest I marvel.
In protest I say incandescent, liminal, charcuterie,
embrace. I think acquiescence is a beautiful word,
too, but in protest I put it away. There are
other beautiful words. Like lunar. Like
resistance. Like love, like fucking love.

“You’re just looking for a way not to be alone,” I told him. But Saul said, “There is no way not to be alone.”

Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions

“People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.”

Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (FSG, 1969)

“Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people. When I prove to myself that I can be empathetic and interested, I become less isolated in the present and far less afraid of the future.”

Stephanie Powell Watts in this week’s Writers Recommend (Poets & Writers, 2017)

“Working hard and faithfully on what you love will pay off and bring quality to your life. Sitting and writing, even on the awful days, is just a glorious thing to be able to do.”

Ralph E. Rodriguez, in Laura Maylene Walter’s “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest for Reassurance” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2017)

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Soundtrack 2014, and some books

In celebration of my recent birthday and the incoming new school year (two things that evoke feelings of New Beginnings and Hello Closure), here is my 2014 soundtrack (i.e. what I mostly listened to on a recent long bike ride):

  1. All Fall Down” (Shawn Colvin)
  2. Let It Go” (Frozen soundtrack)
  3. One More Night” (Maroon 5)
  4. Take Me To Church” (Sinead O’Connor)
  5. All These Things That I’ve Done” (The Killers)
  6. Bailando” (Enrique Iglesias)
  7. Counting Stars” (One Republic)
  8. Freedom” (George Michael)
  9. Pompeii” (Bastille)
  10. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” (R.E.M.)
  11. Diane Young” (Vampire Weekend)
  12. Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” (Owen Pallett)
  13. Think of You” (MS MR)
  14. O My Heart” (R.E.M.)
  15. You’re Still A Mystery” (The Bleachers)
  16. Streets of Philadelphia” [live cover] (Tori Amos)

A lot of these songs make think of my summer job in the U.S., running ENDLESS miles for marathon training in England in the spring, or private mini dance breaks in my room year-round. I wonder what fall has in store…

Additionally, here are some good books I’ve read lately: Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

Good Offices is a delightfully gothic tale that feels like a closely related cousin to Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, in the sense that both books deal with corrupt priests and combine the genuinely shocking with the darkly funny (it might be a bit TOO dark for animal lovers, though I was okay with it). It also has an absolutely killer opening sentence: “He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.” (It’s interesting that the Spanish title of this book is Los almuerzos, the lunches.) This book also deserves mucho respect for being so short, concise, and effective: it knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it gets it done in 150 pages, an easy afternoon read. Sometimes I wonder if it’s harder to write this kind of book than it is to write, say, a 350 page novel.

Marcus’ Leaving the Sea, meanwhile, is one of the strangest collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I started it before I left England in June, so it was a bit of a headtrip to finish it when I came back, as all the most innovative (i.e. just plain weird) stories are (purposefully?) grouped near the end. This deliberate structuring gives the collection a consistent tone, though–you start out nice and slow in familiar and amusingly satirical Jonathan Franzen territory, and then things slowly but surely start dissolving into a bad acid trip with George Saunders mixed with seriously experimental prose-poetry. I think my favorite story overall occurred near the beginning, “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” if only because it was about a writer running a creative writing workshop on a cruise ship. How come more writers don’t write about being writers? I also liked “Rollingwood” (a dystopic nightmare about a single father dealing with a sick child and a hostile workplace), and “The Loyalty Protocol” (another dystopic tale concerning aging parents and apocalyptic gym evacuation drills). I think I can now definitely proclaim that this is the kind of dystopic writing I prefer–the kind that’s ambiguous and leaves much unsaid and unexplained–as opposed to the specific world-building kind.

Leaving the Atocha Station is one of those Sebaldian, Teju Cole-like novels that blurs fact with fiction, includes black and white photographs and mainly involves the first-person, male narrator wandering around a large city. So far I have yet to have a problem with any of those things, though I would love to know if there’s a female author out there somewhere who’s written a similarly-themed book and received the same kind of critical attention and acclaim as Sebald, Cole and Lerner have. My favorite thing about this book was how dislikable, needy and insecure the main character was, and yet… I still really enjoyed spending time with him. Kudos to Lerner for pulling this off. I think if a lot of us were truly honest with ourselves, we would confess to having similar thoughts and feelings as this narrator does (delusions of grandeur, petty jealousies, deliberately lying in an attempt to evoke pity from love interests, etc.). That might be part of the cathartic appeal of this character for me, maybe (there but for the grace go I etc). Lerner’s book will also remain memorable to me for having lots really good quotes and passages about The Point of Art in the World, especially in the Face of Violence and Horror and so on (here’s a good essay about it, and another good essay by the author himself). I’d like to read this one again someday.

“I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium… then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.” (Leaving the Atocha Station, pg. 44-5)

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Tori Amos Tribute


It was not without some shock that I randomly realized this afternoon that this year, since I am 28, I have officially been listening to Tori Amos for half my life–1999’s To Venus and Back was my first album, when I was 14. My sister and I bought the No Boundaries compilation album from the rickety Unicentro CD store in Cali, since it contained a lot of artists that it seemed like we should know about (people like Neil Young and Pearl Jam and Tori, people whose CDs would never be sold in Colombia!). One of the songs was  “Merman,” and so that year one of the albums we asked for a b-day gift was Tori’s TVAB (along with Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, purchased in the States on one of my parents’ many business trips). I also have memories of seeing the “Spark” music video air on MTV around that time and feeling somewhat traumatized (“Spark” also has the honor of being the first song I ever illegally downloaded on the Internet via Napster, bless its soul).

Moving to England has been boutiful for me in terms of being a Tori Amos fan–I saw her live at the Royal Albert Hall with a full orchestra last year, saw a performance of “The Light Princess” a few months ago and recently made yet another contribution to her daughter’s college fund by purchasing a 2014 concert ticket. So why wouldn’t this time be as good as any to not make a Tori Amos tribute post?

Space Dog (Under the Pink and Venus live album)

My favorite Tori song and one of the earliest ones I ever listened to, off the To Venus and Back live album. Why do I like this song so much? Why do I feel so moved by it? Do I just like the piano, the enigmatic lyrics? What the heck is it about? Feminism? The inevitability of growing up; the loss of innocence? Alien abduction? I have no idea. To me, this song is the epitome of what great art can do, of the effect it can have on you–it’s indescribable, unexplainable. Something magical that cannot be described in words.

Curtain Call and Fast Horse (Abnormally Attracted to Sin)

Two good songs for a perfectionist with a highly vacillating sense of self-esteem to listen to. By the time you’re 25 they will say you’ve gone and blown it. “Fast Horse” especially is filled with plenty of juicy self-help mantras–Tori, be my therapist! Or tell me who yours is, ha.

Flying Dutchman (Little Earthquakes b-side)

I cried my eyes out during this performance. Fuck, I was an emotional wreck the whole night. To hear one of my favorite Tori Amos songs of all time performed live by a full orchestra was, like, seriously one of the best things that have ever happened to me. This is such a good song for a CTY kid. I especially love the last minute, when the strings really kick into Epic mode.

Pretty Good Year (Under the Pink)

Another candidate for my favorite Tori song. I tend to like her songs that are about childhood & growing up, I’ve noticed. Or being too hard on yourself: They say you were something in those formative years…

Putting the Damage On and Hey Jupiter (Boys For Pele)

Ufffff, what good break-up songs. Almost painful to listen to, at times. “Doughnut Song,” also muy fuerte. Can I just say here really fast that I am currently obsessed with the versions of “Hey Jupiter” with strings?

Father Lucifer (Boys For Pele)

Aww, love this one, especially the live versions, like this one (1996), this one (1998), the one posted above (1999, my favorite), and this one (2003). I also loved seeing it performed live in 2011, with strings. This song really cemented for me what an amazing, brilliant live performer Tori is, a complete and utter consummate professional. I remember a story my friend told me once of going to see a Manu Chao concert two nights in a row, and how disappointed she was that they were both exactly the same–even the stage banter. That would NEVER happen at a Tori concert.

Another Girl’s Paradise (Scarlet’s Walk)

This one is  kind of an underdog. I myself am sort of surprised by me including it here. I like the Fleetwood Mac production, the backup vocals and guitars. I like what the lyrics say about jealousy and desire. Mainly I find listening to this song very centering. There’s not many other artists that I listen to that have this effect on me–the moral and ethical effect of, “okay, I have a better idea now of what my priorities are in life and what I need to be focused on.” Like Bolaño and Kafka, Tori is an artist whose work I feel has taught me how to live my life in a more morally centering and mindful way.

Roosterspur Bridge (American Doll Posse)

Just a great, classic ballad. Probably the Tori song I’ve listened to the most, if my little ipod shuffle kept track of song counts. Clyde is probably my favorite American Doll Posse alter-ego, haha (can’t believe how nerdy I sound saying that…).

I could keep going, obviously, but it’s probably better to stop there, at the convenient number of 10. Writing this post has made me realize what a HUGE difference youtube has made. Gone are the days of right-clicking on the links on or yessaid, waiting for the little mp3 to download, desperately eager to hear to live versions of songs on tours I myself would never get to experience until I finally moved to the States in 2004. Ah, Tori fandom. Would this version of “Sweet Dreams” contain the George Bush improv? How did “Sister Janet” sound on the organ? “Talulah” with the band?

I also can’t help thinking how strange it is that I’ve spent so much time in my life thinking about and listening to someone who has no idea I exist, or what an enormous, powerfully formative effect they’ve had on the way I think about myself, the way to carry myself through the word, and my own pitiful attempts at making art. You know?

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Soundtrack 2012

I listened to this song a lot while getting dressed in my room in Portland, getting ready to go to work in Vancouver.
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Just Kids

“In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos–the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, and yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to write and draw, but all of the manic activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.

Robert had little patience with these little introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.”

– pg. 65, Just Kids

One of the main messages I got out of reading this book is in the quote above. The other is that making art is HARD WORK. And if you wanna “make it” (however you definite that), you are gonna have to be willing to work hard. You have to commit to it. You have to be willing to take the time and do the work. You have to be willing to not break your Seinfeld chain.

A lot of this book is about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s suffering while living as young and broke aspiring artists in New York City in the late 60’s and early 70’s. OK, obviously it’s not all just suffering, but let me tell you, this book made me not want to complain about my life anymore. Especially when Smith writes about getting up at 6am to catch the train for her job at a bookstore, where she would work until 7pm and then walk home (to save subway fare), and THEN write poems on the typewriter or paint and draw till midnight or 1am. Repeat six days a week. I tell you, this makes me feel bad about coming home from work and complaining that I’m too pooped to write ****-ing cover letters for hippie writing residencies.

I really enjoyed the specific details that Smith evokes about moving to New York as a young broke kid: scavenging broken furniture off the sidewalk, stealing books. I especially liked the descriptions of Patti’s cooking specialties, like lettuce soup (dissolved chicken bouillon cubes with wilted lettuce leaves floating on top). Still, poverty is no joke, my friends. At one point Robert resorts to hustling–please, God, let me get financial aid in grad school so as to avoid such desperate measures.

Patti Smith is an excellent writer and deserves all the acclaim she’s gotten. Her language is poetic but never pretentious. She has this amazing way of putting these very complicated, intense ideas in simple sentences. One good example of this is the big quote chunk above; another is the last section about Robert’s death: “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? The pursuit is what burns most deeply.” (279) She also does an amazing job of structuring the book: she does a great job of balancing her story with Robert’s, especially in the first chapter about their childhoods. I always felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, and that she knew exactly what she wanted her book to be about. Basically, it’s a tribute–to youth, to Robert, to that initial excitement when you’re first getting hit by that artistic spark and drive.

Out of all the chapters, the one titled “Just Kids” (about their early days living in New York) was my favorite. The next one, “Hotel Chelsea” went on for a little too long for me. There were a lot of sections that felt like “oh, and then we went to this bar or this restaurant, where we met so-and-so person.” Some of these moments were pretty cool, like when Allen Ginsberg buys Patti a cheese and lettuce sandwich because he thinks she’s a skinny young boy and he’s trying to pick her up. Some of it could maybe be perceived as name-dropping (though I don’t think it is).

All these references to literary and rock-and-roll figures has a function, though: it drops us right in the middle of a very specific time and place. We’re in New York in the 70’s, where Andy Warhol’s groupies have catfights in the bar, Bob Dylan’s manager is a grinning flirt; the deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are news headlines and Charles Manson is the talk of the town. It did make me wonder what the contemporary version of this kind of intense immersion into an artistic network would be… I’m not sure if there is one. I certainly don’t see myself bumping elbows with Jonathan Franzen or those other boys if I move to New York.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I think my favorite thing about it is the compassion, love and tenderness that Smith shows to her younger self and Robert. She recognizes their youthful mistakes and naiveté while still being compassionate. They are, as the title says, just kids.

Reading this book reminded me of when I read Bob Dylan’s Chroniclesway back in early 2010 (two years ago, what?!). That book was what helped me decide to focus more on creating art, which led to me signing up for a writing class, which led to, well, a lot of other things. We’re still chuggin’ forward.

I’d like to end this blog post with another quote about being a youthful artist. Before that, I would like to say that for the record, I think my absolute favorite Patti Smith songs are “Gloria,” “Ain’t it Strange” and “Pissing in a River.”

“I don’t have a lot of advice to give. The one thing I would say to a young writer who wanted counsel is to be patient. Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in life, is your friend in writing. It is. If you can relax into time, not fight it, not fret at its passing, you will become better. You probably won’t be very good at the beginning, but you will become better, and eventually you may actually become good. But it doesn’t help to be afraid of time, or to measure yourself against prodigies like Conrad or Crane or Rimbaud. There’s always going to be somebody who did it better than you, faster than you, and you don’t want to make comparisons that will discourage you in your work. In fact, most fiction writers tend to graybeard their way into their best work.”

– Tobias Wolff, The Paris Review 2004

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Soundtrack for 2011

Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains” (The Arcade Fire)

I’ll always associate this song with when I first heard it, covered by my friend’s band in that greenly lit Thai restaurant, in the cold dark days of early January.

Changing” (Airborne Toxic Event)

The song that got me really into listening to and singing along earnestly car radio. I also liked their follow up single, “All I Ever Wanted.” It’s funny to hear that the second song has strings in it, because thanks to the Volvo’s broken left speaker I’ve never heard them before.

Lost in the World” (Kanye West)

The song I always choose at the Side Street bar jukebox when I’m there with my friends. Haha. Who will survive in America?

In the Dark Places” (PJ Harvey)

I’m kind of like the main character in Howard’s End, in the sense that I hate war, but I love soldiers. Particularly works of art about them and their struggles. I like how the phrase “in the dark places” can be expanded to mean many other things, not just World War I trenches or Iraqi hideout holes.

Born This Way” (Lady Gaga)

Haha. Maybe the best theme song for my year? I feel like I spent a lot of this time thinking about building self-esteem, cultivating positive self-image, self-care and practicing that good ol’ compassion muscle. And this song seems to be a good theme song for all that. I’m on the right track baby…

Float” (Flogging Molly)

An oh so famous songs that I’m kind of surprised that I never heard before until this year (thanks car radio). Anyway, I feel like it has another good, positive, relevant message. Plus I really like the moral of the muñequito in the video.

Just A Dream” (Nelly)

A little embarrassed by how much I like this song. Haha, whatever. I just like the mixture of both melancholy and melody. But why is it Nelly of all freaking people who sings such a good relationship song?! “But hey, I guess that love wasn’t enough” sounds like a self-platitude or mantra straight out of my Dr. Barbara relationship self-help book.

Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac)

Another song I can’t believe I’d never heard before until this year. Another gift thanks to car radio.

The King of Carrot Flowers-Part I” (Neutral Milk Hotel)

This song will always make me think of summer at Sauvie’s Island, playing it on my friend Jennifer’s ipod, feeling like the entirety of my August trip to Colombia lay before me.

Calamity Song” (The Decemberists)

My Infinite Jest theme song. Haha. I love its apocalyptic sensibilities. If I had to make this track list into a mix CD, I would probably call it “In the Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab.”

You and I” (Lady Gaga)

Oh god, another song that got me through some rough times, specifically this gender-bending live version. I can’t even explain why I like this song so much. Its country vibe, for one. And I like how in the radio edit, “Nebraska” is replaced with “Oregon,” so that the lyric becomes the following: There’s only three things Imma worship my whole life / It’s my daddy, Oregon and Jesus Christ. Hehe! Basically my face looks is the same as  David Grohl’s (see minute 3:00), throughout this video.

Star Whisperer” (Tori Amos)

Tori’s grand opus from her latest album. I expect to expand in personal impact and meaning for me after I get to see her LIVE this WEDNESDAY in SEATTLE!

Down in the Valley” (The Head and the Heart)

A great Pacific Northwest band that my friend A introduced me to; mellow guitars and strings and lovely tinkling piano will always put me in a fall loving mood.

Hair” (Lady Gaga)

Her Bruce Springsteen moment: I just wanna be myself and I want you to love me for who I am…

Cough Syrup” (Young the Giant)

This song always plays right when I’m leaving work. ALWAYS! It’s CREEPY. It also makes me think of Infinite Jest. I also like howling along with the singer’s oh so earnest vocals.

I Fought the Law” (The Clash)

Ahh, my revolutionary song. I honestly don’t feel like it’s an understatement to say that the Clash literally saved my life in November. They were all I listened to on my ipod. All. Day. Long. There was just something about their mouth frothing energy that I really love, and that I really needed. Big Country’s “The Crossing” album was also a lifesaver, and what I listened to on endless replay walking down the Morro Bay beaches of Thanksgiving.

Somebody That I Used To Know” (Goyte)

I hesitate including this song, namely because I don’t really enjoy listening to it?! Those lyrics are just HARSH! But the part when the girl starts singing is pretty genius; when I first heard it on the radio my jaw dropped that we were getting to hear “her side of the story,” so to speak.

Running to Stand Still” (U2)

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately. I dunno, maybe because Tori covered it in New York. Maybe because it reminds me of all the sad addict stories in Infinite Jest. Maybe because it’s just a nice, mellow, powerful song to close the year with.

Other artists I liked listening to this year but who were a bit overplayed: “Sail” by AWOL Nation, “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, Coldplay’s “Paradise,” and Adele (of course). I also liked Florence + the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me“–I’ll probably buy the album/see her live. I also listened a lot to this song and probably should have included it on the list above:

Everything passes
Everything changes
Just do what you think you should do

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Homage to R.E.M.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my sister that just said “damn” and included a link to the R.E.M. website. Oh oh, I thought.

I charged up my ipod and have been wandering around the house ever since wearing my bulky black airport headphones, listening to “Little America,” “Begin the Begin,” “Good Advices,” “Pilgrimage.” All of my favorite songs. I spent hours yesterday writing up a list of my favorites, watching videos, and I finally just had to physically restrain myself from adding anymore because it was getting ridiculous, out of control. In the end what I was left feeling was a terrible kind of genuine grief. It was felt like the kind of grief you get at a loss, that this was it, that this body of work on my ipod was complete. That the story was over, that there would be no new additions to the oeuvre.

And yes, there was also a terrible kind of grief for myself, too, that I’ve lived long enough to now be at the point for my favorite bands from my childhood to grow old and drift apart. Krist Novoselic is shockingly bald and pudgy. It will happen to everyone. Tori Amos, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen–everyone. As in:



As in:

“I will grow old. I will grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

I mean, on one hand there is still a kind of gladness, to hear Tori Amos’ daughter’s Adele-like voice on the new record, see the pictures of how she is growing up, and feel like wow, so this is what the passage of time has given us, but on the other hand there is still this very freaked out I can’t believe this feeling. I remember being in the computer lab at school, the day after my birthday in 2000, checked (Tori Amos news and setlist website of ye days of olde) and reading that she had given birth and just feeling totally shocked, and yeah, happy even.

Mother and daughter. Is what I feel when I see these photos, or the ones of Frances Bean Cobain, similar to what my parents feel when they flip through any old moth-eaten dried-up glue photo album of our own?!

It is a strange kind of intense worship that we give to singers and songwriters in our youth: R.E.M., Tori, Bruce and Bob. My sister and I wrote their lyrics all over our hands and notebooks and agendas and trapper keepers (remember those?!). And they in turn help us mark the passage of time: albums of the 90’s, 2000’s, and onwards. Crazy to think that 1991 is the same distance away from today as 1971 one was from 1991. Does 1991 seem as old and far-away to the kids I work with, as 1971 did to me?

They were interviewing the lead singer from Wilco on NPR the other day, and he said that music helped him cope with his severe anxiety disorder because it helped him focus on the present, not on projections into the past and future, but rather right here right now, this song, music, and lyrics. Anxiety disorder or not, I think that is about a great explanation as any of how music (and reading!) is a bridge, a gateway, a form of transcending your puny, trembling w/fear at your own insecurities self.

What I will most appreciate about R.E.M. (and Tori, for that matter) is that I feel like they took the notion of making art, storytelling, narrative and characterization to an intensely higher level for me. Yeah, I totally went through my shitty cassette tape phase of Backstreet Boys, Hansen and the Titanic soundtrack (all hail the glory of being 12). But then one day we bought the Grammy’s nominee 1998 tape and everything changed. It had all these female singers on it, their names vaguely familiar from the pages of 17 and Rolling Stone that we would read sitting on the cool tile floor at the back of the library, hiding from Sports Day and swimming lesson P.E. class behind the bookshelves. Names like Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow. You know, all those so-called “Lilith Fair” types.

So one thing led to another and in a year’s time we got To Venus and Back and NIN’s The Fragile for Christmas. I let my sister choose which one she wanted to listen to first and she chose Tori, much to my envy–I tried to listen to the sounds of the piano tinkling through the thick bedroom walls to no avail; we only had one discman between us and she was using that shitty stereo with the one broken speaker that always made the Beatles songs sound Satanic, missing an essential guitar or vocal.

The first R.E.M. album I ever bought was Out of Time and I honestly don’t remember why. I don’t remember the next one I bought, either. I just remember at some point during summer Nerd camp on the east coast, I realized that I owned pretty much half their albums, and there was hardly a weak song on any of them.

Anyway. The bigger point I am trying to make is that Tori and R.E.M. took the notion of ART to a whole ‘nother level for me. Art didn’t have to be well-liked, hip, cool, popular or big-selling. Art could be mysterious and enigmatic. Art could give you FEELINGS even if you weren’t sure what they were and what was going on, what was happening to you–what was being DONE to you. Art could have a kind of integrity, in the sense that you honored yourself and what you were making: the work came first, not anyone or anything else. My thesis advisor in college once told me not to listen to anyone else’s opinions or judgements on what was a success or what was a failure, what was good or what was bad. “Lo que vale es el trabajo,” he told me. The work is what counts. That’s how I feel about R.E.M. and Tori: for them, the work was (is) what counted.

And I guess that is my little homage mini-essay of Why I Like R.E.M. Here are some of the songs I came up with from my list and for my ipod playlist (it’s a numbered list for convenience, but the numbers really don’t mean anything):

  1. Hope” (from 1998’s Up)
  2. Try Not to Breath” (from 1992’s Automatic For the People)
  3. Maps and Legends” (from 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction)
  4. Supernatural Superserious” (from 2008’s Accelerate)
  5. World Leader Pretend” (from 1988’s Green)
  6. “I Believe” (from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, my personal favorite R.E.M. album)
  7. Sitting Still” (from 1983’s Murmurs)
  8. Strange Currencies” (from 1994’s Monster)
  9. Country Feedback” (from 1991’s Out of Time)
  10. Green Grow the Rushes” (from 1985’s Fables)
  11. Monty Got A Raw Deal” (from 1992’s Automatic)
  12. Drive” (from 1992’s Automatic)
  13. The Lifting” (from 2001’s Reveal)
  14. ALL of 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their best album, especially “New Test Leper,” “E-Bow the Letter,” “Bittersweet Me,” “Be Mine,” “So Fast So Numb” and “Low Desert.”
  15. The Great Beyond” (from 2003’s In Time: Greatest Hits)
  16. “The Wrong Child” (from 1988’s Green)
  17. King of Birds” (from 1987’s Document)
  18. Life and How To Live It” (from 1985’s Fables)
  19. Around the Sun” (from 2004’s Around the Sun)
  20. I’ll put “Nightswimming” here so that I can show me some CTY love…

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