Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I Haven't Felt Like This in Some Time, Maybe Ever

Most days I arrive downtown in the morning with some time to kill before I have to be at work. I won't bore you with the specifics; it just works out that way. Often I will run errands or just wander around for no particular reason. On such occasions, it's all but guaranteed I'll be listening to comedy podcasts, managing to fit in a few fits of laughter between bouts of scoffing at the well-to-do dregs of society who terrorize from behind the wheels of their always slick and often comically oversized automobiles, defiantly jeopardizing not only the safety of their fellow commuters but the future of humankind by brazenly eschewing the traffic laws put in place to best protect us allbut especially the weakest and most fragile among usfrom injury and death.

On a recent sunny, wintry, but rather lovely April Tuesday morning, I was walking toward the City Target to purchase a reasonable pencil sharpener for my kids, which is something that I've been contemplating for some time now (but with no real urgency, as I will occasionally bother our friends Genny and J who live upstairs in the two-flat we share and use theirs; my version of borrowing a cup of sugar). There's nothing sadder than watching bushy-tailed children futilely trying to release brilliant, joyful colors from their wooden confines and, instead, winding up with psychotic, errant and dull indentations littered with mocking hints of color. And there's nothing more deflating than essentially just repeatedly breaking the tips off of pencils while trying to sharpen them in those cute little pencil-case-bred faux pencil sharpeners that usually have, like, the Paul Frank monkey or something on them and that not even the manufacturer would concede work in any fashion; nor would anyone who has ever deigned to use one expect them to. Honestly, you'd probably have more success using your teeth.

And, after a fruitless trip to our office supply room the previous day, I was prepared to buy a couple of rulers. Because somebody at work keeps stealing my fucking rulers.

Suddenly, after placing my earbuds into my ears, I found myself accidentally listening to "GGF" by Rancid. Here, indeed, "accidentally listening" may sound like a misnomer; but let me give it context.

In all honesty, I don't listen to music anywhere near as much as I did when I was in collegeprobably where my love for listening and creating music reached a fever pitchbut far more than the period between post-college infancy and the advent of being able to carry around every song you've ever heard in your life on a device roughly half the width of your wallet. Sadly, listening to music of your choosing is sometimes more trouble than it's worth when you've got kids who only want to hear what they want to hear, primarily because they've heard it before. But I try pretty hard to expose my kids to real music rather than hackneyed recordings of children's music, which isn't really for children at all, but people who don't like or know anything about music. Singing "The Wheels on the Bus" with your kids is great. Singing "Baby Bumblebee" at school or summer camp is grand. But why the fuck would anyone want to listen to a recording of someone else singing it in their living room when they could listen to anything else?

When I do decide to put something on of my choosing, it will invariably be met with my almost three-year-old daughter demanding in a demonic voice, "I want my song," which changes from time to time. It's been "What Makes You Beautiful" by One Direction and "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen, and, most recently (and tragically), "Trouble" by the insufferable Taylor Swift. Usually what happens here is, in the service of being accommodating, I stop washing the dishes (or whatever I'm doing in the kitchen; usually washing dishes) and fling a dish towel over my shoulder and switch our mono AM/FM/mp3 player compatible Crossley (a manufacturer specializing in electronics that invariably exemplify the embodiment of style over substance and, more often than not, functionality and quality control) from AUX to 103.5, Kiss FM, while trying to explain to this little lunatic how a relic such as the radio workswhere you are required, if you so choose, to listen to whatever happens to playing at the timewhen she's privy to the concept of on demand through the magic of the much-maligned Comcast corporation. But I must give credit where credit is due: My daughter did graciously allow me to listen to a  big chunk of We Are the Champions by Jeff The Brotherhood recently while she played in the kitchen and I washed the 8,000 cups she and her brother managed to use in a two-hour stretch of time. But it wasn't without initial bloodshed and the engagement of resolve. Like the man says, you've got to pick your battles; this was one of the times I was willing to.

Don't get me wrong; I love a lot of pop music, including a lot of what they play on KISS FM, but I grow weary of listening to the same shitty songs over and over and over again (KISS FM's standard procedure); I don't need to hear "Die Young" by Kei$ha twice in one hour (especially because she ripped off at least one line from a far superior Katy Perry song from three years ago). Speaking of which: I'm not a huge conspiracy theory guy, but those "Kidz Bop" sample CDs that have four songs on them that they give out at McDonald's when there's not some dumb Madagascar movie in theaters must be intended to force the population's hand in killing itself off; apparently eradication of the general population by its consumption of McDonald's food is taking too long. I mean, seriously, even when you were a kid, wouldn't you have rather heard the Go-Gos singing "We Got the Beat" than a bunch of kids?
Excuse me, but do you have "I Love Rock and Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts?
Hey, I can do better than that, pal: We have a lifeless version of it performed by a bunch of children singing over a bunch of hack musicians doing their best to simultaneously approximate and completely neuter the original version.
 Why not take it to the next level?
Hey—you know what would make "Achilles Last Stand" by Led Zeppelin better? If it was played by studio musicians and a bunch of fucking kids sang it.
But kids can't get enough of it. If you ever make the mistake of sliding a Kidz Bop CD into your dashboard once, it may not just ruin every car ride you will ever take from then on, but music in general; so tread lightly. I suppose I should be thankful that our Kidz Bop sampler CDs are strictly associated with the car and not the house. It's like the vampire legend: it can't come in unless it's invited, but, once it's in, it won't leave you be until either you've been drained of your plasma or become one of them by submitting to the path of least resistance. 

I'm pretty much a slave to routine with little variance. Variance in mundane everyday doings makes me anxious to a problematic degree. For example, if, on any given morning, I'm going to make a sandwich for my son's lunch, and somehow the peanut butter is in a different location than normal, requiring me to search for it, this could throw off the natural momentum of all of the other irons I have in the fire. Which, in my estimation, could easily end in tragedy: the sink filling up for the dishes (sink overflowing), the eggs scrambling on the stove (eggs burning), the iron heating up on the ironing board (it falls over and sets the kitchen and, eventually, our two-flat on fire), etc. I'm working on trying to accept this type of variance instead of letting it consume me, but I usually just try to structure such things so they can occur without requiring much thought. I only point this, and the following, out to convey the unlikelihood of the scenario occurring on one recent sunny, wintry, but rather lovely April Tuesday morning and, perhaps, its significance:
  • The previous day I had forgotten my iPod at home. So later that day when I got to work, I chucked a few podcasts onto my phone to listen to on the way home. I had forgotten all about the events of the previous day when I went to plug my headphones into my iPod, thinking I would listen to a neglected episode of the indispensable Best Show, at the time approaching two weeks old, an unheard of amount of time for me to be behind, which can be attributed to my recent obsession with Bill Burr, even though he frightens me a bit.
  • I incessantly punch the hold button in on my iPod, because it drives me insane when I find that something has been playing in my pocket and I have to try to guess where I had stopped listening, mostly because I'm usually wrong, which will only occur to me after five minutes of listening, at which point I'll realize that I've already heard it, and it freaks me out a bit: Why did it take me this long to figure out that I've already heard this? Was I not engaged the first time around? How much material do I miss on a regular basis because I'm not engaged? What was I doing when I heard this the first time that I can't remember any of it? Is this because of those countless times I smoked weed out of that ridiculous (and impressive) three-foot homemade bong my buddy Chuck made from parts procured at Pier One Imports and Home Depot with an aluminum foil bowl?
  • I try on at least a few Fridays a month, when I am afforded the time, to take whole albums I've recently obtainedoften new releases but sometimes simply new procurements of older releases, both standards (like Queen's Jazz) and curiosities (like Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction's Tattooed Beat Messiah)and dump them onto what will become a massive playlist littered with tried-and-true reveries I know will prick up my ears when hanging out, drinking beer and playing cards or a finite revolving cadre of board games with Genny and J. (Genny made it known that she couldn't tolerate the copious amounts of pre-American market breakthrough Whitesnake that dominated early latter-day playlists; J has repeatedly confessed that he never expected to hear anything from The Cult's Sonic Temple after graduating from high school, let alone on a weekly basis. They're incredibly good sports.) It's honestly the highlight of my week; sitting around with my wife and friends, listening to music old and new. And I love that the technology exists to enable you to make "mixes" that are so massive that, even though you made them, the amount of time you spend doing it is relatively small in proportion to the amount of music you can collect in one space, that you can still be surprised when Bang Tango's "Attack of  Life" or "August" by Love comes on after that new Riff Raff song you're hearing for the first time: Hmm. I put that on there, huh? What a lovely surprise. Then I'll name it something stupid. My last playlist: March Moodiness (don't hate); 536 songs, 1.2 days. It may seem simple or something, but I am truly grateful to have this technology at my disposal. I think it's amazing. Can't I think that's amazing?
So it was kind of an unusual experience for me to plug my earbuds into my iPod to listen to a podcast that was actually on my iPhone, only to discover that the hold switch had either been triggered off or I forgot to put in on entirely; the previous night, Genny and J had come down, so we listened to some music, all around a rarity for a Monday evening. So here it is now a wintry but still kind of lovely April Tuesday morning, and I'm suddenly accidentally listening Rancid's "GGF," a playlist staple of mine from their (second) eponymous effort from 2000, which I had put on Moodiness (don't hate), was playing. The song is essentially an homage to buy-it-or-don't-buy-it Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong's childhood by using Golden Gate Fields, a racetrack in his hometown of Berkeley, CA that seemed to cast a big shadow over his formative years, as a conduit:
This is not Churchill Downs
This is not Hollywood Park
When the field's wide open
I'll pick the horse who has the biggest heart
It's kind of diabolically clever, really, how he establishes his punk rock ethos here by announcing an affection for and ownership of the place by setting it apart from the other area tracks, and he even uses a racehorse in  a "racehorse" analogy to the racetrack itself. The verses see Armstrong kind of talk-singing in that sort of mischievous street-poet cadence that has been used (to varying degrees of success) by everyone from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed to Jim Carroll (blecch) to Bruce Springsteen to Craig Finn, overstuffing an inordinate amount of syllables into a tight musical corner in an attempt to elevate the urgency and literacy of the piece, wringing the last drops out of those three-chord progressions when a lesser troubadour with a suspect work ethic would have settled and moved onto something else. Tim Armstrong sneers and cackles it out in there with an unlikely loose-ends precision and the urgency of a wild-eyed, disheveled schizophrenic wearing a sandwich board proclaiming "The End Is Near" while the band pounds and pummels the pace into adherence; the whole thing together sounds like a locomotive plowing through a boxing ring.

But it's when the song quiets down a bit when it turns into a ghost story, and transcends the three-chord confines of pop punk, a form of music that was bought and sold to Disney XM roughly around the time Milo came back and the Descendents put out Everything Sucks. The brevity of it all makes it more impressive. There's something tragic, haunting, and beautiful about it. But, really, it's the ethereal nature of the experience described, I think, that makes it so sublime:

Every time I go back to the East Bay I run into Big L
My old friend Big L, lord, he's not doing so well.
See, me and Big L grew up across the freeway from the track.
Yes, we spent many, many, many, many days at the track.
I see Big L come rolling up the street
On his little sister's pink, ten-speed.
He said, "Tim, Tim, don't you remember me? Way back in 1973?"
And every time I see him he has to remind me
Like I would ever forget Big L
But then he's gone like a flash
There's something hallucinatory about the image of Big L riding into the center of the songas the band has cleared some space for him by laying back a biton his little sister's pink ten-speed, left behind, frozen in time and pleading, "Tim, Tim, don't you remember me?" And it's rendered all the more heartbreaking given the assertion that "[m]y friend Big L, lord, he's not doing so well." Saddened that his childhood friend, whatever his state, could even suggest that their bond is anything less than lifelong, Armstrong's response, "Like I could ever forget Big L," pulses like an open wound. And just when Big L's about there, just when Tim is about to come face to face with his childhood friend, in this place where he spent his childhood, "he's gone like a flash." It's stunning and confusing, otherworldly and haunting. It's all so fleeting, man.

After listening to it once, chills surging down my spine, I listened to it again, and a strange but very real concoction of euphoria and melancholy rushed through my being. Then, the third time I listened to it, I started crying. Not uncontrollably, but not timidly either. Just crying.

I haven't cried in a long time; and there's no telling how long it's been in relation to being moved to tears by artistry. This was something. Immediately I remembered one lovely spring Saturday afternoon in 2001: I was comfortably seated in our one-bedroom in Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on our recently procuredbut, years later, doomed to be rejected by the Salvation Army as worthless, sent away to find a sympathetic Best Buy employee who would afford it a place in Best Buy's recycling program instead of saying, "Fuck it, let's just 'recycle' this fucker into the dumpster"32-inch mammoth of a television and, due to an unfortunate union forged by price point and infancy of the technology, surly and misshapen DVD player, which still, together, mercifully replaced our 13 inch and VHS player. My girlfriend (now wife) Melissa was on our back porch studying: I had only recently realized that she was going to make good on her threats to go to graduate school at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. Of course she was and, Jesus, thank Christ she did, but this was something that I had previously been too dumb, blind or self-absorbed to recognize, or was a scenario I was out of desperation unwilling to entertain as likely to occur. I was so moved by the Ennio Morricone score and the Eugenio Lardani titles, that I darted out to the porch to fetch Melissa. You have to watch this. Then, we sat down and watched the title sequence, and I turned into a blubbering mess, sniveling and spouting. "It's just so beautiful," I whimpered.

My point being: Yes, I cried because I was touched by the artistry of the title sequence of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And on subsequent viewings I've teared up. But there was some shit going on that made it more likely that tears would be shed than if shit hadn't been going on. Which is why I immediately thought about that here, before thinking, Who cries at Rancid songs?

I had been walking, and I kind of just stopped and stood there. Not that I necessarily subscribe to the mysticism associated with the concept of an epiphany and its purported transformative nature, but this seemed to sort of approximate one: I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy and fear, and a longing and desperation to defiantly carry the burden until I can no longer feel its weight. I've had anxiety issues for years, but it's been an especially rocky road for me the past few months, something that would probably be easier to cope with if there were a reason for it. But there isn't, and when I feel like I'm going to melt into a mess of sweat, organs and gristle because I'm trying to tackle basic things that people do every single day, I feel ridiculous. People have no food, no money, no family, no shelter; what the fuck do I have to worry about? I want to beat my chest and yell and scream, "Just fucking stop it!"

But what can you do?

So I'm standing there at Washington and Dearborn, just standing there, tears streaming down my face, eyes squinting from the sting of salt and the brilliant sunlight, and I'm thinking about how glad I am to be here, right now, experiencing this thing. I'm filled with wonder. I think about my kids, my wife, my lifelong friends in Texas; why shouldn't I feel lucky? I haven't felt like this is some time, maybe ever. And I'm thinking about how life is too shortand too longto be riddled with anxiety and sweating the small stuff because it's all amazing. It's all amazing. What do I care if someone takes my rulers, or my kids give me the business when I'm trying to get them in bed? And so I'm trying; I have a lot of work to do, but I'm trying.

There's that sage old advice: write what you know. That's what Armstrong did in this beautiful, ramshackle punk rock anthem; I don't know fuck-all about Golden Gate Fields or horse races or the East Bay, but he and his band facilitated an unlikely—and accidental—eye-opening experience for me by telling his very specific, personal story in a way that I could relate to wholly. And goddamn; that's a hell of a thing.


Kirk Mottram said...

Really well written, man. I've had similar moments recently. Cool that you gave yours a voice.

Silas Dent Zobal said...

Okay, I'm really late--just read this now. But it's an awesome, intricate piece about how we arrive at those sad, glorious moments when we're overcome. Thanks, Brent.