[Note: I started this post several months ago on a flight back from San Francisco and Oakland, where I had presented at the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture. I return to it now, editing lightly and posting “as is” because I have been thinking about music and songs and songwriting after recently researching the backstory on “Torn” and having presented a “walk through”/installation version of Between Tower and Sea at the Emerge Pop Up Show in Coeur d’Alene a few days ago. If you are here because of that encounter, thank you for visiting. You are part of this post!]
I first heard “Nothing Compares 2 U” while sitting in my mom’s Pontiac outside a gas station somewhere near Dixons Mills or Thomasville, Alabama. My mom was inside paying. I switched on the AM radio in the J2000 station wagon, turned the tuning knob, and stopped somewhere along the frequency band, captivated by Sinéad O’Connor’s voice–so powerful, even through the tinny factory speakers. Its juxtaposition with the keys. The feelings of longing and absence and loss. Tension. Resolution. Too soon, the song was over.
I had no idea then who was behind the voice, or the name of the song, or that it had been written and composed (but not released) by Prince, or that later, I would buy O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got album. No idea that I would start playing guitar and would cover the song at the Crosstime Bar/Saloon in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. No inkling that Chris Cornell would cover it, or that he and his daughter Toni would record a version. That Toni would share this as a Father’s Day tribute. No idea that all of these “facts” would be so connective with my friends Tracy and Josue (and perhaps others?). This is how the song has worked into my life now.
Then: a moment at a gas station, but also: the present. Immediacy. The moment. It didn’t matter that I had no way to know who was singing. No smart phone, wireless, cellular data, crystal ball. No way to start searching and uncovering right then. Later, I would hear the song again. And again. Later, I could sing it. Look up lyrics. Look up history. Later, I could think about how subtle and tenuous and powerful the timbre of someone’s voice can be. Could consider these flexions. Could consider the intersections. How we pause–on humid nights in Alabama, at Monday and Thursday open mic nights in Virginia and Vermont, in conversations with family, recalling “The Mountains of Mourne”, at Friday night concerts,
like tonight, on winter’s verge [and in moments of quiet, between the bands at a festival or show]. How we catch fragments of songs. How we dance to the different rhythms.
2018 , I can listen to and watch half a dozen versions of that one song–Prince, Prince and Rosie Gaines, Sinead O’Connor, Chris Cornell, etc.–all while sitting on the deck at the house or in the Schweitzer lodge or on the bus. Now, I can slip into the fascinating tangle of information and backstory about singers and bands and recording labels and songs and albums and name changes and everything that music history is. And then there are millions and millions of songs. Hundreds, thousands, of musics.
Music–how it layers and connects. Songs. Sounds. Podcasts. Aural Landscapes.
I won a package of NutterButters a
few [several] months ago at Open Mic at the Pearl Theater. For once I knew answers to some of the trivia questions that get asked between the musicians and poets and novelists. U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and Paul Simon’s “April Come She Will.”
A nondescript spring evening. Another small town Thursday evening. I was sitting with Barb, Rona, Jasmine, Anne Marie, and Sophie. Barb, with whom I have played and sung now for nearly a decade. Through losing family members, through creative ventures and celebrations and long winter evenings at local bars, with Josh on percussion, with India Rain harmonizing. Sitting among friends, mingling, I listened to the poets and singers. And Mark sang Woody Guthrie. And Tom sang “Morning Has Broken,” and I felt the connectedness of time and community, even as their fragility was apparent as ever, Tom mustering the strength for a beautiful rendition, this just day’s before heading to Mexico for cancer treatment. “Morning Has Broken,” played in that same Pearl Theater building decades before it was the Pearl, played when Rebecca and I got married.
Music a linkage. Music a momentary realignment, a live thing, a connective tissue, a healing measure, a reprieve from all the damage that the Forces of History and the realities that Biology and Disease have inflicted on us, from all the damage that we have inflicted on others and on ourselves.
Last summer I walked to within a few meters of a mountain bluebird before he flew west across the field, toward the trees. As I rounded the curve of road, he dove toward me from a Ponderosa. A flash of white and blue in the early light. Close. Curious even? Then he wheeled hard right and ascended to perch on a fir branch. I snapped a quick phone image of him, something that leaves him gray and pixelated, a poor representation of his vibrance and being. His existence. (I think here of Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, and how impermanent and imperfect and inadequate our representations are.)
I have been thinking of birds, partly since recording some of them singing in a locust tree at the Weatherby rest area on I-84. That was last spring on the trip to the Idaho State 3A Track Championships. Partly, I am also thinking of birds because of the birdsong that inhabits the various cedars and firs that surround our house and which
was [is] so audible during the summer (warmer weather and open windows). Partly, I have been thinking of Barry Lopez’s work–Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, “Gone Back Into the Earth,” and “The Passing Wisdom of Birds.” Tundra swans and migration. Cycles. Erosion. Music reverberating from canyon walls. Birds and how they evade and regard. Aviaries and how we destroy them. Aviaries and how we gather around them. How I used to play music for my mother by the aviary at Life Care. She and the other residents would gather and listen. And we would watch the birds.
There’s this: I’m looking for our interaction–with each other, with nature, with memory, with imagination–through sight and sound, through a texture or a look or an expression. Something nuanced. Something not. I am interested in the media we use too. Do we record? Do we write? Do we play instruments? Do we perform live? Do we take photographs? Do we make videos? Do we share all of this? Do we care and craft our stories? Do we care about others and their stories? And if so, how?
My friend Theron and I sometimes play guitar. We talk about music and travel and parenting and life. Sometime last year he introduced me to Chris Shiflett’s podcast “Walking the Floor.”
This past [Last] summer I started listening to episodes during morning walks. Shiflett is probably best known as the lead guitarist for the Foo Fighters. On “Walking the Floor” he interviews a variety of musicians. In conversation with Lee Ann Womack, Colter Wall, Lucinda Williams, etc., Shiflett follows a general theme of lineage and influences. He asks where people source their stories and songs and creative output. Their investment. It’s compelling to hear where people find their motivations.
weeks [months] ago my son bought a used camera lens at McGinnis’s antique shop up at Three Mile corner, where U.S. Highways 95 and 2 separate or converge, depending on which direction you are going. It’s a manual Vivitar lens with good glass, and with a little research, a little searching, he was able to find an adapter to fit the lens to his modern Sony. The photographs he has been taking with this setup recently have drawn notice, and for good reason. I remember when we were standing in the antique shop surrounded by the various memorabilia from past decades–gas station signs, runner sleds, automobile parts, and tools–he inspected the lens. Did some quick reading on the internet, considered the possibilities of the housing and the glass.
I am thinking of this moment now, as Alaska Flight 1379 descends toward Seattle. We are at 8132 ft, 313 mph, although the data constantly change. A few minutes ago, we were flying near Cascade volcanoes Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier. I snapped a few photos out of the scratched and scarred window, noting the minimum reach of snow. It is the end of October. Soon, the Pacific storms will cover all the exposed rock.
[Continued, in June, 2019, following the Emerge Pop Up Show in Coeur d’Alene last weekend. Returning to this post months later feels strange, but I’m just going to add a bit and then post.]
Here’s the thing. I have been walking in the morning and seeing western bluebirds again. Two pairs today. And I have listened and re-listened to the Re:sound #252 Analog show a few times since last year, delighting in the textures of the stories, the celebration of analog recording. And I have been researching Kodak Ektachrome and Fuji Provia and Velvia, following several discussions with photographers and artists and others at the Emerge show. And Angus so kindly gave me a vintage Mamiya SLR film camera after our conversation at the Emerge preview party, and now I am re-reading and re-learning. Considering film. Planning for slides. Scheming voyages and framing and projects. During the Emerge Pop Up Show, some of the most connective moments were through the analog equipment, the tactility of holding viewers, the brush of fingertip against 2 x 2 inch cardboard frames. I feel the momentum of these themes and times. Project Work.
I showed the Mamiya to my son, and he was immediately curious about the lens. With its 42mm standard threads, it fits the adapter he has for his Sony, and he borrowed it, shooting some mesmerizing fern photos with it on a hike to some local waterfalls yesterday.
“Your photograph is only as good as the glass,” my son says. And he’s impressed by this decades-old lens, a surprise gift from a new acquaintance, a person whose stories and experiences overlap with ours aesthetically and poetically–in photographs and stories and climbing, time spent in the rock gym and the mountains.
And this is how all of this is: the bird song, a song on the radio, a line or two or three of poetry influencing an artist so many years later, artistry and technical knowledge passed from one to another, a whole history behind the moment of an image or dance move or song, a photograph in a gazebo at an art walk, the quality of light through a sculpted butterfly’s wings, splashes of color, a spread of canvas as a community art project, the textures of monochrome, unstretched canvas paintings hung in stairwells, community poems, dimensions, horizons. The delight and wonder I saw on so many faces as they peered through the loupe viewer at the slides illuminated from beneath, my mother’s stories and experiences brought to life as if a time capsule had been opened with a gentle twist of the hands. The cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. The stretch of the Pacific Ocean. Towers in British Columbia. An elephant beneath trees in a zoo in Saigon in 1961. Boats on the South China Sea. Mothers and children standing in a refugee camp. A girl, shading her eyes from the sun as she stands on the shore near the Happy Haven Leprosarium. An amputee blowing bubbles. People’s lives intertwined for 1/250th of a second as the mirror flips up and out of the way, allowing the light bouncing off the face to strike the silver halide on the thin membrane of diapositive Kodachrome, a fixed moment.
These are the stories we imagine. The stories we experience. The stories we tell. And that vanish, even as we tell them. We’re here briefly, momentarily, to share and to listen, suspended like stars above stones jutting from the waves at Cannon Beach. Tell me, what stories, what musics, what images, what sculptures, what dancings will be next?