Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather)
My turntable was a dead before Jack White came along, and so was I, just a little. Once upon a time my turntable was everything, but then it fell out of currency in my house. I put it away in favor of the banality of CDs and digital downloads, and surrendered to the hype that I could have my music everywhere, especially if I was OK with it sounding like crap, portable crap. Music had become the ambient backdrop to my day, a room decoration, something I put on so spaces wouldn’t feel so empty, or something I could play through headphones at work to shut out all the soul-killing corporate shuffling. Then the White Stripes arrived in 1997 and thrashed me awake. Through their raw, pepperminty sound music wasn’t a decoration any longer, it was demanding to live at the center of my life; it was alive, it was noisy, it was insistent, it was rude. In short, it was just what I needed. I bought new gear and started buying new vinyl records again. I had given away my childish vinyl collection years before, to focus instead only on CDs. It was a mistake, but then again, by starting over I made sure that my new vinyl experience would be based on only the best. Jack White, through his Third Man label, also reminded me that nothing springs forth fully formed, that every “new” idea has antecedents, roots, and debts to those who came before. Jack White woke up my inner music obsessive. Music returned me to my life. And life is better than death.
It’s so easy to crave comfort, to strive to not feel too many highs or too many lows in this life, to want the heart to be accepting of its fate, and to be still; to keep all the pain in the past, like photos in a photo album we can keep closed and only dip into when we’re strong enough to look. But the heart wants what it wants, it’s a free-ranging organ, and we go with it, because we can’t control ourselves, because we secretly love to feel it all. Which means we get the full treatment, the dark valleys of pain as much as the sunlit peaks of joy. Ryan Adams showed me that a songwriter is supposed to do more than entertain me; he’s supposed to drag me through my mud and memories, over and over, until I understand what my life is really all about. It’s his job. His songs open the doors into that perfectly annoying space of the universal human conundrum: the search for love isn’t always about happiness. There’s almost always a backlash of pain in life, and in his songs in particular. Because we never stop being naive children, we get hurt. Ryan Adams gave me my working definition of what it means to write real songs that hurt. He makes it look easy. It’s not. I think that’s why he’s had so much trouble with his record labels, before he started his own Pax-Am label. He won’t make nice because he can’t lie in his songs. So his past label handlers shelved his stuff for years, or released it in odd collections that fans had to work pretty damn hard to collect. His music was too real. But now he’s free, and so are we, to feel what he feels.
If you think about it, every age, no matter how comfortable or sophisticated it thinks it is (especially if it’s too comfortable or too sophisticated), needs artists to tear things down from time to time, to jump-start our beginner’s mind again, to keep us from becoming too smitten by our lovely reflections each morning. Sometimes life’s resets come in lo-fi floods of songs from artists like John Darnielle who pour out their warnings as fast as their labels can press them. I thought I knew what it meant to be an iconoclast, but I was mistaken. What hasn’t Darnielle reacted to and written about? Love and hate: check. Hellhounds and Iceland: check. The Midwest and Russia: check. The best-ever death-metal band and blues: check. Tetrapods and magpies: check. Sax Rohmer and H.P Lovecraft: check. The Bible and the tarot: check. John Darnielle showed me that songs can have hard words with even harder meanings, blunt and direct, thorny and difficult to escape from. That’s the trouble with words: they have meanings. His songs showed me that beauty is sometimes most appreciated when it’s found in casually tossed around metaphors, even ugly metaphors, in ruined landscapes of willful neglect rather than places dutifully tended out of false senses of obligation. His songs break through the pavement, they push up through the weathered cracks of civilized life, they aid the inevitable process of the hardest stoney ideas being ground down into sand, for new beginnings. His songs cut through moribund delusions to make room for wildness, for escape, for freedom. And through these cracks, we can escape with him, even if we don’t think of ourselves as rebels. It’s for us, and all part of his songwriting service.
What does it mean to be normal in an insane world? Is it going along with the majority so that no one singles you out and yells, “Hey, what’s up with that guy?” For a country that fetishizes the tough-minded loner in the Wild Wild West, in the sociopath with the billion-dollar idea, in the Army of One, we sure crave being part of the group, with whoever has the power, being on the winning team. From sports to religion to lifestyle, we’re about brand identification and moving as a pack. And I went there, too, because I live here and because I got comfortable in my shiny little self image. Then, Daniel Johnston entered my vocabulary, and I saw anew what it means to be punk as a person, as an artist, as a writer, as an outsider. His music forced me to rethink DIY, which is the cornerstone on which so many innovations in music is based. From folk to surf to garage to goth to grunge to rap to punk, it’s been about just doing it. Too much polish, too much studio time often kills raw, which is still what ultimately excites all of our music bits. Daniel Johnston makes no excuses for his sound or his aesthetic. If you get him or if you don’t, he doesn’t care. That’s about as exciting as it gets in this life. Just being yourself, writing what you want to write, saying what you want to say, performing in whatever way works for you, and leaving it to the fans and critics to come along with you, or not. It’s the ultimate freedom. It’s not angry, it’s not a protest, it’s not even a provocation. It just is, which I think is pretty fucking normal.
I thought I knew what a song was, but I was mistaken. I thought cool fiction writers couldn’t also be insanely cool lyricists, and create awesome records that would resonate with modern fans, especially if they died of cirrhosis years ago in St. Petersburg, Florida. This entry in my list a twofer deal: two artists who changed the way I think about music working together on one labor of love (using the words of a dead guy). Ben Gibbard is, of course, the god-like songwriter behind Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service, and Jay Farrar, equally god-like, escaped from his daily fist fights with Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo to create Son Volt country. Both men admire the awesome fiction and poetry of Jack Kerouac, duh, and both had this crazy idea that Kerouac’s dark-night-of-the-cowering-rehab-soul novel, Big Sur, could somehow be chopped up and made into 12 amazing suitable-for-radio-play songs, using Kerouac’s actual words about DTs, hallucinations, and creeping cabin fever as lyrics, and film the whole thing as a documentary suitable for PBS. I thought: a novelist is a novelist, even a dead one, and a novel is a novel, even a terrifying one. Wrong! With this single project I realized I was putting writers in little boxes in my head, and have been doing so all my life. The record, “One Fast Move Or I’m Gone,” became the most-played record in my home in 2011 (I was a bit late to find it; it was released in 2009 by Atlantic). It shattered my separate but equal segregations of artists and craft. Jack Kerouac became one of the coolest lyricists working in the new millennium. It showed me that smart stays smart, no matter the form, something those Buddhists love to remind us about every time we ask what Buddhism is all about. First thought best thought, stupid! OK, I get it now.
Life is a stone cold killer of hope. You start out as a young idealistic punk longing to piss on every stuffy convention in your innocent, primitive, but earnest young art and life, but sooner rather than later you put on a suit and you suck it, just to stay alive, just to pay the bills and be respectable and have a family and a career. And if you win the giant suck lottery, you can even be successful. But only as successful as the machine will let you be. Don’t get too excited. It happens to everyone in music, too, that’s what I thought. No one can resist the forces of conformity, and comfort. I discovered Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds along with Crime & the City Solution, in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, “Wings of Desire,” which means… I was late. I was still a puppy, but I missed the Birthday Party in their real time, forced to catch up, best I could, with what was available on vinyl in the U.S., which wasn’t much. Nick Cave, of course, had been in several punk scenes since the 1970s, started two bands with Rowland S. Howard, and crashed them both into walls when the drugs and drink wore everyone down. Has any artist been as successful as Nick Cave with such an expansive heroine habit? Probably. So how does a man like Nick Cave keep doing it? If marathons were about drugs and punk music and decades in bad hotels on tour, Nick Cave would be a gold medalist many times over. His music has never sucked it, no matter how many label changes he’s made, or how many new definitions of success have been inspired by the suck shack Grammys. I learned from Nick Cave that this is a zombie world, full of zombie ideas and zombie shit. There are so many things about Cave that inspire me, but they’re things I could never do myself. In that way, as far as artists on my list, he’s an unattainable goal. More of a legend I can tell small children while sitting around campfires on summer evenings. I tell them there’s a scary cool man out there, a stick-thin giant wandering this mean old world, who fights and wins all his battles with the undead zombies. No one knows what will happen to him, when he can no longer go on. All we know is that he’ll die on stage. It will be very sad, but inevitable, cigarette in one hand and microphone in the other, and we’ll miss him, but it will also be very punk, and cool, and just about perfect.
When did everything about personal faith change? I’m just curious; I missed the announcement. When did it become cool to make Christian music a marketing thing? Before you get all stoked to attack me, I’m just tired of something I view as deeply personal—one’s faith—being made, and marketed, as a product, to be sold like soap or body spray. Do the businesses who market that sort of music think they’re being subtle? Do they think we’ll all be converted to their way of “faith” if we hear the right tune for Jesus? And why do so many Christian bands leave that tag off their music when they place it on sites like NoiseTrade? If you’re a believer, wouldn’t you be more psyched to know which hot new bands were in your club? I mean, having your label say your music is for fans of Maroon 5 just isn’t the same as saying you make “Contemporary Christian” music. And why use music to raise money for missionary work anyway? Isn’t that what those teen car washes are for at Safeway? It’s me, and the “Christian” bands I’ve encountered, but I got to the point where I’d run miles in bare feet over broken glass crucifixes to avoid having to sit through even a short session of that sort of music. And then came Bill Fay. You see, I do have a personal faith, I just don’t write about it in my blog or on Facebook, God forbid. Because it’s personal. Bill Fay changed my thinking completely about how one’s faith and one’s music might come together, harmoniously, subtilely, unsanctimoniously, to open vast new levels of spiritual connection to fans without turning every song into a maudlin soap opera of terror and triumph in the name of a Supreme Being. Fay’s music is rich, nuanced, and deeply moving. His music opens me up. Because when personal faith is genuine, it can connect to others organically, naturally, without any emphasis on brand or method. Before everything changed, people could be Christians or whatever and make music (I’m a big fan of the thematically grouped collections released by Dust-to-Digital and the Numero Group, many of which contain “religious” music), and harmony could exist across a wide spectrum of peoples and beliefs. Now, it’s a competition, with winners and sinners. It’s just so exhausting, which makes Bill Fay’s work even more vital for this new, already tired century.
It’s not over until it’s over. But it’s over way too soon, for everyone. Everyone thinks their lives will go on forever, especially when they finally get a few things right. It’s the getting things right that gets you, in the end. Because it takes so damn long to find out what you need to find out. For Rowland S. Howard, it was a rocket ride from the beginning, with his bands The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, and Crime & the City Solution; then, his later band, These Immortal Souls, and his stunning solo work. An action-packed ride of success and drugs and cool songs and romantic obsessions the likes of which would have impressed opium-tippler Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and would have disgusted the professionally prudish Robert Southey (who made dull and prissy his career highlights). The music of Rowland Howard inspires me to live life fully, every minute, because it all matters and that’s the point: feel every love as if it were your last. Because it might be. It wasn’t until the end that Rowland Howard discovered the true meaning of running out of time when his work was finally synchronizing with something bigger than himself. Watch the documentary “Autoluminescent” if you think I’m exaggerating. The young man, smoldering with his gorgeous Fender Jaguar on stages in Germany in the 1980s, found real love and new music in his late 40s, and then ran out of time, dying of liver cancer in 2009 at 50. Life is hard on romantics. Idealized visionaries and their oeuvres to love’s possibilities rarely resolve themselves in happiness. Still, it’s the romantics, especially the ones who like a little taste of forbidden fruit along the way, that call the loudest to us. To me. It goes to what I already said about Ryan Adams, another passionate romantic: it feels so good to feel bad. Or maybe that’s not fair. It’s what life is, a search for happiness amid a lot of self-imposed badness. The perfect moments do come, but they’re always fleeting, and they always fade. And it’s always all over for everyone way too soon.
And now I end this essay as I began, with my turntable. When I realized it was way past time for me to find new vinyl for my hungry record player, I had to find a place where I could discover new music and new ideas. I needed an all-you-can-eat kind of place, for browsing, yes, but more importantly, for those specialty searches for the good shit, the hard-to-find shit, the nearly out-of-print shit. Every movement needs fuel and a public meeting place, where ideas can be seen and shared. Like the Beat Poets in the 1950s, the shop that carries the good shit is the place to be. Which is when I met Nick Rennis, when I needed fuel; a musician’s musician, a professional musician, a music curator, a musical expeditionary (to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase), both through his own band’s recordings, and through his legendary record shop on Fidalgo Island, called The Business. I can see direct connections between The Drink Up, Honey’s “Musher” (2011), a masterpiece of metal landscape sound painting, and the Beats sitting, alone, in their smoke-watch towers on the peaks in the Pacific Northwest, writing strange new poetry that broke new ground. It’s the destiny of the solitary, exploring new ways to narrate the journey into the self. In this way Nick Rennis rolls back the years for me. We all want to be free to be ourselves and tell our stories, to be heard. So this artist, in his way, slipstreams alongside these other artists to inspire me to find a way to be free myself, both as a writer and as a collector of music, and as the co-owner of my own record label, Untide Records. The hardest thing to be in an homogenous world is a free thinker. It’s dangerous. It’s scary. It’s lonely. But ultimately, freedom is always better than slavery. It’s your time to do with it what you want. But it’s in short supply. Why not be free? Why not be the music you want to hear?