“And I’m getting older too…”
a Stevie Nicks song
“From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back.
That is the point that must be reached.”
–Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms
Vulfpeck could very easily have been promoted as an Antwaun Stanley vehicle, pitched as the background faces in his travelling band. That’s where the studio execs would say the money is, and honestly he’s that god damn good. Watch Jack’s face (he’s the one playing pancakes) after that little improvised vocal riff at 4:02. It’s perfect — Antwaun really is the truth. I’m sure there’s a conference room full of suits somewhere that has suggested he be the face, repeatedly, and as far as packaging for profit potential, well, they wouldn’t be wrong.
BUT, Vulfpeck is decidedly NOT just an Antwaun vehicle. Instead, he remains one of a number of continually-invited guests, and the stars of the show remain the four kids who created it at music school. And really, as composer and ringleader, Vulfpeck is Jack Stratton’s baby, despite being by far the least virtuosic of all the players. It’s about his compositions, and Joe’s bass, and Woody’s keys, and Theo’s vocals, guitar, and drums. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, this world-famous band’s sound and image are in no way the brainchild of a PR team. It’s the result of a bunch of music nerds in Ann Arbor who were studying music, then making music, just for the joy of it. The product is pure and sweet and potent: kids who have retained their smiles while attaining master-status skill in their art. Hell, just look at the people who want to play with them. Their giggling enthusiasm is infectious.
In this day and age of making art to make money to have power to make money to have money to make power to have power to make money, Vulfpeck is a magic portal into pure music nerd wet dreams. They’re already becoming a legend in the making in their own time. So many artists compromise the purity of their vision in an attempt to cultivate appeal, and there is nothing sadder than someone who has done that and still failed. If you compromise for the wrong reasons you’re lost, even if you win, because what you’ve won isn’t what you actually wanted.
What gives me heart as an artist in the venal wasteland that is our current corporate century is that selling yourself bald isn’t the only way to win. Once in while an artist makes a pile of money doing only and exactly what they wanted to do, and for Vulfpeck that’s sit around the basement and make music with their friends. That’s literally what all of their music videos look like. Everything they produce is handled with care, curated for maximum irreverent beauty, and executed with an auteur’s flourish. Even the comment sections on their videos are bright and warm and delightful. How refreshing is that? They knew who they were, and what they wanted, and now they are who they wanted to be.
Learning the hard way
To be true…”
“Don’t waste yourself in rejection,
nor bark against the bad;
but chant the beauty of the good.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m real sweet on Angel Olsen. She got her start as a hand-picked backup singer to the Duke of Darkness himself, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy), and you can see it in her eyes and hear it in her moans. Her band are all super reserved professional studio hands who add no more than is absolutely necessary to serve her incredible voice, and who use just the right amount of pressure to build these shattering vocal crescendos out of nowhere. She may or may not be a closeted lesbian, singing gorgeous lesbian heartbreak songs.
Me, I’m just another cis-normative, mostly-straight white male, who enjoys the hell out of identifying with gorgeous lesbian heartbreak songs.
Yeah, I’m real sweet on Angel Olsen.
Love, and the tragedy of love, are universal constants.
“What makes me a…”
Muscle memory from a misspent youth has often gotten me into trouble as an adult. One moment in particular happened a few years ago, when there was a Hayao Miazaki / Studio Ghibli run going on at the Cornell Cinema. I met up with some friends to go see Princess Mononoke, and they were of course packing a bowl.
Now, I quit smoking weed regularly when I was living in Taipei in my mid-20s. Though I had been a daily, incessant stoner for years, it had started to slowly dawn on me that the worm had turned.
When I first started smoking it was a joyous discovery, mesmerizing in its ability to get me outside of myself and away from my anxieties: Touching, tasting, listening to music, watching a cool breeze run through the grass and ripple the blades, feeling its chill wash across my skin in a wave of goosebumps — Seeing the world not from the hazed depths of myself, but from a lifted vantage up and out, through a giggling kaleidoscope of vibrating color and sensation.
Somehow though, in a twist of actual irony, it began to take me not out, but straight down and in. I would smoke weed with people, and then immediately become not just self-conscious, but self-critical. It was terrible, pure paralytic self-loathing anxiety. Eventually I reached a point of deciding to only smoke alone at home, as I had convinced myself I needed it to sleep. Then of course, I just started having these downward spiraling anxiety attacks by myself, alone in my rooftop apartment in Taipei.
Eventually, in what would become one of my first real moments of maturity, I decided to stop. I realized I was paying money — and in Taiwan, it cost kind of a lot of money — to be unhappy. So I stopped. And it turned out I didn’t need it to sleep at all; it was just like having a fan, or the humming of a fish tank in the room — it was simply something I had gotten used to, and it took a surprisingly short time to get used to its absence. Of course drinking then took off in a major way and became its own spiral, requiring its own epiphany, but that’s another story.
Anyways, I was at my friend’s place, before the Miazaki film, and they were packing a bowl, and I figured heck, if ever there was a time to get stoned again, it was before sitting in a dark theater and watching a beautiful animated movie that I had already seen and loved. So we were talking, and I took the bowl, and I took a hit, and I passed it, and it came back, and I took a hit and passed it, and so on. Muscle memory took over completely, and I was taking massive “get-fucked-up” pulls on this thing, repeatedly, as I had once done on the regular, every day. Unfortunately I did not have the tolerance of my youth. I got WAY too stoned.
So we drive up there, and I’m in the back seat fidgeting uncomfortably. And we’re sitting in the theater, and I’m super conscious of how my legs are crossed, where my hands are falling on the arm rests, wondering whether I’m taking up too much of my neighbor’s arm rest, feeling the eyes of everyone on me, feeling like I don’t know how to arrange my face, feeling like I don’t like my face, feeling like the world is closing in one me, like everything is raw unbearable discomfort, spiraling downwards all over again, feeling like…
and then I noticed there was a piano on the stage.
The Cornell Cinema is actually a beautiful theatrical space, with a big red velvet curtain, and there was a piano on the stage in front of the curtain, and a young asian woman walked out and sat down. As the hum of people continued around me, the scope of my focus narrowed suddenly to a tiny circle of light: Her sitting down, her opening sheet music, her opening the piano and adjusting her seat, her laying fingers on the keys, her closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Then she started to play.
She played the opening music to Princess Mononoke, live, on a grand piano before a red velvet curtain, and I was suddenly exactly as stoned as I was supposed to be.
Never before or since have I had such a movie-going experience. She played the whole thing, then got up, bowed briefly, and walked off stage. The curtains opened, the lights dimmed and the movie began. If you aren’t familiar with studio Ghibli, I strongly suggest you acquaint yourself. Miazaki can be a wandering storyteller, but his films are rich, vibrant, heartfelt, and gorgeous. And the music? Well, have a listen to the ending credits of Porko Rosso — one of his earliest and least known works. Miazaki and his composer Joe Hisaishi’s meeting was a glorious accident of fate, and their constant collaboration has been a thing of shining wonder, spanning countless projects, characters, childhoods, decades.
I don’t smoke weed anymore, and honestly I far prefer my life this way. But if you feel like having a joint for old-time’s-sake, before opening the song below, I can say with some authority that there is still a place in this world for the reckless choices of childhood. Sometimes, even still, way too stoned turns out to be just right.
composed by Joe Hisaishi
for Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miazaki
When Seba Jun’s body was pulled from the mutilated wreckage of his car, the instrumental demo for part six of his “luv(sic)” series was found in his pocket, surviving on his somehow still-intact phone. I enjoy that story, and that clever emoticon-age song title, very much. And though I didn’t like him at first, Shing02’s flow has really grown on me over the years. He’s an acceptable rapper, has something to contribute that isn’t murder-cash-bitches, and does an acceptable job on this track. The real shine though, that same hypnotic, melancholic lushness that permeated the Samurai Champloo OST, has nothing to do with the words.
The real star of this show went out one night on a Tokyo highway.
Nujabes’ beats were magic.
‘The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate
Someday cynical and drunk and boring
Someone in some dark café.
“You laugh,” he said, “you think you’re immune
Go look at your eyes they’re full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies, pretty lies
When you gonna realize they’re only pretty lies
Only pretty lies, just pretty lies.”
He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whir
And a bar maid came by
In fishnet stockings and a bow tie
And she said “Drink up now
it’s getting on time to close.”
“Richard, you haven’t really changed,” I said,
“It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
Some pain that’s in your head
You got tombs in your eyes
but the songs you punched are dreaming
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet.”
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and
A coffee percolator and he drinks at home
Now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright.
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away — Only a phase, these dark café days.’
Publicly fund your elections. Alpha children wear grey. Publicly fund your elections. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. Publicly fund your elections. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. Publicly fund your elections. Most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and never consider revolution. Publicly fund your elections. Think different. Publicly your elections fund. What’s in your wallet? Wait, hold on. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Elections your publicly fund. Gammas are stupid. Publicly your fund elections. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. Your elections publicly fund. It melts in your mouth. Epsilons are still worse. Not in your hand. Your fund publicly fund. One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Have it your way. Fund publicly your fund. Can you hear me now? Elections fund elections. A diamond is forever. Don’t leave home without it. Fund your fund. Fair and balanced. Like a good neighbor. Wait. All the news that’s fit to print. Impossible is nothing. Don’t be evil. Please wait. No more tears. The best a man can get. I’m sorry. I’m loving it. It’s everywhere you want to be. Just do it.
“If you’re gonna write a hit song,
make it a short one.”
Years ago, I saw Yann Tierson perform live on my birthday in Brighton, England. Between “comptine d’un autre été,” “j’y suis jamais allé,” and this Takeaway Show of new material, I was super excited. During a break in the music, all disconcerting takes on songs I had never heard, someone yelled out, “Play Amelie!” and he gave the crowd the most disgusting sneer I’ve ever seen from a performer.
“I don’t play songs I don’t like,” he said.
Then he played a really crap experimental version of Palestine.
I mean, yes, be an artist; make art, not money — and I do totally get hating those songs after playing them and playing them and playing them. I do. But don’t forget in your success that you have money because people paid you. They didn’t pay you for existing — they paid you because they were enlivened, enriched, entertained by the art. Arrogance is an ugly and unfortunate thing.
Art isn’t about you, Yann. Once you take it out of your basement, once you perform it for profit, then art is about bringing beauty and solace to the lives of the people who took hours of their lives, turned them into money, and then gave that money to you. A working artist has an obligation to their audience, not the other way around.
When I’m rich and successful, please remind me of this: No matter how sick you are of playing to the common denominator, it’s not okay to forget there are people here who chose to spend their birthday with you. I don’t care how French and Famous you are, it’s never okay to be a spoiled, self-centered dick.
That’s not at all what I sat down to write. After some reflection, I think I either believe what I’ve written here, or the complete opposite. The truth, I suspect, is somehow both.
Anyways, enjoy the Takeaway Show. What I do believe for sure is that what matters is the art, not the artist. Whether Yann Tierson is a poor tortured soul, ground down by profiteering capitalist pressures, or an obnoxious piece of shit, made vain and obscene by fame, is fundamentally irrelevant.
What matters is the art — and this art is fantastic.
Washington Phillips, circa 1927, playing a pair of fret-less home-made zithers. Never have I envied someone their faith as much as I envy his. That certainty sounds so soft and sweet.
“The world is so full of old sin and woe
And many sorrows everywhere you go
But remember Jesus, who’s everywhere
If you get in trouble now, he’ll meet you there.”
I don’t truck with the word faggot, let’s get right to that. It perpetuates actual harm to actual people in the real world, it’s lazy writing, and it’s just slack-jawed stupid, especially for an also-persecuted minority. Using it for shock value to promote yourself is incredibly selfish — Grow the fuck up. If you’re really an independent thinker, independent think your way out of that box.
So that’s the rub, the hesitation: he’s basically a kid, talking about kid shit, being obscene for effect, same as the vast majority of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (yes, seriously) music. I quit being interested in the attention-seeking vanity of teenagers when I stopped being one.
But still, here we are. All of that being said, this video is worth your time. The beat is stark, his flow is smooth, the intention behind the frustration is expression, and the direction? Top-shelf, unadulterated, ART. God damn, that camera. That aesthetic. It’s so deathly perfect it’s pretty.
The other great thing about Odd Future, besides this one video, is the saga of Earl Sweatshirt. But that’s a tale for another day.
Before Giorgio Morodor, before Wendy Carlos, there was Mort Garson. Mort was a deeply weird man, who trained at Juilliard, fought in WWII, then got his hands on one of the first Moog synthesizers, with which he did deeply weird things. Here’s the title track, “Plantasia” from Mother Earth’s Plantasia: Warm Earth Music for Plants.
It’s an album for plants.
And it’s a strange, soothing, wonderful album. “Concerto for Philodendron and Pothos” would become the inspiration for the theme music to the original Legend of Zelda. I recommend the whole thing, even if you aren’t a plant.
But especially if you’re a plant.
It took me a long time to realize I had been misled all my life about Success. In the end, I discovered, you have to do a thing for yourself, simply because it pleases you. The thing itself has to be enough — all else is smoke and mirrors. There is merit and wisdom in picking a thing, devoting yourself to it, doing it beautifully, then setting it on fire. I learned, through much trial and error, that Fame is not Success.
This veneration of individuals, the gurus and cult figures, the phony idol worship, it’s all bullshit — people are just people, even famous people. Some of them deserve respect and admiration for their craft, sure, but so do all sorts of people. Fame itself is a vice, and a handicap; a careful-what-you-wish-for. Venerating fame is a sickness, and our society is terminally ill, while most of my favorite people toil away excellently in obscurity.
Anyways, you get the point. I’m not here to meditate on our collective obsession with gossip magazines. I’m here for Valerie June.
We met once, after a small show she performed at The Dock in Ithaca. She came out after the lights went up and stood by her merchandise table, where a line formed. Her hair was enormous and she was remarkably skinny. People came up to talk to her, and she talked to them. It was very sweet. Mostly though, people were talking at her, giving her their opinions on this or that, and I’m standing there thinking, “What are you telling Valerie June?!” So I got it in my head that instead I would just ask her for a hug, say thank you, then dip. This became the plan.
So I waited, and waited, and finally the last person left and she looked me right in the eyes. My mouth went instantly dry, as all my carefully cultivated opinions on fame shattered and rained down around me. I managed to ask her for a hug and, bless her, she gave me a good one. Then, having achieved my goal, I started to leave, and — she wanted to talk! She was asking me something or other, but at this point I was a robot working on its original line of programming: 1. Get hug 2. Say thank you 3. Leave. She’s being all fucking sweet and human and giving me this strange look as while she’s asking me something, I’m slowly backing away. I found myself saying “thank you, thank you” over and over again like a broken machine, while half-saluting her. Yeah, saluting her. Then I turned and lurched away.
So not my proudest moment. But I did get a hug from a talented and ethereally gorgeous woman. And I did get to eat crow and question my convictions, before having them reaffirmed in the best possible way. I’m sure it didn’t help me any that long before this encounter I had said out loud to friends (mostly joking) that I’d decided to swear off all other women and devote myself exclusively to her.
Don’t tell her that, okay? This has been embarrassing enough. But if you happen to run into her, maybe you could, I dunno, test the water a little for me?
I mean people are just people, right?
Even famous people?
“Well if you’re tired, and feeling so lonely…”
A Valerie June song