It started out as sort of a joke. I figured if the art I make is never going to touch anyone I don’t know in any meaningful way, if it’s never going to make me any money, or get me health care, or keep me from having to work a shit job, well, then who cares how it’s received by strangers, right? No point worrying about it. So I started making bespoke voice memos for people I care about, covers of songs I knew they would enjoy, in a lo-fi, bootleg medium I enjoy. Sara and I sang snatches of this in her old driveway, last year, before she got in her car and moved across the country. It was another sad parting in a long line of sad partings, and that little bit of joking Jewel made it a bit more bearable. So when she reminded me of that moment, many months later, I recorded this for her on my phone, texted it to her phone, and that was that. But it turns out I like it, this flawed joke, earnestly and unironically. Embarrassing, I know. So I threw my embarrassment into ableton, slapped some compression on it, some light chorus and reverb, and now we’re here. What do I do with it? No fucking idea. Who’s it for? Sara, initially. Me, eventually. And now, if you’re reading this, you. Hey you. All my wondering about where these things belong was a backsliding waste of time. Silly. It belongs right here.
At the beginning of quarantine I finally got into Ableton seriously, went into a fugue state, and woke up ten days later holding an album made out of voice memos I’d had on my phone. The art is a picture I found in the philosophic collection I’ve been working on these past five years. There’s no real identifying information, but presumably that’s a shot PB took in Tibet or Mongolia in the early 20th Century. Or somewhere else, who knows — it really doesn’t matter. I’d like to stop talking for a while.
A couple weeks ago I sat down with my telecaster and pedals, and Steph got set up on a midi pad, playing drum samples through pocket guitar amps. We made a pair of one-take, improvised voice memos in my bedroom. Then Rose drew us some beans.
“…Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what should I be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?
Here at least
We shall be free;”
Whatever he was asked about Zen, Master Gutei simply stuck up one finger.
He had a boy attendant whom a visitor asked, “What kind of teaching does your master give?” The boy held up one finger too. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran away, screaming with pain, Gutei called to him. When the boy turned his head, Gutei stuck up one finger.
about how when you’re standing
on your feet all day they swell
so you lay yourself down
because the idea of pressing
blood against meat against bone of pressing against the bone
on the bottoms of your feet
so you stay down
and discover the pressure
has just shifted to your back
to your legs to your ass you get
fat you get bedsores and still
wherever you’re making contact
there it is, pressing, so you stand
and then you realize this is it:
i have to shift this weight — i will
always have to shift this weight;
there’s no avoiding it; it’s unbearable
if you think about it too much,
and what is too much? any much.
but you have to work you have to
press something against something
in this life this compression you have
to have a job you have to struggle
to eat you have to age you have to
watch people fall away you have to
shift that weight you have to
walk out into the world
you just have to.
but maybe if we were wealthy
we could commission a vat
full of special buoyant liquid:
a vat to suspend us
and we could live there and work
there and fuck there and eat
there and get out for tolerable
jaunts on our poor compressed
feet then run home and jump
(oh sweet freedom,
sweet airborn bliss)
back into the vat.
but my make-believe vats i know
are for make-believe people — rich
people — and we sick must stand
or lie down or squirm; we must
shift weight we must press meat
against blood against bone we must press against the bone.
and let’s be honest:
even were we wealthy,
we should not live in vats.
During his first marriage, Peter the Great (Pyotr Alekseyevich) took for his mistress a peasant woman named Marta Helena Skowrońska. When his first wife died, he married Marta in secret, she changed her name to Catherine, and would go on to bear him twelve children. Peter spent much of his reign rooting out corruption in his government, and Willem Mons, Catherine’s secretary, was accused of peddling access to the royal family through his position. Catherine supposedly knew, but chose to ignore the offense out of affection for her secretary. After Peter ordered his summary execution Catherine was furious — the couple didn’t speak for months.
The story also goes like this:
At some point during their marriage, Catherine took for herself a lover, a man named Willem Mons. When Peter found out, he had Mons beheaded, and his severed head preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. Then he forced Catherine to take time each day to sit and look at it.
Andy Hull’s song tells the second version, from the alternating perspectives of Peter and the head. It’s almost pornographically gruesome, yes. And there appears to be no evidence for any of it. And I absolutely hate when art requires extensive contextual explanation, or a background in obscure esoterics, before it makes any god damn sense. But this obtuse erotic torture fantasy somehow won me over, because despite all of that, what it really is, is a love song. And it’s just brilliant.
“Oh Catherine tell me, was it worth it for him?”
a Bad Books song
Also, it’s worth noting here that when Peter died he had no male heirs. During the succession crisis, the “new men” whom Peter had raised to prominence, for merit rather than birth, pulled off a successful coup against the return of the old aristocracy. For the face of this new government, they chose Peter’s popular widow. So this peasant woman, born Marta, now known as Catherine, would succeed Peter to the throne of Russia, and rule for two years as Empress Catherine I. As the first female to sit the throne in her own right, she would set a legal precedent for the position that would come to include her own daughter, Elizabeth, and in time her great-granddaughter-in-law, Catherine the Great.
“…and the man goes walking, I go walking, through the forest and I run into five hundred thousand Galicians who are walking and crying. And then I stop (a kindly giant, an interested giant for the last time) and I ask them, why they’re crying. And one of the Galicians stops and says: because we’re all alone and we’re lost.”
On the moon there was neither air nor wind. Its vacuum was perfect for preserving memories unscathed. No one could unlock the heart of the moon. Aomame raised her glass to the moon and asked, “Have you gone to bed with someone in your arms lately?” _____The moon did not answer. _____“Do you have any friends?” she asked. _____The moon did not answer. _____“Don’t you get tired of always playing it cool?” _____The moon did not answer.
Tengo had no idea, of course, what Aomame had offered to the moon that time, but he could well imagine what the moon had given her: pure solitude and tranquility. That was the best thing the moon could give a person.
“Blessed are the anonymous and obscure,
for they shall be least interfered with.”
It was a weird time in my life, populated by weird people. Winter had come to Ithaca, and with it the world of my walking life had shrunk to tiny proportions. Mostly I worked from home, cooked and ate at home, played music at home, felt guilty about not writing at home. I had been sober now for a couple years, and nobody had told me that this move, while in most ways intensely positive, also carried a cost: I’d always had a hard time fitting in, making connections, joining the common current of human interaction, and sobriety had become just one more factor setting me apart. Bars and drugs and drinking had been something, at least, that I always had in common with someone. So it was winter, and I was alone — Except on Monday nights, when I walked down to a little venue by my house where the Galactic Escort Service played.
There was a decade when I only saw the dawn (that livid blue sky those pastel pinks and yellows that searing fresh white sunlight) when I had been a bad boy; when the drugs had run their course and anxiety had spread her wings to rise in full, to whip and rule the comedown. Those were bad nights, bad mornings, bad signs in the maze of that wreckage.
Born blue-eyed and squinting, I’d always been by nature a sunset colors kind of boy — a moon and stars, a fading out, a darkening down to crispness, starry night relief kind of boy.
Now that I’m sober I’m not quite the night owl I was but neither am I getting up early. It’s hard to tell when exactly it is that I live. I know it’s better; that I live without excuses and without hangovers, with less guilt, less waste, without comedowns — But for all its saddening sickness, all its anxiety and loathing,
I never see the sunrise anymore.
And guilty now I miss coming sick out of the darkness on some empty rooftop with fear on my mind, confusion on my lips, throwing skinny arms wide (fingers shaking in the spreading light) in pain and rage and sudden stillness, to embrace the fact of my life.
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.
All were in sorrow, or had been, or would be.
It was the nature of things.
Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true.
At the core of each lay our suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.
We must try to see one another in this way.
As suffering, limited beings —
Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.
His sympathy extended to all in this instant, blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides.”
When I think back on Tanzania (on us and you and me and that) it grips me again the old feeling; all my ribs crush inward, I feel the pain squeeze tight and biting.
But I don’t live in that feeling anymore I learned I had to pry myself away or die of disfunction and I’ve grown so far and fast it’s been a reincarnation; I don’t live in that feeling, not anymore, but I can — all it takes is reaching back for it, because it’s there.
I know it’s a myth, I know that; and the pain was so fucking hard to let go, it was everything I had left. Now most days are calm struggles, peaceful strain, you know? Familiar. Most days are good days; yet the pain is always there, when and if I reach for it,
and I do — Because, because,
Because although this love thing is a myth it’s only actually a myth in the specific in that now it’s gone and gripping it was gripping death.
But love? Sweet sentimental love is not at all a myth itself — once it was not even a myth for me; it was once a self-evident truth, real as the soil is real as real as anything has ever been real altering everything it touched and passed through.
If I take the pain out now and then you’ll have to forgive me, because though I and everything have changed, though you and everything are dust, though our myth itself became death, before that death it was joy and after joy it was love and after that love itself had faded to myth it became this sweet old bite of pain again.
And I suppose I’m sentimental (and more than a little self-destructive) but every once in a while I take it out and set it on the floor of my mind and stretch my hand out towards it —
— and when it bites me how I smile, just happy that it lives.
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 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?