a monthly music column
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I don’t know how to write about music. I’m tempted to say it can’t be done. At least not in the way I think a lot of us want, treading that line between technical and experiential modes of listening. As well as taking into account that most people (myself included) don’t know the politics of the New Orleans bounce scene or the difference between dubstep and 2-step garage. Because music writing that references these sorts of things without explaining them is bound to fail for the majority. Which is, I’m sure, the point for some, who in their self-importance or self-consciousness feel superior in their exclusivity. Or perhaps there are particular audiences who crave music criticism that’s filled with nothing but adjectives and genre names, but in general, I think there’s a better way to write about music. And that’s what I’m trying to explore. It’s just that as I try, I feel a bit like I have cerebral palsy—there’s a million things rolling around in my head, but my mouth muscles won’t cooperate. 

This month I made my first mix in a long time. I’ve always loved putting music together, fitting cog to groove and finding those common elements between songs, whether superficial (beats per minute), thematic (rain), or cultural (who’s who). I made a musical palindrome once. A playlist that played the same forwards as backwards, in terms of artist. It wasn’t really an impressive work; I’d love to go further with it. I’d love to take songs apart and reassemble them into one hour-long track that’s precisely the same forwards as backwards. My skill level and equipment—as well as my lack of patience in front of a computer—don’t really allow for that, however, and in general keep me from manipulating things much. I respect guys like James Reeves, who really do craft new compositions from found audio, but for now I’m happy just arranging things. Besides, there is something about fitting songs together, especially when the mix is for someone else and I spend hours toying with the songs as if they were flowers in a vase. It was this joy, after all, that birthed the mixtape.

I often find myself making mixes on planes. Maybe because it’s more interactive than reading but not as exhausting as writing. Maybe because I can become lost in it and resurface hours later—a plane the one place this is ideal. But this mix I made one morning. I woke up early, and for some reason I had an image of a riverboat in my head, maybe left over from a dream. Riverboats are fascinating for the same reason dinosaurs are fascinating, and it’s too bad we don’t study riverboats in school. The closest we came at Marion Elementary was a session on Cajun culture, which for third graders meant sampling Zatarain’s boxed rice and looking at a map of New Orleans. But a riverboat conjures all sorts of great images, which glitter from beneath history’s pile of Americana like Mardi Gras beads.

A riverboat is where French culture collides with the American South, where professional gamblers ride up and down the Mississippi, atop that great wheel and under the captain’s cupola, counting cards and buying women. It’s the single vessel for both luxury and heavy industry, pushing silently up toward Chicago, where the water becomes black with blood and soot. So it is also the place to mix Madeleine Peyroux with Ray LaMontagne, and Joe Dassin with Howlin’ Wolf. To fill the lineup with ragged blues from Bettye LaVette and Malcolm Holcombe. Wanda Jackson covering Bob Dylan. An epic gospel tune from Alex Dupree. Slide steel-infused jazz from Erik Friedlander. And the silky Nashville sorrow of Lay Low, who’s really from Iceland. By the time I was done making the mix, I was exhausted. But I haven’t stopped listening yet.

One night, the bruised and hungover Chicago street I was on stepped behind a screen, slipped on something with lace, and then lit a cigarette with one hand while putting on a record with the other. The bus I was on became a double-decker. Paris. As we heaved our way south, I watched what seemed to be a single storefront meld and change, donning different masks every second. Madeleine Peyroux was telling me this was heaven, and I ignored the names on the signs so that the spell wasn’t broken. Her charms in my eyes, and her chimes in my ears, celestial and hypnotic, the song wrapped me in the romantic melancholy the French seem to have unlimited access to.

Here on the bus, the #52 Kedzie/California, the mix, which I named Riverboat, was on shuffle and yet three songs aligned to form a microcosm of the entire thing: “This Is Heaven To Me” by Madeleine Peyroux, “Adieu False Heart,” by Jolie Holland, “My Second Hand Heart,” by Lay Low. You can’t find songs that better blend American folk, French jazz, and heart-wrenching country tunes. Songs that bring to mind images of 1800s New Orleans shrinking into the distance as you descend the stairs into the belly of the boat, where the raucous laughter of the lonely awaits.

Interesting that these images flash while I’m also on the move, the bus rumbling under abandoned rail lines and jumping into potholes like kids into puddles. Movement and music have been linked in forms like dance and musical theater for centuries, but most of what I’ve talked about above incorporates some form of passive movement, forms of travel in which I’m a passenger. Riverboats, planes, buses. Snake across the Arizona desert with my windows down, bellowing at the moon as the light changes, dark to light and back again—a day, just gone. Or sit quietly on the bus, surrounded by as much natural beauty and as much indifference. My thoughts slow to the pace of a heart at rest. And in the gaps between, my ears finally become my primary sensory device.

I’m building more of these moments into my life, in part because I’m realizing that my dad was right all along. I never understood his perpetual mandate for silence. Even though he’d married a woman who as a young girl had earned with her mom and dad and four sisters Kansas Musical Family of the Year, and even though his own sons displayed an undeniable affinity for music, he wanted silence when he read. When he rested. When he drove. Even when roadtripping across the country, through Arizona or Utah or even all the way up to the middle of the Canadian wilderness—30 plus hours in the car—he would prefer to drive without music.

For most of my life, I thought this was because he didn’t get it. Music is for these moments, I thought. Life—and movies, of course—taught me that a roadtrip wasn’t complete without music, and I resented these silent drives, eventually circumventing his request with portable players: a Discman, then an iPod. For years, I thought I proved him wrong. I was having the time of life, scoring all my travels and sight-seeing and book-reading with music I loved. But I’ve slowly realized that the reason my dad wanted silence wasn’t because he didn’t enjoy music, but that he wanted to enjoy it later, purely, without distraction. And even ignoring the essays and academic arguments I’ve since read making my dad’s case, I’ve come to appreciate this way of listening. I still listen to music while doing other things, but I don’t pretend I’ve really heard something until it’s just me and the music. I’ll lay on the floor and spend the next hour inside a maze of musical construction, a spectacular 3-D world where there’s no one right path, and always additional floors to explore.

For me, though, walking can be very much like resting. My mind slows just like it does when I’m on the floor, and with my lungs and legs on autopilot, there’s nothing to physically distract me other than the music. One night, having missed the bus, I walked home, and Bon Iver took me to Perth, and Wisconsin, and Hinnom, Texas. Here was somebody that felt the link between a sojourn and a song. I asked myself if songs, which are often written on the road—on tour buses and in leaky basement waiting rooms—might be bridled with the kinetic energy of their birthplaces, if they collected the sights and sounds and emotions of their travels. Perhaps, in its earliest stages, a song is like a tiny mind, siphoning memories of its surroundings into its sound and acquiring a tone that’s something like distilled wanderlust. When we listen, it bristles with a desire to go back, to visit its birthplace again. The road. Or the river. If between point A and point B is where songs are written, perhaps it’s when they’re accompanying a traveler once again that a song feels the least homesick.

Just a few days before I made the Riverboat mix, Paste magazine—newly relaunched—posted a track from Wanda Jackson’s latest album, and I fell in love with the way it sizzles. Jack White produced the record—which I hear gave Wanda pause at first—but the result is electrifying. The track I heard is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” and if his version is fit for the House of Blues, Jackson’s is suited for nothing less than Madison Square Garden. Everything’s been thrown into the fryer: the guitars, the horns, the drums. They all pop as if they were dropped into hot oil. Sometimes a song seems meant for someone else, and listening to Jackson, it’s like “Thunder” was written just for her. She slurs through the lines as if she was forty years younger and just trying on that sex appeal that eventually lured Elvis himself into her bed. Comparing the original and the cover, Jackson’s scratchy vocals are like water rushing into Dylan’s long-dry riverbed. It soaks down into the cracks until the ground is drunk, and then fills the channel, lapping at the banks, shouldering the levees. It was, by all accounts, a perfect addition to the mix.

A few days ago, with this column tumbling around in my head, I had a conversation with a friend who is always up for thinking about things like riverboats as musical symbols and songs as homesick travelers. At one point we got to talking about our relationships to music. We agreed there are times for immersing ourselves in it—whatever happens to be playing—and a time for what in the moment I called reverse engineering—a term I think I’ll stick by.

The first is requisite of being a decent human being who can turn off that critical part of his brain that wants to deride everything that isn’t in line with his tastes. The second is requisite of anyone wanting to write about music. Or wanting to make mixes for that matter. Reverse engineering a song can take minutes or hours or even years. It requires a hefty bit of knowledge and a huge imagination. It often takes research, and so it takes a lot of time, but both are important ways to experience music. It’s the former that my dad often chose. He loved to be quiet and let the music take him on a riverboat up the Mississippi. I’m working on getting better at both. When to be still, and then when to block off some time, rope off the site, and begin taking things apart.

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