October 24, 2010

Bring out your junk and we'll give it a home

Back when I first heard the album Icky Thump a few years ago, Rag and Bone was one of the songs that hinted to me that there was something about The White Stripes that I should be paying attention to. For whatever reason, the album as a whole didn't reach out and shake me up at the time, but earlier this year the switch finally flipped and the lightbulb came on.  Months after diving into Jack's extensive catalog of music, this tune's still one of my favorites, a raucous gem of subtly clever humor. Behind that charmingly lively repartee lies a metaphor for the way in which Jack and Meg created the magic of the Stripes-- by taking what they perceived as cast-off musical styles and making something beautiful out of them.  In a twist on the old rag-and-bone men of England, they took everything from blues to garage/punk to Scottish reels and more, and produced an amazing amalgamation that still leaves fans staggered even though it's been years since the band's last performance together.

This song came to mind today because I spent the afternoon wandering old trash piles out in the woods and reflecting on the different tack that nature takes with our discarded junk.  Many of the parks and wildlife management areas in Maryland consist of land that was once settled and farmed.  Seeing as how farms are spread out and separated by fields, there were no communal public garbage dumps in those days, so each farmhouse had its own dumping place tucked off in a corner of the property.  As this land was sold off to the DNR and M-NCPPC, no one went out to clean up, which means you never know what you might find as you come around the bend of a trail in some seemingly untouched natural area. 

So I headed out to one of these places today, one that used to have a dirt and gravel mud-pit for parking, but that now has a paved lot with designated spaces and that gets a lot more use as a result.  With more people tromping the trails, there's more recent garbage.  I tsk'd a few times at the sight of a plastic water bottle here, a Red Bull or Coors can there.  Funny, then, how a hundred or more mossy old bottles and rusty pails and tubs strewn through the undergrowth can be such a source of delight.  It's the sense of discovery, I guess, and the wondering about the lives of the people who left this detritus so many years ago.  The first dumping ground along the trail seems to be the oldest, consisting mostly of brown bottles and clear glass jugs and jars of various shapes and sizes.  In one spot, in between the roots of a beech tree, I found the necks of three root beer-colored bottles seemingly growing out of the earth.  And here and there I'd kick up the symbol of a feminine spirit, in the form of thicker white glass cosmetics jars.

Farther back in the woods, past the caved-in remains of what seems to have been a coal kiln, is an apparently more recent trash heap, at which there are fewer bottles and an abundance of faded Colt 45 cans, along with rusted water heaters and bed frames, and moldering pieces of what used to be clothing.  It's obvious that a few more decades will leave this pile looking more like the other, as the old appliances decay, the cans settle into the dirt and leaves, and the undergrowth takes over.

Up the hill and around the bend, I came face to face with a beautiful box turtle crawling through the pine needles in what's left of the foundation of a house.  The turtle looked fresh and new, with gorgeous golden markings against the deep brown background of its shell, the light yellowy-orange skin of its neck and legs, and the fierce, darker orange of its eyes.  All that's left of the house are scattered chunks of brick and cinder-block, and two vine-covered cement steps.

While someone like Jack White or the old English rag-and-bone men might take abandoned stuff and turn it into something new, nature indifferently treats these items as the inanimate objects that they are.  Instead of being given a continued life, they're taken over by the cycle of life around them, by the earth, trees, vines and shoots that break through, cover, and consume them.  They're dissolved and absorbed, and the world goes on.  It's an interesting and humbling lesson.   

A couple of things I rescued. The bottom of the brown bottle is embossed with a design patent number and "La Choy Food Products Archbold Ohio". The jar has a Grecian key pattern about its middle and the single word, "Woodbury", on its base. I've no plans to create anything out of either of them, they're lovely and interesting as they are.

October 17, 2010

Broken and low

Saw an interesting film this evening up at the old Shepherdstown Opera House--  Get Low, with the always witty Bill Murray, and Robert Duvall at his curmudgeonly best playing a backwoods hermit named Felix Bush.  After 40 years of isolation, Felix determines that it's time to "get low" and sets out to arrange his own funeral, but with a twist.  Assisted by the town funeral home director (Murray), he plans a pre-death shindig to which he invites everyone within four counties who has a story, real or gossip-fueled, to tell about him.  As it turns out, though, the story to be told is his own-- the explanation for his self-exile.  There are some laugh out loud moments (with Murray and Duvall, how could there not be), yet in the end the film left me shaken.  I managed to hold back the tears until I got into the car, but they flowed freely as I drove out of Shep'town and into the moonlit backroads of West Va.

The thing that got to me was that I saw myself in Felix, though my story has none of the drama of his.  And, obviously, I'm nowhere near as isolated in location-- I live in the midst of the suburbs, go to work in a major metropolitan city, and get out every chance I can to do my favorite things in my favorite places.  Yet, in many ways, I'm as imprisoned as Felix.  Life has become a perpetual loop of solitude and routine. 

Since reaching adulthood, I've spent more years alone than I have in relationships, and friendships have been just as sparse.  Much as I've tried to dismantle it in recent years, there's some sort of wall between me and the rest of society that I just can't overcome.  I feel like I'm in the world, but not a part of it. Everyone-- family, friends, and acquaintances alike-- is held at arm's length for some reason I can't make out.

What I don't understand about this is that I'm not a complete misfit.  Introverted, yes, but I do have the ability to connect with people.  I just can't seem to deepen and sustain those connections.  I can connect with faraway people via the internet in the blink of an eye but, like every physical friendship I've ever had, those connections end up fading as my interests change and I migrate to other areas of the web.  Even now, I'm in a transitional phase in which I can feel certain connections seeming to dissolve as I develop new ones relating to newer obsessions.  I've lived in the same area my entire life, but when it comes to people I'm decidedly nomadic.  Why?

Most of the time this doesn't bother me.  I've written before about how often I'm more content by myself.  But then something like this movie will come along and hit me in the gut and get me wondering--  what the hell is wrong with me?  Why is it so hard to find people within close proximity with whom I can connect, and why can't I make it last when I do?  Am I broken in some way?  In moments like this, I'm just so fucking tired of being alone.

Coupled with this is a frustrating inability to decide what the hell to do with my life.  The routine is to go to work at a job that I'm thankful to have but that's shrinking my brain, come home and explore the web, then spend days off out and about doing familiar things in familiar places because they bring me comfort from the increasing stagnation.  Of course it's entirely possible to break out of this--  Go back to school, challenge myself in a new line of work, move to a new area... if I could just make up my damned mind as to what, where, and how.  I've lots of interests but no single overriding passion to compel me in a new direction.  And, at my age, dramatic life changes are challenging enough even when you have a plan and course of action.  The result is that I remain flummoxed and stuck in this prison of my own making.  So I turn to the internet and whine, whine, whine...

I've no idea what this song has to do with any of the drivel I've babbled here, aside from the fact that I set it on repeat and listened to it over and over and over on the drive home through the dark from West Va.  Somehow, it seemed to fit the mood--

October 3, 2010

The untangible beauty of music

Image found on Tumblr. If anyone knows the source, please let me know so I can credit it.
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
-- William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Jack White took to the 'web a few days ago to express some griefs. As should be expected, the previously unreleased, secret Dead Weather song hidden inside his recently distributed, Blue Blood Blues Triple Decker Record was leaked onto the internet in just over a week.  I'm actually surprised it took that long, considering that copies of the Triple Decker were on eBay the same day that the first 100 units were sold at Third Man Records in Nashville.  This was an exciting release with a two-fold thrill for fans and collectors alike.  And there, right there, lies the crux of the Triple Decker-- The unreleased song and its accompanying b-side are on a 7" single nestled between two 12" colored vinyl platters that contain the Blue Blood Blues single and its b-side.  I've already posted this video once, but in order for this whole thing to make sense, you really need to have Jack's explanation:

To reiterate-- In order to get to the extra song, you have to crack open the outer layers of the colored vinyl single.  And let me stress that there are only 300 copies of the Triple Decker available!   It's pretty damned brilliant. Jack knows how collectors of his music covet his colored vinyl albums.  His limited edition tri-color singles end up selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  And here he's combined colored vinyl with a never-heard-before song, and in the process created a conundrum for the lucky/rich/obsessively determined few who manage to obtain a Triple Decker--  To break the seal, or not to break the seal? 

For the true collectors, there's no question.  Breaking that seal destroys the value of the Triple Decker.  They'll either live without hearing that unreleased track or wait until someone else cracks open a T.D., rips the tune, and posts it on the internet.  Which brings us back to Jack's complaint.

He made it clear in his post over at The Vault that his issue was not with the leak of the song in and of itself, though he has at other times expressed disapproval of such musical theft.  No, his concern in this case was the attitude of the websites that posted the song.  He was frustrated that they assumed they had the right to take one portion of his creation and make it available to the public outside of the context in which he'd presented it.  This is an understandable complaint for an artist to have.  Artists from Botticelli to Mozart would probably roll over in their graves at the way their works have been snipped and trimmed and co-opted for various purposes.  Jack's preferred context for his art is vinyl.  He's talked a lot about the romance of vinyl as a tangible media--

Download culture isn't a very romantic experience for the fan regarding art, it cheapens it and makes it fast forwardable, and disposable, and a lot of times ignorable...

That's a shame for a lot of art and music that isn't getting the chance that it would if people just left the needle on the record till the end of the side or what have you.

I'm not telling people not to listen to MP3s, we sell them for all of our records and I wouldn't say to them don't share with their friends or whatever, but if you're asking me my opinion on what I prefer, or what I think is the best way to enjoy music, I would take a tangible, moving piece of machinery to listen to, as it expands the imagination. The physical attachment and the experience is more reverential to the art form.

-- (From bbb.co.uk/newsbeat)

It was obvious in his recent post that he felt the beauty of his latest creation had been compromised by these people who focused only on that one individual part of it--  The unreleased song.  That they'd taken it out of its physical form and turned it into something intangible, without his knowledge or consent, made it in his mind into just what he described above:  Something fast-forwardable and disposable. 

He's since removed the post in which he expressed this grievance.  He does that a lot, apparently, posts explanations, disclaimers, rants, and then takes them down, sometimes replacing them with inscrutable photos or seeming riddles.  But I was lucky enough to have read this post before it disappeared, as well as his replies in the ensuing conversation that took place in the comments section.  I think that I grasped his point clearly enough that I can definitely empathize with his frustration. 

But, at the same time, I question Jack's insistence on the tangible as such an important component in appreciating his music.  I can't help but wonder--  In focusing so completely on the tangible, does he sometimes forget the beauty of the visceral?  I'm one of those people who was less concerned with the unique physical properties of the Triple Decker.  Like those folks at the websites he mentioned, what immediately captured my attention was the words "unreleased song".  Once I got over the initial excitement of watching him crack open that amazing disc and pull out that hidden single in the video above, I became increasingly annoyed at his statement that "you can't hear it unless ..." 

Some people with whom I've had this conversation insist that limiting the availability of the song is what makes it special.  Others go so far as to brand those of us who believe we should have access to this song with having a "sense of entitlement."  There are valid points either way.  There was a time, before museums, photography, and the internet, when only a minuscule segment of the population had the thrill of experiencing the beauty of the Mona Lisa.  But times are different now.  Art and music can and have been made more immediately available to the masses.  How does limiting it make it more special? 

To me, what is special in a piece of music is the emotional response it stirs.  Whether it puts a smile on your face or brings tears to your eyes, the fact that it touches you makes it beautiful.  That sort of beauty has no physical presence.  It's completely intangible, but no less appreciable than anything that you hold in your hand.  A "moving" piece of machinery may certainly expand the imagination, but so can a "moving" lyric.  Or voice.  Or guitar solo.  Can anyone out there not think of a time when they've closed their eyes in order to more fully enter a piece of music, to let it get inside of them?  To completely experience the rapture of it? 

So I would argue against Jack's apparent belief that publishing music on the 'web cheapens it (at least not when it's done with the artist's consent, of course).  In my own case, a weekend on the internet contributed immensely to the reverence I have for his art.  I will certainly admit that his views have inspired me to get a turntable and begin collecting vinyl records for the first time since I was a teenager, and I'm having a ball with it.  But after I've gone through the ritual of putting the record on the turntable and precisely placing the needle at the edge, once the vinyl's begun moving around, you'll find me lying back with my eyes closed so that I can listen with full attention. 

And that once-unreleased, now almost impossible to legally own Dead Weather song is still out there on the 'net. I could easily find it and share it here, introduce the handful of people who stumble across this post to its haunting vocals and hypnotic guitar, but I won't. Despite the fact that I'm peeved that I can't just buy the damned thing, this ain't that kinda blog.