Category Archives: Essays

It Started With a Mixx: A Los Campesinos! Primer

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By Hollister Dixon

Over the last decade, Los Campesinos! have been an incredibly dynamic beast. Starting as a too-smart tweepop band, they’ve morphed into a band of consistent and surprising depth. The band’s frontman, Gareth Paisey, is one of the sharpest lyricists working today, and though the rest of the band’s lineup has shifted pretty constantly over the years, he’s always been surrounded by other, equally talented players. The band are days away from the release of their 6th LP, Sick Scenes, and are about to embark on their first major North American tour in five years.

We present to you 10 songs over the course of the last six albums. It would be easy to do an equally wordy rundown of all of the band’s non-album material, but for the sake of ease, I’ve decided to stick to their albums.

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INTERVIEW: Clipping.

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By Hollister Dixon

This week, Los Angeles experimental hip-hop group Clipping. will be embarking on their North American tour in support of their new album, Splendor & Misery (out now on Sub Pop). I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask William Hutson, one of the band’s producers, about the inner working of the band, their creative processes, and how Splendor & Misery came to be. 

You can find all of the band’s upcoming dates – including their upcoming Portland performance at Holocene – right here.

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In Memoriam: Motörhead’s Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister.

By Yousef Hatlani

Lemmy from a photo session for his 2002 autobiography, "White Line Fever" // Photo by Nicola Rübenberg

Lemmy from a photo session for his 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever // Photo by Nicola Rübenberg

Until yesterday night, Lemmy Kilmister was probably the very last person you would expect to see in the Obituaries section; he, perhaps along with only Keith Richards, had helped mythologize his career by successfully appearing stronger than death. At age seventy, the man born Ian Fraser Kilmister had spent five decades unapologetically emblemizing the very music he created—dating back to the eras that engendered both rock & roll and heavy metal as we know it. The concept of marrying sheer volume with youthful rebellion was born in his lifetime, and he experienced the genesis firsthand.

Kilmister could rightly claim to have seen Buddy Holly live, to have roadied for Jimi Hendrix and to remember a time before Elvis Presley was ever heard on the radio—because it was all true. In many respects, Lemmy was the purest personification that several generations may ever see of the rock and roll lifestyle.

In light of growing up during the most crucial eras of classic rock and roll, Kilmister later grabbed his teachings with a clenched fist and plugged them all into a distortion pedal. Then he took the train-kept-a-rolling backbeat that kicked up the music of early country rebels like Johnny Cash and tempered it into a nonstop double bass assault. Finally, he achieved his sonic focus by emphasizing not the electric guitar, but snarling, distorted bass—an uncommon idea in his day.

Following early stints with the Rockin’ Vickers, Sam Gopal, Opal Butterfly and—most prominently—Hawkwind, Motörhead was born in June 1975 with such a mixture in mind. From there on, Lemmy began every single, solitary show with a simple decree: “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll.” And thus speed metal was inadvertently born; whereas Black Sabbath largely invented the genre and Judas Priest’s combo of vocal tremors & twin guitar attack added characteristic virility, Motörhead’s specialty was unadulterated brashness, authenticity and hustle. They looked and sounded like they were from the streets. If they moved in next door, as Lemmy would say, your lawn would die.

Lemmy with Joey Ramone, 1990's.

Lemmy with Joey Ramone, 1990’s.

In Motörhead’s wake came the thrash metal of the early 1980’s; Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax and just about every successful band from that era could (and did) lay claim to emulating Lemmy’s swagger without flinching. Classic thrash albums like Kill ‘Em All, Show No Mercy, Killing is My Business and Fistful of Metal all point back to the undying tread of Motörhead’s  Overkill, Ace of Spades and the legendary live document No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith—which, as you may have guessed, directly inspired the Beastie Boys anthem “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn,” as well as Metallica’s first demo, entitled No Life ‘til Leather, the Stiff Little Fingers live album No Sleep ‘til Belfast and about a zillion other cultural references. Their mark had been made.

Despite predating most heavy metal bands, Motörhead still recorded and toured more consistently than most groups half their age, releasing a total of twenty-two studio albums over thirty-eight years—never wavering in quality or concentration. Quite plainly, this was Lemmy Kilmister’s life and—as he admitted in the 2010 documentary that bears his name—he did not know how to do much else.

That simple admission, however, bore much more weight than Kilmister may have realized: rock and roll was literally Lemmy’s life. The Blackbeard-esque splendor, the ever-present mutton chops, the top hat, tight jeans and permanent middle finger were not just a stage getup—they were his everyday wardrobe. He was inextricable from the slot machines and Jack & Cokes at the Rainbow, the legendary Sunset Strip bar & grill just down the street from the Los Angeles apartment he lived in for twenty-five years. He also smoked ceaselessly into his 60’s. The Ultimate Badass, it seemed as though nothing could ever stop him.

Lemmy playing Tempest at Portland, OR's Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, October 3rd, 2009. He set two high scores that day. // Photo by Art Santana

Lemmy playing Tempest at Portland, OR’s Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade, 10/3/09. He set two high scores that day. // Photo by Art Santana

In reality, the fabled rock and roll lifestyle took its toll on his body: in a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Lemmy admitted that he was “paying for the good times,” and that he had given up smoking. Just wine every now and then, that’s it. The band also canceled a European tour that year in a rare showing of frailty. Ultimately, the band did soldier on and play several shows over the following two years, although many were cut short or canceled altogether—all the while recording & releasing what would be their final album, the well-received Bad Magic, in August 2015. Kilmister’s later public appearances revealed him to be progressively thinner, gaunt and in poor health.

So, was Lemmy really stronger than death? The answer, all things considered, is perhaps another question: does it really matter? Kilmister’s grit and growl has provided the very lifeblood for heavy metal’s most defining bands over the last thirty-five years, embodying the take-no-guff attitude that anyone would want to adorn so surely. That a man who once exclaimed in his 2002 autobiography he “should be dead, medically speaking,” lived to be a full seventy years old epitomizes the Motörhead maxim of ‘Everything Louder Than Everything Else.’ With this, Lemmy had decidedly accomplished the mission he set out with forty years ago, inaugurated with the unrelenting rallying cry of “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll”: simply put, he played rock and roll—and the world will be forever louder for it.

On Britpop, by Sam Murray

Blur Sam

Editor’s note: This article was written as a response to Episode 103: Britpop. He is a former guest of the podcast (see: Episode 92: When in Portland), and is a resident of Leeds.

By Sam Murray

Britpop is often centred on the indie guitar music of the nineties and to whom it applied we don’t ever know because it was everyone and anyone. Britpop is not so much a genre as an assessment of a political and social changed in the nineteen nineties. We do have clear musical sign posts to this in the music of Oasis, Blue, Pulp, Suede and even to a lesser extent The Spice Girls. Britpop was a reactionary music like those genres that had gone before and seized the opportunity to claim new ground and new notions of British Identity in a way stifled under the dark reign of Margaret Thatcher.

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“I Don’t Like Country”: In Defense of the Genre

By Jacob Heiteen

[Editor’s Note: This article should be read in conjunction with our episode on country music with Heiteen, entitled “Cowboy Blues“.]

It was senior year of high school and I was in the drama room eating lunch. As usual, it was filled with people, since it was one of the only rooms with couches and a microwave. I was on my computer doing some school work and figured I’d put some music on. I loved playing music out loud to my friends. I was known to be big music aficionado amongst my friend group. I wrote music reviews in my school’s newspaper and people would regularly ask me to make them mixtapes. I’ve must have made close to a hundred throughout my time in high school. People trusted me enough that they allowed me to play DJ during lunch from time to time.

That day I selected the song that had been stuck in my head for weeks, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” by Hank Williams. A ridiculously catchy tune, with some of the best word play I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of an anomaly amongst the Hank Williams discography, with its strong Cajun roots and phrases like “filé gumbo” and “ma chaz ami-o” (Cajun French for “my good girlfriend”). Then, I get a dirty look from this kid. I’ve never seen him before, he must have been there just for the microwave, but he gave me this look like I was offending him. “Are you playing country music?” he asked, with a tone that sounding like he caught me eating garbage of a dumpster. “Yeah, I am,” I answered, genuinely shocked that someone could have a problem with such an awesome song. “God how can you listen to that shit? Country music sucks,” he said. I immediately became very embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. I just retreated to the other end of the room and resumed what I was doing, this time with my headphones on.

This was the first time that I realized that my newfound obsession would be looked down on by some of my friends. I knew that if I where to go listening to country I’d have to be on the defensive.

A few months prior I started to notice that the music I usually listened to was starting to burn me out. I still liked it, but I had gotten the feeling that it was time for me to take a brake from my usual diet of indie and punk rock. This will happen to me every so often and I usually like it take this as an opportunity to delve into a genre I’ve either neglected or didn’t know much about. The first time I did this, I dedicated almost three whole months solely listening to rap music and modern R&B, two genres that I used to not listen to as much, but know love. I did the same with jazz, world, heavy metal, old folk music, bluegrass, African music, salsa, and electronic music. I loved doing this since it allowed me to broaden my musical horizons.

I would look up whatever the genre’s highly regarded artists and albums where and I’d listened to them over and over until I either loved or gave up on it. I also read books and articles on the genre, to further enhance my knowledge. I didn’t just want to know the best stuff from a particular genre; I wanted to know the whole history. By this time the only major genre that I haven’t delved into was country. The reason was that I like most people I knew, thought country music sucked. I had those same preconceived notions that everyone has. That country was filled with dumb songs, by dumb rednecks, about dumb subjects like tractors and such. Eventually though, I started to question if those where valid criticisms and whether or not I was just been stereotyping the genre. I was familiar and like some country at the time. I thought Johnny Cash was great, but he was the kind of artist that everyone loves despite their musical preferences. He’s like The Beatles of country, everyone likes him and anyone who says otherwise is just trying to be cool and should probably try harder.

I also loved Gram Parsons, who basically created country rock through his time with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and his solo albums GP and Grievous Angel. He would also pal around with members of The Rolling Stones, reintroducing them to country music, and prompting them to make the country tinted Exile on Main St. Other than Cash and Parsons, however, I was rather clueless about country music. I had no idea where to start. So I started to browse the web looking for articles on country music. I stabled upon a series of articles on AV Club (a wonderful pop culture site) called “Nashville or Bust”. The idea was that the site’s resident hip-hop head, Nathan Rabin, would go though a “super-intense year-long crash course in country”. This was perfect for me, especially since Rabin and I had a lot in common: we were both Jewish music nerds with depression problems, who had no idea what country music was about.

I went through his articles in a flash, downloading all the songs and albums that spiked my interest. Soon I discovered other sites and blogs that where just as good. I started to read No Depression and Saving Country Music, two blogs that focused on country though an alt-rock lens and down the rabbit hole I went. I’ve been listening country music constantly for two years now, and even though I haven’t given up my beloved rock music, I can probably say country music has become at least my second favorite genre.

My preferred eras of country tend to be the 30s through the 70s. Each decade had seen country go through very distinct changes.The 30s was basically the birth of country with artist like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The 40s was when country started to become really popular and you had people like Bob Wills creating country swing and people like Ernest Tubb creating honky tonk. The 50s is kind of the golden age for country music and also saw the advent rockabilly thanks to people like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The 60s was when people like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard started to challenge the establishment of Nashville starting what is known as the Bakersfield sound. It also saw the rise of popular female country stars like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. The 70s is when outlaw country and the seeds of alt-country get planted thanks to people like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. This era also happens to be my favorite.

I still have never gotten into much country music post the 70s, since was in the 80s and 90s that the genre started to become more formulaic and the current stereotypes cam about. There is still good stuff form past 30 years (i.e. Kacey Musgraves, Uncle Tupelo, Hank III and The Dixie Chicks) but the amount of quality stuff is certainly less when compared to later years. At the time though, I pretty much stopped listening to anything that wasn’t country music. I was, for lack of a better word, hopelessly obsessed. Every other type of music just didn’t interest me anymore. I’d spend every day listening to country. I’d walk down the halls with my headphones on not talking to anyone, I’d much rather listen to something that Lucinda Williams had to say then some regular person. But when I started sharing my passion with other the response was more along the lines of “why are you listening to that crap?” Soon, I started to keep my country music to myself. When people asked what I’ve been listening to I’d always leave out the country music. I sort of became ashamed of it for a while. It was my dirty little secret.

Of course, the idea of having this genre that I liked and no one else did made it seem cooler. It was my thing; I didn’t have to share this love with anyone. I then started to be secretly proud of my love for country. And I started to understand it, and why I like it so much.

The music appealed to me from a lyrical standpoint. Perhaps my favorite aspect of music is lyrics. I tend to be more into bands and artist who are known for there lyrics. Bands like Pavement, OutKast, Vampire Weekend, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Mountain Goats, and Guided By Voices are my favorites because they are great wordsmiths. Country music has no shortage of these. Probably my go-to argument when defending country is telling people that some of the best songwriters in the world are from country music. A case in point would be someone like Townes Van Zandt, a country cult figure, who is often regarded as the best 5 American songwriter next to Dylan. His songs are filled with dry-humor, dark subject matters, and a deep sense of beautiful melancholy. He is also a master storyteller. I consider “Pancho & Lefty”, a song about two desperado’s rise and fall, to be one of the best songs ever written. The popular country music of the 50’s and 60’s was also hosted some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Country is one of those genres where the stars are just as good as the cult figures. Nashville was home to most of these stars. Nashville was kind of like Motown, in the sense that it was this place full of talented writers and musicians who could turn out classic songs in their sleep. These songs would be part of what is called the “Nashville sound”, and to this day Nashville is considered the Mecca of country music.

The staggering amount of depressing music country offers also appealed to me. For some reason I tend to love music that is considered to be very depressing, which is probably attributed to my own struggles with depression. I don’t really like listening to music that is overly happy because I’m usually not in that kind of mood. I would much rather wallow in my own sorrow while listening to an equally depressing artist who “gets Country music is great for this. I’ve often said that if you take the lyrics to some country songs and added some electric guitars you’d have a great emo song. The motif of heartbreak is a country music staple and the genre produced some of the best heartbreak songs ever made. While there are plenty of cheerful country songs, my favorites tend to be the depressing ones. Every major country figure has at least one great sad song, usually dozens. George Jones has “She Thinks I Still Care”, Willie Nelson has “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, John Prine has “Sam Stone”, Dolly Parton has “I Will Always Love You”, and The Louvin Brothers have a whole album of these songs album called The Tragic Songs of Life. The list goes on and on. Soon, I started listening to country music when I was depressed in the same way that I used to listen to The Smiths or emo music. It probably only made me more depressed, but I didn’t care.

My love for country music also probably came out as a reaction against my surroundings at the time. My drama friends where mostly into really generic alt-rock and country seemed like the polar opposite to that, which was what I wanted. Growing up in Portland, which is such a hipster city, can sometimes drive me crazy with the pretentiousness I encounter. There was something about country that seemed very unpretentious to me, which I also found very appealing.

The mythologies behind the country stars themselves are also reason enough to get into country music. Pretty much all of them are tragic and/or tortured figures in some why. Hank Williams ended up succumbing to his drug and alcohol problem, dying on New Years Eve at the age of 29. Pasty Cline died in a plane crash at the height of her career. Merle Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention centers throughout his childhood, before finally ending up in San Quentin Prison where he saw Johnny Cash perform and decide join the prison’s country music band. Cash himself had a long running problem with drugs, as did Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, and her one-time husband George Jones. Jones was probably the worst of them all, doing so much cocaine and drinking so much that he developed for a time, short-term memory loss. I’m well aware that these are behaviors that are not to be glamorized, but for some reason I find them so fascinating. It dispels the notion that country music full of straight lased boring people. In fact they lived lives that could out rock star most rock stars. Finding that these giants of the genre were all so flawed made them more relatable than some seemingly perfect pop star. Knowing about these crazy country stars’ crazy lives is part of the fun of being a country fan.

These days I’m tired of hiding that I’m a country fan. I’m tired of having to cringe anytime I hear someone say “I love all kinds of music, except for county”. I’m tired of meeting people who say they are country fans but know nothing about Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings but rather the pop country that is manufactured for the radio. I’ve become a country music defender and I’m proud of it. I no longer retreat when people tell me country sucks. I fight back to defend the music I love.

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A Conversation With Mike Birbiglia

By Hollister Dixon

I’ve been a very big fan of Mike Birbiglia since I started getting into stand-up comedy. I started with Dog Years (an album that, when listing his works, Birbiglia himself doesn’t even include), a self-released rough cut of the more polished Two Drink Mike, and quickly embraced the comedian he grew into over the proceeding 8 years. Since then, he’s released three more specials, each of which aren’t as much stand-up specials as one-man-shows, each centering on a different aspect of his life. This culminated in Sleepwalk With Me, a feature length film based on his show of the same name, which he directed and co-wrote with This American Life‘s Ira Glass. His last special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, premiered on Netflix late this summer, which debuted to outrageously good reviews. In the coming months, Birbiglia will be touring a new act, called Thank God for Jokes, which he considers to be an attempt at returning to more typical stand-up – even if, in the end, it still has a loose narrative. This tour will be stopping at the Newmark Theater here in Portland for two shows on January 24th, with another in Eugene on the 25th – tickets can be bought right here.

I had the immense pleasure of spending some time chatting on the phone with Birbiglia this week to promote these shows, and it proved to be one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever gotten to have at 5:30 am on a Thursday.

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Meeting A Remarkable Man, Philip Glass

By Peggy Imig

Spring, 1984 

Ensconced within the comforting oasis of The Sri Aurobindo Ashram and The Mother’s International School in middle class New Dehli, I met up with several travelers who, like myself, sought spiritual sustenance behind its white washed walls. It was there that I met John Munsey, a tall blonde, blue eyed and very affable Texan vocalist who had located himself in Amsterdam where he performed Western Classical Music and Opera as well as studied various forms of  Hindustani Classical Music, which was our shared interest.

Seated on the floor of my room before a harmonium which I played, I sang: “Sa, sa, SA re, sa re ga ma, sa re, ga, ma, Pa, sa. The five notes of the Indian pentatonic scale accompanied by erratic tones from the squeeze box . I loved the Sanskrit tumbling from my tongue. Suddenly, John appeared at the door, his eyes twinkling in merriment. “Would you like to meet Philip Glass?”

Mouth opened in to a large well formed, “Of course.” John knew me well enough to know that I knew who he was although in 1983 Philip Glass was a very esoteric figure in American music. In disbelief I asked, “When?”

John replied, “Right now. He has asked to meet with the Dagar Brothers and they would like to have us there.” Hurriedly I dressed and we made off by bus into the center of New Delhi which is a lovely place in spite of heavy air pollution; there are parts of it that are lightly trafficked and filled with green space.  We entered a nondescript international bhavan where the Dagar Brothers, Ustad Nasir Zahiruddin and Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar had already arrived. We passed the time making small talk even though both brothers had little command of English.

Soon Philip arrived alone wearing a simple brown suit jacket with matching brown pants and white shirt open at the collar. Even though his appearance was that of an American, his manner and tone was low key, gentle and respectful. He said hello and went with the brothers into a separate side room leaving John and I to muse on the content of their discussion. Was it a film project, or did he wish to record them as part of his multi-layered compositions? We figured a translator must have entered from a door hidden from us, because unless Philip could converse fluently in Hindi, it was quite impossible for them to have a meaningful conversation. After about an hour they emerged and Fiyaz who was more fluent in English introduced us.

I remember shaking hands while Philip’s large, languid brown eyes spoke softly to mine, then he shook John’s hand and asked us to settle back to watch a film he had with him. It was a private screening, just for us, of: Koyaanisqatsi, which is the Hopi word for “crazy life, life out of balance, a way of life that calls for another way of being” for which he had composed the soundtrack. It was a frantic melange of images both moving and provoking. At the time I did not understand that it was the first of a trilogy. The third work was not completed until 2002 with “Naqoyqatsi, or a life of killing each other” The second piece is titled “Powaqqatsi, or  a way of life that consumes the life of other beings in order to further its own way of life.” All titles based on the Hopi language comprised of verbs. How much more prophetic these titles seem in 2013 than when the films were produced!

After we exchanged pleasantries, John and I walked into a dark winter night in New Dehli musing on the power of the film we had just seen and Philip Glass’ musical oeuvre as well as his first sound for the film Chappaqua featuring the music of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rahka, one of India’s most renowned vocalists, and the two most well known in America largely due to that film appearance.  Based on the film we had just seen Koyaanisqatsi, we figured Philip was going to use a different tradition of Hindustani Classical musical rhythm as the basis for another film. However, as far as I know no project with The Dagar Brothers ever materialized.

A note on The Dagar Brothers mentioned here, Zahiri and Faiyaz were the last practitioners of a Northern Indian gharana, or school of musical tradition. Their family had sung drupad in an unbroken tradition from one generation to the next for the previous 19 generations. Drupad is the oldest form of Hindustani Classical Music which is derived completely from Vedic hymns and mantras. In it’s purest form it is the yoga of sound, and in its most developed form employs microtones, which of course, would be of great interest to Philip Glass. Also, it uses the larger South Indian barrel drum called the pakhawaj instead of tablas and is noted for extended alaps.

Until I began fact checking for this article, I did not realize how much of Indian worship and Sanskrit mythology Mr. Glass has incorporated into his completed works since 1983. The one that I’ve discovered and one of the most recent is The Passion of Ramakrishna which manifests another connection with my life. I spent four years attending a small temple in San Leandro, California where I was introduced to St. Ramakrishna, his life and beliefs.

My own association with The Dagar Brothers was not casual since John was studying with them, and I often went with him, or met him there, as well as having the honor to attend some of the house concerts they gave from time to time, so for one magical three months I was part of their inner circle.

In fact I was most graciously invited to attend a Muslim wedding in Jaipur  where one of their family members was being married. It was an unforgettable occasion. Once we were within the family compound, the brothers disappeared. John and I had no idea what would become of us, but as it is everywhere in India, we were not forgotten and following a few anxious hours food arrived and after a few more hours I was shown to a room where there were about 20 ladies asleep side by side and end to end! There was just barely room for me to squeeze my body onto the rug covered had dirt floor, no problem. Soon I was fast asleep.

This was a Muslim wedding, and as such there was not the loud speaker music, dancing and ballyhoo that attends Hindu Indian weddings. We entered a large, plush very ornate theater where a drupad concert was sung. The audience was separated into male and female all wearing their beautiful multicolored finery  and vows exchanged. If there were preceding days of ceremonies, or a parade beforehand, John and I were not privy to that experience. We knew the affair would go on for days, but we went out and explored Jaipur.

A big topic of conversation at the wedding, I’m sure, was who was going to carry on the gharana and jugalbandhi or singing duo. Back in Delhi that was one of the biggest topics between The Dagar Brothers, John, and me. There were young men coming and going all the time, their sons and cousins. The Brothers characterized their sons as what we would call slackers and layabouts. They lamented the fact that they did not think any had an interest in learning the art. which then would as a result die with them.

However, much to my surprise, a few years ago I learned that the oldest, then 17 had taken up drupad along with another of them who I am unable to place in memory, and are now professionally engaged in the gharana having given concerts in India, Japan, and Europe. Many recordings are available.

A footnote about Philip Glass: When I attended graduate school, the class was required to attend a special performance of musical theatre piece by Philip Glass, “1,000 Airplanes On The Roof, a science fiction music drama”, as described by Mr. Glass. A complex multimedia event with head spinning visuals featuring vocals by Linda Ronstadt, and others;  and text by David Henry Hwang.

Philip himself stepped out to introduce the work which was quite a different undertaking than his previous projects in that the subject was extra terrestrial life and it was projected onto a stage. The class and I found it to be a thrilling experience although seated far from stage in a huge theater. Had I been alone and closer to the stage, I would have rushed back stage and reminded Philip of our meeting!  Even though what I had just seen was as far from the Indian content I had contemplated as could be, or was it?

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A Short Eulogy From An Outsider

“I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.” – Leonard Cohen

The first time I ever walked into Someday Lounge was August 26th, 2011. It was two days past my 21st birthday, and I had been invited downtown to have a drink with one of my best friends. I immediately felt welcome in the best possible way.

The second time I ever walked into Someday Lounge was upon returning from the very first trip my wife and I had ever taken together. We went to Seattle for a show, and upon returning, we stopped in to have a drink with a couple of friends. It was late September, and the weather was getting cold, but not enough to put a damper on the beauty of the day. We had both had an exceedingly long trip home, but being in that space helped soothe us perfectly.

 

The third time I ever walked into Someday Lounge was not really a walk-in at all. I went to see Athens, GA band The Olivia Tremor Control, a member of the Elephant 6, and who were inextricably linked with Neutral Milk Hotel, one of the bands I connect with the most in this world. I wasn’t able to catch much of the performance because the show was at-capacity, but the love and intimacy that the long room offered seemed to waft outwards, enough that I didn’t care that I could barely see the band that was playing.

The last time I ever walked into Someday Lounge, it was silent and dark. It was the afternoon of the very last day of business, and even though the lifespan of that room was nearly at its end, it was still desperate to cling to life. The disco ball had been left on and continued to pirouette in the darkness, clearly letting everyone know that things weren’t over yet. Those friends of mine sat at the top floor of the room, and talked about music, and talked about every last memory. I sat quietly listening them reminisce about everything they’d seen and experienced there, and I realized that I had never given myself the chance to forge that same bond with it. When called upon to talk about my memories, I realized that mine could easily be encapsulated, like I’ve done here. There were other times I was there, but the stand-out memories had yet to even gain mass. When I said this, my friend told me, “Even if you miss this place a little bit, it’ll be enough.” There was a lot of love in that room, even with it being so empty.

Portland has seen a lot of venues come and go, each with a rich history and a beating heart of its own. The people who inhabited that space were its beating heart, and even if it didn’t beat for very long, it could never be said that there was any weakness to it. Almost every single person I call a friend knew that, and connected with it in an unbeatable way. I feel like a small part of me left with it, and I am an outsider. I cannot even begin to understand how those people feel. There are a thousand bars and concert venues in this city, but there is only a very finite number that truly feel like Portland. More than I mourn the fact that I didn’t spend enough time there, I mourn the fact that that number is one less now.

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The Ones Worth Leaving

As I write this, I am listening to The Postal Service’s Give Up for the umpteenth time since its release a decade ago. The Northwest breeds a very specific sound into its rock music, so it stands to reason that that same sound would be very prevalent in the electronic music made herein. The thing that everyone forgets is that, somehow, this album broke a substantial amount of ground, in ways that weren’t immediately obvious. For me, there was something tremendously beautiful about the blips and beats all over that record, and even now, listening to “Recycled Air,” I find myself with goosebumps. It’s an unassuming record, and it has been a year or two since I’ve put the album on. However, The Postal Service have returned from their slumber to celebrate the decade’s passage by playing a few shows, and with all of the talk about how happy I am to have them back, it feels necessary to listen again.

I was dying my hair black when I first heard “Such Great Heights,” in the bathroom of our apartment in Washington. I don’t know what I thought I was hearing, but just like everyone at that point in time, I fell in love with that sound. This was not long after the release of both Give Up and the Death Cab for Cutie record Transatlanticism, which meant that Ben Gibbard’s voice was a mainstay on my radio, and in turn, in my head. At this point in time, my love of Seattle music was just beginning to take hold (thanks to Modest Mouse and Nirvana, which I had also just truly discovered), and as such, I grabbed onto Gibbard’s music and lyrics like a life raft. Give Up became something of a safety blanket to me, once I got myself a copy, and I almost never wanted to stop listening to it. To this day, it’s one of the only albums I know every square inch of, front to back, purely from memory. Even my favorite albums, which I return to more often than this, have strange gray areas in my memory.

Gibbard’s words felt like they could never have been recorded in a studio. This was where “bedroom recording” was slowly starting to become truly prominent, and the back-and-forth between his words and the incredibly organic programming delivered by Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello formed a beautiful language that a lot of musicians would pull inspiration from. These were songs that were born out of solitude, which comes across on the recordings incredibly well. This is, I imagine, why the songs resonate with others in such a way: to their ears, this is the work of two people dancing, but doing it in the form of sound. The songs feel resigned to this isolation, which is why the album’s title feels like a helpful suggestion, rather than a command: give up.

This was around the time that my mother and I began to make the transition between living in Washington, and living in Oregon. I remembered going down with her on business, interviewing for different jobs, and on one particular occasion (the one that, indeed, solidified the plan to move) I was accompanied by three things: Jones Crushed Melon soda, Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company, and Give Up. It was a beautiful March afternoon, and somehow, I began to allow myself to accept leaving Washington, and everything I’d ever known, in my 14 years of life. It was a scary point in time, but there were Ben and Jimmy, who taught me to accept these things, even though it was never their intention.

This obsession with The Postal Service, of course, lead to a thorough obsession with Death Cab for Cutie, due to my profound adoration of Gibbard’s voice and words. I jumped from Give Up to Transatlanticism, and then learned every single inch of that record, right down to the length of time where he lets his s’s trail off. If you asked me now, “Why were you so obsessed with those records?” I wouldn’t honestly be able to tell you. It is possible that, from an incredibly young age, I wanted badly to be a romantic, and in turn to relate to the loss of love, and these records allowed me to live vicariously through them. I poured over the lovelorn ways that he told me, “I am finally seeing, I was the one worth leaving,” or narrating the death of a relationship: “This is the moment that you know / that you told her that you love her, but you don’t.” There was a sort of heartbreaking bravery in these songs, and better still, these revelations were sung in the most conversational way possible, constantly bucking the notion of typical lyrical structure to benefit his own desires: it’s hard not to marvel at the gall he had to open a song with the line “The glove compartment is inaccurately named, and everyone knows it.” Who does this guy think he is? It didn’t matter that I couldn’t truly relate to these constant emotional damages. To me, they were close enough to real life.

Before I got married, I dated a girl who shared my sick obsession with this man’s music. We bonded over our obsession with Gibbard’s words, and in this way, it somehow changed the cellular structure of this sorrow. It somehow fueled our love, knowing that, deep down, we both understood the heartbreak of another person. We poured over every inch of these records together, building a strange narrative, in which these songs tell a complete story, and tell an even fuller story when combined with We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, and the criminally underrated Plans. To this day, I really don’t understand what we got out of this, but this was a bond that I was incredibly grateful for. For months afterwards, I found it impossible to listen to this music without connecting it to the happier times I had experienced. Finally, I found a way to connect with those words. The tragic irony is, just a month later, they would release Narrow Stairs, and I have to wonder if our relationship would have been stretched out a few months longer if we’d gotten to obsess over that one.

A decade later, I still love this music, and I likely always will. This was my first foray into the subtle art of living in someone else’s sadness, a tradition I have held dear since learning that I truly love the music that can only be called “sad bastard music.” I’ve forged my own memories with these songs, and tried to erase some of the sadness embedded in them. I even went as far as to recite the lyrics to “Brand New Colony” on my wedding day, as my own personal wedding vows. My wife still gives me grief for not bothering to write my own vows. But what does she know? I know that song well enough that they may as well be my own words. And, I’m sure if you ask me how I feel about these songs in another decade, I’m probably going to tell you the same thing.

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Radiohead: A Song to Keep Us Warm

On my left elbow, I have a very large, ugly scar. I got it when I was 17, and working for my grandfather’s caretaker, trimming an overgrown hedge at her house. I slipped on the fairly waxy leaves, and brought the hedge trimmer down to my elbow, slicing it open. I had to come back the next day and finish the job as a result, because of the time spent travelling to, and waiting in, an ER waiting room to get stitches and a tetanus shot. That day I learned a few things: I learned that I shouldn’t trim hedges, and that tetanus shots don’t hurt that much, and that “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead is a very, very good song.

During that summer, I had made up my mind to listen to a CD player more than my iPod, because it made it more difficult to let my ADHD get the better of me when it came to album switching. For the most part, it worked: I would listen to albums on repeat for days on end, digging into them as much as possible. That was the summer that I listened to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible on single-song-repeat, listening to every single song 20 times in a row. That summer, more importantly, was the summer that I clicked with the bits of OK Computer that I had yet to click with. But, we’ll back up a bit. I was 16 when I bought the album based solely on reputation. I had sold all of my video game equipment, which I no longer used, and picked up the Violent Femmes self-titled, Bjork’s Telegram, System of a Down’s Mesmerize/Hypnotize, and OK Computer. It sat on my shelf for months and months, until one day, I decided to dust it off. It took me awhile to finally click with it, but I remember exactly where I was when I fell in love with the band. My father and I were on a motorcycle trip with a couple of family friends, and I put the album on to listen to. I listened a couple times through, and enjoyed it. Then, at one point, I began to doze off with my head on my father’s shoulder, in the fall Washington rain. “Exit Music (For A Film)” came on, and a switch flipped in my head. It was a mysterious feeling, one that I had experienced a couple times before that, but had never felt in a way like this. The moment and the music became inextricably linked, and I became a Radiohead devotee.

There will always be an ever-raging battle over the best Radiohead album with its fans, but if a gun were to my head I would choose OK Computer any day of the week, despite not being as poised as its beautiful follow-up Kid A. When I heard songs like “Paranoid Android,” and how incredibly it was written, it gave me hope as a teenager that art could be incredibly loud and incredibly well-written. I became mystified by the heart-on-sleeve beauty of “No Surprises” (to this day my favorite Radiohead song, who’s opening bars and refrain of “no alarms and no surprises please” I have tattooed on my forearm) and its resigned tone. This was not music for someone who wanted to die. This was the music of someone who had come to peace with the fact that he was going to die. I even loved “Fitter Happier,” and its robotic message of dependence on a live made of routine and habit.

The problem with “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is that it is situated between “Paranoid Android” and “Exit Music (For A Film),” two songs that are easily among the best in Radiohead’s catalog. As such, I found it hard to listen to the song, for no reason other than the fact that it stood in the way of me standing in my living room howling, “WE HOOOOOOPE, THAT YOU CHOOOOOOOOOOKE, THAT YOU CHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKE.” Keep in mind, this was when I was a bitter teenager who had just come to terms with past abuses; I was troubled, but I had the depth of a mud puddle. The words there spoke to me. OK Computer is an ode to disillusionment and alienation in a computerized world, and though I never connected with the latter part of that, I was well-versed in that feeling of feeling separate from the rest of the world. I’ve always felt like I was somehow out of place with the world, and Thom Yorke understood that, in his own way.

And then, I maimed myself doing a job I really probably wasn’t qualified to be doing. I got lost in the words of the song that I couldn’t get past, suddenly hearing Yorke’s words clearly for the first time:

I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane,
Late at night when I’m driving.
Take me on board their beautiful ship,
Show me the world as I’d love to see it.

I’d tell all my friends but they’d never believe me,
They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely.

I didn’t realize until the next evening how much of an impact this had on me. That evening, I spent a couple hours with my girlfriend, and I asked her to marry me (I was 17. Keep that in mind). She said yes, and the next day, called me to tell me that it was a crazy thing to do, and a crazy thing for me to ask. After hanging up, I realized that there was a distance between me and everyone else, and that I would never get to a point where I could be okay with that distance. In short, I felt like an alien. And I would never have the ability to explain that. I’m 22 now, and as of this writing, I still struggle with those feelings of alienation and confusion. I have wondered if it would be worth it, given the opportunity, to travel back and let 17-year-old Hollister know that feeling never goes away, but I worry that it would crush his spirit. I still believe in the lessons that Thom Yorke taught me at that age, even if a lot of them are hard to really understand at times.

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