July 6, 2012
If you have access to the Internet, and use it for something other than checking for winks on Match.com, you may have read how the lovely folks at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have discovered a new particle they believe to be the Higgs boson, affectionately known by us laypeople as the “God particle.” The LHC is a 17-mile tube situated a football field or so below ground outside Geneva, near the Swiss-Franco border. In this tube, ridiculously smart physicists are able to accelerate tiny particles called protons to nearly the speed of light by using 1,600 superconducting magnets, each of which weighs almost 60,000 pounds. And for these magnets to work properly, they must be cooled to a soul-crushing temperature of -456.25 degrees Fahrenheit, which is two degrees colder than outer space.
The cost to build such a tube? Around $10 billion, and it was only that cheap because there was already a tunnel there from a previous particle accelerator called the LEP. And then there are the operating costs, which include a couple of thousand physicists, staff, and one hell of an electric bill, all of which add up to about $1 billion a year…and that’s not including the ridiculously-generous vacation time afforded to those Eurowhiners on their socialist hellhole of a continent.
What’s the point of all this expensive whiz bang gadgetry, you ask? To figure out how the universe works at the subatomic level. We already know a lot of it, or think we know, but if there is no Higgs boson, we’ll have to throw out seventy-five years of work and start over. The crux of the matter is we’ve discovered all these different kinds of particles, but we don’t know why one weighs more than the other. This guy, Peter Higgs, theorized almost fifty years ago that there might be a kickass field that permeates the universe, and the degree to which particles interact with that field determines their mass. Luckily the guy isn’t dead yet, so he actually gets to enjoy the accolades generated by the fruit of his creative mind, unlike most of us writers who don’t get recognized for our talents until moss has overgrown our tombstones.
It’s natural to wonder about the practical considerations of discovering the Higgs. No one is ever going to lay their eyes on a Higgs particle, or any particle for that matter. The only way we even know about these things is to smash protons together, record the nature of the shrapnel, and then use a giant farm of computers to sift through the data and guess what it means. It’s not like the Higgs is a key that unlocks the existential secrets of the universe, despite the boson’s pop culture moniker, the “God particle.” (If you didn’t already read it in one of the myriad Higgs stories available online, the physicist who coined the term “God particle,” Leon Lederman, originally wanted to call it the “Goddamn particle,” because it was proving so difficult to find. There is no metaphysical or otherworldly nature to the particle, despite the protestations of new age crackpots and a certain novelist who happens to write for TNB.)
However, it turns out that there are a few real-world implications of this new physics discovery, and I’m here to bring them to your attention:
1) Weight loss: Have you been trying to lose that stubborn spare tire of blubber around your midsection? Need to lose 15 pounds to get into your wedding dress? Because the Higgs boson confers mass to elementary particles, all you have to do is get rid of some of your mass, and you’ll lose weight. I suggest a combination of diet and exercise to create a calorie deficit of about 500 calories a day. On such a plan you can expect to lose about a pound a week.
2) Cure insomnia: Do you have trouble sleeping? Try reading the Higgs Boson Papers. If you’re not comatose by the third or fourth paragraph, you’re obviously a theoretical physicist looking for answers to big questions and shouldn’t be wasting time reading my essay in the first place.
3) Be entertained! A little more than seven years ago, I stole the phrase and book title The God Particle, and turned it into a techno thriller packed with more steamy sex than a Penthouse Forum “Best of” anthology. Of course my version of events was soapier than the actual Higgs experiments, and includes a metaphysical subplot where humans find a way to tap into the collective consciousness of a sentient universe, but it’s a lot more exciting than combing through petabytes of data describing particle shrapnel. And since I’m shamelessly promoting my own work, if particle physics isn’t your thing, try my newest psychological thriller about a man going insane…or perhaps becoming the only sane person in an insane world.
For more information about the LHC, visit their web site.
To purchase Leon Lederman’s treatise on particle physics, go here.
To learn more about Europe’s fantastic vacation policies, read this.
To read about the most ridiculous political flip-flop in presidential campaign history, go here.
To shed unwanted pounds, try using Livestrong.com to track your calorie intake. Or figure out how to rid yourself of some of those extraneous Higgs bosons.
That is all.
February 24, 2012
This essay isn’t about anything tragic.
I won’t be writing about the economy, about being single and lonely, about a family member I’ve recently lost. I won’t be complaining about the ridiculous Republican primaries or how President Obama has decided the U.S. government can assassinate its own citizens without due process.
If you’re looking for something depressing and dreary, an essay that explores the deep and meaningless pain of being human, don’t bother reading any further.
When considering non-fiction essays, does personal tragedy somehow enhance the depth and beauty of a writer’s prose? If you suffer from a debilitating disease, if you’ve experienced the loss of a child, if you have survived some great natural disaster, does describing those terrible circumstances lend gravity to your art in a way that a happy, well-adjusted person cannot hope to match?
If I wrote about my mother’s thirty-year fight with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, my poor relationship with her as a child, if I wrote about my painfully shy childhood personality, or my failed adult relationships, would that make for a more literary essay than if I were to describe my current, fantastically happy life?
Conflict drives storytelling, of course, in both fiction and non-. But if the very best stories are those that describe the saddest circumstances, I suppose I ought to give up any chance to win awards for my work.
Back in September, I wrote this essay about a new woman in my life. I wrote it, in part, because of a series of arguments I’d had with her that were mostly my fault. In fact, these arguments were so irrational and without merit and that I almost lost her over them. Most of the feedback I received about that essay, whether on the site or privately, considered it the best piece I’d ever written for TNB…which is interesting when you consider the thing exceeded 3,000 words and I wrote it in less than four hours. In that instance, conflict definitely drove the storytelling, and in fact pushed me to write with a sincerity, an openness that has often eluded me during my writing career.
So how to artfully render the delightful months that have followed winning her heart? How does one convey happiness that matters only to the people enjoying it? I could describe the peace I feel when looking into her eyes, or the protectiveness that comes over me when she encounters challenges. I could share the joy of buying her Christmas gifts, of treating her to a recent magical birthday weekend, of inviting her permanently into my home. I could tell you about her lovely 3-year-old daughter, whose friendliness is outshined only by her fierce intelligence. I might even be proud enough to share how the little girl is now able to freely quote dialogue from the original Star Wars trilogy and can also sing (a cappella) most of the songs on Def Leppard’s Hysteria. I might conveniently forget that I’d never really been interested in having children before meeting these two wonderful young ladies.
But you probably don’t care to read about those things. Happiness is cloying unless you’re the one experiencing it, and I can’t think of a good way to write about my new life in a way that doesn’t sound earnest.
Actually, that isn’t true. I could totally do that. I just don’t feel like being ironic and disaffected about something so beautiful.
November 28, 2011
The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.
However, I soon gave up on the idea of an entire post about the marvels of the human brain because I realized I was too lazy to research the subject again. I’m loathe to make generalized statements where actual facts are needed, and though I’ve read quite a lot about the workings of the human brain, I would have to go back and do the same research again because of this problem of how our minds don’t make bit-perfect recordings of incoming stimuli.
Even so, I remain fascinated by the subject. For instance, Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature selects for me individuals from two primary audiences: Wichita Falls High School acquaintances and people associated with The Nervous Breakdown. Usually I don’t actually know these suggested folks, because I only lived in Wichita Falls for a couple of years and because the TNB universe extends well beyond my core group of friends here. In almost every case, however, I can look at the 96-pixel-wide image and guess to which of the two groups the individual belongs. The clues at my disposal are the names of the individuals, the context and style of the photography, and maybe clothing choice and hairstyle. I can barely make out any actual detail in an image so small, and yet still I am able to make a ridiculously well-informed assumption about the person’s connection to me.
Pattern recognition comes to humans so easily that we often take it for granted. But anyone who writes software for a living can grasp the complexity of teaching a machine even the simplest task. A computer can’t do anything unless you tell it exactly what you want and how to do it. We have made strides in certain areas, like software that can modify and optimize its own code, and other programs that “learn” by observing trends in user input data, but we’re still pretty far away from creating a machine that can think like a human brain.
Even so, the brain’s weaknesses are unfortunate considering the amount of processing power available to it. For instance, because we’re so good at identifying patterns, we often see patterns where they don’t exist. Like constellations, for example–even a child could draw a better bull than the stars associated with Taurus. The brain can also be intentionally fooled into seeing patterns, which can be demonstrated by using the constellations again and their associated astrological signs. Read the typical newspaper horoscope and you’ll find the sort of generalized life experiences with which almost anyone can vaguely identify. And don’t get me started on how inaccurate our memories can be. If you’ve ever been locked in an argument with your spouse over what she just said five minutes ago, you know what I’m talking about. And further imperfections arise over time as we allow emotions to color our recollections of past life experiences.
Recently I considered compiling a list of everyday behaviors of other people that I find annoying, but most of them had to do with driving and that’s not very original. Still, it’s interesting to wonder why people behave in certain ways that have nothing to do with the logic of the situation. One of my favorites is when people drift into a turn lane and then absently activate their blinker, completely forgetting that a signal is meant to convey intent. What these folks are doing is essentially the same as punching someone in the face and then angrily notifying the offender that if he doesn’t stop insulting your mother, you’re going to hit him. Another favorite is when a driver on a very wide residential road approaches a stop sign and feels compelled to right-justify her vehicle when she plans to turn left. Why doesn’t the driver, when there is plenty of room for it, imagine a left turn lane? Thereby allowing someone behind her to freely turn right?
Decoding repetitive human behavior can be interesting to the layperson, but provides little direct benefit. It’s not as if I can approach every driver on the road and have this conversation with them. And even if I could, maybe that person wouldn’t bother to stop the illogical behavior. Maybe that person is in fact programmed to be illogical. Maybe the reason human brains ignore information easily available to them is because they aren’t making decisions at all. Maybe the universe is completely deterministic and nothing is left to chance or probability. Or perhaps everyone around you is a bit player in a computer simulation in which you’re the main character.
In September, as many of you already know, I published a novel calledThomas World. The primary question of this story is whether or not the protagonist is living in the real world or some artificial reality. And if his world isn’t real, what’s the point of the simulation in the first place? I chose to write about this idea because the existential implications fascinate me. If the world is fake, if the creator of it is some kid playing a more sophisticated version of The Sims, it would explain why horrifying tragedies occur in a world that many believe was built by a benevolent deity. My beliefs since my mid teens have wavered somewhere between atheism and agnosticism, and this is the first possible explanation for the world that ever caused me to rethink those beliefs. Already I’ve received feedback from readers who claim Thomas World has caused them to look at the world in a different way. But maybe it really didn’t. Maybe they’re only playing their roles.
Existential concerns don’t have much to do with everyday reality, though. You still have to get up and go to work every day regardless of whether or not the world is real. However, the difference between humans and current day computers is we are afforded the luxury to entertain ourselves with these concerns. We’re able to appreciate music, whereas computers are mainly limited to identifying a piece of music when you let your iPhone listen to a few seconds of it. The technology of music identification is a type of pattern recognition, and it is impressive, but it’s nothing like the abstract and complex relationships the human brain makes when listening to a beautiful passage of, say, Mozart.
My girlfriend was sitting next to me last night, and when I looked at her I wondered briefly if she was real. The reason I wondered this is she seems to be the physical manifestation of a set of attributes I’ve often wished could be found in a single person. And because I am a writer, and since I do enjoy contemplating existence and its possible meanings, it occurred to me that my life might be a video game for which I wrote the script. When I mentioned this to her, she smiled and even blushed a little. And then the moment passed, and I let go of the idea, because whether or not she is real or something other than real, she is nevertheless a part of my life, and rather than wonder how that came to pass, I decided instead to simply enjoy it.
September 12, 2011
As a gift for making it all the way through high school, my dad bought me a Sony rack stereo system. Up to that point I had enjoyed my favorite 80s music on a smaller unit, which was essentially a glorified jam box, although occasionally, when my parents were out of town, I sneaked a listen on my dad’s audiophile-quality rig.
This was just before the CD began to really take off, and the players were still pretty expensive, so my stereo didn’t have one. But it did have a decent turntable, and from that point forward I only purchased music on vinyl because the sound quality of prerecorded tapes was vastly inferior.
However, using expensive blank cassettes and Dolby Noise Reduction, you could record your own mix tapes and arrange songs in whatever order you liked, and the sound quality was indistinguishable to the ear. At least to my ear.
To make these tapes sound as pristine as possible, I used a record cleaning kit that included an anti-static gun. That is not a joke. I would clean the record with a special brush and then shoot the record with a gun that emitted a stream of ions. These ions neutralized the static electricity generated by the friction of brush on vinyl. Yes, I know it sounds like science fiction but it really did work. My mix tapes were amazing.
As great as vinyl sounded, however, it was not a convenient format to use. I couldn’t play records in my car, and if I wanted to skip a song I was forced to get up and physically move the tonearm. And I couldn’t ever line it up exactly on the song I wanted to hear. And every time you play a record, you damage it ever so slightly. For this reason I didn’t actually listen to the records themselves very often. I considered them source material that I could use to make my own “perfect” mixes.
The engineers who developed the compact disc format were familiar with the limitations of vinyl and sought to eliminate them. Instead of scraping a diamond stylus against your cherished copy of Abbey Road, you could instead bounce light off it. Instead of having to move a tonearm you could just hit a button, and the next song would be lined up perfectly every single time. You could play a CD in your car. It sounded exactly the same on the first play or the 1000th play. The dynamic range of a digital recording was vastly superior to any previous format and the noise and distortion were almost zero.
I’ve always wanted to believe the reason CDs overtook vinyl as the primary music delivery format was because of the superior sound quality. Objectively, when you look at the numbers, there should be no comparison between the sound quality of vinyl and lossless digital formats. In side-by-side listening tests, except on the very best turntables in the world, CDs sound cleaner, brighter, and more spacious. That’s what they were designed to do.
But the enjoyment of music, like life itself, is not an objective experience. It’s a highly subjective experience. The sales of CDs overtook vinyl not because of the supposedly superior sound quality, but because of their convenience. This is the same reason digital files have become the primary way to listen to music today. You can fit your entire collection of music on a little rectangular box that fits in the palm of your hand. What’s not to like about that?
But the scrappy vinyl format never really died. Instead, it fell into the hands of hobbyists who claimed the sound of digital music was harsh and lacked the human, organic experience that vinyl delivered. Over the years I’ve read countless articles in audiophile magazines about the debate between analog and digital, and I’ve always sided with the digital guys. The very thing the analog enthusiasts enjoy the most, the “warm” sound of vinyl, is in fact distortion. Sure, it’s a type of distortion many people find pleasant, but how could one make the argument that records sounded “better” than CDs when the digital format essentially eliminated distortion?
It’s not surprising that for most of my life I’ve been a digital guy. Almost every modern convenience we take for granted involves the use of computers. Digital technology makes nearly everything easier, more productive, and in many ways more enjoyable. It’s romantic to long for simpler times, before technology, but the reality is life before technology was difficult and grueling and left little time to enjoy much of anything. We modern day, first world folks are pampered like no other humans in history.
My own life, in many ways, has paralleled the evolution of the world from analog to digital. When I was younger, I was riddled with self doubt and in the mirror I saw only flaws. I was such an introvert that I didn’t kiss a girl for the first time until I was nineteen. I didn’t have sex until I was 22. I was mortified of women, of social encounters, of almost everything that had to do with other people. But rather than be stuck with these flaws, I instead sought to eliminate them. Over a period of years I taught myself to be comfortable around large groups and with women. I changed my appearance by dressing differently and styling my hair differently and even having major surgery as part of a orthodontic procedure that altered my smile and face forever.
Not many people in my life are familiar with the old me, the analog me, because I maintain a tightly controlled public persona. I manage to write novels and TNB posts about many subjects, even emotional subjects, without revealing many details about myself. I don’t like to reveal weaknesses and insecurities, probably because doing so reminds me of the old me. I like the new guy a lot better, this guy I Photoshopped into existence. This digital guy. And lots of other folks seem to like him, too, so why even acknowledge the analog me? I put him in the attic years ago and he’s been collecting dust there ever since.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this supposed road to digital perfection. When I had everything I wanted, or thought I wanted, I realized I wasn’t really happier than before. I lived in a beautiful house, I achieved my lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist, I married a gorgeous, likeable woman whose face was known to everyone in the community. In most measurable ways, I should have been the happiest guy in the world. But instead I was bored. I felt empty. Instead of heeding the advice of John Lennon, I had always seen life as a destination, or like a video game that if you worked hard enough at, eventually you could “win” the game. Instead, my life had been sailing by while I was making other plans. Striving for something else instead of enjoying what was right in front of me.
Over the past few years, especially when I began making friends in the MySpace blog community, I became increasingly aware of the disparity between what I imagined life to be and what it really was. I picked up a lot of regular readers and fans on MySpace, and many people enjoyed my work. But gradually these readers began asking questions. Why didn’t I write more about myself? Why did I always write about things and subjects instead of people and feelings? At first I found these questions annoying. I didn’t understand why it mattered. With every post, I started an interesting conversation that hundreds of people enjoyed, so who cared what I chose to write about?
What I didn’t understand then is that these readers, my friends, weren’t asking questions to challenge me. They just wanted to get to know me. The human, not the writer.
In my novels, I tried hard to focus on the people, and not just ideas, but the ideas always won in the end. Even though there’s a love story in every novel I’ve written, in the early ones the relationships were mainly window dressing for the high concept plot. This is no surprise since, in my actual life, I’d always been more fascinated with the miracle of the cosmos and scientific exploration than with my fellow man. How could my feelings or anyone’s feelings compare to the grandeur of the universe and its very existence?
During the process of writing my newest novel, however, I discovered that knowing the answers to everything, knowing the truth, doesn’t change the essential nature of life. If someone told me today the whole world was an elaborate video game, or a joke, or whatever, I would still have to get up in the morning and eat and go to work and spend time with friends and loved ones. Having a peek behind the curtain wouldn’t change what was going on in front of it every single day.
My entire life I had been striving for a destination that, in the end, was as pointless as it was impossible to achieve. I began to realize that instead of looking to some faraway place for fulfillment and happiness, I could look at the things right in front of me. Which seems obvious and trite, but sometimes life is obvious and trite.
Unfortunately, it was right around this time that the things closest to me took a turn for the worse. In the span of a few months, my marriage ended and I was laid off from a company where I had worked for seventeen years. My agent kept asking for changes to my new manuscript, telling me the characters didn’t seem real or human or likeable, and I began to wonder if I would ever sell another novel, that maybe the first sale was a fluke. Even when my agent finally did accept the manuscript, interest from publishers was minimal, and my savings continued to dwindle.
You think I would have taken advantage of all the free time to write another novel. After all, I already had a new idea. All I had to do was sit down and write it. Without a job tying up nine hours of my day, I could have written something in a few months if I worked hard. But instead, I frittered away the free time and sank into a very dark place. Honestly, I can barely remember what I did with the time. I was off work for thirteen months, and aside from putting the finishing touches on Thomas World and writing a screenplay adaptation (in three days), I accomplished absolutely nothing. When I was down to the very last of my savings, as I pondered complete financial collapse, the mood in my head grew darker still.
It was about this time that I met someone, a girl, who was also recently divorced. I added her on Facebook but made no real attempt to court her. I was in no mood to date someone and I wasn’t sure I would like her, anyway. But little by little we began to communicate, and the more I learned about her, the more I liked. She was (is) extremely intelligent, hilarious, has great taste in music and films, but most importantly she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She doesn’t take anyone too seriously, because she’s had a lot of drama in her life and now just wants to relax and enjoy each day.
She’s a very analog girl.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have met her. She looks at the world in the exact way I wish I did. She sees beauty in the spaces that most of us miss. Whenever I spend time with her, I learn something new about the world, about her, about myself.
Around the time I met her, almost to the day, I was contacted by a placement firm about a good job opportunity. Also around the same time is when I signed the contract to have my third novel published. In mere days, my fortunes reversed in almost every measurable way. This near-miraculous good fortune should have instantly cured my dark moods.
But old habits die hard. I couldn’t quite let go of the digital destination I’d always envisioned. For example, when my new book sold, instead of being thrilled, I was disappointed that I wasn’t paid as much as the first two. As the book neared publication, I began to feel an intense amount of pressure on how it would be received, on how it would sell. I tried to convince myself how fortunate I was to have sold a book at all, considering the economic climate and the state of the publishing world, but I continued to focus on what I hadn’t achieved, instead of enjoying what I had.
Recently, all this confusion surfaced as a series of irrational arguments I started with my new friend. For those who know me well, this sort of behavior stands in direct contrast to my normal personality. Even as I was creating this artificial turmoil, and especially afterward, I could not answer why I had behaved so bizarrely. Especially not when everything in my life was now moving forward. How could one feel like the world was his oyster, and yet somehow reject it?
In the digital world, information is encoded in such a way that makes alterations easy to perform. You can retouch a photograph or add special effects to a film or create amazing music so easily that you begin to expect the real world should behave that way. On more than one occasion, I’ve made my own remixes of songs I enjoy, using a multitrack recorder to shorten or lengthen songs at will. I retouch photos and I create funny golf videos from footage that often isn’t funny at all. In the digital realm, with enough patience, you can exert complete and precise control over every facet of existence, you can send it wherever you like, play it in your car, play it on the other side of the world with almost no effort.
Things are different in the analog world. Complete control is not achievable. In the analog world, emails become handwritten letters, Facebook avatars become the real faces of your friends, and CDs become record albums.
Last week, after spending time with my new friend, listening to her record collection, I asked my dad to dig out his Bang & Olufsen turntable, circa 1983, from the attic. I found a stylus cartridge on eBay, and retrieved my record collection from my own attic. I hadn’t taken care to store the LPs very well and some of them were too warped to play properly. But most of them were salvageable, and I spent the better part of my weekend listening to those old albums. More than once I had to correct myself when I picked up the remote, intending to skip to the next song. And since I no longer own the cleaning brush or anti-static gun, the listening experience was not a fidelity level to which I am accustomed.
And of course it was beautiful.
I also spent an evening reading about Buddhism. I’m not a religious person and probably never will be, but I’ve always been curious about Zen and what that worldview is like. What I read was not groundbreaking stuff, not at its most basic level, but it did have a profound effect on me. There’s no controlling the world, the behaviors of others; in fact the disorder and warts and the many and differing personalities that comprise the world are in fact the beauty of the world, that to achieve peace you must be okay with your place in it, with your beautiful and flawed self.
Do I think records sound better than CDs? I don’t think it’s a question that needs to be asked. They simply sound different. Records sound warm and pleasant, and listening to these particular records had an unintended effect as well: I was flooded with images and sounds and smells from that directionless summer after I graduated high school, the countless hours I spent erasing any trace of static from my recordings, when I rearranged record albums into mix tapes the way I wanted them, when I spent far more time with my stereo than I did with other people; I remembered pounding out terrible short stories on my Royal electric typewriter, sending them away to this magical and foreign place known as New York City, where they were immediately rejected by faceless gatekeepers; I remembered standing in front of the mirror every morning, staring at my face, at the angry, volcanic ranges of acne, not understanding how I was ever going to ask a girl on a date looking like that; I remembered the doctor who fixed my acne problem, and my first kiss, the first time I ever told anyone I loved them; I remembered the palpable discomfort I felt in bars and in giant college classrooms; I remembered sitting down to begin my first novel, a story I wrote in serial format, sending each new chapter to my friend who was suffering though Army Ranger training…with every crackle and pop and skip in those records I remembered my analog self, and a sort of calm came over me, and the darkness that had built inside me like cancer over many months seemed to bleed out of me, replaced with a sense of peace I had not experienced in a long time. On the blemished surfaces of those platters of vinyl I saw my own imperfections very clearly, how they will always be part of me, and even if I were to achieve every goal I could possibly dream, there would still be a lifetime of days to enjoy, one at a time, and understanding this means there’s no more pressure of a destination, of forcing things to be just so.
The other day you said, I can’t stand things that are perfect.
In that case, you must really like me.
May 12, 2011
When I was eleven years old, my parents presented me with an awesome music rig for Christmas. Within minutes of opening the box, after installing the batteries and internal storage, I was listening to popular tunes. With the press of a button I could download songs and play them back at my leisure. And download I did.
But there were drawbacks to this particular rig. It possessed only one speaker. Its wireless connection was actually an AM/FM radio, and the internal storage was a finite supply of Certron Normal Bias 90 minute cassettes. Also, whenever I recorded songs to tape, the first ten or fifteen seconds were invariably marred by some jackass DJ talking over the top of the music. And the batteries ran out too quickly.
Nevertheless, I spent much of my free time listening to that rig, so much that I eventually wore it out. But not before I fell in love with popular music. The first song I ever recorded was Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” and other Top 40 radio hits of the time included such favorites as “Celebration” and “Centerfold” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I obsessed over them all.
What frustrated me to no end, however, was I couldn’t understand the lyrics very well. Like I had trouble making out the actual words. And on the rare occasions when I could decode the syntax, I usually didn’t know what the singer was talking about or completely mistook her meaning.
Let’s take “Physical,” for instance. Olivia Newton-John was an early adopter of music videos and was arguably the hottest woman in the world at the time. I was in love with her. But I had no idea she was, in this case, singing about sex.
Let me hear your body talk. Clearly she’s talking about lifting weights, right? Just look at the video. It’s shot in a gym! Of course, I completely misunderstood the surprise ending, where the muscular men turn out to be homosexual. And how was I supposed to know that at the 2:32 mark, Ms. Newton-John was declaring herself a spitter and not a swallower? And even if I had figured all this out, the lyrics still wouldn’t have made sense. A woman takes a man to a suggestive dinner and tries to keep her hands on the table? She’s tired of talking and just wants to get horizontal? What sort of alternate reality is this?
How about “Whip It,” another popular song of the time? Anybody got a clue what that one means? I sure as hell didn’t. In fact I just looked it up on Google and read where Jerry Casale wrote the lyrics as an homage to Thomas Pynchon’s parodies in Gravity’s Rainbow. Whatever, Jerry. Missed that one, too.
On the other hand, the lyrics for some songs were much more obvious. Like Blondie’s “Rapture.” I loved the rap about the man from Mars who ate up cars, like Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Subarus. When you’re eleven years old, this sort of logic makes sense. But the rest of the lyrics were delivered in a surreal voice that made them difficult to comprehend. Which is probably why I missed the line about finger fucking that occurs right before the rap. What a shame.
I could cite examples all day.
“Angel of the Morning” – I loved this track, but had no idea it was a remake, and certainly I was clueless that Juice Newton was greenlighting a one-night stand.
“Bette Davis Eyes” – Bette Davis? Jean Harlow? Maybe I should have asked my Grandmother for clarification, because I sure as hell didn’t know who they were. And Greta Garbo standoff sighs? Are you kidding me? Why not just sing the song in German?
“99 Luftballons” – This one was sung in German. Whoop de doo. Something about Captain Kirk and floating balloons that symbolized Cold War fears. Or whatever. Next.
“I Want Candy” – Bow Wow Wow remade this 1965 hit and convinced a fifteen-year old girl to sing about sex. I honestly thought it was about candy. The girl was fifteen, for Christ’s sake!
“Abracadabra” – What the hell did black panties have to do with illusion? Doug Henning never said anything about women’s underwear. And what was all the talk about fire? Some kind of new magic trick? Oh yeah, it was a special trick where Steve Miller burned up his career.
“Blister in the Sun” – High as a kite? Strung out? Straight over my innocent little head. And how about, Body and beat/I stain my sheets/I don’t even know why/My girlfriend/She’s at the end/She is starting to cryReally? Eleven-year old Richard is supposed to make sense of that? Fuck you, Violent Femmes.
“Who Can It Be Now?” – Maybe it’s about a crazy guy holed up in his house, but when I was a kid I just wanted Colin Hay to get up and answer the goddamned door.
Of course, as the years progressed I gradually began to understand some of the abstract phrasing and innuendo embedded in most popular songs. I wasn’t eleven forever. Still, there were a few songs that confused me, like:
“Relax.” Don’t do it/When you want to come. By fourteen I was well acquainted with masturbation, but why on earth should I relax and notdo it? I most definitely wanted to do it at every opportunity. And thenShoot it in the right direction/Making it your intention. So, Frankie: You don’t want me to do it, but if I do, make sure I point it somewhere important? Shine on, you crazy diamond!
And finally, “She Bop.” I could barely make out Ms. Lauper’s sexy-squeaky delivery, but what I could understand sounded suspiciously like dancing. Or so I believed until one day I somehow discovered the lineThey say I better stop or I’ll go blind. This is something I could relate to, since for years I’d worried about a similar fate befalling me. But more importantly, I was thrilled to know there were girls out there who enjoyed “bopping” as much as men. Who just wanted to have fun. This knowledge thrilled me so much that my own bopping became new all over again. Thank you kindly, Cyndi Lauper.
So, yeah. I struggled to understand song lyrics in my formative years. And because of this, I quickly learned to ignore lyrics altogether. Instead, I found enjoyment and inspiration in melodies and instrumentation and arrangements. And besides, I was reading plenty of books by then. They brimmed with all the word-based art I could ever need.
In my later teens I was drawn to bands like Boston and Def Leppard and their complex recording techniques. Their meaningless lyrics were, well, meaningless to me. And even today I gravitate toward post rock outfits like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a nine-piece collective that writes complex, orchestral rock pieces almost completely devoid of lyrics. Anymore, I barely listen to popular music at all.
But back in the day I did. In fact, I made it all the way from Olivia Newton-John to Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
And people say evolution isn’t real.
February 9, 2011
I have this sudden desire to make French toast. It’s 3:18 AM Central Standard Time on February 9, 2011, and I ate dinner hours ago, and more recently I prepared myself a late-night snack. But enjoying a full stomach very early on a Wednesday morning doesn’t make me crave the French toast any less. What matters is it’s 10 degrees outside, and the wind is howling at 35 miles per hour, and it’s snowing heavily.
Since it’s snowing, that means I need French toast. And I need it now.
But there’s a problem. When I go to the store, there’s no bread on the shelves. There are no eggs. I do find a few cartons of milk, but they aren’t really milk but almond milk, Silk-brand Pure Almond Dark Chocolate Milk with ExtraAntioxidants.
Actually, I’m lying about the bread. There’s one lonely loaf left, dressed up in a shiny blue bag, with the alliterative name Blueberry Breakfast Bread. I doubt it would taste very good as part of a ham sandwich, but I suppose it would make decent French toast. But I don’t really want to make French toast. I was lying about that, too, because I’m in the minority. Apparently, when it snows, the only thing people in Oklahoma can think about is their precious French toast. Although when I wander over to the baking aisle, I see no one has bothered to snatch up all the vanilla extract. Maybe people around here don’t make French toast with vanilla extract. They probably chicken fry it. (Actually my mom used to make French toast this way, by breading it. The first time I ever saw the more accepted recipe I had no idea what the hell it was.)
Anyway I do pick up plenty of other grocery items, like a ribeye steak and a package of chicken breasts and some ground turkey. In fact the entire meat section is fully stocked. Apparently no one feels like consuming protein when it’s cold outside. Just comforting, insulating carbs to help them stay warm inside their climate-controlled homes. I also grab some Yukon Gold potatoes, which are all that’s left of the potatoes, even though Yukon Golds taste better than the others. I always wondered why the store shelves the better-tasting potatoes over here in the corner and places the bland, bestselling Russets out front where everyone can find them. I suppose Russet pays a premium for those high traffic areas.
While I’m in line to pay for my precious groceries, some guy with an earnest voice gets on the PA system and announces that a batch of fresh French bread is now available in the bakery. No less than ten people sacrifice their places in line upon hearing the news. I can’t help but picture them at some later time, standing in their kitchens, slicing these loaves into little pieces, struggling with full-size lunch meats, frustrated at their incongruous sandwiches, at the injustice of it all.
What’s really funny is next door to the grocery store is a bakery. I pass this bakery on the way to the liquor store. When I go inside, the bakery is so full of bread you would think the loaves were self-replicating. They have every kind of bread you can imagine in there. I don’t understand why they don’t put some guy outside with a megaphone yelling, “FORGET ABOUT THE BLUEBERRY BREAKFAST BREAD. WE’RE SELLING REAL BREAD WE BAKED JUST NOW, YOU MYOPIC FOOLS.” On the other hand, the bakery doesn’t have very good signage. I didn’t know it was here until six months ago, and I’ve lived nearby for almost eleven years.
Some of you are already aware that I made this trip to the grocery store on foot. The reason for this is because unlike a lot of these idiots, I live in a neighborhood with curvy streets and steep hills. When it snows a lot, or when there’s ice, I literally cannot drive up my street. Which is fine by me. When storms approach, I buy plenty of groceries in advance and plan to be stranded. I pretend like I’m camping. It’s fun. In fact the only reason I walked to the store at all is because I was bored, and because I wanted to eat a steak and enjoy a few cocktails while I watched the Super Bowl. But that doesn’t stop people, when they realize I’m walking to the store, from making brilliant comments like “I bet you wish you had a four-wheel drive truck right now!”
I get cabin fever like anyone does. Of course I do. But just because I’m cooped up in my house for a week doesn’t mean I wish I had leased a different vehicle for 36 months. 36 months equals 1,095 days, unless one of them is a leap month, in which case it equals 1096 days. I’m stranded at my house because of the weather for maybe ten of those days. That’s less than one percent of the time. I have nothing against SUVs and pickup trucks (that’s not true, I hate them), and I don’t mind if someone else wants to own one, but why on earth would I? I see these guys proudly driving around in their boxes on wheels, and for a moment I believe I’m telepathic, because I can actually hear their thoughts. You know what they’re thinking? They’re thinking, “Look at me! Today I put the truck in four-wheel drive! I’m a badass!”
But you know what? I can’t really make fun of that. The reason I can’t is because my car gets about the same gas mileage as a pickup or an SUV. Honestly I should be ashamed of myself. Whether or not the typical owner makes use of it, a pickup at least possesses the potential for utility. My car can make no such claim. In order to build a V6 engine with more than 300 horsepower, some concessions must be made, including fuel economy. But fuck it. I need that power. My car can hit nearly 160 mph, and that’s something I do on a daily basis: drive 100 mph over the speed limit. Why on earth would I go anywhere if I couldn’t do it at 160 miles per hour?
I could summarize this by declaring that people behave strangely. But that really isn’t true. What’s true is people behave differently than you expect them to or want them to. You think it’s silly that some people stock up on bread and milk and eggs before a big snowstorm, but they think you’re stupid for living in a hilly neighborhood when you don’t own a four-wheel drive vehicle. You think they’re wrong for living in an old, drafty house cursed with exposed pipes that freeze every time it gets cold, and they think you’re soulless because you live in a new house that possesses no character. You think they should dress with more style. They think you’re a hipster doofus.
Personally, I think everyone but me and maybe six other people in the world are idiots. But don’t be too angry with me. As I write this, it’s 4:12 in the morning, the wind chill is 15 below zero, and I’m about to go for a walk. My sister and I did this one time as kids, wandered around our snowy neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and now it’s like programming code I can’t erase. I do it every time there’s a big snowstorm. It doesn’t make any sense.
But honestly, what does?
Addendum: 5:53 AM. Just returned from walk. More than two inches of new snow since I left. Chanda, you should’ve been there. <3
January 3, 2011
My dishwasher and I have been at war for some time. This war is being waged on two fronts. On one side is my ongoing search for a bowl or plate or pot so dirty the dishwasher cannot clean it, but so far I’ve found nothing, including a recent plate coated with the super glue residue of leftover fried eggs. The other battle is a certain steak knife I’ve run through the wash at least five straight times. There is a bit of unrecognizable debris stuck to the tip of the blade that no amount of hot water and dish detergent will dislodge. I could easily scrape the debris off with a fingernail but that would be like conceding defeat. This is a ridiculous war because the dishwasher obviously possesses the horsepower to clean any dish it wants but refuses to acknowledge the steak knife. I think it’s mocking me.
* * *
I don’t watch a lot of television, and I don’t have cable, so the only way I get national news is to read it on the Internet. But I don’t even do that as often as I probably should. I’m too busy looking for that little red alert on Facebook that tells you when someone leaves a comment or sends you a message. Other sites I read with regularity are this one and DamnYouAutocorrect.com. But that’s not what this is about. This is about everyone sitting around watching cable news all day and then complaining how everything is wrong with America. The thing about America is there is so little wrong with it that we have the luxury of watching theater disguised as news and then complaining about how put upon we are. Of course what’s wrong depends on which network you watch. None of them can agree what’s wrong, only that something definitely is. The cable news networks also seem to agree they should compose theme songs for important news stories. Can you imagine being a musician who makes a living this way? Hey, Mutt! We need a quick ten second theme to introduce the war in Afghanistan. Can you whip up something by nine? But Mutt is expensive, and so are satellite trucks, so the way networks pay for their broadcasts is with prescription drug commercials. These advertisements are invariably more interesting than the news itself because they, a) suggest you diagnose yourself with an illness, and b) consume most of their precious air time warning you about side effects. Like this pill will stop you from peeing so often, but you also might shit out of your ears or die or see the future. Whose bright idea was it to put the lay public in charge of prescribing drugs to themselves? Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand this logic?
* * *
In downtown Memphis, moments after I emerge from the hotel, a man approaches me and begins to chat. It’s nine-thirty at night. I’m starving. The friendly fellows quickly ascertains I’m looking for a restaurant, away from the tourists, and helps me locate one. I know this game but pretend like I don’t. We talk all the way to the restaurant. He learns I’m a writer and promises to visit my web site and send me an email. I learn he has a “fifteen-mile walk home in the rain.” When I inquire about a potential bus fare, the amount he quotes is about the same as one of the vodka-laced Red Bulls I will consume with dinner. This sounds like a fair investment to me, so I give him the bus fare and go inside.
The restaurant isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough. There’s a bar, a few tables, and a stage where a live jazz band is preparing to play. The crowd is mainly young professionals, dressed a lot like me, having drinks and watching the local pro basketball team on flat screen televisions. I sit down and order a drink and a burger, and while I wait for my order to arrive I send flirty text messages on my iPhone. The band is decent and I snap a few pictures and text those, too. Eventually a girl walks up to the bar and stands next to me. I realize she’s the same blonde I noticed earlier at an adjacent table. She just stands there, drinking water, and I realize she expects me to say something to her. So I do, and when the girl turns to me I can see she is very pretty, like model pretty. She tells me about her job, about how she doesn’t like it, and asks where I’m from. I keep looking back at the table behind us because I’m pretty sure that guy over there in the pink shirt is her boyfriend. It could also be the guy in the suit, but my bet’s on Pink. I’ve got a nice buzz, and I should be feeling happy, but instead I’m confused. Why is this petite supermodel chick talking to me where Pink can clearly see her? And why am I pretending to care about her boring job? I’m texting someone who isn’t here and occasionally being chatted by someone who is, who apparently doesn’t want to talk to her boyfriend, and everything seems absurd to me. I’m listening to jazz music in a Memphis bar, and though it’s pretty good music I start to think how odd it is to be sitting in bar full of locals, listening to a band play jazz because they sort of have to, being in Memphis, like I’m watching all these actors play their parts. When the blonde and I run out of things to talk about, she wanders back over to her boyfriend and the rest of their group, and I turn my attention to the television. Occasionally my phone buzzes, and the conversation moves forward, albeit glacially, and I wonder if my text buddy were here in person, would we be on our phones talking to other people who were not here?
The guy who directed me to the restaurant never sends an email.
* * *
On the interstate, on the way home, I listen to stand up comedians to distract myself from the reality of a six-hour drive. I listen to music. I wonder what draws us to listen to music, to these same melodic rhythms again and again. Sometimes music evokes emotion in us, sometimes it inspires us, but very often we listen simply because we cannot bear the silence. On a normal day you might be working in a cubicle or in your living room, your hours might be filled with the concerns of other human beings, and time flies by with little knowledge of its passing. But when you’re on the road you’ve got nothing but six hours of asphalt and tractor trailers and drivers who won’t get out of the left lane, and suddenly the hours assert themselves. They become worlds, planet-sized, immensity so great you can barely detect their curvature. Which is why you distract yourself with pleasing melodies and rhythms, drumbeats that count off the many moments so you might forget about them.
And you wonder if maybe that’s what you’re really doing every day. Distracting yourself.
* * *
If our bodies are electrochemical machines, the core programming code instructs us to survive long enough to engineer successful offspring. But human minds, perhaps uniquely, possess the ability to override genetic commands. We use latex or hormones to defy industrious little swimmers. But to what end? For some, bearing children is the next, obvious step in their forward-marching journey. Others give no thought to the gravity of bringing life into the world. And maybe a few of us, consciously or not, look at parenthood as a concession of defeat, just one more reminder of the meaningless void. Maybe we see those smiling baby faces as the army that will eventually defeat us.
* * *
In the end, though music may often be a distraction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you hear a melody so beautiful you are compelled to stop the forward march and give yourself fully to the moment directly in front of you. Sometimes you make perfect contact with the golf ball and launch it four-and-one-half football fields into the distance. One day your first novel sells and the only response you can think of is to cry. Another day your eight-year old niece calls you on video chat and you read her a bedtime story over the Internet tubes.
If that smiling face is the beginning of military occupation, it’s certainly difficult to resist.
* * *
Today I ran the dishwasher. This time the blade of the steak knife emerged clean, pristine, like it was brand new all over again. I don’t know if it matters or not, but I won that battle.
December 7, 2010
The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.
We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.
This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.
Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.
Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.
If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.
You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.
Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.
It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?
Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.
In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.
That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.
November 2, 2010
Imagine you’re an 18 year-old bloke born and raised in Sheffield, England. You’ve just finished high school, have no plans for university, and are trying to figure out what to do with your life. There aren’t many apparent options. Sheffield is a gray, aging steel town, and if you don’t think of something else you’re going to end up working in a factory. Or maybe not, because the local economy is shit and a lot of the steel mills are closing.
The one thing you have going for you is you’re an aspiring musician. One day you miss a bus and find yourself talking to another chap who’s in a band. He invites you to audition. You’re thrilled at the prospect of joining an actual band, and you want to play guitar, but it’s clear your skills aren’t quite up to the task. Or at least not playing an instrument. To your surprise the band asks you to become their lead singer, which at that point is the greatest moment of your life.
A few months later your band adds another guitarist and pretty soon the five of you are rehearsing in an abandoned spoon factory. You feel like you’re pretty good, especially for a bunch of kids just out of high school. You borrow some money from your parents and record an EP and to your surprise, a famous BBC DJ plays it often. Within a year you’re approached by a major record label, and just like that, you’re a professional musician.
You’re taken to Ringo Starr’s house to record your first album, where you bathe in alcohol and complete a record in a mere 18 days. In months you’re invited to the United States to tour with one of the most popular bands in the world. You’re voted the best new band of the year by a rock magazine you actually read. And just when you think life couldn’t possibly get better, you’re approached by a famous record producer, who offers to help with your second album.You wonder what you did to deserve all this success. You certainly were never asked to pay any dues.
Your second album isn’t as easy to record as the first. The new producer is more demanding than the last. He teaches you to sing better and your band mates to play their instruments better. The recording takes three months, which feels like an eternity compared to the first, but when you’re done you realize you don’t like the first album anymore. The new one sounds polished, like a real band made it.
And the album sells better than the last, but not nearly as well as you hope. And if you can’t create a great record with the best producer alive, maybe you just don’t have the talent. You keep touring with some of the world’s best known rock outfits, and you put on good shows, but maybe your own material is just not good enough to push you to the next level.
But you’ve always been a band on whom Lady Luck can’t help but smile, and soon enough it happens again. The famous music producer makes you a deal, one worthy of Faust. Turn yourself over to me, he says. Give me complete control of your next album. Let me help you write it. I want to change the way rock albums are recorded, and I want to do it with you guys. You aren’t going to like it, because it’s a painstaking process. But if you trust me, I’ll make you the biggest band in the world.
What would you say to something like that? You’ve come so far from Sheffield, and you’ve had a lot of fun, but what you really want is what everyone wants: money, sold-out arenas, international fame. Here’s a guy who claims he can give it to you. He’s done it before. Do you trust him? Of course you do.
But you have no idea at the time what such a deal really entails. That having everything you want in the world might still not be enough.
First of all, the producer doesn’t want you to write songs in the typical way. He wants you and your band mates to spend hours just brainstorming guitar riffs. And when one of you thinks of something good, the producer won’t record it in the regular way. Play it one string at a time, he says, and we’ll construct the chord electronically, using multi-track tapes. You feel like a fool and you wonder if the genius producer has lost his mind.
You spend months and months recording, playing and singing to a drum machine, because your human drummer can’t keep proper time. Not when you are building songs one millisecond after another. Six months go by and you haven’t finished a single track in its entirety. Your voice is worn out from screaming the same lyrics over and over, in a register well above your comfort level. What ends up on tape are hundreds of guitars and vocal tracks, what a rock orchestra might sound like. And since the producer doesn’t like the background vocals of the other band members, he records most of those himself. Is the guy even human?
But at the end it all comes together. A year after you begin—a full year this time—you have completed an album. Forty-five minutes of polished hard rock that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s somehow dense like Boston with an edge like AC/DC. You find it difficult to believe a couple thousand hours in the studio, recording music in a way you don’t really understand, is this album. But the producer has done exactly what he said he would do.
And when it’s released, the album is nothing short of a commercial sensation.It sells in excess of 100,000 copies every week for nearly the entire calendar year and turns you into a household name. It moves six million units, and you play the United States in support of it, ending your tour in front of a stadium of 55,000 fans screaming your name. A Gallup poll conducted the next year names you the most popular rock band in America. All this, you think, in exchange for turning your creative reins over to a famous producer. Did you make the right choice? Is that even a question?
Now all you have to do, to prove your success wasn’t a fluke, is sit down and record another album. It should be easy enough with the genius on your side, right?
Except a few months into writing, tragedy strikes. Your drummer gets into a bad car accident, and his injuries are so severe that he loses his left arm. For a while you do nothing but console your friend, who assumes his new life as a rock star is over forever. When he cries every day and falls into depression, you don’t imagine one day his lost arm will become a joke to music fans everywhere.
Around the same time, your genius producer tells you he won’t be available to produce the next album. So now you have no drummer and no producer, and the previous album, so miraculous when you first heard it, has become a burden. You don’t know how to make another one that sounds like it. You’re totally lost. Two years and two producers later, you’ve got nothing on tape worth keeping, and you must surely wonder if you really have talent or ever had talent.
To help cheer up your depressed drummer, the two of you sit down one day with a couple of engineers to draw up an electronic kit that could conceivably be played with one arm. While your drummer attempts to figure this out, the genius producer finally returns and decides to help you finish the album. Suddenly everything in the world is right again…except now you’re in for another eighteen excruciating months of recording. And by the time you’re done, the costs to produce this album will prove so staggering that you’ll need to sell almost five million copies just to break even.
And there’s no guarantee it’ll sell at all, not when you’re attempting to evolve even farther away from your original hard rock audience. The updated sound sought by the genius producer uses methods at the very edge of what is technically possible at the time, methods that will eventually make their way to nearly every modern music production. But by now you’ll do whatever he says, because you weren’t able to do it on your own.
At the end of the recording sessions, finishing up the very last track, the producer hears you tinkering with the guitar during a break and asks what you’re playing. You tell him it’s just some lame idea you had, but the genius disagrees. He believes the melody you just played could become the most popular song you’ve ever written. You and the rest of the band reluctantly agree to record one more track, adding to the already astronomical costs of the album, and then, finally, you’re done. The producer disappears with the tapes you’ve given years to record and spends four months mixing them into an album. Four months. You’re not even sure what he’s doing at this point.
Still, the record proves to be a gigantic success. It takes a while, but when the important track is released (which in fact becomes your most famous song and one of the most commercially successful of all time), the album begins to sell at an astronomical rate, as many as one million copies per week. Your drummer has returned to the stage and becomes a hero. And there is a short period of time at the height of the record’s success, during your 236-show world tour, where you really are the most popular band in the world, just as you always wanted to be.
But still you’re left to wonder: Is it because of your talent? Could you have done it without the genius? After all, he never produces another of your albums, and your popularity declines markedly after he’s gone. Meanwhile, the genius’ next project (a woman who eventually becomes his wife) goes on to sell even more albums than you.
And at what cost, this commercial success? Your drummer has recovered in fantastic fashion, but a few years later one of your lead guitarists dies from a depression-related drug and alcohol overdose. And as the years wear on, the legacy of your music does not match the money you’ve earned from it. The sound you worked so hard to perfect, at the behest of the genius, is now regarded as too polished. The lyrics don’t make sense. Your voice is ruined from trying to sing notes you could barely hit in your prime, and even though you continue to play stadiums more than thirty years after your first-ever tour, the performances everyone wants to hear are the songs you recorded with the (evil) genius.
Worst of all, plenty of rock fans regard your band as a bad joke, representative of a musical decade that said too little too loudly.
So now take yourself backwards, rewind, through all the hotel rooms loaded with drugs and alcohol and naked women, through the years you spent learning from the most commercially successful music producer in history, back through the lyrics you never intended to mean anything, that you wrote in jest because you were having a laugh, because you only ever wanted to make music people could happily sing along with in their convertibles, go back to the sold-out arenas and millions of fans screaming your name, proudly wearing your famous Union Jack T-shirt, to the 24-hour music video channel you helped make famous, back to Ringo Starr’s house, to the first tiny gigs you played, back to the spoon factory, to the steel city where so many kids had no real chance for a bright future, all the way to that place on the road where you met a fellow musician only because you missed your bus.
Are you glad you missed it?
September 8, 2010
The literary world needs more essays written by men who are disenchanted with the behavior of women. Perhaps it’s only my experience, but it seems as if publishing is rife with memoirs and self-help books and online rants about how men won’t commit and can’t communicate and how chivalry has gone the way of the Dodo, whereas similarly-themed works from the male point of view are proportionally scarce.
One reason for this might be that it’s not politically correct for men to express their baldest, gender-specific feelings. Perhaps that’s why, when it occurs, the stories lean to the extreme. In his second autobiography, A View from Above, Wilt Chamberlain, a lifelong bachelor, claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women. Since this seems fairly absurd (the number calculates to nine women a week from the age of 15 until the book was published), it becomes a caricature of male desire rather than an accurate description of it. The same with books like Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and forthcoming Assholes Finish First. Max’s genius is to live and render his natural male inclination to such an extreme that it transcends any sort of serious deconstruction. The man is a consummate, admitted asshole and womanizer. His stories are funny to the frat boy and above discussion by intelligent women everywhere, right? Most men aren’t anything like him.
What if the more accurate claim is that most men aren’t like the above examples because they simply aren’t afforded the same opportunities? How often have you heard someone make an argument like, Well, he’s a rock star. Of course he’s going to sleep around with all those women after him.? The same for athletes and politicians and movie stars. We expect them to live the life of the alpha male because they’ve earned it, have they not? Even the local “player” who frequents the martini bar earns a certain reputation for having the look or the silver tongue to talk a girl out of her panties. And many women, we all know, are attracted to this sort of appeal. They don’t necessarily want to marry the guy…but they might. If they could be the one to tame him, they’d actually love to land someone like that.
In any case, stories about men spreading their seed aren’t even what I mean. Where are the books written by men who are tired of women being so indecisive? Who are sick of being dragged into pointless arguments? Why is it okay for you to want to tie us down but it’s not okay for us to lack commitment? Both of these desires arise from biological urges. What makes yours more proper than ours? Because you have abandonment issues? Well, we men happen to have abandoningissues. It comes with the core programming, the same as yours.
Or so a man might argue if he just had the balls. To admit that you’re a regular guy who is kind to most people, including women, but you still have an occasional (or even constant) desire to sleep around…well, that just doesn’t compute. In fact, the men who appeal the least to women are often those who say the most sensitive things. I would never treat a woman that way. Women are unique and beautiful creatures who deserve my full attention. I only want to have sex with one! My soul mate! Women, you know these men. You probably call them boys. He’s such a nice boy, isn’t he? But he isn’t the one who makes your engine run, is he?
Of course women sometimes want different things depending on where they are in life. In their 20s they may only have eyes for the panty-droppers. But sensitive men, have patience: These same women in their 30s may very well come looking for you. Or just get yourself a copy ofThe Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
I suppose you don’t see more men writing books about their problems with women because, frankly, it’s unbecoming. For all their feminist posturing, most women I know still want a man to be strong for them, to be the unmovable rock against the powerful and fluid current of their emotions. Women want to feel secure and special and loved; they want to know that no matter how many activities and friends and hobbies you enjoy, they remain the most important thing in your life.
And you know what, ladies? There’s a guy out there who wants to give that to you. Probably a few of them. It may take a while to find him, because close matches are hard to come by, but eventually you will. All you have to do—from our point of view, anyway—is lower your guard a little and be willing to accept that not every relationship you enter will be “the one.” Nothing turns a guy away faster than the instant reach for “soul mate” status. A burgeoning relationship is an interview, not a love story. At least not to us. Not yet.
But in the end, most of us want the fairy tale as much as you do. We realize the value in a long-term partnership with someone who sees the world in a way familiar only to the two of us. Just because we imagine ourselves sleeping with every hot woman in the world doesn’t mean we will actually attempt to do so.
Especially not as we lie in bed, smelling your sweet skin, listening to you breathe, your warm body asleep in our arms.
After all, this is the only time you stop talking.