Archive for June 2010
I have a bookmark folder where I keep a lot of videos that I’d like to put on Earworms but haven’t yet, mainly because I haven’t figured out what I want to say about them. In that folder are links to these two Barbara Lewis videos. I’ve watched them back to back about ten times, trying to decide which to post. Each is perfect, and I can never decide, so I defer the decision until later. It just occurred to me that I could post both at once. It looks like they’re both from the same TV show anyway.
I love this video because it’s funny, but also because it’s incredibly sexy. Is there something I don’t know about when people hold their guitars high up? Why is that hot?
Kate Bush originally wanted to write a song that compiled excerpts from Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from Ulysses, but the Joyce estate stepped in and put the kibosh on the idea. So she wrote this, which is a kind of paraphrasing, and close enough. Happy Bloomsday!
The beginning of my freshman year of college dovetailed with the release of the first Jesus and Mary Chain album, Psychocandy, and it felt like the answer to my prayers: music that was raucous enough to validate the punky look I was going for but melodic enough that I could actually stand behind it. The band’s name was mildly blasphemous—when someone asked what music I liked, it was the name I said first, and if my interlocutor hadn’t already heard it he or she usually raised their eyebrows. The members of the Jesus and Mary Chain wore black clothes and dark sunglasses, the style that I most emulated. The clothes were hard to do—most American shops were still filled with Day-Glo colors in 1985—but with a bottle of Paul Mitchell spray my mom didn’t want I was able to train my hair into a little mushroom cloud, the way they did. I wrote the band’s name in pen on the outsole of one of my Converse Hi-Tops. (I don’t remember what I wrote on the other—The Three O’Clock, probably, but that’s another blog post.)
In October or November of that year, my friends Mike and Joel and I got tickets to see the Jesus and Mary Chain at the Channel, a rock club by the Boston waterfront. Mike told us details he had read about the band’s live shows: that they didn’t speak but turned their backs to the audience, that the music was ungodly loud and brain-searingly feedback-drenched, that they played a twenty-five minute set. And as it turned out that was pretty much the size of it, although, in the band’s defense, they only had written about twelve songs or so, and most clocked in at around two minutes, so there wasn’t much else they could do. Still, I was crazy about them. This memory just came back to me and makes me cringe: At the end of my freshman year, in the middle of finals, I went to Newbury Comics and saw this super-huge and amazingly cool Jesus and Mary Chain poster that I desperately wanted. I didn’t have enough money, though, and I was afraid they would sell out of this poster—I was always telling myself that if I didn’t get some coveted object right then and there, it would sell out. And this particular poster had come from England! I took a couple of textbooks for a class whose exam I had not yet taken and still needed to study for and sold them back to the school bookstore, just so I would could have enough cash buy the poster. No, I didn’t do so well on that test, but it was for a science class, so it’s doubtful I would have performed much better with the textbooks.
The next year the band’s less feedbacky second album, Darklands, came out. I bought it, I liked it a whole lot, and then I lost interest in them. I didn’t buy their later ’90s albums. I heard one more great single, “Sometimes Always,” a duet with Mazzy Star’s singer Hope Sandoval, which got a lot of play on the radio, and there may have been other great Jesus and Mary Chain singles around this time. But the group was pretty much done for me. I frequently go back to music from that period of my life, but theirs has survived the least well. Jesus and Mary Chain songs were catchy and often breathtaking, and they had the power to get under your skin, but they couldn’t really get to your soul. They ran through their tropes—girls, drugs, sex, candy, death, darkness—in three minutes, singing in low, ominous tones, and none of it was remotely scary, which is probably why I was able to like it. (I don’t handle scary so well.)
I was thinking about the band the other day, and intended to write an atypically disparaging post—Earworms comes not to bury but to praise. Then I watched these videos, and realized that I was missing the point, or part of the point, of the Jesus and Mary Chain. It was only somewhat about the music. It was also about how pretty they were. It’s no surprise that I don’t get the same rush listening to their records that I once did, because when I’m just listening I’m not getting any visuals. In the “Just Like Honey” video, they pose like male models in one of those pretty-boy short films Bruce Weber occasionally makes to promote clothes or perfume. In the Anton Corbijnesque “Sometimes Always” clip, the Reid brothers wear cowboy hats and stagger drunkenly around the Southwest. Seeing their videos, and how great they look with their pouty lips and tight pants and translucent skin, I think that the music sounds better, and now I like them again. As often happens with music, a lot has to do with the package, and with the Jesus and Mary Chain, the package was great.
We didn’t come to New York much when I was growing up, even though we only lived a two-hour train ride away—it was the 1970s and the Bronx was burning. But one of my earliest memories is of a day trip to the city with my parents, to visit my dad’s friend Tom, when I was about three or four years old. My father and Tom had served together in World War II and had kept in intermittent touch since. They were now in their late forties. Tom lived in suburban Long Island and ran a hair salon in Manhattan; on that trip, he styled my mother’s hair, probably in the pixie cut she wore during those years. Afterward, we all went to lunch at a busy restaurant with wood-paneled walls. For most of my life I believed I had imagined this part—that we sat down to eat in chairs with individual tray tables across our laps, like babies. I thought I must have projected my own recent state of high-chair captivity onto the adults in our party. Then one day a couple of years ago I met my friend Suzy for lunch. She wanted to go to a midtown diner called Prime Burger. I was hesitant, because I’m a vegetarian and I find most diners tired and dispiriting, but she was about to leave for Turkey for two years, and I let her choose. You can get a grilled cheese sandwich, she said. When we walked in, I realized it was the same place I had been nearly four decades earlier. The chairs with the tray tables were there, and Suzy and I sat in them, and I was happy to have the mystery solved, but of course something was missing—my parents still in early middle age; my mother’s new hairdo; the prospect of a visit later that day to the Central Park Zoo; the high, good humor of my father and Tom’s friendship in the middle of a big, threatening, promising city.
My dad lost touch with Tom, though he still mentioned him when he reminisced about his war experiences, which he did more frequently as he aged. One day, after I was grown up and had moved to New York, my father asked me to help him find his old friend. With the Internet, I tracked down Tom in moments—he still lived in Long Island, in a town whose name my father remembered. They reconnected by phone, and my dad was pleased to be in touch again. For a while, they spoke every few months. One spring I invited my parents down for a weekend in the city, and I planned a brunch at my apartment so they could meet a few of our close friends. My father invited Tom, who drove in from Long Island, and Tom and my parents had a brief, affectionate reunion that moved the rest of us deeply.
Over the next few years they continued speaking by phone and exchanging e-mails. And then one day Tom was gone. My father called and a message said the number had been disconnected. He sent an e-mail and no reply came. I stepped in to help again. I called Long Island families with the same last name, but no one knew Tom. I sent messages to people on Facebook with the same names as Tom’s children, but they turned out to be unrelated. I punched Tom’s address into Google and zoomed in to look at the satellite photo of the top of his house, but of course I couldn’t tell if Tom was in there. After a while we stopped searching. “He had had heart surgery,” my father said. “I think something must have happened to him.” I tried to keep alive the hope that Tom was somewhere, that life didn’t end—perhaps, I said, he had moved to a nursing home. But of course the most likely thing is that Tom died, and none of his relatives knew to contact my dad, or cared that much. At the end of our spring brunch, Tom, who was slender—he and his wife ballroom-danced—poked my father affectionately in the belly. “I want you to lose this,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself.” But now, from that day, only a few years ago, Tom probably gone, my mom gone.
Last night I had a jolly dinner with five friends with whom I worked at a bookstore in the early ’90s. One I hadn’t seen in seventeen years; another I see every few weeks; the others, somewhere in between. We had organized the reunion through Facebook. Facebook! Say what you will about it, but it’s allowed me to get back in touch with, and stay in some kind of contact with, friends from every period of my life. Not too long ago I was friended by one of my very first friends from second grade, and we had a brief exchange of messages in which we remembered playing together one afternoon on the swing set in my childhood backyard, back before they called them “play dates.” Now our lives progress in parallel, hers on my News Feed, mine on hers. We may not get much closer than that. But that’s fine—I just want to keep track of everyone I’ve cared about, a luxury my parents’ generation didn’t always have.
Photo by Adam Kuban.
This time of year I’m fairly obsessed with greenmarket strawberries. The strawberry season doesn’t last long—roughly the month of June, with a brief late-summer resurgence at the larger Manhattan greenmarkets. While it’s happening, though, I can’t get enough strawberries. On Saturday mornings I walk a mile to the market at Grand Army Plaza to find a sea of green fuzzy-paper baskets with their little jewel-like holdings, and I usually can’t resist buying two full quarts—more than we can eat before they start to get a little mushy. We eat them on Shredded Wheat ‘n’ Bran in the morning, and on Stonyfield Farms vanilla ice cream at night, and then they’re gone by Monday. That leaves four days without fresh, local strawberries. How to get through the week? Meanwhile, the season flies by, and all the strawberries are being eaten up by other people.
Yesterday I remembered that on Wednesdays there’s a little four-stand greenmarket in Windsor Terrace, a few blocks from our house in the other direction. This morning I went for a run around Prospect Park; I planned my route so I could stop and buy strawberries on the way home. Before I left I gathered all the cash in the house: two singles from my wallet, one from Caleb’s, a handful of quarters. Enough, I thought, for a pint. I stuffed it all in the little zip-up pocket in the back of my running shorts, and then had the world’s most annoying run. The coins jingled all the way around the park. I stopped and tried to fold up the quarters inside the bills, but they just slipped out a moment later. I sounded like a dog with tin cans tied to its tail. On the plus side, I did see an actual dog, a miniature collie, riding in a bicycle basket on the way to a romp during the park’s early morning off-leash hours.
When I got to the greenmarket, they only had quarts, which were $7, and I ran the rest of the way home strawberryless and bereft. I topped my cereal with some olden banana. You berry eaters don’t know how lucky you had it today.
Back in 1989, Liza Minnelli recorded an album with the Pet Shop Boys called Results. I had seen Cabaret and Arthur on TV, and my mom would sometimes recite the Garland-Minnelli-Luft genealogy, but I wasn’t a Liza Minnelli fan or listener. I was pretty religious about the Pet Shop Boys, though, at the level of buying anything they were associated with, so I bought Results, and it was pretty good, a little show-tuney but fun. The album was approached by the culture—and, by extension, me—as something not quite serious. The joke was, “Look! A hip crossover post-new-wave duo resurrects the career of a hopelessly old fossil parents like.”
I was thinking of this record the other day after reading the reviews of Sex and the City 2, which described a musical number in the film where Liza performs “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” at a gay wedding. This is also a joke: “Look! A hopelessly old fossil with a checkered marital history performs a massively popular Beyoncé song young people like.” Alarm bells went off in my head, and I went to Wikipedia and did some quick math, which revealed that the joke has turned its serpent-head in my direction. Back in 1989, the first time I thought Liza was a hopelessly old fossil, she was only 43, a year older than I am. Soon I shall wear my trousers rolled. Meanwhile, poor Liza can’t catch a break, then or now.
One fall evening back in the late 1990s I boarded a Manhattan-bound subway train at the Carroll Street station in Brooklyn. The stop was near a friend’s apartment, where I was staying for a few months in a tiny room while I looked for a new place to live. The train rattled towards town until, somewhere under the East River, the emergency brakes were activated and we jerked to a halt. New Yorkers know how this goes. The ventilation fans switch off and the car becomes very still; the lights dim and then brighten. Time slows to a crawl. The passengers look around, huff, check their watches, shake their heads. The few announcements that come over the loudspeakers are unintelligible. This had happened to me before, and it’s happened to me since, but on this particular night, I became intensely agitated. I wanted to leave, to exercise my freedom as a person with two legs to go wherever I wanted, and I couldn’t. It felt like being buried alive. After about fifteen minutes, MTA track workers slithered past the windows in the narrow space between the car and the tunnel wall, trying to determine what the train had run over, and I knew we’d be there for a while. It was then I started to panic. Heart racing, throat dry, cold fear coursing through the brain.
I was already in a pretty tender place. I had just left a long-term relationship, which meant moving out of my apartment. I had also recently quit a full-time job in the hope that I might make a living as a freelance writer, and it wasn’t working out all that well. I began seeing someone new, but the relationship was a mess from the start, and later on the evening that the train got stuck, after meeting him a half-hour late at Film Forum and sitting through Cindy Sherman’s dreadful movie Office Killer, he told me that he didn’t want a boyfriend, thanks. I rode back to Brooklyn that night without any problem, but something about the subway incident—something about being trapped in a place I didn’t want to be—scared the hell out of me, because the next day I couldn’t ride the subway anymore. I boarded my train at Carroll Street and immediately felt the same panic sensations; I got out at the next station and raced upstairs like I had just been released from prison, and took a cab to wherever I was going. For the next few months I refused to have anything to do with the New York subway system.
This wasn’t easy because, unless you’re very rich, you can’t really go anywhere in New York without using the subway. I somehow had to get to my few-days-a-week copyediting job in Manhattan, where I sat at a long table and mostly spent the day filling the other copyeditors’ ears with my despair over my recent breakups. I relocated my suitcase full of clothes and books and CDs to the home of another friend who lived in the East Village, mainly so I could walk to the office. I began to walk everywhere. All the walking made me very thin, and my ribs started to show. When I had to go somewhere farther than I could walk, I took a taxi, even though I didn’t have much money, or I took the bus, which wasn’t so bad, I used to say, as long as I added a few hours to my travel time.
My phobia started to spread, until I became afraid of most enclosed spaces. Elevators made me nervous, though they moved so fast I didn’t have time to get too panicked. The holidays came—I would normally be taking a bus upstate to visit my parents. But the bus went through the Lincoln Tunnel, and to be stuck there, even for a few moments, seemed unimaginable. So I rented a car to drive home, but then I became anxious about the prospect of steering through the partially sheltered section of FDR Drive underneath the United Nations. And even a bridge was confining; you could become trapped in traffic, high up on a thin strip of road suspended above water. Of course, my world became somewhat circumscribed. One of my editors wanted me to do some extra reporting for a story I had filed months before, pre-phobia, which would have required me to go out to Brighton Beach. I was too ashamed to say why I couldn’t do this, and had to flat-out refuse, which made her understandably angry.
In the new year I found an apartment share in the Village and a new job in midtown, and my life seemed to be getting a little better. Still, I traveled the distance between home and work by bus or foot. On the first day of spring, I met Caleb. We started seeing each other, and I didn’t want him to think I was a head case. He lived near Columbia University, and after a few 113-block taxi rides, which began to make him wonder (“Why don’t you just take the train? It’s right around the corner. It doesn’t take that long to get back downtown,” etc.), I realized that I had to make my peace with the subway and its terrible claustrophobia-inducing ways.
A friend recommended that I try distracting myself. One morning I walked down the stairs of the 8th Street N/R station with my Walkman and a tape, on the first side of which I had recorded the Spinanes’ then-new album, Arches and Aisles. The train pulled into the station. I stepped on and pressed the “play” button and this song, the first one on the tape, came through my headphones; the song had forward motion in it, and wide open spaces. We started to move. The voice of Rebecca Gates—the voice I miss the most, for she hasn’t released an album in nine years—was confident and calming, and I realized that everything was okay, I was going to be safe. There were empty seats in the car, but I didn’t take one. I stood up, and did the little surfing thing you do on the subway, where you wobble back and forth but find your center of gravity so you can stay upright. The stations went by, one after another, and I was fine, I could have stayed on that train all day.