50 Foot Wave, “Sally is a Girl”
If you follow this blog, you’ve probably gathered that I don’t listen to much loud music. (That is, music that is performed loudly—I’m very happy to turn softly performed music up to to a loud volume.) I don’t think this has to do with age, though in general I’ve trended toward whisperiness and finger-picking as the years go by. Loud music has always kind of scared me. So I’m a little surprised by how much I love 50 Foot Wave, who are extremely loud but not scary. The band is made up of two-thirds of Throwing Muses, who play medium to medium-loud, and its singer is Kristin Hersh, whose solo work is generally on the quiet side, but no less intense for that. I’ve been a long-time listener of both, but my feeling toward 50 Foot Wave is more than just brand loyalty. The band records sporadically—they’ve released four EPs since forming in 2003, and you can download them all for free, here. (A fifth, called With Love From the Men’s Room, is supposed to come out later this year.) My pattern of music consumption usually follows this arc: acquire, play for a season or two, retire, let another few seasons pass, rediscover, play for a week, retire, let a year pass, repeat. I have an iPod with a dainty memory, so I’m always having to rotate songs on and off. Not 50 Foot Wave songs, though; they’re on there all the time. And when one comes up in the shuffle, I am happy. And as the song proceeds, I feel like my guts are being wrung like a wet washcloth, and that feels great. Because you go about your day-to-day, and mostly things are good, and every so often they’re much better than good, but there’s a little tedium in there, and a fair amount of worry, and a lot of having to keep your soul in line, so that a part of you wants to break out, to explode. Not explode with anger or anguish, or even joy; there isn’t necessarily an emotional shading to it; but just a self-transcending explosion, all over the universe. And not just at certain times, when things are, for whatever reason, particularly trying. The part of you that wants to explode is there all the time, kept in check. And 50 Foot Wave songs are, for me, little detonators.
Last weekend I saw Kristin speak on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival titled “Culture Vs. Cash,” about how musicians might support themselves now that the record industry is in tatters. Kristin read a very funny excerpt from her new memoir, Rat Girl, and then answered some questions from the moderator and members of the audience. I’m paraphrasing, because I’m working from memory, but some of the things she said in response to queries about the conflict between making art and making money were: Don’t try to get famous, just try to get good at what you do, because in order to become famous, you probably have to suck at least a little. Having a day job that you do to support your artistic life is an honorable thing. Ambition (to do more than just excel at your art) is suspect. Kristin said she sometimes plays “house shows” for … I want to say fans, but she’s careful to draw a distinction between fans and listeners, the first being people who latch onto your music because it’s the hot thing and move on just as quickly, the second being people who absorb what you’re doing and give it careful consideration and appreciation over a period of time. At these shows, listeners get together at one person’s home to hear her perform, and she’s struck by how many of the people who show up are musicians who subsist in small communities, who play for and support each other, and by what an ideal situation this can be.
I thought afterward how much of this could be applied to writing, or to any art form. Especially the not-thinking-about-fame part. Because the truth is that ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to be famous. After all, is this not America? I used to watch television and imagine that I was cast in a sitcom as a smart-alecky adopted orphan, the kind who used to show up in the fourth or fifth season, when the ratings were going south. (Why such a marginal part? Why not a starring role? Why not my own show?: To be saved for a future therapy session.) The particulars changed over time, but the fantasy never went away. At the bottom of my mental list of things to do over the course of my life, right beneath “Travel a lot” and “Be good to other people” and “Read all of Dickens” and “Dress better,” is written, in invisible ink, “Get famous.” To be known and loved by everyone! It always seemed like a great idea. But as I’ve grown older and watched some friends gain fame, I see that it can also become loaded with problems. It’s not like fame has been banging on my door, begging to be let in, but lately I’ve taken up the slow process of crossing out that particular bullet point. And, really, everything’s fine without it. Family, friends, a close partner, a dog who does a crazy dance every time you walk in the door—that’s famous enough.
I’ve listened to “Sally is a Girl” countless times, but only this morning did I look up the lyrics, on one of those shifty-looking lyrics websites. The last lines are “I’m Rose Marie/A boy/But Sally is a girl.” Some further research turned up, delightfully, that these lines and the title are a reference to this episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.