Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Thursday, April 12, 2007

What I'm currently obsessing over

1. The Mountain Goats

While I was in Boston rehearsing for the life-disrupting upheaveal that was to be my first (and, as of this writing, so far my only tour), I was riding in a van with some co-workers. The radio was on, and I heard a song that stopped me dead. Those who know me well, know that I have, at the best of times, difficulty staying focused when there are good songs playing. I should say, rather, songs of any kind. Any music at all, actually. Muzak. Somebody whistling as they wander past. But really good music, and I am worthless. I tune out everything else, and listen only to the sound. So this song came on, a voice that sounded like it came from the depths of the past, lyrics that resonated perfectly with what I was going through. The song was "Going to Georgia" by a fellow named John Darnielle, who recorded under the name of The Mountain Goats, and the lyrics went like this:

The most remarkable thing about coming home to you is the feeling of being in motion again.
It's the most extraordinary thing in the world.
I have two big hands and a heart pumping blood and a
1967 Colt 45 with a busted saftey catch

The world shines
as I cross the Macon county line
Going to Georgia

The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it's you
and that you are standing in the doorway
and you smile as you ease the gun from my hands
and I'm frozen with joy, right where I stand
The world throws it's light underneath your hair
40 miles from Atlanta this is
Going to Georgia.

The world shines
as I cross the Macon County line
Going to Georgia.

I wrote down as many words as I could remember in my notebook, driving through Boston on that rainy day in August, and waited through a good half-dozen indie-rock songs (something by blonde-redhead that didn't suck, a Billy Bragg tune that was actually Phranc), buy I couldn't care less because all I wanted to know was Who? Sang? That? Song? And finally the DJ came on and went through the list of the last 10 songs he played and I got incredibly worried because what if the title didn't match the words, and I couldn't figure out where in the play list it came? But of course the title exactly matched the word, and I went out and found every single recording of the Mountain Goats I could. He sounds like an appalachian meth-head crossed with Cormac McCarthy or something. I love the Mountain Goats, and over the last few (difficult, struggle-filled, brilliant, complicated, unhappy, aching-with-happiness) months, they have been one of a handful of things that have been my solace and my salve, calming me when I am too wound up with whatever crisis or disaster that seems to be on the horizon, getting me amped up and ready to face the next challenge. Thank you, Mountain Goats.

Truthfully, everything else has been a distant second in terms of obsession (that I'm going to talk about here, anyway), but there have been a few other things.

2. Writing songs about other people

When I found out that the majority of songs that The Mountain Goats wrote were not from his own life, but fictional, I freaked out a little. For one thing, I was actually very happy, because that meant that the man who wrote songs like "No Children" or "Family Happiness" was not (as I for a short while thought) a crazy mo-fo, but a gifted, imaginative lyricist and performer. It also meant that one didn't have to write about one's own life to write emotional, heartfelt, powerful lyrics. This was quite the revelation. Given that I had no desire to talk about my current situation until it was sorted out, both in my mind/heart and in the lives of those affected, it gave me something else to talk about. And it was much easier. The attempt to make something that spoke directly to my experience was difficult, and, in some ways, a little stifling. I mean, I've got enough experiences in the past year to make a whole mess of songs, but I don't know that I really am ready to do that, yet.

So when I was in Phoenix, ditching one of my closest friend's weddings to be with my father as he recovered from heart surgery, there was a book sale at the state fairgrounds. I went there early to get good deals, walking through residential Phoenix in the early February morning, thinking about things, feeling sorry for myself, pity for my father, etc. Finally made it to the state fairgrounds, and the book sale was in the animal exhibition hall, which, in spite of it's name, did not smell of animals at all. It was the size of an airplane hanger, and filled with tables full of books. Unfortunately, most of the good ones had been picked over the day before, but I manfully found a few books I wanted. Then, at the reference table, I found the treasures: a book of anecdotes, a dictionary of unusual and archaic words, and a book called The Book of A Thousand Things. Now, the anecdote book was simply interesting, paragraph long stories about various famous and somewhat-famous people, but the Book of a Thousand Things was even cooler. This book, written in 1943, purported to answer all sorts of questions about the world. And it was written exactly that way, in question and answer form. "What was the year without a summer?" "Does lightning make natural glass?" and crazier questions that I don't remember right now. So I've been reading these books and writing songs based on whatever I happen to find interesting in them. As it turns out, writing songs ostensibly NOT about yourself is actually a great way to talk about things that you're thinking about. I hope to have a whole album worth of material by the summer.... I'll keep you posted.

3. Boxing

Man, I don't know names, or titles, or any of that, but I am digging on watching guys beat the crap outta other guys. While I was on tour I watched, while sick as a dog, the movie Cinderella Man. The boxing sequences really got me going, and I realized I wanted to see more. It was exciting - none of this team player stuff, none of this running or dribbling or passing or excessive body armor and end zones and free throws and foul balls (most of which I really enjoy watching live, but which on TV just bores me to tears). No, this is just two guys circling a roped-in square, trying to knock each other down (but not kill - the aggression is carefully monitored. The idea is not to permanently damage each other - that wouldn't be cool at all, just cruel). Boxing is international, too, so that means when somebody says they're world champion, they're not just making it up ("World Series"? When a Japanese team is in the running with a Cuban team for the pennant, then we can call it a "World Series").

There's a couple of TV shows, too (Rome, Lost, The Tudors, BBC's Robin Hood), but you know, maybe some other time I'll obsess about that. So, back to work (yes, I'm temping again, after a brutal three months of beating my head against the audition wall looking for paid work as an actor). Enjoy.

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