021. Blow Through Me

I. WES

By the time I arrive, he’s already been waiting on the porch for a few minutes, his cigarette burned down almost to his fingertips. It’s cold outside, so I follow him into the debris of the living room, the fallout of heartbreak: beer bottles crowded on the Tibetan black-wood dresser and along the base of the couch, pair-less shoes piled in the doorway like friendly rubble, impromptu ashtrays on every open surface (jar lids, receipts, soda cans), jeans and shirts and boxers strewn in beautiful abstract patterns over the floor, not unlike the intricate mathematical scatter with which water moss grows across the face of a lake. On the loveseat, a few sweatshirts have been shaped into a lumpy pillow. The curtains are heavy and closed; the lights are as low as they’ll go.

“Sorry it’s such a wreck in here,” he says.

“Nah,” I say.

I guess it’s a wreck compared to its former form, but what’s a wrecked room to a wrecked love? Just beyond the living room, I can see the baby grand piano, too big for the tiny vestibule in which it’s housed, a shiny black meteorite in the chaos.

Wes offers me a beer, and I clear out a space on the floor where I can lean against the couch. He sits on the ground facing me, looking a little wrecked himself: stubbled and bleary and streaky. His eyes are windshields in a heavy rain, sheeted with moisture and impossible to see through. I want to make it all dissipate; I want to see the regular clarity in his face, soft and startling.

After a while, he starts talking around his heartache in wide, meandering arcs, mostly avoiding the details. I want to tell him, Take as long as you need to finish this story. I want to tell him, You don’t have to finish this story. I want to tell him, Sometimes your sadness is too big to talk about. He keeps inserting half-hearted jokes and shrugs and “you-know-how-that-goes” and trying not to cry, and finally he asks what I’ve been hoping he’ll ask all night:

“Mind if I play something for you?”

“Of course not,” I say.

He heads toward the piano, but turns right at the last minute and picks up his six-string instead. He’s angled slightly away from me, so it looks like he’s about to serenade the back wall, deep in the red shadow of the vestibule: being heard, not seen. The imprecision of the first steely melody from the guitar is a pumicing-stone to my spirit, rough enough to clear away my deadness and my surplus.

When he starts singing, it comes out like a scream, like a thunderstorm or a flood or an avalanche, everything breaking down and coming apart around us. Loose clods falling from the walls, from his hands. A lifetime of love-gone-wrong encoded into that voice. He’s singing something he wrote himself, but it’s less a song (as in something composed, intentional) than a howl down the years, ricocheting off of everything that ever hurt him, gathering new fissures and marks and dents at every change of angle and flinging itself out into the world now, a raggedy bawl trailing sorrows behind it like the clattering tin-cans behind a wedding getaway car.

*

II. CALEB

Whenever I try to write lately, I feel mechanical and dry. The unavoidable panic quickly sets in: What if writing is always like this from now on? What if I never find another groove? I think a large part of the panic is just the lurking but very real dread of being irrelevant, worthless—the paranoia that if I don’t make something beautiful and worthwhile and lasting, right now or soon, then I don’t have a good excuse to be here. Why should I get to keep consuming food and air and water, when some hypothetical other human could’ve done so much more with the resources they were handed?

I know how to consume beauty—I’m an addict, a glutton—but can I make beauty, give beauty? It’s a question that hounds me wherever I go and whatever I do, and it’s a paralyzing one.

Earlier this week, Caleb met me for dinner at a pizza-and-beer garden in Berkeley, scraping casually into the seat across from me. We talked a lot about creativity and inspiration and the so-common impulse to justify yourself through the things you create—to make yourself significant. Is there anything more basically human than wanting not to be forgotten, not to be overlooked? But it’s also such a small and paltry reason to create anything—building shaky little monuments to yourself, crafting so many desperate forget-me-nots. It’s so hard to escape your own totaling self.

In the chilly Berkeley nightfall that was purple and tender as a bruise, Caleb made this not-new idea new to me: How to rest and even revel in your own smallness and expendability, how to fiercely inhabit your role as audience and appreciator of a world infinitely more wide and beautiful than you.

Maybe we were meant more to be marked than to leave marks.

Maybe we emit the most beauty when we’re just wide open channels, letting creation tear into us and through us, seeking less to form the world in our own image than to admit and honor beauties that are not our own.

“You just have to show up,” Caleb says, talking about art-making. “Let it blow through you like a storm.” I think he’s quoting someone else, but it’s an appropriate metaphor for the man in front of me: my brother, the storm-chaser.

He runs after experiences that will mark him, not thinking about how he will edit or repurpose the beauty he encounters—just letting it bless and remake him, again and again. A few weeks ago, as Northern California’s #hellastorm was on the howling rise, Caleb went surfing off the Marin headlands in the black and roiling sea; he went to be tested and shorn, to be “untroubled in his seeking,” to be beaten and marked.

With Caleb, and with all the very very best artists I know, acts of creation are just outflows of the beauties they’ve known and been altered by: all homages and imitations, offerings and response.

*

III. VIENNA

Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse is one of those music venues where the shows begin on time, apparently. Caleb and I arrive five minutes after the start-time for Vienna Teng, and there doesn’t seem to be a seat left in the house. We creep up and down the carpeted aisles in the dark, finally cramming both of our butts into one empty end-row seat. Vienna is already singing–

goodnight, New York / may you be always breathtaking
cold winter, sink your teeth in me / June sun, beat me blind

There’s a full-fledged storm rushing through her, right there on stage. We blink at the smattering of bright hard rain on our faces, shake the unexpected water off our lids. Her arms are rising and rising again over the keys like waves chasing each other toward shore. It feels like the roof of the place has been lifted off, like the top of my head has been cracked open; there is wind in all my crevices, wind charging out of her mouth and leaving the whole room swept and shivering.

In between songs, she becomes human again, sharing background about the lyrics and work-life anecdotes. She’s straightforward and wry and not especially electric. I still love listening to her talk, but god—what happens to a person when they’re making music? She was something else entirely, as ominous and splendid as a tower of black clouds rising up before the skies open.

let your faith die / bring your wonder

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018. These Worshipful Bones

Everything can be worship–I think we’re starting to believe that in our bones. Worship in the smallest motions, worship in between moments. Worship inaudible and worship like a howl. Worship in the face of beauty, and worship when it leaves.

A couple of Thursdays ago, I saw Phosphorescent (one of my favorite bands) perform at Sam’s workplace. The afternoon was washed in a cool, clear light: Northern California finery. Every member of the six-person gig was wearing cowboy boots, shades and trashy baseball caps. They seemed covered in dust, unshaved and unfed. Two drumkits. Girl on a saloon-organ. Matthew Houck’s broken drawl, his voice cracking the way it might when you’re begging someone not to leave, cracking the way you talk about things you want to forget, cracking like timber falling in the mightiest of forests. Sorrow all the way down to the ground.

We were sitting in the grass up front (I would later discover damp green stains on the butt of my shorts) and hanging onto the faltering verses. Some people were listening and others were milling around, talking, eating free grilled cheese. Houck sang like a wind or a prophet, My feet are gold and my heart is light / and we race out on the desert plains all night. I wanted to remember it all–I was so scared of forgetting anything.

I was mourning the day’s passing even as it cascaded all around us, sound abundant; sensing the coming silence.

Isn’t it true that everything beautiful is passing? Maybe it passes only to be replaced by other beauties–that’s the hope I hold on to. I don’t want these days to end. I recognize now, cusping on change, the inordinate beauty of the ways we’ve been living lately: slow and light-filled, taking all the rests we want, moving through long mornings without apology. Barely noticing the luxury of silences. The luxury of rambling. The luxury of misunderstanding. The luxury of getting lost. The luxury of taking a long time to say what we mean, because we have a long time.

But that’s not completely accurate, because sometimes we did notice. We worshipped as we went. I remember you mumbling thank yous into my hair while lay on our backs, your prayers going right into the crown of my head and traveling through all the bones in my face. Worship, from the Old English worth-ship: the acknowledgement of worth. The act of saying, “This is valuable, this is good,” or of tracing beauty back to its source and saying what we really mean: “You are good.” You are worth-y.

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013. Southbound Saurez

Last summer, in the peak of July, I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I could’ve flown–the plane ticket would have cost less than the gasoline that my ancient Camry consumed so casually–but I had to drive, had to cruise through the scorching western summer, had to swallow California inch-by-inch, had to move very physically through that strange, burnt wilderness.

I was in LA again last weekend to see The War on Drugs with a good friend, and this time I took Virgin Atlantic. Flying has its pros and cons. The upside was how I arrived in LA by mid-morning, after one tiny, painless flight. The downsides–and these may be specifically affronting in my world–were all in some way connected to the TSA: I had to stand with my hands over my head inside the scanning machine (a hatable surrender-pose), an agent patted down my waist and butt (“oh, that’s just a zipper!”), another disrupted my meticulous carry-on, and on the trip home, my solitary souvenir was forcibly confiscated.*

When I drove down to LA last year, everything was colored with heartbreak: the vibrating desert, the gas stations where I stopped for iced coffee, the charred black hills just north of the city, the whole sweltering sprawl of the city of angels. Subjectivity is a lifelong fever. There’s no way to get out from behind your own eyes, no way to see a clear and de-lensed world, no way to see anything as it really is. You’re always seeing a kind of interpretation of things. I think this is better acknowledged than ignored.

That summer, I repeated a three-song playlist** for the whole drive down, and somehow I didn’t get tired of the songs. My AC wasn’t working, so I kept the windows down and drove as fast as I could. I could hardly hear the songs above the roar of the pavement and the wind. You lose your sense of speed in the desert when there are no other cars around. 90 mph feels like 50. At 100, a little breeze starts to trickle through the interior of the car. At 105, I finally hit my groove, took off my shirt, leaned back in my seat.

I remember crying hysterically on Highway 5, in the middle of the agronomic American barrenness. Watching everything wobble in the wide, empty heat: grass, tarmac, turbines, air. Skin sticking to the seatback vinyl. Hoping all the sadness would be flushed out of me by the time I reached the coast. I remember finally pulling onto the cool slopes of Santa Monica in the mid-afternoon, emptied and skinned. I could not tear my eyes from that band of sea-blue between the buildings.

Last weekend, my heart wasn’t broken, and Los Angeles felt a little less poignant–that’s how it works.

On Friday, Terr and I went to the Troubadour in West Hollywood to see The War on Drugs. The night air still carried shreds of spring cool, and we arrived way too early because we were excited. We ordered onion rings and beers and sat on the smoky interior balcony and watched the crew set up the soundsystem in the saloon gloom. I could not believe how beautiful the world was.

Later we moved down to the sweat-and-gum-stained floor. Adam Granduciel (my stringy-haired celebrity crush) took the stage, made a crack about the venue’s showerhead (still broken since the last time he visited) and rolled into “Under the Pressure,” the opening track on Lost In The Dream. It was so strange and wonderful to hear the songs I’d listened to a million other times, now resounding at a size that filled the room to its rickety limits and commanded four hundred hungry souls with easy authority. I will never get over that surprise: music de-recorded.

I was slow to pick out melodies. Reverb was moving through the crowd like it was a body itself, physical and swaggering. His drawls were falling all over me, getting knotted in my hair. I love the physicality of live music, I like to feel jostled by much-loved songs, to feel them on my arm-skin afterwards. I love the bass in the ground, and the big hollow ring in my skull when the music stops. My favorite song–not on the album, but in concert–was “An Ocean In Between The Waves.” Granduciel knelt among the cords and speakers like he knew the sounds didn’t belong to him, like he was just a chosen channel.

I wonder what we mean when we call something “transcendent.”

My guess is that any time you forget yourself for just a second, it feels like transcendence. Whenever something is so beautiful that it frees you of your own eyes–when it’s the only real thing to you in the entire spread of existence–there’s this momentary sloughing-off of subjectivity. You’ve finally lost your lenses. You’ve been replaced by the beauty in front of you, made irrelevant.

That’s one way to get free.

mojave


*a bottle of exquisite tropical Iguana hot sauce
**Taste My Sad” by Bear//Face, “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon, & “Harlem” by New Politics

 

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