18 March, 2013

Music Through the Ages

As my mother and I walk the aisles of the supermarket by our home, I get more and more excited, the nearer we get to the checkout stand. She pushes the cart with my “help,” as I walk alongside it and force my meager weight against the chromed basket wires to expedite her steering around corners.

It’s not that grocery shopping annoys me — far from it. I happen to love the uniformity of all those identical items lined up on the shelves, the little chill that spills down on me from the produce stands, the damp scent of refrigerant when I pull open a glass door and stretch to retrieve the bag of frozen blueberries my mother sent me for. It’s what this particular supermarket carries that has me so eager.

When we finally round the end of the last aisle and make for the registers, the display I’ve been anticipating comes into view. There, adjacent to the wide rack of magazines and comic books, are the records — two rows of LPs in glossy white jackets that bear, in bold, blue, serif lettering, names I recognize by sight as well as by sound: Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Bach. Bliss!

My mother has been buying these albums, one at a time, on each of our last several trips through this store, seeding my father’s voluminous collection of mainly rock, reggae, and folk music with her European sensibilities. She always lets me choose which of the albums to buy. Like so much else, her little man takes the decision seriously, weighing his appreciation for each composer by what he’s heard on classical radio, factored alongside how earnest each long-dead maestro appears in the portrait adorning the album cover. Already, at five years old, I’ve come to equate a stern mien with artistry, profundity, and merit.

Like a ring bearer at a wedding, I carry the record by hand to the parking lot. It’s too precious to be slipped into a paper bag, pressed against lumpy foodstuffs and sharp box corners, so it rests in my lap, in the back seat of my mother’s white Volkswagen, on the short ride home that my excitement renders a lifetime.

While my mother ferries the heavy bags from car to kitchen, I’m indulged in my desire to be the one to peel the staticky cellophane off the LP and cue it up on my father’s turntable. Pressing the brushed-metal buttons of his expensive amplifier is a tactile experience only slightly more pleasurable than turning the input selector to PHONO — a succession of ringing snaps that tickle my eardrum. I twist VOLUME just past 4 so we’ll hear the music well, halfway across the house, then position the turntable’s tone arm and lower the pickup. The needle and vinyl hiss through the speakers, a warm and muted pleasure before the conductor taps his baton.

Alone in the living room, I put the album sleeve to my nose, sniffing that scent of vinyl and cardstock that is the way all beautiful music should smell.

The bow goes quiek-quiek over my violin strings. My posture is stiff with aspiration. Small hands strain at dexterity as I attempt to reproduce the exact tonal values of my instructor’s full-sized instrument. It doesn’t seem possible — indeed, it isn’t. The extent of my quarter-sized violin’s resonance would be minimal even under a master’s control. Yet I forge ahead.

With basic bowing technique satisfactorily acquired from a cardboard-box-and-ruler mockup assigned to me at last week’s lesson, I am relieved to at least be holding a real, playable violin. However, my desire to rush ahead of these interminable week-by-week classes is stronger. I’m stymied by adults who won’t shut up about the importance of the Method. Why am I not allowed to move beyond page one of the book? Why these ponderous drills, even after I easily conquered that stupid “Mississippi-stop-stop” routine of theirs? Why can’t I be bigger, so my arm can reach the scroll of a violin that doesn’t sound like a toy?

Why, why, why. Of life’s limitless injustices, I am lucky, in my ignorance, that my deepest concerns are musical ones.

The amps are humming. Ash’s fingertip whorls prickle across the taut wires that are his guitar strings — vibration converted to signal, converted to vibration, then, inside my head, back again to signal. As I push a slider up, the hairs on my arm prickle and rise with what feels like free-floating electricity. I clear my throat. I aim the mic armature in the direction of my mouth. Jason presses a button; the drum machine beeps in acknowledgment. There are a few staccato barks of guitar. Ash nods, his blond hair closing like curtains over his eyes. The sign to begin. Jason presses another button and leaps away from the warning tak-tak-tak as though the box is a bomb about to explode. I close my eyes, bracing for the concussion.

All at once, a tsunami of sound. For an instant, I’m floundering in its wash, frantic to get my bearings. This chaos is pure masochism. I gasp — I can’t help it — a delirious intake of breath, and suddenly I’m bobbing at the crest of it, buoyed up with the ecstasy of submission to the noise. It always happens this way. Now I’ve got hold of myself. I can think. Fingering keys produces the minor chords I’m expected to play. I lick my lips. I part them. Out come the angst-ridden lyrics:
A primitive act
An animal noise
A tear in my skin
The lash from your toys
I’m peeling apart
And everything is gray
Fuck, cut, or drug it
It can go away
Ad libbing, Ash grinds out a mostly atonal strain on his shining, redder-than-red guitar.

Jason furrows his brow, his sallow face already sheened from the exertion of multitasking: contributing to the cacophony by striking metal pegs with a claw hammer, clinking glass tubes together, revving a cordless drill — and monitoring our levels on the control board.

We think we’re Einst├╝rzende Neubauten and Joy Division and Die Krupps, all bound up in one brilliant undiscovered threesome. When we’re not playing in Jason’s dad’s basement, I worry we’re just another Midwestern band straining for legitimacy — clanking, keening, gurgling, droning, reeling on uncertain stylistic footing. Whatever the truth, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter. Our band’s name is Dim. Dim, like our future in music, but at this very moment we’re having one hell of a great time.

The accordion is trickier to get the hang of than expected. Thank goodness this little black-and-white Silvertone is forgiving. I sit at the edge of my bed, pulling and squeezing its bellows, mentally mapping the chord pegs as I poke at them experimentally, willing my other hand to acclimate to the unfamiliar vertical orientation of the keyboard.

My roommate wore me down. It’s all her fault, convincing me, after nearly a year of marathon They Might Be Giants listening sessions, that the accordion isn’t purely for polka. I’ve been brainwashed into believing that songs like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Anna Ng” make TMBG one of the world’s greatest underappreciated bands — the geeks who make accordions chic — no mere novelty act. So of course it’s their jaunty “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” that I’m struggling through, minutes after bringing my first accordion home. It’s so much fun, I’m literally dizzy with glee.
So clear off the kitchen table, darling
For on the kitchen table I must lie
I used one of my three allowed annual package orders to buy these CDs by mail, a protracted bureaucratic process involving multicolored forms and my actual ink-on-paper fingerprint, but now I’m speed walking headlong into winter air so cold it hurts my teeth, traveling back to my housing unit from the prison’s property room with the square bulge of these discs in my coat pocket, trying to make this last delay, really just a couple of minutes, feel manageable. The order went out weeks ago; that wait seemed as nothing. Now the music is in my chilled hands but I’m burning in anticipation.

There are no violins here. There is no band room. From the recreation building, I could check out one of the cheap, battered acoustic guitars to play for an hour and a half, a few days each week, but I find that about as musically fulfilling as staying in and beating a rhythm on my cell’s metal desk with my head. The best I can do to express myself, music-wise, is to sing along with the tunes in my mind… or on disc. I put my CD Walkman through it’s paces every single day. The twenty CDs policy permits me to have are precious, shiny prisms of memory and comfort, more dear to me than anything I currently own besides, for overriding practical reasons, my typewriter.

And now I hold two more: a Gary Numan box set, The Hybrid Sessions, that I’ve coveted since its 2005 release. I’m denied my desire to be the one to peel off the staticky cellophane, since the property officers had to inspect my package, but that’s only part of the thrill gone. I click open the lid of my CD player and pop disc one onto the hub. Pressing the loose plastic ENTER button is a tactile experience only slightly less pleasurable than muting the ambient noise by cupping headphones over my ears. I push VOL+ just three times, so the noisemakers will be drowned out completely, then position myself to take in these new recordings of old songs by a favorite artist. The drivers hiss inside the foam-padded cups, a warm and muted pleasure before the synthesizers murmur and growl.

Alone in the cell, I put the CD case to my nose, sniffing that scent of plastic and glossy paper that is the way all memories should smell.

07 March, 2013

Bat Boy Found in Mirror!

It was an inauspicious beginning to the day. I stood in front of the cell’s polished-metal funhouse mirror, yawned so widely that it made my jaw hurt, and realized with a start that the drawback to my having recently changed my hair back to a buzz cut is looking, when first exposed to morning sunlight, an awful lot like that old Weekly World News cover: