In the third installment of the four-part series Musical Yearbook, Brock Alter, Zach Ryan, and Phil Lang examine their respective present-day relationship or stories with music. To hear the earlier essays, check out The Bob Podcast.
The conceit behind Musical Yearbook is that everyone associates a song or a band with a time in his or her life, so we thought it would be cool to take a swing at recording some of those memories as essays or short stories. In order to insert some consistency in structure, we decided to focus on four important stages of human development: 4th grade, 8th grade, the transition between high school and college, and present-day. Over the course of the four essays, one can map the author’s musical endeavors, and in the process have a look at four snap-shots from vastly different times in a person’s life.
WE ARE LOOKING FOR SUBMISSIONS! If you would like to contribute, please send essays to firstname.lastname@example.org. If we like them we’ll add it to the blog or even ask you to record.
Note: Brock Alter’s essay was not available to print, but we’ll get it up here just as soon as he’s back.
Musical Yearbook: Present-day
Paul Simon — “The Boy In The Bubble”
Note: Revisions have been made to the essay since being recorded.
My parents’ cabin is eight miles from nowhere, which is to say 8 miles from Finlayson, MN. The town counts its population in the 100s and is just under two hours from St. Paul. The lake cabin is far from the rustic, out-house-type cabin in northern Minnesota, but there is no cell service, Internet, or TV, thereby making Finlayson the closest connection to the world available by the almighty Smartphone. More importantly, it’s where we buy beer and bait. I love it there and some day I’m going to buy a cabin on the Pine Lake and build a small recording studio.
When making the beer run into Finlayson in the family suburban, one’s musical selection is limited to the five CDs that have been in my parents’ suburban for the past three years. This selection, all but one greatest hits collections, very rarely changes, so I knew my options when I took my turn to make trip into town this past 4th of July:
- Anne Murray
- Rod Stewart
- Bob Dylan (the newest addition, which warranted a legitimately excited phone call from my dad)
- Bloomsday Rising (the band I was in)
- Paul Simon
Try as I might, Anne Murray and the balladeer Stewart will never sit well with me. I’ve listened to Dylan more than any other musician, and I’d rather not listen to myself trying to write epic rock songs five years ago. In other words, my choice was all but pre-determined. Mr. Simon.
I quickly skipped over the first ten songs before I reached “Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes.” I listened to the African tribal choir introduction as I headed East on Highway 18. The pine forests quickly gave way to open fields and sagging telephone wires. The landscape widens, almost urging propulsion. One would think “Diamonds…”—a song from Graceland, one of the greatest “on the road” albums ever—would be the exact song for the moment. But it was too precise of a cut. Too obvious. I wasn’t in an obvious mood.
I “seeked” to the next track. “The Boy In The Bubble” intro kicked in. That’s an accordion, right? Surely at least a sibling instrument to the accordion. I’ve heard the song many times—enough to sing along with lyrical changes in the third chorus without a stutter—but my reaction to the song was always one of respect, and not emotional. In fact, over ten years ago my brother Matt and I drove to Colorado so he could apply for firefighter positions…and also to ski, and we got into arguments filled with disbelief. “How could I not like Paul Simon?” he asked over and over again.
But over the next four minutes on the way into Finlayson it happened. It took over a decade, and then I was emotionally shaken. It felt sudden, and there was no obvious explanation. This song, its lyrics and melody, were not the soundtrack to my state of mind or location or philosophy. I did not find solace in the line “These are the days of miracle and wonder.” These are not the days of miracle and wonder for me. I am spiritually adrift. Professionally I am challenged and head down, striving for a nebulous and ever-shifting goal. I am not in love.
Yet, the wind through the open window was causing the tears to streak.
My history, specifically my time spent in grad school studying creative writing, caused me to instinctively analyze the lyrics, the historical context of the song, my entire life as I knew it on that day in order to hypothesize the subtext to my reaction.
And just as quickly as I started analysis, I stopped. I stopped thinking, connecting dots, looking for metaphors and symbolism that could map out an explanation to my emotion. I stopped fucking thinking.
The farmland gave way to another lake. People were swimming and fishing and drinking beer, as if celebrating the mere anticipation of the Pine Lake fireworks.
I was fourteen for four minutes, when every great song didn’t cause me to list off said song’s earlier influences, debut dates, and little known back-stories. When a great song didn’t lead to a debate about everything surrounding a song that doesn’t amount to a pile of shit. When a great song was an axe splitting the compressed ambiguity surrounding what you felt.
Isn’t that the rub for all of us long-time music lovers? We become jaded, and it’s inevitable. Our first experiences are hyperbolic to an outsider, and we spend a lifetime trying to replicate the third time we listened to Highway 61 Revisited or The Suburbs. But the more we listen, the larger the context grows, and the mystical nature of music gives way to the genealogy of music (thank you, Pandora). I guess you call that a loss of innocence.
But I got it back for a few minutes while driving a suburban into Finlayson that day, and I did not check my almighty Smartphone when I arrived in town. I played “The Boy in the Bubble” again, only louder.
Musical Yearbook: Present-day
I came to a pretty impressive realization recently. For the last 12 years, I’ve been in a band. Not the same band, in fact by my count, I’ve been in and out of at least nine bands since I was 14. I’ve sung, played guitar, bass, ukulele, tambourine, keyboard, organ, drums, and a whole host of shakers. I’ve played at every shitty, backwater café, and I’ve even managed to play with some noteworthy bands, and on some noteworthy stages.
This would be impressive, if any of my bands had achieved even a modicum of success, but let’s be real, it ain’t easy. The great Pete Doherty once said “I’ve been told if you want to make it in this game, you gotta have the luck and you’ve gotta have the look.” Well, there have been times when I’ve been very close to both, but no real luck just yet. It’s cool, I figure I’ve got at least two years before we’re too old to be considered for any sort of real commercial success, that’s enough time, right?
Currently I’m playing in two bands. I’m the lead singer and occasional keyboard player for and indie-rock outfit called Genius and the Thieves, and I play bass for bluesy-garage band called The Meat Packers. The remainder of this tale will be mostly about the former, and very little of the latter. You see, I was tasked with writing about my current relationship with music, and while I could talk for ten minutes about my favorite albums of the last year or so, nothing is more prevalent in my musical life than my band.
A brief history, we played off an on for a while in college, but decided to get serious around October of 2008 and since then we’ve managed to put out an EP, a music video, tour for a bit, and play a handful of successful shows here and there throughout California. Outside of that, I wouldn’t really say that we’re a hit. Yet.
The thing is, being in a successful band takes a lot of hard work, kind of like having a second full time job. In my band I’m the guy that handles all that work. So, first: my frustrations. One: Everyone’s schedule is fucked up, so getting together a time to practice is pain in the ass. Two: Booking shows is hard, you’ve gotta get the right bands, on the right night in the right venue for people to even pay attention to what you’re doing. Three: it’s not enough to write good music anymore, you’ve gotta be good at marketing also. In this day and age, hundreds of thousands of bands can have their music heard by anyone willing to listen. Myspace, Facebook, Soundcloud, BandCamp, ReverbNation, PureVolume, YouTube, if your music, press-kit, videos (both produced and live) photos and blog aren’t posted and up to date on each of these (and about a hundred others) good luck getting any traction outside of your hometown. And if you don’t have management, guess who gets to take care of all that shit.
Yeah, I know, I’m bitching. But, believe it or not, it’s all totally worth it. There are very few things in life that feel more spectacular than playing a great show. And if there’s a decent crowd to witness it, even better. For every time I’ve ever felt frustrated, hopeless or angry, there have been a handful of moments that are compelling enough to encourage me to keep fighting the good fight.
I don’t have any real delusions of grandeur. I know that we’ll probably never open for The Strokes, or play some giant stadium gig. I would be perfectly happy to make a decent living just touring for a while. If I could earn the opportunity to see America, once city at a time, playing music for people, I would consider it the greatest of my successes. And it’s that dream, that simple rock and roll fantasy that keeps me in it.
It also doesn’t hurt that I’m fortunate enough to be in a band with my best friends. Some of my most treasured memories come courtesy of those guys. And yes, all my band mates can be so difficult that it’s occasionally like having four extra girl friends, but when we’re playing music together, or trying to make each other laugh on stage, it all seems worth it. Hell, who knows, we may never be successful, but at least I can say I gave it my best shot and had an awesome time doing it.
Oh, and as long as I’m here, my favorite albums over the last 18 Months:
– Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
– LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
– Beach House – Teen Dream
– Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
– The Black Angels – Persephone Dream
– The Strokes – Angles
– Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
– Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
– Wavves – King of the Beach
– Ty Segall – Melted