Tuesday, January 13, 2009

From a Rural Pen (Two Hours and a Hot Cup of Cawfee)

“Where do bad vibrations come from, Raymond?” Johnny asked me last night, and I had no answer. But the point is though it’s long established Vermont is a place of strong white magick, a place friendly to adventurers of the mind and body, a holy place, though we and thousands of others know this and never take it for granted, yet we must risk the relatively inferior terrain and vibration of Massachusetts and points south and west, and the huge strain of friendless middle America, the lonely gargantuan with not so much as a single true playmate, in order to reach that other magnetic pole, that California which shows magick can, too, be black. Vermont belongs to The Band, California to the Rolling Stones, at least now; and now is all the time we know.
-Raymond Mungo, 1970

We place ourselves in the world with lists. With lists, we sandbag against the ravaging, indiscriminate incursion of time. We index and order as talisman against death. This ordering engraves, leaving a recording of our wonts and troubles and loves. Lists, as considerations of and meditations on the materials with which we put flesh on our bones and become human, stand us in relation to the cosmos. They convey priorities, understandings. We index and order as talisman against death.

I recently attempted some death dodging with lists. Sitting on a Raleigh tarmac in a mid-sized plane bound for Cincinnati, sure that the airship would turn screaming fireball and come tumbling out of the sky forty minutes hence, I joined my sweaty palms together and attempted a bit of mindful breathing. I sought the spirit world, but lost count of my breaths. So I started listing: Favorite food; favorite Southern food; favorite baby names; favorite Dudley Moore film; favorite haiku poet; favorite tea; favorite tequila; favorite bag of weed; favorite Charles Willeford book; favorite issue of Swamp Thing. Soon my listing turned, as it always does, to records.

For heads such as myself, there are many ways to index records: favorite song; favorite genre; favorite singer; favorite album by artist; favorite Dead bootleg; favorite Merle Haggard record from between 1977 and 1984; favorite era. This breaking out of lists according to aesthetic and temporal dimensions avoids the lurking bugbear of them all: Favorite Records. A list of this magnitude, blind as it is to musical borders and language, threatens to tangle us—record dicks and compulsive indexers—in the finer points of our obsessions, flummoxing our drive for compartmentalization, defying our strict organizational rhetoric. A list of favorite records—favorite records, period, without caveat—is a terrifying and awesome thing. Where does It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back stand in relation to John, Wolf King of L.A.? By what method, by what memory or emotion, do we rank? It’s not fair and not possible.

Record players are altars. The listener first goes through a repertoire of ritual gestures, removing the black spiral-inscribed disc from the sleeve, holding it by the edge and label and placing its center through the spindle before lifting the tone arm and placing it at the edge of the spinning disc. The air in the room begins to move, and the memory held by the disc of a performance by some living, breathing person is reiterated, separated from its image and corporeality in an angelically invisible space. Some part of the listener enters into that space and goes into communion with the unseen force of the sound.

It is magical and mysterious stuff, this impulse for sound-play that is universal among human beings through all times and places on earth.
--Ian Nagasoki, 2008

I avoid the Favorite Records list when I can, but when I absolutely must grapple with it—and sometimes I must, as when death is hot on my heels and demanding account, daring me towards remembrance, as it was in Raleigh—I start my list at number three. Let me explain: When I was 22—in the early-middle period of my obsession with music, green and carefree in the making of lists but attuned in some burnt-out way to the import of certain record albums—I brashly and eternally devoted the number one and two slots on this list to two albums by one outfit: The Band’s Music From Big Pink and their eponymously-titled second album (commonly known as The Brown Album). I first heard these two albums—picked up for a pittance in a South California used record shop—in the guest room of my parents’ house; they were conducted, crackling and hissing, through my father’s glowing Marantz receiver. I was 22 and beached on the deracinating shores of Orange County, high as a kite.

Though a pup, I was aware that some profound, elegiac conjuration of white Woodstock magick was going down from note one. I listened to these records over and over and over again, trying to decipher their inscrutable, bearded Hudson River Valley mystery. Music from Big Pink and The Band, singing as they did of woodstoves and white liquor, of natural waterslides and busted Hudson coupes, of homburgs and redeye gravy and sleepy fiddlers and communal backyard string pulls in the folded lap of the Catskills, eased my mind. I was captivated by their mythography and their modesty, by their celebration of retreat and solitude, by their honoring of family and community and other grown-up things. Lost in the woods, The Band led me towards the path. They grew me up a little bit; they served adult portions. I felt I might move to Upstate New York, but a friend told me I couldn’t handle the winters. Fair enough.

‘Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read.’

So he vanish’d from my sight,

And I pluck’d a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,

And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.
-William Blake, 1789

How does one talk about a favorite record? I tend to speak in hyperbole. It’s a weakness. Talk often invites more talk, and the music is lost in a cloud of words. So I’ll put it like this: I like Music from Big Pink and The Band a lot. I think they’re perfect records.

Capitol Records recently released 180-gram limited vinyl editions of both albums. They sent me copies so that I would write this. They sound incredible and are worth picking up.