wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: listening

Irreal life top 10, late January 2023.

  1. Still Mastodon. It’s quieted down as the panicked #TwitterMigration has slowed, leaving people wondering what the hell they’re doing on a service that provides none of the twitch-speed algorithmic coercion of Twitter and all of the one-to-one accountability of an old-school BBS. What remains turns out to be its own thing — a ‘social’ media network that honestly doesn’t deserve those scare quotes. Clicking the Donate button on our server’s webpage I felt a rush of affectionate nostalgia, reminded so strongly of using Plastic and Metafilter back during GWBush’s first term in office. Mastodon has that energy and that potential, not least because its open and still-evolving platform makes room for innovation (how about choosing your own recommendation algorithm?). If it fails it’ll be fondly remembered as a beautiful experiment. Same if it succeeds, I hope.
  2. ‘You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all.’ (Philip K Dick, Do Androids…?)
  3. What We Do in the Shadows. I never saw the film, and checked out the TV show just to see Matt Berry — only to discover (after the usual, slightly stilted pilot) the most perfectly balanced ensemble comedy in years and years, a sweetly humane study of a semifunctional Staten Island vampire family with a poisoned edge befitting its odd mix of Kiwi, UK, and USA sensibilities. (It’s one of the most sexually progressive shows on TV too, maybe in mainstream TV history.) All five leads could carry their own shows; Berry and Natasia Demetriou, as Laszlo and Nadja, are my favourite onscreen couple ever. And the expansive, empathetic love story of Nandor the Relentless and his familiar Guillermo is as compelling as Sam and Diane. I’m rewatching it, this time with my wife, grateful for its irresponsible lightness and unexpected emotional weight; we laugh embarrassingly loudly several times each episode. A gift.
  4. Hawaii. ‘Island time’ is real. For an East Coast neurotic like me there’s a couple-day adjustment period, but by your fifth or sixth mai tai it all starts to make sense. Preposterously expensive and necessarily parochial in certain ways, for reasons of geography — and with the usual dark colonial history — but the complexly, matter-of-factly integrated present-day culture of the islands gives me hope.
  5. VALIS. PKD’s career was spent exploring themes that eventually (predictably?) overwhelmed him late in life. His hallucinatory/visionary experiences of Feb/Mar 1974 drove him to write his 9,000-page ‘Exegesis,’ from which several novels partially (never fully) escape; after his publisher asked for edits to his first concerted attempt to fictionalize those experiences (published posthumously as Radio Free Albemuth), he instead poured out this first draft in two weeks. Less a novel than an obsessive elaboration and criticism of his own breakdown and reconstruction in the wake of the ‘2-3-74’ events, VALIS splits PKD in two to stage a confrontation and then collaboration between more and less skeptical parts of his psyche. Which is to say it’s a spiritual confession — genre with unanswerable question mark at the center — a funny one at that, and gets away with being monumentally, monomaniacally boring by being incomparably brave in its self-inquiry. Everyone should regularly experience art where there’s no way of determining what it would mean for it to be ‘good.’
  6. Clash Royale. One important but poorly understood bit of Terrible News this terrible decade is that for many many people, ‘video games’ increasingly means mobile games — a commercial sector of very nearly pure and perfect exploitation and mindless sugar-snack pleasure. Because mobile-gaming time is budgeted in 5- and 10-minute increments and largely happens during brief moments of ‘downtime,’ deep thinking doesn’t come into it, indeed can’t. Clash Royale looks like a thinking game (there are ‘cards’) but what scares me is the realization that, for most good players, ‘strategy’ means spending their 3-minute games in a more or less threatening holding pattern until they can pop off a combo. Indeed, that’s all ‘strategy’ means in a broad range of games. Which makes sense, since that’s how typical players spend their workdays and schooldays too — waiting anxiously for a chance to really live. I hate this pay-to-win game with a screaming hatred, and have poured years of my life into it over the last two months. No more.
  7. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Sausalito, Halloween 1973 on KSAN. Because of the incredible reach of Island’s ubiquitous Legend compilation (25M copies sold!), when casual listeners think of Marley they hear the refined sound of his mid/late-70s band, with the I-threes on vocals sweetening the mix and psych-blues guitar washing over or through. No shame in that — the post-1974 Wailers were among the great bands of that decade. But Marley was a hit even before white audiences and stoners picked up on what was going on, and stayed real even after they did. This crew (minus Bunny Livingston) is tight-loose from the gun, with impossibly fluid chemistry and a percussive funk sound sweetened only by Wire Lindo’s organ. Marley’s incredible charisma comes through as always, but without guitar solos or the ladies’ gorgeous vocal harmonies the group ‘merely’ sounds like an all-timer party band — their connection to the source still unmediated. Timeless somatic intelligence.
  8. ‘Outside the cars are beeping / Out a song just in your honor / And thought they do not know it / All mankind are now your brothers’ (Regina Spektor, ‘Human of the Year’) A nice idea, maybe the nicest idea — ‘you are not alone’ — and the first episode of the astonishing Mike White/Laura Dern collaboration Enlightened climaxes with Dern striding with rediscovered purpose toward an uncertain fate as Spektor’s voice broadens and grows, her left hand’s own rising stride matches Dern’s; the actress’s face betrays just a moment of uncertainty and then she looks up past the camera into private light, ‘Hallelujah’ sings the young woman and means it, and Laura Dern’s smile is everything and wise like daybreak; she looks beyond us into herself and sees—
  9. Drafts folder. Museum of you, no wall text, each room an unrecoverable moment. Please step this way, here we have an untitled work dated late 2022: ‘Your eyes will be drawn to what represents life for you (though not only that)’ — no punctuation in the original. But we’re not able to be so free, are we, ladies and gentlemen.
  10. DC charging. The reduced range of electric cars relative to gas, and the sparse availability of charging stations in parts of the country, makes travel with an EV weirdly old fashioned. Planning a drive down the coast with friends quickly turns into a search for waystations, like old Pony Express. Puts a certain kind of idiot nerd in mind of Star Wars of course; in that fictional universe the fastest way to send information across the galaxy is by courier, and news spreads slowly. Ugh, why do I know this shit.
Advertisement

Irreal Life Top 10, Thanksgiving 2022.

irreal life top 10, thanksgiving 2022.

This is a thing I do sometimes. Title and form after Greil Marcus, tone from elsewheres.

  1. ‘Inclusion.’ Like harm, it’s been defined out of any recognizable meaning by the hall-monitor class of self-styled ‘progressive’ types: you are now as ‘included’ as you feel, and if you can’t instantly see why that’s a problem then I’ll assume you’ve never interacted with humans before. (Hint: I can’t change your feelings, and am not even allowed to assess them for myself — so how can I possibly know or change your inclusion-status, for the better or worse?) The new discursive fashion is to claim that Mastodon (q.v.) is insufficiently ‘inclusive’ because its decentralized, federated — i.e. hyperlocal — structure militates against ideological orthodoxy and the empowerment of a ‘protected’ class. The actual content of the ideology in question doesn’t matter; this rhetorical arrangement is a trap laid by the ascendant self-appointed nationwide HR department.
  2. Mastodon. A slow-moving, high-friction, decentralized/federated halfway point between IRC and Twitter, with a number of built-in checks on ‘virality’ and several judiciously chosen ‘missing features’ (e.g. no equivalent to quote-retweets). Most bourgeois complaints about it boil down to ‘I don’t want to start my Twitter clout-farming over from scratch, and I’m not computer-literate enough to manage the minor irritations built in to this platform’; one common variant is to complain about decentralization making it impossible to set up a status-seekers’ corporate nanny-state like Twitter became. Holds infinitely more promise than Twitter ever had, and is a bigger pain in the ass than IRC — indeed, Mastodon will be a nice low-intensity break for many people, me included, but it won’t (in its present form) get anywhere near Twitter in terms of scale or reach, partly because of the macrocommunity’s desperate longing for paternalistic moderation. That said, the chance to start over is priceless. And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening: a brief bad chapter in USA cultural history is ending. Something else is starting, and we might get to decide what it is.
  3. Alice Coltrane, DIVINE SONGS. I’ve been on Journey in Satchidananda and Ptah, the El Daoud for years like every other fan of weed music, but reached midlife before getting hip to Alice’s own midlife music. She spent the decade after her husband’s death raising her kids and keeping John’s music moving to the next place, but not too far beyond — still in a recognizable ‘spiritual jazz’ subgenre for the most part. Jazz people knew she was serious (see Ethan Iverson’s obituary) but partly because of the ambivalent-at-best consensus about Trane’s post-Love Supreme work, for years Alice was unfairly presented to tyros as the Hippie Widow, a curious footnote to her husband’s final act. Thankfully Alice’s music from that period has been more broadly reconsidered since her death, and she’s now correctly understood as an important psychedelic artist and heavy jazz player in her own right. This collection of homemade devotional songs goes way beyond her 70s work, though, into an astounding fusion of deep blues and rapturous New Age synth-colours(!) — not quite jazz but so what. Religious music isn’t normally this hip. Heroic, fully realized personal expression from a faithful seeker. (Geeta Dayal wrote a great piece for the Grauniad about the Luaka Bop reissue of Alice’s ashram tapes back in 2017; Geeta earlier wrote a beautiful personal essay about Satchidananda for the 2007 Marooned anthology.)
  4. Rian Johnson, GLASS ONION. The sequel to the perfectly executed Knives Out is the smartest agitprop you’ll see this year, a thrilling and funny and unexpectedly harrowing story about privilege, power, and the ideological limits of the drawing-room mystery. Both films are ‘secretly’ about minor(ity) characters whom fans of Doctor Who would identify as ‘companions’: Ana de Armas in Knives, Janelle Monáe here. (Spoilers follow.) Playing a character uncomfortably named after Sandra Bland, Monáe is deliberately underwhelming in the first half of the movie in order to set up its manic second half, which she then carries almost singlehandedly — where Knives Out slowly shifted focus to de Armas’s character while maintaining a relatively familiar formal character throughout, Glass Onion daringly breaks genre-narrative frame to embed a second story about the (fantastic) hero-detective Daniel Craig ceding power to Monáe’s haunting/haunted character. (Maybe that’s why The Last Jedi was doomed — Johnson’s story about handing story-control to a ‘nobody’ was misshapen by the fact that Daisy Ridley’s winning Rey was an empty vessel for wish-fulfillment, both the most powerful being in the story-universe and its sympathy-magnet. The deck was stacked for ideological reasons at the expense of story.) Onion‘s ending is a brazen progressive carnival that’s also perfectly satisfying in genre terms; longtime readers may pick up on the significance of me using ‘progressive’ without scare quotes. It’s that serious. Johnson means every word of this masterful film — he’s completely in command, from sly script to expert ensemble direction. And not for a second does this fiercely political artwork devolve into lecture. It’s just really, really good at everything it sets out to do — even the Breaking Bad homage is funny. And get this: the villain is Elon Musk! I’m sick with envy. See it in theaters so they keep throwing money at Rian Johnson.
  5. Kanye West, ‘Monster.’ Obama was right to dismiss him as a jackass and it’s sad that he’s genuinely lost his mind (rich asshole/fools getting divorced do tend to), but West’s self-consciousness and extraordinarily fertile musical talent made for a run of albums that’ll stand the test of time and deserve to. ‘Monster’ will stand the test of time because, after Kanye spits an ordinary verse with one extraordinary pharaonic couplet and Jay-Z tries for the millionth time to remind everyone he has nothing to say (we believe you Shawn dear), Nicki Minaj throws herself a patently insane debutante ball with an Eminem-level guest shot. The final lines — ‘Now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for / AAAHHH! I’m a motherfuckin’ monster!’ — are pure unvarnished truth, both perfect cathartic narrative resolution and sufficient justification for the rest of her career, none of which has been remotely interesting because Kanye West she’s not. (Ever notice how you can tell an arts-school grad from a mile off?)
  6. DARK. Turns out the thing Lost was missing wasn’t meaning or sense or courage or convictions, but rather a hilariously bad English dialogue dub. This German show is a total waste of a superb premise on pure puzzle-box cliffhanger design, or so it seems from the half-season of melodramatic deferral and scriptwriter onanism I was able to tolerate before realizing I actually like meaning, sense, all that shit. (Spoiler: the cave is a time-travel portal, which you’ll guess from the pilot.) Imagine a miserable, contemptuous version of Stranger Things and you’re halfway there. No need to go further.
  7. Emacs 29. The most impressive piece of end-user software yet written is nearly a half-century old and still embodies an anticapitalist philosophy of freedom which is more dangerous now than ever — that’s why it’s routinely derided by Right-Thinking pseuds just shrewd enough to know that one synonym of ‘dangerous’ is ‘unemployable.’ Version 29 is a massive update to a program that remains far more modern than it looks, radically designed and thoughtfully maintained; that there’s no other software comparable to it is heartbreaking testimony to what was lost when the movement for liberatory personal computing was strangled and devoured by the ascendant industry for personal computers. The fundamental problem with Emacs, from the perspective of the ‘mainstream,’ is that its development isn’t driven by greed; there’s no ‘therefore,’ that’s the problem itself. Freedom is a sickness. Eppur si muove.
  8. Tom Petty. Who’s more overrated? Billy Joel? Jay-Z? Pink Floyd? The fucking Doors?
  9. Hakim Bey against ‘curation.’ ‘The parallel term in sufism would be “journeying to the far horizons” or simply “journeying,” a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies of Islam into a single trajectory, sometimes called “the Caravan of Summer.” The dervish vows to travel at a certain velocity, perhaps spending no more than 7 nights or 40 nights in one city, accepting whatever comes, moving wherever signs & coincidences or simply whims may lead, heading from power-spot to power-spot, conscious of “sacred geography,” of itinerary as meaning, of topology as symbology…travel as the antithesis of tourism, space rather than time.’ (from T.A.Z.)
  10. ‘Protect me from what I want.’ An insightful, if perhaps somewhat politically naïve, essay from Tim Bray calls for bottom-up development of recommendation algorithms for ‘social’ media — and intriguingly suggests incorporating a platform for creating and sharing such algorithms into Mastodon and the ‘fediverse.’ But I’m left with the suspicion that ordinary human minds are constituted such that it’s (all but) impossible for someone to design his own ideal recommendation algorithm — he can satisfy his articulable conscious desires, maaaaybe, but the deep-down stuff will presumably elude expression and understanding by definition. Which leaves me wondering, perversely, whether it’s possible for our own deep desires to be unearthed and played upon without exploitation. Feeling strongly but not simply is the least we can do, so I’ll end here for now.

Irreal Life Top 10, Labor Day 2022.

Working so hard for those clicks that I’m spelling it ‘Labor’ instead of ‘Labour,’ whaddaya think of me now. Nothing irreal about this but there’s no changing the series title now.

  1. Cherry Brown, Kailh Silver. Having made everyone’s second choice of keyswitches (Cherry MX Browns) when I bought my keyboard, and now having bad RSI for the first time in many years, I ended up switching this weekend to Kailh Speed Silvers while casting about for possible fixes. The keyswitches are the spring-loaded mechanism below the cap; you don’t see them and they’re what matters most in terms of keyboard feel. Cherry Browns are ‘tactile,’ i.e. there’s a bump in the key travel which you can feel; Kailh Silvers are linear switches, with no bump, just continuous resistance. I’m making an effort not to ‘bottom out’ or move the keys through their full travel as I type, sacrificing that incredibly gratifying THOCK sound on the altar of hand fatigue. I thiiiiink it’s working? Kailh Silvers are made for gaming so they actuate when you breathe on them, feather-light; the upshot is that I’ve moved fatigue from wrists to biceps, which is fine, and the experience gives much less sensual pleasure. It’s like I’m aging in reverse. I’ve got some Kailh Coppers coming, I think — short travel, light high actuation, tactile feel. Might not be worth it, but they’re not expensive. (I think I got 110 of them for $30, anybody need some keyswitches?)
  2. Harry Potter music. John William’s scores for the first three movies establish a soundworld on the Star Wars model (grounding fantasy doings in symphonic somaticism and familiar leitmotif) which seems inevitable in retrospect, even obvious: brass fanfares and low-string ‘mystery’ themes and the perfect ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ for initial Hogwarts impressions in the tween coming-of-age films, shading into richer darker colours as the generational story deepens and complicates. The third and best-by-a-mile film gets a very fine score from Williams, full of stark contrasts, eerie textures and shapes (the scansion on the witch-song is fucking strange), and several clever transformations and elaborations — check out the wide variations on Hedwig’s theme throughout the finale, ‘Mischief Managed!’ It’s all characteristically Williams in Spielbergian-wonder mode, though he stretched impressively for the Azkaban score. The rest of the series got a different composer every film or two, though: Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, Alexandre Desplat. Results were mixed. Doyle’s Goblet of Fire score sounds like him and like Hogwarts, though not quite like Williams (without thinking about it, my sense is that the audibly Scots-Irish Doyle seeks/gets a very different brass sound in particular; damn I used to love his Frankenstein score), Hooper’s scores go for whimsical mimesis (the best moment in Phoenix has no music, but his ‘Weasley Stomp’ is a useful reminder that Williams was very much an American tourist in Rowling’s imaginary Britain), and by Deathly Hallows Desplat conjures a diffuse melancholy hardly recognizable as Potter-related, which unfortunately fits those movies well. Unlike, say, the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings scores — which flow together into impossibly rich macrocompositions — the Potter soundtracks stand apart from one another, sonically and thematically, and I’m not tempted to throw them all on for a long day’s listen. But amidst the stupidities of the Rowling-related cultural conversation, it’s nice to be reminded of how skillfully executed these ordinary movies are.
  3. Nuns on the run. On Adam Roberts’s enthusiastic recommendation I’m reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them, the generations-spanning novel of a 14th-century English convent; after 250 pages I’m comfortable calling it the equal of any novel I’ve read in years. I keep wanting to compare it to Le Carré, his subtly barbed humour and skillful interweaving of the individual psychology of desperately focused people and their historical moments too vast to get ahold of, or even know about — only Warner writes men and women with equal mastery, which places her beyond Le Carré in at least that regard. The nunnery feels perfectly real, though the inside of that physical location is barely described (while the local countryside is vivid and clear); the women and men in the community are human beings, fully realized and empathetically, humanely rendered. Just an inspiring, perfectly executed novel. I’m sick with envy.
  4. Firefly. As preparation to run my Traveller-plus-Jedi RPG campaign with the lads, I threw the two-part Firefly pilot on the ol’ TV, and was reminded that Joss Whedon did the best, most perfectly realized work of his life while balancing three TV shows. Firefly is a masterwork in the classical sense, a carefully controlled showcase for every skill its chief maker had learned (though let’s not discount the contributions of his expert cocoreator Tim Minear). Whedon’s never been funnier or wiser, never worked successfully on so many levels at once. But even with inspired scripts and searching direction/production, the show might’ve fallen down without a star on the order of Sarah Michelle Gellar (or Gandolfini/Falco, Bryan Cranston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), someone Whedon could count on to make sense of his characteristic tonal whip-pans and wild register jumps. Here Whedon lucked into a partnership with his most gifted male performer, the fucking Canadian Nathan Fillion, who gave the performance of his life in a role as rich as Buffy Summers — and then, with a sly character actor and ensemble comic (and born Western hero) at the top of the call sheet, the Firefly team surrounded Fillion with an oddball cast of equally multifaceted performers, literally any one of whom could easily have carried a spinoff. Special mention to Alan Tudyk, a comic virtuoso, and the astral projection known as Morena Baccarin, who slowly unfurled maybe the broadest range of talents in a talented cast. (Bonus points to a young Christina Hendricks as Saffron; watching her flirt with Baccarin in ‘Our Mrs Reynolds’ is one of the greatest experiences of my human existence.) The fact that this show existed at all is one of its fallen medium’s rare blessings; the fact of its cancellation is just another fucking crime. The sequel-feature Serenity is an overstuffed and hurried valedictory that boasts several classic Whedon sequences and a magnificent climactic showdown between Captain Tightpants and the impossibly charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor; it’s a nice consolation but can’t touch the original series. Few shows can.
  5. ‘Effective altruism.’ Mostly the same sort of fraud as ‘AI alignment’ and indeed ‘rationalism’ writ large, starring mostly the same sorts of people. @chaosprime definitively sums up on Twitter: ‘Weird that EA converted on a focus that is addressed by nerds getting tons of money to 1) sit in rooms thinking big math thoughts all day then 2) telling other nerds what to do’.
  6. Harvard undergrads. They neatly illustrate, by contrast, how dowdy Cantabridgians are during the sparsely populated summer months; on the other hand, they manifestly couldn’t find their dicks with two hands and a dick map.1 Harvard Square in late August is trying for those of us who find privileged teenagers not just the worst but the most boring thing on earth.
  7. Frisell. How many artists are so powerfully and equally committed to both the gentlest moments of beauty and vulnerability and the weirdest psych-sonics? Listening to his debut In Line (recorded 40 years ago this month!) is one of those improbably deep experiences, where there seems to be too much detail to permit entry, much less immersion — too much pick and prickle — yet the sound slips across and around and then opens into something deep and enveloping, a whole soundworld in less than 45 minutes. Frisell is like Fillion: confident, unassuming, deep feeling, so’s you might not notice his virtuosity. I’ve enjoyed every note I’ve heard him play, but this album (maybe not surprisingly, as it’s half solo/overdubbed tracks) feels close to the bone. And Eicher’s production is just what the young seeker needed, of course.
  8. House of the Dragon. Unnecessary — and after the catastrophe of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, faintly embarrassing — but Fire and Blood, the mock-scholarly Game of Thrones ‘prequel’ it’s based on, startled me years ago by being a joy to read and (fannishly) contemplate. It’s central to GRR Martin’s grand project and obviously dear to his heart, and you might read it instead of watching the show. Then again, I said that about Game of Thrones itself. Then again, I was right.
  9. Provisionality. Louis CK describes his creative technique in an interview: ‘When I develop material that’s in tough places, I have a method: I say the worst version, and then usually, they don’t like it. But I listen to that. I listen to the “Ugh,” and there’s a sound in it… Either I’m gonna take that “ugh” and I’m gonna play with it, or I’m gonna find a way around it… I need to hear the dissent… Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t want to upset these people tonight.” But I know there’s a bit in this that they’re going to like. And I work on it and work on it, to the point where everybody likes it… Every bit that I have that’s a great bit, started as: nobody wants to hear it.’
  10. Oscar and Basie. Peterson was a skillful host of his variety/interview TV show, and the Count was a wonderful guest, but their wordless opening duet is something more than entertainment: it’s a privilege to see an old master simply enjoy himself in the loving company of a younger master. Peterson’s adoration of Basie is evident, as is Basie’s love and admiration for Peterson. Their relationship to one another is their relationship to the music. It’s beautiful. There’s a moment in the video when a closeup of Peterson’s astonishing hands dissolves to a similar shot of Basie’s, gently stroking the piano keys like they’re his wife’s tired fingers and hands. Not much room in noisy transient modernity for quiet moments like this with a cherished elder, listening close to his life’s music. This is one of things jazz is for. This is what it is.

  1. Metaphorically speaking. 

Phish recommendations.

For a while in the mid/late 1990s, Phish were America’s best rock band.

Now their best music is behind them, but they continue to deliver the most rock’n’roll value for your dollar in this year of our Lord 2022. And every time out, even if only for a few minutes, they remind you that they’re still the best improvisatory rock band of all time.

Here are some recommendations for newcomers to Phish.

Note: Nothing here will cause controversy among fans.

I’m a ‘digital native’ and need video, is there video?

Yes. The IT documentary is good, though Trey is in bad shape; its concert footage is superb. Bittersweet Motel is telling but unpleasant and is mostly about the 1997-98 scene/moment. The recent Trey documentary, Between Me and My Mind, is stirring and beautiful, but not really about Phish. The film of Walnut Creek 97 features astonishing music — peak-era Phish, just a killer show. But the film’s ordinary.

I’m old and like books, are there books?

Yes.

Which studio album should I hear?

Phish’s reputation rests on their live shows and specifically on their extended collective improvisations, rightly so. Their studio albums show off other sides of their musical personality with mixed results.

  • For naked chops, start with Rift. This is Phish’s pure prog album, with their most consistently well integrated instrumental and vocal material.
  • For the pure experimental mid-80s weirdness, pair Junta (their first proper album, still startling in its precocity and reach) with ‘The White Tape,’ their 1986 demo tape and a perfect encapsulation of their early cerebral-pranksters identity.
  • For a balanced mix of chops and effortful silliness, try one of two albums: (1) A Picture of Nectar. Shorter tunes, a hyperactive ‘jukebox’ album — but ‘Stash’ and ‘Guelah Papyrus’ and ‘The Mango Song’ are seriously strange showoff numbers, and the ‘Tweezer’/’Reprise’ duo captures something essential about their relationship to rock’n’roll. (2) Billy Breathes, a mellower LP with more acoustic strumming and a ramshackle feel — this was the longtime consensus pick for Best Phish Album, and it still might be. But it’s not a showpiece like Rift and Nectar. It’s just a lovely, faintly lonely rustic rock album.
  • For dreamy weirdness, pair Story of the Ghost with its outtakes collection The Siket Disc. The latter isn’t even an album proper but together these two discs offer a glimpse of practice-room Phish at their effortless late-90s peak, when intuitive groove replaced forebrain-tickle as the creative focus and primary pleasure.
  • For strange creativity in late middle age, see Fuego, which has some clunkers but also some fine pop tunes and a stirring run of three full-band compositions to close. Sigma Oasis is a surprising, at times lovely late-career effort, but you might cringe so hard at the lyrics you pull a muscle.

Which live album should I hear?

Phish’s official live releases are well chosen and are the heart of the band’s project. Like the studio albums, they capture the band at specific points in their journey. It’s important to bear in mind that post-1997 Phish often sounds like an entirely different band, for reasons (I suspect) not unrelated to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Since 2003, every new Phish show has been made available through livephish.com — we’ll deal with those below.

  • The standard intro live Phish album is/was A Live One, a sprawling buffet from when they prized howling intensity above delicacy and/or groove. This is their Live/Dead, showcasing one side of their work at length, too early to capture the full spectrum of their creativity. There’s a half-hour ‘Tweezer’ full of surreal antagonism, but the real meat is the magnificent ‘Hood,’ perfectly realized ‘Stash’ and ‘You Enjoy Myself’ jams, and a pounding ‘Chalk Dust Torture’ that’s parseable for non-fans. This was the initial argument for Phish as best 90s rock band…the trouble is, within two years they didn’t sound like this anymore.
  • The official New Year’s Eve 1995 release is one of the few no-brainers in the band’s history: it’s the consensus best Phish show of its era, unrelenting in its creative drive and intensity. This was their first peak, the culmination of all their early work on a big stage (Madison Square Garden). Of all their pre-1997 shows, this is the easiest recommendation. (Niagara shares its vibes but gets weirder, darker.)
  • If you like NYE 1995, you’ll like Chicago 94, two shows from the A Live One era, showcasing the band’s fluent improvised segues. Still, there’s something a little callow about 1994 Phish at times.
  • Slip Stitch and Pass is literally the show — at a club in Hamburg — when the band transitioned from increasingly funky rock to a different sort of pleasure altogether. If you like Story of the Ghost and especially Siket, this live release will speak to you. It’s a single disc, mostly stacked with jams.
  • Hampton/Winston-Salem 97 captures an all-time classic run of three shows — but if you’re not already into Phish, the 17-minute ‘Emotional Rescue’ opener, a gag song followed by a dull funk jam, might turn you off forever. Yet discs 4-6 show the very best of the band’s funk era. This is music every single Phish fan should hear, but it’s not an ideal entry point.
  • Discs 2 and 7 of the Amsterdam box achieve sublimity.

What about the ‘Live Phish’ series?

See below.

Periodize Phish’s career for me, please

Pre-1993

Comedy, surrealism, impatience, antagonism, audible effort1

1993-96

Intensity, mastery, synthesis, aggression, clatter, independence, psychedelic noise

1997-2000

Groove, ambience, texture, fluidity, patience, psychedelic space (97-98 are the last years of perfect equipoise, and to me represent ‘Phish perfected’)

2003-04

Drugs2

2009-14

Rediscovery, resolution, peace, balance, second youth, rebirth (2009 tentative, 2010 longform improv experimentation, 2011 Fish’s drum chops fully back (8/15/11 is perfect), 2012 integrates, 2013-14 experimental restart esp. at Halloween)

2015—

Rebirth, integration, joy, settling in/down (Trey woodsheds for 6 mo. in 2015, kickstarting this era)

Which live shows should I hear?

The trouble with live shows is they’re unlikely to be perfect. The good thing about live shows is, they’re the truth.

What you should hear depends on what you’re after, based on the above chronology.

  • I want prog rock: Try any of the official releases from 1994-95, the peak of Phish’s technical achievement. You can’t go wrong with this era — Phish batted 1.000 for two full years. Just an insane achievement.
  • I want dark psychedelia: Same era plus 97-2000; post-97 there’s much less emphasis on attack-guitar, though cf. 11/19/97 or the final discs of the Winston-Salem box set for counterexamples.
  • i want party funk: 1997-99 has your number. Summer shows from 1997/98 are the purest dance-funk of Phish’s career. If you want to sample a single segment, try the ‘Bowie > Cities > Bowie’ from the Ventura box set, lightning in a bottle from the moment when they could play ‘Bowie’ fast and clean and dangerous and then sit back and fucking groove real nice for a while, as if those two things were the same thing.
  • I want electronic textures: Honestly, try a good recent show. Like the Dead in the early 90s, Phish have completely dialed in their sound and the band’s instrumental texture is tasty. The festival ‘disco tent’ and ‘ball square’ jams will do it too.
  • I want to drift off with psychedelic soundscapes: The six-hour millennium set is your starting point, along with my beloved Fukuoka 2000. But definitely seek out some of the late-nite summer festival improvisations: 2003 Tower Jam, 1998 ambient set, the ball square and drive-in jams of recent years, and if you can find a good copy, the flatbed truck jam from summer 1996.
  • I want haze and noise: 2003-2004 have them in spades. If you don’t need variety of form or sound, look up the June 2004 shows; avoid the August shows, they’re all shit. The peak of this era might be the August 2003 IT Festival, which showcases every aspect of Phish’s mid-career development except virtuosic showmanship.
  • I want soul-searching lyrics: This is the wrong band for that, but try Trey’s 2019 Ghosts of the Forest project — written at his dear friend’s deathbed, far and away the deepest thing anyone in the group has done, with a couple of stone classic songs (‘About to Run’ deals more directly with his nature than anything else he’s written). The Trey movie deals with this project and it’s just beautiful.
  • I want uplifting all-American music: Since 2015 Phish have been on an impressive run, moving more slowly than when they were young but playing with a depth and empathy they could never have managed at their peak. This is absolutely Phish’s (second) golden age, and any consensus top-30 show from the current era delivers every kind of rock-music pleasure, with two caveats: (1) Trey botches the written material sometimes, and (2) there’s a quality of settling and genial acceptance not only to the new songs but to most of the improv as well, meaning the generative antagonisms and arrogant aggression that added grit and spice to their early music is long gone. ‘Uplifting’ is right — it always makes me feel purely good. But there’s a difference between filling you with happiness and filling you with ambivalence you then happily clear away at the climax.
  • I want 13 straight shows with no repeats: The 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen’ is 13 concerts at Madison Square Garden, each night featuring donut-themed song choices, with no repeats. It’s the crowning achievement of Phish’s 21st-century second act, though it’s not really the best music even of its era. You can buy the whole thing on CD; it’s a better value than the Dead’s Europe 1972 box set, I think. Only a handful of pop musicians have ever put together a late-career turnaround and reinvention like this. I’m still in awe of them, after all these years.

  1. ‘Comedy’ comes first because for a long time it was central not just to Phish’s music but to their worldview. The lyrics aren’t just dumb, they’re deliberately silly surreal comedy; once you get this, the way the band mixed Zappa’s steely control and Beefheart’s mad surrealism, their early music opens up. Some of it is worth hearing, all of it is interesting experimental music — and its debt to the Grateful Dead is smaller than the band’s reputation suggests. 
  2. There’s a lot of good music from this era, and a handful of shows — 2/28/03, IT, maybe some of June 04 — are canonical. But overall it’s weak tea or worse, and bad drugs are the main reason. The anniversary run is unimpressive, the Vegas shows are bad, the August 04 run is terrible, and the farewell Coventry festival is a heartbreaking disaster. We can’t grade Phish on a curve, they deserve better. So do we, frankly — there’s too much good music in the world to bother with anything but Phish’s best. Note that they took years after returning in 2009 to reestablish themselves after Trey got clean, though a few early shows (e.g. 8/7/09) hinted at what was to come. 

Irreal Life Top Ten, D-Day 2022.

  1. Phish, Spring Tour 2022. I didn’t notice until the eighth and final show of this mini-tour, when they played their second ‘Sigma Oasis’ of the run, that the band was avoiding any song repeats. They do this regularly, most memorably on the 13-show ‘Baker’s Dozen’ stand at Madison Square Garden, such that it’s now almost unremarkable; you can’t imagine how challenging it is to remember 150 songs until you’ve tried learning three — never mind improvising on them, never mind doing so compellingly. Pianist Page McConnell turned 59 a week before the tour started; what other musicians approach 60 in anything remotely approaching Phish’s condition? No other band in American history, in or out of ‘rock and roll,’ has consistently engaged in the kind of musical risk-taking that’s long been Phish’s basic approach to their art. That’s the positive read; the negative is that this was an unexceptional tour in ‘purely musical’ terms, if those exist, on Phish’s terms. The other positive read is that the rare show-opening ‘Character Zero’ from Orange Beach on 5/29 is instantly one of the two or three best versions of that tune, featuring perfectly seamless transitions in and out of an extended open jam, and the other other positive read is that a ‘bad’ Phish show is still one of the best times in American popular music — and they didn’t play any bad shows this tour, not even close. You might not like their music, I get it, but you’re obligated at this point to understand that in 2022 Phish are a miracle.
  2. Mass shootings and matter. We’re at the point where you can accurately predict demographic information about the shooter based solely on whether and how the national ‘news’ outlets cover the event — corporations like CNN are only interested in ‘motive’ when it suits a political agenda they don’t even realize they have, which is only to say that Capital never changes but changes colour. It’s worth asking yourself whether you’re more scared by stories about one lone nutjob going uptown with ten guns, or ten ordinary sociopaths going downtown with one gun each. It’s worth asking why.
  3. ‘AI alignment risk.’ Doomsday cults, like bugs in open-source software, don’t go away just because they’re publicized. Sane people have to fix them. Because the real risk from AI, already being realized (cf. your Twitter feed), seems to be the slow ruin of functional if inefficient social controls, it’s a lot more satisfying for socially disengaged pseuds who did better in Math class than English class to spin nerdfic about murderous superintelligences than to, say, reckon with the real (social) world, its boring politics and unmanageable actual people. See also ‘Effective Altruism,’ a form of fantasy football for people too annoying to play D&D with.
  4. 16″ Macbook Pro. After using a 15″ Retina model at home for years, I got a 16″ lappy from work — last year’s M1 (‘Apple Silicon’) model. This laptop is a proper chonky boi as the awful wankers say, unexpectedly bulky: nearly a pound heavier than the 15″ machine I already thought was unwieldy at just 4lbs. What does that weight buy, though, in addition to the massive gorgeous screen? It is blinding fast and gets wild battery life…not to mention the eerie silence, which I noticed because I noticed I wasn’t noticing fan noise. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’s weary, shrugging insistence, when questioned about the ‘Apple premium’ at a conference: ‘We don’t ship junk.’ A difficult thing to hold onto, in a world where junk is what everyone’s used to.
  5. Thunder. A Fortnite streamer on Youtube, presumably an intolerable late teenager or early 20something. When he teams up with his buddies to play group games he has no charisma, nothing to say, no evident sense of humour; his solo gameplay videos are mercifully silent. But he plays like a fucking demon, a goddamn avatar of death — no gimmicks or trick shots, no comedy, no leaning on dull rote strategy, just the lunatic intensity of a boy in his sensory-integrative prime, perfectly in command of a complex instrument and manifestly addicted to the headlong rush of virtual motion. This kid plays Fortnite like pure poetry; it’s hard to imagine anyone being consistently better. Yet in the competitive scene he appears to be a nonentity — which for me is like being awed by an NBA player and then finding out there’s a human city somewhere, deep in some jungle, where everyone’s twelve feet tall. Put it this way, I check Youtube every day just to find out whether Thunder has posted a gameplay video that day. Best of all: the (rare) videos where he comes in 2nd or 3rd out of 100, and posts the clip anyway.
  6. Sweeney Todd. My son can’t stop listening to the beloved 2005 small-stage Broadway revival with Cerveris and LuPone, neither of whom could do an English accent to save a dying relative — LuPone’s is fucking atrocious, embarrassing, which colours the whole cast album for me (same with Dinklage’s mongrel accent as Tyrion Lannister — though he’s an immeasurably better actor in the role of a lifetime). The leads are very good overall, as they’d better be, and Sondheim’s fantastically complex score is the peak of Broadway composition. But there’s something irritating about the production, perhaps linked to the brilliant and daft cast-as-orchestra staging — a weirdly clumsy artificiality of phrasing, e.g. Anthony’s seemingly arbitrary accents during ‘Johanna.’ I bet it was hell to play. The best single performance of the 2005 revival might be Donna Lynne Champlin as Pirelli; she just kills it on her big number, plays flute and accordion too(!). Alas, the cast album suffers from ‘nearby movie’ syndrome: Tim Burton’s film (w/Depp, Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli) is musically far weaker — marred by ham-handed score redactions and simplifications, e.g. goodbye to Sondheim’s infernal dissonances in ‘A Little Priest’ — but beautifully acted by expert screen performers free to play to the camera and mic instead of the back row. The 2005 recording has its sublime high points (the quartet!) but it’s too wired or something. It’s come to sound…pleased with itself, with its cleverness? Somehow, this all-time classic production lost me.
  7. Renewal. We got an email from The Economist saying the cost of our 12-week autorenewing subscription was going up to $80 — I’ll let you do the annual-cost math on that. Lunacy. Three-year subscriptions cost $210 annually, a savings of 40%. I completely forgot that we were on the ‘gullible idiots who mistake hesitancy for caution’ plan, pissing away money for several years now. Of course, because the whole mad concept of ‘money’ is just a plaque in my brain, I immediately started thinking of ways to piss away the savings on something else. Can’t wait.
  8. Star Wars novels. You have to actually try reading them to remember what you’d tried to forget, all those years ago: they’re almost all just terrible. What a thinly, lazily imagined universe. What a waste of story. The haunting Youtube video ‘Obi-Wan Has PTSD’ is better than any Star Wars novel except maybe Timothy Zahn’s breakthrough Thrawn trilogy — and that’s grading generously.
  9. After the moonlanding. A little more than a month into the grand split/tented/mechanical/programmable keyboard experiment, the haunting realization that my layout — designed for efficiency and sustainability — is a grotesque misshapen waste, with an underutilized left hand on several layers and a couple of dead keys on the primary layer. Right there! Embarrassing, amateur-hour stuff. Why did I even go to college, why do I even breathe.
  10. Community, Season Six. Years 2 and 3 of Dan Harmon’s show were one long delirious dissonant crescendo, a work of sustained self-lacerating genius — one of the most complexly emotionally intelligent shows in TV history. But Harmon was an abusive alcoholic pill addict and an asshole, so they fired him. I suspect it saved him creatively and personally. He went off to do Harmontown, got unhappily married, and came back to do the excellent but uneven Season 5. Then it was off to Yahoo TV or some bullshit for the beautiful Season 6 — stretches of which are the deepest, strangest, darkest, wisest work of Community‘s whole run, culminating in the simple perfection of the finale, one of TV’s surest landings, a rich (self-)reflection on relinquishing and departure more mature than fans of Harmon’s earlier work might’ve thought possible. Harmon’s writing, here and on the impossibly complex and demanding Rick & Morty, deserves not just ‘an Emmy’ but all the Emmys — but so does his heartbreaking performance of Community‘s final monologue, which can stand with The Singing Detective‘s word game or the eulogy for Wild Bill on Deadwood: the highest compliment I can give. I expected to enjoy (again) this valedictory season; I didn’t expect to end up thinking it was some of Harmon’s best work.

Syllabus: 69 Love Songs.

(from the manuscript in progress)

If he’d released them as a series of albums — 18 Love Songs, 15 More Songs About Love, Nine Songs for Bored Lovers (and a Song of Thwarted Hope), 16 Love Songs Involving the Wondrous Accordion, and the 10-track promotional release Love at Leeds — would anyone but diehards ever have given a shit about Stephin Merritt’s showpiece/monsterpiece, or bothered listening? Part of the genius of the work is the fact that it’s too big, specifically this much too big, never mind the marketing hook of the whole 69 thing, ‘ha ha.’ Well, love is too big, specifically (for some people, sometimes) that much too big, and its dual status as narrative series and random-access collection says something (to us, sometimes) about its subject. It’s all these things and not the sense you make of them, but go ahead make sense; the album’s a lot like love, and love is a landscape. You occupy it and vice versa. It makes sense of you. You should move freely inside it while you can, so that sensemaking goes on when you leave. It doesn’t all make sense. You’re too smart for your own good, dumb as a post, needy, infinite, still giggle or primly purse your lips at the number 69, got it figured out, nowhere close to figuring it out. Any of it.

I’m not kidding about genius either. It’s probably ‘too big’ and a few of the songs are wastes of space on their own terms, but that’s the thing — each song’s terms are shaped by that very stupid mega/metacontext. You can only hear these tunes as part of the larger thing, which is truer in itself than any willfully insincere piece would ever cop to being. You can only tell someone so many details about a mountain, can only answer ‘What’s it like?’ so many times, before you have to point to the top and say ‘Just go already.’ The whole thing is the truth. Love is a landscape.

Irreal Life Top Ten, allergy season 2022.

Title and form inspired by Greil Marcus, obviously, and little enough to do with ‘irreality’ but I like the name and what, I ask you, what is either of us really gonna do about it. I ask you.

  1. RIP Vangelis. Ευάγγελος Οδυσσέας Παπαθανασίου had a pop songwriter’s instinct for hooky satisfaction and an experimental sonic approach but worked on a ‘classical’ scale, i.e. he wrote Hollywood music and was perfectly suited to film scoring. His Blade Runner score is better than you remember, not just the future-chintz of the main titles and love theme but the ambientronic weirdness of the underscore for scenes like the replicants’ murderous visit to Mr Chew, the man who designed their eyes. Vangelis’s 1975 Heaven and Hell is pure excess and bombast — it even features Jon Anderson on vocals — but at the deepest point of its second half, ’12 O’Clock,’ he manages to wring an unexpected intensity out of the humming and wordless singing of Vana Verouti and choir, bringing a ridiculously pompous synth-prog megasuite to one of those unironically moving climaxes, a passage that works only because it’s both sentimental pop hogwash and the 30th minute of a ‘neoclassical’ work hyperextended to the point of madness. (Don Joyce took this section as the theme to Over the Edge, and one of the greatest OTE episodes is a three-hour improvisatory remix of the Blade Runner score. With a wink of course, it’s Negativland, but not at the expense of the work’s weird integrity.) The hardest and best and most important thing for an artist is to sound like himself. I mean ‘…for a person,’ and I hope Vangelis enjoyed his final years knowing he had only ever been Vangelis. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…
  2. Paxlovid. My wife and I both got this minor miracle-drug, and our worsening Covid-19 symptoms immediately turned for the better and stayed that way. As soon as I stopped the medication, I began to feel that familiar post-viral bronchial thickening — sign that I was over the initial assault and now thrown back into my own body’s well-worn patterns and limitations and miswirings. You start to recognize ‘the devil you know’ as a part of yourself, both horror and comfort. Covid-19 is survivable and manageable for most people, Paxlovid is widely available, and you should do what you can — including lie about comorbidities — to get a prescription a couple of days after symptom onset.
  3. Buffalo. My fury and despair at the mass murder in Buffalo was wrapped up, I’m embarrassed but not sorry to say, in long-simmering anger at the way mere mass death and suffering isn’t enough to engage Audience Attention in this year of our absent Lord 20-and-22. There needs to be something to sell, a Compelling Narrative Hook, which in this case — for this seemingly neverending moment — is White Supremacist ideology. A decade after the Columbine massacre, it began to be understood even by our determinedly witless national press that Harris and Klebold were (respectively) a psychopath and a depressive, and that their horrifying mass murder/suicide wasn’t fundamentally ‘about’ anything, and reflected only their alienation from normal support networks, i.e. loving parents and other adults able to understand their lives and willing to put in the time. Their grandiose rhetoric masked something stupid and banal: they didn’t like being alive and didn’t see any reason to keep at it, and the kids at Columbine High were luckless scapegoats for their rage. The ‘motivation’ for their act was, in other words, the sickened world around them, of material plenty and poverty of meaning. The vicious little son of a bitch who killed those people in Buffalo lived in their world, in ours, which has only gotten less hospitable to human souls over the last quarter-century. He’s unprepared for the world as it is and the world to come. He really is a racist fool, and the actual problem his actions remind us we must solve is the absolute emptiness that makes racism — about as stupid a set of ideas as you can now imagine — more attractive than whatever else you’re peddling. Which is to say, I’m not interested in his ‘manifesto’ and you shouldn’t be either, by all accounts it’s merely incorrect; what matters is that he managed to reach age 18 without having the faintest idea what the world is like or how to live in it. We must not forgive him, and we must understand him. There is always worse to come.
  4. Digitonal, SAVE YOUR LIGHT FOR DARKER DAYS (2008). Weary instrumental affirmations, that older person’s prerogative: arriving at a difficult middle place and seeing in it the possibility of rest, of being deeply in the time of passage rather than looking always forward or back. Digitonal started out as ‘chillout room’ music but this gorgeous album feels a bit like getting on with life, not just the moment or morning after the beat stops (contrast effect, descendent effect) but over the rest of the ordinary week, sharing private smiles and nods with faces you recognize from mad kinetic nightworld, nonetheless belonging to the waking world. Being here, just here, all the same.
  5. Reeves/Pattinson et al., THE BATMAN (2022). Normally I incline to sympathy when it comes to art that nobody wants, nobody needs, nobody asked for, nobody would miss if it didn’t exist. But there’s not a single joyful or lively frame in this movie, not a single performance (save maybe Colin Farrell’s) that overflows the bounds of what’s ultimately Yet Another Sad Batman Movie. It’s fascinating that Batman has come to signify not ‘moodiness,’ which at least implies tonal variation, but a kind of self-indulgent mopery; the character I grew up with was grim but blackly (or indeed campily) comic, with ‘knight’ right there in his nom de guerre and a giant penny in his Batcave. Hollywood appears to have misunderstood the success of both Christopher Nolan’s movies and Frank Miller’s astonishing DKR/Year One source material, which makes sense; Hollywood is made of money and money is a contagious kind of stupid. I’m with Alan Moore on this, among other things: the point of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the bad mood. (Y’know who understands this? The Wachowskis. Imagine what they could’ve done with Batman.)
  6. Harald Grosskopf, SYNTHESIST (1980). The Berlin School gives the drummer some — makes sense, his name’s on the cover — and the result isn’t quite a party album but it likes a nice beat just fine. The title track is pure effervescent space-disco, the sound of a car commercial drifting through the rings of Saturn. For a week this didn’t leave my metaphorical tape deck. It’s been that kind of year, and the silly season hasn’t even started yet.
  7. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987-1998). West End Games did the all-time classic Ghostbusters game, an early push toward ‘storygame’ territory that’s still funnier and more clever than nearly everything that’s gone by that name since, but their hit Star Wars RPG fleshed out the earlier game’s minimal task-resolution mechanics to Fast! Furious! Fun! effect — and for years it was the only place to get the kind of paratextual nerdstuff that Star Wars fans wanted. Timothy Zahn famously used WEG’s RPG supplements when working on his trilogy of novels that singlehandedly revived the commercial fortunes of Star Wars — he even commissioned maps from their art department to help him plan out the trilogy’s climactic fight against the Dark Jedi clone ohgodwhydoIknowthis — and repaid the favour by writing several well-received supplements for the RPG line. And what do you know? The game really is fast, fun, and a friendly sort of furious: mechanics are minimal, fights resolve in a couple of (big) dice rolls, and a mildly optimized Jedi character is nigh untouchable, which is why the emphasis of the game was on the storyworld’s Other Guys… Classic supplements like Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, i.e. ‘Firefly plus the Force,’ helped redefine the Star Wars universe in ways that continue to pay off today for (ugh) Disney, and the best WEG books still give that prickle of innocent excitement even now. There are other Star Wars RPGs, of course; money must be made. But the first is still the best — though picking one of the WEG game’s three editions is a tricky task, and good luck to you with that. (I’ll be running a 2e Revised/Expanded game next month for old friends, maybe with something closer to the 1st edition skill list. Can’t wait.)
  8. ‘Parasite in chief in her idiot hat.’ So wrote Christopher Eccleston, son of Salford, beneath a photo of the Queen in her crown. Salford City Council’s ‘About’ page begins: ‘Where is Salford? … about 200 miles north west of London.’ Which is like describing Boston as ‘about 200 miles north of New York City,’ and fuck you forever, you who teach that the limit of your vision is all that is or could be. She seems like a nice lady but I can’t blame him and he’s not wrong, though other parasites successfully compete.
  9. Trey Anastasio in Boston, 7 May 2022. He comes out for a solo acoustic encore, as is his wont, and in the middle of a beautiful improvisation out of ‘Chalkdust Torture’ he unexpectedly segues into one of the middle sections of ‘Harry Hood,’ such a smooth transition that half the crowd doesn’t realize what’s happened — plays for a minute and a half, then glides without effort back into ‘Chalkdust’ with his characteristic audible smile, Anastasio’s most winning musical attribute. That way he has, now, of being pleasantly surprised that he’s alive in his late 50s and sharing his genius with strangers and family, strangers who welcome one another into strange family. Anastasio’s ego was always matched with a self-abnegating generosity, and that difficult integration found ideal expression in the radical democracy of Phish’s improvisatory method. Anastasio has grown beyond Phish in many ways, but only because of his three bandmates, their own exploratory openness and iron dedication to transformative craftwork, was Anastasio able to discover and express his best self musically. Trey still plays music he wrote with classmates 45 years ago, and every time out he sounds like he just learned it and can’t wait to share it with everyone. His eagerness not just to impress but to bring light was always evident, generously onstage and pathologically in the business world backstage; since he got sober it’s tinged with an autumnal gratitude for the chance — and the second chance — to make a living and a life out of doing so. He’s lost more than a step on the guitar, but something inside him has grown beyond measure. Making and sharing art with his best friends, on their own terms, got him there.
  10. Catalytic converters. Our electric car doesn’t have them, which didn’t keep me from racing down the back stairs when I saw a shabbily dressed guy walk into our backyard early this morning. Turns out he was there to paint the fence, as he had been for several weekends running, which goes to show that I might be the main character but I’m not the hero. He’s done an excellent job painting the fence, by the way. It looks great.

off twitter, sorry i didn't write down the name of the artist.

kosmische

Excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –wa.

The ideal state, it seems to us, is sensory-imaginative immersion so total that every element of the experience comes to metaphorize every other — a borderless innerstate of total fluidity and mutability, surrounded and penetrated and haunted, absolute becoming-multiple. Being as we are, we most easily conceptualize such states in musical terms. Remember Bennie Maupin’s ‘Ensenada’ spreading out from pedal point as polytonal mist: intense bodily experience of stillness and slow movement. Remember the cruel carnal-cosmic ‘On your knees, boy’ from U2’s ‘Mysterious Ways,’ literate technosex as border-crossing, principled pain/pleasure. Remember Bernard Xolotl’s ‘Nearing the Gates of Eleusis,’ which establishes its minor colour and then denies return for seven minutes, circling spiritual-erotic yearning for release from the V7 like dervishes dancing, nearing the gates, secret innermost place… Remember those snaredrum 32nd notes racing beneath Jeff Tweedy’s despairing octave leap on the outro chorus of ‘Radio Cure,’ machine noises at the edges of vision like a migraine, like arms enfolding, distantly. Remember the camera pushing in on D’Angelo’s face as his listens to his band mount that astonishing crescendo to sexual-spiritual ecstasy and his rapturous smile shy then proud is the song’s true climax, true self hearing true self. Remember Burial’s ‘Kindred’ circling back to repeat after beatless break, that aching IV in the bass as warped voices multiply and maybe wanna rise, ‘Baby you can find the light,’ but dawn comes for this dream—

We think of experiences of conceptual hull-breach, doors thrown open and compartments flooding one another, every signifier another’s signified: radical polysemy. Nonpolynomial expansion of meaning. He licks his lips because he’s nervous to be naked (vulnerable, validated), he’s thinking of sex (desire, defilement, divinity), he’s thinking of food (family, fellowship), he’s thinking of God (ascension, assumption, apocalypse) — those ideas superpose and crosspollinate until every moment of the work belongs to every one. Think of this unmooring of/from meaning not as irresponsibility but as total responsibility: every possible imaginative relation is in hand, you are trusted with your every thought. No metaphoric link is forbidden or discouraged. Freest association. This is the environment of non-ordinary permissiveness which the term ‘fusion’ in its deepest sense can evoke.

This empowering, exhilarating boundarylessness characterizes mind-altering experiences of ‘psychedelic’ consciousness. It can bring terror, joy, serenity, longing, satisfaction, focused intensity, oceanic diffuseness, distortions or enhancements of perception, affirmation and obliteration of various self-narratives — but always a sense of being intensely alive. A more momentous present moment: more real precisely because more unreal, more surreal. The real world filled with all those other worlds, and no distinguishing between them.

When we speak of the ‘cosmic,’ this is what we mean: the sense, not of breadth or distance, but of multidimensionality.

We were at a party on Jones Beach or thereabouts one night with a bottle of bourbon in hand staring out at the water and things had grown complicated for what felt like it must be (better be) the last time, worst time; we craved resolution and felt intensely sad, angry, broken — sensed ourself to be in violation of principles perhaps we never held. We threw the bottle into the water and went to sleep in the car, maybe not right away. Looking back nearly 20 years later we don’t (as you might expect) ruefully recall the painfully abrading knot of good intentions and bad judgment and mixed emotions which bound us and others (each poisonously to all); it was hard and we were dumb but that’s as far as it went. Rather, we see in that moment an incredible complex potentiality, vast energies circulating. The desperation attached to the memory isn’t to do with hopelessness or choices cut off, but rather the chance (not taken) for absolute transformation. Angry, sad, broken, yes; but also comprehensively involved, able to see out to sea, able to touch inner organs flayed bare, bound up with other hearts, fending off knowledge and drowning in feeling. The sky was huge. It might’ve been summer or spring — what difference does it make?

Not cosmic, not hardly. But without question an experience of the irreducible interconnectedness of things, coloured by negative affect (then and in memory now) but lit from within. Longing, lust, lament. Love and loneliness, and a quietly violent confusion. Knowledge of pain. I fucking felt like everything.

The motif of ‘adventurous expectancy’ which runs through the present work is most intensely evoked, for us, when a purity (singularity) of sensation joins a complexity (multiplicity) of sense: algebra giving way to ecstasy, the great unwieldy mass of form made weightless in ecstatic flight to outer/innerspace. The utter simplicity of a single trembling note, sight of a high strange house on the hill, a pirouette, or the hour after the caffeine kicks in when hard problems feel easy but are known in their complexity — every aspect present. That’s what life is like, at best: every idea, every memory, flowing beneath this single-point awareness. All the contents of the imagination brought to the fore, everything in foreground, front-of-macromind.

The joining of this kaleidoscopic imagination with that of another person, desires in common (in communion), gives this imaginative experience its identifiably erotic dimension. That feeling of borders collapsing to points, points variegating to spaces. You and me, dimensions of one another. Mind and body amen.

Telling the truth is a love letter to everything imaginable.

Duration.

15+ years ago my friend Farhad used the phrase ‘duration music’ and it stuck with me — under my craw in fact. In fact, enough that I’m thinking about it this morning.

I just listened to Loscil’s Triple Point while plowing the sidewalk slush. Hourlong album, sounds and feels like one song.

So:

Beyond the usual pop/rock/funk/whatever, my music listening often tends toward a mix of the ‘old-fashioned’ (jazz, classical), the psychedelic, the ambient-electronic. These have ‘duration’ in common. As a kid I’d throw on my mom’s Beethoven records and ride out for a half-hour and more on a single multipart composition; in college I’d listen to an hourlong continuous jam by Phish, then rewind the tape and listen again. They Might Be Giants write perfect 3-minute pop gems, but queue up three in a row and you’re essentially having a continuous TMBG experience, long talk in an alien language — how long does the music need to play before its character changes, or yours does, and the listening rather than the playing becomes the locus of temporal identity? Is a long listen to short tunes a thing in itself?

Trout Mask Replica and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts don’t sound much alike, but it seems to me they have a related psychotropic effect; is there a metagenre — of reception-posture rather than performance-form; perhaps we should speak of a ritual role — which they can be said to share?

Or does ‘duration’ relate to ‘enduring such repetition’? And what’s the point? By so enduring, what do you break through to?

The Loscil album — his first: minimalist ambient techno, pretty/empty — is an hour of almost undifferentiated drone-baths and bleeps and pressure-differentials (excuse me, ‘beats’), like a row of computers trying not to interrupt each other while taking the SAT. There’s not a single moment of the album that demands or even rewards attention, and while I’ve heard it enough to recognize the first two tracks, the rest of the hour has no identity at all. I want to say it’s ‘egoless’ music, in a sense, except that it takes some ego to think that such (any) music needs to be made and shared. Maybe not much.

And I’m glad it does exist. While Zero Point excites no passion in me at all, no emotion of any kind really, it forms an important part of an outer/inner experience that I do treasure. Like Stars of the Lid, And Their Refinement of the Decline — like Adderall, or so I hear — Zero Point grants access to a powerful realm of action.1

Even the action of sitting very still, of cultivated ‘inaction’; though of course not only that.

One of my favourite activities used to be going out on a late-night errand, ideally grocery shopping, with 88.1 FM on the radio, whether on the car stereo or in the headphones. MIT’s WMBR — Walker Memorial Basement Radio — is Boston’s best and most interesting station, and night they generally play a strange spacey mix of tunes, from goth-wave melodrama to psychedelic soundscapes to experimental improvised rock-noise to the usual electrobleep wallpaper-glitches that apparently substitute for womb sounds among helicopter-parented Gen Z kids. I love it; to me the whole mix signifies darkness-as-permission and I’ve been grateful for the WMBR DJs’ night-journeys since arriving in Boston nearly a quarter-century ago.

I wouldn’t call my night-listening ‘habitual’ now, not only because I’m not around the car radio much now. But it’s unquestionably a ritual headspace I return to occasionally at what I determine, according to some improvisatory whim, to be the right moment. It’s not solely curiosity that pushes me to WMBR at those times; I do occasionally wonder what’s on, but that wondering needn’t propel me to listen, necessarily. There’s plenty else on. Rather, it’s a kind of conscious openness that motivates me to tune in. From time to time, I’m ready/able to receive transmissions on a certain (metaphorical) frequency, and that readiness can manifest as listening to WMBR’s literal broadcast frequency…but less literally/simply, too, it means relaxing my grip enough that my continuity of experience is restored (to me). Is that ‘holism,’ is that entry to an altered state through ‘holistic’ practice?

Call it instead ‘psychedelic’ experience, which is absolutely (nondeterministically) linked to ‘duration,’ as to disjunction and a matrix of perceptual contrast-effects: continuity where ending should come, precession and peak and recession and then weird dissipative wobble where clean lines are customary, sad mad fluting out of a clear night, music coming in colours, backward speech, secret speech, angel-voices booming through the Heaviside layer on a clear channel, wisdom from a stone, a plant, a kiss. Psychedelia’s stylistic link to rainbows and spectra flows from the quality — not solely attributable to psychotropic chemicals — of a reconstituted continuity, the erosion and smoothing of sharp artificial edges between domains of experience, action, sense, feeling.

An imaginative posture of receptivity, or more precisely one of a range of such postures, marks the psychedelic experience as much any formal quality of text/place/act. And as with (say) performing a demanding series of yoga asanas, to enter into a state of psychedelic openness takes not just time but a long damn time. Not only that: while psychedelic experience is often the furthest thing from ‘relaxing,’ it does call for the mind-body complex enter into a sort of fluid flow state, grounded, corners rounded, different in kind from the ‘continuous partial attention’ (i.e. managerial disconnection) of ordinary time. In other words: acceptance of, or let’s say ‘authentic engagement with,’ the flow of things — even things that won’t flow. Psychedelia is about getting deep with it, whatever ‘it’ is.

Not to say, of course, that great psych-art can’t be discontinuous and disturbing and aggressively weird — there’s nothing rounded or flowy about Trout Mask Replica or Apollo 18 — but rather that you need to come to such art ready to ride out the experience. You’ve gotta commit. This is one reason corporate ‘mindfulness’ practices are so ugly and transparently fraudulent: they’re precisely and explicitly about ‘microdosing’ practices (e.g. breath meditation) which, sustained in their proper measure, would make consumers less susceptible to the motivating/dehumanizing anxieties of corporate anticulture. A one-minute break to breathe really is purely good for you, but the last thing your HR Team Lead actually wants is for you to attain inner peace, or even to pursue it.

That’s not what they pay you for.

One reason psychedelic culture is so preoccupied with ‘ancient wisdom’ — one non-silly reason, that is, there being plenty of silly ones, as well as an assortment of particular social-historical contingencies which this essay is waaaaaaay too fucking broad-brush to be concerned with — is that sinking into psychedelic experience, drug-induced or not, calls for an imaginative flexibility (or even-temperedness, good nature, conscious embrace of contingency/paradox/uncertainty, etc.) to which bite-size fluorescent antiseptic analytical clocktick stutter-step stop-motion modern being(-barely)-in-the-world is not just incompatible but actively hostile. The least intrusive portion of our modern existence is night, when we’re least accessible to surveilling power, least jittery, least often interrupted and interfered with, restored to ourselves by depletion, drifting toward dream: i.e. least modern, most like our ancestors. Sleep is a thing they and we share, and dream. In the shadow-time inbetween days, between forced submissions to more and less obviously hostile systems of external control, the discretizing rationalizing systematizing abstracting intelligence which serves Good Order can recede and a different faculty assert itself, something deeper down, scarier — (dis)quiet connection, (dis)solution…an encounter, there, for which the human mind has always been equipped by evolutionary accident, and which calls forth not daybroken intelligence but nightlit wisdom…

So I put on this Loscil album, right? And if it’s the right depth of dark and I’m the right sort of ready (or ready to be ready), I go to a place that’s no place, an inner state in which I’m coolly attentive to the curve the music makes where/when I am, but without demanding that the music (or where, when, Self, cool, inside) submit to whatever of day’s rationalizing demands I might unthinkingly pass along — ‘transmit,’ to borrow the obvious epidemiological term. That state might not be relaxing in itself, but at some level you have to relax into it, to defocus and suspend perception of fine-grain topology in order to bring slower contours into your listening-consciousness; paradoxically this can be hard work, as any woman who’s given birth can tell you. It’s a standard drug-trick too but not only that. Various kooks and goofs will talk about ‘deeper awareness’ and respectable sorts will laugh, are trained to laugh — but why wouldn’t there be a cognitive equivalent to deep-tissue massage, and why wouldn’t it too involve slow strokes and sustained pressure?

Magical texts suggest two sets of techniques for inducing ekaggatā or single-point awareness: the inhibitory and the excitatory, respectively the quieting/collapsing of awareness and its intensifying/fracturing, both resulting in a posture of clarified, ego-suppressive awareness. This is magical consciousness — psychedelic experience — and common to both inward/outbound paths is time, which is to say devotion. One aspect of devotion is burning off enough fuel to get rid of jittery self-consciousness, accepting the nature of the thing itself, working hard enough that basic depth-maintenance isn’t such hard work anymore.

(Imagine your first swim teacher gently holding you at the water’s surface, encouraging you to relax and float; imagine somebody else yelling ‘Just relaaaax!’ from somewhere outside the magic circle.)

Our specific terms here are from Peter Carroll in Liber Null, but students of tantra, BDSM, Ritalin, video games, William James, any intellectual endeavour requiring multiple hours of sustained concentration, or music that goes so fast that it feels slow, will recognize thesis antithesis and synthesis. Indeed, Carroll’s work was explicitly agnostic as to method:

Certain forms of gnosis lend themselves more readily to some forms of magic than others. The initiate is encouraged to use his own ingenium in adapting the methods of exaltation to his own purposes.

‘Methods of exaltation’ sounds like Eliade’s ‘techniques of ecstasy,’ which is perhaps to say2 one measures a circle beginning anywhere.

And our point here — intentional or emergent — is that we might think of Loscil’s synth patches and Carroll’s magical trances and Fort’s adventurous-expectant circle and Eliade’s technicians, along with Sun Ra’s spaceship and William Gibson’s typewriter, as points or ranges within a shared domain of human (and indeed transhuman) experience. Or—

Or no, maybe our point is that ‘intentional’ and ’emergent’ aren’t opposites.

Cambridge MA : February / April 2021


  1. I wrote about And Their Refinement and its place in my ritual-listening for the 33-1/3 B-Sides anthology from Bloomsbury. 
  2. (after Charles Fort, but I hope you knew that already) 

On the ‘Hour of Slack’ (another excerpt from syllabus-mss in progress).

You know the drill. –wa.

Hour of Slack

Idiotic freeform radio show out of…Texas, I believe, now relegated to the Internet with the rest of the culture-corpses. For a time Ivan Stang’s radio bullshit was a beacon of performative insanity, audio nonsense as media critique, lashing out at the absolute hollowness of postwar consumer culture (rather a grand term; ‘shopper culture’ seems more appropriately derisive?) while functioning too as an actual-existing cynical cult — a meta-cult maybe. I mean you can still pay them, though I’m not sure you’d want to. Anti-heirs to the Discordians — neurotic not sociable, pissed off not agog, their sarcasm at the reader’s expense instead of the Man’s — the Subgenius represent(ed) a once-hyperlocal adolescent-male response to postwar conformity, religious and secular; their milieu was both millennarian and terminally late, both nervous about the coming millennial apocalypse and cynically certain it wouldn’t matter anyway since everything was bullshit. Their yetis and UFOs and false gods scan now as an expression of disappointment in the failure of late-20C fantastic to get the guys laid or at least deliver flying cars, poisoned too by uncertainty over whether the atomization which drove late-20C conspiracists/cults (crazy/nowhere) was their own fault. It’s not, not really, but you kind of want to blame them for it anyway, since they’re assholes. Funny ones.

And that’s baked right into the premise: Stang and his fellow (former?) stimulant addicts are at least smart enough to realize, here in late middle age if not before, that the ‘Bob’ pseudocult’s full of people who came within a hair’s breadth of an uglier life by picking up the Principia Discordia (or Penthouse) as teenagers instead of Atlas Shrugged. I think the unpleasantness of it all is accounted for; it must be. So then the melancholy self-consciousness I pick up from peak-era Subgenius stuff is probably bleeding through from High Weirdness by Mail, Stang’s sarcastic denigration/appreciation of hyperlocal 80s mail-order weirdo culture. That book’s a glorified listicle but really does possess a profound loneliness — the loneliness of the Max Fenig character on The X-Files, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (‘Meet me in Montauk’) — and the Subgenius’s whole borderline-Extropian ‘street corner prophet’ shtick has always sounded to me like the prelude to a nervous breakdown, which I’m guessing Stang would say is societal not personal (and HWBM gets entered as evidence either way). The sole recognizable human feeling in the Subgenius act is resentment, which is fun for a while, and the open wound that High Weirdness by Mail represents is probably the reason why. You can only live lonely for so long.