I wrote this piece to get closure.– Nas, “No Introduction”
I used to trade my writing in exchange for a chance to see live music. These days we mock the language that promises to pay young writers in exposure, but five years ago, I was more than happy to write for free for blogs that landed me a spot on a guest list. After five years of feeling isolated and moorless in Los Angeles, scraping up extra cash for ticket prices and gas money, the sheer wealth of music available in Brooklyn overwhelmed me. Plus you don’t have to fucking drive or find parking just to go see some music. There was no money or corruption or pageviews or writer cliques involved, it was just me, music, and words.
I had a tumultuous childhood, but from an early age music was the only thing that could calm me down, bring me out of myself, and make me feel connected to something larger. Even if I was happy to be in New York, the confusion and isolation of moving to such a daunting place was very real. Going to shows and writing about them was another way to give my life meaning and express it back the best way I knew how. I didn’t want it to be my job, I was afraid it would ruin the experience, the love I had for it.
Eventually, it became clear to me–and those around me–that writing about music was both the thing I was best at and the thing I cared the most about. It seemed foolish to put off the inevitable, so I took a job in music editorial and turned this passion project into a nine to five. I’d love to say I never looked back but that’s simply untrue. I worked a variety of places, one of which I was even fired from, and continually questioned the world I saw being built around the act of describing and commenting on music. How was this a job? It still puzzled me. There were moments of complete clarity, golden and lucid like in the beginning, but there were also moments of utter darkness and despair. As soon as there’s money involved something always changes, and the longer I stayed in this world the more I noticed: I was changing too.
Sometimes knowing the nitty gritty reality of the music industry gets in the way of our unadulterated enjoyment of the music itself; this has been true since the industry began, but one that was driven home to me on a personal level at the beginning of this year. In January a number of stories about sexual assault and other types of harassment and corruption came into glaring view. In the tumult, I could barely bring myself to listen to anything at all. I stopped going to shows. I lost sight of what initially drew me to this work–seeing, feeling and experiencing the music. I made excuse after excuse about attending any concerts, after all, the more cluttered life gets, the easier it is to stop making space for shows. I didn’t leave any space in my life for music.
Until it became clear to me that I had a choice: I could shut myself off from this community, leave it entirely and let my lingering questions about the job find their answer in departure. Or, I could dive back in. I could go back toward the source of what drew me–the chance to hear and breathe and see the music. There is only one choice here when you really weigh them stone for stone. And it takes a lot for me to give up on something I love fiercely.
So last week I went to a show every night for a week. I went when I felt tired, or wanted to go to yoga instead, or was fighting with a friend, or thought it’d be nicer to lay in bed and call the boy I like. I went because the act of going, choosing to go, is an investment and a promise in itself. It’s a pronouncement that this is worth something more than a ticket price or a list spot or a show review–it’s an assertion that this is worth my time and energy, it’s worth my attention, it’s worth enough of an investment of myself that I have come to call it my career. It’s worth fighting through the gloom to reach that place of innocence, where it’s just you and a band that you love, have loved, or are falling in love with for the first time in this very moment. That feeling of communion, which for me is almost only evoked by music, is what I cling to when everything feels impossible.
Last week, John Darnielle reminded me why I love music. I have not traditionally been part of the diehard Mountain Goat audience, I actually attended the show in order to see the marvelous guitar work of William Tyler. But when Darnielle launched into “No Children” at City Winery, it made a Tuesday night seemed like a Friday. I was drawn into the Mountain Goats fold forever, and I understood why everyone at my rickety, crowded table was scream-crying the lyrics along with him; we had been hurt, and Darnielle put words to how it felt. He gave us the gape of the wound and the salve. He gave us everything inside his heart and then some, performing multiple encores and beaming the whole time. This is not something you could access by listening to a Mountain Goats record on your headphones–this was epiphany.
The night before that, Colin Stetson reminded me why I love music. Why is his stunning, dissonance-infused reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd symphony being performed in a crowded basement club where the servers use flashlights to stride toward tables to deliver gin and tonics and grilled cheese sandwiches? I can’t answer that, but I do know that when the ensemble arrived onstage and began to play the tender, muted opening section of Sorrow, silence fell over LPR. People stopped crowding each other. Even the bartenders assumed a hush for a moment. This isn’t even exaggeration–this is the magnetic throb of a Stetson composition. He held the saxophone like an immense sword or weapon, his playing was so precise, as though he wielded something dangerous, as though the wrong move could impact all of us. But there was no wrong move, it never came.
Instead, mesmerizing crescendos cut through the slinky clunk of cocktail shakers begins me; truly, it felt like a raw juxtaposition of the outside world’s priorities and the sound of how the human spirit feels when it yearns toward a higher plane, an exalted sky. If there is one concession I will give this otherwise abysmal venue, it’s that the acoustics are fucking incredible. LPR had become a near perfect space; things are not what they seem. Then, my neighbor spilled his beer all over me. The grand illusion was sopping wet, clinging to my skin, but the music soldiered on. Listening to Sorrow, you begin to get a sense of why our ancestors felt the need to erect magnificent concert halls for hosting these sorts of shows–the music deserves it. So did my dress.
Safe in Brooklyn later on in the week, Ryley Walker and Charles Rumback’s hushed and gentle fingerpicking lent magnetism to an entirely instrumental set in Union Pool’s gorgeous backroom. It has become hip to complain that this place is “the worst,” but honestly, on a Wednesday night it was completely fine. I toasted Ryley with a tequila shot before hopping into a car shortly after the set, exhausted but full of peace. Walker and Rumback’s joint album Cannots came out earlier this month, but despite the title, I felt a rush of inspiration sluice through me while they played. The sweet strong feeling invoked by their playing stayed with well into the next day, where it was replaced by the lashing, wry songwriting of Cindy Lou Gooden who performs as Very Fresh and also as the bassist in Railings. She was performing at Palisades, one of my favorite new venues in Brooklyn, and is an artist I believe in a whole lot. It’s nice to watch someone who really cares treat even a small, sparse show like it’s a sold-out marquee. It’s a reminder that most of the people who are doing this do it for the love, not for the fame. Gooden’s determination rekindled mine; her quiet artistry is a tiny flame, flickering in the face of difficulty.
I’ve written before about the way the last band I saw that week, the band with easily mocked moniker The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. Easily mocked, unless Harmlessness is a record that convinced you of the world’s beauty when it seemed impossible to see. Easily mocked, because that’s what has become the standard tone on this often horrific place we call the internet, where tearing one another down and clawing deeper into someone else’s mistakes will win you a following, or the smug self-assurance that you shamed another living being into submission. The music of TWIABP flies in the face of all that, wearing its heart on its ripped emo sleeve even though that’s no longer fashionable. All I know is when I heard them sing “Our hands on the same weapon / Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow,” I know that is and will always be my mantra. This is my weapon, music writing, and I want to use it to make something good happen in the world.
Here’s what I do know: I love music. I love music and I loved the writers who could explain to me why I loved it in words I didn’t yet have. I wanted to be someone who gave other listeners those words. I wanted to turn your body into a tuning fork with a sentence, so the words and the melody and the drums and the bass pulse through you, deeper than sound, bringing you into some other realm. Only music can take me to that realm. I tried with other things, I tried to stave off this very career, but always in my free time, in corner of the bar, or in a document pulled up behind other work, there I’d be, somewhere, dashing off a few phrases in praise of a chorus. Or, gesturing to a coworker about how the final verse reaches a crescendo that is really the best fucking part and it feels like you can fly.
This is what I want to do all day: I want to tell you about the artists I love, their best album, the best song on the album, and the very best part of the song. I want your soul to sing it back, too. That moment when we both feel the music–that one part–is deeper and more meaningful than anything I have ever experienced in my life. It is more golden and powerful than the darkness of the past few months. I believe that, and I want to use words to continue to create that feeling, that moment, that relationship. I want to do that within a community I trust, full of people who support and understand, or at the very least, respect me. I don’t want to have beefs and rifts and cold wars. I’ve fucked up the most! I’ve been petty and insecure, jealous or rude or hateful. I’ll probably mess up again. But I don’t want to hate anyone, even if they hate me. I don’t want to be mocked, or mock or try to GET people in their failure. When you slip, I want to help you up. When you are hurting, I want to send you a song to cheer you up.
There’s a Nas line on “No Introduction,” the opening song off Life Is Good–his post-divorce album–where he sings “They think it’s just music still.” The way he sings it, you get the full sense of the unsayable universe of what music means to him in the frustrated twists of his words. I think a lot of us who work and live and breathe in this industry relate to that sentiment so hard, with our entire hearts. If you haven’t devoted yourself to this, then you might see music as an accessory or background noise. But when you’re in the trenches, when music has saved you from the darkest parts of yourself, when music has saved you from the darkest parts of its own ecosystem, then you begin to see it as something bigger than just sound. It’s a way of life, really. It’s a way of finding out who you really want to be. I want to be a music writer; the music reminded me.