“We both know what memories can bring, they bring diamonds and rust.” –Joan Baez
There’s always that longing to say everything and nothing at once, that yearning for the moment I forget I am myself.
The new Swans album’s title track “The Seer” spans more than 32 minutes, layered with bagpipes, drums, and all sorts of percussive noise chimes swirling. This goes on for minutes before a layer of bass beats drop and the noise turns to a pulsing, then a meditative twang layers in with more twang and drone, building, the building. The tempo paces and eventually, then there’s a voice quickly chanting “I see it all I see it all I see it all.” And that’s only eight minutes in to the half-hour song. There are “full length” albums that don’t go that long.
Fronted by Michael Gira, Swans was a pivotal force in the downtown experimental music scene of 1980s Manhattan. Though Swans went on hiatus from the late 1990s until 2009, Gira kept turning out music under his own name, as well as his Angels of Light project. He founded his own record label, Young God, which is home to current Swans releases.
Contrast this with the minimalism of Bauhaus master and color theorist Josef Albers’ series “Structural Constellations.”
“These graphic images depend on selectivity and economy of activity,” explains Nicholas Fox Weber in The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. “They result from carefully calculated decisions, with anything extraneous cleared away. They reflect Albers’ belief that, while we are constantly confronted with an infinity of impressions and possibilities, we must choose a direction and adhere to it to survive. We must trust what we are doing.”
Albers did not believe in excess anything and these are exercises in the most basic of lines and angles, using only pencil and pen to draw straight lines of minimally different weight connecting.
In my late 20s—it was the height of the Aughts—I lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment at the northernmost tip of Greenpoint with my husband, whom I’d just married. The tin-ceilinged kitchen had a gaping hole, which our landlord has refused to repair. I realize I return to that decaying tin ceiling often—I mean it’s so charming, so Brooklyn railroad.
We tried to be writers in Brooklyn. We hosted a reading series that was written-up in the places you’d want your little poetry reading series to be written-up, made hand-bound poetry chapbooks and a literary magazine with an excruciatingly DIY screen-printed cover. We were living the Brooklyn life: downing dirty martinis and whiskeys to close the bar at 4 a.m., sleeping until 1 the next day and nursing hangovers with greasy BLTs and omelets of pure gluttony, then off to another reading, another show, another museum opening, then Monday morning and the subway ride into Midtown, SoHo, Union Square (there were so many entry level jobs) not really making enough to pay rent.
We lived there until the money ran out, which for us meant four years. We didn’t have a trust fund, or a relative who passed down their rent stabilized apartment or a penchant for working any sort of job that would bring enough money for anything more than acquiring the bare necessities.
Not even that stench from the sewage treatment plant or the fact that my beloved G-train didn’t go into Manhattan or the massive oil spill still left from the 1950s could stop the excess of glass condos, boutiques hawking $300 handbags and bars pushing $12 craft cocktails from taking over what had been a predominantly Polish and Puerto Rican working class neighborhood when we moved in.
When the money ran out it was May and the sewage stench was beginning to coat the early summer nights. We packed all our belongings in a primary yellow Penske truck and drove through industrial wastelands and some mountains and some strip malls until we got to the mountains I first called home, the Arkansas Ozarks.
Though I live in the center of downtown, where the historic square meets the main drag that runs up to the university campus in an apartment massive by Brooklyn standards, plus smartly designed in an open plan, and work at a job I love, I still get weepy at opening scenes to SVU or Law & Order. Those schlock stock montages have nothing on the music, oh the music.
Take the Joan Baez hit “Diamonds and Rust,” in which she recounts her 1960s love affair with Bob Dylan. She wrote it in 1975, long after the dust had settled, though it hasn’t at all in the emotional change within the song itself. The title track to an album released in April 1976, it went gold.
This New Year’s Day, in my smartly open plan designed spacious apartment downtown, I kept hitting repeat while drinking rosé and eating frozen pizza. I felt then as though I’d totally come into my own as a thirtysomething woman. “Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again,” Baez trembles with that heavy vibrato. Shimmery and oh-so-very ‘70s produced, I’m completely seduced by her lines, that decadent vibrato and the melancholy guitar atop synths and keys.
A bit on in the song she hits me hard with this: “Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it …” I am nostalgic, I am so sad and I’ve always dwelled there in that moment, ever since I sat outside on the playground on a damp cold March day in the cement tube one day in elementary school. But Michael Gira, who was a main force in the downtown experimental music scene of Manhattan in the 1980s says he’s not nostalgic when I connect with him via Skype.
His avatar is a black and white photo of Samuel Beckett: “I like the way he looks, I wish my face looked like that, there wasn’t a profound reason, I haven’t read him in years, there was a time when I’d read most of it, read his biography, amazing biography, one of my few personal heroes, along with Francis Bacon who I admire as artists.”
It was one of those September days where fall felt closer than summer and the constant rumble of motorcycles undulated beneath our conversation. An annual massive biker rally forces the trustafarians, the skinny jean crew and those hillbilly intellectuals out of their natural element for a few days. He’d just finished a massive tour and was packing and shipping something like a thousand recordings for his Young God record label.
In just over an hour we discussed nostalgia, music vs. sound vs. noise, and the physicality of music.
I’d bought Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante from my friend’s secondhand bookstore just before moving away but hadn’t read it until recently. The literary nonfiction masterpiece documents the hard knock world that was Manhattan from the latter 1800s to the depression – the one of brothels, the kid gangs, the depravity and utter poverty. My copy, originally published in 1991, includes a 2003 afterword always leaves me teary.
“I don’t live there anymore, and I have trouble going there and walking around because the streets are too haunted by the ghosts of my own personal history,” he writes. “That is the effect in middle age of a youth spent dancing around fire.”
I also read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Eileen Myles’ Inferno, more accounts that had me yearning for a place that doesn’t exist, and let’s be honest, never really did. I know I’ve completely glamorized that pre-Giuliani era when grit was still a thing in NYC, a place where and artists could live, albeit in hellholes, and collaborate without a trust fund or job on Wall Street. So when I talk to musicians, such as Michael Gira, who were a part of all that, I’m curious.
Turns out he’d read and loved Low Life. My curiosity for what it was to be a part of that glorious downtown 1980s scene brought him to recount in detail a scene I didn’t expect. Gira described the wee hours one day in 1978—was it looking out 93 Ave. B (a song on The Seer is titled “93 Ave. B Blues”) perhaps?
He recalled 5 a.m. scratchy noises outside his Lower East Side window. When he looked down into the street a preschool aged boy circled unsupervised riding a Big Wheels or maybe it was a tricycle.
The truth is I don’t have the exact retelling to recount here. That hour-long conversation—about gentrification, nostalgia, noise vs. sound, music as physical with a seminal figure in latter 20th century music—well it turns out my computer hadn’t been recording any of that conversation at all. I was devistated. There was no record of it at all, except in my memory, that imperfect storage we all rely on to shape our inner histories.
I wrote the publicist begging for a 2nd chance and Gira graciously agreed. We Skyped again the next morning, rehashing many of the same questions including the memory of 5 a.m. in his Lower East Side apartment, which prompted this: “Now I feel like a clown. You could just write: New York, 1979, bad. You can write that. I’m not a very nostalgic person. Usually you’re nostalgic for something that never really existed anyway when you’re nostalgic. I’m more interested in the present, the future doesn’t exist.”
Maybe a seminal figure in experimental music born in 1954, the same year as my father, can get away with saying that and of course he’s right. Yet what about those of us still, well barely now, still able to qualify themselves as youth.
Nina Simone was born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. A classical pianist—the words prodigy were uttered when she played Mozart as a little girl; turned Atlantic City nightclub performer, which is when she took the stage name Nina Simone so her Christian mother would not discover she was singing among loose sinners (only to make rent in the summertime because it paid better than teaching music lessons); turned heavyweight of 20th Century music, no one embodies the characteristics I seek out in a musician more than Simone, and I’m one of those folks who shirks when asked to pick my favorite anything.
“Everything that happened to me as a child involved music. It was part of everyday life, as automatic as breathing,” she says in her memoir I Put a Spell On You. She did not like being labeled anything, and I wouldn’t try to. Protest singer, jazz, blues and folk, she mixed it all up.
“If I had to be called something,” she writes, “it should have been folk singer, because there was more folk and blues in my playing than jazz.” For me, it is music and doesn’t need a category, indeed defies it. And she could write a devastating song such as “The King of Love Is Dead” or take “I Ain’t Got No” from the musical Hair and make it a protest song for living life to its fullest.
For Gira it’s not so much about the music, but her raw power as a performer. “You know it’s funny I don’t have a lot of her records,” he admits. “I don’t really listen to her music to be honest but when it comes on it always astounds me and it has to do with that she’s sort of an avatar. She is a figure that’s funneling energy from something greater than herself.
“When you think about great performers, mentioning James Brown, Nina Simone, or one of my heroes Howlin’ Wolf or even if you think of more conventional performers like Frank Sinatra, they were beyond their own physical and personality, funneling music through themselves in a really passionate way.”
As for Simone, he talks about the power of her performances he’s witnessed via youtube, as well as remarking on her volatile personality and growing up poor, eventually gaining a scholarship to Julliard. “She wasn’t even singing actually,” he says. “Watching her performances are really electrifying. I don’t really ascribe to the modern rock genre of just kind of standing there like a slouch.”
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends,” Didion opens “Goodbye To All That.”
Here I search clumsily for an ending to this fragmentary essay, while I decry linear thinking and our unhealthy obsessions with those two points at either end, the peace that comes from accepting constant flux contained in now. Yet I remain massively nostalgic, always lingering in the music.
Whether I’m blaring Hazel Dickens, driving down an intricately curved county road at 2 a.m., or walking down the city bike trail, headphones sending me the new surreality of Besnard Lakes as I pause to stare at patterns in the bare branches of early March—perfection in all those pointy orbs dangling from a sweetgum tree. I live in the music, let myself dwell in the notes until I forget I am me.
“Now you’re telling me, you’re not nostalgic, then give me another word for it, you were so good with words and in keeping things vague.”
There’s Joan Baez, singing of 1960s New York and her relationship with Bob Dylan. For me I will always remember a scene from 2002, my grad school days spent in a faded yellow-brick duplex just off campus. A four year romance with a live-in boyfriend was dying as I twirled in circles on the scratched hardwood living room floor, transfixed by the hazy gauze and raw emotion of “Diamonds and Rust” eminating from cheap speakers.
Let’s return to Josef Albers and his stricture for sticking to rules, those ones you set for yourself, that necessity of staying within boundaries and contrast that with Gira’s philosophy documented by his band Swans with their epic 32 minute songs – that turn longer in live performances – layer on layer of sonics and percussion. Gira and his eschewing of nostalgia, that tricky bedfellow.
I’ve now spent longer back in the Arkansas Ozarks than my four years in Brooklyn, where the mistletoe, now faded, champions the chaos of the bare trees in early March. Mostly what I want to do these days is put the headphones on and disappear into the music until I forget I am myself.