Dreams Better Than This
218 · 1 April 99
Maybe when April 1 rolled around in 1995, in between issues 9 and 10 of this column, before I even had a web site to put them on, I wasn't thinking about April 1, 1999, but surely by 1996, when the publication date for issue 62 fell on April 4, my birthday, it had occurred to me that if I kept at this long enough, I'd eventually get to put out an issue on April Fool's Day. Once week 218 started to creep out of the distant fog of hypothesis into the acrid glare of inevitability, though, the prospect began to lose its thrill. As you might think odd, if you knew me better, I hate April Fool's Day. I adore pranks and parodies, and this is a day especially for them, but that's exactly what's wrong with it, to me. Unexpected humor should be part of our everyday lives, part of the richness of our communication, part of the way we talk to each other and understand our own emotions and beliefs. We poke fun at things because we're curious, because we want to see how the things react. Trying to constrain this thoroughly human impulse to a single, clearly-identified day is offensive tokenism, perhaps less obviously inane than Black History Month or Mother's Day, but maybe no less dangerous. What levity will float us through the other three hundred and sixty-four days? April Fool's Day is another in the long series of small-minded attempts to program spontaneity (see also Casual Day, Happy Hour, Valentine's Day, Leap Year...), thus disarming it under the guise of appreciating it. And the other bad thing about all these scheduled outbursts is that people participate who have no business doing so. My time at the Harvard Lampoon made me a humor snob, I'm quite aware, but a semi-official occasion on which people with no discernible senses of humor are encouraged to "play jokes" is a deeply awful idea. To a humorless person, the difference between a prank and petty lying is merely semantic. April Fool's Day has become, in practice, an excuse for mean-spirited untruth. And since far too much of our culture revolves around profound dishonesty already, I find myself wanting to take an objector's stand, and spend this day being completely, earnestly, oppressively serious. Plus, I'm still getting cloyingly self-congratulatory notes from people saying they were in the audience for the fictitious industry-colloquium rant I described delivering in issue 203, and agreed with everything I said, which puts me in the awkward position of simultaneously thanking them for their support and explaining that since I made the event up and they're claiming they were there, whatever they think they are kissing isn't my ass.
At the same time, though, it's hard to resist the rudimentary comic appeal of writing reviews of imaginary records. 666 Leaf Clover, the legendary album by Irish heavy metal titans St. Patricide, demands an exegesis. The little-known collaboration projects Earth, Wind & fIREHOSE and Thee Motörheadcoatees deserve wider audiences. Somewhere the unrepentant hardcore septet Moab Thud, made up entirely of dissident Mormons with club feet, plays to a criminally sparse audience (or possibly a sparse criminal audience). The first Men Without Heads album is reissued with bonus deletions. A bootleg captures an all-gamelan transcription of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, co-masterminded by Nels Cline and Raffi. Some diligent research turns up the early Tiffany-esque dance-pop albums by Ani DiFranco, Courtney Love and Corin Tucker. The Spice Girls learn to play instruments. Symphonic Music of Jonathan Richman. You see how tempting it is. And if I'd learned my lessons better, at the Lampoon, I might be able to take an opportunity to unload some of my backlog of fake-rock-band jokes at face value, and just have fun for a week. But if I ever could, I'm too self-conscious for that now. Those jokes are too cheap, and weeks are too precious. I'm surrounded by piles of records I ache to tell you about; if I lose a week, the whole structure may collapse. There's no reason you should care, but I've been struggling with this dilemma for weeks. As has been happening with disconcerting frequency, though, introspection dead-ends and yet the perfect solution arrives of its own volition, this time in a small package that reached me just last week (tardily; the eBay auctions I won to assemble it closed more than a month ago), containing three tangibly real 45rpm singles to complete my collection of ten short songs by four unapologetically fake bands, the heartbreakingly brief recorded history of a five-year April Fool's project that was inauthentic in fact, but truer than most people's life works.
The fake label on which the five singles appeared was called Wishing Court Records. "Fake", in this context, has to be qualified: the five singles were really pressed, albeit in very limited numbers (five hundred each of the first four, a comparatively ambitious two thousand of the fifth), and "Wishing Court Records" really is the insignia they bear. The sleeves list a post-office box number here in Cambridge, and while I can't prove that it was ever rented to anyone involved with these records, I went to the post office in question (Inman Square, hardly the one I'd pick to run a business out of) and checked, and the box number is real, and belongs to one of the big boxes on the bottom row, easily large enough to put seven-inch singles in. What Wishing Court's distribution strategy consisted of, I don't know, and I wasn't paying attention to 45s during its 1993-1997 run, but enough copies of Disneyland Pipe-Bomb and Imagine Me Taller leaked out for me to find three or four of each in a corner of the dusty catacombs of In Your Ear records, and the copies of the other three that I bid for on eBay (unopposed, to be truthful; the $3.20 for Priority Mail almost doubled my total cost), made it as far as Oakland before getting mailed back to within a mile or two of their birthplace. The elegant-sounding Eleven Wishing Court is not, however, as the liner notes to these singles repeatedly pretend, a valid Cambridge residential address, and the five real singles are dwarfed by the imaginary entries in an invented label discography, detailed on the inserts, that by The One Hand's Breadth That Separates Us reaches to catalog number WC042. The four bands were real in that there is really music on these disks, which you have to credit to somebody, but the names of the individual players who supposedly constituted these bands are made-up. None of these bands ever stepped on a stage; except for the other voice in Cordon, all this music emanated from the mind (and rooms) of label operator Marik Hill, whose first name in life didn't have that "i" in it, either. Walls Pushed Back was released on April 1, 1993, and the other four followed annually, although I don't know how you'd know the "official" release dates without reading the Boston Phoenix interview with Hill (1995? 1996?), which, although I only dimly remember it, is the only reason those disks meant anything to me as I flipped through the bins. Back when I read the article, I thought the project was a funny idea, but figured it was one of those that aren't improved by actually executing them. The reason I was in In Your Ear in the first place, though, was to look for the last few releases I'm missing from Harriet Records, another Cambridge label, and Harriet's local-indie-label kindred-spirit glow lit up the Wishing Court singles despite my skepticism about the premise. Plus, they were fifty cents each, and if you ever get a chance to see the cover of Disneyland Pipe-Bomb, a museum-quality, large-format, sepia-ish photograph, the camera looking down at wet asphalt, with a small, half-shredded black thing in the corner that I would never have identified as a Mickey Mouse hat without the title's hint, I'm sure you'll agree that having picked it up, it's difficult to simply put it back down.
Mortal Scent: Walls Pushed Back
Actually, the story begins unnervingly plainly. The bleached two-color cover of Mortal Scent's Walls Pushed Back is an obvious nod to Sarah Records, and the line-art style of the logo in the center of disk is, I have to believe, a deliberate reference to the drawing of Harriet the Spy on Harriet singles, but both the two songs here and the relatively brief (by Hill's later standards) notes on the insert come off less like a parody of indie pop than a generalization of it. Hill's vocals on "Walls Pushed Back" itself are wispy nearly to the point of unintelligibility, but puzzling them out reveals a song that is at once a paradigmatic example of bedroom-recording reticence, and a short essay about the process and its meaning. "Is this reaching out / Or fending off? / Are my windows / Legacy apertures / In what I would have left walls?", Hill asks, pointing out the essential dilemma of painfully introverted pop. If you really want to be left alone, making records about this wish is pretty clearly a bad idea, but what else do you do with these thoughts, acid if you swallow them? Maybe the answer is that you make the records, and then publicize them so meekly that your audience has to demonstrate their allegiance before they can even get to hear you.
The first really remarkable thing about this single, and the detail that keeps Mortal Scent from being a deadpan indie Spinal Tap, is that both songs are, at least to me, genuinely appealing and inventive pop. The clunky phrase "Legacy apertures" is nearly angelic by the time it's wrung through the sinuous verse melody of "Walls Pushed Back", somewhere between the Field Mice and Jewel, and the chiming, cycling points-of-the-compass chorus, as Hill pushes each wall of his room outwards in turn, enlarging the narrator's world without ever forcing him to step outside, is pristinely composed and delicately kinetic. The chirpy, Aztec Camera-ish flip-side, "A Kiss Beyond Critique", follows in (and sketches) the long tradition of overthought (and thus doomed) romances, and the central irony (once you've asked the question of whether the kiss can or should be critiqued, you've already done the damage you think you're deciding to avoid) is far too close to my own romantic problems for me to laugh at it.
One of Hill's crushing burdens, however, was that his ideas, about what music could and should be, far outstripped his technical ability to produce it himself. The descriptions of the label's other releases sound even more inspired and inspiring than the ones he actually recorded. Walls Pushed Back is WC004; the insert makes the already out-of-print WC001 and WC002 ("Mila Is Receiving"/"My Life as a Harbor Seal", by Painted Moon, and the Songs From a Veranda EP by The Half-Arch) sound like crosses between cloistered Beach Boys perfectionism and the Beatles' fan-club records; WC003, a one-track flexi containing "Wake Them", by Immolate (who are cited as if we should know of them), is one of the broadest jokes in Hill's usually-subtle repertoire, described glibly in the listing as "something of a stylistic departure, and not necessarily a new direction", as if the label's steering committee is already, two releases in, under the illusion that they've established their aesthetic, and having second thoughts about releasing a dirt-cheap flexi by a band who are almost certainly doing this as a favor. The upcoming WC005, The American Century Parts 1 & 2, is the second Painted Moon single, apparently a sprawling epic in the band and label's minds, and I think the main joke is that it still fits on two sides of a 45rpm seven-inch, but the weird punctuationless abstract here ("we carried the coasts to the midlands we resolved to be different we walked like this land was hollow under our new shoes") sounds like it was written by a team of Belgian inspirational-speaking trainees, right up until the last phrase suddenly snaps into unexpected romantic coherence, the narrator "collecting your lost hairs from overhanging branches only three days behind you now to return them". A nation's history becomes a yearning relationship metaphor, and for a moment it's hard for me to think what a nation is better for.
The Two-Engine Fallacy: Disneyland Pipe-Bomb
Disneyland Pipe-Bomb is WC012, meaning we've missed such highlights as the Impracticals' "Where She Alights" (WC008), in which a five-piece ska-punk band apparently take up a cello and four violas with, we're forthrightly informed, mixed success, and Coronation Alley's "That's Only Part of It", described tersely as a "political lullaby". I'm disinclined to complain, as "Disneyland Pipe-Bomb" itself would be a classic even in a real catalog. Superficially, the song is meant as an attack, albeit rather after the fact, on the admittedly shaky political convictions of first-wave punk, the titular chorus shouted out in the cadence of the Jam's "Eton Rifles" but with three-part harmony, the verses a clever pastiche of "London Calling", the Sex Pistols' "Holiday in the Sun" and the Bluebells' "Cath". The song's ostensible complaint is that punk too often picked targets that, like Disneyland, are symbolic and symptomatic, but not production centers for true evil. While defending this as a blanket criticism might be arduous, it's easy enough to pick prominent examples, the Sex Pistols going after the Queen or the Clash after Spanish fascists. As obviously as the tune mocks Paul Weller, though, and the scenario proffers a shiny, Americanized relocation of "'A' Bomb in Wardour Street", the lyrics could be products of studying some of Weller's less-blunt songs, and the ultimate pathos (all the more striking because the Atlanta Olympic bombing was still two years away) is that our social structures for celebration are literal, and thus susceptible to physical injury. Amusement parks are cumbersome, failure-prone machines for fun, and part of the DIY genius of punk, revived by indie pop, is that music need not be so precious or precarious. If a pipe bomb shuts down Disneyland, half the world freezes in their tracks; if something happens to one or two pop songs (like they go out of print before you can find them, or they never get made in the first place), we'll just make up more.
The other intriguing idea concealed in the guts of this single revolves around the band's name, the point of which isn't even hinted at until the back-catalog section of the insert for the Cordon single, two years later. The two-engine fallacy is that two engines always make things move twice as fast as one. The point is kind of obscure with engines, but two timers don't count down faster than one, two basketballs don't drop faster than one, etc. People aren't engines, either, and sometimes the gating factor in human progress is that a single person needs to traverse a whole thought-process, and trying to distribute the task among a bunch of people, no matter how eager they are to contribute, will only render it incomprehensible. I'm not sure that's really why I seldom solicit or benefit from other people's advice, but it's comforting to have a theory, especially one that affects such an imposing Thomas Kuhn-ish air.
Alexander Callon: Imagine Me Taller
Eventually I learned one detail about Mark Hill's personal life, but it doesn't come until later, so I can't tell you whether the burst of imaginary activity in Wishing Court's third year (Imagine Me Taller leaps ahead to WC0026), almost all of it with overtones of romantic frustration, is the result of a crisis in his own life, or just a study of pop's penchant for fixating on such things. Either way, the catalog entries between April Fool's Days 1994 and 1995 are a litany of intricate relationship and dependency laments, my favorite being the vampiric "Reunion Crasher", by Her Latest Hour (WC015), about a woman so dependent on external perceptions that she invades other people's nostalgia looking for misinformed affirmation; Mortal Scent's third single, "Plymouth Settlement" (WC019), which Hill claims interweaves the moral resolve of the pilgrims' landing with a divorce squabble over a beat up convertible (a joke that probably only works in paraphrase, if at all); and "Brittle Wings", by Demeanor Tells (WC021), whose catalog blurb reads, in its entirety, "When Superman turns out to be Daedalus, what happens to Lois?" If "Imagine Me Taller" were a country song, it would probably be a plea for one lover to compensate for the other's inadequacies in their mind, recognizing, healthily, that love is always at least partly a consensual hallucination, and you feel what you want to feel, not vice versa. In Hill's hands, though, set in a driving pop song so awash in reverb that it ends up sounding like the Housemartins remixed, angrily, by My Bloody Valentine, the title turns self-destructive, the narrator trying to raise his lover's standards so that he will not reach them. "I'm not the boy of my own dreams", in the second verse, is lifted nearly-verbatim from Game Theory's "The Real Sheila", but where Scott Miller followed it with "And if I were a girl with dreams, / I'd have dreams as big as you please", which is depressing enough, but does leave a little room for compromise, Hill's grim correlate is "The girl in my dreams / Dreams better than this, / And better than you", and it's hard to see how they'll recover from that.
Imagine Me Taller comes with two inserts, one for the catalog and another one for a meandering update on developments at Wishing Court, and here is where things really start getting complicated. Although all the incriminating details are related in an oblique, self-deprecating tone as if Hill is trying to view them as logistical hurdles, usually resulting from his own inept planning, it's pretty clear that we're supposed to read between the lines that the label's four core bands, Mortal Scent, Painted Moon, Her Latest Hour and Cordon, each of which share at least one member with one of the others (Callon himself is supposedly a full-time member of Mortal Scent and Her Latest Hour, producer for a couple other bands, and romantically linked to Cleo Harris of Cordon (this last, given what comes later, reinforcing the impression that almost all the characters in Hill's little world are him)), are polarizing into what I don't think you have to have been raised on Rush to think of as an Apollonian/Dionysian conflict. Mortal Scent and Painted Moon are the restrained, effete, old-guard pop purists in this battle, with Her Latest Hour and Cordon as the experimental, uninhibited new wave, although part of the point is that imposing such polarity onto points of view as similar, objectively speaking, as these two is one of the signature dysfunctions of closed communities. I'm interpolating wildly, and retrofitting a lot of stuff from the last two chapters onto this one, but I think the relevance of this invented struggle, and the reason it's couched in such a self-referential grammar, is that the fictitious label, itself, by its very nature, takes a side in the war between analysis and experience. Making up imaginary records is as solipsistic as hobbies get. Hill, the character, in telling his story, repeatedly sides (while claiming not to) with the Apollonian status quo, which makes sense, since he is as much its architect as the bands, but it's also clear that the Dionysian new wave excites him as much as it frightens him. "Imagine Me Taller"'s glassy flip side, "A Dawn Walk in the Park", half lovers' promenade ("The first light in your eyes", "Nothing more awake than you and I") and half inventory of social failings ("Upon whom the dew has settled / As a threadbare blanket", "I told you a dog can learn to sort litter"), is a particularly bitter expression of this confusion, unwilling to even concede happiness its premises.
When I got this single, not yet knowing anything about the two later ones, I didn't think much of the anonymous fake newspaper clipping reproduced, with no explanation, on the back of the catalog insert, a review of sorts of a concert, supposedly in Providence, Rhode Island, by Cordon. The writer spots Cleo Harris sitting at a table, by herself, some time before the band goes on, and nearly two-thirds of the piece is a meditation on her face and hands, apparently all of her that the club lighting exposes, but while that's kind of creepy, I assumed it was a satiric reference I was missing. Now that I know what comes later, the review seems far more haunting than facetious, and although it's appealing to think that Hill had this whole glacial saga plotted out in sufficient detail, in advance, to toss in a touch that he knew wouldn't mean anything to anybody but him until the following year, it feels disturbingly more sensible to assume that this is a portrait of a real face, and that in writing it into his story, Hill is beginning to either reconsider, or else lose track of, the careful line between his self-sufficient fiction and the pain and revelations in her eyes.
Cordon: The Helipad's Dream of Flight
Unless I'm misinterpreting things completely, then, Harris' wan, distracted voice is only one of the details on 1996's The Helipad's Dream of Flight that has become dissatisfied with its lot in life. Hill manages not to break character, but the strain is beginning to show. The catalog and Hill's label-update fit on a single piece of paper again, and both stick to statistics (sardonic itemizations of sales failings, pressing errors, manufacturing delays, etc.; the paragraph about getting back, in the mail, every distributors' copy of the label's first and only non-seven-inch, the ten-inch Her Latest Hour EP Bibliophobe (WC030), like they're homing pigeons, is especially plangent) and snippy attacks on other bands and labels (an afraid-to-fail savaging of Boyracer is surely intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but strikes some real blows), as if extending the Borges-ian fiction directly would require energy he can't quite muster any more. If you pretend to do anything for long enough, a part of you will start taking it seriously, and learn to operate, instinctively, within your arbitrary constraints (or, as the Clash put it, "He who fucks nuns later joins the church"). Neither of the two songs here, the galloping drum/bass/violin anthem "Anodyne Rack", like a less facile Camper Van Beethoven, on the front, and the ragged, polyrhythmic, stop-start thrash "Staring Down Headlights", as if seven-chord-punk is a genre straining to be born, on the back, have any trace of satire, or at least not of anything I've heard. I honestly believe, and there's nobody to shout me down, that this is Hill's whole-hearted attempt at producing two songs that validate all the fictions he has spun around them. If I'm right about Harris, that she doesn't know the full extent of the role in which she's been cast, then her presence here is the catalyst, if not the motivation itself. Faced with a real girl, and unable to woo her into a fiction, Hill is forced to cross over, at least partway, into the nearest reality. Harris, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Helium leader Mary Timony's, provides an elaborate, sighing duet part on "Anodyne Rack", and a several-track backing rondo on "Staring Down Headlights", and Hill actually essays some drum fills, where the earlier songs stick to basically straightforward drum-machine loops, and although part of me hears the creaks of the soundstage and wonders whether Harris/Timony's lines haven't been flown in via sampler from elsewhere, I want desperately to believe that that isn't how this trick was done, that these songs really did emerge, sleepily, from long nights locked in a dark studio, Marik and Cleo learning how their voices fit together, either as proxy for a relationship outside of music, or perhaps in place of one, as voices can often intertwine far more tightly than bodies. The title is explained in a verse on the back, attributed amusingly to Goethe: "The helipad dreams of flight, / The mirror dreams of light, / And you and I dream, drowsy, / That some patient god will say we might". A tiny helicopter has been added to the familiar sketch of the fountain on the b-side label, suggesting that the label is the helipad, and that Hill knows, even as he tries to trick himself into believing that Cordon must be a real rock band because he's not its only member, and these are real rock songs because he wasn't thinking about other ones when he wrote them, that indirection and sincere pretense are the souls of his art, and that however well he can write songs, his capacity to imagine them will always be greater. Is this true of women, too? I don't forget, for an instant, that these two songs are parts of a larger meta-fiction, but I cling to the ways in which they affect me like real songs. The howling, distended "No more / Nights like this!", in "Anodyne Rack", is like the "In the name of love" sections of U2's "Pride", only with a better sense of purpose. The hushed background repetitions of "Maybe now, maybe now" in "Staring Down Headlights" are a persistent, hopeful prayer that perhaps the impossible will have, in the two seconds since the last time we checked, finally transpired. And although I think "Push on 'til morning" is supposed to be a Peter Pan reference, it makes me think, instead, of the boorish wedding guest that Hugh Grant rescues Andie MacDowell from, in their first encounter in Four Weddings and a Funeral, not because the idea of drinking 'til dawn appeals to me, but because dawn is something two people can stand against together, and it's long seemed to me, viscerally, like staying up all night, together or alone, ought to be progress, like morning is a destination, and if we can get there tonight, all our tomorrows will be effortless.
Mortal Scent: The One Hand's Breadth That Separates Us
Panoramic dawns, however, for spectacles whose calendars are a matter of public record, are irritatingly elusive. I see a lot of 3ams, most 2ams, and I can't remember the last midnight I missed, but the truths I'm trying to isolate, like the people, always seem to lie one more hour out of my grasp. Quests are self-perpetuating. There is always something else you'll learn tomorrow, to make a better-informed decision than you could today, someone else you'll meet, and so decisions never get made. What use are premature conclusions?, a voice asks. The goal isn't resolution per se, it's correct action. I don't know enough yet. This seems profound, when I'm really tired, but it's not, it's petulant, irresponsible and self-indulgent. Truth isn't always receding, it's right at hand. I'm close, I'm so close.
Well, Mark Hill was close, too. "The One Hand's Breadth That Separates Us" is a love song, the first unguardedly optimisitic one in the entire constructed history of Wishing Court, but it's not a real girl he's close to touching (Harris is not heard from, and the notes mention Cordon only to say that she left the band), it's his own conception of the role of other people in his life. He's a hand's breadth away, maybe, from opening the door to let his world affect him directly, instead of processing it and obtusely rephrasing it in his own words, so that it can't ever tell him anything he isn't already convinced of. You can hear binding threads snapping, verse by verse, as synth-brass formation-maneuvers gradually morph into guitar surges. The labyrinthine reconciliations he recounts in the label-update on the insert stumble all over themselves in their excitement to get to the brink of an ominously self-contained happy ending, and the upcoming-release preview, including a compilation CD cross-issued with Matador (a prospect so weirdly falsifiable that I wonder if there was some truth to it), is breathtakingly breezy and confident. Going through the new catalog, comparing the revised descriptions of things to the old ones, seeing everywhere where Hill found other qualities to emphasize in old made-up songs, so that the tenor of the story changes completely without the plot requiring any material modification, I can't imagine that he could wait another year to deliver another installment. Wishing Court is about to become real, despite itself, after all. Maybe Timony and Hill never really met, but at last Hill sounds like he's ready to meet somebody.
In the end, though, life preempted Hill's self-engineered conclusion with an even simpler and more irresistible tragedy, and the label did become a real mortal boy, but in the worst possible way. Shortly after the release of The One Hand's Breadth That Separates Us, Hill was in a semi-serious car accident, and during the routine process of treating him, tests revealed advanced lymphatic cancer. He never left the hospital. His formulaic obituary, which ran in the Cambridge Chronicle during the two months I was reading it for news about my zoning battle against Camp, Dresser & McKee, but which I only put together with the barely-recalled Phoenix piece later, regurgitated a silly rock-headed blurb from the sleeve of Walls Pushed Back, "A community's voice travels farther amplified", as if Wishing Court were a civic service, rather than more or less the exact opposite of one. Mark Hill found his voice, or nearly did, and by two days after his death, other people were already making it say things he never believed. Patience is vastly overrated; any second can be too late. If you haven't done, yet, what you want to do with your life, it's time to start. Figure it out. Take a guess, if you have to, but do something. Yes, you'll know more tomorrow, but you can always change your mind. Don't die standing still. Don't die poised on the verge of your first great act. Don't die alone. If you haven't figured out what "great" is, yet, do something good. If "good" is still mysterious, do something reckless. Do something. Hell, you might be doing it already. I'm mixing events, resolutions belong three months ago, but it's my birthday in three days, so this is subjective New Year's. I'm turning 32; Hill would have been 34 in June. Too close. Tomorrow I begin sorting my life into the things I do that I believe in and the things I do that I don't. How will I know which are which? I probably won't. So sort them by color if you have to, by key, by heft. Keep the ones you can throw, or the ones that fit in your car, or the ones that you can hum at least half of. Make wishes. Kiss her. What would Wishing Court have become? It's up to us to decide. I say a wishing court isn't a supplicants' audience chamber, it's an arena for us to play in, for us to fill with noise. A moment of silence, for everything that never happened; and then a lifetime of sounds for all the things that will.