Still Enough, Long Enough (two letters to unspecified addresses)
287 · 27 July 00
Chris Whitley: Live at Martyr's
Enough has happened, in the past twenty years, for me to wonder how my teens would have been different if they had begun now, or how my life would be different, twenty years from now, if I were thirteen today. Some of these thoughts, of course, don't bear much scrutiny. Certainly if I were redoing my teens in the Aughts I'd have a web site, but it's facile to assume that would have got me anywhere I didn't get, or anywhere I did get faster. The net lets shut-ins reach a whole world, we're cheerfully assured. We forget to consider whether that's desirable for either side. Do you remember my high-school literary magazine? I needed plenty of things, as a teenager, but a wider audience and an excuse to spend more time inside probably weren't two of them.
The question it's harder to dismiss, though, is whether technology would have changed what happened to you and me. It wasn't just the dark ages before the web, back then, it was the era when even long-distance phone-calls were still expensive. We sustained a relationship as long as we did, incredibly, with paper, pens, and the US Postal Service. So a part of me thinks, at least initially, that two kids in our positions today would have a better chance. So much distance, but so many wires; maybe email could have saved us.
But that assumes that what defeated us was frequency, or conversational time-lag, or something comparably mechanical. And after a little more thought, I'm inclined to guess that it wasn't. Phone calls were expensive, but stamps were cheap. Writing a letter, folding it up, putting it in an envelope and mailing it seems onerous, now that it's no longer part of our routines, but at the time it was trivial. We would have written more often, if we'd had email, but I don't see any reason to assume that our archaic medium prevented us from saying anything important that the internet would have allowed. Maybe the converse: we risked some subjects, in letters, that in a conversational correspondence might have seemed untenable. The post office gave us space in which to think. Email doesn't have to trade away depth to get speed, but it tends to. We would have been clicking Send-and-Receive every two minutes, instead of rushing home to check the mail once a day, and I doubt a love-affair between seventeen-year-olds actually merits minute-by-minute anxiety or expectations. Moreover, so what if we didn't make it? We had tactile joys the new generation won't get to experience: the heft of a letter in your hand before you open it, the quotes we sealed the envelopes with, stationery, handwriting, ritual, plaintive awkwardness, stupefying grace.
And you can probably guess, before I say it, the one last thing that I have to reconcile myself to, to completely banish the idea that we would have been well-served by better machines. I am a collector, of my own experiences most of all. If we'd carried on our affair in emails, we would still have them. I assume you would have deleted your copies, at the same point when the real you decided she didn't want my letters any more, but I'm quite sure I'd have kept my set, diligently archived. So today we would have both halves of a meticulous record of a few months of our lives. Yes, it might have been a less-inspiring record, which would render having it partially Pyrrhic. But that doesn't dispel my feeling of loss.
And nor, I've finally concluded, should it. I gave you part of my life, then, and part of me now wants it back, but gift-giving isn't improved by stripping it of consequence. The fact that we have your letters, and not mine, is part of our history, a painful part but one of the most valuable. Odds are we weren't going to make it, anyway. If high-school separation didn't kill the relationship, probably college separation (and/or college proximity) would have. Or other people, or different growth rates, or different goals, or careers. First loves end in a thousand forgettable ways. Better to have lost gloriously, preemptively.
And so I dedicate to you the record that prompted this reverie on machines, appropriately an argument against solving problems with more technology. Chris Whitley has made some loud, dense, ambitious roots-rock records, in the vein of Steve Earle and Richard Thompson, but his last one, the terse and riveting Dirt Floor, was recorded in a single day, just him and a guitar and a banjo, and it prompts the obvious question of why the other ones required more ceremony. This live album, then, is the revisionist history in which Chris knew what he knows now all along. There are four songs from Living With the Law, four from Din of Ecstasy, one from Terra Incognita, two from the original version of Dirt Floor, the spindly cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model" that was added to the Dirt Floor reissue, and three new ones. Even the banjo is gone, this time, leaving just Chris, his ragged electric guitar, and the muted pulse of his foot keeping time on the stage of the club. I think I thought, once, that after Billy Bragg demonstrated the potential of crossing punk's distortion with folk's self-reliance, there would be hundreds of records like this, as impatient guitarists realized that only a rather bureaucratic conception of rock insists on a bass player and a drummer on every record, like they're mandated by an obscure union clause. It hasn't happened. Billy Bragg got a band, Mecca Normal got a drummer, and the folk singers stuck to their acoustics. Live at Martyr's will have to stand for a genre that never materialized, or hasn't yet, minimalist music that is nonetheless unmistakably rock, spare but hardly quiet. To me the urgent, quavering "Dirt Floor", the simmering "Firefighter" and the hypnotic "Living With the Law", in particular, are object lessons in covering expanded canvases with restricted palettes, and in defiant dignity you won't later regret. Childhood is getting harder, not easier. We give kids too many tools, teach them to build before they know why. Somewhere, right now, two kids aren't getting their chance at an exquisite failure, and so grow up a little poorer. Ten more years, and telepresence will declare victory over distance. Ten after that, we'll have convincing VR, and if your girlfriend breaks up with you you can synthesize a new one that's easier to debug. And yet, somehow, people will persevere, falling in and out of love despite the machines, playing old guitars that sometimes go out of tune, making old mistakes that give them the precious regrets without which progress is impossible.
[later, to someone else]
We could argue about whether seeing yourself in other people's songs is a talent or a pathology, but let's not. We're too good at arguing already, it crowds out other skills. We do it for a living, and it becomes the only way we know to live. Let's pretend we aren't those people. Cede this evening to irrational empathy and tendrils of candle flare. You say I can't atone for not making anything by seeing dead presidents in the bookcase shadows. Of course you're right, but projection hurts nobody. So let me have this: there is an entire cultural history of my people, of a scattered tribe I never expect to convene, in two lines of one song on the new Steve Earle album.
It is a history in three parts, all of which are wrong. The first wrong part is Steve's drawl, which could stand for my childhood in Texas, except I managed to spend eighteen years in Texas without developing an accent, and my people aren't from places. The second wrong part is the eleven-piece Celtic arrangement, with Sharon Shannon on accordion and Steve himself switching from guitar to mandolin. This is Irish, and I'm Scotch-Irish, and my people are rootless and hate islands. The third wrong part is the words to the two lines I have in mind, which are "And I ask you, friend, what's a fella to do? / 'Cause her hair was black and her eyes were blue". We are not that species of romantic. We try not to ask rhetorical questions (but we often forget and answer them), and we never remember what color anybody's eyes are, not even yours.
But we can slip into an accent we never had, and for three minutes believe that that's how singing is supposed to sound, and we would only squander these vowels on consolation and doubt. And we are strung and tuned like violins, or arrayed on dance floors at arms' length like we know intimacy requires clearance. Our hearts stutter, then leap; and ourselves. And we are frozen, helpless, in any ordinary light. Remembering eye color is for fetishists and Mendel; translate Steve's couplet out of its colloquialism and it becomes "We could not resist, because we fall in love with everything", or "We define beauty in retrospect", or just "Amazing things are done on Earth". We declare fealty to insular aesthetics, separated by oceans, and then blithely conflate them. You want to know what I see in you, and you expect compliments. But you're confusing cause and effect, or else you should have asked me the second we met. Now it's too late. I see fear, mania, self-destruction and radiance. What do you see?
In the silence, because it's a war we lose over and over, and because seeing inside yourself is hard, the record plays. I had a dream in which Steve Earle gave up frayed, redemptive, night-sky rock after El Corazón and made a deadpan bluegrass record; one more for my collection of things I've woken up from. I'm waiting for your face to settle on an expression, and I'm hoping you don't notice that I'm singing along, under my breath, not because it means I'm not paying attention, but because the soundtracks movies abuse, as obscenely as reserving tenderness for dolls, life earns. Maybe we are drawn to drones, like the vibrant guitars and harmonium of "Transcendental Blues", because we suffer from emotional tinnitus, and we distrust anything we can control. "Everyone's in love with you / But you don't seem to mind", Steve is barking, and if you were listening you'd think he's talking about resilience, but I think you're scared to move, because they could be beaming at a point in space. "Another Town", which might be blues if Will Rigby would ever stand for such a thing, rings like an anthem of abandonment, but my people are not nomadic. "I Can Wait" is closer to participating in this conversation we're having while we're not saying anything. "Even if my heart breaks / Darlin' I can wait. / I have nothin' but time / And this poor heart of mine / Probably could use some rest". I'll tell you later (because this is not the moment) how you're the one afraid of being alone, but I'm the one that will never get over this. For now, let Steve's twelve-string sparkle, and look for what sparkles inside of you. I will stand here, playing the game that passes, in my theology, for prayer, seeing some aspect of us in every song. "The Boy Who Never Cried", croaked and admonitory, strings sweeping in eerily, is half "I Don't Like Mondays" and half Puff's answer-song to Jackie Paper, and I realize we need a word for what our fantasies see, when they look back at us. "Steve's Last Ramble", square-dance gangliness notwithstanding, is a wistful subliminal case-study in relinquishing the myth of movement. The becalmed, martial "Lonelier Than This", like the patient marching song of an obsolete battalion in peacetime, phrases reassurance as hypothetical tragedy. "Wherever I Go" is almost "Another Town" again, but the sense is exactly reversed, just in case you still thought the first one was serious. "When I Fall" might sound like a love song if you don't recognize the woman's voice, but it's Steve's sister Stacey, and why do we assume that once two people choose each other they become each other's only support? Roy Orbison should have lived long enough to sing "I Don't Wanna Lose You Yet", one of the few love songs I can think of that understands that the future lives and dies on how well we're able to treat every moment as if it's the one that could save us. The resigned "Halo 'Round the Moon" belongs to the same spare, cycling tradition as Richard and Linda Thompson's "When I Get to the Border", Big Country's "Winter Sky" and half of Cat Stevens' songs for Harold & Maude, but the banjo hoe-down "Until the Day I Die" is actually far darker. The squalling, Neil Young-like "All of My Life" is a mundane unrequited-love rant until the rushed final couplet, "You were meant to be mine / And you're the only reason", which is exactly what I've been trying to tell you. And lest we grow too comfortable in our selfish belief that these problems we face are the hard kind, note that "Over Yonder", the song Steve ends with, is a condemned man's relieved goodbye note. For once, even the standard rock elisions are significant. "The world'll turn around without me, / The sun'll come up in the East, / Shinin' down on all of them that hate me. / I hope my goin' brings 'em peace." His farewell is sincere, but oversimplified. We manufacture our conflicts, even most of the ones that seem to have fallen on us like weather, and usually defeats only become irreversible when we let the grammar of opposition corrupt our understanding of the spectrum of responses, and so let ourselves believe that any solution requires our absence. In the death-row killer's case, this may be correct, but our challenges, you and I, are far more banal. Small comfort, perhaps. I know how badly you want our failures to be exactly as spectacular as our successes, just like I want the ghost I'm arguing with to talk back. It is a failure of imagination not to ask for better fates. It would be my failure of imagination if I remembered your eye color but forgot the horrible, vital sensation of watching you trying to decide whether you trust yourself. It is your failure of imagination if you don't. The music, to me, demands better answers, but maybe you aren't listening. You asked me, once, whether I mean all this, or maybe what you wondered was whether a journal becomes a stage. Do I only believe in you because I want to believe in you, or want to believe in someone and you're here? I don't think so, but I wouldn't know. So what you meant to ask, perhaps, although I still say it's the wrong question, is what parts in my life am I offering you? Do I hear you in these records, or do I hear these records in your breathing?
Well, what do you hear in my answer?