That Horizon Where She Lives
320 · 15 March 01
Life Without Buildings: Any Other City
She has dreamed of making a record since she was twelve. Next to her parents' stereo, in the living room, a stack of LPs leans against the wall. The front album is The Velvet Underground and Nico. Their turntable no longer spins, and they don't have a copy on CD, so she won't hear the songs for years, and not before discovering during an intensely embarrassing school argument that the words "Andy Warhol" on the cover aren't the album title. It won't be music for her until later. In the meantime, the LP sits on the white shelf, against a white wall, in a room with a high, slanted ceiling, an icon of elusive magic and wordless mystery. Somehow she knows it is important, but not why. When she asks her father about Nico, he shows her a picture clipped from an old magazine article. When she asks her mother, something strange happens behind her mother's eyes and she never quite gets an answer. The songs, when she finally hears them, the summer before she leaves for art school, aren't at all what she expected. She has dreamed Nico a much bigger role, maybe never quite internalizing the idea that the Velvet Underground are a rock band, not a disembodied textural aesthetic. This is just one of the tenets she will painfully unlearn on the way to turning twenty. Her dream life will temporarily outshine her real experiences, which is part of why only the unimaginative escape those years unscathed.
Her roommate's boyfriend is in a band. They invite her to join, more than once, but she puts them off. She wants desperately to be a singer, but can't bear to have people watch her learn how. The band writes songs, of sorts, forlornly muted songs that precess around an empty space where the singer should be. Her roommate's boyfriend, in a moment that combines searing insight and heartrending obliviousness, and will before very long turn out to have been the beginning of the end of his relationship with her roommate, loans her a tape of their songs, a four-track recorder, and a microphone. And there, alone in her room, at a low ebb of self-confidence, she plays the tape and wonders how anybody ever crosses this line between a teenager's solipsistic fantasy and an artist's resolve. The band knows of her Nico fascination, but not the details, so they've tried, in their earnest Sarah/Creation/Smiths way, to write Velvet Underground songs for her, coming, perhaps inevitably, much closer to Luna than to VU themselves. She plays the tape over and over again, maybe thinking that she will discern herself in the music through scrutiny. By the second week, she's humming along. By the third, she notices that the humming isn't "along". She records herself, for the first time, not because she has overcome her fear of performance, but because she can't hear the noises she's making properly while she's making them. The microphone is a mirror first, not a stage.
Once she begins taping herself, things change rapidly. The music almost immediately becomes secondary to the alternating dialogue between track three and track four, as she repeatedly records over the take before last. Nobody has explained bouncing to her, and it doesn't occur to her to mute any of the tracks until very near the end. Her singing evolves through three or four complete generations over the course of each week. The first few takes are practically narration, only faintly sing-song. For a while she is a reclusive ingénue pastiche, like Marilyn Monroe by way of Jane Horrocks. Screaming expands her understanding of what's possible, but isn't an end in itself. By a couple weeks before the end of the term, she has developed a clipped, chirpy delivery that is, taken a note or two at a time, vaguely reminiscent of Kenickie's Lauren Laverne, Au Pairs' Lesley Woods or maybe Björk with a mousy English accent. At the end of the term she erases what she's done and gives the four-track back to the boy who by now isn't seeing her roommate any more. The tape is still in the recorder. She has run out of time, but I don't know whether she believes she's stopping work for good, or just for the summer. Her parents don't have a cassette deck, either, so I don't think it even occurs to her to take the tape with her. She gives the machine back to the boy with the wide, scared eyes, who wants to say something to her but can't put it into words. They go home to their families.
They live in the same city, but on different sides, and within different constraints, and the land between them might as well be sea water or space. She has sudden silence, and copes with it badly, sitting on a chair in the kitchen for hours on end, watching birds land in the garden and the tops of trucks passing beyond the side wall. The boy, and the album she was maybe making, are part of a suspended reality, and she must wait this other one out. He, on the other hand, has the tape. He has been home for almost two weeks before he listens to it. She erased track four, so he never hears her unearthly duets with herself, but track three is actually intact. His dreams of her, or of her singing at least, are not much better grounded than her old dreams of Nico. He expects Beth Orton or PJ Harvey, something insular yet urbane. He expects the lyrics to be a bit pathetic, an oddly condescending assumption from someone so inarticulate that a tape of songs without words is as close as he's been able to come to the love letter he wants to write. If they were still at school, and he knew he would have to face her afterwards, he might not have the courage to listen to the tape at all. And he doesn't realize she didn't have the courage to give it to him. But he never got her parents' number, and he won't ask Information to intercede, so the tape is his only metonym for her. One night he finally plays it.
By morning he is standing outside her parents' house, crying, waiting for the structure to dissolve or her to walk though a hole in it. The album she has made, without realizing it, is the most bewildering and cathartic thing he has ever heard. She has been trying to settle on a singing style, and really hasn't written lyrics yet, in any conventional sense, but her fragmentary, recursive, stream-of-consciousness monologues, meant as not much more than placeholders for cadences, have an overwhelming dream-logic to them. She repeats short phrases, trying to figure out which beat they should start on, sometimes apparently concluding that the right beat is in between the ones the music provides. She works through combinations of lines with methodical obsessiveness, as if trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle by process of elimination, and without a clear idea of what picture it's intended to form. Questions that would normally be posed in sequence, and tangle and recombine in memory later, dispense with the transformation and tangle and recombine even as she's singing them. As glimpses into her autobiography, the songs are maddeningly abstract but inexorably evocative, collages of defiance and vulnerability and nonsense, as if her strengths arise from ignorance of her fears, and vice versa. He tries to insert himself into them as their object, but they twist in on themselves so frequently that it's hard to find a path to stand in. But he is sure of four things: she is capable of genius and totally unaware of it; the album she has accidentally made may be irreproducible, impossible under any conscious conditions, and thus as much a tragedy as a triumph; these incomprehensible mosaics are somehow an accurate diary of her haunted inner life, and the yelps in which she cloaks them are a plaintive hope that somebody will insist that they mean something, will force her outside her complacent secret grammar; and he doesn't have the slightest idea what she needs from another human being (unless it is a tape of jangly, understated backing tracks), but she has become the only subject he cares about. By the last song, running in his walkman as he stands in her street at dawn, the band is basically playing an endless "Sweet Jane" groove and she's muttering "difficult people slip away", "holding you is like the new past" and "eyes like lotus leaves; no, not even like; lotus leaves", half-possessed, and he's half-delirious. "It's quite decided how the boy can figure -- two beats -- and the boy, the sun, the end, the sun, the end; it's OK calling; it's O -- two beats -- and the boy can -- finally; I thought about you to like the ninth degree". It has to be an invitation. He is as sure as he's ever been of anything. He's young, and he'll be wrong about many more things, but he's standing there. Her mother looked out the front window a minute ago, and no police have come, so she must have woken her up. Any second she'll come out. He should have brought a boom box, not a walkman, so he could hold it above his head, playing her own songs to her, holding up a mirror that shows her the way she looks to him, and waiting to see what happens in her eyes. But that, of course, is exactly his terror. He knows what these songs mean. But does she?
Kathleen Yearwood: Dog Logic
Or this all happens much later. She gets through school with the same sort of traumas and outlets as everybody else. The boy and the roommate have a serious talk, and he never gives her the tape. All that confusion and need is repressed, or suppressed, or harnessed as energy. She knows she missed something, but not what, and it's not quite right to say it plagues her, but neither does she ever entirely recover from it, and her ideas of the proper emotional mode for art are permanently altered. She gravitates to labyrinthine allegory, oblique iconography, post-ironic diffidence, forms in which truth is deliberately obscured, like confessions written in private languages and secreted inside elaborate puzzle boxes. She becomes an extrovert and a performer not as self-expression but as self-defense, weaving increasingly dense layers of misdirection and artifice around herself. Lots of people come to believe that she has some kind of genius, but not very many of them can say what it is, and most of them fear she is also more than a little crazy. Perhaps, for some definitions of "crazy", they are right. Her persona is so intricately constructed that even if she were entirely rational and clear, inside her own mind, by the time her thoughts reach the surface of her expression, they will have been encrypted many times over. And can you pretend to perceive a different reality for very long without your perceptions actually being affected? After a while, it's unclear where her defense mechanisms end and her self begins. She was once a person with art hidden inside, and now she has become art that conceals a person, but unless she reveals herself, who would look that deeply? And revealing herself would miss the point. With every new technique she becomes more perfect and less accessible. The mother who has herself genetically reshaped into the Statue of Liberty, in James Patrick Kelley's "Mr. Boy", is only an exaggeration of an entirely real personality compulsion, albeit maybe a psychosis that is ultimately synonymous with creativity.
By the time she gets the four-track, she has crossed uneasily into adulthood. Perhaps she has had crushes, even loves, but it's impossible to tell. People love her, but warily. They indulge her schemes, but she has made herself too difficult to solve, and they're waiting for clues that aren't coming. There's no tape, this time, no gift to get her started, so she does it herself. First, for a framework, she writes or borrows a handful of spectral folk songs, performed on bent aluminum guitars with a vocal presence somewhere between Dar Williams and June Tabor, a composite effect that offers an unsettling impression of what a musically-disciplined Jandek might sound like. Around them, she sets the traps: a multi-tracked a cappella choir like the exhalations of dying naiads; a crescendo of falsetto sample loops, like the Wicked Witch of the West remixed by Aube; a ten-minute ambient rending of somebody's found poem; the grimmest Christmas song ever. In between these she laces a set of deranged conspiracy-theory spoken-word pieces, punctuated (just to make sure you don't miss their paranoid timbre) with storm noises and eerie whirs. It's an album that tries very hard to defy listening, and she packages it, for good measure, in a rough-cut sleeve made by folding a length of corrugated cardboard and stapling the xeroxed cover and mostly-hand-scrawled booklet to it. For most of the few people who get copies, who take the time to mail a check to her, it is the most intimate record they will ever hear, confrontational to the point where the line blurs, for the listeners, between being supportive and being stalked. They stay with her only by construing her provocations as productive tension, by extracting a sort of rodeo triumph from the act of holding on. But if they stop and think about this too much, they wonder. The bull, after all, is not flirting with the rider. How close can you get to this music, some of them wonder, and not come away damaged. What is it doing to us to listen, and in fact, what is it doing to Kathleen that we listen? Maybe we are performing the worst possible therapy. Maybe the dementia has become all too real, and in tolerating it we exacerbate it.
But the record is a trick. And maybe the facade is slipping, as the trick isn't even that difficult. The crazed monologues interspersed among the songs and the shrieks are Steven Ruhl's, not Kathleen's. Real crazy people don't quote other crazy people, so one of them must be secretly sane. And then in the long, tolling finale, if you have the patience to decipher her handwriting and her vindictively distended delivery, the truth comes out so baldly it must be truth masquerading as a glib lie masquerading as truth. "Read My Diary", it's called. "I have no friends. It's always been. I don't know if it's me or everyone. I noticed some of the worst people never had any friends, but then again neither do some of the best." And then, after a digression in which she perverts Lyle Lovett's dream of having a pony and a boat by replacing the boat with a gun and then complaining when it jams as she's trying to shoot the pony, a final verse written in the lyrics but too revealing to actually sing: "And if you can explain this to me, you can read my diary. If anyone can explain this to me, you'll get a whole page in my diary, but beware, there's lots of awful people in there. I'm sure life holds many more disappointments for me." It is a plea, obviously. Too obviously, probably, and too late. Some of the people who know her call her on it. She cuts them off. She finally had the courage to write an escape route, only to sow it with caltrops. She reaches the ultimate refinement of her isolationism, denying not only that she has friends, but that she ever had friends. And all the people who could have been friends take this blow. Maybe this is really her, and they're not reaching her, or maybe it's just a character. But if it's a character, and she chooses to live in it all the time, what's the difference? It's too hard to maintain a unidirectional bond. Easier to give up and treat her as a freak show instead of a person. They turn and walk away. Some of them, a very few, the tiniest shred of hope still alive in their hearts, wonder if she'll call out. It's her last chance. But the silent chorus, in the end, is the final word. Once, she could have been saved by intervention, but she's too strong for that now. Now she cannot be saved unless she helps save herself, and she can't help save herself without becoming someone else. And so we leave her there to implode.
Hannah Marcus: Black Hole Heaven
Or all this happens somewhere in the middle, when she's old enough for self-awareness but hasn't yet retracted into her own event horizon. Somebody lends her a sampler, not just a tape recorder, and a different relationship to music changes her relationship to everything else. She learns to write songs, but more importantly she learns to make them, to step outside herself and imagine her audience, and then step back inside and play for them. She takes her lessons from Beth Orton and PJ Harvey, but also Paula Cole, Alanis Morissette, Kate Bush, Happy Rhodes, Lisa Germano, Tori Amos, Kristin Hersh, Mary Timony, Ida, Sarah Dougher, Gillian Welch, Maffeo/Canty and Liz Phair. For dynamic range she spans macabre folk, pulsing dance grooves, carousel pirouettes. When she works in somebody else's transcript, it's counterpoint, not procrastination or denial, and it's part of the music. The songs are dark and unflinching, but not closed. There's a frightening relationship paradigm at the record's center, soulmates as black holes, which doesn't imply much sanguinity about the possibility of two people sustaining each other, but this grim hypothesis, unlike Kathleen's, is neither self-reinforcing nor unfalsifiable. All it takes to change her mind, this time, is to orbit her once and then spin away. A touch, and a release. "I say you never know where you are until you start falling", she sighs. So hold her up, and then let her go, and now she knows. Somebody has, already. "I know that something's over", she says elsewhere, "but something's always over." This is a break-up album, but also a requiem for the gravity of what she's lost. Break-up songs are songs of emotional availability, and so implicitly romantic. So the girl grows up, without collapsing into her own self-pity, and responds to the moment of pain, when it arrives, by making a bleak, hopeful album that may not require us, exactly, but that she isn't scared we'll listen to.
But here is my dilemma. Of these three invented creation myths, clearly the one to which I should gravitate is the third. It's less dramatic, but so are most truths. Hannah's album is by far the most accomplished of the three, the one best situated in cultural and musical traditions, the one with whose mindset I can most readily identify. Any Other City is too naïve, its gimmick too single-minded. I've never heard a record exactly like it, but I've heard the music before, and between the Fall, Liliput and Marine Research I've heard the pieces of Sue Tompkins' vocal style. Dog Logic is both too alienating and too familiar. I don't have the sick feeling I have listening to Jandek, that mental illness is being promoted as artistic expression, but neither do I feel wanted. If it weren't for the comic relief of Steven Ruhl's diatribes (and Kathleen's occasional pronunciation notes penciled into their margins), Dog Logic might fall to OK Computer's fate for me, an album too concentrated to appreciate superficially, but too nihilistic to enjoy if I think about it. I suppose it still might. And worse, it's the form of nihilism I'm probably most susceptible to, myself, building walls people have to break through to reach me, and then being bitter when they don't. But yet, Black Hole Heaven I mostly just nod at. I acknowledge its virtues, but it doesn't need anything from me, so I don't get much from it. Dog Logic, on the other hand, constitutes an argument for its own destruction, and yet I refuse to let go. On OK Computer I believed Thom Yorke was a suicidal wretch. Kid A argues that he isn't, and so maybe wasn't, either, but I'm not going back. Kathleen, though, I don't believe. I don't know what else she could do, within the context of an album, to convince me that she's a friendless, self-loathing mess, and that her music, by extension, is soul-consuming and virulent. But I listen, and my soul is neither consumed nor infected. I'm frightened, by the end, but not resigned. I think I can change these songs by listening to them. I think there is a way out for both of us.
But the specific way out I have in mind, it would be stupid to pretend not, has everything to do with the boy standing outside the girl's parents' house waiting to confront her with the evidence of her own power and worth. My favorite epiphanies are always about contact. The contact may take place at an intellectual remove, but that doesn't make it less real. I went to see the Blake Babies last weekend, for instance, and so spent an hour and a half standing about four feet from Juliana Hatfield. At this point, after my semi-marriage proposal to her was mentioned again in the article about my site that ran in the Boston Phoenix, which surely her friends read even if she doesn't, it's hard to believe that she isn't at least aware that my proposal exists, but clearly the contact is not mutual. She was standing that close to me for that long, too, and I'm quite certain it meant nothing to her. I don't think she looked at me, I'm sure she wouldn't have recognized me, and I'm pretty sure she wouldn't care. It doesn't matter. She writes songs, and lets strangers listen to them, and some of them affected me profoundly, changed the way I think about how I relate to people and how I try to reach them myself. That's the contact. She never has to learn my name. She's way too skinny, anyway, and somebody told me she's mean to waitresses. And the boy out in the street, listening to the girl's tape, is about to find out that his mythology of her isn't realistic or returned, either. But all these unreturned, imagined revelations are preparation for the one. We try to learn to see into each other's souls in the hopes that we will eventually, finally, look into somebody's soul and see them looking back at us. And if we have to stand in a lot of streets outside a lot of parents' houses, listening to a lot of songs that don't know how amazing they are, of course we are willing. Why else are there streets to stand in, and houses to wait in front of, and infinitesimal records full of infinitely amazing songs?