More Water Than Land
369 · 21 February 02
Dar Williams: Out There Live
I want to say that it was music that finally extricated me from last week's bleak post-quasi-break-up depression. Music has always answered my most desperate summons, and I'm sure, if I'd called upon it, it would have responded. Some J-Pop, the Siddeleys, yet another reissue of The Crossing, I'm sure there is something sitting in one of the new-release piles on my desk that could have corrected my mood. And if not, then there is an entire wall of music behind me. Hat Full of Stars, or Heart Like a Gun, or Gold Against the Soul? I might own a thousand albums against which any mood other than perfect faith in human potential couldn't possibly stand. Any one of them would have held out a hand, if asked. They sit here, forever obsessed with nothing but my equilibria. At least, they're thinking of me any time I check.
But it wasn't music, this time. This time, it was an MRI. I'd hardly be the first person to have their state of mind improved by the result of a medical test, but it wasn't the results of the MRI that cheered me up (those came a few days later, and were mixed: no torn cartilage is evident in my knee, but we'll have to see what physical therapy can do to apologize to my ACL), and it's possible that I am one of the few people on the planet to ever have been cheered up by the experience of undergoing an MRI. Here it is, though: a little after nine o'clock at night, on Valentine's Day, I left my house still feeling grim and disgusted with what life insists we go through. MRIs are quite a bit more time-consuming and equipment-intensive than x-rays, so Mount Auburn's appointments for them run late into the night, and mine was at a quarter to ten. I drove through cold, quiet Cambridge streets. I don't remember what I was listening to.
I know many people find hospitals extremely unpleasant, with or without specific reason. I've spent very little time in them, and certainly no traumatic vigils, and to me they are still novel and intriguing. Mount Auburn Hospital, nestled in a placid river-bend in West Cambridge, is hardly a gunshot-wound clearinghouse or an overdose destination in the worst of times (if there are crack houses on Brattle Street, they are members-only and include their own private state-of-the-art rehab facilities), and late on a Thursday night the place was empty and calm. As I followed a meandering ocher line through the bowels of the building towards Radiology (paralleling, for most of the way, the only slightly more urgent olive-green line to Emergency), it was easy to imagine that I was temporarily in command of the facility, rather than vice versa. The MRI waiting room was empty, unsurprisingly, and after the attendant had me change out of my customary suit of iron body armor, I spent a few surreal minutes just standing in the middle of what seemed like it should be a busy corridor, in medical scrubs, waiting for any sign of movement from any direction. Finally an enormous bulkhead-like door opened, a little ways down the hall, and an older man limped gingerly past me towards the changing booths. "That's awful,", he muttered, less to me than near me. "That's worse than the pain. Loud, uncomfortable." This boded poorly, but I found myself already discernibly starting to cheer up. There is something comfortingly and grandly idiotic about the infinite adaptability of human peevishness. We are capable of focusing on the smallest irritation amidst the most astonishing miracles. One of the surest ways to tell that the Bible is a fiction, or at best a suspiciously partial truth, is that there are no books filled with people complaining about how muddy it was crossing the Red Sea, or about how the wine the water was turned into had totally the wrong bouquet to go with those particular loaves and fishes.
Then it was my turn. I don't know how many different models of MRI machines are in use, around the world, so maybe the one they'd load you into is macabre and ghastly, but the one Mt. Auburn has nearly undermined its own efforts by sending me into sporadic giggling fits throughout the process. It's a huge, bulbous thing, crouched awkwardly under a ceiling only barely high enough to accommodate it, and obviously had to be brought in in parts and assembled in place. It is very loud, and if the part of you it's examining requires you to be inserted all the way inside, I can easily imagine the claustrophobia getting intense. For a knee, though, you only go in up to mid-chest, and the scans only take about half an hour. And what did I have to stare at, two feet from my protruding head, for this half an hour? A GE logo the size of a trashcan lid.
I'm not sure I can adequately explain why this logo seemed so poignantly hilarious to me. In part it was its mere presence. I assume that "That's awful" is the more ordinary reaction to the MRI experience, which would make it something a thoughtful equipment manufacturer would want to disassociate themselves from, even if the only mind-share they concerned themselves with was that of medical-equipment purchasers. For a company that also sells consumer appliances, this seems like negative conditioning bordering on parody. Put that old guy ahead of me through three MRIs a week for a few months and I suspect he'd grow to despise GE as physically as Alex learned to hate Beethoven. But some oblivious GE corporate policy document mandated a prominent reiteration of brand identity, so there it was. Surely, however, the policy could have been satisfied by a little sticker, or a discrete plaque with the model number on it, or any number of unobtrusive treatments. But the machine happens to have a large blank surface above the aperture, so somebody got creative. Not only is the logo enormous, but it's done in relief, the lines rendered as sweeping, inch-deep grooves, like a Martian-canal model for a NASA briefing. The logo is so much larger than we would ever otherwise encounter it, that as I lay there, starting to feel a bit dizzy from the effort of holding myself level without a clear local horizontal, I found myself losing track of scale. My mind kept wanting to reduce the logo to inches, which would have made me correspondingly miniscule. I was wedged in an apparatus the size of a dump truck, but my mind kept shrinking it into some sort of cute and absurdly single-purpose new Easy-Bake oven that only cooks hot-dogs.
Objectively, the guy before me was right about the noise and discomfort. The only noise I normally associate with magnets is a pleasant contact click, but whatever the hot-dog oven does with them produces an alarming power-tool buzz you might more readily associate with having your leg imminently sawed off, rather than passively interrogated. Some of the scans produce this buzzing as a constant tone, which loses its charm quickly, but most of the knee scans involve pulsing it as a sort of simple-minded techno groove, in song-like three-to-four-minute durations. I suppose if your idea of the outer limits of tolerable noise is Dean Martin over AM radio, this could be pretty painful, but if you've listened to Aube at high volumes for pleasure, it's nothing. The physical discomfort, otherwise, is real but minor. The MRI itself produces no sensation, but you do have to hold still. You're lying on a padded platform, and in my case I had some cushions packed around my knee to help, but my default repose involves frequent fidgeting, so not moving for half an hour took some effort, and I'm sure in a full-insertion scan this would have been much worse. Compared to the discomfort associated with exploratory surgery, however, which is what they would have resorted to before MRIs, a few minutes of uncharacteristic motionlessness is trivial.
They finished my scans, and I changed back into my armor. I got to stand in the corridor a little more, while they developed the images, and then they handed me the large envelope of films and sent me on my way. I don't know if this bit of procedure is atypical for MRIs or not. I've had lots of x-rays, and only ever gotten to look at them briefly, with a doctor present, as if they represent sensitive information it would be socially destabilizing to let me examine on my own. The MRI films, though, they just gave to me. I could easily have taken them home and pored over them until daylight. As I quickly discovered when I pulled a couple of them out to see, though, there is fairly little an untrained observer can accomplish with an MRI image other than randomly frightening themselves. "Oh god, is that white spec a brain tumor? It is, isn't it?! Oh wait, my head never went inside the hot-dog oven, so that must just be another view of my knee. Odd how much it looks like a brain, though. They ought to print 'KNEE' in big letters on these pictures so people don't get confused. Still, those white spots can't be good, can they? Are there such things as knee tumors? Let's see what's on the next sheet. Oh man, these look awful. How can I even walk? Is that an arrowhead? That gray thing isn't supposed to be connected to that other gray thing, is it? Man, my kneecap is shattered into like nine pieces. Or wait, what angle is this? No, it's the other direction, that's not a kneecap. It might be the shadow of a GE logo, though. Wow, what if one of those 3:49 techno grooves was actually magnetically tattooing 'GE' on the inside of my knee? Maybe they implanted a tracking device, and now they'll know exactly where I am at all times. Maybe I shouldn't have watched Enemy of the State again right before coming here."
I was supposed to leave the MRI films in front of my doctor's door, in fact, but it was now late at night, and when I got up to his floor I realized that the whole wing was locked. I wandered back down to the reception desk, hoping they'd have some way for me to leave the films for him, but really expecting that I'd have to come back in the morning to drop them off. To my surprise, the administrator on duty cheerfully picked up a phone and called somebody to come unlock the wing for me. In the corporate world, this would never happen. The dour office-building night-guard is trained to be suspicious, if he's trained at all, and he probably doesn't have the right keys, anyway, because the tenants he's nominally protecting are more afraid that he'll steal all their laptops himself. But a hospital operates twenty-four hours a day, and has employees whose sole job it is to show up and do things for people. Somebody wakes up and wants a drink of water, somebody goes and gets it for them. Maybe they secretly resent being dragged away from a television in some sub-basement, but the guy who came around with a key seemed perfectly happy about it, and maybe a little disappointed that I didn't have anything more for him to do than unlock one door. I expected him to hover there until I completed my round-trip down the hall, but when I got back he was gone. I don't know if he trusted me to do what I said I was doing, or if his partner back in the sub-basement was watching me on monitors, but either way it was an un-institutional moment in what could have been the most institutional of contexts. So I drove home, along our slow river, having ostensibly been nothing but probed and magnetized, but feeling strangely fine. I've just been picking the wrong crises. Break up with somebody, and there are no tests to run, and nothing anybody can come unlock for you. But wreck a knee playing indoor soccer on second-hand astroturf and we can help you. Maybe, if you give us enough time, we'll build devices for the harder problems, too. Heartbroken? Here, put on this robe and these goggles, stare at that GE logo for half an hour, and we'll tell you what went wrong. Ah, see here, in these pictures, these white spots? You have a small tear in your commitment ligament, and a couple hairline intimacy fractures. Not to worry. Deface these horrible Hallmark cards ten times each with each hand, and watch Sliding Doors again, and you should be fine by spring.
I haven't been playing soccer since the knee injury, obviously, but I've also only just got back to the point of being able to stand up for very long, so I haven't been going to shows, either. Of course, it's also kind of the off season for indie touring, so I haven't missed much, and I've been known to complain bitterly about the structural flaws in the concert-going experience anyway, but it's amazing how quickly not being able to do something re-endears it to you. This silly perversity runs deep enough that I even noticed myself responding more kindly to live albums during this brief period when they represented something I couldn't do. A couple of the live albums on my pile this time were especially ironically timed. The girl I just stopped seeing liked folk music, too, but one of my earlier romantic traumas actually involved a much-anticipated and tragically chemistry-less first-blind-date at the Newport Folk Festival, headlined (from my subjective perspective, not the billing order) by Dar Williams and Richard Shindell. I'd seen both of them several times before, but haven't seen either of them again since. Coincidence or reaction? I'm not sure, so it's probably some of both. It doesn't take much, though, to remind me why my relationships with music are almost never victims of associations with personal pain. Out There Live, Dar Williams' first live album, opens with a guitar riff, a wave of giddy crowd recognition, and then Dar's masterpiece, "As Cool As I Am". I'm of the opinion that Dar has written at least half-a-dozen world-class songs, maybe more, but I suspect she'll never top "As Cool As I Am" in my mind, and that should in no way be taken as a failure. Careers have been built on far less. We're skidding quickly into useless personal subjectivity, but I believe it's a better song than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote, for example, better than anything on Blue, better than anything Joan Baez or Judy Collins ever covered. Its folk-pop instincts are faultless, and it's one of the very few songs whose substance I am still struck by every time I hear it. It is the older, more-literate, more self-aware complement to "You Oughta Know", in my mind, the two songs combining to transcend their nominal gender perspectives. "I will not be afraid of women", Dar promises, and she means women, but she might as well mean people, too. "And then I go outside to join the others," she says, "I am the others", and other writers have set this revelation in more ornate poetry, but for me Dar's busy, expository, self-analytical version is the most apt. This is exactly the kind of thing we learn about ourselves in moments of ordinary lucidity, not momentous transport. We will not be afraid, we say, afraid. This is exactly the mantra I was channeling last week, the only sensible response to pain. Walk away, if you can walk away, and don't let the pain rot into fear.
Every idiom has some way of expressing courage, I suspect, and the most courageous thing you can say in the grammar of a concert set list is said by playing your best song first. 3:45 into Out There Live and Dar has fifteen slots left to fill with songs that aren't as good as the first one. But there are solutions. One of them is that there can be more to live albums than just the songs. This set includes three bits of interstitial storytelling long enough to merit their own track indices. The intro to "I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono" is a funny reflection on youthful pretensions, and an implicit disquisition on the use and meaning of the word "brilliant". The short dedication for "Are You Out There" gives it a little seditious context. And although the intro to "The Babysitter's Here" is probably redundant, given how well the song itself tells the story, it builds anticipation deliciously. Somewhere in the middle of the record Dar plays what is probably my second-favorite of her songs, the intricate syllogism "The Ocean". And to end she pulls out what might be her two most simultaneously funny and touching songs, both of which could well be more popular with her general audience than "As Cool As I Am", "The Babysitter's Here" and "The Christians and the Pagans". As is often the case, I think, this live album's reasons to exist are subtle, and probably not that interesting if you're not already a fan. But you can feel Dar's lingering incredulity that she gets to do this for a living, and a couple times you can hear her voice catch as she notices what a tightrope some of these songs walk between folk amiability and tragic poignancy. The crowd presence isn't overemphasized in the mix, but you can hear them clapping on "Better Things", and singing along on "The Christians and the Pagans", and shouting when they realize what each song is. And maybe live albums don't ever have to do much more than this. They are a way of acknowledging the space between the artist and the audience. We could argue about the role of that space, but I believe in studio recordings as the primary medium for music, the same way I believe in novels instead of poetry slams, and foreign movies instead of local theater. Art, the way I think of it, doesn't work right without that space, without a river running between us. But it is there to be crossed, and one live album for every four or five studio albums seems about right to me, about the right spacing for the bridges that make a river part of a city instead of the end of it.
Richard Shindell: Courier
By that measure Richard Shindell is due for one, as well, and his and Dar's careers have been parallel and entwined enough that I'd be more surprised if one of them made a live album without the other following suit. Richard wrote one of my subjective pop history's greatest songs, too, the bittersweetness-defining "Are You Happy Now?", but it was one of his first songs, and over the years I've realized that it's much less indicative of his style than "As Cool As I Am" is of Dar's. It is much more glib and wordplay-centric than most of his stories, a self-conscious narrator where almost all of his other songs find their magic in portraying their narrators rather than requiring them to perform. But it's still magic, however incongruous, and there aren't many four-word lines in pop songs I like more than "Cinderella checks her watch", so I can't imagine him leaving it out. Here he smoothes over the discontinuity by giving the song a bit of country-ish rhythmic exuberance and letting Lucy Kaplansky add a mournful, bluegrassy harmony vocal. And he plays it near the end, not first. But the river between performer and audience is much wider for Richard than for Dar. "Are You Happy Now?" is one of very few of his songs I can imagine anybody even considering singing along with, and indeed for the most part the audiences in these concert recordings are carefully silent, applauding at only the most polite moments. I've seen Richard several times, and it seems to me he is one of the illustrative examples of a bizarre performing dilemma. Dar writes rapport songs, songs in which it makes sense to see the performer and for the performer to feel the audience's response. Tori Amos extrapolates this idea into a kind of therapeutic terror. But "Are You Happy Now?" aside, Richard is not the characters in his songs, and they are not pleas or exhortations or attempts at connection. They are stories that exist entirely in their own universes, or at least try to. "Not that I've ever driven a truck or anything," he points out by way of introduction to "Next Best Western", "but my life is pretty dull, I like to make things up", and the shift of reference is as jarring as the idea that being a professional folk-singer is dull but driving trucks is exciting. The incontrovertible presences in a live setting work against these songs. Close your eyes, and you can be inside the cab listening to the preacher on the radio as you cross into Indiana. Open them, though, and you're in a basement in Harvard Square, and Richard is kind of short and standing in front of you playing a guitar, and it's hard to remember how a lonely truck driver and a distracted INS interrogator and a Civil War drummer came to be the population of your shared world. In a way, though, that makes this live album a little more precious to me than Dar's. Her rapport is so much easier than Richard's tense reserve. Maybe it's obnoxiously passive-aggressive of me to praise a live performer who mainly reminds me that I prefer studio albums, that I prefer art to leave the audience connection outside of itself. I am vividly aware of the network of ironies woven by the war between confession and solipsism that goes on in this column itself, and the fact that the subject of my one enduring crush on a female musician is one of the performers most plainly averse to her art resulting in human contact with her audience. But ironic or not, it's still a central tenet of my philosophy of art (along with the idea that one should have a philosophy of art, no matter how pretentious that sounds), so of course I prize art that reinforces it. Watching Richard Shindell is instructively uncomfortable for me, something I think shouldn't have to happen, but feel obliged to support if it does. A Richard Shindell live album is even more illogical, only half-returning these songs to a makeshift form of the safety they already enjoyed in the first place. But every once in a long while, maybe half the times I've seen him, and no more than twice or three times on this album (a slight strain in the yearning of "On a Sea of Fleur de Lis", the gallop of "Arrowhead" almost getting carried away with itself, and maybe that harmony on "Are You Happy Now?"), something bridges even that river. Part of my belief in the power of art is the conviction that art is connective by virtue of its existence, that the need for connection is part of us, and so doesn't have to be explicitly stated to be immanent in what we say and do. Maybe this was the point of the Umberto Eco book I gave up on after wading through fifty-five pages and realizing no number of platypi were ever going to redeem it. Eco's assertion, I think, was that it's hard to talk about existence because the act of saying anything at all presupposes the existence it's attempting to define. But he is a semiotician and I am a romantic, so I state it this way: all the things we say are love songs, all the more so when they try to pretend otherwise. Every song bridges the river between the singer and the audience, whether that is its subject or not. All noises are music, and so it is music that saved me, after all, as there was never really a chance it wouldn't be. The only safety, and thus the only danger, is silence. Everything else is loud and uncomfortable, necessary and beautiful, and if we take any steps at all, it is because we still dream of falling, and of being carried away.