The Excuses, Then the Outcomes, Then the Cause
88 · 3 October 96
The Loud Family: Interbabe Concern
Alert readers may note that I reviewed this same album last week. Alert readers with both short-term memory and long attention spans might note, further, that I reviewed this album last week at some length, and may greet the suggestion that I have even more things to say about it with a combination of skepticism and dismay. What I realized over the course of the weekend, though, is that last week's methodical itemization of Scott Miller's virtues in my eyes, while accurate and probably much more useful to you than this addendum will be, failed to capture the one thing that most explains the central place Scott's music occupies in my system of values. They are things I believe, but not the reason I believe them. The context that led me to this realization is complicated, crashingly irrelevant by nearly every applicable standard, and only qualifies as a music review under the most lenient interpretation of that term, but one of the advantages of having my own obscure column is that while there is no shortage of people who can tell me an idea is stupid, none of them get the chance to until after I've published the thing and it's too damn late. And while it might be a stretch to claim that this issue will justify itself, it is itself part of the very point it's trying to make, and thus it ought at least to explain why I think it's worth writing.
My publication day for these reviews, not that anybody but me notices or much cares, is Thursday. In weeks when my intentions correspond to diligence, of which there are pathetically few, this means that some time on Wednesday night I open the file for the review I completed earlier in the week, run the excessively complicated Word macros that turn my source text into HTML and ASCII, and post the results on my web site and Usenet. The other weeks, the ones in which what passes for the rest of my life manages to make review-writing procrastination seem legitimate, the early digits of Thursday find me still sitting at the computer, sometimes long past the point of medical advisability. Last week was one of these later sorts of weeks. Actually, I was done with #87 by around 1am, which my circadian rhythm has been bullied into thinking isn't that late, and I didn't have to go to work the following morning, so you'd think I was doing fine. The reason for my day off from work, though, was that I was due to board an airplane by 7:45am in order to fly to Austin for the wedding of my second oldest friend in the world, and "finish this week's review" was only the first of a long list of tasks I had to accomplish before departing. By the time I checked off the last item ("pack"), with a satisfied sigh, it was 5am, and there was barely an hour left before I had to get up again and get to the airport. It occurred to me only then that I'd been remiss in not including "sleep" as an explicit entry on my to-do list. As a consequence of this negligence, the delirious snatches of semi-consciousness I got then, and later on the plane, served less as physical rest than as a cauldron in which whatever thoughts my mind found lying handily about were diced and stirred together with fevered thoroughness. And since the overwhelming majority of my then-recent thoughts were about Interbabe Concern, this is how I came to spend four days in Texas filtering everything I did and saw through a residual mental maelstrom of random Scott Miller-isms.
They were four days that lent themselves particularly well to filtering. Most obviously, there was the wedding of my second oldest friend in the world, who we will call Mike so that I don't have to remember an invented alias. Just the fact of this was inspiring, as the wedding was the culmination of an impressively dedicated courtship that provides rare evidence in favor of the forces of good triumphing through noble persistence. Mike is the most principled and steadfast person I have ever met, and he won his love's heart. Just knowing that this can happen in real life is almost inexpressibly inspiring. My happiness for him during the ceremony was evidently so plain on my face that I made his mother cry.
And while this extraordinary union would have been extraordinary any way it was formalized, the specific ceremony made it even more impressive. I've seen very nice traditional weddings, in very nice traditional churches, between people who quite obviously love each other profoundly, and the traditions and settings bring with them a certain momentous solemnity, but a traditional wedding is always as much about the traditions as the couple. There used to be good Darwinian logic behind doing it this way, as it tends to impress potentially flush and impetuous youths, both participating and observing, with the seriousness of the undertaking. In this case, though, nobody involved had the slightest need for patronizing pomp, and so this ceremony was constructed to make the exquisite point that the couple's marriage was, whatever the legalities, sanctioned in fact not by gods or governments, but by their own feelings. They held no rehearsal, because the wedding was not a drama to be acted out, it was a set of things to be said, and as Twain observed, albeit from the other way around, when you're just saying things you believe, there's very little danger of getting them wrong. This is the only wedding I've ever been to where the words said actually expressed the anima of the event.
And instead of a church, where the echoes of the thousands of weddings that went before unavoidably linger in the ambience of the current one, this one was held at a place with no one else's meanings to impose, Mike's family's aboundingly endearing ranch in the hills outside of Austin. It is one thing to walk down a well-trodden aisle, past your friends twisted stiffly in their pews, toward a pipe organ and a preacher and fonts and crosses and stained glass. It is quite a different thing to walk down a path of wood chips and pine branches laid in your own back yard, to have one of your life's most auspicious moments come to you, rather than you going to it. A wedding has magic; why not cast its spell somewhere where you will always be able to feel its sparkle? In a culture defined by transience, holding a wedding at home is a breathtakingly anachronistic gesture of faith in persistence. Perhaps, in the end, generations of Mike's family won't live and die on that ranch after all, but if there's any chance, the history must have first chapters.
And naturally, I also brought my own steamer trunk full of assorted associational baggage to the event. Mike is not the first of my friends to get married, not even the first close friend. In all the other cases, though, the weddings presented no personal connections to me, the spouses involved all being people whose arrival in my friends' lives I didn't experience. The other weddings were all, to me, essentially fait accompli, and no formal gesture, however expansive, can really be that affecting. This one, though, I'd lived through. I met Mike when we were five, and he was my best friend for most of the next twelve years. I saw every one of his relationships until college in person (including the one whose disintegration led to me going out with the girl), and I heard about most of the succeeding ones in phone calls. I remember Mike telling me that he'd met this girl he really liked, but that she was seeing somebody else, and then the long months during which this dilemma's parameters slowly altered. I visited him twice last fall just in time for my presence to interfere with the first tentative weeks of their relationship. I remember the Spanish restaurant at which I met her and first saw them together. I remember prying out of him the admission that he was shopping for an engagement ring. To me, then, this wedding was not a ratification, it was a commencement, and while it wasn't in any way my doing, that doesn't keep it, in the other direction, from becoming part of me.
The ranch, too, is a place in my heart. Back in the world of my own ongoing problems, one of the practical details that I've chosen to invest with symbolic import is the question of where I want to live, both in the terms that lead to my current sluggish house/condo hunt, and in the larger and longer terms that ask what kind of society and place I wish to be a part of. I love Cambridge, where I live now, dearly, and it remains a plausible candidate, but before last fall I would have described myself unhesitatingly as a city creature, and I'm no longer sure that's right. I trace the first wavering in my urban conviction to a single moment, sitting quietly on the back porch of the ranch during my first visit there last year, looking out across the ravine at nothing at all but the other side of it. Something completely un-urban in me reacted, unexpectedly, to the isolation, the calm, the sunlight, the faint methodical sounds of sheep clomping around somewhere on the other side of the house, the lemonade (I might be hallucinating the lemonade, I can't remember exactly). In scrutinizing this reaction, since, I've come to understand, I think, that the social context I need is not physical, it's intellectual. The community I'm searching for is the community of ideas, and it's quite possible that it has no direct physical manifestation. My life is in what I read, and listen to, and write, and think, not in the streets and the bricks around me. And so, if this is right, my criteria for place may actually have nothing to do with the assumptions I've made for as much of my life as I can remember. If my location is not my community, then it's hard to imagine that Cambridge's interminable winters, claustrophobia, noise, grime and routine antagonism are really my Eden. There are, for the moment, non-trivial exigencies like needing a convenient and critically-massed market for the skills with which I currently support myself, but if I can eventually figure out how to sustain my CD-buying habit by doing something other than designing business software, then perhaps my physical home should be a retreat, not a battle station.
Actually, even just traveling to Texas has become a ritual of re-evaluation for me. One might argue that the last thing I need in my obsessively evaluated life is an excuse for even more self-referentiality, but like Angela, I've given a lot of thought to the question of whether I'm too introspective, and have concluded that I'm not. I grew up in Texas, and when I left to come to school here, my parents also moved north, and so the geography of my life thus came to stand, metonymously, for its phases. The discontinuity in location and context, for many reasons, was very sharp, and for several years this meant that Cambridge became not just my adulthood but my life, Texas not my childhood so much as my past. Only pretty recently was I able to extricate myself from this delusion and begin to let who I was for my first eighteen years into who I am a decade further on. When my ten-year high-school reunion rolled around last fall, then, and I made my first return visit to Dallas in eight years, for all practical purposes my first as an adult, there was an unavoidable air of pilgrimage, as if in revisiting a place I could rediscover other things that are much less tangible. In truth, there's little justification for my feeling this way about Austin, since before last year I'd been there exactly once, for only three days, but since 90% of the experience was going to be fabricated regardless, this poses no great obstacle. It is not Texas I go to visit, it is myself in Texas I go to visit with, and the real Texas is less a physical state than a mnemonic for the mental one.
And besides the Texas version of myself, I also go there to visit with some less solipsistic entities. Two of my other best friends from Texas still (or again, actually) live there, and through coincidence (at least, if it's not coincidence, I haven't been able to deduce how), the three of us are the only ones of my close circle of high school friends who, as of about 4pm last Saturday, remain single. Going to this wedding together, then, was as much a collective experience for the three of us as my own presence was an individual one, and I think we took it to heart collectively as much as I did personally. For all of us, I think, Mike getting married was a turning point, the signal that, emotionally as well as statistically, being married has supplanted not being married as the predominant relationship state of our peers. Half encouraged by Mike's example, half goaded by his beating us to it, we feel suddenly incomplete. The night before I flew back to Boston, my friend David and I repeated my insomniac error by staying up for hours discussing a haphazard array of subjects that all, in their own ways, were derived from the consideration of the quest for a life-mate. Besides some interesting but relatively peripheral conclusions (he finds PJ Harvey attractive and I don't, vice versa for Ellen Barkin), we also discovered, I believe, that we agree on a central criteria for attractiveness in the broader sense than the physical. We seek, and although we were talking about women it applies as readily to friends, employers, artists and bands, souls that think of themselves as part of something larger than their own existences. I want my life to be meaningful, and however hopeless or misguided or ill-defined this desire is, it is part of the core of my identity, and thus is, I think, the first thing I look for, consciously or not, in people, or books, or records, or appetizers or street signs.
And this, finally, is where the Loud Family comes back into the story. As I walked around Austin, stood on David's porch throwing darts, slept in his living room, drove to the ranch, ate enormous quantities of Tex-Mex food (an ethnic cuisine that Boston, despite some valiant efforts, has yet to master) and pondered the relatedness of all things, all events reached me through the cloud of musical shrapnel left over from my week of heavy immersion in Interbabe Concern. Sometimes there were details from the songs that touched details in the trip, like the line about the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, or the high school memories of "Where They Go Back to School but Get Depressed", or the way migrating Monarch butterfly impacts on the windshield of my rental car reminded me of the dropped-marble tick on "Don't Respond, She Can Tell". The real reason Scott's music served so well as this trip's spiritual soundtrack for me, though, is due not to his actual words but to the meta-contention made by everything he does. He is, to me, music's (and possibly Art's) standard bearer for the stubborn beliefs first that everything matters, and second that everything that matters is thus part of a single unified longing to understand. When Scott illustrates the CD booklet with appropriations from the grammar of calculus and theoretical physics, I take it not as an intended contrast with the relationship songs inside, but as a contention that analyzing relationships is part of the same study of meaning as integrals and particle tracing. When he weaves together a dismissal of L. Ron Hubbard and the plea "Forget me quick when I'm gone", I hear the insight that a criticism is not worth much until you figure out how to apply it to yourself. Interbabe Concern does not sound like a conventional pop record because it recognizes that the genre borders of pop are not the borders of sentient self-awareness, and thus are of no conceivable artistic consequence. If all advice is ways of saying "Let it go", then all insight is ways of saying "These pieces fit together". Life is the process of figuring out what life is the process of figuring out what life is the process of. This is both a meta-point and, simultaneously, a point. There is only one question, and "Are we alone?", "To be or not to be?" and "Will you love me forever?" are simply variations of phrasing.
For all this, then, for insisting that all things relate, and for Scott's defense of the puzzle itself as much as any assembled cluster, this album is not only music I would lay down my life for, it is art that, quite literally, represents my life, or the life I want mine to be. I want everything to signify, everything to have intent. I want the one thing I stand for, the one truth I say I know, to be that a wedding touches a place, touches every foot that walks there, touches a butterfly's conscience at the moment of death, touches every flickering soul in O'Hare while I wait for my connection, touches a ten-year-old's dream of London, touches every 1 or 0 that encodes a human voice singing a redemption or a fear. Touches this album of rejections, reservations, half-seen contours and rapturous transport, so that no thing doesn't lead to another. And if everything connects, then a relationship autopsy, done right, is as much science as Bohr, and as much theology as Swedenborg. If all studies are one, then music matters. And if there's anything greater you can say about an album than that it makes you believe music matters, then it eludes me, and I'll have to review this record again when I think of it.
Possibly, I guess, this all seems circular, as if I love this album because it makes loving this album seem meaningful. If so, though, then that too is a clue. I will follow its loops and see where it leads.