We Need Radio Shack
283 · 29 June 00
Mathlete: Lincolnwood Tech
Surely the streak will eventually end, but not this week. I hope persistence isn't this column's only virtue, but it's the one I can claim for it, myself, without much fear of controversy. Whatever I have or haven't done in this column, at least I have or haven't done it every week for 283 weeks in a row, which would be fairly impressive if my deadlines had money or editors or other outside encouragements, and ought to qualify as minorly epic given that I don't. This morning, though, as I put a change of clothes and a couple long books into my bag and left the house, it seemed like the streak might end at 282. On Sunday I began noticing a sharp pain in my right side, just below the ribs. The most obvious explanation, where by "obvious" I mean the one entailing the greatest amount of perverse irony, was that I had somehow strained an abdominal muscle in the course of my extremely cursory participation in my first soccer game since spraining an ankle two months ago. A case against this diagnosis, however, could be built on such observations as nothing discernibly abdominal having occurred during the game, and the pain getting notably worse on Monday, instead of better. Tuesday, therefore, I went to the doctor, who prodded thoughtfully at the afflicted region and observed that although there are muscles thereabouts (shielded, in my case, by a layer of fat, which I plan to someday get rid of, but in the meantime I'll point out that you rarely hear about anybody injuring their fat), somewhere behind them lies the gall bladder, where, were I a sixty-three-year-old pregnant Navaho woman on a hunger strike, we might reasonably expect to find gallstones. In the interest of Prudence (oddly, the Navaho woman's name), we scheduled an ultrasound exam, which would serve the dual purpose of examining my gall bladder and, if in fact I were pregnant, discovering the sex of my child.
She sent me off with a stern injunction, however, were the pain to increase or I to begin showing any of the other symptoms of gallstones, to go to the ER. The treatment for gallstones is removing your gall bladder, whose tenure in your body turns out to be an instructional allegory about diligently performing a basically unnecessary task, although the alacrity with which the medical establishment excises them makes me wonder if they don't also have some value on the black market. The symptoms of having gallstones, unfortunately, are a lot like the symptoms of being nervous about maybe having gallstones, which I dutifully began having. The pain increased, I began running a very low fever, and so this morning (Wednesday), I packed a bag with hospital survival gear and headed over to Mass General, which has been called the finest hospital in the entire world, albeit only, as far as I'm aware, by a fictional environmental terrorist in a Neal Stephenson novel. This was my second ER visit in two months, which after thirty-two years without one I hope isn't a trend. This visit was a lot more interesting than the one for my ankle, not least because this time I wasn't on a stretcher, which thus couldn't be "accidentally" banged into things. You don't see quite the cross-section of humanity, on a Wednesday summer morning at Mass General, that you do in an ER episode, but I saw enough to keep my own suffering in perspective. There was an impatient woman in a garish pink dress with her entire arm bandaged, a shirtless man with his hands bandaged and a sheepish look on his face suggesting that he'd hurt them doing something dumb, a man in scrubs from some other department of the hospital who seemed to be mixing work with displeasure, and several people old enough that their physical surroundings were no longer holding their complete attention. I heard the nurses talking about, but never saw, some woman to whom was attached the disturbing phrase "they're still trying to stop the bleeding". A slow, drab parade of visitors to Bay 23, my temporary residence, checked my blood pressure five times (receiving, I noted out of the corner of my left eye, wildly varying results), took my temperature four times, attached me to an EKG that caused my bay number to appear on the ward monitor every fourteen seconds with the note "Leads Fail" (a message I was apparently supposed to forward to the Portuguese national soccer team, so I guess the loss to France later in the day was partly my fault), and finally wheeled in a "bedside" ultrasound machine (so designated to avoid stealing market-share away from larger, noisier and more expensive models sold by the same manufacturer, no doubt) and poked at my stomach with it. Although the doctors remained suspiciously reluctant to relinquish their claim on my gall bladder, they admitted that the machine couldn't detect anything wrong with it, nor any of the other proximate organs, so emergency surgery would not be necessary, and I could have saved myself the considerable trouble of lugging Cryptonomicon to the hospital and back.
This experience took a few hours to unfold, and since I was there in a major hospital, it seemed like a good excuse to contemplate my mortality. One's mortality, though, is surprisingly uninteresting given its significance, so I actually spent most of the time reading The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, the conclusion of Louis de Bernières' hilarious and trenchant (often simultaneously) trilogy about the travails of an imaginary composite Latin American country. The series contains many memorable and disturbing things, but the three I find myself clinging to, for my own personal reasons, are the landlocked naval official in book two (Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord), the identical twins who make fun of an unobservant visiting musicologist by courting him while pretending to be one girl (but grow fond of him, in the process, and end up both marrying him, thankfully after confessing the deception), and the plainly civilized habit, practiced by all right-thinking people in all three books (the other one, the first, being The War of Don Emmannuel's Nether Parts), of spending much of the afternoon dozing in a hammock. Why I have latched onto the musicologist and the twins, I decline to speculate in public, but the appeal of the other two isn't hard to theorize about. The siesta is a gesture of social perspective, a daily reminder of the proper balance between industry and leisure (one of which is supposed to serve the other, something colder climates don't excuse us for forgetting), and the naval official, who has a job that rarely requires him to do any work, has struck an even more appealing balance. I would like to work less. This is a banal desire, I'm well aware, and many of you probably work harder than I do, and get paid less, so on those grounds I shouldn't complain, but this isn't a competition. My life, I was forcibly reminded sitting in a hospital bed wired to a vital-signs monitor, is finite, and the finiteness is absolute, and not relative to anybody else's. My day job designing business software is a pretty good one, almost certainly the best one I've had, but the time and emotional energy it requires are disproportionate to the degree to which it expresses my personal values or contributes to what I think of as human progress. This is not what I thought I would be doing when I grew up. Most of us, of course, don't end up doing, as adults, specifically what we thought we'd be doing when we were kids, but the general problem isn't that we take software jobs instead of becoming astronauts or science-fiction novelists, it's that we lose sight of why we wanted to be something, or worse, that we ever wanted, at all. Routine takes over. Part of why parents so often opt to hate their children's music, I suspect, is that it reminds them painfully, and/or subconsciously, of how much of their own youthful life-force they've allowed to bleed away. They look at misplaced energy and forget that misplaced energy can be redirected, while apathy is unproductive no matter which way it points. This is why the art that kids (which means, in this context, anybody younger than you) produce is important, even when it's as plainly soulless and manufactured as a Britney Spears dance routine or as overwrought and ill-advised as Jewel's book of poetry: they aren't very wise, but they're unmistakably alive.
I could never have done Britney's dances, and I like to think (probably in error) that my book of poetry would have been better than Jewel's. If I'd got a four-track when I was younger, though, or taken it more seriously when I finally did, it's not hard for me to imagine that I'd have made records that sound something like Mathlete's. Mathlete are nominally a side project for Wolfie's Mike Downey, and the family tree I would originally have drawn has Mathlete farther removed from the Wolfie core than Joe and Amanda's other band, Busytoby, but since subsequent Busytoby and Wolfie records failed to elicit the same joy from me that Awful Mess Mystery did, I think by now I've inverted the graph, and for my purposes Mathlete are the new center of it. Lincolnwood Tech, released by Blackbean and Placenta in uncharacteristically professional-looking packaging, is a twenty-two song collection of Mike and Don Marsden's early home recordings, eleven originally circulated on a cassette called Teleport, five from a tape called Mathlete Leaves the Lab, and the rest not previously released in even that fashion. Most of these songs are assembled out of cheap, beepy synthesizers, low-grade drum-machine thump, tentative guitar and reedy singing, and the average length is comfortably under two minutes. Unless your song criteria are dogmatic about length, bass-guitars and female backing choirs, though, you may be surprised by how many of these qualify. "Narrowcaster" is bouncy and wide-eyed, like makeshift Polara. "A Couple of Ohms" is more OMD than Gary Numan, yearning where it could easily have been sinister. The robotic noises of "You Say I'm a Wreck" don't disguise the love song much. "Rocket Patrol" is an Etch-a-Sketch diagram for a atmospheric guitar epic. The vocals in "Alpha Beta" sound like they're being performed by squirrels sealed inside Fresca cans, but the droning synthesizers fascinate me precisely because they seem so ill-prepared to carry the song by themselves. "Master Control" is a song Yaz might have made if they'd been more interested in NASA transcripts than the Lord's Prayer. "We're Moving to Germany" is an endearingly goofy rejoinder to all the morbidly solemn Europhile odes synth-pop has engendered. "Illinois, Not Outer Space" is cheerful, chirpy nonsense, but the tense "Our Apartment" hints at metaphorical relationship unease. "Turn Me Up" is mechanical and triumphant, "Tape Machines and Tambourines" a good candidate to be the next Casio demo song. The wobbly vocals of "You Look Electric" don't quite live up to the clipped noise-snare and fly-by arpeggios, to me, but "Trophy Thief", expanding on a lyrical reference in "Our Apartment", sounds like three-quarter-speed early Game Theory, and "Right Tape Wrong Fader" borrows unashamedly from New Order. "Project Stereo Set" sounds like a Dead Milkmen tape with a misaligned drum track over which somebody recorded a beginner's theremin lesson. The acoustic-guitar lament "Oh How We Get Let Down" and the summery "Are We Technical?" are tangential experiments at sounding like someone else, but "You Wind Up All Wrong" is Mathlete at their most essential, and "The Arcade Lane and the Cinema Street", a plaintive acoustic power-ballad thinly disguised by merciless flanging and a faint drum loop, suggests that Mathlete can imagine themselves grown up, and aren't scared yet.
Mathlete: Telstar Parthenon
Although these two Mathlete CDs came out almost the same week, Telstar Parthenon (on the Chapel Hill label Plastique) is the band's first "real" album. Structurally, the distinction isn't immediately apparent, as this set has twenty songs in just under forty minutes, and only one that crosses the three-minute mark. The production aesthetic, most distinguishingly Mike and Dan's stubborn belief that the human voice is as naked without effects pedals as a guitar, hasn't changed much, either, but they're starting to find some faith in their own songwriting, and fewer of these feel obliged to add a track of synth noodling for DIY ambience. The muted "Blackouts, Offlines" is stranded between Joy Division and Simple Minds. "Century Man" is sturdy, mid-tempo, guitar-driven rock, drum-machines or not, and Mathlete's response to a hero's aspirations ("We don't want to call you out / Cuz when we do you'll just stick around") is disarmingly incisive and practical. "Feel Alright" is Mathlete's impression of a serious Devo song. "Surveillance" is slow and moving, and the chiming guitars at the beginning momentarily make me think Mathlete might take up the mantle of Lincolnville (who recently surrendered to the usual pressures), but by the end the song has turned into what I think Smashing Pumpkins' abortive synth-pop phase hoped to be. "Coat of Arms" plays dry, slashing guitar against an utterly unrepentant mid-Eighties gated-snare sound. "Quite Alright" is a sneaky tech-school prom waltz. "Geekout" is squeaky and disposable, but "We Want to Tell You" is about what INXS's "Don't Change" would have sounded like if OMD had done it, and "Memorial Hill" has traces of Kraftwerk and early Simple Minds. "Know Your Number" is a surging, skeptical anthem about virtual communication. "Chromakey Me" is a simmering 3/4 farewell with a stray drum-machine groove stapled onto the end.
The three songs that define this album, though, for me, are the ones I don't think Mathlete circa the early tapes could have done at all, not just wouldn't have arranged this way. "(I Don't Wanna) Technical Direct" sounds like a cross between early Game Theory and early Sisters of Mercy, a pounding synth-drum groove over which guitars and keyboards grind in comfortable unison, letting Scott Miller's pop instincts steer the song clear of Andrew Eldritch's methodical macabre gloom, but not without getting close enough to touch it as they spin by. The graceful "An Afternoon Emergency", with Kim Kleinfeldt adding keyboards and a sweet duet vocal (flanged, of course, but only lightly), approaches barcelona for unforced neo-New-Wave pop charm. And the album's centerpiece, I think, and the song that I hope will come to seem like the beginning of Mathlete's future, is the nostalgic "Steel Wheels '89". Jumpy synth-drums and irrepressible keyboard hooks drive a pop song whose evasive verses impatiently anticipate its fragile, soaring choruses, and the half out-of-tune reversed-guitar solos are only room to grow. "Do you remember how I lost you in an accident?", they ask. "Do you remember how the accident was lack of communication?" That's how we lose most things, how we go from having everything to emotional poverty. They start to slip away, and we don't say anything, and we keep not saying anything until they're gone. Put that way, growing up doesn't sound that difficult. Adulthood isn't difficult, it's just relentless, and it holds you to every mistake you don't correct. Mathlete are still young enough to believe that problems can always be isolated, and can be fixed with eighteen-cent resistors or a new battery. If that were as true about important problems as it is about electronic ones, my doctor would just have popped my gall bladder out, snapped a new one in, and we'd have known in ten seconds if that was what hurts. But the fact that this doesn't work so well for medicine, yet, doesn't mean it can't work for the parts of life for which a gall bladder is irrelevant, not just superfluous. We complicate so many things that could be simple. Before you write your next song, or design your next feature, or whatever it is that you do, ask yourself if you really need more than four tracks. Ask yourself, moreover, whether the answer matters to you. If it doesn't, your job is probably a waste of your time. Too much commerce and too much technology and far too much art subscribes to a cult of monoliths, substituting scale for inspiration, and thus employing many of us to make things bigger, instead of better. This is an unreasoning faith, one that believes implicitly that questions are intrinsically rhetorical, and so one that thinks, wrongly, that answers are the provenance and privilege of heroic will. Heroism is compelling, but we're almost always better off without it. So maybe 283 weeks is nothing to brag about, after all. Frantic emergency surgery would make a more dramatic story than if the pain in my side just slowly goes away, but I have enough drama in my life without my internal organs contributing any. The biggest differences, in fact, between the ER in which I spent my day and the ones on television is that in the real one there was no shouting, no soundtrack, no editing. The corridors were calm. "They're still trying to stop the bleeding", one nurse told the other, in exactly the same tone as their previous conversation about innersoles. If it were me bleeding, delirious, I'd probably want them to be sprinting from place to place, barking out orders, marshaling expensive rescuing machines. But that wouldn't help, and the instinct is as misguided as the ones that lead people to think that the span of pop runs only from Britney to Garbage. Let some simple things be simple. Learn to love some simple art, whether it's Mathlete records or not. Don't be afraid of making obvious decisions, or of reviving neglected principles. For everything in our lives that remains stubbornly chaotic, mysterious and frightening, as mundane as abdominal pain or as life-altering as recognizing long-standing disillusionment in retrospect, save a few kids' songs, and every tiny new thing you encounter, try to let it turn you into the person you would have been if you'd learned it before you got too old to care.