300 · 26 October 00
The War Against Silence: A Belated Introduction
I remember standing in the Sound Warehouse on Greenville, in Dallas, in 1980 or so, holding in my hands Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality and Vol 4, with which I was about to take advantage of a 4/$20 sale, contemplating how many allowance installments $20 represented, and thinking, in much the same mental tone as one thinks "someday I'm going to have a hovercraft", that one day I intended to be so rich that I could buy a new record every week. No, two records every week. I have, for nearly twenty years, spent the overwhelming majority of my discretionary income on music. "Discretionary income", in my internal glossary, means "money for buying records". As a kid, I never had enough of it. If all "rich" entails is having enough spare money for two new albums a week (fifteen dollars would have sufficed in 1980; I'd need twice that now), I became rich quite a while ago. I have since, of course, recognized at least two additional levels of personal wealth. Level two is when you can afford to buy all the records you have time to listen to, so your record-buying becomes gated by time, not money. For a childless, unmarried computer professional with a used car, no real fondness for traveling and no other expensive habits, this level isn't actually very difficult to attain, and I passed it three or four years ago. (Level three, which I'm nowhere near, is when you have so much money that you can afford to buy all the records you have time to listen, for the rest of your life, without ever earning any more money.) I am better at buying records than I am at anything useful. I buy records to celebrate and to console, to satisfy curiosity, to share and to survive. I buy anything I have any reason to suspect I might find interesting, and I don't mind wading through a bunch of records I play once and then shelve to find one that moves me. I also have a compulsive inability to ever get rid of anything.
By the start of 1993, with my collection approaching its first thousand, I realized that it was becoming dangerously unmanageable. I would have an urge to listen to some particular band and not be able to remember which of their albums I liked best, or why. In addition, the act of collecting, which seemed self-contained and self-justified to me when I was younger, had finally started to feel like a beginning, rather than an end. I wanted the records to mean something, both individually and en masse. The solution was so obvious that I dedicated a New Year's resolution to it on the spur of the moment: I must write a book, a music guide in the bulky tradition of Trouser Press and Rolling Stone's, reviewing everything I owned. This was a foolish idea, but I can be fairly stubborn, and so I spent 1993 listening to each record I had, in a stylistically-associative order only I could reconstruct, and writing down what I thought about it. I spent a couple months of 1994 writing, too, and a couple more editing the thing, but by the middle of 1994 I was done. The book was called From Mega Therion to Eden (it's organized into chapters by genre, from heavy metal (called Mega Therion after a Celtic Frost album) around a huge loop to progressive rock (called Eden, from Marillion's Holidays in Eden)), it's more than three hundred dense pages long, and although there are some isolated passages I'm still happy about, for the most part it's a confused mess. I had a bunch of ideological rationales for how I wrote it, like organizing it stylistically instead of alphabetically (so you could find a band you knew and then browse in either direction to find bands that I thought sounded similar), not assigning grades or ratings (because in my reading experience reviews with ratings tended to become glosses on the rating, which rarely told me anything I cared to know), and focusing on the ways in which records were important to me instead of presuming to judge them (because nobody needs more lessons on disdain), but the selection was perversely eccentric for a "music guide", the writing quality was as uneven as first efforts of any type inevitably are, and by the end I'd begun to feel that I'd sacrificed too much quality for quantity, and had written disposably about many records just to have covered them. I sent the draft to one publisher where I had a contact, but I could never get a response, and I didn't pursue any others. My original plan had been for it to be a living project I'd update every year by interpolating the previous year's acquisitions into the structure, but when I sat down to begin that process at the beginning of 1995, I quickly realized it was impractical. Every entry I tried to add required rereading and usually rearranging the entire chapter in which it was supposed to live to account for its presence, and just about every entry I reread or relocated I found myself wanting to rewrite. Whatever sense the book made, it was done making it.
And sitting there at the kitchen table, peering in glum silence at an unsalvageable draft of what I now realized I wanted to be my continuing medium for understanding the role of music in my life, trying to think of a way around these logistical obstacles, I suddenly decided what my weekly column would be called, if I had one. I liked the name "The War Against Silence" so much, in fact, that I went ahead and wrote a couple experimental issues of the hypothetical column it would be the title of. After the claustrophobic experience of trying to wedge new reviews into my tangled book, writing a few stand-alone reviews was incredibly easy and fun, so on 31 January 95, with no concept of what I was getting into, I posted the first set to the rec.music.misc newsgroup (because it was free, and nobody could stop me), and declared the weekly column underway. It was picked up, starting with issue 21, by The Vibe, ex-MTV VJ Adam Curry's web site, where it ran for just over a year (in a headache-inducing color-scheme they refused to change), until I did a little emotional math with the small amount they were paying me, the small amount it would cost to run my own web site, and the large amount I hated not being in control, at which point I registered furia.com (I explain the name in issue 112) and took over operations myself. Issue 85 was the first to appear on the new site. You are reading issue 300 in what is, so far, an unbroken consecutive run. I think I've gotten better along the way, or at least looking back at the first year or two makes me wince a lot more than looking back at the fourth and fifth, but give me five more years and I'll probably learn to be embarrassed about them all. At any rate, the whole series is still up, and all I ever go back and fix are typos, so you can make up your own mind at your leisure.
Here, then, is the outline of my weeks. Monday morning, as I head off to my day-job designing collaboration software, I look over the pile of music I've neither written about yet nor resolved not to, and tentatively select some thematically-related group of records I feel like I'm ready to discuss to be the week's review subjects. By the time I write about something I've probably been listening to it for a few weeks, but I don't get advance copies, so if you follow release dates you can measure the lag for yourself. I buy more records than I write about, by a factor of six to eight (and yes, I really do buy them; childhood fantasies about getting records for free notwithstanding, I don't take submissions from strangers), so if it sometimes seems suspiciously like I adore everything, it's because I've already filtered out the records that I wouldn't like, the ones I might have liked but didn't, the ones I liked but didn't have anything to say about, and quite a few I could have written about but ran out of time for. Monday through Wednesday I spend about half my listening time (including work hours) on a final immersion in the four or five records I plan to write about that week, and the rest on everything else. Wednesday night I come home from work, eat, and then sit down to write. At this point I remember that I almost never get through four or five records, and decide that the four or five I've been studying all week aren't the ones I feel like talking about, anyway. So I pick something else, and procrastinate a bit, and by eight or nine o'clock at night I've started writing. My alarm clock will buzz at nine or ten in the morning, depending on what I have scheduled at work the next day, so I've got about thirteen hours to split between writing and sleep. Only twice, I think, have I gone back to work Thursday morning on literally no sleep, but getting less than three hours isn't unusual. Most weeks the column takes me eight to ten hours, first keystroke to site update. My body has given up complaining about this, so I'm fairly functional at five in the morning, but I'm sure the column would be better if I wasn't always tired when I'm writing it, and certainly it would be better proofread if that stage didn't come at the end of the night, when I'm basically on the brink of total collapse. But I've tried writing them in pieces, across multiple nights, and I lose track of what I'm trying to say and end up taking twice as long. I've tried writing them on weekends, but I need the weekends to recover from the work week. So I come up with whatever I can, Wednesday night, and that's what you get Thursday morning. I don't have editors or sponsors or paying subscribers to answer to, so I try experiments when they occur to me, and if they fail, for you, so be it. Some weeks they fail for me, too. But a) I'm trying, and b) for the past three years, at least, every time I've written an issue I really wondered about, somebody has written to say they loved it.
And so what began as a rather solipsistic diversion has become unexpectedly, but gratifyingly, public and intense. I suppose I knew that if I kept up the column long enough it would attract regular readers and generate response of some sort, but just as I didn't foresee how much of my personal life and questions I'd end up contemplating in the course of writing record reviews, I didn't anticipate how deeply they would resonate with total strangers. What little formal press coverage I've received has been breathtaking and humbling. I don't advertise, and I don't have the right personality type for aggressive self-promotion, so my standard sources of new readers are the mailing lists and web sites of the bands I review, which doesn't do my critical credibility any favors, but I've forfeited that, in other ways, many times over by now. Enough of the musicians I've written about have written back that I'm no longer as dumbfounded by it as I was the first time I opened an email to read "Hi! I'm the bassist in Guided by Voices." Web stats are misleadingly precise, but my guess is that my readership, in some real sense of the word, is currently in the very low thousands. I get hits from around four thousand distinct hosts each week, and about a hundred thousand in the past year, but the majority of those are people wandering in from search engines and wandering straight out again when they realize that my site doesn't contain band pictures or bootleg MP3s.
What, exactly, the site does contain is a harder question. I persist in calling it a music review, even though it frequently doesn't behave like one, for two reasons. The logistical one is that some weeks I don't have any grand hypothesis to propose, or any nagging pain to prod, I just have some music I liked that I want to tell you about. An Investigation Into the Nature of Human Truth that sometimes merely itemizes b-sides of Roxette singles would be pathetic, I think, while a music-review column that every once in a while makes you cry could be a treasure. My models, to the small extent that I have any, are Dorothy L. Sayers' later Lord Peter books, which are mysteries both in principle and fact but relationship novels in effect, and Leslie Savan's advertising critiques, which are assaults on misused humanity disguised as dismantlings of TV commercials. But, too, I'll admit that the kind of music reviews that "music reviews" usually mean, I hate. Mainstream music reviews tend to concentrate on a useless arbitration of taste. Good or Bad? is not the critic's to answer. At its most mundane, music criticism should be a service industry, an attempt to help the reader guess whether there's enough chance that they'd like the album that they ought to buy it and find out. This is difficult, which may be why writers often don't try. I mainly describe music by comparison to other music, because that's how I hear it, and music itself is the only functional vocabulary most of us have for talking about music. I probably describe bands you've never heard of, half the time, by comparing them to other bands you've never heard of, which I realize isn't helpful, but hopefully somewhere in the equation there will be one band you do know, and from there you'll discover two more, and from those still more, and eventually we'll have some background in common. The thought of my reviews prompting people to spend limited record-buying money on records I suggested they might like, frankly, intimidates me, even if that's ostensibly the point of reviews, but I get a lot more email thanking me for recommendations than I do demanding compensation for being misled, so I guess I'm doing an adequate job at an inherently disappointment-prone task.
As should be obvious, though, if you read this column regularly (and if you don't, why on earth are you reading this issue?), convincing you to buy individual records is mostly not my agenda. I spend an enormous amount of time and energy finding new music, so if your taste happens to intersect with some part of mine, I may be able to lead you to some records you wouldn't otherwise have known or thought about. But what I really try to make this column is a journal of the experience of listening to music, or when I can of the experience of loving music, or when I get it exactly right, if ever, a moment of the experience of believing, the way you believe in immortality or knife wounds, that music is the thing human beings are best at, and the forum in which we confess the most uplifting truths about ourselves. I write about music, and about other things by way of music, because music transforms everything I contact, and maybe I can give you some tiny fraction of that by example. If you can't love Big Country or Tori Amos the way I do, maybe my explication of how and why I love them can help you love whomever you love better. I call these things music reviews because they try to answer the questions I think music should be construed as asking. Writing about music without writing about how it affects your life is, to me, an exercise in surreal opacity, like writing about sex or child-rearing without talking about love, or writing about food without eating. I used to describe my column as digressive, but I think that's actually wrong. I may take a long time to get to the point, but it's usually not because I'm wandering around, it's because I've started a really long way away, and then proceeded to the point as expediently as possible. I can't guarantee you'll always care, but I can promise that I care, and maybe that will lead somewhere.
And however glibly I sometimes claim that I write for my own purposes, and would keep doing it even if I didn't get any feedback, when it's five in the morning and I'm still panning for theses, it makes an immeasurable difference that some of you have written to tell me where, in fact, these columns have led you. I get carping, as well as encouragement, but the emails saying I'm an ignorant asshole for describing Billy Corgan's voice as a whine, or insisting that I know nothing about music if I don't concede that Helloween are geniuses, or demanding that I apologize for asking Fugazi to make a pop record, are by far the exceptions. I think this mostly means that people who hate my approach to reviewing never get to the bottom of the page where the email link is, but that's fine. I aspire to be more valuable, not more popular. It's incredibly cheering to get emails that begin, as it sometimes seems like half of them do (although statistically, that can't be right), "I've been a TWAS reader for years, and I never write fan letters, but I have to tell you...". You've written to tell me that I've found words for emotions you didn't know how to express. You've written to insist I should be making money at this, which for the time being isn't necessary, and might be more of a curse than a blessing in practice, but it's a sweet thought. You've plugged my site in your own words, and insisted that you came upon it at random and then stayed up all night reading, which are probably the two most sincere forms of praise the net offers. You've suggested that sites like mine are what the internet ought to be used for, and I think we're both destined to be disappointed, but not just yet. You've forgiven whatever obsessions of mine you can't fathom, and kept reading anyway. You've thanked me for championing bands real critics are too uptight to enjoy. You've suggested I look up "florid", of all words. You admit, sheepishly, that you read even when you don't have the faintest idea who the bands are, which is entirely fine. You've sent me helpful suggestions about my beleaguered rubber-tree plant, corrections for typos I missed, hundreds of recommendations I've followed up on and hundreds I haven't. You've sent me enough emails titled "Thanks!" or "Wow!" that I can raise my spirits just by sorting my feedback folder by subject. You've indulged impulses as patently perilous as a Columbine exegesis in an ABBA review and a public marriage proposal to Juliana Hatfield (26 October 00 update: no, still no response). You've credited me with things I have no right to, sharing how your experience of my experience of music has changed you. You've paid me back in stories, doubts and plans. I've thanked you one by one (yes, I do try to answer all email), but let me do it again for the record: Thank you. At five in the morning, it matters. Late Thursday afternoons, as I fight to stay awake, knowing that I've touched however few hearts is far better than coffee or sleep.
How long I will keep doing this, and how "this" will evolve, I have no idea. My file-naming convention will break down after issue 9999, but by then I may have thought of a solution. My guess is that I will keep writing for many years, as the supplies of electrifying music and daunting questions seem to be inexhaustible, but then again any week I could have a surprise epiphany, and decide that my work here is done. I have so far resisted the urge to try to make The War Against Silence into anything larger than it is, and I intend to keep resisting. I take a perverse pride in operating one of the few dead-end sites on the entire web. There is no links page, no message board, no sound-clip archive. I do not integrate, aggregate or repurpose. I do not provide music news, I will not send you updates via email, I do not endorse, I do not take advertising, I will not help you sell or market anything, even if I like it a lot. The rest of the web is full of shiny moving parts; my tiny, drab, obscure, tranquil corner is for me writing about music, with as little administrative overhead as possible. I hope it improves, but I don't think it needs to expand. If I find more spare time in my life, I'll write more of my own inept songs, and maybe a slim volume about improvisational cooking for smart people with nice kitchens who only ever use them to reheat take-out. I might become incredibly famous for something, or maybe there will never be many more of you than there are tonight. Either way, I will try to be ready. In the meantime, thank you for writing, and thank you for reading. We fight silence, sometimes, because the other targets are too well defended. But the war against anything begins with an exasperated bark.
Some trivia, by way of epilogue. There are snippets of autobiography scattered across the back issues, but the wildly abridged version is that I'm 33, I grew up in Dallas, I've been in Cambridge since arriving in 1985 to go to Harvard (my degree is in filmmaking and photography, and I managed to spend four years at the Harvard Lampoon without getting sucked into writing for television afterwards), I work for a software company called eRoom Technology as a user-interface designer, I have a younger sister and my parents are still married. No pets, no kids, single. I do not drink or believe in God. I will vote for Gore but I'm not happy about it. My main stereo system is an NAD CD-player going through a Denon amp to a pair of small and awkwardly-positioned Klipsch speakers. As of tonight I have 5075 CDs and 1253 vinyl records, alphabetized within form factor by artist, with compilations at the end. No, I will not tape or rip any of them for you. My main record store is Newbury Comics in Harvard Square, where they greet me by name (albeit by Bob Mould's name, not my own, as we look similar and he's a lot better known for it). I write in Microsoft Word 97, running on Windows NT 4.0, running on a steadily-aging 450 MHz Gateway PC, and produce the HTML files for the web site through a series of byzantine VBA macros. I know the font is small, someday soon I'll add a style sheet. The little stick-figure at the bottom of the pages is a self-portrait from years ago when I had a floppy mohawk. I wrote the search and highlighting scripts myself in perl. The ten issues I'm most satisfied with (not counting the ones from 2000 that I have no perspective on yet) are 75 (suicide), 88 (Texas), 118 (S.), 130 (moving), 133 (faith), 173 (Tori), 192 (Juliana), 193 (my parents), 218 (April Fools') and 221/222 (Columbine). The intro to 203 is fictional. The first letter in 287 is to an actual person, the second is to a composite. Yes, 17 was awful, I'm sorry about that. Otherwise, when you think I'm joking, I'm usually serious. In the first 299 issues I've written more than a million words, which might make me the world's leading individual bulk producer of words about music. The longest non-run-on words I've used are "anthropomorphization" (once), "electroencephalogram" (twice), "indistinguishability" (once), "overintellectualized" (once) and "uncharacteristically" (32 times; a staple). If you count hyphens the longest is "cultural-imperialism-in-the-guise-of-tourism-in-the-guise-of-ethnology", which if this were Q, would constitute a complete Peter Gabriel album review in itself. I've said "Sarah" more often than "happy", "collection" more often than "relationship", "obvious" more than "strange", "context" more than "dancing". I cannot spell buoy right on the first try no matter how many times I n-guess the vowel order, and I regularly write "phase" when I mean "faze". But I'm good with pasta, and I will be polite to your parents.
And I will remember to say: Goodnight.