Friday, August 17, 2018

ECCLECTRICITY...

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In the movie industry, a Music Director creates the soundtrack that manipulates the emotional environment of a film. That job sounds dreamy. Dreams are like movies you have in your sleep, while waking life is like a protracted reel of scenes unspooling with indelible tableaus, unforeseen plot twists, grand illuminations, and often excruciating tedium. So the soundtrack of life would enlist, I believe, a zany assortment of tunes.

There is a galaxy of chemical means by which you can remedy tedium, to bolster the highs and exacerbate the lows. Traversing the far reaches of that galaxy, I've made some distinctions... and I noticed that what happens to my brain with music is more profoundly stirring, more cosmic, more molecular than any kind of artificial high. Over and over again, certain songs can feel timeless.

I use Sony headphones1 when working on my laptop, but almost nothing beats listening to music whilst driving, which is why I still make CD compilations. My 2014 Civic EX is one of the last generations of Honda to include an in-dash CD player installed discretely above the touch-screen.

Dashboard of the 2014 Honda Civic EX earthbound personal spacecraft.
CDs are nearly obsolete, but they’re convenient and cheap. With a $15 spindle of 100 Maxells, I can put a copy of my latest playlist in my sister’s mailbox, and then give one to 99 other people. No upload required, no swapping of flash drives.

You can fit about 18 tracks on an 80-minute CD (sometimes 20+). When you offload a cache of music on a friend, anything under 25 songs is manageable. In the age of Spotify and Pandora, the concept of a playlist is practically archaic. There is no beginning, middle, and end to Pandora. And streaming an infinite queue of songs, in my estimation, isn’t doing anyone favors in unearthing favorites.  

These days I try to make a CD every month or two that includes songs new and old, many unknown, some unavoidably popular, and some forgotten. Mostly new though… or at least new to me. Some of them are filler, some are from video games. Some I edited using Audacity.2 Some I don’t even really like anymore. But my hope is that you’ll find a number of them groovy, even if they’re guilty pleasures.3 A few may strike you as profoundly resonant or vaguely redolent and nostalgic… and many will grow on you, if you let them. Some of them may even set your mesolimbic system all atwitter.

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…Like every teenager with a dual-cassette deck jambox, I started making mixed tapes in the 1990s. I made them with themes: workout tapes, party tapes, wallow in self-pity tapes… commence-to-bonin’ tapes. In those days stereo component manufacturers conditioned our listening experience with new features: the five-disc changer, the SHUFFLE button. Thematic continuity was suddenly defunct. Perhaps consequently, the CDs in my collection are anti-thematic. (Close listeners will note exceptions.)

For me, the order of songs on a compilation is important. There’s a scene in the movie Boyhood where Ethan Hawke shares my enthusiasm on this point. …And we are not alone.
Like a DJ set, indeed. But it’s not my aim to incite Dionysian fervor in a CD compilation. I’d rather indulge you with an emotional spectrum. Have you ever listened to a new band and by the end of the album you felt like you’d listened to one long song, even if it was really good? If you drive three or four hours through the desert, you yearn for new landscapes, for curvy pavement, and you realize that being lulled into a trance can be unsafe. My hope is that Ecclectricity will mollify your road rage, yet make you drive faster. It will put your heart in your throat because yes, your pets and your parents will die one day; it will salinize the rims of your eyes by evoking the one who got away; and you will think meh in response to many songs whilst you dutifully do laundry, mow the yard with your earbuds plugged in. What I really hope is: you'll share just one song with someone else—maybe even a person you are in love with.

Methinks that balance is key to the mixtape concept. There are myriad variables in characterizing music: tone, rhythm, timbre, era, genre, grittiness, gheyness, saccharinity, ball-rockingness, fun-factor… But tempo seems to be the key element to shaping our visceral response—our mood. I like the idea of sobering repose juxtaposed with startling energy… or the other way around. I like rollercoasters. And I like carefully placed non sequiturs. I like varying all the variables.

So yes I will slip 1980s R&B synthpop between Pinback and The Apes. I might follow the Geto Boys with Scott Walker—because I don’t want your mood to stagnate. Rollercoasters do not beget trances. If you were to plug my entire collection into iTunes, it would default to random play because iTunes is a presumptuous asshole. It thinks it’s smarter than you. But you don’t need SHUFFLE because I’ve randomized each CD already, with a deliberate randomness. Paradoxically, it feels right when you hear it. Deliberate randomness can yield a seamless cohesion, and there is something about the successful segue of one song into another—especially when they are radically divergent on the musical spectrum. …The prominent American record label called Mercury was established in 1945 out of Chicago. Maybe I should have called this collection Mercurial.

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By the time the Interwebs made acquiring music really easy in the mid-2000s, I was determined to compile songs that the radio ignored, that the pop industry shunned in favor of making certain people famous, like that Sideshow Bob-looking freak from Counting Crows—he and his abject warbling. God that music sucks.


Finding extracurricular pop music used to be a chore. In 1991 I recall going to a local shop and flipping through the Music Index Catalogue on a dogged quest to find a song I’d heard in a movie. That song has now been re-rendered once per year (literally since 2004). The Music Index Catalogue was a tome. It was about six inches thick with 5-point font… and it proffered no field into which you typed SEO keywords to do a search. I checked that thing monthly, but I didn’t even know the name of the song I was seeking at the time—much less its composer.

The song was Goodbye Horses by a chick (who sounded like a guy) who called herself Q Lazzarus. It was featured in what is arguably the most indelible scene from Silence of The Lambs but what struck me most was the music in that scene. It was so striking in fact that I recall exiting the theatre at age 16 thinking, “Man, I gotta find that song where Buffalo Bill tucks his wang under his neatly-trimmed bush and prances around in front of his Betacam dressed as a gypsy.”

Yes, it was the music that impressed me most. Never mind that this psychopath was making a suit out of people. …I finally found this gem of a song after months of searching only because the manager of the local music store said to me, “Oh, you’re looking for the song that Jonathan Demme liked so much that he put it in two of his movies. You’ll find it on the Married To The Mob soundtrack,” (not on SoTL).

Hot damn. …Soon after, I found myself doing the tuck at house parties to the Q Lazzarus song… ten years before Jay and Silent Bob made the song widely popular in Clerks II.

This was during the emergence of alternative music, before the term indie rock was conceived. Technology hadn’t yet empowered talented, tech-savvy consumers with the mechanisms to produce their own work. Even today, the incomparably vast majority of artists who make music lack institutional promotion, agency, or mainstream exposure. In those days you could scour gads of CDs in local music shops and take a gamble on rarities that you’d heard from a friend were worth a listen. Or you had the option of mail-order music, risking a few bucks on amateur music journalists’ descriptions in fanzines. Or you could buy import CDs at 20% over retail that you thought were a safe bet. …This was long before the first hipster uttered the phrase, “It’s really obscure, man—you’ve probably never heard of it.”

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…So it took me about eight months to find Goodbye Horses. And yet right now, if you type “flying over you” into Google, you’re there. In the Information Age, you could even dare to bust out SoundHound mid-movie in a theatre next time you’re curious about a song. Today you can download a torrent of 200 songs in ten minutes through a site like IndieRockPlaylist, accessing 200 different noncommercial artists per month(!), which makes the novelty of my compendium underwhelming—except to me. Thankfully, there are people who wish to disseminate new music regardless of curb appeal... but each circuit of lineage is subject to a “distillation” process. And that's what I like to do.

Having said all of this, it’s clear that I am just another tech-dependent product of Generation XYZ or whateverthefuck my generation is boxed into. And having considered this at length, I know that technology will make way for the apotheosis—and the obliteration—of mankind. Hopefully not in your lifetime.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (1889)

I grew up at the tail-end of a time when it was still cool to read Herman Hesse and quote Friedrich Nietzsche—you know, if you were a pretentious douche. Not surprisingly, none of the girls at the TKE parties I went to gave a shit about Herr Hesse or Herr Nietzsche. Had they been able to hear me over Dre and Snoop’s thundering bass, they might have learned that shortly before his death, Friedrich Nietzsche was arrested for slugging a cop because the cop was whipping his own workhorse so fiercely that Nietzsche felt compelled to intervene. He flung his arms around its neck, absorbing a flurry of violent flogs to shield the terrified animal. A whistle blew, whence gads of Polizei dashed across cobblestones to pry him away from the horse, to whom Nietzsche tearfully apologized—yes, to the horse—as they carted him off to the loony bin. Goddammit.


It is very possible that Nietzsche was a pretentious bastard in so many ways, but never a douche: he was a visionary. And when at age 55 he was detained, it wasn’t so much for the egregious error of defying an officer, but because he was officially deemed a sociopath. The State already knew who he was. A wise man once quoted Jesus to me, saying, “A prophet is never respected in his homeland.” Jesus’s claim is historically watertight, if you think about it. After all, what sane person would side with a beast over man? Friedrich was apologizing to the horse for humanity’s failure to transcend its own arrogance, to reach its intellectual potential, to reconcile itself against its perversion of Nature. Nietzsche was said to have died in the loony bin, of a broken heart.

Why and how is this relevant to this post? Because Friedrich Nietzsche experienced the same endorphin blast 130 years ago listening to Austro-Germanic string orchestration that I’m feeling right now listening to the haunting synth sounds on Lost You In A Dream. No matter the math of the medium, Nietzsche knew that music is capable of defining the human condition, and that what penetrated his tympanic membrane also penetrated his soul.

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I am convinced that music has the power to etch itself into our psyches. When the majority of your sensory world has been stripped away, when nothing colors your senses but what was—even if you are virtually unable to access your deepest memories—music can reignite the neural network of your parietal cortex, and make you feel alive again. It is one of the gifts of being human.

Think of the songs you loved in your teens and your twenties. This year listen hard to those that compel you to sing in your car, or power through the last half-mile of a run. If any of the songs in this compendium do what I hope they do for you, they will dredge up what was decades from now. Never mind all your regrets, your transgressions, your foibles, and all your what-have-you-dones… When you’re disintegrating faster than you are learning, faster than your cells are rebuilding, when you no longer are immersed and living purposefully, there will be music that you loved. It has the power to restore your identity, to transport you back in time… or at least somewhere otherworldly.

Click on this pic of Henry to see what I mean.
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKDXuCE7LeQ

Right now I cannot fathom Henry’s condition, how to subsist like that—music or no music. There’s not room for it in this post. Generally speaking, I’m nonplussed on dementia, on intellectual disintegration and what to do about it. It’s easier to ponder what I would want played at my funeral. Really easy. It would be every song from every Metroid video game ever made, on repeat. Seriously. So thank you Hip Tanaka and Kenji Yamamoto.  

Just be sure to play The Who and Zeppelin at my wake. And The Cars, and Gary Numan... and the first two albums produced by Basehead. Be sure to invite Michael Ivey. And maybe sprinkle in some Duran Duran.

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UPDATE

In December 2017, Terri Gross interviewed Lin-Manuel Miranda on NPR’s Fresh Air. He mentioned how creating mixtapes was “an important part of the friendship and mating rituals” of his youth, growing up in New York City. No matter where you grow up, I believe it to be true. “I think I learned more about writing scores for Broadway by making mixtapes in the '90s than I did in college,” he said. “You’re learning about rise and fall and energy and tempo shifts. You’re showing off your taste and your references... And so it’s no accident that the initial name for my show was The Hamilton Mixtape.”

While I am no award-winning musical icon, what he said truly resonated for me. I wrote him a brief note about it and sent him my Ecclectricity link. He must have viewed this page because I saw the view-count rise by about 10 within a week. A short time later, he responded with this gracious postcard note. Thank you, Sr. Miranda. I'm honored.


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1 Sony model MDR-W08. $15. Unbeatable. All respect to Dr. Dre, but it is funny to me that Beats cost up to $399. Please think this through before purchasing.
2 For instance, check out track 4 on Make Me Love Me
3 If you hear something that strikes you as cheesy, like Still Loving You by the Scorpions, I am honoring my redneck roots and the inexplicable comfort that comes with hairband stadium rock. They say there's no accounting for taste. ...To that, I actually say bullshit, because cultivating your palette should be on everyone's list as an evolving human being. But "guilty pleasures" are classified thus for a reason.

NOTES:
·   If you wish to download any one or more of these CDs, be my guest. I think it’s against the law,  but I’ll be the one strung up by the balls—not you. If a lawsuit ensues, I’ll deal. Let it be known that I will not remit any profit (nor any cash whatsoever) for this exchange.
·   Any song you recognize in this compendium after 2008 that was worn out like an old shoe by actual mainstream radio playor was made famous by airing in a TV commercial like Pumped Up Kicks or that Gotye song—was half a year old by the time it made a commercial impact. And I was tired of it by then. Just sayin. James Murphy sings it best in the ironic Losing My Edge (track 1 on Your Narcotic Night). ...Tellingly, if I discover a song that’s 40 years old, then I feel suddenly cultured. If it’s six months old, then I’m out of touch.
·   Why are my CDs indexed by month/year? Sometimes song selections had something to do with what was going on in my life. If you hear a song that means something to you: good. In all likelihood, I included it because of you.

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