Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Music Made Me #5: Trail Mix

In the spring of 2012, I planned a two-week road trip through the Four Corners area—partly to research a book I was writing about westerns, but mainly to visit some places that I just had to see for myself.  Just before I left, my friend Ben sent me a gift package: a collection of CDs that would serve as soundtrack for the journey.  As a result, I discovered some of my favorite music of the 2000s while simultaneously discovering some of the most awe-inspiring sites in the American West.  In my mind, the two are now inseparable.  When I hear specific songs, I picture the landscapes that were rolling by when I heard those tunes for the first time, and I am overcome with a kind of pure emotion—something that goes beyond simple description, and hovers in the present moment with the all-pervasive majesty of the desert sky.  I can’t share the full experience… but I can share the sights and sounds, in the hope that some of the magic conveys.

Two albums carried me from Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas.  The first was Coastal Grooves by Blood Orange.  The album title says it all.  Blood Orange’s electronic grooves are perfect for a sunny day drive with the windows rolled down.  Ditto the Gentle Stream album by Swedish pop band The Amazing, which has a folksier, more laid-back quality but with the same kind of flow.

They say that long-distance driving changes the frequency of a person’s brain waves, putting the mind into a relaxed but creative alpha state, which explains how these tunes got burned into my subconscious so quickly.  I wasn’t just driving, I was daydreaming.

Just south of St. George, Utah, there is a stretch of highway 15 that winds through a brightly-colored slot canyon.  It gives you the sense that you are entering a completely new country.  It was here that I first heard listened to The War on Drugs, an indie rock band from Philadelphia.  I exited the highway in St. George and made my way to Snow Canyon State Park while listening—really listening—to the band's album Slave Ambient.  In my mind, it sounded like a Bob Dylan pop album crossbred with shoegaze acoustics (guitar washes, heavy feedback, etc.).  For me, it was the perfect combination for the place and time. 

The red rocks of Snow Canyon are mostly sandstone, crafted by wind and years.  When the late afternoon sun hits them, they seem to radiate light from within.  The music resonated with the same flared intensity.  I’m reminded of something filmmaker John Huston said about his film The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: “It has a big spirit.  The wind blows through it.  Adown the corridors of time.”  A grandiose pronouncement, for sure, but one that any romantic can understand. 

I passed through Zion National Park and spent a couple of days in the Kanab area.  I remember listening to the first few tracks of the Battles album Gloss Drop on the winding roads above and over Zion.  The funky industrial tune “Futura” was playing as I drove though a long mountain tunnel that had windows carved out of the rock.  I rolled the car windows down and let the beats echo off of ancient stone.   

On the way to Kanab, I found a strange underground bar that boasted an impressive collection of dinosaur fossils and footprints, as well as an entire room filled with exotic iridescent rocks.  (I later learned from a local paleontologist that dinosaur tracks are still being found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument… which gave me the feeling that I was really wandering into uncharted territory.)  I tried The Beach Boys: The Smile Sessions, figuring that the psychedelic sounds would match the setting, but the listening experience was jarring (too many stops and starts), so I switched to Megafaun’s self-titled album when I got back on the road. 

I was still listening to the folksy blues of Megafaun as I drove up a desolate road to the reputed site of the old Gunsmoke set.  It was a long, straight, flat road toward white-rock mountains and I was the only one out there… so I drove fast, hypnotized by the wall of sound at the end of “Get Right,” then lulled into a state of serenity by the sweetly silent “Hope You Know.”  The transition between these two songs is so perfect that I never want to listen to them separately.

A few days later, I was in Page, Arizona.  I had planned a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge off of Lake Powell, but I arrived early and had some time to kill.  I don’t remember how I learned about Antelope Canyon… but, dear God, I'm glad I did.  These slot canyons exist on Navajo land, and the only way to see them is to take a guided tour.  My tour guide started pointingout  rock formations that looked like faces and animals, illuminated by visionary colors.  After that, I saw everything differently—not just in the canyons, but everywhere I went for the duration of my trip.  In Antelope Canyon, I even saw a premonition of things to come: a rock formation that looked exactly like the landscape of Monument Valley at dawn.

This was also the day that I discovered the band Neon Indian. I picked their album Era Extran(y)a out of my bundle of CDs because the name was fitting—and their exotic electronica was a perfect match for the day's scenery.  The next morning, I got up before dawn to drive out to Lake Powell.  As I was crossing over a massive gorge on the edge of town, “Heart: Decay” emerged from my speakers.  As the sun began to crest the horizon, transforming the shadows around me into red and orange fire, “Fallout” began.  The grandeur of places and timing like this can make anyone believe in destiny.

By this point in the trip, I felt like I had been completely emptied out.  I no longer had any expectations, because my wildest expectations had already been completely overwhelmed.  I was just floating through the experience, letting every little thing wash over me.  As I got closer and closer to Monument Valley, I felt like I was being guided.  I’m not a particularly religious person, but it’s hard to shake off such impressions when they come to you. 

Once again, I found myself on a seemingly endless road.  I felt like the only person in the world, listening to relics of a bygone civilization—in this case, Phantogram and Uh Huh Her.  When I hit Kayenta, I switched to M83.

What can I say about Monument Valley?  Best to say nothing and let M83 do the talking.  The tracks that really made an impression on me at the time were “Run into Flowers,” “Noise” and “Beauties Can Die” (from the album Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts) along with “Intro,” “Wait,” “Raconte-Moi Une Historie,” “Echoes of Mine,” and especially “Soon, My Friend” (from the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming).

I was still listening to M83—though I had now moved onto the album Saturdays=Youth—when I left Monument Valley and headed north into the Rockies, toward Telluride.  “We Own the Sky” was playing as I saw the first snowclouds.  The sun was gone by the time “Highway of Endless Dreams” started.  Snow flurries were falling as “Dark Moves of Love” flooded my mind.  Halfway through “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” I had to pull over to the side of the road and write something down.

For months, I had been working on a comic book series called To Hell You Ride, and that was one of my many reasons for making this trip into the desert.  The story was set in the mountain town of Telluride, and I had never been to Telluride.  Now here I was, a few minutes away from my destination, and I suddenly came up with the exact words to express the central theme of the story.  (For those who have read To Hell You Ride, they are the words that Two-Dogs says to Mary at the beginning of issue 5.)

I’ll say it again: I’m not a particularly religious person… but I have an open mind, and sometimes it gets filled with things that I know did not originate there.  The subtle flux of that final M83 song had something to do with it.

Frankly, after everything that had happened on my road trip, Telluride was a bit underwhelming.  In the story I was writing, the town represents “the end of the road”—and that’s kind of how it felt.  As it happened, I had arrived in Telluride a few days after the end of ski season, so the place was empty and desolate.  Most of the stores and restaurants were closed.  That was perfect for the story I was writing, but also kind of unsettling. 

That night, I woke up in my hotel room to complete darkness.  For some reason, the power had gone out and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.  It was like waking up blind.  I was staying in a big hotel room and I had to feel my way along a long wall toward my travel bag, so that I could retrieve my cell phone for light.  For those few minutes, I was out of the world.  I couldn’t see or hear anything.  (This is doubly disconcerting for someone who lives in the heart of Los Angeles, and thus never experiences total silence or darkness.)  After I checked my phone and confirmed that (a) I was still in my hotel room and (b) the world was still turning, I managed to go back to sleep.  I have no idea what caused the power to fail, but it was back on in the morning.

I left Telluride before sunrise, and resumed my musical journey.  I passed through the idyllic farming communities on the high plateau of Iron Springs, listening to Grizzly Bear (which didn’t fit the mood), St. Vincent (still not quite right…) and Wilco.  The Making Mirrors album by the Australian singer-songwriter Gotye got things back on track.  The opening song, “Easy Way Out,” does more in 2 minutes than most pop songs can do in five or six.  “Eyes Wide Open” is a perfect driving tune.  “Giving Me a Chance” is a perfect b-side reflection.  This was also the first time I’d heard the song “Somebody That I Used to Know.”  Like everyone else, I would eventually become tired of hearing that song played ad nauseum on every radio station and in every karaoke bar… but, for the moment, I loved it.  It made me feel like I could drive all day.

Which, in fact, I did.  I left Telluride around 6am, made a long detour through Moab, then hit the highway back toward Los Angeles.  I planned to stop and spend the night in Cedar City, Utah.  Then I planned to stop in Vegas.  Then I decided, the hell with it, why night drive all the way through to Los Angeles so I could see my wife and sleep in my own bed?  So I played out the “b-side” of my trip in one ridiculously long day, covering approximately 900 miles and exhausting the rest of my CD collection. 

I fell in love with the Real Estate album Days and the self-titled Widowspeak album (which reminded me a lot of Mazzy Star), then went back to The War on Drugs.   I tried listening to Vangelis’s Soil Festivities in the home stretch, but it was making my eyelids heavy so I switched to Megafaun.  Somewhere around Baker, I stopped and got a really big cup of coffee, then started driving again with all the windows down and the stereo at full volume to keep me awake.  When “Scorned” came on, I was utterly entranced by the sound of that loud and lonely harmonica echoing off of the starry night sky. 

Some time ago, I read an article claiming that 80% of Americans have never seen or recognized the Milky Way.  I can’t believe that.  I don’t want to believe that.  I stared up at the stars, feeling completely awestruck, until the light pollution of L.A. drowned most of them out -- bringing me back down to earth.

Now, when I want to remember that experience, I play a mix tape of songs from my 2012 road trip.  I suppose I could also get back on the road and re-trace my steps, but I know I will never be able to repeat the perfect timing, or the perfect combination of new sense experiences.  Next time, I’ll need new destinations and new songs.  For the time being, here’s my Trail Mix… 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Music Made Me #4: Firsts

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to a mix tape club—a group of people who routinely exchange mix CDs, just for the hell of it. Intrigued, I spoke to the guy who organized the group and he told me that it all started in 2003—after the music industry was undermined by Napster but before the age of Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes—because he was having a hard time discovering new music on his own. So he pulled together some friends who agreed to make one mix each over the course of the next year, and share it with the group.  Eleven years later, the mix tape club is still going strong… and I wanted in.

First, however, I had to submit to a kind of initiation ritual.   I had to answer two questions with complete honesty: (1) What was the first album you ever purchased? (2) What was your first concert?

I hesitated, wondering if I was going to be judged for my musical past.  Something about these two questions reminded me of the way small towns in the Mid-West claim to be "the birthplace of" someone famous.  People shouldn't be held responsible for where they were born, should they?  It's not like we get to pick the spot.  And, really, should an adult be judged by the very first song(s) that made an impression on them?  There's a certain amount of luck or fate at work there.  And yet, in much the way that a hometown can shape a person, such early musical influences start a kind of dialogue between us and the universe.  The real question is: What was it that made you start listening?

My buddy Rob G. recently posted a blog about his answers to these two all-important questions—he even broke the first question down by media format, naming his first album on vinyl, cassette tape and CD—so, in the interest of solidarity, here are my answers:


Records were on the way out when I started buying music, so I didn’t buy an album on vinyl until I was in high school, when I saw a copy of The Doors compilation album Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine in a used record shop.  I was enough of a Doors fan to know that the album had never been released on cassette or CD, and that it had two songs that couldn’t be found anywhere else, so I promptly bought it.  Then I had to get a turntable.

Having said all that…. My first music purchase ever was a couple of 45s.  At age 6, I was a huge Ghostbusters fan, so I had to have the Ray Parker theme song.  I also had to have “Heart of Rock n Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News… which I had heard in my 1st grade gym class, of all places.  I hated gym class, but I could have jumped rope for hours to that song.


I didn’t start buying a lot of albums on cassette until 7th grade, when I got my first Walkman.  That year, Metallica’s And Justice for All... and the eponymous Black Album were in constant rotation.  But before that… 

The very first cassette I ever bought was Michael Jackson's Thriller.  My dad had rented the Making of Thriller video for me, and then I had to have the album.  Of course I loved the title track, but I also really liked "Wanna Be Startin' Something?" (still an ideal way to kick off just about any mix tape, in my opinion) and "Human Nature."  I quickly followed up with Bad and Off the Wall. 

I’m not sure it would be possible for me to overstate my enthusiasm for Michael Jackson at that point in my life.  His music was a kind of refuge for me.  While my mom was battling a life-threating illness, and when my family moved to a new town... I could always lock myself in my room, turn on the music and try to dance like Michael.  I couldn’t do it, of course (who could?), but I promise it wasn’t for a lack of trying.  I found it impossible to listen to any of those albums without moving.  And as soon as I started moving, I pretty much forgot about everything else.  Now, really, what more can you ask for?


I was a somewhat reluctant convert to CD culture.  I stubbornly held out until 1994, when the BMG Music Club’s promise of 11 free albums won me over.  What were those eleven albums, you ask?  Well, I know Nirvana: In Utero was one of them.  And Counting Crows: August and Everything After.  The Cranberries: Everyone Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?  Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral.  (My taste in music was all over the place.)  The rest is a blur…. But it doesn’t matter because, while I was waiting for BMG to send me my free stuff, I had to go to the nearest music store and buy something to listen to in the meantime.  So, technically, my first CD was Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. 

Ironically, the most recent album I purchased was The Endless River—a followup to The Division Bell.   OK, maybe “followup” is a bit generous.  The Endless River is basically a collection of discarded intros and outros from The Division Bell… something that only a die-hard fan of David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd could love.   Because I actually like Gilmour-era Pink Floyd (I don't agree that the band was a "spent force" after Roger Waters left) and because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, I don't mind so much.  If nothing else, it reminds me of 1994... when I used to go running every day with the B-side of the album ("Take It Back," "Coming Back to Life," "Keep Talking," "Lost for Words," "High Hopes") blaring in my headphones.

I remember one day I went running in the early morning.  The way the sunlight reflected off of a dew-covered field--at precisely the moment when I had gone far enough to achieve that famed "runner's high"--forever changed the way I listened to this album.


First, a word of explanation: I grew up in the Piedmont region of Virginia.  It was a three-hour drive to the nearest major amphitheater.  Still, all things considered, there are worse places to start than with a Sting concert.   At the time, I only owned one Sting album—Ten Summoner’s Tales—and that one only because the song “Shape of My Heart” had been featured in the movie The Professional, and because it sort of reminded me of a girl I liked.  But anybody who grew up in the 80s, and had a radio, was bound to know a lot of Sting songs.  The highlight of the show was an encore of Police tunes. 

After that, my best friend and I made it a mission to see as many big-name rock bands in concert as we could.  We continued to be limited by geography… but over the next few years we did manage to see The Rolling Stones, The Who, Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, U2, INXS, Page and Plant, etc.


My answers gained me admittance into the mix tape club for 2015.  In the meantime…. Anybody want to exchange mix tapes?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Made Me #3: Birth of a Mix Tape

1935: The German electronics company AEG (Aus Erfahrung Gut) invents the first reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. They call it the Magnetophon.

1958: RCA Victor introduces the first quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape cartridges.  But almost nobody buys them because they're bulky and expensive.

1963: The Dutch electronic company Philips introduces the first "compact cassette" for audio recording. 

1966: The first music albums are released on cassette in the U.S. by the Mercury Record Company, including Eartha Kitt's If You Go Away, Nina Simone's Wild is the Wind, and John Mathis's The Shadow of Your Smile

Early 1970s: In-car cassette decks are a boon for the new format.  This is the beginning of the time-honored tradition of "road testing" new albums, and it revolutionizes the way people listen to music. 

Late 1970s: Re-recordable cassettes arrive, followed by the ubiquitous Sony Walkman (in the year of my birth -- coincidence?).  DJ Grandmaster Flash pioneers the making of "party tapes" (a.k.a. "mixtapes"). 

1987: Alan Sugar develops the first twin-cassette deck for the mass market, infuriating record labels and ushering in the dawn of the mix tape phenomenon.

1988: This was the year my family moved to a new town and I discovered MTV.  It was also the year I realized that love is a mix tape.  I used to sit up late at night listening to a local radio station's "all request hour": an endless stream of popular songs requested by teenage listeners and dedicated to their current flame or recent breakup.  The songs were predictable (Aerosmith's "Angel," Van Halen's "When It's Love," Def Leppard's "Love Bites,"  INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart"), but the on-air dedications were heartfelt... and that sometimes changed the way I heard a song.   

1991: The peak year of cassette culture.  My family moved again and, on my first day at a new school, I became infatuated with a girl in my seventh grade homeroom.  In my old town, I could have professed my love on the all-request hour... but that didn't seem to be a thing in my new town.   So I became friends with her friends, to learn more about her.  (It would have been too obvious to befriend her directly, right?)  Then, by some glorious stroke of luck or fate, I was paired up with her for a science project.  I spent every single minute of our time together trying to make her laugh.  Her friends told me they'd never seen her laugh that much, and encouraged me to ask her out.  But, of course, that would have been too risky...

I waited for the middle school dance.  I knew that music would help me make my case.  Once the dance was underway, it was just a matter of waiting for the right song.  The right song, as it turned out, was Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."  I summoned my nerve to leave the safety of the wallflowers corner.  I asked her to dance.  We slow danced.  All was right with the world.  Then the song ended, and I returned to my corner.  Sometime later, one of her friends approacheded told me that I should go ask for another dance.  "If you ask her," the friend said, "she'll say yes."  I decided to wait.

The last song of every dance was always "Stairway to Heaven."  That was the song every lovestruck guy in my middle school waited for, whether you liked Led Zeppelin or not, because it was the longest song that would get played all night (at least, until GNR's "November Rain" was released as a single).  It represented eight full minutes of potential bliss with the girl of your dreams.  So I waited.  And waited.  Finally, I heard the world's most familiar opening chord progression.  And I started across the dance floor.

I was stopped short by a girl from my art class who asked me to dance.  The next eight minutes were excruciating.  I tried to slow dance, but I was just too busy kicking myself.

That failure strengthened my resolve, at least briefly.  I bought a dozen roses, and I brought them to school early one morning, before anyone else had arrived.  I didn't have the nerve to present them directly, so my plan was to put them on her chair in homeroom, and hope that she would figure out who they were from.  (It's official.  I am an idiot.)  But I couldn't do it that first day, because I almost had an anxiety attack just getting the flowers to my locker.  One step at a time, folks.  And I couldn't do it the second day, because, well... you know, people might see me.  A week passed, and the roses started to wither inside my locker.  Then I couldn't give them to her at all, because who the hell declares their love with a dozen dead roses?  So I had to come to school early again one morning, and throw the roses away before anyone saw them.

The only person who ever even knew they existed -- and this is the really embarrassing part -- was my mother.  Of course, my mother thought it was all very sweet.  But I knew better.  Who the hell declares their love with roses anyway?  Might as well write her a sonnet.  That's so archaic.  I needed something subtler.  Something cooler.  Something that could convey the exact emotions I wanted to convey in a way that I couldn't possibly express in words.

1992: My friend Anne introduced me to the art of mix tape.  I don't remember what prompted that glorious gift.  One day, she just handed me a Memorex cassette of her favorite songs.  The song titles were written on the label in purple ink, but most of the names didn't mean anything to me at first.  After a few listens, I was pretty much infatuated with Anne.

Mind you, I didn't fall for Anne because of her taste in music or her ability to make a perfect mix tape.  Actually, that first mix tape was kind of schizophrenic.  It got off to a rocky start with a couple of country songs.  Anne was convinced that I didn't like country music because I hadn't heard the right country songs.  The truth is that I grew up in the mountains of Virginia and I'd already heard far more country songs than I ever wanted to.  

But there were some surprising gems on the tape, like Otis Redding's "Dreams to Remember" (which I had somehow never heard before), Jimmy Soul's infectiously silly "If You Want to Be Happy" (which was an ironic song for a really pretty girl to put on a mix tape) and The Rolling Stones' "Almost Hear You Sigh" (which is not a great song... until a really pretty girl puts it on a mix tape for you).  The best part was the way the tape ended, with back-to-back arena rock ballads: Journey's "Open Arms" and REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling."  There was something so stupidly romantic about those two songs that I couldn't help wishing that the tape represented some kind of implied intimacy. The B-side ended abruptly, halfway through the last song, which was annoying (and more accurately symbolic of the level of implied intimacy encoded in that tape)... but it left me wanting more.  And, lucky for me, Anne kept making tapes that got better and better.  Her third mix tape introduced me to Oasis ("Wonderwall") and Sarah McLachlan ("Hold On" - the alternate version on the 1993 No Alternative compilation).

I reciprocated, of course.  My first attempt at a mix tape wasn't anything worth writing about -- check out the Billboard End of Year Charts for 1991 and 1992 and you'll have some idea of how bad it was -- but, hey, I was just getting started.