Just in time for Black Friday, we have the next installment in our series of excerpts from The Music Book. We hope that you’ll consider purchasing the book and/or the CD to support local writers and musicians.
We’re back at the Beveridge Place with a couple of Manny’s, no shots this time. It’s pretty crowded for a Saturday afternoon, but Katie still spends a lot of time talking to us, to Greg. They went to karaoke last night. While I was on stage asking about my book, they were singing. She did Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” the Doors “Love Me Two Times,” and something from Patsy Cline. No Joplin. Greg did “Creep,” and Katie was impressed. “You should have been there. He was awesome.” He’s smiling.
“You were good too.”
“He also did ‘No Surprises,’ but I thought ‘Creep’ was better.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard him do that one before.”
“He says you love Radiohead. What’s your favorite song of theirs?”
“Lately, it’s ‘2 + 2 = 5.’ ”
“Really? I thought you dug ‘Myxomatosis.’ Or was it ‘Morning Bell’?”
“Both, but I’m stuck on the equation these days. 2 + 2 = 5.”
“I don’t know that one,” Katie says. “Which album is it on?”
“Hail to the Thief. I’ve just been thinking about that idea that something somehow adds up to more than the sum of its parts, something that defies logic but is still true.”
“Such as?” Greg asks.
“Well, to go with more equations like last time, let’s say 2 + 2 + H = 4. What would the value of H be?”
“What’s H?” She writes H on a napkin, circles it.
“Heart. Or I guess it could be spirit. Some people might just call it ‘it’ in the sense of having something extra because, well … let’s say we’re talking about music. Many people can play guitar well, some very well, but only a precious few can play it magically.”
“What does that mean, magically?”
“I’ll get to that, but for now, let’s say H is heart, and for most people H is zero. It’s a constant. It’s always zero. The heart beats. It does its job. They live, but they don’t … create. I don’t mean that to sound bad, though. We all give to the world in our own way, but many people don’t give a damn about the meaning of life, the why of it all. They’re content just to breathe, and for them that’s fine. I do not judge. We need plumbers and cashiers and shoe salesmen and customer service reps and all the mundane things in order to sustain this way of living, and you could argue that simply breathing and procreating is one way to have a successful life, maybe the most successful way. 2 + 2 + H = 4, so H can only be zero. It can only ever be zero. It has to be zero. It’s the only logical solution.”
I look at my glass. “Yeah.”
“But what of the artist?” I continue, “And I don’t mean any random Joe who can play a couple chords or maybe paint a picture of a tree like kids do in elementary school, you know, the tree that always has a hole for a family of squirrels. I mean the person who can play a G chord in the proper way, the way that makes it sing, makes it resonate in the deep recesses of our souls. That’s the magic part. Art changes things. Music changes things. It’s like Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.’”
“Stevens. He was a modernist poet, died in the fifties I think, and that line was just a way of saying that art can alter perception, and that, really, is one way of altering reality. If your perception changes, so does your life. Someone hitting a home run at a baseball game might be a joyous moment. You might feel good, but it won’t change anything. It doesn’t make you a different person. It doesn’t shine a light on anything. There’s no understanding.”
“Well, not unless you had a lot of money riding on the game.” Greg gives a slight laugh, sips his drink.
“Okay. There’s that. I know it’s imperfect, but in trying to think about it in a provable way, or at least, in a somewhat demonstrable way, I came upon the idea of 2 + 2 = 4 but sometimes 5, and I know that serious mathematicians would laugh at it, but I do hold there’s something extra there, and when I write about music, it’s part of what I’m looking for, the idea that H can be something other than zero, that it can have mass and energy in the right conditions, that a constant can change, that sometimes you have to throw out everything you know and take for granted because you find something so wonderful and joyous that it changes things.”
“But you could say that of anything that makes you feel good,” Katie says. “‘Oh, now this thing is more.’”
“Yeah, and Radiohead referred to it in the 1984 sense in that it had nothing to do with something adding up to more than the sum of its parts.” I didn’t know he’d read 1984. “It was more about the reality of the past, accepting alternate truths in the face of logic only because the party demanded it or you’d be tortured and killed.”
“I know, but this is different. The past isn’t mutable. It’s there in all its pain and happiness and whatever. This is more about the present, the future even.”
“Art, music in this case, offers the possibility to change or reaffirm people’s lives, not in the past or because of some kind of penalty or because something is forced upon them. It’s … it’s the moments of people’s lives where everything seems possible, where we step into another place and hold it and carry it with us through the years. I mean, what do we really live for?” Katie shrugs her shoulders. Greg twists his beer glass a half-turn and then drinks. “We eat, drink, sleep, fuck. We go to the grocery store. We pay electric bills. We work. But why? For most people, the point of it all is about having kids and maybe a little fun along the way, but think about it. What do you do when you’re depressed?”
“Drink,” Katie says without hesitation.
“I’ll second that.” They clink glasses and smile at each other, and I have to wonder whether I’m convincing anyone of anything.
“Well, yes, there’s the desire to deaden the pain, but people listen to music. They play sad songs or angry songs or happy songs to try to lift them up. Do they look at paintings? Do they take the time to read novels in those moments of pain? No. It’s music. We play songs again and again. We sing songs again and again. It’s a life-sustaining force. 2 + 2 + H = 5 even though H is literally zero. It’s why sometimes a G chord is just a collection of notes and why sometimes it shakes the foundations of the universe.”
“The foundations of the universe?”
“Yeah,” I shrug my shoulders, “or at least one person’s universe, the player, the listener, somebody.”
“I don’t know. It still seems like you could say that about anything.” I’m certainly not convincing Katie. It makes me wonder what music she likes and if it really moves her or if she just thinks it sounds good, if it’s just a reason to sing and dance before going on to other things when the music’s over.
“Uh, do you remember Yngwie Malmsteen?” I ask. “He could play the guitar well, very well, one of those guys that can play a million notes a minute and all the music theory that goes with it, but his music fell flat. There was no heart in it, no life. It always added up to 4, never 5. He didn’t have it.”
“Who’s Yngwie Malmsteen?”
“Exactly.” But in the face of their less than enthusiastic response, I can’t help feeling I’m missing something in there, that she’s right, that I could say this about anything. It makes me feel good, makes me feel like things transcend, so it must add up to 5 and not 4. It works out too easily, too conveniently, and yet, I know that I’m right. I know it, but I feel like a scientist with a hypothesis that is nearly impossible to prove, that must almost be taken on faith. There is a heart inside the artist, inside the musician, buried in those E chords and noticeable to those who really listen, and that heart beats stronger, it soars, it makes us soar. I look at Katie, and she’s writing something on a napkin. She gives it to Greg. He reads it, puts it in his wallet, and they smile at each other with the focus of their concerns worlds away from my theories.
I pick up my beer and turn around to look out over the bar. Nirvana comes on the speakers, “All Apologies,” and I get to wondering whether there’s a Seattle sound out there now. The closest, I suppose, is the alt-country-indie-folksy thing that seems to have more than its share of adherents in this city. One such local band filled the Moore Theater (almost 1,800 capacity) two nights in a row recently, and I don’t think many bands in this town could do that even for one night. They also played the Jimmy Fallon Show, and after seeing them at the Moore, I’d give them a fair shot to be the next big Seattle thing. They are called The Head and the Heart, and my favorite song when I saw them was “Rivers and Roads,” a quiet number, one of those mellow tunes that has an undeniable power, a song that lifts things as much as it settles them. The audience sang along about missing faces and cheered a little extra when female singer, Charity Rose, sang her solo bits about reaching that elusive “you” that populates so many songs, and she sang with her characteristic lilt, almost like a teenage male voice breaking. The tune ended a cappella with everyone in the theater, yes, everyone, popcorn makers, ushers, ticket takers, people sitting on the crapper, roadies, sound people, everyone, hell, even the bums outside who could hear the music bleeding through the walls, singing about those rivers and roads and those missed faces. It was beautiful. It deserved more than 1,800 people. The music indeed had heart, or more like Heart.
There it is, Heart with a capital H. They were the first band that struck me like that when I started writing about music, and to see their popularity in this city, and seemingly others, it was easy to think they might be the next big thing with audience and six band members all singing together, with the acoustics quiet, the shakers quiet, the drums and keyboards quiet, nary a distortion pedal in sight. They seemed to be on the verge of something big, something vocal and loud in its own way. I sang too. It was very real in the moment, but as “All Apologies” comes to a close, I can’t help wondering if the moment is over for them, if they’ll sustain or fade, if there is something else coming.
The Prologue was already published on Northwest Music Scene: The Music Book – Prologue
Chapter 1 was already published on Northwest Music Scene: The Music Book – Chapter 1
Chapter 2 has already been released online over at the Monarch Review: The Music Book Chapter 2