Tag Archives: Music

Wine in the Morning and Breakfast at Night

You might have mistaken the cars out the window for lumps of sugar. A series of winter storms had come down from the Gulf of Alaska and dropped enough snow on Seattle to enforce a five-day hibernation. Queen Anne Hill, where I lived, was cut off like an iceberg, its steep slopes sheathed in ice. No one went to work. Public buses were stopped. Truck deliveries were impossible. Soon the local grocer began to run out of food. My roommates and I listened to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and drank Jim Beam and marveled at the transformation of the world outside. It was like a little holiday with a faint specter of starvation. That night I dreamed that Bowie circa 1973 was cooking a meal for us. The cupboards bare, he dropped armloads of colored felt puppets into a vat of boiling water. We would dine, he said, on puppet stew.

That must have been in 1996 or ’97, I’m not sure which. I was a few years out of college, poor and single and working at the bookshop. Back then I lived almost entirely on spaghetti and bagels, Bowie and The Velvet Underground. Seattle was still vaguely famous for its “grunge” music, but I was more interested in the music of my parents’ generation. Not that my parents ever listened to David Bowie or Lou Reed. In the sixties and seventies they had been more interested in The Beatles, Donovan, Simon and Garunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. But my roommates and I kept The Velvets’ entire discography, and Bowie’s from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs, on near-constant rotation. When working the front counter at the bookshop I listened to the same.

The obsession – though not the enjoyment – began to wear off. I started exploring jazz from the fifties and sixties (Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Chet Baker, and Dave Brubeck) and modern Eastern Bloc composers (Gorecki, Schnittke, Ligeti, Arvo Part, and Peteris Vasks). Most of the latter I can’t bear anymore, having retreated to the more gratifying Baroque period – the music of which, along with a broader sampling of jazz artists, makes up most of what we play at home these days. This past Sunday, however, after hearing of Lou Reed’s death, I listened with deep satisfaction to an old Velvet Underground disc while washing the dishes. The leaves were piling up outside and things suddenly felt melancholy. I don’t know why we should be affected by the deaths of artists, most of whom are strangers to us and haven’t produced memorable work in years, but sometimes we are affected, a little.

Lou Reed was one of a handful of aging popular musicians whose passing might mark something for me. The others include David Bowie, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Paul McCartney. Like any good parents, my wife and I have tried to raise our kids to appreciate rock and roll of the sort they made. So far we’ve failed. Our son, age ten, is a rather good violin player. He’s been taking lessons for four years now and practices an hour each day. Mondays he plays with a local youth chamber orchestra. My daughter, eight years old, is showing some promise with the piano. I can’t even read music, so their achievements are, to me, miraculous. But they absolutely hate – detest – rock and roll. I expected to raise music snobs, but not this kind. I’m Beginning to See the Light came on while I was finishing up the silverware. You can imagine my dismay when both son and daughter covered their ears and stomped off to the bedroom to blast Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major.

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Marginalia, no.268

Each time I look at you I’m limp as a glove…

~ Johnny Burke (lyrics), ‘Like Someone in Love

Some love songs can only fail to inspire confidence.

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“There is no god but God, and Bach is his prophet.”

Glenn Gould, 1981.

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Marginalia, no.202

Keys yearn to mix with change.

~ Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts

When you buy a ticket for the commuter train that runs up and down the San Francisco Peninsula, you get your change in dollar coins. Once a week on my lunch break I grab a handful and shove them into my pocket. They tinkle against my keys as I walk into the used bookshop downtown. Today I picked up a John McPhee book and read, on the first page, about the wandering poles of geologic history, and the drumskins of continental plates in perpetual basso profondo concussion. Big and small, all things conspire to make music.


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Marginalia, no.161

I always feel like saying to music: ‘It isn’t true! You lie!’

~ Jules Renard, Journal

My seven-year-old son tells me: ‘Esther brought her violin to school and played some Bach, but she pronounced it “batch,” and it was so beautiful I wanted to cry.’ Who was this Esther, I asked, his girlfriend? ‘I don’t want to dance with her by light of the moon or anything,’ he said, ‘but if we got married I could listen to her play “batch” all the time.’  …I wonder if there isn’t an exception, after all, to Neil Young’s golden saying that ‘only love can break your heart.’


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Marginalia, no.34

Life without music would be a mistake.

~ Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols

When I neglect for too long life’s so-called big questions –or, conversely, when I neglect to neglect them to the degree necessary for the healthy functioning of my mind- existence inevitably presents itself to me as sheer farce, a mortal joke.  Or else, at the very least, I collapse into a dull sort of epistemological pessimism. Then I remember that there is such a thing as music.  Music is the natural corrective for all extremes of idiocy and presumption.  It whispers into every ear: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”

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Marginalia, no.6

You see, you are allowed to read the newspapers now.  I hope you will not attach too much importance to them.  They give you a picture of an ordinary world that does not exist.  You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.

~ Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

Thankfully, my own children are too young to read the papers with any understanding.  Of course, the indecipherability of something never discouraged anyone from believing in its authority.  With something similar in mind, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his own epitaph: “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

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