27 November 2011

Migration season

I have finally finished reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, after an entire autumn spent savoring it in small sips and draughts, on buses and curled up on the couch, my breath taken from me with nearly every page and spirited to a place of wild refuge. But my stunned admiration for the book is not, just now, what I am thinking of. It is instead a passage where she talks about the flight of a maple seed – a maple “key,” she calls it, in a marvelous usage totally unfamiliar to me before now – and yes, of course, this little instrument unlocks the entire structure, its scaffolding and all its wings. Reading it, it occurred to me that perhaps I have not seen a single maple seed (or whirlybird, as I have also heard them called charmingly but less strikingly – helicopter, also) this season. How can it be?

Heather and I biked a few miles along unfriendly suburban roads the day after Thanksgiving to visit a little nature preserve I'd heard about, the Anna Oaks Nature Center in Skokie. So, of course, there were oaks, the ground strewn with leaves of several different kinds, as in an illustration for children. On the shores of the pond where the bottom tapered off into featureless murk, the leaves and anything else that had fallen in had become immediately and uniformly covered with green-gray silt, algae, or some other form of matter too delicate for me to name. They appeared spray-painted or cut from construction paper, or the background artist had grown lazy and treated the entire area with a monochrome wash of muddy watercolor after the initial sketch.

The whole preserve had something of an illustrative quality about it. We walked along a path into the 13-acre patch of woods and heard some bird peep above us. Standing still, we eventually followed the sound to its source: a largish bird as song birds go, with a smoothly tapering body, dark up top and white-bellied. It tumbled from branch to branch, at one point landing upside down before hoisting its light body around upright. I wondered aloud what it was, drawing forth and then rejecting the few creature-names with which my mental cabinets were once so full. And then the world answered me: the bird began hammering its beak into the branch in the distinctive woodpecker way, with a sound called up straight from a cartoon.

We covered about all the ground there was to cover in the park, hopeful of living things. Along the shores of the pond I stopped to peer in and stir the muck with a stick. Nothing came. In the middle of a little amphitheater two men were chainsawing pieces of deadwood; there'd been a controlled burn earlier in the day, signs told us, and indeed the ground was strewn with unreadable patches of ash, clinging to the bases of trees like shrunken shadows.

Geese sat arrayed all across the pond, just one occasionally making a low, cowish sound. All the while the two-car Skokie Swift train rattled comically through on tracks just behind the preserve. We were leaning over to look at a handful of sluggish, deep orange goldfish sunken into the pond when something unknown made the better portion of the geese alight and ascend directly over us. The new thing here – perhaps I'd just never been flown over so closely by so many geese at once? – was the noise of their wings: there was a crisp, almost insect buzz produced, I suppose, by the motions of their stiff feathers against each other.

So the city is full of wonders, to be sure; I saw a fox the other day as I was leaving the house, and my mind cycled through “dog” and “cat” before I could finally allow myself to believe that this silver-auburn creature dashing between houses was, indeed, a fox. (I added it to a small, private menagerie that includes the coyote I saw loping through Wunders Cemetery one winter, and a deer that suddenly began to gallop alongside our bicycles as Heather and I rode to suburban LaGrange.) Even so, how can I not have lately found myself in a place where maple seeds flutter down on me unsought through leaf-filtered light? 

Especially in the fall, an ache rises in me to be in deep woods alone for as long as I care to tramp through them, my footsteps rousing the sweet odor of vegetal decay. It's a slightly ridiculous position my temperament has put me in, city-loving hermit, like some sort of amphibian whose two habitats are miles from each other – and now the fall, best season of migration, is more or less over for the year, and I've only made it a little way across the shore between them. Next year I should make a better attempt at a longer escape.

20 November 2011

Some Women in Concert

This summer and fall I've gotten to see at least four breathtaking concerts, all loosely linked by the fact that the primary musicians have all been women and some linked by the fact that they are musicians I thought I would never see, or never see again. In order: Cibo Matto, Wild Flag, the Raincoats (with openers Grass Widow, a new favorite), and St. Vincent. The ones I mainly keep turning over in my mind, though, are just some of these, or a handful of musicians in these, who do something that coalesces into a singular style for me, a certain mode of attack that I only rarely see but that softly nudges me in the gut and releases something I've held there. It strikes me as being one way of making feminine or feminist music, though I'm still working out what I'm sensing when I sense that.

It's hard to know which of these to start with, but as a study in contrasts, perhaps, let me take Wild Flag. I greeted their formation with fangirl glee – Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein, returning to me at last! And the things I knew I would love were as exhilarating as ever: Janet's fierce precision, and Carrie in fine, athletic, high-kicking form, she who was my biggest heroine/crush for years on end, again in the flesh a couple of feet away from the front of the stage where I stood in as much awe as ever. But something there had hardened a little, I thought, into a posture; it was the idea of a rock star that was strutting magnificently across the stage before me. It seems to me that her voice these days is shellacked with layers of mannerism, and the sneer is partly the sneer of the successful. She knows she's great. She is. Determined to be all rock 'n' roll fun, and pulling it off marvelously.

And I want to talk a little about the women rockers who risk not being all rock 'n' roll fun. Mary Timony is Wild Flag's other frontwoman, and her presence was an interesting contrast to Carrie's. She's every bit as adept on guitar and as fully willing a participant in some spectacular stage acrobatics, but there's a different mood there. I'd say a more private mood, but in fact there's no lack of privacy in Carrie's performance, either – the bravado is a kind of wall. It invites your body into the music, but it doesn't invite you into communion with the musician. Mary seems to be doing something else, daring to put her privacy and inwardness on display. Wild Flag's a pretty upbeat group, but in her performance there's a clear connection with the musician who fronted heavy, heavy Helium and carried on the odd, downbeat solo career. One of my favorite songs of hers is “I Fire Myself” from “Mountains:” a catchy, echoing piano riff punctuated by handclaps, which, it soon becomes clear, will repeat obsessively throughout the length of the song, working something out. The lyrics, sung matter-of-factly, are florid in their evocation of the trudging work that is middle of depression, or self-doubt, or some equally internal misery:

I fire myself ten times a day
I fire myself in a watery grave
With fourteen horses on top of my head
I hear the voice again and again

The last line is “the end of fear, the beginning of hope,” but it's sung to the same melody and with the same inflection as the rest of the song; she makes hope sound like a form of exhaustion, a temporary place of rest before the climb up the next mountain begins. The strings and guitars on the rest of the record saw away at the endless pilgrimage of everyday life.

It seems to me that there's a great deal of risk in this sort of thing. No one wants to hear about someone's depression, one assumes, and especially not if it's a woman, and especially if the cause of the depression at hand is obscure, opaque, wholly private. But Mary Timony's not willing to sell it or make it seem more important than it is – and that in itself poses a kind of challenge, to assume that this stuff is worthy of attention all on its own. There isn't any melodrama in the music, and there's no arc. Just an emotional reality to swim into – which can be a source of tremendous comfort and companionship if you're sawing away at a similar emotional state.

(St. Vincent, more upbeat and clever, is more of an obvious storyteller than Timony, and so there's less sense of the personal being laid bare – but she has the same love of obsessive guitar figures, often fuzzing almost into ugliness, and stabbing lyrical refrains that make me want to include her in this general feeling. Paint the black hole blacker, she sings in my favorite song of hers, and she's never afraid to let desperation creep into her angel's voice even while she shreds on guitar. Hysterical strength, she sings on the new album, a fitting summation.)

Then, from out of the past, there are the Raincoats, who I also saw, bizarrely, on their six-city reunion tour. This was a reunion I'd never even dared to dream about, but here they were – Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, fully and unapologetically middle-aged, not apparently having spent the intervening years becoming any more readily saleable or developing any “chops,” with Anne Wood on violin as on “Looking in the Shadows” and a very young male drummer who sensibly faded into the background.

I got into the Raincoats because a guy who was interviewing my high school band (an all-girl punk band called the Cautions who achieved some level of local renown only, it's now clear, due to our novelty and strangeness) compared us to them and later gave me a cassette tape of their self-titled album. I carried that packet of desperate harmony and noise in my tape player for months. It's still my favorite, and their reunion show drew mostly from that album. There's their exuberant, complicating cover of “Lola,” which everyone knows if there's any song by the Raincoats everyone knows, but then there's the rest of the album too, violin and guitar and drums and voices all communicating with maximal intensity about the situation of being a highly internal woman moving through the world -- being looked at and not being looked at and loving unloved and wondering whether she will make it through the rest of the day. The lyrics are often hard to make out; one hears scraps of piercing demands, obstinate and unjustified claims to our attention: Don't ask me anything – I'm not sympathetic; Don't take it personal; Her feeling of being watched / isn't easy to define / so I won't trouble you; I can't do a thing today.

And none of this seems to have changed as Birch and da Silva have gotten older; these are not the passing worries of angst-ridden youth. Their reunion album, “Looking in the Shadows,” released at the peak of the grunge era, was, if anything, even grimmer in content and sound, with slower, more minimalistic guitarwork. They played some songs from this one, too; Gina's more prominent on it, and she's a more outgoing stage presence than Ana, who stood mostly still at the show, small, blunt, and dressed monastically in oddly-shaped black garments. On this album there's an extended musing about methods of suicide, a song about a woman whose “body said no” to children and who attempts to make a dog fill the void – and all of this is delivered rather lightly, with the wit to see how ridiculous pain can make us look and sound.

This is music that figures out how to live within depression, which is treated as personal, existential, and even political at various points. It doesn't solve problems or assert triumphs or romanticize; it refuses to pretend that there is an easy or permanent solution (when love is involved, there is no imploring the loved one to notice/come back/take any action). The bold move it makes is believing that it is worthy of being heard and that an audience will pay attention.

And why do I feel that this is somehow a feminist kind of music? Maybe because the way these women formulate their rock and roll assertion stands so distinctly against the laid-back, cool-guy mode of rock tradition, and against rock-star bravado, while still refusing to be particularly delicate or pretty. I was almost afraid for the Raincoats when I saw them, stout and aging and being so loudly vulnerable. Of course, the audience, being an audience that had come to see the Raincoats, was as reverent as I. But when I hear a woman singing or talking about her small but heavy feelings I tense in anticipation of some attack. There are famous men who have operated sometimes in this mode -- Lou Reed (I'm thinking especially of "Heroin"), Elliott Smith. I can't think of a woman who could have been taken seriously enough in order to reach that level of fame and critical respect while doing the same thing. Famous sad women in music have mostly operated in the modes of the lovelorn or the kick-ass angry babe; there's generally a clear explanation for their feelings, typically relationship-centered, and a clear way to resolve them, with less space to meditate and let them unfold. So even though "The Raincoats" came out in 1979, this keeps on feeling new to me.

I don't think that this is the only way to do music or that everyone must enjoy this way of doing music; it's not even the only way for music to be a form of comfort. It can be as good to lose yourself in light and warmth, and certainly it's sometimes preferable to escape from darkness rather than diving into someone else's rendition of it.

But: the other week I was riding out one of the senseless waves of depression that carries me under every so often, and I wrote a song about it, feeling that I could do this in part because I'd seen and heard it done. It made me feel so teenaged, putting it down so baldly, but underneath all this was a sense of relief at having made anything at all out of this gray heaviness upon me. I debated whether to record it, then whether to send it to the band, worrying it would seem silly, immature, morbid, melodramatic. Not rock 'n' roll fun, not something the boys in the band could get down to. I did record and share it, though; we're going to play it, and it will undoubtedly feel strange to make such private and disreputable sounds onstage. But no one, I figure, is alone in this.