08 July 2012

Borderlands: Storms at the Gates of Heaven, Santa Fe

Even setting aside my tenure in Chicago, I have never lived quite in the center of any place. My childhood home was an easy walk to the next town over, and at college, in Santa Fe, you ran out of road and city as soon as you walked out the door.

Or climbed out the window of your dorm. I did this a lot in the first dorm I lived in, making full use of the fact that the floor was sunk a couple of feet below the earth. Climbing back in once caused me a little trouble: a couple of security guards had been watching me, and there was a firm knock on my door a few moments later. I dug out my ID to prove I wasn't an intruder, and eventually they went away, eyebrows raised, writing something in their log book.

This seemed like maybe a bad sign for my task of presenting myself as well-adjusted and definitely not crazy. In my first weeks at school I often had the sense of being a trespasser in a realm that was too warm and naive to cast the proper suspicion my way. Though plenty of space opened up around me later, on first meeting the girls in my floor charitably assumed that we'd all be good friends. So the evenings were well-lit and full: gathering around as one of the guitarists played and sang earnestly (all of them quicker-fingered and sweeter-voiced than I; always I've been surrounded by more talented people but kept banging my drum anyway), drinking tea, watching movies.

I recall sitting down at my desk one evening and noting an inkling of distress at this wholesome good cheer that was subsuming me. Could I really feel anything like nostalgia for the mostly awful summer I'd just left behind—filling out one doomed job application after another, fighting with my family, taking long, heavy-hearted walks at evening to force my body into sleep?

I went out into the twilight and down into the red arroyo. The late-summer air had a broody weight. There was always a strange intensity to dusks in the stormy season there. Everything was dim, but somehow still sharply outlined, the sky a bright gray. It seemed that just beyond the semi-translucent dome of it was shining a powerful, cold silver light. The landscape was more austere than the woods I'd similarly wandered in Michigan; before I left, an older friend correctly predicted that I'd love the enormous skies but miss the deep forest. The number of native species seemed charmingly countable, set down with a Noah's Ark–like comprehensibility: piƱon, aspen, sage, pine, lavender, jackrabbit, mule deer, horned toad, whiptail lizard, rock squirrel, chipmunk, raven, scrub jay, western tanager, sparrow, canyon towhee. And coyotes, rarely seen but heard nearly every night, singing a song that was alternately otherworldly and mockingly familiar—some nights you couldn't tell at first whether the baying came from them or a group of guys playing beer pong across campus.

As I walked through scrub brush in the vivid dusk, I came up an incline and onto a dirt road. A large bank of loose earth sat nearby, preparation for or result from some building project. I scrambled to the top and stood. Lightning took the landscape soundlessly in its grip a couple of times; I began to feel charged. Potentiality accumulated. Not far away, one coyote came out of the bushes, stopped just long enough to be fully seen, and went on its way into cover again. I felt the itchy sense of safety slip from me, letting a rawer skin breathe.

The other day, in a string of hundred-degree afternoons, a storm suddenly sent its heralds running before it. Wind made the trees that are all we can see from the front windows in summer writhe; dark patches blossomed overhead. I went out right away with the dog, who stalked plastic bags creeping like groundhogs across the road and romped after a styrofoam cup caught in a cyclone of dead leaves.

Storms have always made me giddy, too. Something is breathed into me that feels like a little bit of extra intelligence and extra capacity for delight. Every city I've lived in has seen me practically skipping through a downpour, smiling foolishly, each breath an interrupted laugh. (A storm's a good way to produce this feeling, but not the only one; as a young and religious child I connected it with the presence of God and the words "in a state of grace," despite not knowing quite what anyone else meant by that.)

We went past St. Gertrude's, an enormous Gothic church I'd been angling to get a glance inside since moving to the neighborhood. Now it was finally open, the immense wooden doors and the bottom panes of the stained-glass windows propped open to let in the rush of cool air. The service must have let out a while before: only a couple of clergy stood talking together in a far corner. It was precisely as I would have hoped: all white with gilded edges and lacy bits of stonework, severe arches traversing vaulted ceilings.

All in all, a place to temper the warmth of community with the chill of the divine. I like a line in David Byrne's "The Gates of Heaven:" An angel's breath is like the desert wind.  Even when I was religious or still trying to be, I never had any use for the cozier side of churchgoing. You can socialize anywhere. Why distract from the rare presence of the one enormous thing?

The storm never touched down, that evening in Santa Fe or the other day here. Eventually I must have climbed back up the arroyo and into my window, speaking to no one, and kept reproducing the lightning and coyote in my mind as I lay down to sleep. By the time I rounded the block in Chicago, the few drops of rain I'd caught had already been sucked from my skin back into the air. The loan period was up. I went back in.

07 July 2012

Summer Tapes

The hiss of the end of a cassette tape as it spools out its pseudo-silence is as much a summer noise for me as crickets in the grass, box fans in the windows, cicadas in the trees. Lately it's been unbearably hot and humid (the answer to a friendly, drunken woman on a late-night bus who asked me a couple of times during a spell of March heat, "If it's like this now, how will it be in July?"), so even in the chill of my office I've been moved to revisit some of the albums I lazed and sweated through in summers as a teenager. Most of these were tapes of CDs I'd borrowed from the library and dubbed—foremost among them the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and an X anthology, Beyond and Back.

My music of summer is built on messy electric guitars. Fuzzed-out, thirsty, flapping frantically but in circles, thudding drums, vocals twitching with some sour desire. Each song on Surfer Rosa is a staircase the band flings itself down. The album buzzes with the useless energy that accumulates from staying inside all day, where it's slightly cooler, and not quite knowing what to do with yourself.

Violence seems preferable to such inaction; sex also springs to mind. The album starts with a tale of an infidelity whose course the narrator does nothing to stop: You're looking like you got some sun / Your blistered lips have got a kiss. Everyone I knew was spending their days together somewhere in the sun, it seemed; every fresh tan was a sign of betrayal, of fun to which I hadn't been invited. I saw my friends a couple of times a week, but compared to the vast social emptiness of the rest of my days it couldn't begin to fill my hunger for contact. One summer my boyfriend really was having an affair with someone, the rumor had it; for some reason I couldn't manage to care enough to believe or disbelieve it, though it was probably true since he dumped me before the summer was out. Loneliness is a powerful repellant, beads up uncontrollably from the skin.

I'd go anywhere with anyone at all. Ride out to Grand Haven to jump off the pier with some guys I sort of knew from the coffee shop. Tag along to parties that were all about drinking, despite the fact that I was straight-edge and terrible at interacting with people at parties. Buy some time by going on family errands with the friend whose car I'd planted myself in for the afternoon. Embark on some dates with an older guy who idolized Ayn Rand. (Complete list of what we watched together: tape of an interview with an elderly and quite charming Rand, Mullholland Drive, Quadrophenia, and a compilation of Depeche Mode music videos.) Most of this relationship took place in a setting that really did seem summoned from from the world of Surfer Rosa: his mother's house on a crowded outskirt of town, which she'd decorated with dozens of representations of the Virgin Mary. She and the Marys looked at me coldly when I entered the house for the first time; the other times we just slunk downstairs as she chatted in Spanish on the phone.

He stopped calling after about a week. Somehow that was okay, too—the Ayn Rand, after all. The next summer I learned that the reason for his sudden silence was that he'd had a psychotic break and been taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. (Were there signs? Not many. It's true that he'd asked whether, as a writer, I wasn't constantly worrying about people stealing my ideas. He'd also reportedly tried to set my friend's shoelaces on fire as a joke at a festival the day before we met, which I was willing to ignore because he wanted to talk about books and philosophy and go on dates with me.)

I'd come home from these wanderings late at night and often there were still a couple of hours to fill before I'd be worn out enough to sleep. I'd slide a tape into my Walkman.

The lyrics of Surfer Rosa are elliptical, and enunciation is not a core value of the style. What comes through is a preoccupation with hot weather and the Spanish language (Puerto Rico, where Black Francis had recently spent half a year), a disgusted sexuality tainted by thoughts of incest, and the summoning of violence upon oneself. "I'm the hard loser / You'll find me crashing through my mother's door / I am the ugly lover / You'll find us rolling on the dirty floor," goes "Break My Body." I lay on my mother's floor and listened, inking the song titles onto the J-card of the blank tape.

Given that I didn't have much money to buy CDs, I also didn't have much money to buy blank tapes, so I economized. Most albums were shorter than a 60-minute tape, and after one ended I'd start recording another on the same side. Because of this, my tape library forms a weird chain, like it's all one big box set; to listen to any one album in full you generally have to pop in multiple tapes. So The Pogues lead into Pavement's Wowee Zowee, which leads into Beyond and Back, which leads into Surfer Rosa, which, clocking in at 32:50, could almost fit onto a single side, leaving "Brick is Red" alone on its own tape. (Looking at this list you might think I was born no later than about 1980. But it takes time to catch up with the culture when you're coming into it as a teenager; I still haven't quite made it to the present, probably.) The hunt for the tape of "Brick is Red" to finish out the album gave that song its own crystalline quality—a more spacious, cooler coda to an overheated half-hour.

Where Black Francis had Puerto Rico for a site of doomy, semi-Catholic paranoia, X had Los Angeles, and the sense of doom there is more widespread. It's in the structure of things, in the water. The world's a mess, it's in my kiss. Accordingly, where Surfer Rosa feels like an album of being stuck inside in the heat, X's early records are about being stuck outside in the heat among other people who don't want to be there any more than you do. I hadn't really earned the right to these sentiments as a teenager on summer vacation—again, I was appallingly greedy for human contact—and consequently it didn't get quite as deeply into my bones as Surfer Rosa, even as I appreciated the similar lo-fi aesthetic, the hard, semi-opaque poetry of the lyrics. Now, though, X is just the thing for moving around in the city and its steamy subway stations, when every rotten smell and accidental elbow jab amplified, everybody looking deranged and diseased as advertisements leer from the sidelines.

X joins you in these feelings, but they don't endorse them, either. There's some sympathy even for the sputtering hatred of characters such as the protagonist of "Los Angeles" (the heat'll do that to you), but there's a greater, more fundamental empathy for the down-and-out of all stripes. We don't want to feel this way. We'd like these crowds to cure our loneliness, but empathy is probably the best we are going to do. All that's to be done is to turn up the distortion, grab the mic hard, and sing.