June 15, 2007
Every year, one band seems to burst into my musical consciousness from seemingly nowhere. Last month, I received a nondescript press release about the Raleigh trio, Bowerbirds. After streaming some tracks at the band's website and MySpace page, I knew I had found my latest favorite band. The next day, my favorite songwriter, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, e-mailed his praise for the band (proving that great minds and music bloggers often think alike)...
Two tracks from the album:
When I was 17 years old I got into smoking pretty regularly. I had set up an old canvas tent in the backyard with a twin mattress, a clock radio, and a small lamp. The summers in Grinnell, Iowa, were sticky and hot, and my parents would have the air conditioning blaring inside, far enough away from me for them not to smell cigarettes, and far enough for me to feel a sense of independence. I was a sheltered kid and in search of anything that would break me out of my naivety. So I smoked when it was dark and started reading the books that I thought might help raise me out of my small town existence. I had been instructed to read a few novels and some short stories in my classes before that time, but I was very protective of my education and I never trusted my teachers. I felt as though there was an agenda to control the students and keep them in line, a feeling that I still have, although who I hold responsible for that agenda has shifted slightly.
The first book I chose to read was 'On the Road,' by Jack Kerouac. I suppose this was a pretty typical move for a lot of kids at that age, but for the first time I could take whatever I wanted from a story. I didn't have to compartmentalize the book into plot summary, setting, theme, etc. I didn't have a specific number of pages to read on a particular evening. I was finally free to read the way I wanted.
I followed with 'Down and Out in Paris and London,' by George Orwell and got into 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' by Robert M. Persig. All three of these books focused on a certain independence that I was lacking and a freeing of the mind and heart that I was desperately in need of. I started to wander more and more. I started questioning the validity of my public education, and even though I immediately went off to college the next fall, I wouldn't find my calling there. I would have to drive around the country and play music and fight the demons of passivity and have sex with girls and fall in love with them and do drugs and basically make up for all the lost time.
Which leads me to my first book:
'The Teenage Liberation Handbook' by Grace Llewellyn
This was a book that should have come into my life a long time ago. It probably would have given me the courage to drop out of high school or at least lifted the huge leaded guilt I carried around on my shoulders, for being stupid or a bad student or having ADD, and it would have helped me, in Grace Llewellyn's words, "get a real life education." 'The Teenage Liberation Handbook' discredits the validity of the unproductive public school system and focuses on un-schooling, (not to be confused with home schooling) where children are left to their own devices to figure out what they have a passion for and to learn exactly that. But at the same time, this book transcends age in every way. Even at age 26, when I read it, it gave me every authority to explore passions that I had been categorizing in my mind as things that should be thought of as mere hobbies (music, most importantly) and helped me realize that all the anger I had felt toward my teachers in the past was valid, though slightly misplaced, and should have been focused more on my public education as a whole, and on our culture in general.
Which leads me to my next book:
'A Language Older than Words' by Derrick Jensen
This book is magic. By the first chapter, you won't even notice, but your whole world will start turning in on itself. It's a perfect companion to help us understand and navigate our insane existence on this earth, and it sheds a bright light on the abuse, however it manifests itself in this culture, that we take for granted, whether we are the perpetrator or the victim of that abuse. It is a memoir of Derrick's life and therefore never becomes preachy or alienating to the reader (you, very soon). But seriously, read this book. Derrick is an unassuming radical with a great big heart and if you are feeling now like I was when I read this book, and you need a well positioned tree limb to lift yourself up out of the quicksand of apathy, this is the book to start with.
If that isn't enough, read:
'The Culture of Make Believe' by Derrick Jensen
It blows my mind how well researched this book is. There is so much insight in this book about our prison system and our government in general and how we are all (non-human peoples included) affected by society-sanctioned violence. I cried regularly through this entire book and even had to put it down a few times. That said, this book makes me feel more alive and more hopeful than ever to have read it.
Indie-rock seems to have come from a history of shoe-gazing or inward-thinking or more so exclaims a general "f*ck you" to whomever is or isn't listening. This in itself is a very powerful message. Independent rock is just that, independent. It is independent from large corporate labels, certainly. It is independent from anything your parents would like, probably. These days It even strives to be independent from "what was hot" last week.
As a song writer, I got way too caught up in this battle for my independence, to the point where I didn't want to have anything I said be "obvious" or any chord changes I made be "predictable." I can easily site both Grace Llewellyn and Derrick Jensen as major influences for changing that aspect in my song writing. I feel responsible for writing about what I now care about, thanks to those writers, and I'm indebted to them both. There is a great big problem in this culture, and everyone needs to be talking about it, if we are ever going to solve it. I'm so happy that a lot of musicians these days are feeling confident enough to have a political message or to talk about the environment. This movement *is* happening and it is a great step.
Music, aside from just indie-rock, can be so many things, but its origins are in entertainment, or perhaps religion, but both of these are really the same thing--whatever lifts your spirit or makes you feel free. This is where I'm conflicted. I look at Bowerbirds (the musical group) first and foremost, as entertainment. If our music lifts peoples spirits like so many musicians have done for me, I have successfully done my work. This, for me, is all that music *has* to be.
So, aside from any particular message, I tend to love music with rich melody and very image-heavy, romantic language. Which leads me to my next two books.
"Turtle Island" by Gary Synder
At the time I picked up this poetry anthology, I wasn't intimidated by the language and so I gave it a chance, but the themes have stuck with me for several years now. The natural imagery is a huge part of this anthology. It's so rich with wildness and, though before I read this book I loved being in natural settings, I wasn't able to say exactly why.
Also, at the time I picked this book up, I didn't think of it as having a distinct message, but re-reading it over the years I get a sense its message is that all people, including the people that we humans call animals or even plants, think and feel, at their core, in a very similar way as we do.
"Sailing Alone Around the Room" by Billy Collins
Deliberate simplicity. I always find myself reading over this anthology or other anthologies of Collins' when I'm writing lyrics, and I don't think that a phrase could be turned any further and still make sense. He's really good at using simple language and still making magic.
I have never been an academic and never strive to be. All the writers that I most enjoy, and who have helped me figure out what it is that I'm doing with my life, I don't consider to be academics, though all of them are brilliant people. I think all the authors I've ever loved have been mostly just honest and are artists above all else. Their writing is beautiful, while still being straightforward and down to earth, and they have a lot to teach about individual freedom and connection to the rest of life.
also at Largehearted Boy: