23 February 2009

my life in twenty- five records...

everyone knows about the "25 things" and recently there have been various "15/ 20/ 25 albums that meant a lot to you" or whatever going around and as such i've decided to combine the two. this essay is long, and definitely not for everybody. but if i "tagged" you you're in there somewhere.

dedicated to little lucy nelson and to evan greenwald. may you both find your own way a little more peacefully than i found mine.

[this essay can also be found at my blog: http://woolgathering-sf.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-life-in-twenty-five-records.html.]

my life in twenty- five records.

side one...the early years.

1. guns n' roses... "appetite for destruction."
2. the ramones... "mania."
3. jane's addiction... "nothing's shocking."
4. pearl jam... "ten."
5. jane's addiction... "ritual de lo habitual."
6. smashing pumpkins... "gish."
7. pearl jam... "vitalogy."
8. faith no more... "angel dust."
9. neil young... "harvest."
10. bob dylan... "bringing it all back home."
11. the beatles... "the beatles, aka the white album."
12. r.e.m.... "new adventures in hi- fi"
13. led zeppelin... "physical graffiti."

side two... college, etc..

14. ben harper... "fight for your mind."
15. the rolling stones... "exile on main street."
16. the beatles... "live at the bbc."
17. radiohead... "ok computer."
18. jeff buckley... "grace."
19. modest mouse... "the moon and antarctica."
20. wilco... "yankee hotel foxtrot."
21. neutral milk hotel... "in the aeroplane over the sea."
22. the clash... "london calling."
23. my morning jacket... "okonokos."
24. iron & wine... "our endless numbered days."
25. eddie vedder... "into the wild."

side one...the early years.

1. guns n' roses... "appetite for destruction."

it all really starts with "appetite."

before axl and slash came into my life there of course was music-- most notably poison, motley crue, and bon jovi. i was born in 1977. the drug, "hair metal," as it's come to be called, and mtv, its pusher, and me-- i feel like we all grew up in the same neighborhood.

that neighborhood was roswell, ga. i have a brother, cary, who is three years my junior. back then we did everything together. that he lives in miami, florida now, as opposed to in san francisco with me, does pain me a little-- though obviously i'm happy that he's happy.

like i said, back then we did everything together. if we weren't "playing guns" [we were like six and nine at the time] we were playing "rock stars." we knew all the moves and all the songs. our father had cut from a thin piece of plywood a couple of les paul- shaped guitars, which we decorated dutifully. they were our favorite toys.

it was all very sweet and innocuous. but by eleven years old, i was on the verge on puberty and along came guns n' roses. in 1988 guns n' roses were the biggest fucking band on the planet. there's absolutely nothing like them today [especially not guns n' roses].

"appetite for destruction" had been given to me [on cassette] by my fifth grade girlfriend, jessica oliver. she broke up with me the next day. i studied the liner notes, the artwork, the pictures. for me it was like the discovery of the dead sea scrolls. things that were troubling me, that i didn't understand-- suddenly they were very clear. it wasn't so much the lyrics or the subject matter of the songs [true story: my brother and i knew that if our mother caught wind of the swear words-- and there are a lot of them on "appetite"-- she would take away the tape for sure. i had where the swears were so memorized that when we'd be listening to it on our shitty little single deck tape player, and a swear would come up, i would turn the volume knob down then up really fast to mute it. we listened to it like that my whole fifth grade year], it was the guitar. slash's guitar work, for lack of a better way to describe it, really spoke to me in a language i could understand.

whether "appetite" is now thought of as a classic is probably up for debate. certainly i can see the arguments against. but for me, it's not only a classic, it was the beginning of something.

2. the ramones... "mania."

a habit i formed early, one i'm most proud of, was basically to notice what band t- shirts the bands i liked were wearing and then buy those other bands' tapes.

guns n' roses wore a lot of t- shirts. i learned about metallica, the sex pistols, and the rock club cbgb as a result of them. the ramones were another band [the most important to me] that i learned about. [when i think about it, i learned most of what i know about punk rock-- a lifelong passion of mine-- from two sources. what t- shirts gn'r wore, and from greg king, stewart king's older brother. he had the misfits, dead kennedys, g.b.h., d.r.i., m.o.d. [all the initial bands], and bad brains tapes that i so coveted when i'd spend the night at stewart's house during our sixth grade year. it should be noted that i've never spoken a word to greg, still to this day. but his 1989 7" and cassette tape collection will be forever burned into my brain.]

it wasn't until that next year, my thirteenth, that i got "mania," i think from drew stewart. i remember shooting baskets in the gym of the old sandy springs middle school with drew and learning the lyrics to "the kkk took my baby away." i remember being unable to write out the lyrics to "blitzkrieg bop." i remember thinking joey ramone looked like nothing i'd ever seen before.

i've since bought all the remastered ramones albums, at least the first five. i listen to them often, mostly in my car. but it only seems right to listen to "mania" on a shitty sony walkman, the kind where the deck is held in place with duct tape and the headphones keep slipping off because the silver band that goes around your head is so stretched out.

additionally i consider it a real point of pride that in 1995 some friends and i drove to new orleans to see the ramones and pearl jam play. this was during the great war with ticketmaster, and the show was at some out of the way stadium, and it was muggy as hell, and it was fucking awesome. long live the ramones.

3. jane's addiction... "nothing's shocking."

ah, the mighty jane's addiction. one of the greatest bands ever.

i got turned onto "nothing's schocking" in the seventh grade by adam zivony, who also turned me onto incense. i remember drinking some canadian club i'd snuck over, smoking cigarettes, burning incense, and listening to the second side, with "summertime rolls" and "mountain song" and "idiot's rule."

one of the things i always thought was coolest about perry farrell and jane's was that by the time their three album cycle was over, they had, in my opinion, encapsulated all there was to write about in terms of rock lyrics. personal freedom, love, sex, serial killers, mountains... they really covered it all.

later on, in high school, you'd be hard pressed to find a notebook of mine that didn't have some jane's addiction lyric on it. it would be something like this [picture my shitty high school handwriting]:

"you know the man you hate?
you look more like him everyday!
hi- di- hoa!
two good shoes won't save your soul!"


it is fifteen years later and i'm about to finish my first record. in the liner notes you'll find those words.

jane's addiction really was the perfect bridge, both for me and for the world, between the guns n' roses era and, uh, what would come next.

4. pearl jam... "ten."

what would come next, everyone knows, was nirvana's "nevermind." millions of essays have been written on "nevermind" and the seismic culture shift it caused so i will spare you.

"ten," its spiritual brother, caused a similar shift, and a parallel one was inside of me. it was like nothing before, or since. "ten" was like a religion for me.

i was in the eighth grade. axl rose was wearing kilts and starting riots, and i had a girlfriend named emily. i was still pretty hung up on guns n' roses-- though it was now the "use your illusion" years. all of a sudden, "grunge" was everywhere. "smells like teen spirit" had broken wide and it was a new world. soundgarden's "outshined," alice in chains' "man in the box", and pearl jam's "alive" were all in heavy rotation on mtv. craig halperin, i think, gave me a taped copy of "ten" and i listened to it endlessly. i finally got a real copy of it myself and pored over the liner notes-- which were so cool. the lyrics to the songs were all artfully presented, each individually [i remember "even flow" was just a dollar bill with the words to the chorus written around the edges and "jeremy" was all typed up on an old school typewriter].

knowing what i know about music now, the songs are pretty straightforward, but back then i really couldn't figure out what i was hearing, what was going on. [the mix still is a little strange-- really reverb- heavy. i'm glad brendan o' brien is taking a scalpel to it.]

what i did know, however, was that THIS WAS IT. this was the fuckin' SOUNDTRACK TO MY SOUL. obviously this sounds melodramatic and overwrought now but come on, man, i was fourteen. which brings us to emily.

the aforementioned emily snow jacobs was my eighth grade girlfriend, and my first true love. a teeny- tiny bit of me still is in love with emily from way back then. i trust that my wife understands.

i remember the first time i met emily was in the lunchroom in the seventh grade: i asked to borrow her math homework to copy it, and promptly lost it. fast forward to mrs. emerson's math class the next period, and we were checking said homework. emily got called on, and obviously she didn't have the answer. i got called on next and did. [she relishes telling this story, and does so every time we get together.]

anyway all eighth grade year emily and i dated, or went out, or went, or whatever the hell. we had about as tumultuous a relationship as two fourteen year- olds can. emily is a fantastic person, and i really truly love her deeply. but she can also be the most fucking frustrating person in the world. [i think she'd cop to that.]

i'm rambling, i know. i'll get to the point. "black," the fifth song on "ten," [the second to last song on the first side of the cassette, right before "jeremy"-- very important] was, and i guess still very much is, our anthem. i don't listen to "ten" much anymore, but when i hear the studio version of "black" on the radio, i think about emily jacobs. and i think about how crazy i was about her. and i get all gooey for that whole period of time, before high school.

the other standout track on "ten" obviously is "alive." two quick stories about "alive":

1. carrie shetler-- a friend of mine still, though now only through facebook-- and her mother were in a horrible car accident that eighth grade year. her mother was killed, and carrie was badly hurt, and it was a shock for our school. i remember her telling me much later that the first song she heard when she came out of her coma was "alive" and that it really had an incredibly healing effect on her, and that "ten" really helped her through that period of time.

2. it was the eighth grade dance. it was me and my crew [i wasn't the leader or anything]: jj ortega, alan hollander, and todd hodges. tami liptak was my date. emily was todd's, paige porter was jj's, and monica trinidad was alan's. the idea was that we all went not with our girlfriends, but with our best friends who were girls, but that obviously we would be hooking up with our girlfriends afterwards. jj lived in this castle up in alpharetta and we all went up there after the dance. i remember making out with emily on jj's bed, we were literally next to todd and paige doing the same thing. jj and tami were in his closet [i remember hilarious calls of "jj! come out of the closet!"] and alan and monica were, i don't know, somewhere else getting it on. todd jumped up from our makeout bed [everybody was clothed, just for the record] and threw on "ten" but he started it on track three, "alive" [some of us had moved onto cds by that point]. i think we high- fived each other and got back to business.

a few years later todd too was in a horrible car crash. i went to visit him in the hospital, held his hand as he lay there in the hospital bed, and sang "alive" to him softly. he died later that day.

pearl jam has remained one of my favorite bands, and "ten" probably still ranks as the one i've most listened to ever in the history of my life. it is a sacred artifact to me, and i take it personally when people disparage it, or the band, because it now seems easy or fashionable. so fucking watch out.

5. jane's addiction... "ritual de lo habitual."

i lost my virginity in the first few months of my ninth grade year to "three days" on the "ritual" album. enough said.

6. smashing pumpkins... "gish."

"gish" will always make me think of billy mosier. he turned me onto it on a church retreat my ninth grade year and it became the next album in what was becoming a pattern of "albums that i listened to nothing else but." it was another one of those records that sounded like nothing i had ever heard-- the drums, especially. billy and i became great friends on this retreat and soon after went together to see them play a five- dollar show at centerstage in midtown. it was effectively my first show [the poison show i went to in the fourth grade i do not count], thus beginning a lifelong habit of going to shows with billy. over the years we have really seen every major band you could think of. i have hundreds of ticket stubs from shows we went to see in high school-- 311, primus, lollapalooza, nine inch nails, dinosaur jr, pink floyd, beastie boys... really, and i mean really, if a band was coming into town, we'd go see 'em.

this was of course back in the days of waking up early on a saturday and going to turtle's [which became blockbuster music] and getting in line to get tickets. it was a ritual we had. he'd pick me up in the cadillac-- simultaneously the world's best and worst car-- and we'd head for bagels and coffee before landing at the turtle's across the street from my neighborhood. if my memory serves, they'd hand out lottery numbers at 9:30, 9:45 maybe, everybody'd line up in numerical order, and then tickets went on sale at 10:00.

by mid- tenth grade ticketmaster had struck a deal with publix and for a while we seemed to be the only people who knew that, so we were getting all sortsa great seats. soon enough though the cat was out of the bag and we were back to lines and lottery numbers. after a while we figured out that you had a better chance of getting good seats if you went to some out of the way publix, where there would be no line, so we'd drive down to ridiculous places like college park and lakewood to score.

we saw smashing pumpkins twice during the "gish" period, i think. that they recorded their follow- up record, "siamese dream," in atlanta had a lot to do with that fact. we saw them a few times after that, the last time being the 1995 [?] lollapalooza. but the "gish" period was the best for my money.

billy and i were roommates in college and have remained amazing friends all these years. he is in fact, and i swear this is true, flying up from san diego next weekend [27/ 29 february] to visit and see a show at the fillmore.

7. pearl jam... "vitalogy."

1994/ 1995 were hard years for me. "vitalogy" chronicled those years.

a few weeks into my eleventh grade year i dropped out of high school and moved out of my parents' house. it was the ridiculous, desperate, myopic act of an adolescent who was incredibly pissed off and trying to grow up too fast.

for whatever reason, my pain management skills have always included a heavy reliance on substances. in this instance my seventeen year- old pain was being treated with a lot of really shitty mexican pot. i was a fiend. i could not be sated, and i could not be stopped. whether or not i had more pain than some of my friends, i don't know. i had [have] some emotional problems. i can deal with them now. i could not back then.

my frustration with having just turned seventeen and feeling twenty- five reached a pinnacle sometime around october of 1994 and i left home. i moved in with some drug dealers i knew and basically dropped out of society. i had a job at papa john's pizza and no future, but i didn't care. i couldn't see past next month. i still to this day have no idea what was going on in my head during that period of time. i was really a fucking disaster. that i still have some very close friends from that period of time [billy, and danny simon] is more a testament to their patience with me than anything else.

it was during this period of time that i started experimenting with some more illicit substances-- acid, in particular. i tripped on acid a lot. the most i ever took was five hits at once. i was literally out of my mind, trying to achieve some william blake/ timothy leary/ carlos castaneda fantasy.

"vitalogy" was the perfect album for me through all this. it was all the things that i was: angry, sad, desperate, confused, frustrated. remember that "vitalogy" was the first pearl jam record to come out after kurt cobain's suicide, so there was that. it was also really the apotheosis of their fame, and the ticketmaster war was taking shape. all of this and more was in the songs, "not for you" and "corduroy" in particular.

additionally i don't think eddie vedder ever sounded better [say that five times real fast] than on "vitalogy." those performances are AMAZING. listen to the anger in "spin the black circle," "tremor christ," and "whipping." listen to the sadness in "nothingman." ah! what a great album. without it i don't know if i would've made it through that period of time.

8. faith no more... "angel dust."

but i did make it through that period of time, and when i did the album i remember listening to more than most was "angel dust." it was already a couple of years old by this point, but for whatever reason it really spoke to me. during this period of time i was getting ready for the g.e.d., which i got special permission to take a year early. i was starting community college in the fall when all of my friends were going into their senior year of high school. crazy how that turned out. i had gone from loser drug- addicted dropout insane person to starting college a year early. that being said, i have no salient memories of this period of time, really, no memories of moving out of that apartment and back into my parent's house, no memories of what i did when i was out with my friends [though i was still way into grass], no real memories at all. my "lost weekend."

9. neil young... "harvest."
10. bob dylan... "bringing it all back home."

there is no way to measure the remarkable and acute effect these two men have had on my life. it was at the beginning of that senior/ freshman year that i started really listening to dylan and neil, and i, like always, went truly overboard on them both.

"harvest" is still neil's most well- known record and as such it was the one i got started with. soon i had his entire discography basically. it was the same way with bob dylan. i went further and further into bob over those next few years, from seventeen until twenty- one, compared to that i've gone further and further with neil [likewise tom waits] these last few years, from twenty- eight let's say and still counting.

a great story about "bringing it all back home": "bringing" is the last truly acoustic recordings dylan would do for close to thirty years. and even at that, it's only the second side of the album that's acoustic [side one includes "subterranean homesick blues"]. "mr. tambourine man" is the first song on the side, and it was cut independently of the three songs that would follow it. the next three are "gates of eden," "it's alright, ma," and "it's all over now, baby blue," three of the longest, most poetic songs dylan's ever written. dylan recorded these three in order in one long, continuous take. he sat down with his guitar, made sure the engineer recording the session had enough tape, and just played those three songs boom boom boom in a row and that was the record. wow.

11. the beatles... "the beatles, aka the white album."

alongside neil and dylan we find the beatles in what was a huge shift in my music taste. this senior/ freshman year saw me really go from an "alternative rock" guy to a "classic rock" guy. i was bored with "alternative." kurt cobain was dead, pearl jam was basically underground. it was increasingly way more likely that you'd find me listening to creedence than my bloody valentine.

like everybody, i'm sure, my love affair with the beatles dated back to my childhood. i knew the songs, my mother was a big fan, i could play a couple on piano. the beatles were ubiquitous, you know? it wasn't until my seventeenth year that i really started listening to beatles albums, really starting getting into them.

and when i did, i went even crazier on them that i had ever gone before. crazier than for pearl jam, crazier than for bob dylan. to this day there is no band i am more insane about, that is to say really in love with, when it comes down to it, than the beatles. i could go on and on about them, about how in particular john lennon is my spiritual guru and how we all want to change the world. but there is nothing i could really say about the beatles that hasn't been said before, and so i'll just say that "the white album" is my favorite of all of their records.

12. r.e.m.... "new adventures in hi- fi"

one of the only current bands i really liked during this period of time was r.e.m.. i chose "new adventures" in particular, one because i think it's their most underrated record, and two, because i can really remember listening to this album a lot at the end of that senior/ freshman year. i was working at the coffee shop inside the borders books near perimeter mall in atlanta during the day, and delivering chinese food at night, listening to "new adventures," saving money for my eventual move to athens to continue college. i worked with adam cohn and danny simon, a few others sure but these two guys in particular stand out as my co- workers in the true, quotidian sense. we had a really good time, delivering for the mandarin house on roswell road.

adam still lives in atlanta and i see him-- alongside jj ortega, another terrific old friend of mine that i don't talk to near enough-- every time i go back to visit. the three of us have the quintessential "pick up right where you left off" friendship. i love those guys and would take a bullet for either one of them.

danny simon is probably the best guy i've ever known. certainly the smartest [in the eighth grade, danny circumvented all the alarm systems in our houses using, i think, magnets. it enabled us-- i mean this was like five or so different houses/ hooligans-- to be able to sneak out certain windows of our house with our parents asleep and our alarm systems still on. furthermore, he had wired up a sensor that alerted him to whether his parent's bedside table light was still on, so he could know whether it was safe to sneak out or not. a surreptitious wire ran from his parent's nightstand UNDER THE RUG and UP AND DOWN THE WALLS from their room to his. you give me internet access and a fucking week right now and i wouldn't be able to do that. and he was like thirteen.]. the two of us have been through so much together it is impossible to catalogue. truly. i think of him, and billy, as brothers-- equal with my own.

additionally danny is one of the funniest people i've ever met. he could've made a fortune in the fifties as a borscht belt comedy writer. but instead he got his phd in physics at uc santa cruz and now lives with his wife, rozalyn, and their beautiful daughter in sweden. i look forward to their visit in april. i wish they'd move back.

13. led zeppelin... "physical graffiti."

it was also during this period of time that i was in what i'd generously call "my led zeppelin phase." friends of mine would probably not be so kind. i was obsessed with zeppelin during this spring/ summer/ fall of 1996. i'd gotten the complete discography boxed set from the borders that i worked at and it was all i played, "physical graffiti" [their best] in particular. "in my time of dying" still is a song that ranks among my most favorite ever, not just of zeppelin but of all time. john bonham was a god.

side two... college, etc..

14. ben harper... "fight for your mind."

ben has always been an anomaly. he doesn't really fit in anywhere, and that's what i dig about him. i can relate to that.

billy turned me onto ben harper in spring of 1997. it was a new life for me, i was living in athens, on my own for what was basically my first time. [the dreaded drug den apartment i lived in i do not count.] i had quit smoking pot [even though you can basically buy it at whole foods here in sf, i remain drug- free].

i had recently gotten a dog, hodges, and also become a vegetarian. the two definitely went together, for the getting of hodges- bo- bodges [when he got neutered danny simon renamed him hodges- no- bodges, which stuck around for a minute] more or less sealed my vegetarian fate.

i was twenty and i was living with billy, rozalyn ayers [who'd later marry danny], and jeff hall. i was making a lot of mixed tapes during this period of time. huge, epic mixed tapes that have now been lost to the winds of time. the hugest, most epic series of mixed tapes came as a result of a break- up i had with a girl.

this person and i hung out for a month or so at the beginning of my sophomore year in college. basically it seemed like our whole relationship revolved around music. she lived a couple of streets over from me in normaltown and i was really, really into her. for a number of i'm sure good reasons it didn't work out and i was pretty broken up about it. i channeled that hurt into the most excellent series of mixed tapes that i'm convinced have ever been made. i mean it was to the point that i was going over to people's houses and borrowing their cds so that i could be as efficient as possible in making these huge, epic mixed tapes [most of my stuff was on vinyl and on cassette, and making tapes was just so much easier with cds]. i'd take home huge stacks of my friend's cds [alex reeves and drew kane immediately spring to mind] and spend all day and night stitching them together into this elaborate tapestry. it was all very dramatic and heart- on- my- sleeve [i was twenty after all]. the plan was to give her these tapes, thinking that she'd listen to them and realize what we had, or something. there were more than a few ben harper songs on those tapes: "walk away," "waiting on an angel," "forever," "another lonely day," "by my side." you get the picture. ultimately i guess i thought better of that, and i'm glad that i did because those tapes were awesome. i think i still have one or two of them somewhere in storage.

15. the rolling stones... "exile on main street."

following this episode i went on a real kind of chauvinist/ misogynist kick for a while and got really into "exile on main street." it seemed like a natural reaction at the time, to go on offense, but looking back it was just wounded youthful pride. bravado. whatever.

no matter. "exile on main street" is the greatest fucking rock and roll record ever made. i would recommend it, and a bottle of jameson irish whiskey of course, to anyone going through a break- up.

like i said earlier, i was living with rozalyn ayers at the time and i think that after the second month or so of me playing nothing but "exile" she actually hid it from me, and i can't say that i blame her. "exile on main street" is, i'm sure, the reason she moved out a few weeks later.

love you, rozy. thanks for still being my friend.

16. the beatles... "live at the bbc."

after all that sour i guess i needed some sweet. hence my love of "live at the bbc."

"live at the bbc" is just what it sounds like, a collection of all the appearances the beatles made on bbc radio in the early- to- mid 1960's. it's essentially a collection of covers, from artists like ray charles, elvis, chuck berry, little richard, buddy holly, the tin pan alley songs, early early motown, and the phil spector girl group stuff... all the stuff that influenced the beatles. alone it would be a definitive history of 1950's/ early 1960's pop music singles. couple that with the fact that they're all performed by the beatles, and it's truly one of the greatest albums ever.

17. radiohead... "ok computer."

"ok computer" IS the greatest album ever.

i don't care what you say. better than "sgt. pepper," better than "the velvet underground and nico," better than "blonde on blonde." at least that's my opinion. it's my favorite album of all time-- the only album that rivals "ten" for "most listened to album ever in the history of my life."

"ok computer" came out in 1997 but i didn't really start listening to it in earnest until about 2000. like i said, i had been going through this massive "classic rock" thing. i mostly hung out with kind of a hippie crowd, but i wasn't a hippie. [it should be noted that i had a real huge hair/ dylan- in- 1966 thing going on during this period that made the "i'm not a hippie" argument difficult. but i digress.] i was always way more led zeppelin/ stones than phish or the dead. but when i got into "ok computer," everything changed.

i couldn't stop listening to it. i was obsessed. i was enlightened. i was reborn.

while there was precedent for "ok computer" [think "sgt. pepper," think "the dark side of the moon"], i had to come by those records later in life as, obviously, they had been made before i was born. but for "ok computer" i was getting to be part of a paradigm- shattering masterpiece basically in real time. i was getting to be alive at the same time that this thing was going down. it was a privilege. it was an honor. i wanted to soak it all up.

the most important thing that should be noted about "ok computer"'s effect on me is that it really did snap me out of this bullshit "classic rock" trip i was on. obviously there's nothing wrong with the beatles and the stones but it was like i was consciously living in the past and not embracing what was happening during MY lifetime. "ok computer" showed me that i needed to be much more in the moment, that there was so much out there that i wasn't paying attention to. my lifelong passion for progressive politics were borne out of this realization, just in time for the 2000 election.

a final note about "ok computer": the years 2001- 2003 were my darkest, even darker than the "vitalogy" years of 1994/ 1995. my drinking was WAY out of control. i had been kicked out of the university of georgia and was in a truly terrible, go- nowhere relationship. i was once again without any direction, or care for my future-- i had totally tipped over. the difference between this time and the time before was that THIS time around i was in my mid- twenties and i kinda shoulda known better. [whatever that means.] i was really unsure if i was going to make it. i felt like i was going to die. i listened to "ok computer" over and over again, and when i would i would imagine that the closing strains of "lucky"-- the final instrumental chorus-- i would imagine that that just had to be what it sounded like when someone was dying and on their way to the next spiritual plane. and "the tourist," the song that follows "lucky," i'd imagine that's what it sounded like once you got there. i imagined myself so many times as that person.

incredible that the very same song, "lucky," includes the lines "kill me sarah, kill me again/ with love/ it's going to be a glorious day" and that i sing it to my wife now as a love song.

18. jeff buckley... "grace."

speaking of songs about love and mortality, jeff buckley's "grace" is a record that stands alone.

i came to "grace" a few years after jeff's death [he drowned in the wolf river, which is an offshoot of the mississippi, in 1997] by way of my brother [who told me he cried when he found out that they shared a birthday]. we were living together in athens and he had a big buckley poster on the wall. i had heard of him, remembered that he'd died, but i'd never listened to him. when i started to, i have to admit i really didn't get him at first. didn't like his voice, didn't like his riffs, didn't like his approach. found them... irritating.

i was not ready for him.

it was really only after another break- up that i finally was. i had been living with this girl who it turned out was, well not the devil incarnate exactly, but she certainly was no angel. it really wasn't even entirely her fault, she was coming immediately off a divorce and i was her rebound and i knew it and i fell for her anyway and when the inevitable happened i took it pretty hard. it probably didn't help that it was xmas time, the first xmas after september 11th.

it was a really strange time. good friends in my life were both coming [billy] and had gone [lara taylor sevener]. i was working three jobs, one at the globe barbacking/ working the door, one at the 283 bar working the door, and the third at earthfare [earthfare was like a mini whole foods] as a front end assistant manager. there was also an issue with school that i'll spare you, but let's just say it wasn't good and that i wouldn't be going back.

i had met this girl at the globe [the globe was at the time one of the best bars in athens. it was an irish- style pub, all wood, with a great staff. i had taken over kai from macha's monday night shift and worked my way up] and was smitten. soon enough we went home together and one thing turned into your mother and suddenly she was living at my house and we were spending whatever free time i had together. this went on all october- december 2001. it was an intense few months. i remember listening to coldplay's "parachutes" a lot, and to built to spill's "ancient melodies of the future," "kid a" had also just come out.

like i said, the inevitable happened and she slept with somebody else-- IN MY HOUSE. obviously there was no going back, but nonetheless i was stung. one of my very favorite people on the planet, lara taylor sevener [we'll get to her soon enough], had the most memorable thing to say about all of this: "lee, you can't get this girl out of your house fast enough." i will never forget her saying that.

i remember in breaking up with her quoting that great line from neil young, "funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way," and that was that. i soon started listening exclusively to mr. buckley. he really got me through that period of time.

"grace" is almost as important a record to me as "ok computer" or "ten" on a lot of levels and on some others it's actually even more important. [it should be noted that this fact has nothing to do now with the girl.] jeff buckley's voice, his guitar work [he used the absolute most difficult jazz chords to construct his songs outta], and the songs themselves haunt me to this day. to say that it is a terrible shame that he isn't around today making music is as facile a posit as i've ever heard, and it burns my finger typing the words.

19. modest mouse... "the moon and antarctica."

we gotta backtrack a little bit. there was no way to separate "ok computer" and "grace" thematically and as such i jumbled the chronology a bit. but "the moon and antarctica" does come between.

for three years, from age twenty until twenty three, i was in as serious a relationship as i had ever been in. it in fact stood as my longest relationship until i met my wife. out of respect for this person's privacy i'm going to leave out most of the graphic details. i will say this: those are pretty big years, or at least they were for me, and i learned a lot from this person and from that relationship. mostly i learned what not to do and how not to be. and for that i'm really grateful. i wish this person nothing but the best.

when it ended i was like a new man. i was working two jobs, one at the five points jittery joe's and the other at earthfare, though at this point i was only a checker/ bagger. i was jogging every day and in what is still the best shape of my life. my running tape was "the moon and antarctica." listening to it now, as i'm doing, i can literally see and smell milledge avenue, heading down it as i'd do from five points towards prince avenue, past the big intersection at baxter where the varsity was, on down past meigs and sometimes the grit, other times past the taco stand and dunkin' donuts and then past michael stipe's house to boulevard, ah, beautiful boulevard, still my favorite street of any street i've ever seen or been on.

at night i'd head out for drinks with the gang. the gang during this period of time i still think of as my all- star team [a notable exclusion being my wife]: billy mosier had just gotten back from one of his travels around the world, danny simon had just gotten back from living on an israeli kibbutz, lara taylor sevener and amy fouts had just finished law school. scott gilbertson, thomas hunter, and even rozy were floating around, too, and we were all in the summer town of athens, georgia. you could find us at 283 or the manhattan or the engine room or the go bar any night of the week with a maker's and blenheim in our hand. it was the summer before september 11th and everything was golden and glorious. i was having a lot of sex with this really cool tattooed chick who i hear now either lives in costa rica or north carolina but it was nothing serious [incidentally we went on vacation to new york city for labor day weekend, right before my twenty- fourth birthday. we in fact did the world observation deck in the south tower of the world trade center. it was monday, september 3rd, 2001].

many of my experiences that summer seemed like they had been foretold in the r.e.m. song "nightswimming," which of course is on their masterpiece "automatic for the people." it was during this period of time that i was occasionally hanging out with michael stipe. we had some friends in common and had a couple of conversations with him [i remember one specifically the two of us had about the rolling stones. michael was totally flabbergasted by the fact that they had been together forty years] and we did a few shooters together, mostly at the go bar. i mention this because the other album i remember listening to a lot during this period of time was "reveal," by r.e.m.. it's a small world as we know it, and i feel fine.

20. wilco... "yankee hotel foxtrot."

"yhf" reminds me of the year 2002, and of working in athens. i worked a lot of places in athens. over the course of the years 1997- 2003, i worked at the five points mellow mushroom, the downtown mellow mushroom, blue sky coffee, jittery joe's at five points, jittery joe's on prince, the globe, the 283 bar, the five and ten, earthfare, helix, five star day, and the speakeasy. i'm sure i'm leaving a couple out.

in 2002 i think i mostly worked at the 283 bar, the globe, the five and ten, and helix. this was of course the height of tipped- over alcoholic irresponsibility. i've never had much time for regret, i figure everything that's happened's happened and there's nothing i can do plus it led to me to where i sit right now typing and there's no place that i'd rather be. but the way i conducted myself at those four jobs, 283 not so much but definitely the globe [where i was constantly drunk, and finally fired for having sex in the basement on shift], the five and ten [still the nicest restaurant i've ever worked at, and one i did not appreciate at the time. [[farm 255 downtown in athens will forever be my favorite restaurant that i've ever worked at.]] i was never especially drunk on shift at the five and ten, it was always more a slap- happy half hung over kinda thing. unless it was sunday brunch, in which case i would always be massively hung over/ still very drunk from the night before], and especially helix [where my behavior was the probably the worst, totally inexcusable: i'd show up hung over as shit every day at ten when we opened and would sleep in the back until after lunch time. i remember when i was finally fired marie claire, the manager, asked me, "i mean, you're not surprised are you?"]. the way i treated those places and those people-- chuck bussler, krista merry, robert sampson-- still nags at me a little bit and it's probably one of my biggest sources of regret.

21. neutral milk hotel... "in the aeroplane over the sea."

i can pinpoint for you what is definitely my biggest source of life regret like it's you asking me my birthday: being in the same fucking town at the same time as neutral milk hotel during the "in the aeroplane over the sea" period and never seeing them live. it was only much later [around 2003] that i finally "GOT" "aeroplane." that i missed untold opportunities to see the history that was neutral milk being made provides me an unending sense of frustration.

22. the clash... "london calling."

i feel essentially the same way about "london calling": how did i not have this album for so long? obviously it came out in january 1980 and i was like barely two, but come on, it shouldn't have taken me as long as it did to finally get it.

"london calling" reminds me a lot of when i moved from athens to atlanta in the summer of 2003. i was in what i thought was a very serious relationship at the time with a flight attendant [surprise! it turned out not to be] and had been basically asked to leave athens, georgia. i got in touch with my old friend ken mcclain, who had been living in florida, and we decided to meet in little five points and band together once again.

we settled into a house in candler park-- ken, kim and me. kim [i honestly can't remember her maiden name] was my friend and she was going to be our third roommate. kim and ken fell in love in little under a week i think and got engaged. i performed their wedding ceremony on the beach in savannah, georgia in september of 2003 and though we don't really keep in touch [much to my dismay] they are still very much together.

atlanta was fun. i worked first at one midtown kitchen, a very hip and happening spot basically on the back side of piedmont park. it was at one that i met jessie, a super badass woman who became my best friend after i stopped flying the flight attendant's friendly skies. jessie was [is] fucking awesome, a true original. we spent a lot of time together, mostly at the righteous room and at 97 estoria, smoking cigarettes, doing shots, and talking about life. everybody thought we were in love and didn't know it but that was just never the case. we knew what we had-- a really killer friendship-- and we were content with that. she lives in chicago now and i figure that as long as she's being true to herself she must be doing awesome.

i soon left one midtown kitchen for bartending and waiting tables at spice restaurant. spice was a very very hip spot right in the middle of midtown atlanta and my professional home for two years or so. the staff at spice was pretty amazing when i think about it even if i didn't fully appreciate them at the time. i had a lot of fun working there and made good money.

[my two favorite spice stories are these: the first is that, like i said, the restaurant is right in the heart of midtown atlanta but it is especially at the very center of the african american tranny hooker nexus. these gals were fun, we'd kid with them from time and it was always fun to watch them cruise 5th street. what was not fun was that every sunday brunch you had to go around the building-- spice was a free- standing three- level antebellum home that had been converted into a very modern looking industrial space, and it had a large outside space-- with a dustpan and a broom and sweep up all of saturday night's used condoms.

my second favorite spice story is about the late- night buy- out parties we'd have. the two most famous were "brother 2 brother" and what i can only call "the swingers club." "brother 2 brother" was an organization for young, african american homosexuals. it would go like this: we'd close down the restaurant by 11:30 or so and get everybody out. we'd then stack up all the tables off in a corner, leaving the dining room pretty open. a dj would come in and set up and then all of a sudden BOOM! midnight would hit and these fellas would start showing up, literally by the hundreds. it was beautiful really, all these gay hip hop boys in sunglasses that cost three times as much as my shoes. these boys could fucking DRINK. it would be me and my two bartending compatriots, jennifer and gina, and we would just be speed bartending for three solid hours, only stopping to feed each other shots. we'd clean up and walk out with like three hundred extra dollars on top of whatever we'd already made that night. it was a gas.

"the swingers club" was entirely another matter. somehow-- it was never made clear to me-- we got rented out by a swingers association. basically what that means is that i got to bartend at a public orgy, literally a bunch of naked people walking around having sex with each other in full view of everyone [[including me, jenn, the general manager chris, and the mexican busboy daniel]] for a couple of hours. it was surreal, like something out of "caligula" or "eyes wide shut." one example that i remember really clearly is that this naked woman-- fairly attractive-- went down on this other naked woman-- again, fairly attractive-- in front of about eight of us. [[i was furiously smoking cigarettes and doing shots while this was all going on.]] when she finally came everybody applauded.]

my favorite thing about spice, though, for about the longest time, was that lara would come and visit me once or twice a week.

lara taylor sevener was one of the first people i ever met when i moved to athens in 1997 [she and billy were a year older than me and already good friends]. we got close in 2000 and i still consider her one of my very best friends-- a family member alongside billy and danny-- and my personal [and forever] wartime consigliere.

lara has always been someone i've looked up to. she knew everybody, always had something hilarious, profound, or hilariously profound to say, and she's always looked fucking great. to me it's always been a bitchin' card trick and an impressive juggling act.

lara grew up in baton rouge, louisiana, but you'd know that immediately upon meeting her. her accent literally speaks for itself. it's as refined-- not coarse, like so many southern accents-- as pillowy cotton. it has the air of southern aristocracy while at the same time it has a downhome everyman thing that immediately puts you at ease.

she has a quicksilver mind, one of the fastest i've ever seen. it's the thing i've always respected the most about her. she has a way with words that would put mark twain, winston churchill, bob dylan, and willie shakes [billy, thomas hunter, and i lived together for a year in 1998, my junior year in college. of course we had a party pretty much the first thing we did and at that party lara wrote on our roomates- only message board the very first line from "twelfth night": "if music be the food of love, play on! --willie shakes." it stayed on the board all year.] all in their place. i could think of no better way to honor that talent, and our friendship, than to give her what was effectively the keynote speech at our wedding. she repaid me a year later by asking me to give the second reading during she and steve's wedding service.

it's very, very, very easy to write about her, she's such a character. i'm crazy about her. i could tell you story after story but you'd probably think i was embellishing, or worse. so i'll just say this: lara taylor sevener is one of my favorite people on the planet and i am a better person for knowing her. she's helped me through countless catastrophes in my life and i really don't know where i'd be without her. i made her a copy of "london calling" a couple of years ago. i hope she still has it.

a very serious final note: lara was almost killed in a car accident last year on the day before my birthday [her husband, steve, WAS hurt really badly-- lara more or less was physically fine and steve has since made a full recovery], reiterating [and solidifying] my belief that a car is nothing more than a speeding bullet indiscriminately looking for a target. to say that i would have been destroyed had anything truly permanent happened to her is like saying that it's unfortunate that the world trade center is not there anymore.

23. my morning jacket... "okonokos."

the reason that i said earlier that "my favorite thing for the longest time about spice was that lara would come visit" is because spice is also where i met my wife, sarah.

sarah schoff and i met on july 2nd, 2004. it was a friday night and i was off work. i was up there anyway on the other side of the bar, drinking free drinks with a couple of girlfriends when i noticed a couple of seats down this woman that i was sure i knew. she was beautiful, with pale white skin and jet black, silky hair.

it turns out she was sure she knew me too. she was there with a couple of her girlfriends, counseling one of them through her first big fight with her boyfriend [now husband] and just generally blowing off some steam. they had come to visit the girls, jenn and gina, my co- workers. jenn and gina were fantastic bartenders ["cocktail engineers"] and fantastic people, both with larger- than- life personalities and killer senses of humor. thank god for them, for otherwise sarah and i would never have met.

so the girls [sarah plus her two, and jenn and gina] were all talking and i guess sarah asked them about "the guy with the chops." [i had pretty large sideburns at the time.] they immediately were like, "lee?! you mean lee?! oh he works here and he's great and you should totally go talk to him."

sarah's always been a woman of action, and she seized on the moment. she pushed her way through the two girls i was sitting between, bummed a cigarette off of me, and told me a joke about an italian guy who was fucking another italian guy's wife. it was pretty bold, and very sexy. she had me locked in her tractor beam.

the two girls i was with, i swear they evaporated into plumes of smoke and suddenly sarah and i were engrossed in a conversation that was volleying back and forth between woody allen, bob dylan, her childhood, my childhood, more jokes [i've got a few in my repertoire], and god knows what else. talking to her was like looking into the future. soon enough we were kissing, right there at the bar, right in front of her friends and my co- workers.

the bar at spice was proving to be too small for the atomic energy we seemed to be getting off each other, however, and so we bar- hopped around the rest of that night, finally ending up back at her place. two days later i moved in.

our first few months together were insane. i'd take off whole weeks of work just to stay in bed with her. those first few months we vacationed in lake tahoe, and in new york city, and in asheville, north carolina. we did xmas at her parent's house in sacramento. overall, the sheer weight and fury of the chemical reactions transpiring would have flattened any other two people. call me hyperbolic and self- aggrandizing all you like. you weren't there.

sarah mattie schoff was born in a little town called adamant, vermont. she and her brother, jessup, who is two years her senior, were raised on a farm. the children of hippie parents. her upbringing couldn't have been any different from my suburban one [and probably many of yours]: they killed or picked all their own food, wore handmade clothes [sarah wore her brother's hand- me- downs], and they had to go to the bathroom either in an outhouse or in an old coffee can. their house was heated only by firewood, which they had to chop, and during the brutally cold vermont winters they slept in as many layers as it took to keep warm.

when sarah was thirteen the family moved to sacramento, california, where her father, charlie, was born and raised. i can remember sarah telling me the first time she saw central heat and air she was like, "why the hell have we been chopping wood this whole time?" she had several run- ins with the cool kids who took advantage of her naivete before settling in with a good group of folks, many of whom she keeps up with today [and did before facebook].

she studied hard in school and went to college at chico state and graduate school at the university of arizona, getting a master's degree in public health and nutrition. she did her residency in the cancer ward of a hospital. by age twenty- eight she had reached the top of her field, working just beneath the director of nutrition at one of the most prestigious and exclusive resort and health spas in the world. it was there that she met an australian billionaire that swept her off her feet. they were together for a few years, and married for a little while. the relationship was tumultuous at best. about nine months after they finalized their divorce we got together.

in the almost five years that we've been together [married almost two], we broke up twice. the first time was in the summer of 2005, just after our first anniversary. it was necessary but it was awful and i truly fell apart, like a paper mache doll that had been dropped into a bucket of rubbing alcohol and left to disintegrate. i spent my nights and all my money at bars around atlanta and when i'd get home i'd just collapse on the couch and stare cross- eyed at the television. hurricane katrina and the launch of stephen colbert's show "the colbert report" happened during this period of time. i was living with my brother in decatur and looking back it's remarkable both that he still speaks to me and that he didn't have me committed. i was a broken man. i was sure this time that i was going to die.

we got back together just as sarah was moving to san francisco and consequently i started planning on moving there myself. life was full of promise but there was something still rotten in the state of denmark. i just couldn't put my finger on it.

there were undeniable and seemingly intractable problems-- barriers to tranquility-- that we had. sarah was five years older than i was, for one. our age difference now is no big deal, hardly noticeable. but the difference between twenty- eight and thirty- three to us was huge and palpable. visceral.

that she was the former wife of a billionaire was another. heh heh you say but i was a struggling fucking bartender and she was like liz taylor. she wasn't an asshole with or about her money [she's in fact one of the most generous people i know] or anything like liz taylor, but the comparison is apt nonetheless. maybe you could say she was more like gwyneth paltrow or somebody like that. the point is she had money and i didn't and that fact was not lost on either of us.

caution to the wind and consequences be damned and all that i set off towards the sunset anyway, with my clothes and some humble possessions. i took up with her in her fourth floor pacific heights apartment and tried to find work. i finally got lucky with a temp agency [i have never been the most employable motherfucker] and started to put roots down. it was about this time that sarah broke up with me.

i was stunned. i had left my life and moved across the country for this woman. and she broke up with me. it was a feeling i can only equate with what bungee jumping or skydiving-- or jumping off a tall building or bridge to your death-- must feel like. [it should be noted that we've been back together and married for a while now and still i have panicky holy- shit- i'm- falling nightmares about her breaking up with me and kicking me out.]

i packed my meager possessions and left. i knew i couldn't stay in sf as i really didn't know anybody else, and i knew i didn't want to move back to atlanta as i really fucking hated it there. so i moved back to athens.

it was july in athens and i had sold my car when i'd moved out to sf, so i was walking everywhere and riding a bike. it was hell. turns out it's really really hot in georgia in the summertime. i was born there and had lived there all my life, so it wasn't like this was a galloping shock or anything. but still, the difference between georgia and sf in july in terms of weather is like the difference between venus and the moon.

i got through the sticky inferno of july and august, found work, reconnected with some friends [ck koch, elizabeth tanner], and made some new ones [lera lynn, michael boatright]. it was a good time. i had been through atlanta and sarah and everything and i was just going to go back to what i was comfortable with, what i knew, and more importantly what i knew i liked. only this time i wasn't going to be so mickey- rourke- in- "barfly" about it.

the biggest problem sarah and i ever had was me figuring out who i was. when we met i was a lovable and lovably irresponsible good time charlie twenty- six year old bartender. wanting to be with this woman, i tried to "grow up" real fast and "get a job" so that i could be someone that she could love and be with. there was nothing natural about the progression. it was more like going through the windshield after the impact of a car wreck.

and a fucking car wreck it was. and this went on for YEARS.

so i had decided that i was just going to be myself, and just be accountable to myself. i had a bike, a four hundred dollar a month rented house, a couple of good jobs, and inner peace. and then she called.

i couldn't believe it. it was clear that she missed me [it had been six months] and that she felt she had made a mistake-- did she want me back? i didn't know what i thought about that. of course i still loved her, and of course i was still in pain. was i ready to go through it all again?

i was. sarah got on a plane and came to athens for a week. that was december. in january i packed up my things once again and moved westward, once again. in nine months i had moved nine thousand miles-- once to sf, once back to georgia, and then back to sf.

it turns out sarah breaking up with me and me moving back to athens was the best thing that ever happened to us. it gave us time to breathe deeply and find ourselves again, decide what was important to each other as individuals, and just as importantly decide what was entirely unimportant to each other as individuals. i had spent so much time trying to "grow up" and "be normal" so that she could love me and be with me that i was blind to the fact that she DID love me and she WAS with me. and again, this went on for YEARS. it was only after i was back on my own and i realized that i was probably never going to "grow up" and "be normal" did i feel like the person that she fell in love with in the first place.

i'm not saying i was entirely at fault for our troubles. sarah certainly had her fair share of bullshit during our relationship, and it was during this same period of independence that she rectified a lot and grew and found a new level of understanding about herself, and about us.

we got engaged on january 2nd, 2007 and married on july 14th of the same year. it was a beautiful wedding, and we honeymooned in dublin, london, paris, and amsterdam for two weeks.

i have never met a more amazing woman. my wife is brilliant, and hilarious, and twisted, and beautiful, and graceful, and kind. she is a tremendous chef. she is fantastic in bed. she has a killer singing voice. she is a true artist when it come to interior design. she is like a mystical earth mother to all the children and animals that cross her path. she has the world's best smile. she helps me be a better human being. she never lets conventional wisdom, be it about a homeless person or a republican, cloud her judgment or allow her to act in error or in anything other than the best interest of humanity. she is my sunshine. she is the ceiling of the sistene chapel to me. she is my "white album." she has a great ass. she is the mama bunny.

this has very little to do with my morning jacket's live album "okonokos," other than that they are one of my favorite bands and that both their records "it still moves" and "z" were out during this period of time, and it's my opinion that all those songs sound better live.

"okonokos," additionally, is the best fucking live album EVER, and, to paraphrase steve earle, i will stand on "live at leeds" and "get yer ya- ya's out" and all the others' coffee table in my boots and say so.

24. iron & wine... "our endless numbered days."
25. eddie vedder... "into the wild."

these last two records really say where my head is at these days. i'm a little mellower, a little slower, a little more reserved... for the most part. like the old saying goes: "everything in moderation, including moderation."

"our endless numbered days" is a record about love and family. it's themes are evocative both of childhood and of the idea of home, of family, of domesticity. i wrote a song for my mother on my record that i hope lyrically doesn't lean too heavily on some of the songs included in this set.

and "into the wild" is just AMAZING, alone and especially as a companion piece to the movie. both works [the album and the movie] have had a huge influence on me in that i just so respect artists who are honest and have vision and the courage to go after those visions, to try to make them materialize. that's what i've tried to do, both with my music and with this essay. thanks for being a part of it.


No comments: