Friday, October 8, 2010

Chapter 22: Music of the Elvenslaughter part 1

As the O'Jays said, "I love music."

I never had the patience to learn an instrument. However, I am proficient at listening to music. This is to the point where I can make out individual melodies from individual instruments in a song. Its an addiction; I start going a little stir crazy if I don't listen to music for too long. When Dan McCloskey and I set out on tour in May, having car tunes was imperative. We drove a Crown Victoria station wagon. No CD player. So, we had to reacquaint ourselves with the cassette, a thoroughly outmoded form of technology that I doubt anybody was ever truly happy with. Like all pre-CD forms of recorded music, simply listening to it requires some physical labor. To hear your favorite song, you either fast-forward or rewind. This is not a fast process, and you kind of need to go into a Zen space while you wait. This was doubly so for the station wagon tape deck, which had neither fast-forward nor rewind. To listen to a particular song, you had to sit through some other song on the other side. A true exercise in patience. I brought a handful of tapes I own. Dan brought some a friend of his loaned us. Then we hit the road.

Here's my reflections on my first book tour, as seen through the cassettes we listened to, in no particular order.

At some point, I found myself atop a hill in western Illinois, outside a rest area. The sky was immense. Seeing this incredibly flat earth was one of my most anticipated things about tour; it had been almost two years since I made a trip to the west. Madison, Wisconsin was the second-to-last stop on, and the farthest west. Early on in the tour, I considered cutting Madison for monetary purposes. Cash is tight on tour. I'm glad we went. Though the drive into Wisconsin was a straight shot, I still had this feeling of being lost. Of being totally cut off from anywhere familiar, so far away from home. Ludicrously, outrageously far. Starting in pittsburgh and questing to Wisconsin, just to turn around and go back, is almost illogical. We passed through tolls, driving under the glass window bridges that span the interstate, connecting the rest stops. In upstate New York, Dan and I saw small farms, hidden behind the woods and drenched in rain. Here we saw the commercial farmlands, the Big Agriculture running endlessly under a sky that was endless.

I have never been a Beatles fan. I understand that some of the music they made was revolutionary for its time, but it always sounded bland to me. They were the first and they were the biggest, but they're far from the best. The Blue Album played us into Wisconsin. Some songs grew on me. "Hey Jude" is undeniable. Favorites: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Something in the Way." The station wagon's tape deck destroys cassettes, and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was playing when the shrill scratching noise started. By then, I had grown so attached to the Beatles that I rescued the tape before its certain destruction, and let country radio take us into Madison.

After we got to town, we got lost. Drove almost an hour in the wrong direction, before turning back and finding the store at the college area we'd just left. Madison is a hugely bike-friendly city. All sorts of space for bikers on roads, and apparently rides through the mountains are common. It made sense that the friend who set up the reading was a bike mechanic. We read at the Rainbow Bookstore Collective. It was Dan's 23rd birthday. He headlined, and received the second (but not last) cake of his birthday week. We read with Matt Robertson, an absolutely lovely fellow from Madison who treated us to breakfast the next day. Maybe it speaks to my nature that I was secretly concerned about whether Dan would enjoy his birthday, being so far from home. I shouldn't have cared. We spent a wonderful night drinking, and a cold-ass night on my friend Sarah's furniture. We also went to a bar whose name I can't remember, but it was cool, and the topics of conversation seemed to veer between anarchy and anime.

We were halfway across the country, completely sold out of books, with one more stop left. In two days, we would be on the Kentucky border.

Here's the trick to Andrew Lloyd Webber. He isn't the world's most successful musical producer because he makes populist work, or because of the melodies he uses. The trick to him is his weirdness. He takes the most out-there subjects and makes rock operas on them, and it works. Up until the 60s, people based musicals on the most obvious subject matter: fairy tales, drawing room comedies, stories about English people flouncing around in parlors or American people flouncing around at county fairs or cowboys flouncing around on ranches. Obvious. Webber took the eclectisism of the 60s and ran with it. One day he woke up and said, "I want to make a rock opera based on the Eucharist." Or, "I want to do a roller-disco muscial where the stage is a giant circular roller rink." Or "Hey, let's do a muscial based on Sunset Boulevard." Or, "Let's take these obscure nonsense poems that aren't even the poet's most famous work and turn them into a dance-based musical. Oh, by the way, the poems are about cats. They'll be singing about how they're cats." This guy is weird. One day he said "Let's do a symphonic rock opera/gothic romance based off some 19th century French slasher novel." He does it, and its a license to print money.

Dan and I did a reading at Red Emma's in Baltimore that I was a little nervous about. After Pittsburgh and DC, it was the first show where we didn't have a real connection to the city. Our reading was also scheduled at the same time as a radical puppet show. With all those puppet-loving anarchists going to that, I was concerned there would be no audience. And when we started, there wasn't. But as Dan started reading from his novel, "A Film About Billy," passersby filtered in. Some younger folks, and some older guys who came simply to hear science fiction. That was easily the best surprise of the trip. I read "Safe Space," which is sort of my Robert Howard tribute story.

In Baltimore I got to catch up with old friends. One of them I used to work with during grad school, the others were an old college buddy and his wife. We sat around at the one friend's house, eating Indian food, drinking wine and talking about the real things. I've been organizing readings for awhile. Meeting up with friends I've met in different parts of my life, then seeing their interactions, is its own unique kind of happiness. The next day we left Balmer. After struggling half an hour to find an exit out the city, we filled the tank and jetted onto the massive highways that led from the city, blasting the "Phantom of the Opera overture" the whole way.

It's a long play, and we only had the first of two cassetes. We got well-acquainted with "Think of Me" and "Angel of Music." Got really tired of hearing characters say the name "Christine." There's a lot to love in Phantom. The overture is both beautiful and eerie in its bombast, like something you'd hear at the start of an Argento horror flick. From there, we're introduced to the confident soprano of Sarah Brightman. "Think of Me" is just an amazing song. The moment that orchestra kicks in always gives me a rush. Always. Another personal favorite is "Poor Fool." The fact that Webber could so seamlessly insert such an old-style opera into his synthesizer-driven rock soundtrack is just all kinds of intertextual craziness. Since we only had the first cassette, we always ended on the "All I Ask of You (reprise)." Michael Crawford starts out singing softly, lamenting the rejection of Brightman's Christine. The wails her name. "Christine. Christine!" The song ends with him screaming vengeance to the heavens, cackling like the great horror villain he is. In the movie that came out a few years ago, this part is played incredibly cheesy, with Gerard Butler screaming on top of a gargoyle. Sometimes, no visuals is best.

What I love about the love triangle in Phantom is that its one of those Peter Pan/Captain Hook scenarios. In other words, the heroine would be better off not going for either suitor. The Phantom of the Opera is all passion, flame and genius, but also controlling and insane. The count Raoul is a gentleman, but bland, boring and just as controlling in his own way. I always got the feeling, from the play, that her marriage to Raoul marks the end of Christine's singing career. She leaves the opera, becomes a pampered countess, spends the rest of her life trapped in a castle, having his babies. For some reason, that depresses me. Not saying she should have gone with the Phantom. She should have become an opera singer. Around the time we went on tour, the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, was playing around the world. Maybe this time around Webber gives Chrstine her own passion, which isn't dependent on which man she chooses. I heard that this sequel takes place on Coney Island. Weird.

There was a definite low period in the Elvenslaughter Tour. After Ithaca, the gigs got farther apart, and we were entering the Midwest, where we knew fewer people. The good people at Talking Leaves Bookstore in Buffalo told us we would not get a big audience, but we took the shot anyway. Five people showed up, three of whom had to cover our reading for a class. They left halfway through. Nobody showed up at all in Cleveland, which straight pissed me off, because the store should put some effort into promoting their readings. There wasn't even an employee there to bottomline it. Athens, Ohio saw the biggest audeince at the Smorgasbord art fest, and tons of camaraderie, but we sold no merch.

At this point in the trip, Dan and I were looking at the very real prospect of losing money. I was still thinking about canceling Madison. Two reasons I didn't. One: the spirit of adventure. Two: Pettiness. Dan had been pretty hyped on doing Buffalo. I figured, if he can have his ridiculously out of the way tour stop, I can have mine. As stated, I didn't cancel Madison, and was glad for it. Should have cancelled fucking Cleveland, if anything.

Columbus was the turnaround. It was probably the day where I officially turned in my card as an anarchist/radical/DIY punk/whatever, organizing an entertainment event at an INFOSHOP on MAY DAY. There was at least one immigration march we were directly competing with. While we were both really anxious about the turnout, we got a decent-sized crowd. On Dan's request, I read half of the zombie story "Graveyard Shift."

The concept of reading in infoshops caused me Evangelion-like levels of angst on tour. For those not in the know, infoshops are anarchist bookstores. While there is a political aspect to my work, it is not explicitly radical. It is urban fantasy. I felt bad about using political spaces for what is primarily entertainment. Dan pointed out the political aspects of my work, saying that infoshops are sort of the meeting place between politics and bookstores. He also pointed out how many people use those spaces simply to promote their shitty-ass punk bands. A good point. I don't identify as an anarchist, but my community work over the years has given me many connects in that world, which was how we booked about half the shows on tour. I have since made peace with booking in these kind of spaces. My fantasy is not typical fantasy, and I proudly follow a DIY aesthetic. So there you have it.

Dan McCloskey is known in Columbus as WMD, or Wild Man Dan. Apparently, when significant acts of punk-based destruction go down, he tends to be there. He knows every punk in the city. So we stayed at a real-ass punk house. The scene in Columbus is amazing, full of seasoned veterans who are always putting on shows and put out their own newsletter and working to fight the shallow atmosphere that comes from living in a college town. The house we stayed at had recently had a situation where, I believe, some asshole Juggalo got kicked out a show, then came back with his girlfriend (or Juggalette, as they call them) and shot at the house. Think he might have stabbed somebody, too. No vengeance-minded ICP fans showed up while I was there. Dan gave a bunch of tattoos, which he got paid for in beer.

Book tours are like band tours. People are happy to see you, and they certainly shove alcohol and other things in your face. My party days are long behind me. Even the complete absence of accountability that comes from touring can't bring them back. I remember drinking some disgusting shit called Four Loco that's like a mix between malt liquor and a Fruit Roll-up, then passed out on the living room floor while the party was in full swing.

"Columbus sucks because you suck" is a very apt tagline. Very good vibes in Columbus, and another chance to catch up with old friends. The university there has an amazing multi-story library. Dan and I continued on the road to Indiana, plus two hitch-hikers. The best part? Going to a record store and finding "Phantom of the Opera." The second cassette.


Going to upstate New York is like time traveling. No cities, just the Catskill Mountains, farmsteads and rustic inns. I could imagine Dutch settlers among the trees. I could imagine Iroquois tribesmen as we drove the endless pastoral roads, the car getting pounded with rain the whole way there. Real rain, that relentless east coast kind. This was the land where they fought the Revolutionary War, and it pulses with the heritage of the people who lived there before anyone ever thought of a United States. The road to Ithaca ran for so long I wondered if we'd missed an exit. The one gas stop we made was among bait shops and ice cream shacks. I could see why the hippies all moved up there in the 70s.

One of the greatest songwriters of all time accompanied us on this leg. My father has a soft spot for 60s-70s female singer-songwriters, so I've long had a soft spot for Tapestry. I was happy when, digging through the glove box, I saw the photo of the bushy-haired woman sitting on a windowsill with her cat, autumn sunlight spilling through the windows. Tired of being in the background, Carole King led the charge for songwriters stepping up and recording their own albums. What we got was a masterpiece. The soothing melodies and throaty vocals you want accompanying you on a country road, the car's heat on high, rain pouring all day. 

I love how demure Carole looks on the cover, because this album is the musical equivalent of a machine gun blast. Not that its heavy music, but the way it is constructed for maximum emotional impact. There is no filler here. "It's Too Late" is both sad and all the better for its lyrical simplicity. "Home Again" is melody on melody. "Smackwater Jack" is just badass. "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" is that song you don' t realize you know all the lyrics to until it starts playing and you can match her word for word. The ragtime-y "Beautiful" is a guaranteed pick-me-up song. And the title song! "Tapestry" is a song where, even without listenning to the lyrics, I start reflecting on the marvels of life and the adventures I have taken, and will take. The album is short, a quality production pound for pound, with Carole daring you not to marvel at her lyricism. I love the composition. I love how Carole is reclaiming songs she wrote for other people. I love that she's declaring herself to the world. And I love upstate New York.

Ithaca is a quiet home to college kids, aging hippies and cultists. "Ten square miles surrounded by reality," they call it. While there we did a house show, the only one on the tour. Funny story: we pulled up to the house where the reading would take place. I knew just from talking to the folks that they were hippies, and seeing Ithaca only confirmed this. Opening the door onto the enclosed porch, I encountered a very startled-looking squirrel. He dove for the exit. Not wanting to risk the wrath of a hippie by letting their pet squirrel out, I shut the door. He bounced off it and commenced ricocheting around the world's tiniest porch like Sonic the Hedgehog. He was literaly bouncing off the walls, off the birdseed bags, off my shoe.

DAN MCCLOSKEY (from outside): Man, I think that's a wild squirrel.

So I opened the door. Turns out he wasn't a pet, but a birdseed thief. The people we stayed with were the sweetest folks with the most pleasant house. In cold, rainy Ithaca, I realized I suck at bowling. Like, really suck. I read "How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice" with an actual dog in the audience. Dan tattoed a unicycle/buzzsaw on the leg of a kid who had just left a cult, while Edguy blared in the background. Dan got a pair of sneakers out a free box. By the halfway point in the tour, he was wearing an entirely tour-made outfit: shoes from Ithaca, jeans from his friend in Buffalo, shirt from his dad in Kutztown.

In my free time I explored the 200-year-old tombstones, walked up the mountain to Cornell University and back down again. After a pleasant stay with some truly amazing people, we hopped in the wagon and played Carole King all the way to Buffalo.

My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold

Once amid the soft silver sadness in the sky
There came a man of fortune, a drifter passing by
He wore a torn and tattered cloth around his leather hide
And a coat of many colors, yellow-green on either side

Next: Part 2. Dio, Alannis Morrisette, Richard Wagner

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