ToC

 

2 ESSAYS

Joshua Harmon

THE ANNOTATED MIX-TAPE, #39

MY BLOODY VALENTINE : "To Here Knows When" (Tremolo 12" EP, Creation, 1991)

Green River Road, Halifax, Vermont: a corduroyed gravel stretch tracing the curves of hills and river. The dry weeks of August and September, passing cars and pickups kicked stones into wheel wells, lifted dust that settled on ditch grass. I lived here one year in college, in a basement apartment at a trout farm, with my girlfriend—who, during the fall semester, seemed gradually to inhabit a reality unobservable to anyone else. She interpreted her odd dreams (children with glowing eyes, etc.) as prophesies, stopped talking much to me or anyone else, and then dropped out, but not before her mother, in some sort of cleansing ritual, placed small seashells from a Cape Cod beach in the apartment's four corners and smudged the rooms with sage. Another friend's mother died, and that friend, too, dropped out. A third friend confessed one afternoon that she found little to admire beyond Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and that she was contemplating dropping out. Mornings, I watched through the window as my landlord, Mr. Dalrymple—now retired, in matching green workshirt and workpants, his combover undone in the wind—flung handfuls of what seemed to be dog kibble into the old aboveground swimming pool that served as his trout hatchery. The water churned, brown and hysterical. Afternoons I didn't have classes or work-study in the college bookstore, I'd lie on the couch wearing a pair of red Snoopy sunglasses I'd bought at a yard sale, drinking gin-and-tonics, and writing so many short stories that my professor nicknamed me Josh Carol Oates.
     My car rarely ran reliably, so I lugged my Fender Precision bass uphill two miles to campus for band practice: it was 1992, and Rebecca, Sean, and I called ourselves Uma Thurman's Death Posse. On clouded or moonless nights, walking home, I followed the mostly invisible road by looking up for the strip of slightly lighter darkness between the trees on either side of it. Still, I drove when I could—to get to town, to get away from my girlfriend, to listen to music in solitude. Though I knew how to make a low-tech tape loop—loosen the tiny screws clamping the halves of a cassette; slice the two pieces of leader tape and discard; cut a length of tape to suit your desired loop; splice the ends; reassemble the cassette; record—I opted instead to fill one half of a ninety-minute cassette with a fake loop I created by playing the coda of the first song on My Bloody Valentine's 1991 EP, pressing pause, replaying it, pressing pause again, and so on, until I had forty-five minutes of seesawing drift. (With iTunes, it's easy: set "To Here Knows When" to start playing at 4:42.778—the slight bit of staticky fadeout from the actual song is necessary, in my version; select repeat. The track's blurry, minute-long tail—a bunch of processed guitar tones and chords that might be the best thing Kevin Shields ever recorded, a perfect soundtrack for anything lost—will go on forever, if you let it.)
     My tape—agitated and peaceful, confused and confusing—sounded like something that might be the noise clouds make when their movements are sped up in a student film. It matched the rhythm of winds disturbing the unmown pastures along Green River Road, Ames Hill Road, Lucier Road. The rhythm of blood in my ears when, on hands and knees, I discovered the tiny whelk my girlfriend's mother had hidden under my desk. Of a twenty-one-year-old girlfriend sobbing in a dingy stall shower in a dingy basement apartment, and my own worthless, unuttered guilt. Of the freight train the woman I soon found way more interesting than my girlfriend told me she'd jumped one afternoon while we sipped hot tea with cheap whisky from plastic dining-hall mugs, and yellow maple leaves spiraled down around us—and of those leaves themselves. Of so many short afternoons I wasted watching the sky outside my windows darken, and contemplating how to describe it. Of my skittery heart, the night during finals when two friends and I crushed ephedrine tablets and stayed up in the music library, playing records and grinding our teeth until dawn.
     That afternoon I wrote the last eight pages of a final paper on Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, pinned it to my thesis advisor's door, then drove back to the trout farm and packed up the last of my junk. I'd heard that my former girlfriend had driven to the west coast with some trust-funded guy, and married him, or had a kid with him, or both—no one knew, exactly. Mid-May, and exams had almost ended, but it still felt cool in the hills. Did I miss her, or was I glad she'd vanished from my life? That winter, at one of Uma Thurman's Death Posse's three public performances, I'd torn in half a picture of myself and shouted, "Fight the real enemy!" Most of my friends had already dispersed for summer, and I drove home having said few goodbyes. A month or two later, I sold my Subaru to a junk dealer for $125, then bought a used Telecaster for the exact same amount. Sean had graduated; Rebecca had transferred. Sometime that summer, I lost the cassette I'd made. But it didn't matter: my mother had recently sold the house I'd grown up in, and most of my childhood leftovers had been Dumpstered. Anyway, every time I heard "To Here Knows When," my mind let its ending wander on and on down backroads.
     Twenty years after I left the trout farm, My Bloody Valentine's repeated excerpt could have scored the fury of Hurricane Irene's rains and the floods that followed, temporarily erasing Green River Road from the map. The rebuilt road is, the Brattleboro Reformer reports, now paved.

 

__

THE ANNOTATED MIX-TAPE, #27

CEX : "Enter Carter" ("Get Your Badass On" 7" EP, 555 Recordings of Leeds, 2000)

It almost certainly required the Internet—and the early Internet, at that: a bunch of isolated mid-'90s obscurists seeking anonymous congress and debate with other freaks via 2400-baud dial-up line—to invent a musical genre name as self-obliviously stupid as "Intelligent Dance Music," or IDM. And yet, deep in the Bill Clinton years, before the Hale-Bopp comet flickered past and businesses bought ad space to reassure us they were "Y2K compliant," IDM was an accepted, if mocked, descriptor for synthesizer- or MIDI-based music never intended for clubs, but that—if you were a sensitive, slightly misunderstood fancier of vintage drum machines, C++, weed, and soldering irons—may well have provided insistent clicking background rhythms on your minidisc player as you sat in your school's computer lab, toggling between some listserv digest on the ASCII-formatted screen of your Pine e-mail client and a search of rec.music.marketplace.vinyl for old Aphex Twin 12"s.
     Rockism was so suspect by the latter half of the 1990s that everyone I knew had traded in their guitar records for techno, ambient, and trance; trip-hop, illbient, drum 'n' bass, and jungle; techstep, dubstep, and grime; digital hardcore, chiptune, laptronica, electroclash, and all manner of other absurdly narrow, precisely taxonomized subgenres of electronic music. I own records produced by sampling the stutters of intentionally scratched CDs, records "programmed in Music 2000 on a Sony PlayStation," records made by modifying the circuits of handheld electronics, records comprised of "analogue tone poems" made by trading tapes through the mail—not one of which has been on my turntable for years. When everyone except the futurist diehards tired of records that didn't sound appreciably better or worse, just slightly different, whether played at 33 or 45 RPM, some listeners found even terrible rock bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes refreshing.
     The earliest records by Rjyan Kidwell—then a Maryland high school student making music under the name Cex (does it need saying that most electronic bands are one or two people at the most?)—were electronic pastorals, tentative keyboard melodies twinkling atop distorted beats and granular dissolves, with the occasional vocal sample. From the start, Kidwell mocked the electronic music scene, with sleeve notes such as his list of "[a]lternate song titles for the 'IDM' crowd who demand meaningless gobbledeegook: Fff, Zadda Zoo, F?, Cpckes, Dol-Ell.i.zit, Zoo!d" and actual song titles—"Your Handwriting when You Were a Child in the Winter"—that punctured the fake nostalgia so many synthesized instrumentals seem designed to inspire.
     "Enter Carter," a seventy-second goof, samples a dude who sounds almost shocked by how stoned he is: "So when something is weird, you've got to get a picture of it!" "I see what you're saying," another dude responds. "Weird things deserve pictures of them. As proof that they're weird. The pictures will then in turn make people think differently about the world and society." An android voice chimes in, deadpan: "Woooord up. I hear that." This conversation occurs over mournful synthesizer chords crossfaded into gentle feedback that wheezes briefly and is suddenly cut off. It's the sound of artificial intelligence getting high and spending all day surfing—a verb that, in its sense of adventure, still pertained—websites where Flash animation had only begun to overtake flying toasters and purple text on black backgrounds. The track's brevity, the dialogue's simultaneous pretensions and inanities, and the swift, unexpected ending all seem fitting tributes to IDM's historical moment: within months, Kidwell had moved on to spaz rap he improvised on stage, sometimes while stripping to his underwear. The only nostalgia the melancholic digital textures of IDM seem likely to inspire today is a yearning for what now seems the ease and prosperity of the pre-millennial years, when our traumas were small and isolated, and we coded our machines to sing them for us in the haunted voices of 1s and 0s.

__

Amid a burgeoning body of literature in which every possible cultural artifact or phenomenon appears as an aide-mémoire, who wants to be the dude staying up too late, rattling his keyboard to describe the fundamental effect some crappy pop song had on his teenage or twentysomething self-understanding? I do, it appears.