Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Robert Christgau, the late Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Courtney Love,
Tom Carson, Steve Albini in drag, the late Lester Bangs (
l. to r.)


“The album I would most want to have with me if I were marooned, abandoned, stranded on a desert island” is a bizarrely solipsistic and emotionally out-of-touch premise for an essay, but two collections have been published of them. It’s impossible to know what single album would bring the most consolation if one were to find oneself alone in the world with no hope of rescue, but with music-playback capabilities. An album that consoles one now might be unbearable under those (preposterous, impossible) circumstances.

If I were shipwrecked and abandoned, I would be freaking out. Alternating between out-wild panic and inconsolable tears. It’s hard to know what music would console, sitting here in my living room, staying up too late, listening to Lester Young, and contemplating what single album, were I to find myself there, would be the most likely to inspire the response, “Oh, I’m glad that this is the CD that I had in my coat pocket when I jumped into the lifeboat, and fucking-A, here’s a working CD player with solar cell batteries!” It’s impossible to know.

When I feel abandoned, I want to feel connected with my people -- family and friends who are my family. Music that connects me to them. My grandma and I never discussed Bach -- she turned me on to Chopin and Debussy -- but a 1933 recording of Wanda Landowska playing the Goldberg Variations reminds me of her. She would have been 26 then, and a fine pianist; the lo-fi recording calls to mind a milieu I never knew except reflected in the memories of beloved older relatives I grew up loved by. The Four Freshmen, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald connect me with my mom; the Four Freshmen in particular because a quartet she was in sang in that style (I never heard them). My dad loved Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller -- the elegant music pulled a powerful connection to his own childhood and beloved parents who died young. The Beach Boys connect me with my friend Jay and my brother. Right now I’m wondering whether Smiley Smile isn’t the greatest album ever -- stuffed full with tossed-off beautiful melodies, passion, goofiness, and comradery; is there a sweeter moment in the rock era than the first verse of “Little Pad,” which breaks down as the Beach Boys collapse in gales of stoned laughter for no discernible reason? I can’t think of one, unless it’s Paul McCartney munching “rhythm carrot” as guest star percussionist on “Vegetables.” Veda Hille connects me with my beloved spouse, who turned me on to her, and with whom I drove to Vancouver for a CD release party by Veda, a memorable, wonderful show. Woody Guthrie and Ornette Coleman and Charles Ives connect me with my friend John D., with whom I passionately explored this music in high school, with whom I share a love for this music to this day.

Shipwreck is a powerful myth. A stock figure of the single-panel cartoon. A founding myth in American literature -- “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” Ishmael (quoting Job) at the end of Moby-Dick -- that figures in the poetry of Charles Olson and George Oppen.

And Gilligan’s Island, that pseudo-comical update of Sartre’s No Exit, where the damnation is deeper as possible exits appear, only to reject the shipwrecked; where the play lasts for 98 episodes -- over 30 hours -- with the shipwrecked people still abandoned; and then repeats forever in the limbo of syndication (a nightmare version of Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal return).

And Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Left alone to rot on an island, I would have to stop listening to my beloved album; it would become a totem connecting me with my pre-abandonment life. I would take it out on special occasions and torment myself with memories of happiness.

An unpleasant fantasy, all the way around. And yet it’s real. Most people in the course of a life from time to time feel shipwrecked, either economically, or romantically, or in some general way, often all tied together, as life tends to be. Ten years ago I wrote a song on the theme, for a solo dance my friend Jack Magai was choreographing; we were both reading Moby-Dick at the time (when his partner got pregnant I tried in vain to persuade them to name the boy “Queequeg”). Shipwrecked, everything I have is gone, I’m so alone -- indulging the self-pity can be cathartic.

I’m grateful to music in so many ways, not least in the way it has connected me to my nearest and dearest. Far from marooned or stranded or abandoned, music has been the life raft, the banquet and the host. Communion and cosmos. Ensemble -- we’re all in this together.

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?