Friday, December 3, 2010

We ain't made of nothing but water and shit.

I was home schooled. I don't know if you've ever tried it. We'll say that there are pros and cons. If you live in a hip sort of town with population density such that there are likely some three dozen cool and loving people doing any given activity at any given time, up to and including alternative methods of education and child-rearing, and if this is the sort of place where it's possible for a kid to get to a friend's home or a neutral meeting place by walking on his own two feet, the pros probably outweigh the cons pretty firmly. Because potentially, home-schooled kids are pretty interesting people. I lived in Indianapolis, where there are a decent number of people and so a few cool home-schooled kids, but most of them choose no to be cool or loving, often because they think that's what God wants of them: to live without love. Of course that means denying other people love as well. I was one of the other people.

I remember learning I could make a panicked mother come to where I was from any other point in her home by saying the word "marijuana." I remember listening to Rush Limbaugh on someone else's radio. I remember his father telling me that some people believed the children of Lilith were still among us -- that they were lesser demons. I remember the treasury notes that were clearly fraudulent that he claimed to own. (He was very kind to me, actually: he would rub my shoulders.) I remember when he said he was "a lion of a man" without any apparent awareness of how miserable that made everyone in the room. I remember a girl who scratched my hand open. (I had put it on her shoulder.) (I had to pretend my feelings weren't hurt that she'd done that to my hand.) There was a kid who got a glass twisted in his face till the glass broke, leaving a scar somewhat in the shape of a ring beneath his left eye. This was over a chair.

No one I knew was, as far as I knew, sneaking sex. They did sometimes do violence.


It's generally understood that education up to the point of college is about teaching children to sit still for a long time no matter how bored they are. A home-schooled person is, depending on where and how he was educated or not, someone who never learned to do that. If he did he figured it out on his own. I know how to sit still for a long time because I know how to be a writer. A home-schooled person, if he is not a religious zealot, is probably someone who never learned how to agree with everything anybody says, since there was so rarely anyone around. This can make a home-schooled person interesting. It can also make him difficult to like, since most people make friends by agreeing on things.


So if you were a home-schooled person and you felt an absence of love in your life what you had to do was find a girl. I managed this a few times. It was by sheer force of will. It was in one such girl's car that I first heard Modest Mouse. The song was "Alone Down There." Go ahead and listen to the song:

I could have listened to that song forever. Like a lot of people I believed I was the loneliest person in the world. Someone was saying he didn't want me to live that way. He was singing with the desperation of someone who had been alone too. It seems likely we decide our tastes largely on the basis of loving one powerful thing and then generalizing from that experience. This song likely taught me how much I love unconventional vocal performances. It taught me what I loved in terms of production: I like records with thick sounds, records where the vocals are forced to negotiate with the rest of the mix for my attention rather than living in a protective bubble atop all the other elements. It taught me I like sounds that tickle, that use the whole ear. It taught me I liked to be immersed in sound: simple elements adding up to complex experiences. It taught me I liked angular melody -- angular and percussive. That I preferred guitars with a certain ratio of tone and crunch. Modest Mouse would quickly become the band against which I measured all other bands. I'm not sure how long it took me to buy The Moon and Antarctica, in which "Alone Down There" appeared. It took a little while.

The Moon and Antarctica is as close as I've found to a perfect album.


This was a time where a girl could get pretty far with me by way of music. I hadn't heard anything good for most of my life, and I hadn't read that many great books, and I could hardly think of any movies I loved. My most profound emotional experiences had been with video games and people who didn't like me or want me around. Great music was pretty much my kryptonite because I had literally nothing in my life to prepare me for what it could do. I'd already let things last longer than they likely should have with someone essentially for a Tori Amos song. The power of the mix CD was essentially that making one let you pretend to be in love with someone. If you were the recipient, then it would let you pretend the maker's love was sufficient. No one knew how to love anyone back then as best I can tell.

As best I can tell, love is an innovation dated August 2006.

What we need is the patience we don't have time to give. What we need is the humanity we don't have time to be. In its absence we have albums, which, however exhausting they may have been to make, you need only make once -- and then you can listen as often as you like, forever.


When I did buy The Moon and Antarctica the first track was "3rd Planet." I guess it was the same one for everyone else.

One way I warned people what was wrong with me in college was I made this my ring tone. What I apparently wanted to communicate to everyone around me was that I was the sort of person who liked to feel as if on the verge of tears every time someone called him to make plans for dinner, a movie, or a ride. I was telling them that communication made me feel like garbage.

I used to have these terrible mood swings. I would sit under trees and think how beautiful they were, how overwhelming. Like a stream, dividing and dividing and divided, of wood and woodgrain.

What I wanted from music in those years was emotional exhaustion. They were supposed to wring me out until I didn't feel anything in particular anymore, because then I could work. It's hard to say how a Modest Mouse song feels, exactly. On The Moon and Antarctica especially the sounds evoke emotion but also constitute themselves wholly as sounds -- this is to say, they are first themselves, a landscape, and then secondly a translation of the band and the listener into some larger thing. They feel like every emotion. They are misery and rage and dark humor and brilliance and cold logic and bad pain and good pain. Just as they use the whole ear they use the whole viscera: they grab the longs, twist the heart, fill the intestines with cold water.

This is how I want my writing to feel. A world that translates feeling and want but also exists in itself. A glacier, a moon. You feel when you look at the moon. The moon reflects that feeling, but is also irreducibly itself.

"The Stars are Projectors" is the height of this, and also of their lyrical achievements, and also the album's centerpiece. An epic, a slab, an ocean, a planet. The paranoid grandiosity of the words, the production. This was the song that taught me how a cold thing burns.


I often divide music into two categories: that which flatters the listener and that which does not. Music that doesn't flatter is more rare than that which does. I would classify Tim Hecker's music as a rare example of unflattering music; I think that is how it feels to be a person.

Modest Mouse is a band that flatters and a band that does not flatter. The epic turn of their music is flattering to human emotion to the extent their music can be said to represent human emotion. There is a beautiful lowness to it, too, though: to Isaac Brock's bark, to the ramshackle melody and rhythm that is also not ramshackle, to Jeremiah Green's brutal lovely supple drumming. They are a band will say of people we ain't made of nothing but water and shit. There are times I feel that's true. There are times I feel it's flattering.

This is the last song on the album:

This is a song will wring you out.

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