Word/Play : Essays, meditations, rants and raves, findings, musings, mutterings and screeds.


Vicarious Is A Four-Letter Word.

I just finished reading Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. The book is about a 40-something former rock ‘n roll wunderkind, Nik, a recluse who keeps making brilliant music, and his sister, Denise. It’s about true obsession and tenuous family bonds and time passing. It’s about how everyone and everything is shaped by the confounding feedback loops between memory and identity and art and life and authenticity and invention. The story takes place at the intersection of what might have been and what really is, a place you won’t be able to locate with GPS but where you will almost certainly find yourself on a dark night, at which time you may, like Denise, conclude that you have “in middle age become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously.”

I’ve never quite framed it in those terms, but I think the prospect of turning into that person is the reason I decided to stop writing about songs and start writing songs. I spent so many years on the outside looking in. Here’s how it’s been with me and music: like falling in love and following the guy around for a couple of decades and writing about him in your journal (or the newspaper) without ever introducing yourself, or going on a date, or kissing.

I grew weary of being an observer. I grew frightened of the creeping sense of detachment. I wanted to say less and do more. A lot of people think those deep emotional moments Spiotta writes about are the province of the young. We’re supposed to grow up and out of it. Adults are supposed to value familiarity over novelty, practicality over passion, stabililty over adventure. To which I say, bullshit.

Vicarious Encounters by Matt Belk

Filed under: Word/Play Tags: , , , , , ,

Listening Lab: Joni Mitchell

I’m trying something new: starting a song with words. So far I’ve got a concept and one sheet in a yellow pad covered with images and rhymes and anecdotes and vignettes. It’s pretty damn interesting thinking exclusively about lyrics, and what’s possible, and what’s important, which I suppose, whether it ends up being a rock song or a synth tune or a waltz, is truth and beauty. Which brings us to the master, Joni Mitchell. The title track on her 1972 album For the Roses is about show business and fame, broadly, and more specifically her former lover, James Taylor. The way it works as intimate missive and complicated confessional and harsh commentary all at once never fails to astonish me. Sorry about the crappy sound but this is the best I could find. Here’s to words and music. Here’s to truth and beauty.

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Did you get a round resounding for you
Way up here
It seems like many dim years ago
Since I heard that face to face
Or seen you face to face
Though tonight I can feel you here
I get these notes
On butterflies and lilac sprays
From girls who just have to tell me
They saw you somewhere

In some office sits a poet
And he trembles as he sings
And he asks some guy
To circulate his soul around
On your mark red ribbon runner
The caressing rev of motors
Finely tuned like fancy women
In thirties evening gowns
Up the charts
Off to the airport-
Your name’s in the news
Everything’s first class-
The lights go down-
And it’s just you up there
Getting them to feel like that

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you’re seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation-well, who’s to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so

I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can’t give up just yet
Now I sit up here
The critic!
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you’re getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

Filed under: Word/Play Tags: , , ,

Joan Anderman And Mark Erelli, Together At Last.

What happens when you spend a few days in the home of a person who runs a community radio station is this: you are recruited to provide the voice-over for a radio spot promoting a Mark Erelli concert.


Filed under: Word/Play

What’s True? Liz Frame Knows.

I hear that life is short. But compared to what? Everything that comes before and after? Some truisms aren’t true at all. Life isn’t short, not by any measurable standard. That’s just how it feels when you figure out you’re going to die, and you’re going to die without doing a lot of things you thought you might like to do, and if there’s something juicy on your list you’d best jump on it nowish.

Last week I was talking with Liz Frame, a singer-songwriter who stopped singing and songwriting. She spent a bunch of years devoting herself to family. She taught grade school. She was happy and then she wasn’t. The marriage ended. Her mother died. Frame had the epiphany.

“I realized life is way too short to not be doing what it is you love to do,” she said. So in 2007 Frame started going to open mikes. She formed a band. Made an EP. Started playing the club circuit. Made an album. Started playing better rooms. Here‘s a calendar. Frame is 51 now, at once exuberant and clear-eyed.

“I really believe in the record,” she says, “but it can be discouraging. I sent some stuff to somebody at ASCAP in Nashville and he basically said they just don’t hear anything here. And I’m thinking, ‘You don’t?’ So what’s the truth? For anybody pursuing an art endeavor, the truth is your truth. And whoever likes it, it becomes their truth. And that’s what allows artists to keep moving forward, even if it’s on a very small scale. If you’re OK with that then things have a tendency to fall into place on their own. The right people come into your life. Things happen and you’re ready for those things. You pay attention, and before you know it you wake up and you are exactly where you hoped you’d be.”

Filed under: Word/Play Tags: , ,

Listening Lab: St. Vincent

Everything about writing “My Cake” has been hard and thrilling. I’ve got a melody now, thanks to Gary, who pointed me to “Actor Out Of Work.” The song had fallen off my radar, as songs will do. If you’re trying to wrap your brain around how to write a melody for a groove insteading a string of chords, it’s a real education. Plus, she wrote the whole Actor album using GarageBand. Here’s to code-cracking and inspiration and keeping going.

Filed under: Word/Play Tags: , , ,