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
And the award for Rock Musician Least Likely to Become a Nostalgia Act goes to…Mike Doughty. The former Soul Coughing frontman doesn’t play Soul Coughing songs. Ever. His new memoir, “The Book of Drugs,” is a literary middle finger to the artist’s salad days. It puts the mental in unsentimental. It screams goodbye to all that — the band, the junk, the tunes, the willful inscrutability. To that last point, Doughty spent 2009 answering audience members’ off-the-wall questions between songs, and has just released a double-live album of recordings from the tour called “The Question Jar Show.” Doughty, 41, answered yet more questions via email.
Q: What’s the relationship between drugs and art as it has played out in your life?
A: I bought the spiel about the romantic connection between drugs and art, for sure. In practice, though, I used drugs to shut down self-loathing, so I could finish songs.
Q: What happened to your songwriting when you got clean?
A: I’m better than I was. The songs have more depth, there’s more of my heart truly in them. I’m able to access a darker part of myself — ironically. I’m working for the music, not trying to justify an inflated, grandiose sense of self — which was fundamentally just trying to feel OK about my existence.
Q: You’ve said that when you were unable to write songs you wrote prayers. Are you a man of faith or were you desperate?
A: People roll their eyes at the spiritual-not-religious spiel, but it’s very true. I was indeed desperate. But I did have a real fire to connect with something larger and deeper, to get out of my self-centeredness. The tragedy of Narcissus wasn’t that he was so into his own looks — it was that he was unable to stop looking at his reflection, and missed out on everything in the universe. I heard a cardinal say, “To have faith is to have crises of faith.” Which is incredible to hear from a guy whose entire life has been about his faith.
If I were a better, braver, smarter, swifter person, I would participate in February Album Writing Month. The challenge? Write 14 1/2 songs in 29 days (it’s leap year so there’s an extra day to write an extra half-song). The problem? I’ve been working on “My Cake” for a month-and-a-half. Case closed. I do plan to lurk, loiter, and glean. What I know so far is that as of late morning Feb. 2, 6737 Fawmers had generated 734 songs. Among them is “The Name is Martha Jones,” a tune that falls (according to liner notes) under the loose umbrella of Time Lord Rock, a genre specific to the fandom of Dr. Who, and “All the Way to Six,” which plumbs the philosophical quandary of toaster settings. I am honestly so inspired by the pageant of humanity.
Jonatha Brooke is a singer, a songwriter, and a caretaker. For the past couple of years her music career has taken a backseat to caring for her mother, a poet who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Brooke has been writing about it with signature candor in the journal on her website. We spoke on the phone recently during a lull in the action.
Q: I know things are kind of crazy right now. Is this still a good time to talk?
A: This is actually good timing, because we just finished up this morning’s poop drama with mom.
Q: Poop drama? That’s a good place to start.
A: I am a poop expert. I could write a thesis on poop management for the elderly.
Q: Give me a snapshot of the situation. Where is your mom living?
A: Mom lives on three and I live on seven. A year ago August I moved her from her supposedly independent living facility in Boston to an apartment that happened to be open in my building, She was at this very lovely Christian Science manor called The Benevolent Association, but she was not independent or really living. I mean, it was a mess, and she was falling, and everyone was in denial about the reality of her physical needs. So I kind of rode in and told everyone to fuck off and said, “I’m taking it from here.”
I know the rules. As sole proprieter of a blog and website, I’m expected to be a content creation machine and a social media maven. The way to grow an audience is to update frequently, tweet feverishly, and slather myself all over Facebook. That’s on top of writing songs and interviewing artists. In a normal work week, I fail miserably. It’s a big huge problem. During the holidays, I didn’t even try.
I spent last week in a rented house in Los Angeles with my sisters and my dad and all of the husbands and kids. We swam. We ate. We hiked and played games and road-tripped to Joshua Tree in a pimped-out tour bus that my pal Curtis lives in. I met my friend Tori’s horse. We exchanged gifts on the little-known miraculous tenth night of Hanukkah because various personality-related circumstances prevented us from celebrating during the traditional eight-day window. I don’t know what happens in your family, but our family gatherings require a certain flexibility.
Sometimes on vacation I carve out an hour or two each day to work, but it’s a double-edged sword. I feel vaguely productive, which stems the constant anxiety over the need to produce more and better and faster, but I invariably wind up spending more time than I had planned in front of my computer or with iPhone in hand. My family is always understanding and always bummed. And once the door to work is opened it oozes all over everything. I might be lounging in the sun having a lovely chat with my nephew but in the back of my mind I’m trolling for something clever to tweet or post. Hardly a recipe for quality time. I did carry my lyrics notebook out to the yard one morning but as soon as I got settled someone put on Stevie Wonder and cranked it.
So. Work was a wash. I halfheartedly posted a couple of photos and then abandoned the social network entirely. For a minute there it actually felt like I was disappearing. Like if I didn’t make my presence known to unseen followers and invisible friends I would quickly be forgotten. Like I was losing the thread of something important, and maybe I was. Maybe I’m messing up by not being a more dedicated, disciplined, hard-working member of the digital ranks. I want to live a real life. I want my project to succeed. It’s so confusing. All I know is once the panic subsided, there was nothing but relief. Here’s what that looks like.
In a year or two, when my website is a bust and my career is up in smoke, will I look at these photos and kick myself for not working harder? In a year or two, when I have a stack of songs that could only have been written by a person living her life, will I be satisfied that I made the right choice?
I know I’m not the only one struggling to straddle worlds. Pray tell.