Over the years, here at Moistworks, we've considered love in all its forms, at least as seen through the prism of the pop song. This year, we are standing down. Our weapons are holstered. Orders from above: the topic has been deemed too tragicomic. We got a note that explained the orders, from above. The note read, in part, "Give it a rest. If you see it out and about, arrest it. If you see something about it, give it back." The note had tears on letters like magnification and torn sides like amplification. But it's Valentine's Day, and we have a responsibility, so we're reposting last year's entry. Happy Unhurt Heart.
Why are people so quick to love movies, books, songs, paintings, restaurants, and sports teams but so slow to love other people? Sages have been debating this issue for centuries, and continue to the present day. Bill Sage, a kid I went to high school with, used to talk about the girl he was dating, how she was a hot girl who was smart or maybe a smart girl who was hot. "Maybe she's the overlap," he said. "I love the idea of the overlap." But he never loved her, and she found that out a few years later in college, and promptly slept with someone else. It wasn't me, but I knew the guy, and after she got rid of him, too, we became friends. Now she's living in a western state, where she works for a company that helps other companies manage inventory. I spoke to her not so long ago, and she said that her personal life was frustrating, not exactly loveless but not exactly love-filled. Work, on the other hand, was rewarding. "You wouldn't think it," she said, "but I like the purely logistical issues. For example, in most companies, sending things out of the warehouse is a relatively trivial matter compared to bringing things into the warehouse." She went on to explain that since no free sex chat system is perfect, especially when so many moving parts are involved, a certain amount of management is management of inevitable errors in counting, logging, and ordering. "You have to be precise about imprecision," she said.
I digress. Or rather, she digresses. Or does she, and do I? Bob Sage, Bill's brother, used to say that it was easy to love people so long as they didn't look at you, and we would laugh at him, because he was always making these kinds of jokes, but it's entirely possible that he wasn't joking at all. People are quick to love movies, books, songs, paintings, restaurants, and sports because those things don't love back--or rather, can't love back. There is no expectation of reciprocation and consequently never any disappointment when reciprocation falls short. Each and every time you listen to "Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell," say, it produces the same experience for you. If the experience is different, you will quickly understand that the shift has occurred within you rather than within the work. And it's rare that love is withdrawn from a song or a book: you can come to see its flaws, or come to be embarrassed by your earlier ardor, but that might just make you drive your love deeper inside. It won't, for the most part, make you bring your love to a full stop.
Loving people, on the other hand, is a dangerous business, because love isn't just about what you feel. It's an economy in which what you feel must be matched with something of equivalent value, as well as one in which your expectations for ongoing supply can quickly reach self-annihilating levels. Not to mention the fact that you may feel you are not equipped to handle what you are receiving: expectations from another person that are as interdependent and volatile as yours. Love, or whatever you want to call it (pick a less romantic word if you'd prefer) is a frightening prospect. When you accept it, you are assuming risk at a level that often overloads the human organism. Two people acting with single purpose but retaining their separateness? That's an overlap, and nobody likes--let alone loves--the idea of the overlap. Giving love refines the sexchat spirit; worrying about getting it clouds and clots that same spirit. Or, to reinvest the digression, sending out of the warehouse is a relatively trivial matter compared to bringing things into the warehouse.
This may be obvious, but it's Valentine's Day, the commemoration of the obvious. My friend in the western state who manages warehouse inventory recently went through a breakup. I think maybe she was trying to hold on until Valentine's Day, but that became untenable for several reasons, some of which I have listed above. The person she was seeing was not a movie or a book or a painting, and so, in trying to love him, she quickly found herself concerned with trying to accept his love, which led to expectations he could not satisfy. These were not unreasonable expectations, not as far as I was concerned -- and, sometimes, not as far as she was concerned. They mostly involved him offering to drive her to work some mornings, or offering to pick her up some afternoons, or leaving little notes in her jacket pockets, or calling in the afternoon and assuming a funny accent to ask if she knew where he might find the "best little wharehouse in the state." Whatever. The specifics aren't important, not to me. The point is that all the things she admired about him statically, all the things that would have worked to his advantage if he was a TV show or a sculpture, dissipated when he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- understand the issues of inventory management. She was able to give him love, for a time, but witnessed repeatedly how pained he was to give in return, and that returned her to a point where giving seemed more like someone else's taking.
After the breakup, she said, she thought often about whether she had give him enough chances. "He made mistakes but so did I," she said. "Why should that be unacceptable?" This was a fair question with a fairly obvious answer. In love, or commitments, or relationships, you don't have to avoid error. In fact, you should embrace it. But you should embrace the proper type of error. This is another way in which static artworks are easier to love than people. As we have said, artworks don't change, really, so they can't disappoint you. But they also can't try to accommodate you and, in doing so, show you that they are utterly insensible about how to find your heart. My friend told me one story that stuck out like a stalactite. After the breakup, the guy came by her office. He took her to lunch. He ate a meal that he would never eat -- a big burger, she said, when he was mostly no-red-meat -- and asked questions he would never ask. "I know he was trying to be a different," she said, "but it only made me feel more the same. The root him and the root me didn't intertwine." It is easy to believe unverifiable things about a song or a book, but harder to do so about a person.
So for this unholy coming holiday, and for my friend, and for the guy, even -- who I never met and probably wouldn't have liked, at least from the description, but who has the same right to be happy as anyone else -- here's Tom Verlaine's "The Grip of Love," which not only contains some of the finest electric rock guitar of the last century (try it, you'll love it), but has a comprehensively elliptical lyric that says most of what I've been trying to say:
You do the moon
You do the snake
Everywhere you go
You make the right mistake
You take a picture
And lay it on my tray
Some kind of window
Just like the Milky Way
The song doesn't end well -- the girl tells him to get lost, and he says, desperately but slyly, "Well, don't that buckle my belt?" -- but it starts beautifully, and that's something. Inventory is managed, at least for a little while, and it's managed exactly as he says it is, exactly as my friend said it is: "Everywhere you go you make the right mistake." So find that person, get in the grip, do the moon, do the snake. Happy Valentine's Day.
I was thinking about Haiti fairly regularly even before the earthquake this week. I have a friend who is working there, living and writing, and it hasn't always been easy for her, and sometimes this has resulted in frustration, and other times in measured analysis, and other times in resignation.
Earlier this week she wrote me to say that she was working on an article about the Haitian lottery, a surreal enterprise in which the numbers played are extracted, through a mix of soothsaying and self-deception, from dreams. (If you dream of a fire, you are encouraged by a sort of dream consultant to play the number 11, say; a cow may translate to the number 20.) The draft she sent me focused, correctly, on the strangeness of the lottery process as a vehicle of hope: it took people's dreams, turned them into numbers, then tried to turn those numbers into a different kind of number, money, that could satisfy Live sex dreams.
About a day later, the earthquakes snuffed out a great deal of hope. I wrote a bunch of emails to make sure she was okay, all the while thinking how strange it was to be distilling a nation's suffering into my concern for an individual. She eventually replied, and then went off to do her job, which is to try to explain (or at least present) the unfathomable to the rest of the world. I haven't talked to her about her experience during the earthquake, or the ways in which she believes (or knows) that this will change everything around her. And I'm left in a strange position for a writer: I'm not sure what to say, or what can be said, in the face of how much there is to be done. Another friend of mine said she can't wrap her head around it, and she's exactly right.
Since the earthquake, my friend in Haiti has been posting updates, and in one of them she mentioned that as night falls in Port-au-Prince, she can hear praying and singing. I don't believe in prayer, but I believe in music, and today is one of the days I'm happy I don't know the difference.
Over the last few months, I've been sending her excerpts from the recent box set "Alan Lomax in Haiti," which collects hundreds of field recordings that the pioneering ethnomusicologist made on the island in the late nineteen-thirties. I have been listening to the box set often, realizing that I understand almost nothing about the island, but still interested to hear the Haitian versions of blues songs, or children's rhymes, or booty calls.
When I heard about the earthquake, I thought I'd go listen to the box set, but I found that I couldn't. It was too much and not enough, all at once. No song seemed right. Then this morning I listened to "Lenba, Lenba sou lemo." This song is about Lenba, which is (according to the liner notes) a healing movement that "contributed to the growth of the Petwo movement in Haiti that helped to develop a revolutionary consciousness among Haiti's slaves." Petwo, which refers to a family of Vodou spirits, can also refer to a drum, or to a rapid style of drumming. This all goes deeper than what I know, and what I can understand. But I do know, and can understand to some degree, the lyrics, which talk about overtopping, if not exactly overcoming, death:
Lenba, I am shouting out
Lenba on top of Lenba
Lenba, Lenba triumps over death
Ay, Lenba rises over Lenba
One of the Petwo spirits is Bosou, who is represented by a bull and is in charge of fertility and protection. The spirits teach, among other things, that the power to heal and protect is closely allied with the power to kill. I'm not sure that this is a lesson I can absorb, though I am sure that it is a valuable one.
The Lomax set has ten discs. "Lenba, Lenba sou lemo" comes from the tenth and final disc, "Worship in Carrefour Dufort," in which Lomax went to the south of Haiti to record religious rites. It is not the last song on the last disc. It's the next to last. The simple act of picking something that wasn't quite the end seemed, for a moment, significant, and maybe even hopeful.
No one needs to hear more about how Sly Stone's racially integrated, mixed-gender band, the Family Stone, fused the lean funk of James Brown to the kaleidoscopic pop of the psychedelic era and yielded some of the most rewarding music of the century. They don't need to hear about how Sly then slipped into false optimism, deep pessimism, and drug addiction while continuing to make fitfully brilliant music. And they certainly don't need me to plug my novel, "Please Step Back," which relates the story of a Sly-like funk star named Rock Foxx. So instead I have a story about three little pigs.
In 1968, on the heels of the chart success of "Dance to the Music," Sly and the Family Stone -- anchored by Sly's brother Freddie on guitar, his sister Rose on vocals, and Larry Graham on bass -- recorded a French version of the song under the name The French Fries. "Danse a La Musique" is significantly stranger than its American counterpart: it pushes the horn section back and pulls the guitar up front, eliminates most of the lyrics, and fractures the ones that are left behind. Throughout, Sly speeds up his own background vocals until they're animated-animal chirpy. (Perhaps not coincidentally, 1968 was the tenth anniversary of the first appearance of Ross Bagdasarian's Alvin and the Chipmunks.) The whole proceeding is deeply perverse; it's as if Sly would only release his song into the international market after defacing it so that it could not do the record company's bidding.
But "Danse a La Musique" was only one side of fries. The B-side of that 1968 single, "Small Fries," has a pleasant pop melody over which Sly, still using his chipmunk voice, speak-sings a story of three teenage pigs named Freddie, Larry, and Sylvester (again, shades of Alvin and his brothers, or maybe of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary). The three piggies receive letters from "Uncle Samuel," ostensibly concerning military service, and each of them handles the request differently. Freddie's reaction relies upon spiritual conviction and medical exemption:
One little piggy's name was Freddie
Freddie Freddie Freddie Freddie
He built a house with headaches and religion
If he had chosen to try to get away
It would have been a very bad decision
The fate of the second pig, Larry, is more comic. He "tried everything in the Livejasmine book," but because he was "very lazy and only liked to eat," Uncle Samuel "made him a cook." In this already highly ironic world, the most ironic outcome is reserved for the third piggy, though Sly delays that part of the narrative until after a military drumbeat and some "Dance to the Music"-derived scatting. But when the third verse arrives, it arrives in style:
The third piggy's name was Sylvester Sylvester Sylvester
Ain't that weird
He hated to be told what to do
But fourteen stripes has changed his mind
Now he proudly wears navy blue
Fourteen stripes? Is this a distortion of patriotism, a commentary on the ways in which it is exaggerated to compel compliance? Possibly. Maybe it's just a joke. Whatever the case, this transition is figured as fiction, or rather negative fantasy: Sly is imagining what could happen to him if he were tempted by military rewards at the same time that he is insisting, by staging this scenario as a satire, that he will never submit. And yet, the power of the request remains compelling. Following the story of Sylvester the pig, Sly offers a chilling off-handed coda:
Say a letter has come from Uncle Samuel
He's a dude
These questions of obedience and duty, of service and selfhood, have been raised repeatedly over the history of this and every other country, and artists have always grappled with them. "Small Fries" handles them in an intensely strange manner, as befits one of the most idiosyncratic superstars in pop-music history (apologies to Shakira and Mary Margaret O'Hara). In light of the song, it's worth returning to an equally tortured, equally strange artist, Soren Kierkegaard, and one of his definitions of genius:
The case with most men is that they go out into life with one or another accidental characteristic of personality of which they say: Well, this is the way I am. I cannot do otherwise. Then the world gets to work on them and thus the majority of men are ground into conformity. In each generation a small part cling to their "I cannot do otherwise" and lose their minds. Finally there are a very few in each generation who in spite of all life's terrors cling with more and more inwardness to this "I cannot do otherwise." These are the genuises.
Five years later, Sly recorded the anguished, defiant "Skin I'm In," where he insisted once again on selfhood over service, even when the results are Pyrhhic:
If I could do it all over again
I'd be in the same skin I'm in
The clothes I wear
And the things they dare me to do
Places I go
People I know
The things I gain
Sometimes they rain on me
Skin I'm in
And the things I never, never win
Is it weird to treasure your own flawed self--the self that cannot do otherwise--even as it undoes you? Ain't that weird.