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is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Saturday
Mar092013

In Which We Take Off The Gloves

To The Touch

by GREG AMELIAN

"My first week on the job," Samuel told me. "I can't forget."

They had transferred my new partner a few weeks earlier, but Samuel had been forced by his previous department in Algonquin to take all his unused vacation days before showing up for work in Botter.

Samuel stood considerably shorter than me, but he would not turn his head up to my face; it was not his habit to do so. I was forced to stoop slightly to make any eye contact. His eyes examined me in turn, but never really met mine. The sun bounced off his bare head.

Samuel explained that he had been paired with an older officer who had a bad reputation in the department as a sort of hazing.

I asked the man's name but Samuel would not reveal it. "I shouldn't," he said. "He would not want me to and I am not like that." He ran hands covered in soft, leather gloves over his scalp.

At that moment we got a call about a domestic disturbance south of the river and the story suffered from an interruption.

The offending man was large and drunk, and had to be cuffed and transported. I should not say it this way, but I was shocked by Samuel. For one thing, he was maybe the most agile thing I had ever seen. Possibly I'd observed a cat as quick as he was at some point, I cannot say for sure. But he moved fast, and always knew exactly where to go. And he was strong. When I saw him lift his foot in the air and put this muscled individual on his knees I have to admit I was smiling.

But he made no mention of this display over lunch at a Sbarro. (They know me there, and I wanted him to see how others treated me.) Finally I decided to see if I could get him to talk about it. Casually, I moved my arm across the table, catching his mug of coffee enough to topple it to the floor.

Without even looking, it seemed to me, he caught it. And from his face, when I moved it into view, I suspected he was about to let me in.

He told me he was a Jew, and I said that I knew it, someone had mentioned it to me. His face drained of blood, so I said, "My wife's Jewish. That's probably why they said it." He relaxed some then, but resumed his already irritating habit of rubbing his scalp with his gloved hands.

"There was a tornado in Norwich last year," he said. "Maybe you had heard about it." I said I had seen it on the news.

"It's not really tornado country," he said. "I don't know if I've ever been to a place that was. We were, like most of the department, poking through the wreckage. Looking to find anyone who might have been trapped. The smell was incredible."

I nodded.

"It never blew away," he said. "Sometimes it filled my nostrils when I woke." I told him that I understood, and after a few moments he continued.

"There was a home that had not been decimated as the others. Downed trees filled the yard certainly, and the corpses of birds. But the home still stood, even when those around it did not, and the gate leading to it had been torn off its hinges."

By this time we were no longer in Sbarro. I pulled the car into the most scenic spot I knew. It overlooked a small lake.

"For obvious reasons it was the last place we went. My partner knocked on the door, and when no one answered, we opened it. It was unlocked, you see. Once we went inside, we found that it had locked us in.

"My partner began to panic. He would not stop pounding the door. Finally, he slumped against it while I went off to look for another exit.

"Nothing in the house, so far as I could see, had even been disturbed. The smell of death that had been following us that week had disappeared. I called out but no one answered.

"Finally, I descended rickety wooden stairs to a basement level. It was splendid down there."

"Splendid?" I said.

"Magnificent," he said. "It was a den as some men have, maybe even you have. The den where the first man slept. But everything - the bar, the pool table, the chairs - was painted a brilliant shade of gold."

"The Midas touch," I said.

He laughed. "It was not actually gold, you see. Simply the color of it. At the rear of the room, an older man, perhaps five or ten years older than yourself, reclined in a rocking chair. I called out to him, but he did not answer. When I took his pulse I found he was still alive, but most likely unconscious. I could not move him by myself, and he did not seem in any immediate danger.

"I thought to make my way back to my partner. It had been a trying few days, and Jim was not a young man. That is not his real name."

I smiled.

"I began to ascend the stairs, but I had trouble balancing. I felt light-headed, but I slowly made my way back to the foyer and the front door. I told Jim what I had found and suggested we carry the man back to our car. Getting an ambulance was unlikely, we might have waited all night.

"He agreed, and we went back downstairs. I was not feeling myself still, but I did not want to show it, and have Jim expose my weaknesses in front of our peers when we returned to the office."

With a motion of my hand I stopped his story.

I said, "You found you could lift the man in the chair by yourself, I suppose."

He only stared.

"I noticed it when you came into the car just now. You weren't paying attention when you opened the door." I indicated the passenger side door. "You almost ripped it off its hinges. Look at the damage there."

He apologized and fell silent. I told him to take off his gloves. He did not.

"It's communicated by touch," I said. "You touched the man in the chair."

"Yes."

"When you came back, was the man in the chair already dead?"

Samuel shook his head. "He was still breathing."

"I noticed you took off your gloves to apprehend the drunk we cuffed this morning," I said. "How long does he have?"

"He abused his wife," Samuel said. "You must know that's why I did what I did."

"I suppose it's one reason you did it," I said. "I suspect you can't go very long without touching something. Your old partner - how long did he live?"

"He never found the exit of the house," Samuel said, and started to weep.

I fought the urge to console him, to take him in my arms. "It's all right," I said. "It's all right. It doesn't matter now. It doesn't matter at all."

Greg Amelian is a writer living in San Francisco.

Paintings by Pham Luan.

"The Waiting" - Angel Olsen (mp3)

"The Sky Opened Up" - Angel Olsen (mp3)

Friday
Mar082013

In Which We Flee The Masters

Savoir Faire

by MICAH RUELLE

“This is an artificial environment,” the professor told the class. “Generally, you all work alone — most writers have to. It’s unnatural to shove all of you in a classroom and have you work together for three years.”

This sentiment has acted as the premise of an argument against Master of Fine Arts Programs. It follows that fine art programs might force incompatible writers (unlike the Beats or The Inklings) into murky waters, diluting individual talent. The romantic in me couldn’t help it, though; I looked around the room at the faces of poets I was sure to see in nearly every class for the next three years.

But I was wrong. I wouldn’t be looking at those faces for the next three years. Two months ago, I left an MFA program in southwest Texas — and no, not for the sentiments above, or for the politicized reasons that Franz Wright and others have against graduate level fine arts programs. I left for “personal reasons” according to all my recent applications to entry-level and retail jobs. A month before starting the MFA, I had just finished a year of intense theological studies in the U.K. and was burnt out before I even started an equally intense course.

I signed my letter of resignation and finally began the break I needed. Christmas break proved to be a reflective time. My thoughts returned to the program — the various writers’ readings, literary magazine meetings, workshops, parties, and dinners. The longer I thought about it, the more I came to realize I had been uncomfortable for most of the program, but I wasn’t sure why. Over the next few weeks, I’d run on the trails by my parents’ house in Kansas. I’d been running the same paths for years, on and off in between school breaks and summers. The familiarity allowed me a safe space to process.

A week or so of running had gone by when I finally narrowed it in: my social dynamics with the writers was nothing like those that I had had with my friends from undergrad, nothing like the other non-profit workers I had assisted, nothing like the theologians I had trained with, nothing like the painters I had lived with, and nothing like my childhood friends from my hometown. My relationship with the writers bordered on enigmatic, but with enough banality during the academic work week to hold the levee.

“Saving face” is a term that is used both in the U.S. and the U.K. For Americans, it’s a term used to reference the act of trying to preserve pride or the pride of others in the heat of a humiliating moment. But the British seem to have a more all-encompassing use of the phrase. For them, it does reference maintaining dignity in embarrassing moments, but it’s also a particular stance or attitude toward social circumstances in general. If you’ve watched any Downton Abbey or have read any Jane Austen, you can see how “saving face” is embedded in social interactions between characters: Mr. Bates concealing the bullying he endures by the house staff in season one, or the secrecy that Darcy preserves until the accusations against his character are made by Elizabeth. The characters that are able to absorb and conceal information are likely to do well in their lives in general, and seems to be an essential quality to earning the trust and respect of others. Perhaps I had witnessed more examples of “saving face” than I had realized prior to starting a masters program, but it seemed to saturate every social circumstance I had found myself in with the writers.

During one of the first MFA parties I attended, I drank too much because I was nervous and like a stupid minor, locked myself in a bathroom till I could sober enough to conserve an ounce of dignity to rejoin the party. When a fellow poet found me, I apparently instructed them that despite whatever state I was in, I was not to be left in the same room as a certain individual, a predatory-looking fiction writer.

My friend later told me that he used our exchange for a poem in his thesis and, “hoped it was okay.” I nodded, and felt weirdly flattered. At least I was disguised as an animal. However, I didn’t begin to question the ethical complications of using real-life material from genuine relationships and transferring it to art until I read my own words on the page of someone else’s poem. I had been quoted while on the phone during a very vulnerable confession in the midst of a panic attack that had long been warming in my consciousness and had finally erupted. At least the quotes weren’t cited. (Ironic, no?)

The social dynamics between all of us felt odd enough. At parties, what could’ve been simple questions and general musings felt like a continual set-up to gather more information. It’s only when you are speaking with a poet or writer that you can doubt the motives when they ask you, “Can I see your room?” It could be a pass. But, for all you know they are cataloging items, a color palette, and essence of a living space for a potential character. For the record, in both interpretations, I advise the answer to that question be “no.”

To the former situation, you need only read a little of Sylvia Plath’s bio to begin to see that romantic relationships have trouble surviving the battle of writerly egos. (Also, see the marriages of Hemingway and Gellhorn, along with Fitzgerald and Sayre.) Not to mention the running tagline, never directly expressed, but understood: the MFA is where women go to get divorced, and where men go after they’re married.

As for the latter, the creation of a private space is essential for sanity since the writing will continue to oust you in workshops. Preserving a space is, more than anything else, an act of self-preservation. Once, a few years ago, I had visited an author’s home. He had placed a baby-gate between a room and the dining room. When I was about to climb the gate that I assumed was for his kids, he gently stopped me and said, “I’m sorry — I don’t let anyone in my writing space.” It’s a view that, as eccentric as it sounds, I am beginning to understand. The need for a physical and mental space that was mine, that I could measure somehow, never felt more necessary to construct.

Herein lies the complexity of an MFA program: writers extract ideas for characters, situations, dialogues, experiences, etc. from real life to inform (consciously or unconsciously) the creative process of making their art. While out in public, writers can observe and take mental notes anonymously and discreetly. However, when writers are amongst each other, the carnivorous pursuit for raw-life material can be sensed during exchanges after workshops, at parties, and before and after readings. Writers understand that they are watching and being watched, and in an MFA, this experience is looped. Artists understand that their lives are free game to other artists, which means that we are all in the line of fire of having our quirks, speech patterns, facial expressions, and behavior converted and used for someone else’s art.

It’s not all bad though. I know I am making us all out to be a brood of vipers. And we’re not. Well, not all the time, anyway. After you have just sent your writing to the workshop slaughterhouse, they’ll offer profound feedback, usually accompanied by a beer. And it’s not limited to hard times, either. One of the most profound moments of my life occurred rather inconspicuously at MFA Halloween party this last year.

The hosts had been generous, constructing Martha Stewart inspired creepy-crawly snacks and concocting an alcoholic punch that almost glowed in the red hues of the lights. Nearly all the guests came in full-costume and a six-pack. If you had driven by the house, you would’ve spotted a cowboy, Wonder Woman, and Annie Hall all smoking on the porch while an intoxicated Bumble Bee stumbled up the steps. Since my Stepford wife dress proved defenseless to the cold, I camped out with Ke$ha and the cat on the couch to keep warm. I was just starting to unwind from all the hype and was standing in line to use the restroom when a very sloshed Buddy Holly found me. Prior to that evening, I could only account for one moment when this friend had been vulnerable with me, despite sharing classes and free time on the weekends. So it came as a surprise when he put his hand on my shoulder, and gave me one of the most profound compliments I have ever received about my work. It is one of the few compliments I have accepted fully, as an almost-prophesy. And it has since acted as a source of encouragement as I continue to work independently.

Despite my reservations, I hope one day be able to reenter an MFA program when I feel ready. But, what I miss already is the thrill of being amongst people that love — foolishly perhaps — but completely, the same thing I do. One night at a party, a writer pulled a book of e.e. cummings off the shelf and after the first poem was read aloud - we were all clapping and screaming for more. I’ve yet to see this happen during an art gallery, university, or bookstore reading. Where is all that joy hiding?

A week before Christmas, I got a whiff of what my life would be like post MFA when visiting a bookstore with a friend I had known since junior high. The 2012 Best American Essays was on display, and in my excitement said, “Hey, maybe I should buy it for my dad.” She laughed and said, “Who would want that?” I was surprised. My friend is a knowledgeable person, and someone who supports the arts. She, herself is an artist - a painter who studied art in college. After the initial surprise, I felt a sudden sadness wash over me. It hit me that my social circle had been small, and that there had been a familiarity in it. We had been a bunch of loners, grouped together artificially — maybe more like a pack of sardines than any kind of family, but it had been dysfunctional and strangely nice. I had been one of ten other people who would’ve at least entertained the thought, and maybe would’ve leaned over to me to say, “Yeah, a book of essays is a great idea.”

Micah Ruelle is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her tumblr here.

Photographs by the author.

"The Next Day" - David Bowie (mp3)

 

Thursday
Mar072013

In Which We Regret Divorcing Ben Gibbard

Thinking It's A Sign

by CATHALEEN QIAO CHEN

Ben Gibbard released a new song with Jenny Lewis a couple weeks ago. You’ve probably heard it already. It’s called “A Tattered Line of String,” and sounds pretty good. It’s a satisfactory Postal Service song with lots of synth beats, a handful of soppy-sad lyrics and a not-so-subtle reference to New York.

I didn’t think the song stuck with me until yesterday, when I had a dream about the pescetarian indie king himself. I was reading at Kafein, a local late-night coffeehouse that unfortunately turns into a hub for cringe-worthy performers every Monday night — the much feared and often forgotten Open Mic Night. Predictably, there’s the hoody-clad comedian who can only recite jokes about genitalia, the English-Theater double major slam poet, and the sensitive future engineer who has a knack for 1-5-6-4 chord progressions to accompany lyrics about heartbreak.

Tonight, the latter happens to be Gibbard. As he approaches the hemp rug that designates the performance area, I happen to look up from my extra foam soy cappuccino. Behind those horn-rimmed glasses, he averts his glance and grimaces. He is the sensitive future engineer, after all. He begins to strum his mahogany Taylor guitar with the Indian print woven strap. “And when I see you, I really see you upside down,” he sings in his honest voice, opening the acoustic ballad with a conjunction because why not. But my brain knows better. It picks you up and turns you around, turns you around, turns you around. He bobs his head ever so slightly as he plucks the simple rhythm. The stark twang of his melody reverberates in the hot, dingy café, pulling heartstrings and reigniting a roomful of teenage angst. He looks very sad and very cute in that plaid shirt.

If you feel discouraged that there’s a lack of color here, please don’t worry, lover. It’s really busting at the seams for absorbing everything, the spectrum from A to Z.

I brush back my overgrown bangs and hope to once again share eye contact with the gangly, longhaired crooner. But before the song could end, and before I could catch Ben Gibbard’s fancy with my unassuming whimsy and printed vintage dress, I woke up. I don’t have bangs. I’ve never had bangs in my life. I hate cappuccinos and I am not Zooey Deschanel, thank god. But Death Cab comprises well over half of my coming-of-age OST, and Ben Gibbard is unabashedly everything he was in my dream, heartthrob included. When I really got into Death Cab, my palette of emotions consisted of angry and sad. In my privileged, post-90s adolescence, this phase was dubbed angst.

I was in a small town high school, I hated my parents and I was recently dumped by a douchebag who always smirked at my music library because he listens to the Smiths. I really, really liked him. Anyhow, my life was characterized by the trifecta of teenage suffering and Ben Gibbard just happened to make himself available to me in the form of a pirated MP3 file. Naturally, I gravitated toward his earlier, darker stuff — songs for which he clearly took influence from the likes of Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins, the real angsty deal.

It would make sense to write Gibbard off as the chronically depressed hipster sellout from the Pacific Northwest, who dresses like a white guy and probably dances like one too. Or if you’re unfamiliar with Gibbard’s musical repertoire, you know him as the guy who married your favorite manic pixie dream girl. Ugh. On an outward level, Gibbard did sell out. After all, he did move to L.A.

Death Cab sold out stadium shows, and even wrote for the Twilight soundtrack. But it’s easy to forget that he’s been in the industry for 16 years, a period long enough to demand change. Before going platinum, before Madison Square Garden and before Zooey and that god awful collaboration with her on their last album, Codes and Keys, Gibbard and his indie setup were a bona fide basement rock band that fully embraced the local Seattle music scene.

Gibbard was an engineering student at a Washington university, performing on the side as the guitarist for a band called Pinwheel. He started Death Cab as a solo project and released his first demo on cassette in 1997 — You Can Play These Songs with Chords. It included tracks that would later be part of his first studio albums, like “Amputations” and “Champagne from a Paper Cup.” These were the original ballads that exhibited Gibbard’s signature sweet-and-sad disposition. The Postal Service came about before Death Cab’s launch into the mainstream with the perfectly pop-oriented 2003 album, Transatlanticism. As a side project, Gibbard collaborated with Jimmy Tamborello and Jenny Lewis by sending edited electronic tracks back and forth via mail — the U.S. Postal Service, hence the name. The trio released Give Up in February of 2003. I was hooked on Give Up long before I took a substantial interest in Death Cab. “Such Great Heights,” however ubiquitous in commercials and crappy TV shows, is pleasant, intelligent and emphatically catchy, all rolled into one four-minute track.

The mesmeric tune, sentimentalized by Iron and Wine with an acoustic cover, occasionally creeps into the most unforeseen moments of my life and before I even recognize it, I’ll already be humming the melody. Give Up is so charming that after the real postal service had threatened to sue over their trademark name, the band was able to win the government agency over to cooperate in some cross-promotional marketing. At one point, the USPS store actually sold the album, contributing to its platinum status.

With the exception of Give Up, I glossed over Death Cab’s earlier music, Transatlanticism included, until I heard “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” Unfortunately, I never stopped hearing it. Placed smack in the middle of Plans, the somewhat overrated acoustic ballad soon became Death Cab’s namesake song, and I regrettably was the culprit, along with Starbucks, elevators, and my high school classmates. Everyday for the entirety of 2006, I played the song on repeat.

When I began taking guitar lessons, I told my instructor Brian, a failed musician in the local Pittsburgh scene, that I absolutely needed to learn it. Little did he know what I truly wanted was to be serenaded by it. I’ve always believed Death Cab was the original emo band. And so just as I started getting into their earlier albums nearly a decade after the release of their debut, Something About Airplanes, my first boyfriend, the Smiths douchebag, broke my heart. No more serenade daydreams, and no more of that “love of mine” shit. The timing could not have been more apropos. I’ll react when faces find you with jealous fits that gag and bind you, Gibbard sings in “President of What." Cause nothing hurts like nothing at all when imagination takes full control.

I think Gibbard’s charm has always been that his songs projected his understanding of being broken, to the point that fans have become sadistic for his misery. Sure, he also has that shy, man-boy hipster image pinned down to perfection, but that might be more or less incidental. As Sharon Steel writes in a Stereogum deconstruction of Gibbard, “The singer-songwriter’s sadness certainly has a twisted currency in the indie rock community.” And that’s absolutely true. He writes songs about anxiety, numbing heartbreak, disillusionment, and any kind of mawkishness that fits under the category of deliciously sad. For the marginalized, the delicately heartsick or the existentially lost — archetypes anyone can take on — Gibbard’s music serves as a haven of comfort by normalizing and even romanticizing misery. Among the likes of Sylvia Plath, Tennessee Williams, Picasso in his Blue Period and Adele, Gibbard’s work revels in discontent.

That’s precisely why Death Cab fans criticized Codes and Keys as insincere. Pitchfork gave it a solid five, claiming “Death Cab weirdly sound like they are imitating themselves.” With lyrics like, “If there’s a burning in your heart, don’t be alarmed,” and “life is sweet in the belly of the beast,” it seems as if Gibbard had abandoned his Hancock of melancholy. It comes down to the fact that the album, on top of Gibbard’s 2012 solo record, Former Lives, resonate a sense of — god forbid — happiness. In “A Tattered Line of String,” we get a taste of that classic Gibbard despondence. “Everything never seems to hold,” he sings in the bridge.

Satisfactory indeed, but I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt. His aching-for-heartache fans have objectified him to be the gospel for all that is angsty and disenchanted, when maybe he just had a phase. You know, the whole Soundgarden-and-Smashing Pumpkins-and-probably-Nirvana-too phase. Maybe he’s just a guy who had a quarter-life crisis in college and wrote songs about it, who gained a huge following for his relatably sad music, who later made the mistake of courting and marrying a vapid actress, who still writes pretty damn good music. Ben Gibbard is 36 years old. He is no longer a vegan. He ardently advocates for gay rights, and is living in Seattle again, where I presume he has a cat.

Gibbard denies rumors about The Postal Service’s reunion, but I have my fingers crossed. I’m building a fire to keep you warm long after I retire, he sings in the last track of his solo album. ’Cause this body is bound to expire/And the embers will glow, remind you what you already know, that the night is only a temporary absence of light, of light. It’s called “I’m Building A Fire,” and reminds me of the original Ben Gibbard serenade classic, “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” It has just a haunting acoustic accompaniment and the lovely motif of death. And maybe, just maybe, I’m ready to be serenaded again.

Cathaleen Qiao Chen is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Washington D.C. You can find her twitter here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"I'm Building A Fire" - Ben Gibbard (mp3)

"Bigger Than Love" - Ben Gibbard (mp3)