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This Recording

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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Entries in kara vanderbijl (76)

Thursday
Mar272014

In Which We Were Born Like Jeff Buckley

Creative Inertia

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Jeff Buckley’s brief intro before launching into a cover of “Dido’s Lament” is murmured in a ghost’s timbre, barely outdoing the white noise on the recording even at highest volume. His audience laughs, spooked, then the piano opens. “Thy hand, Belinda,” Jeff sings.

His is a freakish voice, made all the more odd by the grainy quality of the recording; a high falsetto mimicking the dramatic mezzo-soprano for which Purcell wrote the aria. He wails — his voice almost breaks, but doesn’t. Listening, we want it to break; the melody is too pure, its perfect desperation too stringent for this wild, unpredictable thing. Remember me, forget my fate.

It is this drama, the constant rediscovery and redelivery of a familiar, worked-over, oft-repeated tune that defines Jeff Buckley’s work. Like his voice, each song defies an original genre or mood, turning back to a more primal source. Is it a lament? A mockery? A strange self-issued prophecy from a man who, two years later, would walk into the Wolf River in Memphis, TN and drown?

Like many of his other performances, this one (a set at the 1995 Meltdown Festival in the UK) now only exists on the web, maybe even on fragments of a video somewhere. Had Jeff Buckley lived past the age of 30, it might have remained among the other, less-than-perfect detritus of a long and successful career. But when the talented die young, we like to watch their home videos. Their unprotected moments. Their failures, blow-ups, fuck-ups. Anything that might give us clarity about their end: what “brought them to this point.” Short of simply accepting that it was death that did Buckley in, we might say it was the success that got him.

Only four years earlier, Jeff had sung in public for the first time, at a tribute concert for his estranged father Tim Buckley. They had met once, when Jeff was eight, after one of Tim’s shows; two months later, Tim overdosed on heroin. Neither Jeff nor his mother Mary Guibert were invited to the funeral. When Jeff stepped onto the stage at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn to sing Tim’s “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain”, most people weren’t aware that Tim had a son, and most people who knew Jeff didn’t know he could sing — he’d patented himself, stubbornly, as a guitarist — so the evening unveiled not only Jeff’s vocal talent but also exactly where it had come from. This pissed Jeff off. If anything, he had hoped to use the brief set as his way of paying his respects, of breaking away from Buckley senior.

Years later, when a fan shouted a request for one of Tim’s songs, Jeff looked her straight in the eye and said, “I don’t play that hippie shit.”

Jeff escaped his hometown of Anaheim, leaving behind what he described as a “rootless trailer trash” existence. He’d been struck by New York fever. Over the next year and a half, he played at coffee shops and nightclubs in Lower Manhattan, and eventually earned a regular Monday night slot at Sin-é in the East Village, accompanying himself on the guitar. He covered Bob Dylan. Nina Simone. Van Morrison. Once, singing “Sweet Thing” with Glen Hansard, the still-obscure Buckley drew a crowd by taking the second verse through a series of vocal gymnastics that lasted fifteen minutes. People outside the club began pressing up against the window to hear him perform.

A brief writing streak with Gary Lucas resulted in two original songs, “Mojo Pin” and “Grace”, that Jeff nevertheless rarely played in his set. Lucas also invited Buckley to perform in his band, Gods and Monsters, early in 1992. By that time, however, the streets outside Sin-é were lined with record label executives hoping to snag Buckley for a solo album. That October, Buckley signed with Columbia, hired a drummer and bassist, and recording for what would be his first and only studio album, Grace, began the next summer. A quick EP, Live at Sin-é was released in November ‘93, documenting Jeff’s coffee-shop years, a time he’d long for intensely almost as soon as he left it.

Jeff was not prolific; of the ten songs on Grace, he penned only three on his own. Lee Underwood, Tim Buckley’s guitarist, said once that Jeff suffered from an all too-relatable sort of creative inertia. “[He] felt uncertain of his musical direction, not only after signing with Columbia, but before signing, and all the way to the end. He did not know himself — which musical direction he might want to commit himself to, because taking a stand, making a commitment to a direction, or even to composing and then successfully completing the recording of a single song, was extremely difficult for him. One the one hand, creativity was his calling. On the other hand, any creative gesture that offered the possibility of success terrified him.” To speak nothing of the looming shadow of a father he never spoke of, to whom he was inevitably compared, as well as a sort of dogged perfectionism that plagued his studio sessions.

Spending hours, as he did, overdubbing the vocals until he had reached what he felt was the optimal delivery, Jeff seemed reluctant to pin any one mood onto his work. Andy Wallace, Grace’s producer, had to piece several of the songs together from dozens of takes. The music was in constant metamorphosis, to the point where later, live renditions of the songs sounded different, singular, wed to whatever Buckley had learned or felt or needed in between one performance and the next. He seemed to rewrite them each time.

Grace is disparate, wavering between the almost cacophonous landscapes of “Mojo Pin”, “Grace”, “Last Goodbye”, and “Eternal Life”, the hushed, sacramental “Corpus Christi Carol”, and the desperate “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”. Buckley alternately whispers or wails, seems to laugh and growl, shreds remarkably. The music is a story as emotionally complex as its author — calling it simply brooding or romantic minimizes its scope. In reality it is confused, mystifying, indecisive.

The album, like the EP preceding it, sold in a slow trickle. Jeff’s songs rarely made it to the airwaves. Critics were either charmed by its triumph or turned off by what, altogether, seemed to be a confusing melange of emotions and genres. The French loved it, though, and in 1995 awarded Jeff with the Grand Prix International du Disque, an honor he shared with the likes of Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. David Bowie claimed that Grace was the one album he’d want with him on a desert island. Meanwhile, Jeff silenced restless crowds in concert halls across the globe with a few strums of his guitar, with a Buddhist-like opening chant called “Chocolate” that hushed chatter until you could hear a pin drop. Only then would he break into “Mojo Pin”.

Putting Buckley’s cover of the Cohen song in a separate category — as I undoubtedly must — “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is Grace’s masterpiece. Jeff introduced it first at Sin-é when he signed with Columbia, luring listeners who had previously doubted his ability to produce a decent song of his own. Back then it was just Jeff and his guitar, sans the divine harmonium intro, the swelling gospel choir, absolutely pure. Lyrically, it’s as seductive as it is sad — as Jeff escalates to “It’s never over/my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder,” a tingle begins deep down. It’s as much the power of his voice as the power of his poetry. He chokes it out, like an old love letter he’s been forced to read aloud.

I will say this about “Hallelujah” — everything blooms from the single, conquered breath that opens it.

Buckley is remembered for these quieter contributions, and appropriately so; in a way they serve as auto-epitaphs. An incredible mimic, he nails Nina’s voice during brief moments in “Lilac Wine” and rivals any choir boy with Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol”, which had been introduced to him by a friend in high school. But it’s palpable anger that colors the rest of Grace, anger that Jeff would take with him on tour and into the beginnings of his second album, My Sweetheart, The Drunk. He butted heads with the bigwigs at Columbia when he refused to make a music video. He alienated friends, his photographer Merri Cyr, and some of his strongest supporters with careless words. Seamlessly integrated into his public image were frequent moments of conflict, uncertainty, and stubbornness, most of them related to his burgeoning fame, and almost always triggered by casual comparisons with the late Tim Buckley.

When People Magazine nominated Jeff as one of their “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1995, something snapped. He dyed his hair black and stopped washing it. He wallowed, thin, in giant thrift-store plaid shirts and Doc Martens. On stage, Grace changed: “Buckley and the band were now playing harder, faster, and louder than ever before, transforming slow-burning epics — ‘Last Goodbye’, ‘So Real’, ‘Eternal Life’ and the title track — into rock and roll firestorms that bordered on the metallic. ‘Mojo Pin’ circa 1996 was almost unrecognizable: Buckley screamed so hard as the song built to its thunderous climax that you feared he’d cough up a vocal cord,” wrote Jeff Apter, one of Buckley’s biographers.

Touring took its toll on Jeff; he needed peace and quiet to work things out, to create, but the frenzy of the road worked up a hysteria in him. Once, in Ireland, he disappeared for a few hours in the afternoon and walked around singing and playing guitar in the pouring rain, skipping interviews and a sound check. Another time he arrived so drunk on stage he broke into a rendition of one of his father’s songs. Yet another time, wasted, he fell asleep underneath a table at a show in Manhattan. Another musician would have been thinking of giving the public a second album to chew on; Jeff was just trying to stay alive. Returning to New York in 1996 after two years on the road, he found the Village, which had once afforded him the comfortable hum of cappuccino machines, the safety of coffee shop anonymity, completely transformed. Sin-é had closed its doors. What few shows he did play, he had to advertise under pseudonyms. He needed a quiet spot, a shrine. So, in early ‘97, he went to Memphis.

During the last few months of his life, Jeff Buckley lived in a shotgun house which he rented for a paltry $450 a month. He owned little more than a couch, a telephone, and a telephone book. What time he did not spend cycling back and forth from a Vietnamese restaurant he spent lying in the grass in his backyard, or at the butterfly exhibit at the Memphis Zoo. He played at a beer joint called Barrister’s, quietly. He recorded sketches of new songs on Michael Bolton cassettes that he’d picked up for pennies and sent them to his band in New York. My Sweetheart, The Drunk tremulously came together. On May 29th, the band flew into Memphis to begin recording.

That night, Jeff sang Led Zeppelin as he waded into the river.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Call the Midwife.

with chrissie hynde

"Ghost in the Room" - Numbers (mp3)

"Shortly Broken" - Numbers (mp3)

Wednesday
Mar122014

In Which We Are In The Breach Position

Deliver Us

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Call the Midwife
creator Heidi Thomas

The year is 1957. It will be another four years before Britain’s Family Planning Association adds the pill to its list of approved contraceptives, and fifteen years before all women in all U.S. states will have access to it, thanks to Eisenstadt vs. Baird. Commercial ultrasound machines won’t be available for another twenty years. If you’re lucky, you might get a gulp of laughing gas to manage the pain, but on a normal day in the impoverished East End of London, giving birth looks a lot like lying on a rubber mat in your own bed, hoping that you and your baby will come out of it relatively unscarred. If not, it’s just as well—you probably have four or five others to feed, anyways, and without contraception, it won’t be long before you’re back on that rubber mat.

Enter the midwife: your best friend, your lord and savior, your own personal Florence Nightingale.

Directed by Heidi Thomas, Call the Midwife follows nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she disembarks from a life of relative comfort into London’s rough-and-tumble Poplar neighborhood. She, along with three other RNs — Trixie, Cynthia, and Chummy — live and work at Nonnatus House, an Anglican nursing convent which provides medical care of all sorts for the community. 

When the phone at Nonnatus House isn't ringing in some new crisis, the nurses navigate their life in Poplar as any young woman in the late 1950s would: making friends, listening to records, smoking, and going to dances. But with the post-WWII baby boom still in full throttle, the nuns and nurses spend most of their time staring down a birth canal.

The BBC drama is based on Jennifer Worth's bestselling memoirs, and has proved to be a runaway hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States, its number of viewers surpassing even that of Downton Abbey. Since I started watching it several weeks ago, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes the show so very appealing (besides the British accents). I must admit that I was also looking for something to assuage my massive guilt, as I gave up television for Lent and still returned home every night to watch Call the Midwife.

For starters, it’s a medical drama, which people love, and it's a drama set in the late 1950s, which is terribly in vogue right now. However, as it's set in a poor neighborhood, there's very little of the glamour we associate with the time period; instead, it only serves to remind us of all the medical problems that had not yet been solved, and the comforts that were not yet available to expectant mothers. For example, let's all be grateful that hot soap and water enemas are no longer de rigueur before childbirth.

And for a medical drama, Call the Midwife isn't very dramatic. There are no mystery illnesses to solve, no adrenaline needles being shoved into the nearest unsuspecting patient's heart. In fact, the show relies on the same plot device over and over to keep it going: some poor woman goes into labor and phones Nonnatus House to send over a midwife. The midwife spirits away on her bicycle in the dead of night, arrives at the scene, and delivers the baby with or without incident. Crying ensues on everyone’s part. Even the lack of modern technology, which does add to the suspense, cannot conceal the fact that the show revolves around a process with limited outcomes that is as old as the world.

Childbirth. Do you remember that episode of Friends where Chandler finds a tape of what he thinks is lesbian porn, but what is in fact a video of a woman giving birth? His reaction to it is basically how I imagine every human has been conditioned to react to childbirth: disgust, horror, pity, and fear. Childbirth is violent and should be hidden; childbirth is shameful, and it should belong to women, and women only, and even women should only be allowed to talk about in terms of pain, and fear, and horror, especially to one another. As soon as a woman gets pregnant, she should know immediately what she’s in for: hell. With a pink bow on it.

Maybe this reaction to childbirth is relatively young itself, born along with the generation that is being born in Call the Midwife, once contraceptives became widely and legally available and childbirth became a choice, not a consequence. So much good has been gained from the introduction of the pill that it’s hard to see what we lost with its arrival: namely, the knowledge that women are strong, that women shelter and give life, that childbirth is a raw, mysterious, beautiful thing that belongs only to women in the sense that women, and only women, will ever be able to do it.

Granted, the women of Poplar do it because they have no choice; that’s the sad irony, one that Call the Midwife examines with grace. The forty-two year-old mother of eight who simply can't have any more children, yet finds herself pregnant despite all her precautions; the fifteen-year-old prostitute who will get kicked to the street if her condition is discovered, and who will lose her baby as soon as it's born because she is considered unfit to raise a child; the two women who deliver black babies, because they had an affair, and will do anything to keep their jubilant husbands out of the room; the many twentysomething women who are already on their third or fourth pregnancies, aged beyond their years, and now destined to spend the rest of their lives in an endless cycle of washing, cleaning, drying, soothing, and cooking. Each woman is different, but when they are in labor or holding their babies for the first time, they are all the same. They are universally and absolutely Woman; they have accomplished a terrible, wonderful thing and they know it. It's nothing short of mesmerizing.

When the pill was introduced, Jennifer Worth writes that childbirths in Poplar went from somewhere around 80 to 100 babies born each month to 4 or 5. "Now that," she writes, "is some social change!" Women were not only able to choose when they'd have their families, but they were also able to begin pursuing the things that society frowned upon once they'd become mothers: careers, or further education. The fabric of the neighborhood began to change. 

When babies aren't being born, the rest of Call the Midwife is full of what you'd more readily expect to see on television: romance, friendship, and copious amounts of tea-drinking. But the female friendships are anomalies as well: they're completely natural, and provide the foundation for a show that is as much about the community of women as it is about womanhood in general.  Jenny, Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy form a solid bond despite their differences in personality and taste, which may seem like the most rudimentary definition of friendship you've ever heard until you think of all the friendships that have dissolved, or have never happened, for much less. 

This may have happened because, as Jennifer Worth writes, the world of men was still very closed off to women, and there was nothing else for them to do but band together. But who would accept such an explanation? Throughout history midwives were often the community eccentrics, trained only by experience, and the bringing of life into the world happened behind shut doors, underneath the gentle ministrations of sisters, mothers, and aunts. Women banded together because they knew what they were doing, who they were, had the power to change everything.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another show on television right now that celebrates women from all stages, walks and choices of life with as much compassion and humor as Call the Midwife does. It honors the aged, the infirm and the unlovely just as much as it honors the strong and the gorgeous. It deals with religion, politics, race, handicap, age, sex, education, beauty, parents, money, and eating cake, all without stooping to moralism or ridicule. In fact,  I’m tempted to send it in a care package to Lena Dunham right now. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about subplots. She tumbls here.

"How Can I Drop You Without Gravity" - Plainfire (mp3)

"All So Nostalgic" - Plainfire (mp3)

The new album from Plainfire is entitled But When Words Fail, and you can find his bandcamp here.

Friday
Feb212014

In Which We Leave A Finger Between The Pages

Subplot

by KARA VANDERBIJL

I am civilized. My feelings are not.

- Jeanette Winterson

I have planted a nice garden here. Tracing over the past two years, my writing has visibly improved. This is good. I get emotional thinking about it. I nearly gave up writing. You know? It’s easy to be confused. Introspection can be just as dense as the lack thereof.

I have only been happy in short bursts, some of them terribly short. It is my fault. I inherited resignation, the tendency to blame outside of myself. The pendulum swings back to extreme guilt, self-deprecation. I have allowed happiness to become digital, or at least, sublimated. As if thinking correctly could make you happy. As if wrapping emotions into layers of text and subtext could produce joy.

I don’t think that happiness is the goal of a life. At least, it’s not the goal of my life. I don’t believe that unhappiness means necessary doom. But in long stretches it is indicative of a lack of gratitude. I am certainly disconnected, not only from what is most important but also from myself. From others. I’ve divorced parts of myself that need tending. I need to touch and feel and smell and smile. I need to be touched. I need to feel very small and allow myself to slowly be built up.

Because everybody keeps telling me I have so much time I don’t want to waste a second of it. I want to laugh and laugh some more and admit that I’m wrong. Is this allowed? Is it really any more complicated than this?

+

Everybody loses something. Keys. Bus passes. A comb.

I don’t lose things. Circling around a board game, I nominate myself the dice-thrower of one team or another. I throw some good pairs, some mediocre, three great. I can’t be blamed for the outcome. It is a game of weight, of fate.

Lost: receipts, bookmarks, socks.

Soon after moving to France, I had my mother dye my hair auburn. I did not want to blend in. When I didn’t know the right words to formulate my thoughts, I kept quiet. I did not want to stick out.

A mitten. A penny. Phone reception.

Cheap sweaters disintegrate in the dryer. Misguided intentions, spooning rent money into my mouth, living month to month. I can’t even afford what I need, how can I give? This is a lean time, but give out of weakness. Fold the two dollars bills in your wallet, stuff them into a frozen cup on the sidewalk.

Wallet. Passport. Country.

Thirteen years ago today my family moved into another language, took up residence with the irregular verbs. Humans don’t conjugate easily. I wasn’t happy with my handwriting, and so I rewrote my lessons over and over again. I learned the verbs by accident. None of us live there anymore.

A slim, crinkled roll of paper towels fell into the kitchen sink when I tried to put it back in its proper spot and I looked at it and said, “Fuck you,” without thinking, because if I had been thinking in that moment I would have realized what a terribly ridiculous thing it is to a. insult a roll of paper towels, especially when they’re more absorbent than the leading brand and b. to do this so vehemently, as if the rogue paper towels had killed my family before my eyes.

Later, I was baking with a very hot oven (Wikipedia tells me that anything between 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit classifies as a very hot oven.) As it popped and clicked its way to that infernal temperature I worried that the expansion of gas was going to blow the door open or that it was simply going to spontaneously combust, which I imagine is altogether within its range of capabilities. The oven beeps so faintly when it is done preheating, as if to belie the roar of the ignitor and the dull orange flame I can just see when I open the door to peek inside. I cannot let my guard down with this appliance. I have often dreamed of sacrificing small odds and ends in its favor, building a shrine, much like the employees of a hair salon in Los Angeles I once frequented, who offered up bowls of rice and day-old donuts to a particularly moody blow dryer.

Here begins the smaller subplot with the smoke detector. This is one I do not intend to flesh out any more than strictly necessary. Two minutes before the raisin buns were done baking, it came shrilly to life. The next thing I remember, its parts were exposed and I was holding two 9-V batteries in a floured hand. What if there is a fire in the next two minutes and I don’t even know about it? What if when I put the batteries back in, it resumes beeping and doesn’t stop, ever? What will I tell my landlord? Why doesn’t this have a mute button?

I consumed several buns to fortify myself and left the windows open. I replaced the alarm’s batteries and mask; it cried out once, and I shook my finger at it. “Now you behave,” I said.

At the front door of my building, the button next to my apartment number is the only one illuminated. It is a beacon in the night, drawing drunks from the bar kitty-corner to my door like moths to a flame. Punctuate the night with the doorbell ringing. 2 o’clock, the first wave of sloshing bellies spill into cabs, catch the last train south. 3 o’clock, raucous laughter, ring. 4 o’clock, the stragglers shuffle by, think they are somewhere that they are not. At 5 a.m. the first bus passes by on my street, its automated voice more faithful than any alarm: “It’s morning.”

I live alone but I have not been lonely, although perhaps my voice has tended towards disuse. This home and the street speak to me daily; I’m just too young yet to talk back.

With a dream, my feelings change. I feel soft as clay when I wake up, like a child. I am not afraid of all the things that I could be: good, better, worse. The only thing that frightens me is no longer being able to change, no longer being able to study the interminable facets of any given person or situation.

It’s you that I choose to study. I’m a poor student, but even when I’m baffled, I pull these books to my lap. I leave a finger between the pages when my thoughts fly elsewhere.

I can’t imagine a single right answer. In the early morning, I often hear arguments out on the street. Often it’s between two men, a father and son, or two friends who have had too much to drink. The yelling wakes me up and I’m frightened. From the outside, my apartment doesn’t seem secure, but when I’m inside it feels like a fortress. I’m not sure which perception is closer to reality.

Almost nothing is as I expected. It’s better. As I open myself up to possibility, my ideals, these ghostly dreams, disappear for something more painful, more instructive, more creative. I am being chiseled down to the beautiful bits.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about the things they carried. She tumbls here and twitters here.

Photographs by the author.

"The Most Immaculate Haircut" - Metronomy (mp3)

"Love Letters" - Metronomy (mp3)