A Handy Guide to My Death

BUTTERFIELD__621

So, my birthday is coming up.

Over the past 34 years, I’ve come to realize that I’m going to die. It’s a total bummer, right? When you’re dead you don’t get to do things anymore. And what’s worse, death is unpredictable like weather. Maybe some well meaning person in a white coat can give me a ballpark guestimate but maybe I’ll just be walking around and my heart will stop like a refrigerator motor in the middle of the night. Inconvenient!

When you think about death the way I have for the last ten or twenty years, it really puts things in perspective. A terrible, crushing perspective. Here are the realizations I’ve made:

I will never, ever experience everything I want to experience. I’ve been moving through life like a cat riding a Roomba, collecting interesting things for later. Hmm, maybe I’ll read this book trilogy? Maybe I’ll play this series of games? Perhaps I’ll take up gardening? Bzzzt! Probably not!

  • My body is dying in pieces. Right now, while writing this, I’m pushing one of my teeth with my tongue and it feels a little like it’s moving a bit. An enthusiasm for bread has made me insulin resistant and now, there are parts of my body I simply can’t feel anymore due to nerve damage. My memory is worse, I get nauseated on roller coasters now.
  • I have no idea what happens when you die but my suspicion is nothing. And I don’t know what nothing feels like. I can’t know, it’s one of those meaningless concepts like infinity or Bill Berry’s unibrow.

As you might imagine, I’m fucking terrified. I’m scared enough that I’ve combed the closed stacks for the secrets of lichdom. I’m willing to make a Darke Pact with El Nosferatu in order to gain eternal life. I backed the Lazarus Protocol kickstarter at the $60 level (beta access, sticker, personal thank you). In the words of Steven Tyler, this generation’s greatest poet, “I don’t wanna miss a thing.”

In the face of mighty Thanatos, what can I do? That’s the thing. That’s the silBUTTERFIELD__621ver lining to all this morose navel gazing. I can be mindful and active, I can choose what I say and do and choose how I spend my time, not be shitty to people, not say things to hurt people. And when other people are shitty and hurtful, I can call them out for it. It’s my mortality that gives this weight and poignancy.

I fail at this over and over and over. I get mad and say something shitty, I waste time shadowboxing invisible monsters. I make my girlfriend cry. I project the worst possible connotations onto innocent statements and I project innocence onto ignorant, harmful rhetoric. I dismiss things that people care about, I forget that everything matters. I forget my privilege, I’m lazy and I don’t floss.

Here are some horrible things I’ve done, both through action and inaction:

  • In 7th grade I got into a fight with a kid because he called my mother a lesbian.
  • I’ve made cruel fun behind the backs of my friends.
  • When I first moved to Portland, I went to this pirate themed store. A clerk, dressed as a pirate said, “Arrr, can ye read, matey?” I said, “Yes.” He then pointed to a sign that instructed guests to check their bags. I apologized and he said, “It’s not really for you. It’s for those Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.” I just smiled and nodded like a racist coward.

I’m trying to be better though. I’m trying so fucking hard, which creates this amazing dissonance, this feeling of power and powerlessness. I think Tyler expressed the contrast best when he said, “Living it up while you’re going down.” It’s this sensation of being pulled between guilt and confidence.  I feel like a spring.

Anyway, back to my corpse. What do we even do with the danged thing? As previously stated, I don’t think I’ll have any consciousness to actually care.  The kind answer is to do whatever won’t distress the loved ones I leave behind. But, if it’s OK with my mom and girlfriend, if anyone wants to use my skull as a horcrux, I’m more or less down. Also, I’ll try to die in a graveyard to make things easypeasy.

I’d like there to be some sort of joke for my epitaph. Something like, “I’d get up but I am a skeleton.” Or, “Well, this sucks.” Or, “This is scary and I hate it but you should go be nice to someone instead of reading this.”

BUTTERFIELD__621

A Spoonful of Medicine

This is an essay I had on the old incarnation of this blog. I’ve revised it, however. Also, the Average Sunset Covers Club stuff is coming (though I think the club itself is dead). It’ll be a grand post with all of the content in one place for all to enjoy.

LittlePhatty_huge

 

A Spoonful of Medicine

To set terms, when I refer to pop music I don’t restrict myself to Top 40. I mean catchy music that, at least, nods to traditional song structure. In fact, there’s very little in the way of modern radio music I enjoy. Yes, I’m out of touch. Yes, I’m ignorant of an entire sphere of music. But that’s true of just about everyone. Anywho.
I’ve been thinking that maybe an appreciation for pop is elemental, a part of us. The difference is in how we dress it up. There’s just an ineffable thingie to certain chords and melodies. There’s a reason why so many songs rip off Pachelbel’s Cannon.  It’s a really pleasing chord progression! It appeals to people who write songs. It occurs to them. As if they came up with it! How can that be an accident?
It applies to so many genres that it’s practically pan genre. Country music is just a form of pop music and it’s never pretended to be anything else. A whole lot of metal is more or less pop music that hates its dad. Almost all indie rock is pop music wearing glasses. If it’s lighter indie stuff, it wears it’s pop roots on its sleeve and if it’s heavy, it’s probably just pop music with a distortion pedal.
This isn’t really an original observation. But the next bit might be. See, I think that one of the strongest tools in the song writers arsenal is the sporadic use of anti-pop. Or maybe a better way to put that by leaving out one or two traditional pop elements, you can make pop truly, well, pop. Here are some examples:
4/4 is the time signature of life. You know 4/4, even if you know nothing about music. 1. 2. 3. 4. If you count a beat, it will be 4/4 unless you’re consciously trying not to. Therefore, it makes sense that almost every song, pop or otherwise, is in 4/4. I bet 90% of modern music is in 4/4. And here’s the thing: you can create a really powerful contrast by playing with the tension of juxtaposing unusual time signatures with standard 4/4.
Listen to this song by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti called Menopause Man.  Don’t pay attention to the lyrics. Listen to the instrumental break between the verse and chorus at about one minute and six seconds, but listen to the part leading to it too. It’s important. Now, this part, it’s mathy, proggy and complicated. There are bands that do this all the time and, yes, they’re neat. But Ariel Pink is a student of pop. “Pop music is fun/Just like chewing gum/Pop music is good/It sounds like it should,” he sings in another song. His music is informed by the radio, 70s radio. So when he gets into this polyrhythmic groove, it’s a tool. After spending a little time with this tense, tight little nugget, the song explodes into a soaring chorus. It sounds heroic. And it’s in 4/4. What he’s doing here is teasing us. He’s giving us relief, a refuge. A castle of pop on an island of prog surrounded by a moat of funk. This song is a masterpiece.
Certain musical intervals work as pop and certain ones don’t. An interval is the space between the notes. Not chronologically but how far apart they are on the keyboard. I don’t know the science or theory behind it but I’m confident it’s there.   Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Memories Can’t Wait by The Talking Heads as an expression of contrast in pop music. The first 3/4 of the song is droning, dissonant and has strange sounds creeping into the periphery like shadows from a candle. I didn’t realize what made this part so tense until I learned to play the tune: the chords are very close to one another spatially. This gives the vocal line and melody a cramped, nervous quality. And then, when it reaches a reverse crescendo of nervous energy (about two minutes and twenty seconds in), the song becomes pop. The chords have traditional intervals, the sound effects cease a bit and everything just opens up in time for Byrne to kill it.
Song structure is another big thing when you’re intentionally deviating from pop best practices. Most songs have a traditional sort of verse chorus verse thing going on with maybe a bridge or key change sprinkled on top. Something I appreciate in music is when these sorts of cliches are truncated or fucked with. Two of my favorite bands come to mind.  Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices waffles between more traditional song structures and strange little pop masterpieces that sound like the wreckage of the British Invasion washing up on the shores of some surreal foreign city. Take Gold Star For Robot Boy for example. This is like a segment of a traditional pop song, charging forward with no time to stop and flesh out. It’s audio flash fiction.
Contrasting with Robert Pollard’s impressive fecundity (he wrote 4 songs while you were reading this), is The Unicorns, a band that burned out way too quickly for my taste. They have one perfect album, a collection of tracks and an underwhelming and short EP to their names.
In a lot of ways, The Unicorns write songs that are similar to GBV. The Clap is structurally very similar to a GBV song. Similarly, listen to Jellybones, unbelievably, their lead single. This song is all about contrast between slow parts, fast parts, and contains that subversively, monstrously, wonderfully ugly keyboard squelch right at the beginning. Masterful.
I don’t have any formal training or education in music but I consider myself a student of song and as a songwriter myself, I’m always trying to see the strings. I want to see how they do the trick. I don’t think this is any grand revelation but when it comes to pop music, a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.