As you very likely know, the world lost the incredible David Bowie in January of this year. Soon after, Will Brooker asked if I’d like to put together a cover of a Bowie song with him to use over the credits of a documentary he was making about research he did whilst writing his book on Bowie (due out January 2017). Please head over to Forever Stardust to learn more about that. The book and the documentary should be quite good if his previous works are any indication.
I wanted to say a few words about this project, especially given I know some of us felt like touching a Bowie song was stepping on hallowed ground. Did we dare? Eventually, obviously, we did. And we can only hope that we’ll get lumped in with all those covers we heard come out the last 8 months (it’s 8 months and 1 day now since we lost Bowie) that are considered good, rather than the ones that made us cringe or shrug. But I suppose that I have that hope with everything I release into the world…
Why did I do it?
I like a good collaboration, and I reckoned that Will’s and my voices would sound good together. (I still think that and hope we sort out our ideas for future collaborations.)
Like many, I was gutted by Bowie’s death and, in some ways, getting to submerge myself in this was therapeutic. It didn’t take the sorrow away (it’s still there), but I find that working on someone else’s creation gives me a sense of seeing them a bit better, which took the edge off my loss.
I liked the fact that distance is a theme in the song and we were going to build this song around people who were both physically distant and strangers to each other. There are people I’ve never met who worked on this track, to whom I felt a sort of creative closeness whilst working, but who will still be strangers when, and if, we meet. (I’m pretty sure I owe drinks to at least half of them, so surely that means it’s a “when” and not an “if.”)
I love this song. I think the album is under-appreciated, and even others I know who love Bowie aren’t familiar with this song. Whereas I actually recall clearly the emotional impact this song had on me the first time I heard it, years ago (and how I replayed it a dozen times in a row once I’d finished listening to the album). Whatever you think of our cover, go listen to the original. It’s a dense and complicated piece that, in true Bowie style, sounds simple in the best possible way.
This was a project that hit a lot of hurdles, so I definitely want to give yet another massive thanks to everyone who ended up making the time, giving their best, and (in some cases) and stretching their capabilities to make this happen. Literally each name on the list below (after the embed) is someone who had to give extra to do what they did or who was a last-minute save. Bless!
Put your headphones on (really…this song is best with headphones or good speakers that let you hear the panning and such) and give it a listen. Hope you enjoy!
Written by David Bowie
Vocals: Amber Bird, Will Brooker
Guitar: Joe Brooker, Jason Cope
Bass: Taylor McCarrey
Keyboard: Cat McCarrey
Drums: Euan Rodger
Mixing/production: Amber Bird, Joe Brooker
Additional engineering: Oliver Betts
I want to be clear that this isn’t meant to be my tribute or eulogy post. For a variety of reasons, I’m a private griever and prefer to keep my mourning chiefly out of the public eye. In the days, weeks, and years to come, I will surely continue to reference and reminisce about David Bowie, and I hope those will be seen as acts of love and remembrance, not as public displays of grief.
I also want to make sure nobody doubts that I really love Blackstar. What a fine album! What great videos! So, this is also not a critique or criticism of that work.
And, as a lover of romance and fine stories, I surely won’t spend more time trying to ruin the ending that many people are enjoying right now. (That I enjoyed myself and shall surely enjoy again…But, for now, I help myself move through emotion by trying to anchor myself in something like an intellectual moment.)
What this is is my thoughts, now that I’ve had time to ponder and get my brain engaged, on the understanding and claim that Blackstar was meant as Bowie’s final farewell to us. I certainly see it as a farewell, but I think there are some nuances I’d like to point out that make me question that it was meant as a final farewell.
I’ll proceed from the most public of my three pieces of anecdotal evidence to the most personal.
Tony Visconti said…
The clear starting point to address this belief is the statement from Tony Visconti, who is certainly more of an expert on Bowie and his mindset than I or most anyone else could ever claim to be. Only about 2 hours after news broke of Bowie’s death, Visconti posted this to his Facebook:
(Text: He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.)
This seems a pretty strong argument for those who want to paint Blackstar simply as that final, parting gift. However, Rolling Stone reported:
“About a week before his death, with Blackstar nearing release, David Bowie called his longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti via FaceTime, and told him he wanted to make one more album. In what turned out to have been the final weeks of his life, Bowie wrote and demo-ed five fresh songs, and was anxious to return to the studio one last time.”
Which seems to at least call for some nuance in how we see this. Bowie himself does not seem to have known that Blackstar would be his final album, and it’s therefore arguable that he had other words waiting with which to say farewell or to extend the farewell of Blackstar.
Let the record show…
In the days since Bowie’s death, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s listened to his discography multiple times. And as the rest of you who’ve done that have surely noticed, death and mortality were common themes for Bowie. And not just the deaths of others, but regularly the death of whoever it is that was the point-of-view character for the songs. Again, this doesn’t mean that Bowie wasn’t saying farewell in Blackstar, but that pointing to themes of death and mortality in the album as proof isn’t enough when we take in the whole body of his work.
(For similar but expanded thoughts, please see Will Brooker’s interview in The Atlantic. He is, it’s fair to say, a Bowie scholar and actively an academic. I’m pleased I read this interview before I pushed publish so that you need not just wonder whether this was merely the misperception of my grieving mind.)
Mummy come back ’cause it’s dark now…
I hope you’ll excuse a bit of personal information here in what is, arguably, my most respectable essay since uni. You see, my mum is wrapped up in this. Not because she loved Bowie (she refused to believe he could sing or was a musician worth listening to until I played her Bowie’s Christmas duet with Bing Crosby) or because she played him for me (she didn’t), but because of her own last 18 months.
My mum was born about a month before Bowie, in December of 1946. Skip ahead to her end. My mum’s death was almost exactly 5 years before Bowie’s (were those my five years left to cry in?), in January of 2011, and was also from cancer. In the same Rolling Stone article quoted above, Visconti revealed that Bowie had actually been fighting the cancer for 18 months before it took him. My mum’s initial cancer diagnosis was 18 months before her death. Visconti notes that the cancer resurged after some dormancy the November before Bowie’s death. My mum’s did the same. And, from the fact that Bowie was trying to make one more album just a week before he died, we can argue that the final blow was quite quick. For my mum, it was more like two weeks of warning. But, again, in my mind there’s that parallel.
I don’t mean to argue that the loosely parallel endings give me mystical insight, but I lay out that context as part of the understanding that has lead to my third and final argument for a more nuanced view of Blackstar as an intentional final farewell.
My mum did “wrapping up” things from the start of her 18 month journey with cancer. It’s a rather common human reaction to the spectre of a death that’s more solid than most. So, even without being sure it was his end, Bowie would certainly be normal (and his death is proof that David Jones, the mortal behind Bowie, was occasionally as normal as any other human) if he did some of his own wrapping up things. As an artist, that could easily involve a song or two directly addressing his own mortality.
As time passed and as she became calmly sure she wasn’t going to beat cancer, my mum still fought on to put out every bit of love and farewells and goodness she could, to make sure that her legacy included a graceful approach to her own mortality. It seems completely fathomable, especially in light of keeping his illness and impending end a secret, that Bowie did the same. Rather than sit back and save his energy for healing, he fought on to put out an album and videos…and prepared to do more. One can be sure of one’s mortality without actually putting out only requiems and farewells.
So, yes, I absolutely believe that Blackstar contains some brilliant farewells and glimpses of how Bowie saw his own mortality. But I also believe that there’s reason to argue he didn’t necessarily see it as his final farewell. I suppose this is just my long-winded way of, once again and on one more topic, asking for us to have a more nuanced view. (Even if I’m now going to go and, once again, sob along to the album in question.)
If you haven’t already, please read the introduction post. That will give you context for this page.
I’m doing this post out of order, in spite my intentions to just work through the list from top to bottom, because this was the post that circled around and around in my head whilst I considered doing this series.
Someone who is gender fluid switches between genders, which may include male, female, neutrois, third gender, or any other genderqueer identity. They can also switch to have combinations at the same time, such as male and female, or other mixes, such as male, neutrois, and a third gender. They can combine varying amounts of gender identities; three, four, or five, or many with which the individual identifies. They can also be every gender and combination at once, a term known as polygender (other terms for which may include multigender or pangender, which may be considered derogatory by some).
But some of you are here not for a consolidation of definitions; you want to read what this means to me. Especially if you already looked up genderfluid (look, I’ve seen it with and without the space and I like it spelled this way) and realise that this is one of those things where you need to actually ask me what I mean if you want to know how it applies to me. Given the big role gender played in my life, even before I knew what gender was, I’m happy to help you understand.
As a kid, obviously, the word “gender” didn’t mean anything to me, even though the concept impacted me. I knew I was a girl (look! girl bits!), but I also knew that I liked boy things as much as or more than girl things (something that will mean something else when we talk about my bisexuality…ha!). And I knew that this confused and bothered some people, and that it made friendships difficult. Girls thought I was weird for liking boy things; boys weren’t sure they believed I liked boy things because I also liked girl things. Ugh! That was a real pain for wee Amber.
It also led to turmoil later. I went through years and years where I tried to strongly reject all girl things (not that I wanted to be a boy, but if I liked boy things more in general, I didn’t want girl things getting in the way of friendships…plus, my subconscious feminist hadn’t yet realised that this was doing me a disservice; she just knew that boys seemed to have a better deal in life and I wanted in on that…and then I tried to balance not wanting to hate being a girl with trying not to be “too much a girl” and had a whole different miserable experience). I hated colours purely on principle, I was distraught if someone accused me of being at all girl-like, I was ashamed of the things about my body that proved that I was a girl. But I never actually wanted to be a boy in a way that would lead me to change my body or be trans. I felt guilty when I liked things that I’d lumped in as girl things (someone bought me a relaxing spa facial that was ruined by feeling guilty the whole time). I even only wore makeup at one point (I wanted to wear it, but I felt I needed an excuse) because I’d grown up knowing and knowing of plenty of boys who did that (thank you, David Bowie). I wanted people to be romantically interested in me because of me, not because they wanted girly me or because they could picture me as a boy. On and on…what a mess it was in my head and my heart. I’ll spare you the numerous stories and situations and hope you can get a sense of what a non-fun time that was.
Let’s fast-forward. Still before I’d even learned about gender in the context of the definitions I pasted in at the start of this, I had the great fortune of opportunities that let me gain some pretty solid self-esteem (my self-esteem is another future post or two). As part of that, I kind of laid off on the self-categorisation a bit and just accepted that I was me. That didn’t change what a pain it was to interact with other humans if gender mattered, of course. But then we can fast-forward a little more to when I learned that definition of gender I pasted in. In my world, this was huge. Because here is what it meant to me:
Unlike my sex, which was a real thing that included definable and concrete elements like breasts (small, but existent…hello, girls!) and female genitals, gender wasn’t real in a way that I felt I had to honour or allow to constrain me. It was something that changed from culture to culture, from age of time to age of time. It was made up. It had no right to mean anything more to me than any other fiction. And it was a bloody shame that someone else’s fiction impacted my daily life. That it would (and does) impact it even if I reject it as a reality, because the rest of society accepts it.
I started using genderfluid to describe this state of mine where, sometimes, I feel “girl” because I fit the gender stereotypes of Western culture that they consider the female gender…and sometimes I feel “boy” for the parallel male gender reasons…but, mostly, I just feel “Amber.” Which is to say that I rarely think of myself as male or female in a gender way, just in a sex way. And, when I do, I remind myself that I’m buying into a fiction that, in my opinion, has done more harm than good. And then, even if my feelings or actions or appearance don’t change, I’m back to feeling “Amber” and life is better.
Whether or not I wear makeup (which anyone who pays attention knows I feel isn’t just for females) or skirts (ditto) or pink or etc (ditto and ditto), I’m Amber. And even things like “being very emotional” or “being too logical” that are ascribed to one sex or another by way of gender roles are things I’ve seen in both sexes (and have seen both in myself). Same story with behaviours (girls are backstabbing and boys are emotionally distant…okay, have really only seen the “emotionally distant” in myself, and even that rarely…but you get my point, right?). So, I reject that stuff as actually fundamentally tied to any person just because of the genitals with which they were born. And I certainly reject it as ways to categorise myself, because I don’t fit a box and I don’t worry about fitting a box.
Here’s a short FAQ:
Q. What’s my gender?
Q. What gender pronouns do I prefer?
A. I don’t have a preference. As long as you aren’t trying to be insulting (cos I don’t ever prefer to be insulted), you can use female, male, or gender-neutral pronouns. I’ve happily responded to all.
Q. Why genderfluid and not agender?
A. Because I read the definitions and see overlap and see how both could apply, but genderfluid just feels right. And since it’s all made up anyway, I’m going to go with my feelings on this.
Q. Do I ever cross-dress?
A. As someone who’s female sexed, I have a lot more room to manoeuvre clothing/appearance in this society. Unless I stuffed my pants with something to make it look like I have boy parts, I can wear trousers or skirts in all sorts of styles and people likely wouldn’t assume I was dressing to fit a gender. (And I’ve only stuffed my trousers as part of a Halloween costume. Never really found myself wanting to be physiologically male…except during that day or two a month when my female parts are trying to kill me…ha!)
Q. Is it okay if I, the reader, feel like I have a gender and want to claim a gender, request specific pronouns?
A. Yes! I have come to where I am because this is the healthiest place for me (something I learned through both study and experimentation). If you have found another place that is your healthiest, rock that place!
Q. Is it okay that I, the reader, think of you as female?
A. Sure. I have the genitals that classify me as female. However, I’d appreciate you stopping short of assuming that my physical femaleness tells you anything more about me than that. It doesn’t tell you my personality, my aesthetic, my capabilities, etc. You proceed at your own risk if you try to gender me (instead of just sexing me). (And everyone pause whilst the perpetual adolescent part of me has a laugh at the ways you can interpret that last sentence.)
We should be back to posts that follow the order of my original list next week. Thanks for being observant and noticing this out-of-order post. I’m going to go empty the rubbish, cook some dinner, and read scifi. These are all things easily encompassed in the Amber gender.
Cross-posted to the Not Ashamed section of my site (so that it’s all tidy)
Today is not the day I write an essay about the distance that often comes from being an artist. From being a musician. Or the way that the intense emotions that seem so prevalent in artists can make it hard to get enough distance. And how it’s all a blessing and a curse. But it is the day I make you a playlist about distance.
This last year, I’ve been thinking about distance quite a bit (the positive, the negative, or just the neutral facts). Being close, being far, wanting things to be other than they are or thinking they are just right, the physical/mental/emotional, distance from/closeness to self and others. I made myself multiple playlists about that during the year (because I do so love to make playlists). So I thought I’d make a short, moody distance playlist for you as well (with a made-up-ish word* for its title). After all, distance is something we have in common…
(Yes, I left out some good songs to keep this shorter. The first draft was enormous. I was trying to fit in all my distance thoughts… And some of the distance is in the way the song feels when I listen. So just close your eyes and feel it with me.)
1. SQÜRL- Spooky Action at a Distance
2. I Am Kloot – Even the Stars
3. He Is A Pegasus – Fin
4. Radiohead – A Reminder
5. His Name Is Alive – Are You Coming Down This Weekend?
6. Placebo – Drink You Pretty
7. The National – I Need My Girl
8. Ash – Lost In You
9. Emmy the Great – Paper Forest (Birds)
10. James Dean Bradfield – Don’t Look Back
11. Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism
12. Baxter – I Can’t See Why
13. Björk – Unravel
14. Shriekback – (Open Up Your) Filthy Heart (To Me)
15. Editors – Let Your Good Heart Lead You Home
16. David Bowie – Where Are We Now?
17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Ship Song
18. Manic Street Preachers – Solitude Sometimes Is
19. The Joy Formidable – Silent Treatment
20. Placebo – H.K. Farewell
EDIT 2014-12-29: After yesterday’s all audio playlist, I got an itch to make a video playlist. I love video, and I love what it can add to the experience of the music. For this playlist, the only real theme is that I thought of a video and could find that video online. Honestly, I was baffled at how hard it was to find certain videos…Anyway, I gave myself a very short while to brainstorm and add videos to a list, and then I went through and kept the ones that felt somehow coherent, narrowing it down from about a billion… (Not sure why most are older…) This time, don’t close your eyes.
Stars in Your Eyes
1. Daphne Guinness: Evening in Space
2. David Bowie: Life on Mars?
3. Placebo: This Picture
4. Ash: Shining Light
5. Siouxsie and the Banshees: The Passenger
6. Placebo: Slave to the Wage
7.Manic Street Preachers: Love’s Sweet Exile
8. Duran Duran: Electric Barbarella
9. David Bowie: Ashes to Ashes
10. Placebo: Taste In Men
11. IAMX: Missile
12. Garbage: Androgyny
13. Ash: Girl From Mars (UK vid)
14. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Face to Face
15. Björk: All Is Full of Love
16. Manic Street Preachers: Stay Beautiful
17. Placebo: Bruise Pristine
18. David Bowie: The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
*Things that are equidistant are the same distance from a common point. Equidistance is that equal distance. “Equi” means equal. And you know what distance is, what it is to be distance. “In” is either a preposition concerning location or is a negating prefix. All of this comes together in my head, suggesting many possible meanings to the title…Art is one of the few places I can enjoy ambiguity…
As observant readers know, I don’t talk about the meaning behind the lyrics I write. I’ve been thinking lately about explaining myself, explaining why I don’t explain myself, via blog. I was almost derailed, though, as I read the introduction to a book of lyrics by one of my favourite artists (Brian Molko of Placebo). Brian doesn’t even like to have his lyrics written out for people to read and, whilst I don’t share that particular dislike, the reasons he provided made sense. Suddenly, I felt like I’d already put so much out there just by providing lyrics…But here I am, explaining myself. Oddly, the thing that has me finally writing up what I hope will be a comprehensive guide to why I don’t like to explain what/whom lyrics are about is the decision to actually do a little explaining as part of the release of my band’s Each to Each EP. No, I know, it doesn’t make sense. Welcome to the chaos of my brain!
Now, without further preface:
Why I Don’t Like To Explain My Lyrics
(A list I scribbled whilst on the tube)
I can’t be the only person who loved a song and found meaning in it and then read or heard the band talking about what they meant by it and was completely put off the song or confused…and it ceased to be meaningful to me. Sometimes, for the sake of being fed by art, it’s better we don’t understand what the artist intended.
Lyrics ought to stand on their own, in the context of a song, without need for explanation. Writing them without intent to explain them keeps me from taking sloppy shortcuts. Because…
In an ideal world, my songs are all over the place and people are hearing them without explanation. And…
People are finding their own connection to the lyrics, their own meaning. Mine matters and there’s something to be said for authorial intent, but who am I to deny you the meaning you find? People are, I believe, most likely to find a meaning that speaks to their understanding and their context or to find, in those things that they connect with that are outside their context, a way to open their minds and hearts.
Sometimes, the feelings that are captured in lyrics are fleeting. They might last only as long as it takes me to write. They might even be mostly worked out but just a pushy ghost whispering words in my heart by the time I have a moment to write. If I was hurt by you or doubted you for one brief moment, there’s no reason to have you feel hurt or upset every time you hear a song that was written in that moment.
On a related note…
Lyrics, like other art forms, sometimes dramatise a feeling or an experience. We’re trying to help evoke a massive emotion in just a few minutes; we don’t have years of building up the emotional context. (Or maybe I realised the best words to get the emotion and the rhyme/metre is to use a word that’s a bit more than things strictly, literally were. Ah, artistic license…)
This leads to two reasons I don’t want to tell you the story behind a song:
Yes, it’s an authentic emotion I’m describing, but it doesn’t mean that every moment of whatever we were doing was this massively horrible or amazing. I don’t want anyone taking it the wrong way.
I don’t want people who care about me to know that something is really that massively big because they would worry. They don’t need to worry. Better they assume it’s just dramatised. (I promise, if I need help, I’ll reach out.)
Whilst the feelings or my side of a story are mine to share, I don’t necessarily want to cast aspersions on or cause discomfort in the other person(s) involved. Especially if I was being a bit dramatic. Even if I wasn’t, I’m not actually hateful and I hope that even those who’ve done the worst to me have gone on to become better people and have happy lives. (I’ve actually had more than one person who quite sincerely apologised to me, years after the fact, when they realised how horrid they’d been.)
I don’t want to feed anyone’s egos. I don’t want to make famous (or infamous) people who did me ache. The only way in which I let them linger in my life is by turning them into something good (lyrics, poems, characters in stories, art!). If the worst they did was break my heart by not returning a feeling, my emotions are still not here for their egos. They need to go find some other girl or boy to help them feel that, someone to whom they return the feeling so that it’s a healthy situation. (And, whilst some people think they know which songs are about them, I’ve had some of my closest friends guess incorrectly about a song’s inspiration. So, if someone tells you I wrote it about them, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about…)
Often, I’ve used the song to process through and be mostly done with an emotion or a dark moment. If we’re performing, I’m willing to put myself back in that emotion to give you a good show (I am a fan of emotional authenticity). Outside that context, however, I want to be done with the feeling. (Why dwell on an old hurt when life delivers new hurts?) And some things will creep back in far too easily if I tell you what the song was about. I try to have the same policy with emotional self harm as I do with physical, which is to say I avoid it these days.
The meanings of the songs evolve, even for me. You know how sometimes you hear a song and it means one thing, and then you live a little more and the song evolves to mean something else? There are a few of my songs where that’s what’s happened. (Bruise Me, for instance…and I swear I intend to write about that in the tidbit I’m going to post about Bruise Me in the days after the album release, so read that for a concrete example.)
Having told you all that, and feeling pretty sure I’ve covered all my reasons (nine is a good number), I’m going to go write some tidbits about the songs on the album…give you a little peek at what’s behind some of the songs.
Of course, whilst I prefer not to talk about the meanings, I’m always interested in hearing what the songs mean to someone else. Even if, as occasionally happens, what someone hears in them is so far from my truth when I wrote them that I get confused. It gives me a chance to discover nuances and consider other perspectives. So do keep finding meaning. For me, if people are connecting and finding meaning, the songs are doing what they’re meant to do, and that means my life has been worth living…worth singing about.
I’ve come to a healthy decision, I think, in terms of image. And I am pretty sure that a number of people I know might benefit from the journey and the decision it led to. Because all of us have an image, a way that others perceive and think of us based on what they see of us, whether or not we are deliberate about cultivating it. So, I’m going to lay out the stones that make up this path and see if I can walk you down it and show you my destination. First, some stones…
Stone One… I have always known (growing up on Bowie) that image is an important aspect of an artist. I have often been taught the importance of at least appearing to be a good person, the right person for a job, and that sort of thing. Like everyone, I’ve benefited from the added enjoyment of an artist whose awesome art is only made more interesting by their cool image. I also understand why, even if I hate it, image matters for non-artists. We humans tell each other not to judge books by their covers…And we can work on that, but judging books by covers is a large part of the history of how we survived. I won’t argue it’s always a good thing, because it’s more complex than that. This stone is more about acknowledging that we live in a world where image is part of the equation and that there are times I’ve gotten some enjoyment from others’ images. Whether or not we like it, we all have images.
Also, when you’re on this side of the microphone or keyboard, there’s always someone pushing an image on you or asking if you’ve taken your image into account. It’s part of the business of art, something you have to deal with if you want your art to see the light of day. I do. I want that very much. But that’s where my love of authenticity strongly asserts itself. I know that image is important, even if I’d rather not have to spare it a thought. I want to have my music and my words in all of your heads, so I have to at least stop and assess this issue.
Stone Two… The other night, I stayed up way too late talking with a friend as I tried to sort out a small bio. She did the smart thing and looked at what other bios in my peer group for this might look like and suggested changes to help mine mesh better. We sent emails back and forth, replying multiple times to each other before we’d read replies to our replies, explaining why changes were a good idea or felt bad, and finally ended up with the original idea I’d sent her….just the order of a couple sentences switched rather than a massive re-write.
Stone Three… Longer term than that, some essays on women on the autism spectrum and the way that they use mirroring to seem “normal” have had me thinking about the extent to which we all do mirroring as part of fitting into our societies. Because there are plenty of things that indicate that I might be on the spectrum, and because I am a massive fan of authenticity, this all brought up some concern. I spent a bit quietly freaking out, wondering how much of me was really me. (I take self-knowledge and authenticity Very Seriously.)
Stone Four… Two days ago, I stumbled across this essay on the issue of identity and the ideal self in the film Velvet Goldmine. I suspect you can pull out some useful tidbits to bring on our journey even if you’ve not seen the film, so I’ll wait here whilst you go have a read. (Really, it’s an important part of how I got to my destination, so it’s worth me waiting here all alone whilst you read…)
As most of you know, my passion is making music. I pour everything into my band, and let any leftover drops fall into my efforts at writing poetry and fiction. This means that the dreaded bio is a regular part of my life. If I’m lucky, someone else writes something that is close enough to good and true that I can just sigh and let it be. However, there are still bios that are mine to write. In an age where our art can go well beyond just those who already know us, the bio is part of how we communicate our image.
This is me, standing on Stone One. Admitting this isn’t just about tricking someone into giving me an office job or letting me hang out with them. This is about my life’s passion. So let’s revisit Stone Two.
Day jobs require massive work on my image.
I’d written a short bio that I knew was true to who and how I am, but I also knew there was at least one potential problem. In it, I said something I often say about me, that I’m a scifi girl. I know that at least one of the editors for the project that needed this bio hates when adult females call themselves girls (or that’s been my impression of her feeling). I understand her objection (or I think I do) and totally acknowledge the validity of it.
Important note: I want to be very clear that the editor in question is someone I both like and respect. And even if I’ve misunderstood her reasons, I’m sure that her reasons are reasonable and intelligent. Nothing I write here ought to be seen as a criticism of or attack on her or those who share her opinion (including other friends of mine).
What I think I understand as her issue with adult females referring to themselves as girls is that, so often, women who call themselves girls are doing it in a way that diminishes their power and capability. This is a true and troubling thing. On the other hand, I tend to call everyone girls and boys. In my head, when I refer to myself as a girl, it’s because “woman” just sounds so serious and so much more grown up than I tend to be, “lady” either sounds goofy in the wrong way or like the object of the term is better behaved than I tend to be, and most other terms for females are either sterile (like “female”) or the sort of word you are best just using in jest (like “broad”). But a girl…she’s a female who’s not necessarily a grown up, even if she’s an adult. She might be serious, but she’s just as inclined to silliness. There’s a light-heartedness in that that I have had to fight hard to include in myself.
Me. Fighting hard.
(Update 2014-09-22: Just had a great chat with the editor in question and wanted to clarify on her behalf and with her permission. Especially since I totally agree. So, in her own words: My thing re: “girl” for adult women is really just about the UNEXAMINED use. Like automatically referring to “the men” and “the girls” when everyone’s an adult. But examined usage and self-identification as a girl, no matter your age, is not a thing I have a problem with! I guess it’s mostly a self-identification vs. cultural infantilization things; those are two very difference usages.)
So, there was this bio where I’d called myself a scifi girl…but I didn’t want to annoy the awesome editor who’d given my work a chance (and loved it!)….It was a three sentence bio, and every. single. sentence. got analysed to death that night. Why did I feel it was an essential part of describing who I was? Why was expressing it in those words important to me? (Was it important to me?)
And, in case you think it’s just that I’m too much a navel-gazer…People who read that bio may very well find it influencing their view of me and of the work it accompanies. This could very well lead to more or fewer readers. It could also very well lead to editors loving me (and giving me more chances) or hating me and not wanting to publish things written by the likes of me. I felt like the weight of my writing career was on that tiny bio. Ugh!
Okay, on to Stone Three. I think that a lot of us spend at least a portion of our lives trying to figure out who we are. And many of us hope that we have figured out who we actually are. Even if we let our choices be influenced by friends and family, we might quietly keep a mental list of what our actual preferences are (and label it Guilty Pleasures or Secret Dreams). Even if we get adept at mirroring (and, to remind you, this is a normal thing that all humans do; it’s part of how, for instance, small children figure out how to behave and how you figured out what was okay to wear to your last job, to that party, to a funeral, etc), one hopes that we’d still be aware of when we’re doing that so that we know who we really are or want to be. For people who, on some level, sense that they are quite different and that mirroring is a very important part of how they survive in the world, would it start to become so habitual that they stopped really noticing when they weren’t being themselves? And, if they noticed that they’d mirrored themselves into being someone that wasn’t authentically them, would they be able to break the mirrors?
As I’ve mentioned, self-knowledge and authenticity are Very Important to me. As I wrote that bio, I was writing sentences that are about the part of me that I feel quite sure is really, truly me. Using words that feel true to my perception of that really, truly me. Which is why, in the end, I decided to risk it. To use those words and at least know that any judgement of me was based on authentic me (even if it might be a misunderstood idea of authentic me). Better to be hated for who I am than loved—or hated—for who I’m not. No need to smash mirrors there. Even if left entirely alone…nobody to see me or judge me….the things in that bio weren’t me mirroring. At this point, I thought I had reached my destination….
Except that my brain was still turning this over for the life lessons, for the ways I could extend this to the other parts of who I am and what I do. Especially because I make rock music, and image definitely figures into that. Let’s not kid ourselves. (Even Hendrix chose his bassist based entirely on liking the look of the guy. Unless I’ve misunderstood, Noel Redding had never played bass before.) So, even sitting there and telling myself I’d reached my destination, I knew I hadn’t. There was a bigger place down the path…
Fortunately, Stone Four fell in front of me; I didn’t have to go looking for it. Love it when that happens.
Just in case you didn’t actually read the essay (in which case, shame on you!), here’s the important bit from that for me: The rockstar in the film was being what he thought he needed to be to create the image that would sell records. He was unhappy and destined for failure. The reporter in the film moved closer to true fulfilment as he realised and lived closer to his true self (which was something like the image that the rockstar was trying to pretend to be). That same basic persona was heaven for one and hell for the other.
That this is the persona in question doesn’t hurt my interest
I stood on Stone Four a few hours (to be fair, I went about my day but let it rest in the back of my head…I don’t have the luxury of just standing around and pondering for hours). I didn’t initially realise that this was a stone on the path. And then…one of those epiphanies that feels kind of obvious…so, if this is obvious to you, be kind. I’m sure I’ve out-figured you somewhere…ha!
Destination/Epiphany/Decision: The best image to work on is one built on your idea of who your idealised self is. (This does not apply if you’re pursuing goals in life that don’t actually reflect your true heart. Also, if that’s the case, even my non-ideal self is sad for you and wishes you happier destinations. Anyway….)
This is something most of us already kind of do. We set New Year’s Resolutions based on who that best person is we think we can be. We show our best business or people-person face when we go to a job interview. We put on our best selves when we meet new people (and when it’s a false best self, we watch relationships crumble…so be extra careful with this one). Even those who try not to do this probably have certain bad habits or less-awesome behaviours that you’ll never see unless you live with them.
Me? I have patience issues….
Here’s the thing….If you’re working on being your idealised self, you’re working on behaving the way you want to behave. Even if this doesn’t make people crazy about you the way you’d like, you’ll be loved—or hated—for who you truly are. You’ll have built desired behaviours and characteristics, because a lot of who we are is built on the habit of how we behave or think about ourselves. You win. And if it just so happens that your idealised self is the image that also speaks to others in a way that moves your art or cause ahead or that gains you awesome friends, at least the effort you’re putting into upholding your image (to keep that movement or those people) will also be effort put into being the person you most want to be. Again, you win. (Also, if you decide that you were wrong about who you thought your best self is, you got there authentically and you can then change your efforts—authentically—towards that new idea of who your ideal self is.)
I’m a massive geek. Part of that, since I was 3 years old, has been role playing games. You make a character sheet that describes who your character is and then you sit at a table or run around a room and you pretend to be that person. For me, one of the main tactics in deciding the concept for my character (that kernel of an idea about who she is that I’d then flesh out into someone I could pretend to be as I slew dragons or vampires or whatever the game master threw my way) has been choosing a part of who I am or who I wish I were and turning it up a little bit. Often, I’d choose one trait or one issue and build around that. But the characters that were the most enjoyable to play for a long time, regardless of other players and the game masters, were those that were built to be an amplified form of whatever my idealised version of self was at the time. This was also kind of cool in that I got to learn some lessons about which traits I thought I wanted but really didn’t enjoy having. Some pieces of the picture I had of my ideal self have survived since I was 3 years old; some have disappeared and been replaced.
Lasting part of ideal self: no restraint with sparkly things on my face
(Note: I’ve always been what has seemed authentically me to me. But, with this new place I’ve reached, I’ve now given myself permission in advance to never pretend I’m something other than the person I am or am trying to be. The issue of image is laid to rest. It’s now an issue of “who do I think the best me is?”)
So whilst I will never be as perfect at some (many?) things as I’d like, this is how I play the game now. Except that we’re not talking about a game. We’re talking about the thing that finally motivates me to throw myself entirely into trying to be my idealised self. Because I look at the life I want…I see that door I want to kick down, to shine out the best of who I am in song and in word, and I realise that the best way to shine out that best is to try to be my idealised self. She’s not perfect; she won’t please or appeal to everyone. But, when you love me, you’ll love actual me. And, if you hate me, you’ll hate actual me (and never have to second guess yourself…it’s okay…go find another someone to give the time to…it’s truly a shinier path for us all).
And, when I kick that door down, I won’t wear myself out trying to maintain an image that I hate. It’s a freedom it seems many people, in and out of the public eye, would bask in. Me? I’m going to shine and I’m going to bask. Join me?
And, because I hate to disappoint a pretty girl…and because it seems a completely obvious topic…Here’s a post about David Bowie‘s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and its influence on my life. Of course, as I’ve contemplated this post the last month, new bits have wiggled into my brain, so I’m sure this isn’t going to be an exhaustive list. In fact, I can think of specific moments and interactions that aren’t covered here, but that aren’t for sharing, in which my early exposure to this album are factors.
First, I want to note that I am serious when I say that you need to listen to this album. If you like rock music at all, it deserves a chance. If you liked the film Velvet Goldmine, this is the Bowie that inspired that film (as much as Bowie reportedly hated the film because, in my opinion, it told the fairy tale of what glam was and not the truth of what his actual story was). In fact, if you want to go and listen now (or listen whilst you read–as I’m listening whilst I type), that would be great. This blog post will be here for you when you’re ready…
Those of you who are diligent readers and followers know that I’ve mentioned the album more than once. In addition to assorted tweets, I can find it in this Varnish vlog:
It’s also been mentioned in posts on this blog, here and here.
In case you don’t read those, I have to give credit where it’s due. This album, like much of the great rock from the ’70s and earlier, entered my ears thanks to my dad. He might not want to take the credit for all the things the album did to me and for me, but I’m going to call it one of his great contributions to my life.
(Side note: It’s really hard to write this whilst listening to the album cos I keep having to stop to sing along.)
Not to minimise the influence it had on me musically, but let’s sort of sweep through that bit. I never doubted this album rocked. This wasn’t soft rock or something to make soccer mums feel like they were edgy whilst actually being sanitised, stock tropes. It rocked. It was the reason that I understood that you could be a proper rockstar with electric guitars and keys. That you could be a proper rockstar with acoustic guitars. And there could be orchestral instruments, not just guitar/bass/drums and still be proper rock music. (Hey, I was young, so this was big to me…And since it was my touchstone, whilst he wasn’t the first to do it, this was the album that really drove it home and that came to mind as I formed my thoughts about what could be proper rock music.) You could even throw in some slower songs and still have an album that was serious rock music.
This album pretty much blew my mind in a way that cemented Bowie as my favourite musician. (As a girl who’s grown up to have few favourite anythings, that’s a big deal.) And, because of that, it meant that I was open to all Bowie. Which meant that, unlike many others I could have chosen as favourites, I was into someone who did a range of musical styles. If you listen through his catalog, if you look at those with whom he has toured and worked, you’re going to see range. Sure, I was going to get range just growing up with the influences of those in my family. But, let’s be honest, there are times in your life when the rockstars have more influence on your tastes than your parents or siblings…
And, if I’m being really honest, when I pictured myself as a rockstar, even from a young age, it was Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie that was my template for so long. When I need a go-to album, whether I’m trying to decide what to listen to or I need to be motivated in general or reminded of the big dream that hatched in me when I was wee, this is the one.
Huh…Okay, that was a bit longer than I’d thought…But, I’ll leave that as proof that there’s more to this than even I realised. Ha!
In addition to the musical influence, here are some other things (and I’m going to write little paragraphs and ignore transitional sentences cos we all know I get too verbose sometimes…) in the order they showed up in my brainstorm of things this album impacted, not necessarily in order of importance.
This album (and things it caused further down this list) were basically like a gateway drug to my other musical favourites, Manic Street Preachers and Placebo. This matters to me, because those two bands also have had a huge impact on my life. Some of this is due to the next cluster of things. (Oh, and I feel it bears noting that I found Bauhaus and all the music in genres connected to them because they covered Ziggy Stardust…) But, yes, the way that Richey James Edwards and Nicky Wire and Brian Molko looked helped turn my eyes and ears toward their bands…I was seriously relieved when the music was good. (Because a pretty face isn’t enough…I can’t enjoy looking at someone pretty if their music makes me want to puncture my eardrums.)
My love of boys in makeup surely must have been implanted by the look of Ziggy (and other incarnations of Bowie). I did get that it wasn’t the societal norm, but Ziggy Stardust made it clear to me that it was well cool and quite alright. Which may be why…
There is no doubt that this contributed to the alternate model of what an attractive man is that guides my taste in boys. Forget tanned, muscular, super masculine boys. There are a few I’ve thought were fit, but I’ll take my boys tall and thin and pretty. (So, yes, I’m sure it can also be blamed for some poor choices I made in boys, but those mainly led to songs so I’m going to call it good.)
And, of course, that leads to the topics of bisexuality and androgyny. For those of you who’ve looked at pictures of or paid attention to Bowie, you can see how a girl who fancied Bowie might see those things are not entirely abnormal. Thanks to this, I didn’t grow up with a negative attitude about people who weren’t straight (thank goodness…that likely saved me loads of personal pain…). And, yes, widened my ideas about what was appropriate for boys and girls. It wasn’t just looks. That was part of it, but I couldn’t see the androgyny and not also think about what society was telling me were appropriate ‘gender’ roles or activities for a girl or boy. Again, something for which I’m super grateful.
As a non-standard girlie, it won’t be a surprise to you that there was a point where I wanted to cast off girl things and just be boyish. But, due to my love of glam (by which I mean the pretty picture this album painted in my head of what it was to be glam), even boyish Amber fancied makeup and sparkly things. To be honest, part of that period of my life was set off by some unhealthiness, and I truly credit not losing track of myself entirely to the fact that I could play boy in my head and still put on the makeup and glitter I loved (but might otherwise have considered too girlie). And, on a completely shallow level, I’d have to say that my life has been prettier, shinier, sparklier for the influence of this album. For the dream of glam.
As a girl who doesn’t like to have to choose between good things, I also have a fondness for things that combine multiple tastes. If you’re not familiar with this album, the Ziggy Stardust persona was an alien. And a number of the songs on the album are about aliens and such. Those who’ve paid attention know that, in addition to being a rockstar, I’m a scifi girl. A geek. And, look, an album that was scifi and rock! I know I wasn’t born yet, but since I believe time isn’t linear, I’m going to just claim that Bowie wrote this for me. Ha! (If you want to check out another thing I love that’s scifi and rock, please watch the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Seriously. And, yes, I do like the pretty boy in there…yum!)
Ah. Okay. This one is on the verge of too private, but I’m going to say this anyway. There have been some dark moments in my life where the song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide helped pull me through. Yep. That’s all I want to say about that. But, in case you’re somewhere ugly, ‘you’re not alone’.
Not quite as heavy, and keeping it brief again cos I don’t feel a need to list his troubles…This album and the things I read about Bowie as I got interested taught me that rockstars can be imperfect humans. I didn’t have some delusion that I was worshipping a perfect being. In fact, the imperfections and struggles I saw both let me like him more and kept me from worship. (I don’t judge people who have some kind of rockstar worship thing; I just think that it has the potential to lead to some negative situations and a girl like me was better off without.) When I talk about how seeing that people with similar demons had made it to musical fame helped me, Bowie was the first. I could be flawed and have my dreams. My flaws and troubles could lead to art.
Back to less heavy stuff. This album and Bowie in general taught me that, yes, the music is important, but there’s more to rock than that. I learned watching clips of Bowie that some performance, some theatre, can add to the experience for the fans. What that involves can (and should) vary, as appropriate. But the reality is that music isn’t just music. It can be, but shows where someone is really performing the songs, not just standing there and aiming for technical perfection? Way more engaging for me. When you see me perform, it’s all coming from a genuine place. But the reason I decided to just let that happen instead of holding it in and standing nicely at the mic was first set off by the vision Bowie planted in my head of what it would look like to be a rockstar. If I perform the songs, that is more genuine to the emotions of the songs and to what goes on in me when I write as well. So, it’s a win for us all!
Related to that, Bowie was how I first clearly understood that rock isn’t just music. That rockstars are also their images. I don’t want to have a fight with those of you who will argue the ideal that music ought to be purely loved for being music. And, yes, I’ve seen people who were great musicians but crummy at performance and image and it hurt them. And, no, I’m not sure that’s fair. But it’s the reality of our world. I feel fortunate that I ended up someone with (I think) some kind of good taste in appearance, so that I don’t feel like I’m not being me whether I’m wearing frocks or jeans. So, if rock music is part image (and more than one source has assured me that this is true, whether or not people want to admit it), I’m lucky that I have a bit of an eye for looks. I’m also grateful that, because Bowie helped me see how the looks and the music can be so effectively intertwined, it wasn’t a shock or a betrayal as I started to make music and watch music being made by others and saw that image mattered. (Again, I’m being genuine me and thanking my lucky stars that my preferred aesthetics match my music and seem to work well in general for the rockstar part of my life goals. I’m not suggesting people should be fake. Ehm…yeah…this could be a whole other post…maybe when I’m in the mood for arguments or controversy…For what it’s worth, there are people I love who so hate that image impacts musical success that I avoid the topic with them. I get it. I do.) Onward!
This may seem small to you, but is huge to me. It turns out that my beloved Varnish guitarist Jason also loves Bowie and this album. And the glam thing and songs from this album directly led to our forming a band. Not with intent to recreate Ziggy Stardust…In more roundabout ways. But they are certainly part of why, one night, I told Jason I was writing songs and he said we ought to have a band…And then there was Varnish and my dreams were finally getting a chance. And striving for those dreams in the more concrete way only possible once I went from dreaming to doing has massively, massively impacted my life. Really, it deserves to be said again: MASSIVELY. And, so, if you like the music I make or you’ve discovered me through the music or in the last few years and that’s been at all a good thing–I really hope it has–The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has also impacted your life. Hurrah!
Finally, a few years ago, as I was pulling together this simple Halloween costume, I realised that it was a partial step toward being a Moonage Daydream. (Or a scifi lullaby, if you’re more in a Placebo mode.)
I’d love, someday, to know that my music was a massive positive influence on someone. I’d love to have one of my albums mean enough to merit a blog post that’s long (too long?) and explicates ways in which it impacted someone’s whole outlook and dreams. And, if that happens and you find your way here, make sure you’ve given this album a chance and you’ve paused a moment to thank Bowie. He might not be the only influence, but he was one of the first and biggest.
Thanks, Lady Stardust, for coming down from space with your rock ‘n’ roll message.
Almost as soon as I was done writing the last entry, I realised I’d forgotten something. Well, not as soon. More like “a few hours later whilst I was in the shower and it felt too late to update and it was already a long post anyway.” What I forgot was so important that I immediately sat down (well, first I finished my shower, cos I’m sensible that way) and wrote this next post. (Though I’ve edited it a wee bit since.)
The question last time was: How can you support the artists you know?
And the one really basic thing I forgot to say, because I assumed it went without saying, is to check out their work. Listen to their music, take a look at their paintings, read their stories, and all that good stuff. Whether or not you can do this legally without spending money will vary (though I tend to think that wise artists have at least some kind of samples online for just this reason). I can’t tell you how often someone says, “I’ve known you for years and somehow never gotten around to listening to your stuff.”
I get that not all artists are good and/or to your tastes. I do. But, as the friend who does check out friends’ stuff, who has had to find ways to gracefully respond to some…well, it wasn’t stuff that I enjoyed at all…This is a case where I am definitely asking you to do as I do. How to gracefully deal with not liking it could be a whole other post, and even then there are some artists with whom there is just no answer other than adoration that will be safe. So I’m afraid I’m going to leave you hanging on this one for now…
Okay, let’s get beyond basics. Because there’s more to this. Or, rather, one more step to this.
Try again later. Didn’t love what they did in their last project? Didn’t like the previous album but there’s a new one? Maybe just haven’t taken a listen in a while? I’m here to ask you to try again. Because people can get better the longer they play. Because the sound of a band can evolve over time. Because a different project can mean a whole new flavour.
There’s no guarantee you’ll like them any more at this new milestone than you did the last time you checked them out. Maybe you’ll never like what they do. But I can tell you from experience that sometimes things change just enough. Here are three examples from real life even:
1. I was just talking to a friend about the difference in what Siouxsie Sioux did if you compare that first gig of punkrock shouting in 1977 (here’s some audio from that era) to what she did later (in 1991, for instance). She evolved as a singer and the sort of songs the band was making had expanded.
2. My mother always figured David Bowie couldn’t sing. I’m sure she heard him, cos the rest of us played his stuff, but I think she sometimes had a sort of prejudice when it came to rock singers. Then I showed her the Christmas duet he did with Bing Crosby and she changed her opinion.
3. And sticking with my mum…The story of her initial reaction to the music Varnish makes is best not told (or at least not in print…hehe). But we put in some time and we evolved and, without me asking, she took another listen. One day, out of the blue (and with timing that lets me know it wasn’t just her trying to be nice as her life was ending), she told me she’d started listening to the songs we’d posted online recently. She liked two of them. Bless, Mum. Bless. (If she were still around, I am pretty sure she’d like even more of what we’re plotting in one of my side projects.)
So, listen or look or whatever it is your friends’ art takes. If you like it, follow the suggestions in the previous post. If you don’t like it, give it a while, wait for some kind of change or milestone, and then give it another chance. Cos that’s a beautiful thing to do for us creative kids.
yes, i’m compensating for quietness with a second post today. however, this one is a bit of a cheat. one of the memes going around facebook is:
“Think of 25 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world.”
and because this is about me and music, i thought i’d cross post. but here are a few disclaimers:
i wrote this over a few days, so it’s a bit dodgy in quality.
i just took the first 25 albums that came to mind, so this isn’t a complete list of albums that fit the criteria or even necessarily the top 25 in said list.
some of this stuff might show up again in later entries. i’m not going to apologise.
this is all about whole albums, not about individual songs. that’s a different list. and just having one song that owns me on it is not enough to make this list.
these are not in any particular order. just the order they fell out of my brain.
that said, here’s my rather verbose response. feel free to share some of your own albums that fit this criteria in comments. you might even inspire me to drag out something i had forgotten about or to find something new.
david bowie – the rise and fall of ziggy stardust and the spiders from mars. first album i recall hearing as a kid. first record i owned (still have the vinyl). probably did a lot to shape what i think of as great music and attractive men…plus, before itunes, this was the album i put in when i was trying to decide what i wanted to listen to. it is always the right choice.
placebo – placebo. in actuality, it was a crappy bootleg recording of a show in late 1995 that my mate went to. he mailed a copy to me, sure i’d love the music and–though there were not yet pictures–the singer. oh. my. stars. this was the best thing i got out of that friendship.
nine inch nails – pretty hate machine. it was really the first of its kind. and i still think it’s his bet work. it so clearly expressed the anger and betrayal i was feeling when it came out. and the live show when he toured in 1991 was intense.
the cure – disintegration. i’m a huge cure fan in general. and if this hadn’t come along, i’d be listing some other album by them here. but there were a few weeks when i listened to this and pretty hate machine over and over…i was a mess and i really felt like all the depression and loss and longing i was feeling were adequately summed up here.
manic street preachers – generation terrorist. i feel really lucky that i had mates in the uk years ago so that i didn’t miss out on all the good music. this was just one of those albums that spoke to me. yeah, it sounds cheesy, but that’s the way it was. and this was before i saw richey. yum. even now, i listen and i remember that moment of feeling like, yeah, someone understood. i mean, the punks got my anger and the goths got my depression…but the manics just got the jumble of all that together.
ac acoustics – victory parts. i don’t just like them because they share my love of lowercase. i am a fan of the poetry and the fuzziness and the way that sometimes it builds and crashes around me. this was their first album that i heard. again, bless the mates in the uk…it echoed both the issues i was going through at the time and the way that they felt…like everything else on this list, i still listen to it loads and find it’s great for listening to as i fall asleep. kind of settles me deep into who i am and have been and still has songs that are too relevant to where i am now…
lamb – lamb. i got this in the mail from one of my oldest friends right after he got it. he knew it would connect with me as it did with him. and the track he pointed out as amazing was the first to put hooks in me and leave marks. but the whole album is that way now. it very quickly became that, in fact. the drums are amazing. and the lyrics…man, some of these songs still make my throat get tight after all these years…
placebo – black market music. i’m going to feel bad for only pointing out a couple of the placebo albums, because i really did listen to each way too much when it first came out. and continue to do so. i just found this one striking because it was still clearly placebo, but there was this updated and danceable twist on some tracks. whilst other tracks carried through the brooding tones that let me know that this band might just understand my damage.
pj harvey – dry. i know that a lot of girls will note sonic youth as what blew their mind in terms of how they saw women in rock. for me, it was this album. this girl was raw and open and saying things i totally got. she was the one who pushed my whole concept of women in rock over the edge. i mean, sure, there was patti smith. but that was punk. this wasn’t quite punk, so i hadn’t suspended my expectations and such for this one…and, really, every album she has put out has kept pushing at my ideas.
yazoo – upstairs at eric’s. long before alison moyet became how i taught myself to sing, this was a staple of my youth. it had everything….i could dance, i could cry, i could lie on a friend’s bed as he clicked the lights off and on to “i before e except after c” and i tripped out without drugs. (thanks, phil.)
peaches – the teaches of peaches. first, i laughed. not because it was funny. wow. the mouth on this broad…i think it was the audacity of her, though she wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said. but, you know, women still seem to pull back from being this…blunt most the time. the first track on this album has been stuck in my head the last few days, so that may be why this is bumping out other albums that could be on this list. but, yeah, i listened to it over and over and never grew less delighted.
amanda palmer – who killed amanda palmer. i love dresden dolls, but this solo album really caught on me. it started with a few songs that really dug in and can still make me choke up, but the whole thing eventually owned me for a few days. hmz…i’m actually kind of surprised and pleased to see that there are recent things on my list.
ours – distorted lullabies. i was blown away when i first heard this. the boy has range (when i saw him in the fall, it was insane to see it live) and writes great lyrics. and the music has this sort of anthemic quality for me. it is far too often relevant to where i am, keeping it in regular rotation when i’m not just using shuffle to decide on music. for added points, when i saw ours in the fall and they played my favourite song–which is on this album, it’s the only time i’ve been standing next to someone who was singing along and felt like my experience was better because i could hear the person singing along.
portishead – dummy. admittedly, the first time i heard portishead, i turned on the radio in the middle of some girl whining “nobody loves me” and i quickly switched channels. but soon after i was having tea and talking deep stuff with a friend and this album was on. and i could barely pay attention to the conversation. too many songs to past hurts and present hopes for me to just listen once.
nick drake – five leaves left. this was the first nick drake i heard, and it sort of wound its way into me. i can’t easily say which my favourite nick drake album is. but this was sort of a timeless melancholy. and we all know i’m a fan of that sort of thing. and yet, there was a sweetness. i think i loved that. so often, people miss that there can be a sweetness in all the downs.
the sugarcubes – life’s too good. before everyone knew bjork, some of us got an earful of the sugarcubes (her band prior to going solo, just in case you missed it). it’s a much rougher, rawer version of her. she yowls and yodels and shrieks….i was just so intrigued by her technique, or lack thereof. i felt like she was improvising in the studio, like they’d never played these songs before.
patti smith – horses. i feel like this is one i shouldn’t even need to explain…
the velvet underground – the velvet underground and nico. i had this on cassette and had to replace it often. it isn’t just considered an essential and standard album that all us non-normal kids ought to check out for nothing. this isn’t hype. this is the root of a lot of where we went with underground music. also, it got back into heavy rotation when i was 16 and a boy that i was all unrequited for cruelly wrote me a love letter he didn’t mean (though i didn’t know it at the time) that included lyrics from the album.
tricky – pre-millennium tension. this album made me feel dirty, in a really good way. it made me (and often still makes me) want to shag someone. and i don’t mean tenderness or making love. i mean steamy, sweaty, moan-filled, filthy sex. and then sometimes it makes me want to cry. none of the other albums that make me want to grab someone and get dirty make me want to cry….weird.
siouxsie and the banshees – the scream. at this point, we didn’t have goth. this was punk. and this broad was one of the few female voices that stood out to me. and one of the only ones where i liked a whole album and not just individual songs. i was so used to music that i liked, that was strong, having male voices. or, like patti smith, feeling more like poetry to music….this kicked my bum.
the stranglers – black and white. what can i say? i am a little punk rock girl at heart. this album was one that made me bop around as i listened. and, you know, not all the albums i listen to over and over need to make me cry.
johnny cash – american. yeah, it was multiple cds. but it’s all one piece of work, so shove it. i always dug on johnny cash. the original man in black. the “country” singer who was punk in his attitudes. but this set of cds that took songs from others and gave them the johnny cash treatment…wow. i admit freely that i sobbed my way through “hurt” the first time i listened, for instance. it just proved his continued relevance and talent, that he could be himself and so clearly connect with these songs.
sinéad lohan – no mermaid. stumbled across her the first time as i walked in to the first lillith faire. yeah, that’s right, i went to the first and second lillith faires. suck it. as i recall, i was in the midst of some hurt and her songs spoke to that. and this album was hypnotic when i got it. everything just felt like…wheels turning. like on a train where it seems slow and steady and lulls you into peace. the lyrics aren’t always easy, which leaves room for my current troubles. i like that.
the sex pistols – never mind the bollocks here’s the sex pistols. yes, yes. it’s a cliché for a girl with punk roots. but if you were there…you remember how it just ripped through things. no, they weren’t the best or anything. but this was great when you were pissed and just wanted to kick things. or those moments you thought maybe all the world needed was to be shocked out of complacency. plus, if johnny rotten could be a singer, so could i….
falco – 3. yeah, i know, you only know rock me amadeus and der kommissar. but this is one i really need to buy, instead of just having the greatest hits. he wasn’t just humorous. jeanny always stabbed my heart, for instance, even though i didn’t understand much of it. (i asked my mum to translate once, and that only made it ache more.)
(i just wanted to start by noting that i am determined to post at least monthly. eventually, i’d like to post every other week…maybe more. but let’s not get too crazy with expectation just yet…)
i’d say that music in my life didn’t really do anything new (you know, beyond soaking up what my dad and brother were playing) until i started sinking into my teen years. that i was a troubled teen in some ways won’t surprise you. to be fair, i was rather well-behaved for the most part and got good grades. but i didn’t look like the other kids, which caused issues. and that’s when those behavioural issues from childhood went from being a manic merry-go-round to being a rampant rollercoaster. but we aren’t here to talk about that. maybe in the future. right now, this blog is about music, right?
i think i really started exploring music on my own when i was about 10 or 11. that’s when i got my first radio. it was actually a boombox, with a radio and a cassette player. i thought that was pretty bloody cool. i spent hours going up and down the dial, just listening to my options.
what i quickly learned was that my options were not great. maybe it was because we lived just too far from cities to get the good stations. i recall through my teens the frustration that i could hear the ghost of live 105 in san francisco but could never really tune it in. that said, with my own supply of cassettes being quite small, i would just let the radio play on whichever station was least soft rock. which is how i learned a few too many top 40 songs for my own good. and why i loved when my brother bought new music. when he left on a church mission and left his music in my care, i quickly wore out and had to replace a few of his cassettes. i think i still have 3 squealing copies of a particular bowie album…
fortunately, the teen years also brought dances and new friends. yes, i went to dances. because, as i will surely go on about in a post of its own, i love to dance. madly. so i went and mostly heard rubbish. but every now and again something else snuck in that was quite alright. and when i started going to clubs (hurrah for clubs that don’t care about id as long as you’re a pretty girl!), the “quite alright” to crap ratio improved. i sucked it all up. though, by this point, it was becoming quite clear i was not a top 40 girl, not once new wave songs stopped hitting top 40 regularly.
and new friends…in my teens, the people around me were suddenly as interested in talking music as i was. as a bonus, having pen pals was all the rage with the underground kids. i had a handful of pen pals during those years and loved the little booklets we sent around in letters that were like mini personal ads for us to find even more pen pals. (as a side note, there are pen pals i’d love to find again–one of whom literally saved my life a time or two. and there’s one that i bumped into on facebook recently. crazy!)
one fab thing about the pen pals and the local friends was that we were all a bit mad for mix tapes. i got so much good music that way. i still have all those tapes, too.
it was in my teens that i really started to internalise the way that music and lifestyle roll together. i’m not a fan of letting your musical tastes dictate how you dress, act, or live. nor am i a fan of letting your taste in clothes narrow your musical tastes. i’m surprisingly eclectic and often listen to things people wouldn’t guess if they looked at me. but it is undeniable that music and the rest of my life started to become one coherent whole at this point. any memory i have of my teen years will include how i looked, what my emotional state was, and what song fit it or was playing.
this was when i desperately started to want to make music my life. it turned from a childhood imagining into a craving. sadly, 11 was the age at which “the great fiasco” happened and smacked that dream into a sort of shameful and impossible fantasy status. so, what was the great fiasco?
well, it turned out that my family was asked to be responsible for the programme at church one sunday. with little warning, i was pushed out in front of everyone, along with my 3 younger siblings, to sing a hymn. now, as you’ll recall, childhood deafness has really messed up my singing situation. and nothing had been done to remedy that. so there i was, entering that awkward and self-conscious age, and i was seriously failing to sing that hymn well. at the point, i vowed i would never sing in front of people again. no joke. which meant that all those years i was acting i never tried out for musicals (thus, i learned to do some lighting instead). and when i was in the touring children’s theatre group, i was mortified at the one bit where i had to ad lib a melody for a very short song. torture!
when i was 14 or 15, i tried again to revive the dream. i gave some of the lyrics i had written to a friend, and was promptly informed that i broke too many rules and this would never work. my complete lack of self-esteem and i took that hard and shut up. buried the dream. it only came out where nobody else could see…
so instead i spent hours and hours just lying on my bed, listening to music. eyes closed and mind full of other places. if i left the house, my walkman came with me. if i heard something new i liked, i made every effort to play it cool but was secretly scribbling notes so that i could go find it once i had money. i hung out at the music shops at the mall, even when i had no money, just hoping to hear things. fortunately, i made friends with boys there, so it wasn’t conspicuous.
and that all just rolled over into the rest of my life. as new ways to listen to music showed up, i had to find ways to acquire that technology. i still crave new music. and i savour those rare times i can just lie and listen to music. mix tapes are long gone, replaced by mix cds and emailed playlists. but i’m still that teen me when it comes to music. ravenous for it. listening to it as much as i can. desperately wanting it to be my life. dancing when i can. framing most my moments, even if just mentally, in the songs that fit them. rescuing myself with just the right song…
i think this is likely a jumbled and chaotic entry…but that’s probably appropriate, given the way those teen years and early 20s felt. given the way that, starting in my teens, music became a force that was practically sentient, practically its own creature. like a spontaneous and moody lover. and we all know what that will do to your life…