One time I hear it, I’m wearing an LA Rams windbreaker, standing on a speedbump, doing something with my mouth. I let a yellow cupcake drop to the pavement and then pick it up. It’s covered in gravel and cigarette ash. Another time I’m standing in a parking lot watching a cockroach crawl on a palm frond. Still another time, I’m in the emergency room on Christmas Eve. I’m in the back of a car, on my bike in heavy traffic, trying to tune a guitar. It sticks to none of these moments. I see myself doing, hear myself hearing while doing, but the thing doesn’t stick.
Other songs arrange themselves neatly in my life, its objects and sights. Stevie Nicks’ Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around looks like the iceplant underneath the overpasses in Los Angeles; the babysitter and her friends had feathered hair. Dan Fogelberg’s The Leader of the Band corresponds to Jazzercise, Marlon Brando in Superman, and Mormon paintings of Jesus. Let’s Hear it for the Boy, (from Footloose) was in my head while I rolled down a hill into a pile of dog shit. But Peg refused to find its place. Rather than having one memory to stick to, it stuck to every memory. Even more perplexing, my mind tried to hear it in every other song on the radio, as if it had so thoroughly saturated my brain that the melody was no longer a singular thing, but had become all music itself. In Thriller, in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, in Burnin’ For You. As a boy, I heard it only one time, and never knew what it was called, who performed it, or how it first entered my ears.
Peg was the leadoff single from Steely Dan’s Aja, and it spent 19 of 1978′s weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #11. For fifteen years or so, it was an unidentified nagging speck of melody that I carried around with me, four notes spread out over eight bars, a double-tracked synth and clarinet lick. I always hated that word “lick” in music, but it is rich with synaesthetic possibility. So many variables when you become a person, coming into consciousness. Cognitive scientists measure moment-to-moment consciousness on 3-D graphs, and they make beautiful patterns but what do they mean, anyway? It is my burden, my pleasure, my amulet and friend, this song Peg. In its unknowability and omnipresence I first learned desire, that the patient application of attention and passivity can make its fulfillment a rare pleasure. Peg was my first experience of art, but it was also my first experience of thinking. For all of this to come together in a sonic mystery (where did I hear that? and why does it infiltrate all these other songs?) this was a mystery my mind was trying to solve on its own, independent of the original song, without the benefit of logic or belief, gave my life a sense of unknowability, and if we want to go there, magic.
When I was nineteen in a commercial truck in a residential neighborhood in Berkeley it came upon me, as radio used to, free of my own volition, subject to an accident of the universe, again. And the puzzle of Peg’s origin (its unknown provenance), and my mind’s search for it in every other song, began to give me a sense that art is not a total, complete thing unto itself, that in our experience and desire for it, both in the crafting and in the experiencing, we work with given residues, the at-hand.
String, Air, and Key
The psychologist John Kotre gives instructions in how to follow a memory through its whereabouts: “think of an object — a baseball glove, perhaps, or maybe a paper doll, a violin, a brass ruler, a cigarette lighter, a flag. Or you can take some episode of your life that’s not known to many people. Now what would it take to erase all vestiges of that object or episode from the face of the earth? To remove any and all reminders?” This might be possible with some item of personal value, sentimental value — that you could erase it, and it would have some kind of personal consequence — what would the thorough elimination of all traces of some crucial memory do to your sense of self, or being, or history, within and alongside the world? A tantalizing oblivion, but when talking about something like recorded music, which is both deeply private and utterly about sharing, even in some private or veiled sense, it simply isn’t possible to eliminate the memory because the memory isn’t yours alone.
A very old friend of mine, a musician, killed himself in December, and his records were given to my brother and myself for safekeeping. We had grown up together listening to these things. The records are becoming our memories of him, but they are also a composite biography of his listening. Even though he found oblivion for himself, his life persisted in this evidence of a long and shared experience of listening and friendship. So, even as he and his memories disappeared, parts of him remain and even though his experience of these things must have been so different, they’ve become him, things he touched, fell asleep to, died near.
In college, one of my professors described how stereo and recording technology fundamentally changed the social space of music. You sat in your room, staring at the console, or, if you were on drugs, staring at the popcorn ceiling, in effect, doing something alone that millions of others were simultaneously doing, alone. The pleasure was private, but had the overlay of initiation into something that included an other outside the self (music) and others outside the self (listeners) people you knew were out there, but you just couldn’t quite reach, or touch. If you were lucky, you overheard other listeners talking about some song you loved — on the bus, say, or in a restaurant; or, if you were even luckier, you talked about some song with your friends — such was my relationship with my dead friend. The song is created both in the occasion of listening and the animal frenzy of hearing someone else talk about your song in their memory, that displacement of your experience in somebody else’s mind. I delighted to overhear conversations in which people discussed some song I knew intimately — if they hated the song, I might have an interior monologue, defending, say, the little squeak in that high note that Kim Deal missed; or, if they loved it, I thrilled in hearing some other passionate response, which maybe had nothing to do with anything I liked in the song, say, the fabulous drum sound on “It’s a Shame About Ray,” just behind the beat, but real woody sounding — no, these people were interested in the really stoned-sounding vocal.
I’ve always been drawn to the description of a song as much as the song itself, to the second order articulation of organized sound: that sense of rising excitement as a friend describes some detail: “oh, you just can’t believe the drums” or “I wish there was a string section in the bridge. That synthesizer sounds so bad!” In such conversations, you hear with your friend’s ears. That sympathy! How you catch a sense of your shared taste — if the song really is as good as your friend says it is, you get a new song to love and a greater feeling for your friend, their closeness, their taste. Now, it’s so easy to pull out your phone and play a song, eliminating that strange transformation of description. I miss that practice of attention made possible by the space of conversation.
The West Coast painter Jess has a painting in his Translations series called Melpomene & Thalia. As ever in Jess’ work, he combines lightness of color, heaviness of brush, deep mirth, and a general “feeling of spirits hovering.” The Translations are ‘faithful reproductions in oil paint of various sources such as photographs, engravings, or black-and-white reproductions, which the painter ‘translated’ into large paintings, often adding color. In Melpomene, Jess translated from “a sepia photograph in a ruined album, c. 1910; inscribed “Ms. Burt: McKittrick CA.” The painting features a charming farm scene of a 3-year-old girl sitting on a table with a sheepdog. The table is outside a clapboard house; it looks handmade, and she, in her child’s gown, sits stiffly, with her legs pointing straight out. The dog looks relaxed, and is gazing off into the distance. His tongue flops out, but he seems alert. The light is intense (McKittrick is a dot on the map in the southern San Joaquin Valley. It’s very hot).
For Jess, this act of translation gives these figures, a child and her dog, common figures from everyday life, a mythological correspondence: Melpomene & Thalia, the muses of singing and comedy. In such a translation, any event can gain its proper, greater, significance, if you believe, as Jess did, as his partner Robert Duncan did, and as I do, that ‘all matter and energy are infused with spirit,’ and that art can be an act of ‘rescuing or resurrecting images.’
Alberto Manguel writes of Rilke as a translator: “Translation is the ultimate act of comprehending. For Rilke, the reader who reads in order to translate engages on a “purest procedure” of questions and answers by which that most elusive of notions, the literary meaning, is gleaned. Gleaned but never made explicit, because in the particular alchemy of this kind of reading, the meaning is immediately transformed into another, equivalent text. And the poet’s meaning progresses from words to words, metamorphosed from one language to another.” It is this “other, equivalent text,” that fascinates me — that melody my youthful mind was searching for, putting Peg’s hook in songs that weren’t in the same key. Like Jess’ Melpomene & Thalia, it works in the gap between the viewer, or listener or reader’s experience of the thing, and their description, transcription, transformation of that thing, in conversation, in writing, in silent struggle. Memory, imagination, resurrection, song, comedy: materia poetica. I had a melody lodged in my head for 15 years and couldn’t discover its source, so I came to have a certain feeling for permanence and resonance — for Poetry. When I first read these lines from Duncan’s Night Scenes,
O, to release the first music somewhere again,
for a moment
to touch the design of the first melody!
I understood them immediately. I had touched a first melody.
The catalyzing force of a detail. The plastic arts are full of talk about ways a work fits into the place where it is shown, or its place in the art world, its milieu. A certain work is designed for a certain gallery or space, another work references some earlier work that went before. These are ways of situating a given work in its place, giving it “a local habitation and a name.”
But there is another quality of art, which is perhaps foremost the domain of music. It is that quality of hauntedness, in which you carry the piece around with you. Not memory exactly, but hauntedness as a sub-category of memory. We say one is “haunted by a memory” but it seems really more accurate to say one is haunted by an event, a ghost, or, in this case, a work of art, that later becomes a memory, the way that a person who was once alive becomes a ghost. One way of talking about haunting is that it is the effect of memory admixing or resonating with some current happening in one’s life, an event, place, and its power, most often comes via detail.
Proust gives an example, early in “Swann in Love,” when he writes of a sonata, “the national anthem” of Swann and Odette’s love:
[Swann] contemplated the little phrase less in its own light — in what it might express to a musician who knew nothing of the existence of him and Odette when he had composed it, and to all those who would hear it in centuries to come — than as a pledge, a token of his love…he had abandoned the idea of getting some ‘professional’ to play over to him the whole sonata, of which he still knew no more than this one passage. ‘Why do you want the rest’? she had asked him. ‘Our little bit, that’s all we need’…he almost regretted that it had a meaning of its own, an intrinsic and unalterable beauty, extraneous to themselves…(238)
In the case of Peg, the music was quite dramatically unmoored, but because music and art have this quality of ‘haunting’ the listener, the “little bit” of Peg kept appearing, imposing itself up into my conscious mind, spreading through everything.
I know him
of the triple path ways,
Hermes, who awaiteth
H.D. “Hermes of the Ways”
At 19 I was living with a guy I barely knew (and his alcoholic mother). I was broke. I had stopped talking to all my friends. There was always something under my fingernails. I needed a job, so I called my ex step-dad. He ran a roofing supply company in West Berkeley, across the freeway from Golden Gate Fields (where Jack Kerouac gambles in On the Road). It was an exceedingly grungy warehouse for an exceedingly grungy enterprise. Roofing is shitty work, but as my stepdad always said “everyone needs a roof,” and he’s not wrong. Look up.
Selling roofing is difficult and unpleasant. You have to deliver the material to the roof. It has to get up there. It’s done by driving a flatbed truck with a maneuverable conveyor belt up to a house and pointing the belt, called the boom, at the roof. One person needs to be at the bottom, putting each ‘bundle’ of shingles or ‘roll’ of flat roofing on the boom. Another person needs to be at the top, to catch and stack the shingles and rolls. It is a dangerous business, as each bundle or roll weighs about a hundred pounds, and if it’s a tricky house, say, the power lines are at a difficult angle, it makes it hard to get the boom close enough for safety, or, say the roofers want the bundles stacked in some tight corner, then it’s all the more difficult. I’ve fallen off or through roofs. It’s not as shitty as roofing itself, but delivering roofing is still pretty shitty.
Each truck a two-man crew, a driver, and a loader. I was a loader. Now usually, this meant I also had to be a navigator. We had these wonderful Thomas Bros. maps of the Bay Area, and I learned all the roads, nooks and crannys of the East Bay by navigating in the trucks. The crews were assigned to work together, and each crew stayed together for about a year or so, until somebody quit or the higher-ups moved people around. For a while I worked with a guy called Darrell, who noticed that I was wearing decayed Chuck Taylors on the roof, took pity on me, and gave me an old pair of basketball shoes to wear. Then, I worked with Salem, a Turkish libertarian who was addicted to the Dr. Laura Show. The poor souls who called in to ask advice were all just weak fools to Salem. He gave my brother a hammered copper darbuka, and, later on, gave me a hard time for going to college.
My favorite driver was Shane. He was the kind of maniac that forced workplace drug testing on the rest of us. He popped valium in the morning, drank beer during lunch break, and was generally a total disaster. But he was the best driver, most efficient deliverer, and he had a photographic memory of all the roads in the East Bay. I never once had to consult the map when Shane was driving. He lived in the Livermore Valley on a big ranch, and his neighbor had a Galapagos Tortoise as a pet. One time we got drunk and rode it.
One afternoon we were up in the Berkeley Hills, navigating this big flatbed truck through the windy roads off Spruce Street. Shane demanded that we listen to classic rock stations only — I’d preferred (this being 1997) to listen to KALX, the UC Berkeley station — Barbara Manning’s collaboration with Stuart Moxham was on a lot in those days, and a nascent scene of grubby pop musicians in the Bay Area were just starting to get noticed, bands like The Aislers Set and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, music made by people my age. That’s what I wanted to hear.
But since this was Shane, the type of guy who wore cutoffs and Vuarnet sunglasses, we were going to have another day of Van Halen (not complaining) and Kansas (awful). The truck teetered up those twisty, roads. The radio cranked. A little crackle. Then, the flanged guitar, its augmented chord, and a cheesy vibrato synth. Huh, I must’ve thought, covered in roof grime. Then it came. The bit.
“Shane! what is this?”
“It’s fucking Peg, man. You don’t know Steely Dan, shithead?”
Shane is my Hermes of the Ways: He told me the name of the melody. He told me. It was Peg.
A Nomadic Extension of Some Given or Found Beginning
According to Henry Corbin, a French Professor of Islamic Studies, the Medieval Iranian mystics had a method of interpretation called the Ta’wil, the “exegesis that leads the soul back to its truth.” To me, this is an essential theory of reading and listening: The listener is a thread, knotted and looped through the needle’s eye of a song, a poem, a novel. Along with “[Charles] Olson’s sense, that art is the only twin that life has — it ‘means nothing,’ it doesn’t have a point,” I can somehow ravel and re-ravel Peg, both interiorizing the melody and forgetting the meaning, coming back, again and again, to a primary unknowing.
On Netflix you can rent these “Making of Classic Albums” DVDs. The one that covers Steely Dan’s Aja is pretty good. Most of the DVD features the principal musicians, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, sitting at a mixing board, listening to the original master tapes of Aja. At one point they’re listening to “Black Cow,” the first song on the record, and Fagan’s kind of explaining the lyrics. When it gets to the chorus, the backing singers sing “I can’t cry anymore,” Fagan looks at the camera and says “Self-explanatory.”
When they get around to Peg, they brag about how many crack studio guitarists came in to try the solo and failed. They find some of the discarded solos on the reel-to-reel tape. They’re pretty amazing, actually. They isolate the bass track, and Walter Becker’s big head moves as he explains “Chuck fretted with his thumbs.” Techne. Chuck, the bass player, who was interviewed separately for the DVD, says of the slapping the bass in the chorus “no matter who you are, you want to keep in the fold of what’s happening.” Listeners call this listening.
This is my Ta’wil, my spiritual exegesis, of six or so notes in an old song. Everything that happened afterward is ‘a nomadic extension of this found beginning.’ I didn’t choose the song, and the song didn’t choose me. Jack Spicer said his poems were messages from Mars, and that he himself was a “counterpunching radio” transmitting the messages. I like to think of his Martians twiddling the knobs on the truck radio, making sure I heard Peg despite myself. The four minutes it takes to get through the song, or two or three if I come across it somewhere in the middle on a classic rock station, are, everytime it comes, a run-through of memory, imagination, and resurrection. I don’t know where Shane is, fifteen years later. Because my recollections of Shane are so bound up with this strange band, I imagine him sitting at a bar in Enseñada, or stumbling down a beach, sleeping in trash, I don’t know, in a faded Mr. Zogg’s Sex Wax T-shirt, something like that. Jess and Robert Duncan are gone, though Jess’ monumental Narkissos is on permanent display at SFMOMA, in case you ever feel like getting lost in a painting. Our friend the musician is still dead, though my brother and I often find ourselves imitating his speaking voice, or telling one of his jokes to each other, or saying “Dude” the way he said it when he was disgusted with you.