Open Letter to Todd Hasak-Lowy by Matthew Rohrer


November 4, 2011

Dear Todd:

I’m writing you about this essay I was supposed to do for Coldfront. I know you saw an early version of it and I really appreciate your looking at that. Also I think you pointed out something both really true and also interesting: it didn’t sound like me. Which is weird, right? since I wrote it. But that’s something maybe for another essay – how or why we can sound “like ourselves” in one genre and not another. Probably that’s why I gravitated to poetry in college writing classes – remember I was going to be a fiction writer when I got to Michigan. Or at least a science fiction writer. Maybe it’s that there’s a mode of writing that is best suited for each of us and if we are lucky enough to find it then we can go forward. I sure remember the day you sent me that first story you wrote that had “your voice” going on—the TV ROOM maybe it was called? And now you’re you!

But anyway, this essay I wrote was called FRESH EARS as you know, and really it was a great idea. Opening with this scene of me in my late 20s riding in the backseat of a car out to the lighthouse at Montauk one night, listening to a song I’d heard a million times and always dismissed. But then this night suddenly having to sit there passively in the back, in the dark, listening, I really HEARD it. And realized how great it was. Not just that, but also actually listened it, how it goes together, how the parts connect to each other—all those things you hear in other songs that you actually care about. And the song was COME ON EILEEN by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

And yes, I was high as a kite. But I don’t think that takes away anything from this revelation I had about the song. I mean, it gave me these Fresh Ears I’m talking about, but the feeling stayed. The next day, and the next day. Anytime I hear that song now, and my kids love it so they put it on a lot, and I remember that moment of hearing it as if for the first time. So there’s another reason to end the drug war.

I know you’re interested in this because of your next novel. I have to say, every time I tell people about your new book they instantly love the idea. They know the feeling exactly. That’s kind of why I wanted to write this essay – to talk a little about that thing you describe in your book, where they figure out a way to erase but only temporarily your knowledge of an album so that you can rush home and hear it for the “first” time. I think you told me you came up with this idea hearing Strawberry Fields while sitting in a dentist’s chair, right? I guess you can’t answer that question right now. I’m going to assume that’s true, because I’ve had that experience with the Beatles myself, and I’m sure others have too. They’re a band we’ve heard so much it’s almost like we aren’t hearing the music – we’re hearing our memories of hearing them, we’re hearing all the years we lived with those songs on in car radios, in our parents’ living rooms, etc. And then suddenly, for some reason, and it certainly doesn’t have to be drugs, you can find yourself hearing it with fresh ears, breaking through the accreted crust of years and years of preconceived ideas about a song to find that the song, beneath all of those layers of dismissal and neglect, is really amazing, maybe even despite some serious shortcoming, and speaks directly to you though you never noticed it before.

I was also thinking that that explains so many of those tribute albums – I feel like they were huge in the 90s but maybe I’m just not paying as much attention now. But there’s the great one I WISH I WERE A CARPENTER where all these 90s alternative bands do covers of Carpenters songs. And it’s amazing! And what you find out as you listen is that those songs that we grew up with in the 70s and now can’t really hear clearly because the music is so drowned out by our knowledge of Karen Carpenter’s sad death and all the bright shiny creepiness that went along with it all, is that actually when you strip away all of that stuff from the music it’s brilliant. Brilliant song craft. Catchy chord progressions. That’s a whole other essay I’d love to write, or probably read actually – what it is scientifically that makes a song “catchy”, or makes a song have “hooks”. I have a theory it has to do with unresolved chords resolving themselves but I’d have to talk to my brother in law about all the technical stuff, and really, who has time to keep writing these essays?

I remember trying to get my uncles to listen to some of the covers from I WISH I WERE A CARPENTER and they just couldn’t hear it. They were too mired down in all the stuff surrounding those songs and couldn’t find a way to hear them for what they really are. Though to be fair they had to live through it the first time. I think the Cracker version of Rainy Days and Mondays is the best song on there by far.

You know I love David Lowery but it’s not just his voice (which I think is the best in rock and roll). It’s that he takes that song and strips everything away except very minimal drums, a slow guitar strum, and his voice recorded way up front in the mix. There’s nothing in the way of how the song moves. So that’s another way you can get fresh ears, is having the song so removed from its original context that you almost can’t help but hear it anew.

David Lowery also did another great service to America when he (in Camper Van Beethoven) recorded all of TUSK by Fleetwood Mac. And it’s weird, because it’s definitely tongue-in-cheek and not really a clear act of homage, but I think also you don’t undertake to cover a double-album and emerge from that without having come to some kind of understanding with it. If it were purely malicious you’d just run out of steam. Even Weird Al Jankovic doesn’t go that far.

And the story behind that is great too – Camper Van Beethoven was going to record their 3rd album (the one with Good Guys and Bad Guys) at some mountain cottage and on the 2nd day their drummer broke his leg skiing. So they had all their equipment up there and couldn’t record. And one of their girlfriends suggested they do this cover of Tusk with the rest of the band taking turns on drums.

And anyway, they do the whole thing and they manage to find the greatness in a lot of the songs. They also end up making fun of a bunch of them too. But there are a couple songs on there – Walk A Thin Line, That’s All For Everyone, Think About Me – that come out the other end of their mangling sounding like they really should: catchy, emotional, great songs. When all of the over-large Fleetwood Mac personalities are stripped away and you don’t have to think about Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and see them in your mind, you can hear the songs as if for the first time and they’re unbelievably catchy. I mean, there’s a reason Fleetwood Mac was so huge. They could write songs.

And so all of that thinking about fresh ears was a lead-in to the point of the essay, which I still haven’t gotten to in this letter either, which was to try to rehabilitate a particular song that I never really took seriously, and I imagine a bunch or most of the readers of Coldfront also don’t take seriously. Which is Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’ by Journey.

I did kind of like the interlude section of the essay which I called A BRIEF HISTORY OF MY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BAND JOURNEY because, well, I just think that’s a great section title, and also I thought that was important because I wanted everyone to know that I’m absolutely by no means a Journey fan. And I remember quite clearly how on the radio in Oklahoma (Rock 100 “The KATT”) for months in 1983 they built up to the Journey concert and then how they sold out the Lloyd Noble arena for 3 nights in a row, and how much I hated Journey and every time they mentioned this on the radio it made me scowl. At the time I was heavily into Adam and the Ants.

But Journey’s position in the music world at that time needs to be considered a little, I think. They were a rock band, no question. I mean, they were formed by ex-members of Santana, which really doesn’t help anyone like them more. But still. Neil Schon played blazing guitar solos and their drummer was solid and they had rock hits like Stone In Love. So it wasn’t that they were “gay” – forgive me, but as you know that was the parlance of the times. But there was something about them that wasn’t quite right. They also weren’t REALLY a rock band. They sang ballads. They were too clean, too shiny. Steve Perry was scary to look at. None of this helped. Ultimately I think, and I know this sounds like I’m only saying this now, but even as a 13 year old, I think I felt it in my bones that they were mediocre. They were an incredibly mediocre band. Which explains their massive success. They were ubiquitous. I mean, there was this:

I never understood why anyone would want to play that game when there was Dragon’s Lair in the same arcade. And I’ve always been that kind of annoying person who resists a little when something is ubiquitous like that. I mean, I didn’t buy Nevermind until Kurt Cobain killed himself. I just get bored of everyone screaming about stuff and insisting you like it. And Nevermind is great, and I guess I wish I’d had it a few years earlier, but sometimes when something’s everywhere you just want to exercise your right to opt out of mass hysteria. Which is definitely how you’d have to describe middle America in 1983 when it came to Journey.

The one part of the essay I was happy with was the close reading of Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’ – where I tried to do to the song what we do to poems in class: really look closely at how it’s put together, and what all the parts are adding to the whole. Maybe that part of the essay worked best because that was the part where I really did imagine I was sitting in a room with someone (you?) playing them the song and talking feverishly about every little aspect of it. Which is something I’ve done since I was a little kid. I guess I should have figured I’d grow up to teach because I used to love, even in 3rd grade, to have friends over and sit around listening to ELO forcing them to listen to some part of the song that I felt was important. Meanwhile my little friends couldn’t have cared less and just wanted to get back to the Millenium Falcon.

And the impulse to do a close reading of a song (like I’m about to) or of a poem in a classroom is really just asking people to step up and take responsibility for what they bring to a work of art. As you pointed out, fresh ears in some ways has nothing to do with the song; it is we who make the songs what they are to some great extent. No art has a chance in hell if there aren’t sympathetic people out there who will bring their quiet attentions to it. I mean, HAMLET wasn’t really taken that seriously until Coleridge’s essay on its psychological powers (did you know he was the first to use the term “psychoanalytical”?).

So that’s how I imagined the close reading of Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’ – you and I are sitting in my living room at night, the lights are dim, we’ve just realized after several years that the whole iPod dock thing was a conspiracy to make us buy shitty new products at the expense of really hearing music so we’ve brought the stereo receiver and big speakers back out. And the song begins.

• The opening drums are like a heartbeat. They’re the tell-tale heart of this song. The love that beats through this song about broken hearts.

• And the song is in 6/8 time; this gives it a swing. It’s a faux blues verse with faux-blues turn-around [0:26], and a 50s chorus. I wonder if this was influenced by Grease? The song came out a year or so afterwards. I’m sure they all went to see Grease, just like every single other person in America.

• And the song is a malediction. The ending is an emotional release, and it’s triumphant while also being the schoolyard taunt, with that same nyah nyah nyah intonation and attitude.

• The drum fill between the verse and chorus both times [1:06 and 1:54] makes great use of the 6/8 time; it provides an off-beat transition between these two sections. At the very least, the drum fills could be much more pedestrian. The drumming is, after Steve Perry’s voice, the next best thing going on in this song.

• But overall the guitar is not providing much help – it’s either over-processed and compressed in the background during the verse [0:43 through 0:48 for instance] and chorus, or it’s whining away in opening licks [0:06 through 0:16] that are adolescent and about as far from blues as one can get while playing blues on guitar. This guitar lacks duende. To say the least. Neil Schon’s guitar playing remains completely or nearly irrelevant throughout, like a 13 year old shredding in the background along with his favorite song, and ruining it.

• The diction of Steve Perry’s vocals is worth paying closer attention to. The 6/8 time makes the singing swing like the rest of the song, but in particular the vocals have an off-beat swinging-ness that’s extremely catchy. Or effortless.

• And “touchin’ is said so intimately in the first verse [0:32], cut off as he speaks it the first time, almost choked off. The 2nd time he says “touchin’” [0:59] he bends that one word up—gently, he teases that word.

• Going up an octave for the last chorus [1:32] has never sounded more appropriate; his voice opens up, he gets angry but also a little vicious– the way he lingers over “lover” in the last verse making it a 5 syllable word! [1:38] He’s savoring the bitterness of that word in his mouth.

• And the pinnacle—the very last word he sings – is the way he says “Cry” right at the end [2:17] : the way it’s pronounced sort of like “CRWY” – [listen to it again: 2:17] impossible to fully note its rich range of tones and vocalizations. He’s almost crying himself – it’s the opening of the lid and what comes next is the release.

• The sheer length of this ending [2:18 -3:55 – almost half of the song]
is what makes it truly transcend and become something utterly beautiful. There are several points at which a different band would have ended the ending. But it keeps going. And getting bigger. It gets literally bigger because it progresses in that classic studio way, building up layers and layers of tracks at the end until the sound is pummeling you:

The first 4 bars [2:18] are the same texture as the song: there’s Steve Perry singing and the regular instruments behind him.

But then in the next 4 bars [2:32] they add some harmony vocals.

In next 4 [2:46] they add an octave harmony and the drums begin accenting down beats with the cymbals. These 4 bars end with a subtle syncopation [2:55- mostly the bass drum] that the drums and piano do that plays off the vocal rhythm, which doesn’t change, but together creates a little rhythmic ripple.

In the next 4 [2:59] Neil brings out the slide and they add that layer. Now it’s a lot bigger.

In the next 4 [3:12] Neil continues the slide and adds blues bends. The guitar is up front now – this might be the end of the layering but not the ratcheting up of the intensity. The song continues to build 20 bars into the ending. The guitar licks are a little more convincing here [3:20]. But really, Neil Schon is basically a cipher when it comes to guitar gods. He could walk down the middle of Broadway right now and people would only honk at him; no one would stare in awe.

In the next 4 bars [3:26] drums begin accenting nearly everything, both cymbals and kick drum. Weirdly the guitar is less prominent here; the individual notes are less clear and it’s just sheer noise and texture at this point . Aggression.

In the last 4 [3:39] the drums are just going to town, and the guitar keeps chugging away – and everything cuts off abruptly – too abruptly and cleanly to have been done by the musicians —those tracks are simply cut out so that all that’s left is the 5 or 6 layers of vocal harmonies. And now it’s suddenly too breathy and intimate. It’s some creep breathing down your neck. Or a gang of creeps, very intimate creeps.

I can’t even remember why I returned to this song after so many years and suddenly really heard it. I sort of remember sitting at a little tiny table with my daughter drawing pictures of dogs and hearing this song in my head. I don’t know why it took me over again after all these years, or why I chose to come to it for the first time only recently with the kind of generosity that it takes to meet a song half-way. I guess that was what the whole failed essay about Fresh Ears was for, to get people to stop thinking all these things about songs and pause for a moment, and actually hear them.


Poem for Edna St. Vincent Millay

The next thing I am going to say
is a secret. In World War II
they told Edna St. Vincent Millay
about all the invasions
so she could write a poem
for each one, a poem
like a bottle of champagne
to be smashed against
a ship before it sails
and everyone sat and listened
to the poem
on the radio and imagined
things in their minds
that the words weren’t really saying
rocking back and forth
in a chair, steam
rising from dinner
she spread all her poems
out across New England
acres of them, dreadful, she said
everyone has their own
version of a lonely life
the temperature drops
20 degrees the kids
are in bed a wind
blows through all the windows
at once knocking the hanging pots
and pans together
like a gentle quake
we hear what we want
to hear the invasion
has been called off
the invasion is too expensive
the invasion is working backwards
they’re coming for us
the pots and pans ding
gently in the kitchen
the invasion is what
we want it to be
this is a poem
you can smash against it
before it sails
then finish your dinner
it is not one
of the saddest poems
ever written Edna
St. Vincent Millay
wrote that it’s called LAMENT
only one person dies in it
a poem where thousands
of people die
just isn’t as sad

Matthew Rohrer is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Destroyer and Preserver, published by Wave Books. One of this tattoos has been featured in two different books of literary tattoos. He lives in Brooklyn.

Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.