We Are What We Here by David Brennan


I scrolled through fifteen gigs worth of music and didn’t find a single thing I felt like listening to. My iTunes library was a wasteland. Sure, I could download a new album and be listening to it within minutes. Sure, I could turn on Pandora or Spotify and let new songs cloud my brain for a while. Both options sounded equally awful. Where was the investment, the devotion, the love? Why did everything I listened to suddenly resemble the aural equivalent of thin gruel? I had to admit it; I was in a serious music funk.

So I made a decision. A decision that, for any lover of music, would be similar to kicking a nasty heroin habit. I decided to give up my music. For the next 53 weeks I would listen only to other people’s music. Each week I would ask a different person to recommend an album, and for the entire week I would listen only to that album. Any album from any era was allowed; the only stipulations were that I had to be unfamiliar with the album, and it had to be a full-length album by a single artist. I had to listen to each album a minimum of once a day, and at least eleven times over the course of the week.

That’s where I am. No radio, no streaming, no dips into the mp3 collection to satisfy a craving, no fingering CD cases as the disc spins in its player. 53 weeks is a long time to give up your music, I’ve discovered. Some days I miss certain songs like I would my offspring. Right now I’m working through week number 20. Only 33 to go.

On the plus side, I’m listening to these albums with an intensity I haven’t managed since my teen years. Intense album listening is crazy. It does weird things to your brain, snips and dyes your synaptic fabric in ways that aren’t always pleasant. It changes the way you talk. What you think about. The things you remember. It turns you, in a sense, back into a teenager, full of hope and angst and idealism, with a cloudier sense of who or what, exactly, you are. You become mutable, easily influenced. The music takes you over, deconstructs you, plunks you in front of the funhouse mirrors where you look and laugh in horror, saying, Oh shit, that’s me?

Week 1: Thousand Petals by Guru Shabad Sing Kalsa

Kate chose my first album. Kundalini yoga music. Chanted mantras. I’m going to be a Yogi for a week. My brain is already blown.

Three days in I had a bug in my ear instructing me to listen to some Sigur Ros, but I squashed it like a fat roach. Thinking about that Icelandic band did put a thought into my head, however. Sigur Ros makes moody, ethereal music inspired by the extreme landscapes of their native country that shifts rapidly between the jagged sonic rawness of volcanic rock and the lilting lullabies of green pasture and waterfall. Their singer, Jonsi, has this crazy falsetto voice which burns itself into the listener’s brain as he sings lyrics which a non-native Icelandian might assume are Icelandic, but which in fact are a made-up language he calls Hopelandic. Which got me thinking about Thousand Petals; what are all those mantras saying, anyways? And what language are they saying it in?

It turns out that Kundalini mantras are spoken in a special language all their own, called Gurmukhi, which literally means “from the mouth of the Guru.” Cool. I was pretty sure I was chanting some Sanskrit, but Gurmukhi is a pleasant surprise, the way it makes the tongue dance and pop.

But part of me is having a seriously difficult time with the lyrics, which has nothing to do with the words themselves or their meaning, but rather what I’m going to call the Hopelandic Syndrome. When Sigur Ros first started putting out albums and people began discovering that what was being sung was no real language at all, websites began to pop up where avid fans would transcribe English “translations” of Jonsi’s nonsensical lyrics. I’m having the same problem, if you would call it a problem. Not knowing what these mantras “mean” has caused me to superimpose “words” atop some of the Gurmukhi in the language I most use to create meaning, English. Take the album’s second track, “Wah Yantee.” The actual lyrics are:

Wah Yantee
Kar Yantee
Jaga Doota Phatee
Ada Kita Waha
Bramadeh
Tre Sha Guru
Ita Wahe Guru

which roughly translates as, “Great Macroself, Creative Self. All that is creative through time, all that is the Great One. Three aspects of God: Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. That is Wahe Guru,” a pretty interesting mantra, really, especially the “Great Macroself” part. I might start referring to myself in that manner: “I, the Great Macroself …” Anyways, what I hear when I listen to “Wah Yantee” goes more like this:

Wow, young tea!
Carry young tea
Chug it at the party
All the kids say wa ha
Bro, in a day
Tre shagged her, oooo

You get the point. I don’t really like that these words pop into my brain when I hear this mantra. It’s a bit disturbing, but I’m guessing it’s a learned reflex from years spent attempting to decipher incomprehensible lyrics mumbled by cool rock stars. Thanks, Michael Stipe!

As the week draws to a close my brain vibrates with a mixture of Ongs and made-up lyrics. I feel like I’ve failed Guru Kalsa. Maybe mantras aren’t my cup of tea.

Week 8: Goblin by Tyler, the Creator

Tyler, the Creator is a rapper. A nasty rapper. By “nasty” I don’t mean “good,” I mean nasty. The lyrics are disturbing, often gross. The cursing is epic. After six days of Tyler’s insanity rattling my eardrums, Goblin is getting to me. To illustrate:

My wife, Kate, and I are stretched on the lawn of the city courthouse. The crowd is on the move around us, folding blankets, packing up snacks, slinging sleeping children over shoulders. On the screen hanging from the pillars of the courthouse the credits of How to Train Your Dragon are rolling, and I’m confused.

“So why did they have to kill that big ass motherfucker? What the fuck did he do?”

“He was enslaving the other dragons,” Kate said, “making them steal food to feed him. If they didn’t kill him they couldn’t have had their happy utopian ending.”

“No way dragons would suck so much human dick,” I said. “I’m not buying this shit. And what was up with that Astrid bitch? If she wanted to stroke Hiccup’s cock so bad, why did she keep whipping his ass?”

“Dave, there are kids here,” Kate said, leaning into me. “And what’s up with the language, anyways?”

Tyler, the Creator is what’s up. After a week of Goblin infiltrating my cerebral cortexes I think I’m averaging ten more curse words an hour than normal. And that’s just what comes out of my mouth; if you could plug speakers directly into my brain’s stream of consciousness you’d hear how I’m swearing like every third word in my head. At least I’ve got some self-editing abilities left. Though maybe I should try to bypass my self-critique function, like Tyler has bypassed his; record a demo of nothing but invectives, upload it and send Tyler the link, within a month I’d be running with OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the rap collective Tyler, the Creator is a part of), rapping nonsense, just curse words that raining from my mouth lose all negativity; the shocked ears they fall on grow accustomed and give up resistance as the droplets of pure untainted sound turn away from meaning and toward the universal patterns of pure rhythm.

Week 6: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73/Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a by Johannes Brahms, Philharmonia Cassovia, Otakar Trhlik/Johannes Wildner

My life has gotten quieter. Six weeks in I have lost much of the urge to flip on the tunes whenever I am cooking dinner or washing dishes or cleaning between my toes. Of course I could put on the week’s album at those moments, but seriously, even if I really like it, I don’t want to listen to the same album nonstop over a 168-hour stretch. So silence it is.

Which is good. I feel I am hearing the world more, the birds, the children, the cars, the wind. And I’ve been thinking how the world doesn’t really need more sound. The planet is loud, even at its quietest. A point John Cage was happy to make in his composition “4’33””, in which a musician sits at a piano and at particular intervals turns the pages of his sheet music but never plays a note while the audience fidgets nervously, forced to listen to the sound that permeates the hall from within and without, forced to listen to themselves. Cage’s commentary on the human condition, or consciousness, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just a music-geek thing.

While driving home from a wedding in North Carolina, Kate and I were listening to Brahms when I fell asleep during the Haydn Variations. I woke to a man’s voice, soft, soothing, speaking of the forest, of silence, of listening closely to the natural world, of hearing its infinite richnesses before they are lost to human imposition. His name was Gordon Hempton, acoustic ecologist, silence activist. Out of all he said and didn’t say, the one phrase of his that stuck in my mind was: “We are what we hear.”

Except, perhaps because I was still gathering in the frayed threads of my newly woken brain, I heard “here.” We are what we here. A disorienting sense of betweenness came over me. Here I was, between locations, between sounds, between words, between selves. I’m a punk, I’m a hick, I’m a rocker, I’m a rapper. As I listen, so I am?

Week 14: Let Love In by The Goo Goo Dolls

And what about the bands? It seems music magazines constantly run articles about the “identities” of various artists: Madonna reinventing herself as a prude, Justin Beiber turning into a man, kind of, U2 announcing they are actually vampires, surprising no one, etc. Identity is serious business in the music game, and a band’s name plays a key roll in establishing that identity. If you are at all like me, you’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time wondering at the stories behind band names, where they came from, or what possessed the group to call themselves that (We Were Promised Jetpacks? . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead?).

Take The Goo Goo Dolls. I mean, WTF? Honestly, the name is rather idiotic, which for me makes it all the more intriguing. So I did a little digging and discovered that The Goo Goo Dolls wasn’t the band’s first name. Their original moniker was, prepare yourself, The Sex Maggots. Yes, you read that correctly: The Sex Maggots. Oh why, with a name like that, would you ever change it?

Story goes that before one of The Sex Maggots’ early gigs the club owner refused to put their name on the marquee, so the band flipped through a magazine, saw an ad for a “Goo Goo Doll,” and settled on that. Even the band thought the name was “just really inappropriate,” but then they suddenly found themselves with “like, 15,000 fans, and [we] were afraid to change it.” Afraid? You had the moxie to name yourselves The Sex Maggots, yet were scared to get rid of The Goo Goo Dolls? Huh.

I have to admit, knowing that the band’s first attempt at a name was The Sex Maggots does make me see the name The Goo Goo Dolls in a different light. A dirty light. Instead of some cutesy kids’ toy, suddenly I’m thinking more Garbage Pail Kids. (Quick fact: Art Spiegelman, the author of rather serious graphic novels like Maus, was one of the brains behind Garbage Pail Kids.) You know, those satirical Cabbage Patch Kid-esque trading cards that featured characters like Adam Bomb (a cute little guy with a nuclear explosion coming out of the top of his head), Bony Joanie (a happy skeleton hiking up her underpants), Jolted Joel (a rocker getting electrocuted by his guitar), and Holly Wood (a wooden girl being slowly disfigured by bird beaks and saws). I loved Garbage Pail Kids when I was in elementary school. My mom wouldn’t let me buy them, so I would stare in envy at the other kids’ collections, memorize the names and images, scheme ways I could get my hands on some.

The Goo Goo Dolls would have made a pretty decent Garbage Pail Kid Card. I can see it: a ceramic doll smiling blissfully as her lower half melts into a gooey, stringy mess. Maybe she is a marshmallow doll and is being roasted, or is suspended over a Bunsen burner as part of a chemistry experiment, a gleeful smile pushing up her too-chubby cheeks.

I wonder if The Goo Goo Dolls ever regret changing their name, if somewhere inside them The Sex Maggot writhes on, pushing its white body against the backside of the Doll’s glass eyeball, trying to break to the surface, discontent to be shunned to the dark.

Week 11: American Saturday Night by Brad Paisley

Sunday afternoon house cleaning. Kate was itching for some music to get her motivated. Something with “pop.” “How about some Brad Paisley?” I offered.

“Uhh, that’s ok,” she said.

“Just once?” I pleaded.

She set her iPod down. “Maybe some of it,” she conceded. “But I don’t think I can listen to the entire thing.”

Half an hour later we’re in the kitchen, broom in my hands turned microphone, both belting the chorus to a song neither of us had heard before: “… every prayer you pray gets answered, even though sometimes the answer is no.”

Country music is like karaoke without the TV screen. Instant sing-along.

Riding around rural Virginia in my friend Jonathon’s truck, for kicks we’d take our shirts off and tune the radio to the Country station. “This song is mine,” he said. As the lyrics spooled out and the chorus approached he readied himself. I … the world, went the song. “Girl!” he said, “It has to be Girl!” Two lines later: … loved you, girl, went the song. “Yes!” he said, then moved on to the next rhyme. Heart: “Apart!” Day: “Way!” Blue: “Achoo!”

I looked at him. “Achoo? What was that?”

He laughed. “I was running out of steam, it was the first thing to pop into my head. What’s my score?”

“6 out of 9,” I tallied after spitting out the window, “not bad.”

When we were hot I bet we correctly guessed 80% of the rhymes. Such endearing predictability. Country song rhyme schemes make a great game, if you’re bored and have a truck. Got to have the truck.

As the weeks progress I see myself more clearly as a spectrum of musical incarnations, realized in a new hue each week. It feels good. I feel alive, excited about the music, even the albums I hate. There is some sort of purpose here, an expansion, a bending. Lao-Tzu wrote, “Whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.” Yeah.

Week 17: A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

Part IV: “Psalm.” The music’s relentless pace slows and space is invited in; the sky appears: a morning sky, the sky at dusk. Though the entire quartet plays through till the final notes, here the saxophone stands center stage before a packed room, stands on a busy rush hour street corner, stands on a crowded subway platform. Yet the man blowing is alone. No matter how many people hear him play or play along with him, in this song he is unaccompanied.

In the liner notes to A Love Supreme Coltrane included a devotional poem. “Psalm” is intended to be, in Coltrane’s own words, a “musical narration” of that poem. How beautiful, to take what most of us know as passages blandly recited in churches and return them to their Greek roots of psalmoi: “music of the lyre,” or “songs sung to a harp,” or “music made in any fashion.” Music. Coltrane recites his own psalm in his best voice, in his best lines, those without words or sentences. Sense, intuition, mood: these are the tools of his language.

I sing along to Coltrane’s saxophone, scatting, my voice drifting away from the sax’s line, doing its own thing, carving out its own mantra, building the grammar and vocabulary of a personal Hopelandic. Coltrane is teaching me prayer. How to pray for nothing but the improvised moment, for the self that exists within each single second, no less, no more.

And Lord, as he creaks out the poem’s last phrases, his voice, it seems, catching, tears on his cheeks, his throat raw, even without knowing them you can hear the words he plays, soft and raw and resounding: “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”

~~~

At the Concert

I stood next to a woman wearing a bikini
bottom, neon fishnet stockings and stickers
on her nipples. Like everyone else she bounced
circles on the balls of her feet, rocking and waving
glow sticks as the heartbeat of this beast slammed
us in the face, lifted the skin from our ribcages, tickled
our genitals into awkward states of almost
arousal, forced our eyes closed that we could
go on living, forced us inside

the arteries and ventricles of its beat, passed us
chamber to clamber, slicked us wet as we got pumped
through those pulsating 4-to-the-floor caves, until the passing
and the pumping and the strobing and the almost-naked touch
of drugs disappeared, the groping and the rafters and the speakers
disappeared and I became a sycamore
branch bearing hawk’s weight, a worn rock
suffering the stream’s fringe of ice, goats lipping
thistle, a storm-flattened field of grain
fat with birds come to peck my seed,
a bullfrog full-throated and brash, the shyest of fox
flashing red between trees, became a cold grove of lollylob

pine scalpeled open to house the electric
guitar screech of crow, the crickets’ sinister
scritch, I became the long line of dumb ants, the poison
ivy snaking lecherous leaf, the seaside dune scorching
the soles of skipping feet, feet thumping
wide circles, long, slow revolutions
out of sync and synchronous, the jerk and slip of rhythm
unaware, unforced, tidal and innocent.
Ocean bottom, star core, crystal edge.
It was dark. I stripped off my shirt and danced.

David Brennan blogs about listening to music at 53lps.tumblr.com. He is the author of the poetry collections The White Visitation (2010) and The Family Flamboyant (2010). He lives in Virginia.