Fear of Music
Not long ago I was watching a repeat episode of the late Anthony Bourdain’s show, “No Reservations.” Bourdain is always an good watch. His sad demise now casts a different light on a lot of his later work, and sometimes I look for clues that something was wrong. (There are a few if you’re observant.)
I landed on an episode he shot in the California desert where he visits the musician Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. This caught my eye not because of Queens of the Stone Age, but due to my fondness for the California Desert, particularly the Palm Springs area of the Coachella Valley, a place I’ve visited a couple of times, and have been taken with its beauty and its beautiful midcentury architecture. The place just felt right to me in that weird way that seemed like perhaps I was meant to be there. But no, life would be impossible for me in 100+ degree heat.
Bordain goes up there. He and Josh Homme appear to be friends from earlier times. Homme seems subdued and reticent in Bordain’s presence and goes along with his suggestions to eat giant slabs of prime rib and drink martinis in a cool local bar and shoot the shit. The two casually pal around Palm Desert and well, hell, it looked like a lot of fun. And this Josh Homme character seemed like an affable guy. Maybe I should at least take a listen to some of his music …
… resulting in a nearly unending onslaught of Queens of the Stone Age mania in my life, dominating my listening, that at some point passed over from being new and rocking discovery, to an obsessive closed loop that that had no end.
Yes, I can get locked onto a particular artist or song for a while. A “jag” I call it. I rolled through a significant Talking Heads jag several years ago, particularly their album, Fear of Music, that followed a read of novelist, Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant 33.3 book on the subject in 2012. Lethem states about the album:
“… my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album, Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.” (Lethem, Fear of Music p.x).
Though Lethem immediately disavows the sentiment as “extreme” and “bogus” it rings entirely true to me and apt when I’m caught in a seemingly inescapable jag.
At some point you feel helpless. You’re involuntarily wearing music as your head and you want it off. You like to think that you control the music, that you decide what to play, but the music has other ideas. It takes control and plays until it is finished. Try as you might to shift your focus and play other things, do other things, think other things, you are pulled back. Your only recourse is to wait it out, and eventually the music will let go and you both can move on. Certain damage may be done. As Craig Finn of the Hold Steady sings, “Certain songs they get so scratched into our souls.” And this is exactly what happens, scratching, vandalism, marring, permanent damage. You may never be able to listen to certain songs again.
Long before Letham was a Talking Heads fanatic, Ol’ Skirblog was also a kid in a room and voluntarily wore several albums on his head at different times. Why? He only owned a handful of them and it was not unusual for him to play them over and over until they were physically destroyed. The Doors, Strange Days; The Who, Tommy; Yes, Fragile; The Beatles, Abby Road, really there was no alternative to this kind of thing. We all did it. Had our dozen or so albums and our t-shirts and stuck with them. But later, when you owned 2000 records and had the entirety of the Internet to choose from, you could broaden your playlist a little, then a lot, then repetition would be rare and jags even rarer.
But they did happen.
The album Dummy by Portishead took me twice, first when it arrived in the mid ‘90s full of ear candy and sultry mystery, then dozens of years later when I reluctantly let it back in, on purpose, knowing how strong it was, and glibly thought “I can handle it.” Well I couldn’t. I was in its grip for what seemed like eons.
Bowie of course, many times, and certainly after he passed, had me listening to “Starman” on repeat and writing elaborate theories and critical analyses of Ziggy Stardust.
The Fiery Furnaces’ dreaded, Blueberry Boat of all things, is a mind killer. Such an innocent title. But beware the Blueberry Boat my friends, it is not an album to be trifled with. One casual listen to this day and I am gone, possibly for weeks with nothing but obsessive, worrisome listening as my constant companion.
I don’t understand the psychological mechanisms behind this phenomena, only that when I finally heard my first Queens of the Stone Age song just 20 years into the Third Millennium, I went off the deep end.
Problematic for me was QOTSA’s firm place within the mainstream. A stream I tended to avoid for decades prior, ‘cause that’s the kind of snobby, rock elitist I can be. I couldn’t even appreciate Nirvana until about five years ago, so I sure as hell wasn’t listening to no QOTSA. I have my issues, but one of them isn’t knowing kick ass ROCK when I hear it, hook-laden, crunchy, artfully written and recorded rock that is oddly devoid of lameness and pretension while also having some lameness and pretention built in. Not an easy line to walk, but somehow these QOTSA characters managed to do it – for oh, about 20 years without my knowledge! 20 years. That’s what hurt initially. I mean, I’m into music. Heavily. How is it that generations of bro’s and dudes and groupies and stoners all got the benefit of QOTSA without me? How did they play countless times in cities I’ve lived in without me once considering attending? How did they rise from humble desert origins to serious global mega stars without Mr. fucking music (me) ever once, even by accident hearing a song? I was clearly the idiot here.
But what riches! Seven albums going back to 1999 and I went to work. Wasn’t hard, favorites emerged immediately, and when those were fully absorbed, new favorites surfaced. Songs ripened and matured like a fine cheese, a fine wine. like a …
I’m gonna stop there. I’m not going to gush on about them. I’ll sound dumb, starstruck and woefully too, too late. Like the worst jags before them, QOTSA turned from being a great listening experience, to an impossible to shake mega-jag of the worst variety. And it went on so long that I began to worry -- something was going on with me.
We know so much about music but at it’s core there are many mysteries. If you ask someone to define the difference between singing and talking you will get a flummoxed person. Even questions like “what is music?” are not easily answered. But we know we like it, love it, and need it sometimes. Last year I dipped my toe back into the Fear of Music pool when I was taking care of my two infirm parents: my mom with a stroke and dementia, and my dad, 89 years old, feisty as hell and in hospice care. Very little music seemed appropriate for this kind of soundtrack, until I landed by random shuffle one day on side two of Fear of Music:
That was it! That did it. Beautiful songs with a tinge of melancholy, a tinge of strangeness, but also fun, a groove, and abstract in a way they could be about different things than their titles. They could be about me, my life and this is what I played, all the way through that hard, long ordeal. I didn’t play Side One of Fear of Musicthough. The opener, “I Zimbra” didn’t fit my mood. And there is also that one song lurking at the end of Side One that I tried to avoid. I knew it was there, but I left it there unplayed and heavy. “These Memories Can’t Fade,” perhaps the most beautiful and profound song on the album glowered there, pregnant with meaning, but I wasn’t going to do it. Too pointed, too sad, and I didn’t need those memories yet, I had the present to contend with.
So the rest of the playlist played on, bass lines bubbled up and guitars staggered then recovered. The singer was often scared and often wry -- so much unlike my QOTSA who never faltered! Who were all bravado and confidence from day one, note one, over and over again proving it hasn’t all been done before, that the drums still pound and the strings still have guts. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t shake QOTSA. I needed them on infinite play. I needed Rock like I needed a rock. And they are certainly that.
Then on April 12 of 2019 the song “Memories” was finally added to the playlist. My dad passed that day and my mom had moved to nursing care. It was time to activate that song. “Memories” held no grudges for being overlooked so long. It waited patiently to do its job. And when finally played It brought the tears sure, the emotions - and some of the fear as well.