I listen to music basically whenever I write, often as a simple practical matter (I have a wife, a barky-bary-bark, two school-age kids at home, and a house that backs up to an apartment parking lot). What I’m listening to during a given period often seeps into what I’m writing. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Fire in the Hole” every morning while working on the middle section of this novel—both the longest and darkest (“Where There is Nothing, There is God”—itself a title stolen from William Butler Yeats.) At some point, I’d gotten the notion in my head that the narrator of the song was a waiter/actor, which is why the protagonist is a waiter/actor. Looking at the lyrics now, I have no idea where I got that impression. (I’m told Fagen—who co-wrote the song—said in an interview that it was about dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, which makes a lot more sense than my interpretation of the song.) Doesn’t really matter; it was always the piano that caught my mind. It’s the piano, more than the words, that seeped into that story.
I’m a Jew—born and raised—but I come from a “mixed” family (they say “interfaith” now). My dad is a Jew, but my mom was raised Christian. Both my maternal grandparents—with whom I spent a lot of time growing up—were practicing Christians. Far from shockingly, my own marriage is mixed (my wife was raised Catholic, our kids are Jews who end up participating in a lot of Xtian traditions). Interfaith families are really common now, but were much less so when I was young.
As you’re likely aware, back when I was a kid there weren’t a lot of Xanukah songs for us Jewish kids. There weren’t many songs for Jewish kids, but there were some; there were absolutely zero songs for mixed half-a-Jews with an Xmas tree and a Xanukiah and a cat that managed to catch fire in the Xanukah candles every year and Xtian grandparents who came to town on Xmas Eve specifically to partake in the Jewish tradition of Xmas Chinese food.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we’re sort of a nation that always wants everyone to be one thing or another thing—black or white, nerd or jock, Jew or Gentile, girl or boy—and doesn’t have much patience for things that are mixed and ambiguous and a lil-o’-both. I was in my 20s, and in a Women’s Studies class, before I learned what the hell “intersectionality” was, and my identity began to make any sense to me.
This year—for the third year running—my local Jewish Community Center is collecting donations of Christmas presents, to be given to the Syrian refugees relocated here.
On the one hand, that sounds almost too perfectly absurd: Jews giving Muslims Christmas presents. On the other, it feels like basically the most perfect possible introduction to America.🕎🎄☪🇺🇸
Anyway, there weren’t many mixed kids like me when I was growing up—and there weren’t any songs or holiday specials or children’s books that reflected what I saw and felt and loved about wintertime.
So these are my songs, for all the little intersectional mixed kids out there, who don’t have any holiday songs to sing.
I’ve got your new Thanksgiving Tradition right here.
You can thank me later:
I sorta love things like this, not because it’s the “sound of a Martian sunrise”—because it isn’t. It’s a composition humans made, using an express (and consciously expressed) scheme that’s inspired by a Martian sunrise.
No, I love this art because it sounds pretty and pleases and soothes me, and I love projects like this because artists always and forever operate based on formulae—they just usually aren’t able (or willing) to consciously and explicitly formulate those formula. I like it when we engage with our formulae outright.
Also, I really like Mars. Our relationship with that planet has changed substantially since I was a boy, and that always fills my heart with Hope.
The 45/45/10 Formula for narrative/argument is one of the perpetual bees bumbling around my bonnet. This video for this song is such a stone cold perfect example (and, subsequently, so rhetorically devastating) that I just had to share. PRO-TIP: The first two-and-a-half minutes will likely be almost unbearable to watch for most white Americans. If it helps, know that Joyner Lucas (the musician and the voice you hear throughout the song) is black (although not the black guy in the video).
At any rate, to review my 45/45/10 Formula:
- The first 45% of a piece is the Setup: Characters/concepts/situations/dynamics are presented and relationships among these made clear
- The next 45% is the Tangle: Complication(s) disrupt (or at least complicate) the situation laid out in the Setup
- The last 10% is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse
In the case of this track, the Setup runs from the open to ~2:50. The Tangle then runs to ~5:50, and from that point to the cut to black is the Resolution. What especially thrills me here—beyond the hard body impact of the rhetoric itself and the lean power of the videography—is how shifts in the music mark out the transitions between stages in the argument: Each section break is marked out be an abrupt shift in the tone and mood of the backing track.
This is a wonderful primer on how to structure an narrative argument to hold an audience and not persuade them, per se—because that’s not the goal—but rather to enduringly stick in their craw, so they keep troubling over your argument long after they’re done with the piece of entertainment. This is how you write moral fiction. This is how you plant the seeds that grow the trees that, indefatigably and seemingly effortlessly, bend the arc of that moral universe back toward justice.
And that, kids, is our business. Go, watch … and learn.
My 11yo found this online and forwarded it to me. If you’ve never been to a modern Russian-Jewish wedding reception, it’s pretty much exactly like this, plus a vodka luge.
(Note the length of that track. That’s commitment to the gag, people.)
There’re tracks by Kanye I like, and I have a great deal of respect and affection for Jay-Z (both because of and despite “The Story of O.J.“), but I’m sorry: As artists, neither have a patch on Donald Glover. The clarity and breadth of his thought and expression are dazzling and compact and searingly intense; it’s like getting hit in the chest with a frozen super-critical sphere of napalm.
I love hearing from folks who read my DIY books, because they are always up to something that I never imagined, and yet love on first sight. Case in point:
Last December I got an email from Hamish Trolove, a Junkyard Jam Band reader who mentioned he was building his own riff on a Shane Speal 2×4 lap steel with a build-in Mud-n-Sizzle pre-amp (project 12 in Junkyard Jam Band) and dual LFO box (translation: It’s a junkyard lap steel electric guitar with a built in pre-amp—so things might get loud—and an automated modulator, allowing him to dial in anything from a little honky-tonk tremelo shimmer to a big pulsing metal wobble).
As Hamish explained:
The instrument uses waste cargo palette wood, and TIG welding wire to mark the “fret” spacings. I find that old palettes often have extraordinarily hard wood with some amazing colours when planed down, sanded and varnished. Hopefully by the end of the project I’ll have something that looks fairly tidy-ish in a hobo/steampunky kind of way.
“Fairly tidy-ish” is such an understantement. Check this thing out:
Oh daaaaaaamn! I love everything about this! He also included a schematic of his expansion of my old Universal LFO (Junkyard Jam Band project 13), for folks interested in doing something similar:
Hamish also put me on to Frescobaldi, a powerful, pretty, and free sheet music text editor that looks amazing. (For every 100 of you who are wondering why you’d ever need such a thing, there is one musical geek who is gonna click that link and weep with joy. Trust me, for I have been that very geek.)
Incidentally, while you’re clicking links, don’t miss Hamish’s Baddest Mountain Dulcimer Ever.