June 8, 2012
“You take all your interests and all your preoccupations and you kind of fill up a bucket. And the stuff that runs off, over the top, is a song, or is a novel.” -Josh Ritter
“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” -Ray Bradbury
Two men whose writing has meant the world to me.
Josh had just better plan on sticking around a while longer….
December 6, 2011
I just got home from the New York Public Library, where I went to hear to Josh Ritter, Wesley Stace, and Steve Earle discuss the relationship between music and writing. All three were lovely and marvelously intelligent, and though I went to hear Josh (of course), I think it was Steve Earle who said the most intriguing thing of the evening:
“What separates us from animals is not opposable thumbs; it’s that only humans make and consume art. That’s what separates us from the beasts.”
And while I don’t want to denigrate the quality or value of animals’ emotional lives…I suspect he may be right. I don’t tend to believe that humans are vastly superior to the rest of the animal kingdom in morals or capacity for empathy or emotional complexity…but I cannot think of another species that produces and consumes art for art’s sake.
June 15, 2011
“Today we don’t remember kings and queens…but we remember our poets and we remember our musicians and artists.”
I could listen to that man talk forever. I really could.
Full interview with Tift Merritt here.
March 29, 2011
For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls. Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them. I could never call myself a feminist. I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”
I was bitterly disappointed. It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species. Not me.
Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book. I ran out to buy it. “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.
Nope. It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves. But I recognized myself nowhere among them. I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all. I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”
And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.
I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months. It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps. The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.
Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.
Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.” And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me. I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle. Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them. I was there to be on their side.
In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead. The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line. It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.” I teared up. I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.
I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.
And they were all my girls.
More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage
March 2, 2011
A friend shared this video on Facebook the other night; it’s several years old, being from the 10th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables, in which 17 actors who have played Jean Valjean in productions from around the world join in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.”
I remember reading the book in high school, and then seeing the musical, and mostly wondering whether, if it came down to it, I’d be capable of the incredible acts of bravery and love that characters like Valjean, Marius and Eponine were. I wonder it again now as I follow the coverage of the democratic uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya. I often wonder how much what looks like bravery in retrospect only felt like the only possible or acceptable thing to do at the time.
So I dedicate this to all the brave people of the Middle East.
Note: Copyright issues apparently will not allow the embedded video to play here. Use the link provided in the error message to watch it on YouTube. Sorry!
January 23, 2011
I took some pictures on my digital camera in the last couple weeks, of the latest New York Snowpocalypse (can it really be the “snowpocalypse” if it happens every year?) in Central Park, and of certain mysterious phenomena of my apartment. When I went to upload them to my computer, there were a dozen pictures in the batch that I’d forgotten were on the camera, from a short, whirlwind trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado back in August for my cousin’s wedding. I remembered I’d disregarded them because most of them were taken quickly, some from a moving ski lift, and my camera’s battery was having trouble deciding whether or not it was imminently dying, so I’d assumed they couldn’t have turned out very well and written them off. But a few of them were okay.
What strikes me is the huge sense of peace that emanates from them, even though very little about the weekend, and nothing about my life at the time was peaceful in the slightest. A lot was going on personally. I had gotten a 6 AM flight to Denver and was delirious from going nearly 24 hours without sleep at one point, and cranky and strung out from altitude sickness. I was working on two shows at the time–one going perfectly swimmingly but the other descending rapidly into hell–and was in close contact all weekend with my partner stage manager concerning the latter one, and playing frantic phone tag with two other people about the schedules of possible upcoming gigs. There was apparently some family drama that I didn’t even hear about until much later.
Only far in retrospect is that bright, sparklingly vivid tranquility that was there the whole time apparent to me, as I take a last few peaceful hours to myself this morning, before I begin tomorrow my next long, hard slog through a production that I can already tell is going to take everything out of me for the next couple months. It’s like the assurance of peace only now caught up to me in time, or I caught up to it. The sense is resonant of a verse of one of my current favorite songs:
I am assured, yes, I am assured, yes, I am assured that peace will come to me.
A peace that can, yes, surpass the speed, yes, of my understanding and my need.
–Josh Ritter, “Lark”
A thought that I’m going to try to hang on to…as it’s becoming apparent that my next few weeks are going to feel more like this:
July 22, 2010
I was in the music section of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble again last night. I’d made my selection but pretended to browse for a few minutes. The clerk smiled at me as I approached the register.
“Fuck, he knows who I am,” I thought.
And why would the Barnes & Noble music section night shift clerk know who I am? Because I’ve been there about three times in as many weeks, at about the same, late, time of night, buying yet another Josh Ritter album.
I first heard Josh Ritter in the fall of 2006. I was working an opening shift at Starbucks; it was about 5:30 in the morning and still dark outside. Having been out of bed since 3:30 that morning, and severely sleep-compromised for several weeks due to my rehearsal schedule, I was restocking the displays of gum and after-coffee mints in a dull, dreamlike, semi-conscious state.
In the old days, in the interstitial time when they weren’t promoting a particular CD, Starbucks used to pipe in fairly generic Muzak mixes of folk/soft rock music, which, no offense to the artists, seemed to have the primary purpose of being stereotypically coffeehouse moody, while inoffensive, background. The store managers didn’t seem to exercise much discretion, or even pleasure one way or the other about what came on–we just turned the thing on in the morning, and I was thankful when it was the soft folk mix rather than the soft reggae one.
But this particular morning, this one song came on, and I knew with immediate and perfect clarity through my haze of sleep deprivation, that it was something exceptional, obviously but indescribably distinct, more spiritually mature, from its fellows in what I came to find was “Indie Folk Mix 53.” It had these deep, stark and yet rich piano chords which took hold of something deep in my chest, rang straight through my mental fog, as if matching the resonant frequency of my own soul.
This being the time before every Starbucks had a flat-screen TV displaying the identity of the song and artist now playing, I had to employ my own old method of memorizing a single distinctive lyric (“the fairest daughter of the Pharaoh’s son“) to go home and Google after work.
And what I found was Josh Ritter’s “Monster Ballads (early version).”
You know how it feels when just the right book or song or album, though great in its own right, meets you at precisely the time in your own life when you need it the most, though you could never have predicted it? It was that. It was a time when everything was hard for me, both personally and professionally. I’d come home every day in the afternoon between Starbucks shift and rehearsal and listen to that song, about driving alone across the desert considering a life of both incredible love and incredible desolation, five or six or ten times, and in the state I was in, it brought me to tears most of those times and yet left me feeling a little refreshed and a little stronger.
I downloaded a couple more individual songs over the years, enjoyed them but somehow didn’t really fall in love with them, until I heard Ritter live on WNYC one afternoon this past May, singing “Moon River,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
And then I fell hard.
I pretty much ran out and bought his latest album, “So Runs the World Away,” having not been buying albums on CD very much for a very long time. And proceeded to listen to it and almost nothing else, for a solid month without even noticing.
How can I even describe this? If you like traditional singer/songwriter stuff, you’d like it. There’s a country flavor, but don’t think of it as country. There’s a folky flavor, but it’s more complicated than that. At times he can sound like a young Paul Simon, Nick Drake, Ryan Adams, or even Bruce Springstein, but it would be unfair to the caliber of his lyrical originality to try to understand him just in terms of his references. He’s got a distinctive but never grating voice, which he manages to use in a different way to suit each album: gravelly and mischievous on his self-titled first album, smokey and velvety on the latest. He has one of the most supple and versatile voices I’ve ever heard, and it seems to only get better with age. I think he might be the best songwriter I’ve ever heard, and that he must be a very old soul–literally a bard from some other time–because the depth of experience both worldly and emotional implied in his lyrics strains believability for a 33-year-old (let alone the 21-year-old he was when he recorded his first album). His songs are populated by epic characters from world history, the Bible, and myths of the American west (Huck Finn, King David, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all make appearances), but given a disarming emotional intimacy, sorrow, and individuality.
And don’t let anyone say again that iTunes has ended the age of the well-made album. Of course it’s made it too easy to sample individual songs and forget the satisfaction of working to appreciate a truly complete album for most people, but given that, for those of us who still appreciate the artistry of the album, Ritter’s craftsmanship is even more delicious. Every one of his albums has a particular narrative or character study as its touchstone, and every single song of every album is purposeful and necessary to the narrative. There is no “filler” of mediocre songs to fill out a CD with two or three decent radio singles. I even dislike a couple of songs, but none of them are pedestrian, one-dimensional or incompletely realized.
Sitting up in the booth at my own show a couple nights ago, running cues, I was thinking “everything is still hard, but I have so much beautiful music in my life right now.” I still sort of feel cheated that I didn’t hear more of or get into this guy’s music earlier in his career/my life…but I guess that I have to accept that now is the right time for a reason.
Oh, and did I mention that he’s easy on the eyes?