(I wrote this in May for the li.st app about ten minutes after these events. Below is that list, now changed; verb tenses and words have been modified, and the whole thing has been chopped into paragraphs because long lists are a drag to read.)
Stuff That Happened at a DJ Gig in Chinatown
Most of this involved an Older Drunk Guy (ODG).
I arrived at the bar at 5 PM to meet Felipe, the bartender, who I had never met. The other half-dozen times I have DJed the Procedure night, Jessica Espeleta has been the bartender. (She is, in fact, the only bartender I've ever seen at Melody Lounge.) I was filling in for Richard Chartier, the man who started the Procedure night a year ago. He was entertaining guests that night and needed a break. I owed him one since the last time I tried to DJ, my Traktor set-up borked and I played half of one track all loud and crackly and super garb, and then abandoned trying to play music out of my laptop. Since attendance at Procedure rarely exceeds ten or twelve humans — once a dog put us over twenty — I figured I could handle a last-minute hand-off.
While I was waiting for Felipe, I was talking on the phone, turned away from the bar's front door. ODG was lurking. He ignored my Obvious Phone Engagement Stance™ and called out to me: "Is this one of those places that opens whenever it wants?" I turned and delivered what I thought was a universal gesture: the shruggie. He kept asking unheard questions, walking in circles.
Once the bar opened, ODG walked in. Felipe helped me set up. While I got ready to play, ODG talked loudly on the phone to someone, apparently about another phone. "So tell me WHOSE phone you have now? Do you know anything about them? WHY do you have it?" I expected I was going to have at least one interaction with ODG in the next few hours.
I had an interaction with ODG almost immediately, when I played my first song — "Tangled Up In Blue." (It was Bob's 75th birthday, so: duh.) ODG walked past me and asked, loudly, "Are you going to be playing a lot more Dylan?" "Probably not," I said, though I hadn't made up my mind. "Good," he replied, planting himself on a nearby banquette. Wheeeee.
After an hour or so, he came up and asked me if I had been playing John Cage. Though I hadn't, it wasn't a bad guess. I told him as much and he walked backwards, mumbling and gesturing.
When he sat nearby, he was in the company of a Handsome Younger Man (HYM).
About half an hour before I finished, ODG walked up and said, "The music is much improved since the Dylan. If wanted to hear another whiny Jew, I'd go back to Chicago."
I was playing a long track. I cued up another Dylan song to end with. ODG waved to everybody and left.
While my last song played, HYM came out of the bathroom. "Did you see that guy I was with? Did he leave? Oh shit." HYM ran out of the bar.
Once I was packed, I pulled my bag over my shoulder and walked towards the bar to get some water. A man sitting on the banquette gave me a silent thumbs up. I returned it.
On every other Tuesday, a DJ event called Procedure takes place at a small bar in Chinatown called Melody Lounge. Composer Richard Chartier started the night in 2015 and, a few months ago, he invited me to join as a third DJ. The one and two to my three are Ale Cohen of Dublab and Chartier himself, who plays records under the name pinkcourtesyphone. We had something of a schedule worked out but that's fallen apart. We all seem to sub for each other every few weeks now.
The bar is dark and warm and sometimes feels silent even when music is playing. The ceiling is covered with red paper lanterns, and the walls are made of pleasantly uneven wood. Because I have never seen the space in full light, I can't reliably tell you what the wood is doing. In the murk, it looks like California mid-century modern paneling rearranged into late avant hillbilly.
Ale played first. He worked with vinyl, concentrating on English indie bands from the nineties that were either on Sarah Records (The Orchids) or could have been (14 Iced Bears). This is warm weather music, strumming and gently crushed hopes to the front, bass and drums to the back. This is the upside of being one of a team—Ale had brought something completely appropriate that I barely even remembered. Ale is a dependable joy to work with. He often plays a single by the French 80s electro outfit Bipp. Or Bippp. Or BIPPP. Anyway, I love that song and I don't want to look it up. I like thinking of it as "that single Ale plays."
After his set, Ale left and I started playing songs through Traktor, a software system. As usual, there were less than ten people in the bar. Seven can make the place seem full, and that's about where we were. I played the set I had chosen earlier in the day, but the music felt like an article you find yourself accidentally writing for the third time. "Wait. I've done this." The tracks sounded pink and sluggish, some fancy idea of immersion gone flat.
A woman in what looked like a bridal outfit approached the DJ perch. She said, "It's my birthday!" I said "Happy birthday!" which is the only safe territory when two strangers are discussing birth. She smiled widely and walked away. Maybe she wanted me to play familiar, fun music. I realized this was exactly what I wanted to do. While I was transferring OutKast files into Traktor, the guest DJ arrived, an Englishman named Dan. He was very friendly and smelled of cigarettes. He had never DJd before and didn't know what went into what.
While I was trying to finish my set, I looked for the appropriate cables and inputs along with Jess, the bartender and de facto boss. If I had been in the middle of a set I cared about, I might have been annoyed. I didn't mind. When the urge to create fades, the ability to help can feel better, more certifiably useful. This echoes through parenthood; when you're in the middle of a thought you wish would just bloom already and a child poses a question or refers a sibling dispute to the parental board.
As we were trying to get Dan plugged in, it became clear that something was wrong. His laptop only produced a low, muffled bass signal that was also somehow stripped of bass, like his computer was routed into the gallery next door. He played a passage from the "Taxi Driver" soundtrack that I could identify by tempo and some squashed notes, barely. There were attempts to figure out The Problem using iPhone flashlights. An audio signal was being fed into an amp that, in turn, was routed to the bar's speakers. Those, it turned out, were controlled by cheap beige plastic devices that looked like wall switches torn out of a pre-fab house. Somehow, the speakers were kicking on and off and an unknown element was at play, turning what little we could hear into terrible soup.
I was feeling badly for everyone: Jess, who was trying to bartend and troubleshoot; Dan, who had dragged himself to the bar for not much; and the patient birthday crew, who had reasonable expectations for Music In a Bar and probably would have danced to anything in 4/4 time.
Dan eventually gave up and split, Jess got the speakers to work, and I played another brief set. Then Felipe, who uses vinyl, showed up. He also bartends there and knows the system well. He quickly adjusted levels on the main amplifier, hooked up cartridges to the turntables, and plugged in a projector screen. (He also let freestanding electric candles spin on the center of each turntable: good budget optics.) When he started in with his records, the sound quality was robust and detailed. The music was loud. And the speakers were fine. I was very happy to hear all twenty-one minutes of Rare Earth's "Get Ready."
The birthday contingent hopped up to dance — in a sense. There were five iPhones out, their built-in flashes technically no different from our flashlights, just doing different duty. The dancing lasted only long enough for a few photos to be shot, and then everyone was back on the banquette, drinking, seated, and whooping.
I sat there wishing I had studied signal paths and gain stages more closely when I'd been spending my days in recording studios. Being presented a graduate level calculus problem I can't solve doesn't make me feel bad; being confronted with a problem that, plausibly, I should be able to sort out, does. I could tell that the stubborn sound-killer lived in the gap between digital and analog outputs. Beyond that, I couldn't sort out why a sound would be muffled and tortured rather than too loud, or too soft.
But this wasn't about gear. It felt like time was folding in on itself. Years and years of engineering work were piled up ass backwards: garage door openers controlling speakers, phones turned into torches, and the familiar turntable technology doing exactly what it was supposed to do, the one participant not wearing some sort of ill-fitting costume.
I'd like to say that reading this essay by Jia Tolentino about navigating online offense made me think of the below, but the connection was just chance. I was looking for some quote about cities and I found an echo.
This line in Tolentino's essay jumped out and fell into a Café Bustelo can and made a lot of noise:
And so, there is an unspoken, horrible idea that contemporary political activity starts and perhaps ends with building a really good politicized identity—a process that, again, relies on disapproval, disaffiliation, offense.
Your narrative, your beliefs, your words in the world, the phrases that ally you with others — all of these depend on the value they are accorded by others. This idea existed before the internet — ppl were always terrible whew — but now the balance sheet is updated instantly. The social delay pedal is torqued to such a wickedly small interval that we can barely tell the difference between signal and return. Here is how Michel de Certeau put it thirty-five years ago:
The credibility of a discourse is what first makes believers act in accord with it. It produces practitioners. To make people believe is to make them act. But by a curious circularity, the ability to make people act — to write and to machine bodies — is precisely what makes people believe. Because the law is already applied with and on bodies, “incarnated” in physical practices, it can accredit itself and make people believe that it speaks in the name of the “real.” It makes itself believable by saying: “This text has been dictated for you by Reality itself.” People believe what they assume to be real, but this “reality” is assigned to a discourse by a belief that gives it a body inscribed by the law. The law requires an accumulation of corporeal capital in advance in order to make itself believed and practiced. It is thus inscribed because of what has already been inscribed: the witnesses, martyrs, or examples that make it credible to others. It imposes itself in this way on the subject of the law: “The ancients practiced it,” or “Others have believed it and done it,” or “You yourself already bear my signature on your body.”
In other words, normative discourse “operates” only if it has already become a story, a text articulated on something real and speaking in its name, i.e., a law made into a story and historicized (une loi historiée et historicisée), recounted by bodies. Its being made into a story is the presupposition of its producing further stories and thereby making itself believed. And the tool ensures precisely the passage from discourse to the story through the interventions that incarnate the law by making bodies conform to it and thus make it appear to be recited by reality itself. From initiation ceremonies to tortures, every social orthodoxy makes use of instruments to give itself the form of a story and to produce the credibility attached to a discourse articulated by bodies.
— Michel de Certeau, from "The Practice of Everyday Life," 1980.
How Not to Be an Earthworm
[This whole chapter has the faintly phosphorescent humor of decay about it. It is as outmoded as a treatise on how to treat javelin-wounds, now that we know even earthworms are not inviolate.]
Streamlined to ultimate for functional performance the earthworm blindly eats his way, riddling and honeycombing the ground to a depth of ten feet or more as he swallows.
— Anatomy Underfoot, J.-J. CONDE
Other wars have made men live like rats, or wolves, or lice, but until this one, except perhaps for the rehearsal in Spain, we have never lived like earthworms.
Now we bend our minds, with the surprised intensity of any nonplused [In the face of continued disapproval I think this should have two esses, just as I think the word busses is proper in the plural for both a vehicle and a kiss. Buses, indeed! I am not nonplused.] creatures, to existing as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our due: light, free air, fresh foods, prepared according to our tastes. It can be done, of course, since we are humans as well as rats, wolves, lice and earthworms.
You may have heard of one woman in England who withdrew to her tidy little bomb-shelter in the garden when the first siren sounded, and emerged, rather dreamily, some two weeks later. She'd been quite comfy, she told her worried neighbors, but she did hope the blinkin' raids would not always last quite so long.
— M.F.K. Fisher, from How to Cook a Wolf, 1942.
In painting, how light is utilized distinguishes one painting from another regardless of when it was painted; while in music, how pitch is organized, from the more empirical pre-tonal era until serialism, characterizes chronologically the history of Western music. A brief breakdown of light structures adopted by painters since Giotto might best describe what I mean:
Light from nature
raking light: Carvaggio, Vermeer
overhead light: Watteau, Courbet, Pissarro
refracted light: Monet
intellectualized light: Seurat
Pictorial light, not from nature
constructed light: Giotto, Mantegna, Picasso, de Chirico
invented light: Piero della Francesca, Rothko
nonmodulated light: Mondrian, Pollock
light without source: Rembrandt
With the advent of Cage, one by necessity must ask questions that were previously avoided, never thought about when composing a musical composition. My preoccupation with the fascinating aspect of how painters deal with light is only because of Cage. In effect, what I am suggesting is not that music should explore or imitate the resources of painting, but that the chronological aspect of music's development is perhaps over, and that a new "mainstream" of diversity, invention and imagination is indeed awakening. For this we must thank John Cage.
— Morton Feldman, 1982.
January, 2015: An interview with FKA twigs, V Magazine.
Mary 20, 2015: International Klein Blue, Departures.
June 18, 2015: Farmer in the Deli, The New York Times Magazine.
August 13, 2015: "Compton" and related events, Los Angeles Times.
September 25, 2015: Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd, Los Angeles Times
November 2, 2015: An interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, Los Angeles Times.
November 7, 2015: Imagined HR files for Adele, Taylor Swift and Kanye West, Los Angeles Times.
November 19, 2015: Autechre, Los Angeles Times.
December 4, 2015: "St. Marks Is Dead" review, The New York Times Books Review.
December 11, 2015: Adele, Los Angeles Times.
flipped birds like "Donna Lee"
organized like KonMari
Rock a holding pattern like a houndstooth.
The host of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, who is apparently a professional DJ who DJs in places that are not radio stations, is talking to Peaches. In the course of their conversation, he has revealed that he is not familiar with either Suicide or Micachu & The Shapes. Of Missy Elliott, he said, "She's funny."
I bought Brian Eno's "Before and After Science" when I was a teenager. A few months before finding "Science," I bought Eno's "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)" and the Stones' "Exile On Main Street" on a store right above 42nd Street on the east side of 5th Avenue. (It was called either Discomat or Discorama.) "Tiger Mountain" and "Exile" were both included in this 1979 book, one of the few sources I had for the names of older albums I might actually want. This book was the only reason I walked into an enormous barn lined with record racks and haltingly asked for these two albums with titles that sounded really odd when spoken out loud.
The Eno and the Stones delighted and frustrated me. The words and sounds were off, as if they were mixed incorrectly or intentionally obscured or sung in some kind of pidgin English I would never learn. I wanted to know more about what Eno was. (And the Stones, but that came later.)
"Before and After Science" made me immediately happier than "Tiger Mountain," though I couldn't figure out why until a year or two later, when I was playing bass more regularly. Though there is some treated, groaning, humming Eno guitar — obvs on "King's Lead Hat" duh — "Science" is tied to the rhythm section. Much of the time, it is bassist Percy Jones and Phil Collins, then playing together in Brand X, though Paul Rudolph and a few others also play bass. I felt a second kind of disorientation this time, without the frustration. I loved all of the low end and hanging bell tones; the alternation between rhythm and near-ambient tracks; the decreased emphasis on non-narrative language that felt a little forced and English to me. (Though it wasn't gone. "Backwater" contains a line about "heuristics of the mystics." Not sure why Extra Credit Rock never became a genre name.)
I am listening to it now, more than 30 years later, on the other side of the country. It didn't sound like an album from New York, and it doesn't sound like an album from California. It still seems like a moon that is always there, low on the horizon, never sunk.
Nobody fears aging more than someone on the verge of losing his youth card. A 28-year-old will mutter "some old man" quicker than any 18-year-old.
I don't know about anybody else. But there was no one moment. There were many, many moments, followed by the last moment. The last moment is when you say "I need to stop." It's just one in a series.
It is snowing in Kraków today.
The below was painted in 1961 by Antoni Tàpies, and it is called "Superimposition of Grey Matter." It happened to arrive in my inbox today, thanks to Artsy, and it is the perfect image to accompany the year's first snow.
I hate loud speaking voices, cigars, heedless public smartphone use (guilty), stanked-up people overdosing on knock-off perfume, gum snappers and blinking lights on gadgets that should be unseen. The public space cannot become a place where we sacrifice the possibility of having our own, uninterrupted thoughts. That sounds like a bad line from some 1912 depressive writing a broadside against automobiles and moving pictures, but fuck it I'm going to leave it right there.
There is an an English couple eating here at the Mama Cafe in Kazimierz. I can hear either one of them talking at all times, even when the staff uses the ice-crushing smoothie machine. Wait. One of them just started hacking and blowing her nose. I want no harm to befall them but if they get caught in very bad traffic for three hours, that might be just.
Last night, I went out with my upstairs neighbors, Carrie and Ben, infinitely sweet and patient people. They work as independent designers, sometimes of book covers, mostly of websites.
We walked up Sunset to Taix, the only place I had been to in Echo Park before moving here. It's high French plastic camp with B+ food and a massive wine cellar that I will never need to know about. Against my better judgment, I get steak frites. I regret it immediately. It's not a season for lumpy meals — a rich and useless observation, since I later ate an "alley dog," a thing wrapped in bacon and slathered in mayonnaise so god kill us both let's just agree to disagree.
We find our way to The Holloway. The jukebox screen is stuck on a blue matchstick declaration: ERRORS EXIST. Ben and I try to play shuffleboard, which is like bocce but in miniature on a sawdusted plank. I couldn't judge the distance to the sweet spot. I guessed it would take a thousand tries before my wrist would know the proper swing. Ben guessed fifty tries would do it. I found that optimistic.
"Free Water" was painted in cursive on a mirrored wall, which says a lot about an L.A. bar in 2015.
Today, I saw my friend, Mara, at a more or less vegan café. We talked about our mutual distrust of white gallery cubes and proscenium stages. We were interrupted at one point by a wait staff member singing "Happy Birthday" to a patron in full operatic soprano.
Missing my sons — one a college freshman in Maine, the other a sophomore in a Bronx high school — means doing irrational stuff like not taking this basketball out of this box, as if my handling it would make their not handling it more palpable.
Today, as I walked out of the Times building onto Spring Street, a text zazzed my phone.
"Hi Sasha, we're all moved in and the kids started school yesterday. We'd love to see you. Can we take you out for dinner soon? Maybe after a tour of Brooklyn? K x"
Back in late July, I didn't tell all of my friends that I was moving to Los Angeles. An Instagram post did some public work, a tweet did more, but loved ones outside those cloverleafs weren't necessarily going to know what was going on. I couldn't think of the right way to announce something so big and weird. Almost fifty years spent in New York and then, suddenly, ship it all to LA. Boom, done.
There's no sturdy explanation for why I didn't just send an email to everyone in my address book. The reasoning — which I am reconstructing, unreliably — emerged from my suspicion that a cross-country move was too hard to talk about. The transition from one place to the other felt both idiosyncratic and cosmically inevitable, which is a way of saying it would lead to even more rambling and tangential explanations than usual. "Only announce small or simple things" was my crude mantra. Also, I had been thinking of moving to L.A. for at least five years, and somehow the idea of potentially over-announcing the decision felt like a jinx. I was just going to watch the moving company leave and get on the plane and then talk about it somewhere, at some point. Like here.
Half an hour after I got the text, I was sitting at Gold Room with my friend, Joni. She had brought her daughter out to CalArts and stayed a few extra days. We talked about marriages come and gone and unrealized, and then drove a few blocks to Mohawk Bend. And then the spatial thing happened again. Because I don't yet have a car and am still internalizing the spaces around me, I am constantly discovering that points my mind has placed in two different neighborhoods are just a block apart.
When we said goodbye, I failed to find any LaCroix at the local Whole Foods — which isn't a Whole Foods but I'm never going to learn the name so fuck it, it's Whole Foods — and I felt a slight sense of failure. Then we walked outside. The heat had receded behind a low wind. I said, not for the first time during our night, "I love it here."
A few weeks ago, I was living in temporary housing: the lower half of a moderately clean and modern duplex on Los Feliz Boulevard. On the day before I was scheduled to clear out and move into my first LA rental, two people knocked on my door in the space of an hour. They both wanted to know if I owned a black Mercedes. I do not. Apparently, a black Mercedes was parked outside the house, and someone had smashed in the driver's side window.
I was touched that people cared enough about a person whose fancy car had been vandalized to walk around asking after the owner. For several reasons, this wouldn't happen in New York. If your Mercedes gets busted into, fuck do we care. You have a Mercedes. We assume you'll come back for it. We also know the thief was gone hours before we saw your dumb car. But let's posit a more empathic witness. What does she do? New York exists more or less vertically. Even though it was originally designed as single-family dwelling, a brownstone in Fort Greene is now an apartment building. You can find a main doorway, but then what? Ring all the buzzers, even if there are just two? No way.
In LA, you can knock on the door of a house and be fairly certain that a person will answer the door and not be cross about it. This brought to mind a friend's assertion that LA is a Midwestern city, temperamentally. I might agree.