10 Years in Music

Looking back is looking forward.

I’ve been known to indulge in my share of excavating. As I prepare for my next big move, I’ve been looking back, not only on the decade-long 10 Cities/10 Years, but also on my youth and even more recent history. Writing these chapters from my life has been rewarding, allowing me to scrutinize my memories and re-examine pivotal moments in my history, recontextualizing my history as it relates to my present. But there are other ways to explore the past.

One of my favorite tools for documenting my life in real time is Last.fm, a website I’ve mentioned not infrequently in these pages. It’s the simplest of ideas: the website tracks the music you listen to on your various devices and compiles that information into charts and data points. It’s extremely nerdy and entirely unnecessary, and I love it.

I started using Last.fm just a few months before I set out on my decade of travel, so I have a document of all the music I listened to throughout the entire journey from day one: my ups and downs, my relationships come and gone, my periods of depression and moments of hysteria, all of it soundtracked. It’s the kind of thing that I can nerd out over for hours, and often do.

I decided it would be informative to look at my Top Songs charts for the various years of my 10 city project to get a sense of the tenor of each year through my musical obsessions. I’ve taken a snapshot of my Top 5 tracks, so now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take another look back at my project, this time through song.

Call it 10 Cities/10 Years: The Soundtrack.

Or don’t, IDGAF.

1. Charlotte


How predictable. In my first year of traveling, I was still mostly listening to the artists who had gotten me through college, so Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright had been getting heavy rotation for a few years by this point (and still do). “Fake Plastic Trees” was my go-to favorite song for years, though its stature has diminished some over the years.

In terms of evolving musical tastes, The Decemberists were one of the many new artists a friend introduced to me while I was living in Charlotte. Especially in those early days, the Pacific Northwest band was known for their whimsical and eccentric mix of British folk and sea shanties. I was besotted with “The Engine Driver” which has this one verse:

I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I’ve written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones

It’s the kind of melodramatic sentiment that I absolutely adored back then. (Eh, still do.)

2. Philadelphia


Not much had changed in terms of favorite artists, though I was definitely listening to a more varied selection. “Come Pick Me Up” is my all-time most listened song and has never lost its “Favorite Song” status, but by this point I was starting to seek out more obscure artists. Mirah was another new discovery from my year in Charlotte, and she rapidly ascended into the realm of favorites. Though I’ve only followed her career intermittently recently, I was fortunate enough to see her play live just a few months ago at an intimate benefit show for LGBT youth. She was lovely.

Ghosty, for those that don’t know, is (was?) a band from my hometown in Kansas. They played a set at the famous World Café in Philadelphia and I saw them perform. Staying after to talk with the guys, I was surprised when the lead singer said that he actually knew me because he had seen me read poetry back in Lawrence. That was wholly unexpected and kind of cool.

3. Costa Mesa

Costa Mesa

For a time, Beirut was the musical artist I felt most spoke to my increasingly disparate tastes in music. I used to say that if I had any musical talent (I do not), I would make music exactly like Beirut. It’s interesting how, as especially so-called “indie” music has expanded in form and genre, the once unique Baltic sounds of Beirut have become just another common trope. I still enjoy Beirut, but my fervor has lessened considerably.

4. San Francisco

San Francisco

Starting to see some more female artists gain prominence in this list, though none of these three particular artists would be in my favorites. Still, Beth Orton’s Central Reservation did receive considerable play for a few years. “Concrete Sky,” which is off of a different album, features one-time Orton beau, Ryan Adams, so that probably helps explain its high chart position here. It’s also just a beautiful song.

“No Children” is, for me, the perfect song about a doomed relationship, that kind of love where the two people are terrible for each other but still work in a twisted sort of way. John Darnielle is a storyteller, and the entire Tallahassee album is arguably the best novel he’s ever written (though his two actual novels are worth a read). 

5. Chicago


My fifth year was, at times, arduous, as you might recall, so it’s not really surprising that the songs that got the most airplay in that year were in large part downcast affairs. I adore Neko Case’s entire oeuvre, and I consider her song, “Star Witness,” to be one of the defining songs of 10 Cities/10 Years (I’m frankly shocked at its absence on these lists). Although “Don’t Forget Me” is a Harry Nilsson cover, she definitively makes it her own.

Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” stands out from the other songs on the chart with its propulsive and infectious rhythms. It appeared on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation (along with Iron & Wine’s “Die”) and was basically the standout track from two discs of excellent but mostly similar sounding indie rock and folk music. Worth tracking down.

6. Nashville


In the wake of a bad break up in Chicago, Nashville’s list consists of a lot of old favorites; comfort food, I suppose. Ironic that the one Adele song that I was really into that year was actually one of her more upbeat tracks. Also, “Dear Chicago”? How on the nose could I be? (Granted, it’s a fantastic song.)

7. Seattle


Ryan reclaims the top track, but this time with a song that was never officially released. Both “Karina” and “Angelina” appear on the famously unreleased 48 Hours (bootlegs are available, obviously), which was scrapped in favor of Demolition, a solid but ultimately less cohesive album. I’ve said this elsewhere but, after Heartbreaker48 Hours is Ryan’s greatest album, and the fact that it has never officially been released is a tragedy (a few songs appear on Demolition). “Karina” is his most sympathetic and piercing character piece and deserves to be loved by millions. 

Otherwise, this list clearly reflects the counter-intuitively sunnier times I was having in Seattle. Also, funny to note just how much Childish Gambino has evolved as a writer and performer since those early days. “Freaks and Geeks” is still a banger.

8. New Orleans

New Orleans

This was another hard personal year, but still a year with a lot of partying, which is nicely exemplified in the dichotomy of Justin Timberlake and a pair of The National’s bleakest songs. The Divine Fits’ “Shivers” splits the difference, an old school proto-punk cover with the lyrics:

I’ve been contemplating suicide
But it really doesn’t suit my style
So I guess I’ll just act bored instead
And contain the blood I would’a shed 

Considering my state of mind that year, the song was clearly speaking to me. (The song also includes one of my all-time favorite lines of shade: “My baby’s so vain / She’s almost a mirror”.)

9. Boston


I’d been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie since college, and yet, somehow, I had never bothered to acquire their most critically acclaimed album, Transatlanticism. I rectified that in Boston and soon after became enthralled with the eight minute centerpiece. I was also still obsessing over Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk/mixed genre band from New Orleans that you should also be obsessed with. Get on that.

(Also, yes, Justin Timberlake made the list two years in a row; no shame.)

10. Brooklyn 


And then came Brooklyn. Kanye West is an asshole. Kanye West is too full of himself. Kanye West lacks impulse control. All true. Also true: Kanye West can produce some amazing music. When Boston roommate, Emily, helped drive me to my tenth and final city, “Power” literally started playing the moment we passed the city limit sign. There couldn’t have been a more thematically appropriate song for that moment.

I had a brief fling with a French girl when I first moved to Brooklyn; my infatuation with The Stills’ french-language “Retour a Vega” lasted much longer. At the same time, I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with HAIM’s debut. Their latest release is very good, but I still play the hell out of Days Are Gone.

Goddamn right JT threepeated.

Album Credits

Notably, while many of my favorite artists are represented in these lists, there are plenty of others that don’t appear (no Sufjan Stevens, no Elliott Smith, no Spoon, no Rilo Kiley), while a number of artists who I barely listen to anymore (Night Terrors of 1927, really?) showed up.

I could have done this kind of list with my Top Artists or my Top Albums and gotten some very different results. For instance, these were my top albums from my year in Charlotte:

Charlotte Album

All five albums came out between 2005 and 2006, yet only one, Picaresque, is represented on the most played songs. I suspect that I was still getting to know these albums and thus listening to them straight through instead of just cherry picking my favorite tracks.

I chose to look at my top songs instead of albums or artists because I think they reflect my moods in those years more accurately. The album lists lean heavily towards recent releases, and my top artists stay pretty static from year to year (Radiohead and Ryan Adams are almost always in the top spots). By contrast, my ever-changing top song lists across my ten year journey illustrate not only an evolving musical taste, but they also provide insight into my mental state in those particular years.

Perhaps this sort of thing is only interesting to me (if so, you probably aren’t still reading, so who cares), but if you have a Last.fm account, I recommend taking a gander into your own past. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.


For the completists in the continually dwindling crowd, I’m including my second and third year lists from my time in Brooklyn. As I’ve written about previously, the music of Songs: Ohia carried me through a very difficult post-project year, hence The Lioness charting so many tracks. And then, this current year’s list is a result of my concerted effort to seek out more diverse artists and voices, in particular more women. 

Brooklyn (Year 2)

Brooklyn 2

Brooklyn (Year 3)

Brooklyn 3

Ideally, the list will continue to evolve every year because I will continue to evolve. In that way, these charts serve both as a document of the past and a challenge for the future. Who knows what my playlist will look like after a year in Spain? I look forward to making fresh comparisons next August.

Tattoo in black: Idiot, Slow Down

The Final Tattoo: Idiot, Slow Down

On the last day of the project, I walked around Manhattan until I found a tattoo shop to get my 18th and final tattoo for 10 Cities/10 Years.

Tattoo Work

I have known for years what it would be, but I’ve been holding it close to my chest (so to speak), and now that I have it, the full picture is complete. Idiot, Slow Down (Context)

For those whose wonder what these words mean and where they come from, I wrote an explanation more than 4 years ago on this blog.

But just to give a quick summary, it comes from the final track on Radiohead’s OK Computer, “The Tourist” and its meaning can be explained by this quote (originally found on Greenplastic.com):

“The Tourist” was written by Jonny, who, explains Thom, was “in a beautiful square in France on a sunny day, and watching all theses American tourists being wheeled around, frantically trying to see everything in 10 minutes.” Jonny was shocked at how these people could be in a place so beautiful and so special and not realize it because they weren’t taking the time to just stop and look around.

As I enter the next phase of my life – whatever that may be – it’s important I remember the ethos of 10 Cities, which was not about quickly accomplishing as much as possible in order to mark things off of a checklist. Instead, my life was about slow travel, marinating in a place and getting to know it from the perspective of a local.

Now that I’m unshackled from the constraints of the project, the temptation will be to see as much as possible. This is especially true now that I’m older. I was 22 when this project began, in the midst of my eternal youth. Now, at 32, I’m still relatively young, but the burden of time is more acute.

I’ve never seen Europe, or Asia, or Africa, South America, Australia or Antarctica. And believe me, I want to see them all. The trick going forward is to find a way to fit in all the travel I want to accomplish without losing sight of the reason I want to do it.

So, every morning when I look in the mirror, I will have a reminder to slow down, appreciate the space, take in my surroundings. Don’t be an idiot.

Like all of my tattoos, it’s both a marker of my past and a lesson about the future. The 17 phrase tattoos that adorn my chest make up the philosophy and truths of 10 Cities/10 Years. They are the Bible of my belief system. Essentially everything I could hope to say is already written on my chest, stolen from minds more interesting than mine.

In time, there will come a New Testament, but for now, this is the final word.

Full Chest

Never Share Your Love; or The Dangers of a Mixtape

Cassette Tape

One of my favorite things in the world is creating a music mix. Call it a mixtape (I do), a mixed CD, a playlist, whatever, the name doesn’t matter, it’s the act that matters. The curation of a good mix is an art form, but it’s an act of love, too.

Now, I don’t mean an act of love in the sense that making a mixtape means you love the person you’re making it for (though that’s usually the case). I mean that taking the time to compile, organize and craft a mix is the act of loving music, perhaps even to a fanatical, obsessive level.

I’ve made mixes for girlfriends, crushes, friends, siblings, and even just mixes for myself when I’m in a particular mood and need a pick-me-up (the process of creating the mix can do the trick). The common thread in these mixes is my love of the music. Sometimes the songs I choose are meant to be representative of a period in my or the listener’s life. Sometimes it’s about creating a timeless mix. A good mix, besides flowing from one song to the next, can often tell a story, maybe even with a moral.

I love mixtapes, but boy are they dangerous.

When you share a song with someone, you share a part of yourself. No, you didn’t write it, but we all have a song (or movie, or book) that resonates with us so deeply that it feels like an organ inside us. To share it with someone is to open yourself up and say, “This is me.”

We all know the crushing disappointment of sharing that part of ourselves with someone and them saying, “Meh. It’s okay.” For many of us, the art we love is so much a part of our identity that any rejection (or indifference) feels personal. But, I tell you, there’s a far greater danger inherent in the mixtape.

When you enter into a relationship with someone, you share the things you love. There is intimacy in that, even when that just means having “your place” for slices of pizza or a favorite dive bar. A relationship is about intertwining oneself with another, a binding that ties your tastes together. Your girlfriend starts listening to electronica because you blast it on your happy days, or your boyfriend starts watching Paul Thomas Anderson films because you said he’s the greatest living director.

For a perfect moment in time, the things you love are loved by the person you love, and you achieve the Eros Singularity.

And then you break-up.

For the first month or two, everything reminds you of your ex, no matter what it is. The smell of bacon, the way the leaves crunch underfoot, the nattering sounds of co-workers discussing The Voice. Somehow, every road leads back to the one now gone.

With time, though, you heal, and those connections fall away until you can go back to living a normal life without the constant reminder of heartbreak.

The problem, though, is while the implicit connections are no longer there, the explicit ones still exist. You might be able to go downtown without thinking about him, but getting a slice of pepperoni pie at Luigi’s is out of the question. And it doesn’t matter if Mike the Bartender is loose with the pour, you can’t sit on that stool without her sitting next to you.

These connections are never deeper than with shared art. The two of you had a song, a favorite movie, a novel that you read together and had lengthy discussions about deep into the night.

Those stinging associations are the price of doing business. Losing them is yet another loss in the process of heartbreak, but you lived without them B.E. (Before Ex) and you’ll live without them now.

No, the true danger comes with sharing the art you loved before you met the future/former significant other. Those are the songs, movies and books that were a part of you when that other fell in love with you. It’s part of what they liked about you, because you had internalized that art as part of your personality. When you break-up, they get to take that with them, leaving behind a scar. It’s a raw wound, and unlike Luigi’s or the oeuvre of P.T. Anderson, you can’t avoid touching it because it’s still a part of you.

This is why you should never share everything that you love. Sure, this girl is the love of your life now, and you want her to know everything about you, but don’t be a fool. You’re 24 and you’re going to date other people. You got engaged? That’s great, but at one point so were 100% of the people who are now divorced (give or take Las Vegas).

The relationship ends, and suddenly everything that once defined you is ripped in half.

Never share all your love. I love the music of Ryan Adams and have had at least one song of his hold special meaning for every ex I’ve ever had. But not “Come Pick Me Up.” That’s my song, no one gets to touch it.* It’ll never be associated with just one woman (even if the lyrics makes me think of one or two), and I will never be unable to listen to it because of a painful connection.

The same goes for Radiohead’s entire catalog. I’ve never once dated a girl who loved Radiohead like I love Radiohead (which probably explains why none of my relationships have lasted). They might have been fans, or grown to like them because of me, but there isn’t a single song or album by the band that makes me think of an ex. I never have to worry about a startlingly wave of sad memories when I listen to my favorite band.

There’s so much art out there that I love, a lot of which I want to share with romantic partners, even when I acknowledge the realistic odds that things won’t work out. That is, as I said, the price of being in love.

But a person should hold onto something that is all theirs. Autonomy requires it. Love is a ‘many splendored thing’ and all that horseshit, but the love of art is the purest form that exists. Why taint that?

*Obviously it’s a lot of people’s song. But in relation to my personal love life, it’s mine.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Not Quite Young Man

I have been doing this for eight years now, as of June 1st, 2005.


What shape do we expect the decades of our life to take? In my twenties, I lived in 10 different cities, became the first member of my family to graduate from college, marched through a few serious relationships, abandoned the religion of my youth and completed writing 3 (of 4) novels.

But so much is left undone.

If my twenties were a movie (or, better yet, a season of a TV show), it would definitely be ending on a cliffhanger: 10 Cities / 10 Years is incomplete, my ongoing real world education progresses, I continue a Ted Mosby-esque search for a lasting relationship, and my goal to merge my Humanist worldview with my literary aspirations has yet to produce a book deal.

That feeling of incompleteness is what motivates most us to keep going. For me, the thought that someone else might take up the mantle of 10 Cities / 10 Years if I failed to complete the journey has kept me on the path, both in the project and in life. That state of noncompletion, though, can feel like a weakness, or even, on the worst days, abject failure.

After all, I’m about to start a new decade of my life and the list of my accomplishments is relatively short.

Young Success

Mark Zuckerberg Time Cover

I can’t imagine being a Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook at 19 and turned it into a billion dollar business by the time he was 23, or a Swift/Beiber-type musician who will always be best known for the songs they did at a young age, no matter what they do with their aging career. Sure, some of these teenie-bopper artists transition into adulthood with their careers intact, but for every JT or MJ, there’s a dozen Britney Spears and whoever else was in N*Sync.

That’s not to say that any of those people can’t or won’t do important things later in their life, only that their names will always be associated with something they accomplished when they couldn’t even legally drink alcohol. Now, most artists, inventors and creators in any medium would give their entire careers to have one success that brought them world-wide recognition (if not renown), so there’s no reason to pity the Zuckerberg/Beiber/Swift-s of the world (that, and they’re really, really, really rich).

The truth is, most artists are burdened by this, no matter how successful they are in their careers. Due to our limited cultural attention span, for a large percentage of the population Radiohead will always be the band who wrote “Creep,” Michael J. Fox eternally remains Marty McFly and F. Scott Fitzgerald is unjustly known exclusively as the writer of The Great Gatsby. Each of their respective fans will love them for much more than that, but in the shorthand of our collective consciousness, an artist can only be known for one thing. Some artists embrace their legacy, others spurn it.

My Success?

It will be my great fortune in life if I can achieve some sort of national (dare I wish, global) recognition for this extended literary project. I’ve gone all in on this whole ‘man of letters’ thing, so I either make a career of it or I’ll be signing autographs down in front of the 7-11 dumpster.

It’s perhaps unbecoming to publicly hypothesize about future success that hasn’t been achieved, but don’t fool yourself: Every artist you know spends a good portion of their time imagining what life will be like if (when) the world finally acknowledges their talents. Even those guys who sneer at pop artists and talk about how they will never compromise their art for financial success are dreaming of grandeur because either a) they’re full of shit or b) they have delusions that the world will magically transform and suddenly start rewarding integrity. No one works to create anything just so it can go unappreciated or unseen.

If 10 Cities / 10 Years grows into a book and launches my career, it’s likely nothing I create will ever break out from underneath its shadow. Knowing my personality, I can imagine that will frustrate me in my latter years, when I’m sure to be doing the best work of my life. But if that’s the price I pay to be able to pursue my ambitions as a career, so be it.

Whatever comes of 10 Cities, though, I have no intention of ending there. I have dozens of novels in me, as well as ideas for movies, TV shows, plays, and countless other art forms that I will never not aspire to master. Despite the epochal shifts through my twenties, those ambitions haven’t changed one iota. I might have stopped believing in heaven, but that doesn’t mean I stopped believing in the everlasting life of the artist.

Maybe it’s nothing but pretension, a delusion that was endearing in a twenty-year-old but is pathetic in a thirty-year-old. But the greatest art in the world was created by men and women with just such delusions.

So we beat on… oh, you know the rest.


My apologies to Stanley Donwood

Alternate Musical History: Radiohead

I love Radiohead.  I’ve never been subtle on that point.  I love Radiohead in their The Bends era rock mode.  I love Radiohead in their ‘glitchy’ Kid A era.  I love Radiohead when their lead singer goes solo or goes dancing.  And I especially love Radiohead when they go Punk Floyd.  Even as an unwaveringly devoted fan, they challenge me, and that’s what I love about their work.  Art that doesn’t challenge on some level isn’t succeeding on any level.

At the same time, I recognize that one can be a Radiohead fan without loving every one of their career divergences.  My oldest brother was the person who introduced me to Radiohead, right around the time that Amnesiac released.  Ironically, while he wasn’t a big fan of Kid A upon its release (it’s grown on him) and he has never professed much love for the follow up, I ended up adoring Amnesiac above every album other than their seminal breakthrough, OK Computer.  My brother is a true Radiohead fan (we got the chance to see them live together back on their Hail to the Thief tour), yet he has his limits.

I can respect that.

What I cannot respect are those Jonny-come-latelies who join the Radiohead-backlash bandwagon, declaring with all the authority of a five-year-old that the band hasn’t done anything worth listening to since OK Computer, or perhaps more damning, since The Bends.  One of the most common complaints that I see in the interverse is the notion that everything Radiohead has produced since 2000 has been nothing but “bleep bloops” and computer noises.  When I read such criticisms, I know I’m reading the opinion of an uneducated hate-bandwagon-jumper.

Besides for the fact that latter era albums Hail to the Thief and, especially, In Rainbows consisted considerably of straight ahead rockers with a minimum of glitchy moments, even their most famous period of experimentation (the era that produced the one-two punch of Kid A and Amnesiac) wasn’t as avante-garde as common consensus has led the general music-consuming populace to believe.

Don’t get me wrong, in 2000 when Kid A first appeared it was undoubtedly a splash of cold water in the midst of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears musical dominance, or even in the wake of Brit Pop acts.  But that doesn’t mean that, taken individually, the songs that the band were producing at the time were truly all that far afield of what they recorded in 1997.

To illustrate this point, I’ve decided to reconfigure Radiohead’s output of 2000 and 2001, stripping it of its electronica-infused highlights and condensing the two albums from the era into one cohesive whole that, I believe, represents a pretty faithful follow-up to OK Computer.  Call it Kid Amnesiac.*

Please understand me: I am not suggesting that Radiohead should have released this album in lieu of the two they released.  Not only do I think the band is more interesting for their experimental asides (many of my favorites songs are from that vein), but I think music in the past decade is all the better because of their effort to push the boundaries of what defines ‘pop.’  A musical world without Radiohead’s personal detours is a boring world.

Still, I can’t help contemplating what would have happened if the band had attempted a more straight-ahead sequel to OK Computer, the album that made them the biggest band in the world (for awhile) and won them their first Grammy (for what that’s worth; they won another for Kid A).

I want to reiterate that I don’t think this is a better tracklisting for an album (in fact, I’d say it’s worse), only that if the band would have released this album, they may have forever escaped the lazy criticism that they are a band that’s lost touch with their rock roots in favor of masturbatory experimentation.  It’ll be noted that I haven’t excised all of their experimental flourishes.  Even on OK Computer, the band included the bizarre, computer-voiced track “Fitter Happier” which, despite its unusual form still fits nicely within the album as a whole.  Radiohead was never the Goo Goo Dolls, not even on Pablo Honey.  Even at their most straightforward, they make most rock bands look like the Wiggles.

Listen Here or Here to the alternative universe Radiohead album, Kid Amnesiac:

1. The National Anthem
2. I Might Be Wrong
3. Pyramid Song
4. In Limbo
5. Knives Out
6. How To Disappear Completely
7. Treefingers
8. Optimistic
9. Life in a Glass House
10. Dollars & Cents
11. Morning Bell/Amnesiac
12. True Love Waits
13. Motion Picture Soundtrack

Imagine the musical history if this had been the album that was released in 2000 instead of Kid A.  It’s conceivably possible, as their 2001 album, Amnesiac, was recorded in the same sessions as Kid A.  These songs still represent a decidedly experimental take on ‘rock’ music, yet the electronic flourishes are less pronounced in these tracks.  Radiohead, themselves, provided the footwork for this sort of alternative history by providing two versions of the song “Morning Bell,” the Kid A ‘glitchy’ version and the Amnesiac dirge version (represented here).  

Instead of being labeled as “electronic music,” would they have instead been shouldered with the genre of “Jazz Rock?”  Both “The National Anthem” and “Life in a Glasshouse” (the extended version provided here) include horns with the improvisational feel of live jazz musicians descending into controlled chaos or New Orleans sobriety (respectively).  Much of the arrangements on the songs listed above feel like they have that loose but meticulously arranged structure of the best jazz songs.  Would indie hipsters adore Miles Davis with the same reverence as they currently hold for Aphex Twin?  Would anyone have even heard of Aphex Twin?

Kid Amnesiac is a considerably more downbeat affair than Kid A, especially with the loss of amazing songs like “Everything in its Right Place” and “Idioteque” (or even Amnesiac’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”).  The electronic infusion gave both albums most of their forward momentum, so without those moments the unified album drags a bit, especially near the end.

Those are catchy songs that definitely would have hurt the album for their absence.  The more unconventional songs like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Door,” “Hunting Bear” and “Kid A” are also left off, generally making the album more accessible and stripping the two albums of their glitchiest moments.  Personally, I dig all three songs (yes, even “Pulk/Pull”), so I’m sad to see them go, but at the same time I can recognize how they represent a barrier to the casual music fan.

I included “True Love Waits” despite it never being officially recorded in the studio.  In this context, it would have likely been Kid Amnesiac’s “Fake Plastic Trees” or “No Surprises,” the acoustic ringer that hits all the sour emotional notes that have given Radiohead their dour reputation (despite their humor and upbeat music).

It’s obvious that Radiohead isn’t hurting for respect and admiration. Despite The King of Limbs being a relative sales flop for the band (though, I’m sure they did just fine without a major label sucking up the funds), the band is still modern rock royalty. But with each new release and every subsequent news item, I see the same refrains popping up all over the internet: Radiohead hasn’t written a rock song since the 90s. “Where are the guitars?” everyone asks, despite there being guitars all over each album.

It’s all utter bullocks, so here for your Alternate Musical History pleasure, I submit: Radiohead’s Kid Amnesiac.

My apologies to Stanley Donwood

*Other people have done similar things and combined the album into one and even given it the name Kid Amnesiac. I’m not claiming to be original in the concept, just in the execution.  Instead of creating a ‘best of’ tracklist, I’m focusing on crafting a genre exercise.

Instrument: A Review and a Reflection

As part of my new monthly feature to explore the music of Fugazi, I tracked down a copy of the documentary, “Instrument” so that I could deepen my knowledge (and hopefully appreciation) of their music.

There are many ways to approach a music documentary and a variety of reasons why it might appeal to one person and not to another.  ‘Being a fan’ should not be a factor, though.  The best documentaries on any subject manage to educate and entertain their audience, regardless of the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter.  So, the fact that I’ve only been listening to Fugazi for the past week should have no bearing on my enjoyment of the film.

If this were a concert film, that wouldn’t be the case, but since “Instrument” is most definitely not meant as a live document of the Fugazi catalog, my experience and judgment of the movie is based on its success as a documentary of a touring post-hardcore band over the period of 10 years.

Whether intentionally or by pure coincidence, there are definite similarities between “Instrument” and my all-time favorite music documentary (and one of my all-time favorite movies, period), “Meeting People Is Easy,” the Radiohead documentary filmed by Grant Gee.  Some of the similarities are likely just a natural result of splicing together impromptu footage from a range of periods.  But many of the editing tricks and cuts seem directly lifted from the Grant Gee playbook.  For that reason, it’s hard for me not to make comparisons between the two films.

I think “Instrument” could have served as a nice counterpoint to “Meeting People Is Easy,” as the bands represented in each film have a similar commitment to creative integrity, but they exist on opposite ends of the music label continuum (at least, at the times documented in the film).  Fugazi refused to be a part of the major label system, and so they created their own label, Dischord, to release their music.  Radiohead, on the other hand, was formerly signed to EMI Records, one of the largest record labels in the world.

Whereas “Meeting…” documents the band struggling with their major label responsibilities, like a never ending barrage of interviews and photoshoots, “Instrument” shows a band free of label politics, but also not supported by a label’s resources.  There are a couple scenes where we get a hint that funding their constant touring is a strain, but the documentary never explores this facet of their lives.  This obviously wasn’t the intended focus of the documentary, but it raises a point that I think is the central flaw of “Instrument.”  There are no conflicts in this movie.

We are shown a decade in the life of a very active band (both recording and touring), yet not once is there ever a sense of struggle or turmoil.  Even if we ignore the fact that this is a band that charges a minimum for their albums and entrance to their show, and thus must certainly be confronted with very real financial concerns (a subject I don’t think should be ignored, but I’ll relent), there is still the reality of a touring band and the kind of toil that must take on the group and the individuals.  Yet, other than a number of snippets of the band members goofing around, we never get much insight into the personal (or professional) lives of Fugazi’s members.

Contrast this with the numerous scenes in “Meeting…” where we see the band members arguing, feeling overwhelmed or dealing with the day-to-day annoyances of touring around the country.  If one was inclined, the documentary could be used as an attack on Radiohead because it certainly doesn’t show them in the greatest light.  But that’s exactly what is so admirable about the film.  It lets us in on the real people and it isn’t afraid to show the members at their lowest points.  It humanizes them, the true gift of the documentary form.

“Instrument,” on the other hand, de-humanizes Fugazi in a way because it never once lets us in on anything real.  There’s a scene when the band members are standing around their kitchen saying they aren’t going to continue talking until the camera is turned off.  Now, I didn’t read anything nefarious in that scene (not every conversation should be filmed), but it does imply to me that there were probably very revealing, very real scenes of band interaction that were cut from the film or never even got recorded.

The filmmaker got a couple of noteworthy quotes from fans waiting in line at a show.

One girl is asked what the band means to her and she responds, “They don’t mean anything, they’re just music, something I like to listen to.”

Another fan says, “You don’t get to know them as much through interviews or whatnot, you got to take them at face value.”

Both of these quotes speak to Fugazi’s core message, I believe, which is that they don’t want to become a prepackaged product, but rather they want to have the opportunity to speak directly to their fans through music, without the distortion of labels or journalists.

It’s a noble goal, but it raises the question, “Why even produce this documentary, then?”  If they saw this as a chance to let the fans in on who the real people behind Fugazi were, their ups and downs, then it’s definitely a failure (unless we are to believe that the band never fights, never has low periods, and never struggles with the realities of life).  And if the film was meant to simply be a showcase for the music, to give it a chance to speak for itself, well then, there it also fails, because there are big portions of the documentary where the music is absent or only background.

There’s a telling scene where Ian MacKaye (I think) is bantering with the audience about how one of the band or crew members bought a carved monkey as a souvenir a few years back, and ever since they’ve had bad luck.  He then goes on to say that they smashed the monkey, so now, presumably everything will get better.  But the odd thing about this scene is that the film audience is never privy to any of this supposed ‘bad luck.’  We never see any of the struggles of this band, so a scene that could feel pivotal to the narrative is really just one more random bit of concert footage, neither revealing or vital in the film.

Which brings me to the underlying shortcoming of “Instrument”: There is no narrative.  The chronology of the film is all over the place, which is fine if that’s meant to reveal something about the dynamics of being in a band, but it doesn’t.  Instead, pretty much every scene stands alone and could be taken out of the film without subtracting anything.

There are some very entertaining scenes in the movie, both from concerts and from behind the scenes, all of which highlight what the film could have accomplished.  One such scene is Ian interrupting a performance to stop some concertgoers who are getting too violent.  It’s a nice bit of ‘character development’ for the band as sort of community value ambassadors, but it feels disconnected from anything else in the film (other than a callback near the end when a non-fan complains about not being able to dance at the shows).

The concert ends with scenes from a concert in D.C., which we are told is the same place they played their first show, ten years ago to the day.  This would be a nice narrative end for the film, if at any point we were given a sense of growth or change for the band.  As it is, the Fugazi we met at the beginning of the film seems no different than the band who closes it out.  This sort of constancy might seem admirable if it didn’t feel so obviously the result of selective editing.

“Instrument” is an enjoyable enough couple hours of music performances and musings on the place of music in the world, but as a film it never connects with the audience on a basic, human level.  “Instrument” is a movie you will almost certainly enjoy more if you are a devoted fan of Fugazi’s music, and that is the worst kind of backhanded compliment you can give to a music doc.

A Reflection

As I was watching this film and writing this review, it got me thinking about how much of oneself a person should put into their art.  It’s obvious that the members of Fugazi felt that allowing room for interpretation of their music and its intent was its strength, and I can certainly agree with that viewpoint.  When I write poetry, my intention is that it be as open to personal interpretation and relation as possible.  There is no attempt on my part to convey my life and experiences as they really happen.

But, then I have this 10 Cities Project and a desire to write a book on this decade of my life, and that requires a whole different approach.  No one wants to read a book about someone’s life if it doesn’t reveal the personal, the human behind the words.  A poem or a song can be vague and ethereal, and that is the strength of those art forms, but like the music documentary, a reader expects a memoir or biography (no matter how loosely it fits the genre) to allow them access to the subject.

And that’s kind of terrifying.  I’m not sure how many people would want the last decade of their life (or the last week) to be laid bare before an audience of family, friends and complete strangers.  It’s why I can understand the reasons behind the relative lack of personal details in “Instrument,” but it’s also why I find “Meeting People Is Easy” to be so enthralling and affecting.  It shows us humans being humans, and that is incredibly brave.  And scary.