I have spent the past year making notes on the relationship between creativity, care, and enthusiasm for a book I will (probably never) write. Given how well this is (not) progressing, it has been coloring the way I view a lot of my experiences in the world. I’ve been trying to tease out relationships between these ideas and art making, parenting, friendship, and yes, even music. I have found this process as both a difficult and pleasant counterpoint to how difficult the end of 2016 and the beginning 0f 2017 has been for me psychologically. Namely, I am trying to reckon with a couple of events. First, my country saw fit to elect a man to be president whose sole qualification for the job was that he was (and remains) spectacularly unfit to be president. Second, a student on my campus decided to run a bunch of people over with a car and then stab them before being gunned down by a university police officer. This led to these two events colliding in a weird fashion that left me both sad about the state of our world and proud of it. So it goes.
Because of all of this, I have been thinking back a lot to a lesson I learned in the fall of 2005. Actually, maybe it wasn’t because of all of this; I think about this every fall–at least–since it happened. It is a lesson I need to be reminded of often. Here it is and, as a warning, getting to the lesson is a little upsetting:
I was teaching art classes at Jefferson Community College (among other places) at the time when one of my students had a pulmonary embolism in class and essentially died in my arms. It was, as you might imagine, shocking. In the years leading up to my student’s death, I tried to avoid funerals and wakes as a way of trying to clamp down on my tremendous anxiety about dying but I knew I needed to be an adult about this. My student had a family. I heard her last words. “Going to the funeral is the right thing to do” I counseled myself. I’m glad I made that choice because I learned so much that day.
While at the visitation, my student’s husband told me how much his wife enjoyed taking art classes. He also mentioned how nice she said I was and that it made him happy to know that a nice person was with her at the end. These kind words from someone who had just experienced what must be one of the worst things on the planet…well, I just wish for a small amount of that grace that man had.
To my surprise, he told me something else: they all knew this would happen and not in the ‘we’re all going to die someday’ way. Apparently, my student had some congenital disorder that should have ended her life a lot sooner but she just kept defying the odds. Her husband told me that when she was in her early teens, having been already told twice that she wouldn’t reach the age of 13, she decided to live the time she had with as much joy as possible. And she did. She was close to 40 in my class but was as enthusiastic a student as I have ever had; she put so much time and energy into our first project that I was simply awed. For someone like myself who is seemingly wired to think about death a little more than I might want to, this is important. In this light, my–and our–being here shifts from the ‘we’re all going to die someday’ statement to more of a question: How do I want to live joyfully in the face of all this?
Which, not so obviously, brings me to David Bowie.
Bowie’s Blackstar is one of my favorite things I heard this year. Given the fact the Bowie died shortly after it was released, it has been characterized as his last gift to his fans. It has been so associated with with his death and dying that I was initially worried it would be impossible to listen to it without getting very upset. It’s been the opposite experience for me for several reasons. First, would you listen to that band? Holy crap. I don’t know that you could call this traditional rock-n-roll or jazz but man, everyone is playing their asses off. The drums on the title track go from powering the song to falling apart into a steady beat to falling apart again like an erratic EKG. Plus, this album sounds fantastic loud. I have blasted it in the car so much this year that it has become synomous with me driving by myself. Why by myself? Well, as you might imagine, I don’t want to try to explain song titles like “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” to Miles, especially when I don’t understand the title or lyrics and I imagine answering his questions about the song by telling him: “Well, hmmm, I, uhhh. Sometimes…no…that’s not right either. Hey! Look! Who wants ice cream?” Anyway, sonically this is just great.
Another reason I like it so much is because of just how vital it feels. What I mean is that I think it is a good as Bowie’s best albums and since I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be an aging artist, it’s great to hear someone really pushing themselves up until the end. I don’t think Bowie is trying to sound young again on this record, I think he is really engaging with his life as he found it at that time and making an effort to do something amazing with it. Blackstar is one of those things I will hold in my mind when I wonder if I will still be able to make work that means something as I get older.
But the major reason I have been thinking about Bowie–Prince too–is because they, from outside appearances, seemed to really enjoy their lives. Part of it is their willingness to laugh and put themselves into humorous situations in popular culture as evidenced by Extras and New Girl, respectively:
But more than this, I have loved reading all the stories about how invested both Bowie and Prince were in their cities, local record stores, and supporting musicians and culture that they cared about. Whether it is Dave Sitek getting called by Bowie and being offered support when the first TV on the Radio EP came out, or Prince throwing a championship party for the Minnesota Lynx at Paisley Park, I find a certain kind of hope in people who use their celebrity to support others. It’s inspiring. There’s something there about creativity, joy, and care…I just can’t find the words yet.
In the meantime, music fills our house. Shannon got a guitar this past year and spent the summer playing and singing, which is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. Lena makes up songs about everything and belts them out with abandon. Miles sings along to Parquet Courts and dances to REM. There’s real joy in all of that and I’m sorry that I forget to notice it sometimes. So here’s to a new year, a year of living joyfully even when it seems hard to find joy in the larger world. Is that what Michael Stipe means when he sings,
“Raise the walls to hide these flaws, the carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best”?
Who knows? Crank it up anyway.
Other music I enjoyed in 2016:
America the Beautiful
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank you for your service
I can’t listen to this one around the kids but it’s been in the studio with me all the time. This album is ridiculous.
Angel Olsen, My Woman
That voice…nothing like it.
Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People and Big Fugitive Life
A new discovery this year from my friend Krista. 50’s doo-wop and punk rock through a poet’s mind.
William Tyler, Modern Country
He may be cynical about the state of the country, but this is bliss:
Matmos, Ultimate Care II
I feel super patriotic to be living in a country where two people can make an entire album about and with their washing machine.
Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke, It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry
Here is another thing that I find profoundly moving and I can’t quite verbalize why.
Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Miles chanting “No city” during breakfast makes a great start to the day.
Cate Le Bon is great
Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
She gets her own category. She deserves it. I got to see her in Columbus earlier this year with Shannon. It was lovely.
And I will always love you
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead appear to have entered the part of their career where they put out albums whenever they want with the added bonus that Paul Thomas Anderson will direct all their videos. Works for me.
The title might seem like a throw away but the album’s not.
Let’s grade some papers, aka I guess I like something called “Space Disco.”
Prins Thomas’s record is really blissful.
I bob my head when I grade to this. Sue me.
Man, forget these papers…I want to dance!
Junior Boys, Big Black Coat
I don’t know how Junior Boys always end their albums with the best songs but they did it again:
Jessy Lanza, Oh No
Another dance party record with one of the dudes from Junior Boys making all the beats.
I liked a bunch of other stuff this year too but we’re probably both bored by now. Until we meet again…
Gratuitous picture of the kids (they look really sweet sometimes, don’t they edition):