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Top Three Songs, Year Inconclusive
By Christopher Sloce
Retrospective loses meaning when it becomes a product of immediacy. All those top ten, top twenty lists, if you’re lucky, half of it holds any meaning ten years from now, any sort of relevance. But never underestimate someone for attaching narrative and meaning to what they fear has none. Patterns, however, always exist. And in my top three songs, I see one.
Vince Staple’s “Nate” begins with the line: “As a kid, all I wanted was to kill a man.”
Here is the conclusion of favorite song number two, Jason Isbell’s “Elephant”: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/nobody dies with dignity/we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
Favorite song number three, Flying Lotus’s “Coronus, the Terminator” is on an album called You’re Dead! Flying Lotus said himself the song is about the apocalypse, which, from my understanding, nobody makes it through. I also understand at some point in time, we killed the author. But it’s on an album called You’re Dead!
There are sonic disparities: “Nate” is a horn blaring, soul sampling hip-hop song that’s as good of a deconstruction of parents as Phillip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse," only Phillip Larkin’s parents weren’t crips, and British poetry sounds bad in your car. “Elephant” is a lonely acoustic ballad that sounds like the engineers recorded it on a microphone soaked in sawdust. “Coronus, the Terminator” is a space gospel song with handclaps.
And they’re all about the biggest change any of us will ever go through.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t fun and merriment for me in 2014, that I sped way too often listening to “Attak” by Rustie featuring Danny Brown, that I didn’t laugh at the Nels Cline spoof on Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, or that I didn’t figure the logistics of using The Afghan Whigs’ “I Am Fire” in the HBO prestige drama I keep writing in my head (before anyone asks: It’s about Teamsters in the 70's and I want Kevin Dunn in it).
In that year, autumn and winter never ended, present even when I woke up with sheets stuck to me, sleeping on a mattress on my friend’s floor. The club never went up on a Tuesday in this life, Gordon Willis shot everything.
Guess who died.
A precious read: Each of these songs are the stages of man. You idolize your parents, who you think are sleepy, which they are, but it’s heroin, not exhaustion, causing it. At middle age, you watch someone you have an on-again, off-again thing with die of cancer and you realize it’s going to happen to you, too. Then it ends. Hopefully everyone sends you off like Beasts of the Southern Wild, but otherwise, it’s just you and whatever you think happens after.
A personal read, possibly still precious: These songs correlate to my life event-wise. When I was at my dad’s, I was under the impression my stepmother just slept a lot.
The hardest part of “Nate” to listen to is Vince talking about his dad beating his mom in the kitchen. I was eight years old, probably not much older, when I heard the 3 a.m. rustling of a silverware drawer. My first thought: if I don’t start crying, someone’s gonna die tonight. I wandered downstairs in whatever cartoon pajamas I had on and said, “I wanna go home.” They put me to bed and the argument featured less cutlery, I’m sure.
Didn’t stop me, nearly a decade later, from writing an essay trying to get to the bottom of my dad for a high school creative writing class. It included the sentence, “My dad would be hell in a bar fight.” To quote Vince Staples: Because my daddy did it, eyes bloodshot.
I lost my grandmother to cancer. The narrator of “Elephant” sings classic country songs for the dying lady. I would have learned how to play those hungover Rolling Stones ballads. Maybe “Wish You Were Here." I cried at the funeral, but I didn’t really cry until the graduating class of 2006 as my high school’s choir sang a Rascall Flats song. We didn’t hate a band more, our tastes were all classic everything. I held it together until I got home, mentioned the band, and ran to my room, where I wept into a pillow.
“Coronus” hasn’t happened yet. I haven’t seen the River Styx but I have drove to work at 6:45 in the morning on a Sunday, with the sun peaking over the pines, feeling like I was my own Charon. Guess what I was listening to.
During a summer in Wise, Virginia, my friend Taylor and I were drinking too much Budweiser around a fire pit and listening to 2pac when he said, “I can handle purgatory. It’s just Wise.” I can’t remember if “How Long Will They Mourn Me” was playing or why purgatory came up. Maybe it’s because you talk about the afterlife when you’re bored. I’ve had variations of that conversation, probably one a year, everywhere, but in Wise, the conversation quivers: it’s a Hail Mary heave to make sense of it all.
The difference is: Taylor went to New Orleans, went to Blacksburg. I went to VCU in Richmond and the eight months each year I spent up there, I had to come back to Wise, to refresh myself, it seemed. The four months back were necessary to give me a head start on whatever fresh scented notions I had of what I was gonna make my life in Richmond. I could regard the purgatorial aspirations of Wise County as a quirk, that while you were there, this is what it was. A station of the cross.
I think about those fresh scented notions a lot. That’s because that’s what you get left with in purgatory: your notions.
Two quips I made about moving to Wise. A month in: “I can’t decide if I’m on the island of Patmos or St. Helena.”
A few months in: “It’s like prison, except I’m in bad shape and I still suck at chess.”
I didn’t put those online. Maybe I didn’t want to slip on all that beautiful digital social currency I’d have thrown at my feet. Another reason is: Lonesome George doesn’t do mating dances, why should I?
The big reason is: Who is this for, besides me?
The beauty of a city is you can always run away by running into somewhere or something. For instance, VCU-Richmond has so many people making it real that you can substitute their reality for yours and then you only have to deal with yours when you’re alone. I am not positing that this is a bad thing; sometimes, you need distraction. You need to walk to the lake or to go stare at the De Kooning in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
I also don’t want to argue that humans ever lack a capacity for distraction, no matter how small the area. But after a while, passing the same distractions renders those distractions ineffectual. They just become feeding grounds for memories you want to run from. The greasy spoon called the Dairy Barn just becomes the place where you drove in and refused to shake a man’s hand because of what he did to your ex-girlfriend. She had called you that summer and told you what he had done and two days later, asked you to go to a club with her. This is the same McDonalds you hid from friends during one of your spells because you were with your grandmother and you were embarrassed. You sat in her Outback, wondering why you didn’t have a driver’s license yet. You finished a bad pulp novel in UVA-Wise’s library’s basement, one called From Pit to Crucifix because you have to name things after oblique poetry lines, but UVA-Wise is also the place all those Forensics battles were fought and every minute before you spouted off whatever memetic opinion you held that day, you had the strongest feeling: You do not deserve this. This is the hotel where your dad skipped out on having a graduation dinner with you because everyone else he brought wanted to go home. You ate Chinese instead. The next day, driving the same highway you drive to go see your therapist, you proudly tallied the amount of alcohol you drank at the graduation party—your first time drinking, to boot—and he was aghast. Because your daddy did it, indeed.
They held services for your grandmother and your grandfather in that funeral parlor, across the street from a Japanese place where your ex and the guy whose hand you wouldn’t shake came in, saw you, and promptly left. You were proud. You were also an idiot, historically.
You often find yourself alone, with the history of you as an idiot. Sometimes you don’t think of that. Sometimes you think about the pride you felt watching one of your best friends stage an original play and how you sat in the audience before it started and a wave of calm came over you that you hadn’t felt in so long. Or after you ended another friendship, how you and your friend ate BBQ and watched Airheads. Your small triumphs: the good reading you gave before you left the literary magazine you watched grow, the plaid purple shirt and blue blazer, with the turquoise and red beads hanging on your wrist and the way people clapped, not knowing you were vomiting in the bathroom not minutes before, your fears of yourself as an imposter for once reversed and you found yourself one in the positive. People who grew to like you who you were convinced never would. Feeding a rabbit at a music festival and the picture resulting and how it’s probably the only picture you really trust of yourself.
And that’s the worst of all. You realize how fleeting winning anything is because you are in a town where there is nothing to win that you really want. In a good spot, you realize winning is its own life and that you should accept how fleeting it is and then go on with it. But you swing between the good and bad and both hurt you.
Everything is on loop. Like Andy, the narrator in “Elephant”, you have buried the good and bad a thousand times, until you no longer give a damn, and you quit playing the “what if” polka.
It’s purgatory. This is how you cleanse yourself.
It’s easy to mistake the fire here for the fire from somewhere else. But if you were there, the clearest torture, and your chief sin was this: you took everything for granted and now nothing will change and you will know about that even when you listen to music.
The best symptom of the purgatory disease, besides writing essays, is the vomiting and the migraines.
Each morning I wake up. I look over at my alarm clock. It reads 6:20, but it’s actually 6:30. I haven’t adjusted the time, I guess because it keeps me on my toes. Which is the same reason I take my showers anymore in the dark. There may be other reasons.
At some point in the shower, I feel something in my throat and start coughing and end up gagging. Usually it comes when I think about something I don’t want to. That this might be the first day of the rest of my life.
I eat a light breakfast, usually just a Carnation shake and a piece of toast. I take a piece of fruit with me. I’ve learned not to kid with my stomach.
I drive to work, I listen to a podcast. And when I hit the parking lot, that throat feeling is gone, or it’s not.
By the time I take four or five calls, I know if I’m going to have to get up. The way my job works, you only get a bonus if you meet a certain amount of time at your desk each day. In other words, I’m costing myself money.
If there isn’t vomiting, there are migraines: the feeling you’ve been shaken up in the hand of an angry whoever and now you’re going to fizz out everywhere. Every noise becomes too much. This does not help your stomach either.
The purgatory disease got me in a mall parking garage in Northern Virginia. The milkshake didn’t help but I had this suspicion I would return home and everyone would quit liking me. That the changes I wanted in Wise would happen only when I went left, and that in the process of being upstate, everyone, Wise, Richmond, wherever, had forgotten about me.
While “Nate” and “Elephant” are realistic and detail focused, almost journalistic, “Coronus” is idealistic. It’s a song where death comes to you and sings, “I’d like to save you.” It also sings either that the “days of men are coming to an end” or “the days of bitter are coming to an end”. And there have been times I thought both were good outcomes, but the second one is the least realistic.
Maybe what attracts me to those three songs is that maybe somebody eulogizes you.
So maybe my “Coronus” shows up in the form of an official university stamped letter. Maybe I stay in Wise and end up watching someone I love die. Maybe I find myself doing the things my dad did until it is too late and the Terminator takes me into the yonder. Maybe none of this happens. Maybe I shouldn’t take my life cues from pop songs.
But that’s not what soundtracks do. Soundtracks shape. Soundtracks tack on to the moments and memories and give them a new color. And all this time I’ve spent in Wise, driving around, listening to these songs, they gave them sort of color. Maybe it’s a sign of Shawn Carter’s messianic delusions, but when Jay-Z said, “Hov did that, so hopefully you don’t have to go through that,” he could have just been talking about pop music.
Only one of those songs I wrote about is what might happen. “Nate” is what happened, “Elephant” is what’s happening. “Coronus, The Terminator” is what may. I don’t know what my “Coronus” will be, but it does keep me waking up.
I think I’m going to leave Wise for good this summer. I think there will be a day I turn in my two weeks notice and then I plan to leave and I will go somewhere where, again, I will mainly have my memories. But there, it will not be purgatory. It’ll just be life.
#Real #PersonalEssay #PersonalMemories #Music #GrowingUp #WiseVA #RVA #Songs #LookingBack #LifeInReview
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