music

Imaginary Soundtracks, Vol. 1

Mixing it up here at the old blog by, you know, actually writing on it.

“Mix,” in fact, is the word on my mind today. As in, “Get ready for a mixed-up, mixed bag of a post.” Or, “How many mixed metaphors can I throw into the mix today?” Or, “Our reckless, moronic loon of a so-called president and his spineless minions in Congress have really got us mixed up in some sh*t.” You choose.

Or, okay, more gently, mixtapes.

My beloved TW still makes these for me. Though technically we could share our music libraries through the click of a mouse, he still takes the time to select songs, create an order, and then haul out the CD drive and burn them (or at least download them on a memory stick). Long gone are the gritty little cassette tapes, pressing the recorder’s clunky Play and Stop and Eject buttons to fill the A and B sides, but the sentiment remains. Other dear friends also have shared so much music this way, and I treasure both the objects and the songs.

The first mixtape TW made me landed in my mailbox fourteen years ago in May, two months after we met (we were long distance). He called the disc “Imaginary Soundtrack No. 1” and handwrote the list of songs. The second volume followed the next month.

Here, take a look:

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I was already half in love with him at that point, but these pushed me right over the edge. I mean, good heavens, handpicked music, with handwritten liner notes—songs he loved, songs he hoped I would love? What a gesture. I can still feel the heat in my cheeks when I opened that envelope and it dawned on me: he made this for me. I played those discs in the quiet space of my central Phoenix living room, by daylight, by candlelight. I played them in the car, zipping along Seventh Avenue and down the wild curves to Canyon Lake. I played them while writing emails to him, while writing stories. The soundtrack of early summer, of early love. Many of them made it onto the wedding mixtape we made for the ceremony and reception.

I still have the objects, of course, but those songs—as with other art and literature—became part of me. In my inner ear, I can still hear the haunting plinking and lyrics of “Song of the Siren” (Long afloat on a shipless ocean…) and the buoyant, exhilarating drums of James’s “Sometimes.” They have become part of me, as have the words of countless stories, poems, and plays and the images of art. When we listen and view and read, we absorb those works, take them deep inside, into the intimate space of our imaginations. And they linger, emerging sometimes in unexpected ways and times (I wrote here about how art sticks around). Looking back at those Imaginary Soundtracks, I can recall the music itself but I’m also back in my house in central Phoenix with the smell of phlox and fading orange blossoms, pool-bright skies, the jacarandas in bloom. I’m in my early thirties, falling in love, aching with it.

And here I come to writing because I create mixtapes (okay, playlists—whatevs) for my writing projects. Soundtracks for the Imaginary, I guess you could call them. My (embarrassing) habit is that I play these mixtapes on repeat so they become entwined with my writing time; hearing those familiar chords and lyrics lulls me into and keeps me inside the story space. I don’t really have a plan or design when I create them. For Sycamore, I built the list out of works I’d been listening to and enjoying that had a certain mood and emotional resonance. Here it is (don’t judge me):Sycamore playlist.png

Many of these came from TW’s mixtapes, along with a couple from my BFF’s roadtrip mixtape (“Going to California”). The one at the top, John Doe’s “Golden State,” ended up being really influential in the writing; something about the juxtaposed voices, the opposing lyrics, the jangly, bittersweet sound, helped me open up the novel. In fact, I used the lines, “We are tangled/we are stolen/we are living where things are hidden” as the epigraph to Sycamore (with endless gratitude to John Doe for permission. Sidenote: I might have a done a giddy little omg-omg-it’s-john-doe dance in my office when his email popped up).

I have always thought of these lists as using music to help me write—because they do.

But I’m seeing now that I’m also giving this music to my writing. As an offering of love. In hopes that my writing will love me back.

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What noisy cats are we

Those who know me know that I have a deep and abiding love for R.E.M. (both the band and the sleep cycle). That title, a lyric from Swan Swan Hummingbird, popped in my head the other day as TW and I were driving, and I sang it out as if it were still 1986 and Life’s Rich Pageant was in the cassette player as I clattered along in my Tercel, traversing the back roads of my hometown.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a song analysis or rank albums or howl for my lost youth (you’re welcome). I’m simply thinking about how art sticks around, how we adopt it and translate it and make it part of ourselves.

Lines come to me a lot: random bits of songs, poems, short stories, novels, movies, plays. They often return out of context, removed from their original state, little fragments that I add to my trove of language. Sometimes I understand why these bits come: the sound or rhythm, the image borne within, the humor. Sometimes it’s a mystery, but there they are anyway, like a flash of sun in the eye that forces me to squint, to take time to look closer.

Perhaps I’m pondering something that is screamingly obvious: People like to quote stuff. Along with porn and cat videos, the Internet is mostly just sites devoted to quotable quotes with hazy attributions (“I like Web sites”– W.B. Yeats). Perhaps, too, such a line-hearing habit is detrimental; first, it’s a bastardization of someone’s art, and second, it’s a colonization of my own imagination. Shouldn’t I remember the whole work? Shouldn’t I be drumming up lines of my own?

I guess if all I did was run around babbling quotes I might be in trouble. But for me, I’m not just repeating them to repeat them. If it’s about language or image, I’m examining that language or image, putting it on repeat or in freeze-frame in order to study it more closely, to understand its effect. Some recent examples: Shakespeare’s “How now, wit, whither wander you?” from As You Like It; Whitman’s “I depart as air/I shake my white locks at the runaway sun”; “They is, they is, they is” from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I turn them and turn them and turn them, and I never tire of their beauty and wonder.

Sometimes, though, these little flecks transform into my own little metaphor. Take the most recent reincarnation of”what noisy cats are we”: It returned to me as I was stopped in a car at an intersection, gazing out at the suburbs of Birmingham, which teemed with gas stations and food chains and exhaust fumes. Whatever the song’s intentions, over time, and removed from its source, it has become something else for me, a way to process an abstraction: something about the desperation of the masses, of how we find ourselves mewing and clawing at the state of our lives.

If I have a point, which is doubtful, I guess it’s that I find the possibilities of such fragments both remarkable and deeply reassuring as an artist and as an audience member. A song, even just a slice of it, can return unbidden to a person more than fifteen years after its first hearing, and allow that person to name and articulate a confusing, unconnected moment. These parts of the whole pulse and shimmer across time, gathering the dust of the universe, just waiting for a space to land.