Music 101: Origin Story

The music of our lives begins with the beating of our hearts. One day it will end with the final beat.

Since everything has its beginning, I wondered: when did music start? Was it invented or discovered? Music has been around for so long that it cannot be traced back to a specific time. It has certainly existed for longer than Homo Sapiens, and we’ve been here for 300,000 years. It is also older than our more primitive ancestors. In fact, it did not originate in our branch of the tree of life.

The elements that make up music – rhythm and melody – have existed since the percussion and reverberations of the big bang. It has long lived in the patter of rain in a puddle and in wind whistling through tall grass. Birds and whales have been singing longer than any primate species, whose earliest experiments with melody might have come from a hunter imitating the song of a bird, or a mother humming something soothing to lull her baby to sleep.

In my individual history, music has been a patient teacher and passionate companion. I learned the alphabet with the help of the melody behind the letters: A, B, CD, EFG… Nursery rhymes and lullabies brought education, entertainment, and comfort to the overwhelming task of making sense of life, and my place in it.

For most people, the music that is popular at the time they first fall in love will always have a special place in their hearts. Every couple has a piece of music they call “our song.” What would a wedding be without singing and dancing? As we get older we often cling to the music of our youth and find it superior to the contemporary music of our older age. But there is always good new music.

This doesn’t resolve the problem of the music lover of good will who says: I’d like to like this modern stuff, but what do I do? Well, the unvarnished truth is that there are no magic formulas, no short cuts for making the unfamiliar seem comfortably familiar. There is no advice one can give other than to say: relax – that’s of first importance, and then listen to the same pieces enough times to really matter

Aaron Copland

Later this month, I will be releasing my first solo album, titled Observations. Whether it is good or bad, whether it speaks to you or not, is up to each individual who listens. I will post the music and links here and will let the work speak for itself. Until that is ready, I will post some more remote learning from my online class Music: 101.

Genius in our Midst: X

DJ Bonebrake, Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka, John Doe (l-r)
photo by Kristy Benjamin

2020 is a tough year. Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough. In the middle of a year that rivals the insanity of 1918, 1941, and 1968, something unexpectedly wonderful happened. In April of this year, while people were dying in New York at the rate of 1,000 a day, four people in California – John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake – released their first album together since 1985.

Listening to Alphabetland is like hearing a new Ramones album or getting a phone call from a dear old friend you haven’t heard from in ages. It is a lot to expect of any group of people, to live up to the accomplishments of their youth, that part of life when you have all the time in the world. But X do it.

As Exene puts it on the albums closing track, All the Time in the World:

We are dust
it is true
and unto dust we shall return
me and you
but it was fun while it lasted
All the time in the world turns out not to be that much

Everything about Alphabetland reaffirms the genius of the band’s four members. It is fun, and fast, and smart, and it artfully walks the tightrope between anguished and joyful. Even the way the album got it’s name is great:

Originally the song was called ‘Mercury,’ but Billy kept referring to it as ‘Alphabetland,’ like it was some 1950s board game he remembered, even though the lyrics never use the word ‘Alphabetland’ – only ‘alphabet wrecked’ and ‘alphabet mine.’ A relationship gets wrecked and words are meaningless. We finally relented, because it’s like, okay, Billy’s going to call it Alphabetland regardless of what the title is.

John Doe

Do yourself a favor and take a break from whatever you are doing and spend the next two minutes and fifty eight seconds of this tough, tough, tough, tough, tough year listening to some genius in our midst.

Tearing up the sidewalks
pouring wet cement
Erasing your initials
alphabet wrecked
I watched you pour white gasoline
to cover up your scent
Burned your name to cinders
alphabet wrecked
blue you wear like martyr blue
atom bomb bruises, cold war flu
A blind streak of light
tearing through the pines
electric non-fiction
alphabet mine
Molten river riding high
like a fever in the shine
No more words for you
alphabet mine
blue you wear like martyr blue
atom bomb bruises, cold war flu
Tearing up the sidewalk
pouring wet cement
erasing your initials
alphabet wrecked
Molten river riding high
fever in the shine
No more words for you
alphabet mine, alphabet mine, alphabet mine

Awkward as an Angel

Awkward as an angel
who bears the burden of black beauty
she turns, unaware of the emptiness
that swirls around her lost legs
Legs on which balance the twin curses of
comfort and congeniality
She is a solitary saint
in a universe of undistinguished souls
She is shy and unsure of her shine
and I can see nothing else
My drastic and distracted dreams
kept us forever at wing’s length
So that it is only when I can’t sleep,
when all I can do is lie and listen to her breathe,
that the beating of my heart makes any sense

Lost Days

These are the lost days. The ones that do not aspire toward recovery. At the end of days, when all is lost, these days will be even more lost than the others.

On days like these the fat fly hovers on air that is heavy enough to sustain him without the beating of a wing. The lazy cat cannot even be bothered to think of the fly as prey. These are the days when even cats can come to the conclusion that we are all one small step away from becoming prey.

It was on just such a day – the most lost of all lost days – that David first spotted the woman who would become his prey. And his predator.

Not a tree

I love a tree that is not a tree
with a love that is a love
and apologize to her for
swinging from her branches and
monopolizing her shade

I built a racetrack around my heart to
watch the blurry world fly by
I have lost track of
the number of times I
need to race around

I ask that question and I forget
I already asked it many times before
we argue so much over
my forgetfulness that I
don’t know if it’s ever been answered

I go to the store and I
visit with friends and I
go back home again
after an hour or two of TV
(and a good night’s sleep)
comes the time to start over