Monday, February 28, 2005

Notes from delirium

I've been sick. Not to brag, but I have a very strong immune system and I rarely get sick. That means, though, that when I do get sick, I'm on my deathbed--knocked flat, laid low. And that his how I spent my weekend. To add insult to injury, I woke up early Sunday morning with a migraine that confined me to bed until 10pm (with the exception of those moments when I was leaning off the bed and throwing up into the bathroom trash can D had so foresightedly placed next to my side of the bed). Today has been better, but I stayed home nonetheless, still feeling as though I had shared an intimate encounter with the chromed grill of a Mack truck.

There are some advantages to having four days of quiet convalescence. I was able to finish the Nero Wolfe mystery I'd been reading (Too Many Cooks), and to catch up on my magazine backlog (an eclectic assemblage: Fortean Times, Hot Rod, MacAddict, and The New Yorker), as well as note many movies that I need to add to my Netflix queue. (Kung-Pow: Enter the Fist is really much more clever than I had given it credit for, being sort of a kung-fu version of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. However, the '70s kung-fu films sampled are much more obscure than Steve Martin's noir send-up, and therefore the joke of the whole thing isn't as funny unless you are a very dedicated kung-fu fan, which I am not.)

Another thing I did was to unbox and hook up the new record turntable we recently bought on the cheap at Office Max (yes, the paper-and-binders place). The quality is about what you would expect for the price, but it appealed to me in that it can play 78rpm records. For the first time in years, I was able to uncrate some of my old vinyl and give them a spin. Much as a subtle scent can take you suddenly back to that first, nervous prom night, or rediscovering a favorite children's book can transport you back to the memory of hanging out in your bedroom on a low-lit snow day, those records swept me away on a magical mystery tour of my musical education.

It began with Tarkus. During a trip to Michigan for an Olympics of the Mind competition (for I was a true geek even then), I came upon a stash of Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums in a used record store. I brought home three or four because the cover art and the titles intrigued me. Tarkus smashed all my musical notions with an iron hammer, then forged the broken pieces into a mighty sword of new understanding of how music could be. In later years, I've come to realize that many of ELP's albums are pretentious beyond belief, but the core body of their work--Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery, and Welcome Back My Friends...--is still a pleasure to listen to for their marriage of rock and classical, and occasionally even a hint of big-band jazz.

My friend Andy Cook noticed my ELP obsession and thought I might like this other band he'd been listening to. Andy was a musical renaissance man. There was nary a band missing from his vast collection. He loaned me a 4th-generation cassette copy of King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic". It wasn't for everyone, he warned me, but if I liked it he had more. If ELP was the cracking voice of my musical adolescence, then King Crimson was its coming of age. Fronted by guitar genius Robert Fripp, KC fused rock and jazz in a way that once again made me completely rethink the structure of music. A heavy guitar riff might evolve into a near-cacophonic avalanche of sounds, only to slowly slide into a flute or violin solo. I sat for hours at my parents' big console stereo, spinning King Crimson records, huge earmuff headphones clamped to my head. I memorized every note, anticipating the entrance of the next instrument, studying how they played off one another. ELP and King Crimson taught me, through careful listening, how to appreciate virtually any kind of music--though I still hate 90% of hip-hop.

King Crimson led naturally into my tracking down Mr Fripp's many side projects, particularly his collaborations with Brian Eno. "No Pussyfooting" consists of just two songs: "The Heavenly Music Corporation" and "Swastika Girls". Eno plays drifting, playful keyboards. Fripp helms his guitar-altering contraption, the Frippertronics box. Frippertronics loops the guitar's notes, allowing him to ride the music like ocean waves. "No Pussyfooting" is completely improvised, and destroyed everything I knew about musical structure. There is no structure, just one instrument leading the other on a playful dance in the surf. I don't know how many times I fell asleep to that album (and not just because it is quite lulling).

Founded in the late '60s, King Crimson is now into its fifth decade (!), having undergone many personnel and stylistic transformations, but never once feeling creatively dried up or repetitive. In the late '90s, they released a boxed set called ProjeKcts, in which various combinations of band members played improvised sets at jazz clubs throughout the country. "ProjeKcts" takes "No Pussyfooting" a step further in challenging how I listen to music. After a number of plays, I'm still not sure I'm at terms with what I'm hearing (this is not to say that I don't like the recordings, just that I don't know how to fit them into anything I know).

I could go on: Eno's "Taking Tiger Mountain" and "Another Green World"; Todd Rudgren's "Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect" and "Acapella"; Talking Heads; Adrian Belew; Pink Floyd; Laurie Anderson. But I fear I've rambled on far too much as it is, and I could write whole theses on how each group affected me and their relationships with the others. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed listening to my new turntable this weekend.

Random other observations from my convalescence:
--Why isn't the serial killer popularly known at BTK getting the three-name treatment? Most infamous killers are forever known by their full names: Henry Lee Lucas, Mark David Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacey, etc. BTK is just Dennis Rader. Curious.

--Someday allow me to regale you with my arguments for why I believe that parts of Einstein's theory of relativity are dead wrong, but for now I'll just mention that while I lay awake from 2-3am this morning I may have worked out how dark matter fits perfectly into my version of things. It was the recent discovery of that starless galaxy seemingly composed entirely of dark matter that made it click for me.

--The new "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" trailer: I don't know. I just don't know.


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