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In Which I Discuss Brian Eno, Poetry, and My Own Horrible Work

March 29, 2013 Leave a comment

A little hidden secret among writers is that they actually do get writer’s block. When they say, “Oh, I don’t believe in writer’s block,” they’re full of shit. Why? Nine times out of ten, when you ask them where they get ideas, they say “I honestly have no fucking clue.” The other one times (that works, trust me), they’ll give some sort of version of this answer:

“I [read a lot/watch the news/keep a mental file of subjects], and when two things slam together just right, that’s usually when I start writing.”

And that’s all fine and well for those who can do such things. But the rest of us mortals sometimes have problems with those things slamming into each other, let alone “just right.”

A slight tangent:
Back in the ’70s (when he was still having his good ideas), Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a thing called Oblique Strategies. Essentially, it was some number of cards–I don’t remember exactly how many right now, and honestly you can check it out on Wikipedia yourself if you want–with phrases on them intended to push through, y’know, writer’s block. Some of them were obvious, like “Work at a different speed”, but some got pretty cryptic, like “Ask your body.” Essentially, it came down to generating an idea out of basically nothing. Sometimes, that idea was enough.

Another tangent:
Before that, people like Stockhausen and Varese and Lucier and Glass and Reich were creating generative music; that is, music created from procedural rules and repetition, rather than traditional music theory.

This all comes around, I swear.

In my poetry writing class, our professor likes to split between self-generated poems (that is, poems without limitations) and programmed poems, which have a specific goal in mind. (Use a certain form, use a certain kind of word, etc.) Our most recent assignment was to create a poem in which two people, living or dead, meet in a situation they might not normally. This was based on the John Bradley poem “Two Tangos with the General”, in which the narrator has some… interesting experiences with Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

How hard could that be, right?

Pretty goddamn hard, in my case. It was pretty hard to come up with only two people, and dump them in only one situation, and make it both reasonably believable and utterly surreal. I told my professor as much, and told him that I was getting to the point of just throwing names into a hat.

And he said “Yeah! Do that!” I about peed myself. And then I thought about it for a minute. (The hat, not the peeing.) What if I actually did it?

“I suppose I could; that’s a pretty Eno thing to do,” I said.

“It’s a VERY Eno thing to do,” he said. (Sometimes he speaks in both italics and caps.)

So, in the spirit of experimentation, I made it a little more complex. I made a list of twelve people whose work I admire:

  1.  David Bowie
  2.  TS Eliot
  3.  Hunter S. Thompson
  4.  Jon Stewart
  5.  Trent Reznor
  6.  Warren Ellis
  7.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  8.  Frank Lloyd Wright
  9.  Alestair Crowley
  10.  Stephen King
  11.  Lou Reed
  12.  Andy Warhol

(Yes, yes, I realize they’re all men. I’m working on it, okay?) Then, I took a twelve-sided die, and eliminated the result from the list, leaving eleven names, then ten, then nine, and so on, til I only had one left. Then, I took all twelve names again, and did the same process. That way, I had two quasi-random people with absolutely no decision-making on my part.

After that, I made a list of twelve mundane/bizarre situations:

  1.  Bowling
  2.  Stopping at McDonald’s
  3.  Arguing opposite sides of a murder case
  4.  Watching television
  5.  Attending a baseball game
  6.  Being stopped by the TSA
  7.  Playing a used car salesman and a shopper, respectively
  8.  Visiting a morgue
  9.  Doing laundry
  10.  Waiting in line at the DMV
  11.  Watching Reservoir Dogs
  12.  Sitting in the same book club

Then I rolled a d12 again, eliminating one each time, until I ended up with a scene.

I’m not positive on my math here, but if my numbers are right, there is a 1 in 1.4 billion chance that these characters and this subject would have come out in this specific order. And the weird part is how well it all worked! (At least in my mind. You’re free to think it’s bollocks, of course.)

Once I had finished, though, the whole process seemed odd to me in a really meta sort of way. For example, Bowie not only worked with Eno, but he’s also been caught on film literally picking lyrics out of a hat, or cutting up and simply rearranging words. Stephen King talks about his own idea generation in his book On Writing, which basically boils down to taking a walk (hopefully not getting hit by a van) and letting his mind wander until he gets two things that stick together and seem compelling enough for him that he can keep the idea til he gets home to start writing. And of course, I thought it was odd that they are/were both simultaneously high-brow and low-brow, they’re both former cocaine addicts (Bowie doesn’t remember making a few albums, specifically Station to Station; King doesn’t remember writing a single word of Cujo) they’re both morbid and hopeful, and so on. The morgue was just perfect, though McDonald’s would have been amusing as it’s the specific reason Bowie wrote “I’m Afraid of Americans”.

And really, it’s these sort of interconnections that I’ve been intrigued by my whole life. The musicians I pay attention to are all related somehow, the authors I read all read each other, my favorite non-fiction book is Warren Ellis’ DO ANYTHING, which itself is about interconnectedness in creativity. (I pimp that book constantly, I know, but it’s THAT GOOD.) Honestly, some of this shit isn’t coincidental, even when picked at random. Even the list of people I chose didn’t come out entirely at random, as there are interconnections between all of those people, too.

But what does this all come down to, eh?

Well, for starters, it’s really me trying to look more creative than I probably am. Any mook could pick two names off a list and write a poem about them. I happened to like the results, but it wasn’t hard once I got down to work.

The other big takeaway is to try methods that others have used to break out of their own ruts. Staring at a white page or blinking cursor is scary. Getting your fingers to play different patterns on guitar takes effort. Flip a card over. Read a book. Roll a die. The idea is probably in there, you just have to coax it out. This is how I got mine out in this instance.

Note: I discovered while writing this that Philip Glass is writer/producer/radio personality Ira Glass’s first cousin, once removed. I recently (late November/early December) started listening to This American Life as a podcast. There’s another one.

Nine Inch Nails – Verizon Wireless Music Center, Noblesville, IN

June 1, 2009 Leave a comment

So this weekend I went to the Nine Inch Nails/Jane’s Addiction show (did you catch the NIN/JA acronym?) in Noblesville, Indiana, about an hour and a half from home for me. My wife, my best friend, and I left town about 4pm, got down there, dicked around for a while, then got in line at about 6pm. The doors opened nearly half an hour late. Past that inconvenience, we made our way to the back of the lawn section (as we wanted a view of the stage and wanted to be in prime taping real estate.)

A quick note about Street Sweeper Social Club. The band was a good opening act, but it was pretty much what you’d expect it to be: Boots Riley with Tom Morello. Morello whipped out a little more of the technical soloing, but he still relied pretty heavily on the Morello-isms of pickup switch tricks, Whammy Pedal work, and guitar cord gimcracks. I’m thinking about picking this album up, but I remember how burned I was by Audioslave. Time will tell. I don’t know how well this band will do, but I don’t think I could sit through a full headlining gig from them. As I said, a good opener.

Now, Nine Inch Nails.

Why, oh why, haven’t I seen this band live earlier?

Well, let’s be honest. I didn’t even really like Nine Inch Nails until about the spring of 2001, when I was a freshman in college. A friend of mine at the time lent me two albums, The Downward Spiral and Broken, neither of which I listened to particularly voraciously. And then one day, all of a sudden, years later, it was like a switch in my musical tastes switched and I suddenly loved Nine Inch Nails. It probably had something to do with finding The Fragile for ten bucks at a used store. Anyway, from then on, I was hooked.

But I was also poor. So even during the tours for With Teeth and Year Zero I was forced to sit out, missing indoor shows from a band known to have a killer live show. So when the option presented itself a few months ago to get cheap (under $40) tickets to see NIN on what is probably their last tour ever, I snapped up some tickets, convinced my friend to trek 850 miles to come see the show with us, and finally considered myself a “real” fan.

I’d say that I’ve gotten to the point—after seeing dozens of concerts, and being in a performing band myself at one point, and working in audio production—that I don’t think I’ll ever be properly “blown away” at a show anymore. This one came damnably close, though. While I spent a lot of time drooling over gear as a gearhead, a few songs definitely touched me in one of those weird places that only music can reach.

I’m pulling the setlist from the NIN.com forum entry for the show. It looks, to my recollection, correct. Let’s begin.

“Home”
This was a bonus track on some limited versions of With Teeth, so I’d never heard it. Nice buildup song, though.

“1,000,000”
I think this might be one of the best opening-portion songs you could put into a set. The intro is so full of energy that it’s hard for people to not at least move to it. I’m not sure how many people actually reconized it due to the lack of real promotion for the album (The Slip), but considering how tech-savvy and ravenous most NIN fans seem to be, it was still one of the more well-recieved songs of the night.

“Discipline”
Radio single, so people recognized it. This was one of the songs where I was really impressed by new drummer Ilan Rubin (of Lostprophets). I’ve seen some videos of former touring drummer Josh Freese playing this song, and I believe Ilan holds up favorably against Josh. That’s saying something.

“March of the Pigs”
Of course this is the first song the crowd really went crazy for. This appealed mostly to the same drunks that were screaming “Closerrrrrrrrr!” and “Terrible LIIIIIIE!” all night, as if a) the band could hear them from the back of the lawn seats, and b) they cared. Some of us took the time to see what sort of stuff we’d be seeing/hearing, and knew that those two probably wouldn’t be in there. The song was also the point that the weather started to come into play; in addition to the normal light show, we got a lot of lightening, including a big crack right when the band came in after the breakdown in the middle of the song.

“Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)”
I quite enjoyed this one. Nice and mellow. Hell if I can remember anything past that, though.

“Metal”
I’ve heard of this song, but never actually heard it. Now I have. It was okay, I guess, and I think more people liked it due to it’s rarity than it being a good song. A great performance, of course, but I wasn’t impressed any more with this than any other song of the night.

“Meet Your Master”
The first track they played off of Year Zero. Since I don’t own it, I hadn’t heard the song, but I correctly placed it as a YZ song just by sound. I felt pretty full of myself at that point. I really liked this one, and this alone is probably enough for me to go get the CD now.

“Head Down”
I don’t remember much about this one, but I think it’s because this was the point that fight broke out about 10 feet from us. Like a real fight. Drunk guy plus angry guy equals two dudes getting bounced right out. It seemed to take security a little while to show up, but once they did, things ended quickly.

“I Do Not Want This”
Trent announced this one with “This one’s from The Downward Spiral,” which made people go insane. When they realized it wasn’t a single, they seemed pretty pissed. I liked it quite a bit, and the lyrics weren’t quite as buried as they are on the album during the verses. Trent seemed to be playing with this one quite a bit, playing with the piano pretty randomly. That made me giggle a little. Okay, a lot. As it built up, the song got bigger and meatier, until it pretty well broke the crowd open at the end, despite how irritated they were for not getting “Closer”.

“Gave Up”
Even live, this song has a definite Broken sound to it. This one was very active, very energetic. The wind really picked up here, but didn’t make the show unbearable. The biggest issue was that we had some sound propegation factors with the wind shears and temperature change that was going through at this point.

“The Fragile”
This one was probably the first one that really touched me. I’ve always loved this song, and I’m sad it was the only one they played off the album. But the performance and the weather were both pretty well in sync, as the light drizzle really complimented the slow burning song.

“The Downward Spiral”
If there’s anything that really made me laugh this night, it was how Trent constructed the setlist. “March of the Pigs” into “Piggy”, “The Fragile” into “The Downward Spiral”, etc. Little two-song couplets. The rain went crazy here, really pouring right about the time the album’s piano motif started up. People cheered for both the song and the weather. Not much more could be done about that syncronicity, it was just plain awesome.

“Wish”
For some reason, people love to shout “FIST FUCK”. I’m not sure what the appeal is. Robin Finck’s solo on this song, for being pretty technically “deficient” was gutsy and really good. Trent and company can really get the use out of a wah pedal in ways that most guys only dream about. The double-kick that ended the song was tight and clean. While it wasn’t particularly fast, it was precise.

“Survivalism”
As far as the radio singles go, I was never particularly impressed by this one. I mean, it was good, it was performed well, but I’m not too hot on the song. The song is definitely better live, though.

“Mr. Self-Destruct”
This is the point that most of the big songs come out, and this one didn’t disappoint. Good performance, and quite enjoyable.

“Physical”
Probably the heaviest song of the night. My experience was diminished a little by watching some disgusting goth kid mating ritual going on during this song. Sure, it’s one of those songs that’s suited to that kind of thing, but… ew. I don’t recall if Reznor had his guitar on this one, but between the bass and Robin’s guitar, I don’t know if it would have mattered.

“The Good Soldier”
There was nothing particularly memorable about this one. I liked it, but I don’t know if, had I written the song, I would have played it live. My wife and my friend both giggled at Trent playing the bells. I’m not really sure why. Dude plays pretty much everything else, why not the bells, too?

“The Hand That Feeds”
Now comes the obligatory Rock Band reference. I played this song a lot in the previous two days on Rock Band. A lot. This was the song that one of the drunks finally went down. I don’t think he puked, but he finally got hauled up off his knees (get it?) and removed by some people that I assume were his friends. Everyone else seemed to have a good time. I liked it, though at this point I was a little sick of hearing the song. Mostly because of friggin’ Rock Band.

“Head Like a Hole”
After the “thanks for twenty years/I’m not calling it a goodbye cuz it’s sad” speech, which I think was really brilliant and heartfelt, it was nice to hear the single that started the whole thing. The crowd got really into this one, even the more casual fans like my wife and friend. Probably the most poingant part of the whole night, despite the fact that the song is what it is (what with it being about Evil Capitalism and all).

Encore:
“Hurt”
I know that a bunch of shows on this tour haven’t been getting obligatory encores, so I was happy when the band came back out. I was very happy when they played “Hurt”. By this point the rain had long since stopped, so people had their cellphones and lighters out. I had a little giggle at the guy next to us that couldn’t get his going, because he was making the exact same motions as the guy in Wayne’s World 2 that lit the guy up in front of him. (Yes, I just made a Wayne’s World 2 reference.) When the lights finally came up, all three of us were definitely impressed, and I know that I, for one, am compelled to flesh out my NIN collection. We made our way back to the car, out of the lot, ate some lunch, and were home in Fort Wayne by 12:30am.

You’ll note we didn’t stay for Jane’s Addiction. If there’s anyone’s voice that makes me want to hurt myself and others in a painful ways, it’s Perry Ferrell’s. And this is coming from someone who likes Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, and Billy Corgan.

All in all, it was a great night, and was definitely worth the $34 dollars I spent on the ticket (after $6 parking fee and $9 ticket fee. Livenation really knows how to grab a guy by the balls). The weather was, I think, perfectly suited to the show, and I wouldn’t have traded it for a cloud-free show in the slightest. The lightshow, while tame by NIN standards, was well-suited to the show, and the lightning provided by nature only helped with the mood and atmosphere. I was wondering, for a while, if we were going to end up with a Woodstock ’94-like event with mud and whatnot, but we got just enough rain to make the evening memorable.

Now I’m just pissed I waited ’til there won’t be any more Nine Inch Nails shows to see them.