Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Playlist: Biography

Over the next year I'll be working with fellow Bay Area theatre artist, Stuart Bousel, to create a stage adaptation of Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh.  He'll be adapting the book into a script and I'll be directing the production itself.  Reading the book and listening to Kristin Hersh's music is making me rethink my own relationship with music and the creation of art.

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner - Ben Folds Five

Song for the Playlist: "Your Most Valuable Possession"/ "Regrets" Ben Fold sets a voice message from his father to music and uses it as a sort of prologue to "Regrets" a song about unfinished business and missed opportunities set to a fast meter that is the passing of time.  

Recently a musician I follow asked on Facebook if anyone still listened to an album all the way through.  Immediately my mind went to The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five's follow up to Whatever and Ever Amen.  I listened to Unauthorized Biography over and over and over again one summer.  I would close my eyes and just lay back and listen to each little short story play on the themes of regret, loss and change.  I loved Whatever and Ever Amen, but Unauthorized Biography was richer and fuller in both sound and intention. It used trumpets and harpsichords like set dressing.  The flourishes were heart beats of tiny triumphs before inevitable steady piano descents.  I can and do listen to that album front to back over and over.  The album became the sound track for my last summer before college and my first significant writing experience outside of school.

It may seem and odd choice, but it makes perfect sense.  The hit single off of Whatever and Ever Amen  was "Brick" which was on heavy rotation on the adult contemporary stations.  It was a VH1 kind of song.  "Nevermind" was an MTV song.  "Brick" was a VH1 song.   "Brick" would come on after Counting Crows and before "Sonny Came Home".  I loved the song "Brick" it was dark and sad and right were I wanted to live emotion wise.  I bought The Unauthorized Biography as soon as it came out.  I bet other teenagers did too, but they probably didn't know what to make of it.  It didn't sound anything like Weezer or Pearl Jam or Counting Crows or anything at Lollapalooza or Lilith Fair.  It sounded different.  

I loved it.  I loved it and it made me want to write.

I was seventeen and I was bored, very sad and living with my dad.  My best friends and I had road tripped up to Denver where my father lived to celebrate our sudden lurch into young adulthood, otherwise known as graduation. When they left me it was the first time I really felt like I was being left behind.  They were going to have the best summer ever and I was going to be in a dark apartment watching the clock like every summer.

The memories of the summers we spent with my dad all fade into one another so that it feels like a long endless stretch of quiet, gray days.  Nothing to do and all the freedom in the world to loose track of what day it was. My father would work during the day and sometimes late into the night.  My brother and sister and I would huddle in an air conditioned apartment and watch television, read books, and play board games.  When dad lived near libraries or stores or movie theaters we would go there during the day.  When he didn't, we would stay in. I  never made friends over the summers.  We just waited for it to end so we could go home.    

That last summer, I worked some at JCPenny's ironing curtain panels while watching Titanic over and over in a poorly ventilated back room with a large group of giggly older women.  When I wasn't there I was at the apartment. I escaped into Wicked by Gregory Maguire.  My brother and sister and I played poker for television time to keep the peace.  We stayed up late watching Laverne and Shirley.

And I wrote.

The best place to listen to music and be alone was at the computer.  I would put my Ben Folds Five CD in, plug in my headphones, and live in those songs.  It isn't a far leap to imagine me then opening up a word document and start typing.  I wanted to write poetry or a short story or a play, but none of those would come.  But what? What should I write about? Everyone says write what you know, so I started out sarcastically with "Write what you know.  What do I know?  I know my parents are divorced." And I just kept going.  I wrote for pages.  I wrote more then I'd ever written before.  I wrote a short and simple stories of the years before that summer into the computer and simultaneously tattooed them into my bones.  I wrote honestly and it felt really good.  All while listening to Unauthorized Biography on repeat. Most of what I wrote covered the crushes I had and my disappointments.  It also covered the terrifying and tragic incidents that occurred among my smal circle of friends.  And, of course, my family.

The album is about change.  It's about looking back on your life and regretting mistakes, feeling sad at missing out on wonderful things, and wanting something better for the people who come next.  I was writing in the hopes of putting away high school and trying to start over again, but I know I just solidified it and made it permanent.  The album is now oddly and uniquely tied to all of my high school memories.  My first crush. My first heart break. My first car.  My waitressing job. My gay friends. My sad friends. My weird friends. My theatre friends. My best friends. The violence of high school. The romance of high school. The fear of figuring out you aren't who you thought you were.  The joy of knowing you don't have to be who everyone thinks you are.  The disappointment that you won't be who you want to be.  The yearning to be the person you will become.          

I can't listen to that album without thinking about that summer.  I can't hear "Narcolepsy"and not think of the days slipping away. I can't hear "Magic" without thinking about Prema and speech and debate. I can't hear "Redneck Past" without thinking about all the lies I told myself and others just to get through high school mentally intact.  I can't hear "Regrets" without thinking about all of dad's horrible apartments and the confusion of the divorce.  I can't hear "Lullaby" without thinking about Tanya Miller sitting cross legged in our dorm room only a few months later reading the whole thing out loud (even the parts I shouldn't have let her read, but had forgotten about.) I can't hear the name Reinhold without thinking about an album that helped define the kind of music that speaks to me and the kind of storytelling I idolize.