you asked me for my stories, i didn’t ask you for your blues (but i needed it)

Listened to the rest of Hozier today, wondering if perhaps I’d heard some other song that’d filtered into the dream. If so, it passed beneath my conscious radar. But damn. I don’t like a lot of lyrics. I react to music as to religion–presume to stick your nose in the air and tell me what to believe, and that you know the way, and you and your songs are dead to me. So the more targeted lyrics–where he’s not singing to us, to me, he’s singing to or with some other extant person–warm me more to them.

“To Be Alone,” though, struck me instantly as so familiar. And after a few listens I put it together–it rang bells of Junior Kimbrough. Covers of most of whose more popular songs I heard in Tokyo, in what was at the time the only blues bar in Japan. A friend–I tried so hard to be his friend, and his wife’s too–idolized Kimbrough and would tell us, in English and Japanese both, stories of Kimbrough’s life, as well as he had put them together. R.L. Burnside, too. I always sat a little apart, a little back and away, because I didn’t know anyone as well as they knew each other, and I was highly conscious of it and didn’t want to be seen as thrusting myself upon them. But listening to people–locals, sometimes friends of friends or sometimes too just people who wanted to see the novelty of a self-conscious foreigner with a guitar and an amp risking a paying audience–stamp their feet and clap their hands to, say, “Hard Time Killing Floor” was jarring. “Do you know what this is about?” I wanted to yell. “Do you have any idea? Do you even understand? The sound of it, you like it, but do you care–and if you do, if you care so damn much, how is your country still the way it is? How are you the way you are?” Sometimes the guitarist would privately smirk about this. He knew most of them didn’t understand the lyrics and would’ve grown uncomfortable had they known racial injustice was being discussed. He tested it once–he paraphrased the spoken-word parts of Hard-Time Killing Floor (he felt uncomfortable just speaking them as though the words were his own)–and bland smiles came out, the “go away you foreigner”-type smiles you see all the time. He didn’t try that again. Once, when drinking, he asked me to write for his publication, and I was thrilled for the few days until I saw him again and realized he’d forgotten all about it; he’d mentioned it in a spurt of liquid camaraderie that evaporated with the alcohol. But in the intervening days I kept coaching myself to bind it all up. Bind it all up and only judge a little, just a sliver, just one thing at a time; if they see how much fury this place fires in me they not only won’t publish it, they’ll stop inviting me to these alley bar gatherings where someone else’s borrowed pain spills out in my language, and I can hear it again. I did not want to lose that. Better not to write a thing than to lose that. I wished he liked me enough to have asked me sober, but I’d rather be a welcome stranger than a known pariah, and I’d rather be silent than have said something that would end my invitations to those rare blues gatherings.

The predatory discord of “It Will Come Back” raises the hair on the back of my neck but rings those same bells. I dislike discord now but I could settle into it then; it for obvious reasons felt more sensible and in sync with the world around me. On tracks where they bring in the cello it reminds me of Andrew Bird; some others sound more like the Black Keys and even, amusingly, Badly Drawn Boy (see: “Someone New”) “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” though, fills me with such glee that my boss, passing my desk as I grinned happily listening to it, paused and smiled, and when I yanked the headphones out asking if she needed anything, she smiled wider and said to go on, I could put them back in.

“Jackie and Wilson”…in second grade, I wrote in sharpie on my pencil case “be what as it may, I will always be the same,” feeling guilty even as I did it because I knew, I knew, if not from experience then very much from books, that that was such a lie. “Jackie and Wilson,” enjoying it as I do, fills me with that same kind of guilt. You can’t raise kids like that anymore and if you try they won’t love you for it…they’ll come of cultural age and reject you…and moreover how is this girl supposed to spend her time, just patching up your crazy mess all day and running her hands through your hair? But still…the whole warm charade of it. The guilt, listening to that song, is sweet and slow like honey.

I had tried to like blues before Japan. Usually because someone I respected liked it. But I couldn’t. The slow drawls, the avoiding of the subject, the incontrovertible emotions…the connection to religious rhythms I could not forgive, secular though their present usage might be. But I listened to more music abroad than ever before. Both the blues greats and my friend’s self-conscious covers of them, as well as more recent evolutions like the Black Keys and the Dead Weather. And I strung “Sooner Or Later (God’s Gonna Cut You Down)” through my ears like a lashing cat’s tail, not entirely healthfully.

What decided me on buying this LP (usefully it comes with a CD for import into portable devices), is the chord that repeats on “In a Week.” I don’t like duets, even more so when a very different voice suddenly appears on an album where I’d become accustomed to, and grown to long for, that other specific shape of sound. And then someone’s girlfriend shows up with these soft tones that clash so much with my experience of actually being a woman, and I slam the “skip” button.  But! But. The roundel construction, and the return to that one chord. The macabre nature of the lyrics still return to that one warm chord, for which I will gladly pay. For even the idea of that kind of warmth.


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