Art Is an Essential Business: A Musician Reflects on the Pandemic
An experienced and well-known musician looks back on what 2020 has wrought.
In 1987, when I was 13 years old, I consciously and meticulously constructed my identity as a layered collage of tribal affiliations drawn from all of my favorite records. These records still all ping me with a satisfying nostalgia, but I only have a present-progressive relationship with one of them. All those intervening years, rarely has a dozen weeks passed without a close beginning-to-end listen. And every few years it traps me in weeks of compulsive listening: the first Bad Brains album.
Even so, many years later, it remains mysterious to me. I still don’t know exactly how to refer to it, its name morphing with each re-issue. “Self-titled,” “the yellow tape,” Attitude: The ROIR Sessions: all these names are descriptors of the release itself, not titles that the band gave it. (It was originally issued only on yellow cassette by the hip and obscure tape label ROIR.) Its 15 songs total less than 34 minutes, but the average song length is actually even less than that. (The three reggae tracks together take up almost half the album.) Their whiplash velocity is so fierce, it’s easy to miss the dexterous complexity flashing by at every second. Commonly known as the world’s first Black hardcore band, their vision of punk meets reggae made for a singular and tricky, irreducible aesthetic.
The album is thrilling like the quick turns of a rollercoaster, and it’s comforting, years later, to know each song’s basic contours. But same as a reunion with an old friend, the established trust alone isn’t enough to sustain interest. What’s meaningful is how the shared grounding allows the old friends to move forward together. And in this way, like a routine eye exam, I can measure how my abilities to hear and imagine have expanded by listening to that first Bad Brains record.
Like the Bible says of “those with ears to hear,” the record has deepened for me as I’ve aged. As a kid hearing it for the first time I felt visceral shock. Later on, I learned to marvel at its technical intricacies, then to respect its political and spiritual aspects, which aren’t mere ornamentation, but the necessary philosophical grounding that charges it.
(And yes, of course, HR’s homophobic attitudes that he justifies with Rastafarianism have disgusted me a thousand times since I was 13. But I’m just talking here about the undeniable sublime singularity of their first album, the racial barriers that their very existence shattered, and the audacity of their mission statement, their “positive mental attitude” in a scene built on rage.)
Now, approaching middle age, I’ve developed dozens, if not hundreds, of similar relationships with works across disciplines: novels, essays, poems, paintings, movies, DJs. And 2020 has clarified how fundamental these synergistic relationships are to who I am, who I have been, and who I am becoming.
What 2020 Took Away From Us
Like most of us who live in densely populated cities, I once enjoyed a simple camaraderie with a cast of baristas most mornings and bartenders most nights. I enjoyed casual meandering banter with co-workers and associates, and the friendly chats with people working the counters at our corner stores and favorite lunch spots. I saw live music at least a couple times a week, often performed by my friends. And all of these interactions, so commonplace and effortless to me for so many years, all contributed to my senses of self, community and world.
Of course, connection is still possible now, amidst all this, when one can muster the effort to overcome the lack of social infrastructures and adhere to proper safety protocols. Short of that, there’s social media, on which people project themselves with an awareness that they will be seen by some audience—the precise psychoanalytical definition of ego. This leaves us with the hightailing news cycle that compels us to attempt to keep up with it, as it does indeed seem that our lives depend on doing so, even as its incredible clip and brutality can’t help but deaden our senses. These shells we grow are small and subconscious acts of self-preservation that allow us to get out of bed each morning.
I wonder how many people in my neighborhood I walk past and, both masked, we don’t recognize each other to say hello.
While everyone everywhere stood stunned and isolated by the sudden and massive cultural shifts in response to the pandemic, Republicans saw an opportunity to reshape society into their vision of minority rule by an extremist sect. But little did they suspect that the unwashed masses might summon the collective spirit to intuit the same conclusion: While everyone’s in shock, we can and must reshape things as we need things to be. Such grandiose ambitions require intention and strength, which require a sense of rooting, this same sense of rooting that’s been stripped from us as communities have shriveled.
But to remain human, and to remain connected to the values that make life worth living, we require some connection to the most inspiring and beautiful elements of our history as a species. Otherwise, really who cares if the skies choke to death and the shorelines drown?
Art Is an Essential Service
One minor variation in our schedules sustains my wife and me these days, these months of undifferentiated home hours, when we’re not selling off old music gear and '90s band t-shirts. Mondays and Thursdays, for an hour each time, right when they open for members only, we drift around the Art Institute of Chicago, both of us with our own headphones on. One benefit of life during a pandemic: We can drive downtown in ten minutes and park right there on the street. Coming twice a week, we don’t feel compelled to get our money’s worth and endurance-saunter long after the art has knocked us out. We take in just an hour of ancient Chinese bowls or contemporary photography or 19th-century European portraits or whatever.
These mornings are full-body bolts of inspiration. You don’t see the history of humanity at an art museum. You see the history of the evolution of perception, and the history of the evolution of struggling to express that perception. Look at it with the right eyes, and Impressionism actually is photorealism.
These mornings carve our weeks like the rungs of monkey bars to hoist ourselves across the days. Something to look forward to, but also the glow they impart lingers. Those afternoons after the museum, our work—which we always love—lights us up. Those afternoons, Twitter reads like David Markson or William S. Burroughs, like of course this is the latest iteration of the evolution of the novel, completely unique and cultivated to each reader’s tastes.
The other five mornings each week I walk four or five miles. I cover my various loops extending from this block I first moved to in 1994. Mornings on days after we visit the museum—Tuesdays and Fridays—my perception remains vivified, even 24 hours later. The ever-shifting ratios of repetition and variation on my walks, building to building, block to block, is beautiful. The folds and juxtapositions of building materials, an uncommonly steep staircase, a building set back an odd extra yard on its lot: It all delights me.
People often question creative people about whether they wait for inspiration to strike or whether they are disciplined about their work. But the question asked as a binary is flawed. The discipline creates inspiration. When you’re at your peak conditioning and your discipline is to appreciate the immersive beauty in the world detailed in both its spiderwebs and its art about spiderwebs, the inspiration is omnipresent.
But now, cases spiking, the museum has closed through the end of the year. I can comprehend the argument that the museum is “not essential,” but have a hard time believing it.
Beauty Is Our Only Defense
One a recent night, I talked to an old friend who expatriated from America 20 years ago. We haven’t seen each other in 15 years, but with Instagram and smartphones it feels like we’re in regular contact. Conversation was grounding and easy, as always, but I still got worked up. This also happened talking to another expat friend last month. They say they’re following political developments here closely, and that it’s all very alarming. They insist they understand because the lockdowns in their respective countries were intense and scary too (even if both of their countries have now been virus-free for at least four months). They chuckle about how “dystopian” America has become.
But there’s a psychological barrier. These are sharp people, savvy enough to recognize dark trends and foresee their courses, active enough agents in their own lives that they decided to start over elsewhere. But they truly can’t comprehend it. A fuse blows between their ears. It’s incomprehensible, even to Americans that chose to leave, how deeply terrifying and draining and demoralizing just being present in America is right now.
Our own government wants to kill us. This is the only logical deduction from their policies and behaviors. And more so, they apparently want to kill us so badly that they’ll go so far as to encourage and support illegal violence. Their warped ideological contradictions paralyze any coherent logical response, exactly as they must be designed to do.
To the civilian thugs at the root, which is it? Don’t Tread on Me, or Thin Blue Line? And way up at the crown, the con-man mafioso shouting “Law and Order,” his unfounded claims of election fraud are the election fraud itself.
These curly-Q inversions of reason seem to me to be the fundamental embodiment of the shorthand explanation of postmodernism that I’ve kept in my back pocket for years for my 101 students: When the representation of a thing overtakes the thing itself. Can any pithy ideological phrase more accurately describe our disingenuous elected officials and their cynical media mouthpieces and all their “alternative facts”? And all of us, stuck news-blip to news-blip, stupidly try to live our normal old lives best we can because what else do we know how to do?
If this fatiguing stretch, this endurance year, this national reset, truly is the ultimate living and breathing, pepper-spray-and-baton-whacking, real-world manifestation of postmodern theory, it must be a crescendo. When a philosophical model evolves into incoherent brutality, that must be a crescendo, right? So what’s after postmodernism?
Life on Pandemic Time
The pandemic has put us in a time warp. I identify two distinct but inter-related factors behind it. First is simply the endless Present of sheltering in place. I’m being “productive,” according to the 60-plus half-done demo songs I’ve recorded that need culling. But this in-betweenness, so many hours in any one space demolishes and distorts the Present. And it has by no means bloomed into the eternal present of Zen, but more like the postmodern purgatory of those famously slowly boiling frogs. As possibilities become more and more diminished, so too does even the potential for possibilities. Turns out we need possibilities to create more possibilities.
This leads to the second time-warp factor for the first time in my life, I have had zero plans, and zero ability to make plans, and everyone I know—and everyone I don’t know—is in this exact same position. But instead of it being reassuring that we’re all in it together, it’s actually more disorienting. How could it not feel like an apocalypse when everyone, and everyone that everyone knows, all have all their futures nullified so suddenly and completely?
Our old lives astonish me now. Yoink any random day of the last 20 years like a lotto ball out of a tumbler and I guarantee that I interacted with more people that day than the sum of people I’ve seen this year.
We do our best each day to bend the time-warp to our benefit, cultivating new dimensions to our skills. My wife is formally learning how to play bass—online lessons and scales, et cetera. I’m expanding the ways our audio software and hardware can all be routed in and out of each other differently, and of course new approaches to writing spring from this technical concentration. And coming into the world unburdened by any casual community, our music now has the space to form and find its own intentional communities.
One day I devoted eight hours to getting the delay rate on a spring just right for a simple overdub accent. Anytime in my old life, I would’ve done it in ten minutes and moved on. I wonder if anyone will ever notice how perfect that spring’s delay rate is, but really I’m just happy to know for myself that it’s there.
When There’s Nothing Else Left, We Can Still Make Art
Same as that first Bad Brains record has deepened with age, so too have the fundamental ideological cliches of punk rock: being true to yourself above all else, while still prioritizing community and solidarity. Jacking up the resonance of those specific elements of yourself that square culture mocked to celebrate what makes you uniquely you. That mix of joy and rage in calling out hypocrisy, especially in people in positions of power. Kicking the legs out from under any hierarchy.
The rush of all this that a teenager feels is the rush of chlorophyll expanding through the veins of a leaf, deepening its green, the thrill of life-force that air gives a balloon. It’s how you become you. As teenagers, even the most moronic jock commonly has an itch of introspective puzzling that the Grateful Dead is usually enough to scratch. But the challenge is maintaining access to that feeling as an adult. The health insurance and car insurance and mortgage and utilities and taxes and hold music, it grinds you down. It truly is a joyless system at best, even in the best of times.
Now in 2020? Oof.
If we’re lucky, we absorb punk rock’s fundamental lesson and slowly learn how to articulate it. Pop culture’s mythology of “making it” translates into DIY punk-speak as “making the thing itself,” as in “just do the work,” as in what the Quakers and Buddhists had in common: the work is its own reward.
The Quakers and Buddhists are both essentially materialist-oriented systems of spirituality, same as punk rock. The garage-rock drunks and hardcore jocks are traditional sects; the Warped Tour is the megachurch. But there’s a kid somewhere hacking a sampler to blow out a basement’s PA with a look and a sound that has nothing in common with what we commonly associate with historic punk, but is summoning its most primal powers.
It’s simple to dismiss talk of the energies of love-versus-fear as superficial mystic mumbo-jumbo. But on another level, it’s just practical common sense to keep your life-force flowing. Creativity of any kind is a self-replenishing tribute to life-force and potential. Creativity charges us. Cynicism and despair deplete us. And have we ever endured a historical moment in which it’s more imperative not only for your own good, but for the state of the nation, and the world, that you feel charged?
There is no spiritual-recharge cavalry coming. Rearrange your own furniture. Tilt what you need to tilt. Change the lighting to throw the shadows however which way you need them to land.