- Bruce Seaton
- The LakeShe curled and uncurled her slender toes in the uncut grass and felt the cool soft scratch of it against the tender arch of each foot individually. The trunk of the big beech tree was smooth against her back and lightly populated with the carved initials of lovers who came here to drink wine and make love in the fragrant grass.Out on the lake in the sticky heat was a boat. It was about half a mile from the place under the tree near the shore where they’d spread their blanket. A man dozed in the little fishing boat with his hat pulled down over his eyes to block the sun.
The lake was a long narrow oval with the dome of the beech tree tall at one end. The boat was near the far shore of the lake that lay smooth and very deep between the beech tree and the dense triangular pocket of forest on the low hill at the other end. The man and the boat were very still on the silent surface of the lake.
She imagined a loop of fishing line around his toe to wake him if anything bit. It would jiggle softly at first and the bobber would bounce down and up as if in some tiny gravity flux at the surface of the water. Then it would disappear suddenly and rouse the man with a sharp tug, rippling the water, and he would come awake blinking against the light and then happily grumbling and cursing he would scramble for his rod. The idea excited her.It was a ridiculous notion. The man was foolish if he thought anything would bite in this heat with the sun so far overhead and bright on the water. The lake was clear its smooth bottom, and even the dark slick catfish that haunted the bottom of the lake would be hiding.She imagined all this and smiled. Without looking away from the man in the boat she traced with her nails the pattern of the tattoo on the bare arm of the boy beside her. The great red and blue tattoo ran from his wrist to the root of his shoulder. He grunted softly without moving and she smiled again and leaned her head against the smooth beech tree.The boy murmured something she couldn’thear.“Mmm?” she asked.“There’s a bug on my neck. I can feel it.”“Where? Oh, I see. It’s not a bug, silly, just a piece of grass.”“Oh. There’s a piece of grass on my neck.”“There. Is that better?”“Mmmm.”“See how well I take care of you?”“Mmmm.”Later, the boy stood a little way off and knocked the cinder from the end of his cigarette into the grass and ground it out with the sole of one foot. She shifted and sipped the wine and rubbed her thumb up and down the thin neck of the glass and then placed the wide base of the glass on her thigh below the hem of her khaki shorts. She swallowed the sip slowly and a little ring of goose bumps rose in the skin around the cool glass.“This is a good place,” he said.“Yes. I used to come here with Harry sometimes.”“You’re just making me jealous.”“No. We used to come and picnic and then he would write those terrible poems about birds and I would sleep.”“Did you spend all of your time with him asleep?”“No.”“All of your stories about him are about sleeping.”“Those were my favorite times.”“He sounds like an interesting guy.”“Don’t make fun. He was very sweet in his own way.”“In his own way.”“Yes.”The boy came back to the tree and lay down and poured himself a glass of wine and filled her glass and put his shirt back on. The sun had moved down nearer to the tops of the trees across the lake and the light was becoming golden and the man in the little boat still lay in the boat with just his hat and his feet showing above the lip. The boy saw her looking at him.“Do you suppose he saw us?”“He hasn’t moved for hours.”“Maybe he’s dead.”“No. He’s just resting.”“Oh?”“That’s what I think.”He laughed. “Maybe he just likes fishing.”“He hasn’t caught a fish yet.”“Maybe that’s not the point of fishing.”“That’s what I mean.”“Maybe he likes sleeping on the water. Ilike sleeping on the water.”She looked out across the quiet water at the man in the boat and smiled knowingly.
- REVIEW: Bone Machine by Tom WaitsWritten for Altsounds.comHow can you choose just one album and call it a "ClassicSounds" album? I mean, this is Tom Waits. Since 1973's Closing Time, Waits has been one of the most influential musicians in the world. He's changed the way songs are written, the way they're recorded, the way instruments are arranged and played, and challenged the boundaries of genre and style. He has successfully sued both Frito-Lay and Levi's for using vocal impersonators in their commercials (which he refuses to do himself). He's been covered by (this is a highly abbreviated list): Tim Buckley, Bette Midler, Meat Loaf, Bat for Lashes, Queens of the Stone Age, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bruce Springsteen (no, Springsteen did not write Jersey Girl--that was a Waits cover), Bob Seger, Tori Amos, Thrice, Bill Frisell, Gomez, Gov't Mule...
...and so on. So how can you pick a representative album from nearly four decades and twenty-some albums of music? Well, you can't, not really. But Waits really needs representation on Altsounds, so we're going to give it the old heave-ho, pick our favorite five albums, and grab one of those out of a hat. Well, will you look at that. Bone Machine.
And away we go...
Released in 1992, Bone Machine was Tom Waits's first album since 1987's Frank's Wild Years, and represented a major shift in Waits's sound. Beginning as a balladeer in the 1970s, and moving into a highly experimental period in the '80s, Bone Machine is a return to a simpler, blues-based style. With this stripped-down approach to music comes a tightly-arranged, percussion-heavy style with no frills. Recorded largely in a giant concrete room in a studio basement, the album's cave-like space reflects well the album's vocal and lyrical tone, which is always sombre, and often passes straight through melancholic and into macabre.
Murder, mortality, broken love, madness, and loss of innocence are common themes in this story-laden album, which hits the brain like a collection of Richard Brautigan's later short stories - each song is a brief, often agonizing vignette of a world that's not quite our own - but could be, like a series of terrifyingly clear and instructional dreams. Bone Machine won the 1993 Grammy award for Best Alternative Album, beating out nominees like The Cure's Wish and The B-52s' Good Stuff. It was an era of long stringy hair and rip-kneed corduroys, and then there was Tom Waits - the tweed-capped Dean of Fairy Tale Hell.
The term Bone Machine refers to a human - that is, an organic device built on a structure of bone, tissue, skin - but also connotes a level of automation, as if humans are not entirely their own masters. This connotation is strengthened by the interview CD that was released in conjunction with the album, titled Bone Machine: Operator's Manual.
So who, we begin to wonder, is the operator?
The album's first track, The Earth Died Screaming sets the tone for the album with lyrics so wildly apocalyptic they come off as lost verses from Revelations. Drawing heavily from biblical imagery and featuring a percussive background reminiscent of a bronze-age factory, this track is very much a welcome to the Bone Machine madhouse:
Rudy's on the midway and Jacob's in the hole,
The monkey's on the ladder, the devil shovels coal,
With crows as big as airplanes, the lion has three heads,
And someone will eat the skin that he sheds,
And the earth died screaming while I lay dreaming of you...
One of the few tracks on the album to feature saxophone (which was used heavily during Waits's 80s albums), Dirt in the Ground hails back to his early ballad days, but with the same necrotic twist as much of the rest of the album. This song is a great example of just how much emotion it's possible to get into a vocal performance. It's as if the song itself is twisting Waits's heart as he fights for every note. This is the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Hell is boiling over, and heaven is full,
We're chained to the world, and we all gotta pull,
And we're all gonna be just dirt in the ground.
The third track, Such a Scream, exhibits the kinds of raucous and earthy/industrial sound textures that would come to be a fixture of Waits's later albums, and portrays for the listener some kind of mechanical, demonic, golem-like woman. She's a fury. She's a valkyrie. She's Hecuba and Judith and Medea, and she fits right in with the rest of Tom Waits's bizarre mythology. She's a scream.
She just goes clank and boom and steam,
A halo, wings, horns and a tail,
Shoveling coal inside my dreams...
The plow is red, the well is full
Inside the dollhouse of her skull...
Each of the three opening tracks openly identifies with a first-person dreamer character who becomes less self-aware as the album progresses, as if forgetting himself in his own dream, and the album, like a dream, wanders away from the theme into other worlds, only to turn in on itself again and again.
All Stripped Down draws on spiritual and chain-gang song formatting with a call-and-response sequence. The whole song sounds like it's been recorded in a pine box and put through a meat grinder. This kind of production can be a little weird to get used to.
Who Are You is a heartbreaking (and more than a little spiteful) one-sided address to an ex-lover. As the song was co-written by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennen, we'll assume the song is completely fictional. At least, we'll hope it is. It takes the format of a minimalist folk ballad, with a free-verse lyric format. This is one of those songs that, if it caught you at the right (or wrong) moment, could make you break down and spend a day weeping on the floor:
I did my time in the jail of your arms...
Are you pretending to love?
Well, I hear that it pays well.
How do your pistol and your Bible
And your sleeping pills go?
Are you still jumping out of windows
In expensive clothes?
Tom Waits is a storyteller, and sometimes he breaks from the song format entirely in order to provide us with a spoken vignette. These are often humorous, sometimes terrifying, and always profound. The Ocean Doesn't Want Me is all of these things. I won't ruin your first experience with this little treasure by printing any lyrics here. Do yourself a favor - listen to it before you look up the lyrics online.
Jesus Gonna Be Here comes on like a great depression Mississippi delta hangover; spacious, raucous, and painful. The hacking cough at the end of the tune merely bookends a wonderfully strained, slightly sentimental prediction of an inevitable end-time:
I'm gonna get myself unfurled
From this mortal coiled-up world
Jesus gonna be here, gonna be here soon.
A Little Rain is a pure semi-modern fairy tale, complete with dwarves, runaways, and mutilated minstrels. It's a story of leaving home in search of something, anything, better, and it's another heartbreaker. The words in print can't possibly convey the emotion of this tune, so just go find it when you've got a good corner to cry in.
A return to the junkyard/industrial percussion-driven sound at the core of this album, In the Colosseum is a tale of decadence, of spectacle, and of the brutality of entertainment. Although the elements come from Roman history, one can't help but feel that Waits is actually painting a picture of modern life, perhaps a statement of the music industry itself, perhaps of our (then just beginning) obsession with so-called Reality television.
It's always much more sporting
When there's families in the pit
And the madness of the crowd
Is an epileptic fit.
No justice here, no liberty,
No reason, no blame,
There's no cause to taint
The sweetest taste of blood.
And greetings from the nation
As we shake the hands of time,
They're taking their ovations,
The vultures stay behind
In the colosseum tonight.
What can I say about Goin' Out West? This song is perhaps the best-used song on any soundtrack, ever. Watch Fight Club. It's the perfect song for Project Mayhem’s clubhouse jukebox. This is bad ass-ness in its purest form. It's ugly, it's raw, and it's just friggin’ cool. If some mad scientist combined the DNA of Steve McQueen and Mickey Rourke and bore them a son, this would be his theme song. This song has a pistol and an eyepatch, and it'll make lewd passes at your sister.
I ain't no extra, baby,
I'm a leading man.
Well my parole officer
Is gonna be proud of me
With my Olds '88
And the devil on a leash...
I don't need no makeup
I got real scars.
I got hair on my chest,
I look good without a shirt...
My friends say I'm ugly
I got a masculine face.
I got drag-strip courage -
I can really drive a bed.
And I'm Goin' Out West...
Murder in the Red Barn is another grisly tale of - you guessed it - murder. But it's more than that. It tells a brief story of a small-town community faced with a murder and the suspicion that follows it. Based loosely on an actual 19th century case (The Red Barn Murder) that gained enormous media attention in its day, Waits retells the story from the point of view of the townsfolk, while the murder itself hangs over the scene like a ghost. The music is minimalist, adding texture and tone more than tune.
And no one's asking Cal
About that scar upon his face
'Cause there's nothin' strange
About an axe with bloodstains in the barn -
There's always some killin'
You got to do around the farm...
Perhaps the most musically accessible song on Bone Machine is Black Wings. The song centers around a nameless figure, a classic lone rider (also, interestingly, made into a Christ figure), and the subtle, driving rhythm of the music puts you right in the scene, perhaps riding over hills, horseback, watching our hero, mile after mile. The character depicted in Black Wings is what every gunslinger in history wanted to be:
Well they've stopped trying to hold him
With mortar, stone and chain
He broke out of every prison...
Well he once killed a man with a guitar string.
He's been seen at the table with kings.
Well he once saved a baby from drowning.
There are those who say
Beneath his coat there are wings.
Some say they fear him.
Others admire him.
Because he steals his promise
One look in his eye.
Ever having met him
A song about a man from a small town with unrealized dreams of getting out, Whistle Down the Wind is powerfully melancholic. It's a stunning example of Waits's ability to create depth of character and draw emotion from a listener in a few brief lines. The accompaniment is sparse, and the heavy reverb (remember - recorded in a cement-lined basement) on the piano and slide guitar match extremely well with Waits's powerful, gritty voice.
The bus at the corner
The clock's on the wall
There's no wind at all
I've yelled and I cursed
If I stay here I'll rust
I'm stuck like a shipwreck
Out here in the dust
I Don't Wanna Grow Up takes a child's point of view (or perhaps not--make up your own mind) as he views the lives of adults and the miseries of daily life. Seemingly the most light-hearted song on the album, the humor of I Don't Wanna Grow Up acts as a veneer for a well of resentment, fear, and critical observation. Waits must have had to replace the strings on his guitar following the recording. I've never heard strumming this aggressive.
Well when I see my parents fight
I don't wanna grow up.
They all go out and drinking all night
And I don't wanna grow up.
I'd rather stay here in my room
Nothin' out there but sad and gloom.
I don't wanna live in a big old Tomb
On Grand Street.
A bizarre transition into the closing track, Let Me Get Up On It sets the stage for That Feel, which Waits co-wrote with Keith Richards. Unlike the rest of the album, there doesn't seem to be any story present in That Feel, just... a feel. Exactly what feel Waits means isn't precisely described, but I think we all have that thing, that emotion, that soul response we can't get rid of, even when we want to. This great little plodder closes the album out with relatively good vibes, given the darkness Waits has plunged the listener into on the way. It's like waking up gently at the end of a long, dark, claustrophobic nightmare.
This is a demanding album. After the first dozen or so passes through it, it can become background music to daily life, but it really wants to be listened to, and it will fight for your attention. It wasn't easy, for example, to write this review. I generally listen to whatever album I'm reviewing as I write the review, just to keep myself fresh. In writing this, I found myself constantly going back and listening to songs a second, third, fourth time, because I'd forgotten to write anything while I was listening.
This is also a timeless album, and more than many of Waits's albums, is fairly approachable by the uninitiated. Tom Waits is a musician's musician, a writer's writer, and a singer's singer. The fact is, what Tom Waits does is make incredibly good music, and he has a nearly-unmatched ability to influence his listeners in ways they may not want to be influenced. He's a puppet-master of words and melodies, and you should do yourself a favor and allow him to pull your strings.
I think we may have answered an earlier question, in fact. Spend an hour discovering why it's sometimes okay to not be fully in control. Allow Tom to be your... operator.
- 1000 words: The SiteTruth is, no one knows where Jerry came from. He don’t talk much, and he especially don’t talk much about that. Not that he’s a loner, antisocial, anything like that. Just don’t talk much. When he talks, folks listen. He’s not old, it’s not a wisdom thing, he just says what he means and only says something at all if he’s pretty sure it matters, if you can dig that. Only heard him yell once, on a site when a cable gave out. Yelled his head off and saved some idiot kid on a smoke break from getting squished under ten tons of fourteen by sixteen I-beam. Kid heard Jerry yellin’ and moved quick.
Jerry’s Hispanic, but nobody knows what brand. The Mexicans on the site say he’s not Mexican, don’t talk right for a Mexican. Don’t cuss enough for Mexican. Saito Chavez, the Peruvian foreman who retired last year, he said Jerry’s not from that far south, but outside of that, who can say? He don’t talk about it. One time this young kid, new crane-runner, green as hell and trying to make friends, he asks Jerry about it. So where you from, Jerry? Everyone gets real quiet, like maybe Jerry will tell. Like maybe he’ll rip the kid’s head off. No such. Jerry just smiles. Down south a ways, he says.
Jerry’s a welder, mostly, but he can do it all. He runs loaders, crunches numbers, anything but talk to the buyer. Not that anyone ever asks him to. He don’t need to be runnin’ a shift to lead it, if you can dig it. He can look at a pile of broken pipes, bent ends, scraps, and tell you how much it weighs. Not approximate. Dead on. man knows his metal. Knows his material. Used to work at a deli, he says. Used to measure out pounds of hamburger and sausage and sliced cheese by hand. Says metal’s no different, just bigger, heavier. Most of the guys think that whole story is bullshit, but no one will ever call Jerry on that. Unthinkable, man. No one calls bullshit on Jerry. Not after he fell.
See, there’s this thing that happened that no one likes to talk about at work, and it’s another reason not to ask Jerry his story. Mostly by now, no one asks ‘coz they’re afraid maybe he’ll tell. Some of the guys think Jerry’s one thing, some think he’s another, but no one’s really got an explanation for it. Don’t want one.
So, yeah. This one time, Jerry’s down in a foundation. One of those big steel and glass jobs we built downtown on Garden. Forty-two stories. Five basement levels. Big foundation. Long way down, and Jerry’s welding something to something else, just one more weld before quittin’ time. No cement poured yet in the hole though, and just as Jerry finishes his weld the board walkway snaps under Jerry and he goes down into no-man’s land, down into fucking Limbo, welding tank goin’ down after him. Fifty feet to the bottom at least, probably more like sixty. Big rebar stakes at the bottom, waiting for the foundation pour.
It’s late in the day and the sun’s almost down. Dark down there. abyss-type dark down there, just dirt and steel and dark. No one can see him, but everyone knows he’s dead, smashed on the ground or probably skewered like a marlin on three or four rebar stakes. No one really wants to see what’s down there waiting, but we gotta find him. Everyone’s screaming, some calling to him, some yelling for rope and lights. Takes ‘em twenty minutes to get the spots pointed down in that pit and even then at first we can’t see him. There’s the tank, sure, and the broken board, right where they should be, but no Jerry. Nowhere to be found.
Then someone yells dammit, Jerry, you scared the piss outta us and then we all see him, sitting against the wall of the pit, smoking a cigarette in his plaid shirt and his jeans and work boots, grinning up into the light, one hand shading his eyes. Just grinning. When we haul him up all he says is what took you fellas so long? Not a scratch on him, just dust on the ass of his jeans from sitting in the dirt for half an hour, if you can dig it. Not a bruise or nothin’. Damnedest thing any of us ever saw, man.
But the weirdness didn’t stop with Jerry’s fall. Thing is, next day four guys on the shift called out of work. Not Jerry. He worked a long shift next day same as always, like nothin’ happened. But people talk, and yeah, the rest of it was pretty weird, too. Never heard of anything like it, and in this business you hear all kinds of weird shit. Bodies buried in foundations, curses on worksites, whatever. Maybe just coincidence. Maybe just luck, but nobody I know really believes in either of those things. I sure don’t.
Dudley the crane operator had a bum knee, something with the cartilage. Spent six weeks in physical therapy. Carter, the shift manager, woke up next morning and his lung collapsed. No known cause. Got to the hospital, fixed him up. Back on his feet and working a week later. Never figured out what was wrong with him. Billy Dee Preston slipped a disk in his back and never worked a site again. Got a desk job in the field office. And I woke up the morning after Jerry’s fall with my hand swole up so bad I couldn’t hardly give the boys the finger when they talked about it. looked like someone had run the damned thing over, and felt about that way, too. Went to the doc. Took blood, all kinds of tests and scans. No allergies, no broken bones, no reason. Swelling went down about a week later and I got back to work.Damndest thing, man.
- One night in early spring, when it was still cold after the low sun sank, I sat out late on the porch. It was a good porch, with screens for the summer and a soft, low light. The evening spring breeze murmured in the first leaves, and it was very peaceful. The cat, Peter, had gone out some time before to lurk among the bare bushes, the white patch of his chest a still form in the darkness just beyond the lamp’s furthest reach.
When he returned, he carried—dragged—a dying woodpecker in with him through the hole he’d scratched in the screen door. Peter had a refined taste.
The brown bird was silent, her chest fluttering and her eyes wide in pain and terror. Peter wanted the bird to play, but she simply sat on the spot Peter had dragged her to, and no amount of batting would cause her to stir.
After a few minutes of watching Peter play with the bird, I stood, turned off the lamp, and went inside and lay down in the bed. In the morning, exhausted, I swept up the feathers left behind.
- Chris Forhan's Memory Tumbler: An EssayThe text of the poem discussed in this essay can be found at the following link, until someone cries ‘foul’ or the blogger (a fellow English teacher) removes the poem:
In his poem Rock Polisher, Chris Forhan uses the subject of a rock tumbler to explore ideas of memory and poetry simultaneously. A rock tumbler is a machine, generally consisting of a cylindrical barrel with a slightly oblong axle, into which stones, water, and polish of varying grades of grit are poured. The motorized barrel then slowly revolves in a sort of cradle over a period of days or weeks, until the stones within have been rounded and eventually polished.
Rock Polisher opens with a second-person description of such a tumbler, bought and tested by a (your) father and given to a child (you) to be kept in the basement utility closet for the polishing of semiprecious stones. As various items are added to the tumbler, however, the nature of the machine begins to change.
First are added stones one would expect to polish in such a machine (jasper, agate, amethyst). Soon, however, we are adding pavement stones and glass cabinet knobs—atypical tumbling materials, and possibly dangerous to the continued operation of the machine. Within a few lines, Forhan has removed any possibility of literal interpretation as a baseball and mitt join a series of past experiences, many of which have no tangible associated relic, in the polishing machine.
In the final (polishing) phase of the poem, the memories themselves have given way to grandiose comparisons which become the focus of the tumbler’s gyrations. The sky—perhaps associated with a specific but unnamed memory—is poured into the tumbler and dubbed Mozart’s or Christ’s. Finally,you and your family are poured in and declared “perfect at last.”
In this way the poem deals with the idea of experiences, which like the tumbler’s stones, are cycled through the mind over a period of days, weeks, years, until they have become memories, which like the polished output of the machine may contain the same core as the past experiences that formed them, but often look—and feel—very different. This polishing action of memory is what permits each of us to remember so many things perhaps more fondly than they deserve—it allows for the good old days.
Even experiences that might have been bitterly devastating at first—a no-win little-league baseball season or a snowless Christmas, for example—become bittersweet after a good mental polishing. The way we replay memories, focusing on the good and explaining away the bad is well represented by the image of one “crouched / above the barrel, feeding it.”
The poem’s form also operates as a mirror of a rock tumbler. Though Forhan does not make use of a strict meter or rhyming pattern, the poem’s regular use of assonance and consonance give the poem a cyclical action, and short bursts of regular metered feet (particularly iambs, trochees, and anapests) introduce a sloshing action to the reading similar to the sound created by the oblong axle which helps a rock tumbler polish all sides of the stones it contains equally. The sound of a rock tumbler is regular and cyclical, but with each turn of the barrel the rocks jostle each other differently, making its quiet grinding sound nearly hypnotic. Forhan seems to be focused on this inexact but rolling motion in his phrasing. It is rhythmic and at times percussive (“the grit kit’s yours now, the silicon / carbide pack. Split it, have at it”), though not musical in a classical sense, and more akin to spoken word poetry than to any classical poetic form.
Though the sectional nature of the poem (rocks, experiences, memories) would suggest that the poem be broken into stanzas, Forhan lets the piece stand as a single thirty-six line continuum. Like the plodding operation of a rock tumbler, the poem turns on and runs. The reader is not permitted a peek at the things put in and spun quietly in the utility closet until the poet has finished grinding them to a shine. The figure of the (our) father appears only to bookend the poem, first as presenter of the memory-tumbler, and again at the end, following a period of polishing by “God’s mercy, perfect at last.” Though it should be noted that much of Forhan’s poetry deals with the loss of his father, death is not a necessary interpretation for the here-and-gone nature of the father figure in this piece; memory, particularly the mental recycling of experience, is an intensely personal activity and requires no others present until one opens one’s own rock-tumbler and brings out shiny old memories to share.
- 100% Genuine Fake Video Game News Item: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood inspires reading. Kind of.Following the release of Assassins Creed: Brotherhood, literary publisher Really Old Books released a statement regarding sales of The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. Young fans of the Assassin’s Creed franchise seem to have been buying the Florentine theorist’s most famous political tract by the boatload:
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said R.O.B. spokesman Mark Peters. “This stupid book has been around for five hundred years, and suddenly we can’t keep it in stock.”
We took a poll to see how young fans of AC: Brotherhood reacted to the book. Of the 105,502,974 kids we asked,
1% intended to use Machiavelli’s ideas to start their own city-states in their parents’ basements
11% had no idea what the book was about
27% thought it was a novelization of Assassin’s Creed and intended to return it
59% had tried to skip to the dirty bits, discovered none, and lost the book under the couch
and 2% severely injured themselves attempting to climb their school gymnasium with scissors stuffed up the sleeves of their Gears of War hoodies