Junebug versus Hurricane


Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

A Queer Conversation With Amy Ray

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Following Amy Ray’s all-too-brief stop through New York supporting her new album Lung of Love (DaemonRecords.com), she was kind enough to sit down and speak with Junebug vs Hurricane, two faithful and always talkative listeners who, as you may already well know, live and breathe for Amy Ray’s music. 

The following piece summarizes our interview with Amy Ray and was first published for Velvet Park  (www.velvetparkmedia.com), so many special thanks to them for helping this come together. 

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Amy Ray is a harmonizer. She sings to get along. She even agreed to sit down with two fast talkers called Junebug and Hurricane – one a bitter old Yankee, the other an original Southerner young enough to know better. With these two it was good thing Amy Ray has what we call “a listening voice.” We nearly talked her ear off.  But that rich, calm and ever-yearning tone — the butch voice of Amy Ray — kept it all together.

We started late on a too-hot and blistering day in downtown Manhattan. Amy Ray was exhausted, on the road, just finishing an interview for WNYC public radio: a perfect venue that suits Ray’s call out into the wilderness of the nation across the radio waves, those waves mixing with her presence on Youtube and, most recently, on vinyl. Her new album Lung of Love, reviewed here, has been in our ears and on our tongues for some time now. It was, for us, a relief to finally sit down and hash out some of our ideas and inspirations with our faithful co-conspirator.

“Do people call you ma’am?”

Amy Ray: “Really polite southern boys, always.”

Imagine the three of us seated in a deserted deli called “Jazzy’s” on Manhattan’s lower west side: a menopausal Hurricane, a dumbstruck Junebug and our dear Amy Ray: three queers who know what it feels like to be out of time, who know something about lives of humidity, futility and queer belatedness.

Amy Ray says she’s always been “a little behind.” She recalls how meeting the members of the Durham-based band The Butchies in the late 1990s radicalized her, helped her figure out “where [she] was coming from, but didn’t even know it.”

She describes this consolidation-through-community as active intuition: becoming aware of herself, overcoming a more staid, middle-classness by learning how to join in and move in step with queer community.

Amy Ray shuttles between going out–the road–and sticking to her place. A resident of a rural north Georgia town–an expatriate Atlantan–she has dreams of hosting queer salons on her own turf. Migration, a journey, every-changing formation across boundaries, is the main theme in Lung of Love. This latest formation picks up flight from songs like “Birds of a Feather,” with its plaintive,”If we are birds of a feather//Why can’t we migrate?”

Ray loves community–being in a band, if not being the leader of one. She says that she’s not interested in being the sexy rock star; she wants her audience to feel sexy, to be inspired by her grooves. In songs from the last two albums, like “Bus Bus” and “When You’re Gone You’re Gone,” Greg Griffith, producer, and Melissa York, drummer and instigator, add a certain r and b swagger, a timeless and sexy sound that Amy hadn’t quite put her finger on in previous self-produced work.

Community requires solidarity, but Amy Ray fights stolidity. Transformations–of gender, politics, ethics–fascinate Amy Ray. In “She’s Got To Be” Ray asks “Is the body just a cage?” The answer is always yes and no. In Ray’s vision, people come apart and they come together: in butch/femme relationships, through bodily transitions, anti-racisms, in moments of encounter between species and in the notes and harmonies of the songs she sings.

Of the people in her life who are, as she says, “changing form,” Ray is sympathetic and attuned to their processes. Transitioning is a path Ray “might have chosen . . . if [she] were in another generation.” She “loves the trajectory” of these new men who must “go back to learn to hang on to their feminism” or, she warns, “they’re going to become one of the privileged gate-keepers of the world who we fight against.”

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For Ray, change sometimes comes in the form of not-changing, of, as she says, “waking up in the morning and saying, “this is you,” or recognizing “I don’t want to be in this body but at the same time I don’t want to change it.” The refrain in “She’s Got To Be” (“She’s got to be with me always// To make sense of the skin I’m in”) sings of and, ultimately, through this quotidian dilemma of managing self-love with her responses to and responsibilities in the outer world. “A partner,” as she says, to the title song on her new record, “She’s Got To Be” is, as Ray puts it, “both a love song to my partner and to myself,” she says that the meanings of the song morph every time she sings it. Like a form of Christian Mysticism, this song weighs and balances the mutually defining processes of Ray learning “to love myself and my partner.” It is as if the song becomes the body it talks about; the creation of an experience brought forth by her voice.

Lung of love, this failing breath//The compass of a heart that won’t rest

The murmur’s beat, the stalling gait//The compass of the heart that won’t wait

Every queer that rises must, one day, converge. The title song “Lung of Love” takes up a new approach to the organic expression of feeling.  The heart, now an over-determined and perhaps overly-cited, source of angst and joy, takes a back seat in this song that conjures up feelings that, like breath itself, make us and constantly fail us: “We are learning to breathe–we will pursue this trick our whole lives. And when we have finally mastered it we will become the breath–there will be no more separation.”

In her wisdom Amy Ray has produced a record that sings with confidence and that seems more self-assured than anything either of us have listened to in a long while: by her or by any other contemporary music makers. If there is a reason for this, though, it is not just age and maturity that give this record, and indeed its title song, its depth of meaning and of pleasure. Mysteries reveal themselves throughout the album the same way they do in nature: through the experience of time passing through and by our ever-failing bodies. In the end, Ray sings: “I pray that you get this tune//And that it don’t leave you lonely// This fruitless sorrow we feel//We come by it honestly.”

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Her butch voice sounds so smooth, made up of vibrations we can hear come together. It’s a voice that tries to erase itself, saying “I guess I should have been listening.” And yet it still sings. The voice–that she has honed, that we all enjoy and that adds a sweet and sexy swagger to all of her songs–keeps it together for our ears that wait and listen.

Part of Ray’s new composure and more sure, deep voice comes through in her not being afraid, these days, of exhibiting a little grouchiness, or of demanding a little more. “Glow” is sarcastic about low blows and lower goals. As Ray says, “If that’s [my] best day, well then, I’ve got more work to do . . .” But sometimes Ray wishes people would just calm down, stop “trying to win.” Relationships, in particular, can seem like endless occasions for complaint. The road song that in “Bus Bus” (from Didn’t It Feel Kinder) had its “heart on vibrate,” still trying out the “lovesick troubadour” routine that in “Bird in the Hand” has worn out, the femme just saying “get in line// stop your wandering.” In Lung of Love‘s “I Didn’t” the road runs out and the butch-femme couple are “Just looking for a fight// to make all that hurt seem right.” And, yes, all these songs do make the hurt seem right.

With melodious complaints,”Do You Have to Be the Rolling Train// Do You have to be the wounded bird// Do You have to be the only voice I hear, crying in the wilderness?” Ray is building a trove of songs memorializing a relation of love that is becoming historical as we listen, as the tune fades. Butches and femmes. To the butch, femmes are women who categorically did not belong to us and yet give themselves to us. The femme in this song–Ray’s latest chapter in this unsung, and possibly dying, lesbian tradition–is always pushing: “we got this mountain we got to climb,” and Ray, riffing on her own song, laughs: “I’m weary!” She’s weary of having to play and replay the past in her own relationships and in our communities. “I Didn’t” sings of and camps the queer relationship: it reacts to the well-known form of processing with a kind of dismissal: no, I’m not your parent’s alcoholism or your ex-lover’s aggression. Amy Ray wants you to know: She didn’t.

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In her own world and in our queer communities, Ray sings, observes and listens; she sings in order to get us to harmonize, in order for our experiences to collectively overcome their circumstances.  If she’s weary, it’s because she finds herself in a world she didn’t create. If her songs have any political import it is that they carry with them, and in their refrains, a utopian overcoming of our present circumstances,  a breath of something-else-to-come that may be somewhere off in the distance.

Amy Ray doesn’t like easy slogans. She didn’t even always like our easy reads of her songs, which trade on doubles–in theme, metaphor and intention. “Give It A Go” takes up the problem of gay suicides and the national ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, improving on that slogan with her way cooler, “stick around for the show.” But it’s the music from the mysterious past, and Ziggy Stardust himself, who returns to the jumping bridge. Ziggy, the glam rocker returns from Ray’s childhood, a “touchstone” from a time of innocence, when “we didn’t even know all the words.” But some breath returns, though it can’t save everyone. Ray admits that she’s had a hard time talking about what she perceives as a campaign that “square[d] out” with too much celebrity involvement and too little of a sense for the rich bestiary of loveable losers and freaks. Too little of what Flannery O’ Connor would appreciate as the sacrifice of the freaks, the way they are “a channel to the creator,” Ray says.

Everything that rises must converge. This is Ray’s migration, her movement and transformation. She migrates harmonies across borders, species, all sorts of bodies. When asked about her tendency to make deep connections, she explains that her father was a radiologist, a reader of X-rays, and that these images filled her house growing up, “It’s just the lens I see things through.” This lens, it seems, is about the body that waits to breathe; the world-to-come that lies, waiting to emerge in our very next breath.

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No Thoughts On Writing

Stop the Music for a Minute

fit to be tied

Taylor Black

May 5, 2010

No Thoughts on Writing

My reading of Roland Barthes’ S/Z could not have come at a better—or, depending on how you look at it, worse—time in my life as a thinker and reclusive academic.  Telling as it may be, most of my energies and worries lately have been about my profession and my professional community.  Specifically, I have been concerned about the prescriptive and sometimes limited ways in which scholarship and critical discourse get carried out and received in contemporary academia.  You see, I have had a sinking feeling over the past few years that the well of what we call “critical analysis” might have run dry long ago—that maybe there are only so many arguments that we can make as academics and cultural theorists without eating ourselves alive or, worse, devolving into a world where everyone is arguing and no one is listening.

Thankfully, M. Barthes’ essay seems to be heaven-sent: sent at just the right time and delivering just the right message for my world-weary soul.  While it seems to have been decided that both academic labor and cultural theory ought to be affirmative, positivist and invested in the endless production of arguments and new ideas, S/Z focuses on the creative aspects of writing and reading in order to imagine new ways of thinking about conducting flows of thought, literature and ideology. The classical, prescriptive concept of a text is a religious one.  Even in spite of years of post-structuralism and deconstruction, there is still a certain reverence and awe given to pieces of literature and philosophy that holds onto the assumption that there are definitive answers, connections, metaphors and clues imbedded inside the pages of a book that, with the proper equipment and know-how, can be dug up and put on display for all to see.

The compulsion we as academics have to argue the truth or the validity of a text treat the process of reading in a liturgical manner.  The goal of these sorts of academic regulations and conventions represent a literary ideology: a “monster” that those of us employed in the profession of scholarship and academic reading that makes dead objects of pieces of literature and paranoid consumers out of its poor, pitiful readers.[1] All the rituals—the ten minute talk, the twenty page paper, the conference presentation, the question and answer period, the research, the thesis, the argument, the point—that we maintain in the holy name of professionalism and what’s often referred to as good academic work are only ways in which we foreclose the creative in the name of the critical, leave out the listening in the name of the prescriptive reading and unfortunately allow for the kind of prose that even the writer themselves can’t bear to read once it’s done.

There are, even as I’m writing these very words, scores of undergraduate students whispering to each other in the cold, dead halls of English departments across the world, trying to figure out what this text or that essays is about or represents so that they may walk into class with a confident air about them, prepared to tell their teachers just what they’ll expect to be hearing.  This habit of approaching pieces of literature as dead object that contain within them mummified information that the professional scholar must necessarily be able to seek out and cite like some sort of necrophilic archaeologist is what Barthes refers to as “the readerly.”  The ultimate goal of the readerly reading of a text is to sort out right away and without a doubt what it is that a book represents.  Sort of like writing an obituary, this kind of consumption of a piece of writing proclaims with theological certainty how an object of literature should be remembered.  It carves it into stone.

Failure to comprehend a literary work or piece it together so that it might be explained to those poor, lost sophomoric souls roaming the halls of academia everywhere is exactly what the readerly attempts to avoid in its self-confident, almost scientific rendering of a text.  The same finality that gets carried by an obituary is, in Barthes own words, a product of the readerly: “To depart/to travel/to arrive/to stay: the journey is saturated.  To end, to fill, to join, to unify—one might say this is the basic requirement of the readerly, as though it were prey to some obsessive fear: that of omitting a connection.”[2] The idea behind readerliness, and indeed behind what’s considered responsible literary scholarship, is that professional duty lies in the academic’s ability to succinctly and effortlessly piece various works of literature together—both in and of themselves as well as in conjunction, or religious association, with each other.  Once someone is able to successfully defend and articulate their own positions on this or that literary body then they can call themselves—at least to those who will listen—an expert, nay a doctor of literary analysis.

So, while Barthes refers to the readerly text as simply what we conceive of as a “classical text,”[3] as a thing, I also believe he has imagined it for us as a process.  The experience of consuming a classical text allows for a certain kind of freedom, he says, that allows them to decide “either to accept or reject the text.”  Readerly reading is, then, “nothing more than a referendum…[representing] what can be read but not written.”[4] Both the archaeological ways in which, as I have described, works of literature get approached, taken apart and put back together as well as the pious manner in which literature gets remembered and associated weigh this freedom that Barthes lays out for us.  The “right” of scholarship and academic reading lies in the ability of the professional critic to have something distinctive and utterly, horribly communicable to say about the mass of literature that they indulgently refer to as their “field of research.”

There is no pleasure in the holy kingdom of academic literary studies, only proclamations, theses and one defended paper after another, marching off into the abyss.  The rolling hills of this great dark land are filled with the gravestones of classic, readerly, texts and teeming with busy-bodied academics and critics searching, digging and scratching away at surfaces looking for the one last idea that hasn’t yet been uncovered, the decomposing trace of something, anything, that hasn’t already been said.

And then there’s academic writing.  We have become so professionalized, so very guarded about what it is we say and do as professional scholars that we have let our fears and conventions get the best of us.  Just as there is no pleasure in the act of readerly reading, there is also no fun in the writing of critical analysis.  When what you’re told you have to do is make an argument, prove your point or exhibit some sort of fool-proof comprehension of a text then there’s little room for mistake.  The failure of completion—whether it be of your own vision of a book or body of work or simply of the weight of your argument itself—that makes readerliness such a paranoid, safeguarded venture saturates what we now know as academic prose.  The thing that makes a thesis good or worthwhile in the world of academia is its ability to convey confidence, finality and achievement; likewise, the one thing that makes a piece of professional scholarship itself is no real person–or even, really, academic person—would dare read it!

Literature, in our minds, expresses, and its use language creates metaphors. The job of the professional scholar is to uncover, situate and show an astute understanding of how these things are imbedded in whatever body of work they are approaching and defending to death.  The essay is, then, a kind of challenge, an investigation of the individual academic’s fortitude; the professional reading of the essay, in turn, works to declare whether or not a scholar has succeeded or failed at showing and expressing their total comprehension of a text and of literature in general.  Just like the undergraduate students I painted earlier in this piece who stand outside of their classrooms explaining texts to each other and getting the gist of what’s happening in their literature classes so that they can be examined once they walk in and take their seats, literary scholars of all stripes attend conferences and pore over peer-reviewed journals in search of holes in each others’ arguments, looking for a way into the great academic party.  Our writing, then, is really just an expression of readerliness, as it gets soaked with the weight of referendum that Barthes has described for us.  In the name of professionalization and academic success, we mask our failures—of understanding, of investigation, of comprehension—with conventions and false confidence.

Good academic prose isn’t supposed to express, that’s what, at least as we say to ourselves, literature does.  Instead, our writing distills our knowledge, it represents our abilities to read.  Even now, I am working against my better judgment that says that even though I have been assigned to respond to a text that really I should be showing an omnipotent understanding of it—that there should be less of me talking and thinking through my own reaction to my reading of S/Z and more of me making definitive statements about it and clear associations with the bodies of scholarship that I have found myself invested in.  What I ought to be doing, or rather, what’s come to be known as a proper academic response to something, is making claims about Barthes’ book, searching for an argument in order to situate my essay amongst all the other essays that have already been written about S/Z.  But, to situate myself is to do away with myself; to make a claim that can be rock steady and can live on its own.  Never mind the text itself or even the event of my reading it, the real goal of the scholarly—or, if you’d rather, the readerly—is to record my own success over a literary work.  After this, my response can live on its own, and if something as unfortunate as publishing happens to my piece of scholarship, my arguments can crystallize and lay waiting until some other wayward academic soul comes and shreds them to bits.

The problem with scholarly writing is, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear, that its fascinated with its own success—indeed, to argue at all is to be invested in the business of being right and proving value.  But, what if writing didn’t argue?  After all, to concede yourself to an argument leaves open the possibility that you might—and considering the fastidious energy of literary critics, probably will—be wrong.  The answer to this conundrum, and the way out of this wicked fantasy of success that academic inquiry holds so close to its heart is a kind of wonderful failure, a resignation and romantic dedication to what Barthes calls “the writerly.”  Instead of working to overcome disorder in a literary object, the writerly text is only focused on the experience, or the event of the language being heard and read.  Unlike the scholarly paper, which attempts to codify and broadcast the academic’s success over a work of literature and makes arguments that are past even before they’ve been published in journals, the writerly text is, in Barthes’ terms:

“A perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitable make it past) can be    superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing before the infinite play of the world (the world as function is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, opening of networks, the infinity of languages.”[5]

So, if the readerly text ought to be read authoritatively and the scholarly argument is meant to convey success and completion with a kind of religious fervor, then I would like to humbly suggest that the writerly response necessarily be a record of failure—to investigate, to piece together, to associate, to understand, to communicate.  Instead of reading to understand and writing to explain, we could write to write, respond to respond and express what is already expressing.  While people read books like treasure maps and write essays like Bibles, the writerly text can write the things that need to be heard.  Writerly readers can listen to language the way we allow ourselves to listen to songs—to be taken over by them, to be perhaps discombobulated by them, or even to be confused or ambivalent about the content that they may or may not carry with them as they are uttered and echoed off into the distance.  You can argue and defend your self into oblivion or maintain your rights of failure and expression.  Instead of training myself to succeed at this academic profession I have placed my gilded toes upon, I will dedicate myself to protecting and expressing the kinds of personal failures—to explain, to be critical, to be scientific and precise—that got me here in the first place.


[1] Barthes, Roland.  S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970. 97-98

[2] S/Z, 105

[3] S/Z, 4

[4] S/Z, 4

[5] S/Z, 5



Missy’s Big Chance

Desperate Living

Taylor Black

04/08/10

[Listeners’ Guide: These here blue links are songs that should be played behind your reading of the story.  The words don’t work otherwise, this shit is choreographed!  Click where it says click and you’ll have a nice time.  xo, Jbg]

Restraining Order Blues

Saturday nights are Missy Barker’s favorite. Even though she had already had herself three other Saturday nights in the past week, the stars seemed aligned tonight.  It was Saturday night after all.

“Memaw!  Can I have $20?  I’ll get it back to you once my man Blake pays me back next week.”

Her grandmother sighed, tried to look away from her reflection in the TV screen, awoke a bit, collected herself and then lit a cigarette—Tareytons 100s if you are the kind of person who likes banal information like that—and, after taking a long, gratuitous drag put down her lighter on the coffee stand, flipped on the lamp next to her Lazyboy and answered her dear Missy’s request:

“What the hell are you going to do with $20?  Don’t you think for a minute you can just buy a bunch of beer and invite half of the ingrates of Kernersville over here tonight—it’s not gonna happen, like hell you will.”

“Memaw!”—a name Missy, her brothers and now even her own parents used in place of the one her parents gave her, the one she was recognized by when hope still seemed salvageable,  before people started calling her ma’am and waiting for her to shuffle off to the forevereverafter.  In fact, Dora [I know what you’re thinking: “Dora?  You mean like Dora the Explorer?” No, Doe-ra, as in Dooooooe-rrrrra], her name before Memaw, suited her. After all, a name like “Memaw” that is affectionate; it’s meant for someone who washes clothes all day long, cooks pots and pots of pinto beans and wakes every morning just to tell you how much you mean to her.  But Dora, Dora Dora: the woman’s about as folksy as as a truckstop and as feminine as one of the eighteen wheelers huddled together in the parking lot outside, waiting for their drivers to put down the 17-year old call boys they’re ravishing and the “Surf and Turf” dinner specials they’re eating.”—“shut the hell up and tell me where your money is.  You know I’m good for it.  Besides, I wouldn’t be asking you if I hadn’t gotten my money stolen at The Odyssey the other night.”

Poor, petulant Missy.

With the mind of a child and common sense of an inbred Rottweiler, she really believes that she’s important enough to get robbed.

In fact, no one stole money from her; hell, everyone in there is basically fluid bonded, since it was the only homosexual establishment within a 30 mile radius.  Everyone knows your name at The Odyssey, but only out of habit.  The same folks are always doing and saying the same things there every night, wasting what’s left of their paychecks on drinks composed mostly of knockoff mixers and sprinkled with watered down liquors.  Like dogs who circle and circle their vomit before finally giving in and eating in, the denizens of Winston-Salem’s hottest, and only, gay club made their eternal rounds each and every night inside its black-lit halls.

“Go on and get a twenty from my room.  I got a pile of money on top of my chest of drawers, but don’t think for a second I don’t know how much is there, don’t even do it Melissa Jean.  You take your $20 and get your lily white ass on out of this house so I can get some peace and quiet: your brother was nice enough to show me how to tape all my stories that I miss during the day [napping, going to the pawn shop to shoot the shit with her friend Peggy who’s been working there since her husband’s disability checks started going to his growing collection of Sudafed and jet fuel that he was keeping out back in his toolshed, and stopping in at the liquor store to buy 6 airplane bottles of Smirnoff at a time—anything more would be unladylike…).”

Missy opened the door to Dora’s cell and thought to herself that the smell of mildew was finally beginning to overpower the smell of 40 years of cigarette smoke that had before that time overpowered the entire abode.  Memaw’s sentence on earth was certainly coming to a close sooner rather than later.  There was something in the air that made it certain.

As she slide a $20 into the coin-pocket of her new [knockoff, bought from Rose’s, tossed aside not from last season’s collection, but from 1998’s collection…brought down to North Carolina just for her to shove herself into] True Religion’s she paused. . .and then told herself that dangerous phrase that she said so much that it almost became a tic, the one that made her feel butch but really just admitted how little she had to lose:

“Fuck it.”

Missy then checked herself out in the mirror, liked what she saw—save the unsightly bumps on her chest that even her sports-bra and extra-large men’s dress shirt from couldn’t do away with—grabbed an unsolicited $10 bill and her old Memaw’s discarded wedding ring and she was ready to go.

Tonight was going to be a good night, or at least that’s what Missy wrote in her text message blast to all of her friends as she sauntered out of her Memaw’s room and her house too.

Before Missy got into her car—it’s a teal-green ’95 Acura, but you knew that already—she remembered she needed to fix her hair.  In the same way that Aileen Wuornos used to do—hands behind your back (in handcuffs if you’re Miss Wuornos), you keel over until your face is at crotch-level then bam, you throw yourself, your head and all of your hair back up to standing position—and she was ready to go.

I Want To Come Over

Walking into The Odyssey, Missy felt ashamed that she didn’t have anyone by her side.  All of the other butches entered the venue in style—walking like cowboys in too-tight jeans and blister-bound boots, grabbing their femmes by the neck the way a hunter holds a dead jackrabbit when he’s asked to pose for a picture.

Spitting tobacco and looking over their shoulders, the butches walk in a deliberate, yet paranoid way–as if they were walking through a prison yard.  The femmes can’t quite get the hang of sauntering in the high heels; their strides are long and cautious,  like that parking lot was a damn cotton field.

“Fuck that shit,” Missy mumbled to herself… and then text-messaged her friends: “I’m tired of this fucking town anyway.”

But, in the back of Missy’s mind she knew that things would be alright.  After all, she had thirty of her grandma’s dollars, an antique Woolworth’s wedding ring and her good looks.  Maybe she’d find a girl tipsy, or at least alone enough to take home to Memaw’s place.

With her $2 cover paid, phone set to vibrate and hair-fixing ritual repeated, Missy finally walked

Truth is, and don’t tell her I said this, but Missy didn’t even lose the money the other night, she spent it on alcohol—always gambling her nights away, looking for someone to recognize her for something she knew she wasn’t, but hoped that some of Memaw’s cash might compensate for.  Tonight, sadly, would be another one of those occasions.   Missy was gonna go for broke tonight.

Once she heard the intro guitar riffs to one of favorite Melissa Etheridge songs—the one they played almost every night, and strangely always at 11:30—she knew things were just about to be right.

Checking in with herself by glaring at her image reflected back from a mirror behind the bar that read “Colt 45: If the 4 don’t get ya the 5 will,” Missy noticed a real pretty girl holding court among a gaggle of sensibly dressed lesbians who all managed to get their genders wrong and come in looking a damn mess [think: stonewashed jeans w/ elastic that looks like it’s about to give up hope and tight striped rugby shirts; not butch, mind you, sloppy].

Telling herself that this was her big change, Missy pushed away her anxieties and swallowed what was left of her drink [if it makes it more enjoyable for you, it was a double-shot of Goldschläger—actually bootleg Sambuca, but who can tell the difference—that Missy mixed with the 20 ounces of Mountain Dew she brought in with her that evening] and sauntered over to their party.

Rather than introduce herself or show any signs of good social grace, Missy went in for the kill: “What are y’all drinkin’?”

In her mind she was being confident and manly, but unfortunately she only seemed lonely and dogged.

Totally ignoring any of this, Missy felt good as she stood waiting for her audience to recognize her chivalry.  Hands in her back pockets and eyes fixed on her new girl with the intensity of a pin-light, Missy relaxed a bit and grinned a kind of Howdy-Doody grin, the one she reserved for moments of real conquest. . .moments, as she imagined, just like this.

“Kamikaze’s work,” The Femme said, or, rather, shouted into Missy’s ear, which was now ringing from the shock of this girl speaking to her as if they were at Walnut Creek Amphitheater seeing (what’s left of) Lynyrd Skynyrd, and not standing in a gay bar that was clearing out, save for our Missy, this femme and her friends and two drunk faggots sleeping with their heads on the bar in a pool of Natural Light and their own filth.

Missy wiped The Femme’s JC Penny lipstick—color: blush if you’re west of Winston-Salem; bashful if you’re in the rest of the state—from her attached-earlobe and reached into her pocket, and then tried to ordered a round of shots of this thing she could neither remember the name of nor even begin to pronounce.

In her own softball player kind of femininity, The Femme hurled her ample frame in the direction of the bartender so that she might save the transaction (as well as the ever-sinking level of alcohol floating around in her bloodstream):

“She said Ka-mi-kaze,” drawing the word out for emphasis as if the bar tender was slow; as if it were an actual drink or an actual word.

Brushing off the horrible way the word “She” sounded coming out of that girl’s mouth in reference to her-self, Missy moved on.  “Fuck it,” she thought, as she witnessed herself asking The Femme for a dance.

Swallowing her kamikaze as desperately as she could—head and body bent back: searching, waiting for one more drop of liquor before it’s over—The Femme figured she’d oblige the poor thing at least until the song was over.  She loved Melissa Etheridge too.

As the two began to dance, Missy looked over at her partner’s friends and thought how jealous they must be that she was holding the woman they all wanted to badly, that she was man enough to scoop her up and take her away.  In reality, however, Missy’s “jealous” triangulators weren’t jealous at all—instead, having finished their shots too, they began rifling around looking for their coats, allthewhile making fun of Missy to each other, recycling all the same insults and lines that they had heard directed at themselves when they were back in high school.

The song’s about to end; Missy knew she had to do something.

The $10 bill she absconded from her Memaw’s dresser fell carelessly to the ground as Missy shoved her tiny white fingers into her jeans-pocket and pulled the ring.  Adopting what she imagined would come off as a suave glare, Missy looked deep into her new love’s eye-sockets, then grabbed her chubby hand and tried to push the ring down its middle finger.

The Femme giggled a bit as the ring fell to the floor and rolled out of sight.

Missy shouted hysterically: “That was my grandmother’s wedding ring!”

Unable to control her horrible self (or her nasty mouth) following a night drinking overly sweet mixers laced with tinted liquors, Missy’s femme laughed again.  So that she would know she was coming, the femme repositioned her body 45 degrees to her right and gave her friends a wink.

Then, face-to-face with her half-a-song Romeo, The Femme gave poor Missy one of her classic sideways glance that she saved for ugly people who bought things for her [she’s one of those girls who slow dances with you only to have a chance to eyeball the rest of the room], pinched her ruddy cheek and said: “You’re cute.”

Cowboy Take Me Away

Dateless, penniless, and now ringless, Missy stood alone on the dance floor as a slow-dance song came on.  With no one and no-thing to salvage from the evening, Missy swayed back and forth by herself until she saw stars, dancing to her siren song of sorts: the song she longs for someone to sing about her, the song no one ever will.

“Time to go home,” Missy thought; “Fuck it,” she text-messaged.

At least there was less than 24 hours to wait until Missy descended upon another Saturday night.



The Hagscape

Taylor Black

March 24, 2010

I know this dress I’m wearing doesn’t hide the secret I have tried concealing

Imagine the look on my face when I heard the first lines of one of my favorite Dolly Parton songs fall from Marianne Faithfull’s wilting, gilded lips.  The picture given at the beginning of this wonderful, horrible, hopeless romance is of a woman standing alone, waiting for the image of her lover to appear somewhere on the horizon…

When he left he promised me that he’d be back by the time it was revealing

Pregnant with love for him, dumb with hope and carrying his child, our poor narrator’s story only gets worse from here; it’s a dead loss

The sun behind a cloud just casts the crawling shadow o’er the fields of clover

One the one hand, I like \”Down From Dover\” because it’s so horrible.  There are already in existence more than one incantation of this song by Dolly that I have loved for years, especially after hearing that she was asked by the management of a casino/nightclub where she was performing in Las Vegas not to do it because of the risk it ran of depressing the guests, of mellowing them out.  But, this version from Faithfull’s latest record “Easy Come Easy Go” does more than simply appease my questionable affection for melodrama, abjection and battered femininity that guides my taste in music (and worse), it creates a world that I feel used to, where I think I ought to belong: the space that us hags habitate.

And time is running out for me I wish that he would hurry down from Dover

I have an image of myself thirty or forty years from now, seated at the end of a bar: I’m alone, mindlessly applying lipstick on top of lipstick that’s been caked on for years, not noticing anyone or hearing what’s on the jukebox, humming some sweet sad song no one even remembers anymore, waiting—for the praise and adoration of passing strangers, for a great dark man to take me home, for my time to come, to get asked to leave. . .I’m not really sure.

He’s been gone so long when he left the snow was deep upon the ground

Faithfull’s performance of the song somehow manages to distill this image in my mind—I think chiefly because the song itself produces more than a narrative, it also paints the image of the haggard, threadbare protagonist that I suspect I might someday become.

And I have seen a spring and summer pass and now the leaves are turning brown

Unlike a landscape, which paints a picture in order to convey an image or a world within its frames, Faithfull’s performance casts out a soundscape.   In this world,  every syllable, every note, every line in the story, and even the shaky sound of the song passing through Faithfull’s busted throat has its place: not in order to paint a picture, but as a picture. . .the picture of someone whose time has long since passed them by.

And any time a tiny face will show itself ’cause waiting’s almost over

But what about this baby?  As the story goes, it’s there to deliver a message; to conceal as well as be concealed until that fateful moment of clarity comes.

But I won’t have a name to give it if he doesn’t hurry down from Dover

My folks weren’t understanding when they found out they sent me from the home place

My daddy said if folks found out he’d be ashamed to ever show his face

My mamma said I was a fool and she did not believe it when I told her

The performance and the song too are ephemeral, but they’re eternal too.  The sadness of failure and the loss of hope conveyed in each line of the song pass by as soon as they’re sung.  However, unlike the image of the nymphet—of a beautiful youthfulness and purity that is always already captured and decaying at the time—that Nabokov created in Lolita, the one that “Down From Dover” romances and that Faithfull performs is of a woman whose own downfall and decomposition were always there from the start—before, during and through her pitiful youth.  The world created here, the soundscape if you will, is one suffering with prematurity, of Protegra.

That everything would be all right ’cause soon he would be coming down from Dover

When you’re in the debutante stages of your life, your future is full of hope; when caught up in your twilight years, however, your entire present becomes the story of your death, of your soon to be past.

I loved him more than anything and I could not refuse him when he needed me

The song of the hag creates a world of already-lost hope, of foreclosed possibilities, of false concealments.

He was the only one I’d loved and I just can’t believe that he was using me

He couldn’t leave me here like this I know it can’t be so it can’t be over

He wouldn’t make me go through this so long, oh he’ll be coming down from Dover

Faithfull’s performance is playful: she manages to turn Dolly’s stern benediction song into an experiment, adding horns and rocking the song back and forth in a way that carries an uncanny, fun(ny) rhythm along with it.

My body aches the time is here it’s lonely in this place where I’m lyin’
Our baby has been born but something’s wrong it’s much too still I hear no cryin’

As the story ends, and as the baby brings the news of stillborn sadness that was impending right from the start, the joke the protagonist seems to be on her-self.

I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her

And dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover

Like her, the joke will be on me someday soon.  You see, the irony is, when you suffer from Progeria, unkindly known as “Nature’s Cruelest Joke,” you don’t even know it.  Like the woman featured in the song, I won’t mind sitting at the end of that bar all alone, because I’ll be certain that someone’s coming to get me, that some-thing’s finally going to repay me in this world—and like our Miss Faithfull,

I’ll still, somehow, be fantastic.



Our Amy Ray Earworms

The Butch’s Throat: “She’s Got To Be” and \”Stand and Deliver\”

Elena Glasberg

03/10/10

I’ve been way too intense these days, way too dramatic.  My tendency to take myself too seriously or romantically — let’s call it my tendency in mid life to “fall in love with the first woman I meet/ Put her in a wheelbarrow, and wheel her down the street”– puts me in the Dylanesque category of wizened boy troubadour.  It’s an insouciant masculinity based in lusty misogyny and ultimately timed to keep moving on.  Though Dylan did once write “Tangled Up in Blue,” about the best most sustained plaint on companionate marriage ever sung.  So good that I recognized it long before I ever married, long before I ever broke.  I must have known it just from being born to woman and man.  But for the most part, Dylan’s love sick blues are lonesome.  He’s always showily singing to some idea of a woman and his anger is getting to sound more and more like stand up.  “Hell’s My Wife’s Hometown,” another cut from Together Through Life, makes me laugh every time.  Dylan stopped singing about real people and feelings a long time ago, though he still reaches me on the deep level of myth and song.

But any protection I might seek from the damage I do to other women and to myself in my wavering, weary boyishness and my inconsistency and bravado breaks down when I pay attention to Amy Ray.  “Stand and Deliver” and “She’s Got to Be” are both relationship songs, and in that they are a dime a dozen.  Cheesy, even.  I’ve never enjoyed the feeling of being hailed by TV ads (phone ads are especially manipulative) or pop tunes.  Of course part of maturing or becoming human for the queer child is becoming open to popular feelings, even feeling normal.  And now that queer is a brand name, a new way to be incoherent and individual just like every other tattooed sexual deviant out there, I’m even more resistant to the sound track.  But oppositional reading and selective insertion of my desires into even the greatest musical fabrics has limits.  When I listen to Amy Ray I recognize my nonsense.  I feel read, exposed, and even normal. I hear my own struggling voice.

Baby’s got a lot of tears

Enough to cry a thousand years

Enough to cry a thousand seas

Enough to break a boy like me

I want to stand and deliver

Be the one who makes it better.

“Stand and Deliver” deliberately plays with anthemic production modes and structure, the kind intended to hail large rooms of thronging fans.  But what theme exactly does Amy Ray seek to politicize?  Butch-femme relations?  Can an anthem represent queer relations and not monumentalize or reify the fluidity once offered by (and for) sexual resistance?

Even if the answer to these leading questions were not obvious, I’d still enjoy “Stand and Deliver” for precisely daring to speak for me, a lonely striving butch who never feels good enough.  Not good enough for womanhood in general, and certainly not good enough for any woman.  You can talk about pride and self-knowing, and you can even be really successful with getting men’s wives to sit on your lap (it’s easy, actually).  But there’s a part of every deep-in-the-bone butch that can never believe any (real) woman would have her.  That’s the butch’s throat, the wondrous contralto from the uncertain center of an unsung identity.  Cue the swelling strings and the Robinhood garb:

All I’ve got’s this little chalice

Born of fear and forged with malice

All I’ve got’s this coat of mail [male?]

But in its time it served me well.

It’s useless now as I wither

Why can’t I just deliver?

Forget Robinhood, it’s almost Wagnerian in its endless, swelling drive to cement the lovers and heal the wounded hero with love-death.  Sometimes Ray stands behind her electric guitar and delivers, drives forth her contralto from down in her chest, the covered place.  This is not a natural voice.  I know.  I remember one summer vacation in the Catskills making the decision to break the shyness and order an icecream cone.  I pitched my voice low, threw it down that hole, tried to feel it supported by my solar plexus, the fundament of my social projection: chocolate cone, please.  From that utterance on, that pitch stuck in my butch throat.

No one ever enjoys hearing themselves played back on tape (it’s way more disturbing than a glimpse of yourself unawares in a mirror).  The discomfort probably stems not from judgment but more likely from misrecognition: we do not hear ourselves internally the way the sounds come back through recording technologies.  Feedback is not so much a reflection as a harmonic disillusion, a rending of our imagined wholeness. Ray, unlike most other butches, spends much of her time working out the mechanics of her voice, its reproduction and circulation.  When not standing and delivering she practices the studio croon, the intimate delivery that became possible with the advent of miked recording on radio.  In a youtube video, a relatively dolled-up Amy Ray strums directly into the camera, into the microphone, crooning to an imagined audience one swooning femme at a time.  It’s a more anxious performance than the one on Wouldn’t It Be Kinder and I’m not sure it suits.

There’s another youtube video of just such an early version of “Stand and Deliver,” lovingly recorded by a fan.  It works.  Listening, I find myself holding my breath, sort of the way you do at the ballpark when the underprepared kid gets up to sing the national anthem – a notoriously difficult and unlovely vocal obstacle course – and you wonder if they can hit the highs and lows.  The same feeling comes over me in this solo acoustic version.  The vocal range and delicacy necessary to belt out the prayer, to cast the spell, to produce the butch voice, even more than to seduce the femme (who’s got her own thing going, and I’ll let it alone), makes me wonder, is she gonna make it to the end of this note, to the end of the song?

In the video and on the recording Ray shifts at the end of the song to falsetto, the quintessential male pop voice.  I don’t think I any other female singer has ever used falsetto, and there’s a reason: Amy Ray is the butch’s throat, not Patti Smith’s wonderful but still ventriloquized gender masquerade in “Gloria.”  No, Amy Ray don’t sound like a man.  Close your eyes; there’s no double take/ double listening.  Amy Ray is the butch throat.  And in “Stand and Deliver” her butchness is cast in relation to doing right, to making whole another woman.  It’s not ventriloquism, but something more contrapuntal.  Not univocal; it’s anarchy.

As anarchic as it may be, the butch voice springs from one unifying throat or position:

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

I will love.  I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy.

Only Ray can occupy the con-tralto boy-like-me position and bypass soprano, the female high voice, bypass also the African-American infused gospel alto that had belonged to singers like Odetta.  Ray’s depth and range is less spectacular than K. D. Lang’s virtuoso croon.  It’s less self-assured, less placed, more liable to break down and to shift key and pitch mid song and between songs.  Her voice is anarchy, the pitched battle of internalized gender.

“Is this body just a cage?”  Well of course it is.  And that’s why the voice, emanates from the body and yet speaks outside it.  This variation on the old body-mind split I call the Gomer Pyle syndrome, after the suspect southern TV army recruit who gaaw-aawl-ied with a country accent, but who burst out in operatic baritone.  The voice, unlike the body, does not betray class status or sexuality but does the opposite, it soars away from Podunk, and away from the Viet Nam war.  It offers a better alibi than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  Jim Nabors through his voice became a whole, national crooner, the hopeless white southern faggot no more.  Voice can uncage the body, transform status, fool the ear if not the eye.  It is always projecting and projection.

But voice is also placed.  Voice teachers speak of placing the voice, meaning techniques for producing “head” voice, “chest” or some other foundation for the sound waves to be produced from forced and controlled air through the “pipes” of the larynx and the containing cavities of the torso and skull.  Amy Ray’s butch-ly placed sound may overlap with some critiques of the mezzo sound as hooty or covered or dark.  But there’s also a boyish brightness or white gospel clarity to her tone, if not emanating from its placement, then from its intention, its innocence and yearning qualities.  If the body is a cage, a place for the production of gender and trouble, it is also a staging for a projection.  When Amy Ray switches to falsetto, she performs an aural gender trick beyond even the most complex of Strauss’s late trouser role in Der Rosenkavalierbecause it is not only the context of the reception of the voice that changes, and not only how the voice is produced that creates the aural difference, but the final falsetto is a new move in gender’s voiced and performed history: a woman singing low, quoting a man singing high.  And the body does not, cannot change.  Nor is it a cage, exactly.  It is, Amy, a vessel, a location, a passage for air, a bag of wind, a bottom plexus of flesh and energy: it’s anarchy.  It’s politics.

Amy Ray is at times as good as Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen when it comes to getting away with politics in song.  I could argue that the line “I spent all day pushing tissue roses into chicken wire” from “Put It Out For Good” is the most riveting, alarming, activating image of meaningless and underpaid factory labor in all of rock n roll.  But that would be strange, isolating praise.  Rock protest tends towards self-promoting anthems of youth and resistance.  Even great anti-consumer culture songs like “take this job and shove it” or “(Can’t get no) Satisfaction” prefer the anger of a duped man who thinks his life should matter to scarifying details of other people’s unredeemable labor.

Amy Ray can write an anthem too, though.  But people don’t necessarily understand where she’s coming from.  It used to be suburbia – the “tramps like us”? . . . Well, maybe not.  That was Springsteen’s word for the unsung.  Continuing in the American song protest tradition, Ray sings in “Put It Out For Good” for the tramps not like “us”:

All the punks and the queers and the freaks and the smokers

. . . A new gender nation with a new desire.

But lately I think Ray has exhausted the singular field of identity crisis.  Reports are that she thinks about the land.  She roosts back on that bloody soil of the Las Americas del Sud.  The American South.  Georgia’s on her mind and in her body.  Through Guthrie and Springsteen’s masculine outrage on behalf of outsiders, deportees, the people of the land caught among the map’s shifting borders and their insane walls and real porosity, Ray sings in the voice of the people.  But the people never cohered.  That’s why Ray’s people are all trannies.  No one’s got a home – and no one’s got a righteous purchase on the land.  Ray can agitate for the rights of the indigenous, for the people of place, the placed people, even as she speaks for the “new gendered nation,” the people of suburban anomie and placelessness, in a moving voice of contradiction with the power to transport.  Long live the butch’s throat!

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

03/10/10


When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  As evidenced in my last piece on Le Tigre’s ode to transmasculinity, the queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

The central question, at least to me, posed in my bitchy little entry on “Viz” was about the subject of queer anthems, and specifically whether or not the two terms work together at all.  While an anthem is meant to celebrate and praise some sort of body—of work, of land, of a person—queerness, at least in my case, is a description for someone who lacks the sort of necessary cohesion to be sung about in such a praiseworthy manner, or even to be praised at all.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the slow drawl of the organ and the almost funky, soulful push given by the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Unlike Samson’s epic ode to her fabulous gender presentation, Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve felt of not having either.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything “Viz” song isn’t: resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.




Ring Them Bells: Bob Dylan’s Bloody Voice
the mountains are filled with lost sheep

the mountains are filled with lost sheep

Ring Them Bells

Taylor Black

02/17/10

A few nights ago, out making the late-night media rounds in support of his new solo record, Nick Jonas was asked to comment on his recent participation in the latest “We Are the World” project, a re-hashed version of Michael Jackson’s production by the same name from 1985.  Aside from to-be-expected remarks about what an honor it was to be involved in all this, Jonas described a few of the differences and similarities between the 2010 and ’85 versions and noted that it made sense that rapper Lil Wayne had been given the part originally assigned to Bob Dylan, since, apparently, as we all know: “Bob Dylan can’t sing.”  Now, while I’ll admit, that out of all the members of Jonas Brothers, and probably all the teeny-boppers out there right now, Nick is the one I’d probably most like to meet up with in a back-alley and do dirty things to, this was still a nasty thing to say.

One bitchy response I could make to Mr. Jonas is that he’s the one that can’t sing.  I can only say that I know what his face looks like and can’t really conjure up his sound.  But, I won’t go there.  Further, I really would not like this entry to devolve into some high-handed reprimand of Mr. Jonas.  Yet, I do feel the need to intervene—especially considering that the subject of Dylan’s voice—singing or otherwise—has always been one of great controversy and misunderstanding.   From comments about Dylan’s songs from his early, Woody Guthrie years (the ‘60s) constituting the voice, or the conscience of his generation all the way to more recent complaints about the moans and groans that he likes to call music—people just can’t seem to get it.    So, in my own humble, imperious way, I’d like to take advantage of this little incident as a chance to set the record straight on the power of and the purity in Bob Dylan’s voice.  There is a charismatic component to his music.  His songs are only objects, moments in time, vehicles for his voice, which, like a holy ghost, inhabits them.  His singing raises them up, brings them to life.

But what does all this mean?  What is, or is there even, a fair way to qualify a voice?  To describe its depth, color or texture in a meaningful way?  I want to think of some of the ways in which to characterize a voice as rich, of how a color voice might sound.  To be honest, though, phrases like “he can or can’t sing” seem kind of empty to me.  Even something like: “they can’t see it,” or “…can’t hear it,” seems tricky, too vapidly self-referential.  Of course, there is the whole concept of Synaesthesia to borrow from when characterizing the various capacities of music and sound to instigate visceral feelings—and to paint pictures.  But, still, like Jonas’ comment, and even my initial defenses of Dylan’s voice, the logic behind and characterizing Synaesthesia seems to be too subjective to really mean anything and, on the other hand, too objective and confident in how it considers individual feelings work.  I mean, what does it mean to see sound or to hear color in music? Aren’t all emotions, affective responses—especially to music—a combination of sensations?  Are we really so sure we have a handle on our emotions as discrete entities, logical concepts?  These kinds of statements are comparative without being associative, descriptive without being creative—they’re just too scattered for me to consider.  They’re too complicated, not pure enough for me, they don’t seem to be really listening to music’s magic.

There’s a line in a song from Dylan’s album Together Through Life, released in the summer of 2009, that has always stuck in my head by itself, out of context from the rest of the song: “Some people they tell me//I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”  Obviously there’s a biblical reference here that I learned in Sunday School the blood of the lamb—meaning the body and the spirit of Christ—that Dylan is telling us he’s got down deep in his soul, emanating from the sounds he makes and the music he creates.  So, lest I be accused of taking an ironic approach to Dylan’s religiosity or not saying what I mean, I will admit that there’s something to his voice that’s different, more inspired and more complex since his conversion to Christianity sometime in the late seventies.  I prefer his contemporary work not only because I think it is always improving, but also because it’s the only way to approach Dylan musically.  His songs and his voice alike are “good,” rich and powerful because they’re still at work.   Like faith and wonder themselves, this voice of his is always changing, never fully complete and full of human triumph, failure and doubt.

Much to the dismay of many of his most faithful fans and critics, his songs too never seem to sound the same more than once.  They are events in and of themselves, beholden to their power to effect and communicate in the present and future.  They don’t rehash the past.  They’re not owned by the past and yet somehow they are overflowing with and steeped in the blood of American musical and literary history.  The kind of power and focus that Dylan puts into the singing of his songs, as well as the total devotion he seems to have to them, seems evangelic to me.  The reason why I, and so many other people, treat Dylan with a kind religious awe is the same reason so many people go out their way to criticize and dismiss him—his songs and his voice have affected them, moved them to speak.

In my last two pieces I have also addressed the magical power of the voice and of song.  With respect to Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl,” I ruminated on the cathartic, living power of the voice that memorializes death; in my response to Lucinda Williams’ “Pineola,” I drew out the ways in which the sounds of mourning carry haunting powers with them as they dissipate into the earth and echo up to she sky.  So, while both of these songs have dealt with the ways songs cast spells on life and on the living, there is passion in Dylan’s voice that works more like a prayer, that brings something that feels like dreaming into existence.  His songs are offerings, he lays them down for us, His voice falls down like roses at our feet.

Although I can’t really explain it in discrete musical or even affective terms, this evangelical zeal that I hear and that I’m describing in Dylan’s voice—especially of late—can be translated, in a certain way, to its focused musicality.  First of all, there’s an organic component to his recorded voice that not only transports me to the event of recording the song, but also the bodily expression of it.   Listening to, for instance, something like “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” or “Ain’t Talkin’,” from his more recent albums, and you can sense, hear and feel the saliva—the blood—rising out of Dylan’s mangled throat into the microphone as he makes he brings his songs to life. He sounds like a needle scratching over a vinyl disc, the rut and friction of pure pre-digital sound, somewhere between tickling and stabbing the words that emerge from his lips onto his faithful listeners.  He sounds like he’s got all the thorns and the flowers of all time locked inside his throat.  Even though, in my old age, my relationship to (the idea of) God has been bruised and battered, worn out and sucked dry I believe when I’m listening to Dylan.  At least until the song’s over.

There’s also a way in which the feeling and the history of a song are all clear when I listen to Dylan.  On the one hand, his “blood of the land” line refers to the musical and social traditions that he has placed his songs in that themselves become reborn through him.  On the other, his songs never sound the same more than once.  His delivery is always in the moment, always emotionally accurate and truthful; the charismatic nature of Dylan’s voice is to convey these feelings, to infect listeners with them. There’s the endless, pulsating weariness of songs like “High Lands,” loneliness and geographical emptiness in “Thunder on the Mountain” and isolated abjection in “Love Sick” that gets expressed in me even before I’ve comprehended lyrical content or context.  To say he sings with blood in his voice is to say that his voice is alive, breathing, pulsating.  The enigmatic strength of songs, indeed of Dylan songs, lies in their ability to draw listeners in, to possess and to live in them.

Listen to recordings of “Ring Them Bells,” the song that has itself been ringing in my ears as I sit here and write this, and you’ll hear how Dylan makes his voice an instrument of praise and of song.  During the musical interludes preceding the final few verses of the song the pedal steel comes in and plays the melody that Dylan’s been singing up until that moment.  If, by that moment, you are as lost in the music as I become listening to it—you will forget that Dylan’s voice has stopped ringing, that the sound of the pedal steel isn’t really him.  Like his voice (and also his harmonica in different songs), it is pure musical expression.  In the end, whether or not you, or young Mr. Jonas, are able to hear what I hear, to see what I see, I would like to close by saying that Dylan’s voice is beautiful because it is something he’s authored himself.  It’s no use wondering whether or not Bob Dylan can sing, it only matters that he does.  His voice is already ringing off the stony walls of the bell tower and echoing across the hills and valleys, always changing and forever in debt to the music it calls forth.