Who sneezed in my arpeggio? (transcript)

Published February 2nd, 2019

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I’m standing in front of the living room window
looking out
Mozart’s music is playing behind me

I’m in the process of listening to all of his work
everything he ever wrote
it’s wonderful and I love Mozart
but I’m beginning to think that listening to someone’s life’s work
in some kind of artificially arranged order
isn’t the way to do it

I feel like I’ve been stuck on piano concertos for a long time
I don’t have anything against piano concertos
but I’m more of a chamber music fan
quartets and quintets
not pianos

but I can’t just skip around if I want to hear it all
I have to stick to some kind of plan or scheme
otherwise I’ll just keep listening to the pieces that I already know and love
and I’ll never hear the other things that I wouldn’t normally listen to
the operas and religious music
I am not looking forward to the operas
but maybe I’ll be surprised
but maybe

so here I am
at the mercy of whoever sequenced this giant box set
200 hours of Mozart
it started with symphonies
which is starting with a bang, I suppose
but it feels like the quartets and quintets are far away
and I’ll have to hear a lot more piano tinkling
before I get to the meat
to the good stuff
to the genius

like the Clarinet Quintet in A Major, KV 581

no one will never convince me
that some symphony or requiem
is better than that unassuming slice
of devastating musical brilliance
four movements
each amazing on its own
it was the only clarinet quintet that Mozart ever finished
but it was the only one he ever needed to finish

in a previous lifetime
I would drive down from Topanga
to the Tower Records classical store
on Sunset Boulevard
right across the street from the regular Tower store
and I’d flip through the records
and just stand around in there for hours
once in a while I’d buy something cheap
but mostly I was listening and looking and biding my time
waiting for something that would never come

one day I walked in
and there on the shelf was the newly completed
Philips Complete Mozart Edition
it was an endless line of discs
25 boxes
180 CDs
I knew it would never be mine
the price tag was more than I spent on records in a year
or two

but now 30 years out from that Philips edition
you can buy all of Mozart’s music for almost nothing
almost nothing in the context the value of Mozart’s music
as the pinnacle of that kind of old-timey
European powdered wig music

I’m standing in front of the living room window
looking out
hearing Mozart
seeing the other houses that look just like this one
on the curvy suburban Los Angeles street where I live

it’s been raining for a day and a half
but the sun has just started to break through the clouds
it’s December
and it’s cold outside
but heat from a wall vent
blows onto my back
and I think about being out in the cold
in the past
walking to wherever I needed to go
and looking into the windows of the houses
as I passed at night
feeling the warmth from the lights inside
hearing people calling to each other
from opposite ends of the house
and wondering how they managed it
the house
the cars
the things
the Mozart collections
while I was walking my cold, empty pockets
back to my cold, empty room

I thought it was impossible
what they had
though I came to learn that it wasn’t impossible at all
you didn’t have to be special
or talented or clever

being lucky helped quite a bit, of course
as did accidentally being born into a prosperous family
or into prosperous circumstances
or just being the right color
in the right place
at the right time
that helped

but things were obtainable for the unlucky as well
at a cost
the cost being, you know, just your life
no big deal
the cost may be less for the lucky
but a cost still has to be paid
and most are willing to pay it
most are anxious to get their chance to pay it
and I understand
I know
I looked into the lighted rooms
I understand

Mozart wanted
Mozart wanted what he wanted
he felt entitled to a certain standard of living
because he knew who he was
and it offended his sensibilities to have to ask for it
to have to curry favor with the rulers and the rich
but he had to
he had to curry their favor
if he wanted to eat
and have enough candles to work at night
and enough to drink
and enough money for Constanze and the children

Mozart was a working man
with a family to feed
and while he was writing KV 581
he was also writing letters and notes
to people of means
trying to get paid

when he looked out the window into the rain
he didn’t have a warm mechanical breeze
blowing in his direction
if he was lucky
he had a fire at his back
one meant to keep him warm
quite separate from the one
that consumed him

I’ve been making these tapes, mix tapes on cassettes for a project that Carol is doing. I think she talked about it on her blog, so she won’t mind me talking about it here. There’s no Mozart on the tapes, but Mozart doesn’t belong on a mixtape. By the way, when did they become “mixtapes”? We never said that, back in the halcyon days of the cassette. We just said, “Here’s a tape.” I’m Michael Phillips, by the way, and like literally hundreds of other discerning listeners scattered around the globe, you are listening to THIS IS NOT A TEST. We never said “mixtape” and we never called White Castles “sliders,” but even White Castle calls their hamburgers “sliders” now, so it seems pretty clear that you can’t fight progress.

They say a lot of memories can be triggered by smells, but for me it’s sound. There’s a certain kind of sound that a small radio had, the kind you’d find in every kid’s bedroom in the 60s and 70s and when I hear that sound now, which I don’t very often, but sometimes I do, it brings me right back. Not the AM sound, for some reason, but the FM sound. That silence that isn’t exactly silence between the songs, I can’t put my finger on it. The compression, the way stuff was mixed for the radio, I don’t know. It’s similar to the way a cassette tape of an album sounds, which didn’t used to be a thing, but since we have CDs and other “perfect” kinds of music delivery methods, the cassette now has a sound, in retrospect.

It’s all about limitation. The limitations of the delivery method. The companies that made cassettes and cassette recorders were in a never-ending war against the sound of tape hiss, so they came up with solutions that had a lot to do with the way cassettes sounded. By reducing noise they introduced an overall sound. Same thing with vinyl LPs, because of their limitations, the music that was going to be pressed into them had to be mixed and mastered a certain way, and that gave them, for the most part, a specific sound.

Now with the perfect, lossless CD and exact copy audio files you can make, there’s no color on top of or underneath or around the music. There’s no sound other than the sound the musicians or producers wanted you to hear. Which, as a musician, I have to say is perfect, and what we always wanted to be able to do, back when we were stuck with all those imperfect methods. But now that the music reproduction is more precise there’s no more consistent sound, like that cassette sound, like that FM radio sound. Those sounds that take me back now. But it’s all relative to your own times and experiences I suppose. Or subjective. I’m sure there was some old guy sitting around the year I was born talking about how the sound of an Edison cylinder reminded him of his mother’s shoes or something.

My memories are strictly of me alone somewhere, usually in my bedroom, and it’s usually late at night and I’m laying there staring at the radio, because there was nothing else to stare at. One little lamp would be on, and there I’d be. Chin in the pillow, staring at a god damned radio. Because I did that so often and for so many hours, I remember what each of my radios looked like and what the bedrooms I was in were like. And that there – that’s about as nothing as a memory can get, but it’s still a memory, and it still makes me feel…something.

It’s not nostalgia or longing or pining for the fjords, because nothing was so great in those days, in my little corner of nowhere anyway. So I don’t know what the feeling is, other than a dusty kind of familiarity, recalling a time – marveling at a time – when I could lay around and stare at a radio for hours. I suppose I could do that now, but a lot of other shit I should be doing other than laying around and staring at a radio would fail to get done and ultimately avalanche on top of me. And I’m not sure it would be the same listening to NPR and staring at a radio. There’s sure as hell no music stations left to listen to.

I mean, there are music stations, they just don’t appeal to me. I’m not sure who they’re made for. Twinks and twanks and tweens and jerkoffs, soccer moms, meth moms, and motherfuckers. All of them and none of me. Who wants to hear music in a car now anyway, or wherever people listen. It’s funny, on YouTube a while back I heard a crappy recording of the rock radio station I listened to when I was 15 or 16 years old, and the reality of what they played doesn’t exactly sync up with my memory of the time. Looking at the playlist now, I would have liked about 10% of it. But I listened to all of it, that was the thing. There was no alternative. Just the non-alternative alternative of another station that more or less played the same songs.

Speaking of tweens, what the fuck is Young Adult fiction? I mean, I know what it is, I guess I’m just asking what the fuck it is, what’s up with it. Why? So many categories now, YA, teen, “New Adult” – new adult? New adult? Books and music have followed the same kind of weird trajectory through their history. One hundred years ago books were books. There were children’s books, sure, but if you look at a 100-year-old children’s book today, they read like episodes of the Sopranos. They are full of dirt and death and misery, and I think it wasn’t until Dr. Seuss came along that we moved away from that stark kind of horror-reality that used to run rampant in children’s books.

But music was the same way. There weren’t 20 or 50 or 100 categories of music, there was just music. You sat there in front of the Victrola or Edison cylinders and listened to the same thing your parents and grandparents listened to. If you were lucky enough to have a record player. Most of us just sat in front of the radio. That wasn’t better, that’s just the way it was. It’s better that we all have our own music, I suppose, but I don’t know if it’s better that there’s a specific, laser-focused range of books for every year of someone’s life. Prescribed subject matter walking them through adolescence. Is the YA thing a reaction to the race of idiot parents who don’t want to raise their children in a house that has a staircase because they think it’s just too god damned dangerous?

A four hour documentary about Michael Jackson just screened at Sundance, a documentary about his “alleged” pedophilia, and the festival director got up on stage before the movie played and said, “We don’t know how this is going to make you feel…so if you feel anxious or upset, come and see the health care professionals that we have stationed just outside.” Health care professionals? At a film festival documentary screening? It’s things like that, when I hear them, it’s things like that – they make me wonder what will become of us as a species. I’m not kidding. We’re going to be billions of pasty veal just wandering around and waiting for the big-headed aliens to arrive with their “To Serve Man” cookbook.

How does a 20-year-old who has been kept away from staircases and peanuts and literature all their life even begin to deal with reality? I don’t know what that world looks like, and aside from little sniffs of it already appearing, I just thank the vengeful and terrible lord Vishnu that I will never have to live in it, because it seems like it will be awful, man. I guess Shiva was the vengeful and terrible Hindu god, right? Vishnu was more like a benevolent Superman? I’m not sure. I know there’s three of them, I just don’t know who’s who and what’s what. But you get the picture. If I had to take on a religion, if it forced on us under penalty of death or something, which it almost is, but not quite yet, but if I had to take on a religion, I think I would be a Hindu. They have the best gods and the best food and the most absurd and colorful stories.

Speaking of Hindu gods, how about that Springsteen, eh? How about that Bruce Springsteen. What a feller. And that “Springsteen on Broadway” thing. I’m no fan of the boss, but if something like that pops up on Netflix, I’m going to watch it. And I have to say I have a pretty high tolerance for bullshit as far as that stuff is concerned. I’ll watch any documentary about any kind of music or musician. I find something interesting in all of them. Except “Springsteen on Broadway.” I found nothing in that. I felt like I was slowly dying right there on my couch as that thing dragged out endlessly on my TV.

Most rock stars are self-aggrandizing pricks, we all know that. It’s an undeniable fact of life. But sometimes one of those self-aggrandizing pricks just rubs you the wrong way and you forget that all rock stars are self-aggrandizing pricks and you start to think that the one that’s bugging you, the one that you find unbearable, that one is the only self-aggrandizing prick in the music business. They aren’t, but you can feel that way. I feel that way. About Bruce. And Bruce Springsteen isn’t the first or last rock star who never held a real job in the real world, but whenever he talks or sings about “the common man” or “the working man” or any kind of man, I want to kick him in the nuts. Bruce, that is. Not the common man.

He starts off “Springsteen on Broadway” by talking about the plight of the working man songs that he became rich and famous off of and how he never worked a day in his life, and he justifies that or explains it or excuses it or sweeps it under the rug by saying, “I don’t know anything about that kind of life…I’m just that good.” That good of a songwriter, get it? He’s such a great songwriter that he can write about what he doesn’t know. Someone should tell Bruce that most songs are written about things the songwriter doesn’t know anything about. They’re like, fiction, Bruce, look it up. Again, I know and I understand and realize that a lot of rockers avoided work during their lives, John Lennon, Joe Strummer, all of the Backstreet Boys, I get it.

It’s just Springsteen…god I hate that self-aggrandizing prick. Ha. I think I put my finger on exactly what I hate about him, and it’s not his songs – they don’t really do anything for me, but they’re not the primary reason – what it is is his voice. Or not his voice, but that voice he puts on. That whispery rasp of the working man. Or whatever he thinks it is. He uses it all throughout “Springsteen on Broadway,” so I can only assume he’s a method actor and stays in character while he’s on the set. He never drops it and it’s so god damned phony that after hearing it for 9 hours or however long that “Springsteen on Broadway” film is, you’re punchy, you’re kind of beaten by it. It defeats you and you have to surrender to it and just beg for it to stop.

I couldn’t hang with the entirety of “Springsteen on Broadway,” I have to admit. I watched maybe 60% of it. I fast forwarded through the rest and I didn’t miss anything. Like I said, I was dying, so fast forwarding was just my way of clinging to life. Or surviving. Holding on. The way the paramedics or army medics yell at you to “hold on!” when they’re driving the pieces of you to an emergency room or a field hospital somewhere. Just hold on until it ends, mjp, live, damn it! Live! If you’re a Springsteen fan, may the good lord or the many Hindu lords bless and keep you. It’s just not for me, that package. In case that wasn’t clear.

Something else that’s been on my TV recently is Sons Of Anarchy. Have you seen that? Chaos and mayhem and motorcycles? It started on TV in 2008, I think, and it played out over 7 seasons. You know how TV is now, there can be 18 months between seasons – or 24 months or three years – and the seasons are so short that they end just as you’re getting into the groove of the show. Anyway, Sons of Anarchy started in 2008, and I don’t know when it ended, but I watched it when it was on TV and I really enjoyed it. So much so that I thought I would watch it again. The whole thing, all 92 episodes.

I decided that a long time ago and put it on my Netflix list and it sat there and sat there until last December, when I figured the time was right to dive back into it again. So I did. For two episodes, then it disappeared from Netflix. As things do, I know things come and go, but it figures that I’d sit on it over there for a couple years – or more – and then when I finally wanted to see it, it would vanish. I was only two episodes in, so I could have said, oh well, too bad, fuck it, and just forgot about it. But instead I went over to Amazon, where you have to buy the seasons, but the first season was only $4.99, so I thought, what the hell and bought it and watched it and of course when it was over I immediately wanted to see the second season, and that was also only $4.99, so again, what the hell.

It’s so strange to me – I mean, it’s strange and wonderful, just so I’m clear, but mostly strange – that I can sit on my couch at 1 in the morning and squeeze a few buttons on the Roku remote and buy a season of a TV show or a movie from Amazon and watch it 3 seconds later. I know the kids take that as a given, and as their birthright, and I suppose it is, but I’m still awed by it. I still think it’s cool and amazing, no matter how many times I do it.

But for Sons of Anarchy, when I got to season 3, it wasn’t $4.99 anymore, the price was $9.99 and I thought, wait a minute, I see what’s going on here, and sure enough I looked at seasons 4 through 7 and they were $19.99 each. So I got out my slide rule and abacus and did a little calculation and ultimately came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to pay $90 to watch the rest of the series, so I forgot about it. They had me at $4.99, it’s a small enough number and you can just keep going and it doesn’t feel like you’re spending anything. But $80, $90, that feels spendy to me, and for something that I’ve already seen and that I won’t even own in a tangible form when it’s all said and done – I just couldn’t do it, I tell ya. I couldn’t say yes to the $9.99 season 3.

Especially when the only reason I’d decided to rewatch it in the first place was because it was there on Netflix, which I’m already paying for. Anyway, that’s what happened, and I was okay with seeing the first two seasons and just letting it hang there like that, unfinished. But the Internet doesn’t want you to forget. The Internet knew I was searching the show and shopping for it on Amazon, so the Internet kept showing me ads for DVD and blu-ray versions of the show. But they were still $100, same as I would have paid Amazon to stream it, and I just couldn’t get past that price. Not that I think it’s unfair or out of line or anything. Considering the amount of work and the number of people who spent part of their lives making that 92 hours of show. It’s not much money, really. I spend more than that every time I walk into the grocery store. But as I’ve mentioned, I am still underemployed, so $100 for Sons of Anarchy DVDs, that’s really not something I can do.

Until, that is, the full series blu-ray set popped up in an ad for $40-some dollars and free shipping, from someplace I never heard of. I clicked, because clicking on Internet ads is a smart thing to do, and the site looked legit. I mean, it felt legit. You know how you get a feeling about sites? Like you sometimes you can tell that you’ve just picked up a virus or some ransomware as soon as the first page loads? Well, I didn’t get that feeling at the site that the ad led me to, so I bought the set and it was actually delivered to my house and it’s legit and it looks great and all is well in the world. So it’s been on my TV. I watch it at night after Carol goes to bed, a couple episodes each night.

When I started watching the first season, I wasn’t feeling it. It seemed like my memory of the show was greater than the reality of the show, like my memory of the rock radio station I listened to when I was a teenager. Which was called U100, by the way. “We do it all for you, on fun-lovin’ super U!” I don’t know how they called themselves “U” anything since radio and TV station call letters had to start with a W or a K. But they were rebels, I guess. U100. I’m pretty sure I still have a U100 belt buckle if anyone is listening in the twin cities who remembers and wants to relive that part of their childhood. $100, it’s yours. I know, that’s a lot of money for a belt buckle, but where else are you gonna find one? I have a vintage Creem magazine Boy Howdy belt buckle around here somewhere too, but that’s not for sale. Vultures.

So yeah, I started re-watching I was like, eh, okay, but then it picked up and I was right back into it again. It’s funny though, I think watching it all over a short period like this – and I’m not finished, by the way, I’m about to start the final season – but I think watching it all at once like this has lessened the impact of the show. It’s a violent and often awful piece of work, Sons of Anarchy. There’s a lot of blood and murder and a guy is beaten to death with a snow globe, but I don’t know, for some reason, being immersed in it like this, watching it all play out in such a relatively short time, it makes it seem almost cartoonish. Or at least less serious or impactful than I remember it being when I only saw one episode a week for 12 weeks then had to wait a year or more to see more.

So it’s violent, yes, but man, it also has some of the most gut-wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen on TV. Stuff that, if you care even a tiny bit about the characters, will have the salty tear water running down your cheeks I tell you. But overall, yeah, I have to say that the impact feels lessened. Maybe when I first watched it, in smaller doses, with other, less extreme things floating across my retinas between episodes it had more impact. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just because I know what’s going to happen. That could be it too. But it’s still a great show, so maybe you should go over to fye.com and see if they’re still selling it for half the price everyone else wants to charge you. Have it delivered to your house and decide for yourself. Then again, it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, watching someone get beaten to death with a snow globe. But if you enjoy that kind of thing…

Speaking of Dr. Seuss – I know, that was a minute ago, but try to keep up, man. When I was a little kid my dad had like every Dr. Seuss book there was and he would sit me on his knee – just like in a Norman Rockwell painting – and have me read to him. I didn’t live with my dad, so the reading sessions would happen when I’d see him on a Saturday or something. Just like in a Norman Rockwell painting. But sometime in my 30s, I mentioned to him that I remembered that, and told him that I appreciated that he cared about me learning to read, and he said, “Well, I couldn’t read those books. You were reading to me. You were teaching me to read.” Which may have been an exaggeration, but maybe not completely. I mean, I know he could read, maybe I just never realized he wasn’t, you know, a great reader. Apropos of nothing, just another memory, in this talk about remembering things.

But I probably gravitated to Sons of Anarchy because of my father. He wasn’t in a motorcycle club or gang, but he rode a Harley and so did his friends. So maybe he was in a gang, I don’t know. But I grew up on the back of that thing, so I’ve always had an affinity for being in the wind. Can you imagine someone sitting their kid on the back of a Harley now and blaring on down the road like it’s a perfectly normal thing to do? Anyone who saw you would probably alert child protective services and there would be a SWAT team ready to intercept you when you got to the Sears store. And for god’s sake, keep that kid away from the escalator! He could be killed!

Now that I think of it, when I was really small he would sit me in front of him on the bike and let me work the handlebars. At least that’s how I remember it. I’m sure his hand was on there somewhere, keeping us going in a straight line, but I sure felt like I was steering. Just like this podcast. I feel like I’m steering it, but I don’t know. I’m not sure what steers it most of the time. Whatever it is, you should come back for more next time. Maybe you can tell me what steers this thing. Maybe you want to come steer it. Like a coup or something. Sure. Take over THIS IS NOT A TEST. That’s no victory. If you’re going to stage an insurrection, go for a big brand name show with lots of advertisers. Anyway, whatever you do and whoever you overthrow, I’ll see you next time.