About Jon Chaisson

Writer, obsessed music listener and collector, okay bassist and guitarist, hoopy frood. Questionable logical circuits, but he gets by.

A few thoughts about music as safety

I just recently finished reading Brandi Carlile’s memoir Broken Horses and this particular song popped up, one I hadn’t heard for quite a while and forgotten I’d liked. It’s an “it gets better” song. It was partially inspired by a friend’s son that was getting bullied in school for not fitting in.

It got me thinking about my own teen years, in which I immersed myself in music as a form of safety. I wasn’t always bullied, at least not to any major or physical degree, but I definitely received my share of being called a f*g, thought of as a weirdo and excluded from most social circles, and being pigeonholed into a circle of outcasts and townies where I may have been accepted but it was definitely not a match I wanted or needed at the time.

And sure, I’ve already told you about the main reason I got into college radio and what became alternative rock: the whole fuck all of this conformity bullshit, go be true to yourself and you’ll be so fucking happier message it gave me. Not all of those songs had the “it gets better” theme, of course: some reveled in the darkness of life’s unfairness, and some reveled in destroying the status quo. It all spoke to me on a level few other things (and people) did. It said: the only real barriers you’re fighting are your own.

That, in a way, was the hardest lesson to learn of all, and it took me a LONG fucking time to really understand it.

Hearing this song again after so long and I think, yeah…same bullshit, different generation. We still have shitty people tearing others down who don’t conform to their way of living, praying, thinking, whatever. It’s why I’ve managed to stomach the shittiness of American Conservatives: they’re the same goddamn asshole jocks all grown up, still calling us f*gs and bullying us because we’re not like them. And that’s why I’ve managed not to fall prey to their violence: fuck all of this conformity bullshit, go be true to yourself and you’ll be so fucking happier. They still piss me off, but I refuse to let them ruin my life.

I still have my own barriers I’m fighting to tear down. There are far fewer than in the past, thankfully. Maybe a small handful instead of a teetering avalanche. One or two that are just about gone now.

And yet I still return to music for safety. It remains my emotional anchor to this day.

Listening from a different angle

You know you’re old when you remember this being played on TV.

Funny how turning ever so slightly makes all the difference.

For years I’ve had my PC monitor at the far left corner of my desk mainly because I had to share the space with my work PC and other things during my Work from Home years. It’s still there, but now there’s a second monitor that I’ve chosen to have as the primary. It’s slightly smaller, but it fits perfectly at rear center, flanked by my speakers.

And that’s where I’m suddenly realizing just how different things sound when you’re facing those speakers head-on rather than at a slight angle. I mean, I’d had the correct set-up for years elsewhere, including Arkham West, the Belfry, and most of my apartments in Boston, so it’s not as if I’ve been unaware of the proper placement of speakers for peak aural enjoyment…but sometimes peak wasn’t the easiest to achieve. Sometimes you make do with whatever setup you can get away with.

The wild thing, though, is just how different it sounds to me. I might have filtering issues when it comes to crowded white noise, but I’m also blessed with really good directional hearing. So now that I’m listening to my music correctly once more, I can really hear the mix, and it sounds heavenly. The music has depth and width now that I didn’t realize I’d missed all these years.

It’s almost as if this was the disconnect I’d been trying to figure out all this time…? Could it be that a simple error in placement kept me from truly connecting like I had in the past? Perhaps so.

Either way, this makes me want to explore more. Take more deep dives. Search for that connection with music I love so much.

This Week’s Earworm: Cheekface, “We Need a Bigger Dumpster”

Thanks to KEXP, this little bit of silliness has been stuck in my head for the last several days. Cheekface comes from Los Angeles but definitely has that same slacker vibe that Pavement had, especially in the “Cut Your Hair” 90s, only much goofier. [Come to think of it, I think it also fits in with some of the late 80s humorous college rock as well, such as The Strawberry Zots, Beat Happening and King Missile. It’s just retro-sounding enough that I definitely would have included it on the mixtapes I made back then. It also helps that the covers to all their releases thus far are hand-drawn in that wonderful did-it-during-study-period style.] It’s not often that a song both perfectly embodies the decidedly Gen-X “we’re fucked but what can we really do anyway” vibe of Covid these last few years and contains a shout-out reminiscent of the Gunshow “this is fine” comic/meme.

I’m yet to listen to the rest of the album, but from what I’ve heard so far, I’m really enjoying. And come to find out, they also recently did a great They Might Be Giants cover!

Listening to…jets?

It’s Fleet Week here in SF which means the Blue Angels are once again WHOOOOSHing over our neighborhood. Alas, Karl the Fog (see above) has had other plans. We can definitely hear them, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be watching them any time soon.

There is a possibility that it might be clear tomorrow, but given how schizophrenic SF tends to be, who knows…?

a simple song

One of my favorite Sparks songs is “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”, in which said title is the near-entirety of its lyrics, barring a short spoken word passage near the end. The Mael brothers comment on it in The Sparks Brothers documentary, where the dynamics of the song are purely in its construction rather than its lyrics. Because of this, they find it one of their all-time favorite songs to play live.

Back in the 80s and early 90s I wrote a handful of Flying Bohemians songs that were similar in construction, and they were always my favorite to play because of that. One song, “She Sang to Me”, had three lines that were repeated in different ways while Chris and I played its three chords in various ways — fingerpicking, muted, augmented, and so on — until it sounded like a wondrous release of sound.

I don’t often hear that many songs like this, but when I do, quite often they’re my favorites of the band’s entire discography.

Listening at Work

I’m actually kind of surprised here.

Most piped-in music at retail stores are feed subscriptions of mostly innocuous pop tunes that are enjoyable but not anything that’ll distract you from your shopping moods. (I say ‘most’ because our local Trader Joe’s seems to have cornered the Gen-X mood of 80s alt-rock faves and cool retro stuff instead.) At my store I can easily file our feed into three distinct formats:
–early 80s MTV (Thomas Dolby, Men Without Hats, Tears for Fears, etc.)
–mid 90s alternapop (Deep Blue Something, Dishwalla, Vertical Horizon, etc.)
–adult pop from about 5 years ago (Kelly Clarkson and so on)

The other day however, I heard this one song that I hadn’t recognized and pulled out the Shazam app. It happened to be the new(ish) 5 Seconds of Summer song I posted above, and thus the surprise: I was so used to hearing the same music loops day in and day out that hearing a new song was quite unexpected. I kinda like it, too! Just goes to show that the subscription feed we have does actually get updated now and again.

It reminded me of one of my other retail jobs, at the Longwood Coop in Brookline, where the loops were actually sent to us in this huge plastic cart that looked like a mutant cross between a laserdisc case and a radio station cartridge, and carried a couple dozen songs. Each cart had a different musical mood, and, you guessed it, I’d try to sneak on the one that had the weird alternative songs, one of which was a New Fast Automatic Daffodils track that I’m sure no one in the store had ever heard of. And during my HMV days, we had a set collection of promos we’d play in store, but on days where I was floor manager I’d throw on some wildly obscure imports instead.

Sure, I don’t have any say in what gets played at this job, but I’m not going to complain about it. Most of it’s enjoyable, and mostly already in my mp3 collection anyway. But it is fun to have that occasional surprise song that trips me up!

Revisiting

I’ve been thinking about revisiting some discographies lately, mainly the ones of bands I used to listen to obsessively back in my youth. One of the inspirations for this was the reissue of REM’s Chronic Town EP a few weeks ago, their first release on the IRS label.

I’ve always been an early-era fan of the band up to and including 1988’s Green, and it’s been ages since I’ve listened to those first albums other than hearing the occasional single on the radio (usually “The One I Love” or “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, but occasionally I’ll hear “Superman” as well). Me and my high school friends were big fans of the band and taped each other’s copies of their albums into our own collections. But I haven’t listened to Lifes Rich Pageant in ages, and I used to play that one a ton in my college years.

So how is this different from any other time I obsess over 80s alternative rock? Well, instead of slinking back into the memory banks to relive those times or attempting to work on the Walk in Silence book, this is just…for fun, just like before.

I think part of it is tied into what I was talking about in the previous post, in which I find myself so constantly wrapped up in New Releases every week that few songs are actually sticking in my head. Which leads to the question: how is it that these REM songs (and Smiths songs, and Love and Rockets songs, and so on) stick like Gorilla Glue where the new songs don’t?

I think it’s partly because I’m not allowing those new songs to anchor themselves in the first place. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to do that somehow. The focus has gone from the music to the procurement of it. Which of course feeds into my obsessive tendencies, but doesn’t really move me emotionally, does it?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to change that these last few months. How do I let these songs into my psyche when I’ve forgotten how to do that? What do they have to anchor to? Moments in time, memories in the making? So many of those songs are fleeting, great to listen to but never quite moving me emotionally. Produced too clean, given airplay to a station that smothers us with its constant repetition. Caught in a race with millions of other songs, all trying to enter my subconscious at the same time.

It’s time to revisit how I made them stick in the first place. Allowing the song to percolate and simmer for a while in my mind, to allow it to latch onto a moment in my life. Keeping myself from getting constantly distracted by yet another song that sneaks up behind it. Allow the song to become a part of my own personal and private world rather than chasing after several songs at once as they go by.

Rethinking the Mixtape

The Memorex dBS 90 minute tape, my cassette of choice for several of my mixtapes.

I’ve been terrible about making mixtapes this year. By this point I’ve got at least three or four ready to go, but for one reason or another I just haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve got a few false starts with maybe six or seven songs, but that’s about it.

I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’m just throwing a bunch of songs together but not always listening to them. Part of that has to do with my obsessive listening to KEXP when I can, but it also has to do with my even more obsessive habit of consuming new releases. I’ve focused too much on the New Stuff and not allowed that many songs to jump out at me and blow my mind. Sure, there have been a few over the last couple of years, but not nearly as much as before.

So I’ve been contemplating a mixtape rethink. I do like the format idea I’d come up with some years back of strictly following the forty-five-minutes-a-side rule, which makes it fun and creative, especially when I spend a good amount of time shifting the order of those mp3s until it sounds great to me. But again…what about the music that jumps out at me? The songs that make me focus on them?

I’ve been thinking about how I did this in the spring of 1988, when I finally took the plunge and planned out three mixes instead of leaning on the randomly created ‘radio tapes’ that I’d been making for the last several years. It was a learning curve, sure…a few questionable songs, a few terrible transitions, but listenable nonetheless. [I’d drop the themed bit soon after, finding it too restrictive at the time. I’d do themed ones later on, mostly ‘soundtracks’ to my novel projects in progress.] Thesaurus in hand, I came up with three themes based on my listening habits at the time: songs to listen to at top volume (Stentorian Music), songs that lean heavily on electronics (Preternatural Synthetics) and quiet and/or “dark” songs to listen to late at night (Cimmerian Candlelight).

Stentorian Music, created 20 May 1988.
Preternatural Synthetics, created 20 May 1988.
Cimmerian Candlelight, created 1 June 1988.

It’s something I’d like to do over again. Start fresh, give myself a tight focus on the mixes. Songs that set a specific mood or setting. Songs that blow my mind. Songs that I’ve rediscovered. I think one of my downfalls over the recent years is that the mixes tend to focus tightly on brand spankin’ new tunes and very rarely introducing older tracks. In retrospect I think that kind of limits what I want to listen to, really. Allow myself to add a song I haven’t heard in years, or an older song that some station slipped my way. Stop being so restrictive about it.

Yeah, I know…it’s been over thirty years since I created those three mixtapes and changed how I listened to music, but honestly: is that really a concern, when I’m still obsessed over music at this age, to this extent? I’ll always embrace music, no doubt about that. I don’t see myself drifting away from it anytime soon. And I think that making a new generation, a new brand of mixtapes for myself is just what I need to do to give it a refresh.

As soon as I have more, I’ll let you know, Spotify playlist and all.

Fly-by: Where I am, where I’m going, where I’ll be

It’s been a tad more than just a month since I last posted here, I see. And there are varied reasons for that. The main reason was just passive avoidance, really. Out of sight, out of mind. I spent more time focusing on writing (and wasting time on social media, I’ll admit) than actually doing anything about working on here.

SO. What’s the plan, Stan?

The plan is to return to blogging hopefully within the next couple of weeks, maybe by the end of September. I’ll be afk for a week or so soon (we’re going on a quick vacation back east to visit family and friends) and I’ll probably need to set up some kind of stable schedule of what I’d like to do next here and elsewhere. That plan I mentioned back in May still has merit but I’m still contemplating the details.

So yeah. Stay tuned, I’ll hopefully be back by the end of this month!