Music and Isolation and Community, but Mostly Music

There was a time when I would, fairly frequently, go to see concerts alone. I lived more than an hour from Seattle then, but I would duck out of work early on a Friday and drive to see whoever was in town. I had just gone through the breakup of a long-term relationship, and was experiencing the very specific mix of scrutiny and isolation that comes, in the wake of such a thing, in a town still small enough somehow for people to know you. When I'd step through the doors of a venue, and into a crowd of people I'd never met – but who knew, by heart, the lyrics to all the same songs I did – it was enthralling and comforting in a way I've rarely experienced. As a natural introvert and a habitual grump, I'm not known to find solace in crowds. But so often, we relate to the world, and to each other, through music, and standing in a sea of strangers who relate to the world – just for a moment – in the same way as you can be startling and clarifying and reassuring. 

My life is a lot different now than it was then, but I still go to concerts alone sometimes. I still revel in those rare places where we can be alone, together, if only for a little while.

Like so many people, I've been desperately missing live shows during the COVID-19 crisis. I miss the messy joy of music being created right in front of me. I miss the thrill of discovering a new favorite among the openers. I miss feeling awkward and uncool about buying merch (is this just me? It can't just be me. Also, forget it – go online and buy merch and music from your favorite artists! They need your support!). And I miss the community that springs up around a shared love of a certain artist, a certain genre, a certain album.

Luckily, as is so often the case, there's a book for that. Or rather, there are books. As I've been missing live music, I've listened to plenty of albums, and played guitar like the hack I am, and I've read: about the way music comes to be, about the way it makes us feel and think, and about the power it has to change minds and, sometimes, change the world. Here are a few of my recent favorites.


Burning Down the Haus by Tim Mohr

Tim Mohr's investigation into the world of East German punk rock began in the early nineties, when he was a young American expat living cheaply in recently-reunified Berlin. There, hanging out in dive bars, squats, and informal venues around the city, he started to meet people and hear stories of a tight-knit scene that had sprung up in the previous decade – a wave of kids who listened to the Sex Pistols and Stiff Little Fingers illicitly from patchy West Berlin radio stations, made their own buttons and patches, jury-rigged old radios into amplifiers, and formed the bands that poked the first holes in the repressive DDR police state. Being a punk could get you thrown out of school in the early eighties elsewhere in the world, but behind the Berlin Wall, it was explicitly dangerous, and time and again, Mohr recounts the lengths DDR punks would go to play their shows, distribute music, and just live their lives, all in the midst of routine Stasi shakedowns and the risk of ever-present informants. But, even when faced with violent state oppression, most of the punks in the DDR didn't want to leave for the West – they wanted to help make things better in the communities where they lived. In the end, if only for a moment, they might even have succeeded. What struck me deeply, as I read Burning Down the Haus, was how effectively Mohr captures the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a music scene, and that universal way that the right sound at the right time can bring people together for good.


Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt by Kristin Hersh 

I don't remember where or when I first heard Vic Chesnutt, but I do remember the song – it was Flirted With You My Whole Life, and it hit me somewhere in the lower half of my heart and lodged there permanently. It's not exactly easy to describe Chesnutt or his deceptively simple music succinctly, but if you were to try, the word would probably be irascible: a brilliant and playful wordsmith, a fickle and sometimes outright mean presence, and always a tangle of contradictions. Few people knew Vic, or his music, better than Kristin Hersh (she of Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave), and reading this slim, intimate, and hugely moving account of their friendship is like being in a diner booth with the two of them, a pair of low-frequency geniuses, in the late afternoon before a show across the street. 


Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson

When I received this book, a gift from my partner (who often displays a remarkable prescience when it comes to determining what I will like), I'll admit that my knowledge of The Carpenters was about on par with than of anyone else of my generation – I knew that they were siblings, and that they were responsible for a slew of 70s AM hits that paved the way for the existence of Soft Rock, songs that some might refer to as “accessible” and others may just call corny. Why Karen Carpenter Matters was, to me, especially relevatory, not only in its exploration of Karen Carpenter's musicality (though she is remembered as a singer – something of a front and foil to her brother Richard, who styled himself as the band's musical talent – she was a talented drummer), but of the long-term cultural impacts of her career. Karen spent most of her tragically short life in some semblance of service to others – mostly men – and sang songs about mainstream fantasies of “normal” romance and relationships. Yet she's become iconic to a new generation of fans who exist outside of the spectrum of airbrushed, too-perfect whiteness that Karen herself couldn't quite buy into. In a work that is as much memoir as music journalism, Karen Tongson dives into her family's legacy, her childhood in the Philippines and her immigrant experience as a teenager, and her journey into her musical identity as  she discovered her own queer identity. Ideas of what is mainstream - “normal” - and what is not have always been hard-wired into any discussion of popular music, from Stravinsky to punk rock to NWA, and Tongson brilliantly interrogates those ideas here – while presenting a remarkable biography of a singular artist. 


The Lives of the Poets (With Guitars) by Ray Robertson

We all have a type. That's as true for music as it is for anything else. While I try to experience music as widely as possible – I'm that guy who always shows up to see the opener, even (or especially) if I've never heard of them, the guy who keeps the radio on in the car instead of turning to playlists of songs I already know – I find myself gravitating, time and again, toward a certain kind of artist: usually unceremonious (to paraphrase Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, “we're a bar band, which means basically that we go onstage in the same clothes we've been wearing all day”), a little melancholy, minimally polished, and as notable for their lyrics as for the chords underneath. Apparently, this is Ray Robertson's type as well, and in these thirteen essays, he tells the stories of artists who changed, and in some cases defined, their genres, despite in many cases hanging on at the fringes. These essays are not exactly taut and precise, but then, taut precision does not seem to be the point here – these are loving, bombastic appreciations from a writer who has clearly worn out records from each of these songwriters, and has some feelings, man, if you'll just listen. Each of these essays feels like one of those conversations of a particular intensity that you might get into, past midnight, with a friend you haven't seen in a long time. From Townes Van Zandt to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gang's all here, and you may well find yourself inspired by Robertson's obvious love for his subjects' work.


They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

One could make an argument that They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is not entirely about music, and in a literal sense one would be not entirely wrong. One would also be not even close to right, missing the point by a mile, and missing out on what is probably one of the finest essay collections, period, of the past decade. Here, with a wide but focused lense, Abdurraqib uses music criticism as it has always been used best – as a discreet side door into piercing examinations of culture, politics, love, and race. Abdurraqib explores the promise of Chance the Rapper and the unexpected allure of Carly Rae Jepson. He pokes at the myth of honest, hard work in Bruce Springsteen's America, and confronts the misogyny of mid-2000s Emo at a Cute Is What We Aim For show. He dissects the way it feels to be the only black kid at the punk show, the only kid in the dorm with an Arabic name on the morning of 9/11. With the ear of a critic, a fan, and a poet (and Abdurraqib is an acclaimed poet), he crafts a breathtaking and visceral soundtrack for our shared tragedies and triumphs, personally and nationally. If you're looking for a writer who will change the way you listen to, and think about, music, look no further.


Rise Up Singing  and The Rise Again Songbook by Peter Blood & Annie Peterson

When I was growing up, singalongs and impromptu song circles (yes, there, I said it, song circles) were a fairly common occurrence at gatherings of our family friends. There would be people who had old guitars and knew a couple of chords, and people who just liked to sing the chorus, and people who fronted bands and actually knew what they were doing – but they all used the same book. If you're feeling like you need live music right now, it might be time to make your own, and Rise Up Singing is a pretty timeless and accessible way to start. It's simple enough for any novice who wants to dust off the guitar/ukulele/keyboard/whatever that they haven't touched in years, but it carries an authority that comes from years of use by musicians of all backgrounds and experience levels. Rise Up Singing is kind of a greatest-hits-collection of folk standards and traditionals, while The Rise Again Songbook adds a ton of more diverse and contemporary material. Make music with your roommates. Make music with your family. Make music for your dog. Make music.