(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

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On the Radio (Flashback): Send Me on My Way

The album's title was more suited to my adult self...

The album’s title was more suited to my adult self…

A few years back after my wife and I first moved into semi-voluntary exile in this southern waste, we both suffered from a nostalgic malaise that I now diagnose as more a function of lifetime transition syndrome than any true and permanent issue with our new home.  See, any time you make those big leaps in life from school to work or single life to married life, there can be a period of adjustment after the initial excitement that is somewhat like depression (and sometimes makes the transition to actual depression). I witnessed similar fugues in the lives of friends after we left undergrad or years after marriages (weeks and months after bad ones).

My wife and I had a special case of this malaise because we stayed at ‘summer camp’ (the unreality of undergraduate school and graduate school where friends are always around, responsibilities are limited and drinking on Tuesday nights is socially tolerable) until we were almost thirty. As a result, the adjustment to real life was extremely difficult. We were uprooted from the embrace of dozens of friends, a city we loved, and the limited daily expectations of graduate school and dropped into the repetitive grind of work in surburbia. We were not unhappy, but we weren’t as happy as we thought we’d be.

I used to waste entire days watching and rewatching the same television shows only to shake off my soporific sorrow in the mid afternoon to stumble into a gym. I would fake my way through a work out and return home to start it all over again. But one day, I was disrupted from my reverie and pulled into another when Rusted Root’s “Send Me on My Way” came on the radio.

Now, what was more than slightly disturbing about this moment wasn’t my reaction–I did get a bit teary eyed–but the disconnect between the way I felt about this song in 2008 and how I felt about it nearly 15 years earlier when it first came out (released on my birthday, of all days) in 1994.  When the song first came out, it was immediately beloved by the crustier fringe of the alt-rock set, the wannabe hippies and many members of the Lilith fair set. The band’s use of world music motifs and their ‘earthy’ sound also made them appeal to the crunchier granola-yuppie fringe. It was almost as if Dave Matthews was coming again.

So, of course, I decided to hate the song and the band. The only problem was that my very earnest girlfriend at the time–the same girl who loved Celine Dion and Pearl Jam at once–absolutely loved the song. To torture her, I would pretend to misunderstand the lyrics and ask why he was singing about a “simian way”. Even today, when I reflect on them, the lyrics seem so simplistic as to be moronic. Yet, they do have a certain sweetness:

I would like to reach out my hand
I may see you, I may tell you to run (On my way, on my way)
You know what they say about the young.

Some strange nostalgic concoction of my memory of this song and that girl from nearly half my life ago disarmed me. Again, it wasn’t as if I was unhappy with my life, it was that I was unhappy with my memory of that self from my former life, the spiteful cynic who couldn’t take the simple pleasure of someone else’s joy in a song. (And this is one of the great gifts of parenthood; we learn how to find pleasure in someone else’s delight even if we do not share this delight.)

See, this girl was the last girl of childhood. I mean, we were both teenagers, but the relationship was the kind of pre-sexual romance that teenagers are either too afraid to leave or too impetuous to appreciate. And the very type of relationship melancholy adults who have lived a bit too much romanticize and idealize. So, that day on the treadmill I let the first verse of a song I used to loathe transport me back in time to a place that never was.

Here is a live version to slake my thirst and yours…

As is my usual custom, I needed to hear the song all the time. I loved its rhythm and unrestrained vocals. It not only seemed filled with joy but it even brimmed with optimism and energy, two things that are too often in short supply in your 30s. I downloaded the album and was forlorn when all of the other songs seemed so pallid and tepid in comparison. Could it be that the band was so bad that not one other song was memorable or was it that I only had memories attached to one?

In any case, the song has became a staple of my running playlists. Even when it shows up on commercials I smile. Now it calls both of those memories, it pulls me back to the young me who thought himself good enough to judge others and to the older me who was finally learning to be a better judge of himself.

And what about you my brother? I know that our friend the Professor has many songs that he loves for their context rather than their content….

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

Continue reading

Seasonal Affective Disorder

My brother wrote a few weeks ago about dealing with winters in the north and their effect on your psyche. He also stated that this issue basically disappeared when he moved to a southern climate; but I think this has a lot more to do with the fact that the man has no time to be morose with two young kids, a full time job as a professor and so on and so forth.

One of the many things that add to Seasonal Affective Disorder is that when it is extremely cold and/or snowy, you can’t do much outside unless you thrive on a winter sport like skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling or whatever. Snow removal generally sucks as well (which we will discuss a little further along). The bad weather coupled with the come-down from the holidays and the crappy economy of the last few years has really made me feel this S.A.D. thing. I also tend to miss my father more around this time for the obvious reason that the anniversary of his death comes at the end of this month and the holidays really emphasize his absence.

So I had a long talk with my brother on the phone on this subject and one of the many ways we talked of dealing with these generally shitty feelings is to write about it in our blog. He has already sort of covered it and I will add my own experience right now. I’m lucky to have a brother that not only listens  about why I feel like shit but also helps me look at various ways I can combat this yearly phenomena.  Exercise, limiting of alcohol consumption and a renewed focus on finding a real job were key points. So here it is.

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Elliott Smith, Lost and Found

My brother recently confessed to his ‘lameness’ as an Elliott Smith fan. That is not to say that he is lame because he is an Elliott Smith Fan, but because he is a fan who rarely listens to the music. I am not quite sure that he is right about being lame.

Some food is so sweet that only children and gluttons can eat large amounts of it. Strong drink is poured in small glasses. Spices are held in abeyance and delivered parsimoniously. Some things are just so pure and strong that to be digested they must be diluted.

The beauty of a song, a poem or any artwork is not the same as food or drink. It cannot be diluted to be enjoyed over time. If the potency is overwhelming, the only solution is to take it in small doses.

And that, my brother and friends, is Elliott Smith. His music is beyond morose. His lyrics are exceptional and often harrowing. The combination of the two is a taut tonic that can uplift your spirits or tear them down. How is this possible?

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