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Remarks for Hovering at the Edge (IICSI Guelph Colloquium, 13 September 2018)

For Hovering at the Edge: Words, Music, Sound, and Song
IICSI colloquium at Guelph, 13 September 2018
(Panel with Sara Villa, Paul Watkins, Rob Wallace)
First Half.
I want to start by poaching a phrase from the title of Fred Moten’s hot-off-the-Duke-University-Press trilogy, which he admits to purloining from Christopher Winks’s translation of an interview of Antillean poet Édouard Glissant by the filmmaker Manthia Diawara. Here it is: “Consent not to be a single being” (xvi). The implicit network of voices caught up in that performative translation suggests, already, the layered irresolution, the refusal and the excess that Moten names, following on a reading of C. L. R. James, the “not-in-between.” For a good twenty-five years now, I have attempted fairly quietly to practice a plural and dislocated cultural pedagogy, both critical and (co)creative, that hovers in the sometimes appropriative, sometimes disjunctive interstices of the Eurological, the Afrological and the Indigenous. I lay claim to no particular belonging, although my appearance and heritage tend to do that for me, materially and obviously. My writing such as it is has striven, sometimes against its own tendencies and sometimes by embracing them, to inhabit and to enliven—and to be enlivened by—those unstable and conflicted contingencies, those dissolving and partial places where productive intersections can and do happen. “Join me down here in nowhere,” Claudia Rankine calls out in Citizen: An American Lyric. I feel like I have tried, in my teaching and in my writing, to answer (and to answer to) that fraught, rich, poetic invitation.
            The hover I often find myself attempting to describe occurs—perhaps as a temporary suture, perhaps as an undoing, as a re-opened wound—in the liquid, motile collision of words and music that happens both in and as song, particularly improvised song. It’s the attenuation, the extemporal hysteresis, in one sense, that tugs lyrics toward the lyric. Drawing on Amiri Baraka’s concept of “musicked speech,” Moten begins to map in C. L. R. James’s sentences a “phrasal disruption” that he names lyric, a noisy “poetry” interrupting (“[n]ot by opposition; by augmentation”) James’s prose—inflecting Moten’s own parenthetical and iterative style, as well as my imitation here—and an aurality that “remains to be seen and heard so to speak, and in excess of the sentence because it breaks up meaning’s conditions of production,” serving “to disrupt and trouble meaning toward content” (3).  At the same time, music asserts itself through and against the verbal “not only as a mode of organization but, more fundamentally, as phonic substance, phonic materiality irreducible to any interpretation but antithetical to any assertion of the absence of content” (31). Moten comes to offer his apologies for such theoretically and poetically dense passages as the ones I have just quoted: “I’m sorry if this is all a blur. I’m so used to my own astigmatism that maybe I can’t even talk to anybody anymore. To make matters worse, I’ve never been able to keep my glasses clean” (261). Still, he understands his own verbose blur (as the title of his book suggests) as constitutive and crucial, as inhering in the give-and-take word-music of song itself. This astigmatism, this arrhythmia, is the stuff of the improvisatory; Moten offers, as exemplary, the unsettled musicking of Charles Mingus: “He would protect the pulse, like any good bass player, while freeing himself from it,” and, I want to add, by singing, shouting, moaning, ululating, vocalizing as he plays (103). Protection, however, also articulates itself against the risk of hurt, in Moten’s terms, as both complement and antagonist, as augmentation and opposition. Moten thematizes this correspondent hurt in the transcribed/described “scream” of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Michel Leiris evokes the “cri,” which he hears in “les sons râpeux . . . que les jazzmen aiment àtirer de leurs instruments àvents . . .qu’ils savent aussi faire gémir, grognier, se plaindre ou ricaner sur toutes sortes de tons” [the raspy sounds. . . that jazzmen like to shoot from their wind instruments. . that they also know how to moan, grunt, complain or snicker on all kinds of tones] (37). This pained and celebratory tonality—at once, for Leiris, derisive and sanguine—offers a moment of suture, of unruly translation, between what he calls paroleand chant, speech and song: “Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile de traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passé de la parole au chant? S’ils se font chant, n’est-ce pas lorsque, cessant d’obéir seulement aux injonctions du dictionnaire, ils valent par ce que leur forme et point seulement leur sens official suggèrent (en quelque sorte ‘génèrent’)?” [Perhaps it is when the words, instead of being in a servile position of translators, become generators of ideas that we pass from the word to the song? If they make themselves sing, is it not when, ceasing to obey only the injunctions of the dictionary, they are worth what their form and point only their official sense suggest (somehow ‘generate’)?] (112). In some sense like me, Leiris comes to this music as an attentive outsider, hoping by staging, as audition, a close proximity to its song also to catch at (that is, to translate otherwise) some of its vitality, its deep cry. Moten, by contrast, necessarily resists such “an absolute nearness [to black vitality], an absolute proximity, which a certain invocation of suture might approach, but with great imprecision. . . . There’s no remembering, no healing. There is, rather, a perpetual cutting, a constancy of expansive and enfolding rupture and wound, a rewind that tends to exhaust the metaphysics upon which the idea of redress is grounded” (ix). “Jazz,” as he puts it, “does not disappear the problem,” or dress its wound, or offer healing sesames: jazz “isthe problem and will not disappear. It is, moreover, the problem’s diffusion, which is to say that what it thereby brings into relief is the very idea of the problem” (xii, emphasis in original). While attempting to describe my own practice of study, which I understand as the interrogation and elaboration of a certain conceptual arrhythmia, I have perhaps relied overmuch on quoting Moten in these few minutes, but I am also mindful that the work of reading, with as much acuity as I can muster, is also to develop a tenuous but palpable resonance, a hapsis, a pushback and a to-and-fro with what I hear presently in Moten’s sentences. I’m going to move on to try to give a more specific example of this practice of reading and listening, of listening as reading, but before that I want to look only once more to the early pages of Moten’s book, where he delineates what he calls “black study” as the stuff of discrepant song, as audible hurt and as a “lyricism of the surplus”:
This is why, as Wadada Leo Smith has said, it hurts to play this music. The music is riotous solemnity, a terrible beauty. It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study. (xiii)
My own practice of study cannot unproblematically or unchallenged suture itself to that terrible beauty or find even vestigially proximity to Moten’s “we.” Nevertheless, in the fraught translation between word and sound that manifests itself in improvised song, I do find myself, following Brent Hayes Edwards and, of all people, Raymond Williams, “hovering ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’” (16) trying to explain the blur.
Part Deux. Deuxième Partie, I Should Say.
I only have a couple of minutes, so I want to give a brief example of the creative blur, the hover I’ve been trying to describe in my own creative-critical practice by ventriloquizing some of Fred Moten’s recent work. I want to begin to listen carefully to Darius Jones’s and Emilie Lesbros’s Le Bébé de Brigitte, which is both an homage to and an extension of Brigitte Fontaine’s 1969 collaboration with Areski Belkacem and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme à la Radio. I want to take up two related tropes to understand how song and the improvisatory intersect in this work: the suture and, borrowing the title of the one wordless track on Darius Jones’s 2015 recording, the “universal translator.” Linking the Jones-Lesbros collaboration directly to the Brigitte Fontaine recording is from the get-go a bit misleading and an instance of mistranslation or of meaning lost in translation. If you dig a little (through the internet, for instance), you’ll discover that the “Brigitte” in Darius Jones’s title is not Fontaine (though named for her) but a maternal figure in his evolving personal cosmology (articulated in his unfolding series of “Man’ish Boy” recordings); unless you find your way to such notes, however, who Brigitte is will remain hermetic and likely miscued for listeners. The promise of universal translatability offers itself through Google or in Star Trekand Hitchhiker’s Guideutopianism (and has something to do with an Afro-Futurism here, though I have no room to engage or unpack it), but rather than transparency, the universality – the Benjaminian Reine Sprache– that Jones describes musically is an effect of contingent opacity, of difference and uncertainty, of the slipped suture: “In the process of creating this music, we often fell into moments of miscommunication because of differences in culture and language. I think this created a sense of mystery, and forced all of us to listen more deeply to each other’s nuances and subtleties, because we didn’t always have words to fall back on.” Words, despite what Jones appears to claim here, are not even a fallback for communicative or diegetic clarity, and even when they’re unsung, their tug and blur remain in play in the performance, the articulation, of these songs. Briefly put, the cosmology – the universality of an imagined universal translator – never closes or coheres, not even for its originator; instead it revises, remakes, re-writes itself, an extemporaneous diegesis. Which means, for me, that in the stitching, the verbal-acoustic suturing that happens when we sing, the lyric “problem” that Fred Moten describes tends to come into play, maybe even necessarily. Here are a few snippets from the (what I take to be) largely improvised lyrics by Brigitte Fontaine for “Comme à la Radio,” the eponymous opening track for her collaborative album: 
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que de la musique
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que des mots
Des mots
Comme à la radio
And,
                        Tout juste un peu de bruit
Pour combler le silence
As she moves through the song, we realize that with her increasing tenacity what we’re hearing both is and is not audible “like” a song “on the radio.” Her words, her noise, fills in silences, but even with what we might mistake for self-deprecation (“nothing but words,” “nothing but music”), it inclines itself, by both suturing and cutting into itself and its musical accompaniment, to the “nowhere” that Claudia Rankine says she inhabits, an excessive and unruly soundspace that both fills semantic gaps and refuses to fill us in. Emilie Lesbros’s singing on, for example, “Chanteuse in Blue,” also darts in and out of any semantic purview (one critic, while asserting that her texts are mostly “suitably poetic,” found that these words “veer into the irritating”: I’d call them edgy, working the audio nerves to the edge, the abutment, of sound and sense, of the Eurological and the Afrological, let’s say, with her Aebi-Birkin-esque accent): 
hah, wah, a-a-a-a-a, uegh
“Baby, let me tell you something.”
“Chanteuse in blue . . .”
“He said, ‘What? What are you talking about, sweetheart?’”
                        “I said, ‘I am suffering from the difference that people 
think we have.’”
What’s both thematized and enacted here, meta-diegetically and subversively, as translated verbal excess, is precisely and necessarily the irritation of the lyric: the refusal to settle in; instead Lesbros (and Darius Jones’s dialogic saxophone lines, both miming and counterpointing, intensifying and cross-cutting Lesbros’s voice) presents an embrace—a fraying and a knitting up – of the discomfiting, the discrepant, the extramusical, the blur. I will have exceeded my time. My time’s more than up.
Texts Quoted or Name-checked (in reverse alphabetical order)
Fred Moten. Black and Blur. First volume of consent not to be
a single being.  Duke UP, 2017.
Michel Leiris. À Cor et à Cri. Gallimard,1988.
Brent Hayes Edwards. Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary 
Imagination. Harvard UP, 2017.

Voicing Dissent: Petra Haden’s Other America (LA Sojourn, Part 1)

I’ve been listening to Petra Haden‘s recordings for years now. I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing her sing live, but still respond to a vibrant directness, a deeply engaging vitality, that inheres in her music, particularly in the overdubbed choric covers of popular song that she’s been self-releasing through YouTube and Facebook. I associate her vibrancy with an adaptive, attentive and essentially improvisatory approach to singing—improvisatory not despite the compositional fixity of any recording, but as a structural principal of this kind of recording. That claim needs to be argued, rather than taken as a given, and making a version of that argument is what I’m starting to do in the essay I’m posting here; it’s a paper that I delivered on Friday, March 30, 2018, at UCLA during the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, as part of a seminar called ‘“Stay Woke”: The Politics of Protest Song,’ organized and chaired by Bronwyn Malloy of the University of British Columbia. I’m working with Petra Haden’s cover of the David Bowie-Pat Metheny Group collaboration, “This Is Not America,” which is the theme song from the 1985 spy-thriller The Falcon and the Snowman, to try to discover the ways in which dissent voices itself not necessarily as dissonance or discord but rather in the re-figurations of plurality in the varietals of community represented by choral song: to concoct a multiplicity out of an initial gesture at negation or lyric refusal, the promise of an America sounded from what it is not or what it refuses to be. Many of her covers of film themes and of pop and pop kitsch (such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) operate neither as satire nor as mere celebration, but produce a form of Americana – Haden’s collaborations with Bill Frisell and with Jesse Harris, as well as her work with her father Charlie Haden’s legacy operate in this vein, in my view – that sustains a democratizing impulse in its aural blend of irony and joy; her songs open up an auditory and audible space in which an attentive and open-hearted America can begin to hear itself more fully.

Equality as Listening: Maya Angelou and Dave Holland

When I heard about Maya Angelou’s passing last week, I also realized it had been a while since I had listened to Dave Holland’s setting of her 1990 poem “Equality,” two versions of which he recorded with his quartet (one with vocals by Cassandra Wilson) on his 1996 album Dream of the Elders. This group – with Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba, Eric Person on alto and soprano saxophone and Gene Jackson on drums – was a transitional band for Dave Holland, articulating between his two great quintets – the second of which would retain Nelson at its core. I’m not sure if “Equality” remained in the later quintet’s book, but I do remember hearing an instrumental version of the song when this quartet played Vancouver (at the Van East Cultural Centre) in June 1997. I remember how Dave Holland stressed that the tune was composed around a Maya Angelou poem, that her text made a difference as to how he felt his music could be heard and understood. The booklet for the ECM disc offers a “special thanks to Dr. Maya Angelou for permission to use her poem Equality, and for the inspiration and clarity of thought that her work gives to this world.”  

Maya Angelou’s work has a specific relationship to American cultural memory. It strives for clarity, for declarative resonance and public audibility. “You declare you see me dimly,” her poem “Equality” begins, ironically presenting intersubjectivity (in this instance, what will soon emerge in the poem as a gendered imbalance of power) as a longing for claritas. Her poem wants bright mutuality and distinctive, distinguished exchange.  Poetry, as self-attentive speech, meant for Angelou overcoming dimness or obscurity with demonstrative surety. Her writing enacts and invites, maybe even demands, a certain practice of shared listening that is at once responsive and responsible. Its verbal music can be simultaneously plain and arch, colloquial and poetical, convolute and direct; listen to the counterposed diction in a line from “Equality” like “You do own to hear me faintly . . .” As a form of public speech, her poetry satisfies conventional, base-line expectations (around rhyme and rhythm, for example, or around occasionally abstract diction) about what a poem ought to look and to sound like. Her poems seem to be woven from her own personal moral fibre, from her principled example: the poet, in this conception, preaches what she practices, and writes what she lives. “I go forth / alone,” she declares in the composite voice of “Our Grandmothers,” “and stand as ten thousand.”
Still, for all its emphasis on aspirational greatness and empowerment, her poetry also repeatedly recognizes its own shortfall. The uncompromising capital-P full-stop artistic power to which she lays claim in her poems – she isolates the term as a single-word sentence in the last line of “Love Letter”: “Power.” – relies on a potentially problematic assertion of self-mastery that risks replicating the oppressive social and cultural discursive machineries it seeks to overturn. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t recognize and respect the historical and societal circumstances out of which Angelou’s fierce voice emerges, her proud and defiant assertion of African-American women’s heritage and language against racial and sexual oppression. Speaking truth to power, particularly on behalf of the disenfranchised, ought not to be constantly compelled to interrogate its own essentialism, and such self-directed skepticism genuinely risks undermining and diffusing the political efficacy of its challenge, and of falling into unwelcome compromise: “You have tried to destroy me / and though I perish daily, / I shall not be moved.” But the firmness of Maya Angelou’s poetics, of her declarative mode, also entails acknowledging and confronting the ethical risk around a speaking subject who might declaim without listening, who offers up a language of refusal without reciprocity – even given the obvious imbalance of power and the self-evidently just demands for expressive space, to make herself heard. What she risks in writing is very real in two senses, then, as she balances the demands of self-actualizing pride and of ethical deference. And Maya Angelou says so, too. “When you learn,” her composite grandmother intones to her cultural children, “teach. / When you get, give.” Against the sculptural stridency of her lines, Angelou also repeated counsels herself and her readers to engage in an open-armed and reciprocal humility. “Enter here,” she intones, inviting her ancestors, but also her readers, to converse with her, to listen but also to be listened to.
She frames her elegy for “Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield” with a gesture at the contradictions that inhere in representative greatness, in the work of exemplary self-expression and racial or community solidarity:
          When great souls die,
          the air around us becomes
          light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
In this set of foreshortened lines, she traces the emergence of a stricken hiatus, manifest “briefly” at a moment of subjective crisis within that collective “we” when those artists and figures (in this instance, of creative black masculinity) in whose names and images we have invested, as a community, are suddenly absent. In coming days, with the unfolding of shared grief, Angelou promises that those absences will soon “fill / with a kind of / soothing electric vibration,” but this instability is enacted, in the present tense of her poem, as a claritas – a declaration – that simultaneously wounds and salves, a “hurtful clarity.” The nascent refrain in these lines, “briefly,” affirms through repetition its own sure-footedness while bespeaking a fleeting contingency, a briefness.
Elsewhere, she describes this attentive and unsettling reciprocity as a collision in the voice of the private and public, of lyric and polemic, of self and other, as a form of mutual listening:
                  Listening winds
                  overhear my privacies
        spoken aloud (in your
        absence, but for your sake).
I think that this dynamic and shifting balance of humility and power, of surety and openness, in her lines (notice the gently fractured line-breaks in what I’ve just cited, for example) is one way of understanding what she calls “Equality.” The poem employs an 8787 syllabic stanza pattern derived from hymnals:
                  Yóu annóunce my wáys are wánton,
                  thát I flý from mán to mán,
                  but íf I’m júst a shádow tó you,
                  cóuld you éver únderstánd?
(The “but” in the third line is an anacrusis.) This fixed rhythmic form – “the rhythms never change” she states twice in the poem – has been associated with the public traditionalism of Angelou’s poetry. Christopher Benfey, in a succinct entry on Maya Angelou in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, notes how “[t]he strength of her lyrics, with their unashamed and passionate use of iambic rhythm and full rhyme, lies in the combination of blues and gospel traditions with strong emotional and political insight.” The performative rhythm of her verse, however, both here and elsewhere, tends to be trochaic rather than iambic, a rhythm that’s at once instantly assertive and recurrently elegiac, as each two-syllable unit begins on a strong stress and then briefly falls away. “Equality” takes as its subject the oppression of women by unresponsive and callous men, and the indices of race – unless we take her stanza form as inherently African American, which it isn’t – are much less in evidence than Benfey’s reading (which seems to rely on cultural stereotypes) suggests they might be in a Maya Angelou poem. The poem’s refrain – “Equality, and I shall be free.” – certainly echoes the public discourse of the civil rights movement, but the “equality” she seeks is presented as a balance of erotic power. It’s worth noting, too, that despite the nominal, declarative pressure that the chorus asserts, pronouncing the word ”equality” on its own as a gesture at enacting it verbally, that balance is also pulled slightly askew by the tacked-on modifier, a phrase that looks to the future rather than affirming an achieved present. Within a shifting braid of pronouns – you, I , we – the voice calls for equality, rather than attaining it.
But it’s also worth remarking that equality, repeated within a choric sentence fragment, becomes dynamic rather than discrete; it’s contingently, “briefly” attained in the process of speaking or singing the poem. Dave Holland’s recording has the syllables of “equality” attenuated and stretched in the lower registers of the singing voice, either Cassandra Wilson’s warm alto or Eric Person’s alto saxophone. The setting is built on a looped, largely unchanging slow-tempo phrase in Holland’s bass – a “line” that picks up on the trochaic lament of Angelou’s own line. Holland’s firm touch, his technically assured and rhythmically forward style on the double bass, also seems to me to correspond to what I have been calling the declarative surety of Maya Angelou’s verbal style. (Choosing to set this particular poem, Holland also arguably enacts an interracial dialogue and a masculine response to Angelou’s female cry.) Steve Nelson’s vibes provide an Afrological sound texture to the performance, echoed by Gene Jackson’s mallets on his tomtoms, which for me also recall some of Max Roach’s playing (behind Abbey Lincoln’s vocals) on “Prayer/Protest/Peace,” from his Freedom Now Suite. The collective performance of the quartet, with or without vocalist, enacts in the give-and-take between extemporaneous freedom and ensemble cohesion a formal, polymorphic analogue to what Angelou calls “equality”: a motile balancing act among disparate voices.
That the music inhabits a kind of resonant hiatus is not to suggest that it is diffident or tentative, but rather that it opens itself up to contrapuntal subject positions, a version of what Jean-Luc Nancy has described as the “listening” of (not to, but of) music itself: “alteration and variation, the modulation of the present that changes it in expectation of its own eternity, always imminent and always deferred . . .” (Listening67). I hear a version of the futurity of Angelou’s claim that “I shall be free” in Nancy’s withdrawing eternity here. Nancy insists on the selflessness of this kinesis, but between Holland and Angelou we have more like a partiality, and inclination of open-eared selves, a conversation. Although Angelou declares she will not be moved, in fact to move – in both its affective and kinetic senses – is precisely the interchange toward which “Equality” strives, toward which its imperatives incline us:
         Take the blinders from your vision,
         take the padding from your ears,
         and confess you’ve heard me crying,
         and admit you’ve seen my tears.
         Hear the tempo so compelling,
         hear the blood throb in my veins.
         Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
                   and the rhythms never change.
The eternal return of those figural drums marks a demand to be heard: that the private interiority of the voice’s pulse, a somatic beat audible we’d imagine only to herself in her own ears, might become liminally audible in the grain, in the wide long held notes, of the singing voice, in her open vowels. When Cassandra Wilson sings these words, they turn into an invitation to reflect on how we engage in attending or listening to music, on how we actively and deliberately open our eyes and ears to attend to a shared humanity. And they also, tonally, allow us briefly and approximately to access, across the tympanums of our own open ears, the palpable textures of her breath and pulse. Equality is Maya Angelou’s name for that temporary intimacy, that contact, that touch.

Hey, That’s Me: Bruce Springsteen and Audience, Part 1

Last week, I started off the current version of an undergraduate course I’m teaching on song lyrics and popular culture with a four-class unit about Bruce Springsteen. I have tried to use his music as an introductory case study in how popular music works, and in what it can do. One of the things we began to think through was the way in which his songs consistently thematize their own reception, representing both textually and musically a set of relationships between singer and audience. Specifically, I tried to read his songs as invitations not only into an erotic reciprocity – to touch and be touched, to feel each other’s presence – but also into a form of shared community: the nascent and loving democracy his “America” promises to be, even if maybe it can never realize that dream. These songs want to communicate, hopefully.
In what’s really the first essay in 31 Songs(2002), Nick Hornby asserts that his all-time favourite song is Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” That song both addresses and enacts, for him, a durable and enduring moment of love, and it describes the living arc of his own long-term fandom:
I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago.
[. . .] So I’ve loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I’ve heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of . . . Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders.
This one song manages, whenever he hears it, to speak to him, for him and about him. I have to say, too, that I know exactly the feeling and exactly the identification that Nick Hornby maps out here, exactly what it is that “Thunder Road,” even despite itself sometimes, makes happen for listeners and for fans every time it plays. Hornby describes his experience of the song as a kind of mimesis, in its perennial capacity to “express who you are, perfectly”: who he is, he must mean, although the second person – in which the bulk of the song is written – is significant. The song itself begins – after a brief descriptive intro – with a series of apostrophes, of interpellations that present themselves as urgent invitations, open doors:
The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
Hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again. I just can’t face
myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside, darlin’ – you know
just what I’m here for.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that
maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty but yeah you’re alright.
The shift from the distance of romantic spectacle to something like discursive proximity – close enough to make yourself heard – hinges on another inset moment of audibility, and of interpellation: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (echoed in the end rhymes) not only mimes the persona’s desire for Mary, but also hails him into existence, into audible range, as both a listening and a speaking-singing subject: “Hey, that’s me . . . .” Hearing Roy Orbison’s song on Mary’s radio gives him voice, and lets him talk, and also offers him a vocabulary and an idiom through which the rest of his own song can play out.
Professing desire beyond what he’s able or willing to say means for him returning to a literacy, to a kind of “talk,” a cultural field that the soundscape of rock’n’roll provides him with: “Now I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.” Springsteen positions himself both as ventriloquizing fan and as nascent legend to produce a kind of proactive audience, a practice of listening that means trying to learn how to attend to others while still managing to talk for yourself, and to talk yourself up. The song offers an extended invitation to a feminized, idealized other; Springsteen, from somewhere within the heteronormative city limits of an imaginary Freehold, New Jersey, asks his own listeners – on this the opening track of Born to Run – to be like Mary and to get in the front seat of his car and pull out of the deadened space of here with him, to win. That idealization is also both fractured and resisted, even as it’s declaimed as an article of faith, by insistent disavowals and negations (“ain’t . . . ain’t . . .”), and by Mary’s coy but very real refusals. If she seems to be framed merely as an object of his desire, existing “only” for him to overcome his loneliness and affirm his masculine agency, his long cascade of pleas and poetic flattery, of goading and passive aggressive come-ons, also tends to undermine itself from the outset; after all, who in their right mind would accept a date from a man who tells you you’re not beautiful, but just alright? Sure, he’s just being honest, I guess, but the conventional hyperbole inherent in love song lyrics, diffused into something plain and mundane, also loses most of its persuasive tug, its “magic.”
What’s worth noting is that, even if we end up choosing not to go with him somewhere else (and as “Born to Run” puts it, to “get out while we’re young”), or if on the other hand we turn out to be willing to trade in our angelic wings for some very earthbound wheels, what we experience for the five minutes of “Thunder Road” is still a sustained and open invitation, a seemingly one-sided conversation that nonetheless keeps asking us to respond, and that leaves its requests unanswered, those imaginary responses as-yet and always unheard, either from Mary or from us: they’re all potential,  all unfulfilled promise. “The door’s open,” we’re told, “but the ride ain’t free.” And the return, that cost, is a commitment to reciprocity. So when Nick Hornby says the song expresses “who you are, perfectly,” what he must mean, what he can only mean, is actually opposite to perfection or to closure; the song’s conversant subject, the “me” who both listens for and sings to Mary, never coheres, but remains unfinished, a figuration of desire.

         When I was sixteen, I finished my grade eleven economics exam early, and I couldn’t leave the exam room, so I copied out from memory the lyrics to “Thunder Road” on the back of the exam booklet. It was a young fan’s act of mimicry, though I’m not sure what those lyrics might even have meant to me then, if I understood them or identified myself through them the way I might now, or might not. But what I do recognize in retrospect is that re-writing, transcribing, Springsteen’s words by hand was an initial gesture at that reciprocity. In those few free minutes, I started to write myself into a dialogue – a little like fourteen-year-old Terry Blanchard in Kevin Major’s YA novel Dear Bruce Springsteen – a conversation with whoever it was I’d always want to become. “My love, love, love,” he sings later and elsewhere, “will not let you down.” That’s not to say Springsteen’s songs will tell us who we are, but that they will always keep that reciprocal Eros, that mutuality, live and open, that invitation to join him heading down the road.

Bud the Spud at the Boy Scout Jamboree

When Stompin’ Tom Connors died a week or so ago, I thought back to the time I saw him perform live at the Canadian Boy Scout Jamboree at Cabot Beach, Prince Edward Island in July of 1977. His abbreviated concert now seems to me to have been both apt and inappropriate: a contradiction that haunts most of Connors’s music, at least as I hear it. For me, it’s hard to listen to the thudding polka beat and reedy vocals of “The Ketchup Song” – for instance – and not be utterly embarrassed by the bathos and yet wholly enthralled by his strangely unshakable commitment to Canadian regional quiddities: Stompin’ Tom’s quirky lyrics voice a wryly ardent poetics of his, of our places, and of our brands. 
Foxed snapshot of a row of flags near the entrance to CJ’77
A duplicitous adolescent nationalism attaches itself to this mid-seventies moment in my own life, like an ideological push-me-pull-you, epitomized in my participation in Boy Scouts that summer. 
Lighthouse tower with the jamboree logo
I wore the uniform, happily and a little proudly and doubtless naively, but was also (more by preadolescent instinct than conscious choice) a bit of a skeptic and a cynic. Wanting to believe, as the troubling Friedrich Nietzsche says somewhere else and about somebody else, is not the same thing as believing. I wanted the buy-in, and tried hard, but could never fully manage it. And that’s how I hear my own version of Stompin’ Tom, then, for what must have been the first time, and now, for the umpteenth: with ambivalence, as a sound wanting my buy-in, but me being finally unwilling or unable to let go and do it, to just “tune [my] attitude in.” 
So, I have been clicking and surfing now for a few days off and on, but can’t find any electronic evidence that Stompin’ Tom actually performed at the jamboree. My memory might be faulty, sure, there’s always a chance of that, but I’m sure, sure it was also real, that this concert happened and that I was there, one among 16000 uniformed, preadolescent boys and their leaders. There must be others who remember him. As I recall things, he might have been the opening act for Anne Murray, who was an even bigger deal then than she might be now, and who had come to the jamboree to film part of an Anne Murray and Friends specialthat was to air on CBC television maybe that fall. This was the first national – even international – scouting event of its kind in Canada since 1961, and the fourth jamboree ever to have taken place. (They now recur at four- to six- year intervals.) The tent-city of boys near the Atlantic seaboard represented a resurgence of idealistic, late colonial Canadian nationalism, ten years after the centennial, for which we were both constructive participants and captive audience. The backdrop of the main stage offered a map of the country, with the provinces coloured in pinks and greens reminiscent of the elementary school geography class wall-hangings we all knew by sight, but enlarged. At the outdoor spectacle – which was staged like an oversized set of “campfire” songs – we heard Anne Murray and experienced a flyover by the Snowbirds jets (which now seems to me like a kind of parodically sentimentalized Canadian militarism). 
Snowbird flypast, over the ocean.
Apparently, a kilted and uniformed Prince Charles – as the movement’s and the dominion’s “chief scout” – addressed us, although I can’t remember what he said or even that he was there. 
The outdoor stage. It is too small to see who is talking
or performing, but I think it’s Prince Charles.
(I was even interviewed on tv – it might have been ATV or CBC – as some sort of representative boy scout; I think my scoutmaster had some connections in Nova Scotia, and he was kind enough to get some of his scouts out into view. Sadly for me, there’s no tape I know of to prove that this happened, but my parents saw it, all five seconds of it.) But I do remember Stompin’ Tom.
         This must have been the biggest crowd he ever played to. He would have just turned forty, although he had, as he always did, the worn, pinched thin-lipped face of a perennially older man. He looked country. I don’t know how I can picture these details. I was pretty far back in the welter of boys, but I think I can see how he was dressed: black hat, peglegged black jeans, flowered polyester cowboy shirt, tall-heeled cowboy boots, belt with ornate silver buckle, bolo tie, black vest, maybe real leather maybe imitation leather. His own uniform. He played some of his PEI songs I’m certain, “Bud the Spud” and “Lester the Lobster.” We all knew these songs, knew the words, and sang along if we weren’t too ashamed to sing. They were stupid, they were beautiful, they were awful, they were great. I don’t know how it was that we had heard them all before often enough to know them, but it was true that we had. Small-town country radio was almost all there was where I came from. He also did “Sudbury Saturday Night,” I think, and some inappropriate drinking songs. He may not have realized he was playing to amassed twelve year olds. Then again, he might have. It was, the way I remember it, a short concert, which is why I think it may have been the opening act. For maybe 30 minutes, he really kicked the heck out of his plywood stomping board, his left leg flailing at the stage: Stompin’ Tom had still come stompin’. In the end, he hadn’t played enough to wear a hole in the board. So he and the emcee just picked it up, and he finished punching a hole through the middle by hand. It had to be done.
         There was one kid in my scout patrol called Huey. His father owned some construction business or other around town; he was a boy-child of privilege, as most of us were in that troop. As we walked back from the concert to our tents, and for the rest of the trip, he must have been cued by the music to ask everybody within earshot over and over again the same two questions about the current top-forty: “Do you like ‘Sir Duke’?” “Do you like Fleetwood Mac?” For days afterwards, he wouldn’t stop. “Do you like Fleetwood Mac?” “Do you like ‘Sir Duke’?” Now I couldn’t admit it, but I actually kind of liked Stompin’ Tom. Uncool as he was, and so far off the un-Canadian charts, he still kicked it around. The sound of Tom Connors from Skinner’s Pond had got into my head, a relentlessly nasal, driven throb that no needy kid’s voice could ever dislodge.