Two things happened that got me thinking. This was during the Get Lit! Literary Festival, and I was staying at the Red Lion at the Park, standing out back on one of the footbridges, listening to the Spokane River. Airports, hotel lobby, various conventioneers at various conventions, all in that jeans/long-sleeves/fleecy-vest type of get-up, so maybe you can understand what happened: Out of the corner of my eye I spotted an older man walking up, pulling his rolling carry-on luggage. He stops to fidget or something. I turn back to watch the river pouring through the open floodgate. Then I catch him again out the corner of my other eye, crossing the bridge behind me, only he doesn’t have a suitcase at all. No collapsible/extract-o carry-on handle. He’s walking his dog. He’s holding a leash.
Perception is crazy damn weird. Either the brain tries taking shortcuts, or it’s trickable, or both. So that was the first thing.
The second is I’d gotten an email from my friend Jamie. He’s the lead singer in a Steely Dan cover band in Seattle called Nearly Dan—good name—and I’d asked about his recent gigs, and he told me performing is a blast but that he misses the way we used to play Gaucho and other Steely Dan records back in college. Meaning, on an actual turntable. We even had a sort of duel going, one or the other of us leaving a record spinning and the tone arm hovering and a note saying something like “Drop the books and then the needle and get your real education,” or “Try to beat this one, dumbass,” and it would be a lesser-known track from Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Restless Daughters, or “Dangerous Type” off Candy-O for a kick-back four-minute flashback since we’d grown up listening to the Cars, or one of Bob Newhart’s comedy albums… maybe his monologue in the form of a phone call to Sir Walter Raleigh in the colonies, saying no thanks to a shipment of a kind of drink you make out of beans; saying that Raleigh’s description of the “pineapple” sounded like lying or else evidence of his unhinged derangement; saying that no one in England was going to wad up leaves, light them on fire, then shove them in their mouth. “Tow-Back-Oh. That’s a great one, Walt,” as if Raleigh was a brain-fevered idiot who needed to hop aboard the next boat home. The exact record doesn’t matter and it isn’t the point. The point is that cuing up music on the internet isn’t the same. Jamie was saying that in his email, and I agree.
Pandora is the roller-wheeled suitcase rather than the actual dog. It’s misperception. And as a name, it’s pretty lame and upside down, the result of English-Major glibness, or Business-Major carnival barking, or Communications-Major “didn’t-do-the-homework” because whoever made up the name was skipping over the facts: Pandora’s Box wasn’t a good thing, not unless you want blight to fly out and everything nice to be lost except for hope. Tactile connection? Gone. Design and aesthetics? Whoosh. Intention and progress and resolution? Voided out in favor of disconnected singles, then some others kind of the same, like synonyms, and so on. She shouldn’t have her name misused that way, especially not after the mythological whammy the Ancient Greeks gave her in the first place, the same bad rap as Eve: “Don’t open that box, and don’t touch that fruit tree. Just sit there and die of curiosity.” Followed by: “Well, thanks to you two, everyone’s going to have allergies now. And zits and mucous and cancer. They’ll all stink, and struggle, and women will yell their guts out in childbirth, and people will be cursed with mosquitoes and TV commercials and then robbed of their autonomy in old age. All because of you.” That’s a suck-ass story if you think about it. But I’ll still take the original Tragedy over today’s new Whatever-You-Call-It, with software doing your choosing for you based on stuff you know you already like. I mean, maybe if it sparked curiosity… or if Spotify did… or the next thing comin’ ’round the mountain when it comes, but nope; they replace our curiosity with I-Don’t-Know.
Q: What’s in the box?
A: Just more boxes.
Q: Can I have a bite of your apple?
A: If I can have a bite of yours.
There used to be whole albums, these constructed sonic worlds, arranged in order and jacketed with cover art and liner notes, and sometimes those liner notes were like anthropological essays, or like eulogies for gone-away eras. Check out the Violent Femmes, for example: Add It Up (1981-1993). Or Nat Hentoff, Stanley Crouch, and others on jazz recordings. Reading the liner notes on Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959) is how I was reminded about what an opportunistic, race-baiting creep Governor Orval Faubus was. If his name’s not familiar, you can Wiki him, but I’d rather have “Fables of Faubus” spinning while I read from a record jacket I can hold in my hands. If I have to remember Faubus at all, or notice similarities between him and politicos these days (“Pandora, find me a present-day Orval-Eugene-type; bingo, out pops somebody yelling about Mexicans, Muslims, and women who aren’t in his beauty pageants), then doing it via keystrokes or swiping would just make it worse.
But getting back to music—I bet, though I don’t know for sure, you could tell Siri to sing Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” and get something that sounds like an existentially sad Chihuahua. Or you could say, “Amazon, play ‘Ring Them Bells’ by Bob Dylan,” and no doubt the song will play. But even so—even if you’re sitting by someone amazing, someone who makes you curious, someone who’s never heard this song before—it isn’t the same as lowering the tone arm, or opening the CD case and then the tray. It’s just not.
From that place on the footbridge over the Spokane River, you can see the dam, the open floodgates, colossal water pouring through, climbing the concrete banks of the channel, and it’s pretty cool. But it isn’t my favorite spot. The river is the least itself there and more like somebody else’s. It isn’t a whole album, just a packaged single. On repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.