Art & Culture

“Time for Livin’” (Originally published May 6, 2012)

Practically everyone with 140 characters to spare has already said their piece on the death of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. Though only 48 hours have passed since the news broke, it already seems like an eternity since many far more eloquent and thoughtful than I made their longer-form goodbyes public, signing off to one of the greats with reflections on the group and the man that I could only dream of duplicating:

The always reliable Jeff Weiss, “For our generation, the Beastie Boys were forever 22, the turnstile-hopping, egg-wielding, seltzer-spraying punks… Little did they know that they were also religious searchers, music video visionaries, and street art scholars. Decades before Kanye, they were pioneers of sophisticated ignorance.”

Sasha Frere-Jones’ New Yorker postscript, “And this is the Yauch people remember: a man who could say he was sorry and not feel lessened by it; a man living within the principles of Buddhism and committed to broadening awareness of the political situation in Tibet; and a genuinely quiet person who had become more likely to make a joke at his own expense than anyone else’s.”

And Pitchfork‘s Mark Richardson, calling Yauch, “a relatable blueprint for growing up, in both his art and his life.”

Those are just a few of my favorites.

It seems pointless to go deep in revisiting much of the band’s history or Yauch’s personal triumphs as, again, others have already taken care of that, and done a damn fine job of it, too. They had the first chart-topping hip hop album ever, they were a key proponent in the popularization of the genre as a “reputable” art-form, their Grand Royal imprint was a cornerstone of the ’90s, their music videos were revolutionary, and their music remains tirelessly relevant. They’re one of my favorite musical acts of all time, but I never saw them live. Now I never will.

A brief period of time has passed since another group of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, R.E.M., said their collective goodbye to fans, breaking up after about 31 years of active duty together. The Beastie Boys outlasted them, and by my account they left an imprint on pop music that overshadows the group of Athens-rockers in the process. Now that the Beastie Boys belong to history though, I’m struggling to muster any emotion that puts the emphasis back on me — what about my memories and my loss, as a fan?! — and I’m left with a feeling that I’m not sure I would have predicted after learning that the group had (unceremoniously, of course) broken up. The truth is though, as hours continue to pad the distance between the news and the present moment, “shattered,” “shocked,” and “heartbroken” are three reactions that I can’t claim to be honest, and I’ve hardly felt “sad” in response to the news. Nope, I’m not crushed because of a key cultural proponent’s passing. I’m glad.

From The New York Times‘ timeline of events leading up to Yauch’s death,

Mr. Yauch’s mother said he died at 9 a.m. on Friday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan with his parents, his in-laws, his wife, Dechen Wangdu, and his 13-year-old daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch, at his bedside. He had been admitted to the hospital on April 14 after a three-year battle with cancer of the salivary gland. He was conscious until the end… Mrs. Yauch said had been undergoing chemotherapy this spring, but his health deteriorated rapidly over the last two weeks. ‘It all just seemed to happen overnight,’ she said.

Of course it’s terrible that Yauch’s leaving behind a loving family and a globe full of friends, and was cut down well before His Time was supposed to come. But what if he had survived? What if he wasn’t so lucky with the cancer this time, and treatment was unable to combat its assault, allowing it to metastasize further, and potentially prompting some grotesque removal of flesh and bone. Or worse: the loss of his spirit. What if he “survived” and was left a shell of a person that the world has come to love, the cancer slowly separating the body from the man, crippling his family with the burden of seeing their loved one slowly disappear over a seemingly endless period of soul-crushing despair? Fantasy is a wonderful thing, and it’s pleasant to think of what could be and what might have been, but reality is often far more gruesome than anything we can conceive of.

Is it better to burn out than to fade away? How about a third option? How about doing it better than most have ever done before, and will likely do again? How about boasting a resume of such near-unparalleled longevity and depth that not a single soul can claim that your accomplishments would be anything less than impossible to match? How about embracing the role as humanitarian and philosophical bee-e-a-ess-tee-i-e in changing the face of global culture? How about a life that was neither too short nor too long, but one just long enough to help alter the world and leave behind a soundtrack to help us each embrace whatever the future may hold. Is Adam Yauch’s passing unfortunate? Unarguably so. But am I glad, no — thankful, that he lived as long as he did in the first place? With all my heart.

“Fedor Emelianenko: An Appreciation” (Originally published June 22, 2012)

Nearing the end of his fighting career, Fedor Emelianenko was outspoken (or at least as outspoken as the reserved Russian might have ever been) in placing the fate of his destiny in the hands of his god. Over the course of his three foundation-shaking Strikeforce losses “The Last Emperor” chalked up both his defeats (“I felt like I could’ve won. But the win somehow eluded me. I felt I could do it. I had chances, but God’s will was different.”) and his future (“If it’s God’s will, then I can certainly continue fighting for several years to come.”) to the will of his higher power. Reflecting earlier this week the legend again spoke to his heavenly directive in assessing his current state of mind, “Speaking about my loses, I thank God for them. Losses teach you more than victories. They make you think, look at your mistakes.” Yet after cracking Pedro Rizzo early in yesterday’s match, quickly following up with a series of accurate bombs to finish the downed Brazilian before even 90 seconds had passed, it was neither his god nor his country that he claimed to be guiding him at this point. It was now his family. And they were coming first. Fedor was retiring.

To the uninformed, the name Fedor Emelianenko is probably that of an unknown. But to even the most casual fans of mixed martial arts there might never again exist such polarizing character within the “best MMA fighter of all time” debate. Defenders of his claim to the throne largely consider Fedor’s prime (he was undefeated for nearly a decade, going 27-0 with 1 no contest, which included a hit-list featuring five former UFC Heavyweight Champions) to be the lone example necessary of establishing the fighter as The Best. Cooler heads, such as MMA Fighting’s Ben Fowlkes, rightfully fill in history’s gaps though. “He was the best,” begins Fowlkes in his swift asterisking of Fedor’s legacy. “[A]t least among the heavyweights. He was also one of the most overrated fighters to ever strap on a pair of gloves, and probably one of the most blatantly mismanaged ones.” The man defeated elite athletes and freakshows alike before losing to a series of fighters more well-rounded and hungry for victory than he, Fedor’s age and stubborn technique no doubt contributing to his late-stage career smudge. But the man’s legacy is far more deceiving than simply that of a once-great champion falling from grace after having dominated at an elite level.

Had the Internet’s gathered voice always been so widespread and vibrant, celebrating and disputing fighters’ legacies with as up-to-the-second precision as the community of fans does now, modern perception of Fedor might be less dismissive of his flaws for the sake of his amazing strengths: When he was good, he was downright terrifying. Yet even in maintaining objectivity while assessing his body of work as a whole, the what-ifs and could-have-beens are far too prevalent to dismiss: what if M-1 hadn’t placed their sole emphasis on ruble signs when managing the fighter; what if Fedor had been paired in dream matches with such elite UFC heavyweights as Randy Couture or Brock Lesnar; what if instead of his Rocky IV-like training camps he utilized modern sports science in crafting his tools; what if he’d shed the love-handles and taken his fierce dominance to the light heavyweight division where he really belonged? What would we be saying then? Therein lies the point. Now, none of it matters.

In perhaps the most emotionally on-point remembrance of Fedor’s career, Bloody Elbow reader Motmaitre neither celebrates the historic undefeated streak nor questions the caliber of opponent Fedor faced. Instead, Motmaitre looks to history in defining the moment, reflecting on how it wasn’t merely Muhammad Ali’s abilities that secured his place in time, and it hasn’t been Mike Tyson’s late-career downfall that remains the final word on his boxing career. Instead, it’s how the fighters made us feel that has secured their legacies. “[F]or a few magic years, this unassuming and enigmatic Russian made people feel the passion, brutality and glory of MMA. His victories were not merely the triumph of a sportsman but the apotheosis of a hero. As with Tyson or even Ali, we might argue that there were better fighters. And indeed, maybe there were. But what is unarguable was that for a few special years, nobody inspired excitement, love, hope, hate and wonder like Fedor.”

The what ifs matter about as much as the farewell tour of closing the book with three largely meaningless victories: they don’t. Then again, to Fedor, none of it ever seemed to really matter. The debate, the constant commentary, the rankings, the legacy, all of that’s on us. At the end of his fighting career the man was able to bask victorious in his St. Petersburg farewell (with President Vladimir Putin in attendance, no less) as a true champion and hero of the Russian people, and not some long-since washed up shadow attempting to make excuses for his losses or reminding us of his commendable victories. One of the world’s finest purveyors of violent poetry retired as a healthy (and relatively young) man fearful of missing any more time with his children and wife than he already has. Something that really matters. As for discussion surrounding whether he was “The Best”? Those two words are about as meaningless now as they’ve ever been.

“Louie and the Risk of Becoming Successful” (Originally published August 31, 2012)

Talk about learning to cope with randomness! In the first of Louie‘s three part “Late Show” arc, Louie crushes as a guest on The Tonight Show, only to be invited to a secretive meeting with a CBS executive (masterfully played by Garry Marshall), before quickly learning that David Letterman is retiring, and that they want to know if he wants to host the Late Show. Well, they don’t really want him, but they want to use him as a bargaining “option” in securing Jerry Seinfeld for the role at a rate less than his predicted asking price. A shocked Louie quickly balks and says it’s not for him, while Marshall’s character returns the volley with a monologue that the AV Club’s Nathan Rabin feels deserving of “an Emmy nomination for best Guest Actor.” (I agree.)

I know you’re a working-class stand-up from Boston. You do stand-up. You make, maybe, eighty-thousand dollars a year on club dates, but you’re on the back-nine of your career. Except for once and a while a special on cable, I think five years ago you probably peaked and now you’re waiting around wondering if something’s going to happen before it gets embarrassing. Am I right?

Cue emotion-tugging piano, gently cascading in the background.

You don’t think you could do it. You think it’s over and you’re afraid to try. I mean, I get it, that’s normal, I’ve seen it. And I’ve seen it turn around. Let me offer you a proposal. You go back to New York. You get in shape. You lose about 40 pounds. I get you with Jackie Doll, who’s my main city man. He works with you, and then in about two months we do a test show… Jack’ll get you a small studio. You’ll do a monologue, you’ll do a couple of interviews, and uh, if the test is good, I’ll put you on the air. And then if you’re a hit everybody’ll think I’m a genius and I’ll have saved the network about twelve million dollars. If America hates you no one’s going to blame me. We’ll hire Jerry Seinfeld to do the show, no harm no foul. But you’ll take the heat on all that. You’re gonna crack your head on the ceiling and you’re gonna go down. Probably for good.

Look, Louie. We’re talking about The Big Game here so forgive me if I use big terms. Here’s the reality. In ten years you’re going to be teaching comedy in a community college to support your kids and falling asleep to the ‘Late Show with Jerry Seinfeld’. You’re circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit. That’s the reality as we talk now. But you can change that. It’s in your power to change that. Yes, you’ll have to work hard, you’ll have to do things you haven’t done before, and still your chances are very slim. But you could change it. I’m gonna ask you one more time: David Letterman is retiring. Do you want his job?

What happened here goes beyond recognizing when you’re being lucky and being given. This is someone flat out asking if you’re fundamentally, at your core, willing to accept complacency, or are willing to risk becoming a success.

Is Louie willing to let his time run out, or will he risk such a banal-yet-comforting future for a chance at greatness? Absolutely, the risk is tremendous, and it could all fail miserably, leaving him worse off than he is now. Or it could work.

Everything here relies on “could.”

What could your future be if you didn’t shut the door to possibility? What could happen if you worked harder than you’ve ever worked, expanding your aim to areas you previously never even considered? What could happen if you risked becoming a success?

“Fiona Apple’s Idler Wheel: An Appreciation” (Originally published September 13, 2012)

Fiona Apple. For years the singer’s name alone has summoned a myriad of images and memories in the minds of music fans and pop culture enthusiasts alike. Her youth, bolstered by her musical and lyrical strength, made for an easy introduction to the mainstream in the ’90s, landing her deep in the midst of a landscape populated by Puffys, Missys, and Verves. ” I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man,” she moaned in “Criminal,” the third single from her debut album Tidal. The track remains her most commercially successful, and is actually the only single of Fiona’s to hit the Billboard 200 (and her only song to chart in the States aside from “Fast As You Can” which landed on the Alternative Songs chart in 1999). The Mark Romanek-directed video incited criticisms for overly-sexualizing the then 20 year old, leading The New Yorker to famously describe her as “looking like an underfed Calvin Klein model.” Since her start there’s been a constant marketing tug, playing her beauty to offset her eccentricities. She was never goth. She was never coffee-shop. She was young. She was tough to market. She was Fiona Apple.

Just as “Criminal” remains tied to the singer (made that much more humorous when learning that it was written in under an hour at the encouragement of her label), so too are numerous other factoids and historical landmarks that continue to litter profiles, reviews, and articles long after they first seemed relevant. She’s pretty, yes, but also damaged. She’s peculiar, and was once romantically tied to the similarly misunderstood illusionist David Blaine. She’s smart, but her 1997 MTV VMA “This world is bullshit … And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself” speech continues to outshine her. There was the (retrospectively misguided) “Free Fiona” bid in 2004 that found fans campaigning to encourage Epic Records to release her third album, Extraordinary Machine, “which the label deemed not sufficiently commercial enough to justify the expense of putting it out.” And what story of Fiona Apple would be complete without mentioning the “several instances of her leaving the stage mid-performance.” “These moments,” writes Sasha Friere-Jones, “have become to Apple as bat-biting has been to Ozzy Osbourne — dramatic anecdotes that play well.”

Even now, her “eccentricities” are blown out of proportion (a slew of articles emphasize her technological reservations, recycling the same “this whole Google thing” quote), and her OCD is given heavy attention (on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast they discussed how her eating disorder — see: “underfed Calvin Klein model” — has more to do with foods not being the right color for the moment, or coordinating with a shape that’s dictated in her mind prior to being hungry, leaving her physically unable to eat). Even with the release of her new album, label drama continues to find its place in the singer’s mythos: Sony Records was between presidents when it was being completed, leaving it on the shelf as “her manager felt it would be dangerous to submit an album when the label was in such flux.” This history, it seems, is tied to the singer as much as the songs are that were written by a different person, drawing from a different perspective, representing someone who no longer exists. All of this is to underscore the detrimental angle of the process: repeating someone’s personal history to them so frequently makes it hard for them to escape it and carve out a new direction or path for as new person they’ve become. “At the moment she seems… hyper-alive,” reflected Nitsuh Abebe in March, reacting to Fiona Apple’s public rebirth at this year’s SXSW festival. “Working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it.” Following this public reemergence was the release of her fourth album in June, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Pitchfork immediately put its mammoth weight behind the release, slapping it with a rarely seen 9.0 rating (and, of course, the Best New Music distinction), adding “Unguarded honesty doesn’t go out of style.” The album has been called “Something like the wind, howling through a canyon that, over time, has been opened a mile wide by our fury and our fury’s neglect,” with Fiona’s voice bearing “rough edges [that] she refuses to sand down — and in fact, on this album, often accentuates.” It’s not just that the album merely exhibits a certain raw vocal quality or takes on monumental abstract feelings, but that The Idler Wheel confronts Fiona’s ongoing mental health struggles, her battles with depression, and her self-destructive safe-zone, presenting them all under the larger banner of a well-crafted set of songs. Love and relationships are in there, too, but the album finds the singer going beyond “textbook teenage girl stuff,” with the singer reflecting on a longing for humanity in her life, not merely companionship. Not bad for an eccentric.

The balance has always seemed delicate. One misplaced step to the right or left of the mark and Fiona might crumble into an existence of self-imposed isolation, alienating herself from family and friends as the days turn into years of seclusion. Or at least that’s how it appeared when she was younger, when we were younger. Whether that version of her existed or not is history, but now the singer seems slightly more impenetrable to the chaos, if only because of her complete lack of attention to what’s not inside her bubble. Marc Maron continued on the podcast interview, speaking to her maturity as the overcoming of a vulnerability that she has: one that people continue to poke at despite it being at the crux of her creation. This, I feel, is like continually bringing up that she was raped when she was 13 (I’m sorry for bringing that up) in order to somehow make sense of the music she’s creating in her mid-thirties. “I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong,” she confessed to Black Book Magazine. “Always the victim of self, seeking sympathy for the craziness that I can’t control.” “It’s not a mistake that the one word Apple repeats and distorts and plays with is ‘brain’,” adds Sasha Frere-Jones. “That’s where she lives, and she’s finally decided to call it home.” Yes, emotions still exist… how can they not?! But now she’s caddying those emotions for a different version of herself, someone swinging with a more confident stroke, exhibiting a craftiness to pull from the past only when it’s really necessary to do so.

Which isn’t to say that depression has passed — as if it even could — it’s just changed. “I’m a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up,” she sings in “Valentine,” recognizing the resiliency of her foe. Moments into the album’s first track, “Every Single Night,” Fiona addresses the struggle as it continues to burden her, speaking to its pending capacity to snowball out of control. “These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze.” At times she sounds like her mind is becoming too much for her to bear (“The ants weigh more than the elephants / Nothing, nothing is manageable” in “Left Alone”) while at others she seems on the cusp of enlightenment (“I just want to feel everything” in “Every Single Night”). But while all of this is going on there isn’t an overwhelming sense of struggle. Instead she does appear that she’s becoming more comfortable with the realities her mind presents. And even more, as songs like “Periphery” suggest, that she hardly feels like she’s the eccentric and abnormal crazy person that she’s reminded of at every media turn. Even with 7500 word profiles outlining her as a pothead insomniac with a penchant for the drink, it’s hard to conclude that she’s really the person she’s been made out to be. Which is comforting, because are any of us the people that we’re made out to be?

There is a perverted sense of normalcy that develops in the mind of a depressive, and as someone who can empathize with the words that detail Fiona’s struggle in “Every Single Night” I can attest to their validity. “Every single night’s alright / Every single night’s a fight / And every single fight’s alright with my brain.” There’s a constant push and pull here, but even in songs like “Daredevil” where she warns “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” there remains a sense of control.

The eternal attachment between singer/songwriters and lyrics about love and romance has been so thoroughly milked dry that the thought alone leaves me yearning an eardrum shattering shot to the brain from Slayer. Fortunately, that’s never really been Fiona’s thing, and in the case of The Idler Wheel, the notion of love isn’t exclusive to romantic ideals, or even romance at all. Love here is about understanding people, who they are, what they need, and consequently what they don’t need. Therein lies what might be the most heartbreaking aspect of her lyrics on the album.

When it comes down to it, all I think I know about Fiona Apple comes from her music, interviews, and video clips. Which is to say that I really don’t know a goddamn thing. Still, I take away a sense that she is the sort of person who becomes oblivious to their own issues in a friend’s time of need. She seems like the type of person who would kick you in the ass when you need it, telling you to get your shit in order even though her own shit might be hanging together by its last thread. All at once, the one-sidedness of “Regret” seems to preach the validity of my imagined Fiona Apple, speaking to the cruelness of an ex’s manipulative dysfunction. And as other songs reveal, what most catches the ear isn’t the betrayal of her feelings, by others or even by herself, but her concessions that she’s not the Perfect Person for whoever He is.

“Fiona Apple has always been in the process of breaking up,” adds Frere-Jones. “Usually preëmptively — before you can ask, she will provide a list of reasons not to love her.” Not unlike the subject of depression, relationships have a strange duality within The Idler Wheel, with Fiona longing yet leaving, seeking yet shedding. “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” she cries out in “Left Alone.” She relents that He might be better off without her in “Jonathan” (“Jonathan, anything and anyone that you have done / Has got to be alright with me / If she’s part of the reason you are how you are / She’s alright with me”) but stands confident in “Hot Knife” (“If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that / He’s never gonna need another, never need another”). She removes herself from fairy tale in “Werewolf” (“But we can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other”) but tragically bleeds sadness in “Valentine” (“I made it to a dinner date / My teardrops seasoned every plate”). If there’s a line that might best represent what she seems to crave though, it might be in “Daredevil” when she sings “And all I want’s a confidante / To help me laugh it off.” This goes beyond “LiveJournal stuff.”

Not only does intimacy not sooth her (“And I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity” in “Left Alone”) but in life outside of song she seems overtaken by the need for simple companionship. This, again, is something I can identify with. When away from her home, and her dog, she found a touring friend in a goldfish to keep her company, for example, but still there’s a deeper longing here that stems from year after year of admitted loneliness. “She believed that sharing her story — all of her story — would also make herself feel better,” explains Dan Lee. “It did not.” “I genuinely, naïvely thought that I was going to put out a record and that was going to make me have friends,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. “I expected to give it to people and they would understand me.” They did not. But there’s a connection that weaves between everything, the depression, the love, the romance, and the loneliness: the music. “Now, at my lowest moments, I think of people who come to shows,” said the singer in an interview with Pitchfork. “I still get very sad and sometimes I feel like I have no friends, but when that happens now, I’ll think of people whose names or faces I don’t know — they’re my friends and they love me. I’ve got them. It really does save me. I still feel awkward, but that’s the one thing I can grab onto at my lowest points.”

With the understanding then that it’s the music that helps Fiona maintain a balance in her life, it’s no surprise that the actual music on The Idler Wheel speaks with such boldness. “It’s a meal beyond gourmet,” adds David Williams, a commentor on NPR’s First Listen. “These songs aren’t catchy – but after a few listens, they can become something more permanently listenable than ‘catchy’ ever could be.” Fiona’s alluded to it in the past, saying that even when she’d feel ridiculed that it was never actually for her music, but on a critical level it’s tough to find much of anything on The Idler Wheel to bicker about, musically-speaking. That being said, Enio Chiola was able to do so in his Pop Matters review of the album. Referring to “Jonathan” and “Left Alone,” he writes “Both tracks sound like they’re super artistic, reminiscent of jazz trios, and they should totally be loved for their creative conjuncture of jazz and pop — but really, they’re both far too indulgent to penetrate.” Continuing, “This is what ultimately plagues the album from achieving the brilliance that it purports.” Strong words made that much more flaccid as the arbiter of taste would later hang his own argument in the comments by calling the album “simply inaccessible — which makes it disappointing.” As Fiona sings in “Periphery,” “I don’t appreciate people who don’t appreciate.”

Jokes aside, all throughout the album the sound has been masterfully crafted, and without having been a past fanatic The Idler Wheel moves me in a way that her other albums could not. Be it the field recording approach to “Jonathan,” picking up sounds of a bottle-making factory to use for the song, the sounds of children playing on “Werewolf,” or the multi-tracked vocals of her and her sister weaving between each another on “Hot Knife” (which Sasha Frere-Jones hits on the nose, calling them “the least commercial barbershop quartet ever“), each track boasts something unique and special. There’s the swaying pounce of “Every Single Night,” the raw wailing of “Daredevil” and “Regret,” the downhill, near-out of control sound of “Left Alone,” and the rumbling bounce of “Periphery.” When I first listened to the album months back I immediately jumped to Facebook to post a reaction, telling friends that “I recognize now that I’m not going to be able to listen to that too often for fear that its richness spoils my appetite for other music.” As hyperbolic as that might sound, it’s still true. Not that my list of favorite piano players is a deep one, but Fiona might be my favorite piano player based on The Idler Wheel alone. Her ability to combine such a nimble and unique mind for sound helps create an atmosphere perfectly ripe for the lyrics which accompany each track. And I’ve already gone on long enough, adding personal context to those lyrics to help wring my own meaning from the album, so it’s probably best to move on there.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have an idea of what I look like to the rest of the world,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. Self-perception aside, none of us can really understand exactly what we look like to the rest of the world. Who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind, and who Fiona Apple is to you will be a different person than who Fiona Apple is to me. But in paying more attention this past year, a lot has changed in building this creation of personality in my mind.

Fiona Apple is not a delicate flower of instability. Playfully relating a story to Marc Maron, she told him how her family gets frustrated at her because she closes jars and bottles too tight. She’s constantly unaware of how intense she actually is. She’s the kind of person whose “resting face isn’t a smile” she joked. And when she appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this past June her presence was exactly that: intense. Sure, “awkward” or “eccentric” might cover the gamut here, but speaking closer to what I saw was someone who couldn’t humanly stop emotion from gushing. She was excited to be there. Happy. And maybe a sense of social awkwardness got in the way of that translating as suave or sexy, leaving her unable to fluently tie stories into the context of conversation. Hell, I’ve been there, sitting backstage in life only to nervously forget the witty presentation I’d prepared in my mind, left stumbling through words and mumbling my way through a now-unrecognizable idea. I was never wearing a long black dress and matching black boots when I was doing it, but then again, who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind.

Her performance later in the show carried with it a violent cadence which helped corral the uncertain movements that she carried during the interview. “Apple’s voice is an implausibly virtuosic instrument,” relates Helena Fitzgerald. “But the degree to which she demonstrates that virtuosity is also somehow childish, a kid who doesn’t know to use her inside voice in public.” I don’t know that it’s childish, maybe just child-like. Fitzgerald’s observation goes back to depression for me personally — the attitude, of why aren’t you beyond this yet? Why haven’t you, Fiona, learned to tame yourself, mold your passion and talent into something less “inaccessible”? Why are you still singing about this stuff? “This album feels current because it’s an album from ten years ago,” Fitzgerald later added, only for the imaginary bubble to burst: holy shit, look at just how much I have changed! Can’t you see inside of my mind? It’s all there. I’m different now!

A few years ago I wrote a meaningless review of Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, and quickly it was swarmed on by young fans, striking back as if I’d written the most vitriolic collection of words the Internet has ever seen. Taylor Swift is not, nor will she ever be, Fiona Apple, but in reading the media wave that followed The Idler Wheel‘s release I can at least see where her fans were coming from. I wasn’t making fun of how “white-bread” Swift was, in their eyes I was attacking them personally because she feels what they feel, her voice merely acting as an amplifier for their own teenage angst. Anyone misunderstanding Taylor Swift’s words are misunderstanding who I am! I feel like that here, like Fiona is somehow gathering words I’d never think to amass, placing them in such an order that makes me feel as though they are coming from my own soul rather than the speakers across the room.

You don’t want to live through this, per se, but there is something liberating about bearing witness to someone so unrepentantly fucked-up; she is the martyr-saint, crucifying herself so that we might live dramz-free.” That’s what separates us. When I was in high school I was really into the idea of having a “broken” girlfriend. Not because I’d be able to save her, or any other such silly delusion, but maybe because her outer representation might speak to something inside of me. Over the years that has changed almost wholly (now I want to be with someone who can level out the madness that boils inside me!), but somewhere in the middle is the Fiona Apple of today. After years of consuming a media diet that bullied me into pornographic fantasies of objectifying her as just a pretty singer that I’d like to have sex with, it feels like I can finally let go of digging her simply as one of the Top 5 Hottest Indie Rock Chicks (her not being “indie” or “rock” aside here), or appreciating her music because she’s this frail and vulnerable person that she’s made to be. Instead, the album broke a wall, leaving me appreciative of her music because it touches something of the frail and vulnerable person that I am. That brokenness that used to attract me now scares me off because I see it in myself now. I totes wish I could chillax and live a dramz-free life, but my mind doesn’t work that way.

On Late Night Fiona performed my favorite song on the album, “Anything We Want,” and as I watched and listened I started to cry, stopping only for a moment to take a note reading “and I started crying” (notes are a godsend for forgetful people). There’s something here that’s helping me work things out in my mind, and when she continues in the song adding “We started out sipping the water / And now we try to swallow the wave,” the words take on a different meaning every time I hear them, each time empathizing with me, telling me that I’m not as far out there as I think I am. Instead, The Idler Wheel leaves me feeling like I’m not out on the fringes of life looking in, but that I’m on the inside with Fiona looking out onto all the madness, both of us now content that all we have to deal with are our own minds. And even if we’re wrong, and we’re the ones on the outside, so be it, because as she sings in the song, “Oh, the periphery / They throw good parties there.”

“You Gotta Go Away to Come Back” (September 22, 2012)

The first of three parts in Louie‘s “Late Show” arc left off with Louie deciding whether or not he would risk becoming a success, and accept a tentative opportunity to stand as an option in the search for a replacement host of the Late Show. The second part opens with Louie and his ex-wife Janet sharing drinks while Louie explains the situation, and ultimately why he can’t possibly make an attempt to pursue it, citing their children’s welfare as the prime reason.

Louie, you came here so that I would tell you that you can’t do this, didn’t you? Because I need you to do your share with the kids, that’s why you’re here? You don’t have the gall to take this thing on and you want me to blame? Here’s the bad news, buddy: You can totally get this show and the girls will be fine. I mean, the standup thing, where’s that going? Huh? It was going to this! If you don’t do this, I mean, what was it all for? What did you put twenty years into this for? What did I put my nine in for? Listen, you’ve been a fine father, but nobody needs a father that much. The girls need a role model, they need to see you live and succeed.

Janet was right to set Louie straight, but Jack Dall (who’s given incredible form in the second and third episodes by the enigmatic David Lynch) is who turns the switch. Jack, and “the suit.”

Inviting him into his office, Jack challenges Louie on his appearance following their introduction. It’s not Jack’s comments about the needed weight-loss or Louie’s hair and beard that slice his ego though, but his demand that Louie dawn a suit that lands foul. Louie’s unwillingness to change his appearance goes deeper than looks, and he argues that in the face of the widespread changes to the rest of his foundation it’s simply a concession he’s not willing to make — his clothes remaining as the last bastion of self. Jumping along in the timeline of events, Jack later sits Louie down again and challenges this stubbornness. “Tell the truth, you’re just scared, like a rookie. You’re like some kid at a talent show with a number pinned to your shirt.” This is a conflicting emotional battle that Louie faces throughout the three episodes, but one that he slowly begins to figure out: How much of himself can he let go of while still retaining his identity?

Numerous scenes show Louie jogging, slowly evolving in their depiction of him as desperate-fat-man-running to fat-daddy-running-with-children to slightly-less-fat-man-running-with-neighborhood-kids, a la Rocky. When he’s with his girls though, he explains to them why he’s trying to lose weight, unintentionally breaking the whole thing down for himself in an effort to dumb down the situation. “It’s not really about skinny or fat, it’s just, if you want to get a big thing in life you gotta make a big effort. You gotta try hard, you gotta do things you’re not used to doing.” Taking a step back he adds, “You know girls, I may not get this job,” before Lilly quickly strikes back, “Yeah, but you want this job, right?” Bingo. He’s changing.

Moments before Louie’s test-show, Jack returns to present him with a custom made suit and a few parting words of advice.

Well, I did my part. This will be the last time we see each other. If you get the show they’ll bring in some young producer. If you don’t, well that’ll be that. At any case I told you what I know and the rest is up to you. It’s just… if you can do it. That’s it. Listen, you’re a good guy. I’m not going to say you can do it ’cause I really have no idea. But I hope you do.

And now I’m going to tell you what I know to be the three rules of show business. Number one: Look’em in the eye and speak from the heart. Number two: You gotta go away to come back. Number three: If someone asks you to keep a secret, their secret is a lie. You got that?

Considering Jay Leno’s superficially intimate phone call with Louie, Chris Rock’s “don’t listen to nobody, and nobody meaning Jay Leno in particular” speech, and Jerry Seinfeld’s backstabbing play at sabotaging him, the conclusion that Louie’s left with is that, yes, he wants the job, even if only to spite those who don’t want it for him. The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff breaks things down wonderfully in addressing the show’s triumph,

The episode’s greatest success comes from how it gives Louie a moral victory, even if the universe saw fit to yet again kick him in the face. The best thing about these episodes is that they got Louie to care. In a way, this whole third season has been about the series trying to shock Louie out of his complacency, to see if there’s any way to get him to make the changes that might bring him happiness. Is there a way he could escape from the rut his life seems to be stuck in? He’s tried dating, and he’s tried a vacation, and now he’s tried throwing himself into a new project. But at every turn, he seems to be the same self-conscious, frustrated guy, living out his life and painting by the numbers.

Louie crushes it.

Later, basking in momentary glory with his friends, Louie finds out that David Letterman has signed a contract extension and would be remaining as host of the Late Show for the next decade. The moment confirms that the network wasn’t holding Louie as an option for Jerry Seinfeld, but merely using him as a bargaining chip to lower Letterman’s asking price. “You took $20 million out of that asshole’s pocket,” adds Nick DiPaolo as Louie leaves the bar. “That’s how good you are.” Louie walks to the Ed Sullivan theater, gives Letterman’s marquee a vulgar (and thoroughly rewarding) salute, and walks away a champ (which, as Jack reminds us earlier, stands for champion). The show fades away with Louie back in the gym, training on his own accord.

In that first scene where Janet’s challenging Louie, she threw out a line that subtly helped change the entire story’s direction: “I’d hate to see what the future will be if you don’t make this happen.” Despite his efforts, Louie stood defeated, having played the role of a pawn in a game he was oblivious to. But the process is what counts. He might have lost a job (that never really existed), but at the very same time no one stood as victorious as he did in the end. His family remained strong and rallied around his willingness to risk his personal comfort, and he was left emotionally renewed because he hadn’t let himself down. He entered a man fixed in his ways, but he came out the other side a different person.

And that’s where it comes back to us, you and me. Clearly this show wasn’t just about Louis C.K., right? I’ve been feeling awfully selfish lately, but it still stands to reason that this program exists only to lend us reflection on our own lives. How could it not?

In my life I feel like there’s something off in the distance that’s becoming decreasingly vague, a goal (a dream?) that is coming into focus, my Late Show standing on the horizon if only to urge me out of my own apathetic complacency. For the first time in a long time I want really (!) want something. The challenge is a difficult one, and the outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it’s not beyond me either. To say I haven’t always cared about what happens in life is an understatement, but I’ve hurdled “starting to care” and have somehow landed myself firmly in a place where I really do give a shit. It’s not that the excuses I once manipulated to my own benefit now fail to cut it, but that their possibility is slowly stopping to even exist. I say all that to say this: I feel like I’m at the point of fat-daddy-running-with-children, where I’m actually actually able to understand how to get that “big thing in life.”

On the surface there might not even be a noticeable difference between Louie at the end of the story and Louie at the start of the story, but there is a world of change that’s gone on inside of him. Not only that, but he found it in himself to challenge the pending mediocrity that Janet was so worried of. I feel like I have numerous Janets in my life, internally and externally, reminding me of what I really need to be doing. And in my case, they’re reminding me that it really is a life-or-death thing (and there isn’t an ounce of hyperbole in that statement). Sometimes you have to stand firm and hold onto your t-shirt and jeans, but if your emotional uniform has left you on the brink of physical collapse, you might have to dawn the suit, even if only for the sake of momentary survival. Sometimes you have to strip the layers of self away in order to appraise the true state of the core. Sometimes you will fall flat on your face, sometimes you will move forward as a more complete You. Like Jack said though, sometimes you gotta go away to come back. And it’s hard to come back without first recognizing that you’re not where you need to be.

“Fred Rogers and PBS Funding” (Originally published October 9, 2012)

I don’t know where to find PBS on my digital cable subscription, or if I even get the network (I have to, somewhere, right?). And aside from NOVA, I can’t really think of a show that might land on the channel that I’d enjoy watching from time to time. I don’t have kids, nor do I have any idea about how beneficial the current state of children’s educational programming is on PBS, or whether or not a budget cut would retard a generation of preventative learning — that’s a fancy little term I’ve come up with to describe the benefits of edutainment that might help prevent an outpouring of later-life subsidies to cover a nation of under-educated, under-skilled, over-stuffed citizens who have no choice but to turn to the government for aid after two decades of freely roaming the land as a small army of dimwitted Honey Boo Boos. (For the record, cable programming makes me very nervous about the future of this planet.) I don’t know enough about the upsides or the downsides of Mitt Romney’s bold statements at last week’s Presidential debate to accurately invest myself in that conversation (besides, that’s what political blogs are for).

I will say this, however: I love this video. In response to the proposed budget cuts by President Nixon, Fred Rogers took the floor to deliver what remains one of the most rational and thoughtful arguments for the continuance of funding for developmental programming that might ever exist: Mere reference to the statement that Mr. Rogers made in 1969 in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications should be more than enough justification to keep backing this “liberal propaganda machine.”

What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead — and think this song — I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime… And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.

Enough about making a non-argument an argument though, because the point of bringing this up is to reflect on the compassion that Rogers spoke to while explaining himself. This isn’t just about funding some TV station that you don’t enjoy watching, this argument is about developing a national community with an understanding that our well-being and self-esteem are worth caring about. This is about nurturing the growth of young minds so that they know that they have meaning in this world, despite the overwhelming sentiment that drowns out the idea in daily life. This is about empowering young minds with the understanding that they are not some weak loser despite not meeting the cultural quota for cool, and it’s about showing children that the world is every bit as beautiful as you make it to be. I’m almost 30 and I wish that this message was pounded into my head every day NOW, let alone when I was young — this message of maintaining an honest regard for the care and well-being of self to better the larger society as a whole.

Would Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood even resonate with kids today if he were alive? Hell, did it even make sense when I was a kid? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. But without a nurturing system that encourages preventative learning we’re going to find out with increasingly speedy results just how distinct the disparity between the classes will become in our country… I’m not talking about the poverty line, necessarily, as much as the knowledge line — but in recognizing the illiteracy, ignorance, and uneducated population that exists even within my own community, the correlation between the two seems undeniable. Is there a direct link in avoiding this future and the shelling out of PBS’ $430 million annual budget? I don’t know. But to parallel the sentiment of Senator Pastore, a bet on the future of our children (let alone the children of those poor unfortunate families who only have basic network TV channels, and not some multi-tiered Comcast entertainment-explosion at their disposal like I do) seems like one that we should be willing to make.

Damien Echols Nashville Southern Festival of Books

“Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three” (Originally published October 14, 2012)

In 1994 Damien Echols was sentenced to death, while Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were given life in prison, after all were convicted for the savage murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The thing was… they didn’t do it. “Police investigators believed the teens had formed a satanic cult and used the victims as part of a ritualistic slaughter,” writes Sarah Norris of the Nashville Scene. “The prosecution based its case on the fact that the ‘West Memphis Three’ — Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — were widely perceived as ‘weird’. They were known to be fans of Metallica, and Echols tended to wear black clothing and a long trench coat. The only thing connecting them to the murders was a coerced confession from Misskelley, who tested low enough on an IQ test to qualify as borderline cognitively impaired. After confessing, he almost immediately recanted. A high school dropout who’d struggled with depression, Echols was depicted as the threesome’s ringleader, a devil-worshipping killer.” If ever there were a kangaroo court, the boys found themselves at the mercy of such a proceeding — the crime scene was significantly tampered with, police records were grossly mishandled… the entire process was a farce.

About 14 months ago the three were given a deal, setting them free while, as Echols explains, absolving Arkansas of any potential wrong-doing, forcing the waiver of any case the three might have in a lawsuit against the state. “On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.”

It’s been at least seven years since I first learned of the case of the West Memphis Three: Like many before and after me, I watched the Paradise Lost documentaries (The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Revelations), and found myself disgusted by the thread of injustice that flowed throughout the entire story. I bought a shirt to help support the defense, I told friends, and I felt sick about the whole thing.

I haven’t been a close onlooker of the aftermath following the WM3′s release, but in preparation for Echols’ appearance at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books I was reintroduced to the powerful feelings that I remember struggling with when I was first turned on to the case. I cried. The anger, the sadness, the grief, the sympathy, the confusion, the fear… all of it surfaced at once and my body, not knowing how to react, funneled everything into tears. As Echols sat in the War Memorial Auditorium Sunday afternoon, speaking to the beatings he received from guards, the absent health care measures that he received during his decade of solitary confinement, and the extreme anxiety that followed his release, those feelings returned, and on a few occasions I had to divert my attention to avoid a minor public breakdown.

Throughout his appearance Echols remained calm, well-spoken, thoughtful, and articulate as conversation bounced between he and the session’s host Jack Silverman. As questions began flowing from the event’s attendees, Echols gently floated a few jokes out to the crowd as discussion touched on items including his affinity for Stephen King and his ongoing work with organizations such as Amnesty International. Sitting there however, the words that struck an especially sensitive nerve with me were those offered when asked if he was interested in changing “The System”? His response was shockingly rational and objective despite the pain that The System had caused in his life. Think of the money, he replied, and the celebrity endorsements, the media’s interest in the case, his wife’s dedicated pursuit of justice, and the enduring efforts of those who offered their help along the way… think of all of that, he repeated, and recognize that even with all of that in place, it took nearly two decades before one case found a result that remotely reflected “justice.” Even for someone with his profile, changing “The System” is entirely out of reach.

As the event closed and the audience scurried to get a place in line for the book signing which followed (it should probably be noted that Echols’ appearance was in support of his recently released book, Life After Death) my friend and I remained in our chairs for a few minutes before slowly exiting the venue. As we walked away she asked what I felt, and all I could muster was “angry” and “sad,” a frog quickly took to my throat preventing me from saying anything further, as if the words were even there in the first place. I’m happy that Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin are free men, but how free are they? What sort of justice can be had to repair two decades of misery, let alone the pain that will remain in the lives that follow? What if he were put to death? What then?

I couldn’t hear the question but during the event Echols was asked something to do with the prevalence of innocents on death row, and without missing a beat he shot off two names of people he had met who were, in his eyes, innocent. Yet, unlike his case, they didn’t have the media push to bring their cases into the public eye, nor the outpouring of donations necessary to challenge their convictions beyond a bare-minimum defense. Such cases are generally easier to sweep under the rug, he said, than they are to investigate further. And what’s more, Echols added, much like his own case, the state would rather send an innocent to die than admit a mistake.

When writing this and reading back over it, no tears came to me. The anger, however… The anger, the sadness, the grief, the sympathy, the confusion, and the fear: all of that remains. We live in a broken world — each of us at the mercy of a broken system. And I don’t have slightest clue as to what can really be done about it.

“The Transfiguration of Olivier de Sagazan” (Originally published October 18, 2012)

For over two decades the Congo-born French-based artist Olivier de Sagazan has “developed a hybrid practice that integrates painting, photography, sculpture, and performance,” explains his website. “In his existential performative series Transfiguration, which he began in 2001, de Sagazan builds layers of clay and paint onto his own face and body to transform, disfigure and take apart his own figure, revealing an animalistic human who is seeking to break away from the physical world. At once disquieting and deeply moving, this new body of work collapses the boundaries between the physical, intellectual, spiritual and animalistic senses.”

The “Transfiguration” video itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before: It is primitive, dark, intense, and disturbing. “This is pretty much my two-year-old eating yogurt,” joked one Metafilter commenter, putting the clay and paint meld into humorous perspective. “In my Transfiguration performance, where I transform my face,” revealed de Sagazan in an interview with Loving Mixed Media, “my purpose is to descend into the depths of my being, to bring out what is buried deep inside me. The masks or images that emerge are not merely seen, but felt in a visceral way, and so they create emotion.”

While a variety of press clippings and interviews are available on the artist’s website, little exists in English, leaving much to the imagination for non-French speaking onlookers in terms of intent and motivation. Yet each individual medium seems to bear its own direction while simultaneously conforming to a broader ideal. Taking inspiration from Rembrandt and Francis Bacon, his paintings replicate the grotesque nature of his performance work, vividly speaking to de Sagazan’s ability to manipulate his materials. His sculptures are fitting for this Halloween season, invoking hellish images while simultaneously breathing humanity (and reminding me of Adam Jones’ groundbreaking music videos for Tool). “My work is essentially a hymn to life,” he said to LMM. “[A]n attempt to understand what it means to be alive.”

But the way in which de Sagazan speaks with his performance work is unlike his use of traditional mediums. A rough translation of his 1994 piece “Bandages” reflects his longstanding relationship with the urge to reveal the human within, “Arrive the bandaged face, undo slowly his mask / Open its veins and mark with his blood: ‘This is my body, this is art.’” “I dreamed of being a dancer,” he continued with LMM, “using my own body as an essential element to express my anguish and my fascination with being alive. My performances are another way of channeling this urge. My main inspiration is in looking at nature with the eyes of the biologist I was and the philosopher I am trying to be.”

I don’t have a particularly well-grounded position to place Olivier de Sagazan’s work within the broader artistic landscape. I’m ill-informed when it comes to modern art, let alone the performance niche, and am oblivious as to whether his work is either derivative or groundbreaking within the field. To pretend to know is beyond me. But when I watch him I am moved, my pulse increases, and I’m left in a state of wonder, curious about what it is I’ve just seen and what it might be saying. “We must remain alert and lucid, aware of this amazing thing happening to us.” Transfiguration is just that: a vibrant announcement, awakening dulled emotions and desensitized nerves.