(11) michael penn, "no myth" squeaks by (6) dionne farris, "i know" 110-105
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/5.
martin seay on "no myth"
Back in 1992, my junior year of college, when I was a toxic dork given to memorizing William Butler Yeats poems for fun, I belonged to both the BMG and Columbia House CD clubs.
These were not entirely casual undertakings. Both clubs would mail you a bunch of crap you didn’t want if you failed to stay on top of them; plus their constant come-hither inducements of free bonus albums were tricky to leverage against the paucity of decent selections—particularly in that pre-Napster, pre-YouTube Paleozoic of the internet, when almost any music purchase had to be a bit of a crapshoot.
It didn’t help matters that I was an avowed “lyrics guy” who had a hard time believing that any new music could deliver satisfactions comparable to, say, listening to Highway 61 Revisited for the billionth time.
Still, when the BMG catalogue arrived sporting a boxed section on “Literate Singer-Songwriters”—I think they meant “literary”—I figured I’d bite. After some deliberation, I copied the numbers corresponding to Perspex Island by Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians and the newly-released Free-for-All by Michael Penn onto the order form, dropped it in the mail, and began the quaint, meditative process known in those days as “waiting.”
Robyn Hitchcock I’d never heard of, but his album cover looked cool. Regarding Michael Penn, there was a lot of biographical data that I might have picked up had I withdrawn my head more often from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry—e.g. he’d been in the L.A.-based new wave band Doll Congress; he was the son of actress Eileen Ryan and director Leo Penn, and the elder sibling of up-and-coming actors Chris and Sean (which also made him the freshly-erstwhile brother-in-law of Madonna)—but in fact I knew exactly one thing about him: He was responsible for “No Myth,” a hit single that had popped up regularly on MTV and on the radio a couple of years earlier.
I thought “No Myth” was pretty good. It had a big chorus, a punchy bridge, and a couple of above-average guitar solos, all carried along on a corkscrewing acoustic twelve-string riff that flitted between lurching drum-machine beats like a butterfly stuck in a waterwheel. The whole thing had an idiosyncratic made-from-scratch vibe that resisted classification: a little George Harrison, a little Elvis Costello, maybe even a little They Might Be Giants in the nerdy abstruseness of its references and the wry extendedness of its metaphors. I didn’t know it at the time, but all this was probably attributable to Penn’s auteurist methods: He’d sung, played, or programmed almost every note of “No Myth.” (The most notable exception was the keyboard accompaniment of his main collaborator, former Doll Congress bandmate Patrick Warren; the warped, woozy sound of Warren’s modified Chamberlin—keep an eye out for it in the video—would later help establish him as one of the most instantly-recognizable session players of the coming decades.)
“No Myth” made me a little uneasy, too. It was a breakup song, more or less, narrated by a glum and bookish young man, which made it plenty easy for twenty-year-old me to identify with. Being who I was, I immediately understood it as an updated version of a different artist’s breakthrough hit, with J. Alfred Prufrock’s “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” here supplanted by unflattering self-inflicted comparisons to the brooding antihero of Wuthering Heights and a natty post-punk Romeo Montague. Sounded like a typical Friday night in the dorms to me.
But on closer inspection, “No Myth” seemed to hint that its narrator might not be totally reliable, or deserving of our full sympathy. Unlike the coming, going, Michelangelo-ing women in Eliot’s poem, his ex isn’t depicted as pretentious or vacuous; in fact she’s barely depicted at all, except as, y’know, an embodied consciousness with normal human desires, a girl who just wants to have fun. Her declaration that “it’s time she goes”—phrasing that indicates an outcome that’s foregone, anticipated—seems to take our hero by surprise, suggesting that he’s made the whole relationship out to be something it never was. (Thus “we said goodbye before hello.”)
Does our narrator stop at this point to consider what unnoticed signals of discontent his girlfriend might have been broadcasting? Does he take this as an occasion to reassess his amatory assumptions, or to hone his listening skills? Hell no! Instead, our dude’s immediate impulse is to brainstorm ways he might have asserted his no-doubt-fascinating masculine subjectivity in a more decisive and compelling manner, might have better conveyed the depth of his thoughts, the intensity of his feelings: Guy In Your MFA avant le tweet, basically. (“My secrets she will never know,” he laments, flipping both the structure and the pronouns of a more typical lost-love sentiment.) His wild stab at a Yeatsian “When You Are Old”-style scolding in the bridge overshoots its mark into silliness—rather than hiding his face amid a crowd of stars, he seems to be off on some retro-exotic Hope-and-Crosby adventure—and he keeps returning to (just as the song’s chords resolve at) the same sheepish realization: the qualities he cultivates most assiduously in himself she won’t miss at all. And why should she? Romeo and Heathcliff are eternal paragons of capital-R-Romanticism; they’re also objectively terrible boyfriends. Looking for some parallel can be an endless game, that’s for sure—but what this young woman wants is straightforward and reasonable, despite the narrator’s grandiose efforts to complicate and mystify it. Strictly speaking, “No Myth” isn’t a literary song; it’s a song about being literary, and about the inbuilt limitations of same.
This was not a lesson that my sensitive undergraduate ears were exactly eager to receive.
One might legitimately ask whether Penn really intended listeners to question his narrator in the way I’m doing here; certainly “No Myth” can be heard as meaning exactly what it says. But I think the evidence to the contrary is pretty strong, with Exhibit A being the music itself, a jaunty pop blast that undercuts the misunderstood-young-man narrative at a fundamental and structural level: The jilted lover may be home alone moping over his Riverside Shakespeare, but the song is on the girlfriend’s side, just looking for someone to dance with.
Other clues are more deeply embedded, threaded subtly through the lyrics. Lately when I listen to “No Myth,” what jumps out at me is a particular shift in mood: not the shift from glum bafflement to ecstatic escape that our metaphorically-China-bound narrator undergoes, in fact not a shift in emotional mood at all, but a shift in grammatical mood, from the subjunctive to the indicative. “What if I were Romeo in black jeans?” Penn sings; “What if I was Heathcliff? It’s no myth.” (Emphases mine, obviously.) Why the switch?
Well, okay, there’s a purely practical explanation. It’s a hell of a lot easier for a singer to hit that high note on the first syllable of Romeo from were—simply jumping from one rhotic to another, opening up the vowel—than from the clenched sibilant buzz of was. And Heathcliff, conversely, sings more gracefully after was than were. (Give it a try next time you’re in the shower.) Really good songwriters, of whom I believe Penn is one, tend to concentrate above all else on the way a lyric sits on a melody; he’s doing that here.
But like many of the practical decisions that smart artists make, this one accrues additional significance as the song takes shape around it. The songwriter starts the chorus in the subjunctive because it sounds good; the narrator does so because it’s more grammatically “correct,” and because he’s just the sort of jerk who’d insist on such stuffy scrupulousness. By the next line, though, his sense of his own superiority has already started to deflate: He switches to the indicative, the mood that the majority of ordinary folks actually use when discussing hypotheticals in casual conversation. And of course by the chorus’s third and final line the narrator has dropped out entirely, absent except as a perceiving entity, taking what may amount to his first, last, and only clear glimpse of his ex as she walks away.
The more I listen to “No Myth,” the better it gets.
The package from BMG finally arrived! I fed its contents to my CD player. For many weeks afterward Bob Dylan sat neglected on his shelf.
Robyn Hitchcock’s Perspex Island still holds up as a pretty solid album. Regarding Penn’s Free-for-All, I maintain that it is as good as or better than anything released by anybody in 1992, and yes, I am aware that Slanted and Enchanted, Your Arsenal, The Chronic, Automatic for the People, Check Your Head, Little Earthquakes, Rage Against the Machine, Joshua Judges Ruth, Dry, Kiko, Diva, Wynonna, etc. etc. also came out in 1992.
Calling Free-for-All an extremely well-made guitar pop album is accurate, but doesn’t begin to cover it. Across its ten tracks Penn refines and expands every effective component of his earlier work; he also adds depth and resonance through greater specificity, firmly rooting the songs in the history, lore, and streetscapes of his hometown. The Los Angeles evoked on Free-for-All is vivid and personal, refracted through memory, nostalgia, and dreams; the album is catchy as hell throughout, but at the same time shot through with a haunting vein of sepia-toned surrealism that’s uncommon to encounter, particularly in the realm of pop music. It’s a remarkable work of art.
In terms of chart success, needless to say, it went nowhere. One-hit wonders are a diverse group unified and negatively defined by a single shared attribute: the fact that they never had a second hit. It’s generally worth considering why that second hit never materialized; in Penn’s case, I gather, it was partly due to record-label mishandling, but mostly attributable to changing tastes. Between the releases of “No Myth” in ’89 and Free-for-All in ’92 looms Nevermind and the alternative-music revolution it helped spur, a disruption that few in the industry saw coming or knew how to navigate. Penn is fundamentally a pop artist—his music makes connections, gives of itself generously, pitches its tent in the commons—and the ’90s were a tough era for pop; the musicians who accrued commercial and/or cultural capital in that decade more often did so by defining a microgenre, signifying on behalf of a subculture, and riding out the storm. Sometimes these kinds of shifts reverse themselves after a couple of years; this one didn’t. And then the internet happened.
After Free-for-All, Penn evidently spent a few years fighting with his label before getting back to making records. Today he’s 58, married to fellow literate singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, and has established a prosperous sideline as a soundtrack composer. (He did the scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s first two feature films, and currently provides the music for Girls.) In the course of his career he’s released five albums of songs—three since Free-for-All—and all of them are good. A couple of them are great.
So Michael Penn seems to be doing all right. As for the rest of us, we go on finding our music where we seek it, and trying not to worry too much about what slips past unheard.
Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016. He blogs—infrequently, but often at great length—at New Strategies for Invisibility. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.
brian oliu on "i know"
The first time I heard Dionne Farris, I didn’t know it. Chances are, you didn’t know it either: she provided the anonymous female vocals on Arrested Development’s breakout single “Tennessee,” an afro-centric feel good hip hop track born out of a backlash against West Coast “gangster rap”. The song was everywhere, yet I didn’t know this either: I was nine years old when 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… was released; not old enough to own my own boom box, and certainly not old enough to control the radio stations in my mother’s Volvo or my father’s Buick. I would catch snippets of the song on the rare moments where I could change the station from my parents’ usual Motown (& my mother’s affinity for Van Halen) to 97.5 PST, the “alternative station,” & by “alternative station,” the only radio station in Central New Jersey that played newly released music. Songs would play until my parents got tired of it all, tuning the dial, or switching the radio off entirely to focus on navigating the traffic circles.
On the day my parents dropped me off for college, I cried. We had purchased the extra-long twin bed sheets. We had bought fresh pairs of socks. There was nothing there to hold me when the knowledge of home has been erased—to start a new in a different space. The dresser, the same. The red blinking light of a campus phone voicemail from the R.A. The re-understanding of space: to condense a life that is rapidly expanding into a small dorm room; a shared space. The first night, it thunder stormed. Lightning struck a tree outside of our hall. The walkways flooded. When I am in a moment of crisis, I go to work—I began hanging posters with sticky-tack; I would not dare put holes in the walls.
Days later, I met my one of my suitemates, Tim, from Philadelphia. Him, a lover of hip-hop and jam bands, myself a self-proclaimed straight-edge hardcore kid with a homemade Fugazi t-shirt. At first, we swapped CDs, finding some common album sleeves. It was 2000, & we were enamored with the power of the internet: this was the first time in our lives that we had a connection this fast; the world shrinking around us. We took to Napster to track down songs that we had always loved but never admitted: the songs on the radio that you wouldn’t immediately turn off, the songs you wouldn’t dare buy the album of, but would gladly listen to, burn a quick mix for a dorm floor dance party or a dorm romance. All of us would engage in battles of “remember this song” in an attempt to outdo one another: watching the kilobytes per minute fluctuate as we waited for the song to finish downloading, dragging it over into our WinAmp playlists in time so that there were no gaps of silence as we tagged each other back in.
Dionne Farris and I are both from New Jersey—more specifically West Central New Jersey, the forgotten about world when attempting to fit my home state into a narrative. There are buffalo farms and soccer fields, chain restaurants and Ukrainian diners. It is in the middle of everything, yet still vacant in its existence—the magic of Manhattan was an hour away, Philadelphia, an hour and a half, & yet my life consisted of the insular nature of it all, of how we are all from somewhere, but that somewhere could be anywhere.
I DJ on occasion, though there is nothing particularly prideful about DJing in the modern era. I bring my laptop to a bar. I have the proper wiring to hook my machine up to the PA monitor. There is a small pride in having all the music that I wish to play locally: while it is not the equivalent of lugging a milk crate filled with records, there is a pride in permanence; when using a streaming service, the music is there, then gone, as if it never existed. We are always anticipating the next song.
I can’t tell you the first time I heard “I Know.” I can tell you how it came into my life again, decades later, long after college, a decade post-dorm room discussions. A new roommate, Barry. A new house: a lake house with no lake on a busy side street in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Wall to wall shag carpeting. A fireplace with a missing brick. A den with what appeared to be wood paneling, but was revealed to be something much more permanent than a thin layer of wood-glued balsa—thick boards from a tree no longer native to the area.
One night, we drove to Birmingham to see a show by Das Racist, a duo of highbrow goofball rappers who skyrocketed to stardom off their song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” which consisted of a faux phone conversation between the two members of the group attempting to meet up at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurant, but kept missing each other like ships in the fast food night.
Before the group took the stage, the duo’s DJ played “I Know,” its opening riff blaring unapologetically, pompous and ridiculous, vaguely cock-rocky, the type of guitar playing that you can imagine someone pantomiming for laughs. As the song played, the two rappers of the group, Heems and Kool A.D. started shouting “REAL HIP HOP!” as the DJ hit the sound effect of a Jamaican air horn repeatedly. I don’t remember much of the rest of the show: some drunk guy in an afro-wig got a beer thrown at him when he started shouting at the group for not playing their “one hit,” but aside from that, the only thing that sticks out is the pure joy of “I Know” and the air horns, a joke that cracked Barry and I up to the point where we immediately downloaded the song when we got back to our house and played it as loud as possible in order to make the other burst out laughing.
Every home is temporary. We know this when we move into a space: there is nothing here that cannot be moved elsewhere; we can tear up floors if they are not of our liking, we can hope for the best that there is some undamaged wood beneath the shag carpet.
The air horn was invented by Charles Dilks, a strong man competitor whose goal was to create a “horn that shouts like a man”—something that would cut through the established noise and rise above it. The air horn was soon used by fire departments as well as the United States Navy to communicate through the roar of flames. It bleats loudly for a second before dissipating on the air—but for a moment, it cuts through the noise. It was given a new home by Jamaican dancehall DJs who would crank out its massive blast to show appreciation for the previous song: a brief salute before pushing forward.
Sometime after college, 97.5 PST changed frequencies. My father sold the Volvo to my friend Blake for a dollar before his stepfather made him return the car two days later, at which point it was scrapped for parts. The Buick died on the side of the road on the way to visit my grandmother in Hamilton, a small town outside of Trenton where Farris took dance lessons. These are spaces that I can no longer visit—that are uninhabitable as there are no doors to open, no handles to speak of.
Tim suffered his first aneurysm in the back of my friend Michelle’s car. We were on our way to the Inner Harbor to do some shopping, to eat some cheesecake. At one moment he was here with us, racing to the Bonneville to grab shotgun, the next, blank.
Dionne Farris was never an official member of Arrested Development. She existed to provide hooks with an occasional ad-lib—to provide backing vocals to round out each track and make it fuller of life; to make everything feel that much more full.
I do not remember my first home—there is a photograph of me as a child holding a wood-paneled wall, the glow of a nightlight ricocheting off my baby cheeks. I assumed this was home—I remember that moment as one of my firsts, although I am uncertain that it is not a created memory from another memory; perhaps I am simply remembering the picture, and trying to piece it together into something real. For years, I thought that the house in the photo, with its dark accents, was the house that we lived in, but I was told that this was someone else’s home, someone else’s nightlight.
I was in Alabama when I received the news that Tim was dead. I didn’t know he was sick again, I told our suitemate, Adam. I should’ve known what he was doing—it had been too long since we had spoke. Someone could’ve known. Someone could’ve recognized the symptoms. He wasn’t, Adam replied. He was hit by a bus. A body cannot contain itself.
“Take me to another place. Take me to another land.”
Napster shut down in 2001. The dorms that Tim and I lived in are long past due for demolition: they are the oldest buildings on a campus that is being restructured. Das Racist broke up in 2012. They gutted our house in Tuscaloosa to build a new one: a two-story monstrosity. Our landlord, who lived next door, sold the property because he was tired of living in such a transitory place. It was time to move on, he said. On the day we moved out, I bought a new mop, some new sponges. I began to scrub the floor, wash the baseboards: a trick my mother taught me to make things appear new. As we neared the end of our cleaning, the new owner walked in unannounced. He told us not to bother to clean the floors: the entire thing would be torn to shreds anyhow. On the day I moved out, the new owner was there. He told me not to bother to clean the floors: that the entire thing was being replaced. We are always finding a new way to live.
Charles Dilks was from New Jersey—the same place that I am from, the same place that Dionne Farris is from. Where we are from is not important: Dilks’ contribution to the world does not exist beyond basic trivia about our state; we claim ownership of our inventions. Farris claims her home as Atlanta these days, as I do Alabama: we escaped our hometowns for the Deep South; we have left wherever it is we called home to find new paths, here, and then gone. There is a beauty in leaving—in claiming where you are and where you are going. There is power in knowing where you are, yet not knowing where you will be.
The day Barry told me they were beginning hormone replacement therapy, we were sitting in my parents’ SUV, two cars removed from the Volvo. We were in Philadelphia, parked on a side street under a canopy of trees. We told each other we loved each other. We tried not to cry, and failed. We exited the car, we listened to poems bounce off the walls in an old decrepit barn: a reclamation of a space.
“How powerful it is for others to see you for who you are,” Barry posted as we rang in the new year. How great our permanence found in transition. How we live honestly, beautifully.
There are mp3 files on my computer that are over a decade old. They have been archived and caught, compressed and created. On evenings in front of a packed bar of drunk dancers, I wonder if this is the time that the file will be corrupted; that instead of the familiar opening riff, followed by a brief pause before the vocals, there will be a static; the digital equivalent of being stuck in between stations. And yet, here we are: the same song, as clear as the day the file was first opened. It has been years since Tim and I used to DJ in our dorm rooms, leaning back on the blue upholstered desk chairs. It has been years since Barry and I have lived under the same roof. But I’ll still play “Tennessee” early in the night, a not-so-silent prayer. And I’ll still jam on that air horn effect at the most inappropriate time—a joke that Barry can’t hear, but I know they appreciate. Dionne is here too: she is still making music, poking fun at her gap-toothed smile. She is still here in the way that we are all here: existing between the constant trailing off from one song before echoing forward into a new one, all the while testifying the truths that we know.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections; Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games; Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam; and i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), a memoir in the form of a computer virus. Current projects include two books on professional wrestling, a memoir about translating his grandfather's book on long distance running, and a nonfiction book about the history of the track jacket.