Philadelphia tour stop: Sons of an Illustrious Father

Even by the standards of this crap presidency, mid-June 2018 has been a rough time for news.  As a Korean American, that vulgar “summit” between two dictators was impossible to block out of my mind on June 12; its poison seeped through everything.  As a sentient being, it is impossible to block out what the U.S. government is doing to families with children at the border.  While my friends marched in protest, I went ahead with a planned birthday party, wondering vaguely if it was right to do so, if anything would be served by canceling it on the 14-year-old and her teen guests.

I didn’t go to the protest; I didn’t cancel.  I got my kid a guitar, the one thing she’s been asking for, humbly, for months.  We were lucky:  the salesperson at the guitar shop was a woman, a bassist, who knew to share in my kid’s excitement.  There were other women there, too, murmuring reminiscently, “First guitar,” beaming at my daughter.  Everything feels more political than ever right now.  She played the guitar all the way home and into the night, until the 10-year-old begged her to stop so we could all sleep.  That was wonderful.

On June 13, I went to see Sons of an Illustrious Father play at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia.  That, too, was wonderful.  The concert reached through all the despair and left me peaceful for a full day afterward, glowing in equal parts because of the band’s political fervor and their virtuosity.  If you have a competence kink, it’s worth it to see this band just for the moments that they rotate instruments, literally playing musical chairs, switching off lead vocal duties and guitar and keyboards and drums because goddammit, if anything is going to save us it’s making sure that we all take turns listening to each other and speaking up so we know how to do things together.

Look at the cover art for their new album, Deus Sex Machina:  Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla.  When the band held a Reddit AMA on June 5, I asked them about how they made the cover art and if they could tell us about some of the images they included, especially the vertical image going up the center.

SonsOAIF:  “It’s a collage we made out of various books acquired Powell’s in Portland, a mix of pulpy sci-fi covers, books of sacred geometry, old medical texts, and the Joy of Sex amongst others. The central image is something from a text called Rivers and Streams that traces lineages of belief.”

deus sex machina

Lineages of belief.  This band is a treasure.

The cover art tugged at me because twenty years ago, before I babyproofed by putting away the sharps and the machine and the iron, I used to be a quilter.  From quilting, I recognized the sacred geometry and the trunk of life.  (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see a quilt block program my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994 and a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.)  Most of all, I recognized the collage aesthetic, which reminded me of feminist story quilts like the ones by Faith Ringgold (see Tar Beach 2, below).

tar beach 2 faith ringgold

The AMA also gave me a chance to ask about the heavy chord that strikes 12 times, then 5 times, then once in “When Things Fall Apart,” which I wrote about a month ago.  What does it mean?  The oracle replied!

SonsOAIF:  “We think of it as transition via sorcery”

It takes a lot of repeated labor to effect change, yes?  Keep at it.  As many times as it takes to break through.

But the concert.  How did the concert go?

The first big “yessss!” came right at the start, when Josh Aubin kicked off with “Post-Future,” the one song of the evening from Revol.  Brilliant.  That song foretold our current breakdown:  “But if the lights go out, how can we go on?”  Nine months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still without full power, with thousands dead, by malicious design.  In Revol, there were hard-fought notes of hope; starting the Deus Sex Machina concert with “Post-Future” served to announce that hope isn’t on the playlist for the band this year.  It’s time for other things.

“U.S.Gay” came next, Lilah Larson on vocals.  Live, the song feels more intimate.  The heaviness of the chords reverberated in my chest cavity so strongly that I stopped watching the band and looked around, instead, at my fellow concertgoers, so many of them visibly queer-presenting, all feeling the same music at the same time.

The vibrations from “Extraordinary Rendition” felt different; they came up through the soles of my feet.  Ezra Miller was singing, but from where I was standing, I couldn’t see him at all.  I could see Larson singing harmony, one of my favorite parts of this masterpiece song, and Aubin on keyboards, which I didn’t watch enough at a previous concert, and the rapt faces of some of the young men in the audience.

Aubin again, singing lead on a song I also heard in Brooklyn in March, with a refrain of “desolation.”

Back to Miller on lead with another song I didn’t recognize, drums and then keyboard leading into screamy vocals.  Aubin and Larson seemed to be looking at him and laughing fondly as this song started.

“When Things Fall Apart” started up and two young women audibly gasped, eyes fixed on Larson, and held each other.  The whole audience seemed to go still at that moment, actually.  At some points, Larson seemed to be singing this to and with Miller; they faced each other when counting out the chords for the “transition via sorcery,” and Larson couldn’t help smiling, I saw.  That feeling of making things with a friend you adore, making eye contact:  how can you not smile?

The band moved to stand together, Larson on bass, for a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.”  You should have seen Ezra Miller’s grin on the line “Everyone is gay.”  He seemed to divine, correctly, that this audience would grin along.  He reached for the hand of a handsome middle-aged gentleman in the audience, held his gaze with heat, and deliberately kissed the back of the man’s hand.  It was an arresting performance and instantly conjured a vivid story of the chemistry that could exist between these two people.  What gorgeous sorcery.

Josh Aubin was a revelation for “E.G.,” speeding up into guitar-god mode, Larson on drums, Miller on keyboard.  Miller also improvised a brief dance with some glass beads hanging by the stage, which apparently looked like they were hoping to be part of the performance.

“Crystal Tomes.”  I’ve never heard Lilah Larson holler like this while singing.  Good backup.  I love Aubin’s guitar playing on this.  I think Miller was crying.  If you can make out the lyrics to this song, or get your hands on the lyric book to this album that Larson designed, you will understand why.  It’s too late for hope.  It’s not over, but it’s too late.  Why would we make so much brokenness of a world as beautiful as this one?  Why did we?

And yeah we are past the point now of the dawn I fear the day has broken

I’m so glad to be here with you still now my darling/ With the breaking of this world like a heart/ So it can grow

So it can grow.  All the grimness we’ve seen in the past couple of years and hearts will still grow, people will still forgive, if it’s in our nature, even if we’re broken, even if we’d like to stop, even if it would be better to stop.  If we can’t stop loving, we should grieve.  Grief will help ground us more than hope right now.  The band’s merchandise table featured temporary tattoos drawn by Larson, including one that was too raw for me to accept on first or second sight, a skull and a tombstone to mark the passing of the world as we knew it.  I didn’t want to give up the hope model; I didn’t want to look around me with clear eyes.  I should make myself look again at this art when I see the band perform in Los Angeles on June 23.  I don’t have to buy it.  I can just look.

Ohhh, now I am imagining an entire tarot deck drawn by this band, a post-prophetic deck for a loving, post-apocalyptic, queer, antipatriarchal world.

Not all of the band’s merchandise is available at this Hello Merch link — perhaps later — but you can order the lyric book for all the songs before Deus Ex Machina.

They closed the show with a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Larson still on drums, Miller on keyboards, Aubin on guitar.  Miller’s defenses were gone, his anguish manifesting in explosive twitches as he sang.

Encore.  “Very Few Dancers.”  No more after that; it was impressive enough that they had the energy even for one encore.

After the show, I was glad to be able to find Rubee and thank him for being a protector.  What a thing to do in the world right now.  Thank you for the hug, Rubee.  Thank you to the artists for coming to my hometown of Philadelphia to sing for us.

They had been in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, too, actually, to sing and talk politics on the June 1, 2018 episode of Jon Lovett’s touring podcast, Lovett or Leave It.  To my astonishment, they appeared alongside Larry Krasner, the beloved Philadelphia district attorney who earned my loyalty forever, in the early 1990s, for defending my dearest friends pro bono when the police beat several members of ACT UP during a peaceful, lawful protest.  He donated hours and hours of labor to us, and to so many others — he certainly won Philadelphians’ votes the hard way, one at a time!

I’m still making my way through the Deus Sex Machina lyric book, songs interspersed with collage art.  The lyrics to “Unarmed” stun me.  I found the song affecting enough when I listened the first few times, but together with the lyrics now, it overwhelms me with its beauty.

Grimoire.  That’s what this lyric book feels like to me.  I love this material evidence of what it’s like to live a complete artist life, singing and dancing and writing and making images.  I want to make quilts again.  The girls are old enough now that I can bring out the needles and blades and irons.

I’ll be able to catch the last concert on this tour, the June 23 stop in Los Angeles.  I wonder how different the band will look then.  Exhausted, no doubt, but also, I hope, accomplished.

I glowed for a full day after the Philadelphia concert.  They looked happy, performing.  They looked happy.


Here is the output of the quilt block program that my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994.

higher order perl quilt blocks

Here’s the quilt I gave him as a wedding gift in 1997.

wedding quilt 1

And a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.  The Deus Sex Machina cover art reminded me of it because of the similarity to the trunk structure.

tree of life quilt

 

Advertisements

“When Things Fall Apart,” and Sons of an Illustrious Father in concert

March:  I saw Sons of an Illustrious Father perform.   May:  The video to “When Things Fall Apart” premiered.  June 1:  They’ll release their new album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla.

But that’s the reverse order of how those things came into being.  Last year, while I was making a practice of listening to their album Revol to help stay (more or less) functional, the musicians themselves had long moved on.  They were finalizing the nine “post-future” songs for Deus Sex Machina.  It reminds me of that childhood feeling of being told that the starlight we see is from eons ago and not the star in its present form, if it still exists at all.

Many of the images coming from the band have that quality of double consciousness about them, an awareness of a different time or mindset, overlaid with the present.

The title of “When Things Fall Apart” is from a collection of talks by Pema Chödrön, subtitled “Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”  Yes, please, I will absolutely take book recs from this band.  Like “U.S.Gay,” “Extraordinary Rendition,” and “E.G.,” this song feels shaken.  What do we do after devastation?  How do we recollect ourselves when dissociation threatens?

 

Some of my game rules for listening to SOAIF songs remain the same for 2018.  It looks like this is going to be another nine-patch of an album, so I have fingers crossed that each band member will sing lead on three songs apiece; so far, this spring’s three new releases have each featured a different lead.  But the process for this album has changed a bit; in interview with Northern Transmissions, they said that some songs have parts written by different people, sometimes they’ll conceive of parts for each other, or one songwriter will bring “stems” of songs (Josh Aubin’s lovely term) to work on together.  Apparently, the band uses more electronic music on this album, which they’ve said in the past has been a Josh Aubin strength, so I’ll be listening for his influence there.  This is part of the fun of it for me, seeing if I notice how each mind contributed to the music and how those ideas played together.

“When Things Fall Apart” makes a simple impression, but there’s more going on than I heard at first.  The opening is folksy, synthesizer with an 80s lilt to it and some chime-like keyboard flourishes — maybe that’s where Aubin is in this song, since he has sometimes brought lighthearted sound even to songs with moody topics.  Lilah Larson sings gently, with compassion — I think the words are “For whose sake do you forsake yourself?”  That’s a mildly risky element of this game, trying to distinguish this band’s lyrics, because I will certainly be reading into them and I don’t want to hear wrong, and the recent release of their lyric book confirms that these writers do like to elide words into soundalike words.  (No, it wasn’t just you.  The lyrics — and this is one of the greatest joys of this band — were not obvious.  And as it turns out, having them spelled out in print does not demystify them.)

The comfort of the first verse is disrupted by a strident chord that repeats… and repeats… and repeats… and repeats… and repeats.  When is this going to end?  Is it a malfunction?  An alarm?  It’s a bell tolling, or maybe someone’s time is up, because it strikes twelve times in all before giving way to a mournful tempo change.  The words to the chorus are, I think, “Fall apart… into place.  Fall apart, into grace.”  The shift in meaning from a single substitution might be Lilah Larson’s songwriting; she’s done that before.

The second verse returns to contemplation.  This time, when the chord disrupts it again, there’s a familiarity to these shock waves.  It feels less strident, five repetitions rather than 12 before the chorus falls apart.  The song climbs out of this second chorus with — is this what musicians call a bridge? — a progression of rising notes and the line, “All you fear is fear, a fear which disappears as you draw near.”  Is this where Ezra Miller comes into this song?  This image of approaching the source of fear is a reworking of his image, from the Revol song “Armageddon,” of bracing the self for inevitable attack.  The sense of transformation, of cresting the summit, the wordplay and syntax play seem like his thinking, too.

The third time that heavy chord enters the song, we hear it only once, and the song falls instantly into the chorus — we know how to do this now.  It sounds like the words are slightly different this time:  “Fall apart… into space.”  An added reverb effect, if that’s what it’s called (never have I wished so much that I knew how to write about music), and a more relaxed tempo, end the song with a floaty feel.  Like weightlessness and release.

The video to the song has more of a narrative plot than we’ve seen from this band before.  The romance is only part of it, but we have to talk about the romance.  In a few intimate scenes between Lilah Larson and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, we get what feels like an entire love story before the lyrics even start.  Their expressions driving into the story are among the purest depictions of romantic joy I’ve ever seen.  The cabin in the woods in the deciduous winter, the acoustic guitar, the thunderstruck moment of falling in love, the consummation, the support — this feels like something.  It takes me a while to admit to exactly what, because it’s such a big deal.  It feels like a lesbian fairy tale.  Something known deep in the culture, in the blood, like Disney princesses or being walked down the aisle or riding into the sunset:  a story, an image, that is iconic of collective longings.  There aren’t so many images of these for two women.  The tableau of one woman adoring another playing music, the retreat-like privacy:  yes, that’s one way it would look.

In 1986, every lesbian I knew made pilgrimages to the city to watch Desert Hearts in the theater, as many times as budget would allow.  That movie changed everything; for depictions of women together, by and for women, there was a “before” Desert Hearts and an “after.”  The sex scenes were enough.  They weren’t fade to black; they were included.  The love story in the video for “When Things Fall Apart” is included, too, in a way that reminded me of Desert Hearts.  I haven’t seen this version of a trust fall before:  a falling toward, a falling together.  A mutually agreed-upon act of trust that turns, with grace, into support:  two more instances of this band’s wordplay.

I wanted to write about “Extraordinary Rendition,” “When Things Fall Apart,” and about the March 28 concert I saw, before the June 1 album release pushed those thoughts out of my head.  It takes me a long time to hear a song.  I wasn’t quick enough; the song “E.G.” was released before I got to two of those three things.  The art is coming faster than I can eat it.  Bounty.

So I’d better write about that concert while I still have some memory of it.  (Photo below by PangaeaStarseed.  Used with permission.)

soaifPangaeaStarseed

C’Mon Everybody, Brooklyn, March 28, 2018. Many thanks to PangaeaStarseed for permission to use their photo.

 

I was nervous that day, March 28, traveling toward Brooklyn.  Live performance:  we’d all be experiencing the music together, ideas traveling from some humans to others through sound and movement, with no time lag.  Two music-loving friends came with me:  Chelsea, a writer, who opened her Brooklyn home to me, and Jen, a teacher (coming from the Bronx!  On a school night!), who had been with me last year when I asked Lilah Larson to sign my copy of her solo album, Pentimento.

Pentimento is a good word for those images of time lapse or double consciousness I’ve been noticing from the band.  I work with words rather than visual art, so I’m more familiar with palimpsests.  Larson’s solo album might be the only time I’ve encountered the word pentimento other than reading the book of that title by Lillian Hellman, long ago.

I looked up what Hellman said about pentimento in 1973.

Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.

While I was looking up Lillian Hellman, I found a photo of William Styron, who moved to Brooklyn in his twenties and wrote about it so indelibly in Sophie’s Choice.  And this photo made me understand something about the Janus-faced cover image of Lilah Larson’s Pentimento.

 

 

It felt intrusive, seeing such a personal thing through a few clicks on Google; I have the urge to apologize.  On the other hand, it’s a cover image of a solo music album, a piece of lifework.  A finished lifework is not the occasion to pretend that things aren’t personal, that influences don’t shape us, that we haven’t put everything we have into this public offering.

I think it was right to feel both honored and nervous to be present at a live performance.  It is possible, of course, for performers to protect themselves by pretending they don’t care terribly when putting themselves before audiences, but I don’t get the impression that Sons of an Illustrious Father spend much time on that kind of self-deception.

They opened big with “U.S.Gay” and “Extraordinary Rendition” right into “Conquest,” three songs that drive hard and don’t relent.  I didn’t know if I could possibly love “Extraordinary Rendition” as much as my favorite songs from Revol, but seeing it live confirmed it.  Miller and Larson kept eye contact while raising a ruckus together and then harmonized like two cellos, voices rich like the feel of bowstrings reverberating against wire and wood.  There was affection and playfulness throughout the live concert that we can’t get from a recording:  Larson bunting Aubin with her head like a cat or playing peekaboo with Miller over their instruments, Miller reaching out to hold Aubin while singing together.

After that, they took a breath for their à cappella cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4U,” holding each other tightly.  This was the absolute highlight of the concert and it was not anything like how it looks on recordings.  Live, it was intense, straining, overwhelming — a public performance of the private gratitude the musicians feel to be able to make art together.  Maybe the closest way to describe how it felt is ceremonial prayer.

I can’t tell you much about the new music they performed; it takes me a long time to get to know songs, and I think their songs have taken a leap in ambition, as well.  I got to see Josh Aubin belting out lead, the precision of Lilah Larson’s guitar playing, Ezra Miller pounding the shit out of some drums, shattered bits of drumsticks flying.  I had wanted to see them rotate duties on instruments, a powerful part of their magic:  Put yourself in another’s place.  When they switched instruments, it just looked so matter-of-fact.  Competent.  I couldn’t take it all in.  I wanted to watch Larson on drums so much that I forgot to watch Miller sing and play keyboard; I completely forgot how I’ve always wanted to watch Aubin’s hands on keyboard for “Very Few Dancers,” too busy watching the singing.

It was a good audience to be part of, excited and respectful in the intimate venue.  Whenever Ezra Miller changed places onstage, we could see Rubee moving to keep him covered, just in case.  My friend Chelsea noted how that made her feel safer for everybody.  You’ve probably glimpsed Rubee if you’ve seen photos of Miller from public appearances.  At one point, Rubee accidentally bumped me — I was wedged against a counter and couldn’t get out of the way — and very sweetly offered to buy me a drink by way of apology.  He laughed when I had to take out an earplug to hear what he was saying, and showed me his own ear protection.  These guys are loud.  More than once, I saw them get goofy grins together when they made extra big crashy sounds.

Rubee asked if I had traveled just to see the show, and I got to tell him how the band’s music has been getting me through this administration.  At that, his whole demeanor changed, and for one moment, he exhaled with so much fatigue and pain, and shook his head.  Yeah.

Then there was the moment my wishes came true.  Lilah Larson, with a very gently teasing smile, announced the book of lyrics from We Are Dead and Reborn, One Body, Sons, and Revol, to help out “if you can’t understand what Ezra’s saying.”

“I always think I’m being perfectly clear,” he protested.

“We understand you,” she assured him, to which he replied “thank you” with slightly wounded dignity.

I haven’t sat down and fully communed with this precious artifact yet; it’s almost too concentrated and requires dilution.  Sometimes fans leave messages asking for official lyrics, pleading that they are not native English speakers.  Being a native English speaker won’t necessarily help you here, heh.  Look at this line from “ppm,” for example.  I am certain I would never have deciphered it correctly, and the idiosyncratic capitalization is a bit of meaning that I couldn’t sense from hearing it.  No wonder I couldn’t make it out.

And yea though we’ve walked

On Gaia’s Pristine and Deadly Crown

For all our talk

Our synthetic boots still defile her gown

Printing the lyrics doesn’t lessen their mystery.  They’re as ecstatic and cerebral as I could have wanted, featuring extended political metaphors and melded words that create doubled meanings.  I’ve seen speculation that Miller doesn’t always know what he’s singing; I remember thinking, oh, maybe we don’t, but it looks to me like he always knows.

There was a point when the sight of Ezra Miller drumming was too bright and I had to look away.  It was the combination of the almost-uncontainable energy, the mastery involved in channeling it, the capacity of drumming as a medium to accept every bit of that energy and convey it into art, and the utter lack of filter on the artist’s face.  There was no pretense, no ironic distance.  There was only acknowledgment that this is it, this now is everything; we want to be our best and realest selves and we can only hope that is enough.  And I choked up because that energy looked exactly like how a loved one looked at that age, more than 20 years ago, and I never expected a reminder so vivid and shocking.  He looks different now, my loved one, and I love the current incarnation more, and it amuses me to add, just in case anyone was wondering, that this person is very, very much not a movie star or anything of the sort.  But even when we don’t miss the long-ago versions of our dearest ones, it’s a jolt to the heart when we get the gift of a glimpse.  More often, I think, we get this kind of jolt when a small child goes running by who looks and sounds just like a loved one used to, at that age.  I wasn’t prepared for it to happen here, and with such immediacy.  Time lapse.  Magic.  Pentimento.

The concert ended too soon.  The band re-emerged, looking beautifully spent and without reserves, and Lilah Larson said modestly into the mic, “We’re not used to doing encores.”  They had a brief conference; she muttered, “This will be fine,” which made me laugh; they fulfilled my wish, and probably many others’ wishes, by doing “Very Few Dancers” and “Opposite of Love.”

It was done.  Chelsea steered me to her home, pushing my floating self gently before her, beaming serenely at me and making sure I was hydrated.  She says she’s going to the band’s next Brooklyn show, which makes me happy.  I will go to their Philadelphia show next month, if I can, and even though there will be so much more I’ll want to take in about the new songs, I hope I remember this time to look at Josh Aubin’s hands on the keyboard.

I loved the show, artists.  I thought I’d write you a thank-you note for the sustenance and the fun.

Extraordinary Rendition: Sons of an Illustrious Father

I can’t keep up with Sons of an Illustrious Father right now, and it’s glorious.  They’re blossoming.  In advance of the June 1 release of their album Deus Sex Machina:  or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, they’ve been giving us some of the new material.  We have today’s new video to “When Things Fall Apart,” the video and lyrics to the single “Extraordinary Rendition,” and most revelatory of all, a lyric book of all their songs from We Are Dead and Reborn, One Body, Sons, and Revol.  

I probably emitted an actual small scream when they announced the lyric book from the stage.  Oh yes, because they’ve been performing live, too, and when I saw their announced show for March 28 in Brooklyn, where I do not live at all, I was seized by fear that I would never ever get another chance to see them and I bought a ticket before thinking through any responsible grown-up thoughts about how I’d bail on my family on a school night to travel there and see for myself what it looks like when these three busy spirits join together to make sound.

Who? you may be asking.  I wrote last year about falling in love with the work of these musicians, Josh Aubin, Lilah Larson, and Ezra Miller, especially on their album Revol.  Their songs were angry and political and spiritual and soothing and heartening, just when I needed it in 2017, and thank goodness, they fiercely advocated for the value of thinking.  Listening to Revol throughout 2017, they kept me company in resisting the fascist message don’t overthink things, to just let sanity be eroded.  Their songs sang of a better message:  It is good to think things.  If the thinking gets too tortuous, then breathe.  Re-set.  Here, would you like a reading list?

I can’t get the broad smile off my face, thinking that.  Yes, please, give me very loud noises from a band whose song and album titles send me to search engines.

So there I was on a Wednesday morning, headed to Brooklyn (“Mommy, just go.  We’ll be fine.  Really”), when not half an hour out of Philadelphia, I got an email from my 9-year-old’s fourth-grade teacher, starting off with, “She’s fine.”  It was something about a bottle of red food coloring that she’d brought from home and how she’d emptied most of it into her mouth and passed the rest to a different fourth grader and how she was sent to the nurse’s office to clean herself up and maybe it would be a good time for us to have a talk at home about “dress code norms.”  

What.  The.  It wasn’t even 10 AM yet.

Husband and I sent off mortified apologies to the teacher.  Please, let this just be a prank.  Or… is she trying to spook out her classmates, implying she’s some sort of vampire or cannibal…?  This is, after all, the child who declared jauntily of herself, “The WEIRD SHIP has ALREADY SAILED.”  This isn’t about the school shootings, is it?  Because the school had just had a series of discussions about school shootings, and a walkout, and please let this not be an expression of anxiety… Augh.  Parenting.

The teacher seemed to think it was normal kiddie silliness.  I continued my trip.  I saw the show, and it deserves words, and I will write about it more later.  I saw them perform “Extraordinary Rendition.”  Here’s the video to that song:

The first time I heard this song, the opening chords assaulted my ears, and I scrambled a bit as a listener, trying to find the melody.  And then, ohhh, there it was, in the chorus:  the low alto of Lilah Larson’s harmony diverging from the narrative line, her voice reassuring and possibly the most beautiful it has been, providing a base of security for Ezra Miller’s character as he observed, reported, stayed present in the disorienting feel of being jolted forcibly into unfamiliar places.  

Extraordinary rendition.  I had to look that up.  It sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it?  Like a high mark or a good review.  It’s not.  At least in one sense of the term, it’s something bloodied and awful, a thing of hell, a skeleton in the closet that’s been dragged into light with the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the head of the CIA.  We don’t want to normalize this brutality, but we don’t want to stop knowing about it, either; we are all implicated.  

I’ve never seen you before/ But what our brains just can’t quite endure/ Is the oh-so-simple fact/ We’re all derived from one source

The video shows us the young white male narrator, portrayed by Miller, being shaken by his sudden arrival in an unexpected place.  This song bears all the hallmarks of an Ezra Miller composition:  the imagistic lyrics, repeated motifs of almost dissonant notes, wordplay based on similar sounds blurring into each other, assonance and internal rhymes.  What do you do when you’re a white male American body, sometimes but not always a person of privilege, young and wary, moving in a world of infinite contexts?  This song has some conclusions, at least for this person, for this moment, and they are striking.  You don’t stop engaging.  You don’t stop feeling.  There is nobody who is not connected.

Do you feel the bones that you can’t own/ Rattle the moans of the loner’s vacant cavities

None of us has very far to go before becoming, in some way, in our selves or in our history, the oppressor or the oppressed.  Someone is always in torment; it might be us.  Don’t stop engaging.  “These are the perils of free agency.”  Breathe.  Build.  

I refuse to summon that false remorse/ To regret or apologize/ Tell lies ’bout how I’ve seen this place before

We’re all accountable, whether we’re close to innocence or never had it.  It’s absolutely guaranteed, no matter where we end up, that our accountability will catch up with us.

A prophet knocks at your door/ To lay your distant cousin’s bones/ On the carpet of your floor

Is this a frightening thought, or a reassuring one?  My paternal grandfather was the only one among his siblings and cousins to make it south of the border during the war; he escaped from the North Korean prison where he was being held for his religion, more than 70 years ago now, and the story is so much worse than that.  What happened to all the others I’ve never met, who look like me?  This is not a thought that keeps me up; it’s distant.  I’ve been living elsewhere.

This video is a leap forward for the band, more ambitious than videos they’ve done before.  The costumes are lush wish fulfillment.  We have seen Ezra Miller in costume for films, but what fun to see Academy Award-winning designer Colleen Atwood transform Josh Aubin into full-on romantic hero mode.  If you’re susceptible to handsome women, brace yourself for the sight of Lilah Larson embodying 1920s lesbian poet chic.  It may hurt a little, but it will be worth it.

I was shaken, too, by the video, by a moment at the end.  The choreographer is listed as Marta Miller.  Is that…?  Yes.  Imagine.  Imagine.  Imagine you have finished raising your wild and gifted child, and he has not been crushed, and you must have done well by him because look, he is vibrant and creating, and he and his friends want you — invite you — to please come make things with them.

I got back home and approached my fourth grader as gently as possible, like trying not to startle a wild animal, stripping my voice and manner of the slightest trace of judgment, almost not breathing.  I asked about the red food coloring.

“Oh, that,” she said, chagrined.  “It was something I saw on YouTube, and I understand it was poor judgment and it wasn’t appropriate for school, and I won’t be doing that again.  And I didn’t drink half the bottle; it was already almost empty when I brought it to school.  It was just a few drops.  I spat it partly into the sink, and partly into a tissue.  I brought the shirt home in a bag.  I’m sorry.  We’ll have to put it in the laundry.”

[This is the point in the comic strip where the large mommy and the small child look at each other, and the child is done speaking, and the mommy just looks at the child and doesn’t say anything for a whole panel.]

It doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the school shootings.  It seems like it was just a prank.  I mean, with a touch of drama, yes.  I told her that such pranks are best confined to Halloween or April Fools’ Day.  She went upstairs and did her homework.

I love the song “Extraordinary Rendition,” with its many changes and highlights, and the melody seems strong and legible to me now.  I’m not done getting to know it yet, and now, today, we have the new “When Things Fall Apart” video, the most narrative video we’ve seen from this band so far, another leap forward.  I am reading Pema Chodron and thinking about the damage that’s changed us since this presidency began.  I still want to write about the concert I saw, and probably, too, about this new video and then about the album coming June 1.  I hope and expect to see this band play again, and it will be in my city this time, and school will be out for the summer, and it will be okay for my kid to dye herself red.

 

“But if the lights go out, how can we go on?”  Sons of an Illustrious Father, Revol, and art in 2017

[Note:  Skip down 10 paragraphs if you just want to get to the stuff about this album, Revol by Sons of an Illustrious Father. -Lorrie Kim]


Lin-Manuel Miranda got me through 2016, the year we slipped into the darkest timeline.  When the pointless cruelties toward people of color and queer people made me feel more bitter than I had in years, Hamilton’s cleverness was a respite and a balm.  I could still laugh in startled pleasure at wordplay, glory in the exuberance of Miranda’s fusions.  Genius was in the air, polyglot stars spinning out of his brain into the skies over us all, and it felt so good.

That spring, ten blocks from my house, the university in my neighborhood hosted a near-palpable collision. (Could it really have been only last year?  We have grown so haggard since then, as a nation.) Joe Biden and Trump, then a malevolent racist political candidate, sat under the same tent to witness graduation.  The following day, to roars of relief and welcome, Lin-Manuel Miranda cleansed the space when he gave a commencement address.  At his remarks about the importance of American immigrants, the crowd — including the university president and provost, onstage — leapt pointedly to a standing ovation. 

Of all the horrors of 2016, nothing anguished me like the Pulse nightclub shooting.  Gay clubs have been, for me, sacred spaces to celebrate beauty and the erotic divine; celebrations for people of color at gay clubs, immeasurably more so.  When I watched Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Tonys, delivering the elegiac sonnet he had composed in less than a day, I understood for the first time why civilizations want poets laureate.  This was the poet of my heart and my country.

My book Snape: A Definitive Reading got published the following month — could it really have been only a year ago? — the same month that my city hosted the 2016 Democratic National Convention.  The week after the convention, an exhausted-sounding but lovely reporter from the local paper of record called me for a quick Q&A about my book.  When I wrote the book, I had assumed it would be of extremely limited interest.  But by the time it was published, the Harry Potter stories had gained new relevance in the American popular discourse as dystopian allegory alongside other political books such as 1984, The Hunger Games, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  There was open talk of rounding up religious minorities and people of color; we couldn’t avoid comparisons to Death Eaters, Snatchers, and the Muggle-born Registration Commission.

But I still thought, back then, that we would vote our way out of this timeline.  I was still able, sometimes, to withstand the sound of Christopher Jackson, as George Washington, singing “One Last Time” in the Oval Office to Barack Obama.  My president was still black; reason still counted for something.

The November election dealt a staggering blow to my neighborhood of mosques, immigrant churches and businesses, poets and translators and scientists, parents with strollers, anarchists and queers and trans communities all within blocks of my house.  Every day was a new attack on something beautiful and whole.  The weekend after that hellish election, the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them premiered in New York.  A friend who had a ticket to J.K. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall appearance had to walk past Trump Tower to get there, and reported thousands of protesters.  At the press events, the actors and creators appeared to be in a bit of a daze, as I was:  their movie, which I’d intended to view as an allegory, was suddenly looking more like a documentary.

After that election, it became Rachel Maddow, then, and not Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got me through the days.  I still loved Hamilton, although a friend of mine, a woman of color who grew up in Queens, could not listen to that soundtrack anymore after the election.  She felt betrayed by her own hope; it was too painful to have believed, really believed, for a few months, that the kind of people she grew up with could be seen as the face and the brains of the country.  I was arrested by the heart-in-throat spectacle of actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, addressing vice president-elect Mike Pence from the stage as Pence exited the theater.  It seemed too much to ask of artists alone, to do the heavy lifting every day of my spirits.  I was glad to witness the long-overdue respect for journalism as a profession by the American public, who had grown complacent in demonizing the press while taking for granted the painstaking way that journalists fact-check and pursue the truth.  I was only a full-time journalist for a short while, but I will always be proud of the profession.  The sight of Rachel Maddow bracing herself and plowing through to the truth no matter what, her cleverness tempered by her matter-of-fact resistance to hyperbole, helped me hold on to reality.  The quiet, intense mutual knowledge between her and Dan Rather, the times I saw him guest on her show, as they clasped hands and understood each other:  that is one of the most powerful versions of love I’ve ever seen.  In this ugly war against all that makes sense, they showed me that truth still exists, connection between human minds still exists, and it is worthwhile and good.

The ugliness worsened.  There were days when I couldn’t make myself do much more than absorb the news and cry over the brutishness.  On those days, I would knit.  I wasn’t going to make pussyhats at first; among my loved ones, it doesn’t work to correlate gender and genitalia.  And whatever energy I did have to knit or crochet was going toward the felted octopus toys I was making for my then-tween daughters to sell at craft fairs.  But when I saw how my daughters and the other schoolgirls reacted to the pussyhats, how angry they were and how proud, I reversed my policy.  I made them hats in classic hot pink, and then for their friends, and then more and more, in the colors of rainbow pride and trans pride and ace pride and bi pride and pan pride and nonbinary and genderqueer pride.  

hats and sleeves

When I wasn’t making hats, I was knitting pride-colored coffee sleeves or illusion scarves that looked innocent from one angle but spelled out F U C K   T R U M P from another.  With every completed project, I posted photos with the hashtag #MadameDefarge.  My friends and I raised hundreds of dollars in donations for GLAAD with our rage-knitting.

I had learned the story of Arachne in second grade, but I didn’t understand until decades later why Athena destroyed Arachne’s weaving and turned her into a spider.  I thought it, when I was a child, just another instance of the Greek gods punishing mortals for equaling or bettering them.  Sometimes, though, in 2017, I have thought of Arachne and lifted my spirits by reading the titles of Chuck Tingle’s political satires.  Pounded in the Butt by the Sentient Manifestation of My Own Ignorant Climate Change Denial.  Domald Tromp Pounded in the Butt by His Fabricated Wiretapping Scandal Made Up to Redirect Focus Away from His Seemingly Endless Unethical Connections to Russia.  Pounded in the Butt by Covfefe.  This generous spirit provides his titles for free, as a gift, to lift the spirits of the masses.

I was good with having Rachel Maddow and Chuck Tingle as my sanity savers this year; I have many supports and privileges in my life, and it seemed it would be enough.  But then I stumbled into something extra and unexpected, a windfall, a gift of grace.

Sons of an Illustrious Father

I first read of the band Sons of an Illustrious Father while I was researching a talk about abuse in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I had noted the humility and protectiveness in the character Credence Barebone, who howled through establishment New York like the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, enraged by hypocrisy.  I looked up the actor who played him:  Ezra Miller, who was also, it seemed, a musician in a band.  The article by Bradley Spinelli lamented that “the scary part” of Miller’s acting success is that Sons of an Illustrious Father might become a “casualty” of his filming schedule.

“The” scary part?  What was this band, to inspire such concern?

Curious, I downloaded Revol, their 9-song album from 2016.  I hadn’t listened to new music in ages.

revol soaif

Three or four ethereal bars into the first track, “ppm,” and I was hooked.

Three band members.  Nine songs, sung three apiece.  Three concentric shapes on their album art:  equilateral triangles, circles, squares.  Steadfast harmonies on every song, rotating duties on instruments so that each musician plays several interchangeable roles.  The tripod is a stable structure.  The collective is a dynamic that I trust and love for its ability to ensure that each person’s voice gets heard.

Excuse me; have I slipped into reverie already?  The band’s music has had that effect on me during this painful year.  On morning drives, when I’ve sought solace from the news and switched on Revol, my brain has calmed and and my thoughts have turned associative … happy … restored.  

The band says, in interview, that they begin concerts with a group hug, synchronizing their breathing and thanking each other.  

Just visualizing this brings me some balance.  It reminds me to thank the people who make things with me.

The cerebral harmonies of “ppm” re-set me, let my thoughts breathe again.  I could hear myself think.  My mind could play as I listened, the way Hamilton had allowed my listening self to play.  I could take pleasure in guessing what each of the individual musicians contributed to each song and where their ideas blended.  Revol, the title, is the kind of wordplay they do:  lover backwards, of course, and a revel but more playful with that “o” suggesting “gambol,” and of course revolt as in uprising, and the beginning of revolution, giving space to playfulness and love and sexuality and movement and dance in order to rise against oppressiveness.  Band member Lilah Larson calls their style “genre queer” — you can feel the many times her mind has played in the etymological connection between gender and genre.  Or at least, I like to imagine her enjoying that connection, the same way I’ve often treasured the kinship between textile and text as someone who works in both writing and the fiber arts.

(The cover image for Revol would work beautifully as a quilt block in reverse appliqué.)

ppm

The tranquil, celestial harmonies of these opening bars have soothed me on those nights when I’ve been too frightened to sleep, thinking, Please don’t bomb Korea.  What has Korea ever done but give the world movable type, skincare, and frozen yogurt?  Please don’t bomb my parents.

So, this must be Ezra Miller singing, yes?  What is he singing about?  I…can’t exactly tell, but the people singing with him seem unconcerned, so they must know.  “Your heart will know; your head won’t be sure.”  Ohhh…the richness of the alto is making me swoon.  I check the name again:  Lilah Larson.  She looks pleasantly radical.  Precise.  You want this woman singing backup for you.

Oh, and here’s a surprise.  The music picks up:  tempo change.  Then the song nearly pauses in contemplation.  Done with that thought, it changes tempo again.  What is this song about?  Sea, stars, fuel, miles, minds:  its scope feels light and nearly limitless.  I breathe easier after listening.

06

Driving synth beat, a different masculine voice, wry lyrics:  

He said, “Let’s go for a ride and see what we can be.” 

I said, “I’m not ready to die, so I guess it’s time to leave.”

This must be Josh Aubin, announcing himself with understated humor.  Deadpan, reticent.  Then an assertive peal of guitar, I’m guessing from Lilah Larson.  What is he singing about — who is he singing about?  There’s a “he” and a “she,” talk of running, of leaving.  Is this about romance?  Maybe not; it sounds more like a broken home, like fear and sadness, “waging all my hopes on what I couldn’t believe.”  Unlike “ppm,” there aren’t tempo changes to signal shifts in the wide-ranging emotions.  There’s a stoic sameness to the narration, so I have to listen closely to the lyrics to catch the mood, and the act of drawing closer creates a marked sense of internal monologue, of reserve.  Something happened; the singer remembers and will sing about remembering it, but he will not reveal all of it.  

New verse:  “She said, ‘You must think I’m crazy if you think I can leave.’”  On crazy, a whine of meticulously controlled feedback joins the lyrics, and a new strain of hummingbird-rapid drumming.  This must be Larson and Miller, adding their own witness to the story.  It hits me:  that’s the song.  It is not for me to know the private details, but Aubin’s bandmates know.  He isn’t alone anymore when he remembers.  The song feels stronger here.

The chorus hurts a little:  “This is real, but it’s not what we believe.”  There have been times this year when that line has brought tired tears to my eyes.  All the unprovoked attacks on people we love, on safety, on fairness:  this is happening, but we are better than this.  I don’t think the line was intended to be about the first months of post-Trump America, but that’s where I’ve been when I’ve sung along under my breath.

Because

Everything else falls away.  Spotlight on Lilah Larson and a brooding torch song that is magnificent in its focus.  Her rich voice, the drawling guitar, the restrained lyrics all serve a single goal; the guys recede into steady backup as everything falls into line.  This song feels like a humid summer night, airless whether the windows are open or closed.  This is star quality.

And those three songs complete the first row of the nine-patch quilt block that is Revol, one lead per singer.  I know the band has said that they are moving more toward collaborating on their songs, but part of my joy in being a listener is in trying to hear the individual contributions and how they harmonize.  It looks like the drumming and percussion are primarily Miller, although also from the other two.  Guitar is usually Larson; you can tell by the confidence.  Synth and bass are usually Aubin; keyboards, Aubin or Miller, although I haven’t yet learned to distinguish between their sounds.  Fun.

Tendrils

Sometimes, something is so exactly what you need that it helps you exhale.  The instrumentals in this song are one good decision after another.  The lyrics remind me of the comfort of awe, of humility.

You know how people sometimes say, “Be kind to yourself”?  What can we tell ourselves that is kind?  

These words have helped me get through 2017:

We’re not yet out of time.

No, we’re not yet out of time.

We can still recover.

It is right for all of us to hold ourselves accountable, to be stern — but mercy is good, too.

Oh.  Oh.  That is the genre of this song:  prayer.

One note of this song is my favorite.  Song — that’s the word, song, from the line “Song sung deep in our hearts” — it’s an unexpected sharp semitone, astringent and clean like horseradish.

I love what lyrics I can make out in this song.  I did a search for the rest of them so I could get to know them, too.  That turned out, through no fault of the band’s, to be…a mistake.  I couldn’t find any official lyrics, but I did stumble across some unsettling ravings about one of the band members.  Oh, hello, elephant in the room.  The music itself makes the argument that this band rests equally on the dynamic between all three members, and the power of that give-and-take is exactly why I find their music so welcoming, but how to counter the distraction of imbalanced outside attention toward one of them?

It helps to return to the unhurried preoccupations of this song itself.  I can’t remember the last time I noticed that a song’s lyrics include an aside that is clearly set off by em dashes.  It makes me laugh in geeky delight every time I hear it.

 But if it’s more — and I think it’s more — self-realization in the context of the whole.

At least, that’s what I think the lyrics are saying.  Seriously, dear Sons, is there anything we could do to persuade you to release official lyrics?  Can we…fundraise for causes of your choice?  Send proof of political protest or acts of kindness?  

Here is a live recording of “Tendrils” so you can see the three musicians making quietude together, although do listen to the studio version as well, which has different strengths.

The Opposite of Love

Ooooohhhhh.

Hurty love songs feel different when they’re by or about queer women.  

There’s a genre of women’s lovesong that can make listeners wince, true but painful songs about what we’re willing to give up of ourselves for love.  They can be hard to listen to when the loved ones are men.  But how does it feel to make the conscious offer to diminish the self, to cede the lovers’ quarrel, when both are women?

Among other things, it can feel like this.  Jangly guitar, a thick slow tempo like trying to draw breath during depression, and at one point, a masterful guitar arpeggio that shows exactly how much potency the singer is holding in check.

There’s a video to go with the song.  On probably half a dozen occasions in 2017, after politics delivered another blow to queerness in the U.S., I’ve played myself this video for comfort.

And this song once made me laugh out loud.  Clearly, it’s about a relationship that has had its conflicts, but that line, “I always take you back” — OMG.  Imagine wanting to date someone who was once with Lilah Larson and might not be over her.  Imagine trying not to feel insecure about it!  This thought once led to my kids asking me, “Mommy, what’s so funny?”

Heh.  Anyway.

One of my favorite things about this song is the stealth optimism in the title line.  There is no opposite of love.  There’s beauty in that.

Saudade

Excuse me for a moment.  *googles*

Oh, so it’s not pronounced like French.  Excuse me again.  *googles pronunciation*

Josh Aubin’s voice is strong and rich on the deep notes here.

A great pleasure of getting to know this band’s music:  it lets you luxuriate in thought.  Wherever the music takes you, maybe — I hope — this band would not say you’re overthinking it.  It feels more likely that there would be stories behind the songs.

And those three songs are the interior third of the Revol nine-patch.

Conquest

I got to see three American plays this year.  The touring company of Fun Home came to my town and I dropped everything to sit in the audience and marvel that I have lived to see Alison Bechdel hailed as a genius.  Decades ago, I was the first editor to syndicate Dykes to Watch Out For in a college publication.  I’m still proud of that.  Somewhere, I probably still have the canceled checks with her signature on them.

Last month, I saw Puffs off Broadway.  I’ll say more about that day later.

In between, I took a Bolt Bus day trip to see Indecent on Broadway, three days before it closed in August.  It wasn’t an easy trip to arrange, but I had friends who begged everyone to go to any lengths possible to see it, so I heeded.  It’s exactly the story for this American year:  Indecent chronicles the suppression and censorship of the 1907 Yiddish play God of Vengeance, about the romance between two young women who live under the same patriarchal roof.  Yankl is a pimp; his daughter, Rivkele, lives in the family home upstairs, and she loves Manke, one of the workers in Yankl’s basement brothel.  God of Vengeance was shut down for indecency when it opened on Broadway in 1923.  Indecent tenderly restages the love scenes of God of Vengeance as part of its story.  This revolutionary love finally got to declare itself on Broadway, almost a century later.

If I ever make it to a concert by SOAIF, “Conquest” is the song I hope to see most.  More than once, while watching Indecent, I heard the opening bars in my head:

When the maiden fucked the whore

Took the old crone’s name in vain

Said “Oh my god, what insidious sin

To spread repression and shame

The song is powerful enough on the album, but live, it would undoubtedly be scorching, an all-out three-person rage against the patriarchy.  Sometimes, anger purifies spoken language.  Larson sings that forced sterilization keeps populations “to an amenable minimum” — the scansion in that line is always so satisfying.

The band’s web page features the graphic art version of this song by Larson and Aubin.  

Armageddon

I didn’t like this song at first.  I wasn’t on board with the title pun.  I wasn’t on board for the journey.

I soon learned that this song didn’t care if I liked it or not.  It was going to set its own pace, sometimes trudging, sometimes surging, sweeping me along with everything else before it.  It was no use to resist.  Ah, I did pay attention to the contemplative bridge, like a pause for water and reflection, and when the song got to its feet again to resume the march, I followed.  By the time the voices swelled to the defiant cry, “We won’t give in to fear even as they draw near — and we know they are legion”…  

Okay, okay.  You win, song.  I stopped resisting.  I no longer even wanted to resist.

When Dionysus is captured or denied, things do not go well.  From the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus:

They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet:  and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes.

I can’t make out 80% of Ezra Miller’s lyrics.  Is it safe to stop resisting this song if I don’t even understand what it’s about?  Well, it’s too late to be asking such questions, isn’t it?  

And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands.

I don’t know what this song is about.  I do know that when Dionysian ecstasy took hold, maenads ran wild, dancing to flute music, striking the ground with their pinecone-tipped staffs so that water or milk or wine or honey flowed forth.  And that men who tried to resist Dionysus or suppress the maenads ended up wearing women’s clothing and either joined in the ecstasy or were torn to pieces. 

Post-Future

Trust Josh Aubin to find a tangible analog medium to communicate song lyrics digitally.  Check out the words to “Post-Future” as an artist graffities them in immaculate lettering (and, bless, pristine spelling) in this lyric video.

This song is the right bookend to the album.  It starts as a lament, but there’s a lightness to it, matching the lightness in “ppm,” and it ends with a question.  In this year, when every day has been a struggle to find answers — What will it take for me to maintain equilibrium today? — Aubin reminds us that answers aren’t big enough.

But I want to live just to do something beautiful

And I want something to believe

I need something to believe

Revol lifted me out of answers and back to playfulness this year.  I had to pull myself up again several times a week, but that’s okay; albums are meant to be heard on repeat.  Listening to these songs, I could remember how it felt when my president was black and thoughtfulness had a place and I could relax in the world enough to listen to Hamilton and let my mind revel along.  I could swoon over Lilah Larson’s disciplined voice, or laugh to realize that Ezra Miller’s high-frequency vibe reminded me of a fidget spinner in its surprising stability and stamina, or let Josh Aubin remind me that words are tangible things we create. 

Sons of an Illustrious Father kept reopening the portal for me.  That’s some strong magic.

Other arts

I listened to songs other than the ones on Revol, of course.  I love every track on their EP Sons.  I love the rage they hammered into their song and video “U.S.Gay.”  My throat ached with pride at the line “I want fag tattooed in red on my forehead/A revolution in my bed.”  It whisked me into pure time travel, suddenly 1991 again and I was chanting with ACT UP alongside my loved ones, many of whom are still here.  I listened to Lilah Larson’s hoarse-voiced interview with Maia from BTRToday from their 2017 post-inauguration concert tour, three “coastal artist-types” driving all night to sing for “young queer kids” in red-state basements.  Gutsy, and so dear.  I listened to Larson’s solo album Pentimento, which brought me back to the women’s music of my early adulthood, like Ferron and Sweet Honey in the Rock, ordered on cassette from the Ladyslipper catalogue.

Autumn 2017 was busy.  I had writing deadlines, but also, an unconscionable amount of my time went to… well, I had committed to making inventory for my children to sell at a craft fair, and I found myself crocheting and felting 400 woolen octopus toys in under two months. 

(We will not attempt that pace again.)  

~A brief word about octopods.~

octopod soulmate.jpg

The kids had asked to try vending for years, and I had promised someday to develop a product.  I started making octopods as tree ornaments while I was researching and writing the Snape book, and I never stopped.  All my household is mad for octopuses, and long hours reading left my hands free to do craft, and they just kept multiplying, and people kept requesting more.  It turns out that, apparently, the world had a heretofore unidentified need for octopus friends shaped like tomatoes or three-eyed aliens, and I was put on earth to fulfill it.  We had found our product.

lemon and tomato holding hands

~So anyway.~

I met my writing deadlines.  The octopod sale was a wild success.  I decided I would do something only for me, then, and indulge in writing about Revol.  I amused myself by making octopod versions of Sons of an Illustrious Father, too:  who they would be if they entered the octopod mirror universe.  One with hat and embroidered glasses, one in black and red, one with a double-L logo.  I was halfway through this write-up and those octopods when I put them down to take a one-night trip to New York.

soaif octopods front view with book

soaif octopods top view.jpg

In mid-November, the Group That Shall Not Be Named, the vibrant HP meetup group in New York, invited me to deliver a talk.  I spoke about how I used Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to teach literary analysis and empathy to fifth graders, guiding them through brewing and taking their own Polyjuice Potion — lentil soup, in Muggle terms — in order to understand how it feels to be in another person’s skin.  

I figured since I was in New York and doing Potter things, it was a good time to see Puffs.  I laughed the entire time, went for late-night pizza, and headed for the subway with my weekend hosts.

You can decide for yourself if this part really happened.

Then Lilah Larson walked by, with a friend.

The next few seconds in my head went like this.

  • I should leave her alone.  Privacy.
  • I should tell her what her music has done for me this year.  She’s right there.
  • That would be so creepy.  I’m a total stranger.
  • She might like to know.  Would she?  I might, if I were her…?  But…creepy?
  • Do I have anything for her to sign?
  • Oh my god.  I have my Pentimento CD on me.

I dropped to the Manhattan sidewalk, ripped open my suitcase, extracted the CD, begged my hosts, “Watch my stuff,” ran after her, held it up and asked if she would sign it.

She and her friend saw the CD, laughed, and stopped.  

And I told her how this year, when one precious thing after another has been attacked by our government, when grief and fear have been too heavy, I have restored myself by listening to her songs.

And I uttered these words to another human being:  “I have an octopus doll of you at home, partially finished.  I have to sew eyes on it.”

And the other human being didn’t seem fazed by this sentence in the least.

And started singing the praises of octopuses.  “Have you been following the news?  They’re taking over!”  (It’s true.  They are.  They’re amazing.)  She has loved them for ages.

And I didn’t want to keep her and her friend from their evening for too long, but they were funny and kind, and I thanked them and said I would run back to my friends now and explain why I had abandoned them with my suitcase on the sidewalk.

And I did, and they laughed, and they marveled with me that I got to say thank you in person.

[It’s not that I always carry that CD with me.  I must have thrown it into my suitcase the last time I traveled somewhere, and because I am lazy and a slob, I had noticed while packing for this trip that it was still in there, and I didn’t bother to unpack it.  I have never even listened to Pentimento on CD, only downloads.  I bought it in both formats to thank the artist, and because I thought, maybe, someday I would make it to one of her concerts and get it signed.  I didn’t plan this.  If I had, I would have packed a better pen for signing.]

The artists have kept me going.  I am fortunate; I don’t feel alone in my daily life and neighborhood.  But nationally, it has been a bewildering year for those of us who think that individuals matter, that free thought is good, that humans deserve to have art and have joy.

Sons of an Illustrious Father reminded me that we’re not alone.  There are as many of us as there have always been.  As a gift from myself to me, to be kind, I took the time from my work and my family to write down how their music did that for me.

 

Lorrie Kim, Philadelphia, PA

November and December, 2017.