Book Album Book: Guilty Pleasures

Jeff T. Johnson



Am I more scrupulous or less intelligent?
—Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea


Part 5, in which we listen to one too many assholes tell their stories. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here, and here is Part 4.


Side 1.

I always had trouble getting the main idea. That phrase, getting the main idea, dogged my first years in school. Already in the ’70s we were given generic, patronizing, mind numbing, normopathic (to borrow a phrase from poet Lara Glenum) standardized tests. I remember them being called Aptitude Tests. After an annual soul killing battery of math, reading comprehension, and bubble filling, we’d get the results in percentiles. What percentage of kids are dumber and smarter than you. If you underperformed at a particular task you had to do follow-up exercises from little standardized booklets made out of newspaper and bible pages. Every year, my follow-up exercises were called Getting the Main Idea.

A related propensity to work the edges, get lost in details, and miss someone else’s idea of the point made me an English Major, once I realized I could acknowledge & critique that obvious thing and then move onto the good stuff. It also probably made me a poet, because I could ignore the obvious altogether and the Main Idea people would assume they didn’t know what I was talking about, rather than telling me I was missing their point.

But this English Major approach of trying to cover everything so I can get to what I want to talk about caused me quite a bit of frustration and grief as a music & culture writer. Editors were ever cutting out the digressions and asides[1] (not to mention the footnotes) that mattered most to me, hewing away at the filigrees of my so-called argument to leave a plain frame around nothing of interest to me. Also, it was exhausting to write like that. Research for interviews was hell, because I’d read Everything. Transcribing interviews that went on too long,[2] then trying to pull as much of the material into an essay as I could (no way was I going to publish a transcript, even edited—I wanted to write), was not fun. Even a basic album review would require me to read every review of every album by the band I could find, then make sure I made every connection, elaborated every point. I was getting the main idea, and trying to get all the other ones, too.

I quit. Stopped writing reviews, stopped doing interviews, stopped writing about music for publication (besides, I was a poet now, with an MFA to prove it). A writer I admire stayed with my roommate & I a few years ago and saw my shelf of music books. She asked if I wrote about music, and I didn’t know what the answer was. Or, I wanted to say yes but didn’t think it was true anymore.

Well, I was doing some music writing, but not in public. I was trying to write about music & poetry at the same time, to think about what they had to do with each other. Does it matter now that we used to call poetry song? If people are writing sonnets again (or still), even deconstructed ones, aren’t poets writing songs? If you put a poem to music, is it still a poem? If you strip the lyrics from a song, can they be a poem? Are these distinctions as false and misleading as trying to figure out whether a prose poem is at heart prose or poem? Why are songs so preoccupied with trouble, and when a poem mentions trouble, is it singing?

With that writing, which would become Trouble Songs: A Musicological Poetics, I wasn’t grasping for the main idea of any text, nor was I trying to make every point, or exhaust all meaning. I made my own intertextual constellation and tried not to worry if anyone would want to follow it.

This has been liberating. I realized that I do want to write about music & culture, in public, and that I don’t have to cover everything. (I also came to my senses about being a poet & culture writer, neither of which has shit to do with a degree.) Nor do I have to look over my shoulder at what other people are writing about a particular band, album, book, or phenomenon. Instead, I can appreciate that other writing, and count on it to constellate with what I might write. There is no main idea. So we can write anything. And we can focus on discovering what moves us, and what we want to say. We can enjoy other people’s art (book, album, live performance) without competing with it.


Side 2.

I have been agonizing over whether I am a communist or an anarchist. In truth, I am an existentialist.

This is an absurd claim, as there are no existential truths except loneliness that is only occasionally not in evidence, and the striving toward freedom, which cannot be obtained.

Last night I texted your i-Phone / I said I think I’m ready to come home

That’s a lot of I-s for a man in a pseudonym.

Is it true Josh Tillman claims, as claims, that God’s Favorite Customer, unlike the previous two Father John Misty albums, is not a concept album? Sure it is.

Meanwhile, America is on fire. The flames are not usually literal, but as of this writing it is late summer, and the fires of Southern California are raging.[3] Firefighters set backfires to fight fire with fire. Temperatures reach 111. After all, it is hell, and only a former denizen of hell can tell you so,[4] though beware: if they made it out, they carry the mark of the beast: Cerberus’ tooth print on the ass, in triplicate.[5]

And here we are in a studio we can for the moment afford, listening to an album holed up in a hotel. If it weren’t so obvious it would be pathetic.[6]

We are surprised to feel we are at the end of history, which we are not. We are in an eternal today that we cannot escape, otherwise known as now. Nothing can be done in this state. Everything is available, if out of reach.

And yet, we get older. Time does not move, we wake where we slept, fitfully, and we get old. But we understand this only by comparing now with a nonexistent then. For we are truly lost.

We dance to the radio because it transmits from there, even if it is only another here, or there is the internet.

Objects should not touch because they are not alive. You use them, you put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts.

Now I see: I recall better what I felt the other day at the seashore when I held the pebble. It was a sort of sweetish sickness. How unpleasant it was! It came from the stone, I’m sure of it, it passed from the stone to my hand. Yes, that’s it, that’s just it—a sort of nausea in the hands. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea)

Surely Roquentin will be fine.[7] Don’t be alarmed man it’s just my vibe[8] could be a scratched voice on a record, a bit papery to the touch, a sense of mold. There is nothing wrong with the record but I don’t like the way this one feels.

What is terrifying is the letter I, the way it encapsulates us. Another possessiveness, and a possession. Your I and mine.

I know a few ten-cent words (“Just Dumb Enough to Try”) is a salutation on the way to the door. As if anyone can leave.


Side 3.

God help me, though you do not exist, I’m writing about Father John Misty. And I might have made his day or made his eyes roll or both by putting his lyrics next to Sartre’s.

That Father John Misty, man & moniker, is unbearable somehow does not dissuade me, even in 2018, from listening to his last two albums (the previous one was the endless, absurd, self-regarding, often touching Pure Comedy). No doubt this projective self-deprecation lacks charm,[9] but these are the states of mind Tillman’s music evoke—particularly this album, which checks itself in at the Hotel Brink. Hotel Slippery Balcony. Hotel Sunk.

What’s your politics, what’s your religion? “Hangout at the Gallows” humors the subject of interviews, which Tillman’s cringed our way through a few times before.

I don’t want to revisit those contrived conversations, nor do I want to analyze Misty or this album. But I had to go there (not that I have) to let it go. The album is a line of blow you should have resisted at the end of a pity party where you could have just had another beer and passed out. There’s always next time, but it won’t be the same without the illusions you’ve let go since yesterday. I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff. “Please Don’t Die” might be Tillman asking Misty to put yourself in my shoes. But that’s just cynical or naive. We want to be above & below each other. As on Richard Hell’s “Destiny Street,” we’d waver between fucking and killing ourselves if we met us in a bar.

As ever, we confuse nihilism for existentialism. We’re in over our heads, in “The Palace”: Maybe I’ll get a pet / Learn how to take care of somebody else / Maybe I’ll name him Jeff.

The thing about records is that, though you can’t play them backwards, you can turn them over & over again.



[1] We empathize with those of the copy editorial persuasion who are distracted by our ostensibly inconsistent use of and vs. &, so let’s lay it on the line: & is a ligature that (also) binds two terms, and if it is treated as an option rather than a style point, we are allowed to distinguish between this and that and this & that—where two contingent terms might be properly bound (or related) by the ligature, whereas a standard hinge might apply to neighbors who do not so explicitly relate (though they might mutually constitute one another from outside).

[2] belated apologies to interviewees, even the famous ones who should have perhaps had (and often did have) sympathy for the small-time devil pestering them

[3] And as of this writing, months later, we are raging along with many sane & empathetic people who have just witnessed another example of how well-connected, loutish, shameless white men can get away with anything, in public, in spite of what we would like to call justice, and indeed those miserable, guilty, compromised men, so lacking in ethics and integrity, so incapable of recognizing the agency of people who do not share their inbred privilege, those men, who can fuck themselves forever—and here’s hoping no one else fucks them ever again, even as it’s too much to hope for that these men will never fuck anyone again—these men can go straight to the supreme court (fuck the capitals) to destroy many lives with a gavel, pen, and their lying, asshole-like mouths.

[4] Nor is the inferno confined to the south, as fires spread as well in the north, where they have created their own weather system. This is hell, but we say this with love for family & friends throughout California. Still, memories of driving on freeways surrounded by flames are conflated with our bittersweet departure, in slow motion over many years, moving south to north, then east.

[5] Abandon hope that Cerberus keeps you out of hell; they guard the exit.

[6] I don’t want to put myself in a place in a song that’s pathetic. It’s good to be vulnerable, but not pathetic. So says Lindsey Jordan, the head of Snail Mail. And everything old is new again.

[7] Things are bad! Things are very bad: I have it, the filth, the Nausea. So writes our hero, through his avatar.

[8] One among many louche quips in the self-mythologizing God’s Favorite Customer trigger cut, “Mr. Tillman.”

[9] and is no alibi for offering attention to art with so little need for it—ah, but the guilty pleasure of writing about culture is that it all goes without saying, or at any rate it all goes on without you, or anything you might say looses itself from your ostensible subject; as Philly’s long-gone but still-sung SEPTA slogan had it, “We’re Getting There”: when you write about a book or album, your writing always comes after the fact, even when it comes before or instead of someone’s experience of the object that touched you