In July of 1975, Brian Eno entered Island Studios to record his third album, Another Green World. He had no ideas whatsoever, having largely abandoned traditional songwriting, and now coming into bloom as an artist ‘playing the studio.’ He carried with him a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies.
Oblique Strategies is a system developed by Eno and the painter, Peter Schmidt. Something like 100 cards in all, each card with a ‘strategy’ printed on it. The strategies are prompts meant to spark creativity. One card says: “Abandon desire.” Another says: “Remove the middle extend the edges.” With an open mind, and the guidance of those cards, Eno wrote Another Green World, a masterpiece of the avant-garde.
Having no ideas myself anymore, and also wishing to create a masterpiece, I went on Amazon dot com and typed in Oblique Strategies.
The Oblique Strategies cards retail for $60. I checked my bank account and quickly realized, it would be a financial disaster if I spent $60 on a deck of mystical cards. Or would it? Could I afford not to purchase Oblique Strategies? I consulted the user reviews.
“It’s pretty cool, kind of expensive for what it is. The Talking Heads production royalties must be running out.” Three stars, said Greg Maffei, who raised an interesting point about money and how it forces people to make ugly decisions. But his criticism was inaccurate, the cards were created in 1973, 5 years before Eno produced More Songs About Buildings and Food, and after that, Fear of Music, and after that Remain in Light.
Chad Mossholder left a one star review: “LOL! You can print them online for free.”
A google search led me to a WordPress site with a printable PDF of Oblique Strategies. “Try faking it” my first strategy read. I knew right away what I had to do. I printed those out. 15 sheets of Georgia-Pacific standard bright multipurpose 8.5” x 11” paper later, I was on my way.
On December 23rd, 2018, my mom’s house smelled like ham. A spiral ham in the oven for Christmas dinner. My father was watching Sherlock Holmes on the TV at full blast, as if Sherlock Holmes were a rock concert. Rae was drinking coffee at the table next to me, and working on a gingerbread house. My mom was helping. I was doing a craft of my own, snipping away with a pair of dull scissors, cutting out the Oblique Strategies and glueing the strategies to the back of a deck of cards I found in my mom’s china cabinet. Since there are only 52 cards in a standard deck of playing cards and I need 100 over cards, I was using a combination, a deck of Go Fish amended with a few Old Maid cards.
Uno would have also worked but the cards were sticky because my second cousin spilled a glass of Hawaiian Punch on those cards the summer before, also ruining a white lace tablecloth. Some of the Uno Cards had been gnawed on by a seven pound Maltese that runs the house. So, I cut with the scissors, and pasted a strategy on the back of a Go Fish card. A red starfish became, “Change ambiguities to specifics”.
My mom spread white frosting with a silver butter knife.
“What do you think, Bud, should we use gum drops for the roof trim like the picture shows?”
I was stumped. “Maybe. It’s hard to say. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s consult the cards.” I shuffled the tiny pieces of paper and picked a strategy at random. I read it aloud, “What else is this like?”
“What else is what like?” Mom said.
I showed her the card.
She shook her head. “What else is what like?”
“Your gingerbread house.”
“I don’t know, a regular house, I guess.”
“Does a regular house have gum drops on the edge of its roof?”
“Then forget the gum drops.”
“Okay, if we skip the gum drops what else are we supposed to use?”
“I really don’t know about gingerbread houses. Sorry guys.”
Rae said, “What does your fancy fortune teller say about it?”
“It’s not a fortune teller, really. Fortune teller, you’d have to believe in magic. This isn’t magic. This is just a way of saying the world is funny bullshit.” I turned over another card. This one said, “Do something sudden, destructive and unpredictable”.
Rae said, “That’s helpful.”
“How’s that helpful?” Mom said. “Smash the gingerbread house?”
“I don’t know why, but it gave me an idea,” Rae said. “We’ll use Twizzlers for the edge of the roof and it will look like rain gutters.”
“Oh my god,” Mom said, “That’s brilliant.
So, here was proof. The cards worked.
The TV was very distracting. I can listen to music while I work on creative projects, but listening to a TV show is insane. I got up and shut the TV off and put on an album instead. I put on Music for Airports.
My dad came out of the bathroom and looked at the TV, which was now blue, in A.V. mode. “What happened to Sherlock Holmes?”
“I shut it off. Isn’t this music nice?”
“Nice? I don’t know. What is this?”
“Music for Airports. That’s the name of the album.”
“What else you got, Bud?” Mom said. “We’re not in an airport.”
Dad left the living room. A few minutes later we heard his TV in his bedroom blasting Sherlock Holmes. I had to put on something a little louder to compete with the noise, so I put on David Bowie’s Low (which he collaborated on with Brian Eno), but I kept talking about Music for Airports to my mom and Rae, who were admiring their gingerbread house and sipping their coffee.
“He coined the term ‘ambient’ music.”
“How’d he do that?”
“What happened was homeboy got hit by a car.”
“Oh your homeboy Brian Eno. Bud, you’ve got to be more clear.” She was cracking up.
“My homeboy Brian Eno got hit by a car and split his head open and while he was in the hospital recovering one of his ex-girlfriends came over to see him in the hospital.”
“Was she sexy?” Rae asked.
“I’d assume so, here’s a guy who came up with his own deck of cards and wore eye shadow and shiny jackets. Yeah, I’m sure she was sexy.”
“But he’s got that split open head.”
“Anyway, she stayed awhile. But when she went to leave she put on a record for him.”
“Wait, what hospital had a record player?”
“If you’re a big rock star, I guess when you go to the hospital to get your head repaired they put a record player in your room.”
“Checks out,” Mom said.
“So the sexy ex-girlfriend puts on a record of harp music and leaves. But she puts it too low and Brian Eno can’t get out of the bed because he’s so banged up. And it’s raining outside. And between the really low harp music and the rain…homeboy had an idea for a whole new kind of music. Thus ambient music was created.”
“What’s ambient music?” Mom asked.
“You know how when you’re lying downstairs in the guest bedroom, reading or taking a nap or whatever and you hear the dryer through the wall, the zippers and the buttons hitting the sides of the metal dryer drum, and the nice sound of the motor and the blower?”
“Okay, yeah. That is nice.”
“That’s ambient music. Brian Eno invented that when he got hit by a car.”
Mom opened the refrigerator. “You’re in rare form today. Here, have a beer.”
She laughed and closed the fridge. “What do you guys want with the ham? Should I make sweet potatoes? Regular potatoes? I’m going to make green beans, I know that.”
Rae said, “I’d love a baked potato.”
“Regular baked potato, right? Who wants a sweet potato?” My mom and I raised our hands. “Will’s coming, and Uncle Jim, and Jaime, hmmm. Should I make the sweet potato dish or just throw some in the oven with the regular baked potatoes?”
“You’re talking about the brown sugar and the cinnamon and the marshmallow sweet potato thing?”
“Yeah, what do you think?”
Rae said, “You know my answer. Too sweet for me. Regular baked potato with butter for me.”
Mom yelled down the hallway, “Babe…babe…What kind of…” She stopped calling him. She’d been yelling down that hallway since 1996 and it hardly ever worked. It was time for a new approach.
She came over to the table and looked down at the cards. “What does David Elmo say to do?”
I handed her the deck of cards. She opened them up at random but I’d made a mistake with the glue and the cards ripped apart, having dried together in some ridiculous brick.
We laughed like crazy about that. But she flipped the deck over and saw the topmost strategy, which said: “How would you explain this to your parents.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she said.
“How’s it good?”
I said, “I think it means whatever you want it to mean.”
“Oh that’s good, then. So you just explained it to your parent. But how do I? My parents are dead.”
“If I was to tell you I couldn’t decide on something I was going to do, in the process of explaining that I didn’t know what to do, probably I’d decide what to do.”
“Oh all right.”
Mom went and got the marshmallows and brown sugar out of the cabinet.