Real Mammal

By Caroll Sun Yang

Essay

He snorts Ritalin all night and chases down the white dust with Old Fashioned Sidecars. He asks me to take pictures of him wearing my sheer black panties with striped ruffles and pink-lemonade colored ribbons laced through. He asks me to do this with my cellular phone so that I might later “text” him the “good ones”. He says has plans to save them for some later date, maybe for use as “jack-off material”. I am reluctant at first. A smidgen hurt at the thought of being replaced as his masturbatory focus. I try not to let my face show disinterest in this project, a disinterest verging on disdain. What will be achieved by this activity? He is not gay. He is not usually prone to high narcissism. He is infrequently frivolous. In fact, he harbors contempt for operatic displays. But here he is cut a little loose on pills and Cognac, retrieving my makeup bag and hand mirror.

 

“The drugs!  Ditch the drugs!  He’s coming!”

When Pete doesn’t immediately comply with my frenzied request to jettison the narcotics I grab his backpack and attempt to throw it into the brackish water.

“Take it easy man,” he says, wrestling the bag away from me. “We’re gonna be fine.”

Stanton has no reaction. He silently and expressionlessly pilots the boat from his position in the back.

Seized by terror I pull my knees into my chest, bury my face between them, and tell myself that if I don’t look at the boat creeping ever closer this nightmare will somehow end.

Everyone knows that Tuesday is the day the new music comes out, and for my parents, June 4th, 1984 was the last great Tuesday of them all.

They had never been so ecstatic about a music purchase before, at least not since “The Big Chill” soundtrack was released, and that was a dogpile of re-packaged boomer nostalgia – this time, it was new music. After a giddy round-trip in the Dodge Omni to the Target in Cottage Grove, the plastic wrap was sheared from the LP sleeve, the album reverentially placed on the old Akai turntable, and the needle dropped on “Born In The U.S.A.,” the first track from the Bruce Springsteen album of the same name.

The Boss would command my family’s stereo for most of the summer, and his words and sounds dominate our mental inventories of that entire year, but it would be the last time, or at least the last time I could remember, that my parents bought a record the day it came out.

Years later, my dad was piqued by the Moody Blues’ resurgence, but was apparently just content to wait for “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” on the radio. My mom got into Ray Lynch (“Deep Breakfast” was being passed around a subset of literate Midwestern women like a carafe of white Zinfandel), and would still see Barry Manilow in concert, but she wasn’t into his new stuff. Not even Springsteen continued to hold court. For people as fanatical about “Born In The U.S.A.” as my parents were, there was no anticipated Tuesday afternoon scramble up to Target to procure “Tunnel of Love” in 1987; in fact, they never even bought it at all. At a certain point in their thirties, the music they already had was good enough.

While certain music snobs could make the argument that there’s a short distance between being into Barry Manilow and The Moody Blues and no longer being into any kind of music at all, my parents’ surrender is not that simple, unfortunately, and far more problematic. While they didn’t make the full transition into “music for people who hate music” (e.g. Jimmy Buffett) something even more disturbing happened: they simply abandoned the joy of buying a new album. As a couple, they were never again as happy and excited about new music as they were about “Born In The U.S.A.,” and they seemed okay with this.

There was no lone gunman here. Their friends were getting older and seemed to be going to concerts less, they had no consistent source of discovering new music other than mainstream FM radio, and, what’s more, new music was increasingly inscrutable (my parents didn’t care for new wave, disliked country, punk and grunge, hated rap, heavy metal, and techno, and to this day are blissfully unaware of skronk, trip-hop, dubstep, reggaeton, third-wave ska, musique concrete, and grime).

At the time they bought “Born In The U.S.A.,” my parents were both thirty-four; a year younger than I am now. They had a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, and owned a three-bed, one-bath rambler with an unfinished basement. They were in a bowling league. My mom was about to go back to college. They had wild drunken nights with other people in their thirties. They weren’t so different from many of my friends today.

Perhaps there was more music out there that they would’ve loved, but how much work would it have been, for two working parents, to find it? I certainly don’t recall any 34-year olds in my hometown who were buying R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” or Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains” in 1984 (two albums my parents later liked, when I got them into them) let alone stuff my parents would’ve hated like Big Black’s “Racer-X” or the Butthole Surfers’ “Psychic … Powerless … Another Man’s Sac.”

Everybody knows a person, or maybe several, who are in the know, and act as a bulwark against the intimidating flow of new music. Now, imagine not knowing any of them, and all you have FM radio stations, your memories from high school or college, and friends who have the same radio stations and pretty much the same memories.

It could be tough to sustain an abiding interest in new music year in and year out, particularly as it sounds less and less like the music you bought when you first started buying music. Maybe once, you stayed up all night reading the zines, playing the singles, and standing in line on Mondays waiting for the midnight in-store release parties, where the idea of winning a promotional flat as a raffle prize would have you smiling for hours. But that only matters if you still have the time to care.

This seems to be the factor among the people my age who have both kids and a waning awareness of new music. Despite a lifelong interest in music—and two brothers who are club DJs—one good friend of mine in California is just too damn busy with his job, his five-year-old, his home refurbishing projects, and other pursuits to keep pace with what’s new.

Though kids and jobs are prime culprits, they’re also a facile target; I know a married couple in West Virginia with two children and full-time jobs who have long been as up on new music as anybody. The main difference, of course, is that they prioritize it and truly enjoy the work. At a certain point (for most people, when they’re out of college) finding great new music does become work, and if you want to find your new favorite band before it costs over $15 to see them, it can really while away the hours.

Why should it be so hard to stay current? In this era of Grooveshark and live streaming college radio and untamed file sharing, it shouldn’t be such a struggle to love new music, neither the evolutions of the bands from our teenage years nor the newest hot 20-year-olds from Baltimore. To love something is to accept its changes, even revel in them, after all, and perhaps to fall out of love with new music means a failure on our part to change or accept change.

I suppose to enforce stasis is to enshrine the cultural past. And in ex-urb Minnesota, I grew up around a lot of this enforced stasis. I met a lot of no-nonsense Midwesterners who, by the time they were in their mid-thirties, decided that new music (among other things) just wasn’t for them. But where do we go from there? Are we doomed to mellow out and get over it? Flash forward fifteen years to a lawn chair, a beer gut, and the same goddamn favorite song?

Conversely, how much of the no-nonsense Midwesterners’ emotional reaction is actually an accurate reflection of the imperatives of the marketplace? Most new music, particularly by new bands, is aimed at teenagers, and Top 40 music has been blatant kid stuff since the dawn of time, which means that of course we’re supposed to grow out of most of it, and grow up with the rest of it, carrying our Madonna to battle against the next generation’s Lady Gaga. It sometimes takes a serious emotional experience or upheaval to dictate otherwise.

To note an extreme example of this, back in 2001, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV omental cancer. Dealing with a fatal illness, she got back into new music in a huge way, listening to stuff by Gillian Welch, Sarah McLachlan, Lucinda Williams, Beck (she really liked “Mutations” and “Sea Change”), Kimmie Rhodes, and the new output from Bob Dylan. It was a point of connection that my brother, my cousins, and I could now share with her, and it was wildly meaningful and awesome.

I don’t mean to say that if you experience a cancer diagnosis, you’re going to be suddenly motivated to buy the latest from LCD Soundsystem, but there’s a relationship of some kind between times of great personal change and our emotional dilation to music.  Music, I suppose, even at its most retrained, is an expression of something that someone just couldn’t keep quiet, and in times of massive personal upheaval and joy, this form of expression has a sincere and subjective impact. To make a mix for a road trip or to have a song as a couple is to say, this means something; this is a conscious emotional tether to a dynamic time.

The question is, what’s the soundtrack for what comes next, when the dust and the young parents settle? Do we even want a soundtrack for days where nothing really happens? Are there fewer bands at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy? Or do they just play Radiohead’s “No Surprises” on repeat?

For every person who tells me that the 1960s were the apogee of popular music, or that everything in the 21st century sounds the same, or that the Telecom Act of 1996 presaged a nosedive in the quality of pop culture, I’ve started to wonder where they’re at in their life, and if maybe they don’t need to get their ass to a New Releases display in one of the last few record stores in the world before they die on their feet. Lester Bangs, in his 1980 essay “Otis Rush Mugged by an Iceberg,” ended a review of the one recent album that impressed him by writing, “It’s better than killing yourself.” Agreed, and finding that record, even if it’s just one, is worth the effort. Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.

Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Chronicle has described the band’s sound as “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, the Avett Brothers have burst onto the music scene with the release of their acclaimed 2009 album, I and Love and You, and there’s no looking back.

I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Seth Avett of the band to discuss—among other things—this very album, their recent rise in popularity, and whether or not beard envy was involved when working with the man himself: Rick Rubin. Enjoy.

here are three chapters in American Psycho—“Huey Lewis,” “Whitney Houston,” and “Genesis”—in which Patrick Bateman, the narrator, ruminates on three of his favorite musical acts. In the third such chapter, he writes:

I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I really didn’t understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference to band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career), I did enjoy the lovely “Follow You, Follow Me.”

By this point in the book, Bateman has already mutilated a homeless saxophone player, chopped a co-worker to death with a chainsaw, and served his girlfriend a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. But it was only upon reading the preceding paragraph that it really kicked in: “He thinks Phil Collins is better than Peter Gabriel?!?! Holy shit! That guy’s fucking nuts!”

 

I met my mother when I was born. Since then she has progressed from a dress-sewing, dinner-cooking, hair-in-a-high-bun housewife, to a nude-swimming, pot-smoking artist, to a grey-haired lady who thinks old age is an embarrassment to be treated like some hideous, debilitating disease. There are two ways in which my mother has never changed: 1. She reads a couple novels each week (she keeps one upstairs and one downstairs and reads the one on the floor she’s on). 2. She is brutally honest, refusing to bullshit even for the sake of social nice-nice at a cocktail party.

The following is an interview with my mother that took place over the phone on Sunday, August 7th, 2008. I was in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live. She was in Santa Barbara, California, where she lives.

Jessica: First of all, do you still think you look Bruce Springsteen? Can you explain this?

Mom: Well, didn’t I say Josh looked like Bruce Springsteen and not me? [Josh is my younger brother.]

Jessica: No, you first said you did.

Mom: No. I said Josh looks like Bruce Springsteen. Did I say that about me?

Me: Yes. You called me on the phone and you definitely said that you looked like Bruce.

Mom: Well I think it’s the eyes and the nose and not the mouth. And Josh definitely looks like Bruce Springsteen. Josh has a worried little brow. Bruce has that too. It’s funny josh was born worried.

Me: Yeah, he was.

Mom: Poor little guy. [Note: Josh is a grown person who lives in Istanbul. He has a fabulous life, long stays in Paris, holidays in India, etc.  Nothing poor about him.]

Me: Do you think I look like Vincent Van Gogh?

Vincent.  AKA moi!

Mom: No, I do not think you like him, but I can see what you’re looking at when you say that. I think you’re looking at his nose. Maybe you have his mouth, too. He has a little hearty mouth. Heart lips like you do.

Jessica: Why do you love Randy Newman so much?

Mom: Oh my god because he tells the truth and he’s so brave. He’s like you as a writer. He tells these terrible things that are true and that people think but don’t necessarily say or acknowledge about themselves. Like, kids are grown now, they have their own TVs, I’m always glad to see ‘em but I’m glad to see em go. [Mom speak-sings in Randy’s voice.] And you know, he, well, in the song “I love L.A.” he’s in the car with these kids and their friends, he’s 16 or 17 in a convertible, and he says [speak-singing again], Look at that bum he’s down on his knees. Like it’s a great sighting! An L.A. sighting. He’d drive around L.A. on the freeways looking at things. It’s cool. Oh, and he’s had such a sad life cause he has these crossed eyes and he’s terribly, terribly self-conscious about it. You know that’s why he wears sunglasses a lot. Sometimes they take pictures and they get it right but most of the time his eyes are all over the place. Poor guy. And his uncles were composers for movies, they did soundtracks, so he uses a lot movie sounds. And cartoon sounds, like when he says on “My Life is Good,” [The Newman speak-sing voice again] I’ve got a friend his name is Bruce Springsteen and he said to me RAND, I’m tired of being boss, why don’t you be boss for a while, and then you hear this sound: dee-dee-dee-dee. Like a song to represent an idea in a cartoon. He uses things like that. He’s just so inventive and unafraid to use strange things in his music, to mix it up. And he’s so honest. I just love him.

Randy.  Mom would marry him.

Me: Would you marry him?

Mom: Oh my god, yes.

Me: If you could go back in time and marry him, and then you wouldn’t have me and Becca [my sister] and Josh, would you still do it?

Mom: That’s an impossible question. No, I wouldn’t do it. Because you’re even more interesting than Bruce [Springsteen] and Randy [Newman], my two heroes.

Jessica: Exactly how bad is old age?

Mom: Oh my god. Well. It’s the shits. One thing’s nice, when I feel like I’m standing up straight and walking good I feel really good cause I can do it. [My mother had a heart attack about five years ago and lost half her heart and one lung.] It stinks.It’s awful. It just stinks ‘cause it’s so limiting. For me it is anyway. I don’t think it has to be and I don’t think it is for everyone. And it’s shocking. It’s just shocking how ugly you get when you get old. I look at my face and I’m shocked at how ugly I am compared to how pretty I was. And I just took that for granted. And now I’m ugly and I just can’t get over how ugly I am. And I look at people when they die, in the obits.  And it’s the same story, so shocking. Sometimes they print a young and an old picture. It’s so sad that that pretty person becomes this ugly person. And then you get used to being invisible, too.

Mom now.  I think she's a cute old lady.

Mom now. I think she’s a cute old lady.

Jessica: Why does it matter so much to be pretty?

Mom: Well that’s a flaw, but it always did. One of our family things. It matters a lot to be pretty, mattered a lot to me. And it was hard to take when I got older and then old. And hard to take when people see you as a generic old person, don’t see you as an individual. And then ugly on top of it. If I weren’t fat that would make a difference, too. I don’t want to see anyone because I’m so old and fat. I don’t want anyone to see me. I think I had a very superficial approach on one level to life and it had a lot to do with beauty, and that’s a shame because it’s a waste of time and it certainly doesn’t pay off in the end.

Jessica: What would you advise someone who’s getting older and not old yet? [I suppose this question applies to everyone under 70, no?)

Mom: I don’t have any advice it just happens.

Jessica: Well any advice about ideas of beauty?

Mom: I wouldn’t give anyone advice, but I’d say it’s a shame to focus on beauty, to weigh that so heavily in their life. And a shame to focus on your childrens’ beauty. And all my kids have this same thing, right? I mean, I just admire people who can see deeper than superficial beauty.

Jessica: What do you mean we have the same thing?

Mom: I think everyone in this family focuses on beauty. It’s important for each of you to be beautiful and handsome. And I just think now that it’s so much better not to have that weigh on someone’s life and decisions.

Jessica: You think we’re all vain?

Mom: No, I don’t think you’re vain. I don’t think I was vain. We know we’re beautiful and we use it. And count on it.

Jessica: I think I’m kind of ridiculous looking.

Mom: Oh my god, you’re beautiful what are you talking? You’re beautiful what are you talking about? That’s’ one of the silliest things you ever said. But that’s why you’re a good writer.

Jessica: I really do think I look ridiculous. [See Vincent Van Gogh.]

My hair is pulled back here, so you can sort of see how the shape of my eyes and nose and head are like Vincent's.  My daughter took this pic and I like it because it's totally unposed and "real."

My hair is pulled back here, so you can sort of see how the shape of my eyes and nose and head are like Vincent’s. My daughter took this pic and I like it because it’s totally unposed and “real.”

Mom: No you don’t look ridiculous.But I think it’s great you think so.

Jessica: I know you only have horrible things to say about my father these days, but you must realize that he is half of my genetic make up and it’s a little brutal to hear his flaws laid out for me day after day. Do you have anything good to say about him?

Mom: Ummmm . . . [laughs]. Yes, I do of course. He was always willing to do what I asked him do. If I asked him to take the dog out he’d take the dog out. If I asked him do this, he’d do this. He was good about that. There’s a lot of good about him. But there’s more bad.

[Note: my parents split up a year ago after over forty-seven years of marriage. My dad’s a pretty great guy but he did do something really shitty to my mom.]

Jessica: Were you scared during the fires? [In July more than 5,000 acres burned across the road and down the road from my mother. She was evacuated and the fire department goozed her house with fire retardant. She and the house survived.]

Mom: No, I wasn’t scared but I was worried.

Jessica: What was the one thing you wanted to get out of the house when you had to evacuate?

Across the road, after the fire.

1. Aerial shot of the fire. 2. Across the road from my mother’s house, after the fire.

Mom: The animals, first. I was going to let the chickens roast. But the cats and the dogs were my first concern. After that: papers, insurance papers, checks, papers having to do with babies, life. After that, my favorite paintings. And then, uh, just things that couldn’t be replaced. Some family photos that were framed and hanging. And I forgot to take clothes, so I had to go buy some when I was evacuated. I didn’t even put anything in a suitcase or a bag.

One of the chickens who was left to roast.  I think this one's named Levi.

One of the chickens who was left to roast. I think this one’s named Levi.

Jessica:Is there anyone you despise?

Mom: I don’t despise your father. I think he made a big mistake but I don’t despise him. Right now I despise Sarah Palin ‘cause I keep hearing her speech over and over and it’s just dripping with sarcasm like the way a high schooler would talk. [The V.P. acceptance speech.] Like when she talked about Obama, she was just so childish. She didn’t write that speech but she certainly read it like a child. It was full of nastiness. So I despise her.

Jessica: What’s the best book you’ve read this month?

Mom: Um, gosh that one by Ondaatje, what was the name of the book? I forget. I’m going to look it up. Hold on. Oh shit. Oh god. Hold on. [She’s messing around on the computer.] I can’t think of the Ondaatje one, so I’ll say Willie Vlautin’s books, Motel Life and Northline. They were both great. And I also liked Joyce Carol Oates something about love and brother. I liked that even though it got panned a lot.

Me: The one about Jon Benet Ramsey?

Mom: Yeah, it’s a satire. It’s a very strange book. It’s way over done and way overly self-conscious but really interesting. I liked it.

Jessica: Best movie you’ve seen recently?

Mom: Gosh I haven’t seen one in a long time. Oh my god what was that one with. . about the Mexicans running dope and the guy finds the money in the suitcase and . . . who’s that Mexican guy, he had his hair down, so good looking, he’s in the . . he’s in the new movie about . . .uh with uh . . . oh god, I can’t remember.

Jessica: No Company for Old Men?

Mom: No Country for Old Men.That  was great. That was amazing. There were a lot of good movies last year.

Jessica: I know you’re a connoisseur of the worst that television has to offer. Among this group, what show is your favorite and why?

Mom: [laughs] Well my favorite is, New York Goes to Hollywood. And New York is Tiffany Pollard. And oh god, it’s just a terrible, terrible show but I love it.

Jessica: What do you love about it?

Mom: Ummm, I love, oh, New York is such an idiot. And she has so little talent. And the only reason she’s out there is because she was on a reality show and she’s outrageous. And then there’s her mother, Sister Patterson, and she’s crazy. It’s a good show, I like it. It’s a terrible show. It’s one of my favorites. There’s another one called Intervention. That’s really good. And then there was Celebrity Intervention and that was great. All these celebrities on there, kind of schmoozing each other and faking it.

Jessica: What was the happiest time in your life?

Mom: Well I loved living in Paradise. [When my parents were around fifty-years old, they bought a cabin in the woods, in an area called Paradise. My mother lived there fulltime, my father came up on the weekends.] I really loved that. I was very happy. I was happy when I was first married. I haven’t been unhappy very much. I’ve been happy about everything. Living in France was very hard at first because I couldn’t work [paint], couldn’t find a place that felt right. But my memories of France are very, very vivid and I loved it. [My parents lived in France a few years ago.]

Jessica: What’s the most interesting thing about you?

Mom: About me? Right now I don’t think there’s very much interesting about me at all. But I know other people think I’m interesting but I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because I’m honest. When I resigned from the WRA [Santa Barbara Wildland Residents’ Association where my mother was on the board for around sixteen years.] a couple people spoke about how interesting I was, but I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much interesting about me. Except I have a good sense of humor and I’m honest. That’s it.

[My husband, David, walks in the room. We’re on speaker phone so he hears everything. He decides to join in.]

David: What’s interesting about you is that you’re a genius who watches retarded TV shows. It’s a paradox I’ve never understood. Nobody watches worse TV than you.

Mom: [laughing]Oh, Cops is one my favorites! I love Cops!

Mom's favorite show!

Mom’s favorite show!

Jessica: Who do you love more, me, Becca or Josh?

Mom: [laughs] I always love more the one who asks. Nobody asks but you. I don’t think you ever ask that really. You don’t ask that question, I’m the one that asks those questions. Like who do you love more your husband or me? That’s my question. And I’m just saying it to be a smartass, I don’t really want you to make choices like that. [My daughter Ella and her friend walk into the kitchen and my mother can hear them jabbering away.] Oh my god does that girl ever stop talking?

Jessica: Who do you think is smartest:  Me, Becca or Josh?

Mom: Oh, come on! [laughing] That’s terrible! I think all three of you are incredibly smart. I do. And also about equally smart. And each of you in different directions. But I’m smarter than all of you [laughs]. Why don’t you ask who’s smarter me or your dad? Then I’ll tell you!

Mom holding me at age two.

Mom holding me at age two.