The last woman working at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter at Detroit Metro on the night my grandfather died was the only one to see me wrung inside out. I screamed when I couldn’t get on the last flight out that night. She couldn’t do anything, and so I screamed at her, not because she couldn’t let me on that flight, but because she couldn’t bring my 86 year old grandfather, who had spent the last year suffering, back to life.
My grandfather fell down in yom kipur services last year, and blinded himself. It was his time to go. My grandfather, who loved life more than anyone, had lived enough at 86. Enough, they say, is enough.
I didn’t cry giving the eulogy at his funeral. I wanted to cry and I cringed after beating the shit of my mattress which I had inexplicably shoved up against my wall looking for my passport which I didn’t need anyway, but I didn’t cry then. I cried when I listened to the first song I listened to in 6 days, 6 days after my grandfather’s funeral. I had a Wallflowers song stuck in my head all of last sunday, and so while I was cooking myself dinner, I put on “One Headlight.”
There are some things, aging, sickness and death, that, no matter how much you talk about them, no matter how much art is made about them, they’re things we don’t comprehend until we absolutely have to. We pull over for funeral procession, we pull over for ambulances. We do it for sympathy, do it because of traffic regulations, but we probably aren’t thinking as we do it, pull awkwardly into the left part of an intersection just as the light is turning, we probably aren’t thinking “that might be me next.” a life can’t be lived that way. I don’t think so.
Like I said, though, death is a personal thing, but sometimes someones says something that ties you right up because it is so entirely accurate. Says something or sings something.
Mac McCaughan is one of my favorite songwriters, label owners, and, as I recently discovered, bloggers, as well. As the songwriter for Superchunk he has written some of the most superbly joyous music i’ve ever heard. As the songwriter for Portastatic, he’s pushed himself a million different ways, including the gargantuan task of writing an album about September 11th. See, there’s the connection; My grandfather just died, Mac Mcaughan wrote an album that tries to come to terms with the nearly instantaneously death of well over 2900 innocent people. A lot of the art that has come out of the attack, a lot of it feels like it’s malingering. The Summer of The Shark feels genuinely wounded, genuinely sideswiped.
Here’s why the album worked when so much art about the 2900+ deaths of the september 11th attacks has failed: because The Summer of the Shark is not overarching. It is anti-overarching. Everyone in the US was sent into a state of shock on september 11th, 2001, but this album isn’t about that. It is an audio recording of the emotions welling up inside one man in response to so much death. The album opens with a song about feeling terribly isolated and afraid. McCaughan sings, with utter tenderness on “Oh Come Down,”
every night I sing, my face lit up by
little blinking lights and time it just flies
filling reels of tape with lies and secrets
it’s getting to the point where I can’t take it.
The song could end right there and still be a perfect statement, but McCaughan won’t let it. He can’t let that disconnection, that dishonesty and unease sit.. The song changes 2/3’s of the way through from strung-together delicate acoustics to a rock song. And the message changes. Suddenly there is a need, immediate and unquenchable to be with people. “If you see a light under the door,” McCaughan commands “Kick it down.” The way the song wavers from solitude and dissonance to this feirce desire for connection resonates with me. It feels more human than most songs I listen to on a daily basis, because it feels so thoroughly loaded with emotion. “Oh come down, please come down to where i’ve got myself dug in.” That push and pull: I’ve dug myself in, but now that I’m here, please, please come be with me.
The album runs the gamut of emotion that come out of loss, from utter devastation to bleeding anger to,and this I think is totally appropriate, a surreal sense of humor: The title of the album “The Summer of the Shark” refers to the cover story of Time Magazine on September 4th, 2001. At that point, we were worried, we really were, about vicious sharks eating our children. That was front page news.
I believe the entire album is excellent, without exception, and the sequencing is especially well done (the heartrendingly simple and direct “Don’t Disappear” is followed by, seemingly, the person disappearing, which leads to the devastating underwater funeral song, “Swimming Through Tires” which is followed by the restless, journal page excerpt, “Chesapeake.”). But I’m going to focus on three tracks near the end of the album.
Clay Cakes takes the form of a letter. Like much else on the album, this isn’t explicitly stated out front, there’s no “Dear John” at the start, no typewriter sample or clue from the title. The song’s lyrics, filled with the kind of tiny details that only the best songwriters would think to include, start off broad, about someone wishing someone else would come home. In the same way this song never mentions 9/11 (though it’s line “I have seen your city dreams pour out like sugar in a bowl” suggests it), it never establishes the relationship between the narrator and the person the song is intended for. The tenderness, both of the lyrics, and of the music (the piano line is so beautiful, the group right decided to reprise it for a brief hidden track) to me suggests a parent writing to a child. That’s my guess though.
There’s a moment near the end of the song where Mac goes through the chorus the last time, and then immediately sings, “that’s what this letter is for” that always gets to me, because it maintains the ambiguity while also being a really touching line. Why a letter, I’m left asking, why not a phone call, or a visit from the narrator to the person being spoken to. There is a possibility that the narrator doesn’t actually want the connection to happen; that they’re sending a letter because then the don’t have to hear an immediate response or even the person’s voice. I don’t think that’s it; I think its actually quite the opposite; the fact that it’s a letter being written shows exactly how important the narrator’s request is; it can’t be casual like a phone call could. This plea has weight. The dots on on the lowercase i’s matter.
The most jarring and also effective transition of the album takes us from “Clay Cakes” to “Drill Me.” From the clang of the very first chord of “Drill Me,” we’ve been dropped from longing into fury. Certainly the most vitriolic song on the album, it is also, lyrically, one of the best songs McCaughan has ever penned. The song is struggling to find its way out of a paradox. It’s first lines lay out the problem: “We sit around with alligator clips on our eyes, and it’s a right spectacular view.” The view may be specular, but the agitated music, and the way those lines are delivered let you know that the blindness is and can only be temporary. This desire for a rewind to the days before the catastrophe, before all the complexity, is of course impossible. Tom Woolfe said it, our former president paraphrased it: You can’t go home again.
The song’s chorus rife with sarcasm, has McCaughan singing “Drill me, until i’m hollowed out. Fill me, as ever up with doubt. Oh Honey, isn’t there a better world?”
Recently, I’ve been stuck with pretty bad insomnia, and one of the must frustrating elements of it is the unwavering desire I have to fall asleep once I lie down. I lie there, trying not to think about stuff, and after about 40 minutes of tossing and turning, I realize that I’m more awake then when I started. You think so hard about trying to go to sleep that you actually wake yourself up. “Drill Me” struggles with that for much of its length; this desire for calm simplicity is made all the more absurd by the anger and frustration behind the desire. Mac realizes this, and directs some of the anger back at himself, singing “If you’re listening, would you sing a song for all the suckers, too?”
Paratrooper, The last track I’m going to focus on, the track that directly proceeds Drill Me, is all aftermath. The song’s title would suggest raw anger, a battlefield, blood and wailing. As per the rest of the album, the song is the inverse of its title. It starts off with fuzzy, industrial noise and a quiet melody that, at least to me, seems to draw directly back to “Clay Cakes.” The song certainly could be seen as a companion to the earlier track, starting off with the words, “yours was not a faithful correspondence,” and continuing with a list of similar denials, “yours was not a promise of the good life to come,” “yours was not a lie about the person you’ve become.” So part one has the narrator of this song getting the letter. Part two describes the narrator leaving, who they left, why they left. Again, the details are spot on.
If one needed proof of McCaughan’s songwriting mastery, they need only look at the third verse of Paratrooper. I’m just going to print the lyrics here, not explain, analyze or comment beyond the simple remark that the way each line of this verse is sparser and more literal than the one before it cuts right through me.
And here I am with no illusions of our love
and here I am with no illusions
and here I am out in the street
and here I am on your doorstep
What is so moving about the song is that it’s not about two people rediscovering their love for one another, putting aside all differences and embracing each other in the time immediately after a world shaking catastrophe. All we get to see is the most basic and simple of human contact, and then the song cuts out. The title plays in here; in some ways, this reunion is an invasion, it perhaps unwelcome, but it is necessary. “I just dropped in,” Mac sings before sinking the casual sentiment, “like a paratrooper.”
Paratrooper won’t give us the gratification of a happy ending or a complete ending. It gives us what is real, people seeking each other out, the need to reaffirm something you can’t quite define after a rupture in our lives.
In the wake of tragedy of any scale, priorities shift. There is anger, there is terrible sadness that words can’t get at, there is detachment, that simultaneous detachment and desire to be as close as you can with almost anyone because you feel almost like you’re submerged in pavement, and can’t quite look at people as eye level. I’m not saying McCaughan’s record will have the same effect on you that it did for me. I’m not saying I listened to it hundred of time in the days after the funeral. I’m saying siting down with this record, for me, was sitting down with someone who really gets it. And that really helped.