Listener's Arc - The Threshold | Varyer

Listener’s Arc
The Threshold

Thirteen Moments in a Long Year in Sound

February 17: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sunshine + Gasoline

I can’t remember when I first heard about COVID-19, but I probably thought it was something similar to SARS or Ebola: It sounded dangerous and there was already a great deal of suffering, but it also sounded far away. In February, I realized the virus was coming closer. I was staying alone in a tiny house in Newburgh, a little under two hours from Brooklyn, dog-sitting a strong and loving pit bull and working on a writing project.

While I chipped away at that, I was also working on a Sunday Review for Pitchfork about the debut album by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I pored over research about the band’s beginnings and was surprised by how little documentation there was of their earliest years. I had with me a copy of a Montreal zine called aMAZEzine, which featured one of the first interviews with the band. In this zine is a white vinyl seven-inch with a white label and no writing on it, one side of which plays the track Sunshine + Gasoline, which has never been issued otherwise.

Sunshine + Gasoline is grimy and poorly recorded and the mastering isn’t so hot but it’s also perfect, as it swells from a spoken-word opening, where a man reminisces about old times when freaks were confined to circus sideshows instead of running in the street among us all, to a soaring fanfare that sounds triumphant and tragic simultaneously. I listened to Sunshine + Gasoline over the days I was working on the piece, and I also watched for the first time the film 28 Days Later. The movie prominently features Godspeed’s music during one scene in particular: The main character, Jim, wanders a deserted London, still unaware that a virus has emptied the streets.

carrying a strength I needed so badly carrying a strength I needed so badly

March 16: Waxahatchee, St. Cloud

I’d been back in the city for a few days and I was working from a desk in the Brooklyn Writer’s Space on Court Street. No one knew what was going to happen but the space was still open for the time being, and there were bottles with a bleach solution for wiping down the work area before each use. No masks to be found—at this point, experts considered washing hands and disinfecting surfaces more crucial.

I desperately wanted to keep working there—it was a second home and a good place to concentrate. When David Berman died in 2019 and Pitchfork asked me to write a remembrance, I got on the subway at 9 PM and made my way to the space, and I was alone there, tweaking my piece until 3 AM. I liked that it was always open and there when I needed it.

The weekend passed, and by Monday it became clear that something awful was approaching. I learned that two friends had COVID, and they were quite sick. They lived only a couple of blocks from us. I kept thinking of being on the beach and seeing a tidal wave in the distance, how the water goes out first and the shoreline is quiet and then you see a ripple near the horizon that continues to grow as it comes closer. The virus was going to come crashing down and it was time to head to high ground, if you were able.

That last morning in the writer’s space I filed a review of Waxahatchee’s album, Saint Cloud. It was a privilege to listen to it over and over in the days prior. It was a musical expression of hard-earned truth, and I wanted desperately to feel the kind of growth the record hinted at. Because here at this moment I felt like I was shrinking, pulling into myself, sliding into a hole. The title track closes the record and feels like waking up in some strange room, picking yourself up off the floor, knocking off some dirt and dust, and straightening yourself up to face the world. It says, “Here I am; nothing’s perfect, but I’m going to be OK; I need to see what happens next,” carrying a strength I needed so badly.

March 21: Cyndi Lauper, Time After Time

I’d been up the night before writing out a plan with Julie. I was a list maker, and I wanted us to write down what we would do if one or both of us got sick—how we’d quarantine in our one-bedroom apartment, who could take care of our dog if we both wound up in the hospital. We thought seriously about packing up and going somewhere, but we didn’t know where or how we might get there. A couple of days before the clutch had gone out on our car and now it sat on the street, immobile. The circumstances told us to stay put and hunker down. I was looking at the infection numbers obsessively.

Consumed by fear and anxiety, I became seriously constipated for the first time in my life. After a few days mild discomfort had turned into serious pain and I was frequently doubled over, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I washed my hands for 20 seconds and then 20 seconds more, put on some sanitizer, and walked over to Walgreens to get some medicine. I had a bandana on my face but most of the people in the store didn’t have masks—the efficacy of masks still wasn’t clear. I was looking at my fellow Brooklynites as we waited in a long socially distanced line that stretched around the store, and I was afraid of them. I worried at least some of them had to be standing here because they felt symptoms they needed to treat. Over the store’s PA I heard Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, a song I’d always loved that I couldn’t connect to anything in particular. Now it would remind me of this.

April 4: Wussy, Teenage Wasteland

Everyone was covering their faces now; we finally realized it was important. Many of my friends almost never left their homes. They had things delivered and kept the packages on the porch or in the hallway and then sanitized them before opening. We lived in a 500-square-foot apartment with a dog that needed walks and clothes that needed cleaning, so I was outside regularly. On this afternoon I was doing laundry. It was a cool, clear day, and you weren’t allowed to wait in the laundromat, which I wouldn’t have wanted to do anyway, so I was standing on the corner of DeKalb and Carlton, next to a playground fence, and I listened to music.

On Twitter I asked people to share songs about how music makes the world a better place. I added each incoming selection to a playlist and was listening as I was building. Someone suggested Wussy’s Teenage Wasteland; I had never heard it before, even though it’s the band’s best-known song. I’m going to guess that it’s the song I listened to the most in 2020, one of very few that never failed to lift my spirits. I played it and thought about Pete Townshend and growing up in the Midwest; I kept coming back to the Who song I’m One, loneliness sinking in, and how, just as the Wussy song says, Pete’s misery seemed so much like mine.

April 8: Sirens

Our apartment was just a few hundred yards from the Brooklyn Hospital Center and in the days before the first wave hit we saw them building a triage tent out front. That was the earliest tangible sign of what was to come. Later, there would be a refrigerated truck parked on Ashland Place to house the bodies. We weren’t leaving the house much then, so we didn’t see the truck in person—we saw it on the news. And while this was going on we could hear the sirens, day and night, near and far, sometimes pairs of them harmonizing, and sometimes I would open the window and record them.

For me, it’s the song I assume everyone has their own version of, where, when it’s playing, it’s impossible to imagine a world that could produce sounds like these could ever be lost, that humanity had to be fundamentally good.

April 13: Grateful Dead, Eyes of the World jam, 2/19/1973

We decided to fix the clutch in case we needed to leave town, but had no plans to go anywhere. The repair was several hundred dollars more than we had paid for the entire car two years earlier but having that option, of being able to pack up and go, seemed wise.

The garage with our newly repaired car was about three miles away, and subway or cab was out of the question, so I started walking. I’d gotten into the habit of listening to different versions of Grateful Dead’s Eyes of the World whenever I needed to walk somewhere. For me, it’s the song I assume everyone has their own version of, where, when it’s playing, it’s impossible to imagine a world that could produce sounds like these could ever be lost, that humanity had to be fundamentally good. Some of it’s Jerry Garcia’s guitar tone, which is warm and comforting, like pressing your face into a towel just out of the dryer. And some of it the balance it strikes between form and improvisation, safety and risk. The chord changes are simple and my mind can roughly track the harmonic possibilities available with each new bar, and Jerry fills in the notes with his distinctive hand and they could come from no one else. I’m so engaged following his explorations that it feels like I have something to do with their creation, as if they only exist because I hear them.

April 29: Van Morrison, Dweller on the Threshold

Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I’d leave Julie in bed and walk out to the couch to have another glass of wine. On this night I cued up Van Morrison’s Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast on my phone and propped the device up on my chin as I lay on my back, so that each tiny speaker would be slightly closer to its corresponding ear.

At the time, Van hadn’t yet become an embarrassing voice of lockdown protest. To me, his 1980s records were like chapters in a holy book, and by listening to them over and over I was coming close to decoding some spiritual truth. The phrase “Dweller on the Threshold” was in my head a lot this year because that’s often where I felt I was living, in some in-between space, hovering in an anxious moment with no idea what might happen next.

June 1: Leyland Kirby, We Drink to Forget the Coming Storm

Leyland Kirby, best known for his work as the Caretaker, is exceptionally good at titles. I read the track lists of his albums like I do poetry. On June 1, he put an older album on Bandcamp, one that had circulated before but wasn’t currently available: We Drink to Forget the Coming Storm, originally released in 2014. This music trembles. Each track consists of the same few elements—a spare piano, a voice-like synth patch, and eerie swell of drone—but the proportions are different in each piece. Listening to it for an extended period—Kirby suggests playing it on shuffle—feels something like walking through a hall of mirrors, never quite sure from one moment to the next if you’re experiencing something new or if you’re stuck in some kind of loop. The collection's title is stuck in my mind, an etched headplate that takes me back to April 2020 in Brooklyn.

July 18: J Dilla, Workinonit

I rented a cabin in the Poconos for five days to finish a longer writing project because working at the desk in our apartment closet was too uncomfortable. The place where I stayed, which was quite cheap, used to be a storage shed of some kind. It was bigger than implied, but it had no running water. To use the bathroom, I had to go into the back door of the owner’s house. Sometimes she would sit in her chair looking at an iPad and sometimes she would be upstairs. We kept six feet apart.

This year I lost touch with my body. The gyms closed and I would jog in my neighborhood, but after a lifetime of exercising on machines, it wasn’t the same. I gained weight and often felt bad physically. I drank way too much wine and had trouble waking up in the morning. While in the Poconos, I went for a run. It was farmland, a high plain in an area between some smaller mountains, and the roads were mostly empty. I’d forgotten to bring my headphones, and I wanted something that could sound coherent coming from a phone speaker, so I chose J Dilla’s Donuts. I was putting one foot in front of the other at a geriatric pace, catching the samples as they floated through the air, looking around at razed fields and decaying barns.

August 9: Kelly Lee Owens, Night

Midway through the year, we decided to leave Brooklyn. We’d been considering it in 2019 but now it was going to happen. There was the space, of course; both of us working from home was hard. But it was also a matter of money—barely getting by as freelancers while paying New York City rent no longer made sense. Nine years in Brooklyn was coming to a close.

Once we’d decided, I was already gone. When I saw things I clocked that I might be looking at them for the last time, or at least for a while. On a nice weekday afternoon where I had little to do, I walked to Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge, which I’d done twice when I used to work in the World Trade Center. That was about 50 minutes door to door, but now I was in no hurry.

It was a gorgeous day, and the bridge was impossibly beautiful, enough to make me cry. I crossed, sat in a park on the Manhattan side, and then started home. On the way back as I passed the first suspension tower I noticed the patterns made by the cables, how each step would bring a new perspective as they realigned in an endless series of curving lines. And at that moment I was listening to Night, from Kelly Lee Owens, a decidedly city-sounding track that makes me think of the hidden places I’d explored and all the ones I would never see.

August 23: KMRU, Solace

I’d last taken the subway on March 16, coming back from the Writer’s Space after filing the Waxahatchee review. I wanted to ride it again before we left. New York City was among the safer places in the U.S. by this time, and we took all the precautions, so the risk seemed low. There were only a handful of people in the car, and keeping distance was easy. I stood. On my headphones was Peel, the album by Nairobi-based artist KMRU, which had become one of my favorite records of the year.

I like how it seems to float, a sound that suggests a world without gravity. It’s not “calming” so much as centering, bringing my awareness to the present moment.

The theater across the street, closed for months, had a hopeful message for Brooklynites about the future.

I stepped out of the subway and walked to the Writer’s Space, which was now just an empty room. All the desks had been removed.

September 5: Sam Prekop, September Remember

When I could, I liked to work in Fort Greene Park. I’d bring my Bluetooth keyboard and type into my phone. I wouldn’t look at the screen while I was typing, so this writing process was more about recording thoughts and impressions as they came to me. On this day I was listening to Sam Prekop’s Comma, an album I absolutely love.

I sat beneath a tree, on the slope leading down to DeKalb on the south side of the park. I looked over at Brooklyn Hospital, which was quiet. The triage tent out front had long been packed up. I gazed down to the street and saw the traffic building up at the stoplight and then moving on, and I could feel its steady rhythm. During pauses between songs I could hear the three-piece jazz band on the other side of the hill running through the changes. When I read my notes later, I found impressions of each track interspersed with descriptions of what was around me.

November 30: Stoney Clove Creek

We’re renting a little house in Phoenicia, New York. Now I watch the COVID numbers in Ulster County, and they’re climbing. On this day the rain was heavy, and we lost power for 90 minutes. When that happens, we’re cut off from the outside world, more or less. We have no cell service, so when the power goes, we’re off the grid. Life suddenly becomes like it was in early 1995, before I dialed into the internet for the first time.

Late that night I took my dog Stanley out to pee and I could hear the creek roaring across the street. It’s always audible when standing in our yard, but usually it’s just a low hiss. Tonight, with all the rain, it was loud. I had to see it. I let Stanley back in the house and then walked down the road and found the clearing in the brush I’d noticed a few weeks before, the one that led down to the bank. The white water reflected whatever small light made its way into the gully, and the creek had become a river. I recorded the rushing water on my phone, and thought about how it sounded so close to electronically generated white noise, the kind you use to drown out sound so you can sleep. I walked back to the house, finally ready for bed.