Andy Mister on Liner Notes, flattening the lyric, and risking enthusiasm for music.
Lester Bangs says, “Rock is basically an adolescent music . . . It can’t grow up.” If it does, it no longer rocks. I was talking to Jared in Berl’s Poetry Bookshop in September, and he handed me Andy Mister’s book Liner Notes, saying “Andy writes about music, too.” But I would say Andy writes about rock fandom: the songs, yes, but mostly the allure of the tragic rocker. Andy taps into the inevitable mingling of rock myth with the real, of icons and us (whoever we are), and how some of us never stop looking in the mirror for latent Nicos or Bowies behind our eyes. We talked fandom, memory, and style. We also dropped a lot of names.
Patrick Gaughan In Liner Notes, it seems you’re working with two strands, song and memory, so what is their relationship? Not just in the I-first-heard-“Sister-Ray”-in-my-parents’-basement-and-every-time-I-listen-to-it-I’m-transported-back-there sort of way, but in the way a song has the power to inject one with a euphoria similar to the heights one experiences during moments of personal intimacy. The experience of listening to songs we love is so enjoyable because we align it directly with memories of being with people we love, or because we start mistaking one for the other, as in when you say “My childhood is a song I can barely remember the words to” or “I tell myself our love is like a pop song.”
Andy Mister I think the relationship of memory to music or lived experience to music that interests me most is one of loneliness. I think most people who become obsessed with music, seeking it out and collecting records, are people who can't relate easily to others. And one's relationship to all this recorded ephemera becomes a buffer against that loneliness. Since most songs with lyrics have some connection to the outside world and other people and all the feelings of joy, love, and hate, music then becomes a window onto the real world. So if you’re like me and you're an introverted, shy kid who would rather get stoned and sit in his bedroom listening to Dinosaur Jr. records than go to parties and try to talk to girls, then when you get older and you actually have a chance to go to parties and talk to girls and you start falling in love and being rejected, all that experience is altered or affected by the music about love and loss and joy that you've been listening to.
PG Reading your book, I identified patterns in your prose blocks: celebrity death to vivid memory with a lover, music factoid to casual train ride observation, then back to celebrity death. In Hans Hofmann’s essay “The Color Problem in Pure Painting,” he says:
Since every color can be shaded with any other color, an unlimited variation of shading within every color scale is possible. Although a red can be, in itself, bluish, greenish, yellowish, brownish, etc., its actual color emanation in the pictorial totality will be the conditioned result of its relationship to all the other colors.
Are you treating anecdotes as Hofmann does reds and blues?
AM Liner Notes developed out of two pieces, one a more traditional lyric essay and the other a list poem detailing a number of rock and roll suicides. I combined these two pieces into one and expanded it, trying to allow as much disparate information in as possible. I wanted to use different types of language—lyrical, anecdotal, prosaic—without privileging one over another, similar to an all-over painting, to continue your metaphor, in which every part of the surface is given equal weight and attention.
PG I’d say the autobiographical sections of Liner Notes are of course subjective and lyric, but also sparse and clear, and you relate the deaths of rock stars in such straightforward prose that, at points, the vignettes could be Wikipedia entries. In Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, she quotes Joseph Joubert, saying that in writing, “Clearness is so eminently one of the characteristics of truth, that often it even passes for truth itself.” In a way, clear prose works as “a sleight of hand,” giving the appearance of opacity, while concealing worlds of detail.
AM It's funny that you mention Bluets. Peter Gizzi recommended it to me and I just got a copy in the mail last week, but haven't read it yet. When I began writing Liner Notes, I was working an office job in Oakland. Between making Excel spreadsheets or whatever, I would Google search different rock and roll suicides and paste them into a document. Later I would clean the prose up and add other details from books or articles that I found interesting or totally rewrite them. Stylistically, I didn't want extraneous sentences. And inside each sentence, I only wanted words that felt necessary. There's a certain urgency I was trying to capture in the prose. Sometimes when you're writing about experiences that are hard or dark or troubling, it helps to present them in plain language, which can almost disappear, allowing the reader to see through the words to the event that is being described. I think that is what Joubert is talking about. Obviously, this is as much a stylistic decision as writing really flowery, purple prose, but it seems to imply a certain reverence for the facts of an event. An event that can speak for itself, in a sense.
PG Back to these lyrical, anecdotal, prosaic modes: there are a number of instances in Liner Notes in which you reference poems you wrote in the past, but in place of the poem, you tell an anecdote about the source material for a poem. “The poem was about my French tutor. About the time she told me that her mother committed suicide” or “In grad school I wrote this poem about my dad trying to kill himself. I think the first line was ‘My father in the back of the ambulance asks for his cigarettes.’” In these cases, the act of writing a poem, or the inspiration for writing a poem, or you viewing the poem as a failure, becomes the poem, yes?
AM Those lines are both from the same poem about my father, something I did sort of consider a failure. I submitted it in workshop in grad school and afterward felt embarrassed I shared something so personal. One thing I wanted to do in Liner Notes was write honestly about writing. When I got out of school, I didn't write anything for months. Then slowly I started again—these pieces that became Liner Notes. I felt there was this whole machinery around writing poetry that wasn't in the poetry itself. No one wrote about grad school or being in workshop, though most everyone I knew had these experiences. I wanted that in the poem. At the time, I was working an office job and wasn't really sure if I would continue writing, so I was thinking about what place writing had in my life, and in the same way I was thinking about what part music had played, both positively and negatively.
PG You pepper your reminiscences with lyrics from Pavement, The Modern Lovers, and others. Once I realized it, it became a fun scavenger hunt for me. How’d that come about?
AM The lyrics that made their way into the book are lines I just knew, like “Don't you wonder sometimes about sound and vision.” I just have that line in my head in Bowie's voice. But when you write it, it's just this kind of flat, weird line. It made something familiar and beautiful into something flat.
PG In the same way that emulating a rock star’s actions never quite achieves the same heights when you do them yourself?
AM Yeah. I was always a big reader of magazines like Mojo and Wire, which had these stories about the lives of lesser-known musical figures. Those stories were always in the back of my mind when I was using drugs or feeling depressed or falling in love. When I look back on it now, I used them mostly as justification or validation for my own selfish, self-destructive behavior. A lot of those stories are in Liner Notes. A musician I love, not mentioned in the book, is Lawrence from the band Felt. They put out ten albums throughout the 80s and should have been this huge band, like The Smiths or something, but they just never took off, at least in part due to Lawrence's drug use and mental illness. I think I actually first heard of Felt in an interview with Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian in Mojo. Not that I emulated Lawrence’s story, but I've always been attracted more to failures and burnouts than to successes. Just as all the Smile demos and outtakes are more interesting to me than any official Beach Boys album—other than Pet Sounds. There's the story that Paul McCartney is chewing carrots as part of the percussion on “Vegetables.” I love that!
PG So if we’re talking rock fandom, we have to talk Lester Bangs. What’s the best Bangs essay?
AM “Of Pop and Fun and Pies.” What originally struck me is how personal it is. Bangs charts the course of his relationship with The Stooges and to Fun House in particular, how he listened to it twice and thought it sucked. It wasn't until his friends made him play it for them that he realized how good it was. I can't think of many other critics who readily admit that their first impression was wrong. And he writes primarily as a fan. There's no critical distance or detachment. I learned in high school that enthusiasm isn't cool. Reading Lester Bangs made me feel less embarrassed about how obsessed I was with bands like Felt or Pavement or Wire, bands I heard and wanted to hear everything they'd done. His writing gave me permission to be a fan.
PG In your recent piece for Coldfront magazine, you talk about your friend turning you on to Erik Satie for the first time. At this point, I feel I get recommendations from friends, but many come from people I admire namedropping in interviews (like this one). In that way, your book is a treasure trove of recs. The opposing side would say proper names alienate, that there’s a presumed awareness around the figures chosen. Names are voting. Accumulation of names points to a taste, an aesthetic. I’ve recently begun a running tally of names—any book, exhibition, film, album, etc. that I spend at least fifteen to thirty minutes with. I now have this growing list—Jay-Z to Jacques Demy, to friends and acquaintances. What’s your take on naming names?
AM Thanks for reading the Coldfront piece. One of the things I was thinking about is how we create a notion of taste or an aesthetic through the names we name and those we withhold. If someone asked me what music I like, I would probably never say Cat Stevens, even though I really love Cat Stevens. I used to be much more involved in seeking out bands in interviews and in books. Toward the end of 1997, when I was in my freshman year of college, I remember reading Stephen Malkmus's five favorite albums of the year. I went out and bought all of them: Polvo, Shapes; Built to Spill, Perfect from Now On; Bardo Pond, Lapsed; The Champs, III, and a John Fogerty album. A couple of those records I still listen to pretty often. I'm really grateful to have seen that little list. So to me naming names isn't alienating, it's inviting someone else into the little world of your own tastes and experience. I gave a reading last night at Geoffrey Young's gallery in Great Barrington, MA and barely knew anyone there. I read a part of Liner Notes that involves John Fahey, and after the reading two people came up and talked to me about their love for Fahey. Geoffrey Young told me a story about seeing Fahey play in Berkeley in 1968. Afterwards, at dinner, a woman talked to me about how much Elliot Smith's death affected her. I had no idea if anyone in that room had ever heard of Fahey. I didn't think I had anything in common with this woman, but I did. We both liked Elliot Smith. It was a great night. None of that would have been possible if I had been afraid of alienating readers with proper names.
Patrick Gaughan is a poet, performer, and critic living in Northampton, MA. He contributes regularly to BOMB, Coldfront, and Diagram. Find other recent work in Sink Review, Blunderbuss, and Jellyfish. He will be performing in Ish Klein’s In a Word, Faust this winter. For more visit here.