And other writing and life lessons from rock journalism.
Like many a writer, on my way to rewriting the Great American Novel, I blogged, and blogged and blogged and blogged. Wrote content for brands. Woke sweaty from nightmares wherein I had researched and toiled at phrases for five-plus hours for a freelance copy job that paid a buck eighty. Posted to social media. Blogged. Copywrote. Blogged. Ghostwrote. And blogged. Until the day I bought Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock ’n’ Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ’n’ Roll.
And then, for a beat, I stopped writing altogether. I had to. Reading somebody whose words flowed like absinthe, or at least like the rock music he wrote about, had made me face something about myself.
I had gotten so, let’s say, respectful (and let’s say it ’cause it’s a nicer word than chickenshit) in my writing approach that I didn’t sound like myself anymore. For brands, you have to sound a certain way, but I realized I was caving even in my personal writing. Where I told myself that if I was talking about important things (i.e., controversial things, things about which individuals were bound to have varying takes), I had to adopt that aforementioned respectful voice. And brother had I. So tenaciously I could hardly remember what I sounded like when I wasn’t trying to sound like the moderator of a political debate.
Of that realization a crisis was born. When had I last sounded like myself?
Back in the halcyon days of starting Blogger blogs left and right? Back in the Year of our Internet 199Myspace, when I was just weaning off the perspective that posting your diary online was roughly the fuckedest thing this side of scat porn? Way back before recognizing that internet existence was less about personal expression, more about hitching onto an us to mutually hate the maggoty guts of them?
Things can happen when you work (/live) online. You can wind up shedding avatars all up and down social media and caring what happens to them in the way you once fretted over your Tamagotchi’s health. You can internalize the sticky mores of that on-demand form of fraternization. Mindful of commenters and likers and dislikers alike. Carving up your voice on the basis of catchall feedback.
Next thing you know, whatever you wanted to write is coming through so sieved that all passion’s back jamming the strainer. If your voice is still there at all, it sounds narcotized. Like you’re paying tribute to a version of yourself from vivider days but you’re doing so from a lectern. As you sip Metamucil-laced skim milk.
I needed something new to write about. Something I cared about so much my passion would flood right over the rim of any strainer. Something everybody could call me a moron for enthusing over and I just wouldn’t care. Something that brought out the fan and the dickhead in me all at once.
Something like sushi.
I once knew a girl who visited North Carolina from California and, in the most from-California way imaginable, announced that if soon she did not get some sushi, she would just as soon die. We had sushi, in that part of North Carolina. California rolls even. Maybe not growing in community gardens on lollipop sticks as I can only assume they did in her native land (please just roll with my cartoon hickness for the sake of the story; I had actually been to California at that point. LA even. I’d gone to Frederick’s of Hollywood, where, unless I’m completely misremembering this, I’d purchased a Barbie-size doll of Iron Maiden’s Eddie; I’d met my first Scientologist; I’d lain in my hotel bed beside an SWP — stranger with penis — smoking Djarum cherry cigarettes like an asshole who is such an asshole her underwear probably somehow has elbow patches), but we had sushi. We had it in the weird hibachi place that was mostly American buffet; we had it in the deli at Harris Teeter. We had a fine-eats grocer with all the makings to roll your own. If you were the bad-sushi-is-better type, you were not without options.
This same girl, friend of a friend, would go on to redeem herself with me simply by being one of the most fringe-o-sexland exhibitionist little weirdos the gene pool ever spat out, but here was an early unfortunate impression. Sushi, you just want to shriek as though into the void/ear canal of god. Dying for SUSHI. In a world with steak and cake and vodka?
If you’re an aficionado of standard blog post structure or a fortune-teller of extremely limited talent, you know where this is going. How do these things ever go? What happens when you fall into a high-pitched, concussive rant with self-righteous overtones and undertones of reverse snobbery over slightly less than nothing? You already know that one day, upset at having his ear canal screamed into, the god of the last paragraph spat directly in my face and I woke up zombie-muttering (to the tune of “BRAINS”) “SUSHI.”
I’m afraid that at this point the plot does not grow thicker. I bought a plastic tray of sushi from Harris Teeter. I ate it. All. And it was good.
But I was older then. Wiser. Little more meat around the middle. I’d gone through labor which meant I’d gone through pregnancy which meant I understood what it was to crave certain comestibles in my eyelashes and callouses. To have a blood bond with food. Where plating food becomes porn and not just because plating, like anything else you’ll ever say in your human life, is also the name of a sex act.
The point I’m driving at is that after I’d learned, through the boot camp of pregnancy, what it really was to have an appetite, the goddamn thing would rear its Whack-a-Mole head over the craziest things. Sushi, in a world of steak and cake and vodka.
The beast’s name was craving and IT was driving this boat. And if IT wanted deli-counter sushi, then twelve rolls of seaweed and flecked sticky rice later, I could be found leaning back, obscenely sated and who cared — who cared what anybody else thought. If anyone else had been there before I acquired my prey, I might have said right to their civilized faces that I would DIE, DIE, if kept from my weird fishy pinwheels.
There’s a whole conversation to be had about disjointed desire, what it means to be an integrated human who can connect lusts to cerebral value like the tip of a whip to the wrist that flicks it, but this is not a serious enough post for that conversation. In fact (spoiler alert) there’s no post that’s serious enough for that conversation. This is about what happens when want and need breed, and you become the ass who’s willing to say, or at least think, you’re going to die if you don’t get some fucking _____. And to kinda sorta mean it.
The first time I remember not just wanting to hear music but craving it — feeling a deep ache for a specific song, and it didn’t matter who was there to think it was stupid — it was a rare nonmiserably hot night in North Carolina. I was in my then-boyfriend’s car in the Target parking lot wanting to hear “Something in the Air Tonight.”
The night was right for it. The sky had been clogged with heat forever but now, brother, we had breeze, that feather-light promise that somewhere out there lay an ocean, where it was possible to get wet not from humidity but from swimming. There was a call for music that paid homage to bongos and wind chimes but with a more driving rhythm, because we were about to drive if not fast then at a speed that would feel so with the top down.
He didn’t have “Something in the Air Tonight.”
“But I think I have something that’ll work,” he said. What he had was Fear Factory’s cover of “Cars.” And, indeed, it worked.
Every so often, afterward, I’d need to hear Fear Factory doing “Cars.” From roughly that point, I knew what it was to want music the same way I would want McDonald’s grease on those preggo mornings that started with chalky vitamins and promptly-puked breakfast muffins. And once I’d tried on rock journalism following my little crisis of voice, I discovered what it was to need to write about the same things I needed to hear.
Once pregnancy has taught you to really crave food, your cravings can roam to places your conscious mind can’t follow. Earl Grey tea with red popsicles. Oversalted dry mashed potatoes and a spoonful of dark chocolate Hershey’s. Presenting you with a mystery spun of your own appetites. And so I found it was with music. I could spend hours clicking “replay” and writing like a high school poet in love in search of what made a certain song tick. Or me tick.
Lester Bangs thought that rock and roll was most evident in bands that were so determined to make a singular, contrary noise that their technique was forever doomed to lag behind their ambition — and he thought it was a good thing. Because rock and roll, according to its number-one journalist, was never supposed to be a self-serious art that harangued productions to within inches of both perfection and dullness. The whole thing of rock was putting your voice, and its assertive reaction to living as exactly who you were in your exact time and place, first. Filling in technique as it served.
It’s actually a great lesson for writers who sometimes find their own voices slipping away.
When writing means chasing something you crave to the point it unzips your composure, your challenge will no longer be cajoling your voice out of its blue funk. You’ll have to edit yourself, certainly, because you’ll have entirely too much to say, but what a lucky problem that is.
No matter what sorts of assignments you have to take on to pay the bills, no matter how numbed a tone you assume when writing about matters of capital-I importance, in order not to lose your real voice to the professional coping mechanisms you adopt on an as-needed basis, you have to keep writing about that thing you crave. That thing that makes a mystery spun of your appetites, thereby creating new puzzles for you to answer about you. That thing you’d keep rhapsodizing about if every troll on Twitter graduated from ignoring you to telling you you write like your breath stinks of sushi.
Write what you don’t know. Write to figure out how the hell you could crave some silly song [or insert your own media production, product, or experience] more than you care about cake, steak, dick, or page views. Write for your own company, to hear your voice flowing like sweet vanilla vodka and to recognize that flow as your own.
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This post originally appeared in The Junction.