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Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Let me tell you what it was like to listen to music in prison. I told you what it was like the first time I put on headphones in months. Heart-flooding. Thereafter, I developed a relationship with music that was a sublimation of my frustrated sensuality and sexuality. It was also a tunnel into the world.
Let me start by describing what was for me the opposite experience of standing on a prison yard: standing in the middle of the crowd at a Phish concert. Phish is a band that jams its songs into unrecognizable, unpredictable times and spaces. You can—and I have—follows them for a few shows and never hear the same song twice. When you do hear it twice, it can barely resemble the last version. Already this sounds nothing like prison, of course. But being there, on the road, on the run against time, was unparalleled, since I myself never got to participate in a revolution or even a minor uprising of the people.
Ana and I were on bail, awaiting our sentence when we followed Phish up the West Coast of these fractured states of America. Originally we thought that first night in jail was the first night of our sentence. Then we were bailed out, and looked forward to a couple months of freedom. Time to get our things in order, say what needed to be said to friends and family, make our peace with the disappearing free world. We lived every day like it was our last, embracing desperately, pouring forth promises and apologies and new dreams for a new millennium, with a new consciousness of class born of our being summarily thrown into a new class. Only weeks left! Only one week left! Only a few days! And then…
We go to court and see our trial date moved back another few months. Sweet merciful bounty of extra life! Bonus freedom! Commence the process again: living in vivid colors, vivid sounds. The last colors. The last sounds. The last chance power drive. Back to court….another suspension of our bodies in this sweet coupled time and space!
And so on. And so on and on. A whole year living each day intensely, fully, consciously and conscientiously. It was heady, high and exhausting. A month in Las Vegas stripping to pay my parents back for the lawyer. Reading the history of prisons, reading the great philosophers of solitude and strength—Nietzsche, Bukowski, Benjamin, Dostovesky, Roberto Benigni, Tyler Durden. Reading each other in an attempt to memorize each other.
And then on this tour, from Chula Vista to Mountain View to the empty plains of Eastern Washington, following them with a motley group of human living off of the goods they made and sold in the parking lots. We supported ourselves by making fake tickets (which nonetheless, back in the days before scanning, worked) and selling them in large numbers. Out under the September west coast stars.
And what I wanted in prison was this: the bass like a heart that lets you know it will go on when yours stops. The ringing of the guitar like a WASHING. The melody which is the one in our heads. You need the breeze on the neck. You need to see a few dozen smiles in your peripheral vision. You need the smell of marijuana, sweat, perfume, pine trees. Of course you need her next to you.
You need that strobe light as they hit the high notes. Why? Because a strobe and a machine-gun guitar line shake the lines. We expect the lines that form the shapes of our world to be mostly constant. In prison, we know them to be constant, deprived as we are of soft materials, of women, of mind-altering substances, of rock n’ roll lighting. The strobe is the limit of difference.
It’s a particular feeling.
For a certain kind of housewife or househusband: it’s when every appliance in your kitchen matches.
For five year olds: it’s when you read your first book to everyone you meet, and see that we can all be in the same story.
For lovers, it’s like falling in love, but with the whole world.

I put on my headphones in my cell in prison and could hear the soundtrack of those times: 11.20.98, Hampton, VA. 9.11.99, George, WA. Sweet merciful
All I wanted was to get out and be among the people in this way again. But it was and is, I realize now, not so cut and dry, the superiority of this musical experience over the one in jail. The real opening of possibility and perception comes from juxtaposition. In prison, one pines for the openness, pines for the breeze and the warm burble of friendly voices, that thump in the chest that is more than mere hearing. But back in the show, out of prison, one in fact pines for the focus and intense consciousness of solitude. Headphones, after all, are the preferred tool of the connoisseurs of sound.
More to the point, in either state, one sinks into that state, normalizes it. Ceases to be rocked by it. The ideal, then, would be back and forth: prison/show/prison/show. A bizarre juxtaposition. An impossible one. In and out. This is the rhythm of revelation and revolution. Not the copout of staying in or staying out, but the copulation.
Back forth
Past present
Red blue
Flood spot
Constrained free
Me us
Juxtapose! Juxtapose my scholarly work and my creative work. My professional life and my ‘private’ life. Literary and pop. Jazz and rock. Sex and spirituality. Politics and art. Class and consciousness. Indeed, the lack of juxtaposition is a product of time and space and produced by capitalism, which divides everything into sectors, genres, departments, for the purposes of maximizing efficiency and minimizing the dangerous effects of…juxtaposition! Mixing, coming together, hybridity…revolution.
Fuck that. No, literally, fuck it. In and out, in and out, hear her groan, the moon and the sea. Back and forth. Of course this is an impossible dream—to jump in and out of prison. If we could, we would be brilliant. But the closest I can get is to go back to the show and let the song intersperse with the version I listened to in prison. Or to let the one I listen to in prison intersperse with one from a past show. And to let my notes from the two experiences mix and match. Because I forget the truths of being locked up when I’m free, and forget the truths of freedom when I am locked up.


Phish Concert Tickets said...

You don’t want to hear the same performance at two different concerts, which is part of why Phish is so successful. In fact, it’s why Phish concert tickets are so hard to find most of the time.

Anthony Cristofani - The Sacred Dice revolutionary salon said...

agreed. but if you follow them long enough, you do hear the same song, in different forms.

MAX! said...

MY favorite Phish juxtaposition: between formed and formless. Take Harry Hood for example, which has an open end attached to a beginning which is strident, simple, and also unchanged over time. Phish could play those few bars as a reggae tune, arranged for a symphony, at half-speed and an octave lower; and they could have formed the ideal path for Harry to travel in darkness. As it is, the form of the song is ever changing, and therefore unchanged forever, a primordial ooze doing and undoing itself as its principal action. The end is the beginning is the end. So I think the best way to listen to a Phish song is by listening to every iteration, version, start, middle, and finish as the same song, every time resounding, shaking it's vertebrae to dust to blow to the hills to become soil to grow the song again. I think there's another chicken or egg question here.

Anthony Cristofani said...

Nice, Max! I would argue, however, that it is more revolutionary for the senses to hear different iterations of the same song as different songs, since our language and music industry lead us more towards repetition than difference: "I've heard this song live before." No, you haven't. Or, as you're saying, you have a million times, back to when you were an ancient Greek...

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.