every year on the wednesday before Thanksgiving, I watch The Last Waltz. I’ve been doing it since I was around 19 or 20, when everyone at my college would go home and I’d be kind of drifting. The Last Waltz became this really important marker for my autumn… The Last Waltz is a thanksgiving movie because the concert took place on thanksgiving, but it’s also really (at least to me) a film about the difficulties of working through long-held frustrations with people you’ve been tied to for so long that a love exists. It fits the season.
Every year around this time, I try to watch The Last Waltz at least once, in the way that people watch A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life whenever mid-December rolls around. I’ve come to regard The Last Waltz — and I preface this by offering sincere apologies to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — as the greatest Thanksgiving movie ever. That’s not simply because The Last Waltz takes place on the holiday, but also because this film embodies what’s wonderful, horrible, hilarious, and moving about one of this country’s most sacred annual traditions, and how many of us manage to survive it. Other films have used Thanksgiving as a backdrop. But to me, The Last Waltz is Thanksgiving.
Me, I usually watch Son-In-Law, but after re-watching The Last Waltz in the studio this afternoon, I’m going to give it the headlining spot. Besides, I always need more of Van Morrison’s high kick in my life.
“Turn it up!”
Giles Martin’s new remix of The Beatles’ “White Album” sounds terrific, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: it helps me hear a 50-year-old album with fresh ears. In fact, I was surprised how new it sounded, considering it’s the Beatles record I’ve spent the most time with. When I was around 15 or 16, I sat with my headphones and a copy of Beatlesongs, and tried to map out all the instruments in the mix:
Truthfully, I think my obsession with the album had a lot to do with learning about its influence on Radiohead’s OK Computer. (I also listened to a lot of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, but I think that one was a bit beyond my grasp.)
The White Album also appealed to me because it sounded really homemade, like something I could maybe copy with my little Tascam 4-track Portastudio.
I distinctly remember setting up 3 microphones in my mom’s living room and trying to record a “Blackbird” knockoff.
And I remember starting to play with microphone placement — putting the drums in the living room while my mom was at work, and recording with the microphones in the kitchen.
I spent so much time trying to figure out new sounds I could make with my primitive equipment. I’d comb through music magazines for tips and tricks and paste them into my recording notebook. I’d keep a long list of recording ideas for later:
But mostly, I spent so much time listening. Time is the very thing that young people have. (Although, I fear today that it’s being overscheduled away.) I can’t imagine listening to a piece of music as closely now as I did back then. (I can’t imagine arranging my life in a way that I could perform such close listening.)
My sons listen that closely: my six-year-old can differentiate all the different instruments in mixes, and my 3-year-old can recite all the narration passages from this Leonard Bernstein CD. And some adults still listen that closely: In a 2006 interview with Arthur magazine, Joanna Newsom described the way Bill Callahan listens to music:
The way he listens to music is one of the most endearing and sweet things I’ve ever seen. He takes off his shoes, sets them down and gets comfortable. He kneels or sits in front of the record player, lifts the cover, reverently chooses a record, puts it on, closes the cover and just listens, start to finish. Whenever I go to see him and we listen to music like that, I register in myself how much better it feels than other ways of listening, which are like rushing to eat a meal because you’re super-hungry. You need to eat, just like you need to listen to music, but it never feels good if you do it like that. So I am trying to set my life up in a way where I don’t have to listen to music anyway other than putting on a record and sitting and listening.
Though I didn’t become a professional musician or producer or recording engineer, I like to think that this kind of exercise — studying something you love in depth — is valuable no matter what the field or the genre. The results don’t matter. When you study something so closely, in so much depth, you learn what it is to really pay attention. And paying attention is the art that builds a more meaningful and creative life.
“My hobbie (one of them anyway)…is using a lot of scotch tape… My hobbie is to pick out different things during what I read and piece them together and make a little story of my own.”
—Louis Armstrong in a letter to a friend, 1953
When he was on the road, Armstrong would travel around with a reel-to-reel tape player and a bunch of custom-recorded mixtapes. He was quite the mashup artist:
When not pressing the valves on his trumpet or the record button on his tape recorder, Armstrong’s fingers found other arts with which to occupy themselves. One of them was collage, which became a visual outlet for his improvisational genius. The story goes that he did a series of collages on paper and tacked them up on the wall of his den, but Lucille, who had supervised the purchase and interior decoration of their house in Corona, Queens, objected. Armstrong decided to use his extensive library of tapes as a canvas instead, and the result is a collection of some five hundred decorated reel-to-reel boxes, one thousand collages counting front and back.
The New York Times has a great selection of the collages in “Louis Armstrong’s Life in Letters, Music and Art” (don’t miss the clip of Satchmo talking about his hobby):
Starting in the early 1950s, few pieces of paper were safe from the blade of Armstrong’s scissors: magazines, risqué photographs, even a Christmas card from Richard Nixonwound up cut and collaged. Most of the time, he taped his collages onto reel-to-reel tape boxes; they were purely decorative. Elsewhere, he turned larger pieces of paper into what amounted to a personal hall of fame.
The collages have been digitized and put online by the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
If I have some extra time during the day, I’ll collage comics or random images onto the next couple of blank pages in my diary, so I’m never stuck for something to write about in the morning. (I got the idea when reading Duncan Hannah’s diaries.) If I don’t have anything to say about the previous day’s events, I’ll start writing to the images, and that usually unloosens something in my mind. Anything to keep from staring at a blank page…
I am a practitioner of Twyla Tharp’s creative habit of assigning a banker’s box to each project, so I was delighted when my friend Kristen Delap sent me these photos of the boxes designer Alexander Girard used to organize his textiles. (They can be found in the Vitra Design Museum.) Guess we all need to step up our box game!
“Am I a masterpiece or simply a pile of junk?”
I was sick in bed yesterday, and after I posted a picture of my makeshift office, a follower asked to see all the books on my nightstand. I was bored and bedridden, so I figured, what the heck. (I forgot the hashtag #shelfie.)
Several folks commented in relief that they weren’t the only readers with unread books piled everywhere. Heck no, you aren’t the only reader with unread piles everywhere! In fact, I would argue, as others have, that your library should consist mostly of unread books. Here’s Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there.
“The important books in my library,” says Edward Tufte, “are the unread books.”
The Japanese even have a word for the unread books that pile up: “Tsundoku.” (It literally means “reading pile.”)
The nightstand isn’t the only place my books pile up. My dad keeps a gigantic junky stack of magazines on the fireplace next to his chair, and I used to make fun of him for it, but now look at me turning into him: