The thing about gambling is that it’s an optimistic occupation staffed by bottomless characters–an endless supply of soldiers with unlimited reserves.
When I was a kid, I suffered from night terrors that would prove to be a lifelong affliction. In the earliest one I remember, my childhood dog was ravaged by a roaming pack of wolves that crashed through my bedroom window and brought the fight into bed with me. Then, after the delinquent parents of some neighbor kids down the street allowed the viewing of an R-rated vampire flick, the night terrors got real weird, real fast. My mother had a stroke of genius and created “Monster and Wolf Go-Away Spray”, a mixture of water and a few drops of her perfume with which I would douse every nook and cranny of my room under the assurance that the concoction would repel unwanted visitors. Because fear is relative, the trick worked for a time, but, unfortunately, its effectiveness began to fade as I grew older.
In middle school I began listening to music while I fell asleep since night terrors one night often inspired insomnia in the next–a fear to sleep for fear of what may come. Mostly classical at first–movie soundtracks, Erik Satie, etc–but this was too light. Then I moved onto the harder stuff, like Bush, but that was too much. Then I found the sound that was just right: Nat King Cole. Jaunty and melodic, there are nothing but feel-good rhymes, sentimental songs, and finger-snapping tunes that come from his smooth and perfectly pitched voice. There was something about falling asleep to this aura that soothed me completely, and from that point forward I listened to music of his sort every time I slept alone.
As life has gone on longer and times they’ve gotten tougher, Nat’s voice has seen me through the roughest of it–namely the loss of the two brightest guiding lights in my life. As I wrote some time ago, Nat King Cole held a prominent role in the soundtrack I orchestrated for my father’s funeral when I was just 26. I also included him in the mix the night we said our final goodbye to a beloved grandmother just last year. These were deliberate choices, to be sure, but on other pivotal occasions he has found a way to appear free of personal selection.
Two years after burying my father, we sold the rambling ranch home I had grown up in and left Los Angeles for good. We packed my childhood into boxes and sold what didn’t fit, hauling the load to San Diego where we had summered all my life to be nearer my father as he followed the race track circuit south each year from June through August. Now the place was our permanent home, my mother’s mostly but also mine too, and after a long, exhausting day, my uncle suggested we go out to dinner. We showered up and ventured down the road to a restaurant my father had watched in each stage of construction, poking his head in for opening updates and assuring the owners that he and his girls would be their first diners. We were and the place was a favorite family eatery thereafter because it was good but also because it was close to home.
That night, I sipped my glass of wine, chatted with my mom and favorite uncle, and commented on the music playing softly in the background–a well-curated mixture of indie and contemporary music. Then it happened. Anathema to any music that played before or after it, Nat King Cole’s “Smile” came up in the queue. Since this is the song I chose to play at my father’s funeral, the one that played as my mother and I left the church, arm in arm, it stopped our table cold. No one said a thing since to speak would be to sob. We shook our heads, took an extra hard drink of our preferred poison (black coffee for mother, wine for we drinkers), and individually sighed heavily. We finally made eye contact, and my mom said “That can’t be a coincidence.”
Later that night I asked our waiter who had made the playlist for the evening. Turns out, it was Pandora–a randomly selected station that played randomly selected songs. Meaning Nat King Cole had found his way into our moment to soothe the fear of what may come, or perhaps he was sent to us from another stratosphere by a bundle of Stardust energy from beyond doing what it had always done best: protecting its girls.
I found Cat Power in college at a time in my life when I really needed to find Cat Power. At the tender age of 23ish, I was emerging from the wreckage of a 7-year relationship that had found me as a teenager and left me unsure of who I was as an adult. I was adrift, a fact that had its pros and cons, and in search of what I was/am. Somehow I’d gone from a black-clad beatnik in high school to a pink-satin sucker strutting around San Francisco like I was Carrie Bradshaw or something. I needed to get the pink out.
So I lived alone for awhile; I wrote prose poetry, was miserable and lonely, and then I began a period of ill-fated dating in which I said yes to any fella willing to ask this broad out. There’s no faster way to discover who you are than to subject yourself to a flotilla of first dates that have no prayer for seconds. Being a lady, most dates ended with a sweet high-five becuase there is nothing less sexual than a high-five: it requires minimal bodily contact, it’s rife with bro signals, and it creates very visible distance between two people. This caught many men off-guard, angered a few, and often, despite my best efforts, ended in an awkard hug and a deflected, overly moist kiss that (thankfully) landed on my neck and not my mouth.
At a point, I gave up on men and focused my energies on writing and, later, music. Cat Power entered my life via her 2003 album You Are Free. Songs like “Good Woman”, “He War”, and “Free” spoke to me with their fragility, their indie grace, their absolute honesty and intrinsic tragedy. It had highs and lows, just like I did at the time. This was a woman to relate to, this Chan Marshall Cat Power, and she didn’t wear pink. Shy by nature, she was entering a stint in rehab in 2006 to remedy the way she used and abused herself in coping with crippling depression that often masqueraded as stage fright. Luckily I never needed rehab for my misadventures, but I was definitely, shall we say, somewhat pickled at the time so I identified with her demons.
Concurrent to my Cat Power discovery, I met a boy who helped hammer the lid shut on the pink-satin sucker I longed to no longer be. He was a writer, he was a mystery; he echoed the whipser that flowed like ink through my pen, and above all…he silently understood it all because he was my peer. To call it love would be to minimize it in some way since this boy gave me so much more: he gave me the gift of myself. I met his friends, a spectacular group of people pursuing passions, who welcomed me in as one of their own. On many a Thursday night, we drank, drove ourselves mad on conversation, and danced like idiots to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” at a dive bar on Irving Street. In this motley crew I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, surrounded by like-minded folk, and the comfort of belonging did much to reorient my priorities, help me settle some unfinished business with my previous beau, and, in general, be calm.
This boy and I were not to be the thing we tried to be. Ultimately, it was a classic case of poor timing. Instead we float in and out of each other’s lives now, ironically always at the perfect time, and he remains a sustaining pressure point for my writing, a sort of phonetic accupunture that stills the nerves and let’s the words roll; he is a very good friend. The writing has become habitual to a point where I dare call myself a writer. Cat Power, too, still calls to me. I was fortunate to see her perform at the Warfield in San Francisco a year or so after she successfully completed rehab. She was vibrant, sang and played the piano beautifully, and connected with the audience by handing many of us white tulips at the end. Stage fright conquered, to be sure. And that dive bar on Irving? It’s still there, albeit under new ownership, and I walk by it every morning to grab a latte on my way to work.
On the days that I’m particularly nostalgic, I’ll pause a moment in front of that bar to shift my hot beverage from one hand to another, but really it’s to let the memory of a time when I lived in bars and danced on tables sit for a minute. The past in present, again and again and again.
Because this MTV Unplugged blew the world’s mind like Dylan had just gone electric. Because Kurt’s green sweater was just exhibited at an in-depth Nirvana retrospective staged by the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Because rock legend Dave Grohl is wearing a Normcore turtleneck. Because Nirvana fundamentally changed all of us 90s kids, whether or not we understood that.
Musicians sometimes takes themselves too seriously, making their music remote. Not Cake, never Cake. This band was omnipresent on KROQ, a Southern California radio station, in the 1990s and early 2000s, and, as such, was in the background of every stolen summer moment at the beach during that period. While I never caught the Cake obsession like so many of my peers, I know the lyrics to most of their songs despite never having purchased an album. Their music is unquestionably a Nostos Algos trigger for me, and since our whiskey brains were listening to their early catalog at an in-home hangout session last night…well…I had to include a sliver of their contribution to my youth in this Daily Dose. As the saying goes, “Let them eat Cake!”
If you were a teenage girl in the 90s and lived in Southern California, chances are your hero was Gwen Stefani. Ska was having a moment and No Doubt was everywhere; Gwen was gorgeous and offered a uniquely strong, DIY role model for young girls who wanted to be independent but glamorous in a quirky way–a fantastic antidote to other independent female voices of the era that were more of the Janeane Garofalo, coffee house aesthetic.
Then she married Gavin Rossdale (whom you will see soon in Daily Dose garb), and started a fashion empire while raising some of the cutest children known to mankind. If we ignore the fact that she’s slated to be on The Voice this season, this means she continues to be an amazing role model fifteen years later.
I watched this video incessantly as a teeny-tweener, and we danced like fools to Spiderwebs at every middle school shindig (right before the chicken dance, directly following a thrilling round of YMCA). Good times.
I celebrated a seminal birthday this month, and, instead of going existential about life’s brevity, I decided to run through my 30-year-old music catalog. Belatedly beginning today, the Nostos Algos Daily Doses of September will present the songs and videos that defined certain epochs in my life (in no particular order) because, as I’ve said before, music marks moments.
So here it is, the first installment: “No Scrubs” off TLC’s second studio album CrazySexyCool, which was released in 1994 when I was a 4th-grader learning the complexities of the California Mission System.
These dreams dropped into real-time and took root;
So taken, as they were, with unreality turning tricks to see the morning come.
Here I am, a plaintiff in a sea of stories treading water to stay afloat:
Finding current in a song,
Strong and Ready,
Steady as I cook a fix;
Sturdy with conviction as I learn to WRITE in FLIGHT.