And Their Song Mingles with the Light of the Moon
Rather than begin with some exhaustive introductory aside for this final installation of The Uncertainty Principal series, I’d like to directly explore a moment on No Good to Anyone that -above anything else- baffled me during my first handful of listening sessions, (and this my friend, is fucking saying something.) Over the course of the album’s first third it frequently -almost absentmindedly- confounds, veiled in curious textures and rhythms that often feel hopelessly adrift at sea. Yet nothing’s so aggressively perplexing as the thirty-second instrumental “Orland.” It perplexes partially because of what it is: a recital of the first few bars of Debussy’s familiar “Claire de Lune,” a veritable ‘pop-sensation’ of its day. It perplexes with its hesitance and also with its gentleness. The notes are choppy, redolent with the overarching caution that betrays a novice player. The performer compulsively repeats the first measure before gingerly attempting the following handful of notes until finally, with the raw inscrutability of an incomplete narrative, the recording drops into a hermetic silence. It’s like the album’s drunkenly veered into the broadside of a piano lesson before promptly blacking out. “Claire de Lune?” Why? And why’s it called “Orland?”
“So, this one day, I’m laying on the sofa, (the same one that I’m sitting on now actually,) and I’m in all this pain and I fucking hate everything…” Steve sighs. His voice is unnaturally contrite, all the involuntary swagger is momentarily on the blink. “I mean I fucking hate everything,” he repeats. “I hate myself; I hate the fact that I’m inside this body and that there’s just nothing I can do about it. By this point, all this time’s flown by and I’ve missed a lot of things. I mean, I’ve missed soccer games, I’ve missed basketball games… For a while it’s like I’d just been watching everything that I care about kind of being taken away from me. So, I’m in a pathetic state where I don’t even want to go out of the house because it’s so physically hard to do and also, I really can’t stand going out of the house anyway because I look like a fucking freak and so I’ve just got all this shit bound up in me emotionally but I’m also physically bound—as in house-bound.”
Recall that reference to a black hole in Part I of this series? Steve’s just delineated a far more familiar sort of the species: a gaping socket aspirating its subject into unvarnished nothingness while simultaneously tightening the valve of time itself to a lazy, interminable drip. It’s within theaters like this that base substantiality wilts while our watch-hands concurrently decelerate to a shitty, sadistic crawl. Ever been there?
“I can’t stand anything; I hate myself; I wish I could die,” he continues. “Everything just fucking blows and right in the middle of all that, I hear it. It’s [my son] Willie….” he pauses as if he’s been blindsided by the recollection and then whispers in a manner generally reserved for religious awe, “What the fuck is this? It’s him.” Steve exhales the pronoun like he’s being pulled just below the waterline of a dream. “He’s upstairs…and out of all of the millions of different songs—whatever he could be playing—he starts playing…that! And it was a sunny blue-sky day and by all rights it should be the kind of day that you’re just thankful to be alive. And here I am sitting there like a fucking insect that’s gotten wrapped in a spider’s web feeling like I’m about to be eaten when I hear him playing and… Well, there’s just something about knowing my son Willie…”
I genuinely hate to rely so heavily on ellipses to convey the reflection and the uncharacteristically timorous reverie present in Steve’s voice here but I’m at a loss as to how to express it otherwise. This experience seems all but holy to him in its quality. Shit, maybe it is holy. Out of everything that we talked about during our nearly two and a half hours together, this was the one moment that I was immediately inclined to discuss while simultaneously being the most concerned about properly illustrating its sheer gravity.
“Willie’s like what everybody should wish they were,” stresses Steve. “There’s this innocence and this raw purity within him. You know, all of the world’s bullshit, the cunning, the money, all that crap…none of it is in his heart. And so, he’s upstairs and he’s playing this piece and in the quiet—I remember that it was dead quiet—I could hear that piano absolutely clearly.” Steve hesitates. “When you listen to ‘Orland’ Willie’s innocence and naivete comes through. He doesn’t really play it note for note exactly, totally perfect. It’s almost like you can tell that a child is playing it because it isn’t slick; it’s like he’s finding his way through the part. And I felt for him as I listened to him play because I thought about how he might be coping. Here I am down on the couch and he knows I’m dying and that I’m suffering and the poor guy goes up to his room and he’s contemplating life and he starts playing this piece. It was just so beautiful to me because it was coming from his heart and it helped me then to really recognize my son Willie for everything that he is. Willie,” he stammers, “he’s the guy that came in here and brought me a glass of water when I was throwing up. He’s the guy who helped me down the hallway when I couldn’t do it on my own. He was by my side every minute, all the time, making sure that I was okay. And so, in the midst of all this anger and hate, that little wisp of melody was like a spiritual memorandum somehow finding its way to me in the middle of the storm. Like, ‘Hey Steve, there is purity in this world. There is love in this world. There is good in this world. That son of yours represents all of that.”
In gaining an understanding of what this so-called ‘wisp of melody’—performed in this particular fashion—means to Steve Austin, the consequence of the piece’s title becomes entirely revealed. “Orland.” The moment encapsulated in this recording is indicative of home for Steve Austin but ‘home’ in the most tonic and nepenthean sense of the word. It is Steve’s fondest memories constellating to form his own peculiar sanctum: a holy place. And that’s not to mention the knee-buckling intimacy captured here. Can you imagine being spoken about like this by your own father? What would that mean to you? In turn, what sort of humbling stroke of ill-fortune would it require for you to muster the strength to speak in this way about your own child?
“It was that drive, man. The drive of loving him and of loving his brother and loving my wife; all of that was my rope. It’s like there was a cord dangling down to me and it was my way out. And if I could just manage to grab hold of it and cling tight, I could pull myself up. I just really needed some inspiration and thankfully Willie went upstairs—he was probably feeling a little bit lonely—and he just started playing that Debussy thing… So, it came to me later on to ask him, like, ‘Hey, if you don’t mind, I’d like for you to play that piece for me and let me record it.’ He set up his keyboard and I think he managed it, (that and another little piece for ‘Rockets and Dreams’,) in one or two takes. So—like I said—it’s all just little snapshots, you know? More audio souvenirs.”
In an album littered with inscrutable hallmarks, this one may be the most rewarding once its meaning is divulged. It’s a moment of impossibly prodigious significance fabricated from seeming happenstance and acknowledged in the most abstruse manner conceivable. And this is the sinew of religious experience and it transpires all the time in this way, all over the world. It doesn’t need to present itself in the form of a magical grotto out in the French countryside or via the stigmata of a Capuchin priest, (although that works plenty fine too.) And what especially amazes is that for all of that import and the sheer resonance of this specific experience, No Good to Anyone alludes to it so modestly as if Steve Austin was permitting “Orland” to cut through the scrum of noise that surrounds it and to greet the listener in just as stupefying a fashion as it initially did for him on that bygone ‘blue-sky day.’ This is music of consequence, people. This is something.
Art is the most beautiful deception of all. And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.
Note: Claude Debussy’s famous “Clair de Lune” was initially titled “Promenade Sentimentale” after a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine. For fifteen years, the piece—while bearing that designation—languished before it was finally published in 1905 as a portion of a four-part work called “Suite Bergamasque.” However, when Debussy finally publicized it, he renamed the melody “Claire de Lune” after an altogether different Verlaine poem. I’ve always found that fact to be incredibly peculiar. Was the initial inspiration no longer sufficient to support the chassis of the melody? Why disassociate it from its genesis in that way?
THE LOCATION OF MEANING
“I love going around a corner where I don’t know what’s coming next. It’s why I love four-wheeling,” smiles Steve, rooting us suddenly back to the teat of ol’ Tellus-Mater. “To me, an awesome jeep adventure is going to a place that human beings probably haven’t even bothered with for a hundred years, where each surprise is an opportunity to overcome some obstacle. You know, four-wheeling’s a lot like life. There’s a lot of things that interrupt your path and you have to find a way to outwit them and get on to the next point. And it wouldn’t be near as fun if you knew that you were going to drive a few hundred feet and then there would be a downed tree or a creek that’s too deep to cross or that you were going to wind up stalled out on some giant rock and have to figure out how to regain traction. The surprise is the most vital part. And honestly, that’s what I love about my own music. I could take any one of the different Today is the Day albums and put it on and I’m going to get this whole bevy of problems and solutions and trials and victories. There’s no way to know what’s coming; that’s what I love in life and that’s what I love in art. Like, when I go out to catch a movie, I don’t want to know what it’s all about beforehand. I want it to show me shit that I’d never thought of before. Maybe show me some things that I don’t necessarily even want to think about but now it’s forcing me to. By engaging with this experience, I’m going to come out of it enlightened in some way. I have to.”
And with that we’re funneled into one final yarn from Steve that will essentially shutter this piece for all practical good. Confession: I had no idea what sort of pile I was stepping in when I sought an interview with the man following my assignment to review the No Good to Anyone release. I knew that the album whipped up this rich sediment of antipathy within me into a volatile, inquisitorial slurry. I saw that Steve Austin of all people was referencing the Dalai Lama (of Orland, Maine,) in press releases. And… well, that was altogether enough for me, I guess. I wanted to compare the chalk outline of Steve Austin rendered by the authorities of my rather stand-patter imagination to that of the somehow [inexplicably!] still-living-breathing thing. I wanted to challenge my internal editor for a change and stand corrected regarding a few old suppositions. And yet—to be brutally honest—when I first listened back to the recording of our conversation, I was all engines down and fucking rudderless. Over the course of our conversation, Steve had given me an absolute embarrassment of materials but I had no real ground to begin construction on. I was torn by my spiritual convictions and what I’d dearly wanted to read into, (but wasn’t precisely finding,) in our dialogue. I’d reached out to Steve because I wanted to write something significant, not just about him and not just about the album but about myself as well. But it’s a tall order to wring hallowed writ from a box of Alphabits simply because you think it’d be a neat trick to pull off. At best I was spiritually panhandling—a surefire way not to enrich oneself. But—as is routine for Fallow Heart—I digress. Let’s say our farewells to Steve via this final account.
“I’ll be the first one to admit that -compared to the next person—I’m attracted to dangerous things,” Steve begins. “I don’t know why exactly but I think a lot of it is about facing fears. There are some people who really get off on that—as opposed to repelling their fears. For instance: I have a pretty big aversion to heights; I really don’t like ‘em. In fact, when I look down it can rattle me so much that I’m afraid that I’m going to physically lose control and maybe tumble off the edge because of how hypnotic that terror is. So, just this last year -I think it was about four months after I had my second hip replaced- there were some friends of mine in town and we drove over to this mountain near my house. And you know, one minute we’re listening to Poison “[Don’t Need] Nothing but a Good Time” on the radio, just howling along and laughing like three idiot buddies who don’t get to see each other enough and then the next thing you know I remember being almost vertical on the side of a three-thousand foot mountain. We were stuck and could roll backwards down it any moment… That would’ve been it, man!” He shrugs off my immediate volley of questions with a laugh.
“It was nuts! When we got stuck, I immediately told my friends, ‘Get…out.” His voice takes on the painstaking timbre of someone carefully reaching for their wallet during a holdup. “‘Get out of here right now and do it as carefully as you can.’ And so, they climb out, and I’m still sitting in it and they’re like, ‘Umm, okay Steve, now what are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘What I’m doing is I’m holding this Jeep steady with my foot pressed through the fucking floor, and yanking up on the E-brake for dear life and I’m asking you guys to please take the wench-line and climb up to that tree, up there on that ridge line and lock it off so that I can hopefully get out of here.’ And I had to sit there while they did this shit and there was horrific moment where I turned around to look at the drop behind me -just to get a sense of what I was facing- and, I mean, it literally looked like a massive, granite skateboard ramp descending straight down to the bottom above all these treetops. And it flashed through my mind, ‘You know Steve, if the wench-line snaps and you start going backwards, you’re going to be on the ride of a lifetime and you’re obviously not going to make it out alive.’ It was just fucking weird! And so, once they had it tied-off, I climbed out to check on the line just to reassure myself that it was going to hold. We’d wedged all these rocks behind the back wheels to help keep it from rolling backwards and my friends were looking at me like, ‘So, what’s next?’ And so, I asked myself, ‘Okay Steve, what is next?’ And then I realized it: Right! The next part is really good!” he cackles. “This is the part where you have to get your ass back into the jeep and you fucking release the brakes and just trust that that line is going to hold you.’ I was scared to death! I crawled into the vehicle and I let off the brake and I released the E-brake and—bam!—the Jeep shifts back a foot or so really quickly but it held its place! As they’re reeling me in, I’m just berating myself, ‘Steve, you’re the stupidest person in the fucking world! I can’t believe you did this. This is the dumbest thing that you’ve ever done; You make me sick.’ And by the time we got to the top of the mountain, I was so fucking freaked out that I had to get away from the other two dudes for a minute just to kind of ‘put it all back in the box.’ I was scared shitless!
“But life is like that, you know?” he continues cheerfully. “You’re just doing your thing and everything’s totally fine and then the next thing you know, you’ve gotten yourself really badly stuck. And in order to address that situation once and for all and to get yourself unstuck, you’re going to have to face your fears. You need to crawl right back into that dark place that your fight-or-flight mode is telling you to run away from and just suck it up and face it. That pivotal moment belongs to you and what you do with it is sometimes life or death. I’m thankful for those trials. You know man, I’m way too comfortable. I’ve got a couch, a TV, running water… It’s like everything’s way too easy and sometimes we have to step out of our element and do something that’s out of the ordinary and difficult or extreme to remind us of the frailty of our life. As much as I hated that experience, it definitely tempered me. Also,” Steve chuckles, “I couldn’t let anything happen to Willie’s Jeep! That was one of the thoughts that raced through my mind the most: ‘Man, if you mess this up, you’re going to destroy Willie’s jeep!’”
I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. —Claude Debussy
As we finished our conversation—for whatever reason—I found myself envisioning a sheep out to pasture, huddled within the ranks of its shuffling flock under the mindful gaze of its shepherd. The image strikes such an ancient, bucolic chord that brings to mind security and simplicity and innocence. But what is a sheep in this instance? It’s a commodity, right? It’s being groomed to be eaten. If the shepherd’s attention were to wander just long enough and that sheep were to manage to slip away from its community, it would likely perish quickly enough either due to predation or by spilling off the side of some blind ledge. But if it’s sure-footed and if its luck holds long enough, it’ll see vistas and experience things that neither it nor any other animal in its flock could have ever possibly imagined. Of course, there are hazards and of course there are uncertainties that lurk outside the shepherd’s sphere of sovereignty to test your edibility. But back inside that sphere lie the shearing blade, the neurotic herding dog and the pen, (oh, and Bryan Adams on the fucking radio.) You’ll likely be eaten either way; wouldn’t you at least like to change the channel before it happens?
I can’t thank you enough, Steve.
The setting sun cast its final rays
And the breeze rocked the pale water lilies;
Among the reeds, the huge water
Lilies shone sadly on the calm water.
Me, I wandered alone, walking my wound
Through the willow grove, the length of the pond
Where the vague mist conjured up some vast
Despairing milky ghost
With the voice of teals crying
As they called to each other, beating their wings
Through the willow grove where alone I wandered
Walking my wound; and the thick shroud
Of shadows came to drown the final rays
Of the setting sun in their pale waves
And, among the reeds, the water-
Lilies, the huge water lilies on the calm water.
“Promenade Sentimentale” —Paul Verlaine