Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Phish, A Picture of Nectar

So maybe I could be a fly…

Track List:

  • Llama
  • Eliza
  • Cavern
  • Poor Heart
  • Stash
  • Manteca
  • Guelah Papyrus
  • Magilla
  • The Landlady
  • Glide
  • Tweezer
  • The Mango Song
  • Chalk Dust Torture
  • Faht
  • Catapult
  • Tweezer Reprise

Hello! It sure has been a while since I’ve done this. Forgive me; I’m still getting used to being able to write about things I like again. And, hey, A Picture of Nectar is a thing I like!

My previous installments about Junta and Lawn Boy involved a lot of hesitation to embrace the albums completely, but here, for the first time in Phish’s studio history, the balance tips. For my money, A Picture of Nectar contains more to recommend it than to detract from it, and it’s the first sustained evidence that they could function as an effective studio band. (Their legacy as a live band was never in question.)

Having said that, it’s also their most scattershot album to date. The band tried everything they could to find their studio footing once and for all…and it’s an exercise under which you can feel the album straining. As such, there are a lot of skippable tracks, but when the band hit upon something that worked — which it did quite often here — it really worked, and a few of these tracks are among the best they’ve ever recorded.

A Picture of Nectar is also the first time that the band’s playfulness was captured for the home listening audience, and it’s more successful for it. When the band has fun, we have fun, and A Picture of Nectar is absolutely a portrait of a band having fun.

We’re still a couple of albums away from Phish truly delivering a thorough studio masterpiece, but with this album they learn both how to do it, and how not to do it. It’s an experiment that’s thrilling and frustrating, but moreso the former, and if you don’t mind trimming a few of the lesser tracks from your playlist, A Picture of Nectar gets even stronger.

Llama


Speaking of lesser tracks!

…okay, okay, “Llama” isn’t really that bad. But compared to A Picture of Nectar‘s true accomplishments, “Llama” feels like filler.

Choose not to compare it and you end up with a pretty fun — if shallow — rocker with some incredible percussion and a great, swirling synth to carry it along. The lyrics are deliberately impenetrable (people debate to this day what the chorus even is), and putting this at the very front of the album feels like a promise of incoherence to come. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s not your thing, you may want to skip ahead a few years and pick up a different Phish album.

The band is experimenting, and figuring out what works is neither an easy process nor, necessarily, a crowd-pleasing one. “Llama” lets listeners know that whatever’s to come may be fun, and may be catchy, but it won’t necessarily be polished. In a live setting, “Llama” is an energetic palate cleanser. On disc, it’s practically a dare to keep listening.

Eliza

…which is what makes it odd that it’s followed up immediately by the quiet, pretty instrumental “Eliza.” In fact, “Eliza” is the second part of the mission statement of A Picture of Nectar. If “Llama” disarmed you, “Eliza” tries to convince you that it’s worth pushing through the rougher patches. You just might find something beautiful, wedged between two monsters.

And it’s right; there’s a lot of beauty to find here. But I do have to admit that “Eliza” is kind of empty. It sounds pretty, and yet also sounds like nothing at all. It’s there…an airy coda to its rampaging predecessor, but it doesn’t register to me the way some of Phish’s other “pretty” interludes do (see “Bliss” or “The Inlaw Josie Wales”).

It’s there. It’s fine. And it lets you know that the whole album isn’t “Llama.” Mission accomplished.

Cavern

“Cavern” is one of those Phish songs that all of the fans know and seem to love, but which never really clicked with me. It’s not awful, and I can appreciate a lot of things about it (read on!), but its popularity and frequency of appearances in setlists always confused me.

Wait, have I been down on all of these songs so far? I really am a miserable human being, aren’t I?

So, okay, fine, it doesn’t work for me on the whole. Ignore that small detail, though, and I appreciate how well it manages to take nonsense lyrics and weave what feels like an actual story. It’s a bit of an illusion, admittedly, as it relies on the instrumentation to build the atmosphere, set the pacing, suggest narrative climax where — strictly speaking — there is none, but that’s sort of the point of songwriting in general, so it’s no kind of cheat.

The plodding rhythm, the echoing drums, the repetitive grind of the groove…everything serves to underscore an idea, an atmosphere, a setting. And, largely, it works. “Cavern” is a journey I’d have a hard time summarizing, but it’s one I can feel.

Interestingly, “Cavern” isn’t the only song on the album that does this; “Stash” also spins a tale of nonsense that seems important in a way that transcends — or at least has nothing to do with — words as we understand them. But we’ll come to that soon enough.

The other thing the song does well is its triumphant concluding verse — from which the album takes its name — repeated with increasing enthusiasm as long as it takes to really sell the infectiousness. It’s a great conclusion to an otherwise fairly pedestrian track, and it’s why the song works so well (and so often) as a set closer.

On a live note, a horn section enhanced the rave-up swirl at the end of the song several times throughout the band’s live history, and that’s a nice variant to seek out if you’re interested. Personally I do think the brass adds something to the excitement, but the vocals do a good enough job of selling the triumph on their own, so it’s not a make/break situation; it’s just a pretty cool thing to hear after you’ve experienced the hornless version so many times.

Poor Heart

A simple bluegrass ditty by bassist Mike Gordon about somebody swiping his tape recorder. It’s…man, I am not doing a good job of selling you on this album yet, am I?

It’s not bad. It’s fun. It’s a bit of a one-note experiment, but it’s brief and toe-tapping enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But…well, that’s it. It’s just sort of there, and it’s nowhere near Mike Gordon’s best composition or the band’s best dalliance with bluegrass. (See the next album’s “Fast Enough for You” for that honor.)

Stash

Now we’re talking. Honestly, don’t the opening notes convince you enough of that on their own?

“Stash” is just…man.

Just…just listen to it. “Stash” is fun. “Stash” is dark. “Stash” is silly and urgent and an incredible meld of composition and musicianship. “Stash” is Phish. And while I’m sure others would point to something like “You Enjoy Myself” as their singular example of what the band is, I think I’d have to point to “Stash.”

It’s an absolutely perfect listening experience. And, yes, it’s a song that takes on new life again and again on stage, with long jams teased out of it unexpectedly or just fiery straight versions played to audiences lucky enough to be there and feed off of it, but its studio version, I think, merits attention.

This is a chance to appreciate the song’s twisting melodies, its tense stop/starts, its masterful interplay between instruments which seem to having important conversations of their own — certainly more important than anything the lyrics have to say.

And yet the lyrics feel like they are saying something important. The story they weave — whatever it’s about, whatever happens in it — has a sense of significance, of weight, of value. And while the lyrics on paper, with all their talk of tunic yankings and solar garlic, seem frivolous, in performance they’re anything but. I couldn’t tell you what anything here is supposed to mean, but I could sure tell you how much it feels like they have meaning.

It’s evocative. What you don’t understand, you still experience. Trey’s guitar work in particular is thrilling. It evokes an endless rush of panic. Near misses. Narrow escapes. The sense that you reach the end of each bar alive by the skin of your teeth.

It’s just all around great, and I think it says something that a song best experienced live is still so solid in the studio, without the energy of the crowd to bolster it, without the benefit of nightly surprise and experimentation, without the freedom of slipping into and out of other songs at will.

“Stash” is one of my favorite compositions, and one of my favorite examples of studio Phish. It doesn’t capture the band’s experimentation, but it does capture their raw, burning power when they’re at their cohesive best, and this one goes down in history books for me.

Manteca

Here’s a great joke: a band well known for their inventive covers of other people’s work finally records a song they didn’t write (one by Dizzy Gillespie) and it’s just them repeating some nonsense that sounds vaguely like the original song.

Ha ha.

Guelah Papyrus

The best song on the album, and one of Phish’s best ever.

Listening now I don’t know why I didn’t list this along with “Cavern” and “Stash” as a nonsense song that still tells a story. Maybe it feels less to me like a story than an evocative scene. Maybe it feels less like nonsense. Whatever the reason, “Guelah Papyrus” seems like a truly unique composition…one I’d have a lot of trouble finding direct comparison to.

It’s lovely. It’s gorgeous. It’s rocky and smooth. It’s got an incredibly addictive beat that often finds me playing the song several times in a row. And its instrumental section manages to feel like an organic part of the composition in a way that it actually isn’t. (It was originally an unrelated tune called “The Asse Festival.” So, yeah, the title “Guelah Papyrus” is a definite trade upward.)

It meanders and it drives. It lounges and it hurtles. It spouts nonsense and suggest profundity. It’s a truly great song, and one of the few that I’ve always wanted to hear in concert and never, so far, have been fortunate enough to catch. It’s also, along with “Stash,” evidence that Phish was finding out how to use the studio…how to enhance their compositions rather than distract from them, how to achieve a kind of musical precision they couldn’t rely on otherwise, with embellishments like the echo effect applied to the backing vocals filling out the song in ways that feel natural and not calculated.

I love “Guelah Papyrus.” If I were able to take only one studio Phish song to a desert island with me, it might well be this one. Which is fitting, as the lyrics seem to outline the spidering thoughts of some endlessly drifting, hopeless protagonist who crossed the wrathful, mysterious Guelah herself.

Who is she? What did she do? The chorus claims that “this is the work of Guelah Papyrus,” but what is her work?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is how it affects our singer.

And us.

And it affects me in ways that I’m almost glad I have trouble expressing; that means they stay specific to me.

Magilla

Our first Page McConnell composition, and by no means his best. Page is my favorite member of Phish — his keys anchoring nearly all of my favorite songs and favorite jams — but there’s no denying that he was a bit uncertain of his talents for much of the band’s life.

Later compositions would be marked improvements, but it wasn’t until he embarked on a career outside of Phish (first with Vida Blue, then under his own name) that he really found his voice as a songwriter.

Still, “Magilla” is good. It’s a minor, jazzy interlude that doesn’t do anything wrong, but definitely fails to live up to the rest of the album. It’s also disappointing that the piano-heavy song by the band’s pianist is entirely bowled over by a far superior piano song that takes over as soon as this one ends.

The Landlady


As “Guelah Papyrus” contained “The Asse Festival,” “The Landlady” would go on to be absorbed by “Punch You in the Eye,” a live-only song that fairly gracelessly plopped this tune into its middle when it needed an interlude.

That’s kind of disappointing, as “The Landlady” feels to me like it deserves to be more than breathing room in a different song. On its own, here, in the studio, it’s a great, rollicking salsa that manages to feel like more of a successful genre experiment than “Poor Heart” or “Magilla” did.

Those songs achieved what they set out to do — chart some more sonic territory for the band — but “The Landlady” succeeds at being…sort of great. Not complex, not revolutionary, but great within its own tight boundaries. And it’s an excellent spotlight for both Page’s nimble fingers and Trey’s screaming fretwork. It’s chilly and fiery at once, and it’s one of my favorite studio instrumentals from the band.

Falling where it does on the album, right here in the rough middle, it’s easy to overlook but worth seeking out. It’s a chance to observe the band growing into itself, setting out to dabble and ending up mastering.

“The Landlady” isn’t just a rough Latin sketch…it’s a Phish song. And a good one. “Punch You in the Eye” may have long outlived it, but I really enjoy the evidence that it once had a life of its own.

Glide

“Glide” feels like a novelty song that happens to have some very impressive musicianship behind it, namely in Trey’s guitar line. There’s a nice musical evolution that unfolds behind the simple, repeated lyrics, depositing us in some unexpectedly dark places, but ultimately it’s a trifle. One of many experiments on A Picture of Nectar that you can’t fault the band for trying. But it’s also not something I’d recommend seeking out.

Tweezer

“Tweezer” is mainly an excuse to screw around with a genuinely irresistible hook. On stage, though, it’s massive. Hour-long versions are not uncommon, and it’s right up there with “You Enjoy Myself” and “Mike’s Song” for sheer unpredictability. You may recognize the opening notes, but there’s no chance you’ll predict the song’s journey from there.

And that’s both its biggest claim to fame and its curse. When “Tweezer” starts up live, you know you’re in it for the long haul. End up with a great, inventive version with some playful momentum to keep it going and you’ll probably be pretty happy. But end up with the band struggling to find its footing and you could find yourself listening for a huge chunk of the set to four musicians floundering for cohesion.

It’s a crapshoot, and it’s one I’m never willing to bet on. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Simple” or “Ghost” or “Split Open and Melt,” I get excited. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Tweezer,” I worry.

Sure, it could be great. And, let’s be frank here, it often is.

But at least as often, it’s stuck in neutral. And as “Tweezer” doesn’t understand the concept of brevity, it’ll be stuck there for a while.

“Tweezer” rarely kills a night, of course, but it does often, to me, feel like it’s taking up a lot of time that another song could put to better use. When you hear a great “Tweezer” you know it, and it’ll make everything I’m saying here sound more like hogwash than usual. But I don’t think it’s great often enough to claim as much real estate as it does.

The A Picture of Nectar version clocks in at around nine minutes…a hefty chunk of the disc. But this version, while, of course, lacking much room for freeform experimentation and reluctant to stray too far from its backbone, is pretty good. While I don’t seek it out I also never feel compelled to skip it. It’s a nice taste of the band loosening up a bit in the studio, without the structural demands of “Stash,” for instance, keeping them from surprising themselves.

So, no, the studio version of “Tweezer” is not revelatory. But it’s reliable, and I always know it will be worth listening to, which is more than I can say for “Tweezer” in general.

Sue me. I like it.

The Mango Song


Another story song? Maybe. As with “Guelah Papyrus” I can’t really decide, but it’s certainly another great example of how nonsense lyrics bring to life distinct (if not necessarily clear) images, situations, scenes.

The abundance of nonsense lyrics on A Picture of Nectar — and, indeed, in Phish’s general output from the time — can seem more wearying than it actually is; because the songs all sound and feel distinct, and behave in such different ways, and serve such different purposes, it doesn’t feel as though they’re using the same excuse too often. And, what with the deadly serious lyrical approach of the next album (on the whole…), perhaps they were unknowingly getting this out of their systems, making way for the more poetic, Tom Marshall-penned lyrics to come. Those would require respect. (A kind of respect.) Here they were free to be kids.

But I’m getting away from this album, so we’ll complete that thought next time.

“The Mango Song” feels less important than songs like “Stash” or “Guelah Papyrus.” It’s more obviously playful, with the lyrics spinning an obscure joke as opposed to an indistinct adventure. It’s cheery. It’s one long punchline. And it’s fun, like so much of A Picture of Nectar, while also being musically complex.

Vocals overlap to produce a kind of sidelong harmony with conflicting lyrics. Melodies chase each other around. Focus on any one instrument and it will sound like it’s working its own, independent magic, that just so happens to fit what the other instruments are doing around it.

It feels like a beautiful accident, and I mean that as a compliment. The studio version gets at least a few bonus points, as well, for the song’s comparative rarity in the live setting. If you want to hear “The Mango Song,” you’re best served by reaching for the CD. And you’ll be happy if you do, because the performance you’ll find there is pretty great.

Chalk Dust Torture

If you want to hear “Chalk Dust Torture,” though, for God’s sake, ignore this one at all costs. That’s easy to do, because the band’s played it frequently at pretty much every point in its life, leaping between blistering, punchier versions and longer, oddly moody, jammy versions…but even the worst live version is sure to be better than this disappointingly lifeless rendition.

That’s not to say it’s bad, but it sure feels limp. The band doesn’t seem all that engaged with it, really, and it feels like they’re more focused on on hitting their marks than playing with much feeling. But the worst part is Trey’s vocal, which is artificially deepened and/or slowed down for reasons I could not possibly try to explain.

It makes the song nigh unlistenable, and while I understand — and appreciate — the many avenues of studio experimentation A Picture of Nectar immortalizes, this version of “Chalk Dust Torture” is poorer for it. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to have a clean version of this great, bluesy rocker to dip into now and again. Instead we get one that answers the question of whether or not it would be a good use of studio time to make Trey sound like Cookie Monster. (THE ANSWER SOMEHOW IS NO.)

Again, it’s not horrible, but those vocals feel like a painful miscalculation.

But, hey, it’s not the last time we’ll hear “Chalk Dust Torture” on disc…

Faht

Drummer Jon Fishman wrote a song that’s exactly what you think a drummer picking loosely at an acoustic guitar would be. Evidently this was recorded as some kind of joke at the expense of new age music, or something. Needless to say, it’s hilarious.

Wait.

It’s a waste of a track. That one.

Catapult

Okay, yeah, the last stretch of songs on A Picture of Nectar isn’t really notable for anything beyond its willingness to experiment. But “Catapult” is something a little different. It’s only a few seconds long, and it’s just bassist Mike Gordon singing a brief little verse through what sounds like an office PA system, but it’s actually had an interesting journey through the band’s live shows.

Since the album version has no instrumentation behind it, Gordon is free to sing it wherever he pleases, overtop totally unrelated jams or other sonic stretches. And sometimes he does. (Or did. I’m not quite sure when its last appearance was, but it may have been some time ago.) Sometimes Trey does, too.

And so “Catapult” has often become a verse in other songs, just because its lack of anything but a few words to remember means it’s easy to launch into whenever the spirit moves somebody.

But…that’s about it for “Catapult.” Its studio version doesn’t even offer a chance to hear the lyrics more clearly, as the distortion renders it just about as intelligible as you’d be able to glean over crowd noise anyway. It’s kind of cool to experience it in its entirely unassuming, weightless original form, but it’s a novelty, and by no means an intriguing one.

Tweezer Reprise


But we end with something kind of cool! A much shorter reprise of “Tweezer,” with an adjusted and key-shifted riff that heralds a great — if predictable — album-ending cacophony. It’s a nice celebratory end to a collection of songs that deserves to be celebrated, even if many of the individual compositions don’t.

A Picture of Nectar found the band trying everything — with each member contributing something they wrote independently, which I don’t think would happen again until 2004’s Undermind — just to see what would work. The unspoken flipside of that is that they’d also see what didn’t work, and this album immortalizes as much of that stuff as it does the successes.

From here on out, they’d know what they were doing. And we’d get some truly great albums out of that knowledge. Our next entry, Rift, is a brave next step. And if it stumbles, it will be the kind of stumble you can only make after you figure out what you’re doing, and start trying to do it as well as possible.

I’ll see you there in 2029.

Oh, but, man, before I go, I have to say that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really great pun that I never see anyone acknowledge, so let me just acknowledge now that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really, really great pun.

…because why not?

I’ve made a playlist of every isolated musical moment we’ve ever featured in the Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!!!, and I already know you’re crazy enough to enjoy it so stop fronting and go rock out to the Gummibar Xmas Mega Mix.

Longtime Bashers will remember that the first year didn’t feature any musical interludes, so this playlist collects all of the songs from Bashes 2-4. It’s a great opportunity to remind yourself that, yes, some lady actually did take the time to make a video for that song she wrote about her chicken dinner.

Personally, the musical moments are my favorite bits of these streams. Well, they are until you all start being funnier than me in the chatroom. But there’s something about Christmas music when it’s neither unlistenable nor any good that just melts my heart.

This is a small way to revisit some great moments from past streams, and I hope you enjoy doing so. I also hope that you play this at your work’s Christmas party, and get fired.

Just a heads up: this doesn’t include songs from the specials that we watch. It’s only the songs we enjoyed between specials. So, no you won’t hear The Monkees summoning a demon, or see the fiery dance moves of that stuck-up little brat from Rappsittie Street Kids. On the bright side, though, Adam Lore’s excellent originals are included. And those are brilliant.

Anyway, enjoy. Put it on shuffle for maximum chaos. And I’ll see you all next year.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLsciVAn0ibb_UzVq-lsOlXTGzJXhnmKQt
Embedded, for her pleasure:

Grown Backwards, David ByrneGrown Backwards is an incredible album.

I’m a huge fan of David Byrne’s work as both the frontman for Talking Heads and as a solo artist. He’s an acquired taste, but one I’d say is worth acquiring. And as much as I love his music in general, Grown Backwards, I think, is his strongest album front to back. (It’s predecessor Look Into the Eyeball puts up a damned good fight, though.)

Seriously. It’s great. Go buy it. Listen to it for a few years. THEN FINISH READING THIS POST OK

Okay. So, there is one song on the album that leaves me wondering about something. It’s embedded below, and you should listen even if you don’t give a crap about helping me with my question, because it’s an excellent song with a pretty adorable guitar line.

It’s called “She Only Sleeps.” And that might be the clue to my answer right there, but I’m honestly not sure. See, the entire line in the chorus is “She only sleeps with me.”

And that can be interpreted two ways.

So, here’s my question: When Byrne says “she only sleeps with me,” does he mean…

a) He is the only man with whom she has intercourse, or
b) They literally slumber together, and that’s it.

They’re mutually exclusive possibilities, and I go back and forth on how I hear the song. Byrne’s dreamy, detached delivery doesn’t tip the scales for me either way. He could be loosely bragging, or just spinning a little story about unrequited love. (It’s unrequited in the verses, at least. But you may hear something a little more behind the music.)

And even if he is bragging…couldn’t he brag about either possibility? Either he alone is enjoying sex with this force of carnality…or he’s the only one that gets to know her in a non-sexual way.

Either is brag-worthy, but it’d be two very different kinds of people doing the bragging.

In reality I’d guess Byrne would be more fascinated with the other side of her life: the one that you can only see when she’s resting from a long night of topless dancing, hard drinking, car crashing…the life she lives when she’s quiet. Helpless. Stopped in her revelry by the most basic need of all…the need for rest.

But that doesn’t mean that that’s what his character is more fascinated with.

So, what are we hearing in “She Only Sleeps”? What do you hear?

Is it the self-satisfied croon of braggadocio, rubbing it in that he has what you want? That while she might light fires in your chest, his are the only ones she tends to?

Or is it a quieter, shyer singer, one whose electric guitar plays softly so as not to wake her, as he discovers in her sleeping form a woman that those who lust after her never get to know?

Does she only sleep with him? Or does she only sleep with him? The phrase gets emphasized both ways verbally…but how are we meant to take it emotionally?

Either way, the singer has some definite issues of female ownership to work through. But I’d be curious to know in which direction he needs to steer.

Drive-in Saturday

January 12th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in music | writing - (0 Comments)

Detective Fiction, Philip J Reed

David Bowie died yesterday. I was tempted to write something about his passing, but, ultimately, I decided instead to post something he’d already inspired me to write: a chapter of my still-unpublished novel, Detective Fiction. You can find a little background on the project here, which may help with context. Every sequence in the story was inspired by at least one piece of music, and Chapter Twenty’s flashback to the time Billy Passwater met a girl whose life he is about to ruin — the calm before the calm before the storm — was inspired by one of Bowie’s. I’m posting it now to share with you, if you’d care to read it. And his passing reminded me, and inspired me, to keep writing. I’ve started another project this very evening, and it’s the first fiction I’ve written in over a year. It’s a productive mourning. Thank you, David.

CHAPTER TWENTY

When he heard from Helena that night, he was in his car outside of the Thornweed house where, as ever, nothing was happening, could happen, or was going to happen. He’d given up on reading about Super-Spider’s self-proclaimed “Love Quest” after the hero — his city in villainous chaos around him — spent an entire comic presenting a didactic lesson on Dating Education to the elementary school children.

Dating Education was meant to precede Sexual Education (or so Chester Kenneth Thornweed explained in one of his increasingly intrusive authorial asides, each of which featured illustrations of himself looking suspiciously fit), and it would teach the children the various skills they needed in order to get close to the boys and girls that they liked. Sexual Education was fine, Super-Spider explained, but how was anybody to get to that point in the first place?

Why Super-Spider was so interested in facilitating sexual contact among grade-schoolers was — thankfully — neither questioned nor discussed. Thornweed even inserted a lesson plan that he had drawn up, consisting of activities, projects, and a 50 question multiple-choice exam with the answers at the back of the comic book.

Billy closed the binder and decided to return this issue, and the pile of other issues he hadn’t read yet, to Thornweed in the morning.

When she called him, his feeling was one of relief. There was something refreshing about her, about seeing her name when the phone rang, about hearing her breathe, “Billy, hey!” when he picked up the phone.

Helena Silvering was a flight attendant he had met years ago in Pittsburgh at a crew tavern called The Landing Strip. He saw her across the room, still in her blue uniform. Her reddish brown hair was done up professionally, and she had the round and chubby cheeks of a teenager, which she had been not long before they met. She was presumably in the company of her fellow hosts and hostesses, and Billy was with Caitlin and her brother, downing a few drinks for the ride home, and he was in the process of conjuring up an excuse to drift her way and steer her someplace quieter when he noticed that her lips were moving…but she was not talking; she was singing along to David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday,” which had just started playing on the jukebox, and it looked like she was getting the words right as well, so he stood up and, pretenses be damned, decided to speak to her on that account alone.

She stood up to make it easy on him. They met halfway across the room and she presented herself to be held, and they both told each other what a great song it was, and that was all they said until it was over, moving slowly, hazily drunk against each other, and she felt so temperately cold, as she always would when he touched her, as she always would every time he touched her, and there was something about the sincerity of the night, the conditions and the context of the meeting, that made him behave himself. He kept his hands above her waist…and not that far above. He moved in to kiss her, but did not, and she sighed, because she wanted him to move in to kiss her and then not. It was the closeness she wanted, and that much he could give her, and wanted to keep giving her, and would, every so often, when circumstances and schedules aligned, give her again.

He hadn’t seen her since he moved to Florida, though several times she did get the chance to call him from Tampa, where she’d be waiting for some short period for a flight home, or elsewhere, but timing had yet to work out, and they were never able to meet up for drinks or hasty intercourse.

The thoughts of hasty intercourse were relatively distant in his mind when he answered her call. She was a welcome distraction from assassins, from dead dogs, from blown cover and tall, beautiful blondes who hated and distrusted him. From debt (he’d gotten his first balance statement for the car and wasn’t entirely convinced he’d ever see the amount due decrease). From family old and new, from whatever it was that Andrew and Les, independently, might have thought about him now, at this point, and about where he was going. From his future. From Debbie Indemnity and her fat, soft thighs and the shoe he’d sent her home without, the one he found beneath a lawn chair in the living room, which was where it had come off along with her shirt…he put the shoe in his closet in case she called, which he simultaneously hoped she would and wouldn’t. From Thomas St. Quentin, who must have thought that Billy was the biggest ass in town, and yet who kept paying him for reasons Billy could not understand. From Roger Jackchick’s boy, and the future Billy felt at least somewhat responsible for not being able to salvage. From Rebecca, who was going to come down after his birthday in August…who had already bought her ticket…who was as good as here already and her baby who was as good as here already, too. From decisions he did not want to have to make and decisions he did not want to have anybody make for him…from dreams and from nightmares and from people he was starting to realize that he missed and would never see again…

“Helena,” he said. “Hi.”

“How are you?” she asked. “I feel like it’s been forever.”

“I feel like that, too,” he said. “I’m okay.”

“What are you doing with yourself now?” she asked. “Are you still looking for work?”

“Kind of,” Billy said. “I have a job now. I don’t know. I might not keep it.”

“Listen,” Helena said. “I only have a minute, but I wanted to call you, because I’m going to be in Tampa for a few nights this week. And I was wondering if maybe you’d like to get together.”

“I would like that, Helena,” he said.

She cared about him; that was what Billy was reacting to. This was a human being who genuinely wished him to be happy. She cared about him more deeply than any family member he had known, she desired him more strongly than any of the women with whom he had shared beds, back seats and bathroom stalls, and she wanted to be closer to him than any friend he had had in his life. She was a perfect girl with endless patience and freckles on her chubby cheeks and a smile that made him smile, too.

He’d never, ever be able to love her.

* * *

On Wednesday the seventh she flew in, and Billy picked her up in the employee parking lot, where she was waiting, out of uniform, with a co-pilot who was still in his.

“Billy!” she said as he approached. For the first time in a month, he left his hat in the car. She threw her arms around him, and Billy couldn’t help but notice how big she had gotten. Not…not fat, exactly…but larger, like her mother. (Whom he’d made sure to identify in photographs.) She’d filled out, and then kept going, and it took him a moment to readjust his expectations for the next few nights. Otherwise, she looked very similar to the girl he remembered, the girl with whom he periodically wondered what his future would have looked like. She was wearing only one earbud, and as she embraced him he heard Pete Townshend singing “You Came Back,” from a mixed CD he had curated for her six years and a thousand miles ago. It made him close his eyes. Maybe she was heavy, now. Maybe it didn’t matter…

The man standing beside her was older than Billy by possibly as many as ten years. He was waiting for Billy to introduce himself, which Billy passively refused to do. There were two men here, right now, and the only pretty girl had chosen him to throw her arms around. He was not about to squander that advantage.

“This is Felix,” Helena said, after a moment. She was still holding Billy’s arm.

Now the man stepped forward, and held out his hand for Billy to shake. Billy took a moment to himself before doing so.

“Felix Deckett,” the man said.

“De wonderful, wonderful kett?” said Billy.

“Be nice,” Helena said, smiling. “He’s one of our co-pilots.”

“Co-pilot,” Billy said, nodding. “Got to start somewhere, I guess.”

“If you need anything later,” Felix said to Helena, taking his hand back, “just give me a call. I’m staying in the area.”

“She won’t need anything,” Billy said. “Did I tell you I got a BMW, Helena?”

“No!” she said. “But I saw you pulling in. It’s a convertible!”

“Yeah,” Billy said. Then, to Felix, “Thanks anyway. Good to meet you though.” And he waved the back of his hand at him as he and Helena walked away.

“Helena,” the man said, and Helena told Billy to wait. She went back and spoke to Felix for a moment, and he kept throwing glances that Billy made sure not to look away from. She laughed after a moment, he did not, and she placed a hand on his arm when she finally said goodbye.

“And so it was later,” Billy said as she joined him again. He made sure to look back at Felix, who waved once. Billy turned away. “Have a nice chat?”

“Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s kind of my co-pilot. We fly together a lot, and he gets a little protective.”

“He seems like a dick,” Billy said.

“No,” Helena said, leaning her forehead on his shoulder. “He’s actually very nice. I think you two just got off on the wrong foot.”

“I did alright,” Billy said, unlocking his car. “He was just a dick.”

* * *

They got into the vehicle, Billy started the engine, and Helena leaned over to kiss him. He held her back for a moment so that he could look into her eyes, and search out that same young girl, the anonymous airhostess in the short blue uniform, underappreciated Bowie lyrics on her lips, and the beat of his band in the tips of her toes. He wanted to see her again, as he saw her then, with his face in her hair and the cool warmth of her neck against him, the smell of daiquiris on her breath, the gentle hum of her breathing, like a soft and constant engine in the distance, speeding a fleet of passengers along into a future they thought — all of them thought — they could comprehend. They’d be wrong. They had to be wrong. Because sometimes the future was the past, and sometimes the future was now, because all he had was now, and days couldn’t last forever, and words couldn’t make wishes come true, as the song went, or basically went, and he pulled her in and he kissed her and he told her that he loved her, because that was what he wanted to believe and because that was what she wanted to hear, and she closed her eyes, and he kept kissing her, and he tasted salt from her quiet tears, and he buried himself in her face and her body and her presence, and shut the world out…the entire world…piece by piece, until there was nothing left.

Only him, and only her.

And in time, he knew, that would be all he needed.

Splatoon
Just a few minutes ago (as I begin writing this) the first of three hour-long, free demos for Splatoon has ended. In a way, it’s odd to require everyone to participate in a demo at the same time (and god knows I’ve read enough grumbling about it elsewhere) but since Splatoon is a competitive shooter, it makes sense. It wouldn’t be much fun, or much of a sales pitch, if someone downloaded the demo just to sit around waiting around for other participants.

It’s also true, though, that Nintendo used this as a pre-release stress test. It was a good marketing move to turn a server test into an interactive commercial, and they might get a sale out of me now that they wouldn’t have gotten before.

But here’s what this Splatoon trial really accomplished: it reminded me that I miss Events.

That’s captial-E Events. In a world where everything is available at the push of a button, we start to lose a sense of importance. We can have so many things at the instant we want them…but at the cost of a reduced value. When it’s always there, and it’s always accessible to anyone who wants it, what is it really worth?

At a very young age (well, before I could drive) I fell in love with attending live concerts. Woodstock ’94 was actually my first concert, period, and it served, I’d say, as a pretty incredible introduction. It was several days long, there was some great music, there was camping, food, vendors…it was a great time. I remember much of it well. It wasn’t a patch on the original festival, I’m sure, but for some little kid discovering live music for the first time, especially in the early 90s, you can’t have asked for much more.

After that I’d see everything I could. Growing up in New Jersey sucked, for sure, but I was within easy commuting distance of Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. Between those cities — and New Jersey’s own venues — I was able to see almost anyone who was touring at all.

And it was great. When the artists — whomever they were, whether or not you even knew their names — put on a great show, it felt that much more special for the fact that it was temporary. Fleeting. You spent your time, money, and effort to get there, and so did everyone around you. You’re there for a purpose…a common experience. You share with a room or a field or a stadium full of people something that would only happen once. Right then, right there, and then never exactly the same way again.

It was yours, and it was theirs. You were in it together. At some concerts I’ve made friends. At others I didn’t talk to anyone I didn’t already know. But the experience was communal. A wave of applause, gasps, sighs…the artists creating — creating — something there for you.

You could have stayed home. Most people, obviously, do. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you choose to make that journey, you get to witness something that will never happen again: that one particular Event.

Concerts still exist, and the reason I bring them up is the fact that they’re still popular. They’re still happening. They’re still one way to keep Event experiences alive, while film events and television events and video game events leak early, or immediately. While we can dial up almost anything we like on YouTube (or less-savory equivalents.) While we can torrent the complete works of almost anyone you’d care to name.

And that’s not, in itself, a problem. It’s magical, to be sure. But, again, it’s magic at a cost.

I remember reading a Bob Dylan biography years ago, in which the author struggled to describe to us the sound of some bootleg tapes he personally obtained. There was something lovely about that…an attempt on the part of the writer to reach the reader and convey the accomplishment of a musician. I was several degrees removed from whatever that song was that the biographer was describing, but I was rapt. I tried to layer it in my mind. I tried to hear it, impossibly, through text.

Today? I could type the name of whatever song it is into Google. I’ll be taken to a streaming version I can listen to right now, a dozen covers of it by amateur musicians, a legal opportunity to purchase it as an mp3 or a ringtone, and an illegal opportunity to download it along with another hundred Dylan bootlegs I never knew existed.

Today I’ll know what it sounds like, easily. Which is nice. I’d have died for that opportunity years ago. But it also robs the listening experience of being Eventful.

I remember when I was very young. Word got around that somebody on my block could beat the original Mega Man. I was skeptical. That game was tough as nails, and I was convinced no human being could finish it without cheating. I wasn’t alone in my suspicion.

So my friends and I got together, and we walked over to this kid’s house. We sat in his living room, eyes glued to the television set, watching him as he tried, over and over and over again, for hours, to beat Dr. Wily and save the world. When he succeeded, the thrill in that room was incredible. It was emotional. There was screaming and there was laughter. You’d have thought we’d liberated Ireland.

In retrospect, I’m sure his Mega Man skills were nothing impressive. He finished the game, which was more than we could have done, but today I can watch any number of people anywhere in the world playing the game perfectly. I could see somebody finish it in 20 minutes without dying. And I have. But it didn’t move me. I didn’t care as much. It was something to watch. It was cleaner, more structurally perfect, more accessible.

But it wasn’t an Event.

Splatoon turned gaming, for an hour, back into an event. “If you want to play,” it said, “we’d love to have you. Here’s when you can come over.”

I don’t know who I played with. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet them, and I’d be surprised if I ever did. (And if I did, it’s not as though I’d know it.) But like all the people I never interacted with at the concerts I attended, they shared an experience with me.

Splatoon was new. It was unique to everyone there. Nobody had prior experience with the weapons or the stages. Nobody had time to strategize. For everybody involved, it was a process of live, communal discovery. And that’s something that I haven’t felt in a long time, and probably ever in terms of online gaming.

Whatever happened, happened. If you were there, you know. If you weren’t, you don’t. And if you attended one of the other two demonstrations, then you know something I don’t. Every experience was valuable, simply because it was fleeting.

I know that this was a one-off (well, three-off) Event, but I would love it if this kind of thing became more common. Once a month, at a certain time, you could log in and play the game with some twist that isn’t announced beforehand. Maybe a new weapon or stage, but it doesn’t have to be anything that substantial. The twist could be that all of the paint is the same color, and you don’t know whose is whose. Or that everyone moves at half speed. Or that every thirty seconds, everyone dies and respawns somewhere else, turning the game into a challenge of orientation as much as it is one of survival.

Those are just ideas, and I wouldn’t say any of them are very good. But I do know that for one hour (which felt, but was not, far shorter) a game I didn’t care much about in a genre I’m still not interested in became a magical experience. What’s more, it was magical because I didn’t get to experience it on my own terms.

In a world of instant gratification, restrictiveness really does feel like a big step forward.

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