September 20th, 2005


The man who listened to music

Doctor, I have a problem. The problem is that I listen to music. It's always in the foreground for me. My ears have no retractable flaps to block it, and my brain can't block it either. That may not seem like a problem to you, but it's a subtle and constant torture. In a world in which background music is omnipresent and usually banal, the creature who listens to music, who really lets it seep into his soul, is truly wretched. Let me tell you three things that happened yesterday, that hurt my ears and hurt my soul.

1. I went to the post office on the Frankfurter Allee to mail a letter. There was a queue, as there always is at lunchtime. Facing us were three post office clerks behind a monolithic desk and, above and behind them, a curious wall-mounted device, part camera, part speaker. From this device—it seemed all moulded from the same piece of vanilla-coloured plastic—came the muted sound of a maudlin classic 1960s pop song. It may have been "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother". As this "evergreen classic" plucked at the heartstrings of the captive audience in the queue, making our day just a little heavier and sadder whether we were aware of the music or just let it seep in subliminally, the surveillance camera filmed us. Just in case the music failed to control us emotionally, and some criminal incident, some spontaneous uprising, should occur. "So this is pop music's fate," I thought gloomily, "to monitor our hearts while a camera monitors our bodies. To control our inside, the part the camera can't see." My conclusion was as maudlin as the song, staggering heavily from verse to chorus, plaint to refrain.

2. I joined Hisae at the Smart Deli, the Japanese cafe where we eat lunch almost daily. The Smart Deli is a wonderful place where you can get delicious salmon teriyaki for 5 euros, watch taped Japanese cooking and comedy shows, and leaf through the latest edition of post-Shibuya fashion magazine Fudge. The one thing that spoils it is the music. Yumi, the Japanese painter who runs the place, is currently going through a Jack Johnson phase. The last five times we've been to the cafe the same Jack Johnson record has been playing. It's surfer-emo, gentle minimalist music that sounds like Ben Harper without the funk, or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on Mogadon. The phrasing is clipped and minimal, the tone pleasant if ever-so-slightly maudlin, the persona bland and affable. It's fucking torture — it's the perfect background music, yet I sit there like an idiot listening to it as if it were in the foreground. I can't background music, I'm a musician, for fuck's sake! So I listen to every clipped horrible guitar phrase, I listen to the "tasteful" production, I listen to the slightly masochistic lyrics, the similes and metaphors. At the end I ask Yumi who it is, trying to drop subtle hints. "You obviously like this music very much!" "Yes, my friend recommended him to me, and I got all three albums. It's nice music to play at this time of day." "But you have lots of other CDs, I'm sure there's some nice stuff in there!" "Yes, including your album, the one you gave me!" "Oh no, I don't want to hear my own album!" Just anything other than Jack Johnson. Classical music, reggae dub plates, those Japanese TV shows with the sound up, silence, crickets. It's funny, when you've accepted the Cagean proposition that anything, even silence, can be "music", when you've been trained by all those "listening artists" to pay attention to the rustling of a paper bag as if it were a symphony, it has an unfortunate side-effect. What's popularly thought of as "music"—even something as 'minimal' as Jack Johnson—is suddenly a massively over-egged pudding. It's unbearable.

3. We spent the evening with Anne Laplantine and Xavier. They recently got married, and got a chunk of money from their parents which they decided to spend on a video projector. So each night they have these screenings of DVDs, and invite friends around to watch them. Last night it was my turn to supply the DVDs, so I showed them "The Wicker Man" (despite collaborating with me on "Summerisle", Anne had never seen the film that partly inspired the project) and the unscreened BBC Incredible String Band documentary "Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending". In exchange, Anne lent me a DVD of "The Village", the film they'd screened on Saturday night, and which Hisae and I had skipped because I'd heard it was terrible. When I got home I watched it and it was indeed terrible, and the worst thing about it was the stock Hollywood orchestral score sawing and whining away in the background, telling me how the wooden acting and implausible plot was meant to make me feel. Except that it wasn't in the background at all, it was dangling its wretched banality right in my music-loving, music-hating face.