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Trying out writing software.

OK, so I’m trying out a couple different writing programs right now. I’m currently giving ‘Scrivener’ a spin, but i’ve got ‘Ulysses’ waiting in the wings in case it doesn’t work out too well. I’m hopeful, though.

I’m also going to try out ‘MacJournal’, just for the heck of it. I’m typing this blog post in ‘MJ’, in fact. MacJournal is supposed to be able to collect a bunch of different things that you might stuff into a journal entry or a blog post: text, pics, even audio or video.

It’s odd, though. i mean, i understand that blogging is a different deal than journaling, and that it is necessarily going to involve becoming 1s and 0s at some point, but with journaling, i don’t know. i mean, i really do like the feel of pen scratching across paper. hell, i’ve spent 45 minutes in one clip at Barnes & Noble just looking at different journals and feeling the papers under my skin. paper quality is not to be overlooked. it’s a big deal. what kind of coating (or lack thereof) paper has in a journal can change everything. i mean, *everything*. the saturation of ink onto paper is part of the character of a journal. i might choose one particular type of paper for a particular season of life, while going with something else at another time. those handmade, fibrous-paper, hardback journals are a particular favorite for me. there’s something about the way it feels. man, i’m missing paper right now. not sure how well the journaling part of this experiment is going to work. i’ll let you know...

Mark
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Scratch That: Interview with "801" @ Columbia U.

About six weeks ago, I got an email from Steve Elwell, a reporter for the music magazine "801", published by Columbia University. Steve was doing research for a story related to the Counting Crows, specifically about the identity of the "Maria" that Adam Duritz mentions in several of his songs. During the course of his research he came across my last blog post about the song "Round Here". Steve asked if I would do an interview with him about my thoughts on Maria and Counting Crows in general, and I obliged.
The magazine comes out sometime this month, but I thought it might be of some interest to include the interview in its entirety here on the blog. As always, feel free to comment or start discussion...

Interview with “801” music magazine at Columbia University.
Interview by Steve Elwell.

SE: A few things about your experience with Counting Crows music:
When did you first hear them, and when did you first become
interested in their lyrics?

MW: I first heard Counting Crows not long after the "August and Everything After" record came out. I liked it, but I just didn't give it the time it deserved. That record just seemed to "percolate" for me over the years. I always liked it, but it seemed like every couple years I would "get it" more and more. It just spoke to me on deeper and deeper levels. Adam's lyrics came to transfix me over time.

SE: Have you ever been to a Crows concert?

MW: No, I've never been to a CC concert. I'd like to go to one, actually, but it's just never worked out.

SE: Do you own the albums? Which is your favorite, if you have one?
I'm kind of assuming Hard Candy, but I could be off…

MW: Yes, I own every one of their albums (except that recent "Greatest Hits" compilation). My favorite is most definitely NOT "Hard Candy" (HC). In fact, I think “HC” dukes it out with "Recovering the Satellites" for the weakest CC record. In my opinion, they have never come close to equaling "August". I mean, not even close. "This Desert Life" (TDL) is a good album, but it doesn't have the focus that "August" has. As a writer myself, I think Adam's lyrics have just become less personal. He doesn't often write about his own struggles these days. I think the best songs on “TDL” and “HC” are "all my friends and lovers", "high life", "speedway", "new frontier", and "carriage". There are other good songs on those records, too, but the ones I listed are the big ones that to me reveal something about Adam's world. Now granted, I think Adam is one of the great lyric writers of our times, so in a sense, the bar is pretty high for him. But I just don't buy a new CC record the day it comes out so I can hear party music. I want to hear something I can believe in, something that gives me hope that I'm not alone in my struggles to make sense of a life that refuses to be pinned down. That's what I think Adam does at his best. There's a line from the movie "Shadowlands" by Richard Attenborough: "we read to know we're not alone." That's certainly why I read Adam's lyrics. And the consistency he churned out on "August" is simply incredible. There's just not a bad song on that whole album, to my ear. And you can't say that about very many albums, ever. "August" just emotes *feeling*. It burns. Even the "happiness" of "Mr. Jones" says things like, "man, I wish I was beautiful", and "cause I want to be someone to believe..." Wow. That's amazing.

SE: Like I said [over email], I found your analysis of "Round Here" pretty
impressive and spot-on. It made me almost positive that you've had
some training in literary analysis or writing or something of the
sort, but then again, some people are just naturals. Where did you
learn to examine lyrics and poetry that way?

MW: I don't have any formal training in literary analysis, though I’d love to take some classes. Words enrapture me, they encircle me, they whisper in my ear, they cry out to me, and they taunt me. Communication with others is why we live. And words are a veil behind which lies Meaning. When life beats the crap out of you, you start to look to words to understand, to try and make sense out of pain, to find meaning where there seems to be none. I've always been in love with words, but I've also been through some real personal hell over the past 5 years, and that's enough to make a literary critic...

SE: Now, on to Maria.
When did you first start thinking about the significance of Maria, and what's your current theory of who (or what) she is?

MW: I first started thinking about Maria the very first time I heard "Round Here". I immediately wanted to know who she was. And how Adam knew her. I think Maria was a former lover of Adam's. Actually, scratch that. I suspect Maria was the first woman Adam fell in love with, but I kind of think she broke it off at some point. She may not have reciprocated his depth of feeling.

SE: What do you think is behind the search for Maria, or in other
words, why are some people drawn to the mystery while others aren’t?
[And] what do you make of Duritz’s refusal to give a final answer on
the Maria question?

MW: Well, until you wrote me, Steve, I wasn't really aware that people had been on a search to find out who she was. It really doesn't interest me all that much anymore, in one sense. If Adam wants it to remain a mystery, then I would bet he has his reasons, and as a writer myself, I respect that tremendously. This is not to say that I don't respect what you're trying to do, Steve, because it seems like one of your goals is to chronicle people's fascination with the topic as well as the supposed "answer" to who she is. Again, what I make of Adam's refusal to give a final answer to the question of Maria's identity is simply that it's too personal. He's let us in to an awful lot of personal things as a writer. I actually respect him *more* for having some places stay private.

SE: And, of course, some questions that your post brought to mind:
You basically get right to the heart of what I've been thinking
when you write "Were they lovers long ago?" At this point, I'm
nearly convinced she was a high school sweetheart, and something
went wrong. Your thoughts?

MW: Yes, I think she was a woman Adam loved. Very deeply. It's possible she's a composite of more than one woman, but her character in "Round Here" feels too specific to be a composite. I think the Maria he mentions in "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" *may* be more of a composite. He echoes this again with the line "you put your girl up on a pedestal / and you wait for her fall" in [the song] "Hard Candy". In some ways, it's like Maria ruined him. She was the "perfect" girl, and she broke his heart. And ever since then, he hasn't been able to put it all back together. Relationships are hard. Especially for writers…

SE: One thing I hadn't thought of until I read your post was the
possibility that Maria may have committed suicide, which would
explain why Duritz is so private about this. How do you feel about
that theory, and could it hold weight, given what we know from the
lyrics?

MW: I'm not sure about the Maria = suicide thing.
I'm pretty certain the "girl on the car in parking lot" [verse 3 of “Round Here”] is NOT Maria. I think if it were, he'd tell us. That character "feels" different to me. She's got a little bit different lingo than Maria, as well. She doesn't seem to have quite the same voice. But I suppose it's possible Maria committed suicide, and he's connecting her in some way to "the girl on the car in the parking lot". If Maria *did* commit suicide, it would certainly explain his silence on her identity. It is a bit odd, when you think about it, that no woman has surfaced and claimed, "I am Maria!" So maybe she did die. Maybe she did.
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STCML: Volume 1

Believe it or not, I wrote most of this entry on the same day I wrote the last entry.
Life has just been a bit difficult lately, and I finally got around to finishing this one up.
It's still a bit rough, to be honest, but I think it gets the main points across.
This first song is a doozy, and there a million other things that could be said about it.
Feel free to add your thoughts...

STCML (Songs That Changed My Life), Vol. 1

“Round Here,” by Counting Crows. From “August and Everything After.”

words by Adam Duritz.
music by Dave Janusko, Dan Jewett, Chris Roldan, & David Bryson.

Purchase the song Round Here.

Purchase the whole CD August and Everything After.

********************

Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog
Where no one notices the contrast of white on white
And in between the moon and you the angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right
I walk in the air between the rain through myself and back again
Where? I don’t know
Maria says she’s dying through the door I hear her crying
Why? I don’t know

Round here we always stand up straight
Round here something radiates

Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand
She said she’d like to meet a boy who looks like Elvis
She walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land
Just like she’s walking on a wire in the circus
She parks her car outside of my house
Takes her clothes off
Says she’s close to understanding Jesus
She knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood
She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous

Round here we’re carving out our names
Round here we all look the same
Round here we talk just like lions
But we sacrifice like lambs
Round here she’s slipping through my hands

Sleeping children better run like the wind
Out of the lightning dream
Mama’s little baby better get herself in
Out of the lightning

She says it’s only in my head
She says shhh I know it’s only in my head
But the girl on the car in the parking lot says
man you should try to take a shot
Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?
Then she looks up at the building and says she’s thinking of jumping
She says she’s tired of life she must be tired of something

Round here she’s always on my mind
Round here hey man we got lots of time
Round here we’re never sent to bed early
And nobody makes us wait
Round here we stay up very, very, very, very late
I can’t see nothing, nothing round here
Catch me if I’m falling
Catch me if I’m falling
Catch me if I’m falling down on you
I said I’m under the gun
Round here

© 1993 EMI Blackwood Music Inc./Jones Falls Music/Free Ohio Publishing/This Ought To Get Me A New Guitar Music/Pork Chops and Apple Sauce Publishing BMI

********************

Reading these lyrics are like poetry.
I really just don’t know if it gets any better than this for me.
Look at the first verse. It’s masterful. The images are so evocative.

The feeling of anonymity—like a ghost in fog. Unnoticeable.
And the stories that we’ll see in the following verses are alluded to here by saying that angels in the heavens even see that our constructs of “wrong” and “right” oftentimes fall apart in the face of real life. Our stories are so much more complex than simple rules, and the writer is going to show us a couple of examples of this. Complex stories and characters.

*Maria says she’s dying through the door I hear her crying*
Who is Maria? The writer (Adam Duritz) acts as though he’s already introduced her to us, and that creates mystery for the listener. It draws us in.
How does she know the writer of the song? We don’t know, but it. We want to know more.

*Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand*
(Here’s that Maria again)
There would have been much more obvious ways to say this.
“Maria moved here from Nashville looking for a new life,” or “a chance to start over.”
But Adam Duritz doesn’t say it that way. What he does is give us a picture. We see Maria at the front door with all her possessions in one suitcase. She has nothing else. Her only hope is to find new life in a new city. What city? We don’t know. It’s part of what makes the song feel so personal. Early on, Duritz sets this up like it could be a poem from his personal diary. It may have been.

One of the things we’ll see over and over in great songs is the writer SHOWING us something rather than TELLING us it happened. It’s not as easy to do this as you might think. It’s so much easier to say “yesterday I was walking down the street” than to come up with “Monday was cold on the sidewalk.” But what tells us more information? Duritz makes use of every word very carefully in this song. It’s almost like being a journalist. You don’t have much time or space to tell the story, so it needs to be chock-full of rich images.

*She walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land /
Just like she’s walking on a wire in the circus*

What an amazing picture. Incredible image. Have you ever seen someone do this? Walking at the water’s edge, trying not to get too wet, but following the sweep of the last wave that came in to shore. Or maybe he’s being totally symbolic with this line. Maria’s life is a balancing act. On one side are people raging like an ocean against her, on the other side, unchanging hard principles. She has only a razor-thin margin to walk with her life. And if she falls, is there a net to catch her? And there are spectators to her life, watching to see if she will slip off the high wire. They watch, holding their breath. Have you ever lived your life thinking that other people are watching you? That somehow you’re always on stage, performing for everyone but yourself? You are pierced by others’ eyes, broken by their expectations. Maybe this is how Maria feels.

*She knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood /
She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous*

Aha—something is going on here. She has been hurt on an emotional level, probably. She has had difficulty fitting in and finding a community to accept her as she is. So maybe she’s a bit skittish around people. She has some anxiety because when she has shared something of who she really is with people, they haven’t treated her spirit with care. Maybe they told others her secrets. She’s afraid to trust people now. So she gets nervous and isn’t sure anymore how to react to people. Like at a party where there are loads of people asking questions. Maria’s not sure how to react anymore. “How much do I tell? Will people judge me if they know the truth? What if someone else tries to use me?” Obviously, this is all speculation on my part, but the lyrics leave a lot of places we can go with the story.

The first chorus seems to speak of trying to figure out how to have some individuality. We carve out our names like lovers on a tree, trying to leave some trace of ourselves behind, because on the outside “we all look the same.” We talk a big game of how we’re going to make a difference in the world (“we talk just like lions”) but we’re full of doubt and weakness (“we sacrifice like lambs”). Again, lots of ways to interpret these lines.
And he uses the title here—we’ll see it over and over. “Round here…” He’s talking about his own situation. But who doesn’t relate to that idea? MY life feels like it’s going nowhere. MY life has no real future. And in MY life she (Maria?) is “slipping through my hands.” Again, how does the writer know Maria? Are they lovers? Were they lovers long ago and now she has reentered his life? Or is this story all past tense?

The bridge is interesting, and maybe the most difficult part of the song to understand.
Many times bridges serve to summate the song’s ideas, to show us the same information from a different angle. The music changes, and so does the perspective. So what are we told here? If we are “sleeping children,” the writer says, we need to “run like the wind out of the lightning dream.” We need to wake up to reality. It reminds me of a Bob Dylan line: “The battle outside raging / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls / For the times, they are a-changing.” There is an existential reality that simply does not match up with our simple “health and wealth” ideas, at least in America. We tend to believe that good things happen to people who work hard. But even the Bible says that rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Sometimes this song reminds me of John Irving’s book The Cider House Rules. The rules just don’t work in the real world. Real life is too messy for that, too complicated.

But what happens when the writer is waking up to reality?
He is told “Shhh, it’s only in your head.”
“You’re dreaming,” in other words. Go back to sleep.
And then there’s that great word in the English language, “but.”
Just as he’s about to drift back off to sleep, he remembers something.

*But the girl on the car in the parking lot…*
Wait a second. I can’t just go back to sleep.
There’s a girl sitting on top of her car outside.
Something is wrong.

*…says, “Man, you should try to take a shot. Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?”*
This is the verse that just finally rips my heart out.
She’s at the end of her rope. Nothing to live for. So she’s willing to try anything at this point. It makes me think of teenagers who cut themselves. They just want to feel something, anything. So does this girl on the car.

*Then she looks up at the building and says she’s thinking of jumping /
She says she’s tired of life she must be tired of something…round here*

There are two basic responses we can have to suicide.
One response is to say, “Wow, that is totally selfish. Think of all the people s/he is leaving behind. People that love and care for her/him.”
The other response is to say, “Wow, that person must be feeling incredibly desperate about her/his life. S/he must feel that nobody really cares about or understands her/him. Something about life feels too crushing to want to continue.”
Two very different ways of looking at the situation.
The writer seems to put himself in the latter camp here.
“She’s tired of life, she must be tired of something round here.”

People who have never had suicidal thoughts tend to be in the former camp.
Their lives have never been so awful for them that they seriously thought about ending it all. So suicide must be selfish. Maybe on some level it is, but Sartre thought suicide was the only logical course of action in a world with no meaning. And I actually think Sartre was probably right on that. Even hedonism would be at best putting off the inevitable (of course, if the world does have meaning, then we’re in a different boat). But to the suicidal person, it’s not a selfish act. It is a way of ending the pain. It seems to be the only recourse when you are “tired of life…tired of something round here.”

I have no idea if Adam Duritz has ever contemplated suicide or not.
But he seems to understand it in this verse, and it’s pretty incredible.
This verse gives me chills almost every time I hear it. I resonate with the existential feelings of hopelessness in this verse. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it just feels true or right to me. I know that’s vague, but that’s the only way I know to describe it.

Again, as I said in the last blog, “Art that impacts us is often indescribable. It escapes words and description because it touches our souls and our emotions in a deeper place than language can reach. It really does shake us to the core and challenge our ways of thinking.”

And that’s what “Round Here” by Counting Crows does to me.
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Songs That Changed My Life: The Overview

I want to start a new blog series.
As I’ve been writing my next CD for the past few months, I keep being drawn to great songs and great albums as inspiration.

I remember a conversation I had with a guy a few years ago.

Somehow we were talking about music, and somehow I mentioned that August and Everything After by Counting Crows was one of the Albums That Changed My Life. He asked me what I meant by that, so I said, “you know, a CD that you listen to over and over and it impacts you on an emotional level and at some point you realize that you will never look at the world the same way after that.” An Artwork that changes you. It could be a play, a film, a painting, a CD—any Artwork of any genre. But it changes you.
You are not the same.

I never was able to make the guy understand what I meant, so it made me wonder if there is yet another way to delineate people: those who have been changed by Art, and those who haven’t. I’m still thinking about that one.

Art that impacts us is often indescribable. It escapes words and description because it touches our souls and our emotions in a deeper place than language can reach. It really does shake us to the core and challenge our ways of thinking. Art uses symbolic means of communication to impart meaning on an incredibly deep level. The artist becomes someone who tells us something about ourselves and the world that we almost knew but couldn’t quite remember.

Several different forms of art have done this very thing for me.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon strikes me in this way, as does Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais.
Though I haven’t seen it in years, Dances With Wolves did this to me the first eight or so times I saw it. So did Hotel Rwanda.
And the book version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Most definitely Thomas Hardy’s poem The Darkling Thrush.
Even the musical Les Misérables can impact me like this.

Even so, for me music is probably the most powerful.
The electric guitar at the beginning of the Aimee Mann song Make a Killing is so full of emotion that it just instantly sounds right to me. Glósóli by Sigur Rós is so beautiful that sometimes when I listen to it, I feel like I could die. I feel the same way about several Radiohead songs and about Loreena McKennitt’s The Lady of Shallot.

So, what I thought might be cool is to start a series of blogs on some of the songs that have really impacted the way I think, write, and feel. I cannot see the world the same way after experiencing these songs.

So to launch this series on Songs That Changed My Life (STCML), I thought it would be appropriate to start with a song from August and Everything After.

Read the next blog to find out which one…
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A New Song and More

OK, so I have yet to deliver what I told you all I would: a new song for you all to read.
So I'm going to do that in this post.

In just a minute.

But first, here's a quote that's been haunting me the last couple of days.
"Self-consciousness hinders the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest."
Annie Dillard.
Great quote. I think she's right. There are so few moments that I experience where I am totally unaware of myself. Totally lost in Beauty. Totally awash in feeling. It makes me sad that this is true, and I think it says something awful about me. How do we take our eyes, our ears, our thoughts, our impressions off of ourselves? How can we get lost in something? Is it by seeing overwhelming value in the object? Is it by being taken by surprise, held hostage by a moment of unexpected meaning? Is it by encountering our Smallness? Lots to think about here...

And now for the new song.
Let me start by saying this song is not all that representative of the songs that will be on the new CD.
Maybe that's why I'm sharing THIS one instead of some others! But there is still a common thread between this song and the others. There's still a Sadness to this song, but not quite the same as the other new ones. The other new songs are REALLY sad. Just warning you. The new CD is probably going to turn out being very, very sad. I mean really sad. But I like it, so there you go. And so do the early responders who've heard some things, so there you go again.
OK, now the song...

***************

America

It's another perfect evening
out here in paradise
the streets of gold are scuffed and old
and the sun has grown too bright

The winds are getting stronger
and droughts are more severe
but there's oil down there in the ground
so we're told to have no fear

America, America
your amber waves of grain
are killing us with pesticides
like a slow arriving train

So crank out the commercials
and we will just buy more
tear up another forest here
and plant a big-box store

We spread into the suburbs
for the things we think we need
we build all our McMansions
to avoid community

America, America
you're crowned with brotherhood
but it's funny how we all still live
in separate neighborhoods

Our government is lying
they've defaulted on their loans
and now they're even spying
listening on our telephones

And our officials up in Washington
don't care for you and me
they've taken all the Greatness
out of our Great Society

America, America
you're in the worst of hands
most of us aren't voting
'cause the choices seem so bland

And everyone in power here
says Jesus is on their side
when maybe he's just sick of all
our filthy stinking lies
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