Going Out with a Bang

I usually prefer a quiet celebration of the New Year. You know: a few friends, some laughs, feeling self-righteous about not subjecting ourselves to the cold and hassle of watching the ball drop in person. That's just how I was raised, really. In NoVa, that seemed like all there was to do on such a holiday. Stay in. Maybe go over to a friend's so you can feel sociable. Drink that really cheap champagne that makes you wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to drink champagne on a regular basis. Count down with everyone until you get to pretend the words of Auld Lang Syne actually mean something to you. Then you wait a bit--because of course no one else out reveling will think of waiting a bit--before driving home.

This year, I will usher in the new at the Hammerstein Ballroom, enjoying the dulcet tones of Velvet Revolver. For those of you unacquainted with this hybrid band, I understand it to be comprised mainly of the members of Guns n' Roses (plus one guy from Suicidal Tendencies), but with Scott Weiland--of Stone Temple Pilots fame--fronting instead of Axl Rose. They are, in short, a rock band. And in a matter of ten hours or so I will be hearing them live for the first time through newly purchased earplugs.

There's no shortage of contradictions in life. Paradoxes abound. Every time I find myself at a concert that requires earplugs, I also find myself wondering, sometimes even aloud, "Why the hell am I here?" The absurdity of the situation is inherent. Some argue that they want the music to be loud enough to feel the bass in their chest cavity, and I can appreciate that, but I'm also aware that all that really requires is a decent subwoofer placed on the floor. It does not necessitate creating the decibel equivalent of a breaking subway car. But that's rock and roll for you. No one said it ought to make sense.

In many ways, this is an increasingly appropriate way of spending my New Year's. Maybe it was just turning thirty this year, but a lot of the good parts of it have been spent in reclamation of things of my past, trying to make good on promises to myself and reconsider what's truly important to me. I came into the year as uncertain and detached from myself as I've possibly ever been and I leave it with, if not certainty, a very surprising yet somehow familiar intimacy with myself. Reclaiming one's life involves a lot of confrontation: confronting perception, confronting contentment and, perhaps most strange, confronting assumption. There are many ways in which I did this, quite subconsciously, this year. I attended Camp Nerdly (see 5/7/07), which I never would have thought I'd find myself doing, right up to my arrival there, I returned to Italy (see 6/12/07), which was a touch-and-go promise right up to the flight, and I managed to push myself to a fairly new physical dimension for As Far As We Know (see 7/12/07), an objective I'd long held and never before dared to commit to.

But the most satisfying illustration for me of reclaiming some of my favorite parts of life, chewing over where I am and where I want to be now, comes from music. You can see over on my Library Thing widget that I recently read a book that had a lot to do with mix tapes. This inspired me to try and make one again for Christmas. For a few years now I've been mailing out what I call "MiX-mas" CDs to close friends, which are compilations of new (to me) music I have on my computer that has meant a lot to me over the course of the year. Processing my music through the computer has had an interesting effect on how I listen to it. It and my iPod urge me toward new music all the time, and I come to appreciate songs over whole albums. I love the access and maneuverability of the format, and it quickly usurped my CDs as the source of my musical accompaniment. When I first became capable of MP3 audio, after importing maybe a third of my CDs, out of a concern for space I stopped. It has, ever since, been an intended "when I have the time" project of mine to crack open the CD binders again and import more music. Just the good stuff. Some day.

In deciding to make a mix tape, I had a lot to do. I actually had to purchase a CD player with a tape deck. I have been using computerized music for so long, I had found my boombox fairly neglected a while ago. If I wanted to listen specifically to a CD, it was usually a mix someone made for me and I'd simply play it over my DVD player or alarm clock. So I bought the cheapest boombox (more a toot-orb) I could find, and felt a certain sense of relief upon finding that, yes, people still sell blank audio cassettes. Then I cracked open the CDs and sort of just gave a listen to anything that I hadn't heard in a while.

I remembered some simple things, like using the "pause" button between changing CDs and keeping an eye on the amount of tape left on the left-hand reel. This is why I was so surprised to be reminded of some other aspects of mix-tapery. I mean, I had been making mix tapes for over a decade before switching to the seductions of laser-guided lyric lathing. Yet it took turning the pages of forgotten albums and the engaging mechanics of an actual tape player to bring back certain things. The main thing was how differently I listened to the music when it was relying on me to cue it. A lot has been acknowledged about the flirtation involved in passing on a mix, but few (to my knowledge) have exposed the complex back-and-forth between music and a mix maker when it comes to real-time recording. For example, does music these days tend to use a fade-out less? Or is that only my perception after making this tape of predominantly 90s music, as I would perk up at any diminution in tone or volume on the songs I was laboriously copying to cassette? I forgot how I would turn the volume all the way up at the end of song to be sure I captured the end of the diminution, and the rush to depress the button before the next song leapt into the speakers. And remember that? "Song"? Not "track," but "song"?

Anyway, I'm not calling for a return to tape format, or anything like that. What I am calling out is myself, as someone who too often takes progress for granted. I do it in two ways: assuming that as it happens, it ought to happen, and I take it for granted in the sense that progress is a given. Time proceeds, progress is made. It isn't so, but it's very easy to fall into that thinking. I had an amazing time making my first mix tape in some five years. It made me remember good music, which was difficult to take for granted in that context, and it slowed me down. I had somehow forgotten how fulfilling it could be to surrender to a song, rather than treat it as a score to my life. I had forgotten just how long 90 minutes, one song at a time, is. You can fit a lifetime of experience in there! Most of all, I was reminded of how it feels to meditate on the moment. It feels wonderful.

I'm glad I didn't know, during the 90s, how much I would miss the music in the years to come. A sense of nostalgia-to-come is akin to a sense of impending doom, and the gift of this year for me has been the opportunity to reflect on old times without nostalgia; rather to approach them as songs I still sing. Back in the day, I favored Metallica over Guns n' Roses, Pearl Jam over Stone Temple Pilots. The beauty of age, I suppose, is in being able to appreciate all of it in some way. It seemed contradictory before. Now it just seems full, and well-realized. And, after all, should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?
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