I first encountered the writing of Jonathan Lethem when a friend recommended Motherless Brooklyn. Lack from As She Climbed Across the Table is a character that continues to randomly pop into my head, shape-shifting and present, and it’s been years since I read that book. Thanks to Merge Records for the connection. Many thanks to Jonathan for sharing his kind thoughts with us here.
The latest in our series of authors writing about the place of our music in their life and times: (for previous entries from Francis Lam, Peter Terzian and Will Allison, click on the “writers” tag at the bottom of this post.)
I’ve just spent a summer listening – again, and for the first time – to the music of Rebecca Gates (including the recordings of the band in which she debuted her singing and songcraft, The Spinanes). This has been – well, among many ambiguous sensations, a few of which I’ll try to pin to this page, the simplest thing to say is that’s it’s been an immense pleasure. The Spinanes records had wandered from my immediate view, in the way music does in this era of plenitude and rival formats – I’d listened to their first on LP, and never even known whether it was all digitized for re-acquisition to the new venues that have stealthily come to dominate my listening hours (mostly, and pathetically, my own laptop computer). Then, by of odd chance I came across “Hawaiian Baby”; I’d been asked to curate a mixed-CD out of the Merge Records catalog, and there it was. I picked the song for my curated disc, wildly happy to be reminded of all it reminded me of – the band, the song itself, and the Verlaines’ “Death and the Maiden”, which the song quotes in passing, almost subliminally, and the time in my life when I listened frequently to the band – my youth, that is, and theirs. “Hawaiian Baby” lends itself fairly well to nostalgic emotion, since the tone of the song evokes a catalogue of sentimental pleasures — “the taste of your right earlobe” and so forth. But in that it isn’t actually typical of Gates’ music – the entirety of which I’ve been delving into, all the way through the last Spinanes record I’d heard at the time it was produced, to some records I hadn’t, and including her wonderful newest recordings.
In fact, I find the experience of rediscovering Rebecca Gates’ older songs and encountering her new ones somewhat disconcerting, precisely because of the way they collectively refuse any easy placement along an index of sentiment or nostalgia. Gates’ work evokes and conveys emotion – but never resides simply within it. There’s a pensiveness hanging over the words and melodies, an unwillingness ever to take an easy opportunity for self-pity or accusation, or even to produce an unearned laugh or sob, that gives the music an air of intellectual rigor – if that’s not too fancy a quality to impute to rock and roll. Nostalgia is merely one of many avenues too rote for these songs to go down. Gates’ music quietly and steadily demands that you meet it in a place where feelings are being held scrupulously to the light – and the relative austerity of the production choices, no matter what kind of instrumentation is being employed, keeps that feeling timeless. If I had to make a comparison for Gates’ gifts, I’d pick either (or both) Buddy Holly and Brian Eno, two musicians so natively and helplessly forward-looking that their work similarly seems to stand outside time. So, in this summer of rediscovery, even as my regard for what Gates and the Spinanes had meant for me when I was in my ‘20’s kept tugging me back to forgotten feelings, the forward-looking, clear-eyed intensity of the songs themselves demanded I acknowledge them with everything I’d learned and become, in the fifteen or so years since our earlier encounter.
A strange sensation, and I’m really grateful for it.