“five string serenade” – mazzy star (1993)

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Yesterday, the music world lost Keith Mitchell.  Mitchell was the drummer and one of the founding members of Mazzy Star.  Mazzy Star is a severely underrated dream pop band that explored alternative psychedelic forms in their music.  Painting lush and hypnotic landscapes with their sounds, the band’s small discography is still a treasure and worthy of considerable praise and admiration.

I remember the first time I became aware of Mazzy Star.  During the summer of 2007, I had just finished my first year of college.  That was an odd point because I wasn’t exactly aware of what to do when finals were over and the student population left. I had just gotten accustomed to the freedom of scheduling classes and finding things to do in between like volunteer for college radio and party.  The latter two activities would continue to happen throughout the summer, but I still had to figure out what to do with the rest of my time.

I managed to get a summer job at our local Wal-Mart working in the electronics department.  In the role, I would sell video games, watch out for people stealing CDs, carry big televisions, and provide uneducated and half-assed recommendations on computer software.  For anyone who has ever worked in a Wal-Mart, let alone any retailer, then you know how awful it can be.  If you don’t have professional experience at a place like that, then the rumors are true.  However, it was just for a summer.  I just had to stick it out for only a couple of months.

Not only did I have to find something to do with all this extra time when I wasn’t taking classes, I also had to find a place to live.  Being that I went to a state university school, most of the student population lived within the city or could drive home in just a few hours.  I didn’t own a car at that time and going back home wasn’t an option because my dad lived in a small rural farming community where there would be nothing but boredom waiting for this college student.  No, the best thing for me was to stay in town with my friends, crash on their couch, and drink beer when I wasn’t working.  And that’s what I did.

Since I didn’t have a car at the time, I had to walk to work from my friend’s apartment whose couch I was sleeping on.  Kentucky in the summer can be stifling.  Temperatures can push over 100 on the hottest days which make wearing the choice uniform of khakis and a blue shirt very uncomfortable (I didn’t change at work because you really couldn’t because the loss prevention guys were paranoid about you taking clothes into the bathroom).  And if the hot temperatures weren’t enough, a lot of small southern towns aren’t exactly pedestrian friendly.  I have vivid memories of going on sweltering death marches hiking on the side of small town highways just hoping I wouldn’t get honked at, accidentally swerved into, or have beer bottles thrown at me.  And all those things happened.  Just another day in the life of a tender-footed college kid just trying to scrape some money together.

The only thing that made those hikes bearable was my iPod.  Apple’s iPhone was just about to hit the market, but it wasn’t as cool as my iPod.  The first iPhone couldn’t hold 10,000 songs.  That is what mattered to me at that time.  To endure all this bullshit, I needed some great tunes to distract me.  Being in college radio, I was getting exposed all kinds of cool new music that was new to me.  It was a seemingly endless supply.  However, it wasn’t enough.  I needed some expert opinions on building the perfect iPod library.

My one-stop shop for all music was a local record store in town called The Great Escape.  It was a small place that franchised maybe two or three stores under that name, but it was the only option in this college town that wasn’t a Best Buy or a FYE.  Even if I wasn’t going to buy anything, it was still a cool place to browse, hang out, or to talk music with the employees.  Matt, the manager of The Great Escape, was always very good to me.  He sponsored my radio show where I got free soul music CDs in exchange for some underwriting spots which was great for me because I didn’t have much cash.

On one of my routine visits to The Great Escape with friends, it was a particularly hot day in July.  Walking into the store, you were met with an immediate blast of air conditioned relief that almost made you feel like you were in heaven.  As I was looking for the latest selection of recently received CDs, I became aware of what was playing over the speakers.  It was dreamy, cool, and I really liked the soft female vocals.  When I asked the counter what was playing, they told me.  All I needed was to hear that one minute before I knew I had to buy that album.  Between feeling great getting out of the hot sun and just enjoying the musical space I was in, it was the perfect moment for me to discover Mazzy Star.

The album I bought that was playing was their 1993 sophomore release So Tonight That I Might See.  The song that so entranced me was “Five String Serenade.”  I was in love with that song and it kicked off my summer.  So Tonight That I Might See became my personal soundtrack to summer 2007 as I listened to it every night.  Kentucky nights in the summer can be magical.  Things become quiet and serene.  It may still be a little muggy out, but it is still a relief from the day’s heat.  I walked around the empty campus at night listening to that album.  I fell asleep every night listening to that album.  I made out with girls to that album.  It was the soundtrack to a strange, new time in my life where you spend so much time trying to figure things out, but the music keeps you grounded and you try to enjoy the moment.

What is interesting about “Five String Serenade” is that it is the only song on the album that was a cover.  The song was originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love.  While my introduction to Love via Forever Changes would be a year away or so, this cover was everything to me at that time.  I didn’t really explore music until my college days and that was during a time when I was being amazed a lot by what I was hearing.  Now I know a lot more and have experienced a lot more music, so those moments when you’re wowed by a discovery become increasingly rarer.  Still, I enjoy that record now not just for it’s own artistic merits but also what it meant to me in a simpler time in my life.  Keith Mitchell was a part of that and I appreciate his work for that reason.

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“coming down” – dum dum girls (2011)

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Personal happiness is a luxury. We all face tragedies and problems that attempt to break our foundation. Some people experience more suffering than others, but it is ultimately pointless to compare ourselves with other people. It is true that you cannot change what happens to you, but you can surely change how you react to it. This is how you can have control over your life and how it affects others.

Substance abuse and drug addiction has been on my mind lately for three reasons: 1) I’m reading a journalistic expose on the failure of the drug war, 2) the third season of “Orange is the New Black” starts off in a heart-breaking fashion, and 3) I saw the trailer for the Amy Winehouse documentary this week. What all three of those things have in common is that they involve people and their pursuit of happiness. Happiness is something we all want and feel that we deserve. As a result, people will go to any lengths to get it and sometimes those lengths can be devastating. However, you are not just hurting yourself in those difficult times. You are also causing those around you pain.

“Coming Down” by Dum Dum Girls speaks to me as a song about drug abuse. I know that it is actually about a personal relationship breaking up and the aftermath of coming down from that love high, but I’m choosing to look at the context differently. I know my recent media consumption is affecting this altered view, but I don’t care.

Against a soft, droning beat similar to the album “The Trinity Sessions” by Cowboy Junkies or even Mazzy Star’s entire discography, Dum Dum Girls paints a melancholy landscape to set the stage for the song. It is moody and brimming with allusions of heartache from a sensory perspective. The lead singer starts things off without any delusion of why she is there. She’ll take anything she can get and when she closes her eyes to get closer to the object of her desire in her imagination, she is only left a faint taste in her mouth. From then, she tries to leave. She can’t. She wants this object of desire to pull her back strongly and keep her high. However, this object of desire proves to be heartless for the pain it inflicts on those who are around. I feel the lyrics paint a dramatic tale of substance abuse; the ultimate bad relationship where you feel powerless and without control.

I know my interpretation of the song may be a stretch, but I stand by it. It is fitting since relationships can come in all forms. And that is key element: relationships. When we cannot achieve the personal happiness that we think we deserve, it is isolating. It creates a lonely feeling coupled with paranoia; not only do people not care about you, but they are out to hurt you as well. Even the music video conveys this imagery as the singer’s dress is cut piece by piece by people around her.

Why is it that our happiness stems from our social interactions and relationships with people? Humans are social creatures, which is true. We may look inward and try to find the strength and confidence to make ourselves happy, but I believe that is impossible. That is why we look for happiness. That is why we pursue it in a needle, with a lover, in a book, or anywhere else. We cannot generate a significant level of happiness in complete isolation.

We all struggle to find our happiness. And if your path is leading you down a dark road, reach out. There are people who care. Love those around you and do not be hesitate to be happy.