ONLY NOISE: Hear to Listen

The other night I found myself hovering over a smorgasbord of tiny sandwiches. I did not expect the SONOS store on Greene Street to offer such treats, and as a result of my plummeting blood sugar levels, I swallowed as many as possible in quick succession, like Scooby-Doo’s gluttonous pal Shaggy. Fortunately, I was able to scarf down the teetering structures of fig, bacon, and biscuit before the panelists took their seats. I would have felt ok munching in front of the rakish Mick Rock and easygoing, eternally Midwestern Mark Mothersbaugh, but Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves looked far too elegant to drop a deviled egg in front of.

Rock, Mothersbaugh, and Graves were joined by Mötley Crüe co-founder Nikki Sixx and music journalist Rob Sheffield atop a makeshift stage on Monday night. The goal of the evening was as simple as its title, Song Stories. Each panelist selected one David Bowie song (a less simple task), and discussed its significance within their life. Sheffield, who won the evening’s charm award, spoke of the old days, when reporters would attend a Bowie concert and dispatch the set list from the venue’s phone booth. He admitted to hiding under his grandmother’s bed the first time he heard “Space Oddity,” for he was frightened by its planet-hopping protagonist. But it was “Young Americans” that branded Sheffield’s heart as his favorite Bowie song. And so, the next words out of Sheffield’s mouth were, “Alexa: Play “Young Americans,” by David Bowie.” “Playing “Young Americans,” by David Bowie,” she replied robotically (she is after all, a robot.)

So goes the evening’s format: Panelist announces favorite Bowie cut, extrapolates on its importance to them personally, and orders Alexa to cough up the selected track. This final transition is cold and clunky, but to be expected. At times I felt like the only person in the world who doesn’t desire the latest gadgets, and after a long Thanksgiving weekend in an Alexa-toting household, I can now firmly state that I think they make home life worse. But that is another article.

Song Stories’ use of Alexa was mildly surprising, and what happened after the song began should not have surprised me at all. But alas, it did. The crowd was respectfully silent during each speaker’s monologue – chuckling when prompted, and clapping when necessary. And yet when the songs filled the room, the chirp of chitchat flared to a clamor, and Bowie’s music was reduced to that plight of parties and shopping malls: background music.

You might ask me what the hell I expected, to which I might grumble, “Touché.” Or, if I was feeling up for a conversation, I might say that given Song Stories’ sincere mission, I expected an entire room of people to listen to listen to “Modern Love” in phone-free silence, maybe even with our eyes closed. This, of course, is a lofty vision for any era, especially one in which multitasking is not a talent, but a necessity. So when the gabbing began, I too began gabbing.

But it never felt quite right. My organs were squirming, and I think that my 12-year-old self – the one who used to make friends hush up and parents rewind tapes when her favorite part of a song played unacknowledged – was trying to bust out and hush up the audience. I am glad she did not, as I later learned that Suzi Ronson, Mick’s widow, was in the front row, and boy would that have been embarrassing. But I am also glad I tamed my inner hall monitor, because the Songs Stories crowd simply didn’t deserve to be chastised. Few do. In truth, there was nothing problematic about the evening, save for a self-serving Mick Rock and misquoting Mark Mothersbaugh (it’s “I’m an alligator,” not “crocodile,” Mark!). The sole problem was my own; the desire to mend my recent detachment from music was being projected on an evening of pure fun, with free wine and sandwiches to boot.

It seems funny that I can even write “My recent detachment from music.” While knocking back my first glass of red on Monday, I was fresh off an eight hour day of music; “Listening” to scraps of songs, and whole ones when I had the chance, rifling through the opinions of other writers, hunting out discrepancies between fact and copy, and shaping my own opinions – or perhaps, judgments – far too quickly. It is a job I love, make no mistake, but I like to remain conscious of how it shapes my behavior, particularly as a listener. My biggest fear is that while I begin to hear more, I listen less… a sort-of “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” conundrum, you might say. I believe that on the night of Song Stories, I noticed for the first time that my children are running around barefoot.

Exhibit a) The stack of records sitting on top of my vinyl collection. I bought these albums on November 19th, the Sunday after my 28th birthday party, as a present to myself. The Bill Evans Trio LP is the only one of four or five albums I have taken out of the bag since then. The black disc is still on my turntable, which suggests that I have not played a record on it (a favorite pastime) in three weeks. If you asked me the title, or even the artists’ names of the remaining records I purchased that day, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. They are still in their shiny blue shopping bag, waiting to be played.

Exhibit b) The look on my face when you ask me, “What have you been listening to lately?” I don’t know that I could conjure a name. I have been listening to so many things in rapid turnover, not one rises to the top. I need to work on that.

I also need to work on listening in general. Perhaps that’s my early New Year’s resolution: To make space and time to listen. Not on the phone. Not while cooking. Not while working. But face up, back flat on the bed; in total darkness and with no expectations.

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