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Snapsongs: “Slapstick Heart” by Sam Phillips

Wednesday 17 April 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

Summer of 1996. I was living with two roommates in a funky little house in central Austin, where the floor in the living room had an odd wobble near the kitchen and you couldn’t run the air conditioning and dryer at the same time or else you’d blow a breaker. Besides that, it was a perfectly serviceable place to live, in fact quite nice, even if we were a little cavalier about lawn maintenance and drove the survivalist neighbors next door bugnuts. One roommate was working on his aerospace thesis project; the other was supplying Austin with a new-fangled service called “the Internet”. I was attempting to become a photographer.

Previously, I had been a low-level Accounts/Receivable clerk doing data entry and processing credit cards for a high-tech company that had kicked out an IPO before IPOs became trendy. As a young male in a department of middle-aged soccer moms, I’d been stuffed into the file room with a desk and a large dot-matrix line printer. This suited me fine, as I could leverage my hourly wage by only actually working two-thirds of the time. While the printer whined about running invoices I had the perfect cover for writing novellas and working out the plate tectonics of a planet I intended to write science fiction about. It was a peaceful existence, if somewhat monotonous and uncompelling.

The idyll was to be shattered when my grandfather died, which was not surprising – he’d had intestinal cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma for twelve years – but still unsettling. The surprise came when my father had a heart attack after shepherding my mother and grandmother through the death and funeral. Turns out a healthy-looking man in his late forties had been walking a tightrope with three blocked coronary arteries. This lead me to a period of alternating freakout and introspection. It was obviously time to make something happen.

I’d tried to get into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop the previous year, using one of my novellas as my submission. That hadn’t worked, but as it was a 1:10 chance I didn’t feel too bad about it. I decided it was time to try another one of my interests. I would take photography classes at the community college and try to make a go at freelance. And, as much as it pained me, I could tap in to the trust left to me by my paternal grandmother for education expenses.

This concept gave me an itching feeling across my neck and shoulderblades. I’d despised my undergraduate career, and had vowed never to go back to school. It wouldn’t be a “real” college, but ACC did kinda count toward that end. And I had a huge chip on my shoulder about paying my way, fiscal  independence and grass-roots bootstraps. Being a trustafarian was anathema, was Gehenna, was Tartarus. I didn’t want to be a lazy, shiftless, mooching artist. But it was the only way I was going to make it work.

So I did it. I quit my job, signed up for classes, and got a dba. I went out shooting. I shot tabletop, I shot portrait, I shot product. I shot editorial, I shot documentary, I shot landscape. I crawled around under the house with a camera when one of my roommates decided to shore up the wobbly spot in the floor with a floorjack, paving stone and treated post. I drove to West Texas and shot chaparral. I shot an industrial rock show and got caught in the mosh pit. I tried to get clients, but I wasn’t terribly successful at that.

And I discovered, to my amazement, that I felt old. I didn’t expect this. I was 24, I wasn’t old by any stretch of the imagination, regardless of my friends’ opinions when they asked me, snarkily, what it was like being 40. But whatever dues I’d paid slinging invoices and running credit cards had put something of a remove between myself and my 20-year-old classmates. It made it surprisingly difficult to deal with the drama, silliness and, yes, pettiness going on around me. It made it even more difficult when I found myself attracted to a particularly contrarian young woman, who persisted in making terrible choices and then blaming those choices on everyone around her. It didn’t help that at that point I hadn’t learned the lesson about healing wounded birds.

So… young but not feeling it, trying to hang out a shingle but feeling guilty for living off of free money, full of existential angst and the reality of death,  trying to define myself in this new world of adulthood while attempting to keep a toehold in the land of youth I’d just left, I was something of a walking, roiling confusion. As with many times in my life, music was the way I tried to keep stable. And this time I listened to Sam Phillips and felt somewhat better.

Sam Phillips is a relatively obscure artist, who abandoned Christian rock in the early 90s and recorded a series of idiosyncratic albums with her husband T Bone Burnett. Her style is part alternative, part experimental, part Beat, part pop. Programmed beats, overdubbed drums, strong guitars, Beatles vocal harmonies and odd sonic additives are part of the attraction for me. She also, like another fave female songwriter, layers equal sheets of snark with her somewhat idealistic latter-day hippie lyrics. Sometimes the technophobia turns me off, sometimes the longing for the simpler days makes me roll my eyes. But the musicianship is solid, and the brilliant nuggets are the payoff.

“Slapstick Heart” was the final track on the daringly outré, wildly erratic album “Omnipop”. Quite a bit of it doesn’t hold up over the years, but I’m fine with brilliant failure – although the general public isn’t, and it pretty much stopped her nascent career in its tracks. The song starts off with a wobbly whine, a doppler shift of guitar, followed with a fill and a pounding drum beat. A tootling Farfisa organ in the background sounds almost backwards-masked, and the bassline is simple and direct and moving. Phillips’ vocals are always dry, always rough, a sound that she has likened to a “braying donkey” at times. Here it deadpans a laconic commentary on the absurdity and perversity of life. I don’t like to quote lyrics often, but this is a nugget that I have to share:

Lost my balance, fell like rain / I half expected you to do the same
But you cried an ocean and broke my fall / That’s when I knew I couldn’t swim at all

We all keep falling for the slapstick heart, and keep getting poked in the eyes, smacked on the head, and pied in the face. But you keep playing that song, pushing that bass, weaving those arpeggios. That summer I felt the difficulty of making a way in the world that wasn’t predicated on a nine-to-five existence, one that would require a little more intelligence, artistry and perseverance to attain. And I wasn’t sure enough of myself or my identity to have the reflexes to avoid the pratfalls and seltzer bottles that invariably pop up. So, for the time, a grim commentary on the samsara of life was what sustained me.

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2013-04-17  »  Edward Semblance