I have to blog.
By that, I don’t mean I have to vomit, though if you said “I have to blog” eight years ago, there’s a good chance people would think “impending barf.” Here in 2006, the verb “blog” means “to regularly update a website, typically run by an individual or small group, written in an informal or conversational style.” Actually, the image of vomiting words onto a screen is not far off the mark.
When I say I have to blog, I mean I feel a compulsion to blog. A need. And if the typical blog is sloppy word-hurl, the result of inflated self-importance and a wild, bacchanalian overdose of the subject at hand, my blog is the refined, carefully cultivated upchuck of a functioning bulimic.
It’s a music blog, called “The Music of the Sphere” (a reference to the blogosphere—get it?). I’ve been doing it for eight years, since 1998, although as I’ve indicated, the word “blog” hadn’t been invented back then. At first, I maintained a pretty basic web page through my college’s student internet access. I wrote about music because that’s what was mostly on my mind, but there’d also be occasional sidebars about food, movies, travel, even politics. After college, I decided it was time to get serious about it.
Those were crazy days, the birth pangs of the internet as it now exists: shopping sites were giving desperate, fiscally unsound coupon discounts, like $15 off a $20 purchase, just to acquire more registered customers. I filled a lot of gaps in my CD collection that way. People were throwing money at internet stocks, and it seemed everyone and their mother was day trading. Like the rest of the world, I had a chance to get rich by getting in early on Amazon and Google, but what can I say? I preferred Books-A-Million and Lycos. I’ve never shared the taste of the uncultured horde.
We were all tangled up in the World Wide Web, and the number of people writing about music was growing steadily. It got competitive quickly and I found myself dedicating more time to my blog, attempting to capture the musical experience, as well as audience market share.
Building a better blog meant attending more concerts. I was so excited to receive that initial press pass—it was the first time I’d gotten “paid” for my interest in music. I kind of got addicted to the thrill of it, skipping from one show to the next, sometimes seeing three or four concerts in a day. Little by little, the blog started paying off—it wasn’t lucrative, but it was legitimate. Now, like B.B. King sang, “The Thrill Is Gone.” I’ve slowed down, cutting my concert attendance dramatically. These days, even when I am at a show, I spend as much time writing entries for my diary (like this one) as creating content for the blog. Oh God, I think I have to blog. And this time, I do mean vomit.
It’s kind of an unusual night tonight. An old band I used to like is playing here, at this club. Nothing special about that, just another group that’s past its prime, trying to extend its 15 minutes of fame… because I guess when you’re fifty years old and your most impressive skill is playing guitar behind your back, you quickly realize you need to milk that cow before it dries up or dies outright. The weird thing is, there’s also a tribute band that plays this group’s music—exactly like the original shows from years ago—doing a concert just across town. Never saw that happen before. I guess professional courtesy is dead.
Not entirely, though. This band— the original band— gave a nice shout-out to their old manager, who was in the audience. Guy looked like shit. Someone told me he’s a lawyer now. Some lady passed out, too. Maybe it was an epileptic seizure, the result of a dose of full-on stage lighting, administered by a someone’s inexperienced nephew. And then there’s me. I’m not really sure why I came, except for the blog, and maybe to say goodbye.
I came alone, seeking the anonymous solitude of a crowd, but halfway through, a guy I know through the blog sidled up and complimented my headwear. “Nice bandana,” he said, grinning. He slipped his hand onto the back on my neck and squeezed gently, pausing a moment before adding, “Looking good.” He’s one of those—a toucher and a liar, and patronizing as hell—but I tell myself he means well. We talked a bit, between songs and around the ringing in my ears—just the usual awkward, obligatory pleasantries and bromides, until he excused himself to get another drink. “You… want anything?” he asked.
I want many things, I thought, but they are all beyond your ability to grant. “No thanks,” I said, and he disappeared into the crowd around the bar.
Just conversing with him had drained my energy level significantly; he’d always had that effect to some extent. The ringing in my ears had receded a bit, but after months of unsought attention at every turn, what I really needed was to not talk anymore. Someone who’d seen the band at another show on the tour had e-mailed me the set list in advance, and I slipped out before the encore, “Catching Flies,” began. It’s a good song, but I’ve heard it a million times, and it’s not like there were going to be any surprises coming.
It was still early—there’d been no opening act, and just a short intermission—I guess the band wanted to get things over with and get to bed. I kind of felt the same at the moment, but I wasn’t satisfied with ending the night this way, so I decided to head over and catch the end of the tribute band’s set. They‘d definitely run later, beholden to longer breaks and a greater emphasis on beer sales, and with no real crew they’d bear responsibility for setting up and testing their own equipment after the opening tribute band cleared out. Funny how tribute bands that open for other tribute bands cover the songs of groups that opened for the original headliners—that hierarchy never changes.
Anyway, I was off to see another show. Note the unintentionally appropriate choice of words —”see,” not “hear.” Tinnitus has gotten a lot of the greats: Pete Townshend, Phil Collins, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. Ringing in the ears isn’t like listening to jingle bells over and over, though I guess that would be almost as maddening. Remember the extended, high-pitched beep of the Emergency Broadcast System? That’s kind of what it sounds like. Or like the tones used in hearing tests, except instead of brief and faint, it’s close and prolonged. The noise isn’t always present, but lately it comes more often and stays longer.
I’ve been extra careful at the concerts I’ve attended since my diagnosis, with cotton stuffed in the ears giving way to custom earplugs. What’s hard to accept is that my tinnitus isn’t really of the true rock ‘n’ roll variety, caused by decades of exposure to loud music. But like the better-known version, hearing loss and tinnitus due to chemotherapy doesn’t get better, only worse.
I can still feel the bass reverberate through the floor at a concert, and some high-register notes still get through, but it’s not the same. My favorite things to listen to these days aren’t even music, unless you want to get poetic about it: it’s stuff that tends to wash out the ringing, like ocean waves, or rain, or white noise, which I prefer to think of as “The Music of the Universe.” Or, if you like, “The Music Beyond the Sphere.”
Sometimes, in a strange way, it’s comforting to have your own personal soundtrack that’s yours and yours alone. It aids in tuning out the bullshit you don’t want to hear—everything from traffic noise to shrill voices to ringing phones—but there’s a lot of good stuff that gets lost along with that. The audiologist tells me that every time I put myself near loud noises, I’m taking one step closer to making the ringing permanent or even losing my hearing entirely. The simple fact is that whether or not the chemo succeeds, this is my last concert, my grand finale, the last stop on my farewell tour.
I arrived at the even smaller club where the tribute band was playing and immediately noticed a rival blogger in the crowd. He was a “frenemy” sort, who wasted no time coming over and telling me what I’d missed. Between the tinnitus and the crowd noise and the music, I mostly lip-read.
“Dude, I tried calling you on your cell phone… the lead singer just totally broke character, like twenty minutes ago. For like, five whole minutes, he told the entire history of the tribute band, in detail. I thought he was having, like, a breakdown or something. Anyway,” he said with a flick of the wrist, enthusiasm waning, “now they’re playing ‘Rigelian Sky.’”
I recognized “Rigelian Sky” the second I walked in, of course, earplugs and all—I’d heard it played live just an hour before. The bit about the lead singer is interesting, but I’m sure my fellow blogger is making more of it than it deserves, just to rub it in my face. I’ll read all about it in his concert review, and after a conservative estimate of 1600 concerts in the past eight years (an average of four per week, fifty weeks a year), I doubt I missed anything I haven’t seen before.
Prompted by my rival’s mention of it—and before I knew what I was doing—I pulled my phone from my pocket to check the incoming calls list. I saw his number—I was half-surprised he wasn’t lying about that. I also saw another phone number I recognized, a call I’d been expecting and avoiding.
The oncologist’s office had left a voice mail message around 3 p.m., presumably about the results of my latest scans. Before, I’d always waited anxiously for that call, always answered it within a few rings, no matter where I was. But this time I was hesitant to hear what they had to say. A quick, cheerful “Your scans are clear!” was possible, but medical professionals would be reluctant to share even mildly problematic news in a phone message. Thus, there was a good chance listening to it wouldn’t yield anything except a “Please call us back tomorrow,” and make it impossible for me to sleep tonight. Still, the fact that they only called once was a good thing, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t they have tried more than once to contact me if the results weren’t good?
Now that I knew of the message’s existence, was there really any option except to listen to it? Even though “Rigelian Sky” was still going strong, my mind wandered to a Radiohead song: “No Surprises”—please! And then, unfortunately, it wandered again, to Faith No More’s “Surprise! You’re Dead!”
The blogger babbled on throughout all of this. Desperate for a distraction and against my better judgment, I leaned closer to hear him. He proceeded to tell me about his son, who’d apparently made a “mix tape” for his girlfriend on a flash drive, then packaged it in an old cassette case with the liner note card. For the first time, I have no words. And I need to blog.
After the required restroom visit, I moved toward the center of the floor, arriving at a spot roughly equidistant from the speakers. Once, I’d have done this in search of perfect acoustics, now I do it to minimize damage from the speakers’ somewhat excessive emanations.
The audience was bopping their heads up and down in unison, the lead singer directing their movements by example. All I could think about was how I’d seen this same scene before, so many times—infinite variations on the same basic themes. Intellectually, I could appreciate a shared passion that wasn’t motivated by politics or religion or even sports—there was no competition, no winners or losers here. Well, after scanning the crowd, maybe a few losers. But I felt detached, separate somehow, as if I was stuck in one of those weird quantum experiments where the act of observing the event—or in this case, writing about it—changes the event itself.
I was like one of those ancient worshippers who can’t look directly upon the face of his god. I could continue to watch the crowd and pretend I was part of it all, but the lie would only emphasize the distance between me and the true experience.
Music journalism abounds with comparisons—one band is a shadow of another, mixed with a certain percentage of other influences or impurities, like a second generation analog bootleg copied to a third and a fourth. But it’s all a great big circle of flawed communication, far removed from the original source.
Writing about music is difficult, but at least as far back as Pythagoras and Aristotle, people tried to do it. One work attributed to Aristotle mentions a “single harmony” that “springs from one source and ends by achieving one purpose.” The line is as much about physics, and metaphysics, as music—but it reminds me to keep an open mind about genres I usually push aside, like opera or country or hip-hop. Aristotle also wrote, without personal experience of tinnitus, that excessive noises “shatter the solid bodies even of inanimate things.” For him, this was proof that the Pythagoreans were wrong when they proposed that celestial movements produce a kind of “music of the spheres,” but since that time we’ve learned about cosmic background radiation, which is pretty close to the same thing. I find a soothing similarity and symmetry between the soft hiss of the cosmos heard in television static, and the near-constant ringing in my own ears. It feels like I’m being absorbed, slowly, by the universe.
Rock concerts aren’t the best place for deep Aristotalian thinking, but I’m feeling philosophical, for more than just the obvious reasons. I try to clear my mind. I try to let go of the anger. I try to forget about words and whys and what-could-I-have-done differently. I try to forget the phone message and cancer, tinnitus, and both kinds of blogging.
I slowly extend my hands as wide as I can. I don’t touch anyone—maybe they’re backing off and giving me space. My eyes are closed, so I don’t know. There’s no alcohol or drugs—recreational drugs, anyway—in my system, but I feel as relaxed as I ever have. I no longer feel the need to blog.
The soft murmurs of the crowd subside, the yelling and clapping fades, and only the band’s music remains. Then their music merges with my music, and it’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful way to say goodbye.
Peter Dabbene has published much poetry, the graphic novels Ark and Robin Hood, the story collections Prime Movements and Glossolalia, and a novel, Mister Dreyfus’ Demons. His latest books are the Spamming the Spammers trilogy and Complex Simplicity, a collection of essays. His website is www.peterdabbene.com