I've nearly finished putting my entire CD collection on the computer, in preparation for the iCloud storm.
A curious experience, going through my music: dozens of the discs I don't remember buying; dozens of others mark the various strategies I've used to both reinvent and recover myself—which is a long way of saying that they mark the highlights of my life. The sight of some of them made my heart ache: old Springsteen, Van Morrison and Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Radiohead, and Billie Holliday. Tom Waits. Dusty Springfield and Sparklehorse. A few others. To be honest, remembering the names now makes me tired and somehow desperately glad I'm alive.
The two individual songwriters of my generation who have meant the most to me over the last fifteen years are probably Richard Buckner and Elliott Smith. My love for their art—this is now clear—will be permanent, maybe because they're both from the West Coast; maybe because their songs are, for the most part, really fucking sad—hopefully, exquisitely sad; certainly because they're men; finally, because I'm drawn toward the way that their music is diffident yet audaciously beautiful.
Smith's music now rises from the grave, which intensifies its sadness—and my gratitude. He left us something, after all: he honored his unsurpassed gift for melody for more than a decade; his songwriting was incredibly generous; and then he put a knife in his chest. And none of that adds up, yet it does, and there's nothing to be done about it but be grateful that when he made music he never, as far as I can tell, lied.
Buckner's new album, Our Blood, came out a couple of weeks ago, on my birthday. Belatedly I gave it to myself. I saw recently, on some website that I can't be bothered to find again, that he's spent the last few years in upstate New York holding up signs for some construction company. During off hours, he made Our Blood, another fantastic album.
In an essay on Nicanor Parra, Roberto Bolaño says, "First requirement of a masterpiece: to pass unnoticed." Relatively speaking, Buckner's work has met that requirement. Were it not for Good Will Hunting, it's likely that Smith's would have, too; and even with "Miss Misery," Smith was never famous, really: I saw him with a couple of hundred people in Salt Lake City at the height of his popularity.
Anyway, talk of fame is beside the point. Richard Buckner and Elliott Smith consolidate how life feels to me—really feels, without adornment—into that three-minute marvel called the American popular song.
Here's Buckner doing one of my favorite songs: "Once." As of today—try not to marvel at this—the video of his performance has received 449 viewings.