In the summer of 1999, I house-sat for a physics professor and his wife in a tree-swathed neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. The days were so hot that walking outside was like swimming in damp satin. I killed their plants. Their cats tolerated me only because I fed them. My girlfriend at the time lived an hour away. I was running out of money, and fretting about what to do with my newly minted English degree. I wasn’t miserable, however, but rather giddy.
I was writing my first novel, typing madly on my dusty Compaq Presario. The time was pure joy—I thought of the novel in my sleep—which should have been my first warning sign. I imagined the book to be a searing, hilarious satire about contemporary America. It began with a man who could pick his nose with his tongue. People interacted freely with obscure Greek gods. It incorporated lots of metafictional elements I’d half-understood from the one John Barth novel I’d read—quotations from Sappho grafted into the narrative at odd moments, shifts from present tense to past tense, the use of the second-person point-of-view. I felt sure I would be heralded as daring, and that my voice would be championed as a fresh, rewarding one. I would be recognized as the heir to the likes of Gaddis, Barthelme, and Pynchon.
The novel, as you’ve figured out by now, was dreadful….
I can’t even remember its name. When the computer crashed for the umpteenth time, but this time with finality, I lost the manuscript. Although I’ve printed out several copies of it over the years, they’re all most likely nestled into a north Mississippi landfill. I don’t miss it. This post is not about writing that wretched thing. Instead, it’s about the music I listened to while writing it, and how that music helped me to grow up as much as writing on a regular schedule ever could.
By mid-June, I’d gotten tired of the music I brought with me to Jackson. The techno suddenly seemed too simplistic, the rock too whiny (I had a taste for grunge at the time.), and the jazz too knotted and clustered for me to enjoy. All of the CDs I owned—in a cardboard box stuffed to the top, in the corner of the guest bedroom I slept in—seemed too comfortable, too lived-in. This was the music that I half-listened to while writing papers, or while hosting an impromptu wine-drinking party at 2 a.m. in my dorm room, or while downloading internet porn. These were all childish things, I thought, that I’d outgrown.
And yet I couldn’t write without music. “Before I start to write,” E.B. White once said, “I always treat myself to a nice dry martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started. After that, I am on my own.” I felt the same way about pop music. It gave me the boost I needed to face the blank computer screen, but it wasn’t lifting me anymore.
More importantly, I lacked any sort of soundtrack to my life. The house was eerily silent. I wasn’t humming anything as I went through my day. Life felt off-kilter.
My roommate left—along with roach clips, dirty socks, and the remnants of food I had bought—a new issue of Rolling Stone lying around the house. I’d given up on reading the magazine years ago but there it was. So I flipped through it, and came to a large boxed review of reissued CDs by a Brazilian band called Os Mutantes. It consisted of three bright, happy-looking teenagers from Sao Paolo, who, during a brief period in the 1960s, briefly made the strangest pop music ever heard. The review compared the band to the Beatles, Sonic Youth, and Grandmaster Flash and His Furious Five, but assured me that they sounded like none of the above.
I drove around Jackson, scouring the “world music” sections of stores for CDs. The only reissue I could find was the best-of compilation issued by Luaka Bop. I sat down to write that day, with Os Mutantes coursing through my headphones. The band members wrote songs about the devil, the flushes of young love, cowboys, and refrigerators breaking down. They pasted a portion of Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz onto a samba number a decade before hip-hop sampling. They dressed like aliens, but only when they weren’t dressed like vampires. They used aerosol canisters as drums. The guitar sounded like it was vomiting. They obviously enjoyed marijuana. I loved it immediately.
Within a month, I owned the band’s first three albums. It belonged to the Brazilian avant-garde movement (Tropicália) that existed in the country through the late-1960s and early-1970s. The movement kicked samba and bossa nova in the shins and played around with electric and electronic instruments in a country in which you could be deemed a sellout to the North American Empire if you went on stage without an acoustic guitar and a soft croon. They broke traditions carelessly. Musicians included Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Tom Zé. Tom Zé. The only person I knew whose whole name consisted of two syllables—Mark Post—was an odd bird. Surely, Zé would be, too.
I found Zé’s 1998 album Fabrication Defect (again published by Luaka Bop) and blared it as I wrote. Heavily percussive, catchy at all times, Zé’s music initially seemed softer, more intimate, more melodic than Os Mutantes, more like the traditional samba I’d heard. Then you’d hear the chainsaw revving, over and over, looped as a beat. Or the sound of a rubber balloon rubbing on teeth. Or the music would ultimately slip off the tracks, falling apart and reconstructing itself. Zé’s voice was a sexy come-on and a vicious sneer all at once. The translated lyrics featured lines like “Who will put the lice on the head of the century?” and “Gather everything around/ Spread the Vaseline/ Shove, push, cram it into/ Your tank of gasoline.” What the hell was this?
All I knew was that the music was helping me write. Just as the music was full, maybe too full, of ideas, suddenly I had ideas for the novel and places in which to put them. Just as the music was propulsive even at its weirdest, my book began to have a drive; I began to know where the characters were going. Os Mutantes and Tom Zé were inspiring me. Their foreignness encouraged me to try out new ideas, to explore beyond what I knew.
I can’t read while listening to anything with complicated lyrics. I end up spending more time with the voice than with the page, because the human voice is my favorite musical instrument. I can’t write with lyric-based music on at all. Yet I could write to this Brazilian music. The flow, tone, dips and swings of the voice were all there, but I wasn’t caught up in the lyrics, because I couldn’t understand them. I had triggers for imaginative thought of my own without too many distractions from those of other people.
So, I wrote, and found more stuff from Brazil. I discovered astoundingly great compilations that featured examples of what the Tropicalists were rebelling against. I listened to it even when I wasn’t writing. I still do. It was pop at its finest, melodic and rhythmic without being just abrasive. Even though I couldn’t understand any of those lines, the translations revealed that the songs were about a wide range of things, not just young love and angry rebellion against the world. Getting jobs and keeping them, maintaining relationships, drinking too much to drown your sorrows, everyday triumphs and tribulations, politics—this was the stuff of adults, and of Brazilian pop. I could hear it in the voices. They were world-weary, complex, woeful at times but often spirited. The music wasn’t as binary as the rock I heard on the radio—it wasn’t a matter of either/or here, but both at once. The Brazilian pop world, for all its strangeness to these American ears, felt like one of maturity and subtlety, like the world of a grownup.
Now, it feels as comfortable as an old flame, but is as much a mystery to me as a new lover. So, as much as I’d like to visit Brazil some day, I know I’ll never want to learn too much of the native language. Its distance from me is refreshing—it’s nice to know there are things in this world foreign to me, and yet so close to my heart.