Top Five (2017 edition)

Once again, it’s time for that grand tradition begun by Daniel Couch, Lindsy Lawrence, and me back in 2002, in an Austin, TX, backyard. (See the 2014, 2015, and 2016 editions.) Share yours.

Happy New Year!

1) New York, New York. I had not been to New York City since a quick winter sojourn in February 2005. It was time to go back, and I had an excuse: five nights of America’s best band at Madison Square Garden. I won’t spend too much time on the concerts—if there’s a band for which the phrase “Mileage may vary” applies, it’s Phish—except to say that, if you love them as I do, it was a pinnacle that it’s built up to for 30 years: thirteen shows at the most iconic concert venue in America, each built around the theme of a donut (hence calling the run “The Baker’s Dozen”), in which the band did not repeat a single song, and which the improvisation and song selection were inspired, surprising, and in some cases pointing to new directions for its sound. But the larger, more personal takeaway was facing the idea that it’s OK to innovate and change direction and forge new paths even in middle age, and even to do so when everyone’s looking at you. And I needed to understand that message at that particular moment. In January, I moved to Atlanta, my first time living in a truly big city since I was 18. This has been invigorating but deeply stressful, as I’ve had to make new friends and social bonds, two things that I’m historically not great at and which get harder to do as we get older. And here I was, thrust for a week in New York, processing all that, doing a lot of firsts: AirBnB for the first time (a success—a tiny, clean apartment in Harlem a block from a subway line); checking out a plethora of museums new to me, instead of revisiting old haunts (though I did take in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is one of my Happy Places in this world); organizing raucous meetups at Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis with friends also in town for Phish; figuring out subway routes and itineraries on my own; negotiating my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods and learning to be OK with relying on my smartphone; making new friends on the fly at Madison Square Garden, as most nights I wasn’t seated with my friends. I walked or took the train everywhere. This was August, so I was constantly pouring sweat—I don’t know how many handkerchiefs I went through. The point is: I spent a vacation semi-intentionally making myself uncomfortable, keeping myself exposed and open to new experiences. So, the vacation ended up not being an escape from my regular life in Atlanta but instead an encapsulation of what I’d spent the last seven months doing. It was good, and helped immensely by being surrounded by swirling avant-pop and 20,000 people who understood it and were there for the same thing, who I didn’t have to explain it to.

2) Storm King Art Center. As much fun as New York City was, the major revelation, to me, didn’t take place in the city at all. A close friend lives in Albany, NY, and I met her halfway by taking a train from Grand Central Terminal to Beacon, NY. We traipsed through Beacon, quaint and lovely, talked about changes she was going through—new jobs, new anxieties—at a terrific Mediterranean restaurant. Then, we went to the reason I took the train up there: Storm King Art Center. I can’t believe that I’d never even heard of before she mentioned it in a phone call. Basically, it’s a park nestled in the Catskill Mountains devoted to modern and contemporary sculpture. “Park” makes it sound small, when it’s actually 500 acres, large enough that you can rent bikes to traverse and there are multiple houses on the property. But most of the art isn’t in the houses but instead outdoors, hence all the trails. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces. It’s a who’s-who of modern sculpture and site-specific art: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Goldsworthy, David Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Kenneth Snelson, Nam June Paik, Louise Nevelson, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Maya Lin, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi. And you just stumble on to new pieces as you’re walking. It is a triumphant art space, all this modernism and experimentation totally at ease in the rolling hills, looming mountains, foliage dripping all around you. I had trouble not crying, I’ll be honest. It was wonderful, and I wish we could’ve stayed longer than a couple of hours. I would gladly go back to spend a whole day there, maybe two or three.

3) My first book reading & signing. I can’t rightly put “published my first book” as an item here because the truth is that it comes on in stages. Daniel and I were working on the book so continuously, and in different ways (writing, editing, proofreading, looking over marketing stuff, filling out forms), that it doesn’t seem like a singular event. Sure, that moment when I opened the package from Bloomsbury with my author’s copies was lovely but somehow anticlimactic. No, the fact that Bob Mould’s Workbook is actually a thing out in the real world didn’t hit home until I did a reading at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, on September 22nd. About 30 people showed up, so it was standing-room only in that small space, a wonderful roll-out for a little book of epistolary music criticism/conceptual memoir. I read from an earlier chapter, improvised a preamble about how Dan and I wrote the book as a series of letter exchanges and interviews, and then took questions. The questions were good, which isn’t always a given at readings. People were genuinely curious about our writing process, and the younger members of the audience had smart questions about punk, post-punk, and the legacy of underground rock culture. In the spirit of punk, I made a giveaway zine for the event—really, edited versions of the two blog posts I’ve written about Bob Mould, with new drawings that I made, all printed out, folded, and stapled on Xerox copy paper. I’d forgotten how much I like making zines, how much I like creating homemade things, no matter how slight they are, and how much I liked seeing them in people’s hands. Friends took me out for a celebratory beer afterward.

4) Film Love Atlanta. This year, I’ve tapped into Film Love Atlanta. Film Love is an initiative by Andy Ditzler, a guy who loves the more experimental end of cinema—the odd shorts, the avant-garde documentaries, the crazy anti-narrative works, the stuff that hasn’t been released in the States and thus only otherwise gets seen in museum exhibits or in festivals. It’s truly a curated film program, with program notes written (wonderfully) by Andy. Sometimes, he brings in the filmmakers whose work is being screened. Because Film Love doesn’t have its own theater, Andy coordinates screenings at galleries and art spaces around town, a few times even in the back storeroom of a boutique salt supplier, so going to a Film Love screening means, by necessity, that I’ll be exploring a new part of the city. I need that. There’s always discussion afterward, led by Andy, who looks like a shy deferring guy but who also does a terrific job of moving the conversation along Socratically. There’s never much more than 25-30 people but we’re all dedicated, it’s refreshing and mind-expanding, and I look forward to these monthly events so much that I feel like an evangelist for Ditzler’s mad idea. (This interview with Andy gives a good sense of what Film Love is up to.)

5) A John Waters Christmas. I saw “A John Waters Christmas at the Variety Playhouse with my pal Nina and her pal Marie. Basically, it was 90 minutes of standup done by the legendary, infamous filmmaker and provocateur, talking hilariously and profanely about what he wanted for Christmas, about American politics and culture, about gay culture, and his hopes for the future. This was the filthiest hour and a half I had ever spent in anyone’s presence that didn’t involve sex with them, but it was also the funniest event I went to all year. The guffaws were cathartic, a tremendous and thoroughly foul release that was needed after this year of Trump farting at us constantly, in real time. Waters farted back, and he’s better at it.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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