- First published in London in 1684, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is “one of the best-selling books ever produced in English on sex and making babies.” Aristotle, at the time, had assumed a role in the popular culture as an ancient sex expert; “his” sex guide reads in parts like the Kama Sutra in cheeky British doggerel, and it’s complete with a woodcut of a woman in dishabille, so teenagers probably masturbated to it. “But the book also provided a solid framework of contemporary knowledge about the basics of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant health, detailing topics such as the signs of pregnancy, how to tell false labor from true, the various positions the baby might present in, et cetera. Not surprisingly, since it was plagiarized from another midwifery book, this information was largely unexceptional.” It makes a cameo in Ulysses.
- “I attend a diplomatic soiree and as I am leaving my pants fall down (Is it desire?) … Cannibals. You were on an island and some black cannibals jumped out and they put you on the grill and poured oil on you. You, so peaceful. They ate you and they reported saying that the meat was hard and had to fatten more.” Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered the neuron and hypothesized the function of synapses—which was a boon for science and all—but more important, he kept a dream journal, and it is piquant.
- Art has come to valorize depression, clearly, and to see genius in melancholy—but in the culture at large, thanks to pharmacology, depressives are still stigmatized. “Stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person … On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself … The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head.”
- Considered as a text, the Nashville music industry’s collected lyrics have one clear idée fixe: adultery. Even in the twenties, tunes like “The Jealous Sweetheart” and “The Mountaineer’s Courtship” wept over the wayward heart; by the time “Jolene” came around, the style had become an archetype, if not a formula. “Cheating songs have a lot of moving parts. All of them have at least three characters, each of which can be the narrator or the person being addressed … Country music has a somewhat limited palate, and adultery is one its primary colors. ‘To say something fresh and literal is the hardest thing’ … But if you have a mess of variables to slot into your tried-and-true story structure, it gets a little easier.”
- The refined songcraft of one James “Jimmy” Buffett, meanwhile, focuses its talents almost exclusively on epicurean pleasures. “Food and drink are central to the ethos of Jimmy Buffett, and even the most casual fan can rattle off a handful of songs that orbit around seaside eats. There are lesser known gems like 1994’s ‘Fruitcakes’ (Half-baked cookies in the oven / Half-baked people on the bus / There’s a little bit of fruitcake left in everyone of us) and 1970s classic ‘Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit’ (Grapefruit, a bathin’ suit, chew a little Juicy Fruit / Wash away the night).”
Will Oldham has been singing and composing for twenty-five years. In a new book, he discusses his highly individualistic approach to music making and the music industry (under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy), one that cherishes intimacy, community, mystery, and spontaneity.
Do you think a song is ever really finished?
I feel like a song is completed when the writing is done and I present it to a friend, partner, or group of musicians. Then it’s completed when we record together and finish mixing. Then it’s completed each and every time someone listens. I think that a song, for the most part, is completed by the listening experience. It enters into people’s brains and mutates and then might get completed again—in their dreams, in mix tapes that they make, or in new listening experiences that they have. So it isn’t ever finished because there’s never going to be a definitive listening experience. I guess the idea is that I listen to certain favorite songs over and over because for some reason I just haven’t finished listening to them. But in terms of concentrating on the bones of the song, that ends with the recording; in rare cases there will be arrangement modifications, but from that point on the skeleton is always going to stay the same. From then on, playing live, for me, is more like an exercise to stay in shape for writing and recording.
There’s the way a song can sound when you’re just playing it in a room to somebody that’s going to perform it with you, and then the way it sounds in the rehearsal room when you’re playing it with a band, and then there’s the way it sounds when you go into a studio and the engineer is listening to it; there’s an evolution of the song’s identity from when it’s something that you’re creating on your own to where it ultimately ends up.
Yes. Anybody who’s a big music fan and plays music for people experiences this, but if you work with recorded music you can point to the differences in instrumentation or preparedness or arrangement. And you can play the same recording of the same song and have vastly different feelings about it. You could be listening to a song in your car and not enjoying it, and then someone could get in the car and all of a sudden the song becomes good, or the reverse. It seems to me that the ears that are listening make more difference than the way the music sounds. ‘Cause you can also tell when you see people who are absolutely 100 percent enthralled and enjoying inarguably terrible music, and they’re smart human beings; you see it happening and you realize it doesn’t have anything, or far less, to do with the music itself than the listening done by the listener and the situation.