There’s an interesting piece in The Atlantic on one of the more compelling aspects of our time, ambivalence about cars. My wife and I own a Prius C, which is about as size- and fuel-conscious as we’re likely to be in our current circumstances here in New York City with no ready, secure access to charging and no desire to drive a newer, bigger car. We use our car mostly for utility and sometimes for convenience. It is, however, not something we think about very much. We have, we use it. We worry about replacing it sometimes and then forget to worry.

But there is no doubt that I bought into the American myth of automobile-derived freedom from an early age, and by the time I had my own car at 17,1 it was a haven from all manner of perceived and real threat, hassle, and infringement, a site of recklessness, retreat, intimacy, and independence. From ages 15–21 or so, my entire worldview was shaped while leaning against, sitting on, and hanging around in cars of all different makes, models, sizes, and shapes and in all states of repair. Much of the time, it didn’t matter what kind of car we were in as long as the following criteria were met:

  1. We had plenty of gas. And money for more.
  2. We had an ample (effectively endless) supply of cigarettes.
  3. We had an ample (effectively endless) supply of caffeine, initially Coke or Mountain Dew mostly, and as we got a little older, coffee.
  4. We had a functioning stereo in the vehicle, preferably with a tape deck but working radio was fine as long as it was loud enough. I think I knew one person with a CD player in their car, and that was near the end of the era I’m describing, roughly 1984–1990.
  5. Someone in the car had to have a legal driver’s license but it didn’t have to be the driver.
  6. The car had to be nominally legal and safe. Expired registrations, inspections, or insurance were tolerable as long as they weren’t too expired. Forgiveness of such violations was in direct proportion to whether or not a more legal car was available. Desperate times, etc.

Additionally, the etiquette of these rides was fluid but firm:

  1. There were no non-smoking cars. Cars were, from a certain adolescent standpoint, machines made for the purpose of smoking in.
  2. Music, always referred to as tunes, was played according to the preference and discretion of the driver, unless they were driving someone else’s car and the owner of the car was present in the vehicle. In this uncommon but not impossible situation, the owner’s choice would prevail.
  3. If the driver of the car was on or held even the slightest prospect of being on a date, all passengers had to either be cool and occupy themselves outside of the date-parked vehicle until such time as the driver and date once again made the vehicle available to all; or, if it was a real date, like going somewhere on a date, all passengers had to find a different ride altogether. This subject was frequently euphemised at the time, so I continue that practice here.
  4. Some, but not all, cars had given names or nicknames. These monikers were to be respected by all passengers, past and present, if the car was referred to without the owner’s possessive (e.g. “The Chicken” and “Philly’s car” described the same vehicle.).
  5. If one was dismissed from the vehicle, that was not a warning: it was a dismissal. Among my cohort, this was unusual but not unheard of.

  1. Or more likely when my older friends gained steady access to their own or their parent’s cars, which preceded my own by a couple of years.

10 Rules for Reading a Poem

  1. You’re probably reading the poem in a language you already know.
  2. You probably know all of the words in the poem, so in the most fundamental sense, you already understand it.
  3. If you don’t know all of the words in the poem, feel free to pause your reading to look the word or words up, or consult with someone who might know. The poem will be there when you return to it.
  4. You don’t owe the poem anything, not your time, not your understanding, and certainly not your affection. The poem owes you these things.
  5. You are a guest of the poem. If you are offended by your host, move on and don’t return. They will not change in your absence.
  6. The poem will not, as above, change in your absence. You, however, might, and so might revisit the poem someday to see how much or in what way or ways you have changed.
  7. The poem is indifferent to how you change while you’re away from it.
  8. The poem is concerned with how you change while you are reading it. This is not the chief concern of the poem. It is the only concern of the poem.
  9. Do not be seduced by the poem. It doesn’t mean you any harm, exactly, but it doesn’t know any better, either.
  10. Take a moment to reflect on your favorite lines. Write them down in your notebook. Use them in your own poem.

Lieu and Theo

Yesterday marked 12 years with Lieu and Theo.1 Surgeries, illnesses, intimacies, tolerances, delights, routines, affections, and care have made it seem like both a shorter and longer stretch. Here’s a photo from shortly after we brought them back to the apartment on night one of the rest of our lives together. That’s Theo on the left and Lieu on the right.

🎵 Listening to Canto Ostinato

  1. Known formally as Lieutenants Columbo and Theodopolous Kojak. Known colloquially by too many names to list here.

Late Start? Not Today.

Covid, the era more than my case last year, has made it difficult to wake up as early as I’d like to or used to. It’s not a problem, exactly,1 but it is frustrating.

Most days I sort of shrug it off when I’m steeping coffee 30 or 45 minutes later than I’d hoped to be. Today, however, I managed to get up as intended, and reflecting on this I can’t help but think of the broader lethargy the pandemic and its mishandling has brought to bear. I need to remember that it isn’t just me, just my problem, that even among the most resilient and unaffected of us, Covid has cast a unique shadow over our lives. Keeping this in mind serves empathy, which is always a better emotional start to a day than self-pity.

🎵 Listening to Canto Ostinato

  1. Even the change I’m describing here doesn’t make me late for anything, but it does make me feel like I don’t have time to do everything I like to do to start my day.

Rather than subject myself to the endless appetite of endless scrolling, I’ve lately been spending time surfing the web again. This shouldn’t seems like such an archaic path,1 but it sort of feels like one. Heading in several directions, perhaps, with no algorithm to guide me, 2 the only guiding force is my own curiosity.

  1. even if the nomenclature demands that the undirected act of clicking through links online appear in italics or quotes.

  2. Algorithms, of course, are the drivers of platforms, not the internet.

Records in the New Year

Non-rock records, J-M

One of my goals for 2023 is to buy no additional LPs. The reasons for this are two in number: 1) Between COVID-pandemic life and a generally expanded musical life, my record-buying has become, I fear, excessive; and 2) I’d like to be more familiar with my existing collection, and so digging through my own records seems like a good thing to do.

There are, no doubt, nearly-buried or -forgotten treasures around here. Like many listeners, I keep my records pretty well organized, but jackets are slim and one’s movements sometimes quick: alphabetization might not be as tight as one thinks and titles are forgotten or misplaced. The last time I did a thorough run through the collection was a lockdown-derived impulse to separate the rock records from the non-rock records. My listening at the time was once again diverging from rock music and I saw fit to spare myself the added effort of weeding through all of the records to find the creative, improvised, jazz, classical, and other stuff.1 I have come to live with this arrangement but it is still many records and a half-baked subdivision as I proposed provides only a smattering of relief.

I’ll add that my record collection, though sizable 2, is admittedly dwarfed by those of several of my friends. I’ve liquidated at least two LP collections over the years 3, where many my age have all of their records from their whole life. We’re mostly in our 40s or 50s and many of us musicians or in the music business, so as you might imagine, some of the collections I have in mind here are vast! Alas, I have what I have nonetheless, and it has become unmanageable.

I’ve learned elsewhere that when one feels overwhelmed , one might be best served by retreat and inventory. That’s what I’ll be doing here this year, cataloging and tracking my (hopefully) daily reacquaintance with the music I already possess. One point worth making, I think, is that I’ll still listen to new stuff digitally 4 and plan on keeping a list of records to look for when the moratorium is lifted. There’s surely more to say about all of this, about what a collection or archive or library is, about possession and scarcity, about supporting friends and artists one wants to support, about identity and artistry. But we’ll save those remarks for the remainder of the year. We’ve got our hands full enough right now. Happy new year to you all.

  1. As you have likely already observed, this taxonomy — if we can call it a taxonomy and not just a segregation — fails at the outset: what of This Heat? What of Tortoise or Trans Am? Is it simply a mater of instrumentation and backbeat emphasis? I have drawn my own fool’s distinctions and they are at best inconsistent. And why not? This isn’t the turn of the century or something. No one else is looking for a record on these shelves. This is the kind of exercise I’m prone to in the best of times. Such organizational strategies have flourished during the times of COVID-restricted activity.

  2. Roughly 25 linear feet, including box sets and a foot or so of my own work and excluding CDs. At 80-100 records/foot, I’m looking at well over 2000 LPs, a number in much more rapid expansion these last, say 7-8 years as both my music-making and listening have grown.

  3. Once in 1988 to raise $ for CD purchases and again around 1996 to raise $ and make way for my burgeoning jazz listening.

  4. I’m not a monk!

“Sit down. Be yourself. Be prepared. Be attentive. Defy the voices. Be the thing you want to be. Write. Be playful. Be reckless. Remember that you are uniquely designed for the idea that is moving toward you. You are good enough. The idea is about to arrive.”
Nick Cave again


“A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
— Theodore Roethke, “It Was Beginning Winter.”

Gordon Withers: Cello Sketches for BELLS≥ “North American Spirituals”

The playlist below includes four examples of what BELLS≥ has been doing towards our next album, a collection of music called North American Spirituals. If you saw any of our performances on our tour last August, you heard quartet versions of another two of the pieces (“The First Ray” and “May You Bury Me”), both of which were written thus far with the group’s then-current line-up in mind.

That is, the pieces that will comprise “North American Spirituals” remain in variously-preliminary states, and while Chris Ernst has been working on them in Baltimore and Stephen Shodin and I have taken a swing at them here in New York, Gordon Withers recently performed some of his own ideas at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington, VA.

At the root of Gordon’s cello sketches are drum demos I recorded with J. Robbins at The Magpie Cage back in May. We set up a drum kit and some other drums and percussion and recorded for an hour or so. The next few hours were spent on edits, overdubs, and rough mixes. Chris Ernst was there, too, and by the time we left the studio that evening, we had drum tracks for a handful of pieces ready for distribution to each other and our collaborators. It’s not the way we’ve worked in the past, but we thought we should give it a shot, passing the tracks back and forth until Chris, Stephen, and I sense completion, and in the meantime, with hopes of such an outcome as Gordon has provided here. BELLS≥ has always been a collaborative group with its three core members at the compositional center, and since the beginning, Gordon, like J., has been a key contributor to BELLS≥. To have Gordon playing along with loops of my beats sounds, in the end, as natural as the two of us playing together.

Additionally, I’ve included in this post a Pete Duvall photo of Gordon and me from a few years ago in hopes of providing evidence of our performative unity in this somewhat unusual situation.

Photo by Pete Duvall

All of which is to say, here are four pieces from Gordon’s last show. One of the selections includes some organ from J. and orchestra bells from Chris, both recorded when I cut the drum tracks, and not live with Gordon. Be advised that these are only sketches, improvisations on some rhythmic ideas we have in mind. But we thought you’d enjoy them so here they are.

Notes on Punk

There is no punk without its music.

There are forms and styles of rebellion other than punk, and though their success or failure may be measured along the same lines as those of punk, if they have a music at all, it is usually complementary to their fundamental missions. In punk’s case, the music is the primary expression of the mission.

There is also fashion but what an outwardly punk look brings first to mind is aggressive music, or at least a taste for aggressive music whose simultaneous shock and recognizability ensure that the audience knows it’s being attacked. To be punk is to possess an ability to repeatedly embrace and sustain the shock until it becomes the recognizable element itself.


Each region’s musical contribution was drawn from what made its place of origin unbearable.

Initially, then, punk was a revved-up and less polished version of things that were handy: blues-rock (Detroit), pop/art (NYC), class conflict and morality (London), boredom and neglect (LA), etc. If one was inclined to take part in punk for any reason, it wasn’t too great a leap from 60s guitar-rock or pop to punk. The means of passage was even less mysterious. One simply showed up. My own experience was precisely that: I started playing music and spending more time with my punk friends and became, in relatively short order, punk.

It wasn’t simply an urgent need to take part in something active and lively; it was also an opportunity to start over and to do so more or less anonymously. Reinvention from square one, the practical assumption that one’s activity is the first of its kind, is among punk’s chief and guiding qualities. Another of its fundamental characteristics is the assumption that, by virtue of one’s sense of outrage, abandonment, disenfranchisement, or ostracization, one will fit in immediately, or even better, won’t need to fit in at all.


This piece was inspired by three consecutive events, which occurred over the course of three consecutive months.

First, I was interviewed on the subject of punk’s death, a topic I found especially quizzical since a) it hadn’t occurred to me that punk was ailing; and b) punk’s general state didn’t seem to differ much from what it had always been, an ongoing struggle against the mainstream, the terms of which were clear to anyone who was taking part in it and indecipherable to anyone who was not. The interview went well enough, I guess, though I’m not sure when or if the article it contributed to will appear.


Punk is something that occurs conspicuously outside the mainstream.

Punk was couched as rebellion, and even was rebellious in some cases, and quickly became a division in entertainment offices and therefore subject to the needs of those offices. Subjecting one’s needs to the status quo is antithetical to rebellion. In which light, the first wave of punk wasn’t substantially different from any other popularized genre.

It’s worth noting, though, that unlike its approximate contemporaries — reggae, disco, hip hop, L.A. pop, glam — punk seemed to come from all sides at once, with no allegiances, laying no particular claim to anything but its own cage-rattling noise. It was essentially reactive, an unfocused cultural conniption.

That punk’s founding purveyors, with whomever and wherever one wishes to start, were outside the accepted notions of then-current conventional taste did not preclude their assimilation by the culture at large. Punk emerged, that is, from the minds of people who sought conventional success or alliance with such success.

Eventually, however, the agencies which sought to capitalize on punk’s novelty found that although punk didn’t always pay off as expected, its artists weren’t always that far out after all. Widespread success for many of these acts was only a few musical and performative changes away. With the initial shock absorbed and new work moving closer to popular music in both sound and execution, several of the original participants found lasting mainstream success. But an idea began to take root that once everyone knows about something, it isn’t punk anymore.

Since then, in part because of the work of the agencies described above, the term punk itself has, for many, come to signify a conscious evacuation from much of what the success they offer might entail, and further, what it might cost. This text grew directly from my own experience with that evacuation, my own assessment of those costs.


Second, a friend and sometime collaborator began work on a children’s book, a history of punk. It will no doubt be a delight to punk or punkish parents to share with their children. In the meantime, I couldn’t help but think about who I would include in such a book and why.


All social and/or cultural rebellion can be bought if it is understood to be for sale.

As in any uprising, the existing economic powers found ready and willing participants among punk’s rebels. This was, at one time, a source of cultural betrayal, an impetus for local scenes to sprout up autonomously and get in touch with each other. Zines appeared, shows were booked, bands toured. An entire circuit driven by the need to assert freedom from conventional entertainment and culture was established almost globally and in the course of less than a decade. The politics of these scenes was explicitly and uniformly anti-corporate. If their other interests diverged even to the point of conflict, punk scenes were in agreement that corporation-generated economies and cultures were at the root of ongoing political and social deterioration and repression.

Though such scenes may continue to exist and appear in some areas, the larger cultural shift has come to exclude them in favor of whatever the mainstream, after decades of exposure to its own definition of punk, decides protest should be and how it will be sold.

That is, we rarely notice anymore that the quality of rebellion is frequently measured by the culture it seeks to dismantle. The victory of mass media supports the persistent disenfranchisement of those who cannot or will not take part in the culture at large by reinforcing that they are not worth knowing or knowing about. Punk, it turns out, can be quite profitable if its audience is not limited to punks and if its practitioners are visibly “punk” from a distance.


The third event was the death of Lou Reed. My clearest memory of him is shilling for American Express, and though I was not unaware of his music prior to that campaign, the only prominence it ever held for me was tacked up on the wall in the living room of my first punk group house: a poster of a lone figure under a streetlamp, as I recall, with the lyrics from either “Heroin” or “Waiting for the Man” confirming the photo’s urban defeat and desolation. Mr Reed has never been more than an image, or an image of an image to me, however fulfilling. I had my own now-I-really-live-in-New-York moment the first time I passed him and Laurie Anderson on the street, for example, but it wasn’t appreciably different from the first time I tried to ignore the Empire State Building’s Fuji-like ubiquity. Both experiences were necessary but only the latter endures as an emblem of why I love this city and call it home.

Not so, however, for several of my friends, collaborators, and favorite artists, some of my chief punk mentors and allies, who were saddened by Mr Reed’s passing. It was difficult to reconcile his influence on these people, his presence in their lives. After all, it was, and is, these same people from whom I learned and learn to articulate and enact my distaste for the mainstream, my commitment to cultural activism, who deeply felt the immediacy and permanence of his absence as a figure to whom they attributed not only artistic, but in some cases spiritual, inspiration. That they could hold a representative of self-interest and blatant 80s consumerism in such high and personal regard was baffling.

Which is to say, this piece did not unfold as I expected. Rather than organize my thoughts into some kind of coherent causal history of punk, I found the text falling into a pattern of statements that proposed truths one might hold about punk regardless of where and when punk first entered one’s life. Not surprisingly, boiling this text down to such statements and a minimum of commentary proved much better suited to describing how I think punk has developed so far. The caveat? My position in regard to this subject is not, it turns out, unlike that of the fish and the water. There is very little, if anything, here that does not continue to inform and define my life, and from the inside of it, I’m increasingly suspicious that there isn’t much to say.


Punk is no more the province of celebrity without talent than it is the province of talent without celebrity.

Punk is instead, like its more popular counterparts, a combination of both celebrity and talent but according to its own rules and scale. Its chief accomplishment in this way is a willingness to eschew inflated or hyped presence in favor of a system in which audiences and performers have a choice and are free to determine their own engagement without being subjected to mass-marketing or airwave- or bandwidth-saturation. Not everything, punk teaches, is for sale or for everyone. It is, by this default, less greedy. It is also, by this default, limited in its reach, perhaps now more than ever.


Still, questions persist: what is punk? How did it happen? What has it done? The answers are subjective but since no one is punk alone, it’s a fair assumption that whatever follows applies to more than a single individual, that a given parsing of punk and its meaning will be true for several people at a time.

Why any of this matters is another question. Mostly, in a certain light, it doesn’t. Whether or not anyone ever again puts together a historiographic view of punk seems of little great consequence, in and of itself.

And yet, punk has provided three generations of music listeners with an entry point into politics, economics, aesthetics, spirituality, and every other aspect of their societies and cultures, emerging, finally, as its own society and culture. So in the end, I trust that it does matter.