If you’d known me as a boy, you could be forgiven for never knowing quite what what to expect of me. I had no idea either.
If you saw me hanging around the street corner with my gang, you might figure me for a moronic, mindless thug; apart from the fact that I was too scrawny and weak to do any real damage without some genuinely tough guys to back me up, you wouldn’t have been far from the truth. Look a little deeper, though, and you would have also discovered a shy, sensitive geek who could sing every lyric from Carousel or My Fair Lady and conjugate Latin verbs till the cows came home.
I discovered this ability to pivot abruptly between (among?) personas when, barely 10 years old, I founded my neighborhood’s first street gang, the fearsomely named Night Raiders. I don’t know where I got the idea; this was years before West Side Story imbued me with the desire to go pirouetting off fire escapes and stabbing people in back alleys. But I managed to enlist every 8 through 10 year-old on the block, with the exception of my best friend Rob, who, older and wiser (11 going on 12), warned me I might be biting off something I wouldn’t want to chew. He ended up becoming a priest, if that tells you anything.
The Night Raiders rampaged up and down Carter Street for the better part of a week before the other boys’ parents got wind of it and banned them from playing with me. Upon discovering that being the leader of a one-man gang was less than thrilling, I converted the Night Raiders into the more respectable-sounding Meteorology Club, which got the neighborhood fatwa against me lifted, but bored the hell out of the boys, most of whom couldn’t pronounce “meteorology,” let alone tell you what it meant.
Sitting around my basement studying the nuances of weather systems and cloud patterns couldn’t compete with the heady excitement of tearing laundry off clotheslines and letting air out of people’s tires. The Meteorology Club struggled from the start, and once again I was reduced to a one-man operation. I mention this not only to illustrate how my sociopathic tendencies were, from the beginning, interlaced with nerdly ones, but also to explain the origins of my curious obsession with weather.
If it weren’t for that obsession, I might never have heard about The Year Without A Summer, but in fact I am unnervingly familiar with it. If you missed out on it yourself, it happened in 1816, when volcanic eruptions and other uncertain factors subjected much of the Northern Hemisphere to dramatic climate fluctuations that included midsummer frosts and snowfalls. Crops failed, and considerable suffering, illness and death ensued.
Most of us – especially if we’ve ever lived in England – have seen summers of such dubious quality that they might as well be termed nonexistent, but the harm done seldom extended beyond disappointing beach holidays and a vague, overarching angst and resentment. But this year the situation has been the opposite. With the official start of spring less than a week away, we’re on the verge of having passed through The Year Without A Winter.
Here in New York we had a freak snowstorm at Halloween when it was effectively still late summer, with trees in full leaf. Apart from a minor, very short-lived snowfall in December, that was it. For the rest of the “winter” temperature seldom fell below freezing. Even in January there were times when no more than a light jacket or sweater was needed, and February and March have already seen several t-shirt and shorts days. Daffodils and cherry blossoms were more than a month ahead of schedule, and if the current weather keeps up – which is what’s being predicted – we should see most of the city’s trees in leaf before April.
As much as I enjoy spring and summer, and as little as I savor the ice, snow and cold of winter, it’s disturbing. Not just because it feels unnatural – a number of locals, bearing in mind the so-called Mayan prophecy, have taken to calling it “end of days weather” – but because it’s disruptive to the seasonal rhythm of work and hibernation.
A few years ago Aaron Cometbus and I were meandering around Carroll Gardens in early April as I enthused about the oncoming spring. Aaron demurred. ”It’s too soon,” he declared. ”You can’t really enjoy spring and summer until you’ve had enough time hiding out indoors to get your winter work done.” Being a fan neither of winter nor work, I argued vehemently against this viewpoint, but I’ve since come around to his way of thinking.
So how do you get your “winter work” done when there’s little or no winter at all? I’ve got a ton of indoor things in front of me: the final editing of Spy Rock Memories is already months behind schedule, and tying up the bits and pieces of The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore which, thankfully, is on schedule, but still demands considerable attention. Both invigorating tasks, to be sure, but hard to keep your mind on when it’s sunny and 70 degrees outside in the first week of March. In a normal year, it might make sense to drop everything and run outdoors to take advantage of the day on the grounds that it might be weeks or months before there’s another one like it. But this year has seen day after day of stunning weather, leading to the temptation to put off all work until, oh, next December, maybe.
Not that I need excuses. I’ve never had difficulty finding those, come rain, shine or foreshadowings of the apocalypse. Putting things off to the last possible minute seems to be intrinsic to the human condition, or at least my human condition. For years – all my life, really – I’ve wondered why I do this, especially when the end result is so often a piece of work I’m less than fully satisfied with, and which I tell myself would have been so much better “if only I’d had more time.”
In 95% of those cases, I did have more time, sometimes tons of it, but chose instead to stare out the window, peruse internet message boards, or catch up on Law And Order reruns. None of which I really enjoyed because I was too conscious of the what I needed – and, in my heart, wanted – to be doing instead.
I’ve read and heard many explanations for why I operate like this, but the one that makes the most sense is fear. Yes, there’s the perhaps more obvious idea – often suggested to me by parents, teachers and bosses – that I was just plain lazy, but I think laziness is just shorthand for procrastination, and that both of them are ways of avoiding coming to grips with our fear of failure – or, if you want to get all woo-woo about it, fear of success.
As long as a task remains uncompleted, it can’t be judged a failure or success. In fact, it can’t be judged at all, because, we tell ourselves, even a team trailing 18-0 could always pull out 19 runs in the bottom of the 9th. This happens, if it happens at all, once or twicea century, but until we play those last three outs, nobody can prove it won’t happen. Which makes it somewhat understandable why, when told it’s time to take the field, we respond with “What’s the hurry?”
So what are we talking about here? Perfectionism? Or the weather, which often serves as surreptitious metaphor for matters less salubrious? As Oscar Wilde put it: “Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.”
Well, the weather is making me nervous, and not because it might be a harbinger of the global warming that supposedly will see millions of us coastal dwellers erecting dikes and/or donning aqualungs. At my age chances are great I won’t be around when New York becomes New Venice. From a purely selfish standpoint, I should welcome the city’s long-dreamed-of (by me, anyway) transition from intemperate to semi-tropical.
But pleasant as it’s been not having to hunker down in scarves and snowboots, there remains something unsettling about it, something that can’t be explained away by ignoring the calendar and celebrating spring in February. Even if calendars had never been invented, our inbuilt conditioning would tell us something is out of kilter when flowers luxuriate under balmy zephyrs while the sun still hangs low in the wintry sky. It reminds me of when California would go through a winter with little or no rain. People unfamiliar with the natural rhythms of the seasons or, more to the point, where their drinking water came from, would exult over the succession of warm, sunny days in mid-January. Those of us who lived closer to the land would fear the wilting crops and dying forests of a drought-year summer.
The East Coast gets rain all year round and is blessed with abundant sources of water upstate and upstream, so it’s hardly in danger of drying up and blowing away. And this being mid-March, it’s still possible some morning could find us buried under a late-season blizzard. But I doubt it. Just as, while I know it’s possible, I doubt this unnaturally warm winter will be followed by an unbearably hot summer (that might only be because for me, “too hot” is a nebulous, almost nonexistent concept). I look forward instead to a long, awesome summer whose main problem will be convincing myself to go indoors long enough to write something now and then. Or perhaps it will finally be time to hook myself up with that solar-powered computer and just live on the beach.
In other news, this has been a very special week musically. Two artists I recently wrote about here and here came to town; both lived up to and surpassed my expectations. John K. Samson was at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday; as much and as long as I’ve loved the Weakerthans, he has broken through to a whole new level on his own, with an even greater eloquence and ease of manner. He played two encores and would have played several more if the crowd had had its way. He performed his final song, the heartrending “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure,” without benefit of microphone or amplifier, counting on the audience, in the spirit of the Occupy mic check, to render it audible throughout the building by singing lustily but gently along.
Had they not known and loved those lyrics, or had John’s charisma and trust not been sufficient to carry them along, it could have been embarrassing, but instead it was transcendent and triumphant. I once watched Billie Joe Armstrong, armed with only an acoustic guitar, hold 20,000 fans enraptured at Madison Square Garden, and thought that was a marvelous feat. But acoustic guitar or not, he still had a multi-million dollar sound system to fall back on; to divest oneself of even that advantage, as John did, must take incredible courage and confidence. It could have failed, but it didn’t, and the payoff was profound and terrific.
Then on Saturday Jesse Michaels and the Classics Of Love played a sold-out show at Death By Audio. I almost didn’t go because of the venue’s policy of allowing indoor smoking (disgruntled patrons have renamed it Death By Asphyxiation). But thanks to the request (or insistence; I don’t know the full story) of the performers and cooperation of DBA management, I was able to attend an entirely smoke-free event. It was heavenly, and with any luck will cause both fans and management to realize, “Hey, we could have been doing this all along!”
The Classics played a short, fast and furious set that was as riveting and breathtaking as anything I’ve seen since Jesse’s days with Operation Ivy 25 years ago. The lithe energy, the impassioned leaps, the lilting, vulnerable vocals that danced between a rasp and a growl and held melody in thrall to a scream: it was as though Jesse had been reborn after years of wandering in the wilderness. Offstage, he was personable, relaxed, even outgoing, a far remove from the years when his legions of admirers sometimes seemed to depress and even terrify him. It added up to two of the best nights of music I’ve seen in years, and in the same half of one week. If that’s how the year is shaping up, what the heck: it might as well be spring.