Sunday, November 15, 2020


If there's any one person responsible for my musical taste -- which I will concede remains fair at best -- it would be Jack Jenson.

Jack was this burnout kid I didn't meet until my senior year of high school, when we bonded in debate class over Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna. Both of us believed psychedelics were the key to achieving universal consciousness and peering through the veil of reality. The big difference between us was that Jack had actual access to drugs, whereas I just had an internet connection. My beliefs were all theoreticals based on what I could dig up online. Jack, who always had the wide-eyed look of somebody roused from an unsettling dream, seemed like flesh-and-blood confirmation of what I as already inclined to believe.

As a result, I was always a little more credulous of the things he said than maybe I should have been. One day he showed up in class and gave me a fifty page document titled "Strange But True" that he'd found somewhere on the internet. In among facts about color-changing octopi and the existence of super-massive black holes were facts that proved reincarnation, ancient astronauts at Machu Picchu, and the whereabouts of the living descendants of Jesus Christ. I believed all of it.

The other thing Jack had was an older brother. This was a huge advantage, musically. My friends with older brothers or cool cousins were the ones listening to Nirvana, Pixies, Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. My friends who lacked these influences listened to Billy Joel and Broadway soundtracks. Far be it from me to pretend I was not myself a huge dork, but I can at least take a little pride in not knowing the words to Do You Hear the People Sing? as a group of my classmates sang it on the way to a speech meet.

But I was in a tenuous position. It would not have taken much to convince me that the best way to fit in with my friends would be to memorize the lyrics to We Didn't Start the Fire. So thank god for Jack, and thank god for his older brother.

Like a lot of evangelicals, Jack was a recent convert looking for other unbelievers. His brother had arrived to college at the dawn of file sharing and was channeling this newfound wealth of music back to Jack, who in turn funneled it to me. Mr. Bungle, Squarepusher, Belle and Sebastian, Aphex Twin, Neutral Milk Hotel: Every week Jack would have a new name for me, which he'd furiously scribble into one of my notebooks to make sure I didn't lose track. Then I'd go dutifully home, find a few songs online, and spend the next eight hours downloading them.

Last week I called Christopher Isherwood a "jellyfish." What I meant by that is that something in his books always stung me -- I could drift through a hundred pages not quite connecting, and then suddenly I'd get this electric shock. It was following that jolt which led me, finally, to read A Single Man, which may be the best book I've ever read.

What stands out to me now is how much of Jack's music was like that. I'd return to all of those bands, over and over, never quite sure what to think. But there was always that jolt. Always that shock that drew me back over and over until finally it clicked.

One of the theories Jack and I liked to talk about was McKenna's take on the "singularity." This idea has been overrun by techies so that now everyone associates it with artificial intelligence. But Terence McKenna's idea was a little bit weirder. He believed in an eschatological event at the end of time that was so massive, so all-consuming it drew all of history toward itself. The guidance we receive along the way, he believed, which was the singularity's own act of self creation.

Books and music probably aren't like that. You probably just develop your taste as you get older, and learn to appreciate authors and musicians by revisiting their work time and time again. But sometimes I wonder. Sometimes finding artists you connect with feels less like a discovery than the conclusion of some inevitable process. An eschaton in every novel. A singularity in every album.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...