by Edgar Ortega

The Hour Before Going to Work (or The Hour of Driving Songs)

I've decided to use my Discman only in the comfort of my own living room. It is a difficult choice to stand by: no private soundtrack to the Technicolor streets, no drums to highlight the speed of the cabbies, or swollen guitars that may lend me swagger. But I think there's an upside. The streets are already loud; why add music to the scene? I have a poor sense for narrative and usually pick the wrong music for the occasion. My collection of oblique music is ill suited for New York; John Fahey's quiet twanging sounds like a careening train whenever I'm on the 4 Express train to Brooklyn.

There's also the confusion, disorientation and general bafflement. I was listening to Strom & Stress' Under Thunder and Fluorescent Light and had to stop by the second track. Is that Ian Williams yelling, "You're as clean as Canada," or should I start walking faster? Is that bus having trouble with its breaks or is this the first minute of "Perpetuate the Beautiful," when they slide down all the notes?

I didn't have any better luck with Microstoria's Init Ding. I was walking down Second Avenue when the full effect of the thick-grained crackle of "Slap Top" came over me. I thought perhaps I had caught a piece of cellular transmission meant for a wide-eyed man with a goatee and a phone to his ear.

Nobukazo Takemura's Scope was less amusing. I was walking east on Fourth Street when I felt my throat tighten and my tongue drown in cold saliva. The rustling, hiss-pop, and dazzle-shake pulses of "Kepler" sounded like neurons run amuck. I took the headphones off, pressed stop, and scurried on home.

Especially after July 1, 1979, when the first Sony Walkman went on sale, music seemed to sound richer while moving. Sometime during the 1940s when radios became standard issue in cars, people discovered the visceral rush of music set to a rapid succession of images. Think of the power of Elvis' "Good Rockin' Tonight" in a 1954 Cadillac on the open road. But the Walkman let you chose the music and turn it up without compunctions. The Driving Song unexpectedly became intimate and its sound overwhelming. You could sprint with a Walkman; suddenly, you could feel your knees tremble, and your heartbeat in your temples as Mick Jagger asked if you could spend the night together. But, as I say, I can't harness the magic. I don't know how to drive and my short urban walks either seem pretentious or awkward with my music.

For about two months now, I carry my Discman only in my living room and only in the mornings when I'm getting ready for work. Walking on an empty stomach from the run-down sofa past the butterfly table to the cramped bathroom, I've found myself listening mostly to jazz. Since September, ten of the last fifteen records I've purchased have been jazz.

I don't know a lot about the genre, so I buy mostly whatever is on sale. It's worked so far. I now shave to John Coltrane's "Like Sonny," while my apartment, and seemingly the rest of the world, is still asleep. The razor seems more dangerous, but all the cooler. I know it sounds like an adolescent fantasy, but an indulgence this early in the morning seems healthy. Besides, that's what a Discman's all about; it's a passport to your own private Idaho, a license to be an obstinate music snob who refuses to share his music and listen to others.

Have you tried Charles Mingus on a Monday morning? Sounds a little heavy, but no amount of coffee will ramp you up to fully consciousness as quickly and smoothly as "Moanin'" on his Blues & Roots. Booker Ervin starts you off with a deep hoot from his tenor saxophone, twenty seconds later the trombones pile in, and twenty seconds after that Mingus picks up the beat for a final statement of the head. Before the minute is out, the ensemble explodes as each of the seven horns play a different line. And you're unquestionably ready to go by the time the climax rolls around precisely a minute and a half into the song: Mingus breaks through the horns with a holler, "Yes I know!"

Masaro Ibuka must be turning in his grave. He probably thought the Walkman would take music from the living room to the streets. After all, the Sony founder insisted in first showing the Walkman to the press in Yayogi Park. At the very least he must have thought the Walkman was meant for more than a journey from a bedroom to a bathroom. And that's the least of it.

I told a friend about my Discman politics. I hyped the twisted fingers of Thelonius Monk, tried to describe the irresistible schmaltz of Duke Ellington's suites and only managed to gesticulate wildly when it came to Wayne Shorter's heady breathing on the saxophone. His reply: "Yeah, when people start listening to jazz, that's when the game is over." There's no denying, jazz has a different aesthetic to indie rock. It's the difference between a sleepy walk across the family living room and a hike uptown, between a lonely pleasure and a public proclamation, between music for a shave and music for the road.

Despite my friend's verdict, I'm still at least marginally in "the game." But because you can't be too careful these days, I thought I'd put myself through a drill. Besides you can't be pronounced out of the game without making a huff and stomping around. So, by way of a stomp and a drill, I thought I'd show I still know at least a mixed-tape worth of Driving Songs.

My personal story aside, something bad has happened to music on the streets. The mixed tape is on its last legs. Already, as a pubescent love letter, as a precocious act of an aspiring rock critic, the mixed tape is in its final hour. We've gotten use to skipping tracks, to the re-mixed album, to the recombinant compilation of studio wonks remixing someone else's "song elements." What with MTV, MP3s and CD-Rs, who has the endurance for the double-sided 90-minute mixed tape? We all skip, rip and burn. We use to just walk, but at one point the leap from one format to the other brought us the Discman.

All of this brings me back to my mixed tape of Driving Songs. It has to be a tape made special for a 90-minute drive and not a girlfriend, a tape without the easy shortcuts of the macho Driving Bands like Swervedriver, a tape that never fails to evoke the expansive vistas of the desert highway. I, of course, don't know how to drive, but reckon I've got enough of an imagination to draft a list of songs.

The engine is bubbling, the tape starts running and, as you shift to drive, Kim Deal says, "'re it." She gives you almost a minute and a half to get yourself to a two-lane road before "Teen Age Riot" starts in earnest. This is still familiar territory, but when the bridge rolls around and Steve Shelly doubles-down on the tom-toms, Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore lean on their guitars, you can only think how lucky you are to be heading for the highway.

With its lawn-mower whir, The Lilys' "Elizabeth Color Wheel" should creep up on you. By the time you notice it's there, you will be cruisng around the hills studded with trees about to drop their leaves. Though it's not too late, the light has turned sepia or orange. And by the time you think the song is starting to drag, Kurt Heasley turns it up a notch. In my book The Lilys trumped My Bloody Valentine when they thought to add an extra, impossibly overdriven guitar in the last minute of the song. It comes down in an instant; suddenly the buzz saw is twice as loud and you've got nowhere to hide. Add that to suck, squeeze, bang, blow and you're about a third of the way to another dimension.

To contrast with the buried drums in The Lilys, we jump over to the nearly forgotten The Third Meeting at the Third Counter. Satisfact is, of course, the band God designated to be in charge if He or She ever decided to stop shinning so bright. I chose a song from their weakest album less out of a revisionist impulse than out of fairness for the other bands here. By 1998 Satisfact had lost drummer Jeremiah Green to Modest Mouse and had to manage with David Schneider, who, as you'll note from his handy work on "Triple Deck," can do some heavy hitting of his own. But, for an instant, halfway through the song he stops and lets the bass take charge. Don't be fooled. The next three minutes you're hurtling through the stratosphere powered by a blast from Matt Steinke's guitar and these gyrating synths.

And, although this tape is this furthest thing from a declaration of love, who could deny Sara Lund? Unwound is at their most shy during "Life Time Achievement Award," but here her drumming stands firm, a place to take a breath and get your bearings back after Satisfact. Besides it's getting darker and your thoughts have had time to brew. Toward the end the song, the drums start going backwards and Justin Trosper's voice gets distorted. You start to wonder why the hell this tape has got you going this way.

Without a pause, at the worse moment, the tape cheats by playing three little Hood songs. First, a little irony from Silent '88: "At Last! Riots on Spofforth Hill" with its final lyric, "I'm not that desperate." Second, a chance to settle once and for all an old fight: "Smash Your Head on The Cubist Jazz." And for a wrap, the forgotten favorite from Cabled Linear Traction: "An Oblique View of an Irrationally Happy Time."

The Hood triptych, the ellipse, the disguised deflator seems a herald of defeat. You've been at this for a while, and now all you see in the distance is two planes of white and red lights. You're in the red, down under and still giving more. Admittedly, Rothko with its three brooding basses is not the world's happiest band, but "Roads Become Rivers" is suffused with the promise of a large green field. Two of the bases set the stage; one plays a baseline, the other a tight rhythmic figure. You know nothing else is coming your way when the third bass jumps in. But it feels right, to end with a few bold sweeps of a distorted bass. They linger for a moment and then dissolve into the two other bubbling basses. Soon all you hear is the engine running and the hiss of the tires on the road.

The Hour Before Going to Work (or The Hour of Driving Songs)

"Teen Age Riot"  Sonic Youth  Daydream Nation
"Elizabeth Color Wheel"  The Lilys  In The Presence of Nothing
"Triple Deck"  Satisfact  The Third Meeting at the Third Counter
"Life Time Achievement Award"  Unwound  A Challenge For A Civilized Society
"At Last! Riots on Spofforth Hill"  Hood  Silent '88
"Smash Your Head on The Cubist Jazz"  Hood  Silent '88
"An Oblique View of an Irrationally Happy Time"  Hood  Cabled Linear Traction
"Roads Become Rivers"  Rothko  Truth Burns

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