This Tiny Desk Concert (they say it’s number 250, but I count 251) is just him and his acoustic guitar. I didn’t know he did solo work, but apparently he does (in addition to being in The Postal Service and All-Time Quarterback).
Gibbard just released a solo album, Former Lives, which he’s said is a repository for material that didn’t work as Death Cab for Cutie songs; from that record, only “Teardrop Windows” pops up in his Tiny Desk Concert. For the rest, he draws from Death Cab’s most recent album (“St. Peter’s Cathedral,” from Codes and Keys) and, of all places, last year’s Arthur soundtrack (“When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street”).
As mentioned he plays three songs and his voice is so warm and familiar I felt like I knew these songs even if I didn’t.
I knew “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It is a lovely song with very little in the way of chord changes. But the melody is gentle and pretty. And the song appears to be entirely about this church. Which is interesting because the second song is also about a building in Seattle. “Teardrop Windows” is a surprisingly sad song about an inanimate object. It’s written from the building’s point of view as he mourns that no one uses him anymore. And such beautiful lyrics too:
Once built in boast as the tallest on the coast he was once the city’s only toast / In old postcards was positioned as the star, he was looked up to with fond regard / But in 1962 the Needle made its big debut and everybody forgot what it outgrew
The final song “When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street” was indeed for the Russel Brand movie Arthur. Somehow I can’t picture those two together. It’s a lovely song, too.
I prefer Gibbard’s more upbeat and fleshed out music, but it’s great to hear him stripped down as well.
[READ: January 2017] “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” “The Bravery of E.L. Doctorow,” “Remembering Updike,” and “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”
I had been planning to have my entire month of February dedicated to children’s books. I have a whole bunch that I read last year and never had an opportunity to post them. So I thought why not make February all about children’s books. But there is just too much bullshit going on in our country right now–so much hatred and ugliness–that I felt like I had to get this post full of good vibes out there before I fall completely into bad feelings myself. It;s important to show that adults can be kind and loving, despite what our leaders demonstrate. Fortunately most children’s books are all about that too, so the them holds for February.
George Saunders is a wonderful writer, but he is also a very kind human being. Despite his oftentimes funny, sarcastic humor, he is a great humanitarian and is always very generous with praise where it is warranted.
The other day I mentioned an interview with Saunders at the New York Times. Amid a lot of talk with and about Saunders, there is this gem:
Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”
These first three pieces are all examples of his love and respect for other writers–both for their skill and for their generosity.
“My Writing Education: A Time Line”
“My Writing Education” comes from a book called A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors. Saunders’ mentor was Tobias Wolff. And for this essay, his admiration takes the form of a diary.
In February 1986, he received a call from Tobias Wolff telling him he had been accepted into the Syracuse Creative Writing Program.
He is taught by Toby and Doug Unger (the guy who wrote Leaving the Land). His mind is blown that people who write books actually, you know, live, have offices, go shopping and such.
Midway through the semester he tells Toby that “‘I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically'” …. Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers. Well good, he says, ‘Just don’t lose the magic.'”
Saunders admits he will lose the magic for several years.
He learns some basic writerly things: you’re not only allowed to think about the audience, you’d better think about them. And that it is important to extract useful bits from a bad review.
But he also learns some human things: how Tobias Wolff takes visible pleasure in his family and dotes on them: I always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything.” Also when Toby said goodbye his sons he said “Goodbye, dear.” It is powerful to call your son dear. It is powerful to always strive to see everything as dear.
And some of both: A story’s positive virtues are not different from the positive virtues of its writer.
Saunders handed in his thesis which he knew was not very good. But Unger respected him: he didn’t tell Saunders it was great. Rather, he increased Saunders’ self-esteem by confirming that his perception of the work he’d been doing is accurate: The work I’ve been doing is bad. Or worse, it’s blah. This attitude is uplifting–liberating even–to have my unspoken opinion of my work confirmed.
I enjoyed that in 1990, he felt that he wrote his first good piece. And then in 1996 his first book came out: “Please note that, between this entry and the previous one, six years have passed.”
In 1997 he started teaching at Syracuse with Toby. He marvels that Toby reads every page of every application and never fails to find a nice moment, even when it occurs on the last page of the last story of a doomed application. Good teaching is grounded in generosity of spirit.
Even more profound was that Saunders bought Toby’s house when they moved, and one night he heard someone walking past their house and say “Oh Toby…Such a wonderful man.” Saunders concludes:
Note to self… Live in such a way that, when neighbors walk by your house months after you’re gone, they can’t help but blurt out something affectionate.
He also marvels at this kindness delivered by Doug.
[A grad student] comes forward and says she wants to tell me about something that happened to her. What happened is horrible and violent and recent and it’s clear that she’s still in shock from it. I don’t know how to respond. … What I see Doug doing gets inside my head and heart and has stayed there ever since…. [he] is staring at his student with complete attention, affection, focus, love–whatever you want to call it. He is, with his attention, making a place for her to tell her story–giving her permission to tell it, blessing her telling of it”
In sum: be kind, pay attention, err on the side of generosity.
Saunders has become an incredibly important figure in my life as of late as well.
“The Bravery of E.L. Doctorow”
This is a brief eulogy for E.L. Doctorow, of whom Saunders says; “a truly great American artist whose work and career have long inspired in me a tremendous sense of gratitude. Three years earlier he was on the panel when Don DeLillo and Jennifer Egan choose a recipient for the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, which is meant to honor a lifetime of intense, sustained, and escalating achievement.”
I don’t have much to say about this except to note how much love he has. Saunders writes:
Doctorow was an incredibly brave writer. He articulated our American darkness as well as any writer ever has—our hubris, our greed, our stupidity around race and class—but this awareness of darkness vibrated alongside a deep optimism, a fascination with the beauty and genius of the American experiment.
E. L. Doctorow’s work is a national treasure, and I mean this in a very specific sense: he rewarded us, over his many decades of productivity, with a vision of ourselves, as a people, a vision possessed of what I might call “aspirational verve”: he saw us clearly and tenderly, just as we are, but also was able to see past that—to what we might, at our best, become.
I feel so grateful for his courage, his playfulness, his fire; for reminding us with every book that language is infinite, and essential; for providing a great role model for any artist, by continuing to grow and search, to the very end. What an inspiration and an astonishment: to see how much beauty can be made by one artist.
If that doesn’t make you want to read Doctorow, nothing will.
After John Updike died, the New Yorker ran several people’s remembrances of the man.
Saunders’ remembrance is brief but rather amusing. He says that back in 1992, he had his first story accepted by the New Yorker. It was going to be in Tina Brown’s first issue and they marked this occasion by running two stories contrasting the new writers (Saunders) with the established. Of course the establishment writer was going to be Updike.
Saunders said he was chagrined because he knew the contrast would go something like this:
Wonderful, established, powerful representative of the Old Guard kicks the butt of the flaky, superficial, crass poseurish New Guy.
Updike’s story was “Playing with Dynamite” (I’ll post it in March). Saunders read it and wondered how “someone could write so powerfully so consistently as he did…. To be that productive, at that high a level, for such a long time, one’s perceptions must be supple, adaptable, capable of finding stories everywhere.”
Saunders’ story was this one:
“Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz”
This was Saunders’ first published story in the New Yorker, and he’s already playing around with technology and names of companies and the possible future.
The story seems simple enough–a man has terrible grief and regret about the fact that his wife died while they were having an argument. He regrets that he is stuck remembering that the last things he said to her were so horrible. Especially since they had always made up rather nicely.
The narrator calls GuiltMasters–run by Jean and Bob Fleen. He tells them his tale of woe and they promise to call him back. But that was hours ago and he hasn’t heard back..
The narrator stops waiting and goes to work because “in spite of my problems, personal interactive holography marches on.” His shop is called Escape from You and is pretty quiet that day. He burns off some tension by hooking up to “Bowling with the Pros.” But the equipment is outmoded and he just gets mad at the contraption– ultimately breaking it.
Saunders explore the possibilities of this new technology. A guilty man comes in to request “Violated Prom Queen” while another man selects “American Killers Stalk You.”
The next day he is evaluated by his supervisor (and doesn’t do well). When she is done with him she goes across the mall to O My God (for vintage religious statuary). The crux of her complaint with him is wondering “At what point must mourning cease? In your case, apparently never.”
After she leaves he goes of to “my real job, my penance, my albatross.”
He goes off to Rockettown, the ghetto where a factory to build rockets was constructed but never used .
In the early days of his grief he was told to help the elderly, he called Elder Aid, Inc and was assigned Mrs Ken Schwartz. She lives alone in Rockettown, remembering her dead husband (and sometime forgetting he is dead). She is bedridden and lonely and his holograms are the only thing she looks forward to. Mrs Schwartz has gone seriously downhill lately and she can’t afford anyone to come in.
It is Saunders somewhat elliptical style that rewards close reading. He talks about The Spot–and since so much is capitalized and somewhat comical it seems like that’s just another company. But it is much more than that.
The next day he is slated to go to Lyndon Baines Johnson School for Precocious Youth so that they can experience Hop-Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions. He is worried because how satisfied is a bunch of gifted kids going to be with a bunny doing math.
But as he gets to his store, something is amiss–and that’s when a knife is held to his throat! The thief asks which modules are the most expensive. Since he doesn’t have a direct answer he allows the thief to try one, after which he bashes him in the head with a tape gun.
But in the process, he has begun removing the man’s memories. He feels bad about this but after careful editing, he finds a potential market for these memories. And perhaps a way of avoiding the dread of Hop-Hop again.
Then he wonders if anyone else would be willing to sacrifice their memories for the sake of his business.
This weird futuristic fantasy story–with a huge undertone of grief–also grows quiet existential. It’s really good and surprisingly moving.