I saw Nick Jaina read at Valentine’s in Portland this past January. I knew his music pretty well, but his writing was new to me. A few days before, I had read his gorgeous essay in Vol 1. Brooklyn about the Yo La Tengo song “Green Arrow,” a piece designed to be read while listening to the song, and meant to take the same amount of time to read as the length of the song. Along with a few entries from his recent book, Get It While You Can (Perfect Day Publishing, 2015), he read the essay, accompanied by the music. It was apparently the first time he had ever tried to sync the two in public, and though the reading ended up being slightly shorter than the song, it came off beautifully. The overall effect was a hypnotic blend of the song’s dreamy, slow-burning atmospherics and the soft, quavering rhythm of Jaina’s words. It was a sublime, intimate performance, threaded through with earnestness and grace, extemperaneity and meticulous craft, and of course, barrels of self-deprecating wit.
I went home with a copy of Get It While You Can, a memoir told in a series of vignettes which revolve around the story of a ten-day meditation retreat and a collection of unsent love letters, addressed to various unnamed recipients. I had a number of other books on my night stand that I meant to read first, but once I started reading the first page, I couldn’t put it down. Smart, lyrical, crushingly honest, it had a sheen of familiarity that felt almost like deja vu. The creative failures, the relentless heartache, the loss, the yearning for spiritual comfort, the inexhaustible flicker of hope were all distinctly his, but like the best art, it spoke to my own experience in ways that I somehow hadn’t been able to articulate.
Here is one of the unsent letters:
There is a riveting moment right before an orchestra begins to play when there are a few dozen well-dressed, talented musicians waiting in silence for a man to tell them to start. In that moment they are doing nothing, sitting with their instruments in front of two-thousand people in a large concert hall. The silence in that moment is very expensive, very educated. It is of a different quality than you find in a meadow at dusk.
There is also the moment when the stripper has finished her routine. The music has stopped playing, the energy in the room dissipates, and she puts her clothes back on. I find the way she puts her clothes on to be so much more compelling than the way she takes them off. There is no show in it.
I’d also like to direct your attention to the moment when the first side of a record has finished playing and the needle spills into the center groove and keeps spinning until you get up and turn the record over. The amount of time it takes to get from the last song on the first side to the first song on the other side will always be different. If you’re on top of it, it might just be a few seconds. However, if you’re other wise occupied–if there’s a cat on your lap, if the egg yellows are congealing, if you’re getting to second base– it might be a while before the record gets flipped. There is noting the maker of the record can do to dictate how long it will last.
Nick is touring the country now, playing shows and promoting the book. We corresponded over the course of a week as he traveled from city to city.
Todd Gleason: One of the things you write so well about is the myriad ways in which music is inhabited, by both the musician and the listener. I am particularly struck by the attention you give to small musical moments. You have an almost forensic approach to exploring so many of these, from Nina Simone at Montreux, to Ray Charles’ “Ring of Fire” to Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park. “Forensic” is not to imply that it ever comes off as dry– your approach is very intimate, and a deep emotional resonance always comes across. Unlike Greil Marcus does with similar moments, you don’t veer into wildly hyberbolic, inventive speculation, (which in his case can work, because he is consciously working within some greater stream of rock n’ roll mythos that he is also adding to– another issue entirely, of course.) What you seem to be after, rather than mythology so much, if I can paraphrase from your Large-Hearted Boy notes, are certain “small, unspoken miracles.” Continue reading