RL283 - I Never Follow the Voice

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The problem: We could find Gilligan, referring to the fact that the era where things were unknown, like islands in the South Pacific that nobody ever set foot on, has ended.

The show title reference is unknown.

Merlin is late because he thought he could make it to the ATM. He doesn’t like not having cash.

Merlin makes a lot of noise getting a can of Seltzer by the Canada Dry company as they record.

John has been living on Reds, Vitamin C and Cocaine for many years and he doesn’t turn his nose up at a schwag bag, but nobody has giving John a motorcycle.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

John's medication (RL283)

John’s medication is contra-indicated to eat grapefruit. If you eat grapefruit, it makes the medicine not work. He is astonished that they paid that close attention to stuff to figure this out. There are a lot of contra-indications of grapefruit on webmd. John likes pomelo, but he likes anything that hurts in general, like hydrogen peroxide.

Jesus Christ Superstar (RL283)

John is always amazed by computer people, by their ups and downs and ins and outs, by their foibles and their common little keychains they hand to one another. For a long time, Merlin was John’s number one computer guy, the one that would explain all the computers to John and who would tell John if there were things or services he didn't need to worry about. There are things that still amaze John all the time. Last night when he went on the Internet to look at things, it seemed like everyone he knew and everyone else in the world was watching Jesus Christ Superstar on the television. John’s question was not ”Why?”, because obviously Jesus Christ Superstar is amazing and this was a live production from Los Angeles. They did it twice, one for the East Coast and one for the West Coast and Judas kind of screwed up the lyrics at one point.

What amazed him was that he did not remember everybody saying during the last 5 days ”We are all going to watch Jesus Christ Superstar on TV, right, everybody?”, but it came out of nowhere and everyone seemed to be watching it. John hadn’t heard about it and even if he had heard about it, the premise wouldn’t have necessarily been super-enticing. There is a lot of stuff you can watch on TV, and yet everybody agreed offline or in a secret newsgroup that they were all going to watch this thing and live-comment on it. He understands when it is about the Oscars, because it is just understood that you are going to do it, but that was an example of a cultural moment where John asked himself if he just happened to follow 400 people who are all really into musical theater. It is not impossible.

Merlin had not heard about this at all before he saw some people on political Twitter make jokes about it and referencing Jeepers Creepers. Until Saturday night / Sunday morning Merlin wasn’t aware that it was even a thing. When he did flip it on at 7:58pm last night, there was a show with Steve Harvey talking to talented children, a show he didn’t know existed. Merlin doesn’t know most TV exists, which is how TV works today. He is a fan of the musical and he is a super-fan of a handfull of the songs. John knows a lot about Steve Harvey because he follows Vic Berger, who makes the funny videos. His Steve Harvey videos are very fun and John did a little background research on him to know what he was looking at. Steve Harvey is kind of a throwback along the lines of Chris Hardwick. It is a character you don’t see as much anymore, a character Merlin thought John should aspire to be, a TV personality, a fixture of TV to a mainstream audience. That world doesn’t exist anymore and John was confused about the Jesus Christ Superstar live show last night because it felt like a throwback to a time when everybody sat down to watch The Day After, because there were only three things on TV. There is no event viewing anymore and although there are a few things like Game of Thrones that Merlin will watch the second it comes on, he can’t talk about it afterwards because of spoilers. If you are not in the world of live sports, you don’t have that much community event viewing anymore. John doesn’t even have a TV.

Merlin having the wrong keyboard (RL283)

When Merlin said at the beginning of the show that he had the wrong keyboard, it generated an image in John’s mind where Merlin has a shelf of between 9 and 15 keyboards that he deploys like people from West Virginia deploy rifles. Just like John needs his Gibson SG for this particular song, Merlin has his Roderick on the Line keyboard. John fell into a FOMO of maybe not having enough keyboards. Merlin has an old analog clickety-clack keyboard and that neat little solar powered keyboard he told John to buy a long time ago. John still has it and he even got another one for another computer. John posted a picture of his keyboard one time and got like 40 replies telling him to clean it, which is why Merlin doesn’t post anything on the internet anymore. ”Why you got a box cutter? You got terrorists? Scotch Tape? You like Scotch brand tape? You bought those expensive earphones! A $5 bill? I can’t believe you still use cash! What kind of hat is that? I thought you like the other kind of hat? What is that? Is that a Moleskine pen? If it is a solar keyboard, why don’t you clean off the solar part?”

Promoting your thing on Twitter (RL283)

In the beginning of April 2018, John sent out some tweets promoting his podcasts. He is very shy about promoting himself and about promoting his work, but Merlin thought John did it well. He got a lot of nice replies from people who had Roderick on the Line as their introduction to John and who still love the show and wanted to say how much they did. John is never fishing for that, but it was nice. It is, like president Nixon said, a silent majority: The truth is, most people who listen to a podcast tend to like the podcast and why would they ever say anything about it? When John put those tweets out there, he was wondering how long it would take before he would get a turkey. How long would it take before he met the Wonka factory and the goose that is laying the golden eggs and before one of them goes down the shithole? One person posted some asshole remark and his bio said that he was an asshole, so he was easy to block, saying ”What do you call 3 white guys sitting around with nothing to talk about? A podcast!”

One person tweeted at John, but they were speaking as though they were talking about him to a group of people. The guy said that he used to love Roderick on the Line and listened to it all the time, but then he listened to Friendly Fire and John was so mean to Saving Private Ryan that he can’t listen to any of the shows anymore. Maybe John might have oversold how mad he was about the movie? Maybe he should make a podcast where he will just compliment things all the time?

Another guy said ”Oh yeah, podcasts are great, you should listen to mine!” and another pretty excellent guy replied to that guy that you don’t reply to somebody’s really nice tweet stream about what their making with a link to your own thing, but then he came back again ”You don’t know me, man! I’m living in my car right now and still I’m managing to put podcasts out every week!” Being poor and being an asshole are not mutually exclusive.

John still sometimes tries to chime in with some funny thing into a conversation of somebody he admires on Twitter, although they don’t have any familiarity with him and they don’t know who he is. Then he has his shoulders sag when they didn’t reply and didn’t like his thing. Then he goes through a minute or two of ”Just don’t even bother! Just don’t even try!”

John’s friend Elon Gale, the producer of The Bachelor, the airplane guy, is a troublemaker and he probably gets 20.000 replies to every tweet he does, but he is incredibly good about making sure that if John jumps in, he always gives him a prop, even if it is just like ”Yeah, buddy!” John is not good at it, he is not throwing a game at everybody. If John is jumping in on some thread of friends, it is just tumbleweeds, he is like ”Oh fuck! Never try!”

Being interviewed when running for office (RL283)

When John was running for city council, he and his 3 opponents were invited to the election control board of The Stranger who was peppering the candidates with hard questions. Three of them were older, like in John’s age area, one of them Dan Savage and one of them the publisher Tim Keck. Then there were the youngs in their mid 20s, the radical Stranger writers who believe that private property should be abolished and that we don’t need police. One of them in particularly, who ended up getting fired from The Stranger for being a dickhole and for doing unscrupulous journalistic things, felt like he wanted John’s opponent to win and he was peppering John with questions about stuff that his opponent was an expert on. The opponent was an housing advocate and the writer directed an increasingly hostile stream of questions to John about his housing plan. John’s answer was that as soon as he gets elected, he is going to hire this guy as his housing guy, because he is not going to go head to head with someone who has been developing his housing plan for 10 years. He was running for city council, not for housing guy. At one point they guy leaned back in his chair and said ”I’m done!”

Running for office is a very concentrated series of events and John is going to replay many of these moments for the rest of his life, going ”Oh, you know what I should have said?” It is a lot of things all at once and you build up a lifetime’s worth of ”Ohhhhh, what I should have said was…” If John is driving for very long, his mind will go to some event in a union hall somewhere where he should have told somebody where they should have put it. What John should have said to this guy at The Stranger is ”What do you mean done? You are not done! What is that supposed to mean?”, and rather be famous for that interview than not famous for that interview, which is what Oscar Wilde said. John would have happily burned that place down. The Stranger were supposed to be his friends! He was part of them for a long time and he has written for them, they are all pals, and yet every 3 years they hire a bunch of young writers who are not friends of John and don’t know anything about him. He had expected some leftist old-boy network treatment. The Stranger is a radical newspaper and John is a radical, they have always been on the same page, but now they are a bunch of 24 year olds who think John is some crusty. Bummer!

When we communicate with strangers in this weirdly mediated way, there is a certain kind of ”I’m done” tone to things. Merlin certainly does it, we all have limited attention, patience and vulnerability that we are willing to have destroyed. You don’t have to be cute or be a fakey weirdo about it, but when you are interacting with people in general, it is important to leave some air. You don’t have to settle every mystery immediately. Unless you are serving a warrant, try and leave some room for joy, for playfulness, or for the other person to get their fun in as well. You don’t have to have a relationship with everybody, but a lot of communication, especially on the Internet, comes down to ”You are a bad person and I would never want to have a relationship with you!” Even if you ask interview questions, give people some space to answer in an interesting way! You can still pursue them if they don’t answer the questions. You don’t need to be afraid to be curious and you don’t have to be a weirdo about it! Think about whether you are preemptively shutting down an actual conversation that you could have! Merlin worries that the way we type with our fingers on the phone starts out to be the way we think about any interaction.

Curiosity in times when everything is available to us (RL283)

When John was young, there were still a lot of unsolved mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle and there was even a television show called Unsovled Mysteries. Things were not easily findable or even knowable at all. There were a great number of places in the world that hadn’t been explored, there were uninhabited islands in the South Pacific and it was still plausible that Gilligan and the skipper would land on an island that could sustain life, but was still uncharted, because there was just not anybody living there. Who knew what was behind the iron curtain? Now we have mapped the entire world and have overlaid it with a grid system enough that we can pretty much put our pinky down on anything we want to see. With Wikipedia we have named everything and all that is missing from Wikipedia is stuff from the olden times that we haven’t brought forward and put on yet. There is nothing happening right now that is not recorded. You can study Google Earth and find Gilligan! You can find anything you are looking for!

This transition has happened in a very brief amount of time and it affected the baked in curiosity that we were expected to have when we grew up, even about simple things like what is in the forest. If you went into the woods right next your house as a little kid, you didn’t know how big the woods were and you imagined that maybe these woods would go forever. Maybe they would go to Sherwood forest? Now everything is mapped and there isn’t that feeling anymore of ”Nobody has ever been in this cave”. As our relationship to curiosity changes, we don't think that anybody else is able to teach us anything anymore. Everything is already known and it is not a question of learning, but of opinion. It is not that you don't know something, you just don't have an opinion about it yet. It is so different from when John was a kid. When he heard that Jimmy Page had bought Aleister Crowley’s house, he wondered if the music of Led Zeppelin is so amazing because Jimmy Page is talking to the devil! Now, even if John were 8 years old, there would be eleven other 8-year olds that would go ”well, actually!”

Wanting to talk about your problems without a solution (RL283)

Merlin mentions that if a woman wants to talk about something, then men want to solve her problem while she often doesn’t want a solution, but just wants to talk about something in their life and the talking itself is often the solution. Merlin really struggles with this! He doesn’t want other people to finish his sentences and he doesn’t want to finish other people’s sentences, because sometimes they just want to ramble a little bit. John has talked about this as a component in the relationship between his mother and his sister Susan. His sister is the one who comes home and wants to talk about the problems she had during the day, but she does not want the problem solved, but basically wants to bitch about it and be done. Her mom is somebody who wants to solve the problem, often with a little hint of ”actually it is not that complicated”. On the flip side, bitching about stuff is uncomfortable for certain people to listen to. John’s mom is extremely impatient, because to her ears it is ”Why are you complaining? Either solve the problem or get used to it!” Every time this starts happening in John’s house, he picks up the newspaper and slowly edges out of the room without saying anything. For years it was really frustrating, because they had not identified this as the dynamic and Susan’s response was to get more and more agitated.

It is not in John's nature to complain. There are times when he protests, like when he is at the counter of an airline and they say ”You do not get (blank)”. Once they have told him that they would not let him put his guitar in the overhead bin because they didn’t read the memo from the US Senate, he will not sit in his chair complaining. Part of it is the feeling that he deserves suffering, but there is no point to it, either because he cannot win in that situation. His mom is the same way, like ”I guess I have to wear these shoes made out of fire. I don’t like it, but what does it serve to complain?”, while part of Susan's way to process the things that happen to her is putting them out there in the form of either participatory celebration or participatory lament. John's mom does not require Susan's help to process her events, because she is doing it internally and quietly, but Susan does require her mom's help. She does require a listener and it wouldn’t be sufficient to just make a cage, put some socks around it and put a bowl of food in it so Susan could cling to it and yell at it about her day. She needs someone to listen and to pay that attention.

This feels like another example of the Introvert/Extrovert issue. Introverts are very aware of extrovert culture and they know what extrovert-world looks like, because they can’t help but know. Extroverts on the other hand are not aware of introvert culture or of the needs of introverts because why would they be? All they see are other extroverts and introverts just seem like people who are standing there waiting for them to come and talk to them. It is like talking to black people about white culture. They know all about white culture because they can’t avoid it. It is the same if somebody is telling a woman that mansplaining is not really a thing. Stop talking, just say ”That sucks!” from time to time, and it will open you to listen to that person rather than trying to explain how they are being unhappy wrong. John is definitely being unhappy wrong, but Merlin says John is not!

John Darnielle’s music, embracing the unknown (RL283)

Sometimes you hear something very obvious, buy you absolutely had to hear it first. Merlin recently listened to Episode 13 of the Podcast I only listen to the Mountain Goats where they talked about the song Source Decay with John Darnielle. He said ”Most people don’t treasure the unknown, but most people want all the information. I never want all the information.” Merlin is the same way: Whilst he loves to look up the name of an actress in a scene on TV, he loved the time when he saw Star Wars a week after it came out and although he wanted to know everything about it, there wasn’t that much about it to consume. It is one reason Merlin loves John’s songs, because he doesn’t know what they are all about, even when John explains them to him.

John read an article that Google supposedly knows everything you have ever googled, which in John’s case would not help any algorithm, but it also knows everywhere you have been. When John followed the link, there was no information about him. He often looks for routes or traffic, but he never follows the navigation, but puts his phone away after he has looked at the result. He doesn’t want to know all the answers and he doesn’t want to get there according to the computer’s best estimation of the fastest route, but he wants to find it.

John’s greatest regret about the level of success The Long Winters had, and what complicates his relationship with John Darnielle personally, which is true for so many musicians when you really get them to sit down and get a few drinks in them, John can’t help but say ”I don’t want to be Eddie VanHalen, but if I just had the amount and kind of success John Darnielle had" When you get to know him personally, you notice that being so steady and doing the work is part of his process of coping. He is struggling with the contra-indications of grapefruit just as much as anybody else, but his way of getting through the year is making music and putting it out, which is true for a lot of people John knows. If you asked Carl Newman how he likes his fame, he might say that it is great and he is very happy, but wouldn’t it be nice to have the fame of Jonathan Richman? Even Bono has a boss!

John wants to get critical feedback about his work (RL283)

John would love to sit down with somebody who wanted to go through his music and talk about what things meant, because when John was writing it, he meant something by everything. There is no filler! John wants somebody to care enough and there are people who do. Darnielle and his band inspire a kind of culty reverence and while there are those people about The Long Winters, there is no audience for their output. There is an audience for a podcast about John Darnielle, but there would not necessarily be an audience for a podcast about the Long Winters’s songs digested.

In April of 2018, John got an email from an English literature teacher in college who had asked their students to think about the line from the song Seven ”Every eyelash is a picket or a wire”, he had to explain what a picket is, and then they talked about it. When John read the email, he was laying there in his cuddle cozy bunny suit because someone somewhere was looking at a line he wrote. ”I am still a star!” It meant so much to him that someone would do that! Over the last half a dozen years, people who listen to this podcast have made many attempts to make a codex or an encyclopedia of everything they have ever talked about, with all the different cross-references and stuff. Even though none of these attempts has succeeded and has become the definitive one, there are surely half a dozen orphan projects by people who have very kindly taken a stab at it. It is a lot to take on. Merlin mentions David Smith’s podsearch website, which is great to find some bit or when something first appeared. Merlin and John have traveled a lot of ground. They kid about helping people and then their fans kid back at them. There is a trove of things, not necessarily a treasure trove, but a trove.

John and Merlin spend a lot less time solving problems than they spend describing them. They even spend a lot less time describing problems than they spend inhabiting them audibly. A portion of their problems are not even obvious to them! Merlin has been reliably informed that this is true and they have been hearing from people saying ”You think that is your problem?” Darnielle is super-wise about a lot, but as everybody, he has his blind spots that he is not wise about, which is the same with John.

When Ultimatum first came out, there was a review in the Salt Lake paper by a reviewer who was really mad at the song Ultimatum in particular and who gave an excoriating review. It was not a negative review, because it said that this was a beautiful, well-recorded song by a very interesting band, but he disagreed with it. John put a big napkin in front of his shirt, tucked himself in and was like ”Tell me more!” The reviewer had listened to it enough to understand the viewpoint of it and be mad at the viewpoint, which meant a lot to John because it was the rare review of a record that took that approach. Usually they just say that this band sounds like that band and the third song is a really nice Jangle-Pop blah blah, but very few people say that the viewpoint of the narrator in this song is not life-giving. The viewpoint of the song is a cowboy who doesn’t want to be a villager, but also wants to hang around the village and get free drinks. The critic found that is wasn’t hopeful and the narrator himself should try harder. John likes it when people engage and tell him how they have analyzed his work! John doesn’t do the Kurt Cobain model like ”I said it, it is in the lyrics”, but he really wants to discuss his music.

Who is John writing his intricate lyrics for? (RL283)

John wants to write down a line by line exegesis of his song lyrics, he just doesn’t know who the audience would be. Merlin wishes John wouldn’t do it, because he prefers the mystery. John would just lay out the possibilities, because his lyrics are POV-based rather than ”this is a song about JFK, but I changed his name” They are all about everything. John worked so hard on them, but so often they are put up against other Pop music that isn’t really about anything. Yet, John is also working in that vernacular. John was listening to Boney M last night, as you do, and her song called Daddy Kool has 3 lyrics. John’s good pals from Band of Horses have that song ”When I was alone, is there a ghost in my house?”, which is a hell of a line that conveyed a lot to John, but it is one of very few lyrics in the song. While it is a more popular song than any song John ever wrote, there is no lyrical commonality in terms of intent between this song and any song John ever wrote. Who was John writing for? For Merlin?

Listening to John Darnielle’s songs, the lyrics are baked in and the songs are very lyric-driven. There are not a lot of keyboard parts, he doesn’t quadruple the harmonies on the chorus, but you are there to listen to the lyrics. It is folk music, like Billy Bragg. Merlin likes songs with a sense of urgency to it, whether it is The Beatles or John or whoever. He doesn't necessarily mean it in the sense of upbeat or high energy or super-sad, but the songs he remembers things about have some message or some feeling that has to be put across. The early stuff of The Beatles was about how they were disappointed and misunderstood by women. Songs like ”I want to hold your hand” obviously have an extreme sense of urgency to them. John’s songs describe the same confusion, just quadrupled by an extra decade of feeling confused because John was quite a bit older than John Lennon when he wrote his songs.

We all have a desire to be appreciated. When you do something with subtlety and you worked really hard to make it opaque, but then you see things succeed that are done unsubtly where somebody just comes along ”Shake it! Shake it!” and people are like ”Yeah, I want to shake it!”, you are like ”Fuck!” Who is your audience? The other person is making all these tiny little beads, but your dream is to reach people like yourself who are looking for things in stuff, like hitting a key for a lock you didn’t know you had. When John finally was able to understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics, he was really disappointed, because it was a lot better when he couldn’t tell what he was saying. John wanted to create the feeling that Michael Stipe created in him, except when you would go into it, you would find that there actually was something there. Michael Stipe was obviously creating super-appealing vignettes.

Merlin was very into Pavement and Summer Babe was his first favorite Pavement song. They were creating a mood, they were full of information, they seemed to be full of even more information than what was actually there, they were so sincere, but mostly smarmy, and there was something really poignant about American life in their songs. There were really smart turns of phrase, but also thrown off in a way that suggested that they either didn’t care or that half the guys in the band didn’t understand what the other half were talking about, but it didn’t matter. There was so much going on! Nobody in Seattle wanted to acknowledge what an influence Pavement was, because they were making their own thing up there. It was very influential because it felt impossible to duplicate. Wheezer for example feels very easy to duplicate.

Merlin talks about how he found the song Here by Pavement very portentous and very moving, although he didn’t know what the song was about. It is the same with a lot of Nirvana: You don’t know what the hell they are talking about, but the lyrical atmosphere of what it conveys is appropriate and it communicates what you wanted to. Getting all that stuff together is John’s seven-sided lighthouse made of dreams. Merlin had a whole episode of Reconcilable Differences about this where they talked about John’s music a lot. For Merlin there is a giant play going on with set dressing and characters. There are little spots about what is said and what is not said, there is so much that goes beyond what the lyrics mean. There is a whole evocation that can happen in a song that even plays against the lyrics.

Sometimes John wonders whether podcasting and writing articles took away some of the universe-building that he had within his songs. He had expressed a viewpoint in those albums and he was so desperate to be interviewed and be able to explain not only the world-view of the songs, but all this other stuff, too. As time went on, did his other forms of creation detract from the universe? Does it detract from the Game of Thrones universe if George R R Martin is out there talking about how he feels about vending machines and so forth (as John did on Omnibus)? You can’t put the podcast back in the bottle! What is in the bottle is in the bottle! You can’t put the Genie back in the vending machine. What the fuck does that mean? It cannot be known.

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