13. “What is This?”: The Gift of Little Mysteries


When I was younger (sometime during the Mesozoic Era), throwing parties meant either having your own band play, choice records on the turntable (including those people would bring to share or show off) or a tape in the deck. Nobody ever forgot to take their records home, but occasionally when cleaning up afterwards I would find stray tapes in random places. They typically would not be in a case, as they were probably just tossed aside when somebody put in a new one. I couldn’t return them – no case meant no information about who owned or created them. No case also meant I had no idea of what was on it. Whenever I finally got around to listening to them it always felt like a pleasant little mystery – “OK, cool – what is this?”

It's AliveOne of my favorite finds was a tape of the Ramones double lp It’s Alive. At the time I liked the Ramones well enough, but I never went to see them when they made their annual tour around the Northeast and I didn’t own any of their records. This tape sold me on them, which is a bit surprising because to this day I prefer studio recordings to live cuts. For a few weeks, I listened to it over and over again, and finally bought the vinyl for myself. It is still probably my favorite Ramones record (though I do really like Pleasant Dreams). Thanks to whoever forgot this tape at my party. Hope you had a good time at the Ramones show.

            Another important find was a unmarked mix tape. Since I don’t know whose it was, I don’t know if it was a forgotten gift for somebody they were crushing on (if so, that’s too bad), or if it was for personal use only. With the Ramones, to figure out what songs were on the tape all I had to do was look at the records. Here I had nothing. A mix tape with no known source meant I had no way to predict where it would go from one song to the next. Not surprisingly, I didn’t immediately recognize all of the songs. I am positive that this tape was the first time that I heard the Cocteau Twins. I liked something that turned out to be a song of theirs, and to try and figure out what it was I had to recreate it for multiple people, typically by humming the tune. In this way, human Shazam was more interactive and fun, less focused on efficiency. Eventually somebody was able to identify it, but in the meantime inaccurate guesses and wrong turns led me to other bands that were in the same 4AD ballpark (e.g., Les Mystere De Voix Bulgares). Thanks to whoever forgot this tape at my party. Hope you got the hook-up you might have been looking for anyways.

     After graduating from college in 1988, I moved from Connecticut to Oakland, California. To get there, I drove across country with my friend Kimber. We had a lot of overlapping musical tastes, which made for tension-free tape and radio selection. For example, she didn’t mind that I wanted to listen to Crash by The Primitives over and over. Near aroundThe Primitives Kansas, Kimber pulled out a tape that she had found on the floor of a frat house party. It was from the goth/post-punk/proto-grunge/fuck-up frat that we hung out at sometimes, so all we knew about it was that it wasn’t likely to contain “Big Hits From the Mid-80s!” As we moved across endless, flat and linear mid-Western miles, we listened, shared ideas about the songs and made predictions about what might show up next. Unwrapping this mystery mile by mile cut through the monotony of that long stretch of road. I do remember there was a lot of early Soul Asylum on it, possibly Made to be Broken and Tied to the Tracks. I think there might have also been some Meat Puppets songs on it. The overall vibe was Twin/Tone records that were not the Replacements and SST records that were not Hüsker Dü or Black Flag. Retrospectively, whoever made it was definitely ready to jump on the Americana train that was picking up steam (Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression was only two years away). Maybe the tape ended up on the floor of the frat because the hook-up was successful. Or perhaps the maker of the tape saw the object of their desire dancing with somebody else, threw the tape aside, and downed another beer only to later half-drunkenly and unsuccessfully try to find the intended gift they now regretted discarding. That sounds more like an Americana song, so I’m going to go with that as the likely scenario.

            There are also times when a pleasant little mystery turns into a thorn in your side. When I can’t figure out what a certain song is for an extended amount of time I start to think, “Damn, what IS this?” and that’s not really fun anymore. For example, I was driving around Cambridge more than 20 years ago when there was a song on the radio that included these lyrics – “Don’t give me your hand as an alibi.” I thought that was a great line and that the song was good, so when I got home I sat in my parked car waiting for the college radio DJ to review the tracks they played, hoping to get the name of the song. I sat through the next song. Then another. Then another. I eventually had to give up and go in. Once the internet became a thing, once or twice a year I would search for the song based on the lyrics, but to no avail. Over time, in my memory the song became more and more of a folk dirge – a woman and a guitar singing the line I liked in a hushed tone. Perhaps because I was haunted by the song, I began to imagine the song itself was haunting. Last year I finally found it. It is Crying Shame by Wild Strawberries and it is decidedly not a dirge. Rather, it is a gentle folk rock song. This little mystery was resolved with the implosion of my imagined song (I think of Buster Keaton’s dream house blowing up in Our Hospitality), but I can now sleep at night.

            Currently parts of the internet are trying to figure out the identity of what appears to be an obscure darkwave song from the early 80s. Guesses for a song title include Like the Wind, but it is more commonly just known as “The Most Mysterious Song on the Internet.” The story apparently starts in 2004 when a young German guy starts uploading tapes he made of a radio show he listened to sometime between 1982 and 1984. As his sister is going through these archived recordings, she hears the song in question and wants to find out more about it. Her brother can’t provide any information, so she turns to the internet for help. However, nobody has any insight and it remains unidentified. Since then it has taken off, getting more and more attention the longer it goes without any type of leads turning up. The brother and sister involved in the original upload are not totally forthcoming and some of the key details are sketchy, so it is not totally clear that it is completely on the up and up (not unlike the Panchiko “forgotten rotted-CD” story). The song is catchy enough, but I have not been drawn into the hunt. I wish those working on this well, and hope that they find other interesting stuff along the way.

            On the other hand, there are times when you know the artist and the song so the mystery lies in how to understand what you are hearing. I can find myself thinking, “What is THIS?” for many reasons, but for me this experience tends to fall into four distinct categories – the indecipherable, the indescribable, the inscrutable and the ineffable.

Indecipherable: Does anybody really understand the lyrics of any REM song prior to Life’s Rich Pageant? Not what they mean, but what the actual words are. For me, and probably many others, part of the enjoyment of listening to early REM is trying to figure out what Michael Stipe is singing. I know that when they started to build a fan-base, people took to sending him letters containing what they thought the lyrics were to various songs, asking him to confirm if they had gotten it right. He noted that some of them were better than what he had come up with, but he declined to provide the lyrics for many, many years. I actually never wanted to know, because I was Fables Of happy with the songs being strings of sounds with the occasional patch of clarity. It was like the key words briefly surfaced to make themselves heard before diving back under into the ambient sea. Or in keeping with my favorite REM song, intelligible words shine and then are gone, like Kohoutek.

Indescribable: I got the first Public Image Limited record when it came out and was not particularly impressed. The single is great, but the rest of the record sounds more or less what you would expect the ex-lead singer of the Sex Pistols to produce. However, I still bought Second Edition when it came Second Editionout. I remember putting it on my turntable and thinking, “I don’t understand this at all. What the fuck am I listening to?” I had no idea what to make of it, and it made me question what I knew about music. I grew to love the record, particularly Careering and Swan Lake, but I had a hard time explaining why to my friends who were not digging it. Struggling to find the new vocabulary I needed was a fun part of it. I’m not sure when post-punk became a term, but I certainly didn’t know it at the time, so I needed to invent my own inexact ways of talking about it. I feel the same way about taarab, a genre of music from Kenya and Tanzania that really grabs me. What does taarab sound like? I’m not sure I have the words yet. A collective intercontinental dream? The warm feeling a nice mead produces? Don’t know. You have to listen to it.

Inscrutable: The Conet Project consists of dozens of recordings of number stations. These are shortwave radio broadcasts that nobody claims The Conet Projectownership of, appear at random times, and consist of short loops of music being played over and over and/or somebody reading a series of numbers. There is no context and no explanation. They are just there. Listening to unknowable people use short wave in the 21st century to pass along coded messages makes me question what I know about the world. My wife won’t let me play it when she is in the apartment. This little mystery causes me to experience some existential dread, but it is also a bit thrilling to discover a curtain that has yet to be drawn back.

Ineffable: In the end, like almost everybody, this is the mystery that I cherish the most when listening to music. Whenever I pick up something new, I’m hoping that I might experience a feeling that is beyond language, even if language itself is used to get there. I’m not looking for something rapturous, it can be something quiet and small, as long as it moves me outside myself Not Too Soonjust enough to be free for a few moments. Over the decades, there are countless songs and artists that have created this feeling for me. It is not just Les Voix Bulgares that are mysterious. For example. I’m not always sure what Tanya Donelly is on about, but I’ve been consistently moved by her work in Throwing Muses, Belly and on her own. I have listened to these tracks over and over but I still get goosebumps and a chill that feels like some sentient electricity is visiting my body for a time.

As another example, I am currently obsessed by a song from Mbongwana Star that knocks me out.

            Knowing that my understanding of music, the world and myself can still be adjusted through experiencing these gracious and welcoming little mysteries is why I’m in this for the long haul.

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