Street Riding Man // On Engaged Listening


Today I decided to make the best Saturday possible. I hit the farmer’s market for fresh Michigan asparagus and got a massive taco from the truck, eating in the sun. I got home and listened to my new ATLiens and Endtroducing vinyls before leaving on an extended bike ride along the lake shore. A lot happened; it’s detailed below. Spoiler: I had a much better time than last week, when I crashed my bike.

I came upon this lonely house, the first in a brand new development on the shoreline. With workers on the roof and the surrounding landscape, I was struck by the most indelible image from one of my favorite films of all time, Days of Heaven. Then I kept riding.

I stopped at the Pigeon Hill taproom patio, feeling meditative in the shade, before making it home. My mission seems successful.

I’ve been thinking lately about how, because of the nature of my job, music is too often deployed as a buffer, a measure of comfort against the work of writing for other people all day. I was thinking about how it’s similar to the way that, once I’d started my job, I went months without updating this blog, or writing anything personal at all. I made an effort to wrestle control of the situation, and rediscovered the joy in writing for myself. It took focus to tear writing from its association with work, return it to the place that fed my soul and kept me sane.

The dub techno, free jazz, and minimalist composers that normally fill my days spent writing in the office go underappreciated. The more vocal music, the hip-hop and funk and rock I find difficult to write to, went under-listened. I wanted to reclaim the music I love, as the vital, arresting sounds that urge me on and set my creative impulses reeling. I wanted to make that bliss happen every time, rather than rare occasions. I decided to listen almost solely to vinyl while at home, in an effort to force more engagement with the sound. At least for a while.

It works.

ATLiens is one of the most cohesive, spacey rap albums I can think of, without an ounce of filler or skits, allowing it to be one of the few vocal albums I listen to regularly at work. Over the past year, it leaped far beyond Aquemini as my favorite Outkast album, so I was excited to find a pristine original vinyl copy on Discogs for a good price. I received it this morning and already listened twice. The album is brief by Important Rap Album standards, riding a singular emotional narrative through an otherwise unrelated but concise set of tracks. It’s meditative, thoughtful, and endlessly intriguing. If you’re only familiar with massive hits like Rosa Parks and Hey Ya, you owe it to yourself to dive into the heart of what truly makes Outkast special.

Last week, I received my long-awaited copy of Endtroducing, the album that allowed turntablism to be taken seriously as an art form and single-handedly created the instrumental hip-hop genre. It made DJ Shadow into the figurehead for an entire form of music. It’s not just a monumentally important slab of wax; it’s a joyous romp through heat-soaked urban undergrounds, gothic piano-draped beats, and incandescent sampling magic. For a nearly 20 year old record, I’m still finding new wrinkles to pick at and embrace. For instance, a sample I’d always thought was Steve Reich turned out to be the gorgeous Touching Souls, by Kay Gardner. It’s a puzzle that feeds my soul so well, I forget to solve it. The mystery only improves return trips.

I’m not saying that you have to listen to music in a physical format to truly enjoy it. Vinyl still makes up a fraction of my listening, given a full time writing job with Spotify or my phone running the whole time. It’s a special treat. It’s an easy shortcut to force deeper attention on the sound. It’s a ritual. These peripheral aspects truly add up. With the way perception works, these things matter.

Most of my friends spend time fully engaged with music; our shared love of sound is one of the reasons a lot of us became friends. The music doesn’t have a full chance to soak in when it’s used as wallpaper, or soundtracking a commute. When I’m engaged with the sound alone, my mind wanders in the most unpredictable, intriguing ways. This is when my best thoughts happen. This is why I’m thankful that I decided to make a conscious effort to listen actively as often as possible.

• • •

I remembered a crucial moment of my ride today, the thought that began this post long before I stopped to write:The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man, one of the most bad ass songs ever recorded, popped into my head as I burst out of an alley onto the main street, sun enveloping me. It was one of those perfect moments, the ones I seek every time I ride. Once the physical motion has set in for the long run, my mind tends to wander more freely. It’s my meditation. After my accident, I’ve been extra careful to wear my helmet and never use headphones while on my bike. Spontaneous earworms like this are treasured. Enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Street Riding Man // On Engaged Listening

  1. Really appreciated this post. I needed a reminder to be mindful, especially with regard to music. I sense music becoming sonic wallpaper for me lately

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was my exact worry, that music had become mere wallpaper.. it’s great to know others feel the same and want more from their listening. Thanks for commenting!


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