and i still miss you

"All the things I hate in this fucking world haven't gone away"

I'm not much of a lyrics guy. I say that like it's some kind of hard and fast rule, but every rule has exceptions. It holds (for the most part). I own the giant tome compiling all of Bob Dylan's lyrics, but my favorite Dylan songs still depend on his superb lyrics being delivered with a great performance, too. My biggest exception is J Church, the bay-area pop-punk that (sort of) could.

J Church were never innovators, and were no kind of virtuosos. They were never famous or even up-and-coming, yet they persevered for 15 years. They could afford passable production only about half the time (I'd say only two of their albums sound 'professional'). They had a revolving door membership, singer and guitarist Lance Hahn was the only constant. What endeared them to me was what Lance had to say.

Jawbreaker—by far the most beloved band of the era—were highly personal, proto-emo. Green Day—by far the most successful—were candied confections singing about… well, nothing really. J Churh were a working man's thinking band. Underneath a mere handful of bar chords and plain spoken words lurked huge ideas.

Like Fugazi, J Church's politics were inherently personal. Unlike them, nothing was so certain in Lance's world. His views were human, often muddled and always striving. Lance Hahn dealt more in self-examination than in strident edicts. One of his most overt statements, Part of the Problem, simply refuses to be chastised for abstaining from protest demonstrations. His personal songs would seamlessly veer political. Racked might amount to an unrequited love song, but he views it through a drunken, conflicted feminism, citing 'Dionysian polemics' along the way—all in a song less than 2 minutes long.

10 years ago today, I found out Lance Hahn had died. Luckily, I was on a visit home, sitting with a dear friend who could share the profound sense of loss I felt at that moment. I'm old enough to have seen many artists I grew up with (or otherwise loved) pass. My relationship to them doesn't much change—whatever it was when they died seems fixed in amber. J Church, though, continues to resonate as a living force with me.

J Church seemed to always grow with me. Albums would arrive, grappling with new issues and conceptual nuance at levels I just happened to be ready for. There are some songs, though, that I've found reserved—left like time capsules that have only made sense in my future. He wrote a farewell letter to San Francisco, Satanists Convene, that resonated with me only recently, when I was leaving NYC for good. So many of those sentiments rang true: What I loved about the city were memories. Whether I'd stayed or left—New York (or I) had moved on already.

I distinctly remember when fellow bay area punks, Green Day found their righteousness—making American Idiot as a commentary on the invasion of Iraq staged by the GW.Bush administration. It was chock full of overly long songs with positions so vague either side of the issue could still gleefully sing along. The same year, J Church released Society Is a Carnivorous Flower. It featured an unprecedented (for them) sidelong, multi-part, epic title track. It was, at heart, an examination of the 1968 Situationist riots in France. Esoteric, for sure, but it didn't feel dated. Lance discussed it with an eye to examining our current world, gaining a palpable sense of presence by toggling between second- and third-person narrative. I'm still unpacking its meanings and references.

I can honestly say I'm a better person for listening to J Church. Sometimes it felt like Lance would articulate what I felt better than I could for myself. Other times, he forced me to look inwards and challenge what I found there. I may have a more profound love for other bands, or I'm more fascinated or inspired by others, but I don't think I'll miss any band more than J Church.

"Tomorrow, if I haven't lost my mind,
I'll beg to borrow all the words I can't define"

Sonic Reducer

It was October, 2000 and I had a strange design gig I probably didn't deserve at my tender age, but this was the tech-bubble. At the time I was based out of Chicago, but was working for Discover Card on their animated Times Square billboard. In the rotation of ads and branding, we included a list of (largely free) shows that were happening around town, in cooperation with Time Out New York. When visiting NYC, I got to have lunch with the Time Out reps, scoring a press pass off them to see the Wire reunion gig at Irving Plaza that night.

No amount of Wire fandom prepared for what was about to happen. Opening for Wire was the Finnish electronic duo, Pan Sonic. The lot of aging punks, anxiously waiting to see their heroes, were having none of it. I don't know if it was a regular part of their set, but from my perspective in the balcony it seemed Pan Sonic got so annoyed with the loud, disinterested crowd they let loose an unfettered howl of feedback girded with a steady pulse of concussive kick drums and stood there, arms folded staring scoldingly at the geezers now covering their ears, for what seemed like 10 minutes.

At that moment, I was a fan.

Over the next few years, Pan Sonic (and Mika Vainio's solo work) grew to epic proportions in my personal sound-world. I soon discovered their work stretched back to the early 90s—which would have been far too cool for a teenage version of me. Sometimes you just have to come things when you are ready. Mika's albums frequently ranked among the best of their year and class. Pan Sonic were my gateway into Suicide's oeuvre—more than Spacemen 3—via their album with Alan Vega, Endless. They worked with people as varied as Merzbow and Charlemagne Palestine. I've listened to Pan Sonic's Kesto repeatedly, which, when you consider it's a whopping 4CD set, is no small compliment.

With news of Mika Vainio's passing, I've been returning to my favorite albums. Surprisingly, all of those (for me) are recorded under the name Ø. This solo project could was just as menacing and intense as his work in-or-out of Pan Sonic, but also nurtured and sustained an utterly unique, crystalline beauty imbued with a meditative sense of patience. I've tried to convert many electronic-averse friends to Vainio's camp with his inspired cover of Pink Floyd's Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

I saw Pan Sonic only once more, in NYC again (this time in much more hospitable environs), headlining a show at the Lower East Side's Tonic club. It was a master class in live sound sculptin. With the simplest of tools, volume and cross-fade, they could turn solid walls of sound into intricate tracks and compelling beats. An oscilloscope was projected on the wall and was a perfect visual accompaniment to this deceptively simple work. I've always said Mika's work does not sound like electronics more than electronica; it's the sound of someone making music out of raw electricity.

losses, both public and personal

I have no proper standing to write a tribute to David Bowie. I'm not an artist nor critic and (of course) I didn't know him personally.

As a fan, I was born well after his debut, and his best work was behind him before I had object permanence. All the same, I came to him later still. It didn't help that my introduction was *shudder* Labyrinth. The first Bowie song I actually liked was Golden Years. It was in some overlong, made-for-TV Stephen King movie, but it inspired me to pick up a used cassette copy of the hits-compilation, Changes.

After that, he resurfaced with Tin Machine—who get no love to this day. Let's face facts, though: flawed as they were, Tin Machine pulled Bowie out of a creative nose-dive. All the interesting work he did in his 90s-era career resurgence was with Reeves Gabrels from the Machine. More salient to my personal history, Tin Machine baptized me—I was a born again David Bowie fanatic.

Since my indoctrination, I've steeped myself in his work. In 1999, Bowie re-remastered his catalog, issuing it all without the bonus tracks Rykodisc had included in previous editions. My friends and I then put our own box set together, compiling all that missing extra material together in one place—and then continued on to include more recent b-sides and live material to create a complete and up-to-date, alternate-universe portrait of Bowie. We spent months on it—designs, levels, track order, obtaining obscure bits we were missing. I even made a custom re-edit of the I'm Afraid of Americans remixes. In all my collecting, I've never taken on a project quite like it.

In the post-everything, indie-rock world at the turn of the century, Bowie has graduated to being as much a forgone conclusion as the Beatles. There is no question of quality or importance, just discussions over which Bowie was your favorite—conversations I've had countless times. I've talked through contradicting explanations of his career highlights and lowlights. Being such a completist, I've always cherished what I thought were under-appreciated corners of his catalog: from Pin-Ups and deep album cuts or b-sides from the 70s to Tin Machine or Earthling and Hours in the 90s.

Of his recent output—the two albums he put out after a decade of silence—I was initially disappointed by The Next Day, thinking Bowie was playing it too safe. With the much more experimental follow-up, Blackstar (and now, his death), I look back at it differently. It's as if Bowie proved he could give us what we wanted and expected of him; that he could age gracefully. Then he decided to say, "Naw, fuck that." Of late, Bowie seemed to be having the same conversations about his work we were: trying to make some form of sense from the messy whole of his career.

What's funny, is it doesn't feel as if I put as much stake in his iconography as others seem to. Even though a good portion of his work is, in essence, himself, Bowie matters to me for what he put down. He has proven time and again that pop music can be artful, and a practice of 'capital-a' Art. Stars don't have to age into irrelevance—that is, if they keep striving. They may fail, Bowie often did, but he failed by trying. I'll take a misguided mess of aspiration over a flaccid, lukewarm walk-through any day. Bowie will never be remembered for his mistakes—he's big enough, they'll never go away completely (nor should they), but his successes will tower over them with ever-greater import in the coming decades.

Still, this morning, after I read the news so rudely displayed on my phone's home-screen as the alarm went off, I found myself tearing up. What a way to wake the fuck up, "Beep! Beep! One of your heroes is dead!" Given my arm's-length distance from his persona, I felt weird for crying. So I made some bad jokes, "I guess they'll have to scrap their plans for Labyrinth II, now" or, "Funny that a gender-bending, transgressive icon died, aged 69" (da-duh-duh). Then I felt sort of callous for joking about it. The sadness was honest. Even if I only took what he put to wax, I was deeply vested in the story of that creative output, the arc of his art over time. As universal and public as that loss is, the sting of it feels very personal.

Today, I'm listening to his entire discography. All of it. The good, the bad, the mistakes and the works of unadulterated genius. I'm listening with the new perspective that the tale it's telling is suddenly complete.