Ghost Town

(presented at Denison University 9 October 2017)

A place on a map is also a place in history.

-Adrienne Rich //


Architecture critic John King recently repurposed the word “Ghost Town.”

In the article I was reading, he used the word to describe not a deserted city or a town that had been left behind. Instead he used Ghost Town to describe San Francisco, the city in which he had lived much of his adult life.

King didn’t use it in the derogatory sense. He used in a poetic way. A way to explain how his mind had created layers of memories or ghosts upon his city.

For example, and this a really basic example…

Someday you might be walking down the corridor of the Indian Mound Mall and notice that American Eagle has been replaced by a Lids. The American Eagle was where you bought all of your clothes in middle school, it may even have been your earliest retail experience of picking out your own clothes.

A seminal moment, right? And now it’s gone.

It has now been replaced by a baseball cap store. But, every time you walk by Lids, you still think of American Eagle.

That’s what John King is writing about… a ghost from the past floating across your present.

Here’s another example: I lived in Philadelphia in the 80s and 90s. A time when cities were clearing out. Industry had fled. It was not coming back. And the workers who could afford it had fled as well.

Philadelphia had become a huge Ghost Town for many. For those that were left behind, they could still see the places where their families and friends had once worked. Or the now shuttered hospitals where their children were born, the closed up churches, and so on.

Or if they had moved out of Philadelphia to a suburb they might see ghosts of the past when they trekked into the city for a baseball or football game.

For me, I would sit in a bar and the old men beside me would rhapsodize about the old neighborhood, how much better the bar patrons were back then, what was in the empty building across the street. They were seeing ghosts.

And I’m old enough that this happens to me now.

I’ve been gone from Philadelphia long enough that when I visit it, I can barely understand the changes. I still look for the things I know, the places I hung out, the apartments I lived in. They never look the same.

I mean, maybe they are the same, but in my memory they are a different size, a different color and probably next to something I can no longer remember, so when I see them in the present, the differences between the now and my memory cause a certain unease.

I’m fascinated by King’s idea of a Ghost Town, this present that is awash in layers of memories. But, I’m not so interested in exploring it in my art.

When I really apply his idea to my experiences in cities, I can’t seem to escape creating something akin to ruin porn. You know those captivating images of Detroit or Philadelphia, the massive buildings collapsing into themselves. Exhausted. Beautiful. When I use these images for work, I always feel slightly dirty. I feel like I enjoyed the explicitness of waste and ruin a little too much.

Instead I like to apply the idea of layers of memory and ghosts to music. Unlike buildings and places, songs are rarely a wasted resource or a business failure, songs never change. Someone throws them out there and we eat them up.

They are almost always exactly the same as when you first heard them even though our memories of how we first heard them can often narrow or refocus.

For example: When I hear Bobby Goldboro’s Me And The Elephants, it seems unbelievably sad. It often takes me back to the early 1970s, driving around in a station wagon with my parents. The windows are down. My Dad’s pipe smoke rolling over me, making it hard to breath. The vinyl seats are really hot and scorching my thigh because I wore shorts on a summer day, even though my mom told me not to. 

But, none of this should really make me sad. And for a long time, I couldn’t place why the song did that to me.

Recently, I found a photo at my parents house of me playing with my first dog. A basset hound named Gunther. And in the background of that photo was that same station wagon. And I realized that was the station wagon in which we took Gunther to the vet. The vet euthanized Gunther because he was dying from cancer. It seems likely now, that I associate that song with that car because of the death of my dog. See the ghosts?

Ghosts in music can also pop their head up in a more linear and slightly less mysterious way.

For example, I have this memory of my first serious girlfriend. She was a year older than me in art school.  I was crazy for her. It was another hot summer’s day. It was just so hot. We were listening to Morrissey’s first album, Viva Hate. We had maybe listened to it once before. It was amazing. We were lying naked in bed atop the covers. At about the second song – which was probably Everyday Is Like Sunday -- she told me she was leaving me.

Years passed before I put Morrissey on again. I still have a bit of a love/ hate relationship with his music.

Here’s the thing about memory:

When I was organizing this lecture, I couldn’t remember if Viva Hate was Morrissey’s first solo record or if it was Your Arsenal. I wanted to get this memory right. I didn’t want you to catch in me in a mistake. So, I Googled it and found out two things -- Viva Hate was Morrissey’s first, but it was released in 1988.

Which means I had recreated or misremembered my past. This break up happened in my junior year of school. That was 1986. The Smiths were still together. We would have been listening to the just released The Queen Is Dead. Yes, I Googled its release date to be sure.

And the reason I couldn’t listen to Morrissey for years is not because of that break up. It is because two years after she left me in our apartment on a hot day, we began working at the same museum. And we got back together. And at some point in that near future she left me again.  But this time, I was listening to Morrissey’s Viva Hate on my Walkman everyday on the way to work.

So, apparently, I’ve compressed two memories into one. And layered it in a bunch of ghosts.

Sometimes, you want to play great music again and again. Other times, the ghosts come out and you think you’ve heard it plenty. 

For my art, music is the raw material. Sorta like, almost 200 years ago, when a bunch of artists looked at that Hudson River and decided to twist and turn it into paintings. Using it as a backdrop not to talk about this amazing waterway but to expand on ideas of Romanticism.

I use music as way to jump off into the ghosts of my past, to talk about memory. Hoping and I guess believing that music is universal and then when you experience the same song I am listening to, the past will rise up at you as well.

Without a listener, there is no music. The listener completes the circuit. I’m not a musician, but I feel as if I am when I listen to something and respond to it with my thoughts – what it means to me – I am actually helping to finish it. I have made the music useful. I have put it in a context. The context of my life.

Within the context of your life, some music can take being replayed over and over. While other music is best left sitting in a remote spot in your mind. A sort of museum, where you can visit the memory of the song rather than the song itself. I’m like this with the music of Nirvana.

Nirvana came at time when my life was a mess. I was out of school and working a dead end job with my ex-girlfriend in a dead-end town.

But, the energy behind Bleach and then Nevermind was a life-saver. It really felt like Kurt Cobain knew the exact frustrations I was experiencing.

In my mind, as I’m writing this lecture, I can hear his music.

I can feel its weight.

I can see him in his worn out cardigan sweaters.

I can understand the magic.

The magic has to do with time. And how at that time, this music found me or I found it. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is how Nirvana seemed to rip up the music from past and cast it in bronze, making my life seem better, making it feel like someone understood my life, my poor decisions and my friends.

The weird part of all this is, that looking back I cannot remember where or how I first heard of Kurt Cobain.

And, I’m not sure when the last time was that I actually listened to Nirvana.

I still have the records, but I’m reluctant to put them on and seriously pay attention to what he and the band are trying to do.

I think it’s because I’m afraid.

Afraid of how shitty they will sound.

Or maybe worse. Maybe afraid of what ghosts will be conjured by Come As You Are.

You are the music while it lasts.

-T. S. Eliot //