The Pause Button

by Michael Tatum

I wasn't exactly lost, because my mother knew precisely where I was. That's why when she approached the mall's security guard for help, she was less hysterical than matter-of-fact when she asked him: "Where's the nearest record store?" The guard was no doubt dubious that a five-year-old would wander from his mother in search of the now-defunct Oz Records in Birmingham, Alabama's Eastwood Mall -- who could resist the siren call of that long and winding yellow brick road beckoning you in to rows and rows of the newest 33 1/3rds? And yet there I was, probably flipping through Elton John, Paul McCartney, KISS, the Sweet, and all of the other mainstream pop-rock I adored as a little boy. It was absolute paradise -- I was just as fascinated gazing at the colorful covers as I was immersing myself in the catchy music when I got home. In fact, I was probably the only kid at Rocky Ridge Elementary who had an extensive vinyl collection independent of his parents (which I was not allowed to touch unsupervised). I've often thought of collecting all of the CD reissues of the records that I had at that age -- Caribou, Destroyer, Band on the Run, Steve Miller's Greatest Hits, and dozens of others -- and put them in a little box, to take out from time to time. That black and white MCA label 45 for "Crocodile Rock" (backed with "Elderberry Wine," look it up) -- I sure do miss holding it in my hand, spinning it on a Coke bottle and watching it turn. It was so scratched I couldn't listen to it on my antiquated phonograph.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I was music-obsessed from an early age. But I was also, even more unusual still, enamored of words, language, putting pen to paper, hacking away at my junky manual typewriter, a dull aquamarine monstrosity that came with its own protective cover that snapped at the base. According to my parents, I went from being a strangely mute baby, which had them worried, to speaking in complete sentences, which I'm sure was even stranger. At the age of five I wrote my own Hardy Boys mysteries ("The Mystery of the Blue Light," about an airplane that lands with the titular object tied to its wing), and "published" my own periodical, Clown's Magazine, serving a total of one subscriber, my sixth-grade neighbor Paige. Later, in elementary school I corralled friends into performing in my plays: No Such Thing as a Vampire (a three page horror-comedy), The Sinister Theft (a sort of rip-off of the The Great Muppet Caper), and Triple Threat, the latter which included my spoofs of Star Trek, Poltergeist, and my own classroom. I dreamed of writing for Saturday Night Live, a show I had never seen but was obsessed with regardless. I was also enamored of Shakespeare, whose plays I never actually read until I was in junior high, but I was nevertheless fascinated that there was someone who lived centuries ago that composed works that were still regarded almost universally as "the best." How in the world did he do it? Like most young people in love with language, I eventually became attracted to puns, eventually taking a stab at a story-length project that I never completed, "Blind Dates are for People Like Stevie Wonder" (yes, I know), in which every line contained some sort of wordplay, like: "He turned on the T.B. set, but turned it off after he began to cough violently." The protagonist's names were "Strawberry Mannilow" and "Mario Speedwagon." Ah, juvenilia.

Unfortunately, because I was always told what an exceptional writer I was by my teachers, parents, and peers, I got a chip on my shoulder about it, and didn't really realize how much even "natural talents" had to cultivate themselves if they wanted to grow. When I was twenty-five I got an idea for a multi-partite novel based somewhat on my college years (really about my love life -- it would evolve as I got older). It was then that it occurred to me that for someone in love with literature, I had done a pretty good job of avoiding it, even as a putative studier of the stuff at UCLA. So for the first time I began to explore the canon, by magic or by luck somehow gravitating to novelists who reflected my interests in playing with form and language: Philip Roth, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis, and Vladimir Nabokov were among my first discoveries in this personal renaissance. By the time I reached my mid-thirties I felt confident that I had absorbed enough that I could possibly move on with my ambitions, writing a hundred pages that have since laid waiting for me in a folder on my desktop. That was about five years ago.

The beginning of "A Downloader's Diary" coincides not merely with Robert Christgau's Mark I firing from MSN in June of 2010, but also with something curious that happened to me that same summer. I brought the first ten or so pages of another novel I was planning on starting, one that I thought would be easier to complete than my autobiographical opus, one based on observation and imagination, to my father to help me edit. What he said to me was this: "Picasso's father made him draw a chicken every day of his childhood, because he saw his genius. Every day, over and over, until one day he stopped, because he said he no longer had anything to teach him." After which, he brutally tore apart what I wrote, often with great accuracy and cutting insight, though in a manner characteristically brusque and almost smug. To say the least, I was a little catatonic from the experience, and resolved to put away what I wrote and think on it for a while.

One of the interesting side effects from blogging is that you further cultivate a personal style, something that became especially key after the Great Man himself returned to writing capsule reviews for MSN -- I was ecstatic he was returning to the ring swinging, but I had to develop my own approach to writing about music that reflected my own writing philosophy and highlighted my own quirks. I had to keep people interested, after all. It happened in March 2010 or so, round about column eight, and I remember it proudly. I began to take weird tangents, as when I reviewed a mediocre Decemberists record and discussed the history of trillium and ivy in America, a completely ridiculous and pretentious footnote of a point that highlighted how ridiculous and pretentious that record was. I incorporated more wordplay, as in this put-down of James Blake: "'Torch songs,' sez Pitchfork. Oh yeah, torches and pitchforks are something like it -- don't stop storming the castle until we've tossed this con artist into the moat." I also began cannibalizing chunks of my personal life, as when I "connected" to Britney Spears: "Soon, halfway through track three, about a bad boy Spears can't give up because he's the only one who's been able to make her come, I've metamorphosed into the stereotypical stupid guy at the lip of the bar, whiskey sour in hand, zeroing in on all the things we have in common despite protests from my better judgment -- Daddy issues ("Britney, it wasn't our fault"), bipolar disorder ("Tegretol and Lexapro -- you?"), and, er, child genius burnout putting his/her all into a full court press comeback." The reviews started getting longer and denser, which some people liked and some didn't, but I always felt I was getting closer and closer to pouring everything out of my head and not losing a grain of sand in the creative process. The castles might have been lumpy and misshapen, but I got a kick out of building them, and my forty columns in four years have been great pleasure to both write and even to re-read. And although it was never as popular as "A Downloader's Diary," I liked the dozen or so "Hall of Records" essays even more -- they suited my prose much better than the capsule-style review, of which there really is only one master.

But while rock criticism has fulfilled me creatively, enabled me to perfect my craft, meet some smart and talented people, and have fun in the process, I've never made any money off of it, and have failed to make much of a dent culturally (sub-sub-sub culturally, maybe), both of which were always my endgame, or, as we used to say, "my dream." Unlike most of my peers at Odyshape, I don't have a fulfilling "day job," and have always seen my various retail jobs as means to an end, easy ways to make money while I work on my creative endeavors in my spare time. As I get older, I realize I don't have very much time left to finish what I started and make my mark in the world of fiction, which is why, for the time being, I'm taking a long, extended break from writing rock criticism -- probably not a permanent one, though I don't yet know for sure. I'll miss "A Downloader's Diary" and may return to it eventually -- I think of this break as me hitting the pause button on a VCR and going to another room to finish another task around the house, to return and finish that film at a later date.

I'm grateful to anyone who read me, said kind words, gave me encouragement during a period I desperately needed it. Thanks to Cam, Nick, and Jason for finding me worthy, and for writing such delightful, challenging, and entertaining pieces these last few months. Thanks to Robert Christgau for not laughing in my face, to Tom Hull for being my mentor and giving the DD its first home, where I imagine I will keep the entire series archived. Thanks always to Wendy, and my family. Hey, what do you know -- I've mastered the chicken: wings, beak, flurry of feathers, its cocky strut, the jerky movements of the head. Time to draw something else.

September 4, 2014, Odyshape