Month: April 2012

Brain movies.

A week or so ago, I shared an odd little dream I had with a friend I thought might find it amusing. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to videotape our dreams?” she said, and it got me thinking about my own interest in the strange movies our brains conjure while we’re sleeping. For maybe the first time, it hit me that this blog could have easily become a place for me to preserve and discuss dreams instead of the mostly-music-related place it’s been for the past four years.

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, as far back as I can remember. It used to frustrate me that I seemed to have them so infrequently. There would be a few nights in a row of strange, exciting dreams, and then no action at all for a week, or a month, or more. It took years before I learned I was really dreaming every night. It wasn’t the dream activity itself that was hit-and-miss, but my memory of it.

I would write down the odd dream here and there, but I only bothered with the most interesting ones I remembered in some amount of detail. I didn’t see the point in writing down every little dream fragment that stuck around in my brain. If I couldn’t put the weirdness into some sort of context, it didn’t seem worth the effort.

In late 2005 I began to remember pieces of my dreams a lot more often. That continued into the first half of 2006, until it was unusual for me to go more than a few nights in a row without having at least a few fragments or images stay with me. At the same time, I knew I was losing a lot of good stuff. The more pieces I held onto, the stranger and more interesting the dreams seemed to become, and the more I wanted to remember all the bits that were still beyond my reach.

It was a cumulative process. First I thought I might as well start writing down every little moment of dream information I could remember, no matter how random or vague it seemed. For a while I tried writing “dream poems”. The free-floating language seemed to allow me to capture half-remembered moments and indistinct feelings that were otherwise difficult to put into words. That lost its appeal pretty quick, and I went back to trying to write things out in as much detail as possible.

It was in the summer of 2006 that I decided to get more diligent about the whole thing. I went to the trouble of piecing together every single scrap of dream information I’d ever bothered to document in my life, whether it was sitting in an email draft folder or scrawled on a piece of paper, and tried to weave it all into a somewhat coherent collection. I thought it might make for a fun read, and it made sense to me to organize all the dream-related material I had to the best of my ability.

I knew forcing myself to write down whatever I could remember made a difference in how much I was able to retain, but I didn’t see how profound the difference was until I had all the dreams I’d preserved up to that point collected in one place. I was astonished to learn I somehow managed to document more than a hundred dreams just in the month of September. That was more in four weeks than I managed to get in the entirety of the three-year period that stretched from 2003 to 2005.

I assumed this was near the peak of what I could expect to achieve in terms of dream recall. I was wrong. Over the next few months the volume kept building until it wasn’t uncommon for me to get around three hundred dreams documented in a month, some of them insanely detailed and several thousand words long.

What I discovered is dream memory is like a muscle. It’s incredibly responsive to being exercised in any significant way. Even if I could remember nothing aside from a moment of dialogue or what one person looked like, writing that down told my brain this was information worth preserving, and the brain said, “Hey, you want this stuff, you got it.”

The ability to hold onto the dreams had always been there. I just didn’t know it.

One thing that made a difference early on was keeping a notebook in bed and writing down key points whenever I woke up, even when it was in the middle of the night and all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. The most important thing to get down was any dialogue I could remember, because that seemed to be the first thing to fade. Six hours and several dreams later I would remember the gist of what was said, and who it was said by, but not the precise words that were used.

Keeping a notebook nearby and scratching out a few lines when you’re half-asleep sounds simple in theory. It was made more complicated when I started having dreams in which I was writing down what I just finished dreaming, having fallen back asleep two seconds after thinking, “I need to write this down.”

Because I got it done in a dream and it seemed real enough, I assumed I had it taken care of in the waking world and concentrated on whatever was going on in the other dreams. Then I would wake up to a blank page thinking, “What the hell?! Didn’t I write those dreams down?”

These little fake-out dream moments started to happen quite a bit, until I got tired of trying to make sense of some of my point-form early morning chicken scratch and left the writing for when I woke up the last time to start my day (or night).

You’d think that would lead to a pretty steep drop-off in detail. And it did, for a while. But my brain adapted by storing dream information longer than before. Pretty soon I was remembering more than I ever had before, even without any between-dream notes to assist me. Sometimes I would get fifteen or eighteen dreams in a single night. They varied in length and subject matter, but there were usually at least a few on any given night that had some real heft and invention to them.

What really helped me take my dream recall skills to the next level was the mantra I developed. I read on the internet it sometimes helps to verbalize the desire to remember your dreams as sort of an add-on to keeping a dream journal. I figured it couldn’t hurt. Before falling asleep, I would repeat out loud, “I will remember my dreams.”  I tried a few variations and settled on repeating those five words eight times, saying, “I will remember my dreams in vivid detail,” twice, and then going through the whole sequence once more.

That took me maybe thirty seconds, if that. Most nights it was said in a whisper. It made such an immediate difference I couldn’t believe it. Keeping the thought that I wanted to remember my dreams in my mind before I fell sleep was easy enough, but I would still have the odd night where I couldn’t remember anything, and it would frustrate the hell out of me. Saying the words out loud seemed to trip a switch somewhere in my brain. The amount of dreams I was able to remember and the detail I was able to hold onto took a giant leap forward.

Lucid dreaming was another story. I gave it an honest try, but I had some real difficulty staying in a dream once it became lucid, and nothing I tried to keep myself there seemed to do much good. It was as if the dream didn’t want me anymore once it knew that I knew it was a dream, and the sudden increase in visual detail was almost too much to handle. A few times I did manage to keep myself from waking up right after the transition into full-throttle lucidity, but instead of staying lucid, my awareness would fade and the dream would continue with its regularly scheduled business.

After a short period of experimentation I realized I was losing some perfectly good dreams to these failed attempts at developing my half-baked abilities to lucid dream. Aside from some breathtaking moments of vivid imagery, not much of anything compelling happened when I was in a lucid dream. It seemed like too much work for no tangible reward. I found the strange little movies my sleeping mind was capable of creating fascinating all on their own. I didn’t want to lose them in favour of aimless dream space that refused to cooperate with me.

So I decided to go in the other direction. When dream realization would start to creep in, I would push it away. I’ve had a number of dreams over the years involving light switches that don’t do anything, or passages of text I read only to find the words have changed when I give them a second look, but even knowing these are tip-offs doesn’t clue me in when I’m in the dream itself. I just assume a light’s burnt out or a book is possessed.

Dream realization is more of a sneaky feeling that starts to worm its way into my head. It tends to show up when I’m really interested or emotionally involved in what’s going on in a dream, because on some buried level I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t want this dream to end.”

In my younger days a lot of dreams would end just as things were getting good or the moment it hit me I was dreaming. For the longest time I could never figure out why that happened. Now that I’d developed a much more intimate relationship with my dreams and the related muscles in my mind were stronger, I found ways to circumvent the problem of dream realization. I learned I could trick my brain into staying with the dream. Sometimes things would change in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, as if the near-termination of sleep caused a ripple effect that skewed the dream universe to some extent, but after a certain point I was almost always able to keep myself from waking up — unless I wanted to wake up.

I still find it funny that I made a concerted effort to push lucidity away when most people would probably embrace it with open arms. I guess I just decided my dreams are more interesting when I don’t feel like I’m the one writing the script.

I started to slack off on my dream documenting duties after moving into this house in the summer of 2007, and the detail and volume sometimes took a bit of a hit.

I had a routine I would follow. As soon as I woke up, I typed up everything I could remember dreaming on my laptop after realizing I could type about a hundred times faster than I could write by hand. Before going to bed I would return to those dreams and flesh them out. The first run-through was just to get the nuts and bolts down as well as I could. This second time through was when I would edit things to read better and add additional details I remembered in the process.

It wasn’t unusual for dreams to multiply in length when I did this. What began as four or five pages could turn into ten or twelve by the time I was finished. This second pass at the dreams was crucial, and I found writing in the present tense was the only way to really do a good dream justice.

The move was exhausting. Mostly it was an emotional thing. My sleep was a great ragged mess thanks to the six months or so spent living attached to a drug house. I had mountains of music I needed to work on, and I kind of lost the plot for a while. I started to forget about the pre-sleep mantra. Some days I wouldn’t give my dreams that essential second run-through. Sometimes I would only scratch out a few brief details, intending to flesh it all out later on, and then I wouldn’t get around to it. Later in the day the details would fade and I would be left with a few sketchy lines I wasn’t able to expand on.

And yet, as hard as I fell off the wagon, when I would put even half the amount of work in I used to, even without the mantra, even with my sleep flailing back and forth between “near-normal” and “completely fucked up”, I was still able to get just about as much detail as I did back in my prime. Those muscles were still there when I chose to flex them. The numbers dropped off quite a bit, and my days of remembering eighteen dreams in one night were behind me, but the quality and detail of the dreams I did hold onto made up for it in spades.

There was a time when I did wish there was a way to record my dreams on video somehow, so I could just save them and watch them at my leisure. I’ve come around to thinking maybe it’s better this way. Yes, there are certain images or landscapes I’m incapable of describing in a way that does them justice. I don’t have the drawing skills to sketch all the striking faces I’ve never seen outside of my dreams. There are feelings and associations that are difficult to articulate, and inflections the written word strains to recreate. It can be difficult to convey the way time and reality seem to bend and filter in and out according to logic that only exists in a dream.

Even so, maybe there’s something compelling in trying to capture that which resists being captured. In retelling certain dreams and attempting to untangle them to the best of my ability, I think I’ve managed some moments of writing that put to shame anything I ever did within the realm of fiction back when I fancied myself a writer of stories, before music became the place most of my creative energy chose to go. There have been dreams that have moved, frightened, aroused, amused, disturbed, inspired, puzzled, astonished, and taught me as much as any great work of art I’ve ever experienced in the waking world.

Over the past few years I’ve seriously neglected the documenting of my dreams. I don’t think I’ve gone a night without remembering at least a bit of what I dreamed since September of 2006 unless I didn’t get any sleep at all and there was no dreaming to be had, but it’s been a long time since I put in the work necessary to keep the detail and volume where it used to be with any kind of consistency. Right around the time I started this blog, I came to a fork in the road where I had to make a choice: keep being borderline obsessive with my dream journal to the detriment of other creative adventures, or focus on music and try to restore some balance to that part of my life.

I chose to give myself over to the music, and I haven’t looked back.

I think there has to be a happy medium between the two, though, and the desire is still there to return to that place I used to be, where I was wrestling ten or fifteen single-spaced typed pages out of a single night of dreaming. Maybe I’ll get back there yet. There are many dreams left to be had, and some of them are too good to let slip away.

For now, I’m starting to wade through a few thousand pages of the dreams I’ve accumulated up to this point, finding them as fascinating as ever, watching recurring themes emerge only to mutate, blur, and find themselves replaced by new themes (or, in some cases, seeing them stick around relatively unchanged). I’m also adding things like paragraph breaks to make the huge blocks of text easier on the eyes. Maybe when I’m done I’ll have a volume or two bound into a book, for my own personal enjoyment — my own bible of dreams.

A bite’s as good as a kiss to a complacent cat.


Number of songs finished/mixed/mastered/album-ready: fifty-five.

Number of songs only in need of some minor tweaking (like a slight remix or remastering): thirty-four.

Number of songs that have been recorded but still need some significant work: thirty-three.

Number of songs that have yet to be recorded: seventy-six.

Those figures don’t take into consideration a large group of songs I’ve decided are probably not going to make the cut, new songs I’m saving for something else, or songs/sketches meant for this album but now perhaps not worthy of inclusion.

What can you take away from all that? Three things, I think.

(1) I’ve technically passed the halfway mark, even though the second disc hasn’t quite been finalized yet, because there’s no way I’ll be able to squeeze a hundred songs onto the album, even spread out over four CDs. And I’ve already got more than half that amount in the bank, as they say.

(2) There’s a ridiculous amount of material to work with, and now it really comes down to what feels the strongest and most worthy of getting on the album, especially when it comes to figuring out which of those unrecorded songs to take a stab at (recording all of them is out of the question, unless I want to obliterate my goal of having this thing finished by the summer).

(3) Another misfits compilation might not be so far away.

About that hypothetical misfits collection — when I do sit down to put it together, it’s going to be a much tighter, more consistent affair than the first one. Part of that comes down to drawing from a shorter period of time. Volume one reached from 1999 to 2007. As it sits now, volume two would cover 2007 to 2012. But a larger part of it is the desire to be a little more selective. While I’m all for being exhaustive when it comes to these kinds of things, there’s a fair amount of stuff on the existing misfits collection that’s only there in the interest of being thorough, and not because it’s especially good or illuminating.

I think for the second go-round I’ll stick to the out-takes and cast-offs that feel most worthy of being heard, and only include sketches where they really add something interesting. And I think I’ll be going with the chronological approach to sequencing as well if it flows alright. That would never, ever work with ANGLE, just because of how many songs there are, but when it comes to compilations I do like the idea of setting it up so it’s easy to chart how things have progressed over time.

What else? I was lucky enough to see a new music video by some piece of shit pop band in which the lead singer would rather play video games than acknowledge his girlfriend, and he flirts with scores of other women at a party while posting pictures and videos online for the world to see. Yet, somehow, the girlfriend is spun into being the villain when she finally snaps at him for being a pathetic piece of shit who won’t even wash his own clothes. She doesn’t even do anything that terrible. She just tries to make him jealous in an attempt at getting him to pay some small amount of attention to her. The video would have us believe it’s just proof she’s a psycho bitch and he’s super cool.

We’re looking for a word here, and the word is misogyny.

How much do you want to bet the guys in this band don’t even know how to spell that word?

In my imaginary director’s cut of the video, the girl starts her own band and writes a song called “I Dated a Walking Cliché with a Micropenis”, humiliating her asshat of an ex-manchild to the point that he castrates himself in shame. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

Surprise me.

I had two pleasant surprises on Saturday.

Surprise number one came my way care of the new Field Music album. I picked up a copy from Dr. Disc. It’s good stuff, as expected, and it’ll take a few listens to digest — also expected. The Brewis brothers make dense, thorny music that’s as unpredictable and complex as it is catchy, packing songs with multiple hooks while not always drifting into a conventional verse/chorus structure. They’ve managed the neat trick of carving out an identifiable sonic signature while having the confidence to mess with it and warp it in new directions whenever the spirit moves them.

They also write lyrics like, “I want a different idea of what ‘better’ can be, which doesn’t necessitate having more useless shit.” That’s a little deeper and more interesting than something like, “Your love is my love, my love is yours,” eh?

The surprise came before I even listened to the music. I was leafing through the lyric booklet when my eyes scanned this little note:

In order to preserve sonic fidelity, this record has been mastered using significantly less compression and limiting than most contemporary records. For maximum listening pleasure, please turn your stereo system UP!

There’s something you don’t read in album liner notes very often. And it really is a great-sounding album. It has a healthy volume, but it doesn’t come at the cost of sound quality. All the dynamics are intact. Everything gets to breathe. It’s nice to hear good music that isn’t marred by a heavy-handed mastering job. Kudos to them for not falling prey to the still-pervasive “louder is better” mentality.

The second surprise has to do with my own music. I’ve been staying away from revising or altering songs meant for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE that already have finished mixes, aside from those cases where it really feels necessary. But a lot of things need to be remastered at a quieter volume, since the versions I have on CD tend to be from a time when I was making things louder than they needed to be, and louder than I want them to be now.

I’m in the process of finishing up what will hopefully be a good sequence for the second disc. There are only a few songs that need tweaking before I’m done. One of them is an eight-minute track with roots that stretch back to the ABSENCE OF SWAY sessions, and it’s sort of the centerpiece of this particular disc.

It’s also the one thing I couldn’t find on a backup disc. I knew which specific box of data CDs it was supposed to be in, but it was nowhere to be found. All I could find was a very early unmixed version that was nowhere near complete. That wouldn’t do at all.

It looked like my only course of action would be to take the too-loud version of the song and chop down the waveform to get it to the volume I wanted. That would technically solve the problem. It would probably also sound like crap.

I scoured other boxes of backup CDs over a period of a few days and never found a version of this song I could really use. Everything else was there. It was if the one thing I really wanted had vanished just to spite me.

On Saturday, just for the hell of it, I grabbed a plastic sleeve with two CDs inside of it from the box that was supposed to contain the song I was after. Normally when a sleeve has two CDs in it like this, what’s on those two CDs is identical. I make a backup copy of everything I back up just in case one of the CDs craps out over time. I keep them together for that reason.

I thought I might get lucky, but I knew it was pretty unlikely that this missing song was just sitting there behind another CD in the very first sleeve at the front of the box. I don’t tend to throw two completely unrelated things together like that.

And wouldn’t you know…that’s exactly where the song was. Right at the front of the box, behind an unrelated CD. Just sitting there.

Isn’t that the way it always goes? You spend a chunk of time madly searching for something, and it turns out it was two feet away from you the whole time.

On Sunday there came yet another fun little surprise. I was setting up the stereo ribbon microphone to record some drums when I noticed the return of the dreaded buzz. I first noticed it during the recording sessions for OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES and assumed it was a cable issue. It didn’t turn up too often, and when it did I was usually able to get rid of it by jostling the patch cords a little.

This time there was no escaping the buzz. Nothing I did would make it go away. I spent half an hour trying all kinds of different things, even down to blowing into patch cords and flapping them around, hoping if I abused them enough it might shut them up. No success.

Then I turned off the main light in the studio. The buzzing disappeared.

Turns out ribbon microphones are sensitive to external electromagnetic fields. If nothing else, it gives me a good excuse to use a little less electricity, and maybe I’ll be able to finagle some low-level mood lighting for those late night recording situations. If not, I’m not opposed to the idea of recording drums in relative darkness. There’s still enough light being thrown off from other sources to let me see everything important.

Chester the Walrus meets his grandfather.

For the second time this year I decided to skip the end-of-the-month video progress report. The reason is the same as before. Some months there just isn’t a whole lot to talk about. All it really means is April’s progress report will be more action-packed, because I’ll have more to say than, “I continue to make progress on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, and my nails are so long right now they could slice through a loaf of bread.”

On the subject of that album, now I find myself in the tricky position of trying to figure out which of the new songs I’m writing belong there and which ones I should save for something else. The problem is pretty much anything will fit on ANGLE, given how insanely sprawling it is. I guess it’s more a matter of where I want things to go, and not so much where they need to go (which is something they tend to figure out on their own).

The last time I had this dilemma I ended up recording MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART and pushing ANGLE into the background just as i was starting to make some real progress. I can feel the creative energy trying to make something like that happen again…but this time I need to keep that impulse on ice for a while.

I’ve kind of hit the ceiling for how long I can procrastinate with this album before it becomes impossible to finish. The last thing I want to do is undercut all the progress I’ve been making. Though I always seem to be a little behind where I’d like to be, within the next few days I should have the second disc sequenced and mixed. That means I’ll be halfway there.

And now the heart is filled with gold, as if it was a purse.

Today is Richard Manuel’s birthday. He would be sixty-nine years old.

I bought Stage Fright by The Band when I was about fourteen, right in the middle of my self-imposed musical re-education. It didn’t do a whole lot for me at the time. It would take years before I returned to that album and realized just how good it was.

At some point I decided I might as well pick up the first two albums to get a better idea of what The Band were all about. In the process my appreciation for and understanding of Stage Fright deepened. Music from Big Pink became a desert island album, with the self-titled “brown album” not far behind. Listening to it for the very first time was one of those divine musical moments you get to experience every so often when everything clicks and time seems to stand still.

A lot of that had to do with Richard.

“Tears of Rage” has to be one of the best opening tracks on any album inhabiting the nebulous pop/rock genre. It’s not a hard-driving, uptempo song. It’s slow and mournful, painfully beautiful, like a punch to the gut with flowers protruding from between each finger.

There’s a lot of soul and intensity in that voice. It’s vulnerable and strong at the same time. A contradiction in sound. And on the choruses, it fuses with bassist Rick Danko’s voice to become something even more powerful. When that song finished playing in my headphones for the first time, I had to double back and listen again. I needed time to process what I’d just heard before I moved on to the rest of the album.

I’m pretty sure it’s the only time that’s ever happened to me in all my years of listening to music.

For my money, Richard had one of the most gorgeous male voices popular music has ever produced. It came attached to a person who was as self-destructive as he was talented. I don’t think The Band ever scaled the heights of those first three albums again after they were shrinking in the rear view mirror, and part of that comes down to this sad truth: Richard never wrote another song after Stage Fright, though he would continue to record and perform with and without The Band for another sixteen years.

I don’t mean to imply that Robbie Robertson didn’t write a whole lot of great, timeless songs for the group. But it’s tough to listen to transcendent pieces of music like “Lonesome Suzie” or “In a Station” without wondering what else Richard might have done if he was a little more motivated or better able to keep it together.

There’s a brilliant review/analysis of Stage Fright (on, of all places) by John Stodder that I think comes as close as anyone ever has to getting at the heart of what made Richard such an indispensable part of the soul of The Band and how it all went wrong. “In some ways, being in The Band destroyed him,” Stodder writes. “At the same time, it created a place for him to hide.”

Robbie Robertson, who tried to keep Richard writing and coaxed him into collaborating on a handful of songs, touched on the seeming evaporation of his bandmate’s creative energy in an interview that coincided with the reissue and remastering of Stage Fright in 2000.

“I just assumed it would continue,” he said. “When we were going to do our second album, there was nothing coming. So when I’d be working on something, I’d pull him into it and make him work on the song with me just to get him in the mood or give him a taste for this, thinking then [he would] go on to follow it up. But he didn’t. My theory is, some people have one song in them, some people have five, some people have a hundred.”

Maybe Richard would have had more songs in him if the drugs and alcohol didn’t take over. Levon Helm wrote in his autobiography that Richard would drink eight bottles of Grand Marnier a day. Heroin and cocaine were also part of the mix. Rick Danko once said the unexpected financial success the group experienced was the worst thing that ever could have happened to them because of the path to excess it opened up.

Richard went on to turn in more great performances on The Band’s later albums in spite of his lack of creative input, but the abuse he put his body through caught up with him. It’s difficult to listen to some of his live performances from later on in the 1970s. On the songs Richard sings, his voice is often little more than a hoarse croak. It can be a pretty soulful, effective croak — especially on a song like “The Shape I’m In”, which he kept on singing until the night he died — but it’s coming from a guy who once had a voice that sounded like it was capable of just about anything.

Incredibly, near the end of his life he regained almost all of his vocal range, having managed to get sober for a while. There’s a soundboard recording of “I Shall Be Released” from a February 1986 show, and on it you can hear Richard nailing the impossible falsetto of that lead vocal just as he did on Big Pink almost twenty years earlier. It’s a magical thing to hear.

By most accounts, he was doing well until the death of The Band’s former manager Albert Grossman, a close friend and staunch supporter. That sent him into a depressive tailspin that led back to cocaine and the bottle. It didn’t help that Richard felt The Band had become a parody of themselves and a glorified nostalgia act, touring without Robbie and playing the same old songs night after night in small venues.

After one of those shows, Richard had a long conversation with Levon that went late into the night. Then he hung himself in his Florida hotel room. Maybe he felt he was at the bottom of a creative and personal black hole and the only way out he could see was to end it all. Maybe it was a decision that grew out of weariness. Maybe it was a drunken impulse he would have thought better of in the morning.

The only person who knows why he did what he did is Richard. And he’s not around to explain.

I don’t know his life story. I probably wouldn’t be the best person to tell it even if I did. But I can tell you this much: he had a wonderfully distinctive way of playing the piano and the drums, an astonishing voice, and he wrote some beautiful songs. It’s impossible not to think of what else he might have done if not for whatever it was that drove him to self-destruct.

I guess we’ll never know what the driving force was. It’s possible even he didn’t know. Sometimes we’re more confused by the things we choose to do than anyone else is.

At least he left behind some unvarnished pieces of himself in song. That’s more than most people can say.

If you don’t have them already, do yourself a favour and pick up Music from Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright. If you like good music, regardless of genre, those three albums belong in your collection. They make a nice little trilogy.

It feels appropriate that the first voice you hear on Big Pink and the last voice you hear on Stage Fright is Richard’s, introducing the band to the world and then bringing their hat trick to a close with one last breathless falsetto.