“Factual drums”, net play, and other revelations.

I had a few different ideas for blog posts I was working on in the last weeks of 2020. I got sidetracked, time got away from me, and I wasn’t able to finish any of them. I thought I might as well treat the first post of 2021 — late as it is — as a multi-purpose dumping ground for everything I’ve wanted to say here for the last little while. Just throw it all together in one place and let the stray dogs and feral cats sort it out.

So here is my “2020 in review” blog post, and my “what’s to come in 2021” blog post, and several other blog posts stitched together to create one gruesome Blogenstein creature. Hear it roar.

2020 was a strange year for a lot of people. It was a pretty productive one for me. I didn’t get THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE finished, but I managed to finish another long-range project — the tangled musical adventure that became YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. I also finished a DIY documentary that was just supposed to follow the making of that album but grew some longer legs along the way.

The Ron Leary album I produced and played a lot of different instruments on snuck out into the world at long last. Chances are you haven’t heard it. It didn’t get much of a promotional push. But it’s out there.

I filmed an in-studio live set for the CJAM show Revolution Rock and participated in a YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK-related interview over on the show’s website.

And some other stuff happened too. The end.

But of course, that really isn’t the end at all.

I was listening to YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK some months back. I had another one of those moments of self-doubt. I started thinking I’d botched the whole mix and buried the drums (again). I went to the trouble of remixing about half a dozen songs — and this was after the album had already been released — before it hit me that my brain was trying to convince my ears there was a problem I needed to address when there wasn’t a problem at all. I was still having a hard time processing the idea that after six years of working on this album there wasn’t any work left to do.

So I filed SLEEPWALK away in a proverbial drawer. I haven’t listened to it since. I don’t plan to listen to it again for a long time. I’ve had to accept that I’m incapable of hearing it with anything approaching objectivity, and this time the problem goes beyond the usual need to gain some distance from a piece of work after it’s finished. Making this album was one of the most frustrating and demoralizing experiences of my life. It’s impossible for me to listen to some of these songs now without the ugly emotional residue of that experience colouring everything like an overenthusiastic anthropomorphic crayon with halitosis.

Someday I hope to be removed enough from the shit to appreciate the album for whatever’s hiding underneath the stink. Right now I just can’t do it.

But I’m stubborn. I thought I’d take another crack at throwing a few more microphones on the drums. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was time for a change. The last time I tried mic’ing up the drums in a more conventional way I didn’t really care for the results. I thought it might be a different story if I had an actual piece of music to work with and I wasn’t listening to a drum recording as an isolated thing.

I wrote something on the piano. After getting down some basic tracks, I pointed a Shure SM57 at the snare, stuck an SM7 in front of the kick, and moved the AEA R88 so it was acting as a stereo overhead. I liked the results a lot more than what I was hearing when it was a Sennheiser 421 in front of the kick instead of the SM7. I got a performance I was pretty happy with. Then I listened to it in the context of the song.

It was the tightest, punchiest, most “professional” drum sound I’d heard in my own music since 2006. It kind of sounded like something you’d hear in a professional studio. And that was part of the problem. On a sonic level it was fine. On an emotional level it was all wrong. It was almost garish.

This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I was forced to come to the same conclusion all over again. I’ve been recording my drums in such a specific way for such a long time now, I’ve kind of ruined more conventional drum sounds for myself. Or at least I have when it comes to my own music. I think my sensibilities have shifted to the point that I just don’t want to hear those sounds anymore. For better or worse, that solitary stereo ribbon mic capturing the honest sound of my drum kit in my room has become my drum sound.

So I’ve embraced what I was already embracing, and it looks like I’m sticking with the “documentary” approach. If it feels like the drums are getting lost in a busy arrangement, I can always nudge them up in the mix a little or move a few things around to make more space for them.

This second failed experiment in changing up the drum sound dovetailed in a nice way with the beginning of serious work on the next album that’s going to have my name on the spine.

Post-YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, there hasn’t been a shortage of things to work on around here. I’ve been picking away at a collection of late-period Papa Ghostface out-takes — sort of a more wizened companion piece to KISSING THE BALD SPOT. There’s THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, aka “the album I’ve been working on in the background for about sixteen years now and should probably try to finish while I still have some of my wits about me”. There’s a whole pile of solo out-takes spanning the last dozen or so years. There’s a low-key album of cover songs I might never release. And I’ve been toying with the idea of remixing a few late-period GWD albums (along with the trilogy of post-band solo albums beginning with BEAUTIFULLY STUPID) to get rid of some low frequency mud that’s been bugging me forever.

A back-to-basics album of new solo material has also crept into the picture. It started out as just another thing I was picking at once in a while. Before too long it became my main focus.

It didn’t take long for me to fall into over-thinking mode. I told myself I needed to make a clean break from everything I’d done before. I needed to revert to avoiding anything that resembled a conventional song structure or a rhyming couplet. I needed to reinvent my whole songwriting language all over again.

This impulse has roots that stretch back a little farther than you’d think. I revisited BRAND NEW SHINY LIE in early 2016 after not listening to it for years. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with an old friend who was always convinced it was some of my best work. I spent some time reacquainting myself with all the music I was making during that time, when I was pursuing a non-repetitive, rhyming-free way of writing with tunnel vision. What struck me was how well it all worked.

There are so many things you can do with musical architecture that are more interesting than grabbing the same two or three bricks and turning them over in your hands until your fingers bleed. Forcing myself to stay away from any of the tried and true methods of song construction was a challenge I got a lot of enjoyment out of for a few years. Then one day it stopped feeling like a challenge and started feeling like it was just the way I wrote songs now.

It felt good to return to that work and to feel like I accomplished everything I set out to do, and maybe a little more.

You’ll Play Belligerent (2004)

All this time, I had no idea there was an official name for this kind of songwriting. “Through-composed”. Oxford Music Online defines it like so:

A term describing a composition with a relatively uninterrupted continuity of musical thought and invention. It is applied in particular in contexts where a more sectionalized structure might be expected, as with a Strophic song text, an opera divided into numbers, or an instrumental piece divided into movements. In the context of art song, “through-composed” describes settings in which a repeating verse structure is contradicted by the use of substantially different music for each stanza, unlike most hymns and folksongs, where strophic texts are reinforced by an equivalent repeating musical structure.

With THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, I made my peace with more repetitive song structures and started writing lyrics that were allowed to rhyme again. I found subtler ways of playing with form and stopped going out of my way to build songs that were aggressively unpredictable. Every album since CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN has been something of a balancing act, with songs that are content to inhabit less jagged forms rubbing shoulders with songs that don’t want to play by the rules. While I still write songs that keep shifting and mutating until they die, I haven’t made a whole album of songs like that since the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING  MECHANISM EP in 2005.

For years I’ve thought it would be fascinating to return to the through-composed approach and stretch it out all album long. A few times I thought it was going to happen. LOVE SONGS FOR  NIHILISTS started out barrelling down that path with songs like “Kings”, “Skull Jugglers”, and “The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)”. Then I found myself writing some songs that didn’t want to be fragmented or abstracted in the same way and liking them just as much as the others.

Falling back down the rabbit hole that had BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and GROWING SIDEWAYS grinning at the bottom got me thinking about all of this again. But the real turning point came last summer when Bob Dylan released his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. 

I call it Shit and Shitty Shit.

I’ve always liked Bob, just as long as I don’t spend too much time thinking about how awful he’s been to the women in his life (hello, Joan Baez) or how he just happens to be an unrepentant serial plagiarist. But any interest I had in buying his new album shrivelled and died when I heard “My Own Version of You” on the radio.

Here are some of the lyrics:

All through the summers, into January,
I’ve been visiting mosques and monasteries
looking for the necessary body parts —
limbs and livers and brains and hearts.
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do.
I wanna create my own version of you.
Well, it must be the winter of my discontent.
I wish you’d’ve taken me with you wherever you went.
They talk all night and they talk all day,
But not for a minute do I believe anything they say.
I’m gon’ bring someone to life, someone I’ve never seen.
You know what I mean. You know exactly what I mean.

I’ll take the scar-faced Pacino and the Godfather vandal,
mix it up and attack, and get a robot commander.
If I do it up right and put the head on straight,
I’ll be saved by the creature that I create.
I’ll get blood from a cactus, gunpowder from ice.
I don’t gamble with cards and I don’t shoot no dice.
Can you look in my face with your sightless eyes?
Can you cross your heart and hope to die?
I’ll bring someone to life, someone for real —
Someone who feels the way that I feel.

There’s a whole lot more to the song, but that’s as far as I got. After I heard him rhyme “real” with “feel” I turned the radio off. I’d heard enough.

You’ll have to search far and wide to find someone else who feels the same way I do. Rough and Rowdy Ways has received universal critical acclaim. It’s been hailed as some of the greatest work of Bob’s long career. I don’t put much stock in anything the writers at Pitchfork have to say anymore, but their review can stand for all the others out there. They gave the album a 9.0 out of 10 (an uncommonly high score) and dusted off their now-meaningless “Best New Music” distinction, praising the lyrics as being “dense enough to inspire a curriculum” and “clever enough to quote like proverbs”.

I don’t know if the rest of the world has gone batshit insane or I’ve just turned into a bona fide curmudgeon, but man…I really don’t get it.

Very few songwriters put any effort into avoiding rhyming in their lyrics. I know this. You know this. Everyone rhymes everything with everything all the time. It’s the way things are done. Bob has always been one of the worst offenders when it comes to forcing rhymes into crevices that don’t need them, but once upon a time his words really were dense and witty. Blonde on Blonde is overflowing with dizzying, thought-provoking turns of phrase. This stuff? To my ears it’s the lazy, uninventive work of a hack who’s fallen in love with his own dubious cleverness. You can predict the end of almost every line in every song before it even begins to show its ass to you.

I can appreciate rhyming “orphanages” with “sons of bitches”. Here Bob rhymes “me” with “be”, “wall” with “all”, “two” with “do”, “one” with “done”, “play” with “day”, and “meet” with “street” — and that’s just pulling from two verses in a single song.

What’s most troubling to me is the knowledge that a lot of Bob’s words aren’t even his own. Not that he cares. He’s said, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.” In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview he used stronger language. “All those motherfuckers can rot in hell,” he said. “It’s an old thing. It’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”

He can gnash his teeth all he wants. The truth is the man who was once called the spokesman of his generation and is now called an elder statesman is really just a fraud. It’s true that most artists borrow or steal some of their ideas from the artists who have come before them. But I’m not sure anyone else who’s ever lived has been so bereft of ideas that they had to pilfer the bulk of the material in their purported memoir. I bought the first and only volume of Chronicles when it was published. It’s a book I’ll never read now, knowing the sickening plagiaristic depths to which its author sank, presenting the re-contextualized work of others as his own.

He couldn’t even use his own words to talk about his own life. Think about that for a second.

Some have argued Bob’s behaviour constitutes high level trolling. Others have said it isn’t plagiarism. It’s a long-form “artistic collage”. I think it’s sad. If you don’t have anything to say, maybe instead of stealing the words of others and calling them your own you should shut your mouth and take up a new hobby. Get into nude skydiving. Knit a penis-shaped quilt. I don’t know. Do something constructive with your time.

I guess the esteemed Mr. Dylan has other plans. And I’m sure he would brand me a wussy and a pussy for being bothered by this stuff. Maybe he’s right. After all, he just sold his entire catalogue of music to Universal for three hundred million dollars, relinquishing any future control over his work for a disgusting amount of money he’ll never be able to begin to spend in what remains of his lifetime, proving once and for all that his artistic integrity (or whatever remains of it) has always been for sale.

At least I can say I write my own material and I haven’t prostituted my art for money. That’s worth a little more to me than some smelly paper.

Anyway. After hearing those rough and rowdy rhymes, I thought it was about time I kicked rhyming in the nards and locked it away somewhere cold and unforgiving. It felt like the time was right to get back to a less predictable way of constructing things, too.

I wrote some songs that were through-composed and rhyme-free. I started to get excited about the new material I was creating. Then I decided it was all garbage and I was wasting my time. At the same time, I was telling myself I needed to find a way to top the last album. YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is by far the most eclectic thing I’ve ever done. How was I supposed to follow something like that?

You’d think I would be past this sort of thing by now. I guess not. I guess every once in a while I need to drag my feet through the mud of a low-level creative crisis in order to reaffirm that I just make the kind of music I make, whatever that is these days, and the “clean break” approach isn’t what I do. I take stock of what’s in the quiver, add a few fresh arrows to the bow, and then I fire them all up into the air, letting them fall where they want to. Things don’t tend to go well when I try to force the music to contort itself into a given shape. I need to let the muse have her way, and if it doesn’t always feel like I’m reinventing the wheel, so what? The important thing is that the art continues to evolve in some way, whether it’s a giant leap or a near-invisible shift of balance from one foot to the other.

Tied in with all of this was the realization that WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD was a more important album for me than I thought it was at the time. I think in some ways it crystallized my current musical identity. I’m thinking of the way those songs incorporate self-made samples and lo-fi ambient textures into the usual more organic sonic tapestries. In one way or another, everything I’ve done since then has been building on the foundation I established there.

I needed to accept that and run with it, instead of trying to force myself to make an avant-garde EDM death metal album when that wasn’t where my heart was.

The song that served as the backdrop for my unsuccessful second drum recording experiment was the turning point. After I gave up on chasing a more conventional sound and fell back into my usual way of recording the drums, everything opened up and started to breathe easier. Then I started second-guessing the song itself. I couldn’t work out the arrangement. It wasn’t clear what the song needed. I wasn’t sure if it was album material.

I was tempted to throw it in the trash. I forced myself to keep banging my head against the wall until I started seeing interesting-looking stars. By the time I was finished with the thing, it felt like this little song that wasn’t much more than a minute long had become a teachable moment. It didn’t provide the blueprint for what the rest of the album was going to sound like. I think I’ve moved pretty far past the point of being able to make an album that’s rooted to any one specific place. What it did provide me with was a useful lesson in what I should be doing, and it’s the same thing I’ve always done: making music without spending too much time analyzing it.

Of course, there were still some rough moments even after what felt like a breakthrough. Some days I felt uninspired and wondered why I was working on anything music-related at all. I’ve had to acknowledge that some of this is an outgrowth of the post-SLEEPWALK emotional hangover — not just in terms of what I put into making that album, but what the album and the failed live show took from me. You don’t bounce back from something like that overnight. You can’t just fill your empty guts back up like a vending machine.

One thing I’ve been doing now and then is revisiting random songs from the cassette recording days, gathering some thoughts in preparation for when I start digitizing all those tapes and making that music and the stories behind it a significant part of this blog. One day I listened to a song called “Forever Rocking” for the first time in more than twenty years.

In the early going, a lot of the West Team albums were more like solo albums. It took me a while to twist Johnny Smith’s arm into becoming a regular collaborator. One of those near-solo albums was called Forever Rocking, and it was recorded in May of 1995, hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed The Hole in the Ground.

Okay, so no one in the known universe has ever heard that album or any of the others I was making at the time. But you listen to “Smashing Back: Theme from Rocky VII” today and tell me it wasn’t prophetic.

When I was recording music on cassettes, the last song on a given side was always a slave to however much time was left on the tape. It added a sense of urgency to whatever was being recorded. Sometimes I was limited to a ninety-second throwaway. Sometimes I had fourteen or fifteen minutes to work with, so I would improvise an epic song knowing it was probably going to get cut off at some point.

With “Forever Rocking”, I can’t remember if I’d already decided on the album title, but I had a chunk of tape left on the second side and I wanted to fill it up. So I improvised a song and decided it was going to be the title track. It felt pretty slight to me, but it meant the album was finished, so I was happy.

I listened to this song more than half a lifetime removed from when it was recorded. I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to hear. I was wrong.

The song starts with me having breakfast by myself. I’m eating toast in my wife’s nightgown and singing to myself about my life, wondering where it all went wrong. Later on, I grab lunch at Burger King and try to find a character named Baby Ching. When I track him down, he starts bragging about how great his life is. I decide it doesn’t matter how well he’s doing. I’ve got something he’ll never have. I’ve got something he can’t begin to understand. I’ve got music inside of me. While I’m reading Time magazine in the bathroom, I see the residue of some green Kool-Aid that was spilled on the floor, and it inspires a song.

And that’s the idea I keep circling back to. Between non-sequiturs like, “Think of solutions for your prostate,” there’s a sort of almost-chorus that keeps shifting but returns again and again to the same idea:

Rocking —
forever rocking.
That’s where I’ll be.
Forever rocking.
That’s where I’ll be.
Singing.
Singing.
Praising.
Playing for myself.

Making music isn’t a hobby. It’s something devotional. And it doesn’t matter if no one else hears it or cares about it. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t anything earth-shattering. It doesn’t matter if Baby Ching has a fancy new car or more money than me. Let him enjoy his meaningless material possessions. I make music. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. That’s what gives me joy and makes me whole.

Singing a tune and I’m watching a wave.
What’s gonna happen when I go out today?
Forever rocking.
That’s where I’ll be.
You’ll never be fast enough to catch me.

I listened to that and I wondered how I could understand this all so well when I was eleven years old and all I was doing was trying to fill up a side of tape with whatever was in my head. It really is that simple. It’s always been that simple. I need to make music. It’s what I was made to do. Forever rocking. That’s where I’ll be.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Even with the odd frustrating moment when I still get too stuck in my own head, it’s a relief to get back to working on my own again. I’d forgotten how much I can get done when the only person I have to rely on is myself.

There have been distractions. One of the big ones that ate up a lot of my time for a while was tennis. And I don’t mean tennis played on a tennis court. I mean Tennis — the 1984 Nintendo game.

I was at the Devonshire Mall about fifteen years ago when I saw someone selling these Gamezone things at a kiosk. They had more than a hundred Nintendo games built into a single controller. I’ve still got all my original eight and sixteen-bit consoles and all the games I gathered to go with them, and they all still work except for a few Sega games that died in the flood a few years ago. But this Gamezone puppy had some NES games I didn’t have. It had Contra. I always loved that game. It had Urban Champion — a game I once rented and spent so much time trying to conquer, by the time I gave up the tips of my thumbs had lost all feeling. It had Mighty Final Fight. It had Popeye, and Donkey Kong, and the original Mario Bros., and all kinds of other fun things.

So I bought it. It looked like this. It still looks like this.

Contra came with the Konami Code burned in. Thanks to all those extra lives I was able to beat the game for the first time. There were some pretty weird and interesting unlicensed games too. I didn’t get much mileage out of those, though. The games I ended up playing the most were Bomberman and Ring King. Bomberman was a lot of fun, and after a while I got good enough to beat it without dying. Ring King was pretty frustrating. It was still worth playing for this little interlude between rounds of pixelated boxing.

I don’t think I have to tell you what it looks like those trainers are doing to their fighters. It cracks me up every time.

The Gamezone controller got put away in a closet — a real one — and I forgot about it for a long time. Last summer I thought I’d dust it off and enjoy a little NES nostalgia. After running through some of the classics, I discovered a tennis game hiding in plain sight. I’d never noticed it in the list of games before. Tennis is just about the only sport I still follow with any real interest. I thought I’d give the game a try.

It’s called Tennis. Really. That’s it. It’s considered pretty crude and outdated these days. Most people don’t even think it’s the best tennis game for the NES. But I fell in love with it. For its time, and for all the limitations of the eight-bit system, there’s a surprising amount of accuracy. The scoring is as it should be. The matches are best-of-three. Once you learn how to time your serve, there’s some pretty decent variation. You can hit something that looks like a slow kick serve, or a hard flat serve, or a wide slice serve.

You even get Mario as the chair umpire. And Mario never makes a bad call.

The level construction doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s no tournament mode. There are five levels, and the difficulty increases with each new opponent you face. Each level consists of a “normal” match and then a “championship” match (assuming you win the first match). This means you’ve got ten stages when there are only five opponents in the game. This means opponents get recycled. This means by the time you get to the championship match in Level 2, you’re already facing off against the second most difficult guy in the game.

This isn’t fair at all.

It took me a while to get the hang of the mechanics, but pretty soon I’d made my way through the first level. The first guy in Level 2 gave me some fits, but I beat him too. I started giving my opponents the names of real tennis players. Two guys were erratic but given to moments of brilliance. I called them Monfils and Dimitrov. One guy was an annoying pusher. I called him Gilles Simon. I started providing my own colour commentary. I adopted a Scottish accent that made me sound a little like Jim Watt. Then it shifted to a British accent that made me sound more like Jason Goodall. I wasn’t biased. I gave credit to my opponent when it was due. I poured on the accolades when he came up with a great shot.

Then I got to the second level’s championship match and the guy on the other side of the net took my head off. He was all but impenetrable. I didn’t like him.

I called him Novak Djokovic.

This game can make you crazy, because where the ball is and where you are in relation to your opponent when you hit the ball has everything to do with where it goes once it leaves your racket. A tiny adjustment in movement can be the difference between a forehand smash that goes right to him and a running backhand volley he can’t reach. When you’re moving right you can only hit a forehand, and when you’re moving left you can only hit a backhand, and if you’re standing still to return serve you better be sure you’re facing the right way or you’re gonna have a bad time.

With Super Tennis for the SNES — still considered one of the best console-based tennis games — you can control your ball toss when you’re serving. You can decide how hard you want to hit your serve and what kind of spin you want to put on it. You can hit slices and topspin shots from anywhere on the court. You can lob, volley, control the strength of your volleys, and put left or right sidespin on the ball.

Tennis for the NES gives you a hard shot and a lob shot. Your ball toss is automatic. The strength and positioning of your serve are at the mercy of how good your reflexes are. You can either hit the ball on the rise or you can hit it when it’s on the way down. The safer choice is hitting the ball as it’s falling, but it’s harder to hit aces that way and you end up with a lot of slower kick serves. Hitting it on the rise gives you more power, but the margin for error is much smaller. You have some control over where your serve goes depending on where you position yourself behind the baseline and when you hit the ball, but it takes a lot of time to figure out all the little intricacies.

You have no control over the strength of your volleys. It all depends on the strength of shot coming at you. Sometimes you’ll hammer the ball. Other times you’ll just dink it back. And the game mechanics are very unforgiving and finicky. You can set up a smash with more than half the court to work with and have it fly wide on you, and you can hit into an almost nonexistent amount of space and pull off a perfect pass.

Here’s another thing this game throws at you: as your opponents get tougher, they get faster, and the ball moves faster too. Your speed also increases, but the pixelated shithead you’re playing is always a little bit faster than you are.

I was playing this game so much it started to hurt my hands. I wanted to beat Djokovic but I couldn’t figure him out. I put the Gamezone controller thing away for a day. Then I plugged it back in and went back to work. I made a decision. I was going to beat every level no matter how long it took me. I started doing finger exercises. I kept playing. And pretty soon I got good enough to beat Djokovic.

I had to reinvent myself as an all-court player. In the early stages I could get away with rallying and mixing up my shots until my opponent made a mistake. That wasn’t going to work anymore. Now I had to hit an outright winner if I wanted to win a point. He was tough to ace, so the only way to get the ball past him most of the time was to come to the net. It was tricky working out the timing at first, but I started to get the hang of it.

My reward for beating him was playing him again at the end of Level 3, and then again at the beginning of Level 4. He was tough, but I kept getting through him.

Then I had to play the guy at the end of Level 4.

This guy was ridiculous. As far as I could tell, he had no weaknesses at all. His patterns of play were tough to read. It didn’t matter if he was serving or returning. Sometimes he would hit a return and stay behind the baseline. Sometimes he would chip and charge. I tried to serve and volley. It was dicey at best. I might get a weak return I could put away for an easy winner, or he might sail a lob over my head or handcuff me with a return I couldn’t get back in play. His serving patterns were just as unpredictable. Sometimes he would serve and volley. Sometimes he would hang back. Sometimes he would crush a second serve that was harder and had more work on it than his first serve.

If he came in behind his serve, my only safe option was to hit a lob back at him. If I hit a hard return, he would respond with a smash that was so hard and hit at such an acute angle I wouldn’t have any hope of tracking it down. He would retreat to the baseline to retrieve my lob, and then I had to try and figure out when the time was right to attack the net. When he didn’t come in behind his serve, I would experiment with hitting a harder shot back at him to try and get ahead in the point. Sometimes it seemed to work, but it gave me less time to get to the net if I wanted to try and pressure him.

I learned there were a lot of things he could do that I couldn’t do.

He could hit a lob over my head when I was at the net, and if I couldn’t chase it down at the baseline he would win the point. I couldn’t hit a lob over his head. He would always get back to retrieve my shot. In the thousands of points I’ve now played against him, I’ve only ever tripped him up half a dozen times when I’ve hit a lob and he’s whiffed on it. Once I managed to change direction and slice back a return the wrong way, and it threw him off, but that’s almost impossible to do.

He could hit me with the ball to steal a point whenever he felt like it. I couldn’t hit him with the ball even if I tried to. Not that I’d want to win that way. He could move a lot faster than I could. He could chase down balls I could never get to in a million years. He could hit a volley at any angle he wanted, with as much speed and power as he wanted, and he could put it out of my reach any time he felt like it. I could only pass him or get him out of position to hit a winner if I played smart, strong, tactical tennis.

He would never hit a volley that went wide or long. Once in a while he would dump a volley into the net if I pressured him enough. Aside from the occasional double fault, those were the only points he gave away. Meanwhile, he could force me to hit a volley wide when I tried to get the ball around him.

He could hang in a rally forever. There was no way to win a point against him from the baseline. It didn’t matter how well I mixed up my shots or how long I hung with him. One time I went toe to toe with him for eighty-four shots. Another time I stayed in the point for five shots more than that. Both times he got tired of toying with me and just hit the ball somewhere I couldn’t get to so he could put me out of my misery.

He could shorten up his hard shots so I had less time before the second bounce to get my racket on them. He could put the ball wherever he wanted on the court and make it travel as slow or fast as he wanted, and he could hit it as shallow or deep as he wanted. I didn’t have anywhere near that amount of control over any of my own shots.

There was one thing I could do that he couldn’t do. I could hit a lob when I was at the net. It was almost impossible to time. Nine times out of ten I would hit air, he’d dink the ball past me, and he’d win the point. Even when I did pull it off, there was a fifty-fifty chance it was going to sail long. Twice I managed to get the ball right on the baseline and he lost the point because he didn’t know what to do.

I abandoned that strategy in a hurry. It wasn’t doing me much good even when I was in a tough position and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hit around or through him. I was better off sticking with hard shots at the net and retreating to the baseline if he tried to lob me.

I had a name for this guy too, but I didn’t name him after any real tennis player. I named him for how much I hated him. I called him Cocksucker Joe. I called him CJ for short.

The first time I played CJ he beat me in straight sets. I won one game. I couldn’t figure out a way to counter his speed and precision. The second time he won 6-1, 6-4. I started making inroads in the second set. I couldn’t hold serve to save my life, but I broke him a few times. That gave me hope. The third time he beat me again but I took a set off of him. I was getting better. I was learning how to construct points. I was learning when to attack and when to defend.

Here’s a scenario. You’re at the net. CJ hits a shot on his ad court side and comes in behind it. You can run back to the baseline and hit a lob to push him back the baseline, but that’s no fun. So you stay at the net. If you move to the right to hit the ball, you’ll be in position to hit a forehand volley. It’ll go right to him. He’ll hit a crosscourt volley way over into the ad court on your side of the court where you have no hope of getting to the ball, and he’ll win the point. The only way to pass him is to hit a backhand volley down the line into the tiny bit of space you have to work with inside of the singles line. To do that, you have to run to the right and then at the last second move to the left just a little to change your stance so you’re in position to hit a backhand. Then you can crush the winner.

That’s just one situation you might find yourself in when you’re playing this guy. That’s how fast you have to think to have a chance against him.

The fourth time we met, I beat him 6-4, 6-4. It wasn’t easy. I had to hit 70 winners against 10 unforced errors. If you follow tennis, you know that’s unheard of for a straight sets win. It took some crafty and aggressive play to put him away. I lost serve in the first game of the match and trailed 2-4 before finding a way to break back. I kept the momentum going, winning four games in a row to take the first set. I got broken again in my first service game of the second set and had to battle back from 1-3 down. Again, I took over and won four games in a row. I served for the match at 5-3 only to get broken again. I had to break his serve to win.

Guess what your reward is for beating CJ at the end of Level 4? You get to play him again in Level 5, and then you get to play him a third time in the final championship match.

So I played him twice the next day. I beat him in straight sets both times. And then I kept playing him. I wanted to prove beating him wasn’t a fluke. I went 16-1 in our next seventeen matches. I averaged 71 winners against 5 unforced errors. There were some tough battles, but a turning point was a match I won after losing the first set and going down 1-5 in the second set. He served for the match twice. I had to save match points. I didn’t lose another game the rest of the way, serving up a bagel in the third set.

After that, I knew I could back myself to beat him no matter how far behind I was. And I seemed to get in his head. He started making more mistakes. Sometimes he would break his own serve with a double fault. Sometimes he would even double fault on match point. I did the hard work to put him in a position where a double fault would cost him, but it was still cause for concern. I started thinking he might need to see a pixelated sports psychologist.

I felt bad for him. I started thinking of ways I could handicap myself to make our matches competitive again. I stopped looking for the right moment to attack and started coming in behind every single serve and return I hit. I started moving farther inside of the baseline to return serve, flirting with something resembling Roger Federer’s SABR tactic. My net game got so good, pretty soon I was winning a lot of matches 6-0, 6-0. I couldn’t go back and scrap with any of the guys in the earlier levels anymore. Now playing them felt like crawling through quicksand. It was CJ or bust.

I started analyzing the matches on a deeper level. I would keep track of our first serve percentages, how successful we were behind our first and second serves, and how many winners and errors we both hit. I worked out how often he came in behind his serve and how often he stayed back. The backhand became my favourite shot. It was the way it transformed at the net from a two-handed rallying shot to a single-handed whip. It looked elegant. I started trying to hit as many backhand winners as I could just for something to do.

After a while I was averaging about 50 winners and no unforced errors. It was getting too easy. So I stopped using the lob shot. I took away my ability to defend and I started returning serve with nothing but hard shots and rushing the net. I started daring myself to hit chip and charge winners. Sometimes he passed me or hit me with the ball, but I kept him guessing. I even pulled off the occasional flukey return winner when he came in behind a wide serve and didn’t cover enough of the net because he didn’t think I was going to get it back in play. It got tougher to beat him when half my game was gone, but I kept winning.

Then I started playing him on my laptop.

I found a website that let me play Tennis online. I set it up so the W, A, S, and D keys on my MacBook operated as the direction pad and the left and right arrows functioned as the A and B buttons. It was like learning to play the game all over again from scratch. My movement was compromised. I had to revert to the old safe serve because I couldn’t time it when the ball was on the rise anymore.

I lost my first laptop match 0-6, 0-6. I played CJ again. I lost again. It was more difficult to time my volleys now. It was easier for him to pass me, and sometimes I would line up a perfect pass only to have the game take it away from me when the ball smacked into the net.

I played him again. I won in three tough sets. I played him again. I won again. And then one day I looked at the standings and saw I’d won 36 times in a row, and now I was beating him 6-0, 6-0 on my laptop.

This isn’t normal. I know that. Playing one specific opponent in a Nintendo tennis game 185 times, amassing a 178-7 lifetime record against him, and doing a deep statistical dive into almost half of those matches is pretty pointless. But you’re talking to a guy who’s writing an enormous book about five years of his life knowing no one will ever get to read the results. Pointless projects are kind of my bread and butter.

Hey, I’ve had fun. And I accomplished what I set out to do. I conquered the game and humbled CJ. I got so good, I won a doubles match 6-1, 6-2 without breaking a sweat, pitting just one of me against two CJs.

Another thing I did in 2020 was reclaim responsibility for being the custodian of my dreams.

Dreams have fascinated me for as long as I’ve been alive, but for the first twenty years of my life I almost never wrote them down. I didn’t remember them that often, and the few dreams that stuck around usually embedded themselves in my long-term memory, so there was no need to write them down. It wasn’t until 2003 that I started making a point of documenting some of the more interesting fragments I was able to hold onto. It took me another three years to figure out I was dreaming every night and I just needed to train my brain to remember what was going on. After making steady progress throughout the year, things ramped up in the last third of 2006 and I became a dream-documenting fiend. I had a dream journal now, and I was committed to maintaining it and watching it grow.

I’ve talked about this before.

In that 2012 blog post, I touched on the slow erosion of my devotion to the cause. There was a little bit of slacking in August of 2007. I was pretty disillusioned after we had to move into a new house. It didn’t help that I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom for a while because my boxspring wouldn’t fit up the stairs (though I had some pretty interesting dreams when I was sleeping downstairs). But things didn’t take too much of a hit at first. I think there were only a few days where I neglected to do my usual second pass to extract every last detail from each dream. Before long I was back in my own bed and back on track, with only a few lethargic days creeping in here and there.

April of 2008 was where the rot started to set in. I started to get lazy. It didn’t help that my sleep was a mess half the time and I woke up most days (or nights) feeling like someone took a violent piss inside my skull while I was asleep. When I had a really meaningful dream I wanted to hold onto I would put in the work to flesh it out, but my work ethic really started to slip.

I wasn’t just spewing wishful thinking in that blog post. 2012 marked a significant return to form. I was inconsistent at first, but I started to generate some serious momentum in June and July after flashes of brilliance in the spring. I got my dream journal back on track for a while. Things dropped off again after August, with a brief turn-around in October and a serious resurgence in November. The momentum carried over into December for a while, and then I lost the plot again at the end of the year. 2013 got off to a decent start, but soon I was back to slacking off again. Still, it was an improvement over the middling work I did 2010 and 2011, if a little disappointing after 2012’s advances. 2014 was more of the same — hit and miss, with the occasional masterstroke.

2015 started strong and then slid back downhill in a hurry. Things improved a little later in the year. 2016 was like 2010 all over again, but with some signs of life in the summer. By 2017 things were back to being pretty fragmented, and I didn’t flesh out a single dream with any real effort until July.

2018 was a hot mess.

2019 got off to a very slow start, with only a few things fleshed out here and there, but I ended the year strong. Some nights I only got a handful of fragments, but at least I rediscovered some amount of consistency, pushing myself a little more often to document what I remembered in as much detail as I could, ready for the meaty dreams when they decided to show up. Fixing my sleep once and for all didn’t hurt any.

2020 was my best year since 2007, and that was my dream diary’s greatest year by some distance. I documented almost three thousand pages of dreams that year, and I wasn’t even firing on all cylinders the whole way through. Thirteen years later, it was a bit of a different story. There were some missteps along the way, but in the last third of the year things really picked up, and I made the decision to never again disrespect a night’s dreams by recording them in tepid, halfhearted fashion. I came through the last six weeks of the year in fantastic form. It was my best and most consistent burst of dream activity (and dream documentation) in more than a decade.

The dream that turned me around once and for all came early in December of last year. It was called Home and Away (yes, I name all my dreams like they’re movies). My longest dreams have always seemed to top out around six thousand words. I thought that was a built-in ceiling I wasn’t ever going to break through. After all, your brain can only store so much information, and the all-important short-term memory is at its most vulnerable when you’re just waking up. I considered myself lucky for being able to remember that much when I was firing on all cylinders. Six thousand words is nothing to sniff at.

Well, my rough draft for Home and Away was already more than six thousand words long. That’s never happened before. By the time I was finished with the second pass, it came out to twenty-six pages and more than fourteen thousand words. It took about two hours to type up the rough draft and more than twice that long to finish the more fleshed-out version. It ate up most of my day. I didn’t regret it for a second. It was one of the most interesting and satisfying dreams of my life. It took me on a hell of an emotional journey. It had a little bit of everything: romance, violence, sex, animation, music, mystery, humour, suspense, and more. It even threatened to become a nightmare for a while before steering itself in a more poetic direction.

I looked at the mountain of text that made up that dream when I was finished typing it all up and I thought, “There was a time I would have scratched out a few lines to represent a marathon dream like this, and that would have been it. I would have lost the entire substance and soul of the thing by failing to put in the work necessary to do it justice. I don’t ever want to let that happen again. If my brain is going to give me material this good, I owe it to myself to dedicate an hour or two after I wake up and another hour or two before I go to bed to treating my dream journal with the respect it deserves.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve established (or re-established) a solid rhythm, giving my dreams their due while still leaving room for music and other things. A month into 2021, I’m already on pace to give 2007 a run for its money. I can’t remember seventeen dreams a night like I used to. Those days are long gone. I don’t sleep long enough to dream that much now that I’m on a consistent, healthy sleep schedule. But I seem to be good for at least one or two substantial, thought-provoking dreams on any given night, along with whatever fragments stick around from earlier sleep cycles. I’m good with that. I don’t think I could handle the amount of dreams I used to remember. My brain would explode.

It still bothers me that I was so lazy with this for so long. The Word document that serves as my dream journal is now about seventy-five hundred pages and well over three million words long. That’s crazy. You know what’s even crazier? It would be a whole lot longer if I got my ass in gear sooner, or if I never fell off the wagon at all.

I try to use that thought as motivation. If I ever feel like taking a day off and falling back into old habits, I think about Home and Away. I think about all the great dreams I only documented in piecemeal form. I can’t do anything about the sins I committed against my subconscious during one rough stretch or another, but I can do something about the here and now. I can dream my dreams, and I can gouge them into my hard drive, where they’ll live until I’m gone and dreaming other dreams that have no end.

So yeah. 2021 should be an interesting year for music, and dreams, and melted ice cream. I’m not setting down any New Year’s Resolutions here or anywhere else — I know better by now — but I’ve got a pretty good handle on what I’m aiming to do in the next eleven months, and I think I should be able to get at least some of it done.

Tantivy.

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