Is America defined more by its time honored traditions, or by its bold pursuit of the unwarranted? Until civilization makes good on the promise of Blernsball, we will be forced to choose. This week, I side with tradition, and my captain is M. Ward, Americana virtuoso of the twenty-first century.
Before he was a Merge Records superstar with dual drummers, Ward was a fledgling singer-songwriter with sophomore record named “End of Amnesia.” It was here that he first struck the balance between roots, folk, lo-fi pop, and classical guitar, filtered through a 1930s phonograph in a dead man’s parlor, to create the sound that would define his career.
“O’Brien,” the album’s closer, is living proof. Or dead proof- it’s not easy to tell. In a sparse arrangement, Ward’s warm, wilted voice recalls a meeting on the mound. The deserted baseball diamond is little more than a backdrop for Ward’s memory: a ghost of friendship, old cars, and a girlfriend, who, in the grand scheme of things, is less notable than the brand name of the guitar winding these images together and bearing them into the world with each buzzing note. We’re reminded that the game played is ultimately meaningless; what matters is that he was there, and until “O’Brien’s Nocturne” recedes into silence, so are we. The record stops. Amnesia returns to mankind. And that’s the story of how O’Brien blew my mind.
In general, I detest professional team sports. But I will watch baseball when I’m sick. Drifting in and out of consciousness, rolled up in my blankie, I can forget about the money machine, the performance enhancing drugs, the cutthroat competition for corporate sponsorships, and allow myself to be tugged along by the rhythm of the game, with its slowly shifting states of tension. It’s like dreaming of geologic time.
The perfect soundtrack for this activity is the 1969 instrumental “Albatross”, by Fleetwood Mac. You can feel the world dissolving into a dream as the gently thrumming rhythms push and pull like the tide, buoying the swooping and gliding slide guitars.
The object of baseball, as George Carlin famously pointed out, is just to go home. Home, the ocean, sleep. The ball seems to hang forever in the bright blue sky. The crowd fades away and the announcer holds his breath. The magic is in forgetting.
Contextual note: unfortunately, every word I write here is a wasted opportunity to accomplish what is possibly a much larger and more important purpose; for everyone reading this who has watched any sporting event on television in the last year secretly knows that the official song for every American sport, including baseball, is “This is Our Country” by John [Cougar] [Mellencamp]. He sings it on the field, it’s in the commercials, it’s in all of our heads (although it’s curiously not on the radio–maybe he publicly insulted Clear Channel?) And it’s the worst song ever. So by not writing about “This is Our Country” right now I am avoiding service to the greater good, i.e. talking about how that is the worst song ever.
Then, barring The Coog from the discussion, let me pretend that the song I actually hear when I think of baseball is the song I wish I still heard:
So. Thanks, John Fucking Mellencamp, for replacing my memories of “Cubs in Five” with “This is Our Country.” Asshole.