Rich Wilhelm

MonkDay 002: Listening to Monk, Thinking About Devo

In MonkDays, Thelonious Monk on November 22, 2016 at 6:40 am

 

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MonkDay 002  11/22/16

It is now just past midnight, Tuesday morning. The whole point of MonkDay is to listen to Thelonious Monk on Mondays and I did not do that yesterday. But I’m listening to Monk now and maybe his Thelonious Monk Trio and Monk albums, both originally released in 1954, will help explain two oddly thrilling existential moments I had yesterday. It’s worth a shot.

 

Oddly Thrilling Existential Moment #1: Driving around Phoenixville yesterday morning, I heard a story on the radio about 26 Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, a new book written by Alexandra Zapruder, the granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the shattering 26-second home movie of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Alexandra was asked a question about how she would summarize the importance of the film and her answer went beyond the historical and shocking aspects of the scrap of film to touch on the larger issue of existence itself. A man is riding in a car with his wife on a beautiful day. Seconds later, the man is essentially gone and the moment of this cataclysmic disappearance is captured to be viewed and experienced in perpetuity. And that’s it. “That’s life,” as Frank Sinatra noted. And death. All at once.

Of course that’s what the Zapruder film is about, but I guess I’d never considered it in such stark, unyielding terms before. I went on about my business, tending to the minutia of my life, even as I contemplated the yawning existential black hole that is the Abraham Zapruder film.

Oddly Thrilling Existential Moment #2. Hours later, I’m driving along a dark road on the outskirts of West Chester. Meeting J and J, two of my oldest friends, for dinner. We’ve known each other for 36 years, though J and J’s friendship stretches even further back.

J and J and I had agreed to meet at a restaurant equidistant from us. I was well on my way when I left Route 202 and headed down the road where I thought the restaurant was. As it happened, I was wrong about this, which is how I came to be driving on that dark road.

I was listening to Devo, specifically their song, “Gut Feeling,” as I drove along, trying to figure out where I was headed. If you only know Devo from its one big hit, “Whip It” and from its distinctive flower pot-shaped “energy dome” hats, what I am about to say may not make sense but trust me on this.

“Gut Feeling” is about as far removed from “Whip It” as you can imagine. I’ve noticed before what a dark song it is, with a long instrumental introduction that leads to vaguely paranoid lyrics culminating in a chorus of “I got a gut feeling,” wailed over and over to chilling effect.

Last evening, that effect was absolutely devastating to me. As the instrumental built up, I could feel a sense of dread building up in me. It is not an unfamiliar dread, as I sometimes have anxiety attacks. But this time, it was coupled with that very specific sense of disorientation that I, and seemingly many others, have felt since the presidential election. That feeling of “what the actual hell is going to happen next” that seems to crop up with each new tale of the transition-in-progress.

In the midst of this, I suddenly remembered exactly where the restaurant at which I was meeting J and J was, and that knowledge helped erase the sense of dislocation I was feeling. But what was truly amazing to me was that, along with the dread, I began to feel the visceral thrill of simply being alive and present in that moment driving on the dark and unfamiliar road, feeling the intensity of Devo’s music, and suddenly realizing that I knew how to get to my destination. This all came together in a matter of seconds and jolted me into a moment of hyper-reality that I can’t even come close to adequately explaining. But what was great about it was that that core black hole of dread was so thoroughly accompanied in that moment with the hope and thrill of simply being alive that there was no room for the crippling ennui that lives so often with the dread.

Soon after that moment, I met up with J and J. After engaging in relative small talk, we launched into a wide-ranging, open-minded, open-ended dissection of the election. Without getting into who voted for whom, I can say it not a conversation in which we were nodding in placid agreement with each other the entire time, but one in which each of us was deeply engaged, and attempting to listen to the others, as well as get our points across to the others. In short, it felt like a way, for me at least, to begin to deal with all of this.

It was also the kind of conversation in which I think it became clear to each of us why we still choose to try to make some kind of time for each other, at least now and then, so many years after we met.

And so, here we are. I will leave you below with Devo and Monk. Devo’s “Gut Feeling,” of course, but Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie.” Listen for the three discordant notes that repeat throughout this otherwise pleasant jazz tune. Those three notes seem more than a little oddly existential to me. But what do I know?

Finally, remember this: if you have read this, you are currently experiencing the thrill of being alive. What are you going to do about it?

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Rich, this essay is a wild ride!

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

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