Leaving Stonehenge

Bon Iver on the Colbert Report

Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt, we were never here
My my my, my my my, my my
Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer

Musically speaking, I live under a rock. I’m so busy with violin stuff – classical violin stuff, to be exact – that I tend to be ignorant about other styles of music. I’m not proud of the fact, and I know I’m missing out on a lot, but to be honest, I don’t even know how to start listening to non-classical stuff. My situation is a bit unique, I think. Unlike most people, I didn’t listen to a single pop, rock, or folk album for my entire childhood; it was all classical or classically influenced instrumental. (I actually laughed while reading Alex Ross’s Listen to This, where he recounts a musical childhood eerily similar to mine.) I have no frame of reference for anything else. I just don’t speak the non-classical language, at all. And it’s intimidating to wander into a new country when you don’t speak the language. It’s easier just to stay on your side of the border, right?

I tell my love to wreck it all
Cut out all the ropes and let me fall
My my my, my my my, my my
Right in this moment this order’s tall

I’ve heard about Bon Iver for a few years now. If I didn’t, I’d have to live under not just a rock, but a frigging Stonehenge. They’re probably the most famous thing to have come out of my hometown. In fact, Eau Claire has actually become an integral part of the allure of the band. Justin Vernon, the lead singer, wrote the first Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago, holed up in a tiny cabin in northern Wisconsin. He still lives here when he’s not touring the world, and if his place is where I think it is (and I think it is), I’ve been past it countless times. He actually once brought a New York Times critic down Putnam Drive, where I ride my bike.

And I told you to be patient
And I told you to be fine
And I told you to be balanced
And I told you to be kind

I’m a huge fan of The Colbert Report, and about a week ago Stephen interviewed Justin Vernon on the show. I identified straightaway with Vernon. He has the same shy quiet mannerisms a lot of people from this part of the country have…not to mention the same fashion sense. (Some people think that he’s a poseur and trying to up his indie rocker cred by dressing the way he does, but I can assure you, he’s not; to paraphrase Lady Gaga, people in rural Wisconsin are just born that way.) Seeing one of Eau Claire’s own on national – international – television was…weird. And weirdly gratifying. No, we aren’t from the center of the universe. Yes, we exist. And yes, we have something to say. I hadn’t actually heard any of Bon Iver’s stuff before, so I listened to their performance of Calgary. I thought it was interesting, although nothing special. But the web extra Skinny Love really struck me. After steeping myself a bit in the sound of the band, I came back to Calgary and loved it. I’m gradually, and happily, working my way through their discography.

And in the morning I’ll be with you
But it will be a different kind
And I’ll be holding all the tickets
And you’ll be owning all the fines

I’m always fighting being from Eau Claire, being a country bumpkin. To be blunt, I’m embarrassed of where I’m from; I’m embarrassed of my relatively limited scope of reference; I’m self-conscious of my less-than-stellar education, and I’m only too aware what a different person I’d be if I’d been able to get a good one in New York or Philadelphia or heck, even Minneapolis. Classical music culture in particular fetishizes urbanity and big cities; that’s where all the talent drains, and I suppose it’s only natural. But this phenomenon can have the unintended consequence of making culture-lovers who aren’t in those urban centers feel insecure in their own experiences. Heck, how can you not feel a little naive when The Scotsman writes this about your “Wisconsin lumber town” home: “The Wikipedia list of Eau Claire’s local notables previously ranged from a girlfriend of Charles Manson to the inventor of the fraud-proof ballot paper, so Bon Iver quickly qualified.” Ouch. Seeing someone like Justin Vernon, who embraces and celebrates where he came from, who isn’t afraid of being called a hick, who isn’t frantically trying to scrub all scent of Eau Claire off himself and his body and his art…well, that’s food for thought. That’s good. He’s found that geography doesn’t necessarily impact your ability to connect to other people. He and his success make me wonder if being from a small town might actually give me a valuable perspective as a musician and as a writer. And yes, I’m well aware that indie-rock and classical music aren’t exactly the same genre. But still.

Come on skinny love what happened here
We suckled on the hope in lite brassieres
My my my, my my my, my my
Sullen load is full, so slow on the split

Reading Bon Iver reviews is interesting. People either think it’s the most gorgeous beautiful lyrical stuff ever written, or ridiculous whiney indie wangst. There’s not many people on the middle ground. I think I’m one of the few. Bon Iver doesn’t replace my Brahms or Beethoven. But Brahms or Beethoven doesn’t replace Bon Iver, either. Brahms and Beethoven didn’t have anything approaching my life experience, at all, and it’s disorienting and wonderful to know of an artist who has. And he’s alive, to boot! Happily there’s room for everybody on my mp3 player. Why has it taken me so long to figure this out? Has my insecurity really seeped into my listening? Really? … Pathetic as it sounds, I think it did.

And now all your love is wasted
Then who the hell was I?
And I’m breaking at the britches
And at the end of all your lines

I’m heartened that most of the younger classical players I know are just as familiar with the popular world as the “classical” world. I’m relieved that the type of classical-only childhood I had is an increasingly rare one. I’m proud I’m finally opening up a bit more, and willing to listen to and appreciate new sounds. I’m glad that I’ve realized there may be certain advantages to having grown up in a small town. (Maybe.) And I’m thrilled that it turns out I don’t need to speak the language to understand.

Who will love you?
Who will fight?
Who will fall far behind?

*presses repeat*

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