Come On! Feel The Illinoise!: The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts (with an essay)

This month Topic magazine dedicates their 9th issue to Music. Sufjan Stevens, every indie-yuppie’s (and blogger's) favorite nü-folk multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, has contributed the lead essay. And you know what? It’s really, really fucking good. Obviously Suf is a scribe; lyrically, his songs are lovelier and more publishable than a book of Jewel poems. Of course, instead, Ms. Saaaave Your Soul got the stupid book deal and Sufjan just dashes off a random piece for a pretty-yet-overpriced, proud to be on the fringes pop-culture mag. As if there aren’t enough of those. Still, there’s something in this essay. I’m thinking maybe Sufjan ought to take a little break from the music, hole up in a rat-infested basement, and start crafting his memoirs. The brief peeks into his childhood that he offers here could rival one of David Sedaris’s or Augusten Boroughs’s lingering, freeze-frame gut-busters. Except Sufjan isn’t going for a laugh. He doesn’t need to.


In the obscure backrooms of my  memory, there is a gauzy portrait of me drumming pots and pans on the kitchen floor. I am a bumbling infant, top-heavy, lower-lipped, thumb-suckling, encountering gravity for the first time, buffered by an afghan laid out on the linoleum, banging on the consequential music of kitchen utensils: a chopstick on a glass lid, a plastic spoon on a rice steamer, the tap dancing of a whisk on a box of spaghetti. This is my first performance. I am eleven months old. I am a drum major. I am a ragtime rhythm section. I am a wild animal knocking rocks on the hard shell of mother earth, the prehistoric paradiddle. I am nerves and muscle gaining strength.


Sufjan casts three minute magical charms with his songs: his turns of phrase and brutal poetry set to exquisite lullaby-like chords evoke the best parts of Elliott Smith and Jim O’Rourke. Some are are like prayers to God, others are ruminations on his life, but many are about tiny, obscure details — particularly those associated with Sufjan's two state-themed releases, Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Illinois. His goal is to record an album about each of the fifty states. But first he had to learn how to play the instruments nobody else wanted to rock in band.


In sixth grade, Ms. Zeisler tricks me into playing the oboe. I want to play the trumpet, the trombone, the royalty of brass. The king and the queen. Look in the mirror, she says. Your lips, your overbite, your jaw. You have the mouth of an oboist. I resign myself.


He eventually found his way to a guitar, too. Then came the whole granola-worship period, which he brushes over nicely without over-glorifying it.


In college, I wear sandals with socks, cut the edges of my jeans and grow my hair...another friend lends me a guitar with nylon strings and a plastic back...I hold the instrument like it’s a small child, a newborn, wiggling and kicking in my lap. I have two left hands, stumbling with the simplest of chords. Right brain and left brain begin to fuss and fight, but after two months they come to terms. They hold hands.


The oft-debated fiction writing workshop question: Should you write what you know? Many seasoned authors say that it’s hardest to write about the things that you are closest to, yet that’s often where one’s best work can find its way to the page. Or should you risk writing what you don’t, realistically, know anything about at all, and find great success in the challenge? Sufjan says he takes the first path. But then where does a song about a notorious rapist and serial killer come in? John Wayne Gacy, Jr. has the kind of unforgettable melody that could depress a dead person. So I guess it isn’t surprising that Suf ends here by lamenting his unavailable mother and other assorted piles of emotional baggage. If the whole album per state thing falls through, keep your eyes peeled for some kind of one-man memoir performance side-project with a backing band in tow. Sufjan Stevens and the Noise-Makers-cum-Abandonment-Issues? Yeah, he’s definitely a writer’s writer.


Write what you know, I am told, so I look around the room and serenade the laundry hamper, the soda cans, the psychology textbook. I sing about the loneliness of oboes, the cabbage leaf, loose teeth and Cindy Seasons, who has since been in and out of rehab...I sing about my mother, the loneliest of oboes, who had left us years ago, hands cupped over her ears to keep out the orchestra of her children, the music of everyday life which was too much to bear...This song will find its home in the hymnals of churches. This song is sung in the loneliest of bedrooms, behind closed doors, by young men and women who fear they are the last ones on earth.



Lyrics and a guitar tab to John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (from Illinois)

Matt Ashare on The Strange New Face of Indie

Sufjan's MySpace

P-fork hearts Sufjan 4-Eva


All Sufjan on, all the time

The Henny Buggy Band (MP3), off The Avalance: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album

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