The Friday Morning Listen: Bill Frisell – Gone, Just Like A Train (1998)

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By Mark Saleski

When writing on or near the Thanksgiving Day holiday, it has become the custom to either enumerate the things we’re thankful for or to go the consumerist route and talk about Black Friday. Black Friday? C’mon, when me and TheWife™ got up this morning, the temperatures were in the high 20’s and there was a beautiful freezing rain coming down. We’ll skip the shopping, at least for this morning. Thank you.

So I have been thinking on this “what I’m thankful for” idea and keep coming back to how important music is to me. It’s a difficult thing to put into words. I love a lot of different art forms but none of them can transport me the way music does. Maybe “transport” isn’t the right word, because that implies a change in the self. What’s closer to reality is that the self becomes irrelevant. It vanishes. Many years ago, a co-worker described this perfectly. In discussing a particular moment at a concert, he said that “It made me forget who I was.” That’s getting very close. I describe it as “being gone.”

It’s true, I hear particular pieces of music and I’m gone. Don’t mistake this for escapism. No, it’s more than that, although again it will be difficult to describe. A hint can be found here, in this anecdote from Patti Smith. When she was a little girl she came upon some beautiful white birds in the park. He mother told her they were swans: “The word along hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced.” And that is the key here, that there are emotions involved in “being gone” that cannot be described.

While I’ve pretty much gotten used to the idea that I think differently about all of this stuff, that workplace discussion was reassuring. It let me know that there are others out there on “my side.” There are other areas of music that have put me on the outside as well, lyrics being the prime example. Lyrics? Yes, I don’t listen to them. I mean, not in the “normal” way. There are counterexamples to this but for the most part, I hear them in bits and pieces. This is true even of some of my most lyrics-worthy favorites: Springsteen, Dylan, Tom Waits. Many people have done the big double-take when they hear this. The cool thing is that there are critics out there who think the same way. In a recent piece on Elvis Costello, New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten wrote (to my great delight!):

Some rock critics and listeners pore over lyrics. I hear lyrics in fragments, often out of context — the context, anyway, of the rest of the song’s words and whatever their intent may be. My context tends to be the sounds of the music and the attitude of the singer. A phrase, a couplet, or a verse will catch my ear and burrow in.

My thinking about music probably moves to its most outside when dealing with the form’s power to change. I’m not talking about the activist, let’s-raise-some-signs-and-chant kind of thing. My idea is probably closer to the musical version of the butterly effect. A composition comes to life, and I feel compelled to write about its beauty, those words going out into the world to make others aware of the music. The music makes their lives better and, in some small way, that positive outcome (hopefully) continues to spread down the person’s chain of experience.

Crazy? Naive? Maybe. But I’m not alone. In a 2002 Bomb Magazine interview with guitarist Bill Frisell (conducted by Marc Ribot!), Frisell had a similar idea. He was talking about people getting together to play music, but the sentiment is the same:

Frisell: This will sound corny — but if everyone played music, I can’t believe all this shit would be going on.

Ribot: You’re talking, I assume, about the shit that’s going on post-9/11?

Frisell: Yeah, and whatever was going on before that, too.

So maybe we’re all crazy and naive, but we know what we like and how we feel. It’s for that that I am most thankful.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to, and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at
Mark Saleski
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