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Stranger Situation

Searching for Donnie and Joe Emerson's “Baby” amidst economic and romantic precarity, temporarily vanquishing death
by Claire Donato
March 12th, 2019

She emails Jack Fleischer, a stranger, to say she is writing an essay about Donnie and Joe Emerson’s song “Baby.” There are contradictory facts online, and she wants the truth. What specifically happened when Fleischer discovered Dreamin’ Wild at an antique store in Spokane? Did he write about the record online to a following that championed it, via which Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti subsequently discovered “Baby” and covered it? Or did Light in the Attic contract the re-issue before that took place? (“I noticed on your website and AllMusic you’ve written liner notes for them—for an assortment of such wonderfully strange records, no less.”) This story is one of a failed record’s resurrection from the dead, and she is eager to understand the timeline of events.


 

She first encounters Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby” in a wine shop after watching Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman alone at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Baby” was recorded in 1979 by the aforementioned brothers, who grew up in rural Fruitland, Washington and whose father provided them with a $100,000 recording studio where records could be self-produced and released. The Emersons took out a second mortgage to subsidize the studio, a fact that strikes her as—extravagant? Irresponsible? Belligerently American? “We spent a lot of money; probably we shouldn’t have,” Donnie and Joe Emerson’s father says. “[But] they practiced all the time. That was their love.”

In 1979, “Baby” was released on Dreamin’ Wild, the brothers’ first record, of which 2,000 copies were pressed. Only a handful sold. As the Emerson family struggled with finances[1], the remaindered copies became cellar ghosts. In a Spokane antique shop, Jack Fleischer—then a student and record digger, now a writer and producer—purchased Dreamin’ Wild for $5. Upon hearing “Baby,” he contacted the Emersons, purchased a box of the records, and subsequently mailed copies to friends. By 2012, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s cover of “Baby” was playing on college radio stations, and Light in the Attic’s reissue of the record sold out.


 

She is trying to write not only about Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby,” but also about a particular conception of closeness that may be unattainable. In this projection, intimacy is a form of light atop shadows that becomes absorbed into a person’s loneliness, temporarily vanquishing death. Its architecture is akin to a cellar—“the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces,” per Gaston Bachelard. “When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.”

She moves into the projection while standing outside of it, protected by an enclosure resembling an abandoned fish tank resembling a swimming pool sans water resembling an empty glass aquarium. Writing this, she looks down at the empty set tattoo on her wrist—{ }, her lack, her nothing that is something, the space from which she loves—and is reminded of a sentence via Savannah Hampton: “I often gesture to empty space as if a memory could manifest there, and attempt to wield language with the timing of a shutter or the length of an exposure.”

Her mind turns to voids, at once empty yet full.


 

In “Baby,” Donnie and Joe Emerson sing about walking “Out in the moonlight / Looking up on the stars above” and “Making love / As a tide moves in.” These lyrics presumably address a lover, to whom the brothers nonchalantly present their vision of having sex in the great garbage dump otherwise known as the ocean. The chorus to “Baby” proceeds: “Yes, oh baby / Yes, oh baby / Yes, oh baby / Yes, oh baby.” It is shallow water accompanied by what a friend describes as “overcooked singing and weird swing.”[2] Adjacent to this commentary, she imagines a pregnant soon-to-be-mother alone on a beach, walking and singing to her unborn infant. The song’s tide, in this case, refers to the rising and falling sea as orchestrated by the moon, and also to the condition of her fetus’s womb, the uterus, a noun referring not only to the organ in the lower body of a female mammal where offspring are conceived and gestate before birth, but also to a movie theater, a site of unconsciously transferred desires, where she touches a stranger who is not a projection, and where she imagines a newborn infant, bald and cooing, being comforted by its mother.


 

In the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist, devised the Strange Situation, a procedure used to assess attachment between a child and its primary caregiver. In a video documenting the experiment, a 14-month old baby named Lisa is carried into a room with her mother. A researcher observes them on multiple screens in an adjacent room. Can the essential elements of home life be translated into a standard laboratory setting for controlled scientific study, a voiceover asks. There is a Mickey Mouse poster on the wall. On the floor are wooden blocks, stuffed Bert and Ernie dolls resting on their backs like corpses, a polka-dotted ball, and a Fisher-Price Rock-A-Stack containing red, orange, yellow, green and blue rings. The child and mother play together, a caption says.

Lisa’s mother moves from the floor to one of two chairs.

Once Lisa has settled down to play, a stranger enters the room, and sits in the chair reading a magazine, the voiceover says. Caption: A strange adult enters.

Lisa looks at the stranger.

The experiment fades to black.


 

Next, the stranger sits on the floor with Lisa, who is stacking blocks. After a couple of minutes, the stranger attempts to interact with Lisa, the voiceover says. Lisa’s mother watches. The yellow Rock-A-Stack rings rolls off-screen; Lisa crawls after it. The voiceover, again: [Lisa’s mother] gets a cue to leave the room. We watch as Lisa’s mother stands and walks toward the door, which slams shut. As the door slams, Lisa crawls faster. The mother leaves the room, the caption says. Lisa begins to wail.

The stranger stands, attempts to comfort Lisa. The yellow Rock-A-Stack ring—plastic in the shape of an O—rests several feet away from them.

The stranger tries to interact with the child.

Lisa continues crying, reaches toward the door, which re-opens.

The mother returns and the stranger leaves.


 

Hi Claire! Jack Fleischer responds. Thanks for the note. She is seated next to a pink plant and a metal heater, hissing as it labors. Moments prior, she downloaded an abyssal sea of souls through which a person can swim using the tips of her fingers. It is a strange form of mutual aid, this gamified cathexis. Often, it transpires into two-dimensional therapy, or co-counseling, as when she talked for an hour to a mediocre painter who was jet-lagged and melancholy about being apart from his long-distance girlfriend. She had just walked several blocks with her ex-partner of a decade before waving goodbye. With the painter’s loneliness, she felt kinship. “Don’t tell my girlfriend about this,” he wrote. In three-dimensional reality, she rolled her eyes. Why does everyone always have something to hide? Jack Fleischer, again: “I’m happy to give you my account of what happened.”


 

from: Jack Fleischer <XXXXXXXXXXX>

to: Claire Donato <XXXXXXXXXXXX>

date: XXXXXXX       XXXXX

subject: Re: Hello! & Dreamin’ Wild question…

mailed-by: XXXXXX

I was a student at University of Montana who was just getting into private press records. I would correspond with people online who were very active in the digging community and was excited to get turned on to new material in this vein. The Internet hadn’t totally mapped everything out yet and there were a lot of new discoveries. I was already a total music head but these records had an aura that was so unique and cool. I had to go out looking for them. That day in Spokane was really one of the first times I went out looking for that kind of stuff and lo and behold I found a real gem. I’m a strong believer in synchronicity so I don’t think it was much of an accident. I was able to buy a box and I mailed them out to people who I thought would appreciate it. I really didn’t do much else to promote it.

My own life took several turns post college and I was living in Los Angeles when Pink’s cover of the song dropped. It was surreal hearing it one night on KROQ while driving around in my car! How funny, I thought, a few years ago this song was sitting on a shelf in a very dusty antique store in Spokane. I love how life works like that!

I view the whole thing as a parable, at least one in my own life, which said to me—these are astonishing works of art by people who pursued their passions very directly and authentically regardless of fame or approbation, and you should do the same. It makes me smile saying that! 🙂 My participation in these reissues was very much apart of a coming of age experience I went through in my late twenties. As someone who’s primary goal in life is to make art I couldn’t have asked for better inspiration.

All my best, Jack


 

The projection transfers from Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby” to Joanna Newsom’s “Baby Birch,” a nine minute and 30 second song frequently analyzed on the Internet through the lens of abortion. This analysis is cogent and provocative; indeed, “Baby Birch” addresses a lost baby. Yet she cannot help but hear alternative connections, listen to other threads. “This is a song for baby birch,” Newsom sings at the start, “though I will never know you.” “Baby Birch” is dedicated to a stranger, a slender tree, and thus to the unknown. Then: “At the back of what we’ve done, there is the knowledge of you.” Who is the song’s “we,” she wonders. And what have we done?

Or: what have we known? She cannot help but think of “Baby Birch” as being in conversation with Newsom’s 2003 song “What We Have Known,” a song about the atrocity of war wherein “baby boys we’ve borne [are] / […] sent off to die in perfect form.” They return home broke, burned—“those who return have no return,” Newsom sings before directly addressing the babies’ mothers: “Ladies, breathe deep against your whalebones / When your children come back made of stone.”

In live performance, the electric guitar in “Baby Birch” stabs like a knife. It is noisy and searing, painful and hot, and cuts across the song’s harp arrangement. “Your eyes are green / Your hair is gold / Your hair is black / Your eyes are blue,” Newsom sings, and maybe these lyrics speculate on an unborn infant’s physical characteristics, or maybe they conjure two separate beloved’s bodies, shapeshifting into one. Maybe they comprise an entire army, a sea of souls or fish, an algorithm, a set of rules: a second-person you that is not human—war never is. And although a relationship may be a site of conflict, love cannot bear arms. She sees stars and reels—“mercy me, I’ll be goddamned”—and the plural we re-emerges, takes a walk along a dirty lake where a goose says fuck and an egg appears, followed by someone’s cousin, and “a little baby fussing” over a pair of legs.

The most glorious part of “Baby Birch” takes place between 6m50s and 8m02s. There are characters in this breakdown: a blacksmith, a shepherd, a butcher boy, a barber “cutting and cutting away” at the speaker’s only joy. Then we encounter a rabbit “as sleek as a knife”—smooth and well-groomed—“and as pale as a candlestick.” At which point the singer catches and skins it. “I thought it’d be harder to do,” she reflects, holding the skinned rabbit as it kicks and mewls, upended and spooling, unsung and blue, an adjective indicating not only melancholia, but also the creature’s smoky gray coat. “Wherever you go, little runaway bunny, I will find you,” she says. And then she runs.

She runs, she ran—“as they’re liable to do,” a curious lyric in which the song’s she becomes plural or gender-neutral, implying how everything that flees must be held accountable for its flight. Take, for instance, the runaway bunny, a creature evading its mother by becoming a fish, then a rock, then a crocus, then a bird, then a sailboat, then a trapeze artist, then a little boy. Its mother subsequently becomes a fisherman, then a mountain climber, then a gardener, then a tree, then the wind, then a tightrope walker, and then a mother again, at which point the runaway bunny decides to stay where it is and remain a bunny, from an early 17th century term of endearment of unknown origin.

She looks at her wrist: { }

It is with this lack she loves.

“If you become a little boy and run into a house,” the mother bunny in Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny says, “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms.”

In a moment of gender inversion, she ran from the the butcher-boy, the barber: he who makes an incision, leaves a wound.

Jacques Lacan: “What we give in love, is essentially what we do not have.”

Be at peace, baby, and be gone.

Or, be at peace, bunny. Have a carrot.


 

To speculate upon what closeness feels like, she listens and re-listens to Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby.” What is this song, she asks the wine shop attendant, who navigates through tabs in a web browser. What year was it recorded?

It is 1979, and the verses in “Baby” offer little rhetorical depth. “Dreams of you all the time / Feels so good when we’re together, love / Just can’t wait until tomorrow night / Hey baby, let’s shake it.” In other words, you convince yourself you love someone; you think you share the cosmos. There is an astral encounter: you are the recipient of a two-dimensional envelope containing one mug of warm liquid and a plate of cooked meat. This encounter, which takes place on your childhood porch, feels telepathic and turns your body into a watering can. But telepathy is deceptive, because communication cannot be one-sided. A message transfers from one person to you: two loves make one love. One love plus evasion equals fear. Fear is not a weakness, but it is not a form of love. “Love is an act,” bell hooks writes. It is a form of showing up, again and again and again.

“In rural isolation, night after night,” Stanley Kuritz writes, “Donnie would play and record songs on a state-of-the-art TEAC eight-track, a machine as strange and rare […] as a space probe.”

Donnie and Joe practiced all the time, their father said. That was their love.


 

That winter afternoon, just hours before hearing “Baby,” the screening room in the Brooklyn Academy of Music was black, save for a slant of light emanating from A Fantastic Woman’s credits’ typography. Entering an unoccupied seat, she grazed a stranger’s form: two arms, two hands, two legs, a head with hair, and flesh that smelled like a cardamon pod mixed with fragrant smoke. This graze took place by chance: there is always the possibility of something happening. There is always the risk one may fall, befall. And so the stranger remained by her side for the duration of the film, their arm resting next to hers, their hand extending into the space between them. On one occasion, the stranger checked their watch. At intervals of approximately ten minutes, they audibly exhaled. Then they simultaneously touched their faces—she and the stranger—wiping away mutual grief.


 

In an interview with Sight & Sound about A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio remarks: “My opening question was: ‘What would happen if the person you loved died in your arms?’” I come across this question after ingesting every article about the film I can find using the academic databases provided to me by the institutions where I play my role of fake.

It is summer, and I am living on a reserve of money saved from teaching the equivalent of ten classes over the past year. I feel exhausted, but it’s difficult to sleep. New York City’s humidity prohibits the body from resting, and my cat is always thirsty, always meowing. Every morning at 8:30am, I receive a notification from my electronic calendar: WRITING, it reminds me. But the clock atop my kitchen stove reads 10:03am, and I am only now heating olive oil in a cast iron pan for grilled toast.

Right now, the clock on my laptop says 5:52pm.

In isolation, I show up at my laptop, again and again and again.


 

Exercising control, I create a spreadsheet titled BUDGET. Here, I categorize how I spend money: on groceries (including fresh flowers but not houseplants); healthcare (psychoanalysis, community acupuncture); recurring monthly expenses (gym, credit card debt, streaming music, electricity); transportation (MTA passes plus occasional shared car rides to and from my friend’s apartment after dark), and miscellaneous objects (a stick of eyeliner, toothpaste, soap). Movies are free, thanks to the subscription-based ticketing service that grants me one film per day. This categorization makes me feel constrained: I watch money drain from my bank account day after day; I attribute numbers to every grocery; I abstain from meals, outings, objects.

To feel unbound, I steal a striped shirt from a box store, manufactured at a cost.

To feel free, I take steps one takes in order to write: I sit at a desk; I stare into a blank screen; I type phrases; I cut them; I re-type them; I cut them again. I don’t know how my writing will end. I have very few expectations for it. I have no expectation anyone will ever read it. Perhaps I should examine why I feel this way, or perhaps this just means I am secure in my identity as a writer.

As I ingest 1) a slice of grilled bread and 2) every article about A Fantastic Woman, I am unsure of what it is I seek, nor can I come to terms with the fact that I continue encountering the same reportage about the movie, albeit slightly rephrased each time: a synopsis, followed by paragraph about Lelio’s previous film Gloria, followed by glitteringly general rhetoric like “bold and moving,” “richly humane,” “a formidable story,” and “graceful finality.”

Lelio’s voice in Sight & Sound serves as a productive disruption to my research-at-a-standstill: What would happen if the person you loved died in your arms?


 

Within the first fifteen minutes of A Fantastic Woman, Marina Vidal—a transgender woman played by Daniela Vega—unexpectedly loses her older, cis male partner, Orlando Onetto. Orlando’s death takes place following a number of intimate encounters. First, Marina sings Héctor Lavoe’s “Periódico De Ayer” (“Yesterday’s Newspaper”) to him in a nightclub, making eye contact.  Next, Marina and Orlando slow dance together in a dark pink room, their faces touching. Finally, Marina and Orlando share slow kisses, their bodies pressed against glass, which hums along with their collective, audible breathing—their closeness that contains depth.

We do not witness Marina and Orlando engaged in much conversation. In one scene, Marina is wearing a yellow dress at a birthday dinner. There is the image of a cake covered in fire. A pair of restaurant employees sing “Happy Birthday” in another language. My love, Marina says. Honey, she says. Are you his partner, a voice asks. Yes, we’re partners. For her birthday, Orlando will take Marina to Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfalls in the world. We, the film’s viewers, travel here at the beginning of the film: shots of the natural wonder are interspersed with images of Orlando receiving a back massage at Finlandia, a local sauna. Orlando and Marina will travel to Iguazu Falls, but he has misplaced the physical tickets needed to take this vacation. Later, following his death, Marina will go to Finlandia. Her body, covered in steam, will move through the sauna, a space reminiscent of the dark pink room where she danced with the deceased. Finlandia is a realm below where Marina seeks the lock that came before the key. When she finds Orlando’s locker—#181, an infinity sign trapped between two single digits that cannot touch—she turns the key and finds nothing. The locker’s interior is pitch black, revealing only the void.


 

A detective from the Sexual Offenses Unit arrives to question Marina. Was she the victim of violence? During his autopsy, contusions were found on Orlando’s body, the result of his falling down the stairs in the midst of his death. I know what happens to girls like you, the detective says, meaning: I know this man raped you. In a photograph shown to Marina by an examiner, the contusion on Orlando’s head is blood red. The examiner interrogates her: Did you have to defend yourself? “It was a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults,” Marina says. In the film, Marina has no space in which to grieve—“the most the most basic of human rights,” Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker. No one asks her whether she is willing to undergo the full body examination that occurs in the next scene, wherein she stands in front of a man wearing a lab coat. He is holding a camera. Raise your right arm, he says. Now your left. Now uncover your lower half. We do not see Marina cry.

In another scene, we watch as her body is violently shoved against a wall by Orlando’s son. Incredible, he says. My dad was crazy.

Donnie and Joe Emerson are now singing about making love on a sandy beach as a tide moves in. They want to be with us, the listeners, all their lives, yes oh baby, yes oh baby, yes oh baby. “They practiced all the time. That was their love,” Donnie and Joe Emerson’s father repeats. “Tu amor es un periódico de ayer”—“your love is yesterday’s newspaper”—Marina sings, looking into Orlando.

Listening to “Baby” late on a Saturday night, alone in her apartment, slow dancing with no one, she take the air’s hand and twirls her own body. She wraps her arms around herself. After which she grills a slice of toast and seasons it with salt.


 

To pursue the phenomenon of one’s body sinking underwater versus pursuing so-called healthy attachment, that which feels akin to clasping one’s hands the unintuitive way.

In a fantasy, she is lying in the middle of her living room with a stranger. They are staring at the ceiling. They are talking about lack. Is it worth the risk, to allow something to arise from nothing?

“Perhaps we’re over-intellectualizing this,” the stranger says. “It’s exhausting to be critical thinkers!”

The strangers become quiet. They listen to each other’s breath and consider the ceiling. The light source affixed to it resembles the shape of a breast. And the bright white surface reminds her of Zazen, and of her writing practice, wherein she covers her laptop’s screen with a sheet of 8.5×11” paper oriented as a landscape and types without looking.

You have spent three decades trying to swim from the surface to the bottom, and you will continue to descend, she writes. But what if, like a screen, the ocean is flat and two-dimensional?

 

 

 

[1] “The expenses incurred by the studio and album eventually cost the Emerson family over 1500 acres of land” (The Rock-n-Roll Farmers: Donnie and Joe Emerson, vimeo.com)

[2] Thanks to Jeff T. Johnson for this apt description.

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