in which I talk about Runaway
or, dance of the broken marionettes
I’ve been listening to these absolutely exploded versions of Runaway by Kanye West. The above is a 25 minute version and here’s an 80 minute version. I don’t mean that they’re just loops of the song. I mean they’re wholly new versions of the song that explode its already meaty 9 minutes into extravagantly luxurious bathtubs of gelatinous beats coating your skin.
These are both done by a youtube account named Madi Cartier who seems to just post random things, which seems to exemplify this type of youtube presence. People who are barely there, pushing videos out into the ether.
You may ask yourself, Who would make these massive versions of Kanye’s songs? Who even wants this?
I need this. I find them oddly intoxicating. Mesmerizing. They swirl round me, make me lightheaded even while I’m sitting at my desk writing my own books, and plant visions inside me, swelling emotions.
The first time I encountered this 80 minute edit, I found it hard to breathe when I reached the 20 minute mark and almost emotionally strangling when I hit the 35 minute mark, hearing the raw emotional pain and longing coming through Kanye’s roughly scraped voice as it pulses through the autotune. And then as it continues to the 45 minute mark where his voice shipwrecks despite the autotune, the 50 and 60 minute marks, I found myself on the otherside of the strangest emotional journey, carried on the autotuned messianic monologues of one of the most moronic geniuses walking the earth.
It’s a reminder, to me, how art is embodiment and not ideology. I may dislike Kanye West as a person, as a pundit, even as a media phenomenon, but his music is undeniable, even when it’s sloppy and incomplete. Some would have the former erase or at least diminish the latter, and I’m sympathetic to this, but I grew up as an artist reading books by Knut Hamsun and Louis Ferdinand-Celine and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Terrible men who advocated terrible ideas, whose ideology was so profoundly bleak and counter to everything I hold dear, and yet they made art that changed who I am. In positive ways. Their intense feeling and empathy, the acuity of their insight—how could two of these end up as Nazi propagandists? How could one of them transform from a revolutionary to a monarchist who seemed to hold hatred for the Jewish people as a driving motivator in life? Why are all three so antisemitic?
Before we even attempt to answer questions like this or delve into Kanye West, I want to tell you about myself and one of the darkest moments of my life.
or, Sisyphus loved his boulder
Max Richter has been my favorite composer since I first stumbled into haunting violins when I was in high school. I’ve been listening to him ever since. Hundreds of hours of his music resonating in my skull. And so when I discovered he had written a ballet, I had to see it. Sadly, only a few clips exist on youtube (one of them right above this paragraph). But briefly, at different times, the whole ballet has been available to watch on youtube. Sometimes bootlegged copies. Sometimes this professionally shot version.
I’ve seen them all.
Marianela Nunez haunts me here. Her grace and fluidity, the power and beauty of her movements. She is strength and desire, longing and love and loss. We see it on her face, in every gesture. Enraptured and taken, I melt before this finale. This emotional journey described in violins and pirouettes. My heart shivers and splinters and I fall apart, eyes wide and hungry, as those final thirty seconds rebuild me. And I fall in love, again, with a sense of loss and longing.
What does ballet have to do with Kanye?
This is going to get weird, yes?
I have never considered committing suicide. Call this a disclaimer. A warning.
My apartment was empty.
I’d been there for only a few months. I knew almost no one. The people I did know, I honestly didn’t care for that much. More than that, the only person I’d really connected to on any kind of level was the woman I was hired to replace. She spent the first week training me before she moved to Thailand.
I loved the sound of her name. I was at an age and a level of emotional and philosophical instability that allowed me to throw my heart inside other people, to give my love away thoughtlessly, to give it away compulsively. And even though I’d only known her for a few days, I was ready to let her kill me. Break my heart and shatter the fragments until all that remained was dust, was paste.
She kissed me on her final night in Korea while we danced, sweaty and drunk, and so full of life I wanted to howl at the moon, take its glowing meat in my mouth. She kissed me again and again and again and then was gone and I was alone in Korea but for the people she introduced me to.
They would become dear friends in time. But then, and for those first few wintry months, I found myself lost among them. Not rejected by them. They were all so kind to me. So welcoming and warm. But I found them strange, lame, and—well…
Had we met in the US, we would not have been friends. This says worse things about me than it does about them.
Most of them were from the UK or US. Most of them were between the ages of 30 and 50. I was 24. I say this not as an excuse or explanation, but I do think this matters. I found them sad and lonely and being around them made me feel superior to keep from feeling broken.
And so I decided to devote my time to writing, reading, learning Korean, exploring this new place I abandoned my life for. This often meant spending time with them, because they were the only people I knew, the only avenues for me to meet new people, to discover more of Gwangju, more of Korea.
I didn’t have a phone. I tried, unsuccessfully, a few times to get a phone but it never worked out. This was inconvenient, but I sort of didn’t mind. I became impossible to contact unless I wanted to be contacted. Facebook was the only way, at the time, to speak to me if I wasn’t standing right in front of you.
I felt alone and singular among them. Like I didn’t belong with them. Really, I thought I was better than the people who welcomed me so kindly. I didn’t care that they couldn’t reach me, couldn’t find me.
I was outwardly kind. I like to think I always am.
But I don’t think of myself as a nice person. I have lived too long inside my body. I cannot lie to me about myself.
or, basilica: The Whale
A haunting. I have always felt haunted. I remember their insubstantial faces swirling above me on nights I couldn’t sleep.
I never slept. My older brother used to sleep on the bunk above me and once told me he thought I slept with my eyes open. Even as a very young child—five, six years old—I spent half the night awake. Lying in bed beneath my older brother, in the bunk beside my younger brother, I would stare at the bottom of my brother’s bed, the wall beside me. Our room was small. The bunk bed took up most of the room. In the summer, the air conditioner bellowed a few feet from me. The wall of white noise didn’t lull me to sleep but kept me awake.
Older, my first year of college, once again in a bunk bed, I stared at the swirling translucent faces above me, haunting me, calling to me voicelessly.
I returned to my empty apartment after a night out with the people I knew in Korea. As usual, I met new people at a bar, followed them to a different bar or wandered with them through downtown Gwangju, completely lost, giving my heart away to the pretty women who I’d never see again, after a night of lewd dancing. There’s a privacy, I found, in loud crowded clubs full of sweaty adults drowning in alcohol. A body pressed against me, pressed between the bodies of hundreds, a solemn privacy enclosed round me and my partner for the night.
I remember eyes in the dark and flashing lights and hands and tongues and skin and sweat. And sweat and sweat. So much sweat. So much love. Love for the night, for the temporary, for the insubstantial, for the transient hearts slurring together for as long as this song lasts, wondering if we need to hold hands, if it’s time to let go, if I’ll see you again, if you’ll love me if even only for the night, the hour, the minute, the seconds our hands squeeze together, our sweat gripped through our pressed together skin.
Running and running and running, heartless and thoughtless, romantic and Deathly, I wanted you to love me the way I loved you.
I’d let you kill me. I’d beg you.
And when I returned to my empty apartment and turned on the lights, my vision blurring for a moment, I felt the world collapse upon me. I skyped my friend in France and we commiserated over the strangeness of our lives lived in places we maybe didn’t belong and she told me about her translingual arguments with her boyfriend and I never spoke the howling need inside me that was consuming me even as I listened and somehow had the audacity or profound stupidity to offer advice to another human on how to live life.
I showered and tried to feel normal but then the haunting took me.
I was very unwell. I cried hysterically alone for hours in the darkest hours of night, feeling like my body was falling apart, burning to nothing. I was hallucinating. I was terrified. I was alone. I was dreaming while awake in my empty room. A nightmare stalking me in my empty apartment.
I was, I think, having a potentially dangerous time. It wasn’t the first time in life I’d involuntarily hallucinated, but it was the most frightening. Had suicide ever had a hold on me, I likely wouldn’t be typing this now. I may have died. A long time ago. Alone. In a place where no one knew me, where I knew no one. In an empty room furnished by the previous occupants.
In the morning, I was still there. No longer bursting with emotion. Instead, I was dead to emotion.
I think this has always been the difficult part for people who have never had a severe depressive episode to understand. Yes, sometimes you feel so much that your body simply cannot take it. Some drown in vodka to escape it. I’ve known such people. Other slice their flesh. I’ve known many of these people too.
I don’t know what I ever did to gain release. I still don’t.
I don’t have a coping mechanism. I simply shatter. No, not shatter. I’m like an oil-filled balloon. I splatter and then ooze over days, weeks, months.
This was when I discovered my love for ballet. For weeks, I watched only ballet. Whatever I could find on youtube or torrents. I watched hundreds of hours of ballet. It was the only thing that made life seem worth living. But in the moments I wasn’t watching ballet, I became so disinterested in my life that I don’t think I would have even cared so much had I been hit by a truck while crossing the street.
I spent hours, then, writing about ballet. Trying to define the sensations growing within me. Trying to make sense of beauty. For that’s what it was to me: unadulterated beauty.
Then I discovered Kanye West.
I mean, I knew who Kanye West was, obviously. It was the winter of 2010/2011. I had known who Kanye West was for years. But I had never bothered to listen to him.
He seemed terrible.
But youtube recommended the 35 minute Runaway film Kanye West made for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The thumbnail of ballerinas and Kanye wearing a white tuxedo intrigued me enough to watch it.
If you’ve somehow never encountered this, I recommend it. It’s extravagant and ludicrous and mythic and absurd and absolutely hauntingly beautiful.
I loved this. I love it still.
I love that piano key echoing in a warehouse. I love the wild sincerity of Runaway. Its openmouthed gasping exhalations of hubris and monomania, of infidelity and depravity, of its demented apology. It is both celebration and condemnation and it makes my heart ache.
This is not what I expected to find in Kanye West. What I knew most about him was that he seemed to not like Taylor Swift and thought Beyonce’s boring dancing video was the best video in history. I was not a fan of his music up until I watched this film, and especially the Runaway performance.
Watching him awkwardly dance on a piano while a troupe of ballerinas sort of dying swanned themselves on the concrete while he rapped about his ridiculous lifestyle, his inability to remain faithful, and how he sang, brokenly, clumsily, begging the woman he loved to leave him—I don’t think there was a moment in my life better suited for this song.
I was living a stupid, deranged life. My life made little sense to me even as I lived it. My heart so desperate, my body so hollow, and my behavior so enormously silly.
I listened to Runaway hundreds of times over the coming months. When I hear it now, I’m drenched in emotions and sensations too complex to even bother putting into words.
Kanye West didn’t make me feel better.
Ballet did that. Ballet healed me.
I’ve mostly been better since. It was almost exactly eleven years ago. I still don’t have an explanation as to why the most severe depression of my life simply stopped, but it did.
The hauntings return at times, but never so apocalyptically.
I felt better and Kanye West became the soundtrack to my life for many months. I still didn’t care for his pre-808s music, but I found something yawning inside me that Kanye West’s opulent dark fantasy filled.
…what is this?
It was meant to be a career retrospective. I meant to write about his albums, his artistry, how he stitches thousands of disparate sounds sampled from hundreds of artists to make popmusic. I suppose it’s something else now.
I find that I can never say the words I mean to say. I can never write the moment I meant to write. I have spent my life writing around things, around moments. I find my own life terrible to examine, frustrating to inhabit.
This is why I write novels. I used to write poetry. I find that I can’t anymore.
Yes, and I’m afraid to be naked. Even while alone. Dreaming in an empty room.
Is writing not a form of therapy?
I’ve never found it to be, no. I find writing a diversion. Invigorating and fun. A game. A stupid game ignored by anyone with any sense. It’s everything. My whole life. I’ve given all of my life to my own stupid words.
Except for your actual life. You write but you do not share. You hide. You cower behind imagined people in imagined worlds.
I dance, on garlands stretching from steeples to stars.
It takes no bravery to tell the truth. Only a willingness to cut yourself open. Like I said, I’ve no taste for suicide or self-harm.
I long to say the right thing. To finally write the right words down. The perfect words exist to express what’s in me, but I cannot find them. I grasp after them, try to make the intangible reality, try to exorcise my haunting, try to describe the warmth of Death’s regard, try to finally make you understand what I felt on nights when I was so full of life and love and beauty that I wanted to die, smiling, ecstatic, pirouetting between the loves of my life, between the happy moments scattered like constellations on a nightsky painted inside my eyelids.
or, it’s like holding a ghost
I want you all to understand what I feel when I hear music. Want you to understand how certain sounds describe my whole life. I think of Johnny Greenwood’s wrenched guitar, Johnny Whitney’s cannibalistic howl, Fiona Apple’s righteous fury, Max Richter’s dream of seven mirrors stretched across an hour that smeared my heart over a harrowing decade. I want you to know that an out of tune piano taught me more about myself than the thousands of books I’ve read, the dozen or so I’ve written, the hundreds of short stories and thousands of poems I’ve poured myself into as explanation of a life.
When I hear Runaway, it’s not only a song for me. It’s an entire year. An entire year of conversations, of heartless romanticism, of blatant dandyism, of a heart in a caved in chest struggling to breathe because of the way you whispered No into my ear when I asked you your name in Busan on one of the most beautiful nights of my life, the way your hand felt in mine, the way I’ll remember you always for those hours we spent dancing, touching, as intimate strangers who would never meet again.
Open your eyes. You are not who you were. You are not Sisyphus or Daedalus or even the Minotaur of your wicked dreams.
I am glad to no longer be this person.
But I remember him. I remember him and hope to someday make him understand why he was so broken. Why he filled his brokenheart with everything but what he needed. Why he refused to acknowledge the need inside himself.
I was a stranger to myself. Probably I still am, will always be, but I see the me who I once was. I see him starkly, naked as he withers, weeping in bunkbeds cast in time, like Drunken Boats.
But he understood himself, even if only for a moment, religiously watching ballet, though he never found the words to explain it to himself.
Perhaps a Rosetta stone for him. For the me I once was. Not an explanation, but a path to discovery. A path we’re still on. A path that never ends.
Runaway revealed something about me to myself. It continues to resonate within me. I tumble through time, through versions of me, when I hear that piano key struck, echoing, haunting me.
I see the ghosts who were once me and I try to hold them. To tell them those words they’ve always needed to hear.