Happiness Is Easy: Matt Paolizzi’s Senior Column
“Or tell me why I’m so wrong, where does love come from // If you’ve sold your reasoning out?”
— “Give It Up”, Talk Talk
My favorite song, by my favorite band, off my favorite album, is “New Grass” by Talk Talk. They’re a band that transcends music for me. Every song from them seems to unlock some new, hidden understanding about life. You might know them for their hit “It’s My Life” from 1984, famously covered by No Doubt.
Talk Talk’s frontman, Mark Hollis, died in February 2019 during a difficult time in my life. I was dealing with a feeling that I’ve experienced so much, that of failure. Of utter, abject mediocrity. Everything I touched, whether it was my education or the relationships with the people I hold dear, seemed to slip through my fingers like sand from a broken hourglass. The world around me was immaterial. I floated through it like a ghost.
When Hollis died, I took it as just another symptom of the ugliness I saw coating the world. He was a good, good man. He’s the person I think more people should model themselves after, especially celebrities. Hollis was a private man, he despised the attention and the cameras that were forced his way. He hated how the industry was shifting away from the music during the 80s, focusing more on fancy music videos and fashion rather than what’s actually being played. Many saw him as a party pooper and, when he began to shift the band’s sound in a more abstract direction with 1986’s The Colour of Spring, Hollis was criticized for casting aside guaranteed pop stardom and immortality for the sake of some pretty tunes no one gave a shit about. His label hated him. His bandmates questioned his judgment, legendary drummer Lee Harris stuck with it to the end but bassist Paul Webb was out by 1990. Hollis’ fans were left in a daze as critics prepared to tear him limb from limb. And yet, he persevered. He didn’t want to be just another 80s pop band, indistinguishable from the Duran Durans of the world. Tiring themselves out and never breaking free of the mold they set themselves in. Mark Hollis entered the studio in 1987 and emerged with Spirit of Eden, an angelic album that polarized upon release. It’s since gone on to be considered some of the most beautiful music ever recorded.
Laughing Stock, the follow-up to Spirit of Eden released in 1992, is the album “New Grass” comes off of. It’s the penultimate track, a long-desired exhale after nonstop emotional turmoil. The record follows a clear storyline, at least how I’ve always seen it. It’s about that feeling I’ve always had, that of all-consuming failure. The first track, “Myrrhman” paints a bleak picture. “Place my chair at the backroom door/Help me up/I can’t wait anymore.” It’s a man climbing a chair to his suicide by hanging. And he’s too weak to bring himself to stand, it takes a while, so he climbs the “Stair by idle stair.” They’re static, waiting for him. We go to the next song as he ruminates.
I’ve spent most of my life waiting for what’s next. As a kid, I never wanted to be a kid. I hated being reminded of how young I was. I hated being around kids that I viewed as less mature. I craved praise and attention, an addiction I can’t seem to shake to this day. Coming into high school, all I wanted was to go to college. I viewed the present as temporary, something to overcome instead of something to enjoy and feel a part of. Every day was just an obstacle to destroy as I plow my way to this glorious future I had envisioned for myself. Because of this, I’ve never felt connected to the world. I’ve never felt like I’ve ever really lived my life. I have to thank the blog for helping me through this.
“Ascension Day” sees the album’s protagonist reflecting on his past sins, “Weighted my hand/Kill the bet, I’ll burn on Judgment Day” as the cacophony of sound builds and builds. Hollis believed in silence as the core component of music (“Silence is the most important thing you have…spirit is everything,” he once said), and breaking this was a sign of his dedication. But the song is cut off at the end, without warning or hesitation. Officially the tape malfunctioned during recording and the rest is lost forever, but I think something intervened here. The chaos of life catching up with you until it fizzles out with no great drama.
There are times where I can’t stop thinking about what I didn’t do as part of Onward State. I was an editor for a couple of semesters here and there, but I was never cut out for it. I never found the time. I probably could’ve, but I didn’t. I lived in fear of letting people down, and this fear stopped me from really giving that extra effort, worrying that whatever I did would just make things worse. What I did find, however, amid the dark clouds and savage winds, was friendship. Warm and welcoming, I never felt like a stranger during my time with the blog. My voice was always welcomed, and it felt like the world was finally my oyster with the shell cracked open and that glistening pearl in my sight. The best piece of advice I ever got was on a balcony freshman year with OS alumnus James Turchick. “Don’t make this a waste of time,” he said. “Just find what you like writing about and go for it.”
The rawness of “Ascension Day” is cut suddenly in favor of “After the Flood,” aptly titled. This is deep anger, a mournful dirge that builds like its predecessor but never reaches any sense of conclusion. The closest we get is the build-up to the chorus, “Shake my head/Turn my face to the floor/Dead to respect/To respect to be born/Lest we forget who lay.” We get the build-up twice, but there’s no grand conclusion. Just a fade-out, each time, discordant saxophone the first and the slow death of the instrumentation the second. The man dies here I think, with regret on his mind. But how could he have succeeded in a world where the simple blessing of being born is seen as regretful? He’s failed in life, and his spirit carries that with him.
I’ve started to become comfortable with imperfection now. Failing doesn’t frighten me as much nowadays, I’ve accepted the negative aspects of life and embrace its difficulties and challenges. Life flows on, there’s always the next day, it never ends. This might sound grim, but George Harrison’s Hindu-inspired mindset really gives me peace. Life is all about preparing for death. That is, living a life in reverence and awe, always looking to respect the world and what it gives you, finding your path and when it’s your time, shutting your eyes feeling proud and content with what you’ve done. Mark Hollis once sang, “Happiness is easy.” It’s never easy, but man, it certainly seems more achievable for me nowadays. All you need are people you love.
It’s not silence that greets our subject in death. “Taphead” begins with a stringing guitar. Hollis’ croon, impossible to replicate, guides us through. There’s redemption in oblivion, “Do you die in sin, born again/With will to wind and wander climb/Through needle neck to consent.” The promise of newness, a second chance, a new spring after a winter that’s lasted a lifetime, “Arrive at spring once again/And still to rise beyond the tide.” A rising above, followed by another building of sound, that chaos returning, but Hollis calms it with that incredible voice, “Dust to dust to dust to dust consume/For what is worth upon me/Nascent, naissant.” He’s coming back into some other form of being, summoned by something else, something above him. Our sinner is being born again.
The friends I’ve made during my time with Onward State have been invaluable to me. I’ve met so many special people over the past few years, innumerable smiling faces that have shown me some of the best times in my life. The house on West College where I spent my freshman year hanging out with the seniors on staff, Bauer, Dave, Trevor, and all their friends, many of whom went on to become my friends as well. My sophomore year roommates, Ryan, Steve, and Brett, everyone who came out for our Filmzz sessions at Frank and Matt Ogden’s place, Jim, Tony, Matt Fox, Mikey, Gabi, Elissa, Fiset — there’s so many people to name and thank, and if it wasn’t for OS, I never would’ve met them.
Finally, “New Grass.” The title is literal, our subject has arrived on fresh soil, the greenest of grass, bountiful and young. There hope here, wonderful, all-enveloping hope, “Lifted up/Reflective in returning love you sing.” He sees his life as lived, he could never have enough, he never stopped, he never did what was worth all the trouble of being born. “Errant days filled me/Fed me illusion’s gate in temperate stream/Welled up within me/A hunger uncurbed by nature’s calling.” False streams and fickle notions, diving headfirst with false confidence and all-knowing nature that can ruin your life.
It’s here where Hollis makes obvious, as if it wasn’t already, the strong Christian and Biblical elements that are littered through his work. This might turn people off, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the Christianity most people are afraid of, the bible-thumping, “You’re going to hell” attitude. At its essence, Hollis writes simply about grace and forgiveness, about finding strength in the unknown and frightening. It’s the comfort one can gain not just from religion, but from belief in general. Life is nothing without belief, we all need those strong convictions to guide us through life. Believing in people, in the world, at its core the goodness of your fellow human beings. Letting that ugliness wash away. Hollis’ Christianity is just his way of believing, his way of finding comfort, one of many out there, “Seven sacraments to song/Versed in Christ/Should strength desert me/They’ll come, they come/They’ll come/They come, they’ll.” We all need that shoulder to rest on, when that tether to the world and existence is frayed. And there’s something great to come, a marvelous future bright and wonderful, “Lifted up/Reflected in returning love you sing/Heaven waits, Heaven waits/Someday Christendom may come/Westward evening/Sun recedent.”
Since James gave me that advice, I struggled frequently during my time at the blog, trying to find my exact niche. It was only when I made a leap of faith my junior year that things got rolling. Alongside my friends Mitch Stewart and Matt Ogden, we founded Podward State. After years of talking about it, OS finally had its own podcast. We’ve interviewed so many fantastic guests over the past two years and I couldn’t be happier leaving it in the capable hands of my friend Sam Brungo, along with Jordan Mansberger and Grace Cunningham. Keep grinding guys. Covid may have killed my dream of writing a feature on every big bar band in town, but I’m glad it didn’t kill the pod. It’s here to stay.
The closing song is “Runeii.” An epilogue to our hero’s journey, it’s a light affair that closes things out hopefully. After completing Laughing Stock, Hollis would rest for a few years before turning Talk Talk’s next album into a solo project, titled simply Mark Hollis. Another masterpiece, scarce and conservative with its artistic choices. It was the final run for Hollis and, after it came out in 1998, he would retire from music for good. He was often called a recluse by the British press, but nothing could’ve been further from the truth. Hollis became a family man, spending the rest of his life focusing on being the best father he could for his children. He felt fulfilled artistically, he’d achieved everything he set out to create.
I’ll be going into the world of teaching now, with my time at Penn State drawn to a close. My metaphor for teaching is that the classroom should be a campfire, a welcoming place where anyone can sit and tell their story without fear of judgment. We all do something to keep that fire blazing. It’s safe to say that Onward State helped light my own fire for life back up.
And I hope, as I carry that ember with me in my heart, that I was able to contribute something, anything, a nice dry log, a tiny twig, that could keep that great bonfire roaring. That the flames would continue to burn, providing little sparks, embers just like mine, for generations to come. All those homeless souls in need of sanctuary would find themselves at that first Onward State meeting facing those fantastic sparks. And even if they only stay for a semester, may they may catch some of that warmth, a heat to power them through the cold dark. I love you all, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Just remember that one thing.
It’s your life. And it never ends.
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About the Author
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