The Predatory Wasp: A cocktail inspired by the music of Sufjan Stevens

On Geneology Roadshow individuals bring fragments of their past to genealogical researchers and ask them to piece together a more complete picture of their ancestors. These researchers try to create a family narrative that can guide the individual through a past they didn't witness, connecting them to what their family history means for them. I was watching the show with my mom the other night, and a woman told the story about when her grandmother offered to buy her a car in the 80s, using $10,000 she had received for helping a Jewish family during World War II.  Her grandmother had since passed away, but the guest on Roadshow wanted help uncovering what really happened all those years ago.

The researchers found that this woman's grandparents had helped secure safe passage to America for two Jewish siblings, a brother and sister. Through digging into the past, they found that the two siblings had another sister, Sarafina, who didn't emigrate like her family members did. The researchers couldn't find out why she didn't follow her brother and sister, but they were able to locate a train manifest from a few months later with her name on it: The train that took her to a Nazi camp where she was executed upon arrival. The woman who had sought help from the genealogists was understandably emotional upon learning this information, but as she composed herself she expressed her gratitude for knowing what had happened.

"Stories are how we hold ourselves together," she said, wiping tears from her face.

I held my breath. Her words sat heavy on me, the clearest truth magnified through such a simple statement. The stories we consume, the ones we tell others, the ones we tell ourselves: They are as crucial as the air we breathe. Biology aside, what are we other than a collection of stories?

I've been haunted by this idea as I've gathered my thoughts about Sufjan Stevens' body of work. It struck me that his music is the soundscape for the complex and layered stories he tells. The cinematic nature of the instrumentals create a space for the listener to inhabit the story with him. Stevens is an incredibly gifted musician and singer, but I suppose he'd have to be to be able to pull off such an environment. This treatment of music as the backbone to storytelling is intentional on his part:

I think all music, even though it's an abstraction, does motivate a particular meaning. Then it's the job of the musician to honor that meaning and to somehow implement lyrical material that can accommodate that emotional environment. {Sufjan Stevens interviewed by Pitchfork}

Maybe the stories themselves aren't always groundbreaking, but his ability to guide the listener through them is, for me, where he really shines. Maybe it's because I'm a micro-historian and tour guide in my other life, but Illinois (and the companion outtakes & extras, The Avalanche) is a tour more than anything: A tour of the state, a tour of his life, and a rumination on the way those things intersect. History and memory-- personal and collective-- are the forces that drive that journey. I was speaking with a friend of mine the other day about the sometimes frenetic nature of the stories he tells, and how that narrative brings the listener into the center of the at once infallible and flawed nature of memory. Memories are imperfect, and they change over time. History and story are imperfect because they are based on memory: The retelling of someone else's memory, or an interpretation of facts colored by memory. And while all of that makes sense on a rational level, memory remains more real than reality. Story-truth is, as it turns out, truer sometimes than happening-truth {Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried*}.

And so I've chosen a few songs from this Illinois period to explore the way historical information supports personal memory, or the revelations found in revisiting emotion-filled moments of the past: 


Casimir Pulaski Day

Free download available on Stevens' website.

In Chicago and other American cities with a large number of Polish immigrants, Casimir Pulaski Day is celebrated on the first Monday of March. If you're reading this on the day it was posted, you may be realizing that today is, indeed, that holiday. Pulaski is remembered for fighting for independence in Poland and the United States, and according to Wikipedia is only one of eight people who have been granted honorary American citizenship.

The holiday serves as a backdrop for a personal story about a friend dying from Cancer. Stevens brings us right into the fray at the top of the song when he describes that "Goldenrod and the 4-H stone" were things he brought his friend when he found out they had cancer. Goldenrod has different cultural significance depending on where you're from, but some include good luck, liberty, and "to make whole." I don't know what a 4-H stone is-- my research on this hasn't turned up much of anything useful-- but the actual object is less important than the implication of good luck (the 4-H symbol is a four-leaf clover, each H standing for head, heart, hands, and health). These objects, prayer, and the grappling with their feelings are all ways the narrator of the song attempts to save his friend, but to no avail. Tests of faith are a common theme in Sufjan's work that we'll come back to throughout this series, and this song is no exception.

 

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Digital track

Those tours I mentioned earlier? Well one of them focuses on sex work at the turn of the 20th century here in our little town; a piece of history that is hidden from sight. One of the inherent challenges of talking about this is that many people think that, by bringing what happened here into the light of day, we are glorifying or condoning it. But here's the thing: History isn't pretty. It shows us things we don't always like about where we come from, things we'd rather forget, or pieces of other people that-- if we're honest-- we can see reflected back in the mirror. To speak of this isn't to glorify it: It is to call it what it is and view it without letting it control us.

John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was a serial rapist and murderer who killed at least 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 in Cook County, Illinois. In this song, Stevens delicately humanizes Gacy without condoning his actions, and goes so far as to recognize the elements of that humanity that reside in us all. He explored this idea in a 2005 interview tin Gapers Block:

 I made a concerted effort to scrupulously evoke the series of events which led to his crime, and, considering the circumstances, that was not a pleasant task. In all the crime novels I'd skimmed and in all the news clippings I read, there was a deliberate obsession with finding the source of his depravity. What went wrong, everyone asked. What made him this way? Was it his abusive father? Was it a head injury? A doting mother?

I'm less interested in cause and effect, in terms of human iniquity. I believe we all have the capacity for murder. We are ruthless creatures. I felt insurmountable empathy not with his behavior, but with his nature, and there was nothing I could do to get around confessing that, however horrifying it sounds.

Looking back, I see another thing going on here. It's no mistake that the song follows a 9-minute diatribe against the pretenses of commerce, advertisement, and bad art [namely, "Come on! Feel the Illinoise!"]. John Wayne Gacy embodies the crime of disguise in the most human way possible.

 

The Mistress Witch of McClure (or, The Mind that Knows Itself)

The Avalanche. Digital track

I mentioned his frenetic storytelling above, and this is the song that first comes to mind for me when I think about that surreal quality of stepping into a memory with only scattered bits of clear detail and very heightened emotions. I can speak from experience when I say that discovering a father's infidelity is bizarre, though luckily I didn't find the kind of violence that Sufjan grapples with in this song. The attention the narrator pays to their siblings is something that I can relate to-- I can pick out the pieces of my own memories connected to that need to protect and be protected.

The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!

Digital track

Oh, this song. "Predatory Wasp" is another lovely example of the rambling narrative, this time joined by a blending of disparate locations and an almost childlike quality to the phrasing and details, such as the narrator noting their "writing in cursive" on the floor. Childlike is the best way to describe Sufjan's explanation of the inspiration for this song, and I think it's only fair to let him take this one:

When I first started attempting this research project on Sufjan (or, what I've been referring to as Sara's attempted Sufjan mind-meld... Has it worked, Sufjan?) I ended up with a lot of "Is Sufjan gay?" articles and comments in front of me. While I'm not surprised to find the question floating around the internet given the nature of this song, I do find it really disappointing that that's the best people can do. I feel the need to acknowledge that this is on people's minds. I'm not going to engage in the debate here, however, because I think it's a stupid thing to get hung up on.

The better thing to consider, in my opinion, is what this song says about love and friendship and loss, particularly that of early childhood. I remember running into the open grassy field of my elementary school hand-in-hand with my friend when he finally turned to me and gave me a gift: A tiny glass hummingbird, missing one wing. To this day I feel the strangest affinity for this person who disappeared from my life more than 20 years ago. I don't remember what he looked like, I don't remember his last name, but sometimes I think about that broken hummingbird and wonder what I ever did with it, whatever happened to him. That terrible sting feels pretty real, then.


The Recipe

The Predatory Wasp: A cocktail inspired by the music of Sufjan Stevens

Cocktail by Sara Galactica. Photos by Andrea Holodnick.

You'll need:

  • 1 oz vodka
  • 1 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz lime
  • 1 oz ginger syrup
  • 2-4 dashes bitters. I used Dram Black bitters, but Angostura would work nicely here (2-3 drops)
  • 3 dashes clouded memory
  • Sparkling wine, 2-3 oz

What to do:

Add vodka, gin, lime, ginger syrup, bitters (and those clouded memories) to a cocktail shaker filled with ice.

Seal tightly and shake vigorously for 30 seconds or so.

Strain into a cocktail glass (I used a fancy little coupe glass).

Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a nice, wide piece of lime zest.

Sip & enjoy, but be careful: This one can sting if you go to fast.

Next Week:

I'll dive on into Sufjan's epic Christmas song collections and focus on his gorgeous "Sister Winter," and a few hymns acceptable for year-round listening if you're into that sorta thing.

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