(photo: Scott Padden)
Nobody wants to hear about anyone dead, period. Death is scary and gross and wholly undignified. It doesn’t align with our ideals of propriety, and yet, it’s coming for every single one of us. So even if you don’t want to talk about it, I will. I have the microphone, and you don’t, so you will listen to every damn word I have to say.
And I can’t say anything about my grief as it stood this year without mentioning Avi Vinocur and his song, “Nothing Perfect Stays That Way.”
I first met Avi in 2009, when he was in the Stone Foxes. Now damn near a San Francisco institution, the Foxes started in the SF State dorms. I was in the journalism program there, and some time after I had moved off campus, my live-in boyfriend (now husband) said to me one afternoon, “Hey, you wanna go see my friend’s band tonight?”
I winced — “friend’s band” often means corny dad rock or semi-competent noodlings in a half-empty bar somewhere — but through gritted teeth, agreed.
His friend was Shannon Koehler, who played drums in the band — he’s now the Foxes’ charismatic frontman. That night, they put on a searing live set at Bottom of the Hill. The next semester, I pitched a profile on SFSU’s up-and-coming blues band. I conducted my very first interview ever, in my whole life, with the four of them in the green room at Slim’s. Guys, I was so bad. My questions were boring and there were a lot of awkward silences. My face is getting hot just thinking about it.
Avi and the Foxes parted ways around 2010, but I’ve been following his career since. Avi leaned into his love of American folk in the following years, forming the continent-spanning Americana outfit Goodnight, Texas, and working as a solo artist. This year, he released No Cause for Alarm under his own name.
The record in general is about leaving — about new beginnings, but also about desperately clawing at things we want to keep but can’t control and the rocky process of accepting the new reality that follows. It’s about breakups. It’s about moving. It’s about Vinocur’s own losses.
But “Nothing Perfect Stays That Way,” the record’s closing track, is so stark and so raw, so stripped of the typical trappings of indie rock that it took me right back to that cold hospital room. Those final seconds of a loved one’s life where your brain is doing what it does best: looking for a shortcut to survival. Your gut knows there’s none, but logic just keeps turning over and over and over, looking for that last-ditch solution they always find right before the bomb goes off in action movies. And you’re sitting there next to your mother — this husk of a human, sunk into a hospital bed with scratchy white sheets, a body that somehow birthed you nearly 30 years ago — and she’s not breathing and she’s turning gray you didn’t know people actually turned gray when near death but look at that, she’s gray, and you’re just sputtering the only thing your subconscious can come up with: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Upon closer listen, I’m pretty sure that death is not what “Nothing Perfect Stays That Way” is about. But death is what that song sounds like to me. Something about that slow, sad melody sprung open a secret passage in my brain to the clearest memory of that morning. It’s almost embarrassing to admit how much I identify with this song, because there are moments that are alarmingly on-the-nose: “The summer’s nearly over now” (it was late July), “Now the two of us are here / With little left to say” (see above), “Every life breathes final breath” (I mean…). But, in my own experience, all the contrived platitudes that you eschew every other day of the year come pouring out in the end, so I’m not at all surprised this song made me nearly collapse over my keyboard the first time I heard it. I hadn’t cried about it for a really long time, and I was kinda starting to miss crying about it. Then I heard this song and I did — like, I really did. And it felt…good.
My relationship with my mom was not perfect. We were too alike, and it infuriated me. But I can’t say my life wouldn’t be vastly improved by having her here again — by having at least another name to put down as an emergency contact and my dad having his best friend back. But I wonder if all my ifs and thens about what life would be like were she still alive are just me grasping at an impossible ideal. She spent the last decade of her life physically burdened by illness, and I spent half that taking care of her. She’d still be here, but she’d still be sick, and we’d probably still be fighting all the time. Nothing perfect, even if starts out pretty imperfect, stays that way.
It stuns me to think that one guy in an apartment building in the Sunset wrote a song that moves me so goddamn much. That’s the strange catch of this job: There is so much not just good, but great music just a few miles from me at any given moment, made by peope who can turn out to be long-time acquaintances, and even good friends. And as astounding as it is that such a striking piece of music came from someone I know, it feels a little awkward to emote over it. But sometimes it needs to be done.
Earlier this year, I started off a profile of Avi by listing people he’d meant to thank. Now, here I am, thanking him. Thank you, Avi Vinocur, for bringing this song to me.