#243: Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath" (1970)

When you live in Austin, you typically fall into one of two camps in the ugly, imposing face of South by Southwest. The first is comprised of those who spend all year looking forward to it, who plan ahead for the wristbands and map out what venues to hit up on what days and where to end up at night for Maximum Free Drink Benefit (MFDB). The second houses those who lock the doors, draw the blinds, and spend the week staying far, far away from downtown. My favorite thing to talk about, write about, and generally do is music, so you might think, “Eh, Brad, who’d you see at South-by? I bet it was extremely lit, ugh I’m so jealous, I’ll visit for sure next year let’s do it up.” This would be foolish of you to sayyou would, in fact, be a fool. I don’t like festivals, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like drunk teens, and sometimes, tbqh, I don’t even like live music all that much. Like, what are you even supposed to do with your arms at shows? I can’t deal with it. So I stay in. I lock the doors. I draw the blinds. I fully admit I’ve missed hourswhole daysof excellent music because of this, but SXSW is a little deceitful. Shows are free for the most part, so long as you have the right badge at the right time and even with it are willing to spend like three hours in line. Life’s too short is a cliche, but it’s also a truth so…life’s too short, y’all.

THAT BEING SAID, I did a South-by thing this past weekend and here’s what it was: Hanson on the roof of the flagship Whole Foods. I got the free tickets days in advance, left from home more than an hour early, and waited in line for fucking ages, missing the first three songs of the set before even making it in. Wells Fargo reps walked the line handing out sunscreen in lime green Wells Fargo spritzer bottles, asked Hanson trivia questions with Skip the Line passes in hand for the winners, and maintained the upbeat sunniness of freshly-graduated first-job-out-the-gates millennial youths. The young woman in front of us in line had to have been one of the biggest Hanson fans I’ve met, straining to make out the songs being played based solely on the kick drum’s rhythm and Taylor’s harmonies once the music started up and we were still inching toward the entrance step by step. She very emotionally whisper-sang “Where’s the Love,” hitting all the “round and round and round”s right on cue and soothing her own late-to-Hanson anxieties in a truly admirable way. It was all very Austin; I kept thinking, “Austin is very Austin rn.” We were all sweating and trudging and nostalgic, all for the “MMMbop” kids.

And here’s the thing: I like Hanson quite a bit, was excited to hear not just Middle of Nowhere bops but Shout It Out bops or even that one bop from Anthem, an otherwise bopless record. This song”Get the Girl Back”they played. They also played “MMMbop,” eliciting the quickest Sea of Phones rise that I’ve ever seen at a show, Snapchat somehow already open and raring to go across the waves. I’m not sure how much fun the Hanson bros still have playing “MMMbop,” and you might have forgotten that it’s nearly five minutes long, but, much like Hanson’s entire esprit de coeur, it was undeniably, infectiously joyful. Even when they played a new song that was, to be frank, capital-B Bad, I sang and chanted along at the chorus. I fist pumped. I swayed. Etc. News of the great Chuck Berry’s death had broken while we’d been waiting in line less than an hour earlier, and before launching into their last song, Isaac Hanson told us it was their dad’s Chuck Berry records that had made him want to pick up a guitar in the first place (natch). “This might be a mistake,” he said, “because we didn’t practice this. But who cares.” And they closed out the set with “Johnny B. Goode,” and here’s the thing: it did! It b. goode! Hanson knows instinctively, like down in their bones, how to harmonize on a dime like angels, and they know instinctively how to charm the pants off an audience, and, well, they’re some talented fools. It’s Chuck’s song, I know, and it’s a song that’s a little hard to mess up, but it also kind of brought the house down.

Something casual readers might not know is that the minimum word count for this project’s pieces is typically 750I’ve now dedicated just over that amount of real estate discussing Hanson in the Year of Our Lord 2k17, in an essay purportedly about Black Sabbath. If you’re a big fan of the Sab, or if you’re Tony Iommi (hi Tony!), you might be long gone by now. Sorry. But look: are they much different from Hanson? I first approached this particular piece from this particular angle because yes, yes they are, in fact because I figured I’d had the complete opposite experience at a Hanson show from what one must have had at a Sabbath show from their 1970-75 heyday. Sabbath’s eponymous debut album was recorded in a single day in October of 1969. The way Ozzy and Tony both tell it, they had the studio rented for two days, and the second would be for mixing, so they played everything live, did a couple takes, and were in the pub before the streetlights came on on day one. That record is now credited for inventing the entire genre of heavy metal almost single-handedly (with apologies/middle fingers to Zeppelin). It inspired decades of stoners, goths, and sludge metalheads to get stoning, gothing, and sludging, and it was also the first time I can remember finding an album with the same name as both the band that recorded it and a track on the album (“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath, from Black Sabbath, the holy trinity hat trick, rarer than it might seem).

That last one doesn’t really mean anything, I know, but you still get my point. Ozzy sang about witches and evil and damnation and ghosty ghoulies and a “big black shape with eyes of fire” and a “chill that numbs from head to toe / icy sun with frosty glow.” More than once, he took Lucifer’s point of view on things, and never to, I don’t know, correct the cultural narrative or whatever. Listening to Black Sabbath (or more specifically “Black Sabbath,” or less specifically Black Sabbath) now does not in any way that matters feel dated or like a watered-down starting point of what the genre became: it’s got metal down to its socks, a heaviness that holds water in a way other progenitors just don’t.

Do you remember twenty years ago (almost to the day!) when “MMMbop” first came out, what a juggernaut it was, how inescapable, how fully committed to delivering joy to the world? And now that “MMMbop” is in your head, aren’t you glad it will take days for you to get it out again? When they wrote the song, the Hanson brothers were 10, 13, and 15 years old, a year or so older when it hit the Billboard charts in the remastered, Dust Brothered version we all now know and love. It’s crazy in some ways, this realization, but in more ways than one it makes total sense: even the original recording, what the brothers have called a “ballad,” before the backbeat and electro flourishes, is insanely joyful in the way only white teens in the heartland of America whose parents have always supported them can be. It’s a song about how ephemeral life is, how soon we all will die, how the friends we think we love in fact might not mean bupkis to us when it matters mostin an MMMbop they’re not there, you know? It’s a subject which on paper sounds utterly crushing but from the mouths of Hanson hopeful, promising, optimistic. Because they know how to write the hell out of a pop song, and because they sound like baby squirrels on tape and who can frown at a baby squirrel?

Is Black Sabbath joyful? Is the genre they spawned? I’ve gone through phases with metal, from Kill ‘Em All to Carcass to Arsis to Emperor to ISIS to Sabbath, etc., but I’d never consider myself a metalhead. I get it, I like it, I’m on board, but, well, it can be a lot. And the experience of bashing yourself and everyone around you at a metal show can certainly be joyful, but that’s different: that’s physical. You’re sharing in a moment with others, releasing energy and aggression and sweat, a release that’s just as much a rush as any other communal, shared activity bringing joy into people’s lives. But what about the music on its own?

I asked some folks I know who have a bigger stake in metal than I do, and there was a word that was used in response to my joy question almost every single time: catharsis. “The real joy in metal is in its catharsis.” “What I love about metal is its indulgence….To scream on top of heavy drums...and waves of noise is to throw everything you possibly can into a song. I think that can be so cathartic.” And maybe that’s the kicker. Maybe the joy in metal isn’t in the metal but in the way the metal makes you feel, even alone, even isolated in your headphones. Maybe the great irony buried deep inside the genre is that the darkness, the heaviness, the crush of Lucifer or corpses or divorce (hi Arsis!), becomes something brand new in its delivery. Becomes energy and movement and overwhelming emotion. Becomes catharsis. Becomes joy.

I thought it would be fun when I went to see Hanson, in their floppy blonde mops and rosy cheeks and expensive boots, with their good-time feels and cheerful awkward banter and three-part harmonies sent from heaven, to write all about Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath (featuring “Black Sabbath”) by writing about its utter opposite. But, well. I don’t know how wide that gap between the two actually is anymore. One makes joyful sounds, and one makes sounds that make you feel joyful. Just because the joy looks different doesn’t make it different. We all have our demonschoosing how to air them sometimes seems like the only real choice we have.

—Brad Efford

#244: Eminem, "The Marshall Mathers LP" (2000)

I was seven when I first listened to Eminem. I sat in the middle of the back seats because that’s where my parents said I would be safest; on either side of me faced speakers underneath the window cranks, stuck to their spots in their tan leather heat. My brother’s body pounded onto the driver’s seat, his hand jerked the car into reverse, and his other hand slid a CD into the little hole above the radio that had broken last year. His eyes blinked back to me in the rearview mirror, and he said, “Hey, Sara, you know you’re a little kid, right?”

“Yeah, so?” I said while pushing the top of my seatbelt behind my back so I could lean forward more, feel like I was in the front seat more, like I was an adult more.

This is another public service announcement, brought to you, in part, by Slim Shady.

“So this is music for grown ups that you’re not supposed to listen to—”

Slim Shady does not give a fuck what you think. If you don’t like it, you can suck his fucking cock.

—but I’m letting you listen to it because you’re smart, right?”

I nodded my head but he didn’t see.

Little did you know, upon purchasing this album, you have just kissed his ass.

Yeah. Don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

Slim Shady is fed up with your shit, and he is going to kill you.

My brother skipped the next song, and I listened to Dido’s soft voice come at me from either side, and for the rest of the day I had her lilting voice whispering through my head while my friend and I played with her new Barbies.


When I was eleven, my brother went to college and I started middle school, excited by the adulthood of having my very own locker. I washed my hands next to the girls giving each other piercings in the bathrooms. I changed for gym class next to the girls who looked like me, with their checkered Bermuda shorts and striped purple T-shirts. They talked to each other and smiled at me, and I smiled back. I was more afraid of talking to them than to the popular girls with their eyebrow piercings that they took out before they went home. At least I knew those girls would laugh at me.

A gangly girl with curly brown hairs that refused to stay close to her head elbowed me in the back a few weeks into school, and apologized while nervously squeezing a Gogurt tube between her hands. I accepted her apology with a smile, too nervous to talk to this girl in her muddy Converse and flare jeans. We smiled at each other for a moment, her fingers still kneading the Gogurt, and then the tube gave out, erupting with pink goo that sputtered onto her brown sweater and my white one. Our faces reflected one another’s: eyes wide, mouths open, cheeks on fire. “Ew!” she squealed, and I felt a giggle bubble out of me, and I started laughing harder when she said, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.”

Her large hands weaved through her hair, her fingers reminding me of spiders as they got stuck in the knots. I smiled at her, eyes in tears. We were splattered with pink yogurt, and I wasn’t afraid of her anymore. “It’s okay,” I said. “My name’s Sara.” She said her name was Tara. Tara with the spider hands and beige eyes and pink Gogurt sweater, just like me. We walked around the track together that day, and her friends tried to help us get the yogurt out of our sweaters, and we called each other that night after our moms yelled at us about the stains.


When I was twelve, my brother dropped out of college, and Tara and I declared that we were smarter than him. We asked him to prove he was as smart as us by doing our Algebra homework—his refusal was proof of his tiny brain. My parents asked Tara’s parents if I could sleep over sometimes, when my brother seemed angrier than usual, and they always said yes but nobody told us why. A few weeks into these split-second sleepovers (christened that the third time it happened), I came home to our light blue vase in pieces sprinkled across the floor, edges sliced into the dark wood. Nobody was home, our cat was stuck under the couch, and the dishwasher was open from when I had left the night before. My room smelled like beer. My brother’s room was covered in broken brown glass. I went back downstairs and tried to pry the cat out of hiding.

My brother moved to an anger management facility that year, and Tara moved away the year after. I went to high school with Tara’s elementary school friends, and by senior year our favorite topic was how different Tara was. We, her original friends, looked at her Instagram and Facebook photos, each adorned with Tara and a different man, or a half-naked Tara smoking something, or Tara with a red Solo cup in hand and dark circles under her eyes. We all agreed: “She obviously wasn’t who we thought she was, especially if she could party her life away,” we said. We giggled at the avocado masks we wiped on one another at our monthly sleepovers, resting our eyes under cucumbers like old women did in old movies, and we shat on Tara’s new highlighter hair colors and thong swimsuits. She was trashy.

College parted Tara’s old friends and me, and we stopped talking after sophomore year. My brother came home from the facility in a starched pink button-down and black work pants, and he moved into an apartment by my college. We weren’t close.

I was on my way to give him and his girlfriend their tickets to my graduation when I heard The Marshall Mathers LP again. Rain and Dido slowly got louder in my car, the beat seeping through the speakers next to the steering wheel. My chest ballooned with childhood joy—the song from when I was a little girl, before everything happened with my brother and Tara and before I knew any curse words. I sang along with Dido, instinctively and excitedly, and then Eminem started rapping, and I listened to him for the first time. I listened about the death of Stan and his girlfriend, pregnant with their baby. I listened to the rest of the album. I listened about Kim and Amityville. I sat outside my brother’s apartment for an hour listening to Eminem, looking at nothing. I listened until it ended, then I turned off the car and went in, hugged them hello and answered their small-chat questions about school until the questions petered out, gave them their tickets, and hugged them goodbye.

I pulled “Stan” up on my phone and listened again, staring at nothing again. I didn’t know what was going on with my brother when I was younger, but I hadn’t cared. I wanted to be bigger than him, smarter than him, happier. I never helped him. Eminem waited too long to write Stan back. Eminem waited too long to write Stan back and I had waited too long with my brother. I was waiting too long with Tara, I realized too, but why didn’t I care about that? Maybe I just wanted my brother in my life more. Maybe I just wanted what I never had.

I walked back to the apartment and knocked on their door, and I hugged my brother again and said, “I’m glad you’re here, and you have Ashley. Would you guys want to come over for dinner sometime?” I knew their answer in the silence.

—Nicole Efford

#245: Jerry Lee Lewis, "All Killer, No Filler!" (1993)

He was Punk two decades before Punk.

If he started his career in 1977, he would have shared the stage with Strummer, Patti, and Iggy. He had this nervy, maniacal piano-playing schtick, as if someone held a shotgun to his head, demanding he cover Hank Williams, or Roy Orbison—right now or else.

That’s Jerry Lee Lewis. The outlaw—and the outlier.

Man, myth, legend, and undeniable influence on first wave punk in the late ‘70s. His songs staccato, the piano playing brutal, and all with an intuitive understanding of youth culture and its infinite mystery—majesty in squalor.

As a kid in the ‘90s, born to bonafide rock ‘n’ roller parents, I quickly latched onto their encyclopedic record collection, devouring everything I could—from the Clash to new wave stalwarts like the Psychedelic Furs. But the thing that perplexed me most was what I thought of as ‘missing link’ type sounds that reminded me of Elvis and Joe Strummer’s long-lost brother.

That’s the Stray Cats, the Cramps, and “More Fun in the New World”-era X albums that had that raw, rockabilly twang, but with a slinkier, moodier sound, anxious and spindly like XTC’s first five years of output.

Now we’re in 2017. That Punk/Rockabilly hybrid sounds like a distant memory. A lot of what is dubbed ‘Punk’ now sounds staged and corporate—a glossy package of manufactured angst marketed primarily to 14-year-old boys. And Rockabilly kind of had a resurgence in the late ‘90s, manifesting itself in a big band sound with the resurrected career of Brian Setzer, among other bands with names that sounded like they were straight out of the 1940s—the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the like.

That revival didn’t really catch on, and Rockabilly faded back into the ether. So where’s the edge? Why does everything sound so safe now?

When I listen to the Cramps classic Bad Songs for Bad People I’m reminded of the twang, hillbilly yelp and urgency with which Jerry Lee Lewis played. Lux Interior was the first person I thought of when hearing “High School Confidential,” seeing Lewis possessed at the keys.

It’s as if Lux heard “Crazy Arms” or “One Minute Past Eternity” as a kid, sitting alone in his bedroom on Halloween night, and decided that he could make his own version of rockabilly, repackaged as late-night, cable-access horror schlock.

I wouldn’t be surprised if young Lux had a dream one night where Jerry Lee Lewis came into his room for a lesson in Shock the Audience 101. For Lewis, the mad piano work almost seems quaint now—probably antiquated even when Lux was a kid—but where does anyone even get the idea to play a gig at a sanatorium, as the Cramps did? Can’t you see it?


JLL: Lux, you can’t just stand in front of an audience and scare the hell out of them with your clothes, jumping around like an uncaged animal windmilling on your guitar—that’s for crusty guys like me. And Pete Townsend, of course.

Lux: But Jerry Lee, if I can’t howl and beat up on my guitar, how can I do this?

JLL: Ever been to a looney bin?


Now you must admit, it’s plausible that the whole idea for the Cramps’ infamous 1978 gig at the Napa State Mental Hospital came from a David Lynch dream sequence.

Then again, that’s the spirit of Punk. Go against the grain, shock the system, shake people up. That’s not possible anymore with leather jackets and spikes and Chuck Taylors. Or banging on pianos, for that matter.

Nowadays, the lines of what is and isn’t Punk are completely blurred, and have little to do with three chords and distorted guitars. Punk is becoming canonized, a museum piece like Rockabilly and the Big Bands of yore.

But that doesn’t mean it’s dead, or even dying a slow death. As long as there are people in this world who have the fire inside of them to take that road less traveled and say something different, even unpopular, about own humanity, then there will always be Punk.

Sounds change—but the sentiment never dies and the shared struggle is always worth defending, tooth and nail, for life.

Jerry Lee once said, "Elvis was the greatest, but I'm the best." He may be onto something there.

—Alex Fencl

#246: The Mothers of Invention, "Freak Out!" (1966)

In the space provided for a short answer, one of my intro to lit. students writes a poem in which he compares me to a peacock, no, a pheasant…oh, even better: a quail. Yes, there’s something very quail-like—quailish?—about me, he decides. He decides to tell me. He decides I need to know. I dig my fingernails into my arm when I read it. I feel lightheaded. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath. I call a friend and ask if I’m overreacting, if I’m the problem. No, that’s weird, trust me. No, it’s not okay. When I speak to the student after the following class, I have trouble telling him how, in what way, his poem’s inappropriate. I have trouble saying, you have made me animal, you have made me thing through your metaphor, a comparison between two objects without using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ a question on the test. He asks if I’ve filed a complaint, if he’s in trouble. No, I haven’t filed a complaint. I haven’t decided if he’s in trouble. I throw around a lot of conditionals: if you do this again, if you meant to insult me. He smiles, which unnerves me. “I was testing you,” he says. “I wanted to see if you were cool, or if you would freak out.”


I work nights at a cafe. I’m in college, and I get to know the regulars. We have time to talk on these shifts, unlike the morning rush. One of our regulars always orders an iced tea and then reads Marvels for a few hours, sometimes inside at a table or, when the weather’s nice, out on the patio. He’s thirty, a janitor at his dad’s machine shop. Sometimes I talk to him on my breaks because I’m bored. I’m nice to him because he’s a customer, because he’s someone to talk to. Maybe I flirt with him, or maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m just not sure what I’m doing, but it’s soon clear he’s waiting for my breaks, becomes desperate when I decide to eat in the back room my veggie fried rice from the Chinese buffet or chips ‘n’ queso from the Qdoba. There’s several times when I feel like he’s about to ask me out, that he’s trying to find a way to ease in, like a scalding bath. I never let him. I’m engaged to someone else. I start talking about my fiancee, about anything else. He stops coming so regularly, and then hardly at all, and then I don’t see him for a few weeks. Finally, one night, he approaches me at the register, rattling a metal Altoids tin. Open it. Inside are four kidney stones, though I don’t know what they are until he tells me. It’s his proof, his evidence. Too much black tea, the doctors say. He did this for me. Will I go out with him?


A guy I never talked to in high school messages me on Facebook. He’s heard I’m a writer. He’s writing a novel, here we go. He wants to know about book deals, about agents. Hold your little fillies—I’m a poet. I tell him I can’t help him, which he seems to accept. I tell him it’s been nice hearing from him. (I’m a liar.) He asks me if I ever wish I didn’t think so deeply about the world, didn’t feel so much, like all writers do. He wants to know if I sometimes wish I was ignorant, if I believe in bliss, like ghosts. He talks—types, rather—while I check my e-mail, like a friend’s photo. I think it ends with him saying, gotta go. He seems to feel inoculated against his boredom, immune to the mundane. I never speak to him again.


Another students borrows one of my books, tears some pages out, smokes with it, walks to return it to me in the rain so that it’s soaked by the time he hands it to me. He argues with all of my other students, but doesn’t deign to provide them with any feedback on their poems. He hates every text we read and quotes Ferlinghetti. He gets high/drunk/fucked up for his final self-reflection paper, types it without punctuation. In it, he says he hates people who call themselves poets, for people who call themselves poets are not the true poets of the world (a paraphrase) and then goes on to tell me I taught him nothing but does a flying backflip leap and sticks the “but i guess you did a good job kid” line at the end. I’m so angry I want to make flowers sprout from nostrils like nose hairs.


I’ve grown so weary of young men—and, don’t misunderstand me, it’s almost always young white men—who use me as a wall in their postured squash games of persona. As if they have to validate their uniqueness like a parking ticket. As if they want me to weigh their egos like a mongo-pumpkin at a county fair. As much as an old flame still burns for Frank Zappa, one of my early musical loves, when I listen again to Freak Out! by the Mothers, with its jangle-rock deadpan montage of doo-wop acid pop, I am reminded of all those young men, their shuffling little bird feet, their you-just-don’t-understand. I think about how some people, these men, take their silliness too seriously, how they wear Absurd AF like a brand.

As listeners, even fans, we must realize how privilege allowed Frank Zappa to be Frank Zappa; to sing about the yellow snow and poop-chutes and Catholic girls and dental floss; to testify against parental advisory labels at the Parents Music Resource Center Senate hearings; to organize a rotating cast of band members, including some of the best up-and-coming black jazz musicians like Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, and Chester Thompson; to embody both his anti-war-on-drugs and anti-drugs stance; and to funnel all of his creative energy into some troubling, late-life, right-leaning politics. Zappa leveraged his weird-hairy-white-guy-with-a-big-nose image in order to challenge the status quo—or did he empower a new one?


I’m not suggesting that any of these young men looked up to any of the Mothers of Invention, and, for that matter, none of them likely knew who they were, but I am negotiating a threshold a privilege allowed young, white men, our culture’s message that that their cultivated “weirdness” excuses their abusive behaviors, including hardcore or micro-misogynies. For years, I have attempted to reconcile my love of Zappa’s music with many of his lyrics’ misogyny, homophobia, and racism, all of which is excused as humor, as “just that crazy guy.” For white men especially, we are so used to excusing these abuses as side effects of genius, of eccentricities, but I don’t want that any more. Being deep is often so shallow. I want to call out our darling boys. I want to say you’re so unique you’re nothing special.

—Emilia Phillips

#247: Grateful Dead, "Live/Dead" (1969)

When I was thirteen years old, in the late ‘90s, I spent innumerable evenings pouring countless hours into the AOL Grateful Dead forum. Slouched in a stiff wooden chair, stationed in front of the bulky, wheezing desktop computer in my family’s den, I hung out in 710 Ashbury, a chat room named for the San Francisco address where the Grateful Dead lived three decades earlier in a Queen Anne’s Victorian rowhome. My screen name was Deadbear13, and my friend list had grown long with deadheads of all ages who’d formed an online community after Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the Grateful Dead disbanded.

Deadbear13:                It sucks I never saw the GD live. I was born 30 years too late!
Mntngrl52:                   Too bad, Deadbear13. I saw them 30 times
WharfRat69:                82 times here
CandyMan710:             I saw them 129 times

The volume of shows those folks had seen spoke to untold years on the road, to bonds forged in parking lots and VW vans, to the nomadic community finding a home online. I, meanwhile, was a pubescent kid looking for a community of my own.

Behind me on a spare dresser sat my stereo and my music collection. That included a brown case full of bootleg cassettes I’d acquired by trading through the mail with these deadheads. Next to the case was my CD tower, stuffed with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Beatles—nothing contemporary, nothing found on MTV, which my brother, two grades older, watched all night in the adjacent living room, always a notch too loudly. But when Mom, who slept alone at the end of the hall, or I implored my brother to turn it down, he sniped back: You won’t hear it once you’re asleep.

Tensions ran high after the divorce, after Mom found out Dad, a hapless alcoholic, had a mistress. Now Dad lived in an apartment across town, in south Orlando, binge-drinking toward bankruptcy. In the house he conceded in the divorce, I played my music just loudly enough to drown out the MTV, but not so loud as to wake up Mom. That night, as the monitor’s gray-blue glow washed over my face, I had on a CD: the Grateful Dead’s 1969 double live album, Live/Dead.


By 1969, the Grateful Dead were the leaders of the San Francisco Sound, a rock subgenre that embraced the counterculture while encouraging band members to roam around in the rhythms, chords, and progressions. Combining a mélange of influences in American musical forms—Jerry Garcia steeped in folk and bluegrass, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the blues, Phil Lesh in formal jazz—the Dead had served as the house band for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during their mid-‘60s Acid Tests. The anything-goes ethos of those gatherings allowed the Dead to experiment with free-flowing musical improvisations while dabbling in mind-altering psychedelics, investing their blues with a free-ranging otherworldliness that fueled their live shows.

They made studio records: The Grateful Dead (1967), Anthem of the Sun (1968), Aoxomoxoa (1969), but none faithfully rendered the band’s live organic inventions. And after Aoxomoxoa, an eight-month acid-drenched experiment with newly invented sixteen-track technology, flopped, the band found themselves $180,000 in the hole to Warner Brothers. That same technology, however, would soon prove their saving grace. The Dead hauled that sixteen-track recorder to a string of their concerts in early 1969, patched the machine into the soundboard, and finally captured a mixable recording of their live sound. Live/Dead would become the first live rock album recorded with a sixteen-track machine. It sold well enough to pay back Warner Brothers.


The album’s opening emerges from a silence peppered with drifting guitar licks and bass notes. Those stray sounds soon snap into the musical motifs that structure the “Dark Star” jam, building toward Garcia’s thin-voiced cry: “Dark star crashes / pouring its light into ashes.” The lyrics themselves trace the borders of the musical nebula at hand, beckoning listeners through “the transitive nightfall of diamonds.” Meanwhile the Dead’s two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, accentuate the fog of star-stuff with bursts and echoes of rhythm while Bob Weir’s guitar chords morph the cloud of notes into constellations. The extemporized jam, then, embodies the theme of decay and rebirth established in the lyrics.

This marriage of form and content envelops the audience, folding them into the performance. Track two, “St. Stephen,” spins from side one’s stellar furnace like a newborn solar system, one housing its own legend and lore. While flitting between St. Stephen’s history, surroundings, and observations, Garcia sings of a “Lady finger dipped in moonlight / Writing ‘what for?’ across the morning sky.” The lyrics look upward, toward the genesis of the stars while the song rushes forth into “The Eleven,” plying steadily to Phil Lesh’s jazzy bass and Kreutzmann’s kick-snare combo. The time shifts into 11/8. Each musician hammers through these burgeoning rhythms and progressions. Tom Constanten’s organ adds a bright, traipsing aspect to the snarls and bellows of the guitars and drums before, rolling into an interlocking group chant, the Dead bring the audience back to now: “Now is the time of returning…”; “Now is the time past believing…”; “Now is the test of the boomerang….” And when Garcia chimes in with “Seven-faced marble-eyed transitory dream doll,” the bounds of time and matter collapse into a force here and gone, real and not, live and dead.


Deadbear13:              What’s a seven faced marble eyed transitory dream doll?
Truckin123:                Drop some LSD, Deadbear13. You’ll figure it out.


I first encountered the Grateful Dead around the age of 12, at my buddy Alec’s house. His parents were music lovers, Woodstock attendees loyal to the Dead’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s sound. “Anything after Pigpen died in ’73 is really second-rate Dead,” Alec’s father Pete told me one day after realizing I was interested in his extensive vinyl library. Tall and lanky, a lifelong surfer with sun-bleached hair and a slow drawl, Pete pushed back his roller chair from the desk of his home graphic design office, pointed toward the other room and said, “Find Live/Dead. That’s their peak.”

Alec and I went digging. A minute later, Alec held up the faded, ruddy album. We marveled at the robed woman on the cover levitating over an open casket, waving a banner that read “DEAD” above elaborate calligraphy: “Live.” Across the back cover stretched the word “DEAD,” folded into an American flag, with the seven tracks listed along the bottom. Two records. Four sides. Seven tracks. My eyes bulged to see a twenty-three minute “Dark Star” filling the entirety of Side One. Side Two featured just two songs, “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven.” “Turn On Your Love Light,” at fifteen minutes, required the whole of Side Three, while side four included three songs: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Feedback,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight.”

Twenty minutes later, when Alec’s mom Tina came home with armfuls of grocery bags, she found us lying on the floor, absorbed in the spacey, thunderous improvisations of “Dark Star.” She smirked, reminded perhaps of her own first experiences with the Grateful Dead. Near the end of the song, Pete, knowing the album sides by heart, appeared just in time to flip the record.


Deadbear13:                Live/Dead is suuuuuch a good album. I think it truly is their peak.
CaseyJones:                Wise opinion, Deadbear13. Were you around to see them back then?
Deadbear13:                Unfortunately no. I’m only 13! Papa Jerry died when I was 10….
CaseyJones:                Wowow you’ve got an old soul, brother.


I loved when those deadheads talked about my “old soul,” even when I knew I was simply parroting Pete’s opinions. Now that I’m in my thirties, though, I’ll say it again: Live/Dead represents the group’s peak—or, at least the peak of the cosmic-jam, acid-blues Pigpen era. Side three flows from the outro of side two, but the content shifts dramatically. Here Pigpen steps to the fore to take on Bobby Bland’s 1961 swinging blues number, “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and the Dead range through rollicking jams, drum solos, and Pigpen’s vocal rapping, pleading, “I don’t want it all, no, no, no, I just want a little bit.” The rendition re-situates the band’s material in traditional American music before Jerry Garcia leans into Reverend Gary Davis’s slow blues, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Garcia’s guitar regains that ripping embryonic growl from “Dark Star,” accented by Pigpen playing a delicately trilling organ. In “Feedback,” the instruments do more than growl—they blip and burp, cry and moan like gasses in a star nursery, reigniting the generative process. An a capella “And We Bid You Goodnight” closes out the album, opening an egress through which band and audience can exit this musical universe.


While my Live/Dead CD spun, I grooved in my chair, scanning line after line of chatroom scroll. As Deadbear13, I pitched in my early-teen insights—“R.I.P. Pigpen, gone too soon”—and reveled in the digital embrace of a community that taught me to hear the sounds, follow the music, navigate the parking-lot scene and dance pit of any concert in the Grateful Dead tradition. The AOL deadhead community buoyed me with belonging while my family broke apart.

But like the sound waves themselves, Deadbear13 couldn’t last. My screenname was outdated by the time I turned fourteen. Before long, Mom sold the house, unable to manage the upkeep on a public school teacher’s salary without child support. The three of us, plus our dog and two cats, moved into a two-bedroom apartment where the computer sat in the living room, offering no privacy. And then, when my online girlfriend of sorts, Hippiedom420, said she was travelling through Orlando with a crew of other deadheads and wanted to meet up, I realized I didn’t want to—I didn’t want to run away with the Dead. I wanted to be a teenager. Ahead of me were sports teams and dates and keg parties. So I grew into my teenage years while AOL fell out of favor, its chatrooms slowly clearing out.


I frequented the 710 Ashbury chatroom at its late-‘90s peak, just as the Grateful Dead captured their late-‘60s peak with Live/Dead. And that year I spent as Deadbear13 was a kind of peak for me, too, when I wanted nothing more than to have been born three decades earlier and built my life around the Dead. But Deadbear13 didn’t just fade away; he burrowed down inside me, huddled in my bones, manifested in my musical tastes and outward appearance, the tie-dye shirts and the white-boy dreadlocks I grew my sophomore year. That deadhead veneer provided me cover to duck away from the shouts and simmering tensions at home, the jocks and bullies and rich kids stalking the halls at school. Plus, donning that persona invested me with automatic social capital. I could be a cool kid just by adoring Jerry, smoking dope, playing the hippie. Deadbear13 helped me become the next version of myself—the one I relied on to navigate my teenage years.

Ultimately, the Grateful Dead would assume the next version of themselves, too. American Beauty (1970) and Workingman’s Dead (1970) would take decidedly acoustic turns and become two of their most beloved studio albums. In the ‘70s, when Keith Godchaux brought a new level of complexity to Pigpen’s spot as keyboardist, the Dead’s sound evolved into a jazz-rock fusion—a subgenre they rocked like none other. Pete may have been right that the Dead peaked in 1969, and I may have peaked as a deadhead at thirteen. But as the push-and-pull of death and renewal would have it, we can always peak again.

—Paul Haney

#248: Ornette Coleman, "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959)

          In memory of Baltimore Greg Kaplan


Billy Higgins’s cymbal skips, followed by Charlie Haden’s bass shuffle, tracing the outlines of “Lonely Woman” and preparing the entrance of the unison plaintive howl of Don Cherry’s trumpet and Ornette Coleman’s saxophone, the latter of which then takes the lead. Ornette blows; someone in the studio yelps “Wooo!” He sinks back, he returns. The song ends with a return to the beginning, a repeating pluck at the bass, the cymbal underneath.

Bart’s CD Cellar on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado was where my jazz education began. First Miles and ‘Trane, Mingus. Then Dolphy, Pharaoh, Ornette. Onward to the likes of Zorn, Mitchell. Greg K. introduced me to Ornette Coleman, or maybe it was another guy at Bart’s—I can’t remember his name. I’ll give the credit to Greg.

Greg introduced me to Ornette Coleman, but as I recall I ended up liking Ornette more than he did. Greg couldn’t really enjoy it; for him it had become more of a theoretical exercise, whereas the seemingly random bleets and bloops fit right into me, wedging into the cracks and empty spaces of my aesthetic. I came to understand the freneticism though the likes of Aphex Twin, the Boredoms; my tastes got noisier and noisier.

Greg died from an overdose several years ago, leaving a wife and young daughter behind. The last time I spoke to Greg I was visiting Boulder for a few days; he heard I was in town and called, fuzzy and fucked up. He wasn’t making sense, losing his words, but he sounded happy to talk and wanted to see me. I blew him off, not wanting to manage his state. “Sure, just running around now, we’ll hook up later buddy, talk soon.” Click. That was our last conversation.

Greg was a mountain of a man, from Balmer (Baltimore); we shared the east coast and a childhood love of the Orioles, a disdain for Boulder, many things pop cultural. I remember a road trip to San Francisco from Colorado in a rented van: J. in a heroin nod in the backseat, listening to Allen Ginsberg recordings. Greg pissed me off about something and I called him Jabba the Hut and he was furious and chased me around a parking lot in Reno on his bad knees. I once said he looked like Black Francis. “Because I’m fat.” “Yeah, but he’s really cool.”

Playing bass in his cat-piss-smelling basement, he on guitar, he always accused me of noodling. “Just play rhythm fucker.” (Charlie Haden plays some mean slick bass on this record.) Greg with a Dr. Pepper in his hand. “You know they say the secret ingredient is prune juice?” “It’s a warrior’s drink!” we exclaim in unison. That’s Klingon Lieutenant Commander of the Starship Enterprise Worf’s line upon first tasting the octogenarian beverage. I was continents away at the time of Greg’s memorial service, but I sent along a Leonard Nimoy poem to be read in my stead, along with the above anecdote. Greg and I watched a lot of Star Trek. I got my Klingon tattoo at a headshop in Boulder.

I got fired from Bart’s CD Cellar because I slept through a staff meeting—I was perpetually late—what record store schedules a meeting for a weekend morning? (We had a new manager—she came from the Gap—Bart wanted to “professionalize.”) I moved to Rocky Mountain Records, some shitty chain store, sold a thousand copies of Celine Dion. It was my last record store job.

Ornette Coleman is good for your early twenties, esoteric and obtuse, annoying as fuck, but I’ve come back to it in the last few years. The benefit of age is authenticity; there’s no doubt I really like this stuff now; I’ve got no one I care to impress with my weird tastes. This record is even tame for Ornette, just the beginnings of where he would end up. “Focus on Sanity” is the roadmap.

I’ve been traveling in Thailand the last few weeks and I was walking through a park in Bangkok the other morning and for some reason remembered my first proper backpacking trip through Europe in my late teens….twenty years ago now. One of the coolest things was going to the record stores in London or Berlin and digging through bins and finding this super cool shit you’d never heard of. Pick up some flyers for shows, talk to the guys at the shop, get the lay of the land. I was thinking how sad it was that that doesn’t really exist anymore; look at some blogs on the couch, check Facebook, manifest Spotify algorithms. As I waded through my nostalgia like so many bargain bin Bee Gees records a thought occurred to me: there is a really kickass record label in Bangkok and I know (from Facebook) they have a storefront, so I garnered the coordinates from my pocket computer, hopped on the Skytrain, and went.

Just a few hours after visiting ZuDrangMa Records, courtesy of the Dutch guy behind the counter, I was one of about twenty people standing in a bar watching a 21st Century Molam show. To many, it’s probably about as grating as Ornette Coleman; I thought it was totally amazing. It’s also just the kind of shit Greg would have loved, experientially if not in fact. Miss you pal. LLAP.

—Erik Wennermark

#249: R.E.M., "Automatic for the People" (1992)

When Monty’s dad didn’t die right away, not even with a few tons of tractor on him, Garrick’s mom said we needed to visit. Monty needs friends right now, she said.

Garrick and I were playing chess and didn’t look up. “He’s needed friends for years,” I said, “but that’s not our fault.” You could talk like that to Garrick’s mom and she wouldn’t get upset. Not like my parents. They said I had a fast mouth, which was why I’d ridden my bike over to Garrick’s instead of driving their car.

But Garrick’s mom just leaned on the kitchen table and studied a strand of her hair. “Take your sister, too,” she said to Garrick. “Your sister can be very comforting.”

Garrick’s sister was nine and a genius. She looked up from her maps. “It’s true,” she said. “I can be.” She smiled and I smiled back. A few months before she’d given me a spoon she’d bent into a corkscrew. Besides my Walkman, it was the only thing I kept on my nightstand.

Since they’d run out of things to teach her at school, they let her do what she wanted. She read through the whole encyclopedia, then got interested in spoons. I watched her do it once, one Saturday when I was over and Garrick and I played Risk for three hours at the table. Andi sat with us, a table spoon in front of her, didn’t move or say a thing the whole time, and when we finally stood up, the spoon had a little twist in its handle. So Garrick’s mom bought her a bunch of spoons and Andi spent a month bending one for each kid in her homeroom. She got really good at it, and I said she ought to sell them.

Now she was looking for the Northwest Passage. Topographic maps all over the place. The explorers weren’t crazy, she said. The Passage was still there, just different from what they expected.

We took some games along. Life, Monopoly, checkers, things we’d played with Monty in grade school when everybody was still friends. God knows we didn’t want to just sit in the house with him while his dad was out there in a field underneath a tractor.

Garrick drove. “Just an hour,” he said. “Then it’ll be time for dinner and we can leave.”

Monty answered the door. He didn’t look good. He never had, but now he looked worse. Terrible acne, and under his shirt was the plastic scoliosis brace that always made it look like he was wearing body armor. He’d worn one for years and had to buy shirts that were too big and made his head look small. He looked at us warily. “Yeah?” he said.

“We came to see you,” Andi said. She smiled at him. “We thought you might like some company.”

“Oh,” Monty said. He looked past us, like maybe there was someone better back there.

Andi asked if we could come in.

“Okay,” Monty said, and it was like going back in time, the same dark hall I remembered as a kid, the same smell of lemon furniture polish. A few feet in we stopped at the living room. There was a beam of late afternoon sunlight coming in.

“We brought some games,” I said. I’d almost forgotten the bag in my hand.

“Games?”  Monty said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Monopoly, that kind of thing.”

Andi asked where his mom was. It was like she was way older than any of us and knew all the secret rules.

“Out there,” Monty said, and gestured toward the back of the house.

“With him?”

Monty nodded.

“That’s good,” Andi said. “That’s good for both of them.”

Monty nodded again.

Footsteps, and a woman appeared in the hallway. She introduced herself as Monty’s aunt. She’d been crying, but she got herself together and when she understood who we were, thanked us again and again for coming to see Monty. It was so kind, so thoughtful. She told Monty to go get us some Cokes from the fridge, and when he was gone she dropped her voice and said just between us, she thought it was getting close. It’d been a day and a half now, and wasn’t that too long to suffer so much? They couldn’t do anything for him except painkillers, but he wouldn’t take them, and that was terrible for everyone.

When Monty came back, she tried to smile at him, but it didn’t last, and she started to cry again somewhere down the hall.

“Jesus,” Garrick said. I looked at Garrick, and he looked as bad as Monty. It was terrible standing there in that dark hallway with just one sunbeam coming in.

Andi got us into the living room and we sat down and opened our Cokes. She asked Monty a couple questions, but I didn’t hear them and Monty didn’t answer. Then we just sat there for a bit without saying anything at all.

When the sun got low enough to make Monty squint, he asked if we wanted to see him.

“Your dad?” I said.

Monty nodded.

I started to say was he kidding, but Andi said of course we did, and I sort of hated and loved her for it.

So we went down the hallway and then out the back door and it shocked me it was still spring and a nice evening. A bunch of adults were standing around in the backyard. When they saw Monty they got quiet, and the aunt came up and asked if she could do anything for him.

“Nope,” he said, and we walked past them all and out into the field.

It was quiet for a while until finally Garrick said he couldn’t believe none of the adults had stopped us.  That wasn’t right, was it? I asked if we were getting close. We couldn’t see the house anymore.

Monty pointed ahead at a little rise. “Over there,” he said.

Garrick stopped and threw up. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it, too, an arm here, a leg there. Andi stopped and patted him on the back.

Monty didn’t stop, so I followed him. From the top of the rise, we saw the tractor right below us, and below that was Monty’s dad. His mother and someone else sat in the dirt near him.

We startled his mother. “Oh,” she said, “Monty. Where did you come from?”

The other person was a man. Near him was a little leather bag like doctors carried in old TV shows. He said hi to Monty, but Monty just stood off to the side a bit and didn’t answer.

“That’s Monty?” It was Monty’s dad now, and he wasn’t anything I’d imagined. I thought dying people were always on their backs, but Monty’s dad was flat on his stomach, the side of his face in the dirt. There wasn’t any blood, not any I could see, anyway. When I got closer I saw he was under the tractor up to his shoulder blades. There was a blanket covering what wasn’t under the tractor. He still had his wire-rimmed glasses on.

“That’s Monty?” he said again, and the man said yes. Monty and a friend.

“A friend? Which friend?”

Since there wasn’t any blood I felt a little better. I came around so he could see me. “It’s me,” I said. I said my name.

Monty’s dad said all he could see was my feet. I knelt and tilted my head. His glasses were bent and he was about my dad’s age. I got dizzy for a moment.

Monty’s dad squinted and said he remembered me, it’d been a long time. “You look uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s easier if you lay on the ground.” So I flattened some cornstalks and lay down a few feet away facing him. “Better?” he asked.

“Better,” I said.

“I’m Andi,” Andi said. She was suddenly lying on the ground, too, stretched out the other direction so the top of her head was almost touching mine.

“You I don’t know,” Monty’s dad said.

I asked what happened to Garrick, and she said she’d sent him back to the house.

“And where’s Monty?” Monty’s dad asked.

“Over there,” I said and pointed. “Want me to get him?” Monty’s dad closed his eyes for a moment and said, no, it was fine. Then he opened them. “Jim,” he said, and the man with Monty’s mom came over. “Get her out of here for a bit,” he said. “I want to talk to these kids.”

“I’m not leaving,” Monty’s mom said.

“Just the other side of the rise,” Monty’s dad said. “Take a little break. You’ll be close. And they’ll yell if anything happens, right?”

“Right,” Andi said.

Monty’s mom really didn’t want to go, but Jim got her to stand up. They went slowly up the rise and at the top she started shaking and Jim had to steady her for a second. Then they vanished over the side.

“Hard to watch,” Monty’s dad said.

“Hey,” I said to Andi. “Maybe you can help.” I told Monty’s dad that she could bend spoons.


I told him how she bent spoons for everyone in her homeroom and also one for me. Maybe a tractor wasn’t that different from a spoon?

No, Andi said, it was pretty different, and it wouldn’t matter, anyway.

“That’s true,” Monty’s dad said. He had his eyes closed again. “But what a trick.”

I said she was a genius. Now she was looking for the Northwest Passage. “She’s getting close,” I said.

Monty’s dad didn’t answer for a bit. Then he asked what Monty was doing.

“Monty,” I said, “what’re you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. I raised my head and saw him looking across the field. The moon was rising.

“Nothing,” I said. “He’s watching the moonrise.”

Monty’s dad opened his eyes. “There it is,” he said after a moment.

We heard a flicking sound and then there was cigarette smoke. “Now he’s smoking a cigarette,” I said.

Monty’s dad had his eyes closed again. “I guess that’s about right,” he said.

“He’s allowed to smoke?” Andi asked.

“Nope,” Monty’s dad said.

It cooled off as the sun went down.

“I don’t think you’re going to find the Northwest Passage,” he finally said.

“No, she will,” I said.

Andi agreed.

I saw him shiver and asked if he was cold. He nodded as much as he could with his cheek in the dirt like that.

“Hey, Monty,” I said, “you got another blanket over there?”

“Yeah,” Monty said after a bit.

“We need it over here.”

“All right,” Monty said.  Maybe ten seconds passed and I asked what the problem was. Monty said he didn’t think he could come over there.

“Well, just throw it here,” I said.

“It’s coming,” Andi said.

“Monty,” I said, and finally a balled-up blanket landed near me. When I stood my ears roared like a plane was right above and I thought, Oh, Jesus, I popped an eardrum, until I realized it wasn’t in my head at all. Monty was also looking up, but nothing was in the sky except the moon and some early stars.

“What is that?” I said, and just like that the sound was so loud you had to yell, like tons of water now, a big wall of it racing at us. Jim and Monty’s mom appeared at the top of the rise and I tried to yell to them, but even I couldn’t hear me. I saw Monty running towards them, and I was about to follow when Andi grabbed my sleeve. Inside the noise was suddenly the smell of salt water and fish and warm rocks.

I clutched the blanket like a little kid and looked at Andi. She smiled and her eyes were brighter than the sky.  They told me, impossibly, what came next.

—Jeff Martin

#250: Jay Z, "Reasonable Doubt" (1996)

I'm a pacifist at heart, Paco said. That's one thing my mama beat into me. Paco was limping along almost faster than I could keep up with on two good God-given legs. His hand-carved cane with the frog on the handle was tucked underneath his arm, as it often was, unused. The boy, Toby, trailed close behind me like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. Poor kid would be purple for a week. We could tell that as soon as he turned up clutching a pair of underwear to his bloody lip.

What you gonna do? I asked Paco. Reason with him?

What aren't I gonna do? Paco said. What I aren't gonna do is be unclear.

We'd seen Toby around the neighborhood before, digging for gold with a shovel and a tree branch or hunting squirrels with his rubber band gun, but we didn't know him much.

Who did this? Paco had asked when he found him hurting, and as soon as the kid had said, My daddy, we were off.

Paco never knew his own daddy, who'd lost his babymama's number as soon as he'd found out there were complications. Paco was born with brain damage due to his mother's Hennessy habit, which was a big complication, but at least she stuck around to see if she could make up for it. Paco's got a low IQ but a high everything else. Got a job at Wendy's as a Spongebob, at least that's what he likes to call himself. Been flipping square burger patties for minimum wage without getting fired for twenty years, which is more than you can say for most people. I never knew my daddy either unless you count Paco, who took me in the day my parents died in a motorcycle wreck.

See, Paco doesn't like to see people hurt. You'd think that'd be a sentence we could say about just about any one of us. But the truth is some people can’t bear it, some it doesn't bother too much. Most of us wouldn't hurt a fly but wouldn't help one either. Paco sees people’s broken pieces and gathers them in. All he was was a neighbor to me, but he saw me and he gathered me in. Over the years, he’s been that way with me, three other kids, four dogs, and a rabbit with only one leg. See, Paco does not like to see people hurting.

We found Toby's daddy in their trailer home holding a Natty Boh with a sweaty hand and red knuckles. We could see him through the screen door and he could see us standing there. The sun was setting tomato red and safety orange and Paco knew his wife was on the other side of the block cooking barbeque brown beans and cornbread, and some men would have issued a warning and gotten home to their dinner and their own people, their own blessings and messes.

Instead, Paco jabbed his cane at the aluminum door and rattled it like a snake. Paco has a certain moral code that allows for some violence in the service of peace or peace of mind, swift action over a wait-and-see mentality or a long boring trial period. He’d rather be doing something than figuring out what to do.

Found somethin’ of yours, he said.

Where'd he get to? Goddamn kid don't know how to stay put.

He got hisself the fuck away from you, just where he needed to get. Toby's daddy heaved himself up from the stained La-Z-Boy and had to grab onto a floor lamp to keep his balance. He had a small piece of coleslaw stuck in his mustache. The cicadas had started up for the summer and it felt as though they kicked into high gear, then, cranked the volume in order to fill the space where somebody was expected to speak. None of us were, not even Toby, who had lowered the bloody briefs to his side and was squeezing them tight in his little fist like treasure.

Finally Toby's daddy told him to get inside. Paco knelt down and grasped Toby by the elbows and asked him if he wanted to go and Toby shook his head. Don't you shake your head, you little retard, his daddy said. 


I shouldn't try to say what Paco was thinking about—he doesn't like to be spoken for—but I guess I have a good idea. Paco used to get his ass kicked all the time, even as an adult. He was always big, but he was so skinny back before he got it into his head to start doing pushups out in the garage with me sitting on his back. Before he bulked up, some nights a group of the town kids would corner him by the dumpster behind the Wendy's. I don’t know this part for sure, because he’d never tell me about it, but I can make some educated guesses about the sort of names they might have called him. Some teenagers just hate a handicapped man even more than they hate someone like that of their own age. I do know that they’d force his head up against the leaky plastic bladders of ketchup or mustard. He'd come home with the stuff in his hair and he'd stick his head in the shower and I'd be peeking around the doorjamb from the hall and the water would run streaky orange and the bathroom would reek of corn syrup. It's not a smell I've ever forgotten, anyway.

You're not his daddy anymore, Paco said. He pushed the screen door open with his cane. I don’t know what you are now. Paco kicked Toby's daddy in the belt buckle and knocked him backwards, arms flailing for balance. His temple caught the lip of the kitchen counter and of course by then the cicadas had paused for a breather, left us too much silence, and nothing could drown out that noise. God gave Paco next to nothing to work with, but I haven't yet met what could stop him. We could have turned and walked away then, and I guess I should have made sure we did. But Paco went inside.

I took Toby a few steps out into the brown, weed-choked yard and asked if he knew the words to “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” and he said he did. I hate the sound of my own voice but I sang as loud as I could, a little scratchy and a lot wrong. Toby and I wobbled our ears around and pretended to tie them in a bow. It's a song Paco learned in the Boy Scouts, and it's what he used to sing to me when he first took me in and I was still waking up screaming and ripping my sheets off the bed.

Those nights Paco would comfort me just by existing nearby. There he was and he was strange but sure of himself. He was loyal, and I could feel that in nearly any action he took—wiggling his middle finger through a hole in a wool sock to make me look at him or lecturing me on the real causes of the Civil War. He’d take up some of the too-much space there was with an out-of-key song or the smell of Spam frying or one of his scratched-up CDs—usually Jay Z or Isaac Hayes, stuff he’d found at the Disabled American Veterans thrift store and fallen in love with. Paco took his mottos from his music, said things three, four, five, six times to make sure you were taking it in. Rather die enormous than live dormant. The size of that man’s life filled the room, filled the whole trailer, and left very few cracks for whatever force it was that’d been sitting on my skin like a dirty film and causing me to claw at my cheeks and thighs in the worst part of the night. You gotta learn to live with regrets, he always said, then said again.

Can you throw them over your shoulder….

Toby finally joined in. Like a continental soldier?

I feared that at any moment he might get bored of me and turn his back, turn toward this particular kind of love of Paco’s that I wasn’t sure he was ready to witness yet. I waggled my eyebrows at him, I showed him my teeth. I just kept doing whatever I could think of.


Paco came out of the trailer and saw us singing and smiled. His graying hair fell across his freckled scalp in thick uneven locks, heavy with sweat. He huffed gently and limped down the three steps. At the bottom he pulled an old-fashioned handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his button-down denim shirt and wiped off the frog on the top of his cane with it. Then he put the frog right up close to the kid’s face and let out a big, guttural ribbit; Toby giggled and glanced at his shoes. I felt then that Paco genuinely, to the bottom of his strange big heart, did not care what happened next, which was an attitude I’d never before known a person to have.

The sun was gone. The bugs were loud again. As we walked away, cutting through our neighbors' lots, we triggered their motion-sensor lights one by one. They snapped on suddenly as if to catch us in the act, but we didn't even startle, just kept on walking home.

—Eric Thompson

#251: David Bowie, "Low" (1977)

          And I will show you something
          different from either
          your shadow at morning striding
          behind you
          Or your shadow at evening rising to
          meet you,
          I will show you fear in a handful of

                        — T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”

David Bowie always played with alienation, or so it seems to me. Think about Major Tom, helpless in the enormity of space in spite of celebrity (Planet Earth is blue / and there’s nothing I can do), to his return to Earth years later, in “Ashes to Ashes,” the junkie your mother warned you not to mess with. There’s the unnamed girl in “Life on Mars?”, that beautiful little vignette of angst and escape into fantasy, when the grim scene of parents fighting and absent friends proves to be too much. But those were other stories. Maybe they contained some of how Bowie felt at the time, but you can lose yourself in those songs; dance to them and mouth the words. They’re almost....comfortable.

Low, as a whole, or as (to quote Eliot again) a heap of broken images, remains, forty years later, profoundly uncomfortable. Low is the work of an artist struggling to reintegrate a broken self, and by the end of it, one is unsure if the treatment has worked for Bowie, or for the listener. For me, it has a tough beauty: floating and cold, with lyrics that fade in and out like a radio signal consumed by static. Even the most “accessible” of its songs, “Sound and Vision,” sounds like a plea: return to me the gifts of sound and vision; I’m lost without them.

Sometimes, for an artist, there are things that you want to make, and things that you have to make; whatever’s inside will come out, and maybe it will destroy you in the process. Low falls into this category. The life that Bowie was leading before Low, in spite of the output of those years, was no life: it was disintegration, coming faster and faster, and he knew it. Low does indeed show us one man’s fear, and the process of tunneling out: you retreat to your room, or create languages that don’t exist. Create an ambient suite of cityscapes. How will you come back to yourself, after the self you thought you knew, dies?

I don’t want to reduce Low’s achievement, or its influence on what came after it, to a mere therapeutic exercise for its maker, or for its listeners. It is larger than that, for me. While a current of fear is everywhere on the album, there is also its opposite: a calm underneath the relentless fragmentation. I have nothing to lose now. I’ve already lost it all. Bowie is not one of his personas here, those slick trickster selves that were so easy to slip on, and maybe so hard to leave behind. Everything has been stripped away here, and Bowie demands that we listen to it. “Warszawa,” the longest piece on the album, first track on the second side, is an astonishing sonic portrait, considering that Bowie spent so little time in Warsaw (accounts have him there for only a few hours at most, between trains). The music rolls in and over, like fog; what words are heard are a language that Bowie made up, sounding vaguely eastern European, but at moments a word that sounds like Kyrie leaps up, snapping it back into a real place, if not a real time.

For me, Low stands out of time. It doesn’t have the glam-giddiness of the Bowie from the earlier ‘70s, and you can’t hear what Bowie would become in the ‘80s, a bleach-blonde beast in a magnificent suit (another guise). If Blackstar is a meditation on the death of Bowie’s physical body, then Low is the meditation on the death of Bowie’s psychic self: all of the shards of his personality, wrapped up in Brian Eno’s ambient creations, filter out what he did not want. It is not easy to say what he did want; freedom, maybe, or maybe to be left alone with the sounds in his head. Inner space here replaces all of the outer space metaphors about loneliness and alienation that came before. Bowie’s sunken dream of a room filled with sound and vision is ours to have, if only we listen for the signals.

—Sarah Nichols

#252: Jay Z, "The Blueprint" (2001)

When I think of Jay Z, I think of his mother. Maybe that's because of the way he's depicted her, featured her, paid tribute to her, used her in his work over the years. I've heard her voice and listened to her tell stories—her son riding a two-wheeler, banging on the kitchen table just to make some noise. She has a voice like Maya Angelou or something, Jay Z said.

Or maybe it's because when I think of anyone famous I always think first of the peripheral people who have been gifted or cursed, touched or sucked in by whatever their loved one has managed to become to the world. My imagination is endlessly drawn to the impossibility of reconciling the child and the icon, the parent or brother and the tabloid headline. How could you be Scott Swift, Malia Obama, Gloria Carter? How could you be those people and carry on as though your life still made sense?

When I think of fame I think of a would-you-rather at a Mexican restaurant. Would you rather be famous or not? So loaded a question all on its own, I guess, that it doesn't require an elaborate premise. Four of us said no, three said yes, and I waited for the others to reconsider. In the end it was unanimous. Could you choose to be recognized or honored for your work without being famous? No, that wasn't the bargain. We sipped margaritas and chose to stay right there, where everybody else on the restaurant patio was a humming blur clinking their forks at a different table who saw the same when they glanced our way. We chose to sit there and eat our guacamole, feeling important to each other, but contentedly meaning not all that much to the world at large.

How many of us long for it, dream of it, strive toward it, sob because we will remain relatively anonymous? And how many of us would be depressed or destroyed if we got it? In Frederick Exley's “fictional memoir” A Fan's Notes it's the depressed alcoholic author's endless tragic struggle: attempting to come to grips with “life's hard fact of famelessness.” It's also one of Jay Z's career-spanning projects: detailing the double-edged sword of how much his unimaginable success has given and taken from him—how much people have demanded of him and stolen from him and coveted him, and how hatred of him has grown in parallel with the adoration.

One of my obsessions as a writer seems to be about how unexpected a life can be. I want to read and write about criminals and pop stars. I want to try to imagine what it would be like to viciously murder someone or play the Super Bowl halftime show, and yet to be someone who was not decidedly insane. These are people who knew from birth what they'd ascend/descend to or people who could never have predicted such an outcome for themselves. In the story “Escape From Spiderhead” the ghost or soul of George Saunders’s narrator has an epiphany after ending his life to save someone else's. He looks down at a facility full of murderers and thinks:

“....killers all, all bad, I guess, although in that instant I saw it differently. At birth, they'd been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life-enders?....No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light….”

Rightly or wrongly, I always see this as one side of the coin, and Beyoncé as the other—opposite, but equally as predestined in some ways, equally as unimaginable a thing for a baby to grow into.

I remember my childhood like I remember my dreams: often not at all, or obscurely, but sometimes in a concussive and unlikely moment of clarity that has me sitting up sharply in bed. There was a snake ten miles long and an abandoned schoolyard. When I pressed the elevator button it pricked my thumb. We rode a fire engine through a jungle, siren screaming, and the girl I thought I loved was there (but she wasn't her, not exactly, of course). Something was urgent. Something seemed life or death though who, anymore, could say what it was?

At a Minnesota Timberwolves game as a child, I couldn't think of anything better than to come down from the upper rows of Target Center and put my body in proximity to the people whose names lit up the jumbotron. I imagined meeting them, loving them, being them, brushing against them in line for the bathroom as if we were similar and both belonged in that same inglorious space. And after one game my dad and I stumbled through a tunnel in the bowels of the arena just trying to get home when the players walked by. I shouted and shouted for Christian Laettner. He heard me but didn't look my way. He strode by, cold, and broke my heart, and then here came a middle-aged woman trundling behind. He just didn't hear you, honey, she said. Her name was Bonnie, the internet tells me now. She touched my shoulder and asked for my name and address and a few weeks later her son's autograph on a basketball card arrived in the mail with a handwritten note from a star whose mother had dragged him back to earth and laid down the law.

When I wonder about humans I wonder about what is contained within each of us. I imagine how some doctor held each of us up by the leg, almost dropped us, didn't, blessed his non-mistake. That doctor knew the story was both written and unwritten, that the blueprint was rolled up inside us already, but at the same time nothing was set in stone, that we were capable of almost every single thing: of penning a love poem, succumbing to drink, building a temple, firing a handgun into the crowd at a festival.

When I think of this album I think of the Jackson 5 and Natalie Cole and Kanye West and September 11th and the Marcy Projects Jay Z came from and the rhythm and punch of the lyrical delivery, yes. But I mostly think of the title track. It seems to me like the first time that Jay Z chose to tell his whole story so succinctly and completely. It's not the first hook I hear, but it's what blew the doors off on my initial listen. It's where Jay Z says that where you came from is more than an origin, that backstory matters, maybe more than anything. It's his autobiography, which he'll keep telling on every album for the rest of his life, which begins with the line momma loved me and ends with the line my momma loves me. It had never occurred to me that that might be how even a star, even he, would choose to frame the story.

When I think of our president I wonder how many people love him. Not how many voted for him, or attended his inauguration, or support his policies, or hope he succeeds, or have been married to him, or begrudgingly wish him the best, or secretly hope he will save us, or saw his TV show. But how many people in the world would say they love him? Is that even something we ask anymore, and wouldn't that—couldn't we let it?—be the simplest measurement of some things?

When I think of Gloria Carter I think of her in the kitchen of her Jersey soul food restaurant, peeling potatoes and nicking her ring finger. I think of her son tricking her into coming to his studio and telling stories (not revealing he intended to get her on his new record). I think of the odd phrase she uses, which Jay Z would later sample on “December 4th,” for a different album: and a funny story is—setting us up and crafting the backstory that would humanize him for us, or even re-humanize him for herself. I think of her calling her son out for a diss track that went too far for her tastes. He apologized for it on a radio show. I think of the way she turns up from time to time, like the friends and family of the famous do, on red carpets or in online articles. US Weekly says she says Jay Z melts when Blue Ivy says Papa. Her restaurant is called Diamondz N Da Ruff because, she says, A diamond comes from coal.

And when she's there in the limelight on her own for a moment, at the opening of her little dream, the reporter doesn't seem to want to know about the grits or the fried chicken. Will they be coming out to Newark for a meal anytime soon? Or is it true? he wants to know. It couldn't happen to them, could it? Who could be better suited for either one of them than the glorious, untouchable other? A divorce between superstars?

The oil is bubbling in the kitchen. She's been up since dawn reprinting menus and trying to think ahead, trying to imagine and prepare for every last little thing.

But aren't they protected? is the unspoken question. The black eye of the reporter’s camera winks at her. Aren't they, unlike us, charmed?

That's not what this conversation is about. That's what she decides to say. That's what Gloria tells him.

—Eric Thompson

#253: Bruce Springsteen, "The River" (1980)

The first time Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was on November 5, 1980, the night after Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” Bruce told the audience at Arizona State University,  “but I thought it was pretty frightening.” The Tempe show is a milestone in Springsteen lore, cited as the first time the Boss spoke about politics publicly. Four years later he would release Born in the U.S.A., one of the most politically charged, and subsequently misappropriated, rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time.

But if you listen through the lyrics of those six records before Born in the U.S.A., you realize that Bruce’s music has always been political. With a technique he learned from Bob Dylan, he creates characters to appeal to a listener's morality: Mary, Queen of Arkansas; Outlaw Pete; Spanish Johnny and other tramps like us. In his memoir, Born to Run, Bruce writes:  “I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on.” We can never assume that the narrator of the song is him. And in that way, Bruce Springsteen is as much of a politician as he is a rock star.

There many reasons why Hillary Clinton is not president right now. When Wikileaks published excerpts of a speech she gave to Goldman Sachs, a line about having “both a public and a private opinion” revived the characterization of Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy, corrupt, queen of the establishment. (The quote, unsurprisingly taken out of context, was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, and not made in reference to Wall Street reform.) For her entire career, Hillary has been accused of pandering, contradicting herself, and containing multitudes. But for her to have gotten as far as she did, there had to be several Hillarys: the policy wonk, the mother, the feminist, the down-to-earth daughter of a man who made window drapes. And likely due more to misogyny than incompetence, her performances fell flat. “The life of a rock band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and [they] can look up at you and see themselves,” Bruce told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1984. “If the price of fame is that you have to be isolated from the people you write for, then that’s too fuckin’ high a price to pay.”

Humility and authenticity are tenants of all of Bruce’s personas. In my favorite song, he sings: “Now I’m no hero—that’s understood.” My boyfriend recently asked me if Bruce had ever done or said anything that disappointed me, and I couldn’t think of anything. It was a few days later that I remembered I had written an academic paper not even a year ago about how Springsteen appropriates black culture in his stage performances, most egregiously when he speaks in the voice of a black preacher. And as an academic I stand behind this criticism, but his approval rating in my mind hasn’t budged. My love for Bruce is inherent—I respond to his music viscerally, not intellectually. I have both started and ended romances because of Bruce Springsteen. The River came out the year my parents met, and I can’t listen that album without imagining them falling in love, which might disqualify me from evaluating the album in any culturally meaningful way. My father has seen him more times than he can remember, and took me to my first Boss show when I was in high school. We had the worst seats in the house: behind the stage, in the very last row of the 18,277-seat Verizon Center in Washington D.C. I’ve since seen him a dozen more times, including a few shows where I made it to the front pit, but that first one when I stood next to my father in shared awe remains the most meaningful. Even with his back to us, Bruce still appeared to have as much faith in us as we had in him.

Bruce re-released The River in a box set at the end of 2015, accompanied by a massive tour in which the E Street Band would play the entire double album—20 tracks—all the way through. In April 2016, two days before he was scheduled to play a show at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, Bruce announced that he was cancelling the show to protest the HB2 law that prohibited transgendered individuals from using the bathroom of their preference, and further obstructed protections for the LGBT community. He posted a statement to his website explaining his decision, writing,  “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry—which is happening as I write—is one of them.” And while tickets were fully refunded, many fans posted their distress to social media:

So disappointed in you. Did you forget the little people? The ones that paid a week’s salary to see you play? You could have made this statement another way.

I am shocked and sad that Springsteen takes this stance against normal people and against protections for women and children. Giving in to vile sinful culture seems to be all you care about when it may affect your popularity among liberals.

Bad move Boss. Many people will miss a chance on seeing a great show because of the ignorance of a few lawmakers. Music should be bigger than politics.

It’s a fallacious argument Bruce has bumped into many times before: celebrities should stay out of politics for the sake of their fans. (Ironic, considering how many of those speaking out against Bruce’s cancellation likely voted for Donald Trump.) Springsteen’s music, and the characters he embodies, appeal equally to the white working class and the bourgeois, to conservatives and liberals. He is both Jon Stewart’s and Chris Christie’s favorite musician. And despite the “Bruce Springsteen for President” T-shirts and bumper stickers floating around, he knows the limits of his power. Politicians let people down, and rock stars help them back on their feet. Bruce manages to do both.

In an interview with Marc Maron after the 2016 election, Bruce described his fear of a Trump presidency as distinct from his reaction to Reagan’s, saying, “I’ve felt disgust before, but never the kind of fear that you feel now. It’s as simple as the fear of, is someone simply competent enough to do this particular job? Do they simply have the pure competence to be put in the position of such responsibility?” He did express sympathy for blue-collar Trump voters, a number of whom identify as Boss fans:

“I think if you were affected deeply by the industrialization, globalization, and the technological advances, and you have been left behind, and somebody comes along and tells you ‘I’m gonna bring all the jobs back. Don’t worry about it. They’re all coming back.’ You’re concerned about America changing, the browning of America—‘I’m gonna build a wall’....These are all very simplistic, but very powerful and simple ideas.” He added: “They’re lies. They can’t occur.”

Rock ‘n’ roll is also a powerful and simple idea—the notion that anyone with a hungry heart can find redemption in three chords, no matter what family you were born into. It might very well be a lie. The person on stage—holding a guitar or at a podium—might be in character, might just be after your money or your vote and nothing else.

There has been a significant protest in Washington, D.C. every day since Donald Trump got elected. Marchers often sing the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land,” as the lyrics have new resonance after the Muslim Ban went into effect. Nobody knows the words to the verses, one of which includes an obvious socialist message. But they sing it anyway, in several keys at once.

“I don’t think people come to music for political advice,” Bruce once said. “They come to be touched and moved and inspired....people aren’t coming on an informational basis. I was attracted to Dylan because he sounded like he was telling the truth. I didn’t sit there with a lyric sheet. It was just in the way it sounded.”


One of the last times I saw my grandmother, my dad and I sat with her as she slid into and out of consciousness on a hospital bed. We still talked to her, but it was unclear how much she could comprehend at that point. To ease the tension, my dad turned on the TV and flipped through the channels. Bruce Springsteen: Live in New York was playing on HBO.

“That’s my hero, Mom,” he told her, to no response. I had never heard my father speak to his mother like that, like how he might have spoken to her when he was a little boy. Your parents are the first politicians you know; from them, you learn how to read the room. I think he was taking his last chance to introduce her to another version of her son, and the people and things he believed in.

On the little screen, Bruce bellowed, asking us as he had so many times before: “Is there anybody alive out there?”

As my grandmother slept, my dad and I watched the rest of the concert in silence. The answer was understood.

—Susannah Clark

#254: Otis Redding, "Dictionary of Soul" (1966)

My dad's sick. He's got cancer. It's bad.

At first, it was six months. Then that turned into a few, indeterminate years.

That's a roller coaster of emotions that no one could ever be prepared for. The slow climb to the crest is guilt. Trust me.

Outside of my young childhood, my relationship with him was a bit at odds for a long time. It wasn't bad. It wasn't strained….it just wasn't terribly warm. I think once I moved past the formative years, we weren't ready to redefine what our relationship was. As it turns out, we just needed to be adults together.

When I was still too young to really understand this—or perhaps too young for him to see me as an adult—the two of us drove cross-country to NYC. I was moving for school. It was, in short, excruciating. I feel like shit admitting that now. But it wasn't his fault. It wasn't my fault either. Our lack of anything to connect over had never been confined to an enclosed, slowly-moving vehicle, creeping ever further from the only life I had ever known. In one of the boldest, biggest, most emotional changes of my life, I was with someone with whom I hadn't yet learned to express my emotions.


About a year later, I was back in California after being in New York at a school that was obviously wrong for me. Moving back to be with the girl I loved, only to have that dissolve almost immediately. This is when I found the music of Otis Redding. I mean, of course I knew who Otis Redding was. Who doesn't? But I had one of those epiphanic moments that only music seems equipped to deliver. The right place and time mixed with the right company and emotions. I put “These Arms of Mine” on the jukebox. It was a song I’d always enjoyed, solely because it had a sweet sound, with very soulful vocals. But in this moment, it spoke to me in a very different way, allowing for my own emotions to mix into it. I was transfixed. Thus was born my obsession with soul music. It quickly became my genre of choice and Otis quickly became—and remains—my favorite artist of all time. But how much do we, as listeners, dissect that very personal opinion? Of course, I have the easy answers: He's one of the most earnest and energetic performers ever. He was a master songwriter (with a huge, obligatory shout-out to collaborator Steve Cropper). He had the perfect voice for the time. He never took himself too seriously. But why does that make him suited to be my favorite artist? That's a relationship that's tough to understand.

Soul music is about hard times. But it's generally not written in a self-pitying manner. It's about getting through it by embracing what good you have in life. And in a time when I needed just that—to be reminded that it's worth getting through the tough stuff to embrace what matters—I found soul music. And so, Otis Redding helped me understand and cope with the first truly defining adult moment of my life.


I have a definitive moment of when music first became important to me. My dad and I were in the car. Oh, who knows where? I was probably six or seven years old, and he used to quiz me on what I knew about the songs on the radio. I still recall the elation of making my father proud when "Horse With No Name" came on and I answered correctly that it was a song by America. I usually have a pretty terrible memory, especially when it comes to my childhood. I have a hard time recalling high school when pressed to remember a specific moment. Hell, I don't remember what I ate for dinner last night. But I remember answering "America." Of course, at seven, I didn't realize my dad was shaping my musical knowledge, taste, connection. But I sure as shit know that now. When soul music started to have an impact on my life, it became clear that the blossoming interest really had started in my childhood, from what my dad had been listening to in those days. And just like my relationship with him, it turns out I just wasn’t ready to fully appreciate it at the time.


My brother and I had been talking over the past few years, wanting to do something significant and memorable with our dad before it became too late. Dad's side of the family is Irish and at first we thought it would be amazing to go explore those roots. He wasn't interested. Too much travel, not near enough to home….just in case something were to happen. Just in case he wasn't feeling well at the time. Chemo doesn't really let you plan anything too major. Somewhere in our discussions I suggested New Orleans. And it stuck. During the planning of that trip, my brother also realized the proximity to Memphis and brilliantly suggested we drive up there for the second leg of the journey.

Everything about the trip was perfect. It was immediately apparent that the three of us hadn't spent this kind of time together in decades. We used to go on excursions all the time when we were kids and those are some of my favorite memories. And I know this trip was instantly added to that pile. The look of pure joy and excitement on my dad's face the first night in New Orleans as we were bar-hopping….that is one of my happiest moments. In a way, this was the chance to hit the reset button on the road trip I took with him back in my freshman year.

Being in Memphis and getting a chance to visit Stax was an amazing opportunity. Being able to visit some of that history and seeing where all these musicians were flocking to in order to get through the hard times….it was so much easier to put soul's influence on me into perspective. And now my family was flocking to the same spot. To get through the hard times. And in those moments, seeing the joy on my father's face, in this place that was important to us for the same reasons—that will always be a reminder to me that no matter what happens, there is always something good to hold on to. Even if it’s only just a memory.

And in that way, Otis Redding had helped me understand and cope with the latest truly defining adult moment of my life.

—Daniel Geoghegan

#255: Metallica, "Metallica" (1991)

Did you hear? Coach brought out the record player.

The news would circulate early, floating through the middle school halls between first and second periods, swelling throughout the morning and crescendoing around lunchtime, when half the students were witnesses and the rest of us shimmied or shuddered with anticipation.

Even then, at the onset of the 1990s, record players seemed obsolete, not yet burnished with the vintage patina they’d later acquire. And Coach’s Califone was a particularly clunky model: a simple turntable sitting atop a boxy olive-gray speaker. We—boombox-carrying, Walkman-wearing, mixtape-making adolescents—resisted the medium, but we also reacted to what it represented: when Coach rolled out the AV cart, we knew we were in for square dancing.

Perhaps it’s a trope common to all adolescents, but that year it seemed like we felt particularly restless. Although we didn’t yet know it, we were waiting for something to shake us, ready for Cobain and Vedder, for the disheveled appearances that would define grunge and disturb our parents, for anything that might be construed as an alternative to our predominantly white, middle-class life in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee. At school they combatted our malaise as best as possible—with structure and rules, leavened with new challenges—teaching us how to conduct ourselves at assemblies with prominent visitors (everyone from a local newscaster to Roots author Alex Haley), how to use a compass to draw perfect circles on math papers, how to finesse a band saw and other machinery to construct the desk sets our grandfathers would display for the rest of their lives. They gave us real responsibilities, subjected us to actual risks, and expected us to shoulder them. Gym class—the obvious place for release—offered no exception: in a departure from the unfettered play we’d enjoyed in elementary school, now we suffered through learning the official rules of volleyball, running laps, and conquering sweaty palms and clumsy footwork to follow the Califone’s calls.

Now you all join hands and you circle the ring.
Stop where you are, give your partner a swing.
Swing that girl behind you.
Now swing your own if you find she hasn’t flown,
and then allemande left with your sweet corner maid.
Do-si-do your own.
Now you all promenade
with your sweet corner maid, singing
Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh.

We said we hated it, rolled our eyes and complained, but it electrified us, too. Or at least I felt electrified by it—not so much because of the physical contact (well, okay, to some extent because of the physical contact) but mostly because even at thirteen, I was fascinated by the way you could take a mass of people, all moving independently, and orchestrate them into a coherent pattern. I’m sure our dancing wasn’t actually seamless, but it felt at moments as if it were, and even as a kid I found this comforting: if you just knew the rules—the calls, the steps, the place your partner was headed—you could navigate the unfamiliar.

So in a way, gym class square dancing excited me precisely because of its predictability. But while I was hoping to quell the things that felt chaotic, lots of my classmates were looking to disrupt the boredom of their own lives. Many of the boys in my peer group particularly prided themselves on being avant-garde and original. Sometimes they competed informally, seeking out new vices (tossing out unfamiliar curse words or smoking the muscadine leaves that grew in the woods near my neighborhood) and the latest music (priding themselves on having the deepest cut or the most obscure bootleg).

That’s how I first heard about The Black Album: one day as we were sashaying beneath an archway fashioned from our classmates’ raised arms, my square dancing partner muttered something about wanting real music, something like the new stuff he’d been listening to. You’ve gotta hear it. I’ll bring you a copy.

He slipped me the cassette tape a few days later in the poorly lit hallway that connected his locker room to mine. It was one of the fancy tapes—see-through, with brightly-colored inner mechanisms, which made my own stash of cassettes, with their grey opaque sides, seem provincial and outdated—and he’d written each song title on the paper insert. The album didn’t fill up both sides of the cassette, and he’d left the extra space blank, not adulterating his favorite songs with the addition of others. I remember finding such restraint odd, knowing I would have filled each available second.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, whenever I hear a song from the album. Most often, that song has been “Enter Sandman,” and I’ve been at an Alabama football game. (My family moved to Tuscaloosa before my junior year of high school.) At the last game I attended, on my feet with the rest of the crimson-clad crowd, I overheard a middle-aged woman (khaki pants, pearls) tell her friend that she’d seen Metallica on television once and that they all looked like a bunch of punk druggies. She turned back to the field, bobbing her head and singing along. I watched for the entire song, and she knew every word.

I thought about walking over to her and her friend and pulling up a photo of my younger brother, one of the many I keep on my phone. In the last picture of us before his death from an overdose, we’re standing with our sister at Arlington National Cemetery. It’s patriotic—the monuments of Washington, D.C. loom in the background—and Austin’s wearing his favorite Bama T-shirt. He’s clean-shaven, neatly presented, enjoying a brief remission from the addiction that ultimately killed him. I wondered how this woman would respond if I thrust my phone in her face and told her “Druggies” look like this, too. They grow up here in your state, buy their drugs here, die here.

I didn’t do it, of course. I turned back to the game, half watching it and half fighting my own nostalgia. Experiences overlap, and I can’t attend a football game without thinking of earlier ones—watching Alabama vs. Arkansas on a first date when I was in high school; sitting in the skybox with my brother for Rocky Stop, the improbable series in which Alabama blocked two Tennessee field goal attempts in the final seconds to win the game and preserve its chances at the national championship; or the first game I attended after my brother’s death, which was on my birthday and through which I cried. Or, earlier, how I first learned the sport’s rules from a boy whose football career was ended by his twice-broken leg, who stood with me in the high school’s stands on Friday nights, watching his former teammates and explaining each drive, breaking it down until I saw the patterns.

Things fold in on each other; memories collapse and combine. It’s the same way that every time I hear a Metallica song, a part of me is still dancing through middle school gym class, my brain creating some sort of terrible mash-up between “Oh Johnny” and “The Unforgiven.” Events inform each other, and that’s messy and chaotic, incongruous and delightful.

And at times it means that even when I believe that every word is accurate, a story succumbs to subjectivity. Sometimes it’s hard to know just where an event originates, where it actually ends. Over time, details get misplaced or streamlined, and narratives gather a shape—a momentum—all their own.

Here’s a confession: I said addiction killed my brother, but maybe it was really the drunk driver who caused the wreck that broke Austin’s neck, fractured his foot, and shattered his wrist. Maybe it was the months of surgeries, the specialists who never considered their overlapping prescriptions, the eventual dependence on painkillers. Or maybe the actual cause of death was the fact that my family took Austin off life support after he overdosed. (On purpose? By accident? Even the experts disagreed: the counselor said that in his last twelve hours, he exhibited all the signs of a suicide; the coroner avoided the word, writing cardiac arrest on the death certificate.) I don’t know how to reconcile it all, how to make it into a simple and straightforward story, because it wasn’t simple or straightforward. And no matter how much I study the facts, my brother is still dead.

Here’s another confession, another complication to a story I believe to be true: I finished middle school in May, and The Black Album wasn’t released until August. Maybe my memory’s solid—it’s possible that a bootleg version somehow slipped out (as happened with other Metallica tracks), though I’m not sure how it’d have found its way to the foothills of Tennessee. But it’s much more likely that somewhere I’ve misremembered, conflated things accidentally.

Here’s what I know for sure. When I was barely a teenager, a boy I knew was passionate about Metallica. He recorded The Black Album and slipped the cassette tape into my hand one day as we raced between classes. I took it home, listened, rewound, repeated.

And I know that in a middle school gymnasium, under the drawl of a scratchy record, my classmates and I first learned how to reach out to each other—to grab someone’s hand, their attention—and draw them closer to something we cared about. We learned how to circle a thing together, how to grapple with what we’d felt, what we’d known, how to articulate wonder: Oh, oh, oh.

—Elizabeth Wade

#256: Kraftwerk, "Trans-Europe Express" (1977)


Netflix has this new documentary series, this "history of hip-hop" something or other, so I start watching it. I call up my friend Bo and ask him if he’s seen it. Bo tells me:

“It’s not actually that new. I think it was supposed to complement the release of the Baz Luhrmann hip-hop show, The Get Down, which is like. Have you seen that thing? It is a mess. But Jaden Smith is kind of amazing in it. So to go along with it, Netflix either licensed or commissioned a ‘History of Hip-Hop’ docuseries and it’s pretty okay.”

My friend Bo co-hosts this podcast called Tele-Friends and is like my Rap Dude. People call the show all the time and want to do shit like talk horribly about Nothing But Trouble which leads to Bo giving you a complete history of Tupac’s debut and how Shock G is maybe the greatest forgotten producer of the 80s and 90s. Like if you need somebody to write about #437, Tha Carter III, or how there’s no fucking way Bjork’s Post is a demonstrably better album than Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), call that dude. Or better yet, call his show.

So I called him, on his private line, to ask him: “Have you seen this new Netflix docuseries thing about the History of Hip-Hop?”

“It’s like,” Bo talks like an idiot, but it’s part of his process, he has to make sense of how you hear it out loud so it makes sense to the world at large. “I haven’t seen it, but I’ve already seen it a hundred times. Like how many times I gotta hear about DJ Kool Herc throwing parties in the park with his Jamaican style sound system, or how Grand Wizard Theodore invented scratching or how Busy Bee wrote a lot of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ or get a crash course on extending the ‘beat break’ in a James Brown song using two turntables and a crossfader? I fuckin’ get it already. Wake me up when they make a documentary series about The Heatmakerz’ contribution to the Dipset sound.”

But here’s the thing, he’s not wrong. The more you hear the same thing, over and over, the more distorted, aggrandized, and removed from reality it becomes. Certain facts get omitted, others amplified. The through lines that remain become cemented into history. The others get lost.

So one of the the things we think we know for sure is how excited Grandmaster Flash was when Trans Europe Express came out because he could just put a record on and let it play and have a chance to go to the bathroom. God knows what he was actually up to when he put on Trans Europe Express. You’re fuckin’ 19 years old in the summer of ‘77? You’re the hottest DJ in New York City? I mean.

Trans Europe Express gets hot, it filters its way into the hip-hop scene. We hear it again and again, repeating over and over. Becoming something more and new through its relentless sameness. In five years it becomes the basis for Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” It’s the first “perfect beat” the (now embattled) Zulu Nation founder uncovers in his never-ending search. This appropriation, this changing of the cultural landscape at large through a simple melody: that’s Kraftwerk. In 2017, Trans Europe Express is 40 years old.

Have you read Timequake? It’s one of Vonnegut’s last things. In it, everybody is forced to relive the last ten years, exactly as they had the first time, every success, every failure. If you died during the last 10 years, you die again. Incidentally, Timequake is another one of Bo’s weird obsessions. It’s almost as though—


You know how when you get a song, or really anything, stuck in your head? That’s like a timequake.

So much of human existence seems like this repetitive monotony. And we’re just going to repeat our same mistakes with the same songs stuck in our heads, and each new moment is going to be a new, fresh hell built from the memories of whatever hell we just escaped to arrive in it. That same old song that’s jammed in your head is like a google search of half-remembered lyrics that spits back the results “sorry asshole, you’re definitely in purgatory.”

But what if it didn’t happen like that? What if there were some way to examine the mechanics of this endless repetition? But separate from the experience of it. To feel the ticking of the clock but divorced, somehow, from its personal connotation? Like it’s no longer counting down the seconds you have left alive in this world, but it’s just sort of endlessly pulsing, marking the ever-forward progress of a larger humanity. Each individual tick a frozen moment in a series of moments that lead ceaselessly toward a chrome horizon.

There’s a pulse throughout Trans Europe Express. It feels like grinding out an old video game. Like mastering the skills necessary to solve a puzzle, but the puzzle you’re solving is a way to forget about time, so when you’ve solved the puzzle, you no longer need the skills you spent so much time learning. Because your reward is a new challenge that requires you to forget again, to live in that moment again, a drive to repeat and process. And then one day your new challenge is death. Or like if an Artificial Intelligence designed its own mantra in an effort to approach its own enlightenment. That’s what I hear when I listen to Trans Europe Express.

There’s a lot that could be said about their use of electronic instruments, Kraftwerk’s break from their psychedelic past. A bunch of gearhead talk about Roland and what it means to be weirdo Germans but that shit has been done to death, it’s soon to be another Netflix docuseries produced by DeadMau5, about having sex with your laptop. There’s something purer about the sound of this album. Discussing it as a moment (albeit a fucking monumental one) in the history of electronic music or even the much more shameful moniker “electronica” doesn’t do it justice. There’s a conceptual elegance to it that isn’t addressed by an analysis of the equipment with which it was produced, nor by its place in the larger continuum of electronic music. Nevermind who made their keyboards, let’s just talk about how those keyboards made them think.It doesn’t matter that Moog made their equipment. It matters that Kraftwerk heard new ways to manipulate sounds and that that new functionality informed their creative  process.

Even the words serve as a sound to arpeggiate, to repeat over and over. Like the singer had been programmed alongside the keyboards themselves. There’s a beauty to it. A poetry. Because like all of Trans Europe Express, the vocals are both distinctly human and devoid of emotion at the same time. It’s a thesis put into practice: that vocals are these emotionally manipulative, overwrought fireworks shows meant to dazzle and distract a listener, to imply passion, to make fans feel some kind of necessarily-fake emotion-by-proxy. And that by stripping away the tics and the artifice, you’ll be left only with the most direct connection possible between humans as facilitated by machines in the age of mechanical reproduction. Which I think is the same sentiment Daft Punk is approaching with Human After All or Psychic TV is with Orchids. And while those things are familiar, this is and isn’t about that.


Trans Europe Express starts with “Europe Endless” and ends with “Endless Endless.” The idea of it starting and ending with the same melody or phrase, the way it folds in on itself? You can’t unhear how influential this record would become on the then-nascent hip-hop genre. And Kraftwerk couldn't have known. But they programmed viral, futuristic ideas based on classical structures through MIDI interfaces. Those ideas would, in short order, inform an entire culture completely separate from Kraftwerk’s own.

That is the true, sci-fi, groundbreaking look at the future Kraftwerk provides here. We start with a pulse, a melody based on classical training, a synthesizer based on a piano, and an emotion or premonition found in the abandonment of anxiety and fear of time. To examine the whole picture without pause. So that even now, 40 years on, Trans Europe Express is the past, present, and future of recorded music.

—Will Sellari

#257: Whitney Houston, "Whitney Houston" (1985)

“Welcome home,” someone says, giving you a hug and ringing a bell. This is the virgin burner tradition. After you make a snow angel in the playa dust and are covered in clay, you are glad your hair is braided in two long pigtails. Next year, when this look becomes a celebrity thing, all the girls will have it, but for now, you feel like an original.

“Make sure you go to the Whitney party, the ‘Crack is Whack’ party,” someone says. You do your thing where you filter everything through the lens of Offensive or Genuine, and decide Genuine, even though you are not fully convinced. It will be this way with many things you encounter here. Like the wonder in people’s eyes when you explain that yes, black people do go to Burning Man, and no, they are not afraid to camp.

You like to ask people how long they have been coming to the burn. Their stories make you smile—some are on their fourth, fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and up. Some have been around since practically the beginning.

You think that this will be a chance to be your greatest self, your best self. You think that if you put your heart into it, if you make your list and check it twice, that you will be prepared. You think that you will be ready to face the day as this new you, this brightest version of yourself, unafraid. You should know better, and maybe you do, but you try anyway, because it’s easier to believe, and you can’t let go of the possibility, the promise.

They say you can really look at yourself here without judgement, because you’re not so focused on the trappings of life that follow you each day—where you work, what you do, what you make, and who you know. Anything you give or receive here is a gift. There is nothing that you can pay for or sell. There is no one you can truly rely on but yourself, though most will try to help you if they can. The focus is supposed to be on what you have to offer the world, what gifts you can give. If you are not used to looking at yourself this way, it can be unnerving.

The magic of Burning Man is that the best laid plans often go awry. Traditional time doesn’t exist. You might write someone’s name on your arm or on a piece of paper with every intention of heading to their camp at the time they told you they were having a burger and beer party, but then you get waylaid by an old friend, a new friend, another party, a beautiful piece of art, something happens and time flies and you can’t make it, and though you want to feel guilty, there just isn’t space, or time.

Burning Man is full of tiny moments of grace—happening upon a little clearing where a DJ plays old-school reggae at four in the morning, discovering that the porta potties are surprisingly cleaner than you thought. Meeting an author you have admired forever as she cycles toward you, her sunglasses shining in the morning playa light. She invites you to her RV for air-conditioning and coffee, two of the most coveted luxuries in the desert. She talks to you like an old friend, and encourages your writing. Little does she know your journal is tear-stained with notes about giving it up. You keep writing.

The Whitney Party is one of those moments of grace. Bodies writhe and worship at the altar of Whitney. All those ballads from her very first album—”All at Once,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “Greatest Love of All”—they are beautiful but tinged with sadness, strong yet fragile, like Whitney. Beauty and pain in equal measure.

A gust of wind knocks over the literal altar—a picture of Whitney and Bobbi Kristina, a candle, and a leopard print tablecloth—and the crowd decides that she dropped the mic. It is a spiritual moment, of which you’ve had several here, without the help of any drugs, even though everyone thinks that’s all that happens here. The music is your euphoria.

When Whitney asks, “How Will I Know?” you wonder the same thing, about when you will be able to let this shit go—your longest relationship—fear. You carry it with you, ready at a moment’s notice. Maybe it’s a form of protection, keeping you out of tight spots. But when is it holding you back? You think that if you can let go of your fear, that everything will fall into place. That he will see that you are the best thing. That everyone will know that you are just trying to be this brightest version of you, even when you don’t feel it.

Your sister would have loved it here, and being here makes you feel closer to her. It is this way with so many things of hers that you try to put on, to understand her. The way you wear her boots and feel just that much more confident, her jacket that fits you perfectly. You miss her so much. You want her here—living, breathing, trying, making mistakes, doing anything, except being gone. It feels selfish, but it is the truth.

You think about why it makes you feel uncomfortable that the party is called “Crack is Whack,” even though you know it’s something Whitney said, even though her life became reality TV fodder. There’s even a drink here named after her and Bobby. You become protective of her, of her memory. You want to know that they don’t see her as just a crack head, just another black woman who was an addict. You want to give a disclaimer. You think about how Whitney struggled to find her place, to reconcile who the world wanted her to be, but really, she was just Nippy from New Jersey, who wanted to sing. You think about that thin line, between being loved and being shunned, between being enough and feeling empty. And even though you sense they probably mean well, you want to make sure. It’s like when you stood on the receiving line at your sister’s funeral and someone said, “What a waste of a life.”

It’s why your own relationship with drugs is tenuous, why you can’t just relax and try something wild because everyone else is, because you know, you’ve seen, first hand, how easily it can go from being the thing people do, to being the thing that does them in.

The last song of the party, “I Will Always Love You,” finds everyone hugging and swaying in a circle. The burn’s way of teaching you to greet everyone you see stays with you long after it’s over. When you arrive at the hotel in Reno after the burn, you find yourself saying hello in the hallway to a man you don’t know, who looks at you like you are crazy. You are a little bit—you are dusty, you are tired, and you are still braless, something you would never, ever be back home.

The temple burn, on the last night, is supposed to be the place where you have your come-to-Jesus moment. You don’t feel anything watching it burn. But you notice the quiet, the stillness that floats over the crowd, in stark contrast to the regular din of being surrounded by 70,000 people. You don’t cry, even as you pray for your sister, for your family, for yourself. Not until one of your camp mates comes over to your group and offers hugs. The ease with which he can offer a simple intimacy, and give you some peace without knowing you need it, stuns you. Earlier in the week you were so happy to see that he was there with his entire family—mother, sister, father. You thought it was so cool. And in this moment you feel the weight of the loss—of that level of openness, that level of free. Your own sadness, that you can’t have that particular moment with your family. Many doors are open to us all, but sometimes seeing one that you know is closed is painful to bear no matter how many other options there are.

You realize that the dichotomy between who you are and who people want you to be, between who you are and who you want be, between being enough and feeling empty, is nothing that you can pay for or sell. There is no one you can truly rely on but yourself, though some will try to help you if they can. The focus is supposed to be on what you have to offer the world, what gifts you can give. If you are not used to looking at yourself this way, it can be unnerving. People stop looking at themselves when it gets too hard. You give yourself the gift of not looking away.

—Lee Erica Elder

#258: The Kinks, "The Village Green Preservation Society" (1968)

My first year living in Richmond, my friends and I went thrifting every weekend. None of us had cars except Kelsey, who drove a white minivan. She’d come around to all of our apartments to pick us up one by one, and this simple ritual privately thrilled me for how it felt like it gave me a new sort of family. Often there was no backseat in the van because she had taken it out to fit a newfound piece of furniture, so on these trips some of us sat around on the floor in back while she and her co-pilot played country music up front.

Because we were young and lived in a new city and everything was exciting—one of those chapters where it feels like you’ve finally arrived into the rest of your life, where you forget it won’t always be this way—this weekly routine always felt like something more: exercises in assigning narratives to old objects, observing and reinterpreting history. This was especially true with old photographs. Our favorite shop had cardboard boxes full of them—most in black and white —which we liked to buy by the bunch for a dollar or two. The photographs were old enough that many of the people in them were probably dead. The pictures outlived them, and now they were anonymous, made unspecial by time, yet also elevated by it. We were attracted to the photographs precisely because of each subject’s anonymity, which allowed for imagination and revision to flow into the frame.

The first time I heard The Kinks’ “Picture Book” was in a commercial for HP digital photo printers. The song probably isn’t even a good one—I say “probably” because though “Picture Book” is silly and simple, it was catchy enough for me to love it, catchy enough to mess with my perception of what makes a song good or bad. It was 2004, and I no longer had to ask my parents what song was playing. It was easy now to track it down on Google, which led to me borrowing and then burning Village Green Preservation Society from the library. I listened to the album over and over; it made me feel warm, part of another era. Like how, when I was still living at home, I’d flip through my parents’ old photo albums in search of a shot of nostalgia for a time I never knew, one which seemed more safe because it was already written. The uncertainty had been lived away.

The HP printer ad features scenes of people dancing at a club, doing cartwheels, bicycling through a city, or posing for photos. And then the arms of someone holding up a white frame to a face or a body, freezing the people briefly in a photograph, until the photo is pulled away to reveal the person who continues to live and move. In one scene, a man sits at a desk lip-syncing the words of the song—pictures of your mama, taken by your papa, a long time ago—pulling frame after frame over his head like a shirt, capturing different photos of his face and stacking them up next to him. “You think all the world’s a photo album,” the ad says—not in voiceover, but in text that fades in and out across the screen, the words becoming image. Whenever I think of it outside of this context, this declaration almost seems more condemnation than praise of the photographic creative impulse. The commercial blurs the world of the real (whatever that might mean now, in 2017) with the world of the photograph—more than that, it almost convinces us that it’s possible to save everything, to tuck it in a wallet or hang it on a wall. Don’t let anything pass you by, it whispers. Keep it all.

“Picture Book” reminds me of the home-video montages used in movies to show a sentimental progressing of a life. The couple moving into their first house, having a child, playing with the child in the grass, the child learning an instrument—time (a life, a narrative—picture book, when you were just a baby, those days when you were happy, a long time ago) unspooling in scenes flecked with those grainy spots and dashes which always lend film a certain authenticity. These montages always get to me in some wordless part of my gut. Why? Like many photographs—or most Instagram pictures—these clips saturate the past with happiness and charm rather than struggle. The bad parts have been rinsed away. This is how we want to remember ourselves, and this is how we want our lives to look. They’re a way of looking back while simultaneously looking ahead to how we’ll be seen, a form of preemptive nostalgia for a future disguised as the past.

Occasionally I have found myself, consciously or not, doing things under the gaze of my hypothetical future daughter. Visiting Florence, Italy, eight years ago, when I was 21, I bought a leather satchel soft as butter, with the idea that she would one day inherit it. I imagined her coveting this bag her mother bought and wore during her semester abroad. I don’t even know if I want to have a child. And yet I develop photographs so that she can someday stumble upon them, in the same way I perused my own parents’ photographs taken in a different world: their lives before me. That this reliving of my own experiences, this renewal, would somehow close a gap in time or the space between our bodies. That it would help me live longer. But if I’m being cynical about it, this is just another convenient way of mythologizing my own life, assigning it meaning, making it look the way I want rather than the way it is. Is this any different than the impulse of sharing and editing one’s daily experiences for social media?

Trump’s election has only caused me to further question whether I’d want a child, to put them in this world. Here in Texas my body is already someone else’s politics, more utilitarian than recreational, a handful of votes more than a self. Do I want to give the state what it wants? I think of the old photographs from the ‘40s and ‘50s we purchased for pennies, and remember the women in them did not have much agency over their own bodies. I see now something I did not when I was younger and more uncomfortable with the uncertainties of my own life: that just because the past exists in a picture or has already happened does not mean it is safe. And it is constantly being rewritten. Every day, as the news breaks and breaks and breaks, more things come to pass that were previously unimaginable. And so the future now seems not like a photograph or a reel of homemade movies but like the end of a film where the screen fades to black: I cannot even begin to visualize or predict it.

Maybe this sounds like exaggeration, but any representation or reproduction of a life, whether it be photograph or words or painting, is an exaggeration of sorts—anything that aims to capture emotion is more truthiness than fact. I want to write about this as it happens. To keep it all.

But where will it all go? Where does any of it go—all the information, all the photographs and text and documentation of our lives? And how will history at this moment be interpreted fifty years from now? As we head into this new presidency, I worry about the safety and permanence of our electronic selves. Even our object-based livesour selves as seen through our notebooks, photo albums, booksdon’t seem safe at times either. But our memories can not be so easily taken from us. Make your memories a photograph. Burn them to the inside of your brain. We will need them, especially the happiest ones, as both sustenance and reminder.

I haven’t developed photos since about 2010, though I’ve kept a file on my computer for all the pictures I’ve long meant to make physical. A lot of photographs from my first year in Richmond, in particular, which will be lost if my computer crashes or is hacked. One of my favorites is a photo of two of my friends posing, as if for a family portrait, on a couch in the back of Kelsey’s van. This was back when we thought anything in our lives could still happen, but never imagined what actually would. The couch faced out the rear window, I remember, so that when we were in motion, we watched the landscape spout away, looking not into the future but the past as we left it. The bright and blurry em-dash of trees and street rushed by, the world doing exactly what photographs refuse to do: move.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt

#259: Janet Jackson, "The Velvet Rope" (1997)

The popstar is inherently external—to exist as a popstar is to have the world observe and critique every single one of your moves; whether those moves be the arm-swing-to-gyrate combination during a performance or simply leaving a grocery store, reusable shopping bags weighted with cartons of soy milk. This is what we expect from our megastars; celebrities, after all, would not exist without those who idolize them: even the term “pop” is short for “popular”—a word that cannot exist without qualifiers: the other, the many, the particular.

To build a popstar is to acknowledge the popular in a way that hits on notes that resonate with as many people as possible. Most “breakthrough” pop songs over the years speak in generalities: the message being conveyed is not nearly as important as how it is conveyed—what flourishes make it separate from the countless other performers trying to make it onto the radio. Janet Jackson was the girl in the boy band; while other members of the Jacksons were allowed to cultivate a personality that fit into your prototypical boy band archetypes, hers was quite simple—she was “the girl,” the outlier that still fulfilled a simple role within the family, all sass and pizzazz.

It then comes as no surprise that the majority of Janet’s early work was straight-forward bubblegum; a star going through the motions while singing someone else’s words while a sound engineer crafts the backing tracks in post-production. There are debates over why art is even created: I know from personal experience, there are some things that I feel as if I must write for my own sake—a story that I have been meaning to tell. However, there is always the concept of audience lurking in the background; that the art itself would not exist without the intention that it was to be seen or heard. While I might be completely unaware of who that audience is, I tend to imagine it as a bright light in a dark void—I am standing on stage in a dark room with the stage lights shining in my eyes, turning every shadow into a halo. In a sense, all art is always for the other: even the most isolated of writers still wishes for their work to be mysteriously found in a desk drawer one day & released into the world.

When I talk to my literature students about how one can raise the stakes in their writing, it typically circles back to one thing: telling the truth. When we watch a horror film & before the opening credits start to roll we see the slow crawl of “based on true events” we feel an extra chill in our bones—that there is realness here; that the body count in some way is real, even if the means of getting there might be fabricated. We are unashamedly intrigued by secrets—of things that we should not know being spilled out in front of us in a way where we can not only scoop them up, but hold them to our own hearts to see if this rawness can sync up with our own sweetness. It is why we love the popstar selfie, the documentary, the food diary. There are secrets everywhere and we would like nothing more than to know them—to know that we are not alone in our thoughts—that generalities of love and family can sustain us for a moment. But we want to know the true details; to spin darker, to have a declaration to hold onto.

Most popstars have the fabled “third album”—the one where it is time to become introspective, to start speaking in specificities about their lives, to be honest with their audience. When there was no audience to speak of, there was no need to be genuine—we see the saccharine youth of the first days of the popstar & we do not need to see any further; we know that there must be depth there, but it is inconsequential to us, as they are simply another figure in the world. As anyone gains notoriety, it becomes time for the popstar to become fully realized—to become human. Rihanna’s “island girl” identity evolved with Good Girl Gone Bad. Beyoncé’s acknowledgment that she contains multitudes on I Am...Sasha Fierce. Clive Davis shelving Kelly Clarkson’s My December for months because it was felt to be too dark and honest in comparison to her previous work. This, certainly, can fail: a cry to go back to what worked for them when they first arrived—I can’t imagine what this could feel like; a request from the audience to go back to vapidness; to be bite-sized, easily accessible.

Janet did this and not only survived, but flourished. Control was massive; it had an edge to it—it was self-actualized, yet universal: one could listen to it and pick out the moments that resonated. An activity I have my students do in writing is to describe in detail the contents of a house—instead of simply just listing basics, I ask them to think of their own homes in order to get the details correct, to build a memory palace filled with every nuance. When they read these descriptions aloud to their classmates, there is an understanding that is made between them: these spaces are vastly different yet similar in their sentiment. While the color of the wallpaper & the location of the television might be different, we still see our own houses in others—we remember our own worlds and how they formed around us.

The question, of course, is whether or not it is worth going beyond this: to examine a form that is meant to be as inclusive to everyone as possible, and instead making it esoteric by going deeper into the personal—is there a type of “uncanny valley” moment that occurs in music where things get “too real” & it causes everyone to look away? A quote from Jackson in Vibe Magazine on the eve of releasing The Velvet Rope shows her fear in this regard: “People look at you differently, as if you’re not human.”

To be truly human is to acknowledge the fact that yes, we are all on the same earth, and yes, we can share each other's’ mind palaces, if only for a moment, but to also say that we are not a fantasy. Sometimes we feel as if we exist if only to identify with as many people as possible: we compromise our emotions in order to share a kindred spirit—yet we also try to hide ourselves away so as not to get too deep in; there are closets in our homes that we do not describe; the dead millipedes in the basement, the grime collecting on the baseboards of the seldom-used washroom. The audience again becomes this shining bright light in the void—this massive vast thing unseen. The Velvet Rope is a way of writing toward the void: to acknowledge the deeply personal in a way to make it through the unknown. The album, Jackson admits, was like therapy to her; the catharsis coming after years of hiding in plain sight: the trauma of losing a friend to AIDS, of domestic abuse, of her own sexuality.

There comes a moment in every artist’s life where they believe that they have revealed something incredibly deep and vulnerable about themselves, only to find out that the thing being revealed is relatively common—this isn’t a knock on the confession itself, but instead provides comfort knowing that there are people out there that have seen the world that you have seen and have seen it all the way through. It is why we choose to create—it’s why we attempt to “shock”. It is a difficult thing: to make the internal external—it seems to go against everything that comes as an artist, as creating is an intransitively private act; something we do alone in the comfort of our own rooms. However, in all that we create, even if it is a sentiment that is “popular,” we also show that there is a velvet rope—we have let you into the club, but there is a section that is off limits to only those who live here. Sometimes knowing that there is something more is enough; we can go entire lifetimes without confessing our VIP mysteries as long as the world knows that there is more to us just than what appears. Other times beyond the curtain there are truths that we are unable to admit—rooms under construction, please watch your step. We invite the void in hopes that it fills us. By allowing entrance to our own darkness, we hope that we can tap into the darkness of others—that even though these walls might not be for everyone, we are all invited.

—Brian Oliu

#260: Willie Nelson, "Stardust" (1978)

His aching hands still gripped Trigger as he floated up back into the stars. Humming “All of Me” as he picked out the chords. He knew them so well. After all, he’d played them since he was a child. His time was at hand (and, naturally, off the beat), but he never let them take his heart, no matter what the song said.

He smiled as he saw Ray, greeting new arrivals at the gate, just beyond St. Peter. Ray rocking back and forth, stamping out Georgia on the piano. “Willie?” he asked. “I thought I smelled you,” and he smiled. “Bring that dank stash over here. Isn’t that what the kids say?” They jazzed a few bars of that old sweet song, ‘til Willie moved along, off in a green cloud to re-join Johnny and Waylon on the highway….

“Just direct your feet….” Willie hummed and strummed….when a Monk blast jumped from behind a tree. Well, Willie grinned as wide as West Texas, and without missing a beat, plucked his way:

“In Walked Bud!” he said to Thelonious’s smile. They bripped and brapped and flanged and danged and noodled themselves high as they could, though they were already higher than the blue sky….

Bluebirds danced around their heads as they toddled down the road, picking up Powell, and Satchmo, and even Kerouac, gesticulating wildly with his instrument of choice, filling the pure air with more purity, a pure joyful haha-hee-ha of lips and hambone knee-slapping….

Willie’s smile began to fall, for he missed Bobbie, and Mickey, and Jody and Paul. He knew he’d see them again, as a hummingbird, or a poet, bringing song, or a thrumming word. Or maybe if he was lucky, he’d be a person someday. As if by magic, he spotted Bee up the way, and picked up the tempo. He stopped and said hey. “Bee, how are you, buddy? I need your bottom end.” Willie spoke a sly grin, as tears ran down his friend’s face.

“I’d like you to accompany me,” he said, “on my tour of the great beyond.” And with that, the Family kept keeping on….

He saw Lady Day crying underneath a sycamore tree, and asked “What’s wrong, Billie?” She groaned out that she was lonely, and he put his arm around her and said, “Don’t be, ‘cause I’m here to get you through.” With that, they sparkled up mountains and moonlights in Vermont, with the flitting meadowlarks, up the icy slopes and down again, arm in arm, friend with friend. “After all,” Willie said, “isn’t that why we’re here?” and Billie said, “Come here” for a peck on the cheek.

Willie walked along, singing, picking out joyous trills of notes, but a touch of blue still trailed him. He wondered how long his spirit’d be on loan next time, if he’d ever properly practice love. He set this aside, and picked up his tune again, confident his friends could be his guide. As he serenaded that ol’ buttermilk sky, he prayed to be re-born in Texas.

It was a momentous first day, filled with laughter and teardrops and old friends and song, but Willie, Bee, Billie and Satchmo and Ray, all hugged and goodbyed and went along their way. While Jack cornered Monk and Bud to rap about their flow, Willie and Bee, well….they re-joined the road. And they never could find Waylon….

—Josh Medsker

#261: Grateful Dead, "American Beauty" (1970)

The soccer coach runs down the sideline, the crown of his head shining in the stadium lights, his ponytail bouncing against his tie-dyed shirt. During the day, the soccer coach is a bankruptcy attorney, but he doesn’t think of himself as the bankruptcy attorney. He is the soccer coach and he runs up and down the field griping at the refs, pulling at his hair, shouting encouraging words at his girls. This is a recent development, the running and shouting, the hair pulling. Just for the last six months to a year or so. The soccer coach used to be chill. That’s not to say he didn’t care, before. He always cared, but now he cares furiously.

After the game, he will go home and burn one. He used to smoke in the bathroom, blowing out the open window, but a while back he started to worry that the neighbors were suspicious—the houses in the soccer coach’s neighborhood are closely situated and small, their yards smaller. Also, around the same time his wife started complaining about having to shower in a room that smelled like an art school dorm. Tonight, he will smoke in the garage, as he’s done for the past few months. He’ll pop a tape into his Walkman and slide the foam covered headphones over his ears. He will sit on the hood of his wife’s Mitsubishi Mirage because he can’t sit on his own car—microbuses aren’t good for sitting, exactly—and he will listen to one of Dick’s Picks, or the ‘72 Veneta set he loves so much, or that ‘82 Iowa City show that he was actually at the summer—one of the summers—that he followed the Dead on tour, that particular time to celebrate passing the Bar, or maybe even something more recent, another show he attended a year before in Cincinnati. Yes, that’s probably the tape he will listen to. And he will remember the cool April air everywhere around him, and the Ohio River creeping behind the band as they performed beneath a bloated night sky, thick with hope or nostalgia or dread.

But for now, beneath a similar night sky, the soccer coach runs up and down the sidelines of a high school stadium, jumping and yelling until the refs miss a call when one of his girls is tripped while making a run on goal. Here, the soccer coach sprints onto the field and shouts, “You blind fucking prickhole,” with the kind of passion and loathing that most people his age save only for themselves. When the ref, a college kid working for a few extra bucks, pulls out his red card and holds it over the soccer coach’s head, he pulls at his hair and walks to his van where he sits and watches the scoreboard in his rearview mirror, thinking to himself, “What the fucking fuck?”


The soccer coach rolls a joint on the hood of his wife’s car, then sits in the same spot. He puts on his headphones and lights up, watches the smoke swirl and grow to fill the air in front of him as he listens to a cheering Cincinnati crowd—he was one of them—and the opening piano chords of “Let the Good Times Roll.”

He remembers the concert, for the most part. He and his wife and some friend drove down in his microbus and spent the afternoon sneaking puffs and throwing back Yuenglings that one of his friends had brought back from Pittsburgh. When he started to feel too fucked up, the soccer coach sneaked off to some nearby woods and stuck his finger down his throat, returning all that Yuengling and half-digested grilled meat to the earth.

The soccer coach hadn’t intended to drop acid that night, didn’t go to the trouble to procure any, even, but once he was in his seat—an hour early—waiting for the show to begin, and after he scanned the amphitheater’s seats, full of people like him who he desperately didn’t want to be like, and turned to look at the crowded lawn, full of younger fans—he desperately wanted to trip. So, he did the only thing that made sense—after guessing, probably correctly, that none of the other concert-goers sitting around him, all in their thirties and forties, like him, wouldn’t have any acid—the soccer coach made sure he had his ticket stub, went out the side of the amphitheater, and walked the long way around to the lawn area talking to younger concert goers until he found a group of kids, seniors in high school or younger college kids, who sold him a single hit for two bucks. Since he didn’t have any singles he gave the kids a ten and told them to keep the change. Then he ate the hit and returned to his seat.

Once the band was on stage, the soccer coach was glad that he’d eaten the acid, even though it hadn’t kicked in yet. Despite having seen the Dead play a hundred and thirty-seven times, this was the first show he’d made it to in a few years and—pre-trip—the soberest he’d been for one in even longer, maybe ever. What struck the soccer coach most about the band was how much they looked like the crowd, looked like they could be teachers, doctors, advertising executives, mid-level managers, bankruptcy attorneys. The soccer coach remembered going to Dead shows in the seventies, the way the audience swayed and danced, all the flowing locks and bare breasts, hypnotic dancing and good vibes, but there he was in Cincinnati, in 1989, looking up at Jerry and Bob and Phil and Mickey and Brent, who didn’t really count because he hadn’t been around in the ‘70s, all looking like upstanding citizens, like everyday guys—and that felt wrong, felt bad. That wasn’t how the Dead were supposed to be. Not how their fans were supposed to be.

And then, about halfway through a long-but-not-too-long rendition of “China Cat Sunflower,” the acid kicked in.

But tonight, after the game, in his garage, the soccer coach sits on his wife’s car and smokes a joint and listens to a fan-traded recording of that show and thinks about when he was younger—not last year when he went to the show, but ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, before his idols got old. Before he got old.


The soccer coach’s favorite thing about the Cincinnati concert was the encore—“Box of Rain.” This is a point of contention between the soccer coach and many Deadheads who don’t like the album it’s from—American Beauty. The album is too polished, they say, too structured, too clean. They say, the Dead are about their concerts, about jamming, about the performance. American Beauty, they say, is a pop album, not a Dead album. But it’s also the album that made the soccer coach love the Grateful Dead. And “Box of Rain” is most of the reason why. When the soccer coach first heard the song, stoned at a friend’s house during his senior year of high school, he felt what Phil Lesh was saying about love and loss. “Such a long time to be gone,” Lesh sings at the song’s end, “and such a short time to be there,” on that box of rain called Earth. Box of fucking rain, the soccer coach thought to himself when he was seventeen—who calls the Earth a goddamn box of rain. His interest grew when he learned that Lesh had written the song about his father’s death to cancer, something that the soccer coach knew a great deal about at seventeen, having lost his mother two years prior after she, in an era without pink ribbons or national awareness months or even basic and pervasive public knowledge, failed to detect the lump that ended her. When he heard “Box of Rain” after that, he regretted not having the wisdom to say to his dying mother, “What do you want me to do / to do for you to see you through?”

The year after he first heard American Beauty, when he enrolled at the Ohio State University, the soccer coach started going to every Dead show he could, following them on tour, even, over summers.

Of all the Dead shows he attended, the soccer coach saw them play “Box of Rain” only a handful of times, mostly in ‘72 and ‘73 when American Beauty was still fresh. They didn’t bring it back into regular rotation until the late eighties, after the soccer coach had more-or-less stopped following the band on tour. The Cincinnati performance—that was the first live performance of the song he’d witnessed since he made it out to Watkins Glen for a late July show in ‘73.

When he heard “Box of Rain” that night, he thought something changed inside him, or for him, or something.


But here in his garage, the soccer coach swaps the first tape of the Cincinnati show for side two of the second and fast forwards to the encore. This isn’t his usual practice. He normally listens to the concert from the beginning, and rarely all the way to the end. He’s listened to the encore of “Box of Rain” maybe twice since one of his tape trader buddies sent him the cassettes—once when he first received the tapes, and then a few months later, after he and his wife had had a fight after he got a vasectomy without telling her, ensuring that the couple would never procreate. What was the point in having a kid at this point, the soccer coach had thought to himself when he scheduled the procedure for when his wife would be out of town, visiting her sister for a week. Most of the time when he listens to the Cincinnati set, though, he avoids “Box of Rain.” It means too much, he thinks, though he isn’t sure why, not anymore.


At that show the previous year, when, during “China Cat Sunflower,” the soccer coach started to feel the acid doing what acid does, he smiled. For the first hour after that, he mostly saw only trails, like every movement on stage and every movement around him was a jet cutting through the sky’s vapor. During “Space,” which he’d seen the band play at almost every show he ever attended, he walked out from under the venue’s shelter and looked up at the sky, moving his head back and forth so that the stars became lines. When his head stopped moving, the stars didn’t. His trip had picked up. He saw satellites floating through space, watched the stars move in the sky, forming shapes—an acorn being eaten by a squirrel, a 1986 Honda Civic with its bumper falling off, a bathtub full of pushpins, a soccer ball. He didn’t—still doesn’t—know why he saw any of those things except for the last, and it was after seeing the soccer ball that he walked back to his seat to enjoy the rest of the show.

By the encore, the soccer coach was tripping hard. When Phil Lesh walked back out on stage in his professional-dressed-casual-for-a-relaxing-weekend attire, the soccer coach saw globes of soft light rise up from each band member and swirl above the stage before separating and returning to their sources in a bright, blinding burst. As his eyes readjusted to the darkness that followed the flash, the soccer coach saw that the band’s appearance had changed—now they all looked exactly like him. He stared in horror, closed his eyes and reopened them, but nothing changed. He looked away from the stage and was alarmed to see that it wasn’t just the band that looked just like him—the entire audience had taken on his appearance, had become him. A woman he had earlier seen shimmying to the music in a tank top and daisy dukes was him now, his body, face, ponytail, male-pattern baldness, but still wearing her own clothes. He was his wife, the ushers, the roadies. And he was disgusted. He thought this is what it is to get old, man.


And tonight in the garage, when the soccer coach cues the tape to the beginning of “Box of Rain,” he remembers that moment, and then he remembers sitting on his buddy’s sofa in 1971, stoned stupid, and the immense feeling of wonder and possibility he felt in the song. A box of fucking rain—our planet Earth! And he remembers all the gigs he attended in the ‘70s, all the acid he ate, and the dope he smoked, and the women he fucked, and every note of every solo, and every warm feeling and stoned hug and heavy conversation and then he thinks of the red card hanging over his head, the long trek from the soccer field to his microbus, of the client list at his day job, and he hears Phil Lesh sing the line about how if you look into any eyes around you, you’ll see “clear through to another day.” The soccer coach thinks of his mother’s lump, and his own vasectomy, and he thinks of his wife inside, probably watching the eleven o’clock news, or sleeping on the couch after Cheers, and knows that he doesn’t have any other eyes to look into and probably shouldn’t anyway because seeing clear through to another day doesn’t mean anything, not anymore. The soccer coach closes his eyes and lets the tape play past the end of “Box of Rain,” past the closing crowd noise, and through several minutes of silence until the side ends with a click.

—James Brubaker

#262: Crosby, Stills & Nash, "Crosby, Stills & Nash" (1969)

I am sweating, even in the shade of palm fronds and hundred-year-old banyans. I’ve been in Florida less than a week, and every day I measure change in myself by freckles and the contrast between my gently tanned skin and scars. These are small changes in the context of my life lately, but I like the concrete measure—a version of proof that now I am different. In three months, I’ve been rattled with loss of love, a shared home, meaningful work, and I’ve thrown my last few dollars at my ever-tricky body, coded to stumble in one way or another. And I have also chiseled deeper into love, feeling new, happy shocks. I have access, somehow, to joy, accepting its complex harmony with pain. So now I am different; afraid, grateful, and free.

I am visiting Florida, where green attaches itself to everything, with my family. My brothers and I are living out of suitcases, tucked into free corners of a house that tries to support all of our feelings and noise. Every day we call to a machine with a name, Alexa, asking her to play the wintery albums that used to scratch across the record player of my childhood—my parents’ childhoods, too. It doesn’t feel like January here, even with Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s so much color in this strange winter of my life, and it’s like I’m hearing these songs my parents have always hummed on snowy mornings for the first time.

I am barefoot and the tile is cool and the beautiful bird my grandmother calls a Brown Egret is cawing on the other side of the sliding glass door. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is on and I almost cry, because it’s one of those moments where a song feels expressly made for the moment you’re hearing it. I fixate on harmonizing under my breath, only getting it right, appropriately, on what have I got to lose?

I play it again and again until finally someone says, “Haven’t we already heard this one?”

I say, “Haven’t we heard them all?”

When the record goes on, I get dizzy retracing my so-far life. I wish, like a record, I could play it backward to hear some kind of essential, veiled message. In my mind I walk backward, encountering different truths I’ve known. I watch so many people I love disappear and others reappear. I trace my life back until I too disappear, imagining the parts of me that hid out in my parents until they made me. Dad’s teeth; the joints of Mom’s thin fingers. I follow them to their own childhood bedrooms, a few miles apart, both listening to this record. It’s so comforting to imagine a time when I wasn’t material—when I had no mass. A time before I could be measured.

I tell my mom I can’t stop hearing the word free on this record—that I feel like it’s in almost every song. She says the word she hears over and over is morning. When “You Don’t Have to Cry” starts, in the morning when you rise, I laugh to myself. I close my eyes and wait for a word to stand out and give me the jolt. Even though they sing cry what feels like a hundred times, all I really hear is telephones. I’ve always loved the word telephone in a song; something about voices jumping across long distances gets me.

It’s funny how much has changed in my lifetime. Analog, gone digital; frequencies, now zeroes and ones.

Through sunglasses, I squint at a quick wispy cloud passing over the sun. The light refracts a greenish halo. I learned a little about the science of light refraction this week, but I can’t know it as anything but voices of the angels [ringing] around the moonlight. I ask Alexa if she can please play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and my grandmother, shuffling cards, says: “Don’t ask her, Elise; you have to tell her to play it.”

I think about why we shriek in frustration at a disembodied, named voice; why it feels dangerous that she can’t play a song if I ask instead of demand. Because I don’t ask her to play it again, she keeps on with the rest of the album: “Wooden Ships.”

I resist the urge to ask my Dad to tell me more about the physics of ships like I normally would, because I anticipate everything that might sting these days and I am afraid to hear the word displacement.

Even though when this album echoed through my childhood home while we made pancakes on snow days, it isn’t until now, hot noon in Florida, that I realize many of these songs have warm winds, islands, seagulls, and bays. It isn’t until now that I see the palm frond in the upper left-hand corner of the album cover, sneaking in. Every day I am learning that my conceptual association, what’s etched and encoded in my brain, can be modified. Maybe these songs live in my hippocampus, sparking snow, maple syrup, pops in the vinyl. I am adding, though, this breeze, this lizard scurrying across the pavers, and the chills I get, despite the heat, despite myself, during the line: Love isn't lying, it's loose in a lady who lingers, saying she is lost, and choking on hello.

I get the jolt, big time, for hello. I get it, too, for goodbye.

I am leaving this place tomorrow and I am not sure what’s next, but I scarcely need to remind myself that I am lucky. Not because of rabbit’s feet or heads-up pennies, but because I look around at the people I love and I love them. It’s loose in me.

The pool water is January cold and even though I try to wade in slowly, my brother pulls me in. On the top of the pool, I take a few deep breaths and try to teach myself to float. It takes a couple tries to relax and lighten, but after a few moments, I do. There’s no separating displacement from buoyancy—only in their harmony do we rock on the surface of dangerous, sparkling seas.

—Elise Burke