#224: Neil Diamond, "The Neil Diamond Collection" (1999)

The first time I remember hearing “Forever in Blue Jeans” was in Michael Smith’s performance art class. It was the ending crescendo of what would become one of my favorite pieces of his work, Secret Horror, in which Smith plays his forever-stuck-behind-the-times protagonist, Mike. In Secret Horror, Mike is confronted by a series of horrors, from emulating ghosts to drop ceilings. One of the things I’ve always loved about Mike’s work is his hyper-focus on sound and music as a crucial part of the narrative and artistic device. Instead of using a subtle layering of literal sounds accompanied by a score which is an undertone for the scene, Smith uses folly, voice-overs, and songs in loud, distinct brush strokes of solid colors that are specific and designed to be exclamations. I will never forget a slide I saw of Mike performing a piece where he had a radio to one ear while blowing a huge bubble of lavishly pink gum. The image and piece were the promise of pop music, and it was this idea, a sort of manifesto on how music is symbolic and important to art as a canvas or chisel, that struck me about Mike’s work. Likewise, in Secret Horror he goes from huge strokes of things like a hissing iron, to a more charming almost impressionistic musical bookend at the conclusion of the piece, where the proverbial drop ceiling literally falls onto Mike, breaking his arm as the ghosts who copy him then abandon him one by one. Smith then masterfully and subtly finishes the piece alone with a dance and credit sequence set to “Forever in Blue Jeans”.

There’s a whole other terrible book of unresearched ideas I could write on why music means anything to anyone. Maybe I liked “Forever in Blue Jeans” because of Mike’s video; maybe I liked it because of Mike: I think therefore I am a fan of “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Whatever the case, I was excited to write about the Neil Diamond Collection because naturally in my mind it featured that song and I could expound on all the reasons we like something more than something else or seek meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. But here’s the shit of it…

THE NEIL DIAMOND COLLECTION DOESN’T FEATURE “Forever in Blue Jeans”.

There are 18 goddamn songs on this “collection” and not one of them is “Forever in Blues” OR “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon”. This is where I might acknowledge my own cognitive bias or the events in my life that lead me to believe that I couldn’t let my own opinions waver. It might be the reason I’m never emotionally ready for new episodes of Adventure Time that I watch clutching my kids. But, that would mean Neil Diamond wins, that I’m not aging gracefully, and that the things that happen between me and my friends aren’t as funny, if not funnier, than Master of None. An imperfect existence in an otherwise perfect series of rules and processes that justify and give meaning to our lives.

So, in light of this injustice to my specific and personal memory, and because I really don’t know shit about Neil Diamond outside of “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Sweet Caroline,” “They’re Coming to America,” and “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” I’m going to proceed to go through each track of the Neil Diamond Collection and determine why said track isn’t nearly as good as “Forever in Blue Jeans,” thus wallowing in my own emotional narrative, forever “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Otherwise, we might as well believe all the shit on Ancient Aliens.

 

Track 1 - Sweet Caroline

I’m going to be honest, this is a song that few people could have a problem with. With that said, I’m going to present you with the karaoke dilemma regarding it. If you were to sing “Forever in Blue Jeans” to a room of drunks you might garnish their favor; you can create enough gusto towards the end of that song to make friends out of most enemies, further, if your friend already loves that song they’re going to end up your best friend.

The problem with “Sweet Caroline” is that everyone loves that fucking song, I don’t even have to give a very scientific reason for why everyone sings it (including its horn sections) at weddings or whenever it appears on a jukebox. And I’m not saying that that makes it bad. Like with Secret Horror, one of the more formative memories I have about film and being an emotional teen includes this song by way of one of the greatest worst movies, Beautiful Girls. In it, a bunch of sad-dick old friends get together, get drunk, and feel better about life by singing “Sweet Caroline” together. This is something I longed to do one day with my friends, not knowing that when that time came, we then were the sad dicks. Which gets me to my real exact point.

Everyone loves to have rejoinders and sing along to “Sweet Caroline”; enough beers and a tiny amount of sentimentality will inspire even the lowliest of patrons to sign up for it at karaoke. But while you might think you’re killing it because everyone in the bar, including your sad-dick old friends, are singing along with you singing “Sweet Caroline,” you’re also singing along with Brian.

Brian is wearing basketball shorts to a wedding reception that has spilled over to the bar.

Brian is a huge Warriors fan and we know this because he shouts “GO WARRIORS!”, “WARRIORS RULE!”, or just “WARRIORS” every time he begins and ends his painfully rehearsed Eminem songs. Seriously, he doesn't look at the words because he's tattooed them onto his bitter, gross heart; he has a moleish-looking face and you can tell that he talks too loudly and stands too close to you while he cough/laughs about beating up "faggots." You can tell he has little bits of pizza crusted around his thick lips. He doesn’t realize that the KJ is just playing the songs off YouTube just like he doesn’t realize that the words he’s shouting/dedicating to the bride and groom are about rape and choking some girl to death. “KELLY AND MIKE I FUCKING LOVE YOU! GO WARRIORS!”

That’s fucking Brian. And Brian is singing the shit out of “Sweet Caroline” with you. And when you’re done, you and all your friends will still be sad old dicks except now when you stare down at your own sad old dick and wonder what happened to your life, it will stare back at you with a not so new but realized face: the face of Brian.

That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than even “Sweet Caroline”.

 

Track 2 - Cracklin’ Rosie

“Cracklin’ Rosie you’re a store-bought woman, but you make me sing like a guitar hummin.” And that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Cracklin’ Rosie”.

 

Track 3 - Song Sung Blue


There’s both a really charming and depressing quality to a lot of Neil Diamond’s work; it’s like the morning after an emotionally draining hot Texas night of drinking where you smoked too many cigarettes watching your friends perform, very distracted, at a Moose Lodge. It sounds like this girl you sort of dated, your short involvement was superheated but also ill-informed and incompatible, and yet, in the end, that lack of both perceived and actual resolution made for a melancholy pop song that had both all the emotions and none of the substance. It’s the same thing as even though she was a writer, you guys never had the right words, just tearful shrugs and awkward sex, the verses of that pop song. The uncertain loneliness of either a hangover or of the feelings you thought you had or could have had, the chorus. And because I loved and sometimes miss those nights and because of all the years I shaved off my life in 2009, when I tried to magically believe through Lone Star and wild optimism that a different lady could cure all the struggles I reluctantly wouldn’t let go, and how sometimes that charming but depressing quality to a lot of Neil Diamond’s work takes me right back there, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Song Sung Blue”.

 

Track 4 - Play Me

My first thoughts were “‘Play Me’? ...Fuck off.”

This isn’t probably a real thing but I assume Leonard Cohen wrote this for Neil Diamond but Neil was like “Yo Leonard, your shit is just too dark for the Diamond,” and went about rewriting the better parts of the song and Leonard was like “Oh for fuck sakes man, just give me the goddamn check and don’t change the sort of guitar solo thing,” and Neil Diamond reluctantly, but knowing Leonard was right, agreed. And because this song with the right words could have saved some doomed relationship and because it used a sun and moon metaphor which was frankly even tired as fuck for 1972 and if it hadn’t it could have been Chelsea Hotel #3, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Play Me”.

 

Track 5 - Brooklyn Roads

This song has all the gusto I want in a Diamond song and if you close your eyes you can almost feel the same “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon” singer making a leather clad return. There’s a great little bridge in this song where a french horn shows up with a horn and string section. He talks about his report card and if you could see it he got an A in the way his voice sounds both desperate but determined like his very vocal chords were trying to get into American Gods on Starz or AMC or whatever channel it’s on. It’s like the thing you love, fuck it’s a lot like that thing you love, but then you’re sort of lost and wondering what happened to the person who loved that show and did you love that thing because you were dumb and didn’t mind the main character was named Shadow Moon? Has your struggle to like American Gods somehow been mirrored by Neil Diamond’s own sentiment to recapture the time he spent as a youth running along those Brooklyn roads? “FUCK YOU WILL,” you would say to yourself if you were me. “Quit being such a goddamn slave to nostalgia and quit trying to get some kind of contact high off this repackaged thing you used to love. Either accept it for what it is now and enjoy it for what it is or keep curmudgeonly about it and reread the novel for an up to date perspective on the whole thing.”

The same goes for you Neil Diamond….that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Brooklyn Roads”.

 

Track 6 - Shilo

“Shilo” starts with a strong pulse and guitar tick, which would lead you to believe the Diamond in Neil Diamond is true to being rock, but you would be wrong. Like “Brooklyn Roads,” this is a little generic ditty waxing nostalgically about a little lady named Shilo; I do my best to relate and even though this entire review is predicated on my own nostalgia, I just can’t. All I can think about is how Thomas Dolby really nailed this genre of it being okay to be personal and inside about a childhood crush and it not sound super creepy as you retell it as an adult. And again, it’s probably just my bias, but Neil Diamond on this track sounds adult contemporary as fuck in a time that wasn’t even current to my parents, so when that sound accompanies his voice calling out to a kid he’s musing about, I get the itchy tingles. Shilo is never going to be the pirate twins again and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Shilo”.

 

Track 7 - Crunchy Granola Suite

I’m not going to lie, for a hot second I thought “for a song with granola in the title this track has legs.” That’s when this La Bamba half baked guitar lick shows up and won’t shut up and Neil starts into this Bruce Springsteen baby talk which…it’s about growing teeth or some shit but then the La Bamba part gets to be all too much again and as much as I try to believe in America and get behind the fist-pumping freedom sounds in this song, that “Deetle-ly Dee!” shit creeps back in. It’s like trying to love the Hulkster, but you’ve seen his sex tape brother and what it did to Gawker. It’s like all those times he used the N-word are just hanging over your head when you’re just trying to enjoy the $5 Blu-ray of No Holds Barred you found at a gas station. It’s like the second I hear the word “granola” in a song, I go from loving the shit out of an all American Big Foot crushing cars to remembering “Fuck man, fossil fuels are going to fucking kill the world for my kid that I brought to the monster truck show at the Roanoke Civic Center, which to be honest is way too short of a run for monster trucks to monster. And fuck, is that Brian? Now I hope fossil fuels kill everything.” Quit getting in the way of your own fucking freedom and my right to enjoy it, Neil Diamond, and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Crunchy Granola Suite”.

 

Track 8 - And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind

When God comes calling, would he be walking barefoot by a stream? I feel like if God did call you and put you on hold, the music would probably be similar to this song, at least the intro. This is another one of those times where Neil has just a generic enough playbook of metaphors and adjectives to keep the song functioning as a vehicle of sentiment and vague romanticism. “Touch my soul with your cries,” I’m pretty sure that’s what the lyric I just heard was….

Here’s the thing, Shaw and her man friend went looking for God once. They strapped themselves into the Prometheus with David because they thought they heard God calling. But you know what, it turns out God was just part of a death race who Ridley Scott assumed was mad about the way we killed Jesus/Prometheus/whoever, and like all lazy gods got sidetracked on their way to kill us. God was calling, we answered, and his message was “Bitch, I’m going to kill you.” So, it’s with some certainty after Alien: Covenant that the grass won’t mind if you fuck on it or go extinct because in the end gods are imperfect killers and grass is just grass. That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”.

 

Track 9 - Holly Holy

I feel like this song was written on a shag carpet, recorded on a reel to reel, in a sunken living room of orange, brown, yellow, sunset themes. I don’t know Holly or if she’s holy but I do know there was a special time in which things still smelt of nicotine and the faith that cigarettes won’t kill you was strong. Neil goes to church and begins to preach as he sings, he talks about flying but it makes me think about how you used to be able to smoke on airplanes. Think about that shit. Your holy faith put into a soaring metal angel, smiling through brown stained teeth that mock god and cancer as you smoke in a pressurized tube. Sing Diamond sing and smoke up, in just a few short years after this song was written we’ll know that the greatest generation is going to need a shit ton of radiation therapy to break off the mass building in their lungs. The song builds like my intense focus on death, musing on my grandfather dying in his fifties because of a lifestyle that included both travel and smoking. If death begets death like the Greeks always knew, then the engineers were my grandfather and I can only hope I’m David. I can’t believe in you Neil and your house of golden sunset cigarettes and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Holly Holy”.

 

Track 10 - Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show

Fuck that’s a long title. I feel like we just covered a non secular song like this that was better than a title that’s not worth rewriting, so instead I’m going to talk more about Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I have a lot of questions and maybe some of them actually relate to Neil Diamond because they’re about god/man/android’s need to create. Ultimately, is that what makes us human? Whether it’s to procreate or build, this theme is constant, even for old Diamond. All this religion bleeding through right now on the too-long title, his focus on pointless overhyped biological romance described in a way that feels natural but is ultimately meaningless. Is he just some kind of weird cocaine prophet? Like an entirely truthful rhinestone mirror that is just a meditation on the fact that his work resonates with you because, like everything, it means nothing?

The answer is: Yes.

And since I already knew that from watching the Alien movies and being rundown by life in general, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than that song called, you know.

 

Track 11 - Stones

“Lordy child” where are we even? I think I pride myself in being able to create scenarios for sound in my head, but Diamond even does that thing with the percussion in his songs. It’s so basic that it could have been a bossa nova afterthought or like it was a complete and realized western that radiated with a thousand points and facets. But it got thrown into a river called Neil Diamond and worn down, pummeled over and over til its individual points and references were just featureless ghosts, a green 3-D vector recording of an engineer running from something nearly 2,000 years before, but thanks to the hit engine that is Neil Diamond, we’ll never know what it was running from, how it really felt, or what Prometheus even really means. That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Stones”.

 

Track 12 - Sooliamon

Solomon? What the fuck are you saying Neil? What’s with all this Blue Man Group percussion? Did some weird god hear my complaints about the last song and give me the exact opposite monkey paw wish that anything he did meant something or was distinct? I would say yes because we get to this sexy “HUAH!” chorus thing. Because this song seeks to fuck with my basic understanding of Neil Diamond and is probably the result of having too much money for “exotic” equipment, too much studio time and some stupid word instead of being the the lavish delights a cruel god has in taking heed of my curses to the sky, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Sooliamon”.

 

Track 13 - Walk on Water

I…I can’t.
 

*


Maybe it’s important for me to take a minute and reflect on this a little bit.

“Forever in Blue Jeans” has all the hallmarks of “Sweet Caroline” or even “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon”. But instead of being like one of the spooks who are trying to impersonate Mike, it’s an original. Its exclusion from the collection that bears his namesake is something I’m fighting hard, and maybe in this way I can relate to Shaw more than I’m comfortable admitting. I don’t want to believe there is a world without justice or meaning, that the inclusion of “Forever in Blue Jeans” would mean that, in the words of my best friends Jacob, something innocent and perfect can’t exist in an otherwise flawed universe. That beautiful pure and precious stone, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” which bears similarities to its other ancestors and creators, but unlike “Walk on Water” or “Holly Holy,” it bears no hallmarks of man and his religion, ancient alien or otherwise. It’s why even though The Neil Diamond Collection made it onto the Rolling Stone 500 that just two short years later David, maybe the most beautiful of all god’s sons, set about creating The Essential Neil Diamond, which included “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” “America,” and…“Forever in Blue Jeans”.

—Will Sellari

#225: Green Day, "American Idiot" (2004)

I.

Every morning, I wake up to a message from a past self. I usually cringe. Facebook’s “On This Day” feature tops my news feed with posts from younger versions of me, girls I hardly recognize. Anything from before 2013 is more often than not a depressing song lyric, likely a cryptic signal to an unrequited crush. I know I’m alone with or without you. (I need to stop checking social media first thing in the morning.)

Through evolving mediums, I’ve relied on song lyrics to express my most intense emotions to the public. I used to write them on the tips of my Converse All Stars.The invitation to my Sweet 16, which I handily crafted on Microsoft Paint, featured a line from an obscure Blink-182 song, a reference only a few of the invitees might have understood. As a hormonal teenager, my feelings erupted faster than my ability to articulate them. When I couldn’t find the words, I could just use someone else’s. It meant, like Bowie said, I wasn’t alone.

Just a few days after I turned 16, Green Day released American Idiot, an album billed as the first “punk rock opera,” another year’s worth of whiny Facebook statuses on a platter. Wake me up when September ends, I’ve posted in more than one September. American Idiot was enormously successful, winning the Grammy for Best Rock Album and introducing Green Day to a younger generation yet to be concerned with the concept of “selling out.” It has since been adapted for Broadway, though curiously, is billed as a rock “musical” instead of an “opera.” Stylistically, the music in American Idiot is pretty much the same as every Green Day album before it, except the guitars are a bit louder and the tracks bleed into each other. There are characters, and a vague narrative, but calling their concept album a “punk rock opera” is mostly a nod to the Who’s Tommy, one of Green Day’s chief inspirations. Andrew Clements, classical music critic for The Guardian, dismisses the rock opera trend as “a new-fangled genre, with its vaguely subversive labelthe revolutionary language of rock imposing itself on the apparently elitist world of opera.” I’m sure the decision to drop the “rock opera” tagline on Broadway was purely for marketing purposes. Musicals sell out, operas do not.

 

II.

Green Day, like most pop-punk bands, is not known for poetic lyrics. Billie Joe Armstrong’s crowning achievement on American Idiot is a protest song called “Holiday,” what he has deemed a direct “fuck you” to then-President George W. Bush. The lyrics reportedly took him two months to write:

Sieg Heil to the president gasman
Bombs away is your punishment
Pulverize the Eiffel towers

Who criticize your government

Pause for a second. Look at the words above, look at how inadequate they are on their own, without context or chords or Billie Joe’s faux British sneer. Maybe you know the songit’s on the radio all the timeand could hear it in your head as you read. If you haven’t heard it, maybe you felt compelled to find the song and listen to it. Or maybe you just kept reading, completely unmoved. A lyric without music is merely a phrase; by transcribing it, you are removing something fundamental. Certainly, some lyrics stand well on their own; Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But as Shakespeare is meant to be performed, songs are meant to be sung. Writing them down is almost violent.

 

III.

I went to the opera for the first time recently: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which I only really wanted to see due to its significance to ‘90s rock. Much of Weezer’s sophomore album Pinkerton is based on this work, with references to its characters and themes throughout (Rivers Cuomo initially conceived the album as a rock opera of his own, and the song “El Scorcho” mentions Green Day and Cio Cio Sans in the same verse). Sung in Italian, this production of Madama Butterfly projected English subtitles on a banner screen at the top of the stage. To keep in time with the music, each verse faded quickly, fluttering like tweets. Halfway through, I stopped reading entirely. The story wasn’t in the lyricsit was in the instruments, in the power and vibrato of the vocals. Unencumbered by words, I let the sound wash over me. It was like I had relearned how to listen to music.

 

IV.

I recently noticed a tick in my writing, one I had to consciously avoid in drafting this piece: I like to embed song lyrics into my sentences, whether or not I’m writing about music. I haven’t grown out of co-opting lyrics after all, I’ve just picked up a bit more subtlety. Obviously I didn’t invent this trick; a lot of music writers do it, Rob Sheffield better than anyone else. On the one hand I’m showing off my music knowledge, an attempt to be clever while proving that I’ve done the research. But I think there’s more to it. The impulse comes from a larger desire to live rock ‘n’ roll, each song an instruction manual. I act out song lyrics all the time. I have little-to-no musical talent, but I’ve sat beneath blue suburban skies on Penny Lane in Liverpool. I’ve played the Paul Simon album on a road trip to Graceland. I once made my dad stop at a Tastee-Freeze in New Jersey so I could suck on a chili dog. Because rock ‘n’ roll makes even meat-topped-meat seem glamorous.

I read through the lyrics of American Idiot to see what turns of phrase I could quote at the end of this essay to drive home my point about lyrics and self-expression and the fantasy of rock ‘n’ roll. I thought maybe I could instead quote from the final track of Pinkerton, bringing it all back to opera:

Maybe I need fantasy
A life of chasing Butterfly

But it’s not quite right, is it? Too many steps for the reader. I want it to fit, so life can feel like a rock song for just a few beats. But I’m starting to realize that my words can be enough.

 

Coda.

...my words can be enough. That was how I wanted to end this essay until a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, and now what can I say? “I don't have words,” is how Ariana ended her heartbroken statement to her fans.

I write this while waiting for the names of the dead to be released. We do know that most of those who attended the concert were girls under the age of 18, who donned bunny ears and body glitter and recognized themselves in the lyrics of pop songs.

I thought about scrapping this draft completely. My self-centered ramblings about Facebook statues and pop punk seemed trivial only days after such horror. But as grief runs its course, the songs will stay stuck in your head. The bass will drop, and Ariana will perform again, swaying her ponytail from side to side. Keep listening, keep posting. And when a past self taps you on the shoulder, be kind to her.

—Susannah Clark

#226: Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska" (1982)

It’s 2017, and 228 million public, federal acres are leased to private oil companies for two bucks or less. Thirty-one years ago, Jeff Sessions condemned the NAACP because they force civil rights down the throats of folks. Six years before that the GOP declared war on secularism and Jerry Falwell trumpeted, We are fighting a holy war, and this time we are going to win. And in January of 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded most of Nebraska, a quiet document written from and into a United States ransacking itself, in a single night. The record opens with the lullaby of a man harnessing the meanness in this world for murders devoid of rage or thrill and ends in Hope salvaged from a dog dead in a ditch by the highway. Data to crunch and songs to document the American Century’s unraveling.

There’s a lot to unravel. The Trust Busting and the 19th Amendment and the Geneva Accords; the Voting Rights Act and the funeral for Jim Crow and the funeral for poisoning wells for child labor for wife beating for gay bashing for cold, blue PD murder for for for et al. It was a hard-won Americanism we had scrapped and bled up to the top of the national agenda in a promise for a stronger, more righteous U.S.A., and one swiftly bartered away for a self-esteem predicated on smashing all the mirrors in the house. And now, in 2017, we crouch hunkered down in a corner watching Jesus and Jeff Davis, Big Brother and Jeff Sessions, whet-stoning their knives. In a land of endless horizons, promises skin easy. Born in the U.S.A.? You fucking know it.

Family has always been Bruce’s inspiration, his jam, his hurt and hope, whether from his old man grinding the whole home into dust or Joe Roberts wrangling brother Frank or his challenge to all of America to invest our dreams in the fundamental goodness of each other. The need, the dream, the insistence on strong-arming our better angels up out of the smear of trauma and into the holy glory of All for One and One for All is his mission, and what’s more needy and dreamy, demanding and traumatic, than Family? What abhors Truth and also demands it more than Family?

Bruce’s American Family? Nebraska is a tapestry of us dirt-scrapers’ needs and of our lives in various states of bruised and broken. Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive, and if you can, if your heart and guts don’t die, you don’t kill anybody or go to jail, well, Mister, then maybe you’ll get to dream of and believe in the Land of Hope and Dreams. But our boy in “Nebraska,” our first hero on the record, blows that right out the gate, is a dead-heart-still-beating when killing those ten innocents with a sawed-off .410 lap cat, the meanness in this world or any other goddamn place a dead-eyed-still-seeing kind of explanation well-suited to a midnight prison storeroom execution chair, fertile ground for Bruce’s harp, a gleaming scythe slicing our boy’s soul into that Great Void on account of the need to murderously jump-start the American Heart flat-lined like the prairies of the long-drained sea.

And then the record proceeds through the bludgeons, writ large and embossed, that threaten the promises of life. The Collapse of the cash carnival promises because of debts that no honest man can pay. The Sacrifice of the promises of brotherhood in the brutal grace of a-hundred-n-ten through Michigan County and those taillights disappearing over the Canada line. The Longing for the East-Egg promises rubbed raw on the steel gates that completely surround the mansion on the hill. The Justice as promised scraped off the dead auto plant closed in Mahwah late that month and our hero requesting that execution line as the only winnable salvation from the unwinnable scams of the men who fleece the world. The simmering Shame over the promises of street-level gold and the dream to hit the gas, let out a cry, tell ‘em all they can kiss our asses goodbye; the Exhaustion of the Manifest Destiny Highway promises gone itchy in the eyes and the sun gone a red ball rising over them refinery towers; the Menace of the scam of promised Answered Prayers, the please don’t stop me and please don’t stop me and then into the hi ho silvero, deliver me from nowhere before Bruce’s howl, one of the great banshee howls of Rock ‘n’ Roll, cracks the Menace away like an exoskeleton and leaves the American Madman, a thing demented on promises, a sick thing desperate unto itself. Complicated needs in The Promised Land? You fucking know it.

*

But then the record caps these stories and songs of the American Century’s unraveling with a curious, precarious incarnation of Hope. Of its Mystery. Poking a dead dog lyin by the highway in a ditch, a groom waiting waiting waiting alone by the river as the sun sets behind a weepin willow tree, the dogged faith that What Is need not be, that the American crossroads of Drive and Demand, of Hope and Fear, create the omnipotence of a god. Manifest Destiny. But also the American family bound together and willed into a faith.

And faith is hard. Family is so fragile that Genus Homo has to make songs and stories to even begin to look our origins in the eye. Our incestuous, grasping fathers; our embattled, dethroned mothers; our children and carnage and first nucleic sparks of ourselves, all these threads of who we are must be run through a factory of brain-stem squish and slurp to be stitched into Fairy Tale forest clearings, rainbow’s-end gold, heroes nailed to trees. The Titans to the Gods to the Greeks, Adonai to Eden to the Israelites, the Cave to Vader’s mask to Luke’s face—the endless reenactments in our stories and between ourselves are buoys in the endless fog of our human Family but also the endless anchors ‘round the neck. American needs are made ludicrous by the ludicrous promises America makes to itself. We meet them as we can so our minds don’t fry in their brain pans, so we can face the fundamental threats to our ability to sate them. The Hope that closes out Nebraska is the refusal to take “no” for an answer. That’s the faith left after Bruce’s surgical scrutiny of the promises we hold to.

At the end of every hard-earned day in 2017, Hope feels particularly willed into being against all evidence. Fear is fundamental; our luck’s run dry and our love’s gone cold. Just crunching the world historical data—the data of two and a half million years of Genus Homo existence—would compute Hope as a statistical zero, effectively nothing. And yet we’re here in the streets. Alone, we are dust. Together, we punch back. I love far more people than I hate, and I have never shied away from hating. In the cracking, crumbling world of The Now, in the broad shallow mudflats of 2017’s existential dread, we can shiver back to ancestors with dry, needley legs scurrying in terror from borough to hole, the savannah grass and the wind of the winged, famished feeder, and how much can you live in fear every instant of the sun throwing shadows over the land? Only so much. Or only every gasp until the last. You choose. We can crouch and flick our eyes across the sky forever, but we know that just leaves us at the lip of the Great Void waiting for our souls to be hurled.

*

Or we can dash out for where the sand turns to gold, where the Father’s House in the Fairy Tale clearing throws wide the door rather than leaving us on the dark highway where our sins lie unatoned. The American Century is long gone. Our leaders dream only of gold, and not any rainbow at all. The odds that the next handful of American years will be anything other than terrifying are slim. We will molt and melt and our needs will boil down to things much more basic. We can keep our eyes and hearts open for that dead ditch dog staggering up to its paws, for the endless river rushing the bride back to her groom. We can listen to stories and songs that, in their catharsis and commiseration, strong-arm our better angels up and into an American Family of All for One and One for all. And we can salve our needs and save our souls with Rock n Roll’s most mighty sword, the one that slays fear and the trembling immensity of living, the one that kindles and feeds a bright, fierce heart.

—Jason Leahey

#227: Pixies, "Doolittle" (1989)

The only time I saw the Pixies was in 2004 when they stopped hating each other long enough to reunite and make money off the nostalgia. One of my best friends worked as a music journalist for a local “culture” magazine and got me in for free or else I wouldn’t have gone. There were songs of theirs I liked, stumbling onto them either in Fight Club, during the closing scene where the buildings explode to “Where Is My Mind?”, or whenever the DJ at Independent Bar played “Monkey Gone To Heaven” as a way to get everyone on the dance floor, or at least get everyone to drunkenly shout “And God is seven” over and over and over again during the climax of the song.

My mom introduced me to a lot of good music, like Talking Heads, Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Metallica (pre-haircut), and Pantera. She listened to Led Zeppelin so much, I couldn’t stand listening to them until I finally moved out of the house. When it came to discovering music on my own, I fumbled my way through it. Some of my initial discoveries included New Kids on the Block (I can still hit the falsetto in “Please Don’t Go Girl”) and Robert Palmer’s solo album Heavy Nova before I discovered Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and the band that changed my life, the Cure. Growing up, the Pixies were never in my listening rotation, partially because I didn’t really know about them, partially because my friends and I were listening to the aforementioned bands (with the exception of my other best friend, who was really into No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and Marry Me Jane).

The impulse to see the Pixies wasn’t out of need, it was more of something to check off my concert to-do list. This reunion, on the surface, was supposed to be a historical moment. I got the sense from my music journalist friend that this was a pretty big deal. I don’t remember, though, much of the show, which is both good and bad. I remember the good and bad shows in vivid detail (like the horrendous feedback during a Modest Mouse show years later in the same venue that the Pixies played years later or the rare experience of the Cure playing their first three albums with one of the original members playing with them for the first time in over 20 years). They sounded fine, and played the songs their fans wanted to hear. I didn’t hate the show, but I didn’t run out and buy their CDs afterward.

Part of this apathy towards the Pixies comes from a lack of an emotional connection on my end. Black Francis’s lyrics are weird and too high concept, like how, according to Genius, “Gouge Away” is the retelling of Sampson and Delilah. I write poetry and I wouldn’t have been able to figure that out without going to Genius. The music in “Gouge Away” is amazing, building to an all-out assault, and it’s because of the music that the song works. I feel like that sums up the Pixies in general. With the exception of “Here Comes Your Man,” their most straightforward song, the music carries the songs. The lyrics get in the way of enjoying the music fully.

Here’s how I know how the Pixies didn’t resonate that night, and the years after. I faithfully blogged about my life on LiveJournal from 2002-2010 and I had to do some digging to figure out whether 25-year-old me disagreed with 38-year-old me about my assessment of the Pixies show and their music. A few days before I saw the Pixies, I saw Pearl Jam for the first time during the Vote for Change tour. I remember a lot about that show (Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins’s band opened the show, then Death Cab For Cutie, then Pearl Jam played for over two hours in a venue that seated only 3,000 people, and it was during the long musical outro of “Black” that Eddie Vedder slow danced with Susan Sarandon on stage). I didn’t document a thing about the Pixies show probably because my concert bar was set really high only a couple of days prior. I even wrote in the journal entry on October 9, 2004 at 3:54 am (still awake from the high of the show, probably): “oh...my...god. the show was amazing. amazing. however, i saw many of the doctrine of rock concerts violated at said show by the audience and that will be touched on tomorrow when my ears are not ringing, my neck not so stiff, and voice not so lost from all the rocking i did. best concert of the year, hands down (i don't think The Pixies can top the 2.5 hours of solid rocking Pearl Jam committed on the 3000 people in the Silver Spurs Arena). Pearl Jam, thy name shall be inscribed in the hallowed halls of Rock and Roll Valhalla for your feats tonight. oh yes, it will!” Pearl Jam was a high point in a tough year (three hurricanes, quitting a weird job, working temp work while juggling a new relationship at that time).

To the diehard fans, there was magic probably seeing and hearing the Pixies live for the first time in a long time. I didn’t feel that magic and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes you need to experience things that are just OK, even bad, because it gives you a rubric to compare other experiences. I’m glad that I experienced the Pixies that night but I don’t plan on experiencing them again.

I’m sure after you read this, you’ll want to pull me aside and tell me why I’m wrong, how the Pixies are one of the greatest bands ever, how they influenced so many other bands, but I’m not into the so-called canon of anything. Something isn’t great because someone else tells you that it’s great; it’s great because you feel it is.

—J. Bradley

#228: Eric B. & Rakim, "Paid in Full" (1987)

Thought I was a donut, you tried to glaze me.

“Eric B. is President”

1987

I was giving Lisa a ride but she was the one who knew how to get there.

We were going to a college party at St. Peter’s in Jersey City. My friend Dominic Dimaano was spinning.

Lisa had high hair and liked to walk down the street singing 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy.” It kind of embarrassed me, but I also liked being around her. The first time I met her, she came out of her shower in a towel and kept me and Dominic waiting for half an hour while she dried her hair. She went to a public high school. I went to an all-boy Catholic school. When we stopped for gas, she asked me to steal her a cigarette, but I didn’t.

I hadn’t known the Filipinos in the party scene until I got my car, a blue and silver used Nissan 280ZX. It was a stick with four on the floor. My dad had taught me how to drive it.

On the drive down 280 I rapped along to Eric B. and Rakim and Lisa said, “That’s cute.”

*

My sister and I liked to watch Video Music Box on channel 31. She was into A-ha and Duran Duran, but I was all into New Edition’s “Popcorn Love” (“P is for her personality…”) and Whodini’s “One Love” until the night we heard Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” In the video Rakim stood on a street, surrounded by people. Wherever it was, I wanted to be there. He was writing his own legend in the song, saying nobody could mess with him. Like—who were the seven MCs?

Rakim was a little guy but he looked regal. He knew how to carry himself. I thought about this whenever I walked into a party and didn’t know if the guys there were going to be potential friends or enemies.

One time I was hanging out at the Dimaanos’ and Dominic flipped a record over and the “Paid in Full” remix was the B-side. “Let’s listen to this,” he said.

Later I danced to the remix in my room, thinking of my own master plan. Where would I go to college next year? Where would I live? Would I still have the same friends, or would I have to make all new ones, so soon after I’d finally found the ones I had?

*

By the time we parked in the lot at St. Peter’s, there were already lines outside the auditorium. The security guy patted us down. He was Filipino, shorter than me, but beefier. I wore Girbaud jeans that I’d tapered myself, a white Willi Wear shirt buttoned to the top, and suede creepers with a buckle and two-inch soles. I’d put so much Depp in my hair you could smell it.

Inside the party it was dark. I didn’t know who was local and who wasn’t. There was always the threat of a throwdown—last time there were Vietnamese guys rolling up to cars outside and saying, “Fuck Filipinos.” Lisa looked for her friends and I looked for mine, checking out the men to make sure there was no trouble, checking out the women to see who could dance.

I headed for the DJ booth. My friends were there, the Bastos Boy Crew. Dominic; Apolonario Bautista, who we called Jun-Jun, short for Junior; Kelvin Chua; Dominic’s younger brother Dante; and Dante’s girlfriend Dimples Gatchilian—we called them D&D because they were so attached to each other. The Gaon brothers, AJ and Victor, were there, too. All the guys had pompadours.

The Gaon brothers were from Jersey City. I liked how laid-back they were and always got along with them, but my other friends didn’t. We were suburban kids, not from Jersey City. And because we were suburban kids, we had the money to buy equipment and learn how to DJ. That’s how Dominic got the gig at St. Peter’s.

I worked in the Essex Street movie theater after school, cleaning toilets and pumping fake butter onto popcorn. My dad was an engineer. But my friends’ parents were doctors. They lived in Livingston, up the hill. They bought their clothes at Matinique at the Short Hills Mall, not at Marty’s Shoes in Secaucus, where I’d gotten mine. For their seventeenth birthdays they got brand-new cars bought right off the block. Dominic had a Toyota Land Cruiser. Jun-Jun had a white Mitsubishi Stealth. The first question I’d asked him after he got it was, “Is it manual?”

But I had already known the answer. The thing was an automatic.

*

Last year around this time, I’d just been getting in with the Filipinos. Kelvin had invited me to a party in the city, at NYU, and I didn’t want to go on my own so I took two of my friends from the track team, who were Italian and Black. Dominic and another DJ had a battle and Dominic beat the guy. I wanted to dance, but I didn’t because I didn’t know anyone, and we left early and went and got pizza. After I was in with the Filipinos I didn’t bring my track friends along to parties anymore. I didn’t need to.

*

I took off my coat and dumped it on a chair. Freestyle was playing. Then LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run DMC.

The drumbeat to “I Know You Got Soul” started up. Rakim went, “Been a long time.” Like he was saying: Where have you been? Now we can dance. This is a song we can dance to.

It was like—reassurement. I was an Asian guy listening to Black music but I had soul. I knew I could dance. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in here.

Years later I’d meet a guy who confessed to stealing stuff at the St. Peter’s parties, just going through the coats when people were dancing and lifting their wallets.

*

After the party, I carried the crates of records outside and helped load up the van. We went to VIP Diner on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City. Lisa was there, sitting in a booth with Dimples and some of their friends. We ordered veal parm, disco burgers with gravy and cheese, and fries. As the plates made their way from the waitress into the booths, guys would start biting into the burgers and taking fries before it got to whoever ordered it. Lisa found someone to bum a smoke from.

*

I’d move to Chicago after the end of the school year. The week before I left, I’d be in the city at a party and Dominic would say, “Do you really want to be leaving all this?” I didn’t, but I did.

—Lisa Ko

#229: Aerosmith, "Toys in the Attic" (1975)

I didn't go out of my way to choose Toys in the Attic—it sort of fell into my lap because no one else who writes for this website wanted to write about it. And I understand why people who love music wouldn’t want to write about this band. Because of their longevity, Aerosmith has managed to be present in every generation of music since the Nixon administration, but also to be strongly associated with none of them. Even as they re-emerge with each new generation, they seem to belong to no single era in particular. Having been constantly handed down, they are always re-invented, but never different. They are a product—an LLC in 4/4 time. The band is everywhere, from everywhen, but belong to nobody.

Younger Baby Boomers, whose older siblings had greedily claimed Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers for their own, saw Aerosmith as ersatz versions of those earlier, better bands. To Gen-X kids, Aerosmith sat between Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cheap Trick as one of the only rock ‘n’ roll bands from their parents’ collection that they could stomach, buoying those desperate rock ‘n’ rollers through the hair metal era until grunge could arrive. For millennials, Steven Tyler and Co. became ubiquitous and ever-presently acceptable. They were the white noise of rock ‘n’ roll, somehow evading the critical skewering they were owed for records like Pump and Get a Grip.

So, who would want to be stuck with the task of writing about a band as uninteresting as this?

I wasn’t upset about the assignment, though. For me, it was a nice surprise. It was like unexpectedly finding yourself in the same place, let’s say the juice aisle of the Walgreen’s, with someone you haven’t seen in awhile, let’s say…your dad. Yeah, I said it: this record reminds me of my dad. Because, of course it does. Sure, my dad is the one who first introduced me to the band, but even if he hadn’t been, I think we can all agree that for the last four decades Aerosmith has become the Dad of rock ‘n’ roll.

Mind you, I am not talking about the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No, that honorific goes to Chuck Berry or Ray Charles or someone foundational like that. I am not speaking about the prolific, Genghis Khan-esque parentage of Elvis Presley, nor the Abrahamic father to nations of Robert Johnson. I am talking about the Hootie & the Blowfish type, sandals and socks wearing variety of dad. I am talking a good old fashioned, scare your prom date away, burn the brats at every barbecue, farts in his sleep kind of dad.

Aerosmith, also not unlike most dads, has a special knack for being impossibly corny. Their songs are the equivalent of knock-knock jokes, their shows are cringey, hours-long Adam Sandler impressions. Some of the earliest levers the band used to fulcrum their way into power are just karaoke covers of songs like “Come Together” and “Train Kept a-Rollin”—soon to be standards the band changed just enough to be able to put on their records, but not enough to distinguish them in any way from the originals. Similarly, their own catalog is just a series of near-parodies; “Round and Round” is a fake Motorhead song, “Kings and Queens” a limp take on Black Sabbath, and “Back in the Saddle” is a dusty Skynyrd rip off. The rockabilly innuendo of “Big Ten Inch” is an old Bull Moose Jackson record that Aerosmith legitimately plucked from the Dr. Demento show, making it an actual, honest-to-goodness parody. Aerosmith established themselves as a variety act of sorts. A dress-up-and-be-someone-else-for-a-little while type of act. Not unlike the detachable thumb trick that your dad taught you, Aerosmith would pull any cheap gag just to get a reaction. And, just like your dad, Aerosmith inexplicably has cool friends, with Run-DMC and Willie Nelson popping up every once in awhile to lend credibility. People like to call Jeff Tweedy and Warren Zevon “dad rock” but there is no rock more dad-erific than Aerosmith. So sappy and melodramatic. So bland and cliché. So ubiquitous. (This is all not mentioning Liv Tyler, of course, whose movie career has made Steven Tyler one of the most famous celebrity dads in existence. But that is a whole other essay.)

They weren’t always like this, however. Aerosmith is from a generation of artists who came by their fame organically. They were discovered, more or less, not manufactured. They wrote “Dream On” in a tiny apartment in Boston. It wasn’t endlessly revised and tinkered with by songwriters-for-hire and image consultants. They are from an era of music that is often (for better or for worse) longed for wistfully by music fans, critics, and artists alike. They were even briefly considered dangerous, with the drug-addled Perry and Tyler referring to themselves as "the Toxic Twins," and the music press sometimes calling the band "the Bad Boys from Boston" (though that was probably mostly because the moniker was alliterative.) It seems impossible that they are now commonly called "America's Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.” (Go ahead and google it.) I’m embarrassed to admit that at one time I too put them in league with the sexually explicit 2 Live Crew, the satanic Slayer, the violently angry Sex Pistols, and the vulgar Ice-T. Aerosmith just seemed so wanton.

I remember an older cousin mischievously putting on a concert film called Aerosmith: Scrapbook that I was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to have. I can still recall the image of a groupie who turned toward the camera, a stand-in for Stephen Tyler, and who pulled down her bathing suit asking, “Hey Steven…remember these?” I probably remember her small, untanned breasts, poking out pink-tipped and beautiful from her sun-browned body, better than Tyler ever could.

Looking back, the video seems so tame, almost quaint; the woman wriggling on stage next to Joe Perry, Tyler sniffing his gloved fingers, the strange physics of the way breasts moved when women, propped on their male counterparts’ shoulders, bopped along to the beat of “Walk This Way.” It is almost coy compared to what a lifetime of internet pornography can impart. Compare the messy fun of that concert footage to the near antiseptic chic of a video like “Blurred Lines,” where the women are mere accessories, or to the exploitative faux-elegance of any Weeknd video. It is only the decades separating us from that Aerosmith concert film that teaches us how innocent all that cocksmanship was. The craven corporatism of the band in 2017 reveals how relatively harmless all that transparent phallicism was back in the mid-70s when Toys in the Attic came out and they were playing shows just to get laid.

Their relative inoffensiveness should make me hate them more, of course. Rock ‘n’ roll bands aren’t supposed to be benign. They are supposed to be dangerous and scary. Your aunt isn’t supposed to like the music you listen to. She’s supposed to think it’s terrible. But your aunt kinda likes Aerosmith. Everyone kinda likes them. Being kinda liked and accepted by as many people as possible has been their prime objective since they first became famous. In that way they are actually America’s least Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.

So, if they are doing this much posturing and most of their work is objectively terrible, where is the backlash? You’d think that now that the people writing for Rolling Stone (which we lately only read for the Matt Taibbi articles anyway, don’t we?) and the people who make the A&R decisions about music—people who, just like you and me, grew up on the Roots and Pearl Jam (each of whom have just as valid a claim on being called the Greatest Rock Band in America)—might get wise to hucksters like Aerosmith. I submit to you that it’s because of dads. All of them. All of our collective dads. American dadhood in general.

Our dads are embarrassing, goofy, and lame. Their hearts are in the right place, but they try too hard at the wrong things. They are just guys figuring things out as they go, but by the time we realize that, it’s too late because we’ve already built the resentments and anger towards them. They are guys who have a hard time realizing we aren’t little kids anymore and that, as much as we’d all like that, there is no way to get back that time. So, even though a lot of the mistakes they make are understandable or even for the right reasons, it’s still hard to forgive him. (Think of Liv Tyler, so emblematic of the catastrophe of American parent-child relations, being that she longed to know him, but couldn’t because she was busy being raised by Todd Rundgren of all people.)

So, as you can see, my relationship with Aerosmith, not unlike my relationship with my dad, is complicated. I look back on records like Toys in the Attic and I try to look past Revolution X, that awful videogame they were in, their dumb cameos in Wayne’s World 2 and Be Cool, those desperate attempts to cling to stardom by aligning themselves with the pop world, and their insistence upon still gyrating their hips into their guitars past retirement age, but I can’t. As much as I want to, it’s hard for me to forget those scarves flying out of everywhere like some bad magician when I am trying to enjoy the surprisingly melodic “No More No More.” It’s hard to nod my head to the good enough “Toys in the Attic” without thinking about the Cocked, Locked, and Ready to Rock Tour of 2010, or the band’s cozy relationship with professional phony Lenny Kravitz.

Even the problem of memory, though, reminds me of my dad. I’d like to think back to the time period when I first encountered Toys in the Attic without messy facts about my own dad emerging around the edge of my memory like detritus. I want to think back fondly on those days when he was teaching me how to work-in a baseball glove, how to pump gas, and how rock ‘n’ roll worked, without the recollection being smeared by estrangement and hostility. I’d like to look back on those trips in my dad’s car, driving around in the little blue Hyundai, listening to Aerosmith singles crackling from the radio, without looking past decades of debris; ruined Christmases, bitter arguments, or what his blood alcohol content was on his third DUI.

My dad was sort of an average type of dad and by that I mean he worked a job he hated, told a lot of bad jokes, and really liked Aerosmith. He had been in a band when he was a teenager. They broke up and reformed, replacing him with Tommy Hilfiger's brother Billy, of all people. I guess they ended up playing a few shows at CBGBs. I don’t think my dad ever got over the fact that he never became a rock star. So, despite or because of the disappointments of his youth, rock ‘n’ roll was very important to him. He taught me that Richard Thompson had the gift of story-craft and that Neil Peart was the most important drummer since Buddy Rich but that Mick Fleetwood was his favorite, and that Clapton was God.

“That’s Aerosmith,” he explained to me when I was eight and we heard “Sweet Emotion” on local rock station PYX 106. When we got home he plucked the Toys in the Attic cassette from his own collection and he gave it to me. I guess that for the entirety of the rest of my life I’ve been trying to get back to that moment of first hearing them because it’s been sort of all downhill for all of us since then.

Even though my dad saw himself as a failure, he wasn’t to me. I would look at old pictures of him playing drums in a cowboy hat and long blond hair, or picking on a guitar in his dorm room and he was a rock star, right up there in the constellation that contained Hendrix and Dylan. Because that is what kids do. They look at their dads like they are superheroes. Until they don’t. That is what kids do until they discover that their dads are just human beings, mixed-up guys who are doing the best they can, and often making a lot of mistakes.

Like most dads, Aerosmith is corporate, not living their dreams, but they are still going to work every day regardless. They are corny and silly. They are not the infallible superheroes we thought they were back when we were kids. They are flawed, sad, and human, making a profit on a product no one really wants, but doing it because they think that’s what their kids need. In that way, it seems less like they are sellouts and more like they are just guys, doing a job. Just stuck in a bad situation they don’t know how to escape.

And so now I’m a dad. I have my own hang-ups and problems, and one day my kid will hold resentments about all of them. So far I’ve taught him to love music, though, and I feel it’s my responsibility to carry on the tradition of listening to Aerosmith in the car with my kid. Do I feel 100% on board with it? Not really, but there are other traditions I'm not fully on board with that I participate in because that is what dads do with their sons. Like Christmas. Like telling bad jokes. Like making a lot of mistakes.

While I can't look back on the songs from Toys in the Attic without seeing embarrassments like the Gap ad Perry and Tyler did in the 90s and terrible music like Honking on Bobo, my son doesn’t have that problem. He just hears music for what it is and doesn’t come at it with a lot of baggage, which makes me sort of happy. I guess only children can hear Aerosmith for the first time the way any of us did, before the Armageddon soundtrack, before Dad died, before MTV. In a way, it gives us all a chance to start over.

So, when I hear “Sweet Emotion” come on the radio, I will turn it up and, even though I won’t be able to forget all the stuff that drives me nuts about them, I’ll tell my son, "Ya hear that, kid? That is Aerosmith." Because that is what dads do.

—Matt Meade

#230: Bonnie Raitt, "Nick of Time" (1989)

The second-saddest song of all timelines is “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn. Disagree? That’s cool, but you’re wrong. Want to physically fight me about it? Sure. Whatever. Get in line. Before we start throwing ‘bows though, hear me out.

It’s a song about regret, we can agree on that, right? The track opens with its speaker posted up alone in a Swedish discotheque, where she happens across a recent ex; it’s immediately clear she’s still in love with this person. Clad in a weird, bright feather-vest (per the now-infamous music video), Robyn dances like a woman possessed, like she’s fending something off. But that’s because she is.

          I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh oh oh
          I’m right over here, why can’t you see me, oh oh oh
          I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home, ooh
          I keep dancing on my own

On the surface, there’s really nothing special about these lines. By the end of the song, though, it’s clear that’s something’s missing, and it’s something we really want to know: what exactly caused this relationship to fail?

We’re never given a forthright answer. After taking in the entire track, though—Robyn’s lunatic dance moves, her insistent, uncomfortable voyeurism—an answer begins to take shape, at least implicitly: She blames herself.

There’s a quiet wistfulness in the song, a distance from and respect for her ex-lover’s situation that, to me, an esteemed scholar of Norwegian dance-pop, implies that the speaker feels responsible for her relationship ending.

And this is where the real weight of sadness enters. Breakups suck. So does being racked with guilt and self-blame. Honestly, though, I think we all get that, and have since we were like 11 years old. “Dancing on My Own” is so affecting not because of what the song is about, but because of how Robyn handles it. The singer’s futility, but more importantly her inability to come to terms with it head-on, to speak its name, is what breaks my heart.

She has to turn away. She has to.

Enter Bonnie Raitt, whose music was the initial inspiration for this labyrinth, Harry-Potter-hedge-maze-at-the-TriWizard-Tourney of an essay.

You’ve probably heard “Nick of Time,” the title track from her lauded 10th studio album (also the name of a terrible 90s political thriller starring Johnny Depp—lots of sorrow there, too). It’s an initially woeful, anxiety-ridden meditation on the monolithic progression of time, how age overtakes us all, wholly and unrelenting.

In the song’s final verse, though, all of that changes. On the cusp of hopelessness, Raitt is rescued. “Just when I thought I’d had enough / And all my tears were shed,” she sings, “I found love, baby / Love in the nick of time.” And then there are fireworks, a wedding, etc. You get it. The song ends happily.

Question: So you’re saying a song that resolves itself and is actually really uplifting is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard?

Answer: Yup.

Hold on to your kids and pets, people, this take is hot enough to burn.

No, I don’t despair in the happiness of others. At least not all the time. And even though the last movement in “Nick of Time” is ostensibly one of total reconciliation, this doesn’t change just how devastating it is to me.

Ok, so the structure of the song is straightforward enough—there are three verses, a bridge, a few brief refrains, and a chorus. I’ve told you enough about the last one, but her first two verses are the ones worth talking about—complicated and bleak and strange—these are the ones that eviscerate me.

Raitt opens with “A friend of mine she cries at night / And calls me on the phone / She sees babies everywhere she goes / And she wants one of her own.” The friend’s fear, ultimately, is that she will soon be too old to have the child she so desperately wants: “She’s scared, scared she’ll run out of time.”

On a purely narrative level, this verse is pretty affecting. For me, though, the real suffering in these lines comes from somewhere else. Before spelling this out (because that would be too easy and I prefer sticking it to the man), it’s worth taking a look at the next verse in the song, since the pair enforces each other, and both work in the same way.

Next, the singer turns to her parents. “I see my folks, they’re getting old / And I watch their bodies change,” she says. The same refrain marks the end of this verse as well, a singular line standing by itself: “Scared to run out of time.”

So I have this friend, right. It’s not me. No, really, it’s not me. But he, I mean she, has this weird rash on her foot, and I’m wondering, for her, which anti-fungal cream works best.

If you heard me say this, you would be next to certain that I had a weird rash on my foot. It’s the oldest, and worst, deception technique that exists. In my mind, when Bonnie Raitt talks about the fears of her friend, and the deterioration of her parents, she’s actually talking about herself.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the last verse of the song is explicitly about the singer. “Just when I thought I’d had enough / And all my tears were shed,” it starts, “You came along and showed me / How to leave it all behind / You opened up my heart again / And then to my surprise / I found love, baby / Love in the nick of time.” This erases any doubt to me that all of the earlier fears expressed belong to Raitt more than anyone else.

When this first occurred to me, I was wrecked.

I had heard “Nick of Time” before, but really hadn’t paid much attention to it. To be honest, this essay started about Raitt and the complicated image of Americana, and it would have turned out fine. Like being caught in a thunderstorm I didn’t see coming, though, I was overwhelmed by something bigger than me. I was soaking wet and I didn’t want to be.

I’m ashamed of a lot of things, and I have a lot of insecurities, too. For the most part I’m too afraid to admit them. This could be because I care too much about how people think of me, I’m not actually sure. My job, for example, is one of them. As a freelance writer, it sometimes feels like I’m not actually employed. That’s hard for me to admit, and it makes me self-conscious, especially when I’m surrounded by so many passionate, ultra-successful people my same age.

So often I just won’t talk about it, that is, until something good happens. I recently started writing for a well-known local publication, interviewing high-profile visual artists and writing about their work. I love doing it, and it’s respectable in my mind,  so of course I’ll bring this up in conversation.

This is very likely just projection on my part, but I see this entire complex playing itself out in “Nick of Time.” Be it from shame, or fear, or both, Raitt addresses her real fears, but does so behind a paper mask. Only in the end, when things find a neat resolution, does she come out and claim success.

At this point I should clarify: I fully believe Robyn and Bonnie Raitt are aware of what they're doing, and the speakers in their songs are personas—in literary terms, the unreliable narrator. Whether or not they're intended to represent themselves or meant to depict a complicated and painfully human emotional complex, I can't say.

What I can say, though, is that both of these songs represent something important in the realm of the ballad. Sad music is my thing. Ask anyone: sometimes I will actually bench press while listening to the Sun Kil Moon's cover of "Ocean Breathes Salty."

While it's impossible to say what exactly draws us to melancholy music, one thing is for sure: there is so much of it that sucks. Without throwing out names like Hawthorne Heights or Aerosmith, I'll say that there are probably at least 100 terrible sad songs for each one worth listening to.

Music is music, though, so a lot of this is way too subjective and visceral to understand, but there's something special, and something definite, about these two. Here's what I know. The actual content of a ballad is endlessly repeated: lost love, death, uncertainty. We've heard it all.

For me, what's more important than showing suffering in these tracks is showing how suffering is dealt with. And honestly, it's not pretty.

It's full of self-deceit and insecurity, of people not knowing how to face difficulty, so they turn away. It's painfully vulnerable. It's human. It's so meaningful to me because I've handled difficulty this same way, and I'll probably continue to.

For example, right now, I’m thinking of excuses to give my old friends about why I can’t go to our ten-year high school reunion this year, since running into that weird kid who’s now a NASA engineer doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Here’s a list of the good ones: car problems, copperhead bite, too many people ask for my autograph whenever I go back home.

Yeah, they’re all actually terrible, and this is probably a pretty bad way of dealing with a problem, but at least I guess I can admit that now.

—Jack McLaughlin

#231: Queen, "A Night at the Opera" (1975)

I'll be frank about the bad part: I'm not always the best employee, or always the best person to be around. I can broadly agree, I did not love my last job at the restaurant. Also, I'm pretty sure there were at least three or four good candidates to get fired ahead of me. There are still some persons in the employ of Southern Exposure: A Farm-to-Table Bistro who have stolen from the establishment, and astoundingly are known to have done so by the owner, who is a pale, cowardly fellow, always mumbling about why his managers are keeping him in debt (but never firing them either). So to the Tuesday crew who did me in, the surly small-timing of the brunch cooks, and that two-legged endlessly-gobbling sphincter of an owner: you can all do one in hell.

On the way in last Tuesday, I was walking through the tall grass of the empty lot, and I stepped on something huddled in the rough. I half-realized as I was stepping the ground was uneven, but couldn't keep my foot light enough not to crush the newborn squirrel that I found beneath the nonslip restaurant clogs I had on. Jenny told me later newborn squirrels often get pushed out of the nest when they're young, and has since insisted several times that I didn't kill the little thing. Still, not a great commute to work. And a night that begins that way goes the way it goes.

I threw the squirrel-squashing clogs in the dumpster when I left out the back door.

Having a sudden and newfound space for thought and analysis in my life, I have begun cataloguing the circus. The contents of my house and life: (one) live-in girlfriend of six years, Jenny; (one) Dachshund mix, Justice; (one) overweight grey tabby mix, Freddie; a fine automobile (one) 1989 Saab 900, which still starts every time; (one) set of bocce balls which we throw from the porch on Sundays every now and again when Jenny’s off work; plenty (approximately 24 bottles) of cold drinking-beers; and some (one-half bottle) Armagnac that smells like dried flowers. The rest could burn down tomorrow, I wouldn’t care.

We don’t own the house, and that makes me nervous the more things feel like they should settle down and take root. Our rent is probably too low, and that makes staying here the right answer. But it still makes me feel like a tourist here, or some kind of undercover anthropologist, bedding in to try and get the scoop out of the neighbors, except I don’t know what my mission is beyond the first steps. Dutifully, I’ve catalogued them, and done my best to figure them out. The contents of the neighborhood seem scattered on the surface, but I have come to believe in the past two years we have lived here that there is an underlying order to things. We have a magnificent Southern front porch, and I spend a good deal of time observing from it the orchestral qualities of the movements of the street that in unsuspecting moments reveal themselves, sudden and full of accidental perfection, and unmistakable intention.

There’s the bungalow across the street, which is neatly trimmed with flower boxes, and inhabited by an equally fussy and charming lady, Mary, who plows a lonely furrow in her war against the immorality of the street. Her neighbors left are renters and hell-raisers. Her neighbors to the right keep the house completely closed off and manufacture drugs of the new modern sort, and there are several long-term occupants who come and go in various states. They do yard work on Sundays to make sure no one from Code Enforcement has complaint. Cars come and go, and a few nondescript no-minders mosey in, and mosey on, and mostly things are quiet. I'll say this, as a heads-up, though: there is one lady who has had several crises out in the street, so if she yells at you, just know she's having a bad day, and her life's work has been a mighty effort, and her day-to-day now involves powerful and perhaps little-understood substances. Mary comes across the street sometimes, to talk to us about the state of the neighborhood cats, and perhaps to glare at her neighbors from new angles—maybe try to catch a peep between curtains to see the evidence of some powerful narcotics empire, but I think I am satisfied that these are no kingpins.

The house on our right (Mary’s left) was foreclosed the other day. It's got the giant padlock on the front door now. A very quiet, wispy lady with long hair lived there, and I don't know what the story is. She seemed to have been gone long before the padlock. I like to imagine if I got a letter telling me it'd all gone belly-up in my life that I'd slip away in the night like that. Neat, quiet, with the traffic from the neighborhood and the birds chirping and the backyard neighbor’s chickens milling about, and everyone would just say, "Used to there was a fella who lived there. Don't know what come of him, though," and my new life would feel as open and as settled as the echoes I would leave. As such things go, I reckon it'd be the best way to dip. But still. That padlock seems a bit heavy, like it's pulling at the whole door frame, and the house's foundation. I get that something’s got to happen with an unpaid house, but I wouldn't ever personally buy a house straight from foreclosure, because no matter what you tell yourself, it’s a nasty business.

When Jenny has back-to-back-to-back shifts in the hospital, I end up with a lot of time sitting on the front porch. You could hardly have a more pleasant porch to sit and think when the weather is nice. I think sometimes about how it would be with a big ceiling fan above, though. The mosquitoes come worse each summer. But it's a damn reasonable porch when the sun lets go in the evening. We usually get a bit of breeze mumbling down the hill towards the village.

I was out the other night, sat in the big rocking chair my roommate Brad had left behind when he moved out, and that night was the first good and hot one of the new season. I had my jeans and my boots still on, and even with the buttons undid on my shirt, I still could feel the heat coming together and rising up inside my body, starting in my feet like one of those animated diagrams of oil drilling in the science museum. My mouth was dry, and my beer bottle was empty and sticky. It was already deep into night where I’d just sat down for a minute to watch the sun cut flat across the neighbor’s trees, and without knowing, I'd let myself slip through the sunset drinking beers with all manner of notions trickling through my head until it was night, and none of the lights were on. I felt like I would need to eat something and get a Gatorade in me before I came unstuck.

I walked the uneven sidewalk panels down to Frank’s Key West Allnite Store, which is the neighborhood’s divebar equivalent to a normal 7-11. Frank is probably dead, but he loved Key West, whoever he was, and the shop is covered in fake palm leaves like he’s waiting for Jesus on the donkey. But it’s the only joint in the neighborhood open past ten, so it often takes on a strange energy—especially when the season changes.

When I turned the corner to the parking lot, I found I had to go around where three squad cars had cornered a couple of teens against a brick wall, with the blue lights dancing across the laundromat and the brick wall on either side of the Allnite store. I was going in the door when it touched off. One of the officers was using that needling voice that the hall principals in my high school had always used, asking with a little grease in his voice why if they hadn’t been doing anything that they had ducked back down the alley and hustled to the store. And it looked like one of the kids gave him a sassy shrug, and there was a loud rustle and the exchange of fuck you’s, and I watched one of the cops grab a kid by the ankles and tip him all the way upside down like a saltshaker, and the kid’s phone and his keys and his wallet scattered out. Another cop gave me a look like, move along, son, so I did and I let the door fall away behind me as I went in. The girl at the counter was looking at me like I’d started all that, but it was cool and bright inside, and the blue lights felt less urgent under the even fluorescence of the overhead lights, tempered by the fake palm trees. I began to feel suddenly very hungry. While I was in line, a different one of the cops came in and bought a few waters from the coldbox next to me, and gave me one of those, Citizen, nods.

When I was walking out, the kids were tucked neatly into the back of a car, and the cops were gathered around another car, with the doors open and the engine running, and they scribbled away at their reports. A big SUV tried to squeeze into one of the open parking spots, and a red-faced fellow got out and moseyed by me to put his cigarette out before going into the store.

I took the long-way loop around the block so I wouldn’t have to tread the same path twice on the way back to the house. The night felt more and more humid, and nearby someone had been smoking some great hunk of pig that hung around everywhere. It could have been before ten, or it could have pushed past midnight. I didn’t know how to read where the stars were for clues, and I still didn’t feel like going back home when the time to turn came. So I took another block in stride, with the odd car-blown breeze passing by me like some mercy from the heat.

At the top of the hill, I reached the point of return—a church on the outcropping with a giant red sign that reads JESUS SAVES, and everyone who lives along the river can see. At the top of the hill, with the dark river below, and some of the airport lights showing in the distance, I sat down on the safety railing by the side of the road and caught a little breeze. From here, I could see through a few trees toward the hospital, where Jenny would be until the sun was coming up, and when she came home, she would draw the blackout curtains tight and cuddle up next to me with her big quilt, because we slept underneath the window unit, which blows cold and steady, and, with its rumbling hum, blocks out the noises from the block, and makes our little room feel like it moves along in its own time.

The walk back felt clean and direct after sitting in the river breeze. It felt like I had begun to absorb some of the Gatorade, and my mind felt clear. Shapes in the dark felt sharp, and friendly. I could see into the houses where people were still up. At the edge of our block, from the alleyway, I could see lights still on in the new neighbors’ house behind us—whose names I forgot within minutes of their saying hello—and from somewhere deep behind the closed curtains and walls, I heard a TV going. It must have been blasting, but from outside, all I could hear was the theme song from The Simpsons.

I climbed up to the porch and sat again for a moment in the rocking chair. Freddie sidled up to me, and then hopped onto my lap, shoving his brittle-boned head into my hands again and again. He curled up after a few minutes and didn't leave my lap until I realized he was leaping up, and dashing down the porch where Jenny's car had pulled into the driveway. The horn beeped once when she locked it, and there she was, her rain jacket draped over her arm, lunch bag, purse, and her bag with her work clothes, and when she saw me in the chair, the early sun not yet shining down on where I sat, she didn't give the scolding look, or ask me why I had been sleeping on our front porch. She smiled, and I said, "I'm so glad you're home, my love."

—Aaron Fallon

#232: The Kinks, "The Kink Kronikles" (1972)

One

In the summer of 2010, when I was living in London, it rained every single day in August. I was renting a small room in a small house in central Ilford, a town about 9 miles northeast of Charing Cross. There were seven people altogether living in this house. Three men from Nepal made curries and momos at all hours, the scent wafting up the stairwell and under the door of my room so I would wake suddenly in the middle of the night, salivating and hungry. I existed on a steady diet of tortilla pizzas and spaghetti that I cooked in a Tupperware container in the microwave, not possessing the pots and pans needed for anything more elaborate. I knew that I was lucky to be living just nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, but sometimes, on my seventh tortilla pizza of the week, I felt slightly less lucky. At night I listened to the mice scamper across the floor. After one ran over me as I lay curled up under my duvet, I declared war on them. I put out poison and traps slathered with peanut butter. My mother, during a Skype call, warned me against the poison: the mice would eat it and then crawl into their home in the walls to die, whereupon their stench would enmesh itself in my tiny rented room forever.

“Don’t worry,” my dad said. “Mice are small. It’s not like it’s a raccoon or a groundhog or something.”

The August rain was not always a storm. In fact, it was almost never a storm, which made it even worse. I was used to lightning, thunder, skies that turned green and elicited tornado sirens, whereupon everyone in the neighborhood immediately stood outside their door, head tilted up at the sky. There was one day in London when it hailed, and I took shelter from the small pebbles of ice beneath a tree in a nearby park. But for the most part, the London rain was a drizzle. There were days when the sun would shine nearly the entire day, only to disappear behind rain clouds for fifteen minutes in the afternoon, just as I was, inevitably, setting out to walk to the grocery store or settling down in the park with a book. Every time it rained, I wanted to rage. This, I told anyone who would listen (which was no one), was why the first colonists had left England. This rain.

 

Two

See me, age 23, two suitcases in hand, boarding a flight to Heathrow. I had a haircut last week. I have bangs again. Since I don’t own a blow dryer, they aren’t working out very well. When I arrive at Heathrow, the immigration officers detain me. They make me sit on a bench next to the customs booths for an hour, then they take me to a large white room with flickering fluorescent lights and interrogation chambers and a woman in a miniskirt and tank top, who sits on one of the long wooden benches, sobbing. An officer takes me into one of the rooms to interrogate me. She brings me a Styrofoam cup of tea, which I don’t drink, but it gives me something to do with my hands as I lift the teabag in and out of the tepid water. When I am released, the woman is still there, still crying.

 

Three

Sometimes, I heard the Kinks singing to me as I sat on the bed in my tiny room in Ilford, nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, staring at the crack between the wall and the floor where the mice entered. My father introduced me to the Kinks when I was still in high school; before I left for college, he’d given me The Kink Kronikles as a parting gift. The songs from the album repeated themselves for me, a daily soundtrack. What are we living for? Two-roomed apartment on the second floor, the Kinks sang, reminding me that they had warned me about London, even before I’d arrived. They’d told me how it would be. No money coming in, they sang. I had no job. My American passport had made a work visa an impossibility, and so I was there on a tourist visa, my departing flight on the very day that visa expired. We both want to work so hard, I sang under my breath as I worked on grad school applications, studied for the GREs, anything to keep myself busy. We can’t get the chance. I spent a weekend cat-sitting for a friend of a friend. I’m allergic to cats. I made 40 pounds.

My intention with this essay was to write a love story about my relationship with London. A real love story, the kind that transcends time and place and language, the kind that reverberates in your head like the echoes of church bells or tornado sirens or cicadas. But instead, all I hear is the Kinks. People are dying on dead end street, they remind me, as if to say that since I moved out of that rented room nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, I dodged a bullet. The bulk of my memories of London are not of that room, not of the incessant rain, and yet, when I think about the city, when I look back on my time there, that is what is most clear.

This was the reason I was detained entering the United Kingdom: on my port-of-entry card, the one that all tourists fill out when entering the country, where it asked how long my stay would be, I wrote, in finely printed block letters, “SIX MONTHS.”

 

Four

Six months ago, I received my absentee ballot in the mail. I went to happy hour with a friend and, with her as my witness, filled in the oval indicating my choice for president. Just three weeks after that, the rest of the country went to the polls. That evening, I watched the election results with friends, texting with my sister, frantically refreshing The New York Times. A lot can change in six months.

When I lived in London for six months, after immigration decided that despite planning on staying the entire time allocated to me by my tourist visa, I had no plans to work illegally, after my passport was returned to me, a neat little stamp in its pages and a handwritten note confirming my “leave to enter/remain until/for SIX MONTHS,” a group of friends and I rented a houseboat and spent a week in Norfolk, traveling the length of the canals. Every day, I had a new injury. I fell and chipped my tooth. I fell and bruised my knee so badly that I limped for weeks afterwards. I fell and bruised my shin, resulting in a raised red welt. I fell, I fell, I fell. I fell holding a squirt gun, and my friends laughed, said how much I must love guns because I’m American. All Americans love guns, they said. Or if they don’t all love them, enough do, because America has a gun problem, America has gun violence, and it’s our fault for being American. I wanted to protest, not their words, but their tone, their condescension and bitterness, their ease at placing me with the rest of these anonymous Americans, but instead I pressed my palm to my latest injury until the pain began to ebb.

 

Five

Ten months ago, on the morning of June 24, 2016, I woke at 1 a.m. and checked the news. Britain had shocked the world, I read. I spoke with a friend from London, who tried to cheer me up, tried to say it wouldn’t be as bad as the Remain campaigners had predicted. In the middle of the night, it is easy to be fatalistic. I said, “Well, at least this day is probably worse for David Cameron.”

London voted Remain, but was overwhelmed by votes in the rest of England and Wales. It should have been a sign for me. It wasn’t. My confidence knew no bounds. “I’m not worried,” I said six months ago. “I’m just excited.”

A lot can change in six months.

And yet—at the risk of extending this already-shaky metaphor too far—here’s the thing: I don’t believe in dead end streets. Not in the real, physical sense, or maybe I do mean that, too, for in the movies, there’s always a fence to climb over, a doorway to duck into, a narrow opening to shimmy through. In real life, it’s never so easy as that, but still, I don’t believe in dead ends. And so, even now, I’m searching for that fence, that doorway, that tiny opening, as small as the one the mice used to sneak into my London room, and I’m tearing at it, ripping away the carpet, pulling up the floorboards, smashing the girders and beams, mice be damned, and I’m digging, and I’m digging, and I’m digging.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#233: The Byrds, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965)

The climax of discomfort for me at Robinson Secondary was the middle school dances, where we crammed into a cafeteria with censored pop playing from a carpeted stage. I stayed in a cluster of my three loyal friends. My three loyal friends, who wore rhinestones on Limited Too T-shirts and wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction in their rooms late at night. I jumped up and down to music, my hair frizzing from the collective body heat of grinding 8th graders. Someone always said, “Watch it! Your ponytail just hit my face!” I was so relieved when the lights flicked on and the cafeteria was fluorescent-bright and safe again, telling us it was time to go home.

Middle school was a tedious and self-conscious two years. It was then that I entered a phase. I became fascinated with the 1960s and 70s. The phase came from a perfect storm of places. One: I noticed our U.S. History syllabus always stopped at the end of World War II (“Not surprising,” my dad would say), which gave the following decades a certain mystique. Two: I discovered a Polaroid album of my parents from high school. The album included a photo of my dad hanging upside down from a basketball hoop with an afro of brown curls, and another of my mom with sun-bleached hair down to her elbows, leaning against a door frame with her eyes shut, and smiling. I studied the album many times, the glue in its binding cracking every time it was reopened.

My 60s-70s fascination was fueled when my dad bought a clunky VHS set from the History Channel. Every video featured a different decade. One night I reached for the unexplained decades, the skimmed-over, disappearing pages of my public school education: 1960-1969 and  1970-1979. That night in my bedroom, I watched America revolt and explode from the prim, bubblegum early 60s to full revolution. I watched young soldiers wading through swampy grasses and students walking out of classes to march on their campuses. I was moved by the magnitude of change. I rewound the footage and watched again. Middle school felt very insignificant.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my parents asked me that year.

“I want all your favorite albums from when you were growing up.”

That’s what you want?

On Christmas morning my strange request was met. I was given two stacks of my parents’ favorite albums, each cover with bell-bottomed, hazy-faced singers. There was nothing hot and edgy about them. As my parents interrupted each other to defend their favorite albums, I doubted my Christmas present (all morning: “Really! You’ve never heard of Crosby, Stills & Young?” “I don’t think so.” “Just stunning harmonies.”). One day my dad told me to listen to the song “Mr. Tambourine Man” from the Byrds album of the same name. I sat in front of my bedroom stereo and listened. I didn’t even know what it was about, but the melody rose and fell in me in the best, most bittersweet way.

The Byrds were campy and harmonious, somewhere in between the sugary early 60s and the rock to come. They felt unthreatening. The DJ-scratching, sexualized pop of middle school dances made me feel false as I sang, “SO take off all your CLOTHES!” I started to bring my Walkman to middle school, playing my parents’ music in my ears, so that I was protected in a sort of time bubble of the History Channel decades: 1960-1969, 1970-1979. “I wish I lived in the 60s,” I told my dad once. “Things were actually happening. I wish I was a part of something big.” I was corrected. He told me the country was a divided mess, and I wouldn’t want to live in a time like that. Fifteen years after that conversation, I’m sitting in a time just like thata hot, divided mess.

Eventually, I stopped listening on repeat to the albums my parents gave me, as I learned to discover the music happening around me. But while the phase continued, I nagged my parents for frontline stories of social upheaval: “Did you go to protests??!” “No, not really.” “But was it crazy?!” My parents weren’t as interested in sharing stories about marches and flag burnings. They wanted to tell us about the time they went skinny dipping in the neighborhood pool with all their friends and almost got arrested. How the cops shone the flashlight at their best friend, the moment he was jumping nude on the high dive. Or the time they threw rolls of toilet paper around a rival school, and ran away into the woods as the sirens came. They told these stories again and again, interrupting each other, laughing until crying. I envied them and their stories.

My parents, unlike me, had lived fully in their school worlds, the national turbulence a blurry background behind their first loves and friendships. Meanwhile, I sought escape into history, into music that nobody was listening to anymore in the 8th grade. When my parents didn’t indulge my fascination with the past, I came back to my Christmas gift albumsthe homesick folk, the sunny California Byrds, the croaky, raw Dylan. What I didn’t know then was that things were happening in my time, things worth fighting for and writing music about. I just didn’t know how to be a part of it yet.

—Rachel Mason

#234: Simon & Garfunkel, "Bookends" (1968)

In her mind, she sees her life on the shelves. A display piece. Various conversation starters. It’s categorized. Organized in its dishevelment. Each phase confined with bookends. Hidden corners of her consciousness, loves and hatreds represented in LPs, foldable geographical maps, bound recipes, Steinbeck novels, ticket stubs, boarding passes, turnpike receipts, strayed packets of vanilla sugar, pressed flowers, napkins with various notes written on them, mailed postcards. Each oddity associated with memory; each memory evoking the recollection of a million different conversations.

She pulls piece by piece from the black bookcase in her living room and places each item in one of the small cardboard boxes she’s collected over the last week from friends, friends of friends, coworkers, the side of the dumpster by the craft store just down the street. She’s labeled some of the boxes. “Kitchen.” “Baking.” “Clothes.” “Bathroom.” She thinks of all the labels people have given her: “Low Life.” “Accomplished.” “Cold.” “Empathetic.” “Cowardly.” “Courageous.” “Weak.” “Strong.” Each ironic in its duality. Contradicting in its nature. All somehow simultaneously true.

She tapes up the small box and carries it to the couch a few feet from the front door. The floor space is already occupied by stacked barstools from the breakfast nook, luggage from the closets, a desk piled high with pillows and comforters. A walkway exists to the door and to the record player. Simon and Garfunkel can be heard through the speakers, despite the corner of the mattress somewhat muzzling them. The three-chord progression on acoustic guitarBookends’ opening themeseems fitting in its finality. In her head she sings the chorus that doesn’t yet follow in the introduction. Time it was, oh what a time it was, it was, a time of innocence, a time of confidences. She steps back over boxes packed full of Sylvia Plath, Timothy Ferriss, Susanna Kaysen, Heston Blumenthal, Allen Ginsberg, Edna Lewis, and Jack Kerouac, languid in the task of packing up the rest of that particular bookcase.

There are more empty boxes in the bedroom and as she heads to the back of the house to grab another, her feet sound slightly heavy on the floorboards. Had her father still been alive, he could have explained every detail of how the acoustics in a room shift with its contents. The walls barren of all the art she’d collected and framed photographs she’d once hung seem to amplify the placing of one foot in front of another as she nears the shelf again. It’s weird seeing the house so lifeless where she’s spent the last decade. Nearly a third of her existence held within its walls. A sanctuary and torture chamber. A place of growth and backslide. The ground beneath her feet after too long spent hopping from one shitty apartment to the next every few months. A space for regained consciousness after years of oblivion. For healing after death. In front of that bookshelfsometimes pow-wowed on the floor, sometimes relinquished to her chaise loungeshe had bookended spats of depression between heroin-addicted companions and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Save the Life of My Child.” She had bookended previous heartbreak between an empty bottle and a newfound love of traveling blossomed from money saved in sobriety. She had bookended the most previous phase of her life between trade school as a chefwith its subsequent job at Ludivineand the lyrics: When she goes, she’s gone. The girl does what she wants to do. She knows what she wants to do. And she’s no longer faking it; she’s really making it.

She pulls down the bookends holding upright her collection of atlases and travel paraphernalia. The distance from Oklahoma City to Austin: 388 miles. Austin to New Orleans: 511 miles. New Orleans to Pensacola: 202 miles. She pulls down her binders full of recipes and notes. Past down wisdoms of flavor blending. The best recipe for chicken and spinach veloute. The secrets for properly preparing salmon en croute. The atlases, travel paraphernalia, her amassed cooking bible, however, will not be boxed for storage, but left readily available in her backpack.

The gentle humming of Simon and Garfunkelthe opening of the album’s fourth trackwarmly fills the room, and for a second, she feels flush. It’s one thing to long hold a dream, another to execute it. One thing to look at the cracked-road behind you, another to willingly carve an unpaved path ahead. She takes a long breath and while exhaling sings the last line of the song’s first stanza, a hint of timidity in her voice: I’ve come to look for America. She thinks about the guest chef spots she’s already booked at restaurants in three different states. She thinks about camping out of her car and trailer hitch for a while, just like John Steinbeck did in My Travels with Charley. She thinks of all she’ll learn about the culture of creole food in New Orleans and fresh seafood in Florida. She thinks about how she’ll become rounded as a chef and a person, meeting new people, absorbing different traditions, interacting with those unlike her. She thinks about the millions of different backgrounds that lie ahead, the diverse stories, those who have overcome obstacles of a different spectrum, an entirely new color palate of flavor. A melting pot. A stew, they often call it. She imagines digesting it all deep in the belly of herself.

Around her, she sees the boxes and stacked furniture of her past. In her mind, she sees a future of sharing a love for diversity with each dish. The Simon and Garfunkel song crescendos into its climax and she sings louder than before: They’ve all come to look for America. All come to look for America. All come to look for America.

Angela Morris

#235: Patsy Cline, "The Ultimate Collection" (2000)

When I was eleven years old, my older sister ran a red light without even slowing. It must have been the end of the school year—she was looking through her yearbook while driving. Her junior prom dress was in the trunk. The car she hit sat yards from us afterward—the force of the crash must have shoved the two vehicles apart, like a chaperone to a couple of horny teens. My other older sister, a year younger than the first, was strapped into the passenger seat. When they looked back at me my nose was bleeding; I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me. That’s how numb it was, how broken. The other driver was a much older man, angry and discombobulated and unrelenting in his angry discombobulation. When the police arrived, my sister and I walked to the grocery store across the street to find a pay phone and wash my face. I was so afraid of driving afterward that I wouldn’t get my license until more than a decade later, at 23 years old. My sister took driving classes and was back on the road within the year.

*

On June 14, 1961, Patsy Cline is thrown through the windshield of her brother Sam’s car when another driver pulls out right in front of them to try and pass from the adjoining lane. The head-on collision gives Patsy a broken wrist, a dislocated hip, and cracked bones and lacerations on her face. She is 28 years old; her first major crossover hit, “I Fall to Pieces,” is only just beginning to make the rounds on stations across the country. Her friend Dottie West rushes there as soon as she gets word, sits picking glass from Patsy’s hair at the scene of the accident. Days later Dottie will call Patsy in the hospital so she can hear “Pieces,” through the phone line, for the first time on the radio. Back on the night of the accident, first responders fly to Patsy’s side on arrival but she insists they tend to the other car’s occupants first. She watches the other driver die there, on the road that night, despite their best efforts. The six-year-old boy they drive to the hospital will later that night succumb to his injuries as well.

The effect on Patsy is eternal and unavoidable. She tells Dottie, about the other driver, “It was like maybe I watched her die for a reason.” She questions what God could want from her out of this. There is a scar now the width of her pinky finger running across the length of her brow and up into her scalp, beneath her hair. For the rest of her life, she wears headbands tightly across her forehead to keep the headaches to a minimum; she kneels in the bathroom and rests her face against the cool bathroom tile when this doesn’t work. She lives with blackouts and layers of concealer. She only lives another 21 months.

*

On August 30, 1991, Dottie West’s Chrysler New Yorker sputters out in front of the Belle Mead theater in downtown Nashville. Kenny Rogers had given her the car just the year before, as she’d been working through the repossession of her home and most other worldly possessions in an effort to pay two and a half million in back taxes. Now it’s dead and she’s late for a gig at the Opry. Before long, her 80-year-old neighbor George spots her on the side of the road and offers to take her the rest of the way. She’s late for the Opry. She’s trying her damndest to make things right again, tonight and in her life. She is 58 years old and they still want her at the Opry. She tells George to book it.

It isn’t until his Plymouth Reliant takes the Opryland exit ramp going 30 over the posted speed limit and Dottie is suddenly airborne that everything comes into perspective. It’s a split second that feels exactly like a split second and at the same time lasts for years. She and George hit the underpass head-on. When the sirens arrive, she remembers Patsy—has spent it seems her whole life remembering Patsy—and tells the EMTs that she feels fine, that they should tend to George first. And it’s true: she does feel fine. A little sore, but adrenalized. She can walk, though she doesn’t. She can talk and think clearly. The problems, it will turn out only later that night, are everything they can’t see. A ruptured spleen, a liver torn practically to shreds, internal bleeding like a softly blooming flower. She is dead four and a half days later, her family at her side. George lives another six years and change.

*

The only time I’ve ever ridden in a cop car was after a car crash. Maybe seven years old, reading a Far Side compendium in the back seat of the family minivan, my head leaning forward until it rested against the driver’s seat. The goose egg on the crown of my skull afterward probably concussive, though untested. The other driver had been a teenage girl who’d driven straight through a red light. She was nearly inconsolable, but physically unharmed. My father comforted her in the middle of the stopped intersection, thinking I have to assume of his own daughters, not yet old enough to drive, but getting there. The van was so wrecked the police drove my big family home in a two-cruiser caravan. My brother tried to spit out the window at a stop sign; the glass was so clean he didn’t realize it was rolled up. The officer behind the wheel laughed as my brother turned red and used his sleeve to wipe up the mess.

*

A month and a half after Patsy Cline is pried from the dashboard of her brother’s crumpled sedan, she asks her manager to book her. I don’t care where, she says. Somewhere close by. Who’s got an opening? Her set from that night at the Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa won’t be released for another 36 years, after someone finds the tapes in a box in their attic. The tapes only exist because the house recorded the sound check—the show we get isn’t even the actual show. Patsy is on crutches; her scars have barely healed. And she sounds fucking amazing. Her voice is the enemy of death. She seems to be pushing herself to every limit of volume and power and melody. She is spitting in the grim reaper’s face and wiping her mouth with the scythe.

Between songs, she also jokes with the crowd about the crash. “I’m kinda outta wind,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve worked since I got outta the hospital.” And when the audience laughs: “What are you laughing about? You wasn’t there.” It’s good to hear her chuckle to herself. “Oh me,” she says. “I tell you, them women drivers are rough on us good folks.”

Later, after “Lovesick Blues”—an explosive take that turns the standard into a declaration, a flag stuck into the middle of Satan’s ass—she says, “The boss just give me an order,” and even though the house manager tells her, faint on the recording, “A request, not an order,” she proves to the world just how Patsy she’ll always be: “My, my. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: honey chile, you boss me anytime you want.” The audience hollers. She leads the Cimarron Boys into “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” doing everything she can to hold on to it all. Tonight she is not fragile. Tonight she is breaking hearts just grinning. Tonight she’s in the driver’s seat.

—Brad Efford

#236: Jackie Wilson, "Mr. Excitement!" (1992)

I want to tell you that before he broke through as a singer, Jackie Wilson aspired to be a boxer, but that is not true. The truth is that Wilson was a singer first, a church choir star next to his mother and then a quartet feature, years before he would be sent to juvie for the second time and learn to duck, swing, dive, weave, bob, hit, and, most often, be hit. The truth is that his Golden Gloves record had four times as many losses as it had wins. The truth is that his mother, aware of the danger inherent to building a living off a body, forced him to quit boxing shortly before Jackie became a father at seventeen. The truth is that, through connecting him to the infamous predator of black talent, Berry Gordy, Detroit’s amatuer boxing scene ultimately propelled Jackie Wilson to musical success. The truth is that though the word “exciting” could certainly describe Wilson’s octave-spanning tenor, the singer was dubbed Mr. Excitement because of his viscerally electric performances: hips gyrating to the point of contortion, feet slipping then snapping in easy precision, a body that would fallalmost collapsethen rise, spin, resurrect itself like the boxer rebounding from the ropes, all while crooning in near-perfect pitch.

*

I have a Spotify playlist entitled “werk flo,” which was initially created to be a motivational jamfest that could go from my cubicle to Rock Creek trail runs; thanks to limited space on my iPhone and a desire to avoid constant data overages, it’s become a catch-all collection of 300-some-odd songs I’d like to have on hand at any given moment. This is how two of Jackie Wilson’s hits, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher,” which is on Mr. Excitement, and “Because of You,” which is not, came to be spliced onto my half marathon training running soundtrack, sandwich-shuffled between the likes of Chance the Rapper and Third Eye Blind. His uptempo delivery of “once, I was downhearted; disappointment was my closest friend” is both endearing and infuriating as I crest an unexpected hill; the redemptive, thankful chorus of “Because of You” is a mockery at mile two but a near-hymn as I break eight miles for the first time under the shadow of the Washington Monument. Wilson’s music holds a specific sort of longing and desperation cradled in an even more specific sort of hope and cockiness and is, as a result, more human, more real, and infinitely more motivating than the majority of its playlist-mates. Sometime in the weeks before the half marathon, I promise myself to set these songs on my race day playlist.

*

Though not his biggest commercial success, “Higher & Higher” is arguably Wilson’s most famous songit also almost did not make it out of the studio. The story goes that Wilson initially sang the song as a longing dirge. His producer threatened to pull the track if he did not sing it as the celebratory record he envisioned it to be, and Wilson subsequently cut the lead vocals in a single take. This jubilance, almost ingrained in Jackie’s voice, is a trademark of the singer’s catalogue, wherein even what could be more prototypically read as a ballad is an infectious, energetic earworm taking the listener higher and higher, their toes tapping and shoulders shimmying almost as surely as the singer’s were during the recording. Wilson’s shows were exciting because he was a gifted performer, yes, but that particular excitement is contagious, it is all-consuming, it is undeniable and uncontrollable. Even without watching videos of Wilson’s performances, you can hear the rollicking of his muscles and the growth of his smile in his voice. Somewhere at his core, likely the same place that drove Wilson towards boxing, Jackie understood that joy is a bodily sacrifice.

*

I first took up running to get healthy in the traditional sense, after finding out my twenty-two-year-old body’s blood sugar was nearly pre-diabetic. I returned to it a year later to get healthy in the less traditional sense, a means of strengthening myself both mentally and physically in the wake of an eating disorder that developed after that first foray into the pursuit of health. Both turns to the sport were meant to reinforce the importance of a body by overcoming what I previously thought my body could or should do or be, the burning in my calves a metaphoric sort of cleansing. To motivate myself to stay committed, I register for a half marathon on the second day of the new year. While training, I run on injuries, in snowstorms, without socks, in gasping, heaving breaths over state lines between the commonwealth where I was raised and the city I have adopted. I give my body in an effort to find something like health, like happiness; most of the time, I think it works.

*

Because of his music’s occasional presence, I think about Jackie Wilson’s body while trying to accomplish the contradictory task of both ignoring and attuning myself to my own during runs. I think about the impulse of dancing and the joy of surrender, sure, but mostly I think about Wilson’s death. Jackie had a massive heart attack and collapsed during a performance on a Dick Clark revue. The audience saw the fall as another bombastic stunt, a descent meant to heighten the inevitable rise, and therefore wrote the emergency off as part of the act; the minutes without oxygen before Clark stepped in left Wilson in a semi-comatose state for the remainder of his life. Mr. Excitement passed bedridden and nearly vegetative nine years later, a victim of the very same limitless body that brought him prominence.

*

I run my half marathon through a swampland in my hometown that is preventatively burned on an annual schedule, shuffling through “werk flo” without any proper ordering. I arrive late and forget to stretch. I drink too little water. I get injured at mile six and keep going, my quad threatening to sheer itself away from the rest of my leg at any moment. Out of over two and a half hours of listening and running, Jackie Wilson’s songs do not surface once.

During the run, I think about the swamp and its fires, the way the peat is burned to protect the trees. I think about how once, when the fires burned out of control, the smoke that billowed over my childhood yard smelled faintly of liturgical incense. I think about religious offerings, about Abraham’s willingness to offer his own flesh and blood, about how the glory of that moment came from the realization of his not having to make that sacrifice and the blessings that were still bestowed as a result. My mind turns to Jackie and his losing boxing career, Jackie and the hip swing Elvis stole from him, Jackie and his body so energetic, so frantic, so consumed by the ecstasy of itself and its power. I think of how someone once described Wilson as the musician who took rhythm and blues and turned it into soul, how he was the man who gave a corporeal being to something as intangible and mythic as “soul," someone who understood that a body is not Abraham nor Isaac nor the ram in the thorns, but the knife, the altar, the long-carried torch upon which all may be offered and all may be done.

—Moira McAvoy

#237: The Who, "Sings My Generation" (1965)

Phil sat murmuring in the corner twirling his headphone wire. His left arm slumped into the shadow of an overhead projector cart, which his fingers danced across like braille. Gangly, perpetually rumpled, he was a head taller than most teachers, and spent our music appreciation period leaning on the wall at such jarring angles that it looked like he was trying to melt. Every few minutes his crow-black bangs would tumble down his brow, so he’d flip them back with a reflexive jerk of his neck. Staring into the dim eyes of an electrical outlet, he bobbed his head to a rhythm only he could hear, muttering lyrics in a low, atonal incantation that was part whisper, part moan. I’d come over to tell him that he’d missed the bell. He was oblivious that a dozen others had already slipped their backpacks on and slunk away, dreading equations, the storming of Normandy, or the knots their friends left in lab aprons and sometimes, as a joke, pulled tighter with their teeth. Plays by sense of smell, he repeated, zipping up his JanSport. How the hell do you play by sense of smell, he kept asking the hallway’s bank of dented lockers as I jogged to keep up. It was his first time hearing Tommy. This was my introduction to the Who.

*

On the last day of seventh grade, Phil lent me Who’s Greatest Hits on compact disc for the entire summer. I held the jewel case in my hands like a reliquary containing bone shards from a saint. At the time, I owned one CD (R.E.M.’s Murmur, if you must know), so the idea of anyone allowing me to borrow a disc for months on end left me inarticulate with gratitude. I got a Discman for my birthday just so I could play it. Mornings at my father’s house, I’d lie in the pale light streaming through the basement’s sliding door while he slept upstairs, keeping time against musty couch cushions that billowed dust each time I patted my hand. I didn’t comprehend it then, but Phil had discovered albums, so he had no use for a partial and poorly-made MCA compilation. I still wonder: Why was it so wildly achronological? For that matter, if you had to select a baker’s dozen Who songs to represent their oeuvre to the uninitiated, why would you include that one-chord sex joke “Squeeze Box”? Intentional or not, Who’s Greatest Hits made the underwhelming argument that here was a band that sounded like the Kinks for a while, then got heavier. Luckily for me, I was oblivious to rhetoric. I listened to “Magic Bus” on repeat because it was a cartoon and I understood cartoons. Dust motes swirled with Moon’s woodblock. I tried to hum the outro’s primal wail.

*

Each time it happens I hate the Who a little more. Currently, it’s “Eminence Front” shilling GMC trucks. I try to imagine the scene: a balding, mid-level ad executive in a shimmering board room, wearing a suit worth more than my station wagon, his construction site storyboards propped on an easel. And then we drop a bunch of bricks into the truck bed. And then the truck crests a mound of gravel. Pete Townshend likes to joke that “Eminent Front” was what it felt like to do cocaine. Monotonous and brooding, it’s the only passable song on 1982’s It’s Hard, an album I wish I could unmake. What did Kurt Cobain write in his journals? I hope I die before I become Pete Townshend. But now I’ve got ahead of myself. If you wait long enough in America, every dream devolves into a jingle. This piece is supposed to be about beginnings.

*

Before I gave up on symbolism, I bought My Generation, the Who’s debut, at the Virgin Megastore in Piccadilly Circus and listened to it on a double-decker bus during a Tube strike. For years, it was the only album in their catalog I didn’t own, and though I had all of its songs in other formats, guilt finally compelled me to get it. “The Kids Are Alright” and “My Generation” are its definitive tunes, and represent the two warring impulses at the band’s core: harmony and growl, composure and noise, Apollonian and Dionysian. “The Kids Are Alright” captures pop music at its best, with its jangly chords, tight arrangement, and understated lyrics masking their complexity. After all, what kind of jilted teenage lover leaves a dance, resigned that class consciousness and another suitor have bested him, only to wistfully opine, “better leave her behind, the kids are alright”? The song’s emotional sophistication, worldliness, and innuendo foreshadow the coming operatic masterpieces A Quick One, Tommy, and Quadrophenia. Bristling with bravado, “My Generation” snipes at the hypocritical social order and allows the unrivaled talent of Entwistle and Moon to overshadow Daltrey’s stuttered delivery and Townshend’s twangy power chords. Its cacophonic finish lays the foundation for the band’s greatest work, Who’s Next, an album for which, right now, as I type this, here on planet Earth, some soul slurping their third drink at the bar is making the rapturous claim that nothing else comes close. And who can blame them? It’s hard to conjure another record with such swooning melodies and chiaroscuro dynamics where the band grinds their guts out, only to have their singer triumph. The curious, if less memorable, tunes on My Generation, such as “La-La-La-Lies” and “A Legal Matter,” reveal the band’s cheeky humor and self-depreciation that would later result in The Who Sell Out. “The Ox” remains a titillating one-off—part surf song, part blues jam—that suggests what could have been, had Entwistle and Moon conspired to contain Townshend’s ego and let their superior musicianship shine. Time hasn’t done any favors for the album’s three R&B covers, particularly James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please,” which strikes my adult ears as a prelude to sexual assault. Its refrain doesn’t plead, it demands, just like the drunk I saw stagger into a subway car the week after the Tube strike ended, who put up his fists and slurred who wants some of this?

*

It was mild for October. Walking behind the dorms, I saw dozens of American flags framed in windows with overlapping strips of scotch tape. Reinforced diagonally at the corners, some doubly thick over riveted seams, they faced the train tracks behind Keister and Funkhouser, where patches of rust shimmered like koi in the sunset. I wondered what it would look like to some bleary-eyed conductor hurtling past, all those taped-up flags blurring to smeared specks in parking lot glare, like a painter’s rag daubed with smudges. When I arrived, my friends were already sipping drinks and talking anxiously about “The Concert for New York City.” It would broadcast that night on VH1, though I was clueless, having spent another week trying to escape the fog of national tragedy buried in the library. In those pre-social media days, people forgave each other for being oblivious, so I was excited rather than embarrassed to hear the all-star line-up Paul McCartney had assembled to raise funds for first responders. But as the night’s beer and grief wore on, I sank further into my seat, listless. How many ways can celebrities wince into the camera’s eye, murmuring from a teleprompter, as if collective pain at last was theirs to bare alone, as if scripted sympathies could bridge us over fear? Then the Who roared out. Vociferous and raw, tour-tight and lean, Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle were in rare form, backed only by Zak Starkey on drums and Jon Carin on keyboards. At the time I had seen the band in concert twice, but they played with such defiant urgency I could hardly believe it. Here they were, our prodigal older brothers, returning to destroy our nemesis. Some firefighters wept down their collars and waved their helmets, half-forgetting why they were there. That effervescent snarl from 1965 was back, if only for an hour, to remind us that the soundtrack to survival is a scream. It was the last time I believed rock ‘n’ roll might save us after all. I cheered the shock and awe. The Afghanistan invasion was on day thirteen.

*

The dumpster stank of oily dough and spoiled tomato sauce. I stood beside it, waiting for my ride, as line cooks fizzled out to smoke and bullshit. One guy liked to tell the story about how he leapt from a Honda in third gear after arguing with his girlfriend, unopened beers in his front jeans pockets, and neither bottle broke. They nicknamed me System because at fourteen I was the best dishwasher they’d ever had. Pre-soaking pots in one sink, chiseling plates in the other, I ensured no one, not even management, touched the pristine stacks on my four shelves. By the second hour of each shift, suds would soak through my apron to my shirt, and by closing, my $20 Payless shoes—bought to be destroyed—would squish when I fetched the mop. I could eat for free as an employee, but after a few weeks I could no longer stomach the grease, so on my breaks I’d run to the liquor store next door for pretzel rods and ginger ale. I’d stash what I couldn’t finish on the top dish rack, next to a flour-flecked Radio Shack boombox that was so tinny it sounded as if it had barely survived submersion in water. My favorite station played “Baba O’Riley” religiously every night, and about once a month they would spin “Bargain” or “The Seeker.” I forked over the bulk of each paycheck to my parents, but by fall, I had enough cash to buy the Who’s four-disc box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. It was a career-spanning retrospective and included a massive T-shirt that billowed down to my knees. On the last warm dusk of the year, I slept over at my grandmother’s house and stayed up past midnight creasing the glossy booklet again, trying to decipher all the mysteries beyond me: mods, pirate radio, Shepherd’s Bush. With my window cracked, over the crickets’ susurrus, I heard for the first time a freight train creep through the center of town. When I put my headphones on, the train sounded like a seal wrapped in chains being drug across a frozen pond. Reader, even the bones from that world are gone.

—Adam Tavel

#238: Howlin' Wolf, "Howlin' Wolf" (1962)

When Allen Ginsberg’s polarizing poem “Howl” debuted in 1956, it was already part of a controversy—not just from the obscenity trials that would shortly ensnare it, but in the very manner of its publication: unlike most books of the time, Howl and Other Poems was printed in paperback. Prior to the “paperback revolution,” typically credited to Sir Allen Lane, most books were published with an expensive hardcover binding, and they were not widely distributed as they are today. Penguin’s line of inexpensive paperback “Pocket Books” had begun to change that, but change came slowly, as it so often does.

By choosing to print Howl cheaply, Ginsberg (and his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) asserted that poetry was not merely for the educated and well off. The wild, degraded, obscene subject of Ginsberg’s poem was also its intended audience. Picture an endless feedback loop: a generation howls into the void, and the void howls back. Unfettered expressions of pain always invite controversy.

Of course, wildlife conservationists already know that.

The grey wolf, author of the original howl, has been under the cruel thumb of the law for generations. Archetypal adversaries of all that is good and innocent, North American wolves have been brutalized by one initiative after another, first falling prey to the bite of musket balls, then to the tightening noose of congress. S.164, known to some as the “War on Wolves” act, threatens to endanger the animal further.

Section 1(a)(2) of the Senate bill states that the bill will reissue “the final rule entitled Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Removal of the Gray Wolf in Wyoming from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Removal of the Wyoming Wolf Population’s Status as an Experimental Population.” In other words, the bill would remove or lower the threshold for the endangered species designation, allowing wolves to be taken off the list of protected animals.

More chilling yet is Section 1(a)(2)(b), which asserts that the reissuance of the final rules “shall not be subject to judicial review”. The bill, which has two Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, will be difficult to amend if passed.

Why, in the midst of such unrest at home and abroad, would policymakers spend time worrying about wolves? Bees kill more people each year, and “thinning” a pack of wolves actually increases the likelihood that the remaining wolves will prey on livestock, since a weakened herd is less able to pursue wild prey. What makes the grey wolf such an attractive target?

According to Wes Siler of Outside Magazine, wolf protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) “runs counter to the interests of industrial agricultural businesses and the oil and gas industry.” Because wolves conduct their business over broad swathes of land, the protection of wolves involves the protection of land—more of it than some people would like. Although wolves bring tourism money to the states they occupy, the land they roam cannot be processed for profit.

West Wing fans may recall press secretary C.J. Craig’s encounter with a conservationist group looking to gain funding for a “wolves-only highway” that would protect the land wolves need to travel through in order to prosper (for more information on wolf highways, check out “Lone Wolf,” Joe Donelly’s beautiful piece in Orion Magazine). Although C.J. laughs at the proposed price of such an endeavor, the cost of not acting to support wolves, and other endangered species, is far greater.

The presence of wolves in an ecosystem leads to what’s known as a “trophic cascade,” where predators restore limits to the populations of animals below them on the food chain, preventing overgrazing and creating a more resilient ecosystem, better able to withstand invasive species and other setbacks. That’s the scientific argument, anyway. The poetic argument is a little different, but no less true.

Ginsberg’s famous lament, “I saw the great minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” can just as easily describe the ravaged wildlife populations that, once chased from their habitats by urban encroachment and environmental degradation, must meet their deaths in the screaming grills of Peterbilts, or else from the poisoned crumbs of road salt and antifreeze. Driven mad by siren song and oil spill, the burnished flame of endless city light, the wildlife that captivated the imagination of generations of Americans will vanish into the gutter overnight.

Once, driving home in the first wet flurry of a Nor’easter, my mother and I spotted a deer passing through a gap in the woods. Robert Frost could not have been better pleased; the creature paused in perfect view through a frame of half-starved beeches and firs before threading into the thicket. In a moment, she was gone. But the scene was not over. Mom and I had not yet swallowed our first enchanted gasps before a coyote eased into the clearing. Snow knit itself into fine shapes just past his nose, as though hunger traveled ahead of him, silent as a ghost. Then he too was gone.

I do not have any stories about wolves, because I have never seen one; there are no wolf-only highways in the roads of my childhood, no place for such wildness to walk. I can only imagine what specters would have danced before a wolf, but they would not have been silent. In “A Man Among Wolves,” National Geographic photographer Ronan Donovan describes startling three black wolves after dark. He writes, “As I’m hiking out, the wolves are all howling to each other because it’s a social bonding thing. When they get scared or nervous, they come together and howl and it makes them feel better.”

Wolves howl. Poets howl.

Trans people howl as their lives are stolen; black people howl as their freedoms vanish; women howl as men look the other way; men howl against the bondage that constrains their hearts; Latino/a people howl and are not understood; children howl and are not heard. But we howl anyway.

We do it because it makes us feel better.

That is the real reason wolves will never be free. There is something undeniably powerful, something indescribably wild in a howl. No government could stand in opposition if one took hold of a nation. A howl says you are not alone. It says we will be free someday.

All it takes is a few deep breaths. Are you ready?

—Eve Strillacci


 

References:

Donelly, Joe. “Lone Wolf.” Orion Magazine, 29 August 2013.         <https://orionmagazine.org/article/lone-wolf/>.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Poetry Foundation. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-    poets/poems/detail/49303>.

“Penguin Books at 80: A ‘paperback revolution’ that helped keep Britain’s radical conscience in        order.” The Independent, 10  October 2015. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/penguin-books-at-80-a-paperback-revolution-that-    helped-keep-britain-s-radical-conscience-in-order-a6689321.html>.

Rappaport, Nora. “A Man Among Wolves: Photographing Yellowstone’s Iconic Predators.” National Geographic, 4 Jan. 2017.     <http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/04/man-among-wolves-photographing-    yellowstones-iconic-predators/>.

Siler, Wes. “Trump’s Presidency Means the End of the American West.” Outside Magazine, 19 Jan. 2017. <https://www.outsideonline.com/2151411/trumps-presidency-means-end-    wolves-american-west>.

S.164, 115th Congress, 2017-2018. <https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/164>.

#239: Madonna, "Like a Prayer" (1989)

Madonna released Like a Prayer right around the time my Aunt C took up with a black jazz saxophonist. Dating a black man had made her an outlaw in her father’s eyes, but it was her conversion to Catholicism that almost really did him in. Our lineage of Sweeneys hailed from Protestant Northern Ireland—not that anyone in my family except my grandfather had ever cared much about maintaining colonial British tradition.

My parents weren’t even religious—they were hippie pot smokers perennially on the brink of divorce—yet it was my own father who told me that Madonna worshiped the devil, and that my devotion to the singer was something called idolatry. The devil? Idolatry? It was 1989 and I was 8 years old. This was way out of my league.

I loved Madonna, purely and unapologetically. I loved the way she looked and sounded. My father had been right, though. I didn’t just love her, I wanted to be her: blonde or brunette, lace or crucifix. But after glimpsing Madonna’s Like a Prayer video for himself, my father banned MTV from our household. He’d turned to my mother and decreed, “She’s not watching that shit.”

But it was summer and school was out and, while my father was at work, I was free. Outside, the Carolina sun rendered asphalt to goo and I sprawled across our carpet, wide-eyed and watching Madonna dance beside burning crosses and find redemption from a black Jesus.

Then one afternoon my father’s words reverberated through me.

The devil.

Idolatry.

From my clandestine MTV viewing, I started to feel guilty. What if Madonna does worship the devil? I thought. What if God punishes me by killing my father?

Then I was on my knees, sobbing, praying. Please don’t kill my father, I begged. But please don’t kill Madonna, either!

We’d never been religious, and that was precisely why I suddenly wanted to be. And Aunt C’s Catholicism seemed so Bohemian—there were candles and chanting and incense and men donning robes. She could even shack up with black saxophonists! In the South! I wanted to drink the blood, to eat the flesh of the holy father too. The fact that I hadn’t started to feel like a significant absence.

My entire youth is a blur of being passed between aunts when my parents needed “to work on things” and during my father’s prolonged hospital stays for his severe Crohn’s disease. I was too young to grasp how sickness worked, but I lived under the steady fear that my father would be taken from me early—I just didn’t want my love for Madonna to be the reason for his heavenly summons by an almighty god I was suddenly so aware of.

I began praying constantly, pleading for salvation for Madonna and me. But nothing was like praying at Aunt C’s, the only place I felt safe, shrouded in the mosquito netting of her worship and the soothing sounds of Enya’s Watermark.

Madonna told The New York Times in 1989 that Like a Prayer “is the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life. From around 6 to 12 years old, I had the same feelings. I really wanted to be a nun.”

For years I prayed, right until my 10th birthday when my mother filed for divorce and told me that no, Madonna didn’t worship the devil, and that she never had. She reinstated MTV in our household and I was relieved, but angry. I’d been lied to and I didn’t know why.

Something in the “Like a Prayer” video had triggered my father. The video is ripe with religious symbolism—most of which I couldn’t understand because I’d never been to church—but it also deals with race. Madonna originally wanted the video to feature a mixed-race couple under attack by the Ku Klux Klan; she ended up using a storyline about the assault of a white woman and a black man who is subsequently, and wrongfully, imprisoned.

In The Billboard Book of Number One Hits author Fred Bronson quotes Madonna saying: “This story of a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she’s in love with sings in a choir. So she’s obsessed with him and goes to the church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry.”

I wouldn’t have called my father racist back then, yet I recognized that whatever messages he’d received from “Like a Prayer” he had determined to be harmful for me. I also knew that the world was changing for women, and Madonna was accelerating that change while constantly testing the boundaries of tradition and acceptability, too. The Vatican condemned the video. Conservative Christian groups called for her downfall. Pepsi yanked the song from a commercial.

My father was himself no saint, but it would take many more years for me to understand why Madonna’s boldness unnerved him. Society lets men be provocative and wild, but calls the same behavior controversial when it comes from Madonna or Aunt C. First we’ll be defying our fathers; next we’ll be dating black men!

As a kid, I knew Madonna was important, but I didn’t understand quite how. I didn’t know that my father wanted me meek and conventional, either. But Madonna scared men and these religious groups because her defiance—and her popularity—threatened their power. Sadly, a big part of being a woman is shirking what men—white men, in particular—have prescribed for us and what they’re always attempting to preserve.

The last time I prayed, my father really was dying. By then, he’d softened his stance on the world. I take credit for that. We lived together during my teenage years and managed to bridge a gulf most fathers and daughters never can. I wasn’t meek or conventional then, and I never would be. I’d gotten off my knees long ago. And I’ve never looked back.

—Sarah Sweeney

#240: Steely Dan, "Can't Buy a Thrill" (1972)

When Chuck Berry died a couple weeks ago, we lost a giant of rock ‘n’ roll, a man whose existence had arguably more impact on this list of 500 albums than anyone, living or dead. This is not really an argument so much as a basic tenet of rock music writing, one that’s been affirmed in the chorus of praise since his death. “Chuck Berry was to rock music what Louis Armstrong was to jazz—a foundational figure; if not quite singular, then as close as it gets.” That’s David Remnick, writing in The New Yorker, but you could look to any of the white, male zombies of rock writing—Robert Christgau, Jon Parales—for more of the same. In a piece published last spring, Chuck Klosterman declared Berry the John Philip Sousa of rock ‘n’ roll. Three hundred years from now, Klosterman argued, it would be Berry’s name—not Elvis’s, not Dylan’s, not the Beatles—that historians would associate with the genre, the way Sousa looms singularly over American marching music. Whether there’s any merit to this opinion is not my concern (if that’s what you’re interested in, I would steer you toward the comments section of that article). I only bring it up as a sad point of contrast: around 2009, when Chuck Berry was still very much alive and well, I had barely any understanding of who he was.

My ignorance first surfaced in the office of my college newspaper, where, believe it or not, I wrote about music for the arts and entertainment section. It was late and I was struggling to describe a campus band on a deadline, when I found Chuck Berry’s name under the influences section of their Myspace page, of all places. Without bothering to listen to even a snippet of a YouTube clip, I described the band’s music as “Chuck-Berry-channeling-madness,” and hit submit. Sad, I know. What I thought I was gaining by affecting a familiarity with art I was not at all familiar with, is a good question. Rest assured that, if there’s any cosmic justice, I will spend my next life as a roadie for Hoobastank.

A few years later, I was waiting for some hash browns to fry up, when a roommate put on a copy of Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits. More specifically he put on “Johnny B. Goode,” the same recording that Carl Sagan preserved on the Golden Record aboard Voyager 1, currently the farthest human object from Earth, barreling into deep space at speeds of 17 kilometers. In the implausible scenario that aliens recover this record (and have ears and appendages and the patience to sit through a Senegalese drum circle, a Bach concerto, and a Pygmy initiation chant), they will hear a defining document of American rock ‘n’ roll, one that I didn’t know until I was 20. My first reaction was a shock of recognition. This was Chuck Berry? He sounded like the guy who did that Christmas song about Rudolph. I think I said something to that effect aloud. My roommate just stared at me, without blinking. My second thought was that yeah, that college band did sort of sound like this. Which they did of course; every rock ‘n’ roll band sounds at least a little like that.

Well, almost every rock ‘n’ roll band. While Keith Richards was studying every inflection of Chuck Berry’s guitar, Donald Fagan was lying awake in suburban New Jersey, scanning the dial for jazz, standards, and vocal groups. Mostly he was drawn to black piano players: Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and the giants of Harlem stride piano—guys like Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, and Willie “the Lion” Smith. In his memoir/tour diary Eminent Hipsters, Fagan credits his mother, a jazz singer, for introducing him to the Boswell Sisters, a New Orleans vocal trio whose subversive chord changes and emotionally ironic singing style (a style he describes as both “hot and cool”) made a deep impression on him. An early love of Harry Mancini, the composer of classic Hollywood schmaltz like “Days of Wine and Roses” and “The Pink Panther,” turned him onto jazz music. By his teens, he was accompanying his older cousin to jazz clubs in the city, where they saw Mingus and Coltrane. Among a sea of folk-rock hippies at Bard, he bonded with Walter Becker over their shared love of Miles Davis. The two started writing demos together with funky grooves, jazz chords, absurdist lyrics, and names like “Barrytown” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”.

After leaving Bard, Becker and Fagan abandoned their collegiate material in favor of commercial pop music. They spent some time peddling tunes to Tin Pan Alley. They co-wrote “I Mean to Shine,” a largely forgotten Barbara Streisand single. They played in the touring rhythm section of Jay and the Americans, an early boy-band forerunner, known for their nostalgia-laced throwbacks to the ‘50s. By 1972, just three years out of college, they’d had enough of that. They decamped to the West Coast, where, with the aid of producer Gary Katz, they returned to their experimental college demos. They rotated through a cast of hot-dog session players, searching for musicians that could navigate the complex arrangements. Unsatisfied with what they heard, they decided to tone down the jazz stuff in favor of radio-friendly rock tropes. Those recordings became Can’t Buy a Thrill; Becker, Fagan, and the expansive roster of studio musicians in the liner notes became Steely Dan.

Nowadays, Becker and Fagan disavow Can’t Buy a Thrill as a minor work, a stepping stone to the records that came later. Certainly, it’s the only album-length concession they made to rock music of the Chuck-Berry-channeling variety. They keep the jazzy interludes and the hokey changes to a minimum. The solos they do include (classics like Elliot Randall’s on “Reelin in the Years” and Jeff Baxter’s on “Change of the Guard) feature mostly guitars. Lyrically, I never know what Fagan is going on about, but at least on this record, he doesn’t ruin a great melody with a line about a girl turning 18. To call any Steely Dan record emotional or heartfelt is nuts, but compared to the later records, Can’t Buy a Thrill has some seriously touching moments: the chorus of “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”; that high, lonesome steel guitar on “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”; the minor key strut of “Only a Fool Would Say That”. Not that Can’t Buy a Thrill doesn’t sound like a Steely Dan record. A pianist and a bassist respectively, Fagan and Becker remain one of the most idiosyncratic songwriting duos in rock history. They never wrote a song that didn’t sound like them, even when it was sung by Barbara Streisand.

For what it’s worth, Can’t Buy a Thrill is my favorite Steely Dan album, the only one I enjoy listening to front to back. There’s a wistful quality to it, a soft Latin soul, that goes missing as they progress toward the funked-up elevator Muzak of Aja. With a few songs excepted (“My Old School,” “Barrytown,” Peg,” and maybe “Bad Sneakers”), I could do without their subsequent records entirely.

My personal tastes aside though, I love the wedge that their work, taken as a whole, sledgehammers into our generational understanding of taste. In his RS500 piece on Pretzel Logic, Steven Casimer Kowalski touches on this: “Imagine your parents, imagine your mother and father, imagine them existing in infinite universes and then find the most embarrassing pair of the bunch. Those two are huge Steely Dan fans.” I would add that what makes Steely Dan parent-fans more embarrassing than, say, Huey Lewis or Journey parent-fans, is their disdain for convention. The conventional narrative around baby-boomer rock begins with black blues guitarists and runs through Berry, Elvis and the Beatles/Stones. By reaching around Berry to steal from black jazz pianists, and by elevating Hollywood cheesemongers like Mancini to the counterculture, Steely Dan twist that narrative a little.

In my family, taste in music is very much a generational thing. My record collection, which grew from my parents’ and my grandmother’s records, reflects this. Going back one generation are the Rolling Stone-approved records my parents loved, the ones I grew up with: Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, E.L.O. Going back another, are the jazz and standards that my grandmother loved: Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, and Mancini movie soundtracks—the kind of thing that Rolling Stone wouldn’t touch. For most of my life, I’ve written my grandmother’s taste off as boring and middle-brow, the mid-20th century equivalent of liking Dave Matthews Band and the Goo Goo Dolls. Once again, I was assuming some level of familiarity with art I was not at all familiar with—worse, I was passing critical judgment on it. Lately, I’ve been going through my grandmother’s records, trying to remedy that. Along the way, I’ve fallen hard for Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans. I’ve learned that Stan Getz isn’t always terrible. But the music that’s floored me most is probably Mancini’s. Specifically “Moon River” (the Audrey Hepburn version, from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack.) I’d never heard it. It’s a stunning song, a musical landmark that, like Chuck Berry, went from cultural ubiquity to outside my orbit in the span of only two generations. At their best, this is what Steely Dan does well: they get disparate corners of our vast culture to co-inhabit a three-minute pop song.

At their worst, Steely Dan is an affront to everything that rock music stands for. The recordings are too smooth. The lyrics are too cerebral. The songs are too fussy, the melodies too overwrought, the solos too self-indulgent. They’re too something, I want to say, in a French accent, while making a cartoonishly effete gesture with my thumb and forefinger. The most articulate critic I’ve read on the subject is William Burroughs, who was introduced to Steely Dan’s music in a 1977 interview with the now-defunct New Times Magazine. Burroughs, who claims not to know that a dildo in his book Naked Lunch inspired the band’s name, is unimpressed with the snippet of “Black Friday” he hears. “These people are too sophisticated,” he says. “They’re doing too many things at once.” He goes on, comparing the band’s efforts to literary success. “To write a bestseller, you can’t have too much going on. You take The Godfather, the horse’s head. That’s great. But you can’t have a horse’s head on every page. These people tend to have too many horses’ heads.”

If we can put aside the irony of Burroughs criticizing anyone for artistic over-indulgence, I want to dwell for a moment on the connection he draws between music and writing. No doubt you’ve heard that exhausted line, credited to everyone from Nietzsche to Elvis Costello, comparing writing about music to dancing about architecture. I hate this line. While it’s true that writing packs only a sliver of the emotional wallop that music can dole out, the two art forms have had a lot to say to each other over the years, even before Dylan won a Nobel. I can’t listen to Astral Weeks and not hear Lester Bang’s words in my head; if not for Peter Guralnick’s writing, names like Rufus Thomas, Ernest Tubb, and Sleepy LaBeef wouldn’t mean a thing to me. I can still rattle off the names of the Pitchfork writers who wrote about Sigur Ros, Broken Social Scene, and Animal Collective when I was in college.

What draws us to write about music? What compels us to read what others have written? In an era when the entire history of recorded music is at our disposal, why read about music at all? I don’t have good answers to these questions. Certainly, there are times, especially while struggling with a piece of music writing, when these answers devolve into wishing I’d read less as a kid and picked up a guitar instead. Confronted with an unwieldy paragraph, or a thought that won’t arrange itself into a sentence, I roll my desk chair over to the corner of my room and start noodling around on a guitar. I don’t really know chords, or songs, but I keep the thing in open tuning, so it doesn’t really matter. I pick around until I find a succession of notes that sound interesting and then I play them over and over, until the writing impulse returns or my roommates ask me politely to stop. I have no active interest in getting better at guitar; there’s just something about the immediacy of producing sound that is addictively different from the hard-wrung pleasures of producing written thought. The two arts complement each other in a strange way I’m struggling to articulate. I’ll defer to the late, great Guy Davenport: “Music is as close as we will get to angelic discourse,” he wrote in his essay “On Reading”. “Literature comes next, with a greater measure than music can claim of the fully human.”

One weird paradox of writing is that the amount of work I put into a piece tends to correspond inversely with the amount of work required to read it. This particular piece went through about five drafts. In my experience, that’s a healthy number. The horse heads don’t tend to rear up, if they rear up at all, until around the third or fourth draft. I’m not sure this paradox holds true for recording music. For better or worse, though, this is the Steely Dan approach to making a record. A quick listen to those early college demos reveals how much their music benefited from revision. There isn’t a note on Can’t Buy a Thrill, their sloppiest record by a mile, that sounds unconsidered or out of place. Whether this is the kind of perfection that belongs on a rock record is a question for the ages. But it’s only in the pursuit of some unattainable ideal—whether it’s an insane degree of sonic fidelity, or the more perfect crystallization of human thought—that you get that rich sense of loss, that heavy measure of the fully human.

—Ryan Marr

#241: The Replacements, "Let It Be" (1984)

241 Let It Be.jpg

In Memoriam, D. D. F.

 

“Open wide, you little snot!”

Instead of hangin’ downtown looking for somethin’ to dü, John Bartels insisted on driving straight to the Cabooze to drink in the car. He’d barely had his 1972 Mercury Monterey in park when he spun around, snatched a bottle of Seagram’s Seven from the back seat, opened it on the way up front, and shoved it down his brother’s throat. “Knock it off,” Tim gurgled. “The last time I did a 750 shot, I bought a headache that stung like a rattlesnake bit me.” He had Gary pass up another bottle and playfully pushed it into John’s gut.

“Awww, you guys love each other so,” joked Otto. “Closer than you know,” winked John, leaning over to plant a kiss on Tim’s puss. He wasn’t raised in the city, but John knew the Minneapolis music scene like the back of his hand, and the Replacements were his favorite band. Tonight was gonna be the others’ first Mats show. “This better be good,” Gary announced. “I could be gettin’ stoned with Steve Weuhrle.”

“Mr. Whirly,” John grinned. “What’s that dope smokin’ moron up to?” “Same old shit,” said Gary. “Spent all winter out at Buck Hill, even after the baby. He needs a god damn job. If he don’t get his act together, Wanda’ll find herself out on the street for a living.” “Look, everybody!” Otto tittered. “Gary’s got a boner!” “You’re high!” Gary sneered. “He’s right,” teased Tim. “Lookit those lovelines growin’ on your jeans. You know you’re sweet on Wanda.”

“Fuck off, both of you! Especially you, Otto. You’re no better than Steve. Completely shiftless when idle. You coulda gone to college, but you sit in your parents’ basement jerkin’ off all day!” “Fuck school!” snarled Otto. “And fuck you, too!” “Simmer down, kids,” steadied John. “This conversation is imploding faster than the Replacements themselves on an off night. Forget all that shit and focus on why we’re here: for you neophytes to meet the Mats, the greatest rock group ever. This is their hayday, gentlemen, and if the new songs I’ve been hearing are any indication, this next album will prove it, once and for all.”

“Yeah, well, I hate music,” Gary asserted. “I’m just takin’ a ride to the wild side to stare at chicks in leather.” “Be that as it may, it’s Hootenanny time!” proclaimed John, tossing his empty bottle into the middle of the street. “What the hell? Why do you always have to be so damn careless?” his brother demanded. “Don’t ask why!” John smirked. “Let’s go, gents! Gimme noise!”

“Lead the way, Johnny,” enthused Otto, climbing out of the car. “Cool kids don’t follow!” Tim exclaimed as he started sprinting toward the corner. “Last one to the door’s a rotten egg!” Everybody took up his challenge, giggling like little boys the whole way but looking like contestants in one of those spin-around the bat races. Tim beat Otto by a nose, panting, “Yeah, you lose! You lose, sucker!”

By the time the band kicked off their set with “White and Lazy,” John in particular was shitfaced drunk and trying to cozy up to a woman stage right he claimed had some sort of thing with one of the guys. Gary, meanwhile, only needed to hear one song. “The Replacements stink!” he pronounced. “Fuckin’ phony rock and roll. I need more cigarettes,” and off he went to drink at the bar. “Don't break your neck when you fall down laughing!” Tim called after him.

As the band waited for the lights to be turned up on stage so they could see better, somebody kept screaming, “Shutup!” again and again. “What’s his problem?” Otto wondered aloud. Tim barely had time to reply before the second number got going. “He’s just shoutin’ out a request; John sez that’s part of the fun.” By the time the Mats had crashed through their third song, Otto was hollering for Motörhead while Westerberg faux-crooned, “I’ve had a hell of a night.”

Tim smiled. This was going to be a hell of a night. The band was in good spirits and firing on all cylinders. Otto had volunteered to make regular runs for beer that Gary would order for them whenever he saw Otto coming, and Tim was glad Otto decided to go on the first of these as the initial chords to a song Tim had never heard before inexplicably sent him into a full body shiver. “Look me in the eye, then tell me that I’m satisfied.” He was a fan of the Replacements for the raw energy and reckless abandon that came through even on their records, but this slower open-gut gusher hit him hard, so he was happy he could close his eyes and sink into himself. “I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied.”

Tim wasn’t sure when, but at some point the woman up front had decided to dance with John. Eventually, though, either the novelty had worn off or she was too tired to keep up with him, and Tim noticed she was trying to head back to the stage, but John had grabbed her by the arm and wouldn’t let go. Extremely agitated, she started yelling at him, and before Tim could get over there, a bouncer separated them and was in John’s face. Uncharacteristically, his brother continued being an asshole, firing back at the big man like he was the one who outweighed the other by well over 100 pounds. The guy was dragging John away by the shirt when Tim finally made it through the crowd.

Stuck in the middle between them, he begged, “Please, please! He’s my brother. We’ll leave. I’m sorry. Really. Please!” The guy released John with a shove, threatening, “Go! While you can!” Tim motioned for Otto to get Gary while he pushed John (who was twisting his head back to bark, “I’m a customer!” and, then, “I’m gonna kick your door down!”) towards the entrance. As he was escorting John out, the band appropriately enough finished “Take Me Down to the Hospital.” John managed to turn himself around and, staring straight at the bouncer, let out a resounding “Fuck you!” that echoed across the whole place.

Outside, John was ranting about the incident. “We don’t want to know,” Tim snapped. He was pissed they were missing whatever was left of the show, and even more pissed he was gonna have to drive home drunk, for John clearly couldn’t even get them to the freeway. Stumbling back to the car, John changed his tune, saying he was sorry and asking if they were mad at him. “What the hell do you think?” Tim growled. “Love you till Friday, man.” “It’s Saturday,” Gary observed. “Exactly!” Tim replied.

Behind the wheel, Tim summoned all his powers of concentration, but it was obviously pretty touch and go, since it seemed like only a few seconds before Otto blurted out, “Red light!” “Run it!” pleaded John. “I think I’m gonna hurl.” Tim tried not to turn his head to look. “Willpower, dammit! Do not throw up all over this car!” He vomited on cue as they crossed the river, and Tim had to pull over on the edge of the interstate. “Shit!” Tim complained as John continued puking beside his door. “I’m in trouble. What if a fuckin’ cop comes along?” “If one does, your brother is treatment bound,” Gary muttered. Outside, the retching kept going on and on, until Otto gasped, “Johnny’s gonna die!”

It was a couple more minutes before they heard John moan, “Can you stand me on my feet?” As Tim put the car back in gear, he thought to himself, “One more chance to get it all wrong.” Thankfully, in only a few miles 94 became straight as an arrow all the way to the Capitol, and then, around the bend, it was sweet 35E, an even straighter shot all the way home, with only the two gradual curves where it briefly joined and then broke off from 694. It was just a matter of staying awake now.

Back at the house, Tim could finally wash his hands of his brother. He slipped into his room, right across from where John was throwing up again, knowing their mom would wake up in a minute or two and go to him. She was a stay-at-home nurse (friends called her Mary Bottles because of all the meds she miraculously managed for her family), so she’d help him through. Lying down at last, Tim didn’t know whether he felt deflated or elated. It was summer, which no Minnesotan takes for granted, but he was bored all day long. “Drive yourself right up the wall,” he’d warned Otto when he inquired about getting a job where Tim worked. “Everything drags and drags.”

He missed seeing Stacy. How’d that catchy new Mats song go? “Meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime.” He sat up. “I Will Dare.” He picked up the phone. Too late to call her house, but he could try Taco John’s. She was probably there, closing the store. He tried to imagine how she’d sound, what she’d say. Eventually, he settled on, “Really, Tim? A drunk dial? Color me impressed!”

He told himself nobody would hear it ringing over the music, anyway. “Not like I could leave a message or anything. I mean, how do you say, ‘I’m lonely,’ to an answering machine?” He winced when the dial tone suddenly cut out and a voice said, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” He placed the phone back to rest in the receiver, and murmured to himself in the darkness, “Die within your reach.”

Just then, he could see from under the door that a light had flashed on in the hall, and his mother started speaking: “If you need help….” John began sobbing “Sorry, Ma,” over and over, and Tim was pretty sure he heard her whisper to him, “Let it be, son. Let it be.”

—Chris Foss

#242: Run-D.M.C., "Run-D.M.C." (1984)

Hard times spreading just like the flu
Watch out homeboy, don't let it catch you

 

The first rule of swag is that when you got it, you don’t have to front or look like you’re trying. The second thing is trickier and more telling—when you got it, it cuts across generational borderlands, somehow immune to time’s curse of Corniness, or worse, Corniness’s bougie cousin Quaintness, who lives in the suburbs of Nostalgia City but still tries to claim hood status.

This immunity to time’s dusty hex is where Run-D.M.C.’s allure lies, at least for me. The question of whether or not I “like” them has never really been much of a question at all. Instead, I’ve gone back and forth for years over whether or not what I feel for them is actual love or just low-key bewilderment. I can’t really listen to them for long stretches—after a while, I can feel all of my senses overly stimulated: blood pressure up, head spinning, and a not-so-strange urge to shout along.

But these guys are certifiable legends, which means one could argue that my opinion of them amounts to almost absolute zero, especially considering that I will never redefine the future of hip-hop. (You know it; I know it; everybody knows it.) It’s really more a question of ingenuity: since their self-titled debut album Run-D.M.C. dropped on the scene in 1984, no one else has ever come close to replicating their sound without appearing to be obvious imitators. Them boys are just too weird; they’re just too, well, them—and their ushering in of hip-hop to the pop scene, when rap was still relatively primordial and amorphous, was a feat that earned them tenured seats among hip-hop’s greatest: electric guitars, heavy heavy synth drums, and all.

Sure, I’ve got my stylistic preferences—rap with a tendency for complicated rhyme schemes and pun-driven lyricism. But Run-D.M.C.’s debut is of a different ilk, one that re-carved the genre into something wholly other than what it would later become, while still holding on to the seeds of something new. Their signature shout-talking style self-creates its own kind of flow, one that, in its early stages, was less about rhetorical pyrotechnics than it was about making some noise and staking territory as the baddest boys in town. Just listen to “Rock Box” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or better yet, watch its music video, and tell me that Joey Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell are not the flyest guys in the room, who’d chew up your wack style and spit it right back out if you ever crossed them.

I can’t tell you when exactly I realized that I’m more of a pessimist, neither can I say with any certainty when it was that it occurred to me that this pessimism isn’t in any way in conflict with my belief in hope, or my belief in the necessity of it. I sincerely tend to believe that if something can at all go wrong, it probably will, though I simultaneously acknowledge that Murphy’s Law is a poor governance for one’s life. But what else is there, these days? Run-D.M.C.—the boys—help me feel more at home with this sense of angst and ambivalence, that peripheral, lurking cloud that I’m beginning to realize is less tied to adolescence than one might think. Theirs is the joyfulness of unmitigated youth. Bad boys, yes, but winningly cheerful, too, in their own brand of playful jadedness. Every song is a protest and a party, regardless of the topic, even when they’re rapping about an everyday world that looks much more apocalyptic than quotidian.

Run-D.M.C., the album, helps me in that I can (and do) crank it up when I’m feeling self-conscious about my own sense of uncertainty in the world. What I love most about my generation, Millennials, is our incredibly dark sense of humor—our ability to joke about our own health, spending anxieties, economic prospects, and our very mortality, with, I think, genuine earnestness. But we are, of course, not the first to feel as we do, though our world looks quite different.

Hearing the shared anxieties of these Generation X teens, these wildly confident and confidently wild boys who wore leather from head to toe while spitting bars that at times sound indistinguishable from nursery rhymes, is just a gift, plain and simple, in the way that good art is. To not merely see and hear, but to be seen and be heard, is the thing that pulls us back to a work in the first place. Run-D.M.C. pulls me back, makes me feel included—like I can chill with them and talk smack, too, if I want. Just listen to “Wake Up,” “Hard Times,” and “It’s Like That”—these were boys who get it, that sometimes things just are what they are. But don’t mistake any of this for futility. There is still room for dreaming, always, though you do have to “wake up, get up” first, fist raised and lit like a beacon.

—Natasha Oladokun

#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