#209: Pearl Jam, "Ten" (1991)

1.
The first cassette I ever own is Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace. I get it for Christmas in 1983, the same year my older brother gets Peter Schilling’s Error in the System.

2.
I join a band as a freshman in high school. We call ourselves the More Than a Feeling Band because that is the first song we learn how to play. All covers. We are very bad. The drum set I am using had been the spare kit from my middle school jazz band, garishly ugly and made of fiberglass. It had been sitting, unused, in a closet. I asked our band teacher, a working jazz musician from Cincinnati named Bill Jackson, if I could buy it. He checked. He said district policies prevented him from selling any school property but that there were no similar policies in place against loaning it to me indefinitely. So my parents picked the drum set up after school, loaded it into the car, and we took it home.

3.
Billboard Magazine’s top song of 1989 is “Look Away” by Chicago.

4.
There is plenty of good music being made but I am resistant to almost all of it. Later in my life I wonder: Why didn’t I like R.E.M. at the time? Why didn’t I like the Cure? What was wrong with me? Then I re-watch the video for “Love Song” and remember that Robert Smith is absurd. Michael Stipe is embarrassing. The reality of 1989/1990/1991 is much more complicated than the memories. Pop music is absolute garbage and alternative music turns me off. So I throw up my hands and listen to whatever challenges me the least, which means classic rock radio and hair metal ballads. You think it makes me happy to type that?

I am too dorky for the mainstream and too dorky also for the skaters, the smellers, the moshers, the drama geeks. I am not nearly smart enough to fit in with the nerds. The good old boys ignore me, mercifully, because I’m barely there. But the girls ignore me too, because I’m barely there. I play bass drum in the marching band. I own more than one Julian Lennon album on cassette. I love Dream of the Blue Turtles.

5.
I tell people that the first CD I ever bought was Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, but it’s a lie. The actual first CD I ever bought was Wilson Phillips’ eponymous debut. This was 1990.

6.
Billboard Magazine’s top song of 1990 is “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. Number three is “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

7.
I happen to catch “Valerie Loves Me” on MTV’s 120 Minutes and begin to reconsider a number of things. It’s poppy, for sure, but also a little bit messy. The desperation in Jim Ellison’s voice plucks a string somewhere deep inside me. To this day, I can’t get past it.

8.
Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish comes out in 1991. Too scary for me. I pass.

Sting’s Soul Cages also comes out in 1991. I buy it on CD. I keep the empty long box for a long time. I still have the disc with its misprinted track listing.

This whole thing is a process.

9.
Somehow, I get a girl. She has one crooked tooth. She wants our song to be “Silent Lucidity.” I make the case that you don’t pick the song; the song picks you. Really, though, I’m just not into Queensryche. Who the fuck is? And why do I have to be such a stickler about things?

10.
Ten is released in August of 1991, though—like all good things—it takes a while to reach Ohio. It seems to arrive accidentally, like a cargo ship crash landing on a desert island. “Even Flow” burns through my roof and lands in a pile on my bedroom floor. I cautiously approach. I give it a sniff. I poke my finger into it and tap it onto the tip of my tongue. Those guitars like acid rain. Drums as big as timpani. That voice. It’s not bad.

11.
Everything arrives at once. There is no such thing as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and then there is such a thing as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There’s “Outshined.” There’s Ritual de lo Habitual. There’s “State of Love and Trust” and “Black” unplugged and “Yellow Ledbetter.” I am an Ohio boy raised on the Eagles and Supertramp and ELO. I have heard Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” more times than anyone needs to. This is all very challenging. But it’s exactly what I need, and not because Pearl Jam is all that radically different from Manfred Mann but because they aren’t.

12.
I join a new band and we’re still bad but it’s better than the last one. We slog through “The Spirit of Radio” for some reason, but we also do a pretty nice rendition of “Jane Says.”

My parents spend $400 on a five-piece Ludwig with actual wooden shells and a simple white finish. I love this drum set. I hammer on this thing for years. We give the old one back to Bill Jackson, who may already be gone at this point—back to Cincinnati to play real jazz with real musicians—and who may have already forgotten who I am. It doesn’t matter. It never mattered to him, but it’s 2017 and I still remember his name.

13.
Billboard’s top song of 1992 is “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men. Number eight is “Under the Bridge.” Number 32 is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Number 71 is “Friday I’m in Love.” Color Me Badd appear three times in the top 100. No one knows what the fuck is going on.

14.
I get a new girl. She’s every nerd’s dream. She has great taste in music and I try to stay receptive. She catches me up on Tori Amos and Toad the Wet Sprocket, and I drive us around to hear all of “Nights in White Satin.” We don’t declare a song until we dance to “In Your Eyes” at our wedding.

15.
Siamese Dream comes out in 1993 and by now I think I get it. My revelation gets backdated; I stop worrying about Michael Stipe and Robert Smith. I try not to be such a stickler. “Orange Crush” is still nonsense but “So. Central Rain” is so good. I do my best to let these things in, and mostly it works. I don’t realize until much later that I was never really a social outcast—I was only shy, and quiet, and that I closed myself off from people I probably would have liked under the assumption that they were not worth liking. This I regret even more than the hair metal ballads.

16.
Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales also comes out in 1993 and I definitely get it. I just listened to it again yesterday.

17.
These things are all just steps in a long process.

18.
The process is ongoing.

19.
I look back with gratitude at the people and things that shoved me forward—that said
open your goddamn eyes, kid. It’s always been easy to find reasons to reject things and much harder to find reasons not to. It’s easy to pretend that you were never wrong. It’s easy to listen with your ego. I try not to do that anymore. I think I’m getting better at it.

10.
It all goes back, more or less, to a single album in 1991.

—Joe P. Squance

#210: Neil Young, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" (1969)

I don’t know if everyone has moments like this connected so viscerally to mere pieces of songs, but I think even if I’m gripped by an early dementia or bang my head on a doorframe and it rocks me into a full amnesia, I will forever and always remember the first time I heard the first fifteen seconds of “I Heard Her Call My Name” by the Velvet Underground. I think it ruined the guitar for me forever—every other note played on the instrument became as flat as dead water after that. In 9th grade, a friend of mine stuck the song right in the middle of the A-side of a mixtape that had been collaged from fragments of found-sound samples and songs both in full and busted apart. I told him, The way you shoved part of that VU song on there so that it just jumps right out at you is real cool, and he laughed. No, that’s it. That’s the song. That’s just how it is. It was the wildest thing anyone had ever said to me.

Sterling Morrison played guitar on the song and he felt more or less the exact same way, even quitting the band for a few days after hearing the album in full for the first time because he assumed they’d put the wrong mix together. “‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ [was] one of our best songs that they completely ruined in the studio,” he’s on record as saying, and he’s definitely right about the first part. I’m not even sure you could call what Lou Reed does on the track “playing the guitar”—the sounds he makes are more akin to a subway car colliding with a Range Rover, or a toddler playing twelve terrible Fisher Price instruments at once. The chaos is illuminating though, the beauty of the silence when the song (“song”) comes to a close nearly deafening. It’s calmed my mind down on several occasions, and I think it was intended to do the exact opposite.

And what are we supposed to do with a guitar solo in the first place? How can we listen to one and not feel automatically and overwhelmingly like Someone Who Is Listening To A Guitar Solo, since in every solo lies the history of solos, with the role you the listener are meant to play already laid out before you. Guitar solos are supposed to take you...somewhere. They’re supposed to make you feel...something. Is the soloist trying to transport us, or tell us something more profound, something the lyrics aren’t able to verbalize? Both at once, ideally, and yet I can’t escape the feeling that the vast majority of guitar solos are so very guitar solo-y, so in love with their own awareness as a guitar in the act of soloing.

Obviously there are some who have found ways to continue to surprise, with sonic fun or sheer new-age smarts—Annie Clark and Nels Cline come most immediately to mind—but by and large the guitar solo’s a dead fish in 2017, as, in my mind, it probably should be. It died 50 years ago, with “I Heard Her Call My Name.”

Regardless, in December of 2015 Rolling Stone published a list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” (perhaps not of all time?). Dead Man composer and cameo artist Neil Young sat at number 17, and the magazine employed Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to write the paragraph-long blurb for him. This is how it starts: “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect.” I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit to the teacher that I’m not entirely sure what Trey means here by “original,” though my assumption is he’s talking about the studio version off of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young’s second album, and not some live or bootlegged nonsense. The guitar solo in question is fine; I mean, yes, it’s good. It’s a minimalist guitar solo, one that favors feeling and connection to the instrument over virtuosity. It’s definitely not just one note for a full minute—that would be insane (but better, strangely, I think)—and it’s not even close. For ten seconds it relies on that one note, then runs away into other notes, as one does, so I don’t know what Trey Anastasio was smoking, but sure, it’s a good guitar solo. It’s still just...a guitar solo though.

“Down By the River” is a great song, probably the best on Everybody Knows if you forget the title track exists and “The Losing End” is too Grateful Dead for you, but it’s not the guitar soloing that makes it great. It’s Neil Young’s terrifyingly timeless, unchanging voice, the unrelenting drive of Crazy Horse, one of our all-time great backing bands, and the gorgeous production of the tracking itself. The solo is merely a conduit for the feeling, a bit player in a larger tapestry. Why do we fetishize it so much, why exalt so ceaselessly the abilities of the guitar player above all else?

I’d have to imagine it’s mostly nostalgia. Rock music has guitar solos—that’s kind of it’s thing. So when we hear a rock song with a guitar solo we aren’t really hearing that song or that solo, we’re hearing the history of the genre and we’re comparing notes. Is this person playing like Hendrix? Are they playing like Page? I think I remember Allman using that same trick. That player’s got that Diddley or Holly or Berry or Santana sound. Blame it on drugs, or the penis, or the Summer of Love. Blame it on white folks and Vietnam and Les Paul and drugs. Actually, just blame it on drugs. Whatever you’re putting your pin in (drugs), the consensus is undoubtedly the same: guitar solos are hella sick and you can deal with it.

So fine. I accept. But it still bores the daylights out of me. Not the guitar solo itself so much as our insistent romanticization of it. Furthermore, the older I get the more I start noticing the complete absence of the guitar-as-principal-sound in my favorite records. The future is in cracker jack producers and tightly-wrapped, Mensa-smart pop songs. The future has little space for cock rock buffoonery, for soaring faux-emotion on a six-string. I don't know. Perhaps the future of music would do well to ignore its past entirely.

—Brad Efford

#211: Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here" (1975)

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is an album about absence. About subtraction. It’s about the things we lose and the ways we lose them. It’s about losing Syd Barrett to the doomed combination of drugs and mental illness. It’s about a band losing its soul to the doomed combination of success, label pressures, and outlandish egos. It’s about losing connection and authenticity. It’s about losing, losing, losing.

And so this is going to be a story or essay about subtraction. Or maybe it’s going to be about subtraction through addition?

You see, because there was a breeze, and then a steel breeze, and then no breeze, and Syd was gone.

Just like there had been the album’s cover models, Ronnie Rondell and Danny Rogers, and also Ronnie Rondell’s mustache and eyebrows, and then there was fire—applied to Rondell’s clothing like makeup, like paint—and then there was the pose for the photographer, and then there was wind, and then Ronnie Rondell’s mustache and eyebrows were gone. Subtraction through addition—add fire to wind and a man loses his hair.

And there’s something to learn there, something we should probably understand—what is it? Don’t let someone set you on fire? Is that too easy?

But see, it wasn’t just Syd. And it wasn’t just Ronnie Rondell’s mustache and eyebrows, because not long ago, there was a breeze, and then a steel breeze, and then no breeze, and you were gone.

But let’s not make this about you. This is about Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here, which, as it happens, is an album I came back to after you were gone, is an album I came to understand in new ways after you were gone. It stopped being the Pink Floyd album about Syd and the record industry—those are just the album’s framework, not its big ideas.

Or maybe I’m finding license in loss to give Pink Floyd more credit than they deserve.

*

Let’s talk about Syd for a minute, and the way that Pink Floyd lyrics, whether written by Roger Waters or Polly Samson, always drape him in light. The opening lyric of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” is “Remember when you were young / you shone like the sun.” Then, of course, there’s the song’s title—Syd is a diamond that shines, and we know it’s about Syd, even without having to read the lyrics, because the song’s title tells us it’s all about Syd:

Shine On
You Crazy
Diamond

Of course, almost two decades after Wish You Were Here was released, on “Poles Apart,” one of the few decent post-Roger Waters Floyd songs, David Gilmour would sing words written by his wife, Polly Samson: “Why did we tell you then / You were always the golden boy then / And that you’d never lose that light in your eyes?” Even on “Brain Damage,” the immortal penultimate track from Dark Side of the Moon, when Roger Waters sings, “And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear / You shout and no one seems to hear / And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes / I'll see you on the dark side of the moon,” perhaps alluding to Barrett through thunder and darkness, there is the implied light of the lightning that accompanies thunder, and the implied light of the sun reflecting off the non-dark side of the moon. What does it mean that all of these lyrics compare Barrett to light? I don’t know—maybe it’s just an extension of several clichés about shining bright and burning out. Maybe it has something to do with the time that Syd set his own head on fire during a gig at UFO. Or maybe that’s all too literal.

*

There is another light I remember, too, and it wasn’t fire, and it didn’t burn atop Syd Barrett’s head, and it didn’t singe off Ronnie Rondell’s mustache, and it didn’t come from the sun, or a diamond, or from eyes, and it didn’t come from a bulb, it came from you, but it’s gone now, so what does it matter?

I don’t know what was added that took you away. Maybe this is just a story about subtraction for its own sake.

*

Inside the sleeve for Wish You Were Here, because that’s what I’m really talking about here, that album, not you, there is the red handkerchief blowing on a breeze—we don’t know if it’s a steel breeze or not, but it probably is. Because the image is a static photograph, we can only infer movement from the object’s relationship to its surroundings. Its motion is absent. Same with the diver in another of the album’s interior pictures: his body breaks the water’s surface but there is no splash, no ripple—the water appears undisturbed. The question: where is the absence here? Are the waves and ripples the absent things? Or are we meant to infer from the lack of splash that it is the diver who is absent? What I’m getting at: was Syd the water or the diver?

Are you the water or the diver?

Another question: why am I still writing about you in present tense?

There were other famous images on the album’s outer sleeve—the two men shaking hands, one on fire (and recently relieved of all the hair on his face), and the back-cover businessman with a flat, skin-colored cloth for a face, and without wrists or ankles—an empty suit. A bit on the nose, for sure. But here is more of that subtraction by addition. Add success, add fame, add money, and money, and money, and something will be lost, something for which we can name symptoms, but never the thing itself. Maybe Wish You Were Here is a bit heavy handed with its symbols, but this is something people can relate to. We grow up, get or don’t get old, make or don’t make money, incur or don’t incur debt, and everything becomes about money and debt until something is lost—subtraction through addition and subtraction and/or addition and probably a little more subtraction. And Wish You Were Here is right about that—the structures in which we live alienate us from ourselves and those we care about. Sorry if that’s all a little didactic, a little on the nose—but c’mon, we’re talking about Pink Floyd here.

*

In the years after Wish You Were Here was released, Pink Floyd would continue a slow dissolution that began with the success of Dark Side of the Moon and also, coincidentally, around the same time they introduced Mr. Screen to their live shows—that flat circle, like time itself, on which lights, movies, lasers would shine. A few years after the fact, touring behind their album Animals, Roger Waters would spit on a fan at a concert in Canada—a Canadian!—and then he would make The Wall, which is like Wish You Were Here turned up to fifty, like if Wish You Were Here is a little on the nose, The Wall is up to its elbows in the goddam nose. And let’s be honest—Animals isn’t a walk in the park either. Roger Waters was angry, and his art with Pink Floyd was about that anger, about his alienation. About losing Syd. About being afraid of losing himself.

And therein lies a, or perhaps the, fascinating truth about Pink Floyd: their story is Syd Barrett’s story. Their greatest, most beloved albums all, in some way, tie back to Syd. Except for maybe Meddle and Animals. But the big albums, the ones on the lists, the ones in every dad’s CD collection—those all come back to Syd.

*

But let’s forget about Roger Waters and Syd Barrett for just a second, because this is more important: One night in December, there you were in my car, drunk and almost crying on the way home from the bar. You were lonely, you kept saying. When would you find someone? Why did nothing ever work out for you? And I remember the way your voice broke. And I remember the green x-mas laser lights blasted across your dad’s garage. And your flight left the next day so when I pulled into the driveway, I got out of the car to hug you and you slipped on a patch of ice, but didn’t fall, and then you told me we’d talk soon. Told me you’d have a safe trip back. And then you slid under the half-raised garage door and I never saw you again.

You were here, and then you were there, and then you were gone, and now there is a park bench dedicated in your memory. This is not subtraction through addition. The park bench came after you were gone. This is subtraction, and subtraction, and subtraction.

*

During the production of Wish You Were Here, there was Roger and there was David, two men in the studio, their band starting to unravel around them. Following the somewhat surprising (to them anyway) success of Dark Side of the Moon, and before making Wish You Were Here, that band worked on an album called Household Objects, on which all of the arrangements would be performed, not on instruments, but on, well, household objects—an absence of instruments. We’ll call it subtraction through subtraction. But that didn’t take and the band began work on a set of songs that would eventually become Wish You Were Here and Animals.

And then there was Roger and there was David, both in the studio, both looking for an idea, and then there were those four notes, simple and easy, slow and pure, pouring like a molten steel breeze from David’s guitar:

Shine On
You Crazy
Diamond

Now, a little bit of music theory about those notes, found on the internet:

“The shape of the phrase is a significant factor not only in its memorability, but also in what it does – or rather, doesn’t do. The first two notes, Bb – F, describe an open fifth, suggesting the key of Bb – this is instantly negated by the third note, G, such that the phrase has described an arching minor seventh – G – Bb – F, and the ear expects the next note to be the missing dominant degree of the scale, D. But this doesn’t happen – instead, the phrase moves over the missing note and articulates instead an E natural. Coupled with the preceding G, it suggests now C major, the subdominant harmony of G; those four notes have suggested three separate keys – Bb, G minor, C major – in the space of four steps.

By the end of the phrase, the listener’s tonal ear is confused: what key am I in?”

And there was Roger, and he heard something in those four notes—perhaps their disorientation, their ambiguity, their uneasiness, their questioning—that made him think of Syd.

Not long after, as the band was either finishing up or listening to playback of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” who should wander into the studio but the man, himself,

Shine On
You Crazy
Diamond.

Until that moment, despite having been haunted by his presence for years and albums, no one in Pink Floyd had seen Barrett for seven years. But there he was, as if conjured by Gilmour’s haunted guitar lick, a ghost, traded for a hero, traded for another ghost, head and eyebrows shaved, far heavier than he used to be, wearing a white trench coat and white shoes. When someone in the studio asked him how he’d put on so much weight, he said something about a big refrigerator full of pork chops.

Fuck.

Subtraction, subtraction, subtraction, subtraction, subtraction. And a little bit of addition through pork chops.

*

I try to think of four notes that might conjure you. It couldn’t be the same four notes, couldn’t be the same song.

To try to conjure you with “Shine
O
N
You Crazy Diamond,” would be theft of an egregious order.

That one belongs to Syd. And anyway, even though Syd wandered into the studio, he was never back. Though he asked if he could pick up a guitar and play on the track, he would never play with Pink Floyd again. All Gilmour’s guitar lick did was summon a ghost, minus eyebrows and hair (and without the help of fire, even, as far as anyone knows), plus a belly stuffed with pork chops. As math, it might look like this:

Ghost - Head & Eyebrows + Pork Chops =

And I know there’s something to learn in that, but I’m still not sure what it is.

—James Brubaker

#212: Pavement, "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" (1994)

Spin’s review of Slanted and Enchanted listed the Minutemen as a reference. If I strained my ears, I could hear the connection. Pavement shared none of their musical wizardry, but lyrical non-sequiturs gestured rather than pointed in a similar quizzical fashion; songs like “Two States” were influenced by punk, but unfurled at their own pace.

*

I saw Pavement play Providence on July 31, 1992, a month before I went to college. It’s no exaggeration to say I’d listened to Slanted every day since I bought the cassette in May, based on Spin’s Minutemen namecheck. But I’d never seen a photo of the band. Nor could I suss out their size and shape from the album notes: the review mentioned five guys, the insert ‘SM, Stairs, Young.’

The latter, it turned out, played drumsif he didn’t stop the show to do a headstand. He became more tired as the evening went on, each song an addition to the years on his face, the visible difference in age between himself and the rest of the band.

And I bought T-shirts from the guy who played a solitary snare drum in the middle of the stage, who yelled choruses with gleeful abandon. He was one of the five guys in the band, though not one of the three listed: Bob Nastanovich, second drummer.

I wrote the band a long letter afterwards, full of questions about their names and origins and a promise to set up a show for them at the University of New Hampshire (even though I had never done such a thing).

Months later, a postcard arrived:

“No gravel to spare at this hour. Keep the pastoral growth under control. –SM”

*

The Minutemen, yes. Skate video soundtracks steeped in SST’s catalogue.

But the Fall, Swell Maps, Giant Sand, Pere Ubu, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282?

I had never heard of a single one of these bands Erik Davis used as points of comparison to Pavement.

The references intrigued me.

College will change things, I decided. I’d heard about college radio playing the best bands, the ones who weren’t on MTV or Rock 101.

I wore a Pavement shirt to my first day of college, a flag unfurled to spark conversation. One of the two I bought from Nastanovich.

No one had heard of them.

*

Instead of reading about the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys in the library, I wanted to be part of something happening in the present.

My hometown had bands. I checked them all out. A guy I knew from jewelry class and a bunch of the school’s best skateboarders sang Minor Threat covers at the miniramp; my best friend played trombone in a sloppy five-piece boasting songs about mailbox baseball and Taco Bell. A girl one grade below me sang in a group with a bunch of older, sophisticated guys. They played “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at her pool party.

I thought college would provide me with local bands to follow. But it was 1992 in New Hampshire: the acts playing outdoor quads or the union or coffeehouses either sounded like Pearl Jam or the Grateful Dead, or both. The closest thing to a connections was with the horn-laden skacore act that covered Public Enemy. I’d stand up front and wait for the signer to notice I knew all the words to “She Watch Channel Zero?!” Every show, he was there with the mic.

But even this didn’t scratch the itch.

*

Minor surgery right before college turned out to be majorcomplications turned day surgery into  two weeks of bedridden hospital misery. I lost thirty pounds. My stomach shrank.

I walked post-discharge laps around my parents’ house on the hour to get my strength back. Even still, a half-mile walk across campus during orientation left me whooping for breath.

After some so-called minor exertion kicked my ass I lay on my bed, arm across my eyes.

A guy who lived in a forced triple a few doors down was deep in the throes of Nirvanahe’d affected the striped shirt, the cardigan, the long stringy hair. And the guitar, of course. Every day he’d play Nirvana songs through his small but noisy amp. I was put off. I thought he was trying too hard. In retrospect, he reminded me of myself.

I’d met one of the guy’s friends briefly, this red-haired dude who struck me as a real weirdo, abrasive and jagged. I didn’t see him come in because of my arm.

“Got any music?”

I pushed up from my bed. I hadn’t brought many of my CDs with meno room in my dad’s car. But I had brought a few tapes. I played Pavement.

A few seconds into “Summer Babe,” the red-haired guy grimaced and asked if I had anything else.

I played him “Skip Steps One and Three.”

A few seconds in, he nodded.

“That’s much better,” he said, and left my room.

*

A single with B-sides: “Sue Me Jack” and “So Stark (You’re a Skyscraper).” I dubbed these songs onto a cassette which I listened to on my Walkman.

Watery, Domestic was next. Deep in the throes of straightedge, I chose to live in the chem-free dorm and missed the obvious joke. The EP was killer, the first recording as a five-piece. “Shoot The Singer” leapt to the top of the mix-tape hit parade.

I made mix tapes for anyone who showed the slightest interest in my music. I thought of this almost like a service requirement. Some popular music was fineit was the grunge 90s, after allbut finding music better than Pearl Jam was easy with a little digging. I’d follow up on these tapes, and the recipient would shrug or say something vaguely polite but noncommittal.

I was trying a little too hard.

*

Over Christmas break, former high school classmates reconvened in odd configurations. The strict caste system which scared me a year prior dissolved, or just ceased to matter.

I grew my hair after graduation, was issued a mandatory goatee. I lost my telescope-thick glasses in favor of contacts.

My classmates, in their amorphous constellations, began talking about this new thing. Email.

I spent time in the computer cluster when I got back to school. It didn’t take me long to find Pavement usegroups, to start trading tapes with strangers.

*

The red-haired guy showed up at my door after break.

“Man,” he said. “I got that Pavement record for Christmas. It’s amazing.”

The local record store kept a list of upcoming releases. I’d seen a new Pavement record titled “Westing” on there, which I pre-ordered. We both waited for it to arrive.

When it did, the song titles and album artin the same spindly handwriting from the postcard and Watery, Domesticingrained into our growing lexicon of shared in-jokes.

Like the Minutemen, the cryptic references seemed a series of directions with no key, which, once decoded, turned into a map to be followed. Some of the Westing gags were too impenetrable to be anything but non-sequitur, but I got one of them: a picture likely clipped from a fashion magazine bearing the caption “Long Cool Woman In A (Big) Black Dress.” I knew the Hollies because one of my summer camp friends played their record; I had discovered Steve Albini’s caustic three-piece during my freshman year. Did the juxtaposition have meaning? It jammed two disparate elements against each othermaybe for the sake of it. But it cracked me up, made me feel like I was somehow in on the joke, rather than the butt of it.

If it was a joke.

Which maybe it wasn’t.

Trying to figure it all out was part of the fun. So much headspace occupied by a band, even when no music played.

*

Westing had its moments, a great salve. But it didn’t cohere like Slanted.

The online grapevine buzzed about a proper long-player titled Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

A few months later, a pen pal sent me a cassette dub of the album.

Its arrival coincided my most concentrated attempt to learn guitarwhich is to say not very concentrated. I got A through G, but never had the attention span to learn minors, sevenths. Just major and power chords.

But “Cut Your Hair” was easy enough.

My wife and I are still sometimes in situations where people play acoustic guitars, cookouts or whatever. She finds my reaction to these times hilarious, because I’m always reminded how for a year (okay, more) I was The Guy With The Guitar in college. I lacked metacognition and demanded attention by bogarting the party with Pavement covers. She was there when I was The Guy, and I was The Guy by playing “Cut Your Hair” every. Single. Time.

So now I hate The Guy because he was me and I am him.

*

Portsmouth’s punk scene grew small but intense. A coffeeshop called the Elvis Room started booking shows, hosting any number of local bands happy to play a gig between Boston and Montreal. A guy from the A.G’s booked gigs there and started Ringing Ear Records to release stuff by his new band Sinkhole, along with the drummer’s band Doc Hopper.

I finally felt involved.

The scene wars were in full swing: Tim Yohannon of Maximum Rock N’ Roll’s editorial decision to limit the definition of “punk” following the explosion of first Nirvana then Green Day and finally the Offspring caused the formation of Punk Planet and HeartattaCk zines, each an umbrella over a specific swath of the scene, such as it was. I read all these, went to as many shows as possible, and tried to make sense of everything.

The ideologies each magazine provided were wildly different from each other, but they all agreed that MTV sucked.

In high school I’d taped 120 Minutes every Sunday night to watch on Monday afternoons. My dorm didn’t have exposure to the channel. The odd flip past the MTV in a friend’s apartment never yielded a music video, anyway, like when I had watched in the 80sit was all reality shows and games.

So I was caught by surprise when friends told me they’d seen “Cut Your Hair” on MTV.

Friends who hadn’t previously dug Pavement, despite all the mix tapes and shitty covers.

The video’s conceit is easy enough: all five members of Pavement take a turn in the barber’s chair, where gags ensue. One turns into a frog, one is a shaggy ape who cleans up real nice.

(Years later, Brendan [by then my roommate] mentioned the videos were collected on a DVD. We bought it at Newbury Comics, then spent the rest of the evening howling in laughter at what dicks Pavement were. Their gags walked the micron thin line between clever and asshole, like when, in “Cut Your Hair,” the barber gives Malkmus a martini, then a mitre and finally a throneThe King!and the camera hangs on his face as a solitary tear slowly descends his pout.)

It wasn’t just friends telling me about MTV, though. I’d be at a coffeehouse or a bar and “Cut Your Hair” would come on. Hey, someone, would say, isn’t this that band that you like?

And I wasn’t sure how to feel.

*

The dorm TV connected to a VCR. It was easy enough to change its coaxial cable from ‘output’ to ‘input’ to record.

I have since lost the VHS tape, but I remember the night Pavement played Jay Leno.

“Cut Your Hair” started with a nonsensical jam, camera eye on Malkmus and his gibberish vocals.

Eventually the nonsense stopped and the song started.

Pretension and fame’s a career, Korea.

I watched the tape over and over when it was done. I knew what I had seen, but needed confirmation regardless.

On their late night television debut, Bob Nastanovich wore a Minutemen T-shirt.

—Michael T. Fournier

#213: The Rolling Stones, "Tattoo You" (1981)

Side 1

When you talk about an album—its impact, influence, and meaning—you almost always end up profoundly dating yourself. You’re saying: I loved this music at this very specific point in time, in this place, and, after listening to it, over and over, things changed, even just a little. You’re marking a turning point, a sea change, in your consciousness. (Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The Clash’s London Calling.) As you’re trumpeting the big, no-turning-back recordings in your life—the ones that helped define your sense of style, cool, politics, etc.—you’re also writing your own musical manifesto.

Of course, there’s a difference between falling in love with an album when it comes out and coming across an album years later, generations later, and falling in love with a relic. Both are valid, of course, but essentially different. (The Beatles gain converts every 5 years.) Often an influential recording is come upon in reverse; you like something that sends you back to something else, through sample or echo or homage, and that sends you back further and, bam, you run straight into Howlin’ Wolf or Buddy Holly or Joni Mitchell or Black Uhuru. You think, What the fuck is this? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

I came to Tattoo You right as it arrived in the record stores in 1981. Actually, my dad came to it and I listened in. He’d been playing Emotional Rescue, Some Girls, It’s Only Rock & Roll, and Goats Head Soup, and I’d been staying up late to listen with him. But there was something different about Tattoo You. I wasn’t yet aware of the genesis of the album. I didn’t know it was a bunch of outtakes cobbled together, added to, remastered, remixed. Didn’t know that I was listening to parts of all the albums I’d been listening to since I was 12. Debra Rae Cohen nailed this strange phenomenon in Rolling Stone: “This unity is partly the work of Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the finished tracks and gave them his characteristic vacuum-packed clarity (you could bounce a quarter off each of Watts's rim shots).” Maybe that was why I liked the sound so much; it felt new and lived in at the same time, like stone washed jeans.

Or I‘d changed, just turned 16, knee deep into high school, my brother fresh out the door for college. I’d turned some important corners and experienced all the new things. Girls, pot, jazz. And Tattoo You seemed to embody this new world—sexy, glittering, raunchy, strutting, bluesy, soulful. All about sex, this hypnotic late night feel. I couldn’t get enough of “Start Me Up,” that testosterone-laden anthem of braggadocio and swagger. Or “Hang Fire,” which sounded like the Beach Boys revved up by coke to 78 rpm. And then stomping around on my bed to “Neighbors,” slapping the walls and throwing pillows.

I didn’t know until my father told me—a huge lover of jazz—that it was Sonny Rollins on sax for “Slave.” Oh my god, I could listen to the rolling solo a thousand times over—its easily sexy rhythm, heavy on back-beat; the killer cool backing vocals; and that awesome break at the end with Mick rapping out surreal lines, screaming and laughing.

Collage by Sebastian Matthews

Collage by Sebastian Matthews

Side 2

And while Side 1 rocked out hard, Side 2 slowed down, chilled out. (Here comes the dating yourself part, for this was still the world of the record album, the original disc. Two sides, brothers and sisters! Watch as the disc turns in the light!)

Needle back down on “Worried about You” with its tight backing vocals and that gradual building to a peak before tumbling down into Mick’s “Baaaabyy!” and “oooohhh” then Keith’s bluesy solo taking the song on down. Next, the sultry, seducing “Tops”: “Every man has the same come on, I’ll make you a star. I’ll take you a million miles from all this…”And then the eerie, ethereal “Heaven,” which isn’t really a song, more like a drum and synth track salvaged—part filler, part segue, part morning-after soundtrack. Listen how the vocals skim and echo over the surface of the beat…“kissing and hugging, kissing and hugging…kissing and running, kissing and running away…senses depraved... no one will harm you, nothing will stand in your way…nothing…just nothing.”

“No Use in Crying” carries on the mellow, overcooked groove. Nothing more than three little bluesy vignettes with the song’s actor standing in a picture, standing in a station, standing on a balcony, always at a remove, ever at a distance. “Ain’t no use…stay away…there’s no using in crying…I ain’t never coming back…ain’t no use…ain’t no use.”

And then the album’s finale, “Waiting on a Friend.” I still remember that funky street-corner video with Mick hanging on someone’s brownstone stoop. The clanging guitar, Mick’s doo wop backing vocals. The pseudo reggae shuffle-step. Who was he waiting for? His pusher? His lover? One and the same? Did it matter? That song never seemed to end; Rollins kept pushing it out, further and further out, rolling wave after rolling wave, until it sailed itself off into the sunset.

Tattoo You. A middle-aged band’s return to form whispering to a mid-teen trying to climb up into a realm of maturity he hasn’t earned or fully yearned for yet. That album gave me a path, I tell you, and taught me more than a few things. It gave me a sense of the groove and pace and style that would be needed to mature into adult cool.

And I shared it all with my father, which is rare in and of itself, and we shared each others' company while listening. A whole world waiting.

—Sebastian Matthews

#214: Ike and Tina Turner, "Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner" (1991)

Adeline pressed the last of her cigarette onto the ashtray in her car and let out a huff. She closed the bag of chips she’d gotten moments ago out of the convenient store she was parked in front of. She closed her eyes and counted the freckles she’d memorized on her face. There were ten freckles on each side starting at the top of her cheekbone and ending just above her lip. The freckles on her hands and legs were too big in number to count but Adeline tried anyway, stopping when she got to fifteen. She loved her freckles more than she loved anything else about herself. Adeline’s freckles were beautiful against her brown skin like constellations in the night sky and she held onto that fact for as long as she could.

Adeline tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear and turned on the radio. She tapped her fingers along the beat of “River Deep – Mountain High” and watched as the rain beat against her car window, it was coming down heavy and she relished the sound. The rain reminded her of the car wash. When she was a kid her favorite thing to do was get in the car with her mother and go to the car wash. They would roll up the windows and turn the radio dial up as high as it would go. Afterward, her mom would buy them lunch and a milkshake and make promises she always intended to keep. Adeline would make her seal them with their pinkies the way kids do. She believed in the power of promises for much longer than she should have. In those moments with her mother, the happy ones anyway, nothing and no one mattered enough to steal her joy. Adeline would simply close her eyes and smile, just as she was doing now at the memory. She ran a hand gently over the blanket in her lap that was housing the handgun she had bought a week ago.

There were moments in Adeline’s life leading up to this very one that solidified her decision. Last week Adeline had been fired from her part time job because of some last-to-hire, first-to-fire bullshit. She never asked for much because she knew she had it easier than most so she wasn’t about to go around asking people for things she couldn’t first try and work her ass off to earn. She came home early this morning from her nine to five to find an eviction notice on her door and asked herself why she was working so hard if she was only receiving scraps as payment?

There was no money left, she had no money left. Adeline had spent it all on her mother’s funeral last month. Now, she had no one left in her life to care enough for the both of them. Someone should have warned her about this side of the only-child syndrome. They should have given her something to make the pain stop. The medication she was on, antidepressants the doctor called them, made her worse. She was sadder, angrier, and exhausted all the time. Adeline bit her lip and placed the gun on her passenger seat before reaching back to grab the blanket she planned to wrap herself in. Her phone rang just as she was readying herself to pick up the gun.

“Addie? Addie? Don’t do this. Don’t leave me,” Spencer pleaded. Spencer was her ex-boyfriend, all six foot two, black hair and brown eyes. He was charming too, the kind that was as natural as breathing. His charm and charisma were what won her over in the first place. He was decisive and confident, the kind of man Adeline longed to love with the traits she desperately wanted as her own, but he had no place in her life anymore.

“So, I take it you got the note,” Adeline deadpanned. She immediately regretted answering the phone. This wasn’t even about himcontrary to his belief, not everything was. Sure, they were happy once, that is, until she caught him cheating in the very bed they shared every night.

“Let me take you back home. I’m sorry for cheating, Addie, you’ve got to believe that. Where are you?” Spencer asked. He knew the answer though, the tracking bug he placed on the bottom of her truck last Wednesday night under the guise of getting the rest of his things told him as much. Matt had called Spencer just before he went over to try and win her back. Matt told him that she had come into the store looking to buy a gun the day before. Spencer went into panic mode, he didn’t want her to do what he knew she would when Matt sold her the gun. After giving Matt an earful, Spencer hatched his plan to stop her. He knew that if she was going to buy the gun one week she wouldn’t turn around and kill herself in that same week. Adeline would need a week to plan, plus he figured that she would think no one would be suspicious if she waited. Still, Spencer had been following her everywhere she went as discreetly as possible since Thursday morning of last week, just in case.  In fact, he was now two parking spots over in Matt’s SUV, so she didn’t recognize him.

“This isn’t about you Spencer. I can’t do this with you, not today,” Adeline said, hanging up. Her eyes traveled to the gun in the passenger seat. She was just so tired. She picked it up slowly, watching it as if any sudden movements might make it go off before she was ready. Spencer opened his door quickly as he watched Adeline put the gun to her head. She was sobbing now, her finger on the trigger. Spencer was standing by her passenger door now, willing her to look at him. He reached out for her as she pulled her finger back. He had already removed the bullets.

—Keah Brown

#215: New York Dolls, "New York Dolls" (1973)

William Carter-Hicks
6/22/17
9th Grade English

Mr. Furman
 

New York Dolls and Tragedy

Extra Credit Project #1 - comparing a movie/album to one of the genres we’ve read

      The New York Dolls are a tragic band. The reason why they are a tragic band is because many of the original members died or didn’t live long enough to get succuess success. Or, they died.

      The band formed in 1971 and wore high heels, makeup, and were andognious androgynous. Some people say they were the first G.L.O.W. band and influenced later G.L.O.W. acts.

      The original drummer, Billy Murcia, took too many drugs. They made him drink a lot of coffee to wake him up, and he died.

      The second drummer, Jerry Nolan, died from spontaneous combustion.

      The bass player, Arthur “Killer” Kane, worked as an extra on movies. He’s on the plane in the movie "Innerspace.” He became a Merman Mormon. He is tragic because in 2004, right after a reunion show with the New York Dolls, he died of Leukemia. He was later the subject of the book “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane.”

      The guitarist, Sirhan Sirhan, is still in prison for killing Kennedy.

      The other guitarist, Jimmy Thunder, eventually started his own band “Jimmy Thunder and The Heartbreakers.” There are rumors he was killed for his meth supply, or he died of Leukemia.

      David Johansen changed his name to Buster Pointdexter Poindexter and make wrote songs about congoa lines. He also became an actor in movies like “Scrooged.” The tragedy is he also starred in “Mr. Nanny” with Hulk Hogan.

      The New York Dolls made two albums, “New York Dolls" and "Too Much Too Soon.”

      On the first album, the songs are tragic too. "Trash" is about a guy who doesn’t want someone to take his knife. "Jetboy" is about a superhero who steals babies.

      Therefore, since many of them died or no one bought the records, the New York Dolls are a tragic band.

      William -

      First, I appreciate your taking the time to complete an extra credit assignment. However, there are a few things I’d like to call to your attention. The genre of music to which you are referring is “Glam” not “G.L.O.W.” Glam, which is short for glamour, is a genre of music in which musicians dressed in an outrageous manner, embraced non-traditional gender roles, camp, and irony. “G.L.O.W.” is an acronym for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Jerry Nolan did not spontaneously combust; he died of a stroke brought on by complications of bacterial meningitis and pneumonia.

      Arthur Kane is a tragic figure; however, he was not the subject of the novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane.” This book was written by William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist) about an insane asylum for military personnel. It was later made into a film called “The Ninth Configuration,” starring Stacy Keach.

      While Sirhan Sirhan did, in fact, kill Bobby Kennedy, Sylvain Sylvain, the rhythm guitarist for the Dolls, is not currently incarcerated.

      Similarly, while “Johnny” Thunders” may have died under mysterious circumstances, he was not at any point a Samoan prize fighter. However, it is interesting to note “Jimmy” Thunder is the record holder for fastest knockout at 1.5 seconds (not including the 10 count).

      I completely agree with you about the tragedy of “Mr. Nanny.”

      Although, Mr. Johansen gets a pass from me for his performance in “Let it Ride,” the best movie about horse racing, but that’s neither here nor there.

      Most importantly though, while “Jetboy” may very well be about a superhero (I don’t believe he’s stealing babies) there’s a lot more to “Trash” than a person who values their cutlery. According to journalist Phil Strongman,

“The choruses begging the songs subject ‘my sweet baby’, not to throw her life away. It’s a desperate plea, seemingly delivered in the dirty alleyways and stopped sinks of Midnight Cowboy NYC, and in under 4 minutes, it tells a bittersweet’n’sour low-life lover story - Glam style. These people might be hookers, rent boys, junkies, sneak thieves, - or so the lyrics imply - but they’re still human beings and their subject matter is still tragedy.” (Strongman, 2008)

      We note here the concept of tragedy is universal and knows no boundaries of age, class, sex, etc.

      On the other hand, “Trash” might be the first song about ecological consciousness. Trash, pick it up, don’t throw your life away. The interpretation is left up to the listener to decipher the true meaning of the song and lyrics.

      There are certainly tragic elements which surround this band. Three of the original members died before they were forty. While the band was lauded for certain groundbreaking influences by later generations, it could be argued the New York Dolls were not appreciated during their time.

      When you combine the history and reception of the band, one might certainly conclude they are a tragic band.

      Ultimately, though, they did make music on their own terms, and they have etched their place within music as a seminal act.

      In the future, I would edit and proofread your work before submitting it. Also, I recommend not using Wikipedia as a source for your information.

—Andrew Davie

#216: Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley" (1986)

I come to rock ‘n’ roll for the peacocks. But it ain’t just the strut across the stage that does it for me. Any fool can do that much. Many cultures recognize that the peafowl display goes beyond braggadocio. That’s why images of these beautiful birds find their way into the iconography of religions all over the world. That’s why ancient Greeks considered them immortal beings. The immortal strut, that’s what brings me back to the godfathers of rock, especially Bo Diddley. If we’re talking about godfathers, let me go ahead and declare: Bo Diddley is the Godfather of Strut.

I mean, it takes a whole lot of strut to name yourself Bo Diddley then come up with a signature beat, so now you have 60 years of people talking about and playing the Bo Diddley beat. Add in that he invented his own type of guitar. His self-titled 1957 album, the first part of what ended up on the RS 500 as a double album (along with Go Bo Diddley), has three songs that include his name in their titles. I didn’t tally how many other songs on this double-album feature him mentioning himself in third-person. I could go track by track extolling this album, but those are just the feathers.

“I’m a Man,” which is reprised on Go Bo Diddley as “Say Man,” shows us bravado that both is the substance and contains the substance. There’s the surface level brag about sexual prowess, but I want you to imagine something more significant with me. Imagine a black man in the 1950s singing “I’m a man / I spell M-A-N, man.” You know what, imagine the stir if a black man sang that lyric today. We still live in a world where declaring your own intrinsic value requires a damn fine tuft of plumage and a strong soul. It’s a straightforward lyric, but the full measure of righteous pride is right there.

Another feather worth looking at more closely is his best known song, “Who Do You Love?” Even though this song didn’t make the charts when he originally released it, it’s floated through our popular music consciousness. Dozens of artists have recorded cover versions, but none of these, even renditions that migrate the song to a different genre, leaves Bo behind. His strut comes on through, but thank G-d strut like Bo Diddley had is transitive. It’s an anointing. Listening to this album makes me realize it’s available for all of us, not as something to steal like the surface musical elements that record labels literally stole from Bo and gave to pretty white boys, but something to inhabit and participate in, something deeper, something more important, something indestructible. Bo Diddley wants to know “Who Do You Love?” Tell the voice on the record player (or Spotify or whatever) that you’re ready to take the mantle of loving yourself.

That’s what I’m trying to learn, and maybe I make a little progress each time I listen to this album. I’m no Bo Diddley. I am over here checking out my feathers in the mirror, though. Here’s a little bit about one of my feathers: a few years ago, my wife did some genealogical research and found out that I’m not German but part-Jewish. The German narrative was some whitewashing that came alongside the second generation of my family to live in the United States, changing our name from Weisz to Weiss. With the resurgence (or just continuation?) of white nationalism, maybe this isn’t the best political season for this discovery. People have been making jokes about my schnoz since I was in elementary school, so discovery is too strong of description. This parenthetical isn’t about identity politics, but isn’t what is so often derisively referred to as identity politics just declaring how the feathers you wear affect your lived experience? The first conversation I had after the 2016 election started with the other person snidely saying, “Don’t you look like a smart Jew?” I said, “Well, I am a smart Jew.” No matter what your feathers are, you will end up in someone’s spotlight.

There’s been some speculation that Bo Diddley got his stage name from being told he wasn’t worth diddly squat. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like the idea of him taking what was meant to bring him down and turning it into the cornerstone on which this album is built. You can hear in how boldly the music is played that this album is a response to something going on deep in his soul, even if that isn’t the source of his stage name. The combination of the lyrics, which on their own might just be boastful, the music, which on its own might just be good blues with a new beat, and the way he brings it all together adds up and turns Bo Diddley into that rock ‘n’ roll peacock I was looking for. “Hold on to what you got but don’t let go / We’ve changed the tune and start singing a song” almost reads like Diddley’s thesis for the album and reminds me of the Psalmist being inspired to sing new song. It’s right here, y’all. Strut.

—Randall Weiss

#217: Bobby Bland, "Two Steps from the Blues" (1961)

Folks, I’m tellin’ ya, you’re gonna wanna come on down here. We’ve got Corollas, we’ve got Priuses, we got 4Runners, all brand-new and priced to dazzle. I said it at the top of the hour, but if you’re just joining us: we got the ‘18s on the way, so the ‘17s have got to go. If you’ve ever had too much of a good thingyou know how it feels, you understand why we got such great deals down at Don Malone Toyota, just a tick west of the Motor Mile. We got all these beautiful cars, trucks and SUVs under a gorgeous blue sky, so get excitedwe want to put you into a nicer, newer vehicle, all at a rock-bottom, no-haggle price. Get out of your old vehicle and into a brand-new or certified pre-owned Toyotafor a limited time, I’m offering zero percent financing for 60 months on select 4Runners, but you gotta get on down here fast.

If you’re ready to swap your clunker for a beautiful, dependable 2017 Toyota Camry, or any one of the hundreds and hundreds of other vehicles we’re offering, Don Malone Toyota is the spot for you. I pity the fool who misses out on our June clearance sale: we have the best financing, the most knowledgeable, friendliest sales staff, and acres and acres of new and certified pre-owned Toyotas. Now, I want you to see some of the incredible models we got on offer right now. My crack team is rarin’ to show you, so let’s get to it, let’s pull up the first car.

Now, this is the Camryyou know it, you love it, you’ve made it one of America’s top-selling mid-size cars year in and year out. Our no-haggle price is twenty three-four-three. All Camry models have 10 airbagsfront and rear seat-mounted, side curtain, even front passenger, on the knees. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m 46, I tell you what: I messed my knee up, I could use the help. No need to worry, I’m still fine like wine, just crunched it swervin’ from a deer. Now, all Camrys have that Bluetooth connectivity: call your kids, call your wifeif you wanna cruise to the blues, I got the car you can use. It’s got an estimated 24 miles per gallon in the city, 33 on the highway, but it’ll get you down those country roads to the Inn Between. Tell ‘em Don sent ya; it’s been a while.

OK, what’s next? Here we got one of ourhey, look out, Clarence! Darn near run my foot over, but you know what? That can happen on live televisionwave to the folks at home, Clarence. It’s all happening at Don Malone Toyotalook at the people! We’ve got balloons for the kids, and you smell that? We’re grilling that barbecue all day for yamm-mmm. So, here we have one of our older models, a certified pre-owned 2014 4Runner, only 16,000 miles, thirty-three thousand, silver paint, not so much as a nick, I tell ya. Always loved silver, may be my favorite color. After my knee got banged up, I had some colloidal silver on hand, started applying. Gotta love this 4Runner, ladies and gentlemenget on down to the lot and you can take it away today. As always, Don Malone Toyota performs a 120-point inspection on every certified pre-owned vehicle we sell.

Back to the ‘17s, folkshere’s a Prius, still the top hybrid on the market. This right here is a Prius C hatchback. The Hybrid Synergy Drive, pre-collision system, LED headlampsyours for the no-haggle price of nineteen three-seventy-five after the $1500 rebate. And my goodness, look who’s piloting this craft, it’s my lovely daughter Shaina. Shaina, wave to the folks at home. I’m sorry to say she’s not a standard feature, but she is a mainstay here at Don Malone Toyota, just a couple feet from the Motor Mile. If you haven’t heard me say it, Shaina is the brains of this operationshe does appraisals, she’s working the lot, she’s finding the best pre-owned vehicles all throughout the Memphis area. Frees me up to bring you the best financing and prices available, all from the air conditioned comfort of our showroom. We’re talking $4,000 off MSRP, $5,000 off MSRPthere was a whole summer after I wrecked where I was in my office all day, filing paperwork, applying that silver. I’d walk out to my vehiclereal slow, mind youand it’s already dark, time to drop by the Inn Between. Folks, my accountant had to beg me to stop buying rounds for the bar, I love saving people money so much.

I’m telling you right now, I’ll take care of you. We got a committed, friendly sales staff that’ll match you to the Toyota of your dreams. We have a certified collision center, with genuine factory parts. I called up my wife a week after the accident, I told ‘er, “Honey, it wasn’t a deer come at me, I was looking at my phone, almost clipped a truck parked off a country road. Slammed my brakes, skidded into a gatebut you know what, we got the best technicians around at Don Malone Toyota, and sure enough, these fine folks are gonna have me on the road tonight.”

After she hung up I looked at my knee. And it was the darndest thingit’d turned blue.

So I call my doctor, he says it’s local argyria. Too much silver, not enough time in the sun. I closed up shop, headed home, but folks, that was the beginning of the end. But here at Don Malone Toyota, we’re just getting started, showin’ off these fantastic vehicles at unbelievable prices. We got our ‘17s priced to move, and I’ll be here ‘til the very last one is gone. Then I’m driving my trusty Corolla to the duplex, scalin’ those concrete steps,  steeping some of that bedtime tea, then I’m dreaming of new ways to get you home in a nicer, newer vehicle.

Because, folks, there’s no feeling like making your dream of owning a Toyota come true! We have every model to choose fromwe got vehicles as far as you can look. No need to mess with anyone elseour committed, friendly staff will help you find the car or truck you want at a price you can afford. Check out all this hullabaloo! We got hundreds of folks lining up to check out the 2017 Tundras, Tacomas, Avalons, Highlanders, and much much more that we got in stock. All new cars qualify for free window tint and a free nitrogen tire fill.

As sure as one and one is two, you and Don Malone are a match made in heaven. We’re part of the community, locally owned and operated since 1976, ever since this was Duke Malone Toyota. Good ol’ Dukerest his soulhe even officiated my wedding, down the road at Scott Memorial Baptist. Sherrilyn chose our first dance, wouldn’t tell me, left it a surprise. We were just standing there… I tell ya folks, those moments waiting on someone, that’s an eternity. Then the high strings, they hit like a bolt. And the cellos pour out like distant thunder. I’m swayin’ here and there, gazing at my beautiful bride, but all I can think of is this lonely guy, he’s just fingertips away from what he wants, but it might as well be on the other side of the lot. I could hear him, you know? The brushes were like slow steps, and the flute was a songbird out just before dawn. At the end he sang “I’ll follow you,” and those strings pull the sod out from his feet.

I didn’t know if someone had heard the gate crunchI looked back, didn’t see anyone in the pickup. I put it in reverse, got free, found a side road a little ways down. I got out to check the damageleft headlamp busted, smashed hood, caved-in bumper, slow leak in the radiator. Battery looked secure, though, so I started walkin’ around the front, wanted to look at the wheel wellall of a sudden, the endorphins gave out. I just crumpledmy shins ached, I grab my knee and I don’t feel the blood until I can see it on my fingers. So I’m lying on my back, right? Just sprawled out, legs on the grass, head on the road. I’m moanin’, then I start thinkin’ about the folks nearby, then the cops. Maybe there was someone in that pickup. How long did I look? So I turn my head to the left and right and just listen. I don’t hear a thing,  just me breathin’ and some hissing and clicks. Dunno how long I was there, folks, but I do remember finally looking up, and there was the sky, and I could hear a warbler, and the sun wasn’t up yet, so all I could seebefore I crawled back into the car and headed back to Sherrilyn, back to our sleeping children and the argument over breakfast, the deer and the ride with Shaina and the genuine factory parts, my cool office and the cab ride to the Inn Between and everyone lining up to take these ‘17s homeall I could see was blue and silver, silver and blue.

—Brad Shoup

#218: The Smiths, "The Queen is Dead" (1986)

The night we meet, one of the first things she tells me is that she shares a birthdate with Morrissey. “We have a special connection.” She follows it up, moments later, with an apologetic comment about one of his more recent political statements: “It’s hard being a fan.”

It’s surprising, in retrospect, that I missed the boat on the Smiths, given that I spent my post-millennial suburban adolescence listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure on my Discman, living in my ’80s-of-the-mind. By then, “How Soon Is Now?” had been repurposed by Hollywood into a teen-witch anthem and I dutifully bought a copy of Hatful of Hollow but I didn’t connect with it. I had been put off by the reports of Morrissey courting right-wing nationalism and keeping the company of boxers, and the kids I knew who liked the Smiths were angry, chic, and cryptic. It was something I felt excluded from.

But for Dori—“Dorissey,” as one of her friends nicknamed her—growing up, Morrissey was something of a mirror image: a sarcastic misfit, angular and difficult, appalled by the world, lost in the world. From over on the east coast she turned to British music magazines to make sense of who she was. Beautiful, otherworldly David Bowie, whom she got mistaken for once in her androgynous phase; Mick Jagger in a dress, looking somewhere between Susan Sontag and Eileen Myles: the perfect crush for a closeted teen. And Morrissey with his NHS glasses and references to Maggie Thatcher making a mess of things.

Getting to know someone means getting to know their archetypes. That summer, ensconced in her apartment—which with its heirloom German antiques is as much a ‘law unto itself’ in the middle of LA as she is, and, along with her Anglophilia, is an odd throwback to the world I come from—we watch some of the black-and-white movies she loves on TCM: her cast of tragically glamorous women, solitary drinkers in pearls.

And getting to know someone means revisiting how you conceive of yourself. I’d never quite realized it, but much of my personal canon can be summed up as “shy rebel loving someone twice her age”—Carol, Loving Annabelle, Girls in Uniform—and Dori surprises me by being familiar with almost every single one of them. (Other favorites require some annotation. “What was it you liked about this movie?” she asks carefully, an hour into Lost and Delirious’ unabashed melodrama. “She’s into poetry and hawks,” I explain.)

When, a month into knowing her, I have to go back to my life on the other side of the world, I start sending her poems I like, and she starts sending me Smiths songs, which I save to a Spotify playlist titled “she says (that he says).” That autumn, I have the peculiar experience of Morrissey as a stand-in for Dori, telling me about her. Back amid the familiar contours of my English life, I listen to him and I hear her shyness (but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask), her loneliness (it’s so lonely out on a limb), her hope (I want to live, I want to love, I want to catch something I might be ashamed of). I blush when I walk through posh, bucolic Berkhamsted listening to “Skin Storm” for the first time, shockingly intimate when it’s being sung at me.

And he really does remind me of her: from his dark sense of humor to the way he moves, walking, fierce yet fragile, through the streets of Manchester with his boy posse in music videos. Sometimes, in those first months, I google Morrissey just to feel closer to her.

Post-Brexit Britain is an appropriate time and place to be listening to Morrissey’s anger with the establishment, and that it should be an American woman who whispers his voice in my ears fits my way of always doing things upside-down inside-out, the Union Jack-and-rainbow flag pin she unearthed from a drawer pinned to my lapel.

(On my way home from my writing session at the pub, I take the shortcut through the cemetery. Dori messages me, complaining about a new acquaintance trying to invite her to a basketball game: the introvert’s lament. She’d rather be indoors with her record collection and a new book on Frances Farmer, the tragically-mad Hollywood actress she tried to emulate in her twenties. “Books never let you down. Neither do records.”

I sit down against a pine tree, the autumn drizzle dripping around me off the branches. “I’m taking a moment to sit with the trees and the dead,” I write. “They never disappoint either.” She recommends “Cemetary Gates”. If you must write prose and poems

“I feel like such a caricature of English rebellion,” I say, “sitting here in my stompy boots listening to the Smiths.”

“I know! And thirty years too late!”—an observation which she punctuates with the heart-eyes emoji, which makes me laugh out loud, amid the darkness and the silence of the graves.

“Right? Story of my life.”)
 

*

That autumn, I go on a tour of the places that have made me: my hometown, the German city where I went to university. When you walk without ease on these streets where you were raised… But it’s not just about remembering that sense of discomfort, just as QID (as Dori tells me the fans call it) isn’t for me just about his angst, but always about hearing her underneath it, like pebbles shining at the bottom of the river.

I walk around my hometown, and I’m struck by the rainbow zebra crossing (installed by the council as an expression of gay pride and solidarity); by the little shrines everywhere (candles and crucifixes, the theatricality of Catholicism) and the beautifully renovated public library. I sit by my dad’s grave, wearing Dori’s blue button-down, and it somehow feels like honoring an appointment. (I take a picture of my silhouette against his tombstone and send it to her; like all my selfies, shadows and reflections.)

I take stock of the ways in which I’m different now. Me, an angry kid in combat boots, cutting class to read. (Keats and Yeats are on your side, and wild lover Wilde…) Me, a happy kid—still late for everything—kissing Dori goodbye and running down her marble hallway to catch my ride, dogs beginning to howl behind every door I pass.

I suppose love means your own archetypes plus one: her shadow walking beside me. And I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve always found it easiest to see myself through someone else’s eyes. It’s easier to describe myself when I’m thinking of how she would describe me: someone who sits in trees, a buyer of cut flowers, a witch.

(I’m surprised one night when I learn that “I Know It’s Over” is by the Smiths. I had known the Jeff Buckley version for years and assumed that was the original (“the sea wants to take me” always seemed darkly prescient). She tells me, “I think I cried the first time I heard it.” Moments later, it comes on the radio on her side of the world. “They never play this. You witch!”)

All of Morrissey’s music is threaded through with the yearning to be recognized in that way, the hope that—to quote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of Dori’s movies—sometimes “people do belong to each other.” Morrissey, the patron saint of the lonely. My friend Jonathan’s verdict on the increasingly embittered Morrissey of recent years is that he never found the clever, gentle gay boy he deserved. Dori’s comment on that is, “Do you know how rare it is to find the clever, gentle anything?” Dori, who goes to Pride wearing a self-made T-shirt emblazoned with the lyric, “Life’s hard enough when you belong here.”

When I hear the opening bars of Johnny Marr’s frantic guitar riff, I’m taken back to the first time she played the Smiths for me, on a road trip to Joshua Tree, right before the first time I had to leave the States. Driving in your car, I never want to go home… I was intimidated by her—self-contained, uncompromising, sharp chin poised above the steering wheel—and I wasn’t entirely sure she wanted me around yet. I remember the rush of gratitude I felt whenever she’d start a story unprompted.

Morrissey, Dorissey, a hopeful cynic: so acerbic, so gentle. I listen to Morrissey singing send me the pillow that you dream on, and I’ll send you mine, and I’m grateful for that small, resilient pocket of hope in spite of his self-consciousness, in spite of how he’s always half-anticipating crushing disappointment. I’m grateful for that space, because—riding shotgun, her warm hand closing around mine when traffic slows; my reflection against the desert moonscape—that’s where I am at home.

—Emma Rault

#219: Beastie Boys, "Licensed to Ill" (1986)

Beastie Boys is the group I should have listened to as a teenager, but didn’t. I discovered them long after I discovered other musicians in the punk genre they started with, and long after I found their peers in ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop. I only got my copy of Licensed to Ill in a record store in Princeton, New Jersey in 2013, while visiting a friend from grad school. I bought this along with albums by Band of Horses, 311, and the Knux. It was a strange set of purchases, even to my eyesI felt a tension between where my tastes were when I was young and where they’d ventured since.

On my way home from New Jersey, I popped Licensed to Ill into my busted-up Ford Focus station wagon. Listening to it at that point in my life was roughly the same feeling I got when I first read The Catcher in the Rye at age 25I enjoyed it, and appreciated how sharply it captures the biases, fears, and motivations of a teenager, but a tinge of regret crept out anyway.  I felt how Captain Picard must have when he finally played poker with his crew on the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, after Data had been schooling the others for seasonsI should have done this years ago.

The Beastie Boys started out in the hardcore punk scene, and couldn’t get traction. At some point, they recognized this, and decided to shift focus to hip-hop. They put out a 12” with a song called “Cookie Puss,” filled with prank calls they made to a Carvel cake shop asking to speak with the fictional character of the same name. If that doesn’t give you an idea of the maturity level to which the early Beastie Boys pivoted, know that they re-released these songs in 1994 for a compilation entitled Some Old Bullshit.

Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock managed to shift musical gears in a major way and still come off as authentic. They fostered a current of hip-hop flavored rebellion with a purpose beyond selling records, and separate from the revolutionary political bent of their contemporaries like Public Enemy. To me at least, they didn’t come across as cheesy or inauthentic in the same way that other ventures into the genre by white boys did (see Vanilla Ice). I listen to them and feel as if they’re giving us their true selvesirreverent, creative, vulgar, campy but with self-awareness. Their attitude, even if performed, is compelling.

The tracks I’ve heard from before their transition remind me of the DC hardcore band Bad Brains. I like their early punk music, but it doesn’t sound like the Beastie Boysand once they made the leap to hip-hop, the Beastie Boys sound like no one else.  Licensed to Ill, their full-length debut from 1986, still comes off as raw, unpolished, and unapologetically youngbut it’s them. It’s not even my favorite album of theirs. These guys took risks, grew their palate, and gave rise to better albums like Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty, and Ill Communication. For me, Licensed to Ill is not the one, but it is the prototype.*

*

In 2012 the band lost Adam Yauch, aka MCA, to cancer. After a while, Mike D and Ad-Rock confirmed that the Beastie Boys would not be continuing without him. The vacuum they left on the touring circuit was filled by at least two cover bands I’ve found out about since. One of them, Brass Monkeys, is based near me in York, Pennsylvania. They had a concert in early June and I bought tickets, hoping that the show would be skillful and spirited enough to capture some of what I never got to see in person.

I’m getting far from adolescence now, and aside from a few of its lingering totemsa love of junk food, a video game hobby, and an awkwardness around people I think are prettyI sometimes have a hard time recapturing it. The thirty-year mark approaches, and I’m currently writing this from a cafe during my first legitimate business trip, after debating whether to skip the whole cafe writing gambit and retire to my room at the Holiday Inn Express at 5:30 in the evening. At work, people keep introducing me as the “subject matter expert” for an initiative, as if the description makes me more legitimate. Back home, I’m dating a woman with her own business, great taste in music, and a two-year-old son she raises while also willingly watching Star Trek with me (I knowit’s awesome). I fight through my own anxiety to be honest and authentic with the pretty girl and her ‘tiny tyrant’ son, even when it means risking awkwardness or rejection.

When the night arrives, I take my date to dinner and a show. On the way, I tell her I discovered that the Brass Monkeys are one of at least two cover bands with the same name. The other appears based around Seattle, so I assume they can split the country fairly well and don’t have to start a beef over which group is the real Beastie Boys cover band. The concert’s in an art-deco style theater in the center of town. We get wristbands at the door as a sign of being legal to drink, and order a couple gin and tonics.

The Brass Monkeys comes out after some DJ work on the stage, walking down the aisles in hardhats and coveralls, high-fiving those of us in the crowd. They start with “Intergalactic,” and immediately I’m hooked. Several costume changes and a violin solo for “Eugene’s Lament” later, they’ve won us over. They finish up the set with “Sabotage”a track that has strangely become recognizable as the only one Captain Kirk knows in the rebooted Star Trek movies.

During the encore, the group finally gives us a solid dose of Licensed to Ill. We are rewarded for our devotion by getting to shout along to “Fight for Your Right,” “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” and “Brass Monkey”. We remember hiding pornography in our rooms, feeling bummed at school, wanting to get weirdand for it to be okay when we feel like we’re the wrong sort of weird. For two hours, nostalgia does its work, and I recapture something. The band members go back to their real, full-time jobs somewhere in the same town, and I do the same with mine.

*

Not a week later, I sit in the hotel room waiting for the business trip’s final day. I surf the internet with the Beastie Boys on my mind and the song “Paul Revere”where the boys tell tall tales of their originscoming from my laptop speakers. I pause it when I stumble upon a video Adam Horowitz, or Ad-Rock, recorded for Rookie Mag. It’s from a series called “Ask a Grown Man” that has also featured Radiohead and Run the Jewels. Adam gives honest and reasonable advice to the teenage girls who submit questions to him on relationships, kissing, and awkwardness.

The counsel rings true, even if it’s simple: talk honestly to people you care about. Be true to yourself. Pursue your art. Know that everyone feels unlikeable, confused, or lost sometimes. When in doubt, blame your parents. None of this is particularly surprising. What gets me is that at the beginning of the video. Adam introduces himself, saying he has been “asked to be a grown-up.” Then he stops for a moment, inspects the gray in his beard through the camera, leans in, as if he’s noticed it for the first time.

“Man,” he says, “I look weird!”

—Benjamin Walker

 

*Apologies to Andre 3000.

#220: The Meters, "Look-Ka Py Py" (1969)

The story of Look-Ka Py Py begins with the Meters departing New Jersey in a beat-up Mercury. Two bad pistons provide a background rhythm over which the musicians lay an improvised beat and vocal chant for 850 miles, delivering the title track at an Atlanta studio and the album into music legend.

My brother and I were both too young to say that we "experienced" the ‘60s, he of the massive Jew-fro and platform shoes, me with shoulder-length hair and Hush Puppies. We were unquestionably children of the ‘70s and its music. The differences in our appearances belied our shared musical tastes, save for the chasm between Disco and Punk that formed late in the decade.

My cousin Andrew gave me a poster that hung in the bedroom I shared with my brother in a Levittown neighborhood outside Annapolis, MD. As long and as wide as my twin-sized bed, it was a concert advertisement pinned to the wall above my headboard, a Bill Graham original taken from the concourse in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, 1973: A SWELL DANCE CONCERT - THE GRATEFUL DEAD, the guy and gal dressed in ‘50s teen hipHe's "Truckin',” She's "Posin'," it said. I wanted to Truck.

Andrew and his brother genuinely were children of the ‘60s. The younger two of four boys from New York, they always sent me music-related stuff. Mostly albums. Boxes of them. Bowie, Talking Heads, Dylan, Lou Reed, Poco, Blondie, the Residents, the Band, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Parliament, and the Meters.

I loved my cousins for this gifta foundational record collection that started a life-long love affair with music. It wasn’t until I’d travelled my own roads alongside bands in the coming decades that I understood the impact these records had on the music I listened to.

My friends and I spread our records across the carpet of my parents’ house and took turns wearing out our favorites on the massive console stereo in the living room no one used. Queen, Aerosmith, KISS, the Beatles, the Stones. Vinyl stacked high33s, 45s, even some of my dad's 78s. You’d never heard such low-end! My neighbors did though, and with a rap on the aluminum frame of the screen door, they let my parents know that the music was not to their liking.

I was a regular at Waxie Maxie’s, a record store in the corner strip mall where you could buy LPs for $8.40 a pop including tax, collect your orange ‘Free Records’ coupon, and grab a Slurpee from 7-11 on the way home. Waxie Maxie’s gave me my first job. “We should just pay you in vinyl,” the manager once said to me. “Every week I hand you your check and every week you hand it right back in exchange for records!” The easy life of a teenager. Biking home with a bag of records under my arm, one hand steering the bike in a wobbly path, dumping the bike in the front yard and bolting into the house, I’d unload my week’s pay onto the bed, swiping the edge of each album cover across my jeans to burn open the shrink wrap, placing the needle of the department store record player onto side one with a staccato scratch, looking at every picture on the cover, reading every word on the sleeve, and losing myself in music for the afternoon.

This ritual followed me through junior high and high school, where the breadth of my musical library expanded along with my circle of friends. Open lunch, afternoons, and weekends were spent with my patchwork crew gathered in the parent-free home of Alan, the living room furnished with one chair and a stereo. There were seven of us and we'd each bring a contribution of vinyl and aluminum, drinking the afternoons away air-jamming to ‘70s Prog, Punk, Jazz Fusion, and what was even then Classic Rock. Rush, Zappa, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jaco Pastorius, the Clash, Beastie Boys.

During college I moved in and out of dorm rooms and apartments with little more than a bag of clothes, a turntable, and about 1,000 albums. Walking the hall of my first dorm was like turning the radio dialthe Who faded into Prince into Talking Heads into Madonna into Tears for Fears into the Clash. Among our floor mates, knowledge of bands and the ability to cite liner notes was played out in substance-fueled contests of one-upmanship. My roommate and I excelled. As a member of SEE Productions at the University of Maryland, I experienced my music up-close and personal, backstage with the Godfathers, Living Colour, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Jane's Addiction, Butthole Surfers, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Neville Brothers.

The Meters started as a backing band, laying down the groove for New Orleans greats like Lee Dorsey and Earl King. And like Booker T and the MGs, who backed Otis Redding and Bill Withers, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers, who backed Aretha Franklin and Joe Cocker, the Meters were an unmistakable, but largely unrecognized, musical voice behind the Stars.

It was during that Neville Brothers concert in Ritchie Coliseum at Maryland that the Meters came back into focus and burst open my understanding and appreciation of ‘the groove.’ The crowd was unforgiving, booing the opening act, Egypt, who were, in my opinion, delivering a scorching set of Meters-inspired, funked-up rock. How can you not strut when this is the soundtrack to your life? The groove of your gait?

On the first warm day of the summer, fifty-year-old me, that boy riding his bike while balancing a stack of albums, loads up his Jeep and heads north, open to the sky, with the Mighty Imperials’ “Thunder Chicken” providing the soundtrack. The beating heart of funk re-connects across the years along a vein that runs through my entire record collection. Think James Brown. Think Sly Stone. Think Aerosmith and Run-DMC. Think Ocean's Eleven. Think the Meters. Think cool.

—Jack Mevorah

#221: My Bloody Valentine, "Loveless" (1991)

1995: Jeremy said that “To Here Knows When” was the sound of entering heaven. Jeremy grew up to be schizophrenic, I think, last I heard about these things anyway. I don’t know if I believe in heaven after death but I believe in heaven on Earth and Jeremy was right about that song.

1993: Steve said that “Only Shallow” was the sound of dying. Steve grew up to join the army, I think, last I checked. I’m no good at keeping track of these things. I don’t know what dying feels like, obviously. Dying violently, dying romantically. Loveless was released during the Gulf War; people were dying then but I don’t know if their dying sounded like “Only Shallow.”

199-: Someone once said that “Sometimes” was the sound of falling in love. Close my eyes / feel me now. Someone who was bold, who was sensitive; someone who had obviously been in love before. I was inclined to believe him. I can’t remember his name.

1998: Kevin Shields said he likes to look for his albums when he goes into record stores. This is true. I was twenty-one and living in London; I spotted him in the Virgin Megastore on Tottenham Court Road and walked up to him to tell him I loved him, or at least that I loved his music in so many words. I happened to notice we were standing at the end of the “M”s. I pointed this out, and laughed, and he laughed and I told him I loved his music and that it was very important to me. I don’t know if he heard me as I said these words of passion under my breath, masked by the droning sound of the Virgin Megastore crowds.

1844: Kierkegaard said that “The highest point of inwardness in an existing person is passion, for passion corresponds to truth as a paradox, and the fact that the truth becomes a paradox is grounded in its relation to an existing individual. [...] Subjectivity culminates in passion.” I know for a fact Kierkegaard never heard Loveless and that he was talking about passion in terms of religious truths, but there is a kind of religion in music. I don’t know what Kierkegaard thought the sound of entering heaven would be.

2017, 6:36 pm: My browser history says that I found that quote by googling “Kierkegaard + subjectivity + truth” and skimming a PDF of “Subjectivity is Truth” from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments posted by the philosophy faculty at UCSD. In case you had the false impression that I had a long history of studying Kierkegaard and was able to quote him off the top of my head. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve latched onto quotes from philosophers extracted from their meaning like song lyrics scribbled on a canvas binder, ink in layers for each new lyric we come across and fall hopelessly in love with. I don’t think this is a very intelligent thing to do.

2017, 7:10pm: My browser history says that I then googled “Kierkegaard + my bloody valentine” and found a review of a book about Elliott Smith that came out a decade after his death, and the index of a book on what popular music teaches us about faith. There were also interviews with several filmmakers and poets who said that they found inspiration in both. I found no quotes from Kevin Shields about Kierkegaard. I don’t thinkin spite of the obvious topics of death and faith and art and passionthat these are layers worth further exploration.

1992: Zach said “you’ve never heard of My Bloody Valentine?” And when I said “no” he put Loveless into the CD player and after four snare beats the sonic universe expanded and I’ve never been the same since. I had met Zach that same day when I was wandering through the college campus near my house and heard him playing bass in his dorm room. I was learning to play the bass too, so I followed the sound of the bass to his room and knocked on his door. Imagine! I was only sixteen; this was normal. Zach, if Facebook is to be believed, has a family of four now and lives somewhere near Chicago or Toledo. I’m too lazy to look it up right now, having worn down my computer battery searching for Kierkegaard quotes. It’s entirely possible it’s spelled “Zack,” not “Zach.” I'm too lazy to look that up too. I don’t know if he knew he would change my life forever.

1992-1995: N said…no, I don’t know if I can go there. I loved N too much for too long and I don’t know if he ever knew that. I met N through Zach; he loved My Bloody Valentine too and made me a cassette tape of their B-sides. I still have the tape. Every time I hear My Bloody Valentine I think of N. I don’t know if Loveless is meant to be a love album but it will always be the aching, horrible, heartbreaking sound of how I felt when I looked at him. The opposite of loveless. I was seventeen. I didn’t know better. He broke my heart but never knew it; he once tried to steal my car.

1991: Kevin Shields said to Melody Maker that “there’s still something organic about [the guitar], alive, like a living animal. I fall in love with guitars.” I fall in love with memories. I layer these memories on top of each other like Kevin Shields layers guitars, like blankets stacked one on top of the other: the weight of them is a comfort. The memories of Zach, and Jeremy, and Steve, and N. Not one of these encounters was romantic. But they live in my head with the importance of romantic encounters, strong memories etched deeply: I remember the posture of each one as he talked, and the details of the spaces: the dark wood-paneled room with beanbag chairs where Jeremy talked about entering heaven; the campfire in the woods where Steve talked about death. The dorm rooms with their tall white ceilings and echoing hallways. The echos layer on top of campfires and wood-paneled rooms with beanbag chairs, and the memories build and build like harmonies. At the end of our lives do the memories become so layered that we can no longer hear our own thoughts through the noise?

2008: The woman who worked at the upstairs bar at Roseland said that My Bloody Valentine was the loudest band she’d ever heard “and I’ve heard a lot of bands.” She handed me a beer and told me how much I owed and I could barely hear her under the howl of guitarslike a living animalthat filled the ballroom. I don’t know if she liked them. I kind of got the feeling she didn’t. Passion is subjective.

2017: I used to say that “When You Sleep” was my favorite song on Loveless. Now it’s “Sometimes.” I’m inwardly passionate about “Sometimes.” I cry every time I listen to it. Not because I think about N and lost love: I don’t. I think about what it feels like to be in love now. What it feels like halfway through my life to wake up next to someone I met when I was twenty-one and living in London, to have twenty years of memories of this person layered in harmony, each breath, each look. You can see, oh now, oh the way I do. Maybe I cry because I’ve been in love three times now. Maybe you have to fall in love three timesorganic love, animal love, some kind of mystical and ritual incantationin order to really love “Sometimes.”

20--: I don’t know if there’s something like heaven after death, but if there is, maybe when I enter heaven I’ll hear “To Here Knows When.” Maybe when I get there I’ll see Jeremy and tell him he was right. Maybe when we enter heaven the layers of our memories will peel back like wallpaper, revealing who we really are. Every layer of every year peeling back until we find the truth.

I grab an edge and pull back:

Here is every night I spent around a campfire
Here is every next morning when my hair smelled of campfire smoke
Here is every day I spent sick on the couch
Here is every book I’ve read about introspective women
Here is how the light in June looked on the walls of every house I lived in
Here is the sound of every year the cicadas came
Here is everyone I have ever been mad at
Here is everyone I have ever loved

I pull each layer and let them drop. The noise of their patterns falls from my shoulders, the mad escaping joy and growling anger I’ve carried with me all these years. Where am I? Am I supposed to be under there? I keep peeling.

What could I possibly be without that noise?

—Zan McQuade

#222: Professor Longhair, "New Orleans Piano" (1972)

“It felt like there were people representing different parts of music that we held in high respect,” the Band’s Robbie Robertson said recently in a press tour celebrating the run up to the 40th anniversary of his group’s classic concert film The Last Waltz. “Who’s going to represent the music of New Orleans? We’ve got to get Dr. John in here.”

But Robertson's goal wasn't to represent the music of New Orleans. He was aiming to represent the music of his era, the ‘60s, a time of innovation and self-realization and cross-pollination and deracinating appropriation, in the last moments of its waning light. “It felt like the end of an era,” Robertson said. “Something needed to be brought to a conclusion, in everything. Around the outskirts of what we were bringing to a conclusion, it felt like there was another kind of revolution stirring: Of hip-hop, and punk.”

So sure enough, early on in that classic rockumentary, Dr. John walks out onstage, foppish and pimpish in a beret and pink bowtie. Hirsute with a Cheshire grin, “The Doctor” squawks out a gratitude and and begins to tell of a starry tryst in his cajun accent. As the song comes to a conclusion, Dr. John, whose real name was Malcolm Rebennack, launches into an extended musical shtick: Tying together ending after ending after ending into a miniature suite of outros: cliche and familiar musical culminations anyone would recognize from the canon of American roots music. Then, it finally does end, dissipating in a gauzy billow of antebellum strings. He stands, glinting in a spangled coat, and bows to thunderous applause.

Growing up in New Orleans, Mac Rebennack naturally gravitated to music, and to Henry Byrd, the town’s legendary pianist. Byrd was an institution in New Orleans from the time Rebennack was born, and went by the name Professor Longhair. Rebennack remembers meeting Byrd, whom he idolized, and whose friends called him ‘Fess, as a kid: “I was also fascinated that he was sitting out there in a turtleneck shirt with a beautiful gold chain with a watch hangin' on it, and an Army fatigue cap on his head,” Rebennack remembered. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I never seen nobody dressed like this guy.’ Just everything about the man was totally hip. And he had gloves on him, too, beautiful silk gloves. I'll never forget this.”

He certainly didn’t. Rebennack sponged up the culture and identity of New Orleans and then took it to L.A., where he rolled it out for everyone from Frank Zappa to Sonny & Cher. He found an equation between the psychedelia of the late ‘60s with the voodoo mysticism of his hometown, and The Night Tripper was born: a cartoonish alloy of New Orleans culture and oddities, real and imagined. He could market it nicely toohe first went by Professor Bizarre, co-opting Longhair while exoticising him. But then he picked another honorific and another pseudonym, and became Dr. John. When the Band moved to L.A. to make their unimpeachable second album, everyone in the music scene knew Rebennack for his madcap stories of his hometown and his fabulous dress. So when, years later, the Band wanted a taste of the Bayou, that’s who they called.

About a year after The Last Waltz was filmed, but before it was released in 1978, Professor Longhair, who had never “crossed over” like Rebennack seemed to so easily, opened a club in New Orleans called Tipitina’s. The club was named after a song he wrote that was later added to the National Recording Registry for its cultural significance. That’s where Robbie Robertson finally got to meet Longhair, New Orleans’s most important jazz pianist after Jelly Roll Morton. None of Longhair’s recordings had made it far out of New Orleans in their time, so the opening of Tipitina’s, and its establishment as one of the city’s preeminent juke joints, helped get the word out.

Longhair recorded for almost three decades before any of his work was put together into an album, New Orleans Piano, 1972’s compilation of his singles made between 1949 and 1953. For three decades, he represented New Orleans’s odd musical amalgamation: creole, jazz, zydeco, soul, rumba, boogie-woogie, even when he was out of sight, or thought long dead. His music was carried by the city, in bars and clubs, because it celebrated its identity. His were sounds he picked up tap dancing on the street for snake oil salesmen, studying under Champion Jack Dupree and especially Tuts Washington, or sneaking into bars with a mustache drawn on to fake his age.

Even by New Orleans’s standards, Longhair’s piano playing was a hard-to-categorize mix. He learned boogie-woogie from watching local musicians’ hands, but when he played it himself he leaned further ahead on the beat so it sounded more like Latin music. No one really knew what to call it, other than New Orleans piano, which is what it was.

New Orleans Piano is bawdy and colorful, full of priapic metaphors like “Ball the Wall” and “She Walks Right In”. His band sets the roadhouse standard later aped by Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys on Exile on Main Street. But no instrument is more powerful in Byrd's combo, not even his multilingual fingers, than his voice. Every song sounds a bit like he’s hitting on someone from the bandstand, and just how he describes in “In The Night”“In the wee wee hours between midnight and day.” Byrd’s randy, winking baritone, like a bassy Groucho Marx or Shock G’s grandfather, turns into yodels on “Tipitina” and “In The Night”goofy, yes, but not shtick, or at least not for the purpose of getting on TV. “Hey Little Girl” and “Willie Mae” both rise from Longhair’s boiling gut and climb up to a raspy peak.

Longhair’s “Bald Head”, which isn’t on New Orleans Piano, had made it to #5 on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1950. But it did little for the man; that chart had been renamed the previous year, when it was called the “Race chart”. There was no money in it, and the only likelihood of commercial crossover belonged to white artists copping it. He got screwed on record deals too: by the ‘60s, he’d switched careers from pianist to professional card player. By the late ‘60s, Longhair had disappeared and was thought dead. A group of teenagers set out to find him in 1970, and did, where he sweeping up in a record shop. He hadn’t played the piano in years.

A new interest in cultural archivism gave birth to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and by 1971, Byrd was performing in front of thousands in his hometown. The world had changed dramatically during Byrd's chapter of hardship, and reemerging from it must have been a shock. In 1977, Paul McCartney hired ‘Fess to play a yacht party he was hosting; Byrd had no idea who McCartney was. He got to enjoy mounting fame and appreciation until his death of a heart attack in 1980. He was supposed to tour opening for the Clash that year, another kind of revolution.

Longhair hardly made it out of New Orleans himself. But thousands joined the second-line for his funeral. His “Go To The Mardi Gras” is a staple of the yearly carnival“as common here as holiday carols.” He became New Orleans, even if he’d never be its emissary.

And yet: when Robbie Robertson wanted to represent New Orleans, he called Mac Rebennack. This isn’t bad, inherently. There’s nothing to suggest that Dr. John’s a fake, or an undeserving songwriter. But it was wrong, incorrect. Dr. John didn’t write the music New Orleans parades to all year long. He didn’t stir its manifold soul with styles that were new and old. He was its emissary, not its doctor. He still holds some association with our imagination of New Orleans’s music, maybe because he was chosen to represent its music at a moment and on a stage where its image in popular imagination was asserted.

See, that's because the culture of a place can't just be folded up like a tent once a generation's music becomes passé. At The Last Waltz, when the whole history of New Orleans's music was to be advertised, who was under the spotlight? And who got to make that choice? Maybe Rebennack got called up when someone else deserved to. The tragedy is that person was back in New Orleans for just a little while longer. But the miracle is that he'll be there forever, too. Don't expect him to come represent itself. Go to the Mardi Gras.

—Charlie Kaplan

#223: U2, "War" (1983)

I.

u2 war.jpg

—Martha Park

 

II.

The world!, it starts out all wild notion and varicolored ponderance, but soon enough down the line, even the questions seem to converge. You start out twentyfirsted, giddy, fresh-faced, and soon enough you're jamming a battered old Cadillac into the same hazardous non-space, having hit the phone pole with your right bumper every other week for the last forty years. On each of this life's singular and urgently glorious days (without fail), you'll drink until you've only got the next fifteen minutes to make the drive home or else you'll fall to the sticky sweet floor and it takes the bouncer to peel you off. From then to here, your notions take on a more beautiful aspect: Who was it set these divebars into motion? What hand placed each of us, our winding gears and ticktocking hearts, plodding steady closer and closer to the bars over the hill under the glory of a temperate fall?

One beautiful thing to a constant divebar is the slew of second chances to make amends with songs you first hated. For me: I watched the years soften my scowl about poppy ballads and all manner of concretions put to page and vinyl by sex offenders, murderers, monsters. A tune can hang in your ears long enough for the quiet sag of the walls and the slippery nature of time to impress upon you that we are not the work we will leave behind. No, we only count time, most of us. When watching the last strength of our days slip through our fingers, our mind can wander, and in the absence of posture or solid thought, we find ourselves merrily whistling a tune, forgetting to cast stones. That's got to count for something.

Still, like the way our strong knees will wither through and one day give, there's limits to the kindness or redemption that can hang around long in a place like this. For example, in here, I've found time and again that at no time does “New Year's Day” sound good to my ear, or in any right appropriate to the milieu. Makes a small fury come trembling up from the deep of my spine bones. The world is white and underway. Chords to “Bloody Sunday” don't sound too good either, to stick with the theme. But for one thing, I find (I think) that Bono himself would slide right into this world. This world would have beaten him into a quieter, humbler version of himself, I'm sure, but there are plenty of weirdos in this long, sad room with a good sliver of brilliance hid behind their dirty ears. The spark's not gone, not all the way, anyhow. Does that qualify for a shot of redemption? A second chance grasped, two-handed, whole-hearted.

This isn't the exact way Bono meant it when he said, “Compromise is not a dirty word.” Then again, fella's been seen mugging it next to George W. Bush. (No part of me is surprised. The man's a majesty of ADHD and Bible passages and the notion to make wildness. He'll party with anyone, I'd reckon.)

Still, though, we sit. And wait to feel the rage subside and a kind of inner peace begin to take root. A serene acceptance of the things we cannot change.

My friend Steven. Hair thinning, and more smug with each year that passes. Sits back in his booth, right next to the door where it reads nnI ytinummoC on this side of the street-lit door, and he posts up all fucking night (like he doesn't have a kid and a wife to be home with) drinking water-warm Yuengling and laughs about the churchfolk more than he does about the hipsters. In this of all places.

Hey man, you tell me: We're not angelbits or divinely inspired. We're all made of this shitty decaying carbon. Next time you cut yourself slicing onions, or you find yourself underneath the turning wheel of a bad hangover, or come up short counting out the month's bills, you say the words of Psalm 40 back out, then tell me they don't have grist in them. No true alcoholic ever spat on those words, anyhow. No half-rate boxer. No constant penny-shorter. Only the fat and haughty ever have cause to laugh about the psalms, anyhow.

Still, Steven prattles. Opiate of the masses blah blah, forever arguing with the rest of 1983, and that, I suppose, keeps him at home amongst many in this room. To be sure, there always kindles in here a haphazard kind of hate. Simmering contempt, reducing always, thicker and thicker until it sets. We are always at war with them, to keep this room near tolerable. The kind of people with no room for Psalms are the kind of people with no room for Elizabeth Bishop or Pablo Neruda or John Keats or Rakim and Eric B., and they can all fuck off, every one of them. You don't have to like the Psalms, but Jesus Fuck-my-tits Christ, if you only see a world in which they (or Mercy) got no place, you don't deserve poetry in any of its forms. Jesus fucking wept.

You can sit there with him in silence for hours, having no better company to turn to and shout, Fuck's sake: look at a flower. Fucking miracle of a flower, it stuns the eyes, and fills the nose, and then in a blink it falls apart dead. Everything everyone says they hate about Bono is true, and yet, the days of our lives still blink rapidly to their dim end, and somehowmiraculously somehowhere you sit, beer full and warming quickly, midst the shotgun narrows of the Community Inn's barside row of tables, spouting about how you don't fucking like any of that religion bullshit. Here in God's own hinterlands, in the backwater of civilized existence, you claim some notion of completion. Fool: should your life have had the heft and merit of the ancient heroes of philosophy, we should never have chanced to meet you here. On the mountain, or in the street preaching, perhaps. But such grim shit-talking in a one-horse dive bar such as this?

No order to the astrophysics in the claustrophobic smoketrap of the pool room, no calming center of near-chaos at the bar. No end to the decay who come and go, and here you sit, Steven, lord of all our perpetual hopelessness, snark and grim, and utterly forsaken, and somehow you can squelch down that hot beer, totally unwilling to give even an inch and hope, and sing, But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God. Don't think twice.

—Aaron Fallon

#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