#131: Black Sabbath, "Paranoid" (1970)

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Rudell Bostic was sleeping in a Super 8 off Highway 51 in Carbondale, Illinois the night they arrested his fifteen-year-old son Johnny for vandalism and curfew. He worked as a service manager for a company that designed and manufactured electrical power distribution equipment for underground mines, which made him responsible for repairing his company’s equipment every time something broke down. Things broke down a lot in mines, so Rudell got sent to places like Carbondale or Hazard, Kentucky more often than his wife cared for. The company had shipped him off to crawl down shafts in Mexico and Guatemala and Guam, and one time even Egypt.

His wife Eleanor called his room at the Super 8 in Carbondale sometime after 2:00 a.m. to report Johnny’s arrest. Rudell was dead asleep when the phone rang and many of her details were lost, but he gathered that Johnny had snuck out with a group of boys and got caught vandalizing someone’s property.

Rudell held the beige motel phone to his ear and watched the cord sway with the air conditioning. “OK,” he said, “and?”

She said nothing at first. “What do you mean, ‘and?’”

“And what are the police going to do about it?”

“Officer says he’ll get an official statement tomorrow. He wants to question the boys one by one.”

“Right. And what do you want me to do about this? I’m in goddamn Carbondale.”

“You have to be here,” Eleanor said. “You’re his father.”

Rudell gave himself a few seconds to breathe. The middle of the night seemed the wrong time to start a fight that he had felt her building toward for months.

“I know that,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. Working. To provide.”

The line cut dead. That was Eleanor’s version of taking a few seconds to breathe.

Demand for coal had flatlined with the Clean Air Act, so companies were laying off miners quicker than you could blink, and all but the biggest companies were folding or selling out. Fewer mines meant fewer orders for his company, so they had cut back to one serviceman, meaning Rudell got sent to every job that needed service. Eleanor told him she thought he was on the road more often than he was at home. He hadn’t done the tallies, but she might be right.

He got up and made a pot of weak coffee from the cheap coffee maker that counted as an amenity in the Super 8 in Carbondale. The pot was small and the machine was nondescript black plastic. Brown crust stuck to places both inside and outside the machine, and the glass carafe was stained heavily. He drank the coffee and headed to the mine to finish the job he had driven all this way to do, which proved to be nothing more demanding than installing a new voltage regulator and capacitor.

The good news was he was able to put in a day’s work and start the drive back home to West Virginia before lunch. The bad news was his eldest was a criminal, a fact his wife blamed him for.

He knew his relationship with Johnny had strained. Talking to a fifteen-year-old boy seemed impossible, but seeing that boy only a few times a week didn’t exactly open up their relationship. When Johnny was little he had thought Rudell was magic—he could fix anything and could do no wrong. Rudell knew his son no longer thought that. He wasn’t even sure the boy loved him, not really. How could you know?

The service van didn’t have a tape deck, so Rudell scanned stations looking for classic rock or country, just about anything that wasn’t talk or Top 40. The heavy stomp of “Iron Man” made him take his hand from the dial. That riff brought him back to high school, ditching gym class to get stoned in Dayle’s car with Sabbath on the 8-track.

In a way, he was almost proud of his son—Johnny was a quiet kid, a little too much of a goody-good for his own wellbeing, Rudell thought. Hell, at Johnny’s age, he was getting into all kinds of trouble, though never with the law, but only because they never got caught. Johnny had started to act out lately, started to get in trouble at school, and his mother blamed Rudell. She thought Johnny was pushing his luck because his father wasn’t home. She might be right, but still, part of him was glad to see Johnny push the rules a bit.

But on the long drive home he began to think differently. Sure, when he was Johnny’s age, he had done a lot worse, but now, in his forties, with a career and a mortgage and a name in the community, Rudell had begun to want people’s respect, not least of all Sheriff Woods, who had been his friend for going on thirty years now since they were boys in the creek hunting for crawdads. Having a friend elected Sheriff made Rudell feel important, but he knew it also meant keeping his family name clean. Johnny’s arrest threatened that. Rudell was not sure what he would say to Sheriff Woods when he got home. Boys will be boys? That felt too easy, and he worried the Sheriff would think Rudell was trying to take advantage.

He made it home to Black Bear Creek in that space between dusk and full dark and found a Sheriff’s cruiser blocking his driveway—not Sheriff Woods’s beat up cruiser, but a shiny new one—parked catty corner across the opening to his driveway, so Rudell pulled the service van into the grass of his yard.

Rudell walked through his front door. There on the sofa was a young officer in a dark brown uniform, his pistol hanging bulky from his belt. The table lamp cast a weak, beige light that made the room seem dimmer than if no light had been on at all, but the beams fell perfectly on the officer sitting at the corner of the sofa. The officer’s pistol looked plastic, more like a toy than an actual weapon, and that made the gun somehow more terrifying as it bulged from the young officer’s hip.

Johnny sat on the loveseat and stared at the floor, refusing to look at his father, but Eleanor turned to him as soon as he opened the door. She was close to tears, sitting on the loveseat next to Johnny and rubbing his back.

The officer rose from the sofa. “Mr. Bostic? I’m Deputy Timmons.”

They shook hands.

“Your daddy Dayle Timmons?”

“Yes sir,” the deputy said. The way this younger man kept calling him “sir” made Rudell feel old and tired, especially since he knew the deputy held the power in this situation. And the thought that Dayle’s son was now an officer of the law almost made him laugh.

“I was friends with your daddy, way back when. Tell Dayle I say hello.”

“I will, sir.”

“Well, deputy,” Rudell said. “I got to say, I don’t know much about what’s going on.”

“That’s what we’re just getting around to.” Timmons sat back on the sofa. Rudell perched on the arm of the loveseat next to Eleanor, but Johnny still wouldn’t look at him. Rudell wondered which man Johnny was more afraid of, and he hoped the answer was his father.

“We received a complaint last night from a resident on Power Line Drive,” the deputy said. “Boys were throwing rocks at a satellite dish. I took the call, and found the boys a few blocks from the complainant’s house. Now, I went back over there today and looked at that man’s yard, and there were a good thirty or forty rocks in his yard, all around that satellite dish, which looked all beat to hell.”

Rudell caught himself about to laugh again. He’d been more than prepared to put the fear of God the Father in the boy, but it was just a damn satellite dish. He would personally go to Power Line Drive and write the man a check for a new one if it meant he got to come home, take a shower, eat a warm dinner, and go to bed without thinking about any of this.

“Tell me the truth, son,” the deputy said. “You throw rocks at that man’s satellite dish?”

“No sir, I never,” Johnny said. “I swear.”

The officer glanced at Rudell, and it seemed clear Timmons did not believe him, and neither did Rudell. Rudell knew all Johnny’s tells, so he saw the lie for what it was.

“John Michael,” Rudell said to the back of his son’s head. “Tell the truth now.”

“I swear,” Johnny said.

“If he says he didn’t do it,” Eleanor said, “he didn’t do it.”

That was just like her, always quick to believe one of her babies. She was gullible that way, in a way that Rudell’s own mother never had been. Had the cops ever picked up Rudell, his mother would have taken a switch to him until he couldn’t sit still long enough to spin these lies.

The deputy shook his head like he had never heard something so foolish. “You’re telling me none of you boys threw rocks at that man’s satellite dish, when I already told you I counted a good forty or fifty rocks in that man’s yard?”

“Nah,” Johnny said. “No sir. Them other boys, they threw rocks at the satellite, but I never did.”

“See,” Eleanor said. “It was those other boys! I’ve warned him about that Tyree boy. I’ve warned him again and again, and now that boy and his friends have gone and gotten Johnny in trouble.”

The officer looked up at Rudell. He was certain that Timmons knew Johnny was lying and that Rudell knew it too. The room felt warm, like the heat was running, but he knew there was no reason for that. The two men made eye contact and the lie stretched taut between them.

“Son,” Timmons said, “lying to an officer is a crime. You threw rocks at that satellite, didn’t you?”

Johnny began to cry, which embarrassed Rudell. His son was close to being a man, and he wished he would take this like a man.

“Didn’t you,” the deputy said.

“I swear,” Johnny said. “I never threw no rocks at that man’s satellite dish. I swear to God.”

Rudell was supposed to say something here, to choose sides. Johnny seemed to read the situation and finally turned to his father and pulled a frantic face.

“Daddy,” Johnny said. “I promise I didn’t do it.”

He could defend his son, or he could tell the officer what he knew to be true, that his son was lying as clear as day, a fact he read in the officer’s face. He could defend his kin or he could side with justice, but he could not do both, and he knew either choice would be wrong.

“Look, deputy,” Rudell said. “If the boy says he didn’t do it, I guess he didn’t do it.”

Timmons shook his head, wrote something in his pocket notebook, and flipped the cover closed.

“Today’s your lucky day,” Timmons said. “I already talked to all the other boys, already got all their statements. And all five of them, every single one of them, says Johnny didn’t throw any rocks. Out of all fifty or sixty rocks I saw in that man’s yard—hell, more like seventy now that I think about it—they say your Johnny didn’t throw a single stone. Hard to believe, but there you go.”

Rudell wondered why those other boys would lie for Johnny. What would be the point of standing around and watching your friends chuck rocks and not pick up a single one yourself?

“What’s going to happen to them other boys?” Rudell said.

“They’ll all plead guilty in juvie court and get community service. Nothing bad.” Timmons rose and headed for the front door. “We’re charging Johnny with curfew. Means he’s got a file now. He gets picked up again, for vandalism, curfew, underage drinking—shit, smoking a cigarette in public before he’s eighteen—and we’ll remember this.”

The deputy shut the door behind himself and the cruiser pulled out of their drive. Johnny wiped away his tears and turned his head away from his father. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Rudell felt a rage build up inside him, a rage at his son and his wife for making him a liar. His own father would be disgusted with him if he could see him now.

Eleanor pushed one hand against Johnny’s back. “You go on to bed,” she said. “We’ll all talk about this in the morning.”

“He’s lying,” Rudell said as soon as Johnny was out of the room. “We both know that.”

Eleanor said nothing at first. “Well, what matters is, Johnny isn’t getting into any trouble.”

“Maybe not with the law,” Rudell said. “But he’s in trouble.”

He had been on the road so long that when he shut his eyes all he saw were double lines of brake lights and headlights against the back of his eyelids. He was tired and he was hungry, but most of all he was a liar.

“It’ll be better coming from you,” Eleanor said. “You’re his father. Community service, anything the law might do to him wouldn’t make no difference.”

Rudell’s parents would have punished him hard enough that he never dreamt of vandalizing again, but this was a different age. Folk were soft now. Making the boy clean litter off the side of the highway, making him sweat and feel shame, that would do him more good than taking away his Nintendo 64 would. Shame and sweat, that was the answer.

“First thing in the morning,” Rudell said. “I’m taking him over to Power Line Drive, and I’m going to make him apologize personally. Then he’s going to pick up every single one of those rocks, and I’m going to watch him mow that man’s yard.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Eleanor said.

“Well I do,” Rudell said. “And I’m his father.”

—Joshua Cross

#132: Various Artists, "Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Sound Track" (1977)

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Two years ago, my family was tasked with beginning to clean out my grandparents’ house. It had been left empty in the years following my grandfather’s death, only to be visited when my grandmother needed something. Following her death, it was even more abandoned.

As a result, it had suffered the damage that a house does when left unattended. This included the back porch becoming unusable because of the rotting wood planks, the air, thick inside (ventilation isn’t a concern in an uninhabited house), and the dishes, once clean, now covered in a layer of dust. One of the realities of life, the uncertainty of it, had set in once we were surrounded by the physical remains of someone else’s. While there had been several minor repairs in times of emergency, there was one major issue with lasting effects: a flood in the finished basement which had left most of the belongings to be consumed by mold.

It was time to determine what was salvageable and what wasn’t. The unsalvageable would be tossed into the back of a U-Haul truck and later discarded at the local dump by my brother and me. I had to put on a white filter mask as my mother, brother, and I descended into the basement that had once been the hide-and-go-seek haven of my childhood. Now, the space was bleak and tainted with disintegrating cardboard boxes full of the things which used to define my grandparents’ lives.

One of the first sets of boxes I opened contained what I had hoped to find: my grandfather’s record collection. I marveled for a minute, checking how many boxes there were full of different records, the corners worn and the covers faded. I dragged one of the boxes into the main storage area, which had always functioned as more of a multipurpose room. It was longer than it was wide, with a workbench, two extra fridges, and boxes piled. For as long as I could remember it had always been cluttered; now it just felt like a mess. The warmth that had once inhabited the space survived only by the objects waiting to be useful once again, never sure if they would be. One of these objects was a record player, connected to a receiver with a built in radio, hooked up to small speakers that lined some of the ceiling. My grandfather’s handiwork for sure. The corners of the weak box began collapsing inward as I dragged it, but it was too heavy for me to lift, and honestly, the records would’ve probably fallen through the bottom if I had tried.

I wasn’t sure if any of the electronics still worked, but I turned on the receiver and, sure enough, static came flooding through the speakers. Quickly, I turned down the volume and tuned the radio’s dial, trying to see if I could get signal. I managed to catch the faint sound of some local station.

I flipped through a few of the records, grabbing the first one I recognized, the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown, and carefully took out one of the two records stuffed into the jacket. I put it on the platter, uncertain that the turntable’s motor would work. It did, and as the record spun, I carefully placed the needle. Barely any sound came out, just the faint recognizable melody of the Bee Gees that I could hear if I put my ear right near where the needle was. My mother and I fiddled around at the back of the player, eventually fixing a loose wire which suddenly amplified Barry Gibb’s more than distinctive voice. The basement was flooded with his high falsetto confidently singing, “And now it's all right, it's okay…,” a weird sentiment and life given to this otherwise decrepit, musty space. I realized quickly that that song wasn’t on the album Spirits Having Flown, and checked the label on the record. It was album one of Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Sound Track. Album two was the accompanying record stuffed into one side of the jacket, both uncomfortably tight.

When I thought of writing about this album, I immediately thought about that day. Throughout my life I have known who the Bee Gees are and I could name a decent amount of their songs, but I wouldn’t say or would have ever said they’re what I listen to on a regular basis. But this record has been in my possession for two years now, and I still don’t know why I’ve kept it. It’s left me sitting here contemplating how it might be some weird need to be close to someone who doesn’t exist anymore. Did I take music from his collection in some attempt to get closer to him when there’s no other way anymore? Music is such a big part of my life and maybe I could figure out something about his from the music he had? Have I imposed some greater meaning on these albums that I took from his collection? Who knows. But I can’t help but think that to him they were just albums, and to me they have now become more than that. They were his albums, and some I didn’t expect.

I never really took him for a disco fan, but there he was, owner of Bee Gees records and the soundtrack to a movie I had only ever watched as part of an assignment for Intro to Cinema Studies. A movie that, while having a great soundtrack, is problematic as hell! (Why couldn’t it have just been a nice movie about a guy dancing at a Brooklyn discothèque?)

Instead of listening to the record, which has been sitting with the rest of my vinyl for almost two years, I downloaded it to my phone on Apple Music and have listened to it whenever I have had the chance for the past few months.

Six of the seventeen songs on the soundtrack are performed by the Bee Gees, hence their photograph in the center of the cover featuring a discoing John Travolta superimposed in the foreground.

The most recognizable track from the band and the whole soundtrack is the first, “Stayin’ Alive.” An upbeat melody that leaves one with no choice but to dance, masking lyrics that I just can’t help but sympathize with. As a college student on the brink of graduation, the repetitive refrain

               Life goin' nowhere, somebody help me

almost feels like Barry, Robin, and Maurice stole my thoughts and travelled back nearly 20 years to write a song about the one and only thing we really have to do in life, which is stay alive. The coexistence of these qualities is what gives this song its timelessness. A prime example of this is the main line, a phrase jokingly repurposed constantly, most recently by a friend as we walked through the aisles of Michael’s, the craft store, and saw a calendar which had a section for “priorities”. My friend pointed at it before she began mimicking Barry Gibb: “ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive.” The most important priority of all.

The second track on the album is by, big surprise here, the Bee Gees. This song however, takes a more comforting and confident tone. The love song, “How Deep Is Your Love,” is less disco than the former track, but still just as Bee Gee-esque. The questioning of a lover, the intimacy that somehow exists within the generalized statements. It’s nothing short of lyrical genius.

               I believe in you.

Barry Gibb believes in me? Crazy how songs can convey such profound duality between a songwriter trying to communicate to that one special person while also connecting to greater human truths at the same time. Anyway, its chorus would, honestly, be a great Instagram caption accompanying a photo of that couple that got married in high school:

               Cause were living in a world of fools,
               Breaking us down,
               When they all should let us be.

               We belong to you and me.

The sentiment overall is sweet, as the chorus fades out to nothing. Fuck everyone else, how deep is your love?

There are two versions of “More Than a Woman” on this album. The Bee Gees version, which precedes the other, is melodically similar to the song it immediately follows on the soundtrack, “Night Fever.” I initially thought the song had repeated, since the chord progressions are either the same or indistinguishably different. The second version, which is the Tavares rendition, is faster paced. It has flute accents and a drum beat that makes it feel more energetic and celebratory than the sincerer Bee Gees version.

The second half of the album is mostly instrumental filler from the movie. It’s just as disco and upbeat, with a clear pacing that anyone could strut down the street to, imitating John Travolta circa 1977. If you want to feel cool while walking with headphones, take my word for it, these are the songs for you.

My favorite song on the album and the last I will comment on, is the fifth song: “If I Can’t Have You.” The drama, the commitment, the desperation—it’s all there as Yvonne Elliman insists:

If I can't have you
I don't want nobody baby

This ballad is beautifully underscored by a horn echoing the melody line throughout; like all the songs on the soundtrack, it’s a multilayered accompaniment with distinct vocal. Elliman offers such a human, lovesick take:

I gave it up
So easily
To you my love
To dreams that never will come true.

When I sat down to write, I had the album sitting next to me on my kitchen table, even though the only way I’ve listened to the whole thing is digitally. I pulled out the record, hoping it would impart on me some profound wisdom, and instead was met with a record titled Spirits Having Flown. Panic set in. I rushed into my living room, grabbed the electric orange plastic milk crate I keep all of my vinyl in, and fetched the leather brown case that some of the more damaged records from my grandfather’s collection live in, rushing in a way that startled my roommate. She asked for an explanation of what was happening, to which I had no response. I didn’t know how to explain to her the feeling in my chest that this record wasn’t here. Had I not had it all this time?

For the weeks and weeks that I had thought about writing this, I had been sure that the record was here, sitting in my living room, untouched for over two years, happily existing. But suddenly, maybe it wasn’t. I sorted out the twenty or so records that I’d pinched from those moldy boxes and searched through all of them. From the Beatles to Carly Simon, I hoped one of these jackets contained the record that I would have bet money that I had. After pulling record after record out of their dust sleeves, comparing the labels to the covers, I was losing hope; they were all in the right places. I got to a Bee Gees record jacket: Spirits Having Flown, and immediately remembered that day, in the basement, the two records shoved into one space, as they were now. I feel like a bad record owner for never having switched them, but now I have.

Every song on this album makes you want to dance. So listen to it and embrace the melancholy words. Feel the disco beat, layered with strings and synths, and dance. Have an existential crisis, love someone so much you don’t ever want anyone else, put on your “Boogie Shoes,” be as dramatic, as passionate, and as cheesy as these songs are. This record is indicative of how life really is: bittersweet. Just keep proving to yourself that you’re stayin’ alive.

—Grace Howie

  

#133: Bruce Springsteen, "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle" (1973)

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Sparks fly on E Street

Bruce Springsteen is not famous in 1973. Not famous in the way he will become, in the way he is now. Born to Run is two years away. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle drops barely nine months after his debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and is met with some critical success but does not do well commercially. Springsteen is skinny in 1973. Wiry and rangy with a scruffy beard and a closet full of tank tops. He looks like someone who knows how to replace a serpentine belt.

Julia Pellington is 16 in 1973. Most people call her Julie, not Julia, her father and brothers—all seven of them—call her Dame. She is skinny in 1973. There aren’t a lot of pictures of her as a child, as a teenager, but I must have seen one because I can imagine her at 16. A red T-shirt tucked into bell bottoms, dark hair feathered around a face that looks like mine and does not look like mine.

Christopher Carlton is 20 in 1973. Barely making grades in his accounting classes at St. Vincent’s. More interested in playing hockey, listening to records, reading Tolkien. He is skinny in 1973. There’s a picture of him at Christmas, cross-legged in front of a decorated tree, holding a copy of a Louis Armstrong biography and smiling at the camera. Conductor’s cap and thick framed glasses. A scraggly beard and a homemade Red Hot Dollars T-shirt. He looks like someone you’d see in a craft brewery in Brooklyn or Highland Park.

For me this boardwalk life is through

I’ve never been to Asbury Park. Our family vacation to the Jersey Shore always found us in Avalon or Stone Harbor. My parents rented the house so we’d be at the beach for the Fourth of July. I’ve never been to Asbury Park, but I have stood with my feet in the sand and my face toward the sky, watching fireworks explode twice—once in the sky, once on the waves.

Here she comes, here she comes

My parents, Julie and Chris, met for the second time when my mom came back to Columbus after spending a summer as a camp counselor in Michigan. They were at Max and Erma’s, a Columbus chain restaurant with telephones in each booth so you can call other tables. My mom with her boyfriend, Dominic. My dad with another salesman. Dominic left my mom at to talk to some girls at another table. My mom says my dad saw her alone at the table and that his face lit up. That he’d been asking about her at the National Road, wondering where she’d been all summer. My mom says that’s when she knew. They were engaged two months later.

Runnin’ home to some small Ohio town

Both my parents are from New Jersey. My mom is from Red Bank, down by the shore. An only girl with seven brothers. Making halter tops from bandanas and hand-me-downs. My dad’s family moved around before settling in Short Hills. My grandfather taking the train to his office in Manhattan. My dad making pocket money as an alter server for funerals at St. Rose of Lima, the same church where both his parents will one day be buried.

The Pellingtons moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1970. My parents met there in 1979.

My mom was working her way through Ohio State as a bartender at a place called the National Road. My dad was a salesman for a small chocolate company. His territory was Ohio and Michigan. Until they met again at Max and Erma’s in the fall of 1979, my mom only knew him as Chris who drank Heineken.

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night

Families create their own mythologies. The stories they tell each other to remember, to connect.

When I was really little, my mom used to tell me Greek myths while I helped her dry dishes. We lived in the house attached to the restaurant my parents ran. There was an industrial dishwasher in the restaurant kitchen, but none in our own. She told me stories of Titans, Cronus eating his children. Athena springing in full armor from Zeus’s head. Persephone in the underworld.

There were the stories on the stereo, from the records my dad played. Sandy. Spanish Johnny and Jane. Rosalita. My parents put headphones on my mom’s pregnant belly and played Springsteen records for me.

The story my sister and I wanted most of all to hear was the story of how my parents met. We thought Springsteen should write a song about them, even though they fell in love in Ohio.

Jump a little higher

A writer I follow on Twitter once shared the truest thing: there is nothing more joyful than Springsteen singing, “because a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.”

He’s singin’, singin’

I learned to tell stories from my mom. Her retellings of Greek myths, or Edgar Allan Poe, or whatever novel she was teaching her eighth graders. The story of how she and my dad met. The story of the day I was born. I learned to tell stories from the books my dad read me before bed: Rascal, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit. From the records he played. From Springsteen.

I think about the stories I’m going to tell my son. The story of how his grandparents met. The story of how his dad and I met. I am waiting for my belly to get big enough for headphones to fit, waiting to introduce him Sandy and Johnny and Jane and Rosie and Bruce.

—Meghan Phillips

#140: Blondie, "Parallel Lines" (1978)

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My mother, who, when she was young, had long, straight hair, which she often wore in two low ponytails on either side of her face, yet who, the entire time I’ve known her, has had hair cropped short and close, and is now entirely gray.

Rapunzel, Cinderella, and the miller’s daughter who weaves straw into gold, although even as I write this, I am questioning myself, for it may be that it was only the straw and the gold, and not the miller’s daughter’s hair at all. I am realizing that I do not remember her name, if she ever had one. It is ironic that in giving name to Rumpelstiltskin himself, she relinquished her own and will now forever be known only because of her relationship to the strange, magical man who stomped so hard the earth swallowed him up (or who tore himself in two, or who ran off in a fit of rage, or who flew out the window on a ladle, depending on which version you believe).

My friend Maddy, my best friend since infancy, whose hair was so light it was almost white, despite the deep brunette tresses of her older sister, and whose long locks were a source of envy for me when we were growing up.

Tib Muller, whose short yellow curls and petite stature made her the perfect literary counterpart for me, a role that I refused out of principle, for I was Betsy, despite her dark hair and lanky legs. Betsy the writer, Betsy the storyteller, Betsy who had a pencil box nailed to a branch of a tree, where she would sit and write her tales. (Me: “Dad, can I nail a box to the pine tree and keep stories in there?” Him: “Sure, but it’s just going to get ruined the first time it rains.”) (And it occurs to me now that there are likely many, particularly those not from Minnesota, not from the Midwest, who have never heard of this series that, along with the Little House books, taught me who I was.)

Brownies, when the cocoa powder is left out.

Rachel, or rather, Jennifer Aniston, who, in her Rachel days, became a paragon for women, but also for young girls, like myself, all of whom wanted to be Rachel, look like Rachel, talk like Rachel, though on returning to the series as an adult, I found the character to be unbearable.

Buffy Summers, my hero, killer of vampires and demons, whom I didn’t discover until 2013. (Me: “You guys will NEVER BELIEVE what happened on Buffy last night.” All of my friends: “You mean what happened on Buffy 15 years ago?”)

The titular comic strip character, who, in her 88-year existence has managed to maintain her hair color, has scarcely aged a day, though she’s grown in other ways, having gone from being a flapper to a caterer, and even relinquishing her comical antics, allowing her husband to take them on instead while she maintains order in the household. Did you know her maiden name was Boopadoop? Did you know Dagwood staged a hunger strike in order to marry her? Maybe that’s why she became his straight (wo)man: after a month and a half of watching her fiancé forego food, only to be disinherited by his parents anyway, maybe she felt the suffocating weight of responsibility, knowing that he gave up everything for her, knowing that she could never live up to the demands of such an act. (And maybe that also explains the sandwiches.)

The protagonist, and punchline, of many a joke.

Debbie Harry, who, contrary to common misconception, was not a solo act but rather the lead singer of a band, and, in fact, when we say “Blondie,” it is the entire band we are referencing, not Harry alone. Raise your hand if you knew that. (My hand is not raised.) When I was young, I thought Debbie Harry’s name truly was Blondie. It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a moniker, and it wasn’t until even later (last week) that I learned she suggested Blondie as a band name because it was what truck drivers shouted to her. (What I like to shout back when someone catcalls me: “We thought you was a toad!”)

In its 1982 review, Rolling Stone wrote of Blondie’s Parallel Lines, “Harry’s no longer the sexy zombie, and she won’t take any more abuse without showing contempt for her abusers.” Scroll up. Look at the album cover. Do you feel it? Her rage is palpable, it emanates from her as she stands among her bandmates. She’s done. (And maybe it’s the headlines that we wake up to every day, or maybe it’s the weariness I feel at every breaking story, or maybe it’s that I recently stood at the state capitol building, alone in a crowd of 20,000 people, and listened to high school and college students raise their voices together, but when I listen to the album, when I read this review, I think: yes.)

We’re in the car, driving through the endless Midwest plains, and there’s a storm coming, you can see the wall of rain approaching the windshield, lightning splitting the sky up ahead, and when it breaks, we will lower the windows, and raise our voices, and we will howl into the wind.

My cousin Alice, who, when she was three years old, had long curls, and when she took a bath, she tilted her head back so her hair floated in the shallow water, and she shook her head back and forth, back and forth, so the strands danced and swung around her face, and she called herself a mermaid.

My sisters, because it runs in the family, all three of us growing up with blonde hair trimmed short, so that people often asked my mother, upon seeing the photograph on her desk at work, “Are those your sons?”

I used to arch my back and stretch my neck, gazing at the clouds, the telephone wires, the airplanes passing overhead, and reach my hand behind me to feel the way my hair brushed the small of my back. When I straightened myself, it would be short again, but for a moment, it was long, and golden, and I was beautiful.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I whispered to myself. Let down your hair.

In my version, she lops her braid off, ties one end to the bedpost, throws the other end out the window, and lowers herself down.

I’m searching for the thread that connects the disparate elements of this piece, something beyond the obvious, beyond the hair color, to say something meaningful, something profound. But sometimes there’s no greater meaning to conjure. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of one thing, and another, and there’s no line in between, no overarching equation, no resolution.

Here there is a band. Here there is a woman. Here there is another woman. Here there is another, and another, and another, and another.

Maybe we’re leaving the Midwest now. Maybe the fields are giving way to forests, or maybe we’ve followed them all the way to the mountains, and beyond that, to the ocean, and the sky and water are the same color so you can’t tell them apart. And maybe now that we’re here, you’ve realized this is no destination at all, merely a bleak, gray landscape that stretches in front of you, behind you, all around, like ice or glass, achingly fragile.

Reach out. Scratch it with your fingernail. Do you feel it?

“Harry’s no longer the sexy zombie, and she won’t take any more abuse without showing contempt for her abusers.”

Picture this, a sky full of thunder.

It’s 11:59, and I want to stay alive.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#135: Pavement, "Slanted and Enchanted" (1992)

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I grew up in two very different places about 250 miles apart in the southeast US. One place was a small manufacturing town in North Carolina; the other was a sprawling suburb of Atlanta. But the other night I suddenly remembered one thing my two hometowns had in common: in both places, from a car window rolled down in summer, or smudged in winter with dirty breath, you could see, from higher points where the backseat whirred over the highway, where the tree cover thinned for a blink, in the distance but close, the profile of a solitary mountain.

I want to tell you about these two mountains because their presence seems relevant to what I’m writing about. It seems relevant because I’m writing about something else and thinking about them. But how do I justify their presence to you with the depth and the detail the space of an essay seems to ask for, when all I ever saw of them were glimpses?

There's a certain Slant of light, writes Emily Dickinson. She doesn’t really need to keep going, that first line is so perfect. But she does. And in the course of the poem she keeps darkening the information in that line of light without ever letting it dim.

There are not many places in the southeast where trees don’t tunnel over you. From a rolled down car window in summer, the world is a blur of deep pine green and technicolor understory. The winter is a smudged thicket, a briar patch of brown and off-season green. Sometimes a hole opens up in the foliage—a clear cut for power lines, or a red clay maw for a new bypass, with its mud-caked equipment—and you can see the wide undulations of canopy, the high sea of forest on which everything in the south sails. But most sights are brief flashes in the woods. The borders of vision are serrated like nettle. Brambles, loading docks, a riot of pine. Then termite porches, then chokeweed and pines, then a Target, then a void behind it, jungles of sumac. The memories of someone traveling in that country are of things seen in opening scars in the second before they reseal.

The other night I looked out my window. Behind my reflection was the car dealership and the highway behind the building where I live. There was a brief rustle before the two separate mountains of my two hometowns appeared side by side, then disappeared together into a single image. In that rustle I heard their separate names: Sweat, and Bakers.

If I try, I can go back now and reconstruct from something more than memory the details those two mountains shared. They were both small but steep. You couldn’t call them hills. They were topped with radio towers. You could not define their bottom edges. They slid without boundary down into parking lots and loading docks, the raw materials of the Piedmont. But their summits had prominence. They were elegant possums in the backyard of my childhood. When you looked out the window at half-dusk, they stared back, returning pure dusk to you. They had sentience. And in their singularity they slumped with loneliness. It’s strange, but I don’t think I ever went to the top of either mountain. I imagine if you did, you’d see, in the distance, the Blue Ridge, and the reason it’s called that. Which, of course, is distance. Because up close, it’s not blue. If you had been there, up close, just emerging from the woods, looking in from outside our car window as we passed, you would have seen my childhood face, overlaid with speeding green.

The year before we left North Carolina and moved to Atlanta, I was riding with my mom down one of the backroads behind our house, past dairy farms and the state prison. I was 5 or 6, but the way I remember it, I was riding in the front seat. A bird startled up and hit the windshield. My mom braked. While I sat there in shock, staring at a brown smudge on the glass in front of me, she ran around the car and into the weeds, retrieved the dead bird, and came back cradling it in her hands. I don’t remember what kind or color of bird it was—but it was slight, a sparrow?—or where she put it when she got back into the car. Did she lay it in the drink holder? Did she hand it to me to carry? I don’t remember if I ever felt the weight of the bird’s body with my own hands. I only remember what we did when we got home. We went out into the garden with a small cardboard box. I lined it with grass and flowers, and my mom set the bird inside. We dug a hole in the flower bed and buried the box. I collected two sticks from the yard and tied them together with grass to make a cross for the grave.

Years later, in a pine grove just southeast of Atlanta, I helped lower a heavy wicker basket woven with blue ribbons, flowers, and late May greenery into the earth. My mom had died in her sleep, hundreds of miles from where I was living, and I hadn’t got to see her face in death before she was wrapped in a shroud. But my arms and my back felt her heaviness for a brief moment as we buried her. We stood around her grave sharing memories, and I told the story of the bird. I wanted to say something beautiful about my mom in the last moments of her presence in the light. It was the first thing I thought of.

What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped? writes William Carlos Williams. Or in other words, how can I fit words, which are like light, like notes, like ideas, into the hole punched by the heft of a thing, a theme, an occasion for writing?

My favorite song from Slanted and Enchanted is not on the original album—it’s on the remastered version, Luxe and Reduxe, released in 2002, which includes outtakes and other songs recorded in various sessions from the same era. The song is called “Secret Knowledge of Backroads.” I would like the song merely for its title if there were nothing else to it, but there is something else—a piano track like water trickling down a hidden rock face into a culvert. Guitars like cars pulling in and out of parking lots all night. And nothing in the song that illuminates or darkens too much the claim of its title.

Since the other night when their symmetry occurred to me, my two hometown mountains have been moving together through my thoughts. But as each night goes by, they become less and less like the sudden flashes through which I first remembered them. They gather ragged flesh and continuity around them. They sidle up shadowed in their self-light, suddenly domestic, their silhouettes backed by dusk-light through bedroom windows. They are inside the room. They pad like ghosts with magnolia carpels for feet. They hold out their light industry like limbs, and their damp geometry rustles. They thwap their million-leaves. They are top-heavy. They command the memories being made for miles around them. They move like how the mind will make a whole when it has only parts. Like how I imagine the ghost-“she” moving in the old Irish song “She Moved Through The Fair.” So softly they come up close beside me, their feet make no din.

—Joe Lennon

#136: Elton John, "Greatest Hits" (1974)

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I struggled to find what words I would say about Elton John. He is one of the most famous musicians in the world. I always picture him in London laughing over tea with the Queen during the day, and purchasing more sequins suits at night. Maybe somewhere in the middle he’ll be with the entire cast of Love Actually at a fancy restaurant with a piano and the entire crowd claps and encourages him to “do please play us something!” Who am I, a mere peasant millennial, to write about him? His music has surrounded me my entire lifeon the radio in the car, on a movie soundtrack, at the top of someone’s lungs at karaoke. It has allowed me to freely and mindlessly sing along to his popular songs- particularly his greatest hits.

It’s rather amazing that he came out with a greatest hits album four years into his career. He’d already had enough top hits to make him an icon before he turned 30. Most bands don’t even think to make a greatest hits album until they realize they’re fresh out of ideas and need a filler before their next album. But not Elton. The songs on his Greatest Hits had come out only four years before, and yet it still was a top selling record. On the cover he even managed to pull off an all-white suit complete with an oversized hat and sunglasses topped off with a matching cane, a combination that would make anyone else look like they were selling timeshares in Florida.

Elton John and his big name may have been too intimidating to write about, but I can surely talk about how much his music moves me. Where did these lyrics about little resources, getting back to simpler times, and nostalgia come from? The truth is his greatest hits album would not exist without songwriter and poet Bernie Taupin.

Bernie Taupin was raised on multiple farms in England, many times without power, and dropped out of school when he was 15. He spent the rest of his teen years traveling, partying, and picking up odd part-time jobs along the way. When he was 17, his poems caught the eye of 20-year-old Elton John, who, as musically talented as he was, admitted to not being able to write his own songs.

I can’t say I have any strong opinions on Elton John or Bernie Taupin, but I can describe how emotionally grabbing their early music is. I think it’s because of how personal Taupin’s lyrics were. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was influenced by Taupin’s desire to get back to his roots. He used the story from The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor to get back to simpler times after being immersed in life’s fantasies (I should have stayed on the farm / I should have listened to my old man). He wrote “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” after looking back at his rebellious teenage days in which he’d get into fights at his local bars (Don't give us none of your aggravation / We had it with your discipline / Saturday night's alright for fighting / Get a little action in). “Border Song” is about the isolation and alienation Taupin felt when he moved to London to work with Elton John, and his desire to visit home as much as possible (Now the wind has changed direction and I'll have to leave / Won't you please excuse my frankness but it's not my cup of tea).

What makes these songs so unique is Taupin’s ability to tell stories in his writing. The first track on this album, and Elton John’s first ever top hit, “Your Song,” is more than a song by Elton John: it’s a beautiful story about a humble man in love. It’s someone who is passionate yet gentle; who is blurting out their love but doesn’t always know the right words to say. They have very little resources but still to give their love the whole world. It’s also someone who might not be able to fully articulate how they feel, but who desperately wants to communicate their feelings. Elton John probably hasn’t related to this narrative in like 60 years, his mind filled with poetry and his wallet full of diamonds, but I deeply connect to this song. It always stops time for me. If I had to teach a new species about love, I’d pull out this little number.

Taupin’s lyrical themes about simpler times seems to follow him throughout his successful career. He went on to co-write Starship’s 1985 hit (and arguable disaster) “We Built this City,” in which the singers wanted to write a song that reminded music industry greed monsters about the importance of the music, not just money (Who counts the money underneath the bar / Who writes the wrecking ball in two wild guitars / Don’t tell us you need us / ’Cause we’re just simple fools / Looking for America / Coming through your schools. Bernie wanted to branch out and write for more artists than just Elton John at this point; and this was during a time that clubs in LA were getting shut down and live acts had no place to perform, so it must have been fairly easy for him to come up with great lyrics. But when a big-time pop record producer got his dirty paws on the demo, it became an unrecognizable, futuristic mess. If there’s ever a biopic about Bernie, I hope this is the point where he leaves the record producer’s home and runs in the pouring rain to find the first love he should have never left in the first place, Sir Elton.

Without Taupin, I’m sure Elton John would still have the lavish, sequins-filled life he lives now. He is undoubtedly an extremely talented musician, after all. But luckily he found out early in his life that he could take Taupin’s lyrics and turn them into beautiful music. These two found each other completely by chance when neither of them were even old enough to drink yet, but their understanding of each other’s talents has allowed them to collaborate for years and continue to do so.

—Jenn Montooth

#137: The Replacements, "Tim" (1985)

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According to Tommy Stinson, “Calling a record Tim—after a bunch of drinks, it was funny. The next day it wasn’t so funny. But if you had more drinks, it became funny again.”

Settling on a Tim tribute where I just write about various Tims I’ve known—after a bunch of drinks, it was funny. When I actually had to do it, though, it wasn’t so funny. But, now that I’ve had more drinks, it’s become funny again.

“Hold My Life”: Until I’m ready to use it. Because I just might lose it. Tim is a middle school principal, and he manages to exude goodwill towards all the liminal lives under his care. That’s some real razzle dazzle, right there. Plus, when his wife was an elementary school librarian, she provided a crucial oasis of a safe space for someone dear to me. And his son used to lifeguard at the local pool. I don’t know Tim’s daughter, but she’s probably some sort of superhero.

“I’ll Buy”: Anything you want, dear. Tim was the manager of a small college bookstore who not only provided superb customer service but also offered his genuine friendship. We happily reciprocated, but what it turned out we couldn’t give him was an invitation to our wedding. With our parents footing the bill, they got first dibs on filling the guest list, and we found ourselves already having to overlook some good friends we’d known in Madison (where we were getting hitched) who were no longer living there. So, we decided not to invite anyone from La Crosse, our new home, since we got to see them every day. But Tim was incredibly hurt by the perceived slight, and he never bought our explanation. We moved shortly thereafter, and didn’t keep in touch; all these years later, it still makes me sad.

“Kiss Me on the Bus”: If you knew how I felt now, you wouldn’t act so adult now. Tim is my wife’s childhood teddy bear, and if it wasn’t for the great rapport I established with him from the get go, I’m not sure I ever would have got past first base, bus or no bus.

“Dose of Thunder”: Only takes a little ‘til you need a ton. Tim was my buddy’s Moorhead pot supplier. For a Mats fan, I had a very unhealthy respect for the law, and so always stuck to whiskey and beer. One night, though, with my semester all but over, he convinced me to see what all the fuss was about, on the house. It was more like a dose of laughing gas, leading to surreal visions courtesy of the knotholes in the plank board supporting the bunk bed above mine and the all-too-real vision of somebody urinating in my tall white laundry basket. I had my last final the next afternoon, and I was still high. I felt like a bonafide dope-smokin’ moron as I struggled to put even halfway coherent thoughts on paper. Later, though, I learned my efforts had earned me an A+!

“Waitress in the Sky”: Don’t treat me special or don’t kiss my ass. Tim is one of my favorite people, even though he is currently employed by an Ivy League institution. Even though he’s a Packers fan. Even though he prefers Jif to Skippy. Even though he insists I don’t actually believe that Elvis Costello is a two-bit no-talent hack, that dinosaurs never existed, or that Frenchy Harrelson and TUM were the real JFK assassins. Tim has a great sense of humor, but he’s also a no-nonsense sort of guy who won’t stand for anybody putting on airs. Unless he’s pretending to be a sublimated version of me at a certain costume party, donning a sweater tied backwards around his neck while babbling about brie, espresso, and polo.

“Swingin Party”: If bein’ wrong’s a crime, I’m serving forever. If bein’ strong is what you want, then I need help here with this feather. If bein’ afraid is a crime, we hang side by side. Tim is a guitar virtuoso who lends his talents to local singing sensation Karen Jonas. I like to imagine how Tim would improvise the tabs/chords for this cut and how Karen’s vocals could improve upon Lorde’s famous cover. Coincidentally, once upon a time, before Tim, Karen also joined forces with one of my other favorite musicians, now Austin-based Alex Culbreth, who for me always has evoked the Replacements with various aspects of his energy, humor, pluck, songwriting, and sound. Check ‘em all out, y’all!

“Bastards of Young”: Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled. Tim is a university administrator who focuses on academic engagement and student success. His job is to ensure they don’t miss the whole first rung on the ladder of success. His mantra could be, “Take it; it’s yours.” Tim knows success. He is a former national champion debate coach and a Steelers fan. Speaking of Pittsburgh, he also happens to hail from the same North Side parish my wife’s family calls home. One of its old priests, Father Joe Knorr, was both a second son to her paternal grandparents and something of a surrogate grandfather to Tim. We are the sons of Knorr, Joe. The daughters and the sons.

“Lay It Down Clown”: Rumors keep on spreadin’ all over town. Tim is one of my senators. He used to be my governor, and I voted for him to become my Vice President, but HER EMAILS, so the Ruskies elected some bozo with orange hair to be our President instead. Tim is a Saint Paul native, a Mats fan, and a mean harmonica player. When the secret police come for us and we have to head for the hills, I’ll be relying on Tim to show ‘em how rock trumps hate by projectile vomiting some chunks of Replacements-esque rebelliousness right in the face of our aspiring dictator-in-chief. Vive la résistance!

“Left of the Dial”: And if I don’t see you in a long long while, I’ll try to find you left of the dial. What exactly Tim does, frankly, I’ve always found to be a little sketchy, but I do know he has helped make movies and commercials and stuff; his pinnacle for me will always be working on Little Big League, a film featuring our beloved Minnesota Twins. If they had a tournament to determine who was the most equally passionate fan of both the Mats and the Twins, surely the Final Four would come down to Craig Finn, Tim, my brother Dan, and me. If you were ever pleased to meet Tim, you’d be immediately struck by his deadpan sarcastic sense of humor. But you might not know that he used to make some of the best compilation cassettes around or that he is currently on a one-man crusade to revive the art of postcard writing. He lived with my brother at the U during the Mats’ heyday; Tim was working in college radio and Dan was working on drinking himself to death. We both lost our best friend when Dan came out of an unsuccessful neurosurgery in the early ‘90s a completely changed person. We dedicated ourselves to forging new bonds with the new Dan while cherishing the moments when the old Dan would resurface. When we lost Dan for good to an aneurysm eight years ago, Tim and I had fallen into a hiatus of sorts, so reconnecting with him since then has meant a lot. The opening chords to this song always make me verklempt with a completely visceral response to their potent cocktail of equal parts transcendence and melancholy. Missing Dan and those old days terribly while fondly recalling all the friendship and fun we shared with Tim gets me to feeling the same way.

“Little Mascara”: All you’re ever losin’ is a little mascara. Tim #10 was among a whole slew of housemates who lived with Dan and Tim #9 in Minneapolis, but we’d known him since we were little, growing up in White Bear, when our families had bonded over the shared experience of living with chronic illness. Smart as a whip and with a tongue as sharp as one, too, Tim never shied away from calling out conformity, mediocrity, and phoniness. He wanted to start a band called Jesus’s Genitals. He was a hardcore Mats fan from the very beginning, but suspected he smelt a sellout after they signed with Sire, so when he heard horns on Pleased to Meet Me he swore them off for good. Later, Tim was so successful restoring and re-selling antiques, he retired by 40 and turned to decorating hand-painted fishing lures in his spare time. I often wonder if he ever gave All Shook Down a listen; if you did, Tim, don’t tell a soul!

“Here Comes a Regular”: Everybody wants to be someones here. Someone’s gonna show up, never fear. Tim is a taxman who can bowl 300 with his eyes closed. He’s also a huge Mats fan, from way back. Above all, though, he’s just an all-around good guy, the sort who insists on spending hours of his time giving you and your mom a nostalgic pontoon boat ride when he hears you are coming to town, even though you haven’t seen him in years. He grew up in White Bear Lake, and he lives there now, too. He’s something of a regular down at the 617. Actually, he’s a second-generation regular. Tim’s dad, still as spry and gregarious a regular as you’ll meet, is a warm and winning conversationalist. Like father, like son. So, if you’re ever out White Bear way, stop in and call out Tim’s name; he’ll welcome you with a great big whiskey and, like a Mats song, he’ll let you know that you are not alone, that you’re someone worth hanging side by side with, that there’s a fellowship of other folks out there who can relate and commiserate and celebrate. Even if nowhere is your home. I don’t know about you, but I can’t hardly wait.

—Chris Foss

#138: Dr. Dre, "The Chronic" (1992)

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Time has really passed since The Chronic came out. The film Straight Outta Compton, the HBO mini-series The Defiant Ones, and Dr. Dre’s third solo album Compton have all come out in the last few years, each re-mythologizing the birth of G-Funk and west coast hip-hop. The Chronic has become iconic to new audiences, and it has beenagain and again—noted by critics and artists alike as being one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

And perhaps rightfully so. The breadth of style track to track is remarkable, even more so given the cohesiveness of the album as a whole; the interplay of drums and bass is occasionally gasp-inducing; there should be a Behind the Music episode just about the transition from track 4 to track 5; and who would have thought that dentist-drill synths could sound laid back? Everything about the production of the record situates Dre as an indisputable innovator and disruptor in hip-hop.

When The Chronic’s repeated memorialization is not emphasizing the record’s masterful production, it is pointing to its generally profane and violent subject matter, appropriately contextualizing the lyrics in terms of social realism and free speech boundary-pushing. But in general there is no popular description of Dre’s lyricism—there is not the frank acknowledgement that, for a milestone rap album, the central rapper does not seem to have evolved all that much from his recordings of four years previously, at least not in the way the rest of hip-hop had between 1988 and 1992.

Talking about Dre’s rapping necessitates first talking about Snoop Dogg’s, the MC who is ultimately the album’s star. Snoop’s spoken-word introduction to the listener on the opening track is mood-setting and situates him as the record’s figurehead, not dissimilar to Nicki’s introduction on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The gravity of his charisma is immediately apparent and is comparable to ODB’s on 36 Chambers a year later. Most importantly of all, Snoop’s rapping is really, really good and rife with lyrical flourishes that sound actually effortless.

On “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” the album’s first and most successful single, consider Snoop’s rhythm on “Ready to make an entrance…” and “Give me the microphone first…”

Consider his melodic touch on “nothin’ but a G thang, baby” and the following two lines on which harmonies are able to land.

Consider his hilarious comparison of himself to funky, old collard greens.

Now compare all of this to Dre’s flow. It is rhythmically regimented, poetically awkward, even clumsy. He seems to reach for the quickest rhyme or the first one that comes to mind instead of the most effective:

Used to be my homie, used to be my ace
Now I wanna slap the taste out your mouth
Make ya bow down to the Row

Fuckin’ me, now I’m fuckin’ you, little ho

…or just abandoning rhymes altogether:

Bodies being found on Greenleaf
With their fucking heads cut off
Motherfucker, I’m Dre

Answering Snoop’s food lyric on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” Dre’s second verse features the cringe-worthy:

Droppin’ the funky shit
That’s makin’ the sucker n****s mumble
When I’m on the mic it’s like a cookie:
They all crumble

This is not the type of masterful setup/punchline one might expect from someone whose name is synonymous with hip-hop evolution. One often gets the sense that, lyrically, Dre is having a hard time catching up to some of Snoop’s least listenable rhymes.

And there is a veritable heap of unlistenable rhymes on this record. Beyond the strangeness of such a foundational hip-hop album being packed with unconventionally half-baked lyrics, the most difficult part of engaging The Chronic today is its obsessive employment of misogyny and homophobia, specifically the way that the same sexual violence threatened against Dre’s and Snoop’s rivals is leveled as an inevitability to every woman described on the record.

The most egregious example of obsessive misogyny would be on The Chronic’s last track, “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” Verses from five different rappers exclusively describe women as being expendable sex objects, simultaneously somehow dismissive and also hateful, with guest rapper Kurupt offering:

We don’t love them tricks
‘Cause a trick’s a bitch

And my dick’s constantly in her mouth

This brand of sexual fantasy/delusion is anticipated by each of the album’s three skits and an oppressive enfilade of references to the rappers’ genitals. The homophobia can be characterized similarly, with Dre and Snoop ambiguously obliging their dick-and-ball obsessed rivals or dominating them in such a way where a blowjob would signify a sort of kowtow. The opening tracks give us:

I want y'all to put these bizzalls in your jizzaws
And work them like a strizzaw

I'm hollering 187 with my dick in your mouth, beyotch

Gap teeth in your mouth so my dick's gots to fit
With my nuts on your tonsils
While you're onstage rapping at your wack-ass concert
And I'mma snatch your ass from the backside

To show you how Death Row pull off that hoo-ride

These lyrics paired with throwaway homophobic jibes (e.g., But here's a jimmy joke about your momma that you might not like / I heard she was the 'Frisco dyke) cement a general ethos within the record that homosexuality equals violence or is entitled to it. All of this is to say that The Chronic is very hard to listen to if one is even remotely sensitive to the shittiness of generalized disrespect and hatred; enjoying the album basically necessitates willful ignorance on some level.

But simply admonishing this wildly acclaimed album because of its violence seems simplistic in 2018, mostly because similar criticisms have been leveled already. What seems more appropriate to me is to re-contextualize the album completely by shifting Dre’s legacy from undeniable hip-hop legend to profitable post-Reagan shocker.

Comparisons between N.W.A. and Guns N’ Roses have been made before—Matthew Duersten wrote about the similarities between Straight Outta Compton and Appetite for Destruction for Los Angeles Magazine in 2014: Los Angeles origins, penchants for sexualized violence, vocal conflicts with contemporary musical peers. True, I guess, although his analysis was ultimately that people should like both groups. The more compelling point was missed entirely, that the two could be framed as existing within the same musical tradition of pre-millennium taboo.

Dre’s legacy following The Chronic can be characterized similarly. His massive involvement in the launching of Eminem’s career and his prominent production on Em’s first three albums betray a bottom-line interest in profane button-pushing.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. Again, developing a moral framework in which listening to flawed music can be politically correct seems beside the point and played out. What’s striking in the context of this recent resurgence in the Dr. Dre narrative is the seeming necessity to reconcile the horror with the iconography: Dre is simultaneously a spearhead of free speech in popular music and should also feel remorse for the things he’s said; he is an irrefutable hip-hop godfather whose music is now popularly viewed as deeply flawed. The reconciliation isn’t necessary. Dre is a shock-rocker, and The Chronic is his best album.

—Jeremy Johnston

#139: The Meters, "Rejuvenation" (1974)

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Growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s, Art Neville drank deep at the wellspring of American music. Rhumbas and boogies, mambos and waltzes, ragtime and blues, calypso and jazz—it was all there, a musical gumbo rising unsummoned out of the streets. Turn down one block and you might hear something like the call and response of a black Baptist church. Turn down the other and you might hear something from the Caribbean. A Spanish inflection here, a French one there. Mostly what Art remembers though, were the second-line rhythms of the street parades.

A dance tradition native to New Orleans, second-line dates to the early 19th century, when jazz bands would march in the street to commemorate the dead. Once the body was buried, the band (the first line) would break out into a raucous music, and the crowd (the second line) would follow them into the street, dancing as they went. The tradition spread to all parades in the city, culminating with Mardi Gras, when the entire city showed up to second line.

But the entire city wasn’t equally welcome. Despite its roots in black cultural forms, Mardi Gras parades were designed for whites. As a child, Art remembers running through white neighborhoods, where floats threw the bulk of their parade loot, bending to scoop up the rubber cigars, whistles, beads and necklaces, while trying to avoid the police. “Mardi Gras might look like a time when all hell breaks loose and boundaries are busted,” Art says in The Brothers Neville, the autobiographical oral history of one of New Orleans’ most important musical families.“But in the Big Easy boundaries are always there.”

Art’s only escape from those boundary divisions was in the music. As a kid, messing around on a piano in his aunt’s house, Art let instinct, rather than genre, be his guide. People told him he was playing barrelhouse, a term that associated more with the fermented stink of beer at a local piano bar than any form of music. Art, like many of the musical savants coming out of the Crescent City, never learned to read music; he picked it up in piano bars, watching and listening to guys like Professor Longhair and his uncle Jolly, a man with Native American ancestry, who was heavily involved with the local Mardi Gras Indian chapter. When Art sat down at the piano, the music came to him naturally, without a struggle. “Didn’t think about styles or scales. My fingers worked the keys like they had a mind of their own.”

Art attended a local Catholic high school with Allen Toussaint, who brought him into the orbit of Cosimo’s Recording Studios, the birthplace of New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll. There, in a tiny studio in the French Quarter, Little Richard recorded a number of his ‘50s hits, including “Tutti Frutti” and “Girls Can’t Help It”—a tune that features Art singing backup. Before Art had graduated from high school, he’d put together a local group, the Hawketts, scored a local hit, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and opened for Ray Charles.

This was ‘50s New Orleans: geniuses were lurking around every corner. Fats Domino had sold a million copies of his hit “The Fat Man”—the first rock ‘n’ roll single to break that mark. Professor Longhair, whose rhumba-inflected piano blues were too weird, too original to sell records, was playing in neighborhood bars nightly. (“Fess,” Art says, “was a fountainhead of New Orleans music.”) Cousin Joe, who would later go on to record with clarinetist Sidney Bechet, was busking in the French Quarter, playing in a distinctly New Orleans style that, to Art, felt older than rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, or even ragtime or jazz. “Whatever it was,” Art says, “it was right.”

While New Orleans was a hotbed of musical talent, it was also a battleground in the South’s reactionary war against the Civil Rights movement. New Orleans, with its long history of racial ambiguity, resorted to even more pernicious and bizarre means of enforcing discrimination. Some clubs used a brown paper bag to determine which skin tones could enter the club; others hung a fine-tooth comb over the doorway to deny entrance by the thickness of one’s hair.

Brothers is as much a history of American racism as it is American music, particularly the way New Orleans police declared war on the black neighborhoods, where the Neville brothers grew up. By the mid-‘60s, all four of the Neville brothers had done time in the local parish prison for crimes as innocuous as possessing a joint or two. To be young and black in New Orleans was to be constantly harassed by the cops. Art’s younger brother Charles ended up doing two years in Louisiana’s Angola prison, notorious among prisons for inhumane conditions—a place that had more in common with an antebellum plantation than a correctional facility.

Things weren’t much better outside the prison walls. In the early ‘50s, when Charles Neville went on tour with local singer Gene Franklin, newspapers refused to print pictures of black artists. Not even a singer whose genius was as nationally recognized as Ray Charles. So while touring the country, Gene, who could do pitch-perfect imitations of both Ray Charles and B.B. King, took to billing himself as either one. Night after night, their band played to sold out crowds who thought they were hearing the genuine thing. When another local singer Larry Williams headed out on tour, he called up Art and his band, the Hawketts, with a similar idea. He wanted to double book a tour. Each night, Art would dawn Larry’s clothes, play his piano licks, sing his songs—sometimes even in the same town. If white America wasn’t ready to put black genius in the spotlight, that was fine by Larry and Art. They’d simply hit them for double. The mostly white audiences never had a clue.

Despite these small victories, by the mid ‘60s, the Neville brothers were worn out and broke, their meager royalties exhausted by corrupt managers. After long stints on the road, in the Army, and in jail, the brothers (with the exception of Charles) finally regrouped in New Orleans, where they began jamming at a local bar called the Nitecap. It was mostly a family affair: Aaron and brother Cyril took turns singing while Art manned the piano, backed by a group of local musicians—drummer Joseph Modeliste (Zig), his cousin, bassist George Porter Jr., and guitarist Leo Nocentelli—all from the same Valence Street neighborhood where the brothers had grown up. Attendance, at least at first, was sparse. Art: “You could’ve thrown a hand grenade in there, and it wouldn’t have killed nobody but the band.”

So when the owner of The Ivanhoe, a club down on Bourbon Street, offered Art a steady gig on the condition he bring no more than three musicians with him (the tiny bandstand couldn’t support any more), he couldn’t say no. He split up the family band, and took the rhythm section with him. Art felt that they needed a new moniker, something that reflected their music, a strange measured approach to funk. The Meters were born.

The Meters didn’t invent funk music. And they certainly weren’t the first group to make a hit record without a singer. But never before had an instrumental band attacked the inherited template for rhythm and blues with such a sophisticated degree of syncopation. To listen to the four of them let rip on a tune like “Sophisticated Cissy” is to hear a drum line put to music. No matter that only one of them is actually playing the drums: They trade off carrying the beat the way jazz musicians trade solos. “Musicians talk about ‘the one,’ the primary beat,” Art says. “Man, I never knew where ‘the one’ was. My sense of syncopation was all screwed up.”

The reformed four-piece was an instant hit in New Orleans, so much so that jealous patrons started leaving bullets inscribed with the band members names in the Ivanhoe’s tip jar. It didn’t take long for Art’s old school pal Allen Toussaint to get wind of what was happening and bring the group over to Cosimo’s, where they became something like the de facto house rhythm section, anchoring legendary recordings by Dr. John, Lee Dorsey, and Betty Harris. For a period from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, the Meters became synonymous with the New Orleans sound, the musical analogue to what Booker T and his MG’s were doing over at Stax Records in Memphis.

The music that ended up on their first record, 1969’s The Meters, came out of that early session work. These weren’t so much songs as they were musical asides, impromptu jam sessions caught on tape. “We'd be doing some Lee Dorsey or Betty Harris or something and Toussaint would get tired,” Art says. “He'd split and we'd still be fired up and say, 'Well, hell, we oughta cut a couple of tracks.'"

What stands out about those tracks—and to some degree, the two records they recorded afterward, Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin’—are the silences. They still sound explosive now, a half-century after they were recorded. On the first track, “Cissy Strut,” their first single, Art’s organ isn’t even really audible until about halfway through. The three others slink around like a team of boxers, darting in and out, landing deft jabs and hooks on the same punching bag of a beat. On “Sophisticated Cissy,” the other single off The Meters, Art glides over the beat without ever getting in the way. “Early on, I learned to lay back and let the singer or guitarist or saxophonist lead,” Art says. “I’d never play over him. I’d play around him. A note here, a lick there. I’d come at it from an angle.” Listening closely, this music is all angles, the spaces between notes. It’s a challenge, trying to find a moment where they all touch down together. You’d need better audio software than what I have on my phone—the equivalent to Muybridge’s stop-motion photography—to capture it: the horse with all four feet off the ground.

There’s not much in the way of singing on those early recordings. When vocals do make their way into the mix—like on “Look-Ka Py Py”—its usually in the form of syncopated grunts, an early kind of beat-boxing. “We shouted out some stuff—couldn’t even call ‘em lyrics—that you’d hear on the streets of New Orleans,” Art says. “God knows what it meant.”

That changed in 1972, when the band’s contract with Josie Records expired. Their label had gone bankrupt. Warner Bros offered them a new contract, but with conditions. Namely, they wanted Allen Toussaint in the studio. While he’d been listed as a producer on their early records, Toussaint had had, in fact, very little to do with what made it to tape. “The only work I had to do with the Meters was open the door,” he once joked. Starting with Cabbage Alley though, Toussaint took strict charge of the band’s new major-label budget. Gone were the jammed-out improvisations, replaced by thoughtful arrangements, soulful lyrics, and a lush, overdubbed sheen. On Cabbage Alley, the Meters cover a sad Neil Young song.

While they lost the smoltering energy of their early recordings, the Meters got more in touch with their roots on Cabbage Alley, pushing musical pins onto the map of the African diaspora they’d been hearing all their lives. They made a trip down to Trinidad and Tobago, where they played with The Mighty Sparrow, “The King of Calypso.” On “Soul Island,” a steel-drum-tinged song off Cabbage Alley, they pay their respects to calypso, with a guitar solo that sounds as it it were ripped note for note from a ‘70s West African high-life record.

Their second attempt for Warner Bros came in 1974 with Rejuvenation. Same sheen and studio polish, but with more of their earlier spunk. The result was some of their most rhythmically complex music to date: "People Say," "It Ain’t No Use," "Loving You is on My Mind.” Their continued interest in the roots of their music was reflected in tunes like “Africa.” Most notably though, for the first time, the band embraced the second-line rhythms of their New Orleans childhood on “Hey Pocky A-Way.”

To understand what’s happening in “Hey Pocky A-Way” requires some understanding of what was happening in New Orleans in the mid-18th century. A good century before the jazz funeral emerged, when New Orleans was still a French colony, African slaves, Native Americans, and racially-mixed free people of color began meeting regularly at the Place des Negrès, an open area behind the city that had once been a sacred site of Houma Indian corn feasts. Communal trading and recreation sprung up between the marginalized groups. Religious and musical traditions began to blend together. These weekly gatherings grew to encompass drum ceremonies, the elaborate communal rituals through which enslaved Africans, against all odds, maintained a link to their ancestral past and familial lineages that had been destroyed by slavery. Here, in an area that would come to be known as Congo Square, they danced and sang, traded merchandise, and engaged in cultural exchange of a dizzying kind, on a scale unrivaled in human history.

These are the rhythms we hear in “Hey Pocky A-Way,” the same ones that Jelly Roll Morton recounts hearing as a child, some 70 years prior to Rejuvenation, the same rhythms that Art and his brother Charles used to tap out on cigar boxes after the street bands passed their window. Art worked up the piano part as an homage to those early memories of syncopation. “I tried to make it original—and I think it was—but I also believe there is no originality,” Art says. “All we can do is put together old pieces in new ways.”

There’s a whole tradition of these Mardi Gras Indian chants breaking through into popular culture. Sugar Boy Crawford and the Cane Cutters cut “Jock-A-Mo” in the early ‘50s, which was made slightly more famous as “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups, who sang with Art’s sister Athelgra. “‘Iko Iko’ is another one of those big easy anthems,” Art says. “A Mardi Gras Indian chant I can’t explain, don’t want to explain, but it’s something I’m still singing fifty years later.” You hear that same style of Mardi Gras chant in the chorus to “Lady Marmalade” (that infectious itchi – gitchi – ya-ya – da-da bit), a track the Meters initially recorded with Patti Labelle in 1974, which went on to have a second life via Christina Aguilera and the Moulin Rouge soundtrack in 2001. It’s still here, is all I’m saying. It’s all around us. Old pieces coming together in new ways.

—Ryan Marr

#141: B.B. King, "Live at the Regal" (1965)

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B. B. King’s Live at the Regal (1965) suffers from what I call the Citizen Kane problem: an exalted reputation that inhibits genuine appreciation. Knowing that something is the agreed-upon “best”the best film ever made, the best barbecue in Austincan leave a viewer or a diner unable to perceive that superlative quality for himself. Live at the Regal, acclaimed as the pinnacle of blues albums and of live albums, is doubly best and doubly cursed. On Rolling Stone’s list of 500 it is topped (among live albums) only by the Allmans at the Fillmore East and James Brown at the Apollo and (in the realm of the blues) only by the collected works of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson (and perhaps by a couple of Hendrix records, depending on where you file them). The exaltation of Live at the Regal is common, even universal. The Rolling Stone Record Guide, tattered bible of my adolescent record buying, gave it five stars and told me back in 1979 that “Live at the Regal is the generally acknowledged classic.” More recently, John Mayer, performing on stage with B. B. King as every aspiring white blues guitarist seems to have done (Slash, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Richie Sambora, the Edge), claims that on tour he would listen to Live at the Regal on his iPod in a darkened dressing room before taking the stage each night. The Regal LP is evidently a touchstone, a magic chalice, a grail from which to drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

But though I have learned to love the blues, I’ve never really loved this album. I came to it belatedly, after first buying B. B. King’s Live at Cook County Jail (1971), an album which largely duplicates and arguably betters Regal (see #499 in this series). For one thing, Cook County opens with the sheriff and the judge being booed by the inmates when introduced; for another, the band is (to my ears) crisper and, this being 1971, a little funkier. And King himself is, well, pretty much the same. His stage patter and mid-song monologues are nearly identical, and his guitar playing, on both occasions, is absolutely distinctive and endlessly inventive. So when I first acquired Live at the Regal, in an unlovely reissue edition that billed it as “the definitive recording of the blues in live performance,” I couldn’t quite hear what all the fuss was about.

Part of my problem may also have lain in my expectations of live albums. The “live double” template that dominated the 1970s (Frampton, Kiss, Skynyrd, Bob Seger, etc.) made a 35-minute live show seem paltry. Also, there’s an older form of show business on display in at the Regal, one that prizes professionalism over edginess, politeness over sincerity, control over abandon. However carried away King gets, and he sings and plays himself into a gospel-ish fervor at times, he always seems able to step out of it in an instant. (Something similar happens in Ray Charles’s riveting 1960 live recording of “Drown in My Own Tears,” when he abruptly switches from the persona of the ravaged, lovelorn man to that the of the approving boss, ad-libbing to the Raelettes, “You sound so sweet tonight, let me hear you say it again!”) Again, this masterly stage persona is something people praise about Live at the Regal: “King’s phenomenal rapport with a crowd” and “the miraculous vibrations that can exist between artist and performer” are Leonard Feather’s phrases, emblazoned on the cover of the LP reissue. The original liner notes also speculate, “There probably isn’t a live recording anywhere that contains more spontaneous spectator enthusiasm.” Listening to the album again, however, I hear mainly piercing shrieks from an audience that sound like it has a mild case of Beatlemania.

For I have been listening to it, again and again, over the past week in preparation for this essay: on Spotify in the living room, on my iPod in the kitchen, down in the basement on my turntable. My expectation, my vague plan, was that I could write something like what Elijah Wald does in his book Escaping the Delta, in which he recalls having formerly undervalued B. B. King and then being unexpectedly blown away by him in performance, even amid an all-star line-up that included Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. “B. B. King,” Wald writes,

taught me that everything I knew about blues was wrong. Because he just stood there calmly and played the most amazing music I had ever heard. He was awesome, in the literal sense that he seemed immense, majestic, and it was impossible to look away from him. And it was all so relaxed and natural, as if he were talking directly to each person in that huge stadium. It was everything I had always loved about the blues and more, the perfect blend of deep emotion and flawless musicianship.

What Wald previously knew, or thought he knew, was that B. B. King was “too slick and smooth,” and that the real blues was raw, down home and unpolished. It is hard, I think, for white blues fans such as myself not to embrace this aesthetic. We often begin as (or turn into) “fanciers of primitive Negro blues,” in James McKune’s unironic phrase from 1959. Again, Wald helpfully punctures this tendency, aptly noting that “black fans have never been charmed by poverty, or needed a sordid atmosphere in order to feel that they were having a real blues experience.”

In any case, I had planned to report here that the scales fell from my eyes, or rather my ears, and that at the advanced age of fifty-two I can now appreciate the professionalism, virtuosity and polish of B. B. King—or, even better, that I now can feel the deep emotion behind his flawless musicianship. Alas, that’s not really what happened. There is undeniably lovely, stylish guitar playing on the album: solos full of drama that builds, disappears suddenly, resurges, abates, and so on. But I also found my attention wandering as I listened, and then I noticed to my surprise how many other B. B. King albums I own (eight). So I took off Regal and began listening to some of his rawest, earliest recordings: boogies that sound almost like what Howlin’ Wolf was recording at the same time and in the same place (Memphis in the early 1950s). Some of those early recordings, like the rollicking “She’s Dynamite” (1951), have Phineas Newborn, Jr. going wild on the piano. This was much more compelling to me. And then I put on J. B. Hutto’s Hawk Squat from 1969 and felt again the appeal of a cruder, raunchier blues—west side, rather than south side, in Chicago terms.

So B. B. King remains for me someone whose greatness I believe in but do not fully experience. In this respect he resembles another King: King James (i.e., Lebron), whose majesty has always eluded me in a way that Michael Jordan’s or Larry Bird’s never did. But I still believe, in both cases, that I’ll get it eventually. (“And when she look at me as if she wanna know when, then I tell her, ‘someday baby.’”)

—Will Pritchard

#142: Various Artists, "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" (1963)

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She was the type to order warm ice; to demand clairvoyance from her subordinates—a peddler of flippant and negative feedback, unable to express expectations; a vision inarticulate, if one happened to exist at all. That’s who Toby was spending her evening with. She could hear the uproarious laughter, chatter, and music through the walls and the perforated ceiling tiles, rising in dull tones from beneath the beige carpeting. Holiday parties in full swing were visible through the lit windows of the offices across the street—ties hung loose, cheeks flushed. Yet Toby sat, the taste of glue thick on her tongue as she counted to 1,000.

Her boss was hosting an event for another promising candidate, who with her boss’s help would likely win. And with her boss’s help came Toby, whose happiness and wellbeing was second to the whims and wishes of the hand that snapped its fingers. The work was never hard, but it was made hard by how it had to be conducted; people with people think little of how they wield their power, and absolute power micromanages absolutely.

“I should have finished days ago,” Toby thought, licking an envelope and placing it sealed alongside 574 others. “First it was the arrangement of the guest list. Then she didn’t like how the envelopes bulged, after she ignored my suggestion to buy the ones that match the invites. And then there was the stamp fiasco,” Toby thought, letting out a sigh. This was the third batch this week. The repetition, piles of wasted paper. And now her holiday. Her boss entered the room, clearing her throat.

“Where are we on the invites?”

“About 400 to go. These don’t have to be postmarked until after the new year, right? The event’s not until March…”

“This needs to be done now! Any idiot can stuff an envelope, what’s your excuse?” The question hung in the air between them as Toby stared blankly at her boss’s face. “Her eyes look like flat tires,” Toby observed with satisfaction, licking another envelope.

“I can’t stay late again tonight.”

“You’ll leave when it’s finished, or you’re fucking done,” her boss croaked, coughing wetly into a loose fist. Catching her breath, she walked over to the rack that held her fox fur coat. “After the holiday I want us to think about how you can be more efficient. This is not OK. Remember, I’m like New York; maybe you just can’t hack it,” her boss said, raising two drawn-on eyebrows. She let slip a cloying smile thick with venom and walked slowly towards the door. “Merry Christmas, Toby.”

*

Toby was among the last to leave her building, and rode a nearly empty bus home through the snow, and thought about her boss: the way she entered a room and bent it across her lap; the arrogance of her demands; the miasma of perfume and opulence that thickened the air she touched. “I need another job,” she thought, stopping short to remember her liberal arts degree, her lack of experience. No one gets hired for having read Middlemarch, or for understanding the nuances between successive waves of feminism. While Toby admired a meticulously stocked and well-worn home library, such a quality never appears on an HR hiring rubric.

Feeling charmed by the snow, Toby got off a few stops before her own to walk the rest of the way along the lake. The city was bulldozing a new bike path, and the path was increasingly hard to distinguish beneath the accumulation. Toby stepped gingerly. “I never want to be like that,” she said aloud, startling herself. Toby had a habit of talking to herself, a cliché of living alone, but she tried not to do it in public. “I at least had somewhere to be. Friends; what about her?” The question hummed in Toby’s mind. She’d always been struck by how her boss’ personal life blurred with her professional one. Friendships watered like cash crops, mailing lists constantly in flux. Toby read all her boss’s email and caught glimpses of a vacuum at the center of a broad network.

She quashed a glint of empathy and focused again on the falling snow. Ahead, the path arced left to hug the lake around an outcropping. Toby followed it, turning her head as the skyline, buried in clouds, came fully into view. It was with her head in this position that she collided with a mass of fur clung fast with fresh snow. A familiar scent, a cough: her boss.

“I… I… what are you do—I didn’t see you,” Toby stammered. Her boss continued to look in the direction of the lake, away from the city lights.

“I used to take my children swimming here when it was warm,” her boss said, taking a drag from her cigarette. There was a pile of ash and butts half obscured at her feet; her coat resembled a different breed of fox entirely.

“It’s lovely in the sum—”

“My son used to scramble up the rocks on all fours, he was uncontrollable. He lives in Arizona now; much less water.”

“I hear it’s lovely ther—”

“We haven’t spoken in months,” her boss said as the wind picked up, swirling the fallen snow in eddies around their feet. Despite the sudden gust Toby felt a profound quiet to the moment ushered in by the candor. She and her boss never spoke this openly—distractedly even, as if Toby were a sounding board to her boss’s thoughts; much how Toby spoke to herself when alone, it was as if her boss took no notice of Toby’s presence, never once taking her eyes off the dark expanse of roiling water.

“I don’t remember…” her boss trailed off. The sound came out muffled, obstructed. She threw away the half-smoked cigarette with a gloved hand, the cherry extinguished in the snow. Toby held her breath. “Like a kite string… Arizona. I can almost picture it,” her boss said, turning towards Toby as she spoke. Their eyes met: Toby’s tearful from the wind, her boss’s glazed, pupils wide. Her boss tightened the collar of her coat and walked off, her steps parallel to the tracks Toby had left behind.

*

Toby tried not to drink, but kept a bottle just in case. She lit a few candles and switched on the four-color revolving lamp she relied on each year to make her drab apartment appear festive, a fire hazard from a bygone era. Much like decorations, Toby kept certain records squirreled away for December: a record, rather. “Say what you will about Phil Spector, but this truly is a gift,” talking to herself again, as she placed A Christmas Gift For You on the felt of her turntable. She dropped the arm and unleashed a wall of sound that rushed to fill the room. Toby poured three fingers of the brown liquid into a jam jar half full with ice and sat on the floor, leaning her back against a bookshelf as the aluminum Christmas tree by her window changed from yellow to blue.

“Well, Darlene, you got your wish,” Toby said, looking out at the heavy flakes. Of course she knew all about Phil: his aggressive artist motivation tactics, his penchant for gunplay. The murder. Yet Toby felt rocked to comfort by this recording; each time was like coming home. She poured another.

The soft glow of the room swirled with the brandy in Toby’s head. “Can a monster redeem itself? Aren’t we all just good and bad?” She said, fully animated now, her hands shadowed large in the revolving glow. The dull grind of the light’s motor filled the room as she fumbled the record over. Sitting down again, she sighed heavily, raising the jar to her lips.

“Time offers everyone a second chance, but it never promises forgiveness,” she thought, quietly this time. She was leaning fully into her night: alone on the eve of Christmas Eve, thawing her isolation steadily with every sip. She could feel a pang throb beneath the wash of brandy as she thought again about her boss’s gait disappearing into the cold night, her son off somewhere warm. Toby refilled her glass.

Did Darlene Love sing “White Christmas” down the barrel of a gun? Is this moment worth the fear she might have felt, the sweat beading between the notches of her spine as she hit each note just as she was told? Is success at any costs still worth celebrating—for the perfect take or a seat in the Capitol? Toby couldn’t keep pace with her thoughts as they began to spin, taking in the whole of the room, flashes of the day filed past in her mind like a row of stuffed envelopes. The record wound down, and the room nestled again into the soft hum of the light’s motor. Toby slowed her breathing to its rhythm, and drifted off to an image of confetti and faces, and stacks of ballots disappearing into the ceiling overhead.

—Nick Graveline

#143: Dr. John, "Gris-Gris" (1968)

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by The Kentucky Chapter of the What’s On Fire Cabal: Moonshine Edition.

 

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity, but they’ve always worked for me.    

                                                                                           —Hunter S. Thompson.

 

Maybe you saw him too, this old man with crow-footed, opalescent eyes that told about a life lived hard. To make the rent or earn enough for  a bite to eat, he’d picked up daywork at a paycheck loan place over on Broadway. They had him standing out on the street in a Statue of Liberty costume—green robe, foam spike headdress—flapping a sign around, inviting the tired, the poor, the prospective debtors to come on in and get robbed some more. His white mustache twitched around as he danced a little shuffle dance in traffic. Then, turning on his heel, he took off running, all hobble foot and spent white sneakers, to or away from something only his eyes could see, his robe trailing behind him like a wake.

A woman pedaling a souped-up beach cruiser with chopper handlebars, turquoise scarf around her neck, wearing shades and with a little miniature pinscher running full tilt on stiletto legs alongside her didn’t take notice as Late-Capital Liberty Man passed by like she was standing still: a fucked up little tableau to accompany the steady drone of drive-time news radio, which any shrink worth their framed diploma would tell you will grind you down to pulp with implicit and explicit threats of mass annihilation, dissociation, alienation, and chaos rendered as a tune that can be remembered almost well enough to hum along with.

I came home, got out of the truck, and nearly stepped into a string of party lights, the kind woven into a tiny copper wire, solar powered and ethereal, the kind you’d hang in the forest for a springtime fete, or a woodland fairy party. Lit up and dying in winter gray evening, they’d tangled into a circle of dim light in the gutter right next to a Ziploc bag full of hard candies. Some damned psychic foxhole, some decoy trail laid by a malicious, B-list, fifth grade conjuror.

Look, there’s probably witchcraft in the world. It’s just something that a person has to come to terms with by and by. The strange attractions, the blinking shadows that flutter at the edge of a memory which maybe was not a dream, named and nameless intuitions that come up unbidden. You’re not wrong. Your juju meter works just fine. Strange things are afoot.

Do you need an amulet to protect you against cold-sweat shiver magic? Ones and zeros that divide and never multiply?  Do you need a tour-guide, a translator, a pusher, a hustler, a heavy? A hand to hold as you pass through strange smoke? Can you swallow your dose of Snake a la Gris Gris?

The Night Tripper is as old as his tongue and older than the rows of gator teeth strung around his neck. Shake his hand and look close in his eyes. Hear his elevator sales pitch introduction, side one track one. Take his card: They call me Dr. John. Known as The Night Tripper. I got many clients come from miles around runnin’ down my prescription. I got medicine to cure all y’all’s ills. I got remedies of every description. Gris Gris gumbo. Yah Yah.

You could put the calling card away, listen to this record alone and stone sober, and your thoughts may come to rest on the appearance of cartoonish invocations of the exotic, or the illusion of physical space rendered by the newly developed stereophonic multi-track recording systems of the 1960s, or characters cut and pasted out of 19th century minstrel shows and New Orleans hoodoo lore. You may get to thinking about the difference between appropriation and organic synthesis, or the implied pastiche of cathedral service, voodoo ceremony, and midnight ramble, or the collusion between escape, evasion, invention and transmutation. But maybe every conjuror begins as a charlatan. Maybe all itinerant preachers keep some hooch in the glovebox. Wouldn’t any of them find perfect, well-worn comfort in the avocations of the other? You may conclude that all these thoughts are reason enough to never listen to Gris Gris alone or sober, and you’d be right: it’s not what the record is built for.

Gris Gris is made for many hearts in a room, many shoulders to shimmy, many legs to dip at the knee, to bring each ass down to the floor and back up. Grease magic only works when it’s shouted loud in the weird, good company of friends and strangers who might get freaky. Soon. The record needs a crew to be heard, and so does a discussion of the record. So, a creek-witch who you love beyond measure may walk down the street to poach some freaks from a hobo fiddle party, may bring them back for a word experiment, a spell casting, a listening party. Having summoned individuals and invoked a community—Gris Gris devotees and novitiates alike—and calling to order The Provisional Sub-Committee on Experimental Semiotics of the What’s On Fire Cabal, she may provide the following clear instructions: “Close your eyes. Listen close. Feel this Gris Gris at the base of your spine. Let it fill you up. Respond as you see fit.”

We eleven could have danced about it, but, for the sake of exploration and edification, we sat down to a candlelit table, passed a pipe, drank from a cold glass jar of moonlight and Dr. John (they call him The Last of the Best. They call him The Gris Gris Man) called up a collective grammerie between us, Exquisite Corpse style, in which each mind is once removed from the others and still, invariably, successfully, operating in synchrony toward a description of the numinous and nebulous.

Presented here without further comment.

_______________________


All I want is to touch, find the seam, cut the cord,
roll it out, and walk it back to when the music ends.

Grease desire was not really my experience, but his breath smelled of roses
rotting, gracefully, and that’s something special: returning to soil.

Unless we seek the absolute end, no one will know what to
think about how come you got here so fast.

Hunting is cleared first with the hunter.
You fasted through the night but were always full up.

The empty limbo choir city didn’t stop me, I sang so:
Devils. Night. The South. Next time, azure.

Though them in the creek float, we take this
to the river. We take this home with us.

You are the goddamn best.
You, bouncing into blows.

_______________________


Moonlight of
Good Lord love,

some good love comes
easy then, poof:

begone.

There wasn’t ever a yellow brick,
not for miles, and behind belle eyes,

tears, shame,
triumph, and will.

When the door opens,
it will not be thrown wide,

not all the way,
but it will remain cracked.

_______________________


Dwayne Michael Chest Rose Up From Only Ashes
 

We lived in swamps and we all nearly died except
for the serpent king who said,

Let me know the way—straight or winding—is at least
tender and slow. Let me just wander into beautiful

bosom beneath kudzu jacket.
Cover me. Cover me up. Whole.

No dancing. Try not to dance, cool creep.
Just slide into constant echoes.

The reverberating death sound of those
who rattled, who stepped, who battled.

_______________________


Valley of Smoke
 

They disappeared occasionally:
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, mostly Tuesdays.

Started the week without
everything they wanted but thanks

for how our feet tripped by better steps.
Some come crawling, dripping beautiful and tired,

falling into blind walk quicken up
and chime brings

the bang for free,
brings the blast man.

Dweebs, don’t talk smack.
Dweebs, don’t talk.

A party of devils and dweebs and
everyone closes their eyes.

Apple bob lead me to a portal. 

Sincerely, First Evil.

 

—Joe Manning

#145: Steely Dan, "Aja" (1977)

145 Aja.jpg

What’s a band without musicians?

That sounds like a paradox or a riddle. But by their sixth album, Steely Dan had fired everyone in the band, leaving only a songwriter and a producer. The resulting record, running about 40 minutes, was just seven tracks, two of which ran over seven and a half minutes long, largely made of unusual rhythms, dense chords, and uncommon narratives about drunk newscasters and orientalist wet dreams. A full LP of music for a band without a band.

It also went five-times platinum in the states. This landmark work of esoterica came to hold an unreachable standard for sonics; the only Grammy it won the year of its release in 1977 was for engineering. The impossible detail applied to Aja shimmered off the album’s intricate chordal and rhythmic superstructures, sparkled against the masterful and famously labored performances of the best musicians the day had to offer: Wayne Shorter, recently of the Miles Davis Quintet; Bernard “Pretty” Purdy and Steve Gadd; Larry Carlton, fresh off several years with Joni Mitchell on some of her best albums. Hired guns; mercenaries.

Aja is remembered, and often maligned, for its emphasis on the precision of its recording. Despite its commercial success, it’s often called niche, given the peculiarities of its style. Even given the popularity of jazz and jazz fusion in its own right and in pop music, Aja can either be called antiquarian or hidebound in its sound, or, alternatively, as Rolling Stone wrote, containing “some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music in the past decade.”

However that debate shakes out, it's clear that Aja is the weathervane for the most important change music ever underwent: its industrialization. What makes Aja anathema to so many was the way it was led by engineering, facilitated by recording technology, and, most importantly, defined by production. Four decades on from this album, popular music is, too, largely defined by production, and myriad genres have come into being thanks to the possibilities it created. Considered an indulgence in its time, Aja indicated the future.

Recorded music itself is a creation of technological innovation, but it wasn’t until the massive boom in research, development, and productive capacity during the Second World War that instruments like the electric guitar, or the amplifier, could be mass produced at a low enough cost to meet a consumer market newly enriched by the global growth following the war. Fender began selling guitars in 1946, which fueled a boom of guitar-centric bands in clubs for decades to come. Suddenly it was possible for more people to play to more people in more places, and make a very different noise while doing it. Combine this with the proliferation of mass media in radio, records, and television, and creating and consuming music was suddenly far cheaper and more widespread than before. This changed how music sounded.

The advent of radio, and, as a result, of mass-market popular music, had dramatic effects on music as a profession. This low bar to access effectively amateurized the work of performance, and at the same time, created an entirely new trade around its recording and delivery. Recording engineers, in their early incarnations, were more purely engineers than anything else: Paul McCartney recounts how, when creating the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road at the studios of the same name, engineers employed at the site were required to wear white lab coats on the premises.

That juxtaposition, between four self-taught musicians reared in clubs with mass-produced electric instruments playing songs they wrote and performed, and uniformed engineers working in a studio setting Winston Churchill said made him feel like he was in a hospital, describes the inexorable change music would undergo and never return from. In effect, because becoming a musical performer had become financially attainable for most individuals, but the costs to recording and distributing that music remained accessible to only those with requisite investment, music largely became professionalized around production. For all but the most successful songwriters and performers, the money wasn’t in making music, it was in making records.

The Beatles are celebrated for using the studio as an instrument, particularly after they stopped touring in 1966. Steely Dan took this idea that much further. After a number of years of commercial success, the band’s songwriter, Donald Fagen, and producer, Walter Becker, began to find the conventional ensemble context unsatisfactory. So, in 1974, they fired the other three members of the band and scaled their touring back significantly to focus on making records. With each album they made following—Katy Lied, then The Royal Scam—the “band” trended further toward the AM jazz of Fagen’s songwriting and the flossed twinkle of Becker’s production. This focus on sound and style translated to a rigor for performance, which was borne out in the ablest hands music’s pool of session musicians had to offer, with unlimited takes at their disposal.

Which brings us to the legend and spectacle of Aja, which stands with Abbey Road on the famous end (and perhaps Chinese Democracy on the more infamous end) in music’s new lore of the studio. With endless time, limitless talent, and a new arsenal of recording tools, Steely Dan made it possible to make a record with impossible exactitude. “Up on the hill,” Fagen sings on the title track, “they've got time to burn.” That’s part of why so many people hated it: it was stylistically and performatively implausible, made in and for the recorded environment rather than the pub or rehearsal space, which, prior to that, was the only place music could have been made. It is the day of the expanding man.

This is to say nothing of the songwriting itself, which is wonderful. But it’s the jazz-heads and audiophiles who extol the drama of “Deacon Blues,” or the Odyssean “Home At Last.” To so many listeners, the ballistic upper partials that festoon Gadd’s fractalizing tumult on the album’s title track, set in glinting clarity by Becker's production, are just fake—unreal in the sense that they couldn’t have played to a club. And that’s the point, frankly: This is the beginning of what’s possible beyond the physical realities of music, music that is an abstraction of itself, primarily. It’s music like you’d imagine music if you weren’t really hearing it, but remember how good it might have been if your focus was only on it. And, in that way, you can hear it better than maybe you ever had before. “The essence of true romance,” if you will.

The business of music continued to shift to its production and dissemination in the decades following, and that largely stands today. Max Martin, a producer, is among the most successful and influential songwriters in generations; Rihanna’s songwriting summits are storied; Some of the most celebrated music of our time is the realization of production; Rap and electronic music are defined by what an individual can do in the studio, not what happens beyond it.

This is, of course, a tragedy to those who believe music is pure in live performance and most honest when produced “organically.” The cool control of Aja seems an affront on music like it was. But music isn’t what it was, it has never been. The unreality of Steely Dan is like art to art: Tom Scott’s jubilant saxophone solo on “Black Cow,” Michael McDonald’s clarion background vocals on “Peg,” Chuck Rainey’s silvery bassline on “Josie,” each are perfect in their realization, as things never are. “When you smile for the camera,” they sing, “I know I'll love you better.”

—Charlie Kaplan

   

#146: Jefferson Airplane, "Surrealistic Pillow" (1967)

146 Surrealistic Pillow.jpg

Where I am is never where I want to be—because I was, and still am, the clichéd, landlocked teenager starving for the capital ‘C’ kind of Culture that seems to evade the Midwest.

I grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a border town right across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. Omahans affectionately refer us as “Counciltucky.” Council Bluffs is known for its abundant black squirrel population, riverside casinos, and an MTV Teen Mom.

At 15 years old, San Francisco was my mecca, and its music was my way of “surviving” my locale. I was one those insufferable teenagers that glommed onto 1960s/70s psychedelic and folk rock to dull my suburban apathy. I looked like Cousin Itt, and Iron Butterfly’s "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was in heavy rotation on my playlist.com all-time jams list.

I was wholly obsessed with Haight-Ashbury-era San Francisco, that petri dish of progressive ideas, good music, and art; the resulting counterculture amoebas transformed like liquid light show projections flitting across the walls of the Fillmore. I wanted to dance in that light; I wanted others to know that was my kind of tribe.

My first-ever custom ringtone on my first-ever flip phone was "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and sung by Scott McKenzie. When I was tasked with a persuasive speech on same-sex marriage rights in the United States, my English teacher docked me points for too much preamble about SF’s watershed role in furthering said rights in California. And in art class, when asked to create two reincarnations of a straight-laced self-portrait, you better believe I made it all about my mecca.

First, self-portraits are hard—but my straightforward self-portrait says everything about 15-year-old Emma. Dead-eyed apathy.

RS500 No. 146 Portrait 1.jpg

Over the last eight years, I’ve had the privilege of living in six cities in five different states for school and job opportunities. But I haven’t been able to shake my place-based apathy. In my head, I have this idea that somewhere along the way I will find my place and tribe, and everything will fall together in the way Jorma Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey” is simultaneously a departure and an arrival on Jefferson Airplane’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow. I am waiting for my volta.

As a high school senior, California’s out-of-state tuition cost made me quickly realize that that option was out of the question. Instead, I went to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, population 10,500. My friends and I frequently drove an hour north to Sioux Falls, SD, or 45 minutes south to Sioux City, Iowa for Culture. I also got into the habit of skipping class and driving five hours to Minneapolis for concerts at First Avenue.

Friends I’d made from small-town South Dakota always tried to sell me on the “it’s what you make of it” pitch, but in my mind, I couldn’t make anything of Vermillion. I did, however, scheme up ways to escape Vermillion—like joining the National Student Exchange program to attend an SF university, then realizing the closest option was Hayward; or establishing California residency to attend San Francisco State University, but realizing it would take too long. Instead, I decided to graduate in three years, and I did.

By the time I finally made it to the West Coast, I wound up in the wrong city. Portland, Oregon, mid-Portlandia hype. I set off for Portland and a reporting job the day after my 21st birthday. A week later, under Portland’s St. John’s Bridge, I sobbed over the phone to my mom that I was over it, Portland, the job, the constant rain. The next morning I packed up all my belongings and headed back for the Midwest—but not before cooking two pepperoni Totino’s Party Pizzas for the long drive ahead. It’s easy to confuse hunger for a place with actual appetite.

Later, when attending graduate school in Stillwater, Oklahoma, friends and I commiserated about the lack of Culture often, as we drove an hour east to Tulsa or an hour south to Oklahoma City for concerts, art exhibits, and other recreation. I felt like I was back in Vermillion and I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t found my place. But unearthing my cringeworthy self-portraits for this piece helped me realize something.

For the initial assignment, my high school art teacher took a photo of each of my classmates and me and asked us to create a traditional self-portrait. From there, she asked us to think up two reincarnations, or reimaginings, of the original self-portrait that spoke to who we were as individuals. Of course, 15-year-old Emma used the assignment to create two overwrought pieces detailing her SF/Haight-Ashbury obsession.

Enter: The first self-portrait reincarnation—a floral-wreathed and psychedelic-skinned Emma transplanted onto the corner of Haight & Ashbury. Subtlety has never been one of my strong suits.  

RS500 No. 146 Portrait 2.jpg

Enter: The second self-portrait reincarnation—Emma transformed into a psychedelic butterfly. Fifteen-year-old Emma stole a page from seven-year-old Emma’s art portfolio. Old habits die hard, I guess.

RS500 No. 146 Portrait 3.jpg

Regardless of the changing setting and Technicolor touches, I am still the same angsty asshole with the chip-on-my-shoulder stare. I am the liquid light show—on a plane of my own choosing—but instead of poring over my surroundings and enjoying the view, I am thrashing and branching into a million arms reaching for elsewhere, the next plane.

And I still haven’t been to San Francisco.

—Emma Murray

#147: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Déjà Vu" (1970)

147 Deja Vu.jpg

Side One:

In early memories of my father, he’s crouched over his guitar. His chin juts out, his lips tuck in, his fingers dance along the instrument’s neck. When he starts to strum, he locks onto my eyes. He sings “4 +20.” He sings “Teach Your Children Well.” His steel-string voice rasps, “And so, become yourself, because the past is just a goodbye.” His eyebrows jump on the important words like yourself and goodbye.

I perch cross-legged on the kitchen counter, gazing down and drinking him in. His boat shoes tap against the linoleum. His fingers race along the tight-rope strings.

All these years later, I can still drop myself into that scene, still feel the vibrations of his beat-up Martin hammering within my bones, still hear Nash’s, and Crosby’s, and Still’s, and Young’s lyrics: hardest love songs I’ve ever been sung.

1. Carry On

One morning I woke up, and I knew you were really gone.
A new day, a new way, and new eyes to see the dawn.
Go your way—I’ll go mine and carry on.

The sky is clearing, and the night has cried enough.
The sun, he comes, the world to soften up.

Rejoice, rejoice. We have no choice but to carry on.
 

2. Teach Your Children

I didn’t know that, soon, my father would leave. Before I reached adolescence, he would carry his guitar and attention elsewhere—to other women in other houses in other parts of the world. He’d call me from Florida. Ohio. Sierra Leone. He’d mail me presents from his travels. Sharksteeth. Arrowheads. Gemstones. Once, he sent me a package of smoked salmon he’d caught himself after climbing a glacier in Alaska. I saved these things (except for the smoked salmon) in an old cigar box. I still have them today.

Once a week or so, I’d open the box and breathe him in. I’d trace circles on each treasure with my fingers. I’d hold them in my palms. The arrowheads smelled like his hands after a day of working in the garage: metal, earth, salt. When I had inhaled as much of him as I could bear, I’d put everything back in the cigar box, in the same order I’d taken it out. I’d close the box tight, not wanting the himness to waft away.

Every once in a while, I’d have the chance to see my father in the flesh—hollow voice and boxes transformed to real, live man in pick-up truck, rumbling up our driveway. As soon as he walked in the door, I’d beg, “Sing to me on the guitar.” He’d put on the same hard look of concentration I’d memorized as a child. Just before he began to sing, he’d stare at me so full and fierce I’d have to swallow the urge to cry. And then I’d feel his voice in my sternum, his notes inside my lungs. Close to him as I could be.

On one of these visits, he pushed through the back door carrying two guitar cases. He set them both down on the kitchen linoleum, then pointed to the light brown one. “First guitar I ever had,” he said. “It belonged to your grandfather.”

Before he left that night, he taught me to play the chords: A, D, E, and C. My fingertips ached, red and raw, and I was in bliss. I fell asleep with his old guitar next to me, both of us squeezed into my twin-sized bed.

And you, of tender years,
can't know the fears that your elders grew by.
And so please help them with your youth.

They seek the truth before they can die.
 

3. Almost Cut My Hair

My father was raised Irish Catholic—oldest son of four siblings—in Dublin, Ohio. His father was a high-functioning alcoholic.

When Dad was young, my grandfather prized him. He would drive the two of them all the way to Canada for weekend fishing trips. He’d buy intricate sailboat models and watch approvingly as my father spent hours and hours constructing them. He’d praise my father for the athlete he was becoming, take him out for ice cream when he made the team.

But the obedient boy grew up. In the mid-1960s, my father hit puberty, and his father’s alcoholism transitioned into something frightening. My father grew his hair long. My grandfather belittled him. My father got in a fight with the football coach and quit the team. My grandfather lambasted him. Then, at seventeen, my father got his girlfriend pregnant. My grandfather disowned him.

Dad moved out of the house, dropped out of high school, and married the soon-to-be mother of his child. In nearby Columbus, he found a job as a welder. He taught himself how to provide.

But I'm not, I'm not giving in an inch to fear
'cause I've promised myself this year.

I feel oh, like I owe it, to someone.
 

4. Helpless

By the time I reached middle school, my mother would, once a year or so, put me on a plane and send me off to visit my father wherever he was living—a cabin outside of Denver, a girlfriend’s mansion in Woodside, a sailboat docked in Biscayne Bay. She’d warn me before I left: call me if you feel uncomfortable. Each year she’d offer more clues as to what, exactly, she meant—Sometimes your father isn’t able to be his best self; Your father has a problem, but it absolutely isn’t your fault; Your father drinks too much.

Each year, too, something uncomfortable would happen, but I’d never tell my mother about it. My father would act strange at night. My father would throw a suitcase across a parking lot. My father would fly into a rage at his girlfriend du jour, prompting her to lock herself, with me, in the room where I was staying.

But, also, each year my father would take me on adventures unlike those any of my friends had ever been on. We’d sail across the Gulf Stream and anchor on the shores of uninhabited islands in the Bahamas. We’d drive a camper-laden pick-up truck down a tiny gravel road to an untouched stretch of wilderness on the Lost Coast of California. And, no matter where we roamed, we’d play guitar. He’d show me how to push my fingers down harder into the strings. It hurt, but the notes rang. He’d assure me I’d develop calluses soon, prove it by letting me touch his own hardened skin. Once I learned how to keep rhythm, he’d play lead. His notes would flute over my clumsy chord changes and, together, we’d create honest-to-god music. We’d sing, both of us, in harmony. He’d watch me closer than he ever had, so close it seemed like he was in my brain, knowing before I did that I was about to change chords, that in three more bars, I would begin to sing.

All these years later I have yet to find a more powerful form of connection, with anyone.

Helpless, helpless, helpless.
Baby can you hear me now?
The chains are locked and tied across the door.
Baby, sing with me somehow.

 

5. Woodstock

Well, then can I roam beside you?
I have come to lose the smog,
and I feel myself a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year.
Yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am,

but life is for learning.

 

Side Two:

1. Déjà Vu

In 2012, I faced one of those tasks that children dread: in the wake of my mother’s passing, I had to go through each item in her house and decide whether to keep, toss, or donate it. I stood in her garage on a steamy August morning and made a deal with myself to at least get through one metal storage shelf before breaking for lunch.

The shelf held dusty Christmas garlands and fraying children’s books. Roller blades I’d long since outgrown. A tennis racket that begged to be restrung. A toolbox that plummeted from my hands and onto the concrete when I tried to slide it off the shelf. And then there was a cardboard box so old it began to crumble in my hands when I pulled back its flaps.

Inside were hundreds of records. Santana. Carole King. James Taylor. The Beatles. The Doors. Fleetwood Mac.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

I lifted the records out one at a time, telling myself that this meticulousness was necessary for their protection. When I found Déjà Vu, I froze. I ran my fingers over the gold lettering, the band photograph, the raised bumps on the album jacket—rough like calloused skin. The men looked like photographs of my father from the ‘70s—long hair, nonchalant, a dog and a guitar nearby. And the songs—these songs were his songs. These records were his, too. Before I quite understood what was happening, I had begun an old rite, opening the album jacket and breathing it in, searching for bits of my father.

And I feel
like I've been here before.
Feel
like I've been here before.
And you know it makes me wonder
what's going on under the ground.
Do you know? Don’t you wonder

what's going on down under you?
 

2. Our House

When my father met my mother, they were both recently divorced, and they both had young children. She claimed the first thing she noticed about him was his goofy ears, but it was the way he talked about his daughters that got her in trouble. That soft pride and fierce devotion.

They met while she was on vacation in Florida, where my father was living at the time. But soon he moved up to Atlanta to be with her and my brother. They had a small December wedding—my mother wore blue, and my brother and two sisters made up the wedding party.

For a while, it seemed my father had found his happy ending. The new family lived in a four-bedroom brick house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in Buckhead. On weekends, they went camping in North Georgia, or hollered on the sidelines of my brother’s basketball games. My father owned a recording studio where the Temptations, the Allman Brothers, and Diana Ross cut records. He taught my brother to play guitar, and the two of them filled the bonus room with rhythm and blues. And though my father and mother hadn’t initially planned on more children, they found themselves deeply happy to be expecting a baby girl—me.

Come to me now, and rest your head for just five minutes. Everything is good.
Such a cozy room, the windows are illuminated by the
sunshine through them, fiery gems for you. Only for you.

Our house is a very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard.
Life used to be so hard.

Now everything is easy 'cause of you.
 

3. 4 + 20

About a year after I was born, my father’s recording studio folded. He had a baby, a pre-teen, and a wife to support, not to mention his older daughters, who lived with their mother in Ohio. So he did what you do when you live on a cul-de-sac in Buckhead. He found a white-collar job as a sales rep and, not long after, started his own sales firm. He provided for his family. He wore the suit and tie. He was miserable.

The same summer that I found his records in the garage, I also found a letter he wrote to my mother, when things between them had begun to fall apart. The paper was pale pink, ripped from a notebook—the perforated edge torn but attached. It was dated June 25th, 1994—four years before they would divorce. Under TOPIC, it read Yukon/You. “Cupcake,” it began:

This may be difficult to read; I am in a raft floating through small rapids & swift current as I write.

Somehow, words become inadequate when trying to describe the scenery here (as they are for describing my feelings for you). Everything is so Big, so Blue, so Spectacular that words just don't seem to be Big enough to describe…… Anyway, this total isolation from society amidst such splendor is peeling away my callouses and cynicism and exposing my inner feelings. And guess what? I find myself thinking about you all the time.

Getting away from the “forest” of society I realize how obsessed I can get w/ my work & how far I have compromised my own values. For this reason you may find it hard to believe when I tell you that you & our children are the most important thing in my life. And as our children are getting older, you become all the more important to me. It’s you who will be my closest companion for the remainder of my/our life. I miss you so much. I wish so much that you could be here to share this experience. Someday I want to come back here w/ you. The river rafting is really quite relaxing. Only the side hikes are strenuous. And the side hikes are optional. That’s all for now. More later.

The letter is unsigned but unmistakably from my father—it bears his penmanship, his depth, his desperation to be different and better. Reading it felt more like remembering than discovery. It reaffirmed what my father had said to me so many times since my mother’s death: that she was and would always be the love of his life.

The two of them never did make it to Yukon.

And he wasn't into selling door to door.
And he worked like the devil to be more.
 

4. Country Girl

When my mother died, I told my father not to come to her funeral. I didn’t think he had the right. It had been years since he’d seen her, and I blamed him for her early passing, as if the stress of the last years of their marriage had somehow planted the cancer that, a decade later, snatched her. And, anyway, he was in the Canary Islands, half a world away.

When I returned to college a few weeks later, I caught myself telling people that now I was an orphan. It felt true—over the last decade, I had mourned the loss of my father over and over again, at the end of each too-short visit or phone call. And though, lately, he’d been reaching out more than ever, he wasn’t exactly available. Captain of a catamaran in the middle of an Atlantic crossing, he’d call from the satellite phone, when he could. I had the number, but the risk of what I’d imagine if he didn’t answer was more than I could bear.

In truth, though, I had not lost him. I was no orphan. Though I’d tell friends and lovers otherwise, our connection had not been severed. It’d been years since we’d seen one another, but every time I played guitar, I wondered what he’d think, how his fingers would flutter out a lead riff, whether he’d complain that I was working in too bizarre a key. Each song I wrote or learned was for him.

But I kept pushing him away. It was easier than chasing a dust trail. When I graduated college, I repeated what I’d said to him before my mother’s funeral: “I really think it’s best for you not to come.”

Too late to keep the change.
Too late to pay.

No time to stay the same.
 

5. Everybody I Love You

To play music well, you have to keep coming back. For a while, you sound awful. Eavesdroppers cringe. Your hands aren’t strong enough to produce a clean sound, and your fingertips burn. When your calluses finally form, your chord changes are messy. You can’t sing and play at the same time, and god forbid someone try to play with you. You’re tempted to give up.

A lot of people have cut my father out of their lives. My mother did it. So did my siblings. For a while, I pretty much did too.

Now, though, I never let a year pass without a visit to my father. I invited him to both of my master’s graduations, and he came, traveling miles and miles to do so. Whenever we are together, we “sing on the guitar.” We’ve played in a tiny tiki bar on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, on a sailboat docked off the coast of Tobago, and in a blues bar in Coral Gables.

My mother’s sister has asked me, again and again, “How can you forgive him after the way he treated your mother?” I never know what to say. Maybe I’ve forgiven him, and maybe I haven’t, but that part doesn’t seem really to matter. The truth is, despite all the years of separation, estrangement, and yearning, I have a different and deeper relationship with my father than I do with anyone. With him, it’s not about just bopping my head along to a beat. It’s not about passive listening, or quietly singing along. It’s about becoming myself. Our past is full of goodbyes, but we still pick up the phone and say hello. We still find time to create the honest-to-god music that forces me to keep coming back, that won’t stop humming in my bones.

Though your heart is an answer,
I need your love to get me through.
When I tell you I love you,
you can believe that it's true.

—Ellen Louise Ray

  

#148: Led Zeppelin, "Houses of the Holy" (1973)

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She didn’t notice at first. Those songs were everywhere. She heard them all the time, had heard them all her life. They had the familiarity of a parent’s voice, hard to hear musically, and although she knew they were great songs, it was just that they were worn slick from constant play. So the first however-many-times she stopped in for gas or a Gatorade or sometimes one of those not-too-shabby white bread sandwiches the old guy sold on the front counter, she nodded along to “The Rain Song” or “Over the Hills and Far Away,” paid the man, stepped back out into the day, got in her car and drove off.  Maybe the sixth or seventh time was when she noticed. If it hadn’t happened that “No Quarter,” with its heavy vibe, its portentous grinding threat, was playing three times in a row, she might have gone a long time more not noticing. But, finally, she did notice—it was always Zeppelin, always Houses of the Holy playing in this little no-name gas station at the intersection of a county road and a rural highway surrounded by fields with pump jacks rising and falling in the near distance while wind turbines spun their big robot arms farther off on the slopes of the Wichita Mountains and all around.

She found herself in these parts every couple of months checking on well sites for the oil and gas company she worked for, showing up unannounced and unwelcome to run the numbers against the surly reassurances of the guys that worked the sites full time, her gender a constant source of amusement to them. The job’s for a Land Man—man, you understand? No such thing as a Land Woman.

Good one, she’d say. Land Woman, yeah.

So she was usually frustrated when she stopped at the gas station and the old guy usually commented on the fact. His sun-damaged skin would stretch red and hard across his face and he’d look up from his paperback and smile at her, ask her if she wanted him to start a fresh pot of coffee. She’d be on her guard from dealing with the assholes at the well sites and have a minute where his benevolence registered and she could slow down and breathe.

“No, thanks,” she usually said, but this day she said, “You know what? I would. Cup of coffee sounds good.”

His blue eyes widened under the bill of his Dolese ball cap and he pressed his palms together like a chef about to prepare a special meal. “Coffee it is!” he said. He disappeared behind the racks of vape paraphernalia, beef jerky, and ball caps with glittery rhinestone crosses on their fronts before hustling out from around the front counter, heading to the coffee counter, which was toward the back, between the coolers and the white plywood door with a hand-printed sign that said Restroom is for Customers Only!!!

She’d never been there during a song change, but “No Quarter” gave way to “The Ocean” while she stood on the immaculate white linoleum floor and watched his wide, low-slung figure dash an old coffee filter against the edge of the trash can and reach for a clean one. “You’re playing Houses of the Holy,” she said. “The whole album?”

He glanced back over his shoulder at her and beamed approval. “Somebody raised you right.”

“You play it a lot, don’t you? Seems like I always hear it when I come in here.”

“What brings you to this lonesome part of the world so often?” he said. He pressed the red button on the coffee maker and it began to hiss. “You don’t live here, or I’d know you.”

She told him about her job in oil and gas, how she liked driving out in the country, all the alone time, but never knew what to expect at the well site. “Sometimes it’s perfectly fine,” she said. “Sometimes they’re really cool guys. Maybe even some Zeppelin fans.”

He grinned. “If that’s your definition of cool then I guess you’re the real Zeppelin fan.”

“Sure,” she said. “I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t be, but I’ve noticed how Zeppelin is one of those bands that’s got a boys’ club around them really bad. Guys act amused when I say I like them, like it’s cute. Makes me so mad I could spit. What’s with that attitude? In old concert footage that audience is full of women.”

“I saw Led Zeppelin on the Houses of the Holy tour in ‘73. Saw them in Dallas at the Convention Center one day and then the very next day at the Tarrant County Coliseum in Fort Worth.” He shook his head, whistled. “Two nights in a row. Two great nights in May.”

“You must’ve been a baby. Just a kid!”

He laughed, “Don’t I wish? I was back from Vietnam, did two tours over there. Hell, I was married with a baby of my own on the way.”

“Did your wife go to the shows with you?”

“My lord, yes! That woman had such a thing for Robert Plant it about made me jealous.” He pulled the ball cap from his head and ran excited fingers through thick gray hair. “We had bets about the encore. We both won. She said they’d play ‘Dancing Days’—no way they’re not playing ‘Dancing Days,’ she said. I said ‘The Ocean,’ they gotta. We were both right.” He handed her coffee in a styrofoam cup after fitting a plastic lid over it.

“Two nights in a row!” she said.

“Two nights in a row.” He nodded. “I guess I ought to play something different around here sometimes. I like other stuff. Hell, even if I stuck to Zeppelin I could play their other albums. If somebody like you, who only comes in every now and again is noticing, I might ought to change it up.”

She blew into the hole of the to-go lid and took a tentative sip of coffee. “Play what you like. Suit yourself—this is your place, isn’t it?”

“Mine and hers, yeah.”

“I think you should stick to it,” she said. “If anybody asks about it, just tell them, sorry, The Song Remains the Same.”

He leaned against the counter and took a toothpick out of the top pocket of his plaid shirt. “I like that,” he said. “That’s what I’ll do. And you, too. Stick to it, that is.”

“I sure will. What do I owe you for the coffee?”

He waved away her offer to pay and for awhile they debated what Houses of the Holy meant, with him insisting that Plant had been referring to the big stadiums themselves and her insisting she’d heard he meant human beings—“like we’re all houses of the Holy Spirit, sort of.”

Who could say? “The Crunge” was playing now. They agreed that either interpretation made sense and she told him she’d see him in a couple of months.

—Constance Squires

#150: Bruce Springsteen, "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (1978)

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 I have never been able use “What’s your hometown?” as a security question because my answer changes depending on who happens to be asking. The irrefutable facts are as follows: I was born in Philadelphia to parents who lived just over the Ben Franklin Bridge in South Jersey, where I spent the first three years of my life before the Shipyard closed and my father’s job was transferred to Norfolk and we moved to a Southeastern Virginia town bordered by the ocean and a swamp and endlessly multiplying subdivisions, where my family still lives and I lived until I went off to college.

I have learned in adulthood to give whichever answer seems closest, geographically, and most appropriate for the context, a toss up in Washington, D.C. but simple when on business trips in Philly proper or Wilmington. At college, in a smaller town in less-South less-East Virginia, I would tell most people I was from the town where I’d spent the last fifteen years of my life—or rather one of the two more recognizable cities which cornered it into the North Carolina border, because other people were from that general area, too, and it was easy to bond over something like a knowing a pseudo-famous local haunt or notorious speed trap during a time when so much that should have been recognizable and relatable about myself seemed unnameable, unidentifiable, impossible.

But, when I was growing up in that Southeastern Virginia town I would later claim, I would tell people that I was from Philadelphia, because the perception of Philadelphia was less odious than the perception of New Jersey, and being from somewhere else was more interesting than being from where we were. Nevermind that my memories up unto age three are limited to the likes of birthday party decorations and riding in the moving truck and are scattered at best, or that I spent little time in the city itself when we’d visit when I was older, or that I truly did know more about the curves of the winding, hilly Turnersville roads than I did about the ancient intricacy of Philly’s streets; I had my mother, a proud, bonafide Philadelphia native, and her passion for the place from whence she hailed, the stories she told to keep it and the version of her that grew up there alive. In their vividness and her adoration, those memories and the knowledge they entailed were as good as my own.

At risk of publically aging her, my mother is a child of the Disco Days. Exceptions afforded for the stories about helping her best friend stalk Lee Mazili or working double shifts in department stores, most of the tales Sharon shared from her youth as I was growing up were about her summers at the Shoreparticularly the music she’d dance to while clubbing. Her heyday coincided with the heyday of the genre’s greatsDonna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, on and on—and her younger brother even spent many of his weekends partying at THE Studio 54 in New York City.

In her youth, my mother found herself in an incredible place in an incredible time, a cosmic stroke of luck placing a young woman on a glorious cultural horizon so mesmerizing it practically begged you to dance along its ledges. My mother wears her disco fandom as a badge of honor with the same pride she imbues when announcing she is from Philadelphia, bolstering her authentic cred by spurning the other famous acts and genres of the ‘70s. I can’t remember her listening to any classic rock beyond Queen (the same Lee Mazili-adoring friend also loved Freddie Mercury), and she openly and publicly despises the likes of Fleetwood Mac. The only exception to her ire was Bruce Springsteen, hometown hero and raucous heartthrob. Perhaps it was birthright, being from South Philly and vacationing to Wildwood, but my mother loved the Boss; she’s just as quick to profess this as she is to note that she was an anomaly amongst her friends for her fanaticism, eager to tell you about falling in love in the early days after Born to Run was first released and he was running small club tours.

As moms are wont to do, mine tried her darndest to pass on as much as much good as she could, including her love of the music she grew up with, to her kids. Car rides to school were perpetually scored by the likes of the Four Seasons and the Shangri-Las; we decorated our Christmas tree to the musical stylings of the Sal-Soul Orchestra. When I was nine, and we were visiting my grandmother in south Jersey, we spent a whole summer evening in her kitchen, table pushed aside but ironing board standing, trying halfheartedly and clumsily as my mother passionately tried her hand at teaching my brother and me the Hustle, Bob Pantano’s Saturday Night disco radio show crackling over our grumbles and bumps into the furniture. Like so many other lessons she tried to teach and love she sought to give, her enthusiasm for disco’s golden oldies was, at the time, not something either of her children had inherited. Neither was her fanaticism for the Boss, not yet.

I used to tell people that I found and fell for Bruce through my own musical discoveries. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen heading back to my mother’s house in a sleepy suburb at two a.m. one New Year’s Day when “Mary’s Place” was the first song I heard played on the staticky local radio, blood rushing with the headiness that comes only from being with people you love in the place where you became yourself and being reminded of it all over again. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen caterwauling along to “Atlantic City” in a cramped kitchen of my friends, our voices cracking as if we understood the town and the time just as Bruce had sketched them. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen analyzing the jubilant ownership of self-determination in “Rosalita” late at night, and I fell in love again when, years later, I would tell my mother “closets are for hangers; winners use the door.”  I fell in love with Bruce when I was desperately trying to fall in love with myself. I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen alone, in moments of reflection when this man from a place I never lived but claimed as my own sang about his longings, often unspeakable, and his successes, small and all the more tangible for it. I fell in love with him, and the music, and the person I thought I was when I was listening to his music—this specifically named protagonist, this character so anchored to place, this beautiful disaster with a beginning, middle, and end in their four corners.

At least, this is the myth I tell myself, the musical Hometown I offer when asked. The irrefutable facts are as follows: Bruce Springsteen was likely a prominent musical figure throughout my childhood and early teen years, and I know my mother mentioned having seen him before I would have found it cool to have done so; I adopted Bruce because it’s an easy leg up if you’re from New Jersey, and I say I’m from New Jersey when I need a leg up with my love of Bruce, and it gives me a sense of place and history when I so often willfully ignore the ones I’ve been given; when a mentor with whom I’d lost touch passed away, I spent my afternoon champagne drunk and lying in bed as I listened to the album version of “Racing in the Street” on an hours-long loop, knowing Bruce’s lyrics were an adequate representation of the contemporary poetry she so championed and that felt, somehow, like an appropriate outsourcing of mourning; part of my love of Bruce, so achingly, seems to be the shared passion of every person I love’s love of Bruce, from writers I admire and will never meet, to those friends with whom I group chat as we speak, to those mentors who loved me so fiercely I couldn’t help but push them away, to the mother whose passion and so wholly-lived self has given me so much I cannot bear to look its brightness directly in the face so I pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is a turning point in my mind for the Boss, the album a nod to his explosive and bombastic success with Born to Run and straight arrow toward the bleaker, less hopeful ruminations he’d soon release with Nebraska and The River. On Darkness, Bruce sees where he came from and where he is going and finds a perfect sense of self within the two, understanding that no version of a person can be based on just one half of the equation. This is no more perfectly exemplified than on his expertly deployed four cornersthe joy of an open road on “Badlands” is reduced to fear and desperation in the wake of that very same road on “Racing in the Street,” and the defiance and ownership of the self on “The Promised Land” muddled as external pressures are realized on the eponymous album closer. He gives beginnings, middles, ends, yes—but he also gives us people complicated in their interim incompleteness, a personal history and origin created as the song goes.

I still waffle when asked about my literal hometown, but here are the irrefutable facts: when I was twenty-one, a few weeks after my birthday, I saw Bruce Springsteen play a giant amphitheater with my mother in my small Southeastern Virginia town, myself home for barely a day to make the show, where Clarence Clemons’s nephew subbed in for the late saxophonist and Bruce made a big deal about how this was Clarence and Jake’s hometown show, and how he, Bruce, remembered fondly playing shows just up the road in the early days, in the days when my mom, too, was fondly listening to him play small shows a few hours north when she was in her early twenties and feeling like the entire possibility of the world was dancing right in front of her, where she commented on how old I suddenly was and how young I simultaneously seemed to be, where Bruce and the E Street Band played “Badlands” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” directly after each other, closing the corners, making the origin and the destination the exact same point.

—Moira McAvoy

  

#149: Santana, "Santana" (1969)

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“Soul Sacrifice,” the closing argument on Santana’s 1969 self-titled debut is one of my favorite songs of all time. It features brilliant guitar and keyboard work, an iron-spine of a bassline, all pushed ever forward by some of the best percussion you’ll find on a song from the ‘60s. A terrific listen. But I’d ask that, if you’re going to take six minutes out of your day to experience this song, that you do so with a movie.

I’ll present two examples, the first, probably the song’s most famous performance, at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, later released in the 1970 documentary of same name. Check it out here.

That drummer’s name is Michael Shrieve. He was 20. Here, he plays maybe the only drum solo worth watching. His drumming is the rider and the ride itself. He looks like at any moment he is going to laugh or cry, stop or start. It says a lot that on a stage full of so much talent the camera continues to return to his changing expressions. I assume he is on drugs. I hope he is. It makes his use of a traditional grip all the more compelling. This ain’t your grandfather’s drummer. But actually, this is your grandfather’s drum grip.

I don’t know if I would love this song without the footage from Woodstock. When I first saw it I was an idiot punk who held most ‘60s music in contempt. I’m not a punk anymore. I’m still mostly an idiot. And much of the music from the ‘60s was awful. But Shrieve’s obvious talent and crazed look broke through. It is incredible, that on a stage where Carlos Santana is losing part of his mind, a kid kind of stole the show.

The second sequence is from David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. Watch it here. The song is edited. Basically, they cut it in half. It sits behind dialogue and ambient sound from the streets of San Francisco, pulsing.

“Soul Sacrifice” backs a sequence depicting two seperate arrivals. First, cartoonist Robert Graysmith take his kid to school, rides the elevator, gets coffee etc., before finding his desk and heading to his morning editorial meeting. The second arrival is the delivery of a letter. First to the mail room, then the sorting table and upstairs. That letter is from a serial killer. It is the first of several letters addressed to the Chronicle by the Zodiac killer. The delivery date of the letter is July 31, 1969. That is 1 month prior to the commercial release of “Soul Sacrifice” and only 2 weeks prior to Woodstock.

The real-life timing of the album release and the letter are mere coincidence. Fincher’s choice of soundtrack for his dramatization is not. And it feels especially poignant to hear that music and its menacing throttle placed with a historical event so near its conception. Here, again, the drums are the showcase. Ambient sound drops off toward the end of the clip as we watch a message from a psychopath ride atop a huge pile of letters bound for editorial. I love the image of the sorting table, with letters being picked and pulled, designated and routed, while Shrieve solos in the background. The people moving parcels along like an assembly line.

The sequence adds a visual cue for everything I enjoy about the music. There is that endless push forward, seen through the frantic workings of a newspaper in the ‘70s. The drum solo is given its own brief visual counterpart. And the menace created by the song title “Soul Sacrifice” is echoed both by Graysmith’s alienation from his children and coworkers but also by the letter itself being from a serial killer. The visuals and the music work in concert to foreshadow the tragedies to come.

I don’t mean to imply that “Soul Sacrifice” or the album it comes from can’t stand on their own. They are both terrific pieces of music. But for me, I don’t think I understood how powerful this stuff was until I saw it coupled with images that enhanced that power. When I listen to the song now I can latch on to a larger context and let my mind wander from there. And when that solo hits, I know to airdrum like a maniac.

Don’t underestimate Santana’s self-titled debut. It is easy to write off the entire enterprise by simply humming four bars of “Smooth,” his mega-hit collaboration with Rob Thomas. But in 1969, Santana, both man and band, were placing their culture’s mark on “The Sixties”. They made a powerful, unique record which was also a statement about their identity and culture. If you don’t feel it right away, watch the clips above and then return to “Soul Sacrifice” with renewed context. It is an astonishing piece of music.

—Steven Casimer Kowalski

#151: Arcade Fire, "Funeral" (2004)

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Neon Bible is my favorite Arcade Fire album, but I think Funeral, their first, most elemental album, the one that launched them into the world, is still their best. I just don’t—can’t, really—listen to it anymore. Funeral might be one of the last albums I listened to on an actual CD, the last time I thought of an album as an object, rather than sound waves that just existed in the ether. A friend in high school had burned it for me, personalizing it with her handwriting and doodles on the silver disc, but it took some time for me to snap it out of its sleeve and hunker down with it. Who knows what finally causes something to spark?

This was in 2007, a little over two years after Funeral had been released. I was a freshman in college and very unhappy, though I didn’t know why. Sadness is not very interesting to write about, and even less interesting to experience. But whatever I was experiencing felt less like sadness than a visitation, a presence which also signified an absence: of feeling, of appetite, of self. It was as if I had been replaced by a stranger. I could feel her inside of me: cold as a fish, unknowable. I was afraid this person was actually who I’d been all along.

The feeling could come at any time. Some days, I was able to get through my classes just fine; I could even manage to feel excited about the roots of words in intro to linguistics, or an essay we were reading in lit crit. Other days I couldn’t concentrate at all—I’d feel, at random it seemed, devastated, as if something had reached into me and knocked all the glasses off the table. When this happened, I’d put my pencil in my mouth, biting down so hard the paint would chip. I did this so I wouldn’t break down crying. Ah. Uh. Oh, my linguistics professor uttered at the whiteboard, demonstrating glottal stops. She wore bright floral blouses, and was the nicest professor I had. To me this signified she was okay, she had made it: Here is an adult, I thought, who is happy. It is possible. I ground the pencil with my teeth. The origin of this feeling, unlike etymology, didn’t seem to exist: it would just descend, like a cloth soaked with chloroform.

At lunch or dinner I’d take two bites of my sandwich and feel full—and not just full, but constantly nauseated, not with sick but with dread. When it got really bad, I’d call my mother at odd times of the day just to hear the sound of her breathing, the sound of her listening even though I didn’t have anything to say. What’s wrong, she’d ask, and I’d have to tell her, I don’t know. She told me to count the days the feeling would last; it would subside a little after a week. But it always came back.

I walked through campus listening to Funeral on repeat. It was winter, and, in my memory, only nighttime. The shadows of the empty trees shifted like kaleidoscopes over the brick walkways, and I watched my own shadow flicker through them. I was young enough that time still felt slow, and though there’s almost nothing I miss about this period in my life, I do miss that. The days dripped by.

Once, I walked so close behind someone that I could read, in the dark, the name hand-stitched on her backpack: ANGIE. She had a name. She seems happy, I thought for no reason—I was always thinking this, desperately, of other people—other than that she was someone who had enough energy and confidence to embroider her name to her objects. But then I thought every stranger held some kind of secret to being alive, one I did not have.

Arcade Fire called their first album Funeral because three of the band members had recently lost loved ones. I had lost no one, except maybe whoever I was. But no one I knew had died. I had not been hurt or traumatized. Everyone I knew was fine. There was no reason for me to feel this way, which made it even worse.

When I was sixteen and in physical therapy to recover from a broken leg, the PT would hook me up to an electric stimulation machine. I’d pulse the muscles in my calf, and, if I flexed them hard enough, the machine would give my leg a small zap. When I was able to shock myself, that’s how I knew the muscles were getting stronger. Similarly, that first year in college, I gave myself little tests: I tried to imagine futures for myself as an adult, from the practical to the fantastical, so I could see if I had the ability to look forward to something: living in a Manhattan loft with my best friends! Writing a book! One day making enough money to buy groceries or clothes without worrying! Renting an art studio in a cottage in the woods! But I felt empty every time I drew one up to inspect. Nothing sparked. That’s what scared me: that I couldn’t even make myself happy in my imagination. I had completely forgotten the sensation. Don’t have any dreams, don’t have any plans, Winn Butler trilled into his microphone, though he sounded more triumphant than scared or confused.

In linguistics, we watched a documentary about dialects and speech patterns in demographics all across America. I remember that day was a better day for me. I could actually watch it, could pay attention and take notes. The documentary opened with different people in different regions reciting Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was white as snow.

Hearing the repetition of the phrase was when I first realized—oh—glottal stop—words were, at their most elemental, sounds. I always knew this in some basic way. As a child learning to read, I’d repeat words to myself until they dissolved from sense into pure noise, nonsense: nose nose nose nose nose knows knows knows or even lena lena lena lena lena lena lena lena lena lena—until the meaning of who I was started to disappear beneath the chant, or at least shift away from name, like an animal slithering under a rock to hide from the light—but I had never articulated it to myself.

That words are just sounds is completely obvious, and it’s also not the entire truth—nothing is “just” any one thing; words are also images, signs, interiority, meaning. But in this one part of the truth, we can manipulate or modify the sounds to signify who we are or how we feel; off the page we don’t have to rely on diction or syntax alone. This is what Arcade Fire is so good at doing throughout Funeral, screaming, I’ll guess we’ll just have to adjust, dragging out the adjust and transforming it into a long wail, turning both yearning and regret into song and a call to arms. Making art out of a feeling. I made not have had a source for my sadness but the album gave me a sonic container. It turned the shapeless into shapes, into sound. If not a source, I at least had a bucket.

I could not do this. Even now, I’m failing.

I didn’t call the feeling depression because it never lasted more than two weeks, which, after googling one night, I found were the imposed dimensions of depression. I never felt I had the right to the diction. What does it mean not to have a root or a word for something—some kind of cause to point to? I had only the sound this feeling made as it tumbled its way through my body. When I listen to the organ opening Funeral, with its slow rain of piano falling on top of it, I can hear this sound again. I remember, if not the feeling exactly, the girl who was caught inside it.

I looked forward to going back home for the mid-semester break because I thought it would re-click something in me, adjust all my gears back—after all, it was the same house I’d grown up in; I thought of it as me.

That did not happen. When I went home, it was still my home. I checked everything, all the things I never thought about until I left—the woven carpet in the living room, the cupboards with their little cream knobs, the white patch of chipped paint in the kitchen, the pillows on my bed. But there was now a gap between the house and myself. My house no longer held me. Where was I? I had no language for this disconnect. I’m sure I saw old friends, went to our old haunts and favorite diners, read books, but I don’t remember any of that. I only remember sitting in my old bedroom, listening to Funeral on repeat until it became another house.

I did not yet know that several months later, over the summer, I’d start to feel okay again. I didn’t yet know about Neon Bible, or that I’d start drawing and writing again, or that I’d be able to eat whole meals. I did not know any of this, not only because the rest of my life hadn’t yet happened, but because I thought the feeling was final; that my life was effectively over. I didn’t yet know that feelings lift and part, or that Funeral’s juxtaposition of grief and wonder offered me a pathway toward what life could look like: not only unbearable sadness or unmitigated joy, but a little bit of both, at all times, and in turns.

I still know every word, every chord, every inflection and gasp in Butler and Chassagnes’ voices, even though I haven’t listened to Funeral in over a decade—it makes me too sad. All these songs are now more memory than present experience, so that when I listen to Funeral I’m not getting dressed for work or cooking dinner in my apartment as a thirty-year-old, but walking through a dark campus, imagining a blank future: imagining me, whoever I’d be, now. I can feel this eighteen-year-old breathing on my neck. Which makes me wonder how much I still know of her? Is she just waiting to come back? What would she think of me now?

Yet I don’t want to rid this album of that sadness, the emotional heaviness. I don’t want to infuse it with new memories. Why can’t I stand to forget my most miserable self? Instead, I want to dance with her to “Rebellion (Lies),” sing: here’s the moon, it’s alright, here’s the sun, it’s alright. I want us both to constantly step into the future, together, one beat spilling into the next, whirling around the wide and empty room.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt

#152: The B-52's, "The B-52's" (1979)

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It happened, and it happens.

Again and again, the cosmic thing where centers of gravity change, gymnasium orbits realign.

First, there’s 1, whose fuel is worry. To skip might be painting a large target. Might start people talking. Which they already are, 1 is reasonably certain. Whispers, gestures. Names. How do they know? How can they know, when 1 is so racked with doubt and uncertainty? The hope that showing up will turn the knob a little to the right is the motivation, but it doesn’t offset the drudgery of sugar being poured, prayers lived on. God, it’s all so boring.

And across the way is 2, who feels the same and makes what are hopefully both knowing and longing glances through the dancing core, to no avail.

3 and 4 and 5 hang out in AV during the day and construct elaborate fantasy scenarios in a basement thereafter, rolling oddly-shaped dice and hooting, a life on paper to offset so much daily dread. 6 plays a sport, so they assume they’re not in the same league, but 6 only plays because of parental pressure, doesn’t like a single member of the team, and would much rather be slaying kobolds.

7 has terrible acne, can’t help but pick at it, squeeze it, make it worse.

8 plays tuba. Loves it, even though it takes up a whole seat on the bus. And even though no one would sit in the same seat even sans tuba, the whole thing becomes a dog and pony show, to be  handled with as much humor as possible. To do otherwise might make things worse. 9 is along, a trombone player with much the same problem, except more Tommy gun jokes. 10 plays French horn and hangs with the two of them, feeling like a third wheel inside this smaller constellation, a moon of a moon. But something is better than nothing.  Just ask 11, over there, alone, who works so hard on flute despite all the snickers and the odd Jethro Tull joke only to be drowned out, and 12, who aspires to play an actual drum someday instead of rapping out patterns on the institutional woodblock.

13 wears a lift in one shoe because of a birth defect, walks funny.

14 loves photography. Has an independent study. Takes photos of trees, mostly, landscapes. Wishes people would take a moment to really see what’s around them instead of rushing all the time. Wonders if the darkroom chemicals that saturate mornings are an aroma or a stink, keeping people away. Is resigned that maybe it’s the latter.

15 and 16 and 17 and 18 and yes, even 19 just came because there’s still too much snow on the ramp. (Poor 20 is at home in bed with the flu.)

21 wears black on the outside because of feelings on the inside. 22 supplies the hairspray and the Cure’s discography, in a constant but friendly clash with 21’s ardent Morrissey fervor.

23 snuck in some Boone’s Farm, to the delight of 24. A furious makeout session ensues under the bleachers. (And yes, there will be berry-flavored puking later, but you knew that.)

25 has never been to one of these things before. Neither has 26. After this one they’ll blow off dances as lame, get their licenses, and take turns driving around. The frost heave atop the hill out by the dairy swells when it’s cold, they’ll discover, and when they drive fast enough they’ll be gloriously untethered, airborne for a half-second. Better than another night of TV, or standing around the gym. Mostly.

27 through 34 run cross-country, dream of stretching out time, marking it faster.

35 has filled two and a half notebooks with a story of a land called Xandar, where space armies vie for resources. 36, in the same shop class, hipped 35 to a BBS where sci-fi enthusiasts gather. Their heads are huddled together talking about 37, also an aspiring author on the BBS, who they have no idea is in the gym with them. 37 has a pen name, you understand, and a deep fascination with Xandar.

38’s father drinks, and proclaimed, loudly, that there would be no goddamn dance before he passed out. 38 is pretty sure he’ll still be snoring on the couch surrounded by empties when it wraps up in a few hours.

39 is creeped out by one of the chaperones but came anyway. 40 didn’t.

41’s thrifty grandmother is in charge of back-to-school shopping, which means hitting thrift stores. 41’s pretty bored with the same old same old and chooses noisy Brady Bunch synthetics over second-hand Esprit. 41 hangs with 42, who has discovered the shock value and convenience of a shaved head.

43 has a big nose.

44 wanted to act in the drama club, but found the enterprise dull. Front of the house, anyway. The lights and the sound provide endless fascination—and, 44 will later find, a far easier way in. It’s no surprise that 44 hangs with 45, whose high art aspirations were similarly diverted by the chance to create and paint sets.

46 skips like a record when stressed, mutters.

47 wants to be a comedian and devours newspapers in search of material. 48 is maybe a little too happy, always laughing, and is a perfect foil. 49 glowers at each joke.

50 is an only child with big glasses. Listens to music on headphones on the bus to drown out the taunts. Reads a lot.

51 and 52 are in the center, but hate their friends. Cannot stand their superficiality, their judgment.

In that unfolding moment, the kids clustered in the center of the room, with their good bone structure and fast metabolisms and builds and clothes were the center of gravity.

It’s only later that the 52 realize that what sets them apart—what they often see as affliction—will propel them, blazing like so many comets.

Listen as the telltale guitar inverts the natural order: a unifying recognition even as a blankness of ignorance spreads.

Shimmying and gesticulating, pantomiming each sea creature during the breakdown.

It brings them all together, if only for a song.

To the center.

They feel out of place, but there are others like them.

Thousands, in basements, AV clubs, bedrooms, on the periphery of so many gyms.

So we can see the ramifications, the long-term.

But the specifics are different in every scenario.

What are yours?

Can you name them today?

—Michael T. Fournier