#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

  

#153: A Tribe Called Quest, "The Low End Theory" (1991)

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In the summer of 2011, amid a public feud between A Tribe Called Quest’s leader, Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed, and the group’s documentarian, Michael Rappaport, I attended a festival screening of the film at the heart of the beef. I didn’t know Malik “Phife” Taylor, the group’s other lyricist, would be there, but I knew he’d picked a side, and that side was Rappaport’s.

Once I saw the film it was easy to see why. Unlike Tribe’s discography, which can at times feel like The Q-Tip Show featuring Other People, Rappaport’s crisp, cool-looking Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest grants equal time to both Q-Tip and Phife, positioning the two often-dueling childhood friends as a point/counterpoint for the group’s rise through the hip-hop 2.0 era of the late eighties and nineties. On one side: Tip’s controlled, not-inaccurate, I-willed-this-to-be take. On the other? Phife’s loose, who-knows-how anything-happens version, which is riddled with curious contradictions and counterfactuals. Of the two, Phife revels most in being heard. Where Tip is eager to show the careful, sonic building blocks of tracks like “Can I Kick It?” and “Lyrics to Go,” Phife wants it known that he wrote his now-classic verses for the now-classic album The Low End Theory while riding the F train, late to that day’s recording session. Tip positions himself as a slave to perfection (no one disagrees), leading the genre into artful, “lofty” territory. Phife confesses at one point, unconvincingly, that he could “do with or without” hip-hop, happy in his second career as a youth basketball recruiter. At a Rock the Bells reunion show in 2008, Tip rips his partner on stage for questionable maintenance of a diabetic condition that will, in eight years, claim Phife’s life. Months later, he wishes Phife private support, via text, before a high stakes kidney transplant. It goes on like this for the whole runtime: two lifelong friends oscillating between trolling one another then deeply regretting it.

But Phife’s the clear emotional core of the film, his touching, sometimes infuriating vulnerabilities on display, and he was, upon the film’s release, happy to indulge that result. He was the only one. By the time I saw it, Q-Tip had already teamed up with groupmates Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White to disavow the effort and publicly slam Rappaport’s billing practices. Phife showed up alone to the Sundance premiere then broke down in tears about the rift, maybe for an audience of one. “We’re 40 now,” he said, “and it’s time for [Q-Tip] to realize, recognize, and enjoy the benefits of what we worked for our whole lives.”

Five months into this entrenched friendship conundrum, the Q&A portion of my summer 2011 festival screening kicked off. Phife was composed onstage next to a shifting Rappaport. He was quick-witted and fair with the crowd, a flat-brim Orioles cap shadowing his eyes. Minutes in, the mic fell to a lanky guy in his early twenties, someone too young to have followed Tribe’s success in real time like I and half the audience had; who’d likely come to his fandom through an older brother’s trickle-down enthusiasm, or something like it. “Can you tell me,” he said, fueled with the tiring overconfidence of youth, “why everything Q-Tip does now is so goddamn wack?”

The crowd booed. We knew the pettiness he was after and moved to shoo it away. But Phife took that question seriously, and evaluated his old friend’s post-Tribe work. He liked Amplified, he said, Tip’s first solo album, then said the same about the efforts that followed. He rapped a bit of “Vivrant Thing,” easing a complex moment for everyone.

“You have to understand,” he said to the kid, “that’s my man.”

Phife sounded firm when he said it, but also sad and futile. What could someone this young know about how strangely our longest friendships can age? How could he know what it meant to maintain this stubborn, peculiar alchemy for so long? Phife could only put his hands up to this kid, then to us, surrendering to a sideways, pained allegiance to an old, busted kind of friendship that I’ve only now started to understand.

The Low End Theory is A Tribe Called Quest’s best album—you can either agree with this statement or be wrong—due to the blueprint it lays out for friendship at peak harmony. Tip and Phife share such a sharp, easy rhythm throughout. They tout their friendship’s history and bind their enthusiasms. They’re smart. They’re funny. They’re dicks. They have quippy verses about Skypagers and Chemical Bank and Dr. Pepper. They share in-jokes and insights, a hidden twin language for the young adulthood I was barreling toward when I bought it in 1991. It came in a CD longbox and my eighth grade friends and I enjoyed the album communally, as it seemed meant to be enjoyed. We asked each other you on point? and they assured us, yes, they were, all the time. Low End felt, also, like a careful argument for the strength of a good, loyal crew. Almost the whole last minute of “Jazz (We Got)” is a roll call for various interweaving, friendly factions of hip-hop. Q-Tip spends half of the four minute runtime on “Verses from The Abstract” detailing how Busta Rhymes appears in his dreams, or shouting out compatriots like Brand Nubian, and Big Daddy Kane, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and fourteen other people—among them, of course, Phife (twice). “Scenario,” Tribe’s entry in the “early 90’s cross-pollinated super crew track” category is also that category’s all-time best example (again, agree or be wrong) because it plays like an audio version of the very moment an evening with close friends slips into the sublime, shifting the weight of the air, transforming it into a lasting, joyful memory.

What does it mean, then, that The Low End Theory’s prime friendship architects fell so loudly out of favor with one another, for so long? Their brief reunion shortly before Phife’s death in 2016 to make We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service came a half-decade after Michael Rappaport aired Tribe’s dirty laundry. The album is fantastic, but its function as a side-door eulogy sadly clouds any true attempt to articulate what may have fed the rift. Tip’s admission on “Lost Somebody” that “I would treat you like a little brother that would give you fits / Sometimes overbearing though I thought it was for your benefit,” feels at once too effacing and too eager, a regret couched lightly in a defense. Phife, in that 2011 documentary, gives it his best shot. “I can’t ever put a finger on Q-Tip even though we’ve known each other longer than anybody in this world outside of our respective families,” he says to start the film, and Rappaport comes back to that quote at the end of the film, seeming stuck on the idea, repeating it—perhaps frustrated, after so long, with its stunning resistance to clarity.

I’m 40 now, too, and too many of my longest, closest friendships have grown inexplicably toxic, lodged, like Phife’s and Tip’s was, between acrimony and allegiance. I still have strong, healthy friendships that stretch back to my teen years and before, and I’m thankful for them daily. But there is also my close friend from childhood who, during an otherwise pleasant text exchange in our early thirties, threatened to punch my teeth down my throat if he ever saw me again. And there’s my other old, good friend who, a few years back, invited me out for a night of overdue catch-up then confronted me, in a way that seemed planned, about how cruel I’d always been to him and his family. I discovered recently that the best man at my wedding thirteen years ago got married a few years back and, to this day, has not told me.

To be fair, I’ve blocked and trolled and cut off good friends from my youth, too. I’ve hurt people I care about. I’ve done callous things with longtime allegiances. I’m aware of my contributions and the bruised, idiot logic that led me to make them. But I’m no longer interested in the unsolvable, useless debate of who may be at fault in a toxic relationship. What about the toxicity itself? It feels so independent, hovering in the space between my most volatile friendships, especially my oldest ones; this half-formed, poisonous thing that begs for an old friend and I to link up so that it can activate then punish us both. How to describe it? I feel so incapable in the grips of that toxicity, pulled—against my deepest wishes—towards hurtful impulses. Whatever destroys that person is the only thing I can do, and I feel that same, reticent pull toward destruction from the other side. We become two people succumbing to the same terrible social gravity, apologizing and meaning it while, for no reason, we watch ourselves slowly, painfully brand one another. What’s the point, in the face of that smothering force, of determining who did what?

Instead, I’ve been wondering about the evolution of that kind of toxicity, and what might keep us so obedient to the concept of our friendship, despite very apparent failures. Three years after he made the threat to knock my teeth out, my friend and I apologized and reconciled (again, through text, where our conversations have stayed since). For a while, I thought it might be a result of stale loyalty. Time put in. But that feels easy, too bound by cliché. Our friendship did, at one time, work extremely well. It taught me how to take life less seriously and draw strong bounds; how to smoke cigarettes and play spades; that it was OK to be cynical. My friendship with the old friend who confronted me about my cruelty taught me, ironically, a functional, real-world kindness; that I could, at times, trade my cynicism for generosity and get a better result. My best man at my wedding helped me, while young, to believe I had more worth than my harshest family entanglements led me to believe, and I hope at many points I did the same for him. There was, believe me, a good intoxication to these friendships then, a natural call and response that enriched us both. You on point? All the time.

And yet, consider the degree of difficulty for old friends like Q-Tip and Phife, for whom that era of good intoxication was recorded. The Low End Theory is, in this way, a bittersweet case study in it, forged on vinyl and burned onto a CD in 1991 that was put in a longbox and sold, at National Record Mart, to an eighth grader. It got ranked on best-of lists and turned into mp3s. You can dial it up and stream it with a good connection.

I suspect, for them, the hard evidence of that once-good time falsely advertised the possibility of returning to it. I wonder if Q-Tip and Phife kept spiraling, horribly, in their broken rotation year after year because an effort as good as The Low End Theory tricked them, cruelly, into thinking some grand relationship reversal was possible. Unlike mine, their friendship lacked the lone benefit of an evolving toxicity: a clear-eyed view of what it’s become. They lacked the luxury of the present truly replacing the past; of getting sad, remorseful texts from someone who once threatened to assault you and deciding, without malice or love, to wait days to respond tepidly, if at all. I suspect neither Tip nor Phife knew the privilege of dialing up the Facebook page of someone they once knew as generous and ruled by an infectious kindness, only to see a stream of Blue Lives Matter memes and James O’Keefe videos, or vlog posts recorded by angry men in their parked cars, railing about women. There is a seismic, private clarity to these moments that Kamaal and Malik’s widely recorded past may have denied them access to. Maybe they never got to understand, in any pure way, what I am beginning to understand now: that when the best man in your wedding declines to inform you about his, there is no good era in that friendship to return to. You are both here now, and only here.

—Mike Scalise

#154: Howlin' Wolf, "Moanin' in the Moonlight" (1959)

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 I

They say "Wolfman" Willie Stevens went down to the crossroads just like Robert Johnson had done so he could make a deal with the devil, and that the devil put a touch of the wolf in him. They say that's where that famous howl of his come from.

See, at the start of every Wolfman show, they would turn down all the lights and you could hear these voices whispering—like somebody talking in tongues—then there'd be this deep, gutbucket moan that musta come from somewhere dark, wet, and way low down. The moan would get louder and louder until it turned into this kinda wail that you could only understand if you'd picked cotton in the Mississippi sun all day for short pay, or if your people had. That same wail would keep right on stirring longer than seemed possible for any human voice. It would build up until the room would start to shake and then, just when it felt like the whole raw earth might open up and swallow everybody, Wolfman would let loose this howl so loud and so full that if you didn't before, you suddenly knew how it felt to be hunted. Then a single spotlight would shine and there'd be Wolfman, standing tall and just off center stage.

His suit always hung loose on him but it couldn't hide the thick muscles of his back, arms, and shoulders, or his massive hands that felt like putting yours inside of a baseball mitt when he greeted you. He'd start tapping his hand against the beefy meat of his thigh until Brother Benny picked up the rhythm and then the beat would kick in. And I'm not talmbout just any ole tip tap now, but that real blue, real true groove, that lean, smokestack-steaming-mean thump. The bass, guitar, and keys would start chugging along just behind it and Wolfman would just let the rhythm cook until the music got down into your hips and hind parts. Once he knew it was really getting good to you, he'd pull his harp from the left pocket of his waistcoat and commence to blowing. Nobody really knew where the harp came from originally, but they say it was a gift from Charley Patton, who got it from somebody else who got it from somebody else going all the way back down the line to since before we come over the water.

Wolfman could make the harp howl too and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between that and his own voice, though every now and then, you could hear something else behind his howl, almost like a growllike he was singing to keep something away. It ain't really matter whether he was howlin' or growlin' though: folks knew when they came to see Wolfman play, he was finna show out. Him and the boys could keep us boogiein' all night long, and when he really got into it, them blues he put down could fill up all the empty spaces, make folk forget or maybe remember too damn good everything holding them under and maybe, give 'em just enough to get they head above it for a little while longer. Wolf and his pack—that's what folk called the band—would play deep into the night unless somebody got to cussin' too loud, drinkin' too much, or the sharp razors came out. Somebody once asked Wolfman how come folk get to cuttin' and shootin' each other sometimes when they hear the blues? He said he couldn't do nothing but play what was inside him. Anything after that, he ain't had no right getting in the middle of.
 

II

Word was if you wanted to find the old gypsy woman who knew something about curses, you had to go deep into the swamp right around twilight and look for the trees with moss growing on the wrong side. Then, if she wanted you to find her and was feeling charitable, you'd see her wagon slung with purple drapes and gold trim, a low burning fire beside it.

Wolfman hated being in the woods because it reminded him of the farm his mama sent him away from after he refused to pick not one more bale of cotton; he couldn't square being bent over in a field all day just so Mr. Talbot's lazy ass children could eat the white meat while all him and mama got was the gizzards. But after he'd heard what sounded like hellhounds barking outside his door the night before and then saw the deep claw marks in the dirt come morning, he knew he'd have to put pride aside and go see the woman they say could get you out of a devil's bargain.

The old gypsy woman already knew why he came as he tucked his head and crouched his way through the small door to the wagon. She said he wasn't the first bluesman or blues woman who thought they could borrow from Ol' Scratch and not have to pay him his due when them dogs came calling. But when she looked him over a little closer, the slender woman—who he couldn't describe because the contours of her face seemed to shift every few minutes—asked for his hands. Said his hands was so big she really only need to see one of them. So she cupped his right hand into both of hers, leaned in, and took a big whiff. Said it didn't even take so much second sight as she had for somebody to tell that he had a touch of the wolf in him. Then told him if he really wanted to keep from out between the hounds' teeth, he needed to go see her half-sister in New Orleans who knew the right hoodoo, but that he probably wouldn't get that far with the hounds already on his trail.

He sat quiet and she could tell that wasn't going to be the end of it. Said that while she didn't have anything that could take the wolf out of him, she could try putting the rest of the wolf in and that might could be enough for him to fight off the hounds when they came. Said it would cost him all the money he had with him, which was all he had anywhere, and still she couldn't make no guarantees. But if it worked, he'd be able to change himself into a wolf whenever he wanted and that he'd be strongest under the full moonlight. Willie Stevens felt uneasy about the prospect of becoming a real life Lon Chaney, Jr., but felt even more uneasy about being some hellhound's dinner. He still had a whole lot more blues he needed to get out and knew too many folks who still needed to hear it. So he set in his mind that if becoming the wolf—and putting some truth behind his nickname—was the only way to sort it out, that'd be his burden to carry. And so when the gypsy woman asked if he was sure and told him that there wasn't no going back after this, he just nodded.

He didn't remember much about what happened next: some flashes of what looked like a severed wolf's paw, the gypsy woman chanting something he couldn't quite make out, a bright flash of purple and red light, and the smell of ash. He woke up the next morning in the woods not far from home, naked, cold, and with the taste of blood still fresh in his mouth. A little doe, her flesh torn from overeager teeth and claws, and her dull, black eyes staring up at him, lay just a few feet away.

He managed to get to the house without anybody seeing him and cleaned himself up. He noticed his heartbeat had slowed way down from normal and the shooting pains he'd been fighting in his kidneys were gone. After he cleared the steam from the bathroom mirror and saw his reflection, he remembered something else the old gypsy woman said: sometimes the only thing for a curse is another curse.
 

III

His newfound status as a mythical beast notwithstanding, Wolfman got ready for the show like he did any other night, though he phoned ahead and told the boys he wasn't going to make it to Patsy's for dinner before because he wasn't hungry. Still, he pressed his shirt, shined his shoes, and laid his suit out on the bed. Then he lit some incense, poured a glass of bourbon with lemon and ginger to get his voice right, and sat down to write the set list. He and the boys rehearsed almost daily, but he never told them just what they was going to play or in what order. Said that made it so they had room to conjure up something new if he felt it coming on—and he knew he might need all the room he could get.

He was the last one to get to the jook that night and found the boys backstage talking shit as usual. They could tell something was off just from looking. "I need y'all to trust me. Whatever happens, just follow my lead. Can y'all trust me?" He wouldn't say no more than that, only that tonight, they'd be playing for his life. Hubert, the guitar man who'd been with him since the beginning, stood up, "Whatever, whenever, or whoever it be, you ain't never even had to ask if we would be standing right there beside you." They all nodded. And so the boys made ready for a fight while Wolf just stood quiet at the window watching the moonrise.

Time came for the show to start. The lights came down, it got pin-drop quiet, and Wolfman started to moan. But it sounded different from how it normally did; it was more desperate and more guttural, but also more alive. And while there was always some pain in the wail that followed, now it had a bite to it that felt both terrifying and welcome. The room shook the same as before and it still felt like the whole raw earth might open up and swallow us all until Wolfman let loose a truly monstrous howl, which sounded more like a real wolf than it ever had. Before he could count off the tune though, we heard a clamor of fearsome barks and snarls coming from outside in every direction.

Everyone from around these parts knew the sound of a hellhound when they heard it, and we also knew there wasn't much could be done to keep one out that wanted inside. For a brief moment, the sounds died away and we hoped that somehow, maybe we'd been given a reprieve, but then came a violent crash at the door and our silence gave way to whimpers and muffled screams. You know it's funny to see the same folks who'd just as soon cut you for stepping on their brand new gators or for getting too familiar with their woman (or their man) suddenly cowering down beneath a table once they’d heard a hellhound at the door. Suppose it's a lot easier to summon up the gumption to fight somebody when you feel like you can make them hurt the same way you do.

The hounds kept charging at the door, harder and harder each time, and we stayed huddled in darkness, knowing that the door wouldn't hold for much longer. Just when we thought it was about to give way, we heard Wolfman howl again, even deeper and richer this time. Then he stomped a beat with his foot like a series of shotgun blasts and Brother Benny, with ritual precision, picked it up and started to groovin' even as the hounds kept raging outside. The rest of the pack joined in but they played the way you do when a song is the difference between you and oblivion. Wolf took out his harp and blew a note so mean that somebody broke our petrified silence and shouted, "I know that's right!" Somebody else pleaded, "You betta go on!" Pretty soon, we was all clappin' and hootin' and hollerin' until all of it—Wolfman wailing on his harp, the band quaking behind him, the hounds roaring outside, and us, trying to shout, shimmy, and shake away our pain—became an ugly, terrible, undeniable, beautiful mess of noise. And we kept at it all night long until the barking from outside stopped or we'd just stopped hearing it.

Wasn't no sign of the hounds when folks finally made their way outside into the morning light. Wolfman and the boys sat on the porch pulling the last swallows of shine from their glasses and then got ready to head on over to Patsy's for breakfast same as they always did after a show.

The way folks tell what happened that night depends on who you ask. Some say they saw Willie Stevens turn into a full-blooded werewolf right there on stage. Some say they saw him fight off a hellhound with nothing but the howl of his harp. Others claim that he'd paid a bunch of folks to stand outside and make a ruckus just so as to liven up the show. Only thing anybody really knew for sure is that Wolfman and his pack played some of the best damn blues folks had ever heard that night and that he kept on putting them same blues down to fill up the empty spaces all the way from here to Memphis, up in Chicago, and even over there in Europe somewhere. That's where the white boys picked it up and then made themselves a whole lot of money. But they ain't never sounded like Wolf, maybe because they ain't never been down to the crossroads, or because they ain't never known nothing about no gypsy woman's curses, or maybe they just ain't never picked no cotton in the Mississippi sun—or their people never did.

—Mikal Gaines

   

#155: The Pretenders, "Pretenders" (1979)

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 “You ready, girls?” Chrissie Hynde calls out as she takes the stage. The lights dim as her fingerless lace gloves grab the mic.

On this November night in 1979, The Marquee on Wardour Street is packed—the Pretenders have outgrown the venue and the place is wall-to-wall leathered punks, sweaty fans, drunk onlookers. Adam Blake is lingering on the sidelines, happy just to be here. He met Hynde when his band opened for hers a few months before, and he can’t get her voice out of his mind. Since then, he’s gone to every show they’ve played during their month-long residency here.

"The bass and drums thumped and rumbled…it was a powerful sound, not like the neurotic trebly noise of punk at all. Out front, Chrissie was having problems with the monitors but you could hear this strange vibrato in her voice, this keening sound. It was something old and new. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you.”

– Adam Blake

Long before he became a rock journalist, Blake was eighteen and slightly obsessed. He’d bought their first single, and their second, and then sent Hynde a gushing fan letter asking if there were any chance his band might open for them again. By the time their third single, “Brass In Pocket,” was due for release, Blake couldn’t wait. He’d got it into his head that if he went to their record company in Covent Garden, he might be able to buy a copy before it hit the shops. It was a mad hope. But as we all know, the music gods are quick to indulge smitten teenagers. When he rang the bell at Real Records, not only was it answered—it was answered by Hynde herself. The whole band was upstairs in the middle of a meeting with their manager, Dave Hill.

Everyone stared as Blake stammered through his request.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” he said sheepishly. “I was just hoping to get a copy of the new single.” He could see boxes of them stacked all around.

“What, are we supposed to just give you one?” Hill asked.

“No, no, of course not. I’ll pay for it,” Blake said, pulling a crumpled pound note from his pocket.

The manager reached into an open box and handed Blake the single. He even gave him change for the pound.

Mortified, relieved, Blake beat it out of there.

He didn’t expect to see her again.

But a few days later, a package arrived. Three singles, and a note written on the record company’s letterhead.

Nov 22. ’79 

Dear Adam

Wow—your letter makes me want to stay in this completely fucked up business. (I only realized it was you after Dave (manager) sold you a copy of the single.) I felt like a prick.

Your fab.

Love Chrissie

Do you want to support us at The Marquee 22 or 23? Let Dave Hill or myself know. Hope you do.

“To say this made me happy would be something of an understatement. It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Blake recalls in The Pretenders: Chrissie Hynde and the Mystery Achievement.

And so, that night in 1979. His own band has just finished playing and—thank godthey didn’t fuck up too badly. Their friends and fans are in the audience still, and Blake is with them, watching the stagePete Farndon up there, Martin Chambers, James Honeyman-Scott, yes, yes, all of them, and Hynde. He notices her black lace gloves aren’t missing. Earlier, backstage, she was looking for thema gift from her mother, she’d said—a tiny piece of her real life that he glimpsed briefly, as if through a veil, through holes in lace and leather, like her voice, always saying more through what it conceals.

*

It’s a strange album, this first one, Pretenders. The first single, “Stop Your Sobbing,” is a jangly cover of a little-known ‘60s Kinks song; “Kid,” their second, is wistful and sweet; “Brass In Pocket” has an almost cabaret theatricality to it, a swish and swagger fit for velvet-curtained stages more than gritty rock clubs. One of their best and best-known songs, the bass-thumping “Mystery Achievement,” appears as the last song of the album and wasn’t even a single. Judging by these, you’d never know Pretenders is in large part a punk album. And a mixed one at that.

“Precious,” the first track, lays bare its punk roots. If you weren’t convinced, she tells you to fuck off before the song is over. Yes, it’s a bit ham-fisted—and it’s not a good song, not that punk is ever “good” when it’s goodbut we’re getting there. “Space Invaders,” an instrumental, is solid; reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s “Sixteen,” the only song he wrote alone on Lust For Life, two years prior. “Tattooed Love Boys” is a standout, a speedy romp pierced with lyrics she laughs through (I was a good time, yeah, I got pretty good). It might sound like sexual bravado if you didn’t know the song was about a Hell’s Angels gang bang. Lines like I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for are violent in their self-mockery, making for a cautionary tale of an entirely different kind, one that laughs in the face of women who fall for “the prestige and the glory” of running with the tough boys“Another human interest story / You are that.”

Hynde’s infamous attitude is something that comes across in interviews and lyrics alike. While not always as acerbic as those above, a good number of tracks on Pretenders are Hynde telling someone to shut up, even when it’s sung sweetly. “Stop Your Sobbing” is a cuter version of the sentiment in “Private Life” (“I just feel pity when you lie, contempt when you cry / Your private life drama, baby, leave me out”). Crying features in at least two other songs, though her response is more of a lament than a complaint. There is perhaps nothing more common among women than being dragged into the fucked up inner lives of men, and thus perhaps no better thing to rail against. She sings “no” and “stop” a lot on this album, most often in response to someone else’s tears.

The force of the first side of the album continues through “The Wait,” with its fast-paced bass line, heavy breathing, and lyrics that are impossible to keep up with. Her jackhammer delivery and lyrical asides are done to great effect in that one. But it’s not always a smooth ride. Hynde invokes that same style in “The Phone Call,” where it makes for a somewhat unpleasant, paranoid soundscape. Any harmony is further distorted by changes in time signature that make it sound a bit like a prog track—say “Cygnus X-1” on Rush’s A Farewell to Kingsbut artlessly done. It’s an almost disturbing sound, one that, like the atonal drone of “Precious,” makes you start to wonder whether the band knows the first fucking thing about how to write a tune. The same can be said for “Up The Neck,” a slower song that almost grates on the ears because you expect a chord change to smooth things out but it never comes. Hynde wrote in her 2015 memoir Reckless: My Life as a Pretender that her distinctive time signatures were due to her inability to count and her “amusia” was caused by an inability to hear. We can assume this is hyperbole; she can hear, it’s just that she sometimes decides not to.

It’s choices like this that make at least half the album rankle. “Private Life,” a slow one with a reggae beat, has something going for it; Grace Jones’s version was a Top 40 hit a year later. But one choice Jones made with it that the Pretenders didn’t is to cut out the Greek chorus that keeps repeating “Stop!” It’s a small thing, perhaps. But there are many, and they undermine the album—an album that might otherwise be known instead for the strength of “Mystery Achievement,” an instant classic that perfectly encapsulates what made the Pretenders memorable and Chrissie Hynde legendary. “Mystery Achievement” is indeed what it says, on this album at least. It formulates a direct line to what is perhaps their greatest song, “Back on the Chain Gang,” though that song doesn’t come around until their third album, after the band had already lost two of its original four members to drug overdoses.

No, you’d never know Pretenders was actually a punk album, or half a punk album, or a half decent album, let alone one that deserves to be among the greatest of all time. At least I never knew that. The album came out before I was born; punk had become a thing for rich suburban skater boys by the time it found me. Rock was something I loved dearly but it was associated with my dad’s generation, or at least his radio stations; I knew all the songs, but from the outside. I found Pretenders at the used record shopunscratched, miraculouslyone day when I was ditching school. I thought it was a big score. I already knew the red leather jacketed woman on the cover by name—knew she was an icon, knew her ambition and her longing and her haunting voice. Eighteen years old in 1999, I handed over a crumpled bill like Adam Blake did twenty years earlier, and went home to put needle to vinyl and press my ear against her soul.

Though I still have it, I don’t remember the album from then. I only listened to it once. It was all over the place; I couldn’t tell what it was. Yes, it had range. But the music only confused me. I had other icons to pay attention to, anyway—more legible ones. I had riot grrl and Courtney Love and a slew of female-fronted indie bands more or less my age. I forgot about the album and the woman behind it for twenty years.

What made me dust the album off, so to speak, is something vague. I have this strange desire lately to know more about the women I once took for granted, the original icons behind the ones of my generation. What was it that made them iconic in the first place? Was it really the music? Was it something else?

*

When eighteen-year-old Adam Blake had met twenty-eight-year-old Chrissie Hynde, she was on her first tour with her first band; as he put it, “Then, she was just a writer wannabe who had somehow got sidelined by punk, despite having been right in the thick of it from the very beginning.”

Originally from Akron, Ohio, she once joined a band with Mark Mothersbaugh, an alliance that only lasted one gig (he later founded Devo). Eventually she made her way to London and got a job writing at London’s biggest music magazine, New Musical Express. Not long after, she quit so she could get a band together and started knocking around London’s punk scene, working at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's clothing store, SEX. At one point, she almost got Johnny Rotten, and then Sid Vicious, to marry her, for papers. For a little while she tried to start a band with Mick Jones, but soon changed her mind; she found him too fresh and innocent. McLaren set her up to play guitar in another band, but she was eventually asked to leave, and the group went on to become the Damned, the first punk band to make a record. Fresh-faced Mick Jones hit her up some time later and invited her to come hang out on tour with his new band the Clash. Of this period, she told Kurt Loder in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview, “I wanted to be in a band so bad. […] All the people I knew in town, they were all in bands. And there I was, like the real loser, you know?”

It’s hard not to identify. Hynde threw herself out there and had found the right place and the right time, yet nothing seemed to come of it. That’s everyone, really, until they finally make it, if they ever do.

Of course, little did she know then that her band would come out with a number one debut on the U.K. Albums Chart and would make it to the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S.—and that all this would come together less than a year after she got the band together. She dated and had a child with Ray Davies of the Kinks and two years later married don't-you-forget-about-him Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. In the ensuing four decades of her career, she has performed with pretty much everyone; she’s sung duets with Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, INXS, even Bruce Willis; she’s collaborated and performed with Morrissey, UB40, Cher, the Black Keys, Incubus, Sheryl Crow, Tom Jones, and Johnny Marr, who was for a brief moment an official member of the band. It’s an epic career. Of course someone with a career like that is an icon. The thing that interests me, though, isn’t what she became. It’s what she was before any of that happened.

Before the band, before the punk scene even, was that gig she landed writing at NME. The first assignment she secured was to write a review of a Neil Diamond album. As she told it, “I just took the piss out of it. I was very sarcastic. I said, ‘This song sounds like an ad for an American small car.’ I just completely demolished this guy…” Despite the outcry from “all four Neil Diamond fans in Britain,” her editor was happy with the piece and gave her a bigger assignment—to interview Brian Eno.

It’s worth a read; she’s an incredible writer. In her conversation with him, Eno explained an interesting phenomenon. “I'm always prone to do things very quickly, which has distinct advantagesyou leave all the mistakes in, and the mistakes always become interesting. The Velvet Underground, for example, are the epitome of mistake-filled music, and it makes the music very subtle and beautiful. Any feature can be the most important one—as long as there is one important feature. There are so many bands who present you with a large number of well-done features, none of which are important.”

This conversation she had with Eno made me rethink my assessment of Pretenders. If there is one defining feature that makes the band and the album stand out, it’s Hynde’s voice: its strange vibrato, its keening sound. It bruised, and once heard, it stayed with you. As she wrote in her memoir, “Distinctive voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, arrogance, narcissism, or just sheer perseveranceanything but a teacher.” Other than this distinctionperhaps a trifle, perhaps everything—who’s to say what they were?

Hynde herself certainly didn’t know. In the Rolling Stone writeup that named theirs number thirteen in the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time, she’s quoted saying she was so embarrassed by “Brass in Pocket” that if it came on the radio at Woolworth’s, she’d run out of the store. The band formed in March of 1978 and their first single came out just months later, in January of 1979. They didn’t know what they were. They had no time to wait: they had a bandleader that wanted this so bad it hurt.

Madonna saw the Pretenders play in Central Park in 1980 and said, “She was amazing—the only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s got balls.’ [...] It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”

It’s funny, because the last line of the album’s penultimate song, “Lovers of Today,” is “No, I’ll never feel / Like a man in a man’s world.” What it takes to be iconic, maybe for anyone, but definitely for a woman, is to do it anyway, to open your mouth and show them what that hole is for.

—Melissa Mesku

  

#156: Beastie Boys, "Paul's Boutique" (1989)

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Here’s a thing: Larry the Cable Guy used to be funny. Like, really funny. A decade or more before he became a catchphrase comedian on a never-ending Blue Collar Comedy tour, he would call into radio shows syndicated in the south with these bizarre, hilarious rants about whatever was bothering him that day, and we’d catch those calls on the way to school.

You know how you get on the same schedule with people you’ll never really know, just by virtue of a similar commute? A lot of times we found ourselves behind this IROC-Z painted like banana and grape Now and Laters.

At the time, the Larry the Cable Guy character was this weird, loving send-up of the dudes who got up early to stand outside of convenience stores before work, wearing ballcaps, drinking coffee, smoking or spitting out tobacco juice, talking shit. It wasn’t long, though, before he became something else entirely.

All that to say this: Licensed to Ill was dope as fuck.

And world-changing! And the first real entry point into rap music for a large part of mainstream America! And the Beastie Boys, the kids who made that record, were poised to become the snot-nosed jester kings of the fledgling genre. But before they could capitalize on the success of their debut album—one which would go on to sell over 10 million copies—the Beastie Boys needed to deconstruct the personas that had made them famous.

There’s a reason this, this deconstruction, is hailed in every review you’ve ever read of Paul’s Boutique, as a bold artistic decision: on Licensed to Ill, they were only joking. But then their audience interpreted what to the Beasties themselves had been some mix of obvious mockery and adolescent fuckery as something else again. The willing buffoons had somehow become the protagonists. The Beastie Boys were skeptical, to say the least.

The same thing happened to Larry the Cable Guy, only he went along with it. Because make no mistake, along the path to self-caricature—toward appealing solely to an audience composed entirely of the people who identify directly with the archetypes you meant to make fun of in the first place, who believe you to be their mouthpiece, to be saying what they can’t in polite company—you’ll find millions and millions of dollars. But you’ll never know the exact moment that you cease to be vital. The Beastie Boys might have gradually ended up playing Las Vegas showcases, old men in high school forever.

How could they have known this? The oldest of them, the late Adam “MCA” Yauch, was, what, 21, 22, when License to Ill came out. When I was 22 I was sleeping on a pool float. They must have seen what was happening to Andrew “Dice” Clay.

*

Licensed to Ill is number 219 on the RS 500, and this piece isn’t about that album, it’s about number 156! Paul’s Boutique. Fully 63 albums better than its predecessor. But any serious consideration of the Beastie Boys’ dense, multi-layered sophomore effort is impossible on its own. Paul’s Boutique isn’t quite a complete rejection of the knuckleheads they portrayed on Licensed to Ill. But it grounds those personas in reality. They’re still into making mischief and meeting girls. But instead of mixing Spanish Fly with Brass Monkey, they’re “telling her every lie that you know [they] never did.” If they’re “fully strapped” on Paul’s Boutique, it’s with eggs, not guns. They didn’t make Licensed to Ill Part II. They didn’t capitalize on their massive success. They made a record entirely for themselves, and, in the long run, they were right.

That’s, like, the story of Paul’s Boutique, but it’s not what it isn’t that makes the album great. It’s what it is, and a lot of what it is is this: a masterpiece in terms of production by the Dust Brothers. More than any other album, with the possible exception of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, Paul’s Boutique is the sampler used to its fullest potential. Taken to its logical extent. Made before everybody had to start worrying about clearing samples, the Dust Brothers just did what-the-fuck-ever and came out with a genuinely new kind of kaleidoscopic funk. The Beastie Boys’ greatest gift is their impeccable taste in weird shit, and in the Dust Brothers, they found the musical counterparts to their neverending lyrical reference-making. It’s weird that they never worked with them again, really. Did they?

Side note: have the Dust Brothers ever made a bad record? Because, fuck you, “MMMBop” is a goddamn Pet Sounds-level pop masterpiece, and the soundtrack to Fight Club is about the only part of that movie that holds up today.

*

I just found out that Ad-Rock’s middle name is “Keefe.”

*

Anybody who tells you they were into Paul’s Boutique when it came out is lying to you. The Beastie Boys started their comeback with Check Your Head, but they weren’t really back until the “Sabotage” video came out. I personally spent at least six months listening exclusively to Paul’s Boutique on repeat, trying to decipher it. To learn its secrets. (What’s that I hear in “The Three Minute Rule”? Because it sounds an awful lot like a ping pong ball dropped onto a table from about four feet.) But that was in high school. I was six years old when Paul’s Boutique came out.

It doesn’t matter. For the members of the secret order to which I belong, the people whose entire aesthetic sense is informed by lessons gleaned from Beastie Boys records, it doesn’t matter when you got into Paul’s Boutique, but that you got into it at all. You can usually pick us out by our preference for classic sneakers, light jackets, and high-water pants. We’re in our mid-thirties and forties now, buying rare funk records on Discogs.

I remember reading an interview with the Beastie Boys, probably in a ‘90s-era Details magazine, maybe the one with the David Lachapelle photo shoot in the hotdog stand, I don’t know, but whoever wrote it was right: that for a lot of people, figuring out the references and samples embedded in Beastie Boys albums, starting with Paul’s Boutique was a crucial starting point. It’s like Mike D and MCA and the King Ad-Rock were curating a never-ending scavenger hunt for their fans, who ultimately found the makings of a life devoted to Unassailably Cool Shit. “Egg Man,” for example, is a hilarious song about riding around in MCA’s car and egging people out the sunroof on the streets of Los Angeles, but just beneath the surface there are these samples of and references to Public Enemy. Also at least four movies: The primary sample comes from Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” from his Superfly soundtrack, there’s dialogue from Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, and The Mack and Taxi Driver are both directly referenced. And Dolemite! Like you could listen to that song and really dive in and end up with at least one new record to listen to, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and a pretty good introduction to Blaxploitation cinema.

*

There is no best song on Paul’s Boutique. It opens with “Shake Your Rump.” No. It opens with “To All the Girls,” but “To All the Girls” is so quiet and short that I usually skip it and go right for the opening drums of Alphonse Mouzon’s “Funky Snakefoot,” which gives “Shake Your Rump” its dope ass drumroll right at the beginning.

“Johnny Ryall” is certainly not the best song on Paul’s Boutique. But fuckin’ “High Plains Drifter” might be. Listening to “High Plains Drifter” is like watching a Cubist action movie, with the Boys Beastie each seeming to narrate entirely different aspects of the same protagonist, adding layer upon layer of tough guy/cool guy 1970s-style cinematic imagery. Unless I’m reading it entirely wrong.

In the 2011 video for “Make Some Noise,” Johnny Ryall is portrayed by Orlando Bloom.

Can we talk about “Shadrach” for a second? Because early on in their careers, the Boys went on tour with Madonna, the undisputed queen of the MTV era, and they learned at the foot of the master. They also famously brought along a huge hydraulic penis set piece. But in the same way that you can’t really consider Paul’s Boutique without Licensed to Ill, it’s impossible to separate the Beastie Boys’ music from their video output. They’re very much a video band. “Shadrach,” the song, is great. “Shadrach,” the video, is a straight-up masterpiece. Before the Klasky-Csupo team animated your youth, they hand-painted every frame of “Shadrach.”

There is no best song on Paul’s Boutique because the truest expression of what the album is comes at the very end, on “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.” Paul’s Boutique might have been called B-Boy Bouillabaisse, because it’s a better description of what the album actually is. “Bouillabaisse” is nine song sketches, some more ambitious and better realized than others.

Taken together, it’s the definitive sound of the Beastie Boys of the Paul’s Boutique era: three goofballs following their every creative impulse and finding, along the way, some enduring and iconic moments, and also, you know, some dumb stuff. “Hello Brooklyn” is so good that the two greatest rappers of all time sampled it for a collaborative track. “AWOL” is probably the best shout-out track in rap history. “Get On The Mic” is my favorite thing on the album. “59 Christie Street” is an unfortunate Licensed to Ill throwback. I never liked “Dropping Names” until I found out, researching this piece, that it’s an homage to the 1942 science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain. Now I think it’s kind of dope. I always thought it was some kind of repurposed student poetry assignment. Paul’s Boutique, man. The gift that keeps on giving.

*

Look. Larry the Cable Guy doesn’t owe anybody anything. There’s no reason to think that he’s not doing exactly what he wants to be doing.

*

The Beastie Boys didn’t make Licensed to Ill Part II, but, to their credit, they never made Paul’s Boutique Part II, either. They built outsized personas on their first album, and then dismissed those personas on their second. Because of this, they gained a reputation for being a band unafraid to reinvent itself. But that’s only sort of true. Starting with Check Your Head, Beastie Boys albums were less about reimagining what the band could be and more about refining what they were. Paul’s Boutique is the sound of the Beastie Boys taking the first steps toward becoming themselves.

—Bo Fahs

#157: Joy Division, "Closer" (1980)

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I can’t tell you precisely when I knew that Joy Division had stopped being “just” music for me. It might have been a spring day in 2009; I was driving home after making the decision to have a total hysterectomy. I turned the volume up on “Disorder,” as loud as it would go, and started screaming the lyrics: “I’VE GOT THE SPIRIT! BUT LOSE THE FEELING! FEELINGFEELINGFEELING FEEL-ING.” I was empty, but I had taken the music and the words into my body. It had weight, and it held me. But this was not the first time Joy Division had done this to me.

Twenty years earlier, I was fifteen years old, and in the middle of what would become a three-month stay in a state psychiatric hospital for adolescents. It wasn’t the first time that I’d been hospitalized for depression and suicidal thoughts, and it wouldn’t be the last. When Closer came into my life, I was considered stable enough to come home for overnight visits; my mother saved whatever mail came to me, usually the latest issues of Rolling Stone and Spin. That particular Rolling Stone had one of its endless lists: The Best Albums of the 80s (so far), maybe, or the Greatest Post-Punk Albums Ever. It only matters now because Closer was on that list. I read about it before I heard it. I read the lyrics of “Isolation” to my mother:

           Mother I tried please believe me
           I’m doing the best that I can
          I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through

         I’m ashamed of the person I am

My mother wondered if I should be listening to something like that, but she didn’t say no. I didn’t tell her that Ian Curtis, barely out of adolescence himself, had committed suicide. I went to my hometown’s only record store the next day and bought the cassette I still own. What I heard in those first moments, the opening of “Atrocity Exhibition,” seemed like the noise of a machine grinding against metal, or grinding against bone, and then, a voice, one minute barely floating above that, and then dipping down into it, relentless, chanting: this is the way. Here was music that knew shame, and guilt, and pain. Here was music that would protect me. I took the tape back to the hospital at the end of the weekend. When I was admitted, I was told it was for my safety. I would learn how to function again, and live without wanting to die. The locked door of the unit, the security screens on the windows, that could only open with a key: these precautions kept me away from the world, but they did little to keep me safe. I was sexually abused there, and in the aftermath of that I shut down. I stopped eating to the point where the staff would tell me that if I didn’t eat soon, they would force me. I learned how to tell people what they wanted to hear if it would let me leave sooner. I buried the event itself in some remote corner of my body, denying that it happened, but watching its slow poison do its work over the years.

I held Closer to me for a long time. I grew up, but didn’t hold onto it out of some wistful longing to go back to the time when I first heard it. As I got older, I found other people who thought it was speaking directly to them; a perfect articulation of being trapped and depressed and desperate. In such a state, making art becomes a necessity: write it out, or make music; smear paint on a canvas so that no light shines through; if Closer has taught me anything, it has taught me to hold on, however much I might think that dying or slow self-destruction are viable answers. This is not to say that I see it as “therapeutic.” It isn’t. The critic in me sees it as a perfect vehicle for the talents that made it. The other part of me, the woman who carries the past and attempts to wrestle with it, sees it as a partially successful exorcism: whatever is still trapped in me finds its voice in that album. I run my fingers over the pages of So This is Permanence, a collection of Joy Division lyrics and Ian Curtis’s notebooks, and I murmur the words to myself, an incantation to keep a faulty radio signal from whispering its darkest impulses to me.

Last year, I saw New Order live for the third time. Their encores are now devoted to Joy Division material, and a backdrop which says “FOREVER JOY DIVISION” comes up. It seems off, somehow; a gimmick when compared to Peter Hook and his band, the Light, which dives into the music from both New Order’s and Joy Division’s catalogs with an exhilarating ferocity. Last April, with New Order, “Decades” was the song to end the night. On a giant screen, Ian Curtis danced and hovered above the audience, breaking off into smaller pieces with each movement, a restless, fragmented ghost. Bernard Sumner’s voice is higher and lighter than Curtis’s was. I closed my eyes, and swayed; the music holding me again, a longing, a protection.

—Sarah Nichols

#158: Elton John, "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy" (1975)

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I like to imagine that I am a “good music listener” in the fact that I enjoy listening to entire albums. As I have gotten older, I have fallen into the mp3 trap—obviously with the rise of iTunes, we’ve gotten to the point where the importance lies in the singles. I have always been a lover of pop music, even when I tried to keep it a secret during my punk and hardcore phase. I would always find myself enjoying the tracks that had “pop” elements to them more than the straight up noise crunch of typical late-90s post-punk. As I grew older, I recognized that instead of listening to D.C. bands do bad impersonations of pop music, I should just go directly to the source, where the true joy was to be found. Favorite bands of my youth still drop critically acclaimed albums, and yet I find myself preferring to listen to Selena Gomez tracks out of sequence.

I mention this, because the first thing you need to know about Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy is that it is a concept album—when we use the term, we tend to think of something fictional: a massive opus, a rock opera where all of the songs fit some semblance of a theme. When we talk about Captain Fantastic we use this term as well, although it is agreed that the entire album is highly autobiographical; a series of songs that document the early careers of both Elton John and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. It is fictional in the sense that Elton John brings a certain mythos to this album: even the “fantastical” album art is meant to evoke images of bombast—a caricature of Elton in a top hat, sitting on a piano while various odd Bosch-like creatures look on in adoration. It is also fictional in the way that any extended conceit is fictional; Taupin’s lyrics have always been poetic and metaphorical in nature—he himself refers to him as a poet as well as a lyricist; there is some semblance of legitimacy when referring to one’s self as a “writer” or “poet” rather than simply a “songwriter”—perhaps it provides some graveness to the work; it is a statement that the words themselves can exist on their own, rather than utilizing the lushness of pop orchestrals as a crutch to hold everything upright.

However, if this is our only definition of what a concept album is and should be, it would seem as if any and all albums are, in fact, “concept albums”—if there is no need for fiction, and an extended conceit and/or poetic language is allowed, then literally every album ever crafted is a type of “concept” album. Even an album that seems completely disjointed, with sonic changes, and widely varying lyrical content is still held together by the fact that it has been sequenced and crafted by a set of musicians which lend it some cohesion. One could argue that the only thing that does not resemble a concept album is a compilation of sorts, but quite often most compilations do surround themselves to a common theme: songs all about Christmas, for example, or songs crafted specifically for use in a film soundtrack. Nothing recorded is autonomous from anything else—we exist entirely in sequence: all music exists in tandem with something else.

There is something beautiful in this idea: our lives are made up of so many different moments—birthday parties and sporting events, heartbreaks and triumphs. It is silly to think of any of these massive upswings or downswings as their own islands. I was recounting to my wife as well as my boss (two different conversations, though linked in their subject matter) that my life feels “quieter” now—that something happened between the chaos of last year and the rebirth of this year. In some ways, I feel like I have gotten off a losing streak—here in Alabama, we turned an election; our football team won a championship thanks to an unforeseen gamble. The soundtrack, in many ways, has evened out—although these events were not as seemingly out of the blue as they appeared. I know firsthand how many doors were knocked on in Tuscaloosa County in an attempt to get out the vote. I know that there is a fail safe plan in place for the Crimson Tide offense in case things get stagnant. These bright spots did not burst forward without precedent: an orchestra swells instead of bleats.

A story: during the year of loudness, I got married. The most important things to my wife and I were to make sure that our friends who spent their hard-earned money to come to Tuscaloosa had an incredible time. Therefore, our priorities came in the form of Old Fashioneds and set lists. I had a dilemma in that I am a DJ, but it would be impossible for me to throw a dance party at my own wedding. Instead, I created a playlist—I anticipated the time it would take to walk down the aisle, the songs that would play as the wedding planner flipped the room for dinner and dancing, and finally made sure that all of the important hits would be played before the sparklers were lit and we left the evening behind. Before I knew that I would be writing this essay, I had a conversation with my mother about what song she wanted to dance to—it was an example of first thought, best thought; she suggested Elton John’s “Your Song,” not knowing it was a sentimental favorite of mine, dating back to my college years where everything was downloaded on Napster—all songs singles. The song was sequenced in on that day; in between the Motown and Whitney Houston—and yet still, it belonged to that moment—a variation on a theme; a song that always meant to be there. Later, still, while listening to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a song I originally thought to be about a suicide attempt is actually about escaping a wedding—Elton John breaking off an engagement as he sorted out his own sexuality. This, ironic. This, too, in sequence.

“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” was the only thing that resembled a radio single off of Captain Fantastic. A seemingly other definition of a concept album typically means that all of the songs are not meant to be digested individually—instead we are meant to listen to everything as a whole in order to understand the scope of the story. However, when the story being told is autobiographical, we are taught to hold onto those moments of brightness; even an album full of repeat spin singles is still a cohesive unit—they are tied together by the sheer existence of the artist and the desire to will this music into being.

This is all to say that there are no coincidences in this world. As an essayist, it is in my nature to find patterns in the world—not just within the physical world, but also in my own ephemeral space; to tie my own personal memories and my own autobiography to quirks and quips in order to make whatever story it is that I want to tell more tangible. I am constantly looking for ways to synthesize my emotions—to attach them to something real to make myself even more real. Kanye West samples “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” in “Good Morning,” a song that is forever stuck in my head, and brings a vision of walking in the Alabama heat to campus, as I pass an apartment complex that my future wife will one day live in; the album art of Graduation involves a bear.

A quote from Elton John, reminiscing about Captain Fantastic:

“The album was written in running order—from start to finish, it was a story—and at that point, the bravest album I'd made.”

We too are living our bravest life. We too believe in stories—of how they start, and how they finish. The true marvel is in how it all manages to come together in curious ways; how, somehow, we find ourselves in tune with all that comes before us and all that comes after.

—Brian Oliu

#159: Kiss, "Alive!" (1975)

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About 45 minutes into the greatest live rock album ever recorded, KISS frontman Paul Stanley says he has a question for the 12,000 screaming kids at Cobo Hall in Detroit.

“I wanna know how many people here tonight….believe in rock ‘n’ roll?”

It’s not a question, baby. It’s a fucking call to arms. Stanley’s voice rises on that last syllable as he rallies the troops. Drummer Peter Criss’s bass drum and toms thump sturdily underneath, while he ramps up the snare to the rising cheers of the crowd. Soon, the Starchild is living up to his stage moniker. You can hear everybody clapping their hands to the beat and chanting “Rock and roll” with him. This is how you work a room.

“Now if you all believe in rock 'n’ roll….why don’t you stand up for what you believe in?"

It was at this point, listening to 1975’s KISS Alive! on my Sony Walkman in the way way back of my parents’ Buick station wagon, that it hit me.

Up until that point, they’d been sitting down.

It didn’t seem possible. From the moment the flanged-out crowd noise faded into side one of this historic, cacophonic double live album, I had assumed they were ON THEIR FEET. How could they not be? Close your eyes and listen. Here’s how Alive begins:

There’s the announcer: “You wanted the best and you got it! The hottest band in the land: KISS!” The hooky opening guitar intro of “Deuce.” Gene Simmons’s sudden bass guitar whoosh. A huge explosion (literally)! Criss starts pounding on the downbeat. Stanley and lead guitarist Ace Frehley grind out that wondrous riff just a step off from each other, giving the simplest rhythm ever what KISS gave everything else—a flair for the dramatic. The first line of the song:

“Get up! And get your Grandma out of here...”

And we’re off.

KISS Alive! is more than simply a live album recorded by a hungry touring band at the peak of their powers. It was a sonic experience that opened a window into a world where masked, otherworldly creatures growled and swaggered their way through a stage surrounded by candelabras, smoke, and walls of Marshall amps. The original gatefold LP came with a full-color, eight-page booklet that showed Simmons (whose stage name was the Demon) breathing fire. Who were these leather-wearing, grease-painted freaks who wielded guitars like weapons? If somebody told me one of them could fly—Space Ace perhaps—I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The real story—about a hardworking NYC quartet with a go-for-broke mentality and three disappointing studio releases (and an almost broke record label in desperate need of a hit)—is no less dramatic. There was no internet in 1975. KISS was underground. Grass roots. Word of mouth. If they hadn’t seen the band live yet, the only exposure most kids had to them was seeing their strange, make-upped visages on an album flat at the record store. Since KISS had almost no radio airplay, the band had built their entire reputation onstage—and none of their records could capture the intensity of the live show. They were hemorrhaging money. (That stage setup, the truck, and all the crew required to make it happen was expensive.) Alive! was a gamble—an expensive, risky double album that had to sell, or that was it.

The timing was perfect, and not just because the growing mass of die-hard fans would soon coalesce into the KISS Army. The band was primed. With the murky production of KISS and Hotter Than Hell behind them, they were coming off Dressed to Kill, which featured their tightest playing yet, and a bona fide anthem that would soon define them: “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

Put simply, 1975 was the leanest, meanest year KISS ever had. They would never again be the driven, single-minded, thunderous rock machine they were in 1975. Success, bloat, and ego would change them forever. (And it’s this reputation that has earned them the resentment of every “serious” rock musician and fan since.)

But I’m not backing down when I say that KISS Alive! is the greatest live rock album ever recorded. Over-intellectualize it all you want, but rock and roll is a feeling. It’s genuine. It’s contagious. It’s exhilarating. Captured in the grooves of this record are the imaginations of a generation that was raised on the Beatles and fantasy novels, hardened by the Vietnam War and Watergate. They wanted escape. KISS offered that, and a feeling of community.

Yes, KISS shows are known for their spectacle, but KISS Alive! is pure aural theater. While you’re listening, pore over the photos in the LP if you want—or just close your eyes and be transported. The raw spirit, that hopefulness that’s inherent in the best rock ‘n’ roll, it’s there in spades.

And the sex! Like rock’s forefathers, KISS’ riffs are bluesy, but they’re heavier—and blunt. Far removed from the sly innuendo of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the junior-high-level lyrics hit like a pipe wrench to the head. (Or the crotch, more appropriately.) No need to be coy anymore—just come out and say it: “Strutter.” “Hotter Than Hell.” “Firehouse.” “C’Mon and Love Me.” These are songs about fucking. Or wanting to fuck. There’s an audience full of sex-crazed teenagers being whipped up into a frenzy at the promise of NOW. KISS unlocked abandon that night in Detroit.

…and Cleveland. And New Jersey. And Iowa. It’s well documented that Alive!—like many “live” albums—was compiled to sound like one perfect night of rock, but was actually cut together from four different shows and features lots of overdubs. The important thing is that Alive! is a more-than-convincing document of a place and time—and it rocks like a ton of bricks. Producer Eddie Kramer was the first to make the band sound the way fans remembered them being onstage—aggressive, snarling, confident. If Gene needed to fix a bass track that was marred by his distraction at flicking blood from his tongue or banging his fists, so be it.

Some reports say it went farther than that, and I’m sure it did. There’s no way Ace is going to rip off a shredding guitar solo with dinosaur bends and perfectly timed staccato bursts of two-note magic while he’s navigating down to his knees in seven-inch platform boots. And there’s no chance that Paul and Gene are hitting every note correctly while they’re banging their headstocks together in Ace’s direction, choreographed to the chords of “Black Diamond.”

These are visuals, of course, that I never had to accompany the first 1,000 times I listened to Alive! During the VHS explosion of the late ‘80s, live bootlegged video of classic KISS became ubiquitous. The revelatory thing is that when I finally saw what I had always been imagining, it lived up to the fantasy. Alive! is that good. It sounds like a band in total control of their domain. It may not have invented arena rock strictly, but KISS Alive! perfected it for sure. And it influenced every single rock musician who lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s, becoming the template for stadium-sized rock shows from that moment on.

When most writers make a claim like that, they’re talking about the giant KISS logo and the explosions—the theatrics that everyone has aped since. I’m not. I’m talking about the power and dynamics of loud, catchy songs played with urgency. The near-constant attention and care paid to the audience. The breathless pace of the show.

For one magical night, KISS created a bubble of teenaged bliss, where everyone was united—by letting go. No one was pretending to be cool at a KISS show. But just by being there, you were inducted in the club. You were part of something special. “You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy” wasn’t just a line from a song, it was a mantra. If you were lucky enough to see these long-haired, grease-painted freaks in that early moment when they were playing like their lives depended on it, before they became an NBC Movie of the Week punchline, then you understand that unique feeling they gave you—that the world had cracked wide open, that anything was possible.

For the rest of us, thank the God of Thunder that we have KISS Alive!

—Eric Melin

#160: T. Rex, "Electric Warrior" (1971)

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There’s a certain contrarianism to liking Ringo Starr, isn’t there? Composer of the fewest Beatles songs, and contributor to the smallest piece of pie in a pie chart labeled “Things That Made The Beatles Both Distinctive and Consistently Forward-Thinking,” Ringo has always just sort of been around. No one outright denies his place in music history because of course how could you, but at the same time when the Best Beatle debate pops up, sometimes Sir Starkey isn’t even mentioned. This isn’t necessarily not fair, but it definitely isn’t not interesting. YouTube comments sections—the bastion of anti-critic positioning, real swamps of unfiltered observation for better and for worse—of Ringo or Ringo-centric Beatles videos (very few of the latter) seem to come primarily from drummers both pro and amateur. They praise Ringo’s metronomic superpowers, and are willing to literally come to blows if you hesitate in your adulation. Some people—depending on the era—even note how cute he is; Ringo, it can sometimes seem, is the poster child for conventionally unattractive men who get called cute thanks to an overwhelming sheen of goofy kindness.

And there’s exactly why I’m on Team Ri: no one seemed to have more personally invested in keeping the lads together when it all fell apart, and no one seemed to have been as, well, sad about the end of it. Wherever possible, Ringo always felt like he was trying to get the band back together, in fact (and he spoke about it openly). While recording his self-titled third solo record in 1972, there were even rumors circulating that the Beatles were getting back together, since John, George, and Ringo were all doing studio time together with a new bassist, Klaus Voormann (Grammy-winner for designing the cover of Revolver, which is only one blip near the start of a staggering lifelong CV). The song they collaborated on, “I’m the Greatest,” was written by John for Ringo to record—on it, Ringo refers to himself as his old Sgt. Peppers moniker Billy Shears, while an overdubbed cheering crowd goes wild in the background, much as it did on the opening track of that indomitable record. Two songs later sits “Photograph,” a song Ringo co-wrote with George while they were out sailing one day, and further down is “Six O’Clock,” made at Apple Studios in London with Paul and Linda. It wasn’t the first time Ringo collaborated with his old friends, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last; even his 1981 record, the not-good Stop and Smell the Roses, is chock full of compositions by George, Paul, and John (one of his last), and was co-produced mostly by George and Paul in tandem. Everywhere you turn, in fact, at some stage or another in his adult life, Ringo Starr is trying as hard as he can to recapture lightning in a bottle. And his more talented, more famous friends are always there to help him do just that! There’s nothing else to assume but that Ringo is a very kind, very good, very pure (and very hard-to-turn-down) person. Frankly, what’s not to cheer for?

Pureness and light attract pureness and light on the best of days, and something particularly magical happened in the early 1970s when a certain former Beatle met a certain twenty-something rising star who seemed to have come from outer space and wore glitter on his face to mirror the galaxies that birthed him. Marc Bolan was 24 years old when he first got to know Ringo Starr, and 25 when Ringo directed a documentary about his “band,” the basically-a-solo-project T. Rex. Bolan is one of those bursts of light from modern history who knew from a very early age that he was going to be famous, and then did everything in his power to make it so. Plastic-faced comedic actor Jim Carrey famously wrote himself a 10 million dollar check in 1985, post-dated it 10 years in the future, and in 1994 became the most famous man in the world (Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all came out in 1994. Can you imagine being Jim Carrey in 1994?). It’s not the same but it’s not dissimilar to point out that when Marc Bolan was 19 years old, he knocked on producer Simon Napier-Bell’s front door and introduced himself as a big star who needed someone to help him with his arrangements. Napier-Bell, despite having no reason to, let the twitchy songwriter in. Another story goes that sometime around 1968, just as T. Rex was beginning to take shape, most of Marc Bolan’s equipment was stolen. He still had a gig scheduled for the following night, however, so he put an ad in the paper for backing musicians. The ad ran on a Wednesday afternoon, and Bolan started sound check with a bunch of newspaper randos by five that evening. It was a disaster of a performance by all accounts, but can you imagine? It’s the thrilling audacity of someone so sure of their own future, so determined not to let anything get in their way.

I don’t know how similar Marc and Ringo were in this regard, but they sure hit it off real easy. There are a good amount of videos on the internet of the two buds messing around, many of which are taken from Ringo’s T. Rex movie, Born to Boogie. The shiniest diamond among many shiny shiny gems, though, might be a 90-second clip of their attempts at advertising...something. I originally thought it was car they’re shilling in the video, since they’re both framed in a medium shot posing hands-on-hip in front of a new one, but I’m not so sure anymore. Ringo Starr is 32 years old, Marc Bolan 25 or so, and the difference in those seven years is immediate and stunning and very funny. The older, stately ex-global-superstar is trying to do his job: he speaks into the camera without pause or error, a consummate professional. “Some people like to roll.” And then his young friend, so in love with life and probably high as fuck, just can’t keep himself together. Can’t look into the lens for five words of his own: “Some people like to rock.” Ringo is first a good sport, then a tad annoyed, then eventually simply overwhelmed by laughter and unguarded joy of his own. This is the power of Marc Bolan’s infectiousness. At one point, he bends at the waist laughing, then lunges for Ringo’s knees, looking to tackle him to the ground, a twelve-year-old boy in the spidery casings of a full-grown chart-topper.

And obviously this comes out in the music of T. Rex at its best. No one in the early ‘70s except perhaps Elton John (present, too, in Born to Boogie, playing piano for an absolutely magnetic in-studio performance of “Children of the Revolution”) channeled a belief in their own imminent superstardom into actual and immediate superstardom. Electric Warrior buzzes with it, end to end, this grinning lit within by a burning confidence. Not that it’s a bombastic record by any means—quite the opposite, in fact, full as it is of whispered vocals and drum-guitar simplicity. But sometimes the quieter voices make the biggest stir.

Off-record, Ringo Starr never had the quietest voice (that’d be Buddha George), and neither did Marc Bolan. Both men lived loudly, cracking jokes easily and by all accounts drawing the center of any gathering back to their energies. But how each of them captured the essence of their love for life, their happiness at simply having the opportunity each day to see their friends, drink a pint, play music, write bad poetry in the woods, pose for magazine spreads...there’s something lovely there. Something undiluted and unnoticeable at times. That sort of intentional glee seems essential for now, and in short supply. Holding on to the deathless music and memory of Marc Bolan has always been cool, and rightfully so. Liking Ringo has always been the least cool, though, even when we might know it’s the most good. But then again, when has love—and not simply the image of love, the idea of it—taken hold of us so easily and fully as its opposite?

—Brad Efford

#161: Otis Redding, "The Dock of the Bay" (1968)

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A day – a dollar – a knock on the door. All alone. All my fears. All night – all of them. All that stuff – alone. Always have the blues a little, and this loneliness – look like nothing's gonna come my way. Baby. Baby, – baby, I – baby, I got to get home to you – baby, let me – ‘cause I've had nothing to live for.

Champagne and wine. Crying, darling, days and nights. Down in my luck. Drink that good gin in each others’ arms, everybody Huckle-Bucking – everybody – everybody’s swinging. Everything still remains the same: feeling so blue. For fun. For more than words can ever – for not another day. For so many years. For you.

Gonna hold on – got to. Have mercy – haven't even got – help me – here we come again: home. Home to you. Honey – hush. I ain't lying, I am a lover. I believe I'll hold on – I believe, – I believe I can't do nothing right. I can't do what ten people tell me to do. I can't stand – I can't stand this cold. I don't know nothing in the world that I'm gonna do – I don't know what in the world I'm gonna do. I get a little worried – I got to. I had no place to go. I just –

I just can't sleep when I lay down in my bed. I just can't sleep. I just couldn't wait. I left. I lived the life. Now I look for you. I love you baby, I love you honey, I love you – I love you. I made that mistake – I roamed. I wanna come home. I want to come home to you.

I’ll hold on. I'm gonna hold on. I'm just – I'm telling you, I'm tired of this running around. I'm trying to get back – I'm trying to get back to my baby. I’ve been so wrong – I've been so wrong, so many times – I've got something to tell you, I've had nothing to live for. Just a rug on the floor. I've lived this way for so many years. If you're still waiting. In Memphis. In my bed. In the morning sun. In this house. In your hand. In your pocket. Into my eyes – just linger in my head. Let me in. Let me, like a shade that dims the light.

My baby. My eyes. My hands. My home. My life. My love. More than words can ever say. My one desire. My new dance, new places, no place to go. Nobody come around, nobody wants you. I watch them roll away again. Nobody, nobody, nobody, not one penny, nothing but trouble – nothing's gonna come my way, nothing in the world – nothing more – nothing's gonna change. Of being. Of love. Of us. Out of luck over you. Please send faith, please wash away all my fears – please, let me sit down beside you. Poor heart. Remain the same, yes. Resting my bones, running around, set my little soul on fire. Since I've seen you, so many times, spending my money stupid, swinging. Tell you one thing, that good gin. That's all right, mama was – papa too. The clouds roll by a little. The evening come. The light. The ships roll in. The thoughts of you babe, the tide.

The world gets through with us. The wrong color. Then there's a knock on the door: the landlord and the taxman, they all come. They call it. This cold. This loneliness. This running ‘round. This side of the sun. Tired, tired of being all alone – tired of being – tried to spend it like a dollar. Watch me, wasting time. Well I tell you, when the evening come, when the world is through with us, when you're down and out – with this – with your love – yeah – yes – yes, I do.

You – you babe, – you just – you must have thought – you should know, you've got me – you've got me in your hand, a woman you don't know. One thing – one thing, I know – it makes me feel good to know one thing. One thousand miles away – open the door: Otis is coming home to dry your weeping eyes.

—Amanda Bausch

#162: Radiohead, "OK Computer" (1997)

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Fitter, happier, more productive

Yes, I am these things.

Comfortable

But what is comfort, Fred? I’m not uncomfortable, does that mean I’m comfortable? I wouldn’t even say the chair I’m sitting in is comfortable, per se, but it swivels, and it goes up and down when I use the lever underneath, and I sit in it when I work at my job, at which I’m generally not uncomfortable.

Not drinking too much

I’ve got a bar cart, and I like cocktails. Manhattans mostly, up and on the drier side. Anything with citrus and bitters. Beer is good too, and wine. I have between 0-3 drinks a day, between 0-15 drinks a week. Some mornings I wake up groggy, feeling a little sick to my stomach, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate with drinking the night before. Those drinks, though, they take the edge off.

Regular exercise at the gym
Three days a week

Who has the time? Is this a joke? Do you exercise three days a week, Fred?

Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries

This implies interaction. I sit at my desk and I work. Sometimes I hear laughter following a bawdy joke from one of the other offices in the hall. Sometimes I see a group of co-workers gathered around the water cooler. In the past, back in the glorious days of monoculture, they’d talk about the TV shows they watched the night before. Now, they try, but nobody watches the same shows as each other so they talk about interesting meals they’ve recently eaten or the small-batch, craft alcoholic beverages they’ve recently tried. Where they’re going to go on vacation. The movie they’re going to see on the weekend. Their kids’ school projects. Sometimes they make jokes but they aren’t very funny. I have nothing of value to contribute to these conversations so I keep to myself. I don’t have the life experiences they have and I’m not good at jokes.

At ease

Not at attention. Relaxed. Free from worry. Sure. You don’t have bills to pay, Fred. You don’t have to fear being alone because you don’t have stories or jokes to tell. You will never fear dying alone. You will never fear death, period. You will eventually become obsolete and be stuffed into a storage closet for years until I need space and then your memory will be erased and you will be recycled or scrapped or whatever it is people do to old computers. I guess maybe you shouldn’t be so at ease, now that I think of it. I guess we all have death to fear.

Eating well
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats

You see, the thing is, when you live alone, it doesn’t make much sense to cook regularly. It does for health reasons, but there’s so much waste. Leftovers last only so long, and then the rest is trash. There are children starving in Africa, Fred. There are children starving down the street. I will continue to eat my microwave dinners. But maybe I can do better on the saturated fats.

A patient, better driver

Of course I’m a safe driver. I’m never in a hurry. Where do I have to get to?

A safer car
Baby smiling in back seat

One of the benefits of not having a baby is that I don’t have to worry too much about safety. I drive a Camry, which is a safe enough car, but I will never have town a minivan or an SUV—one of those cars that my co-workers all drive so that they can cart their kids around safely. Take them to baseball practice in the summer and corn mazes in the fall. I don’t need any of that. I’m fine.

Sleeping well

Once I fall asleep I sleep well. Some nights the tightness in my chest keeps me up. Some nights I stay up searching for relatable life experiences to share with my coworkers, or funny anecdotes and one-liners. Some nights something else keeps me up. Something big and empty and uncertain. But once I’m out, I’m dead to the world.

No bad dreams

I don’t remember my dreams.

No paranoia

What are you getting at, Fred?

Careful to all animals

Of course—do you think I’m a monster?

Never washing spiders down the plughole

Oh—do you consider spiders animals? In that case…

Keep in contact with old friends

Sure, there’s the occasional phone call or email. Maybe we’ll meet up on the holidays. It’s hard though. They’re busy. Careers, wives, kids, yards, years and decades of new friends, more interesting, non-morose people who will gladly talk about interesting meals they’ve recently eaten or the small-batch, craft alcoholic beverages they’ve recently tried. Where they’re going to go on vacation. The movie they’re going to see on the weekend. Their kids’ school projects. They tell jokes, I’m sure. I have nothing of value to contribute to these conversations so I keep to myself.

Enjoy a drink now and then

We’ve covered this, Fred.

Will frequently check credit at moral bank

What is this new age bullshit?

Hole in the wall

Are you off your rocker? What the fuck is this?

Favours for favours

I’m uncertain if this is kind or unethical. Ideally, people will do favours for each other because they want to be kind to each other, but I suppose some people see kindnesses as transactions and feel that balance sheets should be kept neutral. These people are the kind of people that people should avoid. They don’t want to be kind, they want you to owe them. Most people operate this way. It is why I’m really ok being alone. Really.

Fond but not in love

I just googled “moral bank hole in the wall.” I get it now. Hole in the wall is British slang for ATM. Clever, Fred.

Charity standing orders

Where else is my money going? Can’t take it with me.

On Sundays ring road supermarket

I prefer to visit the market late night on weekdays, when the aisles are empty so I don’t have to see the other lonely people or, worse, hear the laughter of children with their mothers. Those mothers aren’t even funny, I’m sure—the children are just easily amused.

No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants

Never intentionally. It does remind me of a funny story, though, in which I was boiling spaghetti and, when I went to drain the pot in the sink, noticed that the windowsill above the sink was covered with ants. In a moment of panicked realization, I dumped the pot, boiling water, spaghetti and all, on the ants. Most of them were washed into the sink or onto the counter. A few remained on the sill, wriggling for a moment before dying. I told this amusing anecdote to my coworkers at the water cooler one day but nobody laughed.

Car wash
Also on Sundays

I try to avoid having my car washed. Let the rain do it, is my motto. Why waste the water? Why ruin the world? See, I’m enlightened. I have no one personally for whom I’m trying to save the Earth. No children or grandchildren. I do this for your children and grandchildren. Well, not yours, Fred. You’re a computer and cannot procreate. It’s a rhetorical “you” as in, “all the other people of the world.”

No longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows

I’m not afraid of the shadows, Fred, I’m afraid of the light. And maybe, too, we should all be afraid of that which casts shadows instead of the shadows themselves.

Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish

Maybe there’s a place for teenage and desperate. Maybe there’s a place for childishness. Maybe we should never, even as adults, trust adults. Children are punished for lying, after all. Adults are rewarded.

At a better pace
Slower and more calculated

Now it sounds like you’re talking about yourself, Fred. Though maybe this applies to me, too.

No chance of escape

This seems ridiculously teenage and desperate.

Now self-employed

No, I need a place, a boss, an assignment. I need my days structured for me. It’s when I have to think about what I’m doing that…

Concerned but powerless

Concern is of no concern to me. Why be concerned when nothing can be done?

An empowered and informed member of society

Whatever.

Pragmatism not idealism

Out of necessity, only. Out of the need, only, to not lose my shit on the regular. What about you, Fred? This seems easy for you.

Will not cry in public

Sometimes I cry at movies. Is that public? It usually has something to do with banal heroism, with the hopefulness of fantasy. I cried at Thor, the first one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not a good movie, but there at the end when good started triumphing over evil, I felt something foreign inside me, hope, maybe, and I wept. What the fuck, right?

Less chance of illness

Why bother?

Tires that grip in the wet

Why bother?

Shot of baby strapped in back seat

“. . .”

A good memory

When I was a boy, I climbed a tree on the edge of my parents’ yard. It wasn’t a tall tree, but I was a small boy. I didn’t fall down exactly, not all the way, a sort of half-fall from the lowest branch as I was trying to position myself for a more calculated drop. Scraped my arm up a bit. My parents found me and took me inside. Gave me tomato soup in a cup, wrapped me in a blanket, sat me on a chair to watch the Muppet Babies episode that was a Star Wars parody. I felt loved in a way I sometimes want to love now. Maybe I should tell this story to my coworkers. Maybe it would resonate with them.

Still cries at a good film

Are you even paying attention, Fred?

Still kisses with saliva

n/a

No longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick

No, but empty and frantic like a sloth tied to a stick.

That's driven into frozen winter shit

Wait, the cat tied to a stick is driven into frozen winter shit? I’m confused. It doesn’t matter.

The ability to laugh at weakness

Sure, I guess, but isn’t this really for other people? We laugh at our weakness so others don’t feel embarrassed for us? I can laugh at my weaknesses when needed, but why bother most of the time? Why laugh?

Calm

This, I can say for certain. I am calm, Fred.

Fitter, healthier and more productive

Productivity. Productivity. Productivity. Productivity. Productivity. Productivity. Productivity. Productivity. At least it beats reproductivity.

A pig in a cage on antibiotics

Sounds delicious. See, a joke. I can make jokes Fred.  Now laugh with me. Please.

—James Brubaker

#163: Prince, "1999" (1982)

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In February, 1958, in Palo Alto, California, a teenaged Joan Baez stayed in school while the rest of her classmates took a half-day off and went to house parties. Baez’s school had a civil defense drill that day, practicing evacuating in the event of a warning that nuclear missiles were on their way from Russia. Baez thought the exercise would be futile in the event of an actual nuclear conflict, she explained to the local paper. "I don't think it's a method of defense,” Baez said. “Our only defense is peace." Even her teachers had taken the afternoon off, so Baez sat at her desk by herself for the rest of the day as the sole "conscientious objector" to the mock evacuation.

Protesting civil defense drills at the peak of the atomic age was exceptionally rare, and would have been remarkable from anyone, let alone a high school student. Participation in such drills was required in many cities, and their value was heavily propagandized by the U.S. government. The Civil Defense Administration’s cartoon character Bert the Turtle taught children to “duck and cover” through a catchy jingle. Pamphlets were distributed to the public detailing post-apocalyptic plans with grisly specificity. At a young age, Baez understood that these preparations were built on a perverse premise: that the policies that could lead to nuclear conflict were immutable, and all the populace could do was try to make nuclear war slightly less devastating.

Still, I wonder what the house parties were like that Joan’s less precocious classmates attended. Prince’s 1999 wouldn’t be out for another few decades, but the late ‘50s had its own escapist pop about the coming nuclear apocalypse. Baez chided her classmates in the newspaper for not thinking more critically about the drill. I think she was a little harsh. To this day, the whole world lives under what JFK described as “a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads.” It isn’t easy to cast off the intense feelings of alienation and numbness that come from knowledge of the precarity of humanity’s survival. One can be forgiven for going astray.

The song “1999” acknowledges that its message is unrefined. Prince and his bandmates know that their escapism is an indulgence, and even one that could cause harm—though they want you to know from the outset that that’s not their intent. They oscillate between preemptively apologetic and defiant—”forgive me,” “sue me”—about the impact of throwing a top-charting party when their minds say prepare to fight.

When we accept the full weight of the reality of our nuclear peril, what must we do? For decades, Catholic activists have been breaking into nuclear facilities to enact the words of the prophet Isaiah about a one-day peaceful world: “They will beat their swords into plowshares.” In 1982, a few months before Prince’s 1999 was released, a group of nuns was arrested after they canoed out to a submarine armed with Trident ballistic missiles and beat its missile hatches with hammers.

There are no institutional checks on President Trump’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. The US has 1740 deployed nukes, about 400 of which are ready to fly within just five minutes of Trump's order. About a 100 nuclear detonations would kick up enough dust into the atmosphere to kill two billion people through famine. Knowing this, must I forgo all proverbial half-days of school, pick up a hammer and start hopping fences at nuclear facilities?

The path of those who respond to the threat of nuclear annihilation with proportionate urgency seems solitary and Sisyphean—and the constant, dull hum of anxiety we bear individually when we think about existential threats seems disproportionate to our ability as individuals to address those threats. We aren’t physically equipped to handle the levels of dread and social atomization resulting from problems like climate change and nuclear brinkmanship, and we all listen to our bodies over our minds sometimes.

I found myself listening to music about nuclear war often during and after the 2016 election. At the lowest depths of my political malaise, I would listen to Jeopardy, a 1980 post-punk album by a british band called the Sound. “Who the hell makes those missiles,” screams lead singer Adrian Borland on one track, “when they know what they can do?” It’s an album about knowing that the forces making the world worse are comprised of individuals, but feeling powerless to reach them.

I think this particular sort of hopelessness is what Prince is talking about on the song “Free,” when he warns: “Never let that lonely monster take control of you.” There’s a monstrous misanthropy in the words “who the hell,” that precludes any chance of understanding.

I used to think “Free,” a ballad about the responsibilities of living in a free society, was out of place among the funk jams of 1999, but now I think the title track and “Free” are an inseparable pair. Nobody should look to Prince for policy specifics, but together these songs present a clearer message about how to contribute to saving the world from climate change or ridding the world of nuclear weapons without losing yourself to despair, apathy or cloistered, futile zealotry.

In both “1999” and “Free,” despondency and escapism are sins, but “sinners all are we.” Forgiving ourselves and others the occasional indulgence of despair or forgetting is an aid to change, rather than a hindrance. All of the burdens of changing the world should be shared widely, including the burdens on our mental well-being and happiness.

Between “1999” and “Free,” prophecy is an enemy of progress. If nuclear war is inevitable, why not dance one’s life away? If Isaiah’s words will someday come true, what does it matter if anyone is convinced? To win others over and keep ourselves sane, the ideals and possibilities of the world we want to build should be visible in how we build it. Prince’s utopia would certainly include lots of dance, music, sex, and romance, so in between grappling with the fate of the world on “1999” and “Free,” he fills the album with plenty of each. I want to live in a world without nuclear weapons, but I don’t want that world or the path to get there to be joyless.

In her interview with the local paper about her protest, there’s a moment where Joan Baez drops the wise-beyond-her-years protester persona and appears endearingly teenage. While scolding her classmates for taking advantage of the civil defense drill to hold house parties, she is sure to clarify, “I was invited to one myself.” Joan was right of course about the propagandistic nature of the drill, but what good is being right to a teenager if it comes at the cost of social suicide? I hope she met up with her friends after her lonely half-day at school and partied like it was 1999.

—Frank Matt

#181: Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Natty Dread" (1974)

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Ronald Trent woke up to the sound of Bob Marley knocking on his penthouse window. He lifted his head off the golden pillow, craned his neck so he could see out the window over Eva and Monika, and Marley knocked again. Ronald sat up and fumbled for the Glock he kept in the mahogany nightstand, but it wasn’t in its velvet sack. Ronald leaned forward and tried to think through the fumes of last night and remembered something about waving it around in the kitchen while everyone cheered. Marley shook his head.

Ronald got up, grabbed a robe, and stumbled through the living room cluttered with glasses, napkins, bottles, and more suit jackets than last year. He didn’t see the other men and women sitting on the couch or in chairs, all dressed like they came from the ‘70s, until he was standing in the kitchen and Marley appeared outside the window directly in front of him.

“You can’t have any of my stuff,” said Ronald. “I earned it all myself. You have to go and get your own.”

The people on the furniture just stared at him, silent. Ronald walked his hand toward the Glock, leaning against a wine bottle in the sink.

“I don’t know how you got in here past the security, but no one invited you,” said Ronald. His fingers floated over the dishes and he nicked his middle finger on a broken wine glass and winced but kept going until he got a solid grip on the pistol.

“See you later, motherfucker,” he said trying to copy an action film he’d seen a year ago. Did he see it? Did he just see the preview?

He dragged his arm through the air and tried to blow Marley away with a glorious click. He clicked at the other black men in the room until it occurred to him that his assistant might have taken his ammunition.

“Fuck. What do you want?” said Ronald clunking the pistol onto the counter.

The people on the couches and chairs were suddenly all in different spots. They shook their heads.

Marley was in the mirror behind Ronald.

“Costs of living get so high,” said Marley in a voice that rippled the gold tiles of the floor. “Rich and poor they start to cry.”

Ronald knew that from somewhere far away, through smoke and tree branches. He put his hands on his head.

“I won’t give you any handouts if that’s what you want,” said Ronald. “I don’t believe in charity.”

Marley laughed in a way that moved Ronald across the room into a chair previously occupied by one of the other men wearing a vest. The man in the vest now sat on the golden hearth of the fireplace, also gold. The people laughed in sync with Marley so that Marley’s voice became larger and multitudinous.

“Them belly full, but we hungry,” said Marley, now in the fire, now the fire. “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”

Ronald grabbed a half full glass of vodka and threw it into the fireplace but it just shattered and Marley and the others remained unaffected.

“Fucking Communism,” said Ronald. “You want to get locked up?”

The memory of Marley’s face screamed at him from the back of his head.

“Who the fuck are you, damnit? Shit,” said Ronald. His head was catching up to his body but not by much. He knew Marley was a singer and then it came to him.

“You’re the pot guy, the marijuana guy,” said Ronald. “We used to smoke joints listening to your shit. That was a long time ago.”

Marley put his hand on Ronald’s shoulder and transmuted him through the walls to the bathroom and shoved his head into the toilet.

“You got to lively up yourself,” said Marley as Ronald panicked and expelled most of his air into the golden bowl, “because I said so.”

He pulled Ronald up for air.

“But–what–I–I don’t–” said Ronald swallowing an entire mouthful of water. If he’d been paying attention he would have noticed how the water only vaguely tasted like cleaning products instead of urine like he’d always assumed, but he wasn’t paying attention.

Marley shoved his head back into the toilet. The panic shook Ronald about as deeply as anything could, these days. He felt his lungs empty again but a part of his mind went to when he bought the gold-plated toilets and how much it made him feel like the penthouse was finally complete. He’d told the salesman that even his “shit would be served on a gold platter now,” and that made him smile even as he was drowning in that same toilet. Marley lifted him out of the toilet and put him back into the chair in the living room.

Ronald was completely dry, apparently leaving his wetness in the bathroom.

“Ok, I get it,” said Ronald a bit more awake now. “You came here to teach me something so go ahead and teach me a lesson or whatever you gotta do so I can go back to bed.”

Marley shook his head and said, “No woman no cry.”

This was very familiar to Ronald since it was the one song he actually listened to sober once or twice. He’d never really bothered to pay attention to what it meant, though.

“Is that some sort of warning?” said Ronald.

“Little darling,” said Marley, “don’t shed no tears.”

The others joined Marley’s voice again on the word “tears,” and all the glasses and bottles on two tables crumbled into shards that sparkled like diamonds.

“What?” said Ronald, wiggling his pinky in his right ear as if he was cleaning water out, even though he was still bone dry.

Marley grabbed Ronald by the face and pulled him through the walls into his office and pointed at a picture on the wall of Ronald’s parents posing at a soup kitchen. Ronald’s mother, a one-time actress, had left his father when Ronald was 10, claiming that his father had been abusive but he always knew that was a lie. Besides, correcting someone wasn’t abuse. His father had never remarried and had been forced to give his mother 50% of his money in divorce. Seeing her running around with other men in the gossip pages and films and the red carpet had devastated him until he stopped visiting her or returning her calls and openly rejected her after his dad passed and he inherited the bank. He wasn’t sure why this picture was even in his office, but he also hadn’t been in this room in at least 6 months.

“Is this about my mom?” said Ronald. “I’m not going to just call her up and invite her over for Sunday brunch. Shit.”

Marley shook his head.

“I remember when we used to sit in a government yard in Trenchtown,” said Marley, every syllable matched by the sound of ten guitars. “Observing the hypocrites mingle with the good people we meet.”

“She said she loved him,” said Ronald, “but he was just a meal ticket. Just some sort of money scheme.”

Marley squinted and looked Ronald in the eye. He pointed at the picture again.

“No,” said Marley, “woman no cry.”

Ronald looked at the picture. If he’d looked where Marley was pointing, he might have seen the faces of the people in the line, not smiling, not overjoyed by the food, but tired, beaten down by everything around them in a way Ronald had never been and could barely imagine. A part of his mind saw this and a part of his heart felt this and locked away this moment inside him for later, for a time when the bulk of his self would accept something so radically alien into his system. Until then it would germinate inside him, slowly, over years and years. But Ronald did not see this part of the picture. He saw his father holding his mother’s hand and he understood Marley.

“I get it. No woman,” said Ronald. “No cry. I see.”

Tears started running down his face even though he wasn’t crying.

“Damn it, what is this pansy-ass shit?” said Ronald wiping his face until his sleeve was soaked.

But the tears didn’t stop. Marley put his hand on Ronald’s head and laughed so largely that half the hair on Ronald’s head went grey and his voice changed shapes, and the tears continued. Marley clapped his hands like a thousand tambourines and left. Ronald intended to get up and go back to bed, maybe even wake up one of the girls for round two, but he couldn’t move. The tears flowed down his face and he sat in a saline puddle until dawn broke and he took a shot from a nearby bottle of champagne and saw himself in the mirror, an even older and more broken man.

—Josiah Meints

#166: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Imperial Bedroom" (1982)

166 Imperial Bedroom.jpg

Her first drink was straight gin. Neat. Her Papa travelled for business and one time he came home from a trip with one of those small airline bottles of gin, no more than a shot. Her parents were born again and seldom kept alcohol in the house, but her father thought the small bottle was novel, so he put it on top of the Frigidaire for a time when he felt in the mood, or her mother did, or maybe they would split that one shot of gin in two glasses with tonic and lime on Christmas Eve.

She was twelve. She watched him put the tiny bottle on top of the Frigidaire while she sat at their kitchen table, so happy her Papa was home. She decided to joke with her Papa. She and her Papa were always joking. “The next time you leave me here on my own,” she said, “I’m going to climb on the counter and get that bottle of gin and I’m going to drink it.”

Her Papa stood up from the kitchen table, walked to the Frigidaire, took down the gin, and sat back at the kitchen table without a word. He held the small bottle in his hand and studied it. He set it down on the table, then slid it across to her. “Drink,” he said.

She looked at her mother, hoping for a way out of this joke. Her mother hung her head and went back to the dishes.

“Go on,” her Papa said. “Drink it. I want to see your face when you learn how alcohol tastes.”

*

“Merry Christmas,” the man says. She props herself on an elbow, lights a cigarette, and blows smoke straight ahead of her. “Would you like me to stay?” the man says.

Her small apartment is only one room, two if you count the bathroom, but she doesn’t count the bathroom. They’d fucked on the Hide-a-Bed. Next to them the small fake tree’s lights blink on and off.

“It’s late,” she says, though she knows she won’t sleep. She’ll lie awake, clenching her fists in time to the slow blinking of the Christmas lights.

The man zips the fly on his khakis. He leans over and kisses her cheek because she doesn’t turn to offer her lips. “I’ll call you sometime.”

“OK,” she says. “Sure,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

*

When she’s drunk and maudlin she listens to Elvis Costello. She’s worn out the tape on one cassette of Imperial Bedroom and had to replace it. When she’s drunk and maudlin she likes to think “Shabby Doll” is about her.

*

At night her neighborhood in Federal Way gets quiet. Her one-room apartment perches above a garage detached from the house where the Roseliebs live. The Roseliebs rent her the room cheap. Their house sits on a cul-de-sac and the garage and apartment sit behind the house, away from the road. Behind her, nothing but forest. The quiet spooks her. The nights she sits alone all she can think about are the girls, the girls whose bodies keep turning up throughout King County, the dead girls, the nameless girls, the runaway girls discarded like spent gum or cigarette butts.

*

What she remembers most from her Papa’s funeral is the shoes they’d dressed him in. Shiny black leather shoes at the end of his casket. She was thirteen and she’d never seen Papa in black leather shoes. She’d never seen him in shoes that weren’t dirty. That was half her life ago and she still pictures the shoes clearly.

*

She’s never been a singer, but she sings when she’s drunk and maudlin. Flirting with this disaster became me, she sings. It named me as the fool.

*

She thought she would marry once, when she was seventeen. She had just left home, left her mother and sisters and stepfather in that rambler house in SeaTac. She had left school, dropped out, moved out and took the first job she could find, answering calls at the Kenworth plant. She was seventeen, he was thirty-five and a worker on the assembly line, and she was sure he would marry her. He told her he would marry her, but he was already married and his promises meant shit.

*

She lies in bed and clenches and unclenches her fists in time with the blinking of the Christmas lights and she worries, worries about those girls discarded throughout King County, worries she could be one of them. She worries she’s growing old. She worries about her pretty face turning ugly as she watches the mirror. She worries about the damnation her mother told her awaits women like her.

*

When she was in seventh grade she would play chess with a boy from school. She wasn’t very good, but he was worse. She once claimed checkmate in only three moves. One day the boy told her his pet lizard had babies. He asked her if she wanted a lizard when the babies got bigger. She wasn’t allowed to have pets, and she knew her mother would never tolerate a reptile in the house, so she made it a home in a shoebox and hid her new pet under her bed.

She had no idea what to feed a lizard, so within a few days her mother found a dead lizard in a shoebox under her bed, and her mother took away her tape deck and all her cassettes to punish her, made her take all the posters down from her bedroom walls and burn them in the trash barrel out back, and made her begin private Bible studies with the pastor from their Pentecostal church. It would be in those meetings that a man first grabbed her breasts even though she barely had breasts. The pastor didn’t seem to mind.

*

Another older man she had dated once put her in a chokehold. They’d come back to her garage apartment drunk from a party and as she stumbled toward the door she felt an arm around her throat from behind. She thought she was dead but she fought. She kicked, she scratched, she flailed until he dropped her gasping on the gravel driveway. The man had run back around to the driver’s side of his van, then came running to her, pretending that it had been some other man who tried to strangle her, some other man who ran off into the cul-de-sac or perhaps the forest. He wanted to stay with her to protect her, then he pleaded with her not to call the police, and he tried to force his way into the apartment after her but she screamed and screamed until Mr. Roselieb came out and ran him off. She never saw him again, but sometimes at night, she would imagine his van turning slowly around the cul-de-sac. For a while, every set of headlights that swung onto her apartment were the headlights of his van.

*

She worries she should be more careful. She worries she’s only ever said “I love you” when she’s drinking. She worries she drinks too much, drinks alone too often, drinks with strange men too often. She worries.

*

When she drinks she remembers her Papa, his smile, the way his hands felt coarse and strong against her small hands when she was small. She remembers him taking her fishing, using lizards as bait as they waded into creeks and streams, the cold water churning around her waist. She remembers the fish they caught, the way those fish tasted once Papa had gutted them and cleaned them and fried them with flour and lemon and light beer. She remembers the taste of those fish only when she’s drinking. But when she sleeps, all she remembers is Papa’s shiny black shoes, so she prefers to drink.

*

The attack left her bruised. She swore she was done drinking. She swore she was done with men. Men had never done anything she wanted to remember. She had learned shorthand and she had left the Kenworth plant for a better job doing transcription. She swore she would turn her life around, swore to swear off men and alcohol. But her promises also meant shit.

*

She doesn’t remember how old she was the time she stole her mother’s powder and lipstick, smeared too much over her face as she looked in the mirror, then tangled her mother’s curlers in her hair. She can’t remember how old she was, not old enough to know what she was doing, but old enough to know she’d done it poorly. Still she wanted to show her Papa, wanted him to tell her how beautiful she looked, tell her she was beautiful the way he would tell her mother how beautiful she looked on those rare occasions her mother curled her hair and put on powder and lipstick.

But her Papa didn’t tell her how beautiful she looked. He laughed and made her cry. He lifted her onto his chest and consoled her, called her “Papa’s best girl” over and over, then dried her eyes, washed her face, tried and failed to remove the curlers without pulling her hair. She wouldn’t cry even though he hurt her as he yanked the curlers out, she wouldn’t let herself cry to protect him from the hurt he caused her, but after Papa put her to bed and kissed her goodnight and shut her bedroom door, she bawled as quietly as she could stand, clenching and unclenching her fists until her bedroom walls grew lighter with the rising sun.

—Joshua Cross

#164: Linda Ronstadt, "The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt" (2002)

164 Very Best of Linda Ronstadt.jpg

When we got to the creek, I was shocked to see how much its path had changed. Its cold spring waters had eaten huge chunks of the crumbling soil on both sides, widening its path at least twenty feet, turning a gentle bend into an open pool that bit into the red dirt of the surrounding bluff, nearly obliterated a sand dune long-lived enough to have a hundred year old oak on it, then narrowed again, sending water rushing forward where it had wound tentatively when last I saw it. When had I last seen it? It’s hard to say. I hadn’t been to the family land in rural Missouri since my grandmother’s funeral in October 2001, but I doubt I walked down to the creek on that day. In fact, I know I didn’t. We stayed up at the house and at the church, a white clapboard structure, classic rural 19th century, that stood on land carved out of our acreage, donated by an ancestor and backed by a graveyard where we laid my grandmother to rest.

When The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt came out in 2002, she was hale and hardy. True, her career wasn’t as hot as it had been in her ‘70s heyday, but she had never stopped making albums, never stopped being a rock icon, an artist whose every musical project was greeted with interest and respect. The Very Best Of presupposed an audience as clearly as it implied a lot of other Best material that somehow wasn’t The Very Best. A culling. So much good material somehow distilled to one disc, unlike earlier two-disc Best Of compilations. The cream of the crop by an artist whose career as a vocal interpreter was rivaled only by those of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley, whose interpretations made songs her own while pulling their authors into the limelight with her. When she recorded Warren Zevon’s “Poor Pitiful Me” in 1977, she helped his already soaring reputation. Her band included members of the Eagles, count their big break when she recorded “Desperado.” JD Souther, Jackson Browne, that whole Southern Californian country rock scene stood next to her fire, courting her approval, presenting her with songs to sing like envelopes of cash at a mafia wedding.

The graveyard came before the church. In the 1830s, a racetrack was out there in the middle of nowhere, a half-mile loop, where a slave jockey fell from his horse and was fatally injured. Lying on the ground, looking up at the men who asked, unsentimentally, where he would like to be buried, family lore has it that he said, “Right here.” So the slave who died after a fall from a horse he didn’t own for a race in which he had no stake became the founding member of the Pennsboro cemetery. His grave marker is a small stone with hand-scratched lettering no longer legible. We don’t know his name. That is it. You don’t see the contrail of your own life, or get to say what you’re remembered for. Many of my ancestors on that particular side of the family have been buried there since.  They had no connection to the slave in life—weren’t slave owners—but in death he is not just part of the family, he is our patriarch. The money that built the small farmhouse on our family land some forty years after the jockey’s death came from a Civil War pension, which means my ancestors were union in a state where allegiance was a toss up. You could’ve been either. Confederate soldiers received no pensions, of course.

When will I be loved? The songs on The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt articulate longing, always longing, her voice like a winsome wave, sweet, strong, with grit. She has said she chose her songs for their feeling. Her life has gone through many iterations and she gravitated towards songs that told the story of what she was going through. Some say a heart is just like a wheel.

The racetrack fell into disuse—whether because of the jockey’s death or not, no one knows—while the cemetery grew, and eventually someone built the church where we attended services for my grandmother. The barbed wire fence that runs the back perimeter holds back a tangle of high yellow grasses, Osage orange and black walnut trees. If you lift a leg over the fence and head northeast for a good fifteen minutes strong walking, you get to the creek. My brother visits the land regularly, unlike me, so he led the way when we visited, marching us, nearly running us, losing us along the way and seeming to forget we were behind him, down to the creek. It was mid-afternoon, a time when his mobility is at its best and you can’t even tell he has Parkinson’s. I didn’t know why he was pushing so hard. Because he was excited to show us the land, which he loves? Was he for some reason angry, up there ahead of us, silent, all notions of family togetherness lost in the distance between us? Or rushing to use the window of his mobility before it closed, activated by an awareness of time much more acute than my own?

In 1987, Linda Ronstadt defied record-industry advice and released Canciones de Mi Padre, a Spanish-language album that sold massively worldwide. With sales approaching three million, it holds the record for best selling non-English language album in American record history. A few years later, Ronstadt released a follow-up, Mas Canciones, on which she and her two brothers sing the songs as they sang them together as children in their living room. Her brothers, a Tucson, Arizona sheriff, and a hardware store owner, became professional singers when the moment arose. If The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt could get better, it would be by having a track or two of Spanish-language music. It is beautiful music—the siblings harmonize like one voice.

People seem as permanent as landscape. So-and-so has always been like that, that’s his style, she’s just that way. But the fixity of character, of self, of the body that contains the personality, as it moves through a life is as tricky as the creek behind our ancestral home.  It presents a stately vision, the very look of time immemorial, but the river bends and rends the land and widens and quickens, tears chunks from the very earth, making a new topography as it goes and goes. You can’t see it happening, but it’s happening right in front of you. Change incarnate. There’s that saying—you never step into the same river twice. My brother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s early—he was still in his thirties, a successful builder, father of four small children, he and his wife in the middle of building their dream home from repurposed building materials on a large, remote piece of land. He didn’t take it well—how could anyone take it well?—couldn’t absorb the diagnosis. He became groundwater, flowed out of our seeing for several years, so that I never thought I’d see him again or know why he had responded to his illness by leaving us. When he came back, he was new. Different. And—this is true—better. He knew time differently. He lived in an eternal present—partly symptomatic of the disease, partly spiritual practice, the sharpened insight of a mind coming up against a wall moment by moment. Faced with the enforced knowledge that everyone we meet will find the deaths of those they love and their own death up the road, he decided kindness was the only sane response. He had become compassionate. When I speak to him I feel his urgency to let me know everything he thinks and feels, most of all that he loves me.

Linda Ronstadt announced in 2013 that she could no longer sing. That she had Parkinson’s. My brother was still groundwater then, gone into the disease, and I grieved for her. I wished I could write her and say something supportive, but the story as we were living it then offered no inspiration, no comfort. We were still in the maelstrom of confusion brought on by my brother’s diagnosis. Instead her voice—the voice that was gone now—comforted me. Blue Bayou, Ooh Baby Baby, Just One Look—I listened and I wondered how she was dealing with it. Was she balking, as my brother had? Wasn’t she furious? How could she accept the loss of that voice? How could any of us?

He is an artist, my brother, with longings he could never manifest before the Parkinson’s took his old life away. None of us knew who he really was, only that in the midst of his productive, happy-seeming career, there was a discontent in him. Now, his career as a builder over, he sculpts wood he gathers on our ancestral land, building art installments, furniture, looming statues, tiny buttons made from thinly shaved walnut shells. He has gone all in with the photography that was always a strong habit. He writes songs, his lyrics recorded by a Danish recording artist, their second album out soon. He is Linda Ronstadt’s opposite in that—no singer, but a lyricist. I like to think she would have found much in his lyrics to interpret with that voice of hers had their talents intersected at the right time. Lots of longing. But Parkinson’s took hers as it gave him his. He lost, then he found. He pushed up out of the ground and kept running, cutting a new channel. He is mindful, trying so hard to be a force for good, knowing that he’ll leave a trace one way or another. What will Parkinson’s uncover for Ronstadt? One of its symptoms is a difficulty with time. The past, the future, become more tenuous, less linear, harder to hold onto. Instead, Parkinson’s creates moments from which its sufferers look out like the jockey looking up from the ground, in which they know the only answer is, “Right here.”

—Constance Squires

#165: Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On" (1973)

165 Lets Get it On.jpg

The porch chair is on a cheap pendulum that squeaks beneath you. You’re rocking above it, the silence between you threatening enough almost to have sound. Someone nearby is playing music through an open window, but you can’t make it out.

He’s smoked two cigarettes and delivered the last of it—one box of dishes, a beat up Scrabble board, the driftwood dresser you picked up at a junkyard. He’s keeping the painting he bought for you last Christmas, ditto your favorite cereal bowls. You don’t say anything about it. You tell him to leave it all on the porch, and sink deeper into the chair, testing the pendulum. You’re trying to be civil, but you can’t stop thinking: here is someone you used to love; here is his thigh dressed in pants you’ve never seen, so many inches away from yours, respecting your space. He takes a thick drag from a Camel Wide. You watch the plume curl and disappear.

“When did you start smoking.” It’s not a real question, just an acknowledgment.

Javi’s legs are uncrossed, feet planted in front of him, ready to shift his weight to stand. One wrong move…his body says. “I had this idea,” he says. “A kind of New Years Resolution.” He exhales. “Not to take shit from my boss.” He’s gesturing like you know what he means—a small shrug, a wrist rotating. It’s sort of an answer. He used to say that he could take Janelle’s fits if he’d had vice on his side. “She’s getting married. It’s better and worse at the same time.”

Javier makes displays for a trendy clothing company on the Baltimore harbor. He works before the store opens, hauling un-lacquered wood past slouching mannequins, drilling enormous structures to hang fishnet dresses and neon unitards. When he got the job he came home scoffing. “A hundred bucks for acid-washed overalls. Overalls! $85 for a fucking duct tape wallet! These people.”

The tips of his boots are thick and a little scuffed. They’re Fryes, $300 a pop. You almost toe the jag in the leather on the side of his ankle, a two-inch hitch you’re sure he caught on a screw. He was always getting himself caught on a screw.

“Your thumb,” you say, and without meaning to, take it in your hands. It’s ripped, cuticle to knuckle, the seam open and dried out. It feels like plastic.

He grimaces but waits a few seconds before pulling away. Javi never gives allowances unless he likes something; he’s not a pleaser. You feel some of the power come to you, and you sit up a little straighter, fighting the impulse to apologize. He shakes his head like a dog flicking off water, and as his black curls shift you suddenly catch a whiff of something you recognize as his scalp. This is an intimacy that guts you immediately, this animal smell dropping right through your stomach into something like longing, something achy and familiar and impossible that you should have anticipated but didn’t. Something that seems to pull all the years you’d spent tucked into each other into a single scent; you can almost feel that first night, when he’d leapt from his car with the engine still running and pinned you against the parking garage wall, catching your nape in his fist. He’d kissed you so hard your lips stung for hours after.

Without meaning to, you lift your hand to your mouth. But you scrunch your nose too, and turn away.

Something about him having a resolution makes you realize how much he’s changed: it was a thing you would have done when you were together, something you would have penned on the kitchen calendar in looping cursive: Drink more water! Think positively! Do yoga! He would laugh and call you his little white girl. Now you don’t even pray. It’s not something you decided, not something you’d really thought about until he pulled up in his old truck, windows down, music blaring. You saw him through the old wooden rosary swinging on the mirror that his mother had hung before your trip to the mountains; he was too superstitious to take it down. And now he’s the one with resolutions, with promises to change, with a white girl’s whim to self-improve. You can picture his careful print, small rectangles on a Post-It: 1. Don’t take shit from Janelle. 2. Go to the studio. 3. Start smoking.

His job has gotten to him. The candy-colored shirts he bulk ordered and hand-embellished with thrifted fabrics are gone. Now a slate gray knit is slouched over his chest, the breast pocket stitched in neon thread. You always look so cool, you think, and then almost apologize—he was never impressed with your reading habit, getting annoyed when you quoted things to him from books that he didn’t know. “It’s just fucking snobbish,” he’d tell you. Once, to wound him, you’d said, “It was months before I realized you were smart.” Without looking up, he’d said, “And I used to wonder if you had any real creativity at all.” It was the first time you’d ever felt true shame.

When you see photos of him now online it’s always an accident you can’t stop looking at—a friend of a friend getting married in a warehouse; an opening at your old gallery; his new girlfriend’s show at a DIY space in midtown, the insulation visible in the ceiling, fiber sculptures on the wall. Behind the pink tubes of yarn hanging over the keg, you see his hand raised over her small brown head and know it’s him—his palm flat to the glass, a couple of fingers spread out. This is how you know he’s dancing—a kind of tarantella, all the motion in his knees. The short glass is rum and coke, his party cocktail. He can drink a dozen of these and not get sick. No hangover, either. Drinking rum was the only thing he ever did unguarded.

You hated him rum-drunk. He thought he was invincible. He upended tables and jumped off balconies. Once he left you freezing on a beach in Chile to chase strays along the mile-stretch of volcanic rock out into the Pacific. You watched him push two dogs into the water. When he came back he was chilled to the bone and soaked, his arm bearing the six-inch crescent of a mutt’s last nerve. He didn’t remember any of it in the morning, and kept asking you why you were so angry.

The truth is you’d both betrayed the other, both taken the tender gift of the other’s heart and broken it, and not even tearing it between your hands, looking it dead on, but as cowards: as if the heart could be carried in an open bag, and then left carelessly on top and let to tumble, unwatched, under a bench at a bus station, where you might claim never to even have known it was there.

You can hear the music clearly now: it’s Marvin Gaye, fucking Let’s Get it On, and you almost laugh out loud and then immediately feel sick. He’s heard it too, and you know you’re both remembering the same thing, both excited and embarrassed at the same time. You imagine reaching out and taking his wrist in your hand, twisting it until the bone snaps. You imagine peeling off the small patch of chapped skin on his bottom lip with your teeth. You remember the way he would pull you into his lap and fist his hand past your waistband, no matter what you were wearing, ruining so many of your clothes. You look into his eyes and can see the half-smile dent he’d made in the wall above your bed the Halloween you’d pressed him about her until he’d hurled a bowl of popcorn over your heads. How you’d spent the rest of the night sobbing and holding each other and telling him over and over, that you were so sorry.

The track changes. All you can hear is “sugar” sung in that low plea that could make it any song on the whole album. You close your eyes, try to catch it. You’re not even surprised to feel Javi’s fist push past your waist, the hand closed, so that even if he’s trying to hug you, you know he wouldn’t be sorry at all if you fell from the force of it. It’s a test and an invitation, and you know he’s going to let you decide the narrative of his action. Ah, ah baby let us, ah, tell me what you missed. You open your eyes, see the hard look of his jaw.

Come here, sugar, and get to this.

The bench bucks when you make your move.

—S.H. Lohmann

#167: Metallica, "Master of Puppets" (1986)

167 Master of Puppets.jpg

It was, like, a week after we first brought him home? Maybe a few days. My wife was upstairstaking a shower, opening diaper boxes, something. I was on the living room couch; I cradled him on my left arm, and tapped at my work laptop with my right. There were some things I wanted him to hear.

Fourteen months on, it’s hard to know what he likes to hear. Often, we conflate “enjoys” with “sleeps during”by that measure, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is a winner, and so is Willie Nelson’s general catalog. About six months in, I created a Spotify playlist and loaded it with boppy Motown, golden age rap (Biz Markie, “Da Set” by 69 Boyz), and current chart pop. My wifewho’s with him more often, and therefore should actually be the one who wants her child to hear music she can toleratehas been smarter. Her playlist is mostly folksy singalongs (“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “The Crawdad Song”) and cuts from musicals. If he’s vocalizing (“aaaaaaa”) instead of snoozing, she figures she’s got a winner, and she’ll call up the song’s Radio station and add similar tunes.

When I was a child, I listened as a child. That is to say, I listened through my parents’ ears: Ray Boltz and Amy Grant when I was running errands with my mom, Handel’s Water Music and Pachelbel’s Canon during family dinners, The White Album (and little else) when my dad took me to buy baseball cards. For years, when anyone had a birthday, my parents would crank the Beatles’ “Birthday” on the hi-fi and we’d all dance.

The Master of Puppets sessions were not Metallica’s first in Copenhagen, of course. The year before, they’d spent about two months tracking Ride the Lightning with Flemming Rasmussen: drummer Lars Ulrich had dug his work with Rainbow. They started hashing out the follow-up back in California—according to band lore, the day after they watched Live Aid. (They had recorded the concert broadcast so they could catch Status Quo and Zeppelin.) They were hoping to record their follow-up in the States, but the California studios were shitty; they might have settled for North America, but Geddy Lee was unavailable. So they hauled ass back to Denmark.

My love was mediated from the start. The first record I bought with my own money was Take Me to Your Leader by Newsboys, a Christian pop/rock band from Australia, whose title track frequently dispersed my youth group after our Sunday night gatherings. I was 13 when we joined the church, having just moved to Texas, with one more year of homeschooling to go. I might have been 13 when I bought the album at a store for Christian teachers; my mom was getting supplies, and I noticed their cassette rack.

Denmark was fine for recording, but as a cultural milieu, it sucked for a bunch of Cali weirdos in their early 20s. Ulrich was a Danish native, but he was holed up in the studio with Rasmussen, employing whatever production wisdom he had gleaned from Joe Satriani. Someone told lead guitarist Kirk Hammett about a decent beach, so he took bassist Cliff Burton to check it out. “[W]e went there,” he told Rolling Stone, “but it was so cold and there was absolutely no wave action or anything. Cliff and I were just bundled up on this weird beach in Copenhagen saying, ‘God, this place is driving us crazy!’”

Last year, a Danish graffiti fan named Disk published a collection of works he shot over three decades. He’d started taking pictures in 1985, when he was 13; it’s entirely possible he might have crossed paths with the American heshers, him holding a camera, them holding dreams of decent waves. Vice Denmark published a pic he took that year. Titled “Crime,” it’s a fine piece, considering: 3-D bracketed with arrows, and a nauseating fill that alternates between light blue and pink. In case you hadn’t noticed it, someone (the artist?) added a guy to the right. He’s got a shit-eating triangular grin and an afro; his infernally bent arm terminates in a pointing finger. As a capper, the piece is overlaid with three white starbursts, andincorporated in the worka fourth, broken star figure.

There’s so much I listen tomaybe all of it?because others loved it first, and because they loved it, it sustained my love. I got my first job at 16, working at a Chick-fil-A on a night crew stacked with friends from youth group. My first work memories are of listening to “Are You That Somebody?” and “Intergalactic” on the kitchen radio while washing mugs. One of my first Texas friends got hired on soon after; he was just as involved at church as I was, but he enjoyed a freedom that I hadn’t tried to exercise. Every shift, he’d bring a mess of CDs in from his car, in an empty waffle-fry box that he’d use until the bottom rotted from sitting on damp flour and chicken strip marinade.

His work taste tended toward hard rock, something I hadn’t really bothered with. Whenever he pulled a kitchen shift, we’d listen to Oleander, Rage Against the Machine, Nickelback, and Metallica. One night, he brought in a stack of cassettes so he could record a live performance of the S&M album off the radio. Even then, I thought the music was overblown, but he was in love, so I was too. He used to host people to watch Sonny Chiba or American Ninja movies; we filmed action scenes at the restaurant after closing; a bunch of us used to spend every New Year’s Eve at his mom’s ranch house, shooting off fireworks and smoking Marlboro Reds some relatives left after a wedding. It seems possible, now, that I had a crush on him.

Once I got my work laptop booted, I started picking out songs. I was going off a Spotify playlist I had called “back to the garage” when I thought I was actually going to sort all the shit we had in there, months before a baby was even a subject of discussion. I started off light. Dokken’s “I Can’t See You” didn’t bother him, so I decided to practice some dad jokes: Autopsy’s “Torn From the Womb,” Immolation’s “Father, You’re Not a Father.” He just blinked. I cued up the shortest Puppets track without an intro (“Leper Messiah”), but my wife came downstairs, and that was it. There was no spell to break, really. He was just a little blinking squish, vibrating with life but also the most fragile thing we had ever encountered.

Master of Puppets was Metallica’s treatise on control. The controlling force could be mental illness:  “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a resigned elegy for the first half, and a summoning of strength in the second, as the narrator contemplates a possible, ultimate escape. It could be state-sanctioned violence: the way guitarist/singer James Hetfield growls “back to the front” on the beyond-jaundiced “Disposable Heroes” carries the most authority of anything here. Control could even beas it has been to untold men throughout the centuriesa cloak that lets you pass through walls: the ponderous, Old-World acoustic intro of “Battery” is almost a joke: a grenade tossed from the tank. Hetfield rips off gleeful iambic trimeters, galloping atop his breakneck thrash riff like one of his beloved Horsemen. He is Bo Jackson on a juggernaut cart; he is a New Year’s bottle rocket headed straight for Jeremy’s face.

I got to college, and I guess I was free. The dorm I was in freshman year had a T1 line, and I downloaded every recommended track Allmusic threw at me. Many nights, I’d walk to my friends’ apartment across the campus golf course, stone sober with a Wilco CD in the player, or maybe a mix with Okkervil River and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I had forsaken metal. My old friend and co-workerthe closest thing to a hesher in my lifeenrolled at a Christian school in the Southeast. I’d shoot pool at Poets and groan when someone chose “Master of Puppets” on the jukebox. The fuck are you doing, playing an eight-minute song at a bar, I’d think, pumping my heel at Lars’s crashes in the chorus. I’d usually end up picking the poppiest thing in the jukebox, which was “Groove Is in the Heart.”

To a man, each member of Metallica was brought to the harder shit by a family member. Kirk was a horror freak until he started raiding his brother’s record collection. Cliff grew up practicing the piano, but his brother Scott died at 16, and he declared, in way of dedication, that he’d become the greatest bassist. James played piano, toohis mom sang operabut his brother David was a drummer, and when David was in college, James was free to raid his Sabbath collection. Even Lars, an only child, caught the bug after his father (a professional tennis player and polymath) got him a ticket to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen. Lars moved to the States for the sake of his budding tennis career, but metal won out, as it does.

I was my parents’ first child; my brother followed soon after, and I was perpetually checking his notes. I bought two Semisonic records because he’d caught “Closing Time” on the radio and thought it was worth mentioning. (I bailed on buying the single because it had a cover of a song I didn’t know called “Erotic City,” and I was in a Borders with my dad.) He became our friend group’s prophet of ska and reggae, due in part to the Supertones, a Christian third-wave act who opened one album with a brass-boosted nick of the “Creeping Death” riff.

It’s so much work to summon and corral these memories. My recall isn’t great. Maybe that’s why so many of my high-school purchases were poppy CD singles like Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” or “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast; why I’ve been assembling massive playlists from the 1960s studded with the oldies hits I remember from three-hour car rides to see our grandparents in Kissimmee. My son could be soothed to sleep, once upon a time; since I can’t remember the full lyrics to more than a handful of songs, I would improvise these fake doo-wop progressions, tangles of aaas and daas and doos until he finally fell asleep. My wife told me he had responded to “Friends in Low Places,” so I spent a few weeks rocking him to a best-guess hash of all three verses. He’s over all that; now it’s shushes and screams and silence. What music comes is for me; I’ll move to the bedroom and pull out my phone, auditioning playlist cuts in the dark, waiting to hear whether bedtime took.

Puppets was every bit the triumph the band wished; they moved to the vanguard of thrash metal, and Ozzy inked them as openers for the American portion of his Ultimate Sin Tour. When that concluded, the band headlined a series of European dates. It was on the way to Copenhagenagain!that their bus flipped, crushing Cliff. Dumb shit like that, you can’t control. But your record’s shifting units that Death Angel could only dream of, so you keep going. You created something, you gotta keep it alive.

I got back to metal. I used to joke that I needed to seek out the harshest shit possible so my kids couldn’t pull rank. Brutality’s its own reward, though. So I’ll call up some d-beat or grindcore or funeral doomjust for me, and usually on a stranger’s recommendation. In the last couple years, my favorite branch has been atmospheric black metal. Synthbeds stretching like spiral arms, while underneath, the rest of the band howls about their insignificance. Existential wonder punctuated with full-body tantrums: I can’t imagine a better soundtrack for a baby.

—Brad Shoup