#46: Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Legend" (1984)

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I once spent a summer as a lifeguard in a landlocked waterpark that wanted to feel like a beach. Nestled beneath the roller coasters of the larger amusement part to which it belonged, this “beach” featured fake waterfalls, timed geysers, a winding swimming pool “river” with a mechanical current, slides tall enough that I learned how to move a person with a spinal cord injury, and a brand new 650,000 gallon wave pool. This was where I worked most days, pacing the paved “beach” or sitting in my wooden guard chair, scanning the deep end for swimmers in distress or children clinging to the wall, too short to touch the bottom as artificial waves crashed over them, banging their heads against the tile.

It was here that I, teenaged and naive and bored out of my mind, became a Bob Marley fan. The water park had a soundtrack, ubiquitous and repetitive, the same 20 or so songs on a 24-hour loop. They pumped the music in via speakers shaped like handsome, inconspicuous rocks or fuzzy black coconuts tucked between plastic palm fronds.

It was a predictable mix. There were surfer tunes like “Wipe Out” and Caribbean-inspired rock songs like the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” There was only one song by an actual Caribbean artist: the relaxed, seductive “Stir It Up,” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. With its slow, bouncy bassline and playful sexuality, it was just another part of the illusion. “Stir It Up” was meant to make visitors feel as if they’d stepped off the hot amusement park concrete and onto the glittering sand of some paradisiac Caribbean isle. But for me it was the soothing, syncopated rhythm that calmed my nerves as I performed my lifeguard-ly duties.

I heard it as I watched the waters, I heard it as I noticed something dark floating in the depths, I heard it as I blew my whistle, hit the big red button to stop the waves and used my megaphone to instruct swimmers to exit to the concrete beach. I heard it as I put up barriers to the area, explaining to park visitors that the pool was closed for sanitation, and I heard it as I fielded questions from angry mothers, afraid that their dripping children might have contracted something deathly, something for which they might sue the park and me, unable to read between the lines as I hinted that there was nothing to worry about, that the pool held 650,000 gallons of water and dilution was a thing and we weren’t talking about a chemical spill here, but I wasn’t allowed to just say, “Hey, look, lady, your kid took a shit in the pool. Everything’s fine. Go ride a roller coaster instead of yelling at me, please. It’ll help you dry off.” Lifeguarding at the waterpark wasn’t all Baywatch, although we did wear red one-piece bathing suits. But there was no glamor, nothing sexy. It was just loud and slow and smelly and sweaty.

But there were beautiful, quiet moments, too. I remember listening to “Stir It Up” in the morning, when the park was still closed and the air was still cool. I’d arrive early for the day, making my way past the groundskeepers fishing snakes out of the “river,” to swim in the still expanse of the empty wave pool alone, each ripple my own, water stirring in the early sunlight for only me; the Wailers’ backup singers crooned just for me, too, because I was the only person there to hear them. That was something real.

Half of my high school was employed by this amusement park every summer. Two of my uncles had worked there, too, back in the 1970s, when the park had had a monorail and a safari—a combination that resulted in disaster (lions on trains) and the subsequent removal of both of these attractions. Or so I’d been told. I had grown up visiting the place in spite of these stories, so I never really thought about how unreal it all was. A concrete beach felt perfectly normal to me when I was sixteen.

It also felt perfectly normal to me to alter my consciousness as often as possible, then. I went to parties with bonfires thrown by coworkers or friends of coworkers who introduced me to all kinds of drugs; hippie types, white kids in flowing, tie-dyed clothing, some of them even sporting blonde dreadlocks. These kids loved Bob Marley. They wore his image like a talisman. We smoked and drank together, and I can remember, one night, watching a group of them sway, stoned or tripping, eyes shut or squinting or wide-open, pupils dilated and turned towards the stars, as one of them strummed his guitar and crooned “Redemption Song.”

None of this sounds so normal now, does it? Not the concrete beach or the drugs or the blonde dreadlocks or the image of that white kid singing a song of freedom as if he somehow wasn’t or hadn’t always been free. I’ve changed. The world has changed. That kid has probably also changed.

My favorite Bob Marley song is “Buffalo Soldier.” I love it for its dissonance. Bouncy, slow yet joyful, with lyrics that speak directly of the transatlantic slave trade, chiding listeners, “If you know your history, then you will know where you’re coming from. Then you wouldn’t have to ask me who the heck do I think I am.” The chorus is an infectious round of wordless vocalization, a chant inviting everyone to join in. In his songs, Bob Marley challenges us to hold two opposing truths in our minds at once: “everywhere is war,” and “every little thing is gonna be alright.” Let’s all sing this together, he seems to say, and let’s also remember how we got here together.

—Claire Boswell

#47: John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme" (1965)

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John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a sonic dedication to the power of love to spark change and universal greatness. The format is a suite with four parts—Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalms. The music, recorded in just one session on a winter night in 1964, is accompanied by a poem, “A Love Supreme.” The fourth part of the suite is a musical narration of these lines.

Coltrane uses the liner notes to address the journey that brought him to the point of the album:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT ... IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME –.”

It is clear that Coltrane reveres God, yet taken as a whole, his meditation on the theme of love feels non-denominational. The love supreme that Coltrane shares with us is Agape, a universal love. His message extends far beyond the arc of religion.

Acknowledgment

If we think about what questions this work asks, it seems that it wants to know if we understand the value of love to heal.

Ashley Kahn, a music journalist who has profiled both Coltrane and Miles Davis, has said that talking about Coltrane ultimately means talking about yourself. “If you look at the book [A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album], it starts and it ends with me talking about myself and how A Love Supreme forces me to talk about my own spirituality. There is no way to avoid it. If you are going to be an open and honest listener, and allow this music to enter you—which was Coltrane’s intent — you have to be willing to speak about yourself.” When asked if Coltrane’s work was challenging people “to address their own seldom-visited emotions,” she said, “He often spoke about how music should be a challenge, and that it shouldn’t come too easily.”

What have we let go? What have we cast off that was holding us back from love? What demons have we exorcised? What weights can no longer claim us? What did we let go of for love?

What kind of love heals us? What kind of love is good for us?

On the other side of these questions is the love that we want, the peace we say we need. Name the thing. There is peace there. Where there was despair, there is now hope that something new is on the horizon. Maybe love is what we are led to after fighting off our darkest shadows. Maybe this is how we heal.

Resolution

Coltrane’s heroin habit threatened to take it all—it even got him fired from Miles Davis’ band.

“I have seen God – I have seen ungodly,” he tells us.

He eventually got clean. He made it to the other side. So great an effort that often fails and makes no promises—a true transformation with no simple solutions or easy answers, only hard-fought roads through.

In his essay “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin touched on the inherent loneliness facing  artists. “It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.”

Coltrane accepted the heaviness of the crown he wore, both for what he overcame and his role at the time of this album’s making as the unofficial arbiter of new musical possibilities. Clearly he felt the responsibility to share his spiritual ecstasy. A Love Supreme straddled the old and the new ways of looking not only at improvisation through sound but also through the artist’s journey.

“No road is an easy one, but they all go to God,” says Coltrane.

Pursuance

What is a love supreme? Many listeners have grappled with the ephemeral nature of this concept.

In the Paris Review, Sam Stephenson says Coltrane’s music “increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness.” Miles Davis said the album “reached out and influenced those people who were into peace. Hippies and people like that.” Is it a coincidence that after battling his own addiction, Coltrane inspired in others a spiritual, ecstatic devotion?

He was even the impetus for the creation of a church—Saint John Coltrane Spiritual Community—where the “A Love Supreme” meditation takes place every Sunday.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin describes the circumstances that bring us to an acceptance of the magnitude of universal love. “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left.”

It’s telling that many critics feel that A Love Supreme is not an album meant for the novice Coltrane listener, acknowledging that it was a very divisive album among jazz fans when it was released. “Musicians especially know the history behind it, where Coltrane came from, and the intensity that he put into his life,” says Kahn. “This intensity didn’t exist just for this one recording session. He was at it 24/7, for basically most of his adult life. Now, that is very daunting. And for the result of that work to be a recording like A Love Supreme, most people would retreat from that.”

Psalm

A Love Supreme is a meditation. The last part of the suite, Psalms, is a musical poem, where each line Coltrane plays represents a part of the poem he wrote to accompany it.

Lewis Porter, a jazz pianist who wrote John Coltrane: His Life and Music, says, “The four sections—‘Acknowledgement,’ ‘Resolution,’ ‘Pursuance,’ and ‘Psalms’—recreate Coltrane’s own progress as he first learned to acknowledge the divine, resolved to pursue it, searched and eventually celebrated in song what he attained. The first part is improvised over the repeated bass motif with no set chorus length. We don’t realize until the end of ‘Acknowledgement’ that this motif means the words ‘a love supreme.’ Coltrane prepares us for this near the end of his solo by playing the motif in each of the 12 keys and in various registers. He finally plays in unison with the bass in F and chants ‘a love supreme.’ It’s a sort of reverse development, saving the exposition, or perhaps ‘revelation’ in this case, for the end. He’s telling us that God is everywhere—in every register and in every key.”

God breathes through us so completely…
so gently we hardly feel it... yet
it is our everything.
Thank you God.
ELATION
ELEGANCEEXALTATION
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.

In just 32 minutes, we are asked to reckon with the transformative nature of love. Love doesn’t always have the power to quell demons, but perhaps when it does, the results are divine.

—Lee Erica Elder

#48: Public Enemy, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (1988)

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This is the monster that makes me fear to speak. Take a given Wednesday. You’re at work. You got cheated out of your break, your boss throws a new project at you out of nowhere, you get an email that your heating bill is double the month before. You rise from your labor for a moment to wipe your forehead, maybe grab some water and say to a colleague, this system should be improved somewhat, and what might they do?

If you’re lucky, they express some personal solidarity. “Yeah, man, that sucks, I’m sorry it’s rough for you.” Maybe they’ll give you some ideological backup too—if they’re anything like me at 11:00 am at work, they’ll even do it too forcefully, brandishing chips they can’t cash. “Yeah, man! We need to burn it all down—I’m telling you. Shit, a wall of skulls, that’s what we need—rich looking skulls with the perfect teeth or the fancy fillings. See that Starbucks CEO wants to run for president? The only thing billionaires should be running for is their lives.”

Or maybe the beast reveals itself—the one that calls you out as what you fear you are. You complain about the faults in the system and suddenly it roars back—“But you, you there. You participate in that system. You cash checks from it. You show up when it says, yes sir yes ma’am, laugh when it says hump day amirite and when it says eezy peezy I don’t see you gathering any skulls for bricklaying your wall.”

We gotta work, gotta eat. For most of us, surviving depends on us finding things we are willing to do for money, for people willing to pay us. Nothing I can say about artistic or revolutionary integrity has changed that fact, at least not in America. The proles have work in the morning, or another way to meet the challenge of making ends meet. Anyone who doesn’t has work working for them.

*

My first run-in with Public Enemy was when I was a pre-teen at the end of the year 2000, grinding through the airplane hangar level in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. As I bent my knees into the first ramp, I heard the collaborative mix of “Bring Tha Noise” featuring Anthrax. That mix is, as Chuck D describes it, “like shrapnel”. At first it just seemed like a fantastic song to play while fake-skating. Chuck D is a badass, and Flav’s enthusiasm is infectious. Eventually, though, the lyrics started to seep into my mind, before I had the context to understand what they mean when they say, “black is back, all in, we’re gonna win / check it out.” Going to win what, I thought? Who the hell is Farrakhan and why is he a prophet?

That led me to put down my Dreamcast controller (yes, I played this on Dreamcast—continuing my long streak of picking the underdog system, the band that broke up, or the show that got cancelled after two seasons) and led me down the early 2000s version of a Wikihole. That single rap lyric from “Bring Tha Noise” invited me, a husky white kid playing a video game, to learn about pro-black politics and social justice, and to delve into the Nation of Islam and its leaders. While there’s plenty to criticize about that group (and I’m by no means trying to diminish what’s problematic, bigoted, or downright nutty about them), Farrakhan’s group did one thing better than most in that era. They managed to help some black men like Chuck D feel powerful and purposeful while living in a system designed, from the ground up, to do the opposite.

That’s why Public Enemy works on It Takes a Nation of Millions. Chuck D brings the poetry and the politics, and channels the power. Flavor Flav is the hype man’s hype man. At his peak, he could probably get you psyched about endorsing your paychecks and rewinding your watch if he wanted to. Throw in Terminator X’s samples, beats, and scratching, and suddenly revolution has the polemical force of a pipe bomb, the appeal of a night headlined by the coolest guys in town.

It Takes a Nation of Millions is the second of four albums by Public Enemy that kept the party going strong, fierce, and vibrantly during the peak of their career. By building on the foundations laid by artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, Public Enemy brought political hip-hop to a new height in this period. This is why it’s so frustrating to see the drift of Chuck D’s career in recent years from revolutionary prophet of rage to the leader in the ho-hum, stale Prophets of Rage supergroup after the 2016 elections. I discovered Rage Against the Machine from Tony Hawk 2, as well, as “Guerrilla Radio” alternated with “Bring tha Noise” on the soundtrack. I always perceived them as the “real deal” regarding their activism and their political leanings when they were in their prime.

Then the vocalist of Rage, Zach de la Rocha, stood by while the other three members of the group formed a supergroup (a term which I’ve grown to loathe) with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. They called it Audioslave. Why, audiogods, why? Cornell had his own origin myth for the name, but it has the most focus-groupy feel to it, and to me, so did their music. It would seem that the members of Rage didn’t learn that lesson and didn’t communicate it to Chuck D, because after Trump was elected, they all took the opportunity to staple together Prophets of Rage and put out songs that felt like nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the nostalgic desires of people who remembered the artists’ good old days, and were fearful or angered by thoughts of the days to come.

Cashing in. What else can you call what Flavor Flav did after this? He starred in a Real World ripoff, got in a relationship with Brigitte Nielsen, and VH1 spins this yarn into two more reality shows afterward. You can’t get further from bringing the noise, or fighting the power, than this. But maybe I lack empathy when I say that. The music scene moved on from Public Enemy after the early ‘90s. Even politically conscious rap in general become about groups that drifted further and further from Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Meanwhile, you gotta work, gotta eat. People remember you fondly, so you take an offer from your agent to be on a quirky show. You find a wave, you ride it. Did you betray the revolution you believed in? Did you cancel out the brilliance of songs like “Mind Terrorist,” “Rebel Without A Pause,” “Louder than a Bomb”?

*

Maybe It Takes A Nation of Millions is the soundtrack to a revolt that never really broke loose. Maybe Public Enemy lost their moment. I really dove into their catalogue starting in 2005. That summer, a classmate at a program I attended in Pittsburgh—already a hip-hop reviewer himself—handed me a couple of mix CDs that included artists beyond Public Enemy—guys like Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kweli, Tonedeff, K-OS, Cunninglynguists, Immortal Technique, and KRS-One. It was as if to say, Here. Catch up. So I did, digesting all these artists and their albums, carrying It Takes a Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet to school with me in my Walkman. It was supplemental coursework. Sure enough, it made me feel ready.

I had a stint in college where I’d join a few people protesting in front of the Sudanese Embassy off Dupont Circle in DC. A few signs about the genocide in Darfur, a megaphone, and a car from the Secret Service Uniformed Division keeping watch on the block, seemingly cool with us. The album I played while traveling to Dupont on the Metro those few weeks was Game Theory by the Roots, which to this day is one of my favorites. It’s dark, layered, and deals head-on with the political and social crises of the mid-Bush era as the Roots saw them. It’s also heavily influenced by It Takes a Nation of Millions, with the track “False Media” repeatedly riffing on lines from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Both songs implore us to take the artists seriously—I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’, they say. They also express the same distrust of prevailing narratives that we see everywhere today: False media. We don’t need it, do we?

And with that, maybe the question of whether anyone has sold out becomes less important. Maybe this is why Rage Against the Machine, for instance, doesn’t see any need to record new music. The old tracks hardly feel old in some ways, and that’s how I read Public Enemy’s work here. This is from the time before the Million Man March, the era of Walkmen and pagers, but it’s still punching its weight and reverberating in an era of black disenfranchisement, police brutality, and bombastic New York real estate morons taking too much of the publi-

Yeah, nevermind, I hear it now.

*

Part of Public Enemy’s trek into the spotlight was opening for Beastie Boys. As I’ve said before, Beastie Boys managed to do juvenile bombast better than just about anyone on their album License to Ill. Part of that cred comes from their single “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” which, they claim, was misinterpreted as a celebration of debauchery and revelry at the expense of other priorities. They’d argue they were playing a joke on listeners who didn’t catch the irony—which I don’t put past them, even if I think artists are susceptible to finding the coolest critical take on their art and then claiming they meant it that way all along. I’m not above it, myself.

What does Public Enemy end this album with? Something more direct, something more earnest—“Party for Your Right to Fight,” a mantra that even might suggest that all this recording, promoting, signing, and merchandising bullshit artists subject their work to can be used toward something greater, something that justifies the apocalypse imagery, the blaring sirens, the thundering beats and cryptic Nation-of-Islam mythology. It’s as if Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and their crew want to reiterate that all this is in furtherance of something—a liberation struggle they deem necessary. So what if they had a VH1 show or a lame supergroup team up since—for better or worse they got you looking up Yakub and Elijah Muhammad, didn’t they?

They put this out into the world, and now you have the courage to say something yourself, don’t you?

—Benjamin Walker

#49: The Allman Brothers Band, "At Fillmore East" (1971)

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I’ve always resisted live albums, so naturally I thought it would be a good idea to write about what’s considered the greatest of all time. My dislike is partially from my father playing the Emerson, Lake & Palmer live album as he drove me to school sometimes. The endless solos were lackluster for me, especially since I would only hear about 5-10 minutes of them once a day. He would joke about pausing it after he dropped me off so I wouldn’t miss anything (still not sure if he really did) but it never clicked for me. Sorry, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The only live album I’ve ever owned was John Mayer’s Where the Light Is. I was never fully interested in that album either. There was something about listening to a show I would’ve rather been at that caused me to be disinterested in it when it was gifted to me for my thirteenth birthday.

I’ve held onto that for the past almost-decade. I’ve avoided live albums of current musicians and bands completely. I’d rather be at the show or not have a hand in the experience at all. I detest those 3D concert movies. I’ve categorized the whole thing in my mind as just some cheap way to turn a profit by recording something that was happening anyway. I had this whole impression of them that formed at thirteen and I’ve never reconsidered it until now.

While trying to understand why I felt this way I realized it was because at some point I convinced myself live recordings are just live renditions of album versions, no changes. But I’m an idiot. When I’ve gone to shows I’ve seen bands play different versions and arrangements of songs, something that’s so special and intimate. There was a disconnect; I didn’t fully think through that these moments happen at most live shows. Capturing these moments was then the point of a live album. John Mayer, a blues-rock artist, is actually a good example of someone who does the guitar solos and different arrangements, giving the album versions soul when performed live (I have since listened to it). I just didn’t give the album the chance to prove that to me when I was younger. I do admit, though, that I always became a total hypocrite and changed my stance completely when it came to music and bands that no longer existed.

It feels like cheating the system to be able to listen to and see videos of performances from bands and people that have already lived and died, whether or not the members themselves are dead. But that’s why they documented them (duh), for preservation and legacy. Can you imagine someone describing something to you but never being able to hear it? Tragic. It would be just as much a tragedy to not understand what an Allman Brothers Band live show was like. Luckily, their shows at Fillmore East in March, 1971 were recorded. These recordings became the album, released July, 1971, that is now considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. This album showcases and captures their unique sound which is a combination of blues, country, rock, and jazz. The incorporation of so many genres meant they weren’t confined to any one, allowing the Allman Brothers Band to be indulgent with not only their own songwriting but also with their changes to the songs they covered. No one had really done what the band was doing before, especially when it came to what it truly meant to jam onstage, so why wouldn’t you want to record that for everyone to experience? Again, I’m an idiot.

The album starts with the most modest introduction: “Okay, the Allman Brothers Band.” The crowd goes wild. When I first went to listen to the album I was having a bad day, turned it on in the car, and immediately had to turn it back off because it felt too positive, too upbeat—I was overwhelmed. So then to later realize the song was “Statesboro Blues,” oof, I had to readjust how I was listening to it. Sidenote: I’m not a blues expert but I do know that the blues shaped rock in a lot of ways, so the vibe of the song isn’t really that crazy at the end of the day, I was just having a bad one. The second run-through, I lay on my floor and closed my eyes, making sure this album had my full attention. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s song from 1928 (which I had heard before) had such a completely different energy and feeling than the original, partially due to their full band versus the stripped down version of the original. How they made this old blues song and rock ‘n’ roll fit together was the perfect introduction to the Allman Brothers Band.

It’s followed by another cover, Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong,” this time more closely related to the original blues rock track. Then another cover, T-Bone Walkers’s “Stormy Monday.” You can hear Gregg Allman catch himself as he introduces the song, “While we’re doing that blues thing, we’re going to play this song by Bobby Bland for you—actually it’s a T-Bone Walker song.” The commentary, the slip-up, something that wouldn’t have ever happened on a studio recorded album. This is their most original cover version throughout the set. The emotion captured in Gregg Allman’s voice is so raw, the same emotion which is then somehow echoed by either Duane Allman’s or Dickey Betts’s guitar—since they traded off solos, I’m really not sure (I bet a die hard fan could tell the difference). I’m always impressed by how vocal a guitar can sometimes sound, especially with the inflection it can communicate. And it’s not just the guitar, it’s the player’s ability to make it sing. Duane Allman and Betts could really make them sing.

Then they shift from the blues to a jazz inspired jam, “You Don’t Love Me.” Here’s where we really get audience involvement, as they clap along with the fast paced beat that makes me want to get up and dance. I thought about clapping along too. Alone in my living room, lying on the floor. Would I feel a part of it? Or just stupid? I didn’t clap. This song features my favorite guitar solo. The entire band falls silent, leaving Duane Allman to do what he does best. The moment with just him and a guitar is captivating to listen to. He slows it down and really takes his time. How does the cliche go? Sound is nothing without silence, and he uses the silence so intentionally. The sporadic and awkward claps are also something I relished in. You could tell the audience wasn’t quite sure when to clap, or when it was over, so there was a contradiction between regretting and embracing the claps as you would’ve wanted to applaud what was happening but also didn’t want to interrupt it. What was really the right thing to do?

Then they play another jazz inspired song, this time fully instrumental, “Hot ‘Lanta.” It’s followed by the second to last song, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” another instrumental. This seems to feature some latin influence as well, proving there’s no genre they can’t incorporate.

The final song on the album is “Whipping Post.” It’s from their first album, the recorded version a mere 5 minutes and 17 seconds. This version is a full 23 minutes and 9 seconds. It bears some similarities to the original but also diverges completely. It’s intense. That’s the best word I can think to describe it. Intense. Betts does the guitar solo and it merges into a chord progression they later said they’d never done before. The level of musicianship and how quickly the other members ran with it to end up with this 23 minute track, it’s immeasurable. What a way to end, as the album fades out with the crowd roaring.

Some of the wonder and fortune of this album also lies in its circumstances. There was a bomb threat the third day at Fillmore East and while they still played, this was recorded over the first two days. Then three months after its release, Duane Allman, founder of the group, died in a motorcycle accident. There was no way then that they could ever redo what they had done at Fillmore East. Someone else could replicate his slide-guitar parts and improvise their own solos, but it would never be the same.

The Allman Brothers Band’s original lineup formed and disbanded before I was even born. I missed out and didn’t even have the shot not to, but here we are, I still got to hear it. I’m still trying to figure out my full feelings on live albums, but there is undeniably a level of comfort and genuineness that a studio album can never capture, and this exemplifies it. It’s spontaneous, unpredictable, almost unintentional in some ways. There is value in the differences between live and studio albums, I just have to tell my stubborn self that thirteen-year-old me didn’t really know anything. Inevitably, someday, there will be a band that’ll redefine genres and the limits of what we think live performances are, and what a tragedy it will be if we miss it.

—Grace Howie

#50: Little Richard, "Here's Little Richard" (1957)

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"And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me.”

– Little Richard

Maybe it’s this: too much TV and not enough real conversation.

The first Little Richard song you hear isn’t even really a Little Richard song. You’re a few years old, watching a segment on Sesame Street done by the California Raisin people. An orange clay ball with red lips bounces and stretches to her theme song, which is a play on “Lucille,” only you won’t get that yet. It’ll burrow into your brain like all the other stuff you watch. You’ll understand references later—opera because of Bugs Bunny, Citizen Kane because of The Simpsons.

You’ll see and hear Little Richard properly soon after, on a VHS copy of Mother Goose: Rock 'n' Rhyme, a trippy-as-hell musical for kids where celebrities dress as nursery rhyme characters. Listen, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. You’ll only remember one thing, and it’s Little Richard. He’s a dreamy sugar confection, tall and glittering with a shiny, two-foot crown atop a mane of baby-pink curls flowing down his shoulders. He’s in a magenta suit, a hot pink feather boa trailing behind him, his shoes thick black high heels.

Then it’s like you can’t stop seeing or hearing him. You’re mesmerized. He does the Magic School Bus song, the theme of live-action Casper. “Tutti Frutti” is in It Takes Two, that Olsen twins movie your sisters love. He ice skates with Pee-wee. He pops up in episodes of Martin, of Blossom, of Full House. He sings “America the Beautiful” at WrestleMania X. You catch him on Sesame Street, but this time it’s really him, and he’s singing “Rubber Duckie.”

Your eyes don’t rest as a kid. You sit too close to the TV and you watch and you watch and you don’t say anything. You never say anything.

*

Maybe it’s this: fear.

It starts at like five years old maybe. Teachers call you “soft-spoken,” forget you’re even standing there, stuff like that. Like you aren’t really a person but more of a nerdy gentle breeze occupying a Catholic school desk. You keep to yourself, read lots of library books on dogs and insects, dress in baggy flannel, and grow your hair super long, like ridiculously so, like your hair is trying to overtake you, hide you, envelop you into Cousin Itt oblivion. And part of you would love that, too—just to fade absolutely, completely into the background.

At home, alone in the living room, you sing along to your mom’s Beatles Live at the BBC four-CD set. You listen close. They’re playing some Little Richard.

But at school? Anywhere else but home alone? You turn crimson when anyone talks to you. You spend hours sliding down spirals of doubt in your head. You watch other kids interact, watch normal human behavior go on in front of you and you just can’t participate. You freeze up.

It’s like you’re not physically capable of talking sometimes, of making yourself known. You could have the words halfway up your throat but then your jaw will stay locked tight. You’re stupid, you’re wrong. You don’t want anyone looking at you, anyone mad. You don’t want to cause a commotion.

You feel the fallout from this early. In second grade, when a kid chokes on a cube of cantaloupe, the teacher makes you run to get the nurse—you of all people. The nurse is on the phone so you make the decision to wait quietly (you were taught to be polite, not interrupt; you weigh pros and cons) until she finishes up her call. That kid could’ve died because you didn’t want to bother anyone.

Your nerves are shot by the time you hit third grade.

What are you afraid of, anyhow?

*

Maybe it’s this: God.

Maybe you’re so quiet and guilty-feeling and nervous all the time because you were raised Catholic. Something infected you early. Something happened while you were standing in line waiting to confess your sins at seven years old, struggling to come up with what you were going to say because you’ve got to have something to confess, right? Didn’t you disobey your parents? Didn’t you get jealous? Don’t you want to go into a little room with an old man and tell him how bad you are so he can give you a way to make it up to God?

At thirteen, just as you start public high school, you’re dragged back to your church and forced into confirmation classes. It feels wrong to go back, like you’re opening a closed book. Your teacher is some 80-year-old guy—just some guy, not even a priest—who talks to you and a group of your former classmates about being sinful and being teenagers and how the two things just go together. He weaves other boogiemen into this narrative—Muslims, gay people. You never understood this talking-out-of-both-sides-of-your-mouth thing, how God is supposed to love everyone but, you know, not everyone everyone.

You know God wouldn’t want you to lie to Him and get confirmed if you had doubt, if you couldn’t machete through the thick forest of people talking. Talking, talking, talking.

But you, not talking.

You fold. Genuflect. Take Cecilia as your confirmation name. She’s the patron saint of music, and music’s all you’ve got.

You sit in the pew and pull at the little clamp that used to hold people’s hats a long time ago. It’s worn and you can feel the metal smell dirtying your fingers. You pull and ease it back down. The pressure for it to snap is great.

You wonder if God hates you for lying. But if you’re sorry, if you come back to Him, you are forgiven.

You pull pull pull the hat clamp up. You wince.

*

Maybe it’s this: sex.

In high school, your friends talk about the crushes they have. They date and they kiss. You say you don’t like anybody even when you do, for fear your friends will tell your crush. For fear of complete rejection. For fear of a pity date. For fear of his eventual disappointment.

At fourteen, a boy comes to you, and you’re in such shock that you’d do anything to keep him. You don’t eat in front of him, you say yes to things you shouldn’t say yes to. You forget yourself. What are you afraid of, anyhow?

You are outside your own body, and when he leaves you, you can’t find a way back inside. The door has locked. You live the rest of high school viewing yourself as a cautionary tale, as trash. You watch your body from above.

Teenagers and sin just go together.

Your favorite college professor is a gay Jewish woman. She tells stories about how she was arrested for protesting years ago. She tells the class that sex is a mitzvah. That sex is a joy, a celebration.

You come out as bisexual in an essay you hand to her. You feel some kind of weight move—it’s not gone, the weight, but it’s shifted slightly.

You hadn’t known about the joy, how there’s supposed to be joy.

*

Maybe it’s this: introversion and obsession.

When you’re older, way after you dye your hair black and cut your bangs short and start digging through dead people’s trash to find novelties from the ‘50s, you listen to Here’s Little Richard in its entirety, like really listen. You try to undo all the pop culture association and corny covers and all that, try to undo what time and parody have done to it. Uncake the glitter and candy and sequins a bit—just a bit—and think of this meteor hitting people in 1957.

You watch clips of him online. You watch him in 1972 in a jeweled headband, telling an interviewer he’s never been shy, that he lets it all hang out. You read about orgies.

You watch him when he’s old, when he says Jesus is coming back and we better be ready. You listen to his gospel songs, the ones he made each time he abandoned rock and roll. His voice is deeper, a dirgey warble.

You watch talk show interviews from the ‘90s. You hear him say his dad told him he’s half a son.

You play the album more and more. The first track is “Tutti Frutti,” a song so iconic you assume it’s just always been there. You remember it’s the one playing in that Olsen twins movie, right when Steve Guttenberg gets pelted with a bowl of mac and cheese. You learn it was originally about anal sex.

Your favorite is “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave,” a slower song that opens with such a raspy rumble it sounds like he’s practically eating the microphone. He starts each line with that deep growl, but then flows into falsetto-y yelps at the end. Then a few songs later, in “Baby,” he’s practically cooing at the start. The whole album sounds effortless, like it’s pouring out of him.

You look at the back cover of the record. It shows two sketches of Little Richard, and they are both blood red, his pompadour slightly pointed. He looks like the Devil. He’s crouched below the copy, screaming, open-mouthed as if he’s vomiting up the track listing.

The back is a tall tale version of his life, his name capitalized at each mention, in black or red. You read the last lines, where it says Elvis “showed his admiration by recording four of LITTLE RICHARD’s songs,” that Pat Boone and others did the same. Admiration, they call it. Not whitewashing, not de-sexing.

You think about duality in words, pictures, appearances. You think about duality in people. You think about the complicated mess inside you, and how it’s in everyone. Only sometimes, they just live it out loud. You think about how heavy everything inside you feels.

Maybe it’s this: anything, anything, anything, just a fluke in your DNA.

Maybe it: doesn’t matter.

There are two places you feel normal enough to quit being quiet. One is when you’re at a rock and roll show, when it’s dark except for a glow over the band, when the bodies are packed tight and the music’s so loud that you could scream the words until your throat’s raw and still not be able to hear your own stupid voice.

The other is when you’re alone like this, and you put a record on, and you dance. You never dance in front of anyone—you are too aware of yourself, of your body from above, not within, how strange it is to never speak, how odd it is to be you. If you think about it too hard, you’ll surely quit. But don’t quit.

Turn the volume up as loud as it goes. Little Richard is screaming at you. Put your hand up to the speaker and feel the vibration, like it’s breathing. Sink closer, put your ear to the speaker. He’s pressed up somewhere on the other side. He is screaming to you, for you, and you close your eyes and imagine him so hard you can almost see it: soon he’s pressed completely through, each molecule of his shining being squeezed through the tiny holes like Play-Doh and then there he is, standing over you. He’s not young Little Richard. He’s Old King Cole.

Hey baby, he says. He is beautiful. His skin is glowing, glittering. His hair shines in the dim light.

Get up, he says.

And you say—no, you scream: I’m here, and I’m listening, and I want to be as loud as you, oh Lord do I want it.

—Emily Costa

#51: Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1970)

51 Bridge Over Troubled Water.jpg

Retired Sgt. Harry Dolan still rides out to the bridge on most nights. It’s the beat he rode for more than twenty years as a California highway patrolman. He’s retired the khaki uniform and tall, black riding boots for a windbreaker and blue jeans, a trade he made even before he left the force. Plainclothes are less intimidating to most people, especially the ones he meets. The only physical evidence of his time on patrol is the identification in his wallet and the police scanner on his motorcycle. He leaves an identical scanner in the kitchen flipped on in the evening, like some people tune into a baseball game on the radio. The chatter and hum make the house feel less empty as he moves between rooms. If he hears a “10-31,” at home or while on his motorcycle, he heads towards the bridge at once.

A “10-31” is bridge code for “jumper.” No patrolman has responded to a “10-31” more than Harry Dolan. All told, he’s talked more than 200 people off the two-foot outer platform and back over the slatted railing of the bridge. He’s trained dozens of other patrolmen to do the same over the years. Reporters tout him as the “Golden Gate Guardian” for his service, and the mayor of San Francisco once presented him with an oversized, old-fashioned key. If a reporter asks, he pulls it out of the closet in the front hall of his house. People get a kick out of seeing a bronze-colored key the size of an adult golden retriever.

Tonight, the bridge is quiet. Harry parks and starts across from the north. The walk is never the same twice. On a foggy night, the bridge arches out like a pirate ship’s plank, and pedestrians inch across the sidewalk, half-expecting to find the concrete vanish beneath their steps. This night has shooed the afternoon fog away, though. The soft glow of streetlights curls up around the suspension cables until dissipating into the night air. A soft purple drapes the city in the distance. Harry passes beneath the first tower and feels dizzy trying to eyeball the top. The sense of enormity never changes – the sheer tonnage of concrete and steel suspended 250 feet in the air, the 10,000 gallons of paint applied annually. Looking straight up, the bridge’s two spot-lit towers seem to pillar the sky, preventing the heavens from crashing down into the Golden Gate.

Harry thinks he smiles as he observes people crossing in the opposite direction. “Are you alright?” a young woman stops to ask him. He nods and walks on, not seeing her turn back to check on him several times until the man she’s with convinces her it’ll be alright. Harry looks down the sidewalk in both directions. All is calm. He stops and leans out against the rail. A gust of wind snaps against his jacket. The dark water below rocks undisturbed. He’s at the midpoint of the bridge, known as “the gateway” for the portal shape made by the cables sloping to and from the main towers. Many people have claimed to have seen ghosts out here. Others have said an almost tangible sadness hangs thick in the air, and the mind starts to get lost in dark thoughts. Still, others say the water itself calls out to people, luring them over.

The strait is full of names that drift through Harry’s mind. Less than a year on the beat, a teen named Brendan Skiles leapt but survived. The water shattered two lower vertebrae, and a broken rib pierced a lung. The coast guard officer naturally assumed he was diving in to recover a corpse. In the hospital, the boy told Harry that he had walked the length of the bridge three or four times that morning—crying into his cupped hands—but nobody stopped to check on him. One couple with a small child even asked him to take a family picture for them. That had been the breaking point. “I just needed someone to listen,” he said. “The moment my hands left that railing, all I could think about was how much I really wanted to live.”

Most jumpers don’t get to explain their experience. In his wallet, Harry keeps a folded letter from a Mrs. Irene Nance. “It must be hard to do what you do,” she wrote, “and to go back day after day to a place where there is so little hope and such overwhelming sadness.” The letter goes on to tell of her plans to walk the length of the bridge soon, maybe when the weather breaks. She hasn’t driven across or set foot on it since her son, Josh, vaulted the railing several years ago after his wife left him. Harry found Josh’s note on the bridge tucked beneath a rock. It read: “I love you, I’m sorry.”

The name that shakes Harry most, though, will always be Arnold Brown. He had spent more than three hours listening through the railing to the twenty-seven-year-old laid-off father of two. Brown told Harry about the factory job he had lost three months before, about the stack of unpaid bills sitting on his dining room table, about his two daughters, and even about the Niners’ chances at the playoffs that year. Harry had sunk a dozen “hooks” into Brown and allowed him to talk so long that his initial agitation and hollering had softened into a calm conversation. When this happens, most jumpers regain their senses and climb back over the rail to safety. However, Brown wasn’t most. “I want to thank you for all you tried to do,” he told Harry, pumping the officer’s arm twice. “But I think it’s time for me to go.” He took two steps backward and disappeared. They never found the body.

There are thousands of names floating in the troubled waters below. Names that Harry has never been able to set aside. Names that have kept in touch, thanking him for their second chances at life. Others are just faceless names appearing at the top of morgue reports. Elizabeth had tried to understand. She knew her husband’s job wasn’t normal or even like that of most police officers. After Arnold Brown, she urged him to transfer out of the area, to a patrol where that bridge couldn’t take any more from him or their family.

Harry instead opted to move them closer to the bridge. He started doing extra shifts and even patrolled the bridge on his free time, tending after the desperate souls who leap into oblivion about three times each month. That responsibility made it difficult to think of Sunday dinners or little league. He became all but a stranger to Elizabeth and the boys, spending his little time at home in the garage polishing his motorcycle and listening to the scanner for trouble. Eventually, like Arnold Brown, Elizabeth decided it was time for them to go. They had moved out three years ago last month. By the time Harry’s superiors noticed a change in him and nudged him toward a desk and then early retirement, the “Golden Gate Guardian” had nothing but an empty house to go home to.

The retired Sgt. bites his lip and begins rocking gently over the rail, using his palms and chest as a fulcrum. As Harry feels his momentum shifting away from the bridge and towards the open night, a voice breaks the spell: “Can I come closer and talk with you, sir?” Harry feels a cold, sobering breeze blow against the wetness on his cheeks. He lowers himself and turns to see a man in the same patrol uniform he had worn for so many years. The officer walks a few steps closer and kneels. “Were you thinking of hurting yourself tonight, sir?” he asks in a calm, even tone. The officer’s face is unfamiliar, but Harry recognizes the script, the one taught to all patrolmen who work the bridge beat. The one that had made him the “Golden Gate Guardian.”

“Would you like to talk?” asks the officer. “I’m here to listen.”

Harry nods and steps back from the railing. His chest heaves until he can choke back the tears. “Would you believe I have a key to the city?” the retired Sgt. asks the officer.

“Does that ever come in handy?”

“Truth be told, I don’t think it opens a goddamn thing.”

—Matt Melis

#52: Al Green, "Greatest Hits" (1975)

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I

Gus’s is packed. “Tired of Being Alone” croons down from tinny ceiling speakers.

I lift my plastic mug up to the waitress and welcome the watered-down coffee she pours.

…won’t you help me girl, just as soon as you can…

Jesse and I have been chatting about his home life. Girlfriend gone, new dog. He shows me the doggy cam on his phone. And for a minute we watch his puppy sit on the couch by the window and observe the scene outside. He’s waiting for Jesse to come home and feed him.

…I guess you know that I love you so…

“You’re twisted.”

Jesse just grins. He’s smitten.

…even though you don’t want me no more…

“To tell you the truth, I am some hungover,” the waitress says, dropping our plates down. She looks it—bags under her eyes, a downturned mouth.

…needing you has proven to me to be my greatest dream…

Before we have time to formulate a response, she’s moved on to the next table, full stride—for a table of regulars, her face breaking into a smile.

II

You remember playing pick up on the local courts. How it feels to walk up the court. You are in your late twenties. Young men pile out of a low-slung car with its music on so loud and so bass-laden that you feel the beat resonate in your ribcage. You head for the court, the marked spring in your step exposing your eagerness. There’s a group clustered around the bench near center court. Some guys are already shooting, others are out on the grass stretching, serious—and cool—enough to remember their warm-up routine. One young pre-teen sidles up with a ball so worn it resembles a gigantic peach. He stands quietly at the three-point arc, gauging, no doubt, whether he’ll be allowed to play in what is clearly an adult game. “Love & Happiness” seeps from some old man’s Cadillac, no doubt on 8-track. …walk away with victory…

You join the crowd gathered under the basket, waiting to rebound an errant shot, pass out made baskets to the appropriate shooter, or dribble to the corner for an open look. You’re waiting for critical mass, for someone to call out “Let’s play!” or “Shoot for teams!” After a few more warm-up jumpers and some idle talk, teams form, the ball gets checked in, the game starting up like a car on a cold day.

III

Coming downtown can feel a bit like a ghost walk these days—old haunts replaced by the new-thing boutique, entire buildings razed and a hotel plopped down in their place—(blink) a foundry becomes (blink) a tourist spot. Old memories rise up and walk alongside the distracted tourists. How long back does this nostalgia tripping go? As far as I let it, I guess.

5 Walnut Bistro is nearly empty this early in the day—a few locals at the bar. Nice to be in from the heat. A squad of segues floats by. Two buskers head for their spot. The first out-of-towners tumble in just as I finish my beer. Why not? I walk up to the bar for another.

The white-haired beatnik sits outside the café with his coffee and notebook, and the dark-skinned gentleman with the walker blasts “Let’s Stay Together” outside the library on his old-school boombox propped on the seat. …times are good or bad, happy or sad…

 

IV

As soon as He steps through the door everyone in the place starts acting as if they are in a movie, or at least trying out for one. We all know He’s in town, has been in town for over three weeks now, shooting a picture, and that One-Eyed Jack’s has become by necessity the evening’s go-to stop, always a little after ten; and we all know He comes here alone, and always takes a corner booth that within three days miraculously stays open beginning around nine and remains that way through last call, even on the occasional night he doesn’t show, either too busy with shooting or just tired from running his lines all the time, we never know but talk about constantly on our squeaky stools…maybe he’s having an affair with the co-star…

But just as soon as He steps through the door, the cameras are running, so to speak, and everyone gets busy playing their part. The title typed on the script: Nonchalance. The soundtrack? Al Green’s version of “I Can’t Get Used to You.” That fabulous aural strut, such a peacock cakewalk…what else? I can turn a river into a raging fire / I can live forever if I so desired…

Gerry, the bartender, makes sure to be at the corner by the pool tables just as He makes his cool way there. The nod is mirror-practiced, the flip of the coaster pitch-perfected, and the “What will it be?” straight out of a dozen westerns. Always “Jack” then, a pause, “with a Bud back.”

No one will ever admit it, but there’s always perfect silence in that moment—or as silent as a bar can be when jam-packed and giddy with expectation—gone quiet in order for the lines to be articulated just so, in the way people pause when a serious golfer tees off; no one wants to be that jerk who throws perfection off with some dumbass remark.

And as soon as He gets his drink, and thinks His way to the always-open booth, a little private smile is paired subtly (but not so subtly I can’t make it out every time from my perch by the jukebox) with that little hitch in the step. Sliding into the plastic bench seat, as if preparing to mount a stallion or slide into a sports car or hop into a cockpit. And just then the place slips on cue—I can change anything from old to new—into a deeper, more natural rhythm, dropping into gear—pure small-town-bustling-barroom aesthetic, back to the way it’s usually supposed to be, though it has never been this crowded on a Tuesday night, and the high school gym teacher never used to sit at the bar with a Coke (being fifteen years sober), nor did Jackie, the town’s notorious divorcee, ever play pool before or show this much leg, etc.

But not until all the above has transpired, with the preselected music coming on (the handler making sure that the Everly Brothers’ song gets removed and this Al Green number added)—the things I want to do the most, I'm unable to do…) not until then do the bar-backs begin their overhead martini machinations, forearms flashing (clearly they never did that before), and all the young high school dropouts start up their dancing audition, hoping for their fifteen minutes, would He turn his oversized head, with its professionally styled helmet of hair, and smile at me, once, like a camera flash, and pat the plastic leather seat, side-nodding his head as if to say, It’s okay, there’s room. And then, but not until then, I would slide down off the sill and grab my sweaty ginger and gin, and make my Kmart Garbo way through the peanut shells, basking in all the jealous adulation, knocking shoulders with the dime-store cowboys, and join Him there inside the gauzy gazebo of cigarette smoke, and offer my one sure move, my patented daffy grin.

V

Flight delayed, you find the only empty seat at the bar and, when you finally get the bartender’s attention, order a double scotch. The young woman next to you is reading a book on asana yoga. Her legs are pulled under her on the high chair, and she is leaning forward to sip her fruity drink. She’s debating whether she should have another. The bartender comes over but she shakes her head no. The woman looks over at you like you’re stupid.

“Not interested.”

“In your book or talking to me?”

She frowns. You start to ask her about the yoga book but stop yourself, turning to your drink as if it were a book.

A nearby couple, having paid their tab, walks past you out into the terminal, dragging luggage behind them distractedly. They look like extras on the Brady Bunch. You slip over to the furthest seat from the young woman. She sighs out loud, not looking over, and sticks her nose deeper into her book. You watch the couple until they disappear down a long ramp into Terminal C. Almost imperceptible at first, like a small voice trapped inside a box under a table, if not louder then somehow clearer, you can make out “You Ought to Be With Me” on the terminal speakers. Sit right down and talk with me about how you ought to be…

You can’t help but laugh, which makes the young woman frown even deeper.

Right then an East Indian family walks by, the mother and daughter in full-length saris; the husband wears a traditional western business suit, but the son is dressed in typical American teen sportswear.

You finish your drink, pay up with the barkeep, and ready yourself for the next stage of travel. On the way out you glance over at the young woman, who looks up and stares at you with an easily decipherable look on her freckled face. You give her a salute and move on…turn your back for another day…Singing along all the way down the carpeted ramp.

VI

Three friends in town early morning. In a few hours two are heading home, flying off in separate directions, while the other drives country roads back to work. He’s brought his out-of-town friends to his favorite bagel place. Tucked away in the warehouse district, the joint’s made up of a long counter, a couple of booths and a picnic table. Big stone ovens line the back wall. After ordering, the men sit at a table, talk returning to the last few shared days—of all the projects picked up, discussed, brought forward in small steps. A song percolates on the radio:

Sha la la la, la la la,
I love you,
Sha la la la, la la la,
Thinkin' of you…

Someone looks at a watch. Getting close to time to go.

And I've been feeling this way
for such a long time…

All of a sudden, a bagel appears wreathed in steam—its unexpected arrival signaled by a doughy waft —lofted between the three friends on the end of a ridiculously long wooden paddle. It floats there between them a moment then, with a flick of the baker’s wrist, slides off into a basket. “Try this,” he barks across the counter. The baker smiles broadly, knows he’s just blown their minds.

One of the men tears the bagel into thirds and passes the steaming bread around to the others. Dark seeds fall to the table. When the men step out into the mist, each is happy, for the moment satisfied and full, ready for what the next portion of the day will bring.

VII

The bar opened promptly at four. The bartender dropped his cigarette and propped the door. You’d walked the square twice; still you were the afternoon’s first customer. The interior had to have been carted across the Atlantic, piece by piece, including the old-fashioned ceiling, for when you crossed over the threshold some rough magic transported you back into an Irish pub.

You made the young bartender laugh by ordering a gin martini.

“If something something something, than an Irish bartender can make a dry martini.”

You were not really listening but smiled and, when it arrived, lifted the top-heavy glass carefully, first as toast then as opening gambit. Sitting back with a sigh, the day’s small worries released as dusky light pushed through the bar’s high windows. Now that’s what you were talking about.

All day you’d been roaming the rain-soaked streets, grimly reliving a few lost days in your 20s: fresh off a Greyhound, an afternoon to kill and just enough cash to haunt the cafes, to buy a used paperback; eventually napping in the square among the hippies and bums, the tourists nibbling at their boxed lunches. Such nostalgia made you lonely. Old.

There was a little over an hour left before you were scheduled to meet old friends. The bartender was telling a young couple about the bar’s origins, no doubt the first of a least a dozen retellings. The woman went over to the jukebox, deposited her quarters, selected her songs, then headed back to the booth. “Full of Fire” slunk into the room, floating on its horn section, its parading saxophone…I’m full of fire…you’re my one desire…you can make me cry…

You had enough. Packed up your things—the sun hidden behind a picket line of clouds; the evening crowd’s beginning to surge—hitched up your daypack like a young man in a romantic movie, and set out for the next portion of the night, already hungry for dinner. Life has just begun…

VIII

He notices there are no stay off the grass signs on the patch of grass athwart the gazebo. It being the new Biltmore Estate “village,” there easily could be. But, no, this is a frolic friendly zone, as evidenced by the band of youngsters wobbling and careening around the neatly cut lawn.

(“Are we evil?” one asks the other. “No, we’re not evil,” the other replies. And off they slip into the next adventure.)

There are two pairs of elder folk lounging on lawn chairs and blankets.

“Welcome! You’re going to love these guys,” the man says.

Both women nod with big smiles.

“It’s a memorable band,” someone says while another laughs. The way the word “band” is emphasized makes him wonder what’s up.

And, by the end of the first song, he realizes that this may be the worst jazz quintet he’s ever heard. Jack agrees. It’s the singer mostly, who doesn’t quite sing off-key (as she will get accused of); she sings flat and trips around desperately attempting to stay on beat. The guy on electric piano keeps comping in front of her. The bassist seems to be playing along to another song entirely. So many wrong choices it’s comical.

They leave their little blanket to catch some dinner at the English-style pub nearby.

Sally and Marie walk ahead. Jack asks what he thinks of the band.

“It plays as if someone posted a stay-off-the-grass sign on the songs.”

They stop at the giant collar encased in glass in the foyer. Jack reads the plaque.

“It’s supposed to fit a bulldog’s neck,” he announces.

Drinks arrive, orders taken.

He’s just figured out how to tune out the band’s background noise when the singer comes alive on some familiar number he can’t name. Then she really starts singing the next tune—Al Green’s “L-O-V-E”—and all of a sudden she has time and pacing and rhythm. And, in turn, the kids have reformed on the grass, dancing hand-to-hand in a daisy chain, swaying like the trees. And the sunset glints a little in response, and the birds hover nearby. Well, not really. But their table has started listening in between sips of ale and Malbec, and join the terrace in offering the band a polite round of applause at song’s conclusion. Maybe the singer is filling in for an absent lead. Maybe the band needs to pull out the old soul and R&B songbook a little more often. He suggests dipping back into Al Green some more, maybe “Belle.”

Their food comes. It is just what he wants, or expects, and the foursome lingers over a second glass before meandering out into the night, tourists in their own town (inside a fake town). The band has already packed up and gone. The old folks have departed, as well, onto the next hilarious thing. There’s a blanket to pick up, a car to locate. Three young boys zigzag around in the gathering dark, jet-fueled on ice cream.

—Sebastian Matthews

#53: The Beatles, "Meet the Beatles" (1964)

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Meet John! John is smart, but John lacks focus in school, lacks discipline. He draws dirty pictures and passes them around the class, but pleads innocence when they’re discovered. John’s mother buys him a secondhand guitar, but John’s aunt Mimi won’t let him bring it into the house, so he learns to play standing outside the back door. When it’s cold, his fingers stumble on the strings.

Meet Paul! Paul’s mother is sick. Paul’s mother has an operation. Paul’s mother doesn’t survive. Paul, when they tell him, makes a joke. He laughs and laughs, and his father is horrified. At night, Paul prays for his mother to be returned to them. He’ll be good, he promises. He’ll do all his school work, he’ll pay attention in class, he’ll help his father at home, he’ll look after his brother, if only she’ll come back. She doesn’t. Paul starts playing guitar instead.

Meet George! George likes to sleep in the back of class. George’s mother buys him his first guitar. She says she believes in him, will always believe in him. If he puts his mind to it, she says, he can be anything, be anyone. George dreams of emigrating, of moving to New Zealand, Canada, anywhere but England, anywhere but Liverpool.

Meet Ringo! Ringo’s appendix bursts when he’s six and he spends twelve months in the hospital. Parents aren’t allowed to visit their children (too distracting!), but the nurses let Ringo’s mother in late at night after she finishes work. She watches his hand rest on his blanket as he sleeps, watches the steady rise and fall of his chest, and makes her own promises in exchange for his survival.

John forms a band, the Quarrymen. Along comes Paul. Along comes George. Paul writes songs, so John does too. They egg each other on. How many songs did you write today, mate? I’ll do you one better. Their songs improve. On each one, they write: Another original by John Lennon and Paul McCartney! John’s aunt Mimi still disapproves of the guitar. She doesn’t let Paul and George into the house. This is a phase, she tells herself. He’ll grow out of it. He’ll lose interest. It’s just a phase.

John sits in his stepfather’s living room, waiting for his mother. The phone rings. His stepfather answers. His stepfather looks at John, and John knows, but he doesn’t want to know. He hears, as if it’s right outside, the squealing of brakes, the crunching of metal, the thud of a body flung through the air. The ambulance goes to the hospital. John’s aunt Mimi goes to the hospital. John and his stepfather go to the hospital. Too late. His mother is gone. But music, music is still there. Another original by John Lennon and Paul McCartney!

There are five of them in the group now: John, Paul, George, Stu, and Pete. They call themselves the Silver Beatles. John likes to make up stories about the name, but the truth is he just thought of it one day. There is no story there. The Silver Beatles play in Hamburg. They play in Liverpool. Stu leaves the group. Stu wants to focus on his art. Stu and John write long letters back and forth. Stu is not well. Stu collapses. Stu dies. John places his letters in a drawer and doesn’t look at them.

Finally, finally, an offer from Parlophone. A record, a real record will happen. Don’t tell Pete. Or maybe it’s less explicit—more of a forgetting to tell Pete. I thought you were going to tell Pete. Well, I thought you told him. It’s enough that no one tells Pete. Goodbye, Pete. Hello, Ringo. You were too good for them, Pete’s mother tells him. They were jealous. You know John, he’s always been the jealous type. Later, they all say: we fucked up. We should have done that better.

Is this Beatlemania? It’s fun at first. The fans scream, the crowds scream, the girls scream. There are girls everywhere. The girls love us, they say. Eh, did you see that bird? Did you hear her scream your name? Then it’s not fun. Hiding in cars, ducking out of back doors, wearing disguises. John is reluctant to stop in Liverpool, finds the attention embarrassing. Our boys, they’re called, by mothers, by grocers, by mechanics, by anyone who happens to see them. John ducks his head, shrugs, waits for it to pass. It must pass, he tells himself. No one can care about them this much.

They prepare to go on tour, but take an island holiday first. Paul goes swimming. Paul doesn’t think about ocean currents. Paul swims too far. The shore is so far away. He worries, for a moment, that he might not make it back. His legs are so tired, his arms so heavy. Maybe he sees George on the beach, sees George calling to him, waving his arms. Come on, Paul. We need you. Paul takes a breath. Paul kicks harder. Paul swims to shore.

And so begins three years of touring. Ringo is worried. He’s new. Some of Pete’s fans threaten him, blame him for Pete’s dismissal. Ringo’s not sure who he’ll room with on tour. He fiddles with his drumsticks to hide his nerves. George slings an arm around his shoulder. You’re with me, he says. You’re one of us now.

Meet Cynthia! Meet Jane! Meet Maureen! Meet Pattie! Girlfriends, partners, wives—they too must hide from fans, must lie about their relationships. No, Cynthia says, no, I don’t know John, no, this isn’t his son, no, no, no. Sometimes John is angry. Sometimes John is jealous. Sometimes I think something is broken in you, Cynthia tells him. He thinks of the hospital, a battered body on white sheets, and wonders if she may be right.

Goodbye, Britain. Hello, America. People tell them they won’t do well in America. It’s all well and good to have a following in Britain, but this is a small island, they say. America’s big. America is its own market. We Brits just can’t seem to break in. The plane lands in America, and oh, how funny it is that everyone was so wrong.

From plane to car, from car to hotel, from hotel to car, from car to theater/concert hall/arena. They grow pale from lack of sunlight. They are hidden away from the world, experiencing others only from the stage. The girls are a monotonous blur of screams, of open mouths, of falling tears. Paul stands at his microphone, strums his guitar, and thinks of the ocean, of a current tugging at him, carrying him out to sea, and this time he yearns to give in to its pull.

Who am I? he asks the others after the show, once they’re safely in the hotel room, away from the hordes. No one answers. Who are we? he says. Piss off, John says and drapes a towel over his face. No one else answers.

Did they know it would be like this? Did they dare, even for a moment, to dream of their names everywhere, of fans everywhere, of playing concerts where they can’t hear their music, of never carrying money, because who needs money when you can’t enter a grocery store or movie theater or restaurant without immediately being chased out of it? They can buy homes for their families, they can order a private plane to take them to Spain in the middle of the night, they can have twelve dozen bottles of champagne delivered to their room, and isn’t this the dream? Isn’t this what they’ve always wanted? To write songs, to play music, to be universally loved? John and Paul huddle together in hotel rooms, in the backs of buses, playing with chords and lyrics. Another original by John Lennon and Paul McCartney!

I’m lonely, Ringo writes to his mother, but he tears the letter up and doesn’t send it, because how can he be lonely with the others at his side? He’s never alone now. None of them are.

They leave the hotel out the back door, ducking through the kitchen, which smells of grease and fried fish and leaves a damp sheen on their skin. The car is waiting, but so are the photographers, so are the reporters, so are the fans. There are microphones aimed at them, cameras, pens and paper shoved into their hands. Yes, yes, they say. Nice to meet you. Sorry, our car is waiting. Please, just let us through. Please. They haven’t left the hotel since they stumbled into their rooms after last night’s concert, and the smell of the crowd’s sweat is somehow a relief. It’s gray and cloudy, and when the shutters click, the flash blinds them, and for a moment, the people vanish, the shouts fade, and they lift their faces as if to the sun and close their eyes and breathe in the darkness.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#54: Ray Charles, "The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings" (1991)

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My Oma never stops singing.

Oma’s email address is omasings31. None of my family members can remember her passwords for anything, so it has been changed multiple times—endless strings of numbers after various landmarks in her past: barcelona, badhomburg, cartagena. But the singing, certainly, remains constant.

At the dinner table. While playing cards. When her blood sugar has gotten too high from eating an entire carton of blueberries that I accidentally purchased for her because she asked for it, and now we are watching her levels and fearing that she is going to stroke out because she is 87 years old, and her eyes get that glassy look to them before the color returns to her cheeks and she announces that it is time for her to go to bed. While driving her to the hospital after bringing her in for a routine check-up as a favor to my parents and being told that I need to take her to the emergency room immediately, except that me, the poor dumb millennial grandson, had simply dropped her off at the general practitioner before going across the parking lot to Starbucks, and so there I am, walking in with an iced latte in my hand and two missed phone calls.

I come from a family of musicians: radio DJs, All-State choral members, Disney Mouseketeers. I’ve sung a little bit in my time—I was the front man for a high school band for a season where I took some old center-justified poems and tried to scream them over some basslines. In middle school and high school, I sang in the chorus ensemble—a Tenor 2, to be exact. It is something that has never come natural to me, however—there is an ardentness to singing that is something that simply can’t be overlooked. I have difficulty being earnest: my wife jokes that when I want to say something sentimental to her, I put on my “sentimental voice” where it sounds like I am being insincere even though what I am saying is the truth. I filter my voice through layers: when I sing, I sing playfully—I get over-dramatic with my delivery when I am in the car by myself. I come up with ridiculous harmonies to songs on the radio. If I try to sing with gusto, I get embarrassed; my karaoke moments are few and far between and are only earnest at their most drunk, which is to say that they are already shielded in the mask of seven ciders. I pride myself on my ear rather than my voice—I’m able to pick out certain nuances in songs and patch them together with other songs when I assemble DJ playlists. I have a feel for music and tone, and yet I have difficulty replicating it with my own voice, let alone an actual musical instrument. Even in my choral days, I listened for my fellow Tenor 2 (there were, yes, two of us) and simply followed his lead, almost like an echo. Nothing about pitch feels particularly natural to me—I feel much more at home assessing music than I do performing it; whether that is through throwing smoky dance parties or by writing wistful dedications to my favorite songs and performers.

And yet I too never stop singing: I see a trio of words and decide that it needs to be sung out loud with a ridiculous harmony. My grandmother does this too; on road trips, she’ll see a sign for something, exclaim it outloud, and make up a song on the spot—Car Wash, Car Wash, King’s Time, King’s Time. I make up my own words to things: instead of exclaiming, I sing a few tone-deaf notes to my movements of the day. I can’t quite explain why I do it—my wife is used to it, but I find myself doing it in public, and, again, I feel embarrassed. It is something that I cannot help—sometimes it is just easier to sing Garbage Can than it is to say nothing and silently wheel the oversized green bin over acorns and overgrown grass.

My grandmother’s favorite singer is Ray Charles. Every time I see his name, I picture her saying it in her Catalan-German accent: it slopes downward in her pronunciation, the way a simple name can light up a face, can cause warmth. There are some words that are simply louder than others—I cannot see his name in print without thinking of her expressing her joy in hearing his voice.

When I am home for the holidays, Oma always asks me to check her spelling whenever she needs to write something—she speaks English fluently, but she knows that her writing skills are not the best. English, after all, is her fourth language, and so it can be difficult to keep all of the words together: grocery lists of blueberries, pan, Mr. Clean, gallettas. She jokes that her own grandson gave her a “D” on her writing—that letters often run together when they shouldn’t, or they are simply spelled phonetically when she doesn’t have the exact spelling.

Musicologist Henry Pleasants describes listening to Ray Charles as purely phonetic in nature:  

“Sinatra, and Bing Crosby before him, had been masters of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm... It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He can't tell it to you. He can't even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair—or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message.”

In language studies, there has been a significant shift toward the act of listening. In the past, there was a much larger emphasis in reading things aloud—the speaking was considered to be the most important part. Even when we talk about language, we mention that we “speak a little” of something, rather than we “understand a little”—listening seems incredibly passive to us, and thus significantly less impressive. If we listen enough, we feel comfortable enough imitating a native speaker, and therefore, we begin to speak.

These are the facts we know about our grandparents when we are young—we attach ourselves to small details that make those we love more human; I might not understand the complexities of escaping Franco only to escape Hitler only to escape Franco, but I can comprehend how clear a voice can be; how I know something that brings happiness. Every gift a Ray Charles CD, a box set a DVD of Ray, complete with Jamie Foxx doing his best impersonation.

When I am older and I am privy to more stories, the one about learning English is a good one: through foul-mouthed landlords in Old Bridge, New Jersey, through flashcards with her children, though above all, through listening to Ray Charles on the radio.

What is it to have been taught language by an artist who simply conveys emotion in sound? As a writer, I subscribe to the Didion quote of “not knowing what I think until I write it down”—instead, what is it to not know how to express feeling except through noise—the breaks and shouts, the “unhhhhs” and “oooohs” of something that isn’t quite language but there’s truly no other explanation for it? Of how we are constantly at a loss for words, but never at a loss for sound: of comfort in singing on long car rides, or an “ooooey!” when seeing a frozen wasp in between the two panes of glass of a window.

What then does it say of my own language where I am scared to speak anything earnest—when I have to sing about being appreciative in a voice so far from Ray’s, instead of simply stating what needs to be said? My voice, unlike my Oma’s, and unlike Ray Charles’s is never spontaneous—if I am asked to give a speech, I make damn well sure it is written down and rehearsed. I put on my “reading voice,” I lock into my “teaching voice”—all different inflections depending on the words, the cue, the background singers chiming in.

A final note: my grandmother and grandfather met while singing. They sang in the Choir of Barcelona together—presumably performing songs in Latin and other languages that they did not know, but at least knew the tones; an alto’s middle note is known in any language.

When Oma leaves this earth to join a different choir, she has one request: that there be singing. I will try my hardest to hit the notes necessary—to follow my own echo to the best of my ability. I will practice, the same way that she did; repetitions of vibration, of intonation. Incantation.

In the meantime, I promise to sing the mundane. The backs of cereal boxes, the online recipes. I change the lyrics to anthems. Every word a song. I sing fake-loudly—shouts muffled. I promise that there is truth in these moments; that I sing to make the world accounted for. Street signs. Lonely avenues. In the time being, I make noises when I run: loud yelps and whoops when I feel tired, when I am so out of breath but need to exclaim a loud “wooooo” when moving up a slight incline past my old house and before the veterinarian’s office. Sometimes strangers turn and look. Sometimes I am heard.

—Brian Oliu

#55: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Electric Ladyland" (1968)

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When someone mentions a kazoo, I automatically think of those horrid tiny noisemakers that children blow into incessantly at birthday parties, grocery stores, movie theatres, funerals…

But Jimi Hendrix somehow made a kazoo sound amazing in “Crosstown Traffic,” one of the many unique hits on Electric Ladyland. While he was creating this song, Hendrix couldn’t get the sound that he was hoping for on the track. He asked people in the studio for a comb and cellophane. Sure enough, when he took a comb, put cellophane across it and blew through it, this kazoo made the perfect high pitched noise to coincide with his guitar and create what can only be described as the sound of the ‘60s.

Anyone that worked with Jimi Hendrix on this album tells the same story. He showed up late to the recording studio, hours after everyone else showed up. When he did arrive he’d bring in an entourage so large that the staff had difficulty getting around the control room. When it came to mixing a song Hendrix would play it 300 times over and over, not letting anyone else touch it, yet never being happy with the sound. He always wanted it to sound exactly how it sounded in his head, but Hendrix could never get there. It would force the staff to say in the studio for long hours every night of the week. By the time the album was finished, Jimi Hendrix lost his manager/producer and his bassist, both of whom said they couldn’t take it anymore.

It is a story we hear a lot, especially about musicians from the ‘60s and ‘70s: someone incredibly talented rose to fame in a short amount of time, but the music, fame, and drug addiction eventually drove them mad and consequently either ruined their career or took their life at too young an age. But I really can’t help but think about how young Jimi Hendrix was through his career, and yet how much he had been through beforehand. Instead of calling him a “musical madman” or something like it, can we acknowledge that this man probably had a lot of previous trauma and mental health issues in a time that mental health was not even a thing? And being shot into fame by his early 20s probably only worsened his mental health?

Hendrix was born into a stressful environment, with two alcoholic parents who fought so much it forced him to hide in the closet. As young as the age of 10, Hendrix used a broom as a guitar until his father bought him a real one. He played in high school bands, but Hendrix’s band mates at the time claimed that he was incredibly shy and had no stage presence; he was a “very average” musician. And when Hendrix went into the army at age 19, he called his father begging to send his guitar. Music was his lifeline and his support.

By 1969, at age 26, Jimi Hendrix was the highest paid rock ‘n’ roll musician in the world. The high demand for his music meant he’d usually be touring and recording simultaneously, while burnt out and exhausted. When he headlined Woodstock, Hendrix was supposed to play at midnight, but waited until eight the next morning out of anxiety of the crowd. He collapsed from exhaustion immediately after this performance.

Now when I read about his perfectionism, his inability to show up on time, and his need to bring friends with him wherever he went, I see it as someone who needed more support. Actual support. Not “Have a drink, relax! Now get on stage to perform and then get us your album immediately after.”

He is certainly not the only musician during this time period that was called out for being too obsessive with their music and having poor behavior during record sessions. But maybe it’s time to stop telling their stories as “a tragic musical genius who went too far” and start calling out this lifestyle of fame for being too unrealistic and detrimental for most people, especially those with unresolved mental health issues. There have been too many musicians who have died early from the demanding time and schedules they adhered to, but the blame is always on the musician that couldn’t handle it, not what they could have been with more time and self-care for themselves. They’re trained to believe they have it all; this is the life! The fame that everyone works toward! If you’re not happy, that’s on you.

I obviously did not know Jimi Hendrix, so I can’t vouch for any of this, but none of us can deny how incredible Electric Ladyland is. Even Bob Dylan said that Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” on this album was a “better version” of Dylan’s original. He claimed: “It overwhelmed me, really.” Hendrix insisted on collaborating consistently on this album with electric blues players and jam bands, then proceeded to melt it all together with psychedelic sounds to create an album unlike anything else. At least we all know this part of his story and his talent to be true.

—Jenn Montooth

#56: Elvis Presley, "Elvis Presley" (1956)

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My first meaningful encounter with Elvis was the summer I was sent to bible camp, a Catholic New Orleans boy shunted off for a few weeks of exhausting recreation and incomprehensible Church of Christ indoctrination. I was nine or ten, I guess, so it would have been ‘69 or ‘70. By then Elvis’s flame had already blazed, flickered, and burned out, briefly smoldering again with his ‘68 prime-time TV special. The worst was soon to come: addiction, obesity, the wide-belted jumpsuits, the crippling paranoia, the sweat-soaked handkerchiefs handed off to swooning middle-aged women crowding the stage in Honolulu. By the time I’d made it half-way through high school, he’d be dead.

But that summer Elvis meant nothing to me. I listened to the saccharine music on AM radio—“Sugar Sugar” and “Dizzy” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”—on the transistor by my bed while upstairs in their rooms, my older brothers, aspiring long-haireds, played Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jethro Tull. In his Lincoln Continental, my father listened to the tape player, a brand new luxury car dashboard amenity, into which he injected cassettes of Pete Fountain, Herb Alpert, and Sergio Mendes as he drove back and forth to his office uptown where he repaired broken bones and hammed it up before the nurses and X-ray technicians with a blitheness he never displayed at home. He did laugh at night when he encountered on TV the minstrel-tinged shenanigans of Louis Armstrong, though I’d bet a million dollars he preferred Al Hirt’s trumpet to Satchmo’s—Al Hirt being, like him, like his father, like my brothers, and like me a few more years down the road, a Jesuit High School boy, a fighting Blue Jay, a soldier in St. Ignatius’s army. My mother, best as I could tell, didn’t have the inclination or time for music—or for any other variety of joy—though I did once accompany her to a Mass at which, in an instance of rare ecumenical largesse, a minister from the African American Episcopal Church was invited to perform, and he sang in a stunning bottom-of-the-well bass the spiritual “Ride On King Jesus” that briefly shook something loose inside us both.

There wasn’t any singing at my bible camp. The Church of Christ folks didn’t go in much for singing, perhaps because, as everyone knows, singing leads to dancing, which the denomination’s dicta resolutely forbade, as it did smoking, drinking, and fornication—a tough row to hoe, it seems to me now, in a city like New Orleans, where all manner of vice provides the rich vein of marble running through the city’s swamp-soaked foundation and where you are as likely to catch your parish monsignor throwing back a Dixie at Mandina’s or sipping a dirty martini at Galatoire’s as solemnly presiding over an eleven a.m. High Mass.

But to the matter at hand: how I first encountered Elvis. Every Wednesday afternoon at bible camp all the kids were loaded onto school buses and transported to the air-conditioned comfort of a nearby theatre for a kid-friendly matinee double bill. The movies were invariably second-run Walt Disney live-action productions, mostly of the lesser animal-themed variety that had their sad heyday in the 1960’s: That Darn Cat! followed by The Ugly Dachsund, The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit paired with Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, Miracle of the White Stallions alongside Moon Pilots (featuring Charlie the Chimp). But the final Wednesday of camp, in some spectacular feat of cinematic miscalculation—or, as I’d now prefer to imagine, an equally spectacular act of impious subterfuge—the movie theatre had scheduled an Elvis Presley double-bill. While the title of the first of the features, Fun in Acapulco, seemed to promise nothing more enticing than a home movie from a family vacation, the second stirred, in my cusp-of-adolescence imagination, thrills the likes of which I’d never known (and wouldn’t for, lo, those many years ahead): Girls! Girls! Girls!

Girls! Girls! Girls!

Oh, how I would love to report that my soul was indeed set free, my heart shaken, my loins stirred, by the lascivious scenes I witnessed in the darkened theatre that summer day so long ago, but as anyone who knows—as everyone does—the sad story of Elvis bungling his way through Hollywood under the misguidance of his infamous manager, Colonel Parker, these movies were so bland and formulaic, the songs so corny and inconsequential, that they managed to rob Elvis of nearly every shred of the magic, charisma, and sexual energy he possessed. There was indeed lots of singing and drinking and smoking, which must have made the Church of Christ camp counselors squirm; there were girls in halter-tops and high-waisted bikinis; there were intimations of intimacy, fade-outs as Elvis’s lips met another’s, but these scenes all seemed so lifeless that they might have well been meant as moral instruction: You’re looking for trouble, you came to the wrong place. In the end, these films do nothing more with Elvis’s characters—the psychically scarred trapeze artist in Acapulco and the poor fisherman in Girls!—than bask in their innocuously wholesome all-American light.

And yet, even so, there is a moment—or at least there was for me in that theatre—when a glimmer of the true Elvis somehow emerged, the Elvis in which the friction between propriety and carnality threatens to ignite. The scene itself is nothing special, the song “Return to Sender,” though one of Elvis’s biggest hits, merely two minutes of cleverly packaged candy.

And yet. And yet.  Elvis’s character has found himself, as he so often does in his movies, thrust up onto a nightclub stage. He is dressed in a black suit, a black shirt open at the collar, his shiny black hair swept perfectly back from his forehead. He offers the audience a sheepish smile. He begins to sway his hips, snap his fingers. Then he sings.

He sings, and this is where I find myself at a loss for words. I have neither the technical training nor the lyrical gifts to adequately convey the precise power of the quavering richness of Elvis’s voice. I can say that, like the minister singing “Ride Home King Jesus,” it breaks something loose inside me. All of it, everything, is there in Elvis’s voice—beauty and desire, comfort and danger, honesty and deceit, lust and innocence.

How exactly can a human voice possess all of that? Yet it does, and it did, and every bit of it was there from the very beginning. Go back to the first record, Elvis Presley, with the cover whose design the Clash would borrow for their London Calling LP. The album was released in 1956 when Elvis was twenty-one years old, still a kid, though he’d already made a name for himself on the Louisiana Hayride tour, on local radio broadcasts. He’d already had a string of hits; droves of adolescent girls had already begun to swoon at his very appearance; and the first album was just thrown together, really, from different recording sessions from 1954 to 1956, songs with different writers from different genres: country, rockabilly, old-time bluegrass, rhythm and blues. Some of the songs were already well-known, already great: Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got A Woman,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti,” Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters’ “Money Honey,” the old 1940’s Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon.” RCA Victor was calculatedly cashing in on the latest craze, and the calculation worked: the first rock ‘n’ roll album to earn a million dollars, to sell a million records in a single year.

Rock ‘n’ roll? There’s no true rock ‘n’ roll on that first Elvis LP—except, of course, to the extent that the form was busy inventing itself, fusing a variety of genres into something new, the same thing the bands my older brothers listened to—Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles—were still doing more than a decade later. On this first album and for the rest of his career, which was the rest of his life, Elvis is always a chameleon, always becoming something else. Elvis’s versions of these songs on his first album aren’t better than the versions that preceded his; they’re simply all so fully his own, representing one facet of who he is. Sentimental, snarling, sexual, sacred, urbane, unrefined, comedic and, ultimately, tragic.

It is all there when he sings. It was there on that first album, and it was all there to the very end. If you’ve never seen it, you need to watch the concert video of Elvis singing “Unchained Melody” two months before his death. He mumbles out the song’s introduction, barely coherent, his face bathed in sweat, his body bloated. He sits down at the piano, says he’s not sure he remembers the chords. He flashes a sly smile, shuts his eyes tight, as if he’s in anguish, which indeed his body is, his heart enlarged and failing.

Then he sings. My God, how he sings.

—John Gregory Brown

#57: Stevie Wonder, "Songs in the Key of Life" (1976)

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Faith

You will know
Troubled heart you’ll know
Problems have solutions
Trust and I will show
You will know
Troubled heart you’ll know
Every life has reason
For I made it so

—“You Will Know,” from Characters, 1987

One of the first songs that ever gave me the now-familiar understanding of being both sad and inspired at the same time was Stevie Wonder’s “You Will Know.” I remember sitting at the kitchen table doing homework and hearing my dad playing it in the background. It touched a part of me that I was just realizing existed—the part waking up to the troubles of the world, to the exquisite pain and beauty of being human. I was growing up. I didn’t know just how much music would teach me to understand myself.

It’s a revealing experiment to read reviews of sentimental music and discover how different they are from my own understanding. David Wild in Rolling Stone said of “You Will Know,” Stevie Wonder “belabours pretty but boring melodies.” In a 1976 review of Songs in the Key of Life in Rolling Stone, writer Vince Aletti called the album’s cover, featuring Stevie’s afro and signature shades, shrouded in layers of deep orange, “offhand and hideous, offensively cheap.” I’d always thought it symbolized the layers of the earth, or maybe the sun, with him at the center. Looking at it now I think it was about the many layers of himself that he brought to the project and the excavation of the album’s core that took two years. Aletti says of the album’s massive size: “it has no focus or conscience. The eclecticism is rich and welcome, but the overall effect is haphazard, turning what might have been a stunning, exotic feast into a hastily organized potluck supper.” For me, it was part of being proud of who I was. Stevie’s afro looked like my dad’s. The many, many songs on the album that I have loved and sung along to countless times throughout my life are a part of my framework of being black in America.

One of the most thought-provoking exchanges on race and identity that I’ve ever experienced happened on a first date. Let’s call him Khakis. He was very, very preppy. He was a partner at a startup and was interested in discussing that and stories featuring his frat brothers. I quickly realized that he was from a predominantly white area and his parents never really talked to him about race or culture. He had never dated a black woman. I was immediately on guard that our date was an experiment for him. I don’t remember how it came up, but at some point, we discussed how we identified racially. I said, “I’m black.” And he may have mentioned that I don’t look it, which wasn’t news to me. I get mistaken for Hispanic most often, but I’ve gotten it all. I’ve always identified as black.

He said, “I don’t use that term. I’m African-American. The Obamas are African-American. Jay-Z is black.”

I was livid. I couldn’t believe that those words came out of his mouth. He said that black was a culture, music, a style of dress. I was immediately taken aback that he had so clearly found a way to separate what he viewed as the good colored folks from the bad ones, to delineate the admirable traits from the ones to be admonished. Afterwards, I wondered if it was naive that I was so upset. Was I really surprised that he felt this way?

Khakis told me that he was upset that he couldn’t go running in his hoodie anymore, because white women would cross the street in fear. I told him that as long as black bodies are weaponized in this world, that won’t change. No one can save you. But you can save yourself from self-hatred, by owning who you are instead of running from it and disappearing into a shell of khaki that you think will protect you. People who are afraid of you will look at you the same way until they decide to think differently. I told him that whatever parts of you that you love, that you honor, that you embrace—that is just as much your blackness too, not just what society tells you it has to be. It’s your responsibility to own your own definition. This is what black people in America do every day in the face of a million microaggressions, rising each time to take the fear of a black planet and turn it into faith, hope, and love. To take each version of what the world says it is to be black and to turn that on its head.

One of the many magical ways we create this alchemy is through music. Stevie Wonder was 26 years old when Songs in the Key of Life came out. He’d recently signed a seven-year, $37 million dollar contract (which would be near $200,000,000 today) that gave him full control of his work, an unprecedented accomplishment. To build his magnum opus, Wonder bought two rare $60,000 synthesizers whose use had mostly been reserved for a select group of white musicians. He almost called it Let’s See Life the Way it Is. The final title came to him in a dream. From Rolling Stone’s inside look at the project: “For Wonder, the banner was a personal dare to expand his compositional range. ‘I challenged myself [to write] as many different things as I could, to cover as many topics as I could, in dealing with the title and representing what it was about,’ he says in Classic Albums. ‘The title would give me a challenge, but equally as important as a challenge it would give me an opportunity to express my feelings as a songwriter and as an artist.’”

Songs in the Key of Life acknowledges that the black experience in America encompasses vastness: everything from “Summer Soft” to the piercing reality of “Village Ghetto Land” and back again. The soaring strings of “Village Ghetto Land” are hauntingly set against the images of the very real violence and poverty that plague communities, both then and now:

Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief
Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?

This album reveals the parts of us that are tender and loving, yet hurt. The parts that are passionate and strong, playful and layered. This is why I was so angry about that conversation with Khakis. I don’t begrudge anyone’s right to identify as they choose. But it hurt to hear his callous division of black and African-American, as though it provided him some imagined safety net, especially knowing how many young black people have lost their lives just for wearing their hoodies, for walking to the store, for minding their business. For being black. For him, being black was the bogeyman he thought he could outrun.

Instead of just judging him, I had to examine why I felt so strongly. I realized that it had to do with the way I was taught to view blackness. When I think of understanding my identity, I can hear my father playing the music that he loved. I have his copy of the Songs in the Key of Life double LP on my shelf. My parents never wavered from honoring blackness. For my mom it meant owning where we came from and knowing that we had just as much right as anyone to be educated. For my dad, it was honoring tradition—knowing our history, celebrating Kwanzaa, and learning about our musical heritage. Dad was so pro-black he even changed his given middle name of “Earl” to “Babandele.” I never got to find out what it meant, but I’m sure it means something powerful. They lived their blackness in ways that I could see. I saw that to be black was to be proud, whether you were light or dark. That pride permeated our lives, colored our dreams, and made the pain that much more palpable when someone was threatened by it, or questioned whether or not we or someone we loved belonged. This lesson is something that every person of color learns in this country, whether their parents make them aware early on or they find out when white women cross the street while they are jogging. I asked my mother why she thought the term “black” was so important to cultural identity during the black power movement, especially, and she said it was assertive. We were no longer negroes, but neither would we be defined by a term that othered our right to be Americans.

Hope

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

—“As,” from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976

Khakis’s comments made me so angry because he saw all of the things that I was taught to love, that seem so intrinsically part of us, as trappings, holding him back from being truly loved and seen as good in the eyes of the world. He saw the gifts I associated with being black as shackles.

Who was I to have these opinions and to make these judgments? Music and art gave me the foundation that our culture was rich, and full of life, energy, and spirit, and taught me that I could do anything and be anything. Songs in the key of life—songs that build a cinematic moment in your mind, where you can see yourself doing the things you’ve always wanted, saying the things you’ve been thinking—become canon because they allow us to know our best selves.

Love

We lay beneath the stars
Under a lovers tree that’s seen through the eyes of my mind
I reach out for the part
Of me that lives in you that only our two hearts can find
But I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet

—“Knocks Me Off My Feet,” from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976

The intensity of the love and musicality in “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “As” are so powerful that they have been immortalized in our memories of Saturday mornings at home, afternoons after school, weddings, block parties, and countless more. These songs remind us that we too, as much as anyone, deserve love and happy endings. They acknowledge that our experiences and those of our ancestors have not been in vain. As black Americans carve out space, and take up room, these songs score our collective joy and pain, and determination to shine in the face of obstacles.

Love, magic, pain, passion, violence, strength, beauty, light, and darkness—these are all entwined in the fabric of our DNA. But the greatest of these is love. Honoring my blackness has been my greatest act of self-love. Albums like Songs in the Key of Life helped to shape the framework that allowed that expression without fear, without guilt, without shame—with pride and joy.

My parents, and so many of my friends’ families and their peers, owned blackness in the face of so much risk. These are people that grew up during a time when taking a car down south for a summer road trip might mean you would never return. Family trees hold stories of lynchings and whispers of things unimaginable and unknowable to those of us who have not experienced them. To know that they have taken these risks, and not to be proud, feels like treason. Especially because there is still so much we are working out in ourselves, in our experiences, in our identity, in our ancestry—pain and memories we are working to transmute into growth. Maybe it would have been easier to pipe down, to play the music less loudly, to wave the flag of blackness less proudly, to try to assimilate into whiteness. But it wouldn’t have given us what we have, this legacy, and for that I’m thankful.

—Lee Erica Elder

#58: The Rolling Stones, "Beggars Banquet" (1968)

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There he is. You can see him only from behind, in slight profile at times, but the blonde bobbed hair gives it away. Brian Jones, sitting in a tight circle alongside Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as the Rolling Stones rehearse “Sympathy for the Devil” in the recording studio, captured forever in Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One. He wears a simple white shirt and a pair of black trousers with fat red and white pinstripes, its matching coat draped casually on the back of his chair. Though you can’t see his face, not really, Jones seems lucid, engaged, tapping his foot in time and throwing blues embellishments into the song’s basic melody.

Later, in another scene, he’s there in a larger circle, recording the “whoo-whoo” backing vocals for “Sympathy,” along with the rest of the band and Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg. He wears a cream shirt, green bell-bottoms, and has a silk scarf tied around his neck. He reaches up, once, and puts his hand tentatively on Pallenberg’s back before withdrawing it after four short seconds. All this is proof. Proof that he did contribute at least in part to this one song, the first track on Beggars Banquet.

The record’s producer, Jimmy Miller, would tell Rolling Stone that Jones “was sort of in and out.…He’d show up occasionally when he was in the mood to play, and he could never really be relied on.” By this point, Jones’s erratic behavior was fairly common knowledge, a side effect of his psychological struggles and drug abuse. The band would patronize him, or to use Miller’s own language, “accommodate him,” when Jones was lucid enough to show up. “I would isolate him,” Miller said, “put him in a booth and not record him onto any track that we really needed.”

But there he is in Godard’s film, playing the guitar, recording backing vocals, both of which Jones would be credited for in the liner notes to “Sympathy.” He would also be credited with acoustic guitar and harmonica on “Parachute Woman” and slide guitar on “No Expectations” and “Jigsaw Puzzle,” but most of his contributions to Beggars Banquet would be ancillary: Mellotron on “Stray Cat Blues,” sitar and tambura on “Street Fighting Man,” harmonica on a few songs. He’s given no credit for the album’s final tracks, “Factory Girl” and “Salt of the Earth.” Quite a fall for the man who had founded the Rolling Stones a mere six years prior, the man who gave them their name and their earliest identity, who had created their trademark “guitar weaving” sound with Richards.

At the end of the year, the band would film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. There’s Jones, one of the most talented multi-instrumentalists of his day, a prodigy seemingly adept at playing any instrument put in his hands, reduced to shaking the maracas on “Sympathy for the Devil.” On “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Parachute Woman,” Jones wears his guitar more than plays it, the instrument looking every bit as ill-fitting and affected as his oversized purple coat and baggy yellow pants. And at the end of the show, during the mass sing-along to “Salt of the Earth,” he’s there, between Richards and Charlie Watts, swaying out of sync with the rest of the crowd, unable to remember the words to the song. This would be his last formal appearance with the band.

Seven months later he would be dead, found at the bottom of a swimming pool. “Death by misadventure” as the coroner’s report so poetically put it.

*

Contrast these images with the Brian Jones in this video of the Stones playing “Paint It, Black” just two years earlier in 1965. Here he is, sitting cross-legged on the stage, dressed all in white, smiling, looking directly into the camera, his entire body moving in time with the song as he plays the sitar. This Rolling Stones is still his band, his and Jagger’s, Keith Richards merely a backing figure who the camera never focuses on.

Read the comments on the video and you’ll see that for many fans, the Rolling Stones never stopped being Jones’s band, even almost fifty years after his death. “Brian is still the Original Stone!” one user says. “Brian was the inspiration and most talented member of the group,” another comments, “I miss him.” Another poses the question, “Why does it say ‘with Brian Jones’ u mean Brian Jones ‘with The Rolling Stones.’”

So many fans still hold up Brian Jones as this romantic ideal, Adonis, the original member of the “27 Club” of icons dead before their time. He was the tortured genius, the beautiful martyr, the hard partying rock god. Such idolatry is easy; it has created this romanticized myth of Brian Jones, a myth far sexier than the reality.

It’s this myth that leads fans to comment on a YouTube video, “All their ground breaking songs…were written when Brain Jones was alive. After Brian died and Mick Taylor joined the band, they were no better than a generic garage band.”

*

But like all myth, the myth of Brian Jones is a good story that reveals more about the teller than it does the subject. Because Brian Jones was not the Rolling Stones. He formed the band, gave them their name, gave them their sound, but what they achieved had far more to do with other contributors.

Their achievements had more to do with Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager who encouraged the Stones to write their own songs, to move away from the blues covers that Jones insisted on. It had more to do with Jagger and Richards, both their songwriting power and their pure embodiment of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. It had more to do with the band’s ability to sell itself, both its sound and image, while creating complicated business ventures that allowed them to circumvent British tax laws and become one of the biggest rock bands to ever exist.

None of this would have happened without Brian Jones, but most of it happened without Brian Jones.

In fact, the Rolling Stones’ generally agreed upon “Golden Age” of 1968-72, the years they released what many consider their greatest albums, were years in which Jones played little to no part. Beggars Banquet is the start of this Golden Age, and Jones’s contributions were hardly integral. Jones would supply congas to “Midnight Rambler” and autoharp on “You Got the Silver,” but otherwise he played no part in Let It Bleed. He would be kicked out of the band shortly after, and shortly after that he would die in the swimming pool of his farmhouse in East Sussex. Both Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street would be written, recorded, and released after his death. These four albums are largely the Rolling Stones’ greatest contributions to music, and Brian Jones had nothing—or almost nothing—to do with them.

*

Myths reveal more about the teller than they do the subject. So what do these myths tell us about Brian Jones? We have the myth told to us by those who were there—Jimmy Miller, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, countless others—of Brian Jones being completely absent by the time the Golden Age began in 1968 with Beggars Banquet. We have the myth of the idolizing fans of this Adonis, blonde, beautiful, smooth and sleek in a way that Jagger and Richards never quite were, the only true genius of a group who were reduced to “a generic garage band” after he left.

Yet we have these films shot in 1968, One Plus One and Rock and Roll Circus, that show neither myth to be true. Because there he is in Godard’s film, contributing to the recording of Beggars Banquet, giving at least something to the Rolling Stones’ greatest era even if his influence on the band was all but over. For his bandmates and producer, his frequent absences and erratic behavior, his utter surrender to his addictions, likely caused enough frustration that they wished he weren’t there, but there he was.

But the Brian Jones we see in Rock and Roll Circus is no god. He is a puppet, propped up and stumbling through the motions, shoved off to the side where he can be hidden as the camera zooms in on Mick or Keith. He strums his guitar and raises his hand like he remembers raising his hand to strum dramatically, to be the rock god he remembers himself to be, but his hand is limp and the movement without conviction. This Brian Jones is a tragic figure, certainly, but no Byronic hero. This Brian Jones is pitiful.

*

Go back even further. Go back to that video of “Paint It, Black” from 1965. Notice that, even then, Jones is removed from the band. He is on a separate riser on the left of your screen so that when the camera focuses on Jagger, the rest of the band is in the shot, but Brian Jones is off screen. He is physically above them and removed from them. Despite the YouTube commenters focusing on Jones almost solely, he is on screen for a mere 47 seconds out of the video’s 2:19 runtime. And yet he’s the only member of the band other than Jagger who gets a full close-up.

*

It is nearly impossible to tell the story of the Rolling Stones without Brian Jones. None of what they became would be possible without Brian Jones, but their greatest output was created without Brian Jones.

Prior to 1968, the Rolling Stones produced some fantastic songs and a few decent records, but nothing compared to Beggars Banquet, their first truly cohesive album that functioned as a singular musical statement. Beggars Banquet is their Rubber Soul, the beginning of the Rolling Stones as a band capable of recording an entire LP of brilliance. This was made possible, in part, by breaking with the tired psychedelia of 1960s and by returning to their roots in R&B and Americana.

But part of what made this possible was the loss of Brian Jones the man, even if they could never shake the myth.

—Joshua Cross

#76: Prince and the Revolution, "Purple Rain" (1984)

76 Purple Rain.jpg

I’m currently staying at my parents’ house for the holidays, and last night, my sister, our childhood best friend, and I watched videotapes from our Catholic school’s Christmas pageants. As we watched in my parents’ basement, I realized we were surrounded by relics of the past, including family photo albums, DVD box sets of Friends, and my once-prized CD collection.

In every person of a certain age’s music history, there are two important milestones: the first CD you owned, and the first CD you owned with the notorious “Parental Advisory” label slapped on its cover. The existence of the aforementioned label is thanks in no small part to Purple Rain.

In 1984, then-Senator Al Gore’s then-wife Tipper bought a copy of Purple Rain for her daughter, Karenna. She later heard the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” a song which discusses several adult themes.

I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,
She said how'd you like to waste some time,
and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.

Appalled by the lyrics, Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center with other prominent women in Washington, known as the “Washington Wives.” This group, along with several politicians, lobbied the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the 1980s to have a music rating system. This system was meant to echo the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’s rating system that determined what films were appropriate for children to watch.

Out of that lobbying came the “Filthy Fifteen” in 1985: a list of 15 songs the group deemed to be the most inappropriate. It was made up of a who’s who of ‘80s musicians, including Madonna, Def Leppard, Cyndi Lauper, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Mötley Crüe. Topping the list was, of course, Prince’s “Darling Nikki.”

The Parents Music Resource Center’s lasting legacy, though, is the “Parental Advisory” label that is now featured on albums deemed inappropriate for younger listeners. This label made its debut in 1990, when 2 Live Crew’s aptly-named Banned in the U.S.A. became the first album to have it printed on its cover.

Though the label was meant to prevent underage ears from hearing inappropriate content, it ended up having a similar effect to the MPAA’s rating system, and the youth of America began doing everything they could to get their hands (and ears) on the albums.

If you didn’t have cool parents, these albums were often obtained through a sneaky (and sometimes illegal) strategy. As an almost-11-year-old Catholic school girl with morals, I certainly wasn’t going to shoplift at Tower Records or Sam Goody, so I would have to find a more creative way to achieve that second music milestone.

On February 16, 1999, my family was eating dinner at the now-closed Sign of the Whale restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia. A local radio station was hosting an event at the restaurant and happened to be giving away CDs. After my little sister got a copy of Vertical Horizon’s Everything You Want, the pickings were slim, and the radio DJ could see my disappointment as I shuffled through jewel cases of artists I didn’t recognize. She then pulled out of her bag a wrapped copy of Blink-182’s Enema of the State and asked me to check with my parents to see if it was okay for me to have this CD. I went back to my parents to ask, conveniently leaving out the fact that the CD had a “Parental Advisory” label on its case. They okayed it, and that night, a week away from turning 11, some new words entered my lexicon, for better or for worse. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t learn what all the lyrics alluded to until I was in high school. I had received the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Church of Rock and Roll.

The irony in Prince’s album inspiring a crusade for music censorship is that he ended up censoring his own music later on in his career. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in the early 2000s, he refused to swear in his music and even stopped performing songs such as “Darling Nikki,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Erotic City,” the B-side to Purple Rain’s iconic opener “Let’s Go Crazy.” He later reversed some of these decisions and began to re-incorporate some of the songs back into his live sets.

I was fortunate enough to see Prince perform “Darling Nikki” at an after-party show a month before he died. My friend and I waited several hours with hundreds of people at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall to get into the cash-only show. At 2 AM, we were finally in the midst of the Purple One, standing about 15 feet away from his stage. At 5’2” (but at least four inches taller in his signature platform heels), he commanded the crowd and had us dancing up a storm.

I would experience a very different kind of storm two years later, on the last day of my Purple Rain pilgrimage to Minneapolis. Earlier that day, I had toured Paisley Park, which served as Prince’s home, offices, performance space, and recording studios. Later, I unfortunately didn’t get to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka in the most traditional way. Instead, just as I was about to join my friends in the water at a public beach, a hailstorm came out of nowhere and I was attacked by Lake Minnetonka in a painful form of condensation. Sometimes it snows in April, and sometimes it hails bruise-inducing stones in May.

Earlier today, I decided to dig through my old CDs while finishing this piece. As I flipped through stacks of cases, hearing that familiar clack that you don’t often hear anymore, I found several of my “Parental Advisory”-labeled CDs. I thought about how many of them were tied to a specific point in my personal history, and how much more relatable some of the adult lyrics grew as I got older.

Much like how I probably got that copy of Enema of the State too early in life, my actual Confirmation, which solidified my role as an adult in the Catholic Church, took place when I was too young to decide whether I wanted to remain in that world. In a way, that’s how life works. We often experience fragments of it when we’re too young to understand, and then we slowly get through it by finding the rest of the puzzle pieces to form the picture.

—Emilie Begin

#59: Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Chronicle" (1976)

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Listening to music can be pretty narcissistic. Riding in my parents’ car down highway 25 as John Fogerty croons his way through “I Heard It through the Grapevine” and desperately pulling together some connection between myself and the song. Trying so hard to conform my life around the top 40 hits about lost love or cheating or screwing up a good thing when 16-year-old me had never been on a date, let alone been in any sort of relationship. Fighting to justify myself or find solace from being the predominant loser at my small, private, Christian high school. Attaching fragments of memory to fragments of songs, lines out of context, themes melding with tone, pinpricks of understanding.

“Susie Q”

I show up to the square dance fundraiser for our high school because I’m a volunteer, but I don’t dance. The old man in the blue and pink plaid shirt leading the whole thing has a decades-old machine that allows him to loop music and make calls and teach everyone how to dance in those tight patterns. I watch him work, turning dials and tapping his feet as he talks, distracting myself from the humid warmth of dozens of bodies whirling in circles. Dancing, even a geometric dance, feels intimate to 16-year-old me, skin touching even chastely, eyes aligning, turning together, so I abstain even after my math teacher tells me to “get out there.” The girl with the red curly hair dances with the same guy for the bulk of the night, laughing and smiling in ways that probably mean much less than I want to admit, and I don’t have the nerve to cut in. So: I sulk in corners and ask to help with concessions in order to hide behind the blue counter and give people Skittles. They don’t need any help, of course, and later they call me out as a good volunteer when all I really wanted was an excuse not to watch her do-si-do with my best friend.

“I Put a Spell on You”

I start playing guitar as a way to learn bass when I’m 14. Guitar is a proof of concept and so I grind my fingers into black calluses playing clunky patterns on old strings. I don’t really understand keys yet, and I can’t play chords. I throw my head against a musical wall until I break through and finally get a bass, learn to play scales and blues riffs, hit my first barre chord on the acoustic without any dead notes, sing while playing a 3 chord progression. I take the acoustic to school and play in the closet under the stairs during breaks because I want to impress everyone as a moody artist and I want to continue to practice. I learn “Stairway to Heaven” and basslines by Flea. Then I learn them again, learn them better. My friends learn to play guitar too and progress faster than me and outdo me in nearly every way. I keep playing regardless because I want to do something. I’m aching to do something even though I have no idea what that is.

“Proud Mary”

My friend who everyone says has dreamy eyes learns to play “Proud Mary” from a white guy with a lot of opinions at the lake house. It’s the day after we’ve spent the night there, and contrary to what classmates think, we mostly drank Mountain Dew and played guitar and video games. Dreamy eyes struggles to hit the rapid chord changes but gets to the long D major and rests there. This song is almost baffling for me. The chords move faster than some of the basslines I’ve written and actually make a melody, which feels antithetical to my narrow rules about what music should do. As dreamy eyes works on the song, I try to play the bassline on my acoustic, and the guy with opinions gives me a smug and annoyed look, like he knows I’m struggling with the “easy” part that he can nail without thinking. Dreamy eyes keeps trying until he gets a few of the chords right and then hands the guitar off to someone else while we all go outside. I try the song’s chords myself over and over but never get them right so I tuck the song away and give up on it for years.

“Bad Moon Rising”

Around the time that puberty and all its havoc comes around, the depression that runs in my family takes hold like a cold fever. At 14 and 15, I sit in my high school classroom floating in suicidal ideation, visions of ways I could die or hurt myself, and I build this stoic persona as a way to grab some of the control that I don’t have inside. One day, the girl in the lavender sweater creeps a mechanical pencil towards my pupil as a test of will. She doesn’t believe my stoneface and wants to show everyone I’m full of crap. I tell her I’m not going to flinch as she slides the pencil through the air, and I don’t. I don’t know if I don’t care about the potential pain or welcome it or if I just know that I can out-“chicken” her, but I don’t worry about her slipping and gouging out my eye even as the pencil lead touches my eyelashes. My best friend laughs and lavender sweater looks disappointed. My best friend calls me “insane” and writes a quote from me down in his notebook. Getting in the notebook becomes a benchmark of standing and antics in the high school, and despite myself, I rarely make it in.

“Lodi”

It’s no one’s fault your town is small, that your house hides back in a suburb of a dying downtown and a Mexican restaurant and two video rental shops, that a small Confederate soldier sits in the “town square,” that the Walmart doesn’t even sell groceries and the Bumpers goes out of business because this town can’t support a Bumpers and a Sonic, that the gas station (you know the one) sells two Mellow Yellows for the price of one, that the storage closet where your basketball team works out is barely bigger than your living room, that the new gym floor was laid over the existing floor and makes your baskets half an inch too short which means your team shoots worse in away games, that the school dress code prohibits facial hair and teachers say boys should make better grades than girls because you’re supposed to be leaders, that all of your classmates go to the same three churches except for you (a non-denominational Christian), the Methodist, and the Pentecostal family, that the poorest part of town is downwind of the paper factory and primarily African-American, that the one time you drove into that neighborhood an older man stared all of you down and two cars escorted you out of the neighborhood because you only came to voyeur, that dreamy eyes got out of a ticket for going 55 in a 30 because he was the son of a prominent realtor, that you feel so alone sometimes that it makes you angry in a way you don’t understand even years later, that you won’t stay in touch when you all move away even though you know the bitterness hurts only you. It’s nobody’s fault.

“Green River”

Creedence Clearwater Revival are from San Francisco, which makes their Southern vibe all that more odd. They embrace the sound of the South, the feel of the blues, and the rhythm of the River in a way I never could. As a transplant, I fought being part of the South. I resisted the accent, refused to say y’all, and to this day still feel surprised when someone says they can hear that I lived in Mississippi for over a decade. Like Fogerty, I can put on a mask of Southern idiom and behavior, but 15-year-old me wanted nothing to do with being Southern. A place rife with tradition built on destructive Confederate myth, I still don’t know what it means to be from Mississippi, even though Mississippi would claim me if I asked.

“Commotion”

I learn how to slap the tops of our high school desks with a ruler in a way that amplifies the sound and fills the classroom like aggressive white noise. Everyone hates it and dislikes me for doing it, but I don’t stop. Maybe it’s because I feel ignored. Maybe it’s that people stop listening to what I’m saying in the middle of me talking to them. Maybe I’m just being awful because I can. In either case, I hate slapping the desks for how it makes people look at me, but I do it anyway.

“Down on the Corner”

The bassline for “Down on the Corner” is iconic in a music store kind of way. It’s the sort of bassline you hear everyone play when they’re trying out basses or amps but aren’t sure what to play. We all want to impress, for someone to say, “That’s great, dude,” and mean it, for our efforts to add up to more than hours spent on a hobby we might end up letting go of eventually. This bassline is the first I figured out by ear, just playing along and picking it up. I’m a sight-player, meaning I play best by reading music or tablature, so this was a big moment. As I get the hang of the progression and realize just how simple it is, my dad walks by my room and pokes his head in and says that I’m “so awesome” because he knows that I’ve never played that before. I didn’t even know how much I wanted that moment until it happens and I keep chasing it for years to come, like a drug.

“Fortunate Son”

Wrangler Jeans once used “Fortunate Son” in an ad campaign for their jeans. I saw it on its first run before it was discontinued and at the time of writing this, I can’t find any version of it online to rewatch. I remember them only using the lyrics “Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Ooh, they’re red, white, and blue,” and then cutting the vocals after that while attractive people ran around in tight jeans in trucks and the outdoors. They, of course, omitted the following line, “And when the band plays, ‘Hail to the Chief’ / Ooh, they point the cannon at you.” Skewing a protest song into a patriotic anthem didn’t go over well with the general public or my dad. He grew up with the song. When he sees the commercial, he laughs for a while. Once I am in on the joke, I do too.

“Travelin’ Band”

Lavender sweater tells us all she’s not into dating right now, that she doesn’t believe it’s something she should be doing at the moment. We all take this in stride even though 8 out of 10 of the high school guys want to date her, myself included. She lives almost an hour and a half away from our school and I never understand why she goes to our school in the first place, but she does. Our small school is academically advanced in certain subjects, particularly English and Math, but there are lots of good public schools (considering the education budget of Mississippi) and a glut of private schools in the area. In Mississippi, Christian schools and private academies came to be, in many cases, because of desegregation. If you can make your school “academically rigorous” or require an application or charge high tuition, you can segregate without much effort since wealth in the area often follows racial demographic lines. The old ache of an old wound. Some Christian schools, like mine, arose as a response to the “secularizing influence” of public schools. In the spring, lavender sweater stops coming and goes to the public school nearer her house, but we all see her again at a Valentine’s Day costume party with her boyfriend. We all feel a quiet defeat.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain”

I don’t know how to grapple with high school. I’ve been trying to write about this period for years with almost no success because how do you encapsulate a period with so much change and flux? I discovered my depression and deepened my relationship with Jesus during the same period. I couldn’t talk about high school without swearing for a while, laughed wryly at people who wanted to have a reunion, and realized how horribly I treated everyone. High school seems to be universally panned as a bad social experience for anyone not blisteringly popular, but usually for them, too. Some days I’m not far beyond the kid who sat on the stairs playing guitar before basketball practice. Some days I feel worlds apart from that self-important jackass. Some days I watch him through a one-way mirror with mix of compassion and regret.

“Up Around the Bend”

Dreamy eyes’s new car is having engine trouble, so he needs to drive his car to a dealership two hours away. He jokes that the car will explode on the way and I say I want to come with. We both joke about dying in a fireball and no one else laughs.

“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”

Dreamy eyes has a cabin on the family farm. It sits on top of a hill in the middle of the country near our rural town so it feels incredibly isolated. There is no plumbing and the only toilet is a seat nailed to a couple of boards stretched between two trees over a steep incline. We go out there as a group to play music and videogames and a lot of the younger guys come along. The friend who makes movies and the friend who plays drums are currently into restricting the veins in each other’s necks until they pass out because it causes a weird sensation, a sort of high, and the younger guys all want in. Only dreamy eyes and I don’t do this. After being choked out, the guy who lived in Russia as a missionary collapses on the lone bed in the cabin only to lie stunned for a few minutes until suddenly jumping up and screaming “My head! My head!” while bounding in circles on the bed. We essentially ignore him. I enjoy being included but everything feels like it’s happening at a distance. I want everything to be safe, ordered, good, and so much of this feels far away from that. I also have a creeping suspicion that I’m unwanted, only here as collateral damage from inviting the younger guys. When dreamy eyes and the guy with the black hair throw coals from the fire through a slit in the window, I get locked out of the cabin with them for the night and have to sleep in a car. I’m only annoyed because I know I won’t sleep and I don’t, but being excluded from the cabin almost feels like a kindness.

“Long as I Can See the Light”

My faith blossoms towards the end of my sophomore year and my suicidal ideation mostly goes away because of that. When I grapple with ideation in years following, I don’t always know what to do with the experience. Even when I want to die to escape the pain and be free of this broken body and with Jesus, suicide still feels like the wrong choice. Some Christians believe suicide to be an unforgivable sin, an ultimate distrust in God. In high school, I believe this and this makes me afraid of it, but as I grow in my faith and away from my ideation, I see suicide as another death, an escape that is not outside the scope of Grace. The more I understand this, the less I want to kill myself, but the ideation is never that far away.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

The girl with red curls gives my best friend hand massages in study hall. This is not a euphemism. For obvious reasons, nobody believes them when they say their relationship is platonic, that they are just friends. As a young white guy, culture teaches me that I own any women I find attractive, so I feel hurt by their affection but can’t explain why. Accepting that she’s not into me hurts in ways I don’t fully understand how to navigate, so I pine at my desk and hope for something that I should just let go of already.

“Have You Seen the Rain?”

Despite large sections of Scripture that address deep sorrow with compassion and understanding, depression is still chronically misunderstood within Christian circles. Being depressed in the church can be portrayed as having weak faith or hope in Christ and not as something like diabetes or heart disease, which you can exacerbate but can also exist independent of your choices. This misunderstanding sat inside me for years, making it hard to recognize the difference between my own decisions and what the disease was doing once the depression fell on me like a wave. So I blamed myself for my depression entirely, seeing every part of it as a choice I made or failed to make. As a Christian, believing that everything in my life is in my control is a tragic irony. However, the depression stays and it’ll take me over a decade before I forgive myself for having a mental illness and even longer before I finally get help.

“Hey Tonight”

On one Saturday in early fall of my junior year, I play the best basketball of my life. I score a few points, sure, but more than that, I am effective defensively. I nearly dunk, steal the ball, block shots, rebound prolifically, and take a charge facing the wrong direction. It’s called a foul on me but my coaches say they’ve never seen anything like it. We’re playing in a small tournament with two other schools, and we win both games. The tournament was originally supposed to be a standard four-team bracket, but when one team backs out, we play round-robin instead. Because we win both of our games, we’re crowned the champions. We go and get supper and play mini-golf, and then head back to the gym for the award presentation. When we arrive to accept our trophies, my head coach tells me to carry the championship trophy while my tall friend with glasses will receive the MVP award. I’m over the moon. However, when we finally get back from eating, they’ve already had the award ceremony before the consolation game to decide second and third place. Since we were all gone, one of the moms who drove us accepted it on our behalf. I hold the trophy briefly and then give it to my coach.

“Sweet Hitch-Hiker”

I got my driver’s license almost a year late. Because there was nowhere to go and my family didn’t have an extra vehicle I could exclusively drive, my mom had to force me to practice driving and eventually take the test out of necessity. Even then, I rarely drove places on my own. I was far more likely to bike around my small neighborhood and be chased by the neighbors’ dogs than cruise around town.

“Someday Never Comes”

Decades later you sit at your desk. You feel the first throes of the anti-depressant taking hold. You pray and cry because you didn’t remember. Is this what it felt like? Oh, God, you didn’t remember. Your past melds together and you finally find yourself in deep silence and stillness the likes of which you’d given up dreaming about. Yet even as a lifetime of this strangeness looms ahead of you, you feel profound peace knowing your ever-fracturing brain was never outside the scope of Grace, even if that Grace comes primarily through counseling and pills. Your cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, especially through the valley of the shadow of death.

—Josiah Meints

#71: Paul Simon, "Graceland" (1986)

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Son Op” fades quickly but gracefully in, announcing itself with two measures of slowly building layers of accordion, then thrusting a righteously bulbous rhythm section onto you without asking if you’re ready to begin. The fact that it grows from there is miraculous, never fading, unconcerned with a bridge, thinking only of your feet and whether they are moving, your heart and whether it is racing.

“Son Op” is not the best of South Africa’s long-living, long-suffering, long-joyful Boyoyo Boys, but it’s perhaps the most bluntly indicative of their early magic. This would be the same magic that Paul Simon, at a crossroads in his personal and professional life, fell under the spell of when a friend sent him a compilation tape of contemporary South African tunes. Simon has been both open about the story of how his fascination with the music that would form the bones of his culturally dominating Graceland began, and dodgy about the specific artists he stepped over to get there. You could replace his name and the title of his album in that previous sentence with the name and masterwork of dozens of (some might say all) white American musicians, and the song would sound the same. When Paul Simon heard the Boyoyo Boys for the first time, he heard inspiration and hungered to join the tradition. Where you place your opinion of this on the spectrum between honorable and slimy surely dictates your feelings about Graceland.

And look back, to only half a decade before. Before Graceland, there was 1980’s Remain in Light, David Byrne’s masterpiece with Talking Heads that felt both blindingly new and suddenly like the natural apex of the songwriter’s rocketing career up to that point. It, too, strips rhythms from the traditions of west and south African communities to tell its stories of midlife ennui. Brian Eno’s production situates the songs on Remain in Light in the electro-experimental era from which it spawned (and would go on to spawn even more radically), but the influences are right there. And this is why Angélique Kidjo’s 2018 full-album cover of Remain in Light still feels so essential as the year comes to a close.

Kidjo is not a household name in the United States, but this says far more about the United States than it does about her. An immediate and massive star since the release of her debut record Pretty in 1981, Kidjo was the first woman to be named one of Forbes’s “40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa,” was listed on The Guardian’s “top 100 most inspiring women in the world,” holds honorary degrees from Yale and Berklee College of Music, and is currently serving as the Harvard Jazz Master of Residence. She has three Grammys and thirteen albums to her name. And this is all extremely surface-level research; Angélique Kidjo (born Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo) is only one of a thousand bright examples of the Great American Blindspot.

Kidjo was born and raised in the west African coastal nation of Benin, sandwiched slimly between Togo and Nigeria, and has said about her version of Remain in Light: “As [this record] was influenced by the music of my continent, I want to pay back the homage and create my own African take on Talking Heads’ songs.” This is very diplomatic, indicative only of the thrilling joy that often infects her music—in the same promotional statement, she also said “We all know that rock music came from the blues and thus from Africa. Now is the time to bring rock back to Africa, connect our minds, and bring all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding.” “Now is the time” is such an interesting expression here, because it isn’t clear why now, and why not always or anytime. I guess now is the time because now has always been the time, whenever now has been. Kidjo’s interpretation of Remain of Light is bombastic around every corner, a reinterpretation that feels simultaneously full of genuine brightness and a biting, necessary irony. “Once in a Lifetime,” stuck right in the middle as it was on the Talking Heads’ original listing, is the most vivacious standout—Kidjo relishes in Byrne’s lyrics, turning his half-shout into a full one, his murmured chorus into a ripping statement of intent. It’s a six minute tour of Beninese rhythms, controlled where it needs to be and let loose just about everywhere else; look, the artist is saying, let me show you what you missed. Take a look at these hands. Take them. Come.

Like Remain in Light, Graceland is tough to grapple with because it’s both sides that make it magic—Paul Simon’s ever-young voice, almost pastel in its cunning calmness, and the unrelenting Soweto sound, so exciting to the ear, so absolutely bursting with vibrant urgency. It’s Simon’s lyrics about New York romance and divorce in the heartland of America and hitting middle age gracelessly and terrified, all of it layered thrillingly over music unintended for its jacketing. It’s tough because the record is so good—the songs simply bulletproof, track by track by track—but by many accounts, its production is an ugly quagmire of sonic theft, misattribution, and painfully familiar white (American, male) privilege. Twenty-five years after its initial release, the deluxe remaster worked to give credit more appropriately, with songs sporting new features by Ladysmith and Los Lobos, of course, but also the Boyoyo Boys, Good Rockin’ Doopsie, the Twisters, the Gaza Sisters, and General M.D. Shirinda. The thing is that Graceland will never be perfect—there’s too much shady damage done, too much bitterness through the years, too many question marks that don’t pass muster—but the roots of rhythm remain, and they are glorious, as close to perfection as one could achieve through 11 songs and the unfortunate production techniques of the upside-down 1980s.

When you watch footage of Paul Simon winning the Grammy for Album of the Year for Graceland, you’re watching a relic from a stranger time. Whoopi Goldberg and Don Johnson present the award in matching suits and when she announces his name from the envelope, Whoopi jumps up and down in unbridled excitement. The audience delivers Paul a standing ovation. The stage decoration feels ripped from Keith Haring’s stepbrother’s rough draft notebook. In his acceptance speech, Paul is gracious and seems more humbled than you might expect, almost embarrassed even, and at the speech’s end he does name some of the South African musicians who worked on the record. But it isn’t only these musicians who we must remember to remember, is it? It’s the roots, the snatched rhythms, of colonization.

I don’t know that there is a correct way to enjoy Graceland in 2019, but I enjoy it immensely, and I am grateful for its songwriting and for the craft of its musicians. I am grateful for the musical rabbit holes it sends me down. I am grateful to begin with this record, to honor it for the beauty it holds, and to pull on its loose threads until the whole thing unravels.

—Brad Efford

#61: Sly & the Family Stone, "Greatest Hits" (1970)

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Until iTunes, I never cared about year end lists. But once it became apparent that each year I could comb through those lists, find terrific stuff I missed, and then buy those songs for a buck a piece, year end lists became one of my favorite things. 2004 to 2010 were the salad days. Year after year I would make a “missed” list and burn it to CD or just let the playlist repeat over and over on my iPod.

Somewhere in 2011, Spotify launched in the United States. It was a big deal. Here was a library the size of iTunes that you subscribed to and it was all yours. I went a bit mad at first. And for a long time, several years, I was posting monthly playlists to my Tumblr. They featured blurbs like this from May 2014; “Parquet Courts-Sunbathing Animal-Minor Threat for total lazy slackers.”

For awhile I was not only creating monthly playlists but also making a year end playlist AND collaborating with friend/writer Neal Christyson on our favorite albums. Here’s is Neal working his way up to praising Chance the Rapper’s 2013 album Acid Rap: “2013 was a year full of monster rap releases. Kanye West was projecting his face on the side of buildings. Jay-Z released an album which, for a period of time, was exclusively available on Samsung cellphones. Despite all of my protests, Drake continued to be Drake...” Dearest Neal, it is 2018 and Drake has maintained this trajectory.

Two years ago, I stopped working on the monthly lists. And last year, the year end wrap ups stopped. And now, in 2018, I am still excited by year end lists but also, like, they are starting to freak me out. I’ve always known I won’t have time to listen to every song, watch every movie, play every video game, read every book...but there was always a feeling that, well, access would help thin the field. It wouldn’t matter that I wanted to see Hard to be a God in 2013 because, well, when would I have the chance?

In 2018 I have the chance nearly every hour of every day. Which, OK, I definitely said I always wanted that. But it also kind of sucks. The volume of choice absolutely fries my brains. In 2018, my most listened to artist was R.E.M., a band that has not been active in 8 years. That was by design. I retreated to old favorites with finite catalogues and established quality.

Which brings me to Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits. What a blessing a greatest hits album is in 2018. And this one especially so. Because, well, I’m not crazy about this band. I like them. I respect them. If you told me they were your favorite that would make sense to me. But, I can listen to anything I want at any point of any day and I’m just not going to finally dig into There’s Riot Goin’ On.

But Greatest Hits? Sure! Twelve songs, nearly all of them absolutely perfect. Why not? I’m not super invested in the artist, but I like the artist. A compilation is perfect. I’ll take it a step further and say my enjoyment of a greatest hits album is, at least partly, inversely related to how much I enjoy that artist. My friend Jeff says one of the best greatest hits album of all time is The Steve Miller Band Greatest Hits 74-78. His reasoning is something along the lines of SMB not really being essential listening in the broader context of rock but his good songs are also too good to disregard entirely.

I think that pattern holds true for many of the “iconic” greatest hits albums. ABBA Gold, The Eagles 71-76, Journey’s Greatest Hits, The Cars Greatest Hits,  The Best of The Doors, etc… There are others where the album itself has taken on its own life—Singles Going Steady and Hot Rocks both come to mind. And sure, plenty of these albums were released because of greed or settling an album contract or to capitalize on an equally exhausted and aging set of 1980s or 1990s consumers, but that shouldn’t get in the way of a good time when you only have a limited time.

So now, in 2018, feeling shredded, wouldn’t you enjoy a Best of Drake? Or what about, Lil Wayne: The Mixtapes 2003-2008 or The White Stripes Singles or The One Godspeed You! Black Emperor Song You Need to Hear. Yes, sure, you can go to YouTube or Spotify or Apple Music to get different takes on what these lists might look like. But now we’re just comparing playlists. Now we have to rank those. And people are crazy. This “Best Drake Songs” playlist is 155 songs long. Someone tighten that up, ok?

—Steven Casimer Kowalski

#62: Guns 'N' Roses, "Appetite for Destruction" (1987)

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Nicky walked down the hallway. Girls stared at her, pulled gum from their mouths, winding its pink flesh around slow, lazy fingers, leaning against lockers, following her with their eyes as she walked down the hallway. Boys stared at her, punched each other in the upper arm; they were jungle animals, they felt things in their groins, they stirred and barked and made kissy faces as she walked down the hallway.

Her face was thin and freckled. Her hair was sprayed sky high in the front, a wall of deep brown hair like a shield, like armor. Don’t fuck with me. She wore her stone-washed jeans tight, cuffs pegged, a pink plastic comb lodged in the back pocket. She wore high tops with the laces untied.

She, Nicky, did not chew gum. She smoked cigarettes on the corner during lunch. She sat in boys’ laps while they smoked. The boys had mullets and smoked Marlboro Reds and so she smoked them too. They borrowed her comb to comb back their hair. She pulled the pink plastic from her back pocket and reached it out to them; when they reached for it, she pulled it quickly away and laughed her hard, loud laugh, taking a drag from her Marlboro Red.

She wore the same shirt to school almost every day. I can remember it perfectly even now: black, a cross and five skulls, each skull with long hair, and banners, tattoo-like, above: “GUNS *N* ROSES”; below: “APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION.”

Nicky was a legend.

“Do not fuck with Nicky,” said a gum-chewing girl, turning back to her locker to pull out her algebra book. They said she lived in a trailer park on the north side of town. They said she fought like a boy. She didn’t pull hair; she punched faces. I leaned into the lockers and watched her walk down the hallway.

*

I’m at work. It’s March. I work on the fifth floor of an anonymous building downtown, in a small cubicle where I mostly shuffle papers around a desk. There are numbers on the paper that blend together and fade into other numbers. I wear a suit to work, drab, gray, anonymous. Every day I bring a brown paper bag to work containing a yogurt (strawberry-banana) and peanut butter on wheat bread, eating it silently at my desk between the hours of noon and one.

Down the dim, beige hallway, I see a woman approaching. She has deep brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and held in place with hairspray, and a thin, freckled face; she’s wearing a tailored wool sports jacket over pants that fit her tightly. My co-workers watch her walk down the hallway. A woman twirls a phone code around a finger; a man punches another man in the arm.

She walks down the hallway, past me. She smells of Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous and cigarette smoke.

I follow her outside.

“Hi… Nicky?” She looks up. I can see her eyes, like the bluest skies. “We went to school together?” She straightens her jacket and tucks her hair casually behind her ear.

“Nicole,” she says. She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her purse: Marlboro Lights, not Reds, I notice.

“We weren’t friends, but I remember you. You used to be really into Guns N’ Roses,” I shift in my suit; she doesn’t remember me.

She looks at me with a furrowed brow, clicks her lighter for the fifth time and the flame finally emerges; she holds it to her cigarette, inhales, then exhales a thick cloud of smoke into the graying air.

“Maybe you’d like to go for coffee sometime,” I suggest.

She remains silent.

“We don’t have to talk about the past.”

“Why the fuck would I care if we talked about the past or not?” she shoots back, glaring at me through a haze of smoke. She doesn’t pull hair; she punches faces.

I’m not offended by this. I look her in the eyes and see that she’s wavering, soft. She’s not really offended either. “Anyway, I just thought we could have coffee sometime.”

She doesn’t agree or disagree, she just smiles, so I leave it at that.

*

The girls’ bathroom is where they sprayed their hair. I could hear them talking. I was frozen inside of a cubicle, my knees tucked to my chest, holding my breath, playing a ghost. I could hear the hiss of the spray can; it sounded like Izzzzzzy.

“Axl Rose is from Indiana,” said Nicky. Indiana was just across the border, a line I knew they sometimes crossed late at night in shitty cars, smoking cigarettes with the windows rolled down. The border was invisible on country roads, sometimes barely felt when you hit a bump as you crossed the state line, where one road’s taxes were shittier. I knew this fact made her feel close to him. Like she could touch Axl Rose just by crossing that state line.

“Duh, they’re from LA,” said the other girl, punctuated by the hiss of a spray can going Duffffff. LA was foreign, with different vegetation, palm trees, bougainvillea. It was a mythical place; it involved plane flights and fantasies.

“Who gives a fuck about LA?” Nicky didn’t give a fuck about LA.

Nicky put on her headphones. Through the foam ear covers I could hear Axl howling “Because you’re crazy, hey hey, You’re fucking crazy, oh my, You know you’re crazy, oh child, I said you’re crazy, ay, ay, yeah.”

I wondered how crazy Nicky was. If she would really punch someone in the face. I imagined Nicky crossing state lines, kissing boys. I imagined Nicky in LA, walking down the Sunset Strip punching people in their faces. I pulled my knees closer to my chest. The spray can went Slashhhhhhh.

*

Two days later, I bump into Nicky outside again. She’s at the end of her cigarette, picking the skin around her thumbnails.

“Hey,” I say. “Coffee?”

She furrows her brow, slowly puts out her cigarette in the metal ashtray between us, and follows me.

*

Nicky lived in a trailer park on the north side of town. Her father worked in the porno industry and her mother was on heroin. She let guys do things to her in exchange for cigarettes. She didn’t pull hair; she punched faces.

No: Nicky lived in a small house on the north side of town. Her father worked at a warehouse and her mother was a night nurse. She kissed boys sometimes, but mostly she listened to Guns N’ Roses alone in her bedroom.

No: Nicole lives in an apartment on the north side of town. She works on the fifth floor of an anonymous building downtown, pushing paper with numbers on it.

No: Nicole lives in an apartment in Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.

No: Nicole: Address unknown. Workplace unknown.

*

“Why are you so obsessed with getting coffee with me?” We’re sitting across from each other in a booth of one of those nostalgia diners. Neon runs along the ceiling, bright and glaringly turning our faces pink and blue. It’s strange to see her sitting here in front of me, real, in the flesh. A song plays quietly in the background: I see you standing, standing on your own, it’s such a lonely place for you, for you to be…

“I… used to want to be you. You were a total badass.”

“You thought I was a badass?” She gives a sort of half-smile at the idea. She pours another packet of sugar into her coffee and stirs it slowly.

“Everyone did. No one wanted to fuck with you.”

She looks up abruptly when I say the word “fuck.” I hear how it doesn’t sound right coming from my mouth. I’m wearing a suit. I belong in beige hallways. She sips her coffee, still staring at me. “So you just wanted to get coffee to tell me that people used to be afraid of me?”

“I don’t know… I…” I look down at her thumbs, the skin around the nail gnawed red. Without thinking, I nervously bring my thumb to my mouth. “I used to look for you on the internet, to see where you’d ended up. You’re impossible to find.”

She stops stirring. “Where… did you think I’d end up?”

“I just wanted to see who you turned out to be.” I think about you, honey, all the time… I think about you, darling you’re the only one.

“Look,” she pauses and leans in towards me, “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not the girl I was in high school, and even if I was…”

I twist my napkin around my finger.

She looks me right in the eyes. “Your version of me, whatever fantasy you came up with, it’s not me.” She leans back, finishes her coffee, slides a couple of dollars under the empty mug, and walks out the door without looking back.

*

“Did you hear about Nicky? She died in a house fire this summer.” “She got into a bar fight and now she’s in prison.” “You know that stripper bar? She works there.” “You remember Dave? She married him and they have like five kids.” “Did you hear about Nicky? You still don’t want to fuck with her.”

*

Open search window.

Google: Nicky.

Results: A grainy picture of a girl in tight stonewashed jeans, head cocked to the side, wearing a Guns N’ Roses shirt.

Address: Unknown.

History: Unknown.

*

I walk back to my cubicle. There are new papers on my desk with new numbers fading into other new numbers. I open a playlist on my work computer. I find the song I want and put the earbuds in my ear.

She’s got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky

Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I stare too long, I might break down and cry

I open the brown paper bag, pull out the yogurt, peel back the foil lid, slip in my spoon, and take a slow bite. I open a new tab and search her name. Nothing comes up. It’s as if she doesn’t exist. I search again.

Nicky. Refresh. No results. Nicky. Refresh. No results. Nicole. Refresh. No results. Nicky.

—Zan McQuade

#63: U2, "Achtung Baby" (1991)

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Take a drink, for example. Remember how you and I never quite mastered that civilized art of sharing a moment.

Even now, we could mosey in from a cold breeze-strewn evening into a wood-beamed bar with lime-washed walls and gentle-bent ceiling. We would see and feel the fire as a confluence of hopes and relief. We would both, perhaps, follow the glimmer and gentle sway of the big fire’s light as it seeped into the dark corners of the room, light smiling back at us through a glass of the light-sweet farmhouse cider they make in the next county over. The cellar-cool glass with winking bubbles and earnest, hard-earth funk of wild yeast thick enough to smell even with the glasses at arm’s length. With glasses full, fire roaring, and the low-slung ceiling, we would find ourselves a little snug, maybe with a table for two. At such a table in such a snug as that we could spend all night. Never have to leave, would we? But how many such ciders could we stomach before it all went belly up?

Or what about the riverside in high summer? One of the little rivers trickling the run from swamp to sea, mud-streaked and stinking of sulfur sand and the tidal wash. What did our glasses full of the green-apple freshness of Prosecco smell like when we swirled them in with the smell of so much earth and water? Or is it the Chenin Blanc blend you prefer to remember, full of cut grass and that bitter-rich fold where a sachet of dry chamomile meets the smell of a live flower? In the summer’s wet heat, we last even less time before we’re at each other’s throats, or wrenching up bad oysters with heads buried in the saltgrass by the water’s edge. Snails are always clinging on to the marsh grass, edging themselves high and low as the water comes and goes. You and I could never master that kind of surviving rhythm.

But how, even now, a look back into the moments we reveled in still leaves my face flushed, and my breath chopping away at the back of my throat, wind-blown as the bay after a storm washes back out to sea. Cold waves, streaked with shatter-sharp bits of light, filtering through a procession of small-puffed clouds pelting north.

I didn’t try to read it as tea leaves when you threw my boots out of our moving car in Michigan, and we laughed together like maniacs as the only watertight shoes I’ve ever owned tumbled beyond the guardrail and landed somewhere in the scrap brush lining the shore below. We laughed until you had to pull over and gulp deep for air. My face would have been red, and I should have known then how little we could trust the stability of what we’d worked so hard on.

*

Lately with the season changing, I receive sudden, jolting glimpses back into this world most nights. The sky pushes recklessly in all directions, and dead leaves gather at the corners of my house, and clouds slip over the ridge tops and past the radio tower lights. Night bleeds into night, and I don’t have the strength of constitution not to linger, to try to remember the way those moments smelled, how it felt to think of the future from beneath those years, their muddled hopes and the plans we tended to.

Those old notions still sip like the unfurling honey-smoke of single malt. They sink into the lining of my stomach, with the mixing texture of ice and warm liquor. As the old moments settle across my eyes again, it is achingly clear how much I should have loved them more, reveled deeper into their mystery and joy. In my mind’s eye, the blurry snaps of moments still warm to the touch. When we left the bar in [ somewhere ] and you carried me out to our car, not in the fireman’s carry, but like I was floating in a canoe out to sea one last time with you stood in the shallows, and your loving hands weren’t holding me from falling but gathering memory and courage to say a proper goodbye. In your tiny arms, I remember feeling as warm and windswept, as loved and as tended to as when in mercy you volunteered us to take your sister’s dying cat to be put down so she wouldn’t have to say the words, or be there when they pushed the syringe in to ease the passing on. I felt the same dutiful buoyancy you gave to that cancer-hollowed cat as you set it gently on the metal table and they filled his failing heart with what must have been the sweetest feeling of relief.

*

The richest, sharpest memory I still have of us sharing a drink was the cans of Bigburger we took from a stranger on the train platform in Berlin as we decided in a series of glances that, yes, we would love to accept these beers from this thick-necked, purple-faced man in a yellow shirt, and that yes, we would love to sing the song about Dortmund with him (though, no, we did not know any words), and would we like to come to the game?

We did not. But, swept up in the churning train platform, full of drinking, singing fans, we did not feel the need to disappoint our newfound friend. We let him sweep us along, with his denim-clad, chain-smoking friends, to the stadium, where it seemed best that we did buy a ticket and come in with our new minder. We sat for a while in the highest reaches of the Olympicstadion watching two soccer teams, their singing, shouting fans, letting cool spring weather wash over our heads. We felt very far away from the city, from our own lives, from each other even. We left the game just after halftime. We learned the next day the two teams had played to a routine draw, no goals scored. The yellow-shirted Dortmund fans would go home, but we wondered if they would do so sad, frustrated, or cheering a brave result. Did our rough Dortmund-shirted minder get in a scrap with the blue-shirt-wearing Berlin fans on his way out of the stadium?

The night we left the game, the city seemed quiet. We were warmbellied, and we wore our jackets unzipped and wandered happily through Soviet-facaded grey streets, swaying, letting light and near-light blur together in what we thought felt like a familiar piece of the grey, sprawling city. We had, as we came to discover, taken the right train, but arrived at the wrong platform. It was nearly two in the morning by the time we found our way back to our hotel, and by that point you had lost a shoe, bought a new pack of cigarettes, and when we finally found our room, you told me, as you turned the contents of your purse onto the floor looking for a light, that tomorrow we would find a different train to take us to a different city where we could buy suitcases full of different clothes, and after enough time had passed, we would even pick new names for ourselves.

—Aaron Fallon

#64: The Rolling Stones, "Sticky Fingers" (1971)

64 Sticky Fingers.jpeg

They have always been a part of your education, from the very start. It’s the you, here, you see. Like a primer on how to be a girl, the album that kicks off with one of the nastiest tracks in rock: whipping slaves, house boys, Cajun queens. You’ve been looking at Mick and the boys since you can remember, since you were very small and sitting on the hardwood floor in front of the stereo, holding your parents’ octagon-shaped cover of Through the Past Darkly. Like a lot of things at that time, the cover photo of Keith’s pale lips smooshed up against glass made you feel both alternately fascinated and repelled.

Fascinated, but ultimately seduced: it’s Mick singing to you, educating you, telling an attentive girl what she’ll need to be in the running to be a cool chick, the kind of girl to inspire the most brilliant rock tracks.

*

Winter in north Mississippi is cold; most years see snow. The region suffered a catastrophic ice storm in 1994, a year before you traveled there, sight unseen, to start a new life as a transfer student at Ole Miss. You were a girl from another south, Southern California, and you didn’t know anything about actual cold.

You didn’t have a car; you’d flown into Memphis and taken a shuttle down to Oxford and spent the first night in a chain motel and the second in your new dorm, the loser dorm, the dorm for “nontraditional” students—foreign exchange students, the odd grad student, older transfers like yourself. Your neighbor is a chubby blonde from down near Jackson, with a drawl so thick you have to watch her mouth to clue into her sentences: I was fixin’ to go to Mizippi State but came up here instead. Both of you have Chinese exchange students for roommates, wisps of black-haired young women who smile politely but only break into laughter when cooking with their fellow transfers in the cramped communal kitchen.

What are you even doing here?

You failed at being a true groupie, though just a few years earlier you spent Saturday nights cruising the Sunset Strip, forever hoping for that rare long-haired rocker boy who might could (as your dorm neighbor would say) also read a book. Nights spent screaming “Lars!” up at the windows of the Chateau Marmont because you and your friend had heard a rumor that Lars Ulrich and the rest of Metallica were in residence. Buzzed nights spent slamming your right hand in a car door and not feeling a thing, or finding a bruise the next day.

You’d studied, see. Satin shoes, nasty boots, cocaine eyes: check. Throw me down the keys, Lars.

*

Everything is new and different, which was the point. It had seemed like a good plan, earning your degree far from home after you’d finished the general ed credits at your community college. You chose this place because you liked Southern writers like Eudora Welty and Ellen Gilchrist, and loved Southern bands more—you dreamed of the Allman’s blue skies, Skynyrd’s simple kind of man. Instead it’s freezing and you find yourself homesick and listening to a couple favorite CDs over and over—Sticky Fingers being one. Within the first few weeks, your Chinese roommate leaves for off-campus housing with a friend, and you’re alone as you prop your new Timberland boots up against the windowsill, the window open a sliver, blowing cigarette smoke out into the frigid air. You should be out at the bars down in the Square, meeting new people, but despite your loud music, you’re a quiet person and realize—too late now—that in your ignorance you didn’t factor in the primacy of the Greek system here, how along with football it provides the dominant culture. If you didn’t read books or listen to music, you could easily believe it’s the only culture. You’re too old, too bookish for this shit.

To a one, the student body is relentlessly clean cut: the girls wear boxy white t-shirts boasting of various sorority functions, the short-haired boys in baseball hats, their just-scraped, shaved faces blushing easily.  You were finally supposed to be starting your adult life, but are regressing. After class you ignore your homework, contemplating instead the impressive bulge of the mystery Warhol stud on the CD cover. You crank up “Bitch,” provoking the RA with the volume and a mild bad word, until she comes and knocks on your door again, turn it down please, people are trying to study. (Are they really?)

*

There is another South, the one in your mind, and you go there, instead. The south of the Delta blues, the slide guitar, of Muscle Shoals in Alabama where the first tracks of Sticky Fingers were recorded. The south Mick invokes in his British accent, singing “You Gotta Move,” written by a  Mississippi blues-man, the south that is plantations and dark history, hear him whip the women just around midnight.

You go on miles-long walks off campus, your thighs tingling and itchy with the cold, and see the poverty ringing the pretty town and the white columns of the courthouse, glimpse a level of poor you never saw amid the working-class stucco bungalows of your childhood. There are so many mobile homes tucked off the roads between bare trees, and so many beat-up cars, old long American sedans always missing a headlight.

By the end of your first month you see all you really came for: there’s the Jitney Jungle market, the frat house flying the Confederate flag, unironically blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” out a window on a Saturday afternoon. You’re supposed to be immersing yourself in a new way of life, but not unlike the Stones, you’re merely a tourist, getting an eyeful, sending home souvenirs—lighters and keychains emblazoned with the Colonel Reb mascot, one that plays Dixie when you push a button. You can leave, this isn’t your world, unlike all these extremely polite young people, these future Republicans in their khakis and polos who party to Phish and the Dave Matthews Band.

Besides your neighbor, who invites you over to watch her beloved VHS tape of Ray Stevens comedy clips, no one talks to you beyond pleasantries. But just as when you were a child on your parents’ floor, there is Mick, and his you, teaching you, this time instructing you on how to ride this out. Each song has a you, usually directed at a woman, though often it’s Mick talking to himself, the same way you do, waking and rising and attending classes without speaking to anyone, just your interior narrator.

In Sticky Fingers you inhabit a liminal space, physically smack in the Deep South, even as some songs evoke your own private California, the country twang of “Dead Flowers,” which could live comfortably beside your daddy’s Merle Haggard, “Wild Horses,” the 45 single you bought in high school, hoping someday a guy might feel as sad and tortured over you.

When spring arrives, you’ll attend a crawfish boil (“suck dat head!”) and admire the pink azaleas blooming across campus. There will be more long walks along picturesque train tracks where kudzu twines up the telephone poles. There will be those very specific wide blue skies of the American South, and on one night, your dorm window open wide, the sweet breeze will carry amplified notes of the The Allman Brothers, playing live at the football stadium across campus. You don’t have a date, nor the extra cash for a ticket.

You’ll fly home for the summer, returning in August with your car, a dull gray Nissan that only barely delivers you across the country. You’ll remain for another semester before packing it up, calling it quits on your Southern experiment. You can still listen to Sticky Fingers, and Jane's Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking without tipping into nostalgia for that era, with the exception of “Moonlight Mile.”

It’s a wintry song, and whether the Stones’ “head full of snow” is climate or cocaine doesn’t matter; this slow, sad chug of a closing track remains the soundtrack to all your cold nights alone, sleeping under strange, strange skies. Listening to it transports you right back, to a place you never knew well, a place that kept its mysteries close, but a place where you learned to be alone.

—Kelly Shire