#66: Van Morrison, "Moondance" (1970)

66 Moondance.jpg

Though belated, it was no doubt a break-up gift.

The turntable arrived at my apartment in Cambridge right before my 23rd birthday, an unexpected gesture after a few necessary months of not speaking. It’s not that I didn’t read into it; the petty questions came from all angles as I struggled to rip the packing tape: What message is he trying to send? Is this supposed to make up for everything? How materialistic does he think I am? So now he has the upperhand?

But once I found the perfect spot for it—atop a cabinet that was just the right needle-dropping height—my resentment subsided. After years of collecting decorative vinyl that I could only play at friends' apartments or my parents’ house, I finally had a record player of my own. I texted him thanks, sincerely.

There were a few more steps to audio bliss. I bought brand new speakers, black cinder blocks with neon yellow accents (they were self-amping, so they couldn’t have been that nice). The wiring seemed simple enough: red on red, black on black. But each time I twisted the knob to on, only the left speaker crunched with feedback.

I’d like to think that my sophisticated ear thoughtfully selected an album recorded in stereo so the opening track would split distinctly between two speakers, but I’m sure Moondance just happened to be on the top of the stack of used records collecting dust. “It Stoned Me” served me well: the needle would drop, Van would sing Half a mile from the county fair and the rain came pouring down to my left, and when he reached oooh the water with nothing to the right, I knew immediately that I had to fiddle with the wires again.

After about 30 adjustments, I finally heard crisp horns brimming from the right. It’s alive! It was a marvelous night for a moondance, and I indulged. A few tracks later though, sometime around “Crazy Love,” a sad thought pricked me: would keeping this record player keep my ex in my life? Would I think of him every time I flipped sides, every time I twisted the copper wires the same color as his hair?

*

Every relationship has its artifacts. There are objects in our apartment that my current boyfriend has no idea came from an ex of mine (though I suspect he’ll start asking more questions after reading this). They’re mostly practical—I certainly don’t think of the guy who gave me the cast iron skillet every time I fry eggs in the morning.

Astral Weeks, the record before Moondance, might have been a more appropriate soundtrack for the moving-on process, as Van Morrison wrote most of it meandering around the very neighborhood outside of Boston where I lived. One of my top five of all time, Astral Weeks is the ultimate staring-at-the-ceiling record; I’ve spent many nights in hypnotized by its strange beauty. But Moondance was the record I needed at 23—energetic, familiar, something I could sing along to. I needed to be grounded. As Ryan H. Walsh recently put it in a review for Pitchfork: “Van the Man was tired of floating in space; it was time to dance.”

Putting on Moondance to test the speakers has become a ritual. I used it to break in the next four apartments I lived in. In new cities and states, I twisted and pressed and re-angled the wires, listening for those triumphant horns that would christen my new home.

Like most people who collect vinyl, I tend to romanticize the analog. When Apple announced that the iPhone 7 would come without a headphone jack, signaling a shift to wireless-only listening, I vowed never to upgrade—even if I was receiving the music digitally, I wanted to be tethered to a concrete object. I needed to feel the connection, to twist the wire in between my fingers. I was scared of floating in space.

*

As it turns out, a turntable is a perfect break-up gift. Instead of a totem to the past, it was a vehicle for new memories—rocking out and cooling down, wallowing and bouncing back, twisting and shouting. (Though this was not necessarily the intention behind the gift; I think it’s safe to say that none of my exes have ever carried the ulterior motives I subscribed to them). When the time came, about six years and fourscore relationships later, I left the record player on a ledge in the lobby of my apartment building, a note stuck to its cracked plastic cover: “It works!”

My new record player is a multi-functional upgrade; it came with its own slim speakers with red and black wires that clicked right in. Van’s horns rang on the first try. The Bluetooth feature is hard to resist; 23-year-old me would balk at the fact that sometimes we play albums over Spotify that we own on vinyl tucked on a shelf less than 10 feet away. For all the metaphors in fine-tuning and strengthening connections, now I’d rather press play on my phone, staying on the couch beside my love. It seems I don’t need to fiddle with the wires anymore.

—Susannah Clark

#67: Radiohead, "Kid A" (2000)

67 Kid A.jpg

“I had never even seen a shooting star before. 25 years of rotations, passes through comets' paths, and travel, and to my memory I had never witnessed burning debris scratch across the night sky.”

I didn't write those words—those are the opening lines to Brent DiCrescenzo's infamous Pitchfork review of Kid A, lines that became a memetic part of my college friendships far before I ever got into Radiohead. The air of pretension oozing from that piece was enough to draw me into reading the full review, and boy, did it not disappoint. Allusions to CS Lewis, comparisons to a stillbirth, alien abductions—it’s impossible to describe this review without accidentally impersonating Bill Hader’s Stefon. But for all my love of the piece, I had never even heard a Radiohead album before. 20 years of rotations, passes through comets’ paths, and travel, and to my knowledge I had never felt those beautiful bleep bloops scratch across my eardrums. So I set out to change that.

My sophomore year of college, I gave myself the task of listening to Radiohead’s entire discography in sections—spend two days apiece listening to nothing but a single album, with the hopes that at the end of the two weeks I would have gained a proper appreciation (read: Stockholm Syndrome’d myself) for the band’s work. I’d heard songs of theirs here and there: I knew the hits, I’d fallen in love with “Bodysnatchers” way back in 2007, I’d even become obsessed with a great Jay-Z/Radiohead mashup album (named Jaydiohead, naturally). It all went so swimmingly at first—even in the weeds of their first album Pablo Honey, I liked what I was hearing. I recognized something special in The Bends, even being years divorced from the context in which it would’ve been considered a legendary alt-rock album. Getting to OK Computer on those fifth and sixth days solidified it for me—if this was the album that kicked off the band’s status as all-time greats, then the way it made me feel was enough for me to recognize them as personal favorites. I hadn’t even gotten into the meat and potatoes of their work yet! But OK Computer was as perfect a collection of 12 tracks as I had ever heard, and I couldn’t imagine that the bridge between OK Computer and In Rainbows would have anything to put me off of their work.

Then I got to Kid A. Good grief. 

DENIAL

…Is this it? The astounding, unparalleled Radiohead album that changed the musical landscape and claimed a spot in the Mount Rushmore of all-time indie records? There must be some mistake. Maybe I’ve got the wrong version of the album. Maybe Spotify started bugging out and switched an incredible, wall-thumping rock record with whatever experimental Brian Eno album they accidentally labeled as “Treefingers.” Gotta give kudos to whatever upstart jazz trio behind “Morning Bell” managed to con Spotify into uploading their work as a Radiohead album, though.

ANGER

…Is this it?! For real?? With the title track and everything??? Was there such a dearth of music in 2000 that Thom Yorke drunkenly warbling over a discarded Postal Service demo was really worth a fucking Grammy?! All the incredible instrumentation is gone, replaced with weird GarageBand bells and lyrics from a terrible poetry generator. “Yesterday I woke up sucking on lemon?” Christ. We were all so relaxed when Y2K didn’t happen that this passed for “best of the year,” I guess.

BARGAINING

Is this it? I’m missing something. There’s a meaning behind this music that I’m not savvy to. It does seem like there’s a largely metaphorical story of some sort here that everyone’s connecting to. Maybe I’m just not old enough to get it? Maybe “Idioteque” just speaks to a part of life that I haven’t yet experienced, where one goes through a symbolic “ice age” that is coming, where we are meant to…take the money and run? Ugh. Fuck. I don’t know what any of these goddamn bleeps and bloops mean.

DEPRESSION

This… is it. Radiohead traded in their absolutely electric guitar work and powerful anthemic vocals for…this. I spent a week hoping they’d transcend their reputation as a sad boy quintet, but Kid A is the very album that solidifies it. Can I even finish this two-day experiment when I know what lies on the horizon? How many times can I listen to variations of “In Limbo” without lying down for a year, ready to accept any and all bedsores? It’s a wildly inaccessible album, written by and for a version of Radiohead that I don’t recognize. The lyrics are purposefully abstruse, the music feels like an attempt to shed the goodwill of their most recent success in favor of a strangely-timed, turn of the millennium embrace of the digital lifestyle. Why? Why have they done this to themselves? And more importantly, why have they done this to me?

*

I was 20 when I first listened to Kid A in full, and it was an extremely jarring, alienating experience. It took about three listens for me to even accept that I could enjoy any of the tracks on the album, and by that point I felt like I’d been brainwashed, letting the fumes of a collegiate laundry room bleed into my nostrils while I convinced myself that there was a true artistry in the abstract nature of “Morning Bell” that I just wasn’t savvy to.

To this day I’m convinced that the only parts of Kid A I truly love are the parts that lean more into the accessible, radio-friendly nature of Radiohead. “Optimistic” follows enough of a standard song structure for my brain to understand it. “The National Anthem” builds to a climactic frenzy in such a way that my heart feels energized. Even “How To Disappear Completely”—as bleak and dismal as it is—feels simple enough that it’s not alienating to me. But at the time that I’d done this two-day listening experiment, that wasn’t enough for me. I spent hours writing out (now-deleted) tweets on how frustrating it was to know that Kid A was the most beloved album in the Radiohead oeuvre when it was so far the one I liked the least. (Yeah, even more than Pablo Honey! It was that strange to me!) But instead of extending the period of time for me to truly understand it, I just moved on. And moving on to Amnesiac felt like a slap in the face. All of the inaccessibility and ambient instrumentation was multiplied exponentially. I didn’t have the energy to be frustrated again though, so I took the two days in stride and was happy to be in the loving arms of Hail To The Thief when it came along. But I never really embraced Kid A like I should have.

In fact, I don’t know that I ever got a chance to reckon with my feelings towards Kid A until I decided to write this piece. I initially asked RS 500 editor Brad Efford to write some words on OK Computer, only to find that it had already been claimed. I told him I’d write about Kid A instead because I was insistent that I had to write something in tribute to the band, as they’d become such a strong part of my life. So I did the two-day experiment again with just Kid A, and it all felt so different.

I still look at that Pitchfork review and laugh at how perplexing an abstract it is, but in a lot of ways I also connect with it. The way it’s written is the exact way Kid A feels, and the metaphors DiCrescenzo uses have become similar to the visuals my mind connects to it. My initial reactions to the album will always be there, grandfathered in as a gut feeling of how I “really” feel about it, but I still see a lot of beauty and value in it that I wouldn’t have possibly seen while trying to brute force my way into becoming a Radiohead fan. There’s a lot of indescribable, ethereal magic in the album that reminds me of how I felt finally seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen: the foremost feeling was a resounding “what the fuck does this mean,” but the thought overwhelmed me so much that I forgot to take in the beauty in every frame (or note). Radiohead made a piece of work that discards all of the reputation their audience demanded of them in favor of all the reputation they wanted to have, and they still managed to make something strong, emotional, completely unique, and absolutely oozing with skill. Trying to embrace the album like any other piece of music is a fool’s errand, because it’s not like anything else. It’s not a story, or a collection of sounds they just liked—it’s an experimental opera of sorts where the inaccessibility is part of the experience.

ACCEPTANCE 

Kid A isn’t my shooting star (In Rainbows holds that honor for me). It forms a series of wondrous constellations in that same night sky that I could have easily missed if I’d placed so much importance on finding the comet’s trail that had been promised to me, but that isn’t the vision I needed. That isn't the way I needed to see the album. This is it.

—Demi Adejuyigbe

#68: Michael Jackson, "Off the Wall" (1979)

68 Off the Wall.jpg

My first memory of Off the Wall comes from 1984, when the album was 5 years old and I was 6. My parents had split up much earlier; in fact, they divorced the very month Off the Wall was released. By 1984, my mom had married a man whose teenage son (my idol) stayed with us a few nights each month and he coached me on what big kids listened to—Thriller, in a word. That summer, I flew to see my dad, who’d moved out of state with his new wife to a kid-free home with fancy crockery, hi-def electronics, and—much to my delight—a big record collection.

Upon arriving at Dad’s house, I announced to my stepmom that Michael Jackson was one of my two new stepbrothers. This seemed to me very possible, given the amount of people I adored who lived other places, with other families. She and Dad had filed their records in an oak cabinet by the den. I asked her to “play Michael Jackson,” which, to my six-year-old mind, meant playing Thriller. “We do have one of his albums,” my stepmom said, “but it’s an older one,” and then she pulled out a cover with a smiling young man who looked the age of my babysitters. He wore a prom tuxedo and leaned against a stack of bricks. Sans glove, sans glitter. I didn’t recognize his face.

She attached a gigantic set of headphones to the receiver and started the album. The headphone cushions were so big they squished my cheeks in, but through them, I first heard the strained whispers and swarm of disco violins that kick off “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

There are no violins on Thriller, I thought. What the heck was this?

Who knows how far beyond those opening measures I got before abandoning the stereo to find something else to do. But for years, Off the Wall was, to me, another disappointing knock-off of My Amazing New Brother. It reminded me of the countless MJ send-ups on Saturday morning cartoons—a moonwalking Smurf or a Chipmunk squealing through “Beat It.”

Three decades later, that exact copy of Off the Wall is here next to me while I type this, still in fabulous shape, perhaps because it was so rarely played until I recently snatched it from Dad. If you haven’t heard an analog copy of Quincy Jones’s masterful production, woven like the late-disco equivalent of a Flemish tapestry, you’re missing out. It may have taken me decades to realize its power, but Off the Wall now rates as my favorite headphones album in all of Pop.

Where Jones and Jackson designed Thriller to be a record with as many hits as (super)humanly possible, this first collaboration smacks more of a unified sonic concept. You can hear in the production a pushing back against the flaccid, uninspired disco that, post-Saturday Night Fever, had saturated basic American culture. Of course, much of Off the Wall is still very much in the spirit of disco—jaunty bass-lines, orchestration that shimmers like a mirrorball, and an alarming number of lyrics discussing “the boogie”—as in THE boogie with a definite article, thank you very much. But in addition to these disco markers, the Off the Wall sound is always complex and polyvocal, lush and anti-metronomic. It breathes and moves as it blends funk riffs, Latin rhythms, Quiet Storm balladry and contrapuntal jazz runs into a barreling, gleeful menagerie of the best that ‘70s dance music had to offer, both including disco and moving beyond it.

Even though Off the Wall is chock full of singles (the first four released tracks all charted in the Pop Top Ten), it enjoys the kind of cohesiveness that’s cherished in capital-A albums like Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely or What’s Going On. The album is exceptional, I think, because it designs this irresistible unique sonic language for itself, and then, over the course of nine songs, it teaches the listener to hear—and revel in—that language.

The two dozen session musicians—Louis Jordan, Wah Wah Watson, and the splendiferous Sea Wind Horns among them—play Jones’s dense arrangements with a sparkling sonic profile that establishes, then maintains, and finally challenges itself by the close of the second side. Over the course of nine tracks, this unique sound becomes not only familiar, but familial. And there, at the head of this family table, is Michael Jackson’s singular voice.

This is his first solo album away from all his other families; both Motown records and his brothers are absent (save Randy, who plays hand percussion on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”). And from the first note he sings, Jackson tells his new family, they of the Quincy Jones studio, that he has come to play. Listening to him, I get the impression of a precocious kid at a big Thanksgiving meet-up, running from kitchen to living room to card table. Bright and engaging, he joins in on any conversation that will have him, talking big game, stirring pots, parroting punch lines, and yelling at the football on TV. With each visit to some family clique, he spazzes out even more, but that kind of energy is never anything but welcome, especially when it comes packaged in a voice like his.

The first note he hits—that OOOH! at the start of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”—is the highest vocal moment of Off the Wall. Right out of the gate! That bent shout, just shy of a soprano’s high C, opens into the melody line, where MJ lives in the fifth octave, soaring over the measures in a breathy falsetto not unlike the lofty string hits at the top of the track. MJ vox as disco violin? Check.

Not to mention, “Don’t Stop” is of his own devising, one of the three songs he wrote for Off the Wall, all of which appear on Side A. Visceral and alive, MJ sings of a “force” that has brought him into this sonic space, one powerful enough to keep him pushing, keeping on, until his appetite—for love, for music, for kinship—is sated.

On the next track, “Rock With You,” Jackson’s voice drops a full octave, refusing falsetto for all but a handful of measures. His singing is less overcome here, more wry and confident, as one must be when asking one’s partner to take this dance to the next level. And while still managing to be smooth as hell, MJ’s “Rock With You” vox sports a terrific chestiness, with a kind of push in the highest notes of his melody that sounds to me like a Sea Wind horn in mid-bleat. MJ vox as sexy sax, as “magic that must be love”? Check and check.

And don’t even get me started on track three, “Working Day and Night,” which launches MJ back up into his falsetto, but also builds on that established sound with a second vocal challenge. Jackson’s breath, grunts, and sighs all groove alongside the heavy arrangement of hand percussion—bottles, handbells, and claps—that runs through the song. MJ vox as hot drum track? Chicka-chicka-uh-uh-check.

I defy you to find a more cohesive Side A in pop music—the gradual architecture of instruments (MJ included), the shifts in tempo and tone, and the delicious volley between fervor and disco glide. It’s perfectly parsed to tease the listening body (as well as the dancing one) up and back and up again: You don’t stop, and then you lie back and rock with somebody. You work day and night, then you get on the floor and dance it away.

Side A culminates in the album’s title track, in which Jackson’s voice daps that high B-flat from “Don’t Stop” with the lowest sung note in the album—a C# nearly three octaves down-key from where he began. In his “Off the Wall” vocal, we hear all the earlier tricks so far—percussive grunt, soaring falsetto, gritty belt—working together, plus the added treat of the backup vocals: several pitch-perfect MJs multi-tracked into a tight funk chord. MJ vox as decathlete, as fifth element, as a Jackson 5 choir all to himself? Quintuple check.

Side B is both more easygoing and more expansive—a goofy Paul McCartney pop cover, a weepy ballad, and a duet all painting with the same palate from Side A, but flying further from the bar each time. It kills me whenever I hear the first notes of “I Can’t Help It”—the Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green song that, according to Spike Lee’s 2016 Off the Wall documentary, Jones plucked from the slush pile of Songs in the Key of Life. I’m just crazy about this song—the Wonderful key changes alone! It carries all the out-the-gate thrills of a track one or track two, but lives tucked away at the back of Off the Wall, waiting in the third-to-last spot like a sneak attack.

In it, you hear the jazzy, smiling voice that Michael brings to Thriller’s “Human Nature” and Bad’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but this vocal take sounds more in apprenticeship to Jones and Wonder’s original work-ups. Though he was already one of the most famous voices on the planet, in 1979, Michael Jackson was still audibly capable of showing us the way a song might surprise him—how he might meet its challenges with reverence, delight, or almost prayer. That surprise, in turn, almost always surprises me when I listen to it carefully.

For me, the payoff of deeply considering pop culture is the rare chance to feel the scales of hype drop away from an icon. Sometimes, if you deeply listen (or re-listen) to a voice that’s been thrown at you your whole life, and you do so with both innocence and abandon, the icon attached to that voice is denuded of all the superlatives that the world decided to heap upon it—superlatives that often talk over an artist’s purest talents. Perfect expression never needs fame to do its job.

Stripping fame away to view such expression on its own terms often brings the voice closer to me as a listener, with no decades of overblown storytelling, mass marketing, or laden criticism between the two of us. When it’s just the voice and its audience, there’s a different sort of kinship at work, a magic that must be love. You might go so far as to say that it is, in its way, a kind of family.

—Elena Passarello

#70: Billy Joel, "The Stranger" (1977)

70 The Stranger.jpg

It’s almost an internet sport, in a way, to make fun of Billy Joel. He’s one of the last bastions of a very specific iteration of New York, of a very specific type of music—operatic narratives, told with a an accomplished voice and over an expertly played piano, something that could be beautiful if not for the performance of its earnestness. And therein lies what’s so easy to mock—the mawkishness of his belief in the very humanness of his melodramas.

However, even amongst his cruelest detractors, there is no denying that one collection of his songs manages to pull itself out from Billy’s self-created sea of grandiose sincerity, allowing you to wade through its narratives as opposed to feeling drowned by them. Largely considered his magnum opus, Billy Joel’s The Stranger was written, recorded, and released just months after his 28th birthday. It holds some of his most famous and most critically praised songs—“Only the Good Die Young” is a karaoke staple; “Just the Way You Are” is, to this day, amongst the most frequently selected first dance songs of all time; and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is recognized as one of the most accomplished ballads of the century—and yet there’s an air of a wanting for maturity in the album. Joel offers an acknowledgment that he’s not getting any younger, but whereas other artists would chose to focus on impending mortality, the inevitable beginning of a natural decline, he almost always pivots instead spitting in the face of his imminent aging.

The album opens with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” a song that is so obviously and aggressively immature about its speaker’s perception of growing up that it’s almost impossible to believe it’s not satire. Yet, as the album unfolds, we are met again and again with songs not about Anthony specifically, but about the messiness of navigating what happens once you’ve moved on out into the real world. What is there to say about The Stranger if not that it’s an assurance that you can obliterate your alleged roadmap? We see this most clearly smack in the middle of the album, with “Vienna” leading into “Only the Good Die Young.”

“Only the Good Die Young” is the kind of song you write when you never really believed that you’ve been close to death. It’s the type of song that laughs at mortality without relishing the irony of its proximity, an anthem of youthful abandon screamed in bars or out of car windows at that age when you really think you just might live forever. This yearning for freedom is an important part of any Bildungsroman, yet it is nothing without a nod to getting older in turn, the absence of which most of the album highlights. Of course, the exception is obvious: “Vienna.”

“Vienna,” as a song, is so accomplished in its role as “rumination on aging” that it was used in the pivotal scene of a movie about aging, 13 Going On 30. The film follows Jennifer Garner’s character, Jenna Rink, as she messily navigates a full adult life—a covetous editing job, a hot boyfriend, a luxurious New York apartment—into which she has been instantly thrust thanks to a fulfilled wish (and some unexplained magic?) at her thirteenth birthday party. As one would expect, Jenna makes a multitude of egregious and seemingly obviously avoidable mistakes along the way, which is what makes this movie comedy instead of a horror film. The contrast of a 13-year-old mentality with a have-it-all 30 year old’s life? Hilarious. Fitting, then, that one of Billy’s songs would be used in the film, as is how Billy approaches aging on The Stranger—all of the markers of having grown up without any of the maturity, the trappings without the rods. We see someone reaching for the adulthood they think they should have earned, and yet find themselves falling, falling, and climbing still.

The pivotal scene of the film finds Jenna having run home to her parents, feeling utterly lost and unmoored by this new adult life in which she has found herself—one she has so desperately longed for, and which has chewed her up and spit her right out. After seeing some carefree teenagers on the train and discovering that her childhood bedroom has been converted into a catchall exercise-room-crafting-studio-storage-space in her absence, Jenna locks herself in the same closet in which she locked herself at her party—the same one which brought her into her thirties in the first place—and begins to break down, rocking herself back and forth and whimpering before rushing into her father’s arms when her parents find her there. The contrast of her adult body and childlike reaction highlights the deep, earnest humanity of the moment, and is nearly soundless beyond “Vienna” playing over the all of it.

I think about this as I walk home from work on a cold autumn night, just before Thanksgiving. I’m taking the long way back to procrastinate packing to go home to my mother’s, even though, for the first time in my adult life, I’m actually excited to be going. The trees are almost bare here now, the wind is cold under the fluorescent moon, and I’ve been putting off washing my winter coat, so I shiver as I walk over a mile back to my apartment where I have lived alone for almost two years—something upon which I outwardly pride myself. In reality, it hasn’t been cleaned in months, not really, and I’ve done such a poor job of caring for that space or myself that I actively avoid going back. Some days, it feels like I don’t remember how to be a person at all, like I’m clawing up the face of Everest just to brush my teeth. I remind myself of this when a coworker tells me that my Instagram is lit, that having the appearance of having everything together is miles away from actually having anything together. I used to blame this inability to be who I needed to be on anything but myself—on my family, on being restricted by the preferences of others, on geography, on age. I assumed that once I’d successfully moved out on my own, I’d somehow magically have the life of which I always dreamed—I’d have all the outer appearances of happiness and togetherness, yes, but because of that, I’d also actually maybe be happy.

I’m walking home and I’m listening to “Vienna” and I’m willing myself to consider what 13-year-old me would make of what she, at 25, has grown into. At times, when I was so, so young, when the house was dark and warm and quiet except for my too-loud pink iPod mini blasting in my earbuds, I didn’t think I’d make it to 25 at all. Other times, when I did find myself able to imagine a future that long, I thought I’d magically be cured of myself—my immature, emotional self—by the time I was this old. It seemed logical to me that I would either die young as a mess or only ascend into adulthood through the merits of maturity. It’s a strange thing to want to die before you want to get older; it’s stranger to realize that, at one time, those feelings meant exactly the same thing.

When I originally volunteered to write on The Stranger, I thought I’d write some witty observational, oh-so-clever thing about how the album moves from “Vienna,” a fear of aging, to “Only the Good Die Young,” a track which revels in knowing youth’s impermanence. I assumed I’d be writing  about the experience of growing up, notably from the perspective of someone who’d already done said growing. I assumed I’d wax poetic about the experience of seeing 13 Going On 30—my first PG-13 movie, and before I was 13, thankyouverymuch—and deeply relating to the melodrama of the scene wherein Jennifer Garner crying back in the closet in her character’s childhood home, and looking back on that scene with a sense of smug superiority that I’d aged beyond it. Of course, I was wrong. Upon rewatching, that moment in the film reads as truly, deeply earnest, underneath the sarcastic and overly-patronizing perspective of Jenna projected in the earlier scenes of the film. It’s a break from the comedy and the caricature, allowing us to see the person, the human, the child we’ve been following all along, and the message underscoring her journey: aging does not an adult make. It strikes me, as “Vienna” plays and Jenna sobs, that maybe we could only laugh at her when we had that distance set by her exaggerated immaturity—her childishness around boys, the aesthetics of her wardrobe, her unadulterated earnestness—all indicators that she has not grown up at all. It’s much harder to laugh at Jenna when we’re watching her visit her parents’ home crying, lost and defeated and overwhelmed by simply living the life around her, realizing that adulthood isn’t all she’d been made to believe it would be. It’s harder to laugh when you know Jenna is real, when you know Jenna is you.

—Moira McAvoy

#69: Led Zeppelin, "IV" (1971)

69 Led Zeppelin IV.jpg

Led Zeppelin’s fourth album seems to me, a child of the ‘80s, to have always existed. Was there ever a time before my knowing of “When the Levee Breaks”? Did I ever first hear “The Battle of Evermore” or allow “Going to California” to carry me off? Memory is a funny thing, but it’s almost as if I was born pre-programmed with the songs in my DNA.

Like all great music, the album incarnates in cavity and flesh, a divine organization. Rippling through a microcosm of space, it commands all surrounding matter to worship the same sound, to resonate in singular communion. How does music do what it does to us? Even though we can outline the geometry of the element, name it wave or identify its pitch, when we hear it in exemplary forms, we are still seduced by its ineffable mystery deliciously, willingly astray.

Led Zeppelin IV has glamoured its audiences in many ways since its inception. When released, it bore no title, and the cover was absent the band’s already famous name. As such, it is variously called Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled, The Fourth Album, Zoso, Four Symbols, and Runes—the last three in relation to four symbols that mark the album’s interior in place of a proper title. This, however, is not the mystery of Runes—it is the mystique: a superficial but compelling exterior that may or may not have an actual mystery inside.

That kind of mystique—and guitarist Jimmy Page’s love for the occult and all things Aleister Crowley—has led to some interesting devil-worshipping theories about the band, notably a six-hundred page doorstop called, I kid you not, Fallen Angel, which promises to lay bear the devilish sutures of Zeppelin’s music. And here I thought Led Zeppelin IV was just a kickass rock album with geeky allusions to The Lord of the Rings and a frontman who conveniently sings in my vocal range. The true exigency for Fallen Angel was likely music’s power to enrapture—a power that binds together demon and deity worship music alike. Music is a powerful invocation: it can circumvent our linear, logical minds, and nearly rend our subtle bodies from our manifested, earthly selves. So likely this: feeling himself thus overcome, the author of the aforementioned tome came up against the boundary of his own unknowing. Consumed with the fear, he sought to conquer the mystery through naming. He chose a name available at the fingertips: “devil.” I see different magic.

Released in 1971, the album opens with “Black Dog,” in which the iconic riff and Robert Plant’s vocals circle around each other like a strange attractor. In chaos theory, such a system “attracts” independently moving points into the same complex orbit. The points are like cars racing chaotically on a winding, invisible track—some taking wide or sharp turns, some looping several times around one circle of a figure eight. Even when they begin at almost identical “starting lines,” the points will diverge quickly onto different routes—and yet, absent any disturbance, they never leave the track. The virtuosity of the song is an even stranger dynamical system: John Paul Jones on bass and Page on guitar are in one time signature while John Bonham on drums and Plant’s vocals are in another. The song feels like it may spin into chaos at any moment. Just when it’s definitely going to crash and burn, the band keeps going, and by sheer tenacity they hold the thing together. It’s exciting to hear, it baffles and amuses. And it rocks hard.

The song segues into an homage to—or appropriation of—a former decade of black American rock and roll stars: “It’s been a long time since the book of love,” sings Plant, in allusion to the Monotones’ big hit from 1957. “I can’t count the tears of a life with no love,” he continues, “carry me back, carry me back / carry me back, baby, where I come from.” The band wrote it when, failing to conquer the album’s other virtuosic track (“Four Sticks”), Bonham launched into the drumline from Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’” (also 1957) and Page chimed in with a seriously Chuck Berry-like riff (Hoskyns). Fifteen minutes later, the song was finished. “Rock and Roll” is a celebration. And it rocks—hard. Although there is no mystery in the song, it possesses the powerful magic of nostalgia. Nostalgia makes a choir of past and present. When we hear that harmony, we feel a sense of being home, tinged with our painful sensing of the impenetrable edges of the barrier of time.

Through controlled chaos and then nostalgia, the album’s opening songs are persuasive. They render the flesh willing. But so far, this is earthly magic. No demons and no gods have come to play here.

“The Battle of Evermore” is the first song I feel deeply seduced by on Zoso. It is a Celtic ballad that references primarily Tolkienian and minorly Arthurian legend. It is not mysterious—we haven’t yet arrived to a true mystery on the album. “Evermore” also doesn’t have mystique. But it is mystical—that is, through it, if we allow, we can enter a spiritual, trancelike ecstasy. There are no drums on the track. The song bewitches through Page’s rhythmic mandolin in a process known as entrainment.

There are three rhythmic centers of the human body: the lungs, the heart, and the brain. Each one pulses and whirs and, deliciously, they influence one another. So when “Evermore” hyper-attunes our brainwaves—entrains them into its rhythm—that altered rhythm can waterfall into willing breath and blood. The human body craves synchrony, that magic trick of spacetime. Any regular rhythm of sound or sight or vibration will sweep us right along with it, into its parallel reality. Like a shadow, this transcendent state needs a physical force to materialize it, and it cannot be untethered from the body to which it belongs.

Similarly, “Going to California,” which features Jones on mandolin and is also absent the drums, is a poetic folksong, almost a lullaby—that genre meant to soothe a body through entrainment into sleep. It just beats “Misty Mountain Hop” as the most sincere track on the album.“Made up my mind to make a new start,” sings Plant. “Going to California with an aching in my heart.”

The song tells of a hero’s journey. “When the Levee Breaks,” on the other hand, tells of an exodus.

The song was written by Kansas Joe McCoy and the original stars himself and influential blueswoman Memphis Minnie. It’s about the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 that caused an estimated half a million African Americans to lose their homes (Coyle). Minnie, who was around 30 at the time of the flood, experienced it first-hand. She was living with her sister-in-law who said:

We were scared to death when it broke, 1927. The levee broke and the water come over. Me and my two little children left and went to Walls, up on the hill there. “Kid” [a childhood nickname for Minnie] and them, they come on to town. When the water went down, we went back. (Garon)

Paul and Beth Garon call the song “an announcement of a new beginning, even in its sadness,” perhaps in part because the subject matter of the song is discordant with the sound of McCoy’s rhythm guitar in cheerful syncopation and Minnie’s bright finger picking.

Zeppelin’s cover is not a mere reproduction. The time signatures and style differ greatly. The cover has a digital witchiness compliments of distorted, wailing vocals and wobbling guitar that blur the boundaries of signal and noise; and engineering by “magus” Jimmy Page (Davis), who edited the track in many ways, notably so that the harmonica’s echo comes before the sound instead of after. McCoy’s lyrics are direct, his vocals deadpan. By comparison, Plant’s vocals swell emotionally. Pronouns on Zeppelin’s version have unclear referents and the persona is slippery. At times, the implied speaker seems to be the same as the one in McCoy’s version. But at other times, the speaker seems of a different time period. That is to say, its memory differs from the original.

The historic memory is this: Plantation owners in Mississippi refused to let African American sharecroppers flee the 1927 flood, fearing that the labor force they exploited would not return. An approximately eleven-mile “refugee camp” (more accurately termed “slave camp”) was set up on top of the levee itself—river on one side, flood on the other (Barry), where the workers were paid seventy-five cents a day to fill and stack sandbags (Ambrose). Sixty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Guard carried men who tried to flee back to the levee at gunpoint. In 1942, fifteen years after the flood, planters were still holding workers hostage, paying the police to patrol rail depots and prevent African Americans from getting on trains to Chicago (Ambrose). While some black sharecroppers were able to escape North in pursuit of work that paid vastly higher wages at the time of the flood, for many, the grip of the plantation owners didn’t relax until 1945, one year after the first cotton harvesting machine came to the area (Coyle).

“Going to Chicago,” sings Plant, just after the second time the song makes a major tonal shift from a moody drudgery electrified by harmonica to a celebratory reprieve. The lyric is notably missing from Kansas Joe McCoy’s original.

Music is a communal act. It builds on what comes before. Repeating really exceptional musical ideas is what makes the whole thing work. But we also cannot divorce music from structures of power that wield violence in the world. How concerned were the band members of Led Zeppelin with the violence to African Americans exacerbated by the 1927 flood? I wish I knew. We do know that the band is notorious for non-attribution (see Hann, for example), and I don’t think the fact that they transformed the work is any excuse. They attributed Minnie for “Levee” (though not McCoy, which feels to me like a willful act of favoritism).

As for the regenesis of “Levee,” it’s maybe the best track on The Fourth Album. It bears the memory. It’s haunted in a way the original was not. I don’t find it mysterious. But I do find it miraculous.

So here we have the so-called “mystery”—strange attractors and nostalgia and entrainment and historic memory and distortion. Through the veil of their mystique, the members of the band are just four talented humans following what compels them.

Still, it would be untruthful to say no mystery remains. We see the how but can only caress the exterior of the impenetrable membrane of why the music does what it does to us. Knowledge doesn’t always supersede mystery. The two are not mutually exclusive; they can exist at the same time.

In hubris or out of fear, we feel the mystery and call it devil or god because of the emotion it evokes. But try as we might, the veil over our uncertainty will never be broken for us. We can seek the waves of the mystery, yet there is no river we can ford to the other side of our unknowing. We can purchase no mode of transportation, figurative or real, to arrive there. Anyone who claims to have named the mystery has failed to understand this. We can sense the mystery, yes; we can feel it in our veins and even allow it to home inside our chests, but still the mystery remains a mystery. We can taste the mystery, dance inside of it, and let it vibrate along the deep fjords of our vagus nerve, but the mystery remains the same. Were we to die into afterlife or be raptured into heavens, still, as discrete beings, the mystery would remain. From the mystery, there is only one means of escape: to be erased into the continuous and infinite seeing of the divine. The only way to gain the mystery is to lose ourselves.

—April Gray Wilder


Ambrose, Stephen. “Man vs. Nature: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” National Geographic, 2001.

Barry, John. Interviewed by Linda Wertheimer. NPR, 3 Sept. 2005.

Coyle, Laura. “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.

Davis, Erik. Led Zeppelin IV (33 1/3 series). Bloomsbury, 2005.

Garon, Paul and Beth Garon. Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues. City Lights Books, 2014.

Hann, Michael. “Yes, Led Zeppelin took from other people’s records—but then they transformed them.” The Guardian, 2016.

Hoskyns, Barry. Led Zeppelin IV: Rock of Ages. Rodale Books, 2006.

#72: Curtis Mayfield, "Superfly" (1972)

72 Superfly.jpg

Me and Kaley knew we’d got lucky when I found a drawer full of old CDs in the nurse’s office. They were all piled up in the bottom of a metal file cabinet drawer with no files in it. Most of it was crap, like techno ‘80s stuff and a bunch of grandpa music, but Superfly was there, by Curtis Mayfield. I’d never actually heard that album except in the movie, which is a trip if you never saw it and kind of got me interested in being the drug queen of Lakeview Middle School that I thought I was before I wound up here. I also knew “Move on Up” because my mom used it as her alarm song in the morning. I’d be lying there in bed in the early hours when it was still dark and through the wall I’d hear the first few seconds of, “Move on Up,” so zippy and energized, like the sound waves were yellow and orange, which must be why moms chose it, but she’d hit snooze at least two times so I’d hear those same opening chords over and over again and hardly ever heard the whole song until I found that CD.

I snuck into the nurse’s office for some rubber bands. I knew they’d be the crappy kind that pull and tear your hair, but Kaley and I were bored and we didn’t care about split ends anymore. I’d been in there almost three weeks and my roots were starting to show, which looked really weird because I’m a redhead and my hair was dyed purple, so I was looking kind of Halloween-y, but not in a good way. The only rubber bands were a couple of grimy green ones that probably used to hold newspapers together and they were in the top drawer. I found them right away, but I figured I may as well look around while I was in there and while Kaley was keeping watch and while we knew the nurse would be sitting on the pot playing Words With Friends for at least ten minutes (don’t EVEN ask me how I know that! You do NOT want to know!). There wasn’t much else to steal except some much-needed chapstick, the shitty kind that dries your lips out, and some paper clips because they had pointy ends and you never know when you’ll need that, and a rock—I don’t know what kind, just, like, a pet rock—and a book about horoscopes. It’s dumb but fun to read and sometimes you want to believe it like when it tells you that you and Jared, who hasn’t come to see you once since you been in here, is your soul mate according to the sun signs AND the moon signs, which you have to admit is kind of amazing.

When I came out of the office, Kaley left her post at the bathroom door and we went back to our room to go over our loot. We kept it in a hole we dug into Kaley’s mattress and flipped it over. It didn’t take long to figure out we could play Superfly in the rec room on the old boom box and the orderly who hung out in there and kept an eye on us had no curiosity about where it came from. I mean, he wasn’t going to see some old CD and assume it was stolen. I bet none of the nurses even knew those CDs were in that drawer.  

We listened to it a lot. Kaley and I would sit on the couch and work on our hair and talk and whatever while the other druggy losers played pool or read books. No TV. But Superfly playing made everything seem so much cooler than it was. We felt like we were in a movie, and we were the stars, super cool chicks with great clothes and hair and the best coke in town. I was more of a meth user, and so was Kaley because that’s what was cheap, but still. Kaley decided to go for an afro, which really changed her look, and then she gave me cornrows, which didn’t look very good on me, she said because my hair was like limp string. While we were listening to “The Pusherman” one day we started talking about how Curtis Mayfield’s message was kind of a downer and kind of made us feel bad about our druggy past, unlike the movie, which, as I said, makes you want to rock that white rock and wear bell bottoms. Mayfield’s talking about people with tombstones in their eyes! That is creepy! I said so, and that was when Kaley told me that Curtis Mayfield was her great uncle.

I knew she was lying, we all did, everybody in the rec room started firing questions at her about him and somebody said he was dead. Kaley got all tore up about it and started to cry, which made her mad, which made her want to fight, and she decided I was the one. She pushed me hard so that I fell halfway off the couch and had to stand up real fast to keep from falling.

She stood up, too, and there it was, the reason I knew I wanted her on my side in that place and not against me. She was ready to GO and I mean it, she’d have torn those cornrows she just spent two hours on right out of my head.

“Girl,” I said, “I don’t care if you want to say your uncle is Abraham Lincoln!” I kept my hands down.

“But he is. Curtis Mayfield is my uncle.”

“The musician?”

“Curtis Mayfield is my uncle.” Her face was like stone. Tombstones in her eyes.

“Okay, okay.”

Well, what the hell? We need our stories, right? I get that. But not everybody would let her be about it. This guy, Lane, who was a rich dickhead, kept laughing at her and calling her Niece-of-Superfly until finally she flounced out of the rec room and went to bed.

That night we got to leave the facility. Nine of us piled into a white van and they took us to a meeting in the closest town, one of those places big enough to have a mall and a few high schools but not big enough to be called a city. “That’s my hometown,” Kayla said.  “I live there.” Normally I’d have rather gnawed off my own leg than make a special trip to sit in an empty storefront at the end of a half-empty strip mall and listen to a bunch of people talk about how grateful they were to be there, but being in treatment wipes your social calendar clean and any chance to get out feels like a big party. Kayla and I did our makeup. I taught her how to line the inside of her lids and she showed me how to do Amy Winehouse liner on the top. It really takes a steady hand, let me tell you. We looked hot, if I do say so myself. “Superfly,” she said, and I agreed. It felt so good to wear my hoodie and my boots. I almost felt like myself again.

In the van Lane started teasing Kayley again, and this time it was me who got hot. He was sitting on the row of benches in front of me and I reached up and smacked him hard on the back of his head. He swung around and probably would have hit me back, but Cheryl and Jesse stopped him. The bus driver yelled and threatened to take us back to the facility but he didn’t do it.

We took up a whole row of seats along a green cinder block wall in the back of the meeting and sucked down a couple of pots of weakass coffee. You could tell the woman chairing the meeting, who looked like she was remembering her own wasted youth when she looked at us, was trying hard to make us feel included. She kept calling on us and we kept saying, “Pass,” until she called Kayla.

Kayla had something to say. “Y’all know my uncle Curtis,” she said, addressing the group. There were about thirty people there besides us. All kinds of people, most of them older than us, but that wasn’t hard. Half the room was already facing us and the other half had to turn in their seats. When she said that, a few of them nodded!

“Good to see you here, Kaley,” a Hispanic man in a heavy Carhartt coat said.

She smiled at him. “Is he coming?”

“Running late,” someone offered.

I jabbed her in the side. “Are you serious?” I said.

She spread open her hands like all the signs of the zodiac would start dancing on her fingertips. “Told you,” she said.

Then after a while a small black man with round glasses and a Chicago Bulls jacket on scooted in, bringing a blast of cold air with him. He walked back to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup then sat down on the other side of the room from us. When he caught sight of Kaley he stood up and came over to our side, sitting down in the empty seat in front of her. He gave her a fist bump over his shoulder. After the meeting when we were all shaking hands he went around to everyone in our little juvy group and introduced himself as Curtis Mayfield.

Lane looked pissed off. “Should we call you Superfly?” He was such a dick.

Curtis Mayfield grinned at him and nodded. “You know it! Here, let me give you my card.” He took out a fat wallet and handed Lane a card that said, “Superfly Roofing and Construction. Curtis Mayfield, Owner.”

“Thank you, sir,” Lane said. He was polite to his face but on the way home in the van he gave Kaley a hard time. I was pretty pissed off, too—I mean, she could have told us she didn’t mean the famous one. None of the drama kept us from listening to Superfly in the rec room, though, and I got to where I knew every sound on that album. After I got out I set “Move on Up” as my alarm clock song, to my mom’s amazement. Kaley texted me a picture of her getting her 6 month chip and then I texted her the same.

—Constance Squires

#73: Led Zeppelin, "Physical Graffiti" (1975)

73 Physical Graffiti.jpg

Led Zeppelin was inescapable. The endless Block Party Weekend that was (and is) New England FM radio became anesthesia, the clutch of songs playing on an endless loop, transitioning music into wallpaper.

At camp, the director who hung a brightly colored band poster on an otherwise unremarkable office wall.

So many brown paper bags converted to book covers. So many cheap repros of concert T-shirts. The odd tattoo, the lanternman.

***

You knew the house. You’d visited your girlfriend there for more than a year before you moved north from the city for grad school, scanning for flags on every visit, something resembling punk. A record store downtown, a college radio station, but that was pretty much it. Shows two hours south, or, if you wanted to visit your friends, who felt more distant every day, four.

The house had a basement and a garage, luxuries the city did not provide.

A gifted drumset later and you were in business.

***

Your friend with the same last name showed you a David Bowie DVD collection which contained the “Dancing in the Streets” video with Mick Jagger. You remembered seeing this on the local video channel—but until the moment she showed it to you, you’d forgotten it existed. Maybe you blocked it out of your mind because it was so awful.

You bought your own copy and one weekend you watched all the videos on the multi-disc set with friends. Bowie was dazzling.

***

By the time you made the transition from camper to staff member, you were already listening to punk and hardcore. And some of the guys in the CIT cabin turned you on to Run-DMC and Public Enemy.

The staff were firmly classic rock dudes. Lots of Rush. Lots of Triumph. Lots of Styx. Lots of Zeppelin.

Down at the waterfront, the director woke the staff every morning by playing “Dazed and Confused.” Every. Morning.

Over time, you worked up the ranks and became Ecology director, and delighted in blasting “Kerosene” or Ministry or Minor Threat and doing your best to negate the classic rock dinosaur.

***

You remember a record-buying trip to Harvard Square before high school graduation. You and your friend were in the usual pizza spot in the Garage, sitting with slices listening to the pop music channel they funneled in, kinda snickering at the inanity of the top 40. Sandwiched between two innocuous songs, Bell Biv Devoe and MC Hammer, was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” You were shocked to hear the song in this context.

***

Maine, you discovered, wasn’t picked over the same way Boston was, where you had to be there at the right place and time to find gems. The pined landscape was littered with them—and cheap. Money was tight as you whacked away at city debt and squeaked by on a stipend, but the usual media scavenge was reasonable—even affordable.

“Physical Graffiti” was eight-fifty at the little basement record store downtown.

***

Every summer you go back up to Boy Scout camp to help out with the staff banquet—a chance for the guys who worked to spend a final evening together as a group before the demands of school or work pull everyone back into their previously established orbits. It’s a deeply sentimental affair, one that inevitably makes you think of all the years you spent working Ecology, blasting Avail and Sinkhole, hanging out with your friends.

While you were still a staff member, the banquet was strictly a steak-and-potatoes affair. Then a bunch of your contemporaries went to culinary school and got restaurant gigs. They assembled a volunteer team to serve up multi-course dinners which, over the course of fifteen-plus years, evolved into themed affairs with multiple choices and vegan options.

Ten years of waiting tables landed you in the front of the house, clearing and resetting. But somehow a title got stuck on you and you’re managing.

***

You were the oldest regular student at grad school, so people assumed you knew what you were doing, even though you felt like this was far from the case. And it made you feel guilty, and dumb.

All this talk of texts. Textual analysis. Student papers as texts. Textual comments.

***

Before you moved, your friends came over every Monday for five years and you’d drink and carry on and hatch schemes so you started writing down details in notebooks which were sometimes hilariously indecipherable depending on the evening and how fuzzy things got around the edges.

One Friday, a poster tube with your name on it appeared at the door.

You opened it and found a repro 1980 Led Zeppelin tour poster.

Then you checked your bank account. You’d ordered this, after Monday was made Tuesday.

***

There’s “Custard Pie” and “Kashmir,” of course, the lovely “Bron-Yr-Aur,” but “In the Light” is your favorite.

Part of this was never hearing it on the radio, or at camp.

The song is vulnerable, lacks the swagger of so much of the band’s catalogue.

It sounds broken, almost an afterthought. The weird ascending/descending guitar figure during the song’s outro leaves a window for John Paul Jones’s odd keyboard figure; Bonham, of course, is filling all over the place and a second Jimmy Page emerges to duel with himself.

Like they haven’t quite figured out how the song should go yet.

Like they might return to it later to figure it out.

Like they were unsure.

***

After the drumset arrived, you started leaving the house early enough to walk to school, headphones on, puzzling out drumbeats on your favorite songs. Or trying to. Much of it was way over your head, too skilled or too fast or both. There was no way you’d ever be able to get your right hand going as fast as Jeff Nelson’s, as Tommy Ramone’s. An advanced degree would be required to decipher the single flag semaphore of Amy Farina’s beats on the Warmers record.

But it was fun going back through and listening to everything through a different lens.  Previously, the drums hadn’t been your focus. You’d spent a little time on the guitar, mostly sliding a power chord shape up and down the neck to play hardcore songs, though the initial pull of lyrics had coincided with your early writing days.

***

You stay at your parents’ house when you work the banquet, a half hour away.

This distance felt so substantial when you first started driving, half the time it took to get to Boston for record shopping trips. Now you’ve driven more. Last summer you and your wife went from Cape Cod to Alabama, then up to Detroit and back again; this summer you and a buddy did a book tour out to Milwaukee; there was the year and a half of driving an hour and a half into the sun each way to your first post-grad gig.

***

Grad school gave you the idea of the new literacy: ways in which texts could be interpreted that the author might not have intended.

***

Early takes of “In The Light” are available online, and portray a wildly different song than the final draft. There’s still Bonham bombast to be found, but the keyboard figure sounds rinky-dink—an adjective seldom applied to Led Zeppelin. It’s as if they didn’t know what to do, so they mic’d a kid’s music box and left the room.

***

Some of the guys who return to camp year after year for the banquet are your contemporaries, dudes you worked with for years. Of course, for much of your time on staff you were trying way too hard: to live up to the idea of punk you always carried around, to look official, whatever. So you didn’t always get along. This was totally your fault – but you realize, too, that some of these guys were simultaneously trying to live up to whatever ideals were in their heads. You were all doing this.

And you didn’t know some of the guys who returned every year at all—at first. But they’ve returned and you’ve returned, and the distinctions between timelines have fallen away and you’re all the same.

***

Those fills on “In The Light” slay you, every time, segues from the otherworldly keyboard parts into the more standard rock bits.

Part of the fills’ appeal is their simplicity: in the basement, on the kit, you could puzzle these out, unlike so many of Bonham’s beats.

Another part is imagining the band in the room together: we need a fill here.

Well, how about this?

And it’s perfect.

***

Just a few months back now. You drove to camp and worked the banquet, surprised and pleased to see a bunch of old friends who didn’t usually make the trek.

Not everyone knew each other, which you thought was weird—dudes you palled around with hadn’t worked with some of the long-tenured banquet attendees. Of course, with introduction they became part of the larger whole, the greater good.

On the way back to your parents’ house, you slid Physical Graffiti into the CD player. If you timed it right, “In The Light” would end just as you pulled into the driveway.

You didn’t time it right.

So you drove past your parents’ driveway. Listening to the seemingly broken pieces, stapled together by simple fills, the fadeout as Bonham strung together monster runs, dueling Pages.

You drove through Concord, now into Loudon, as “Bron-Yr-Aur” started. The plan had been to pull into the driveway and kill the ignition, but what was a plan? Instead, you stayed in the moment and cruised the familiar roads, letting the disc and the night stretch on beyond plan. You’d read the night as it came.

—Michael T. Fournier

#74: Neil Young, "After the Gold Rush" (1970)

74 After the Gold Rush.jpg

At fourteen, I am a band-T-shirt-and-black-eyeshadow wearer, shuffling in my Vans and enormous JNCOs at my local junior high. It is spring of 1999, a strange time: only a few weeks after the Columbine shooting, which has made everyone look at me suspiciously, edging away from me in the halls. The stares that have always been there are of a different quality now, and make me self-consciously adjust the neon plastic barrettes in my magenta hair. At a routine appointment, the dentist I’ve had all my life pointedly asks me if I intend to shoot up a school.

But at fourteen, I found solace at the mall, where I met up with friends who looked like me, and felt most welcome loitering in a Hot Topic. The scent of unburned sandalwood incense and baby powder and something unidentifiably candy-sweet wafted through the store as my friends and I would window shop for merchandise we could rarely buy. Sometimes we coveted clothing, or jewelry with glittery or spooky motifs, but it was almost always music.

I noticed, too, that the store had started stocking more LPs alongside the CDs. I don’t remember exactly how it transpired, only that I ended up with a clunky stereo from the ‘80s with a turntable on top, which was purchased from an ad in the paper. I especially loved the knee-high speakers we bought with it, that could seemingly blast away even the worst day of 8th grade. But I had very few records of my own to play, at least until I could start working in the summer. Something possessed me to start pilfering my parents’ from the shelf in the basement. I noticed After the Gold Rush, with its gloomy, grainy black-and-white cover, and deemed it promising: it didn’t look too suspect on the outside, at least. If any of my friends found tame, boring music in my room, it would be the end of my social life. Deep down, I must’ve known that these unspoken rules about what made something “cool” were not all that different from what the popular kids lived by; if I was truly free to be myself, I wouldn’t care. Still, I trekked upstairs with some trepidation, feeling like I was betraying something, defecting from my side.

The opening track, “Tell Me Why,” to my 14-year-old self, made me picture people singing around a fire at a sleepaway camp in the 1960s. The acoustic guitar was so clean and cheery, one could clap or tap a foot along without much practice. The vocal harmonies channeled something almost angelic. It evoked landscapes of sunny fields, forgotten times. All of this was a far cry from the drop-D tuning and distortion, the overt aggression and bluntness I was accustomed to. I slid the record back into its sleeve, and tucked the album covertly into the rest of my collection, between Dead Kennedys and System of a Down, and hoped no one saw it when they came over.

That summer, I woke up at six o’clock each morning to work on a tobacco farm, as my parents and grandparents, and most young people in my town, had done for generations. For ten weeks—or however many we could handle—we’d work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, picking and drying tobacco leaves that would be used for high-end cigar wraps. I was excited: it meant I could spend my own, hard-earned money on music and clothes, and cheese fries at Denny’s with my friends.

Every morning, I walked about half a mile to the nearest major intersection in the early light, where I would wait with my lunch bag to be picked up by a decommissioned school bus painted blue. Everyone wore their most beat-up old clothes, myself included, meaning I could usually pass as a “normal kid” if my hair was tied back. It was strange stripping myself of the thing that felt so central to my identity at the time. We all looked the same, groggily boarding the bus that would carry us teenagers from our suburban neighborhoods, across the Connecticut River that divided us and the next town over, a farming community known for its great school district.

The bus wound down the dirt roads between the fields and belched us out near the barns. The family who owned the property then barked orders, and assigned our work for the day in small groups. A lot of us working at the tobacco farm were around my age, or a little older: mostly high schoolers, a population I’d be joining in a few months. Already in the fields when we arrived each day were the migrant workers, all from Jamaica or elsewhere in the Caribbean, who lived on the property in tiny, run-down cottages. They would spend the summer, and return home at the end of the season, preceded by the weekly wire transfers of their checks supporting their families. There seemed to be a significant number of these workers, and yet, oddly, I felt like I hardly saw them: they always seemed to be working elsewhere, off in a different section of the field, concentrated in one corner of the barn. We never spoke to them.

The work was grueling and grotesque. It was July, and the heat was brutal; some worked out in the fields, directly under the sun—but I was lucky, and assigned to work in the sheds, which provided shade but not much else. Here, the broad, green leaves would be strung up on wooden laths with the aid of a pre-war contraption. With one leaf in each hand, we’d jam the thick stems up into a serrated blade that would thread a string through them, allowing the leaves to be hung and dried. Speed was a priority, and more than one kid was sent to the hospital because the blade went through their thumbs. The dirt floors of the barns were a fine, loose powder that would whirl up and land in our eyes, or mix with the sticky tobacco juice that dripped down our wrists, making a mascara on the hair of our arms.

The rafters of the barn were filling with leaves in varying stages of drying, acting as insulation that held in the summer heat. The air smelled like stale, unlit cigarettes. I was covered in filth and sweat, my biceps burning from the repetitive motion. I began complaining loudly about my misery. I was slowing down, clumsy with exhaustion, and not treating the leaves delicately enough; ripped tobacco leaves were useless. If anyone important came by, I surely would’ve been yelled at. I whined about just needing a break, which I knew would not be granted. One of the migrant workers walked over to my staton without a word, and began sewing my leaves for me. He was totally calm, and moved with a fluid efficiency that I could hardly fathom. With the exception of the trickle of sweat snaking down his dark neck, his work looked effortless. I watched silently, unsure of what was happening. Why was he at my machine? He finished three laths of work, just over a minute, then met my eye, nodded, and returned to his own machine across the barn. I managed a “thank you” a few seconds too late.

This moment happened almost 20 years ago, and yet it’s a memory that resurfaces often. I am left wondering now, as an adult, was this a gesture of kindness, because I was so young and a girl and the work was truly strenuous—or did he just want me to shut up and stop whining? Was his stoic silence in doing my work unprompted something symbolic that I’m still not sure I understand? I think of this moment most whenever I hear “Southern Man.” The obvious racial element, as well as the setting of a tobacco plantation perhaps makes for a facile observation. But this moment happened just shy of the 21st Century, several states north of the Mason-Dixon, and yet there was no scathing song critiquing the region I grew up in. Growing up, it was easy to criticize other places and pretend, with our cable TV and my bedroom full of cheap clothes and toys, that the truly distressed and backwards places were elsewhere, in geography and history. Meanwhile, a family in a picturesque New England town was bussing in children from the less desirable suburb across the river, and housing black international workers in “little shacks” to support their carcinogenic agribusiness.

One of the things I have grown to enjoy about After the Gold Rush is its understatedness. The almost-waltzy “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is deceptively, well, heartbreaking. The pain is all the more evident in its subtlety. The jubilance I thought I first heard in “Tell Me Why” is tempered with lyrics about alienation and hardship. Young’s voice is often characterized as “whiny,” even by a number of his fans. But it’s not quite true: it’s more urgent, mournful, exposed; at his highest pitches (in songs such as “After the Gold Rush” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”), his voice reads as almost a whimper, a plaintive insistence at singing a line that seems nearly too painful to voice. “I Believe in You” is haunting in its slow-brewing gloom. Young is sometimes pegged as the “Godfather of Grunge,” and only just recently have I come to believe it: the darkness evident in these songs is palpable to the careful listener—something I was not at 14. At that age, I would sometimes find the smooth gap between the grooves on the record, gently dropping the needle down from between my black-polished nails, and listen only to “Southern Man,” the song with the plainest message, the loudest guitar.

—Lisa Mangini

#75: James Brown, "Star Time" (1991)

75 Star Time.jpg

Let’s get something out of the way: I am in no way the right person to evaluate James Brown, his life, or his musical legacy. Such a task should be treated much more carefully and gracefully in the hands of someone who knows more and knows better. I do not know better, I do not know much at all, but I think we can collectively agree that James Brown is one of our most gargantuan cultural icons and his legacy (also definite) is founded upon some of the greatest music in all of recorded history. His music is what music aims for.

The way I originally approached Star Time—a whopping 72-track, 4-disc compilation heavy in the years between 1964-1973—for the purposes of writing on it, was all wrong. I reserved 72 days for myself, promising (nay, dramatically vowing to myself) to listen to a track a day on repeat, to really glean its essence, like some kind of sonic vampire. I tend to over-dramatize tasks to make them more appealing when it comes around to actually completing them (lazy), and it usually pans out that my idea was dumb and impractical so I’ll utterly change course (mercurial). I planned to dig deep into each track and really come up with an idea to flesh out what each song “really means,” or to see how the track could play into with whatever mundane thing happened that day, to prove its universality or whatever. Oof. All wrong, friends.

First, there is no way I can work my way through each track on an individual basis. To do so would be to dismember a man’s career—his life—into individual parts, and this compilation is doing something different; it is experiential, it progresses, but it is never sequential. It is also not at all like an album (a fairly recent invention) in terms of conceptualization; there is no solid theme to constrain it nor any kind of obvious limitations that would result in a stricter curation. Second, to try to feel something specific or to respond with prescribed emotion once a day, like brushing teeth or taking pills, would reduce Star Time, in all its glory, to tedium. This compilation is one big 72-track high note that cannot be diminished nor “reacted” to; it is much more fluid and is felt holistically.

The other tactic I considered when writing this was to be much too succinct by simply saying “He sings real good.” Because MY GOD, HE SINGS SO GOOD. It would be so simple and also correct to leave it at that. And so easy, as this is my first bit of focused writing as I inch my way out of a jaded, post-MFA depression.

What I landed on is an exploration of a feeling. Instead of these extremes (saying too much or too little), what seems most right is to just feel it, the whole damn thing, all of soul music. And, like James Brown, I need to tell you how I feel. A word about soul:

I. A WORD ABOUT SOUL

Some things are holy. My gray cat peacefully gazing out the window, drenched in warm morning light. Fresh biscuits for a hangover. The roughness of my mother’s hands and how mine look and feel more like hers every year. That first gravitation to someone new—someone right, or even better, someone wrong. To be gin-drunk and lusty in the South, sweating, hips searching out hands in a smoky room with “Prisoners of Love” purring in the background. To be gin-drunk anywhere, held close and swaying. To move at all, to be moved, that is holiness. By holiness, I mean the nearly inexplicable quality of those moments and people and objects in our existence that bury themselves deep into the soul upon sensing them—that which moves us. These things are the raw material of soul, and we take them in every single day. James Brown’s soul music, his soul-annihilating and soul-nurturing music, is for the everyday.

For the past several months, I’ve been feeling my way through a dense fog. There is something incomprehensible about the way the world is slowly turning its gears, all its cruelty and simultaneous wonder. To a degree, I can explain what’s happening, the way it is happening on an individual, moment-to-moment basis. We pay attention to those things almost manically. It’s the big picture destruction that seems harder to grasp. The deepest sort of pain that turns us cruel—I cannot explain that kind of influence.

Then comes the despair I have known to associate with that fog. When I despair, I turn to soul—the balm to big-picture pain—because what can tell us what to do with pain better than dancing it away, at least momentarily? What should redeem our souls but soul? In his autobiography, Brown states, “The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” So, I think I can confirm then that this piece is about dancing to James Brown. Sweet, holy, redemptive dancing. It’s about the truth of movement in a room.

A friend of mine, long ago during my undergraduate years, once used the phrase “Boogie Truth” during a discussion about the impetus and afterburn of dancing, specifically bar dancing on a Friday night once the school-week stress is on held on mute. Ultimately, the truth of dancing is sex—always sex, the reason and the effect. I agree, but I think sex is half the reason. The other half is pain. I dance because I’m hurting.

Star Time is the best example I can think of to demonstrate the Boogie Truth as I see it: sexy escapes rolling between waves of pain. Often the trickster, James Brown blends ballad with upbeat orchestrations, resulting in a sexy backdrop for his main lyrical truth: pain. Then, he gives us some organ-squealing, horn-stabbing interlude to ponder the next movement. How are we to solve such profound sadness? Well, let’s take it to the band. Listen to “There Was A Time”; my God, James Brown's voice is insane of course, but in this one, the tightness and energy of the band is unreal. Brown, ever the ruthless bandleader, ensures that each part of the complex unit remains effortless in its syncopated support of Brown’s squealing vocal performance. Demarcations between the two (instrumentation and vocals) often seem inextricable, as complex, feverish rhythms propel the lyrics into movement and vice versa. James Brown makes us move, and that is why he is the Godfather of Soul.

II. A WORD ABOUT THE GODFATHER

The King of Soul. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business (toured and performed hundreds of shows a year). Soul Brother No. 1. Mr. Dynamite. The Godfather of Soul.

With Star Time, we aren’t dealing with the “Best Of” or the greatest hits. This is a monster of a compilation, sure, and there is something to be said about a lack of modesty here, formally speaking. But James Brown’s lack of modesty, his braggadocio, is what makes him the Godfather: “I’m a greedy man” (“I’m a Greedy Man”); “I’ve got money and now I need love” (“I’ve Got Money”). To bear witness to the pipes of James Brown, even several decades removed from his peak, is a privilege. We do not deserve to have such a voice—a rusty belt slapping metal, sometimes syrupy sweet in its reverence for pain. At the beginning of “Devil’s Den,” Brown belts a lightning fast note that I can only compare to screeching brakes. His range is mythological. How the hell did he get all the way up there in that stratosphere?

A quick personal history of self-inflicted vocal training wounds: when I first started playing in a band, I’d scream into a pillow every night (because I heard a rumor that Tom Waits did this to get his throat all gravelly) with the very unrealistic hopes that I could train my vocal chords into hitting high-and-rough registers. What I got instead was a lot of pain and the inability to speak for two weeks. In many ways, what I’m getting at is pain. Pain is a universal, and I come to soul music bearing it openly without reservation.

I can’t talk about the musical legacy of James Brown, though, without addressing the eponymous “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” This is more for me than it is for you. Brown has received much criticism over the years for being a misogynist, and this track is notorious for its quite literal proclamation of those attitudes. I feel a couple of ways about this song. (Surprise, surprise: more inner turmoil.) To try and see a thing within the context of capital-S Soul, long after Brown has departed from us, I want to draw attention to the last few sentences of this song: “He’s lost in the wilderness / He’s lost in bitterness.” The track ends with “He’s lost!”

I do believe in redemptive moments. I believe there are unique pathways into all of our beliefs and attitudes, no matter how problematic, and each one of those pathways is speckled with inalienable truths, like old gum, often grounded in pain and trauma. This trauma is felt individually, but it is shared culturally. What “He’s lost!” expresses to me (as I aim to feel this song on its own terms) is doubt. It feels like shame. In that way, I am learning something here and, because this song makes me a better thinker, I’ll never turn this track off, despite its grave offenses. What I am choosing to do with this song is to see its gum-speckled pathways, to feel what I perceive to be individual/collective pain, and in that way, James Brown becomes visionary for me. This may seem to more hard-lined individuals like a convoluted, roundabout way to permit certain art into my life, but it is not out of ignorance of the patriarchy, or toxic masculinity, or any of the other buzzwords or coined phrases that make it easier to talk about these very complicated things. For me, it’s about the Boogie Truth. The curation of my own life, my craft, and the art that influences it involves the recognition of all pathways and the openness to let it speak to me in ways that I find meaningful.

I could also talk about how many people James Brown wronged in his lifetime, about his penchant for misogyny and domestic violence (check out Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me). I could explore his impoverished upbringing in the south, his six-year sentence after a high speed chase (“Public Enemy #1”), his social activism (“Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”), and his struggles with addiction (“King Heroin”).  But these truths can already be found in the music. And Star Time is ultimately about movement driven by pain, sin, pride, pleasure, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat it until it sinks in and drives you to move. I think soul music operates in this way: it lays itself bare for the complete, inextricable range of feeling. Pain, ever the universal. Soul, always the cure:

Get up offa that thing, 
And dance 'till you feel better, 
Get up offa that thing, 
And try to release that pressure!

—Kori Hensell

#85: Aretha Franklin, "Lady Soul" (1968)

85 Lady Soul.jpg

When I was seventeen, I met a boy—let’s call him Noah—a few days into February. A mutual friend set us up, claiming she had never met two people more perfect for one another. He sent me candy and a stuffed animal on Valentine’s Day and hid in my neighborhood so he could see my reaction, which my friend told me about later. He took me to dinners and movies and visited me during lunch at school. He taught me the rules of soccer so when I went to his games we could talk about them afterward. He held my hand in the hallways.

By March, Noah and I had stopped holding hands. At lunches I talked and he stayed quiet; he just barely said hello after his soccer games. Our dates stayed in his basement where we watched TV in silence. He didn’t laugh anymore around me.

In April, I asked him if he would still date me if I were 600 pounds. “No,” he said, “I don’t want to date a fat girl.” I asked him, “What about if I gained 60 pounds?” That was the first time he looked at me with hate in his eyes. “Did you not hear what I said? If you get fat, I’m done.”

Over the new few months, the hateful look in his eyes came back more and more often.

“Let’s just stay on the couch, where would we even go together?”

“We both know we’re not going to last, don’t be so upset about things that don’t matter in the long run.”

“Stop wearing so much makeup, it just makes you look trashy.”

“You eat so much.”

“I don’t want to kiss you anymore.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever love you. You’re just not a lovable person to me.”

With each thing he said, I got quieter. I was scared to say anything to him, to touch him, to see him. I thought if I stayed with him long enough he could like me again, maybe. But he broke up with me in August, and then we hugged for the first time in months.

*

That same month, I met another boy—let’s call him Brandon—a few days before leaving for my freshman year at college. He liked it when I called him Brandy, he said he loved listening to me, and he hated Noah. “You deserve so much better than him,” he always said.

Brandy went to school across the country but we didn’t stop talking. We sent good morning and goodnight texts and talked on the phone on the way to class. I joined an a cappella group and a sorority and made some of my best friends, while every night we FaceTimed and, very quickly, we fell in love from across the country. But at the end of the semester, he left his school unexpectedly.

We spent December wrapped up in one another, smiling.

Brandy started working in the spring, digging trenches in Colorado for six hours a day, while I sat in classes and got lunch with friends and laughed. By the end of February, though, he said, “I just don’t like talking to you when you drink, can you stop?” I didn’t know what he meant—stop drinking or stop talking to him. “I guess both, whatever you choose. I just don’t like you when you drink.” So I stopped drinking, hoping he’d still love me.

As the spring continued, Brandy began to call me every few hours. He cried more often than not, it seemed, and he said he couldn’t live without me. “You’re the reason I get up in the morning,” he said. “I need you to need me like I need you. Don’t you love me? Don’t you need me too?”

And because I loved him, I decided then that I needed him. I talked to him for hours and hours everyday, telling my friends at school that I didn’t feel like going out anymore, that I didn’t want to, that I needed to talk to Brandon. I got quieter.

In May, Brandon and I were reunited again, after four straight months of being apart. He stopped smiling by the second week of the month.

“You want to hang out too much.”

“You’re suffocating me.”

“I love you less.”

I stayed quiet.

By the end of the month, we both agreed we weren’t good together anymore. I lay in bed and cried for a month; I wrote about how lost I felt. I didn’t know who I was without him. I needed him.

*

Listening to Lady Soul for the first time now, I keep thinking about these two relationships. Aretha sings of getting cheated by the men she loved, and I have always felt cheated too. “You tell me to leave you alone,” she says, in “Chain of Fools,” and I can almost hear both Noah and Brandon saying those things to me. I wish I had listened to Aretha back then, instead of crying for days, even weeks, after those breakups. I wish I had listened to “Good to Me As I Am to You” and really thought about how I let myself be treated. How I gave myself up so I could be loved, and unloved, badly.

But listening to it now, I feel Aretha’s words coursing through my veins. I feel them pump through my heart, straighten my spine, clear my head. They envelop me.

And “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” makes me feel whole, especially knowing the man I’ve been seeing for a year now.

I’m not ashamed of him, so we can use his real name: Ian. A little over a year ago, a mutual friend set us up for a date at Chili’s, which neither of us thought would amount to anything. We lived in different states, I was going abroad in a couple days, and we didn’t go to the same school. It would be too hard to stay in contact after just one date.

But we smiled the entire night. We ate fajitas and talked about how much we love Arizona and started inside jokes we still laugh about now. He asked to see me again, and again, and again, and then we had spent three days straight together with neither of us realizing how much time had gone by. It felt like three years and three minutes all at once.

Then I went abroad for two months, but we talked every day and he said how much he couldn’t wait to see me when I got back. He listened to me when I told him about my adventures abroad, and he really listened. Every night that I got to talk to him made the night feel as bright as daylight. When I came back, he visited me in Williamsburg; it felt like I had never left. He met my friends and I met his; he taught (and is still teaching) me the rules of football and about how he films the games; he held me tight when I told him about my past relationships. I told him I’d have a lot of anxieties in our relationship because of my past ones, and he said he’d do anything to help me. “Anything to make you happy,” he said, and still says.

Early on in our relationship, I asked him if he would still date me if I were 600 pounds. “Of course,” he said, laughing a little, “how you look doesn’t change how I feel about you. But I’d try to help you lose weight because that’s just not healthy.”

I also asked him if he minded that I drank. “Not at all,” he said, “what you do is up to you.”

We said we love each other a few months into the relationship, but we also say we started falling in love at Chili’s. “It was a little love,” we say.

*

I have never felt love the way I love him, and I have never felt love the way he loves me. And I have never felt love the way I love myself, now.

Ian has driven almost four hours just to hold my hand after a terrible week, and I have done the same for him. He has encouraged me to speak when I get scared and quiet, especially when it’s with something about our relationship. He encourages me to write, to sing, to spend time with friends, to eat whatever my heart desires. He says I’m the most lovable person he’s ever met. And after a year of dating, he still says he can’t wait to see me again, even when we’re falling asleep next to one another.

But I think Aretha Franklin would like, even more, that I have learned to treat myself better. I’ve learned to respect myself. I told Ian explicitly that if he wasn’t okay with the things I’ve been through and how I make my decisions, he could leave. He stayed, and I have stayed, too. I sing love songs to myself when I drive, I wear as much makeup as I want, I tell Ian I can’t talk sometimes because I’m with family or friends, I make time to remind myself of the good things about me.

I know I’m lovable, because I love myself.

I wish I had known about Aretha Franklin and Lady Soul when I was younger, but I am just grateful to know it now. Aretha, if you’re hearing any of my words, know that I have heard yours. Know that we, both, are here to stay ourselves, with the love that we have always deserved.

—Nicole Efford

#77: AC/DC, "Back in Black" (1980)

77 Back in Black.jpeg

Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, AC/DC’s Back In Black can feel like a gallery of clichés.

The album after the lead singer drinks himself to death; the rich kid savant producer who gives rock this loud a polar sharpness; lyrics with the wattage of an older sibling’s encouragement; lyrics with the loving stupidity of an older sibling’s advice; drums so warm they almost breathe; the GOAT all-black album cover; 1980 Leo season made real (US release date: July 25), a Mobius strip of White Anglophone nonsense and bravado that helped forge the commercial culture of the decade as much as Reagan’s creaky old smile did; loud, clear, fun, inescapable, shallow, pure.

Funny thing is, clichés happen. The child of a prosperous South African engineer and a German heiress, producer Robert “Mutt” Lange really does have a remarkable gift for clarifying rock: smaller studio amps to control Malcolm & Angus Young’s guitars; a prodigious number of takes; wiping the background clear of clutter so that the sounds people are paying money for, power chords and more power chords, soar.

The replacement for the deceased Bon Scott, Brian Johnson, really did go from journeyman to lead singer on the most popular rock album of all time. Johnson’s voice, once thought too high, even harsh, compared to Scott’s, now sounds predestined for these songs. Johnson’s voice scratches at lines, wails and snaps. The levity is there too. Listen to how he changes the refrain slightly at the end of “Hell’s Bells,” from “Oh” to “Aw, hell’s bells!” like he’s just dropped something.

But you get it. You don’t need a hagiography. Even if you can’t stand a single second of the music, if you’re reading this, you’re involved. Back in Black is like caffeine, capitalism, love, and the devil: even if you don’t believe in it, it believes in you.

Maybe a snippet of “You Shook Me All Night Long” (the shouted “YOU” that starts the chorus?) pings around in your own brain’s compartments, you having been in concrete stadiums, having sat through movie trailers and a battalion of sports promo packages in this life, having been subjected to AC/DC’s ersatz followers, laughable hair metal runoff.

Maybe it’s closer to you. Maybe you lifted weights to Back in Black or routinely closed up a short-order kitchen with it. Maybe you had a pedantic older sibling who put “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” on a mixtape a few months ago, couldn’t change it now, and would be goddamned if he’ll listen to Ace of Base while he drives you home.

*

Like a cursed or enchanted object, I don’t know how or when AC/DC’s Back In Black arrived in my life exactly.

I know I have had my own copy since college, having bought the CD at Encore on South State in Ann Arbor. I ripped it onto my desktop and have been ferrying those files from desktop to laptop to iPhone in the decade since. I know that much.

Listening to music and writing about it was close to a daily activity for me then. I worked on the college newspaper. It was my extremely intense and very important job to provide 500 words on Interpol or Ludacris or to cover a show at the Blind Pig. My friend, two years older, the music editor, would feed me albums I had missed or had never even heard: Autechre’s Amber, Television’s Marquee Moon, Spoon’s Girls Can Tell.

For a happy while, and with a pronounced peak at the time when I bought my own copy of Back in Black, I wager I was spending nearly every waking hour either listening to music to write about it or reading a book to write about it.

I didn’t need to work an actual, full-time campus job. I fell in with no student organization outside of the paper. I was out of state, with more than a minor tendency toward happy isolation, and I was churning through more media (though I certainly would have said “art” then and yes I was the worst) at a more ruthless, hungry pace than I have since.

AC/DC cut through the churn. Without the self importance of Led Zeppelin, without the sleeve-tat-bro-pout of Metallica, with the fun of ABBA, with the right kind of a Little Richard obsession, AC/DC and Back in Black kept making itself necessary to my life.

Before I realized it, the album had the same effect on me as coffee in the morning and cold beer in the afternoon. Get up, tidy the apartment, walk to class, deadlift this, errand running, read that, a quick repast with a friend to down a whiskey before moving on to the second half of the night, a chapter for which you want to be properly energized, a little loose but keyed in (“I’m tryin’ to walk a straight line / on sour mash and cheap wine”), all of it enhanced by “Hell’s Bells” or “Back in Black,” or—saints preserve me—“Let Me Put My Love Into You.”

The album’s pulse hit me at just the right time. As an English major interested in—shocker—intense early 20th century poets, ashy, sealed-off indie rock made in a cabin sounded like music made for a cabin. I was 22. I had enough frustration with Byzantium and Ariel. AC/DC fit.

I loved a drink, enjoyed loud-ass conversations and parlous decisions. They were all verve and performance, the minute of warm, anticipatory drums at 3:20 on “Shoot To Thrill” sounding like the heartbeat of a gigantic, friendly animal, the drums building to Johnson’s sizzling vocal fit, a pure version of the thing done to death, the rock star who just can’t even handle the words right now, howling and breathing with want.

Outside of rap, the music that surrounded me in early, middle-school adolescence was reflective of the private day school in which I spent my days: white, wan, and believing itself to be both more engaging and progressive than, you know, those other schools. Lots of discussions in which sixth graders were trusted with ‘big ideas.’ A few older draconian lacrosse players. Clinton-era achievements.

Dave Matthews and Phish, those were the two that I remember most. I remember what felt like their hegemonic control over my classmates, especially the cool ones. To me, that music sounded like artisanal paste or a FREE TIBET sticker on a zebra-striped Range Rover, or “the only people for me are the mad ones” printed on anything.  These bands had electrified instruments and beating hearts and this was what they made?

Maybe I let it get to me too much, but that complacent odor, that blasé, baked-on vibe, that all seemed to come from the music my peers loved. I think that aura helped drive me from home, out of that school, made me wary of the idea of “chill.” I could have used Back in Black then.

So, for me, that’s the most clichéd thing about Back in Black. The energy I wanted my life to have—bullshit as a desire like that is—runs through the best parts of an album so accomplished, so inescapable, that my desires aren’t even my desires anymore. My own petty passing facts aren’t so different from a million other coming-of-age narratives soundtracked by this exact album. And isn’t that just the biggest rock cliché you’ve ever heard.

—Evan McGarvey

#78: Otis Redding, "Otis Blue" (1965)

78 Otis Blue.jpg

Poor Otis, dead and gone
Left me here to sing his song
Pretty little girl with the red dress on
Poor Otis, dead and gone

- The Doors, “Runnin’ Blue” (1969)

That was Jim Morrison’s crass eulogy for Otis Redding, recorded about a year after Redding died in 1967. It introduced one of the weakest songs on one of the Doors’ weakest albums—not much of a legacy for “Poor Otis.” Thankfully, the Doors were not the only ones to memorialize Redding in song. His protégé Arthur Conley recorded “Otis, Sleep On,” which rhymes “heaven” and “Redding” in its opening couplet. Wilson Pickett re-wrote Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” as “Cole, Cooke and Redding,” casting Otis in the JFK role. But the Doors’ homage stands out for its sheer presumption, as though Redding had named them his musical executors. I recognize this same presumption in myself at this moment, as I appoint myself the one left here to sing the song of Otis Blue. John Milton, writing of Shakespeare in 1630, asked why there should be any stone or marble monument for him: “What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?” Otis Redding, too, needs not the Doors’ weak witness or my own. Still, Milton wrote his poem, and I will have my unnecessary say as well.

There are more than ten Otis Redding LPs in my collection, but Otis Blue is not one of them. That’s not for lack of trying on my part. When I was discovering soul music in 1979, all of Redding’s original releases had been deleted from the catalog. Only two compilations were in print, but hearing those convinced me I needed to own the rest. I managed to secure used copies of many of his albums, but Otis Blue never turned up. This platter’s elusiveness was particularly frustrating since Paul Gambaccini’s Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums (1978) identified it as Redding’s best: #23 out of 200. The Immortal Otis Redding was at #33, and had the two Redding factions formed a single voting bloc, he might have risen even higher on the list. (That book’s canonization of Otis Blue, I suspect, is responsible for its exalted position on the Rolling Stone 500.) Fortunately, nine of the eleven songs on Otis Blue were also on the two-LP Best of Otis Redding (1972), so I got most of its contents indirectly. Now, of course, Otis Blue can be had instantly via Spotify, or in a deluxe CD reissue, or even, for about $250 on eBay, in its original format as Volt Records S-412 (condition: Excellent).

Otis Blue would be lovely to own, but it is not Redding’s best album. That honor, surely, goes to The History of Otis Redding, a flawless compilation of singles released just prior to his death (and thus prior to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”). Otis Blue, Redding’s third LP, was his finest to date, however, and it does include two of his greatest songs: his original, pulsating version of “Respect” and the searing ballad “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Aretha Franklin, incidentally, tried her hand at the second of these songs as well, but that cover would not have led Redding to say (as he reportedly did of her “Respect”), “that girl done stole my song.” The Rolling Stones also covered “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” but no one—not even Jerry Butler, who co-wrote it—could take this song from Redding. Redding’s fifth album was called The Dictionary of Soul, and the liner notes to Otis Blue also venture a definition of that term (“an intensely dramatic performance by a singer, projected with such feeling that it reaches out and visibly moves the listener”), but one could simply offer “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” as Exhibit A and leave it at that. It is the archetypal soul ballad, and its alternation between power and vulnerability is endlessly fascinating and moving, most notably on the way Redding slowly glides up to a high A on “You are tiiiiiiired,” lingering on a dissonant G# against the tonic while he decrescendos at the same time. Jagger’s falsetto version sounds embarrassingly feeble in comparison. Aretha wisely does something different entirely at that point in the song, knowing she could not improve upon perfection.

Mention of the Rolling Stones here may seem impertinent, but their rise and Redding’s were intertwined. They were very early adopters of his music, recording “Pain in My Heart” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” in addition to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” all in 1965. Redding returned the favor on Otis Blue with a rollicking version of “Satisfaction.” Redding recorded the song only a couple of months after the Stones did, and his version is a blistering rave-up that runs roughshod over the original lyrics. He would take a similar approach to “Day Tripper” the following year.

In fact, it turns out that most of Otis Blue is covers. Along with “Satisfaction,” Redding offers his versions of songs by Solomon Burke (“Down in the Valley”), William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”), B. B. King (“Rock Me Baby”), and the Temptations (“My Girl”). In addition, he included no fewer than three songs by Sam Cooke: “Shake,” “Wonderful World,” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” Cooke had been shot to death six months earlier, and Redding was perhaps feeling that Cooke had left him here to sing his songs. This was not mere opportunism, however; he had already included songs by Cooke on each of his first two albums. The homage was heartfelt, and Redding’s gruffness adds a distinctive edge to Cooke’s smooth facility. Still, “Otis Sings Sam” is not a foolproof formula. “Shake” works well, perhaps because its lyrics are fairly trivial (e.g., “Ding-a-ling-a-ling / Honey, shaking is the latest thing”). On “Wonderful World,” however, Redding’s frequent interpolations add little (“I don’t know much about my history” spoils the original’s spare opening), and on “A Change is Gonna Come,” Redding robs the song of some its bite. Not only does he omit the anti-segregation verse (“I go to the movie, and I go downtown / But somebody keep tellin’ me, don’t hang around”), he also rewrites Cooke’s bitter bridge:

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

becomes the less confrontational, more sentimental

There’s a time, I would go to my brother
I’ve asked my brother, “will you help me please?”
He turned me down, and then I asked my little mother
I said, “Mother…,” I said, “Mother, I’m down on my knees!”

As a teenager I preferred the unvarnished, impassioned singing of Otis and Aretha to the more restrained, string-laden style of Sam Cooke, but now I think I was partly deceived by surfaces.

Speaking of surfaces, Otis Blue is a great title. One wonders why the label felt the need to add the bet-hedging subtitle, Otis Redding Sings Soul. Evidently “soul” was a selling point they wanted to emphasize. His previous LP had been Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, and his next one would be The Soul Album. “Otis Blue,” in contrast, hearkens back to Ray Charles’s brilliant The Genius Sings the Blues (1961) and perhaps even to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959). Blues, however, even kind-of blues, was not what young, African American record-buyers were purchasing in the mid-sixties, and with the exception of “Rock Me Baby” Otis Blue does explicitly not lay claim to the blues tradition. Then again, neither does Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971). There’s not a 12-bar blues or AAB verse to be found there, but that album, like its cover art, is saturated in blue. And if you are fortunate enough to own both Blue and Otis Blue, you might notice that the heavy-lidded blonde women on their covers look remarkably similar.

—Will Pritchard

#79: Led Zeppelin, "II" (1969)

79 Led Zeppelin II.png

Recently, at the age of forty, I had a ruptured aneurysm, which resulted in a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Most people die. I survived. You might be asking yourself what this has to do with Led Zeppelin’s second album, and the answer is nothing.

Perhaps I brought up my affliction after thinking about John Bonham dying young. John Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin, was thirty-two when he died. He was found unresponsive after a night of heavy drinking. He had a family at the time and an incredibly successful rock band. Many think of him as the greatest rock drummer of all time. The similarities between us end before they begin.

I first remember listening to Led Zeppelin II and becoming enamored with both the band and the album during the Summer of 1991. I was thirteen, at camp that summer, and songs like “Whole Lotta Love” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” spoke to me. I recall going to a natural waterslide park (basically people go down rapids that have eroded some of the hillsides, so the rock path slides are smooth). The music was incredibly powerful. This was before I started listening to heavy metal, and Led Zeppelin was the perfect precursor. They straddled the line between metal and hard rock.

At the time, I think I would just listen to those first two songs off the album. I recall lying on the ground, bathing in the sun, eating Twizzlers, and listening to the compact disc for the first side of Led Zeppelin II. It was a highlight of that Summer. Come to think of it, it may have been a cassette tape.

Listening to the riff from “Whole Lotta Love” was revelatory.

In the film Almost Famous, members of a feuding rock band all start to sing “Tiny Dancer” together and it re-affirms their affinity/connection/what have you for each other. This, apparently, was influenced by an event where Cameron Crowe, the writer/director of Almost Famous, who had once been a rock critic for Rolling Stone, was on a tour bus in which a band started singing along with “Whole Lotta Love.”

I wasn’t the only one who felt inclusion with that song.

In 2008, Jimmy Page would perform the riff for Jack White and the Edge when they convened in the documentary It Might Get Loud. Jack White and the Edge, looked like two little boys who’d just witnessed something beyond the realm of their comprehension. The same exulted joy on their faces reminded me of my time at the natural water slides listening to overdriven blues riffs played with a ton of feedback.

Of course, there are those who would denigrate Led Zeppelin for their lyrics or originality with their songwriting. Zeppelin was sued by Willie Dixon for plagiarism.

He claimed the lyrics for “Whole Lotta Love” were taken from his song “You Need Love.” They settled out of court and Dixon is now a credited writer on “Whole Lotta Love.”

Similarly, Chester Burnett aka Howlin’ Wolf is a credited writer of “The Lemon Song,” since the song itself is basically a reworking of Burnett’s “Killing Floor,” a song which Zeppelin used to play.

You can make of that what you will.

Rounding out the rest of Led Zeppelin II are some other phenomenal songs: “Heartbreaker,”  “Ramble On,” and “Moby Dick.” “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman),” “Thank You,” and “Bring it On Home” are also on the album.

“Heartbreaker” was a chance for Jimmy Page to demonstrate his chops on the guitar, as there are numerous solos and transitions.

“Ramble On” makes a lot of references to Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings mythology. In fact, I recall at one point in the song, the woman who the narrator is attempting to woo is kidnapped by Gollum. They probably should have included this in the film.

“Moby Dick” was an opportunity for Bonham to showcase his drumming skills. Mostly instrumental, the song lasted for more than fifteen minutes when played live.

While I never got to see the band play live, I did get to see all the living members of Led Zeppelin play. I saw Page and Plant touring together while I was in college, and John Paul Jones play as a solo artist opening for King Crimson after I had graduated. They all played some Zeppelin songs, but it wasn’t the same. That magic from when I was twelve on the natural waterslide was missing.

The innocence was gone.

I admire Led Zeppelin for their music, and I respect their decision to end the band in 1980 with the death of Bonham, rather than seek a replacement. They quit at the top of their game, and their legacy has remained intact.

Perhaps that is why the music has a special place for me; it doesn’t remind me of specific events per se, but rather an era, a time before things became complicated. When one could live off Twizzlers and go down rapids with reckless abandon.

I still can’t see very well, due to double vision, and at times I feel like a human bobblehead, but I am reminded of those carefree days eating Twizzlers, listening to Led Zeppelin II, and going down the rapids (not at the same time). Trying to hold on to the past, though, would be futile. Like when Heraclitus said, “You can’t step in the same water twice.” I wonder if he was at a natural water slide when he had that epiphany.

—Andrew Davie

#80: John Lennon, "Imagine" (1971)

80 Imagine.jpeg

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

The vision of John Lennon’s song and eponymous album Imagine feels very far away right now. During this especially-contentious month of this divisive phase in U.S. history, it’s difficult to picture this divided country living as one, much less the world.

I cannot help but interpret John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine through the particular lens of what it is to be an American woman in this moment in time: October 2018. Perhaps the reading that follows is a poor one because it is so personally informed. This political moment is all-consuming for many women, and some men, especially those who, like me, are survivors of sexual assault. Lately, almost everything has filtered through that lens. It’s a lens through which the personal and political are blurred together, just as they are in Imagine, which is both a deeply inward-looking and an expansively outward-gazing album. Though its tracks were recorded nearly forty years ago, the sentiments the album conveys feel relevant today. The American people were angry in 1971 and we are angry now.

Lennon’s vision feels almost impossible to realize in the aftermath of the contested confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Of course, Kavanaugh has denied everything. Of course, most Republican leaders back him, making him out to be the victim of slander against his good name. This time is particularly difficult for women who have experienced sexual assault because we are seeing the naked truth: the assaults we experienced mean nothing to many lawmakers; a man’s name means more. Those in power do not care about what happens to women. That realization feels like yet another assault.

In the midst of a national debate about the value of women’s stories—in a moment in which people flooded the Supreme Court’s steps to protest a Justice’s confirmation for the first time ever—some of Imagine’s songs are especially resonant. In particular, “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier” comes to mind. Notably, these lyrics: Well, I don’t wanna be a lawyer mama, I don’t wanna lie. / Well, I don’t wanna be a soldier mama, I don’t wanna die. I didn’t ask to be assaulted when I was nine and again as an adult, just as other women didn’t ask for their own assaults.

But it happened, and now we survivors have the opportunity to fight for those selves that didn’t have a say. We don’t want to have to take part in this battle—the fight to be heard and believed—but here we are, drafted now. We wanted the truth from a thorough FBI investigation into the accusations and didn’t get it. Our request to gimme some truth was denied, and a man who likely has a history of sexual assault at worst, and belligerent drunkenness and perjury at best, is now a Supreme Court Justice, now able to steer this nation’s legislation for decades to come. As in 1971, but for different reasons, Americans are sick and tired of hearing dismissals, broken promises, and lies from politicians.

(Let’s take a moment to enjoy the way Lennon characterizes politicians in “Gimme Some Truth”: uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics… neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians… tight-lipped, condescending, Mama’s little chauvinists.)

I have never felt myself less valued by the government that is supposed to represent me. And that makes me mad. (As a relatively privileged, straight, able-bodied white person, I recognize that many people have felt this way for decades or generations.) I’m mad, too, because I didn’t report my assaults at the time and because my story doesn’t matter to the politicians who have the ability to make it matter now. I didn’t report it when I was nine because the man who assaulted me was an authority figure (and because I knew I wouldn’t be believed). I didn’t say anything as an adult because I thought it was my fault—that I deserved what happened to me. I’m mad as hell now to learn that so many women and men have felt the same way. I’m angrier still to see that the experiences of millions of women effectively mean nothing. No wonder we didn’t disclose. No wonder we’re still haunted.

The bitterness filling “How Do You Sleep?” was directed at Paul McCartney—the song contains numerous references to and digs at Lennon’s former Beatles bandmate—but it’s a question many of us are asking now because we, too, feel betrayed. To the men (mostly men) who assaulted us: how do you sleep? And how do you sleep? to the people who think nothing of what we have endured: the assaults that give us flashbacks, and/or nightmares, and/or a fear of certain places, and/or an inability to trust, and/or depression, and/or anxiety, and/or an impulse to constantly look over our shoulders. Think of Utah senator Orrin Hatch recently telling sexual assault survivors to “grow up,” as if they were harping on a petty old injustice. As if they should just get over it.

You must have learned something all those years, Lennon writes to his former friend. Clearly Kavanaugh, Trump, Hatch, et. al. have learned nothing about compassion in their lifetimes. The one mistake you made was in your head, Lennon sings, and I would add that many Republicans (and Democrat Joe Manchin) also made mistakes with their hearts. Actually, their votes to confirm Kavanaugh are more than a mistake; they are a failure of empathy.

These people in power, and others like them, have learned little about the sorts of trauma that haunt many Americans, the things that leave us feeling crippled inside, sometimes for a lifetime. Imagine’s second track, “Crippled Inside,” illustrates how some traumas feel impossible to shake—as if they’re always clinging onto us, no matter what behaviors we undertake to suppress them.

Lennon faced traumas as a child, including the death of his mother, that scientists now call Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Research shows that children who experience multiple ACEs are more likely to develop certain diseases and causes of death in adulthood. Early trauma changes the way our DNA is expressed. No wonder those of us who’ve experienced trauma, especially in childhood, feel crippled inside at times. What happened has literally changed the fabric of who we are.

Even if you try to deny or hide your traumas from yourself—you can hide your face behind a smile, Lennon sings—the body and the soul remember. After what that man did to me when I was nine, I began to hate my body. I forgot about the assault itself for a while, but it contributed to a feeling that there was something intrinsically wrong with me. It has only recently occurred to me to be mad at the man who assaulted me as a child and at the man who assaulted me as an adult.

Now that the #MeToo movement has gained steam, more survivors of sexual assault are speaking out. We won’t hide the fact that we were assaulted because it’s important to tell our stories. We will use the telling to heal and our newfound power to put an end to the fucked-up way generations of men have gotten away with treating women.

But the way to a more equitable society will not be easy. How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing? Lennon sings in “How?” Perhaps this song speaks more directly to our current state of affairs than any other on Imagine. It’s a series of questions: How can I go forward?, how can I have feeling?, how can I give love? Most strikingly: how can I have feelings when my feelings have always been denied? This is a question with which many women are currently grappling.

“How?” stares uncertainty in the face. Though its verses consist of questions, the act of asking them approaches a solution. From the first stanza to the last, the questions shift from How can I to how can we?—and therein lies the power. How can we go forward when we don’t know which way to turn? / How can we go forward into something we’re not sure of? One question at a time. Together. The song ends with oh no, oh no, but I like to think that the nos speak to uncertainty, not to an inability to go forward.

The album’s subsequent and last track also provides a glance at a possible solution. Delightful in its simplicity, “Oh Yoko” reminds us that love is not just found in the sweeping, dramatic moments, but in the minute and the routine parts of daily life. In the middle of the bath…in the middle of a shave…in the middle of a dream. Lennon sings that my love will turn you on, which has obvious sexual connotations, but I think he’s also singing about how Yoko Ono’s love sustained him through moments big and small.

Imagine alternates between deeply personal and unabashedly political songs, but ends in a place of peaceful, joyful love. The album begins with “Imagine” because ending with it would force listeners to be left with, and thus sit with, the title song’s revolutionary notions. I think John Lennon knew we weren’t ready for that. So instead, he leaves us with love.

Yet “Imagine” will always be the song for which this album, and possibly Lennon himself, will be most remembered. Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world. The world “Imagine” offers is the antithesis of what American and global society has become fixated on in the decades since Lennon’s assassination in 1980. The song pictures an end to our nationalistic, divided, materialistic way of living. It proposes an erasure of borders of all sorts (national boundaries, religions, capitalism), which would signal an end to a society that pits people against each other so that a handful of individuals can profit. Eliminating the structures that shape most of the world would leave us open to a way of living that maybe can’t be clearly envisioned until we see what life on the other side is like.

Instead of taking the easy route of asking listeners to examine our limitations, “Imagine” challenges and compels us to lift our gaze upward and outward. To close our eyes and feel other possible ways of being. That’s what makes it such a radical song—the fact that it asks us to consider a way of life from which the confines of this one have been removed. Instead of believing in the social forces that currently shape our lives, we’d have to believe in each other and in ourselves. Right now, that may feel impossible.

But then I watch the footage of women filling the Hart Senate Building, demanding to be heard. I see women running for all levels of political office in the upcoming midterm elections. I call congressmen and find that the Capitol’s phones are ringing off the hook. I hear story after story like mine and watch those tellers find their power through their voices.

We are not only imaging something better than this, but millions of us are letting our outrage—and, more importantly, our hope—drive us to actively work for a better world. Imagine that.

—Marissa Mazek

#81: The Clash, "The Clash" (1977)

81 The Clash.jpg

I.

I started listening to the Clash in 8th grade, the same year our class bussed north from North Carolina on an annual pilgrimage to our nation’s capital. My brother and I were running multiple BMG and Columbia House schemes, pulling in dozens of “free” CDs for the bargain price of a penny before our parents received the bills for our crimes and shut the whole thing down. I was newly into punk rock and ravenous—the Buzzcocks, Blondie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex—and packed my Sony Discman with a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, a dreamy EP by the band Luna, and the Clash’s first album.

Our class stayed at a rinky-dink Days Inn somewhere on the Virginia border and I roomed with three other girlfriends, two on each double bed, sequestered away for the night by a piece of tape on the outside door, ensuring no sneak-outs, no boys, and no fun.

Only I’d picked up some fake blood pills at a gaudy prank store on an excursion to one of the area’s myriad malls—where a $5 psychic reading left me thinking I had a bright future in dentistry—and slipped into the bathroom, sometime around 10 o’clock, just as me and the girls were growing delirious with cabin fever. The pills frothed into realistic blood streams as I gnashed into them before lurching from the bathroom, groaning, to the utter horror of my friends before we all tore into laughter. The commotion signaled the red-faced teacher-chaperones who threatened us in their casual wear, always on high alert to squash whatever hijinks we might be up to. But the beauty of youth is feeling emboldened even when you know you shouldn’t, and so after they returned to bed, we cracked the hotel windows to smoke a surreptitious cigarette, passed between us and exhaled into the crisp night air of the biggest city we’d yet traveled to.

The next day, we wandered the Smithsonian and explored the National Mall in fragments I can just barely recall, but what I do remember happened on the bus ride home. The underwire from my bra had snapped on a tour of the aquarium and was jabbing the underside of my breast; so, in the aquarium restroom, I disposed of it entirely. My burgeoning knockers could still go without any real support and so I thought nothing of it—until we returned to the bus and settled in for the long ride back to Greensboro. I’d bent over to retrieve my Discman, totally oblivious that Mark, my ultimate skater boy crush, was watching, peering down my v-neck shirt as I rooted around my bag, emerging with my Sex Pistols CD in hand.

What happened to your bra? he demanded loudly, both indignant and satisfied, as though he’d caught me mid-crime and savored my humiliation.

I flushed and felt my whole body go hot. People were looking at me, and I knew I had to say something.

It broke so I got rid of it, I stammered.

Mark howled with laughter and glanced at the Sex Pistols CD I was still holding. God save the Sween! he crooned—standing up on his seat for the whole bus to see—She doesn’t wear a bra!

II.

I preferred the Clash, anyway, I remember telling Jeff almost a year later. Anytime I heard the Sex Pistols, I heard Mark’s song echoing and I winced—at the time, his cleverness bugged me more than his cruelty.

Up until this point, Jeff and I had led our parents to believe we were the best of friends, strictly platonic, but of course we were dryhumping like chipmunks in the hammock of his parents’ backyard and dryhumping in the car while we waited for his younger brother to finish class at Tumblebees.

I was just a freshman, but Jeff was a junior and drove a white Buick, and thus became my default chauffeur. After school, we landed at his house and I’d harass him while he attempted homework, distracting him into picking up his guitar and he’d break into Sonic Youth, Pavement, and the Clash, which I’d just turned him onto.

He preferred London Calling, but I still carried a torch for the Clash’s first album, and remember making my father drive me to the record store to buy it. Even if I now prefer London Calling—the band’s more literate older brother, back from study abroad—I seized upon the first album’s anger then because I was angry too. Angry that my mother had chosen her loathsome and jobless boyfriend over me, prompting me to run away from home and get picked up by my drunk father, who I loved dearly but who I’d never imagined as a qualified caretaker. Angry because those circumstances coupled with my age ostensibly rendered me powerless.

I loved the Clash’s first album for its visceral, political anger—which had always felt so romantic to me, a rebel child born from such Southern, genteel sensibilities—but also for the way Joe Strummer fused that anger with something that felt like joy. Janie Jones was a love song if ever there was one; Garageland an homage to a DIY musical ethos; and Mick Jones’s soaring, ribbon-light vocals gave me something to shout from the Buick’s open window—Let them know, let them knowwww-ooh-oh-ohhh.

One fall school night we were riding around, making out at each red light, which prompted Jeff to pull into the parking lot of a Baptist church off Friendly Avenue. Under a lone streetlight we kissed, we dryhumped, and then there was Jeff’s penis, the first real-life penis I’d ever seen, and at 14 and still clueless about sex I certainly didn’t know what to do with it.

But I’d wanted to see it because I was advancing—as a teenager, as a person in the world, and as a sexual being who’d someday soon know what to do. But that night, I looked at Jeff’s penis and nodded. Then I said, You can put it away now.

And that's when he got on top of me and pinned me to the car seat with the full weight of all his taut teenage body, still new and golden and filled with all the opportunities the world affords to bright young white men, while I writhed and struggled beneath him before starting to scream. 

As he simultaneously thrust his penis at my face while trying to wrangle my arms into submission, I remember screaming and staring at a blue dumpster up ahead, as if that dumpster might somehow come to life and rescue me.

And maybe my screams worked, because Jeff eventually stopped. But back then—North Carolina in 1997—no language for sexual assault was taught to young girls. There was only language for being molested by a family member or a friend of the family or rape, none of which happened to me.

I didn’t know what happened to me. But I know that Jeff drove me home and on the way, I remember thinking, Do not look unruffled in front of your father.

I remember thinking, What just happened, anyway?

I remember thinking, Do I tell my father? Do I tell anyone? Is there even anything to tell?

I remember thinking, It wasn't rape, though.

I remember thinking, If it wasn't rape, then I guess it was nothing.

Besides, I told myself, I started it.

III.

Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?

Lately I’ve been thinking about what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said of her decision to appear—though I want to say testify, even though we’re all supposed to believe she was not on trial—before the Senate Judiciary Committee and tell the world how the newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in a Maryland bedroom sometime during the summer of 1982.

On the day of the hearing, my coworker—a man I like very much, a man I consider a friend—asked to speak to me privately. I just want to understand, and I think you might be a good person to ask, he started. It’s just—what do you think of all this? Do you think she’s legit?

I closed his office door, and that’s when I told him about Jeff’s Buick, about the dumpster.

I feel lucky, I told him, because this is it. But isn’t that enough?

Isn’t telling my classmate that my bra broke enough? Isn’t telling Jeff no enough? Isn’t telling my coworker enough? Why must humiliation—annihilation?—be the cornerstone of womanhood, of our believability?

I still can’t listen to the Sex Pistols without wincing, without thinking about how I thought I loved Mark and how he was an asshole to me, and how I thought I loved Jeff and how he was an asshole to me, and how I’d come to internalize humiliation by men as a part of life—even as a token of love. Once I believed that pain was part of being a woman, that suffering for a man was the most valiant love in the world.

Years later, in college, I saw Jeff and asked him about that night in the Baptist church parking lot and he said he didn't remember. I'm really sorry if I did that, he said, but I just don't remember.

But women and girls—we remember.

When I listened to the Clash as a young girl, I felt powerful. I felt angry. I didn’t quite understand the political and social context of the lyrics, but intuitively I recognized that the songs were about injustice.

That night with Jeff may not have ruined my life, and he may not be on the Supreme Court, but if he were, I would’ve come forward too. I am now.

Appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2017, the singer Henry Rollins said of Trump’s regime: This is punk rock time, this is what Joe Strummer trained you for.

Now I know exactly what he means.

—Sarah Sweeney

#82: Neil Young, "Harvest" (1972)

82 Harvest.jpg

I knew Nash was coming over so I asked Elliot, who was working with me as producer at that time, to rig up the house and barn like we’d talked about. We’d been working on Harvest for months and I was ready for someone other than the two of us dimwits to have a listen. Nash was a good dummy run, always had been. He didn’t say too much and that was the good part.

It was a warm afternoon in late summer and the trees were just starting to turn on the ranch. Nash and I got to shooting the shit, I fed him a couple of beers on the porch while he talked about the Israeli athletes just killed in Olympic Village, and then I asked him if he wanted to hear some of the new stuff. He agreed, and suggested we go to the studio. Instead I got up, gathered our beer cans into a pile, and motioned for him to follow me down the hill to the lake.

I bent down to untie the boat from the dock. “Get in the rowboat,” I said.

“Get in the rowboat?”

“Yeah, we’re going into the middle of the lake.”

Now Nash had known me quite a long time by then and he was used to my peculiar requests. My ex-wife used to say the only people who could stand me were people fascinated by bullshit instead of put off by it. Nash never was presented with a question he didn’t want to tinker with, and when the answer seemed unknowable, he loved that the most.

My hair was long in those days and I was working on a scraggy little mustache streaky as a skunk. It was a windy day, and that shit was bothering my face so much I slid my sunglasses onto my head to push my hair back and sacrificed my eyes to the blinding sun. Nash had a similar haircut at the time, or lack of haircut I guess, but his hair was so heavy with grease it didn’t move an inch in that wind. The effect, coupled with his squinty eyes, made him look inhuman.

He got in the boat while I held it to the dock, and then I stepped in myself, one foot at a time, the boat rocking in the shallow water. The algae stank in the heat and a swarm of flies buzzed close to Nash’s head. You could see a couple of red-wing blackbirds floating in the distance.

I don’t know what he thought. Maybe he thought I had a cassette player ready to play him a tune, one of those early models that had just come out. Maybe he thought I was about to open up my mouth and serenade him and the birds and the fishes right there in the rowboat.

When we got to the middle of the lake, I called to Elliot and gave him the signal.

Then: the opening bars of “Heart of Gold,” that familiar thud of bass and guitar I’d heard dozens of times in recent weeks. This time it was louder than hell and I could feel it in my chest, rising and warm as bathwater. I saw the blackbirds whiz away over the hill, their red wings like some kind of flare.

Nash looked behind him, ahead of him, and side to side more than once before looking back at me. True to form, he didn’t say anything at all, and it took him until about the start of the chorus to realize what the hell kind of contraption we’d rigged up. Even once he realized it he clearly couldn’t believe it. From our spot in the middle of the lake, the whole house was playing the left-hand channel and the whole barn the right. In the house, Elliot had set up big speakers by every window, and in the barn, he’d cranked the recording PA system all the way up. It was the loudest surround sound we’d ever heard, out there under the open sky, the music drowning everything out.

Keep me searching for a heart of gold / and I’m getting old.

When “Heart of Gold” faded out, Elliot came running down the hill from the barn smiling huge. “How was that, Neil?” he hollered.

“Could use a little more barn,” I said.

Nash started laughing so hard the boat shook. “You crazy son of a bitch,” he said.

That much was true, to be sure. I stood right up and dove into the lake. Nash yelled after me, his voice garbled in that underwater way. The music started up again—this time it was “Harvest.” I could barely make out the piano chords or the tenor of my own voice, but I could hear the subtle high frequency notes of the slide guitar, more uptempo than it should have been because sound waves travel faster underwater, vibrating that heavy bone right behind your earlobe. I stayed under as long as I could, letting my ears quiver. After the first verse, I opened my eyes and took in the filth of the lake. The moss coated everything, from the scummy bottom of the boat to the frothy rocks and the fish fins. It was growing on me, too. I could see it griming up my forearms. But that music, though distorted, was more clean and pure and loud than it’d ever been, and I had to have it. I opened my mouth and swallowed up every last wave.

—Lacy Barker

#83: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Axis: Bold as Love" (1967)

83 Axis Bold as Love.jpg

It was early spring. My husband was away for the evening, and I had the apartment to myself. I was restless and stir crazy and riddled with a sort of itch that indicated a quiet Friday on the couch with my laptop wouldn’t quite cut it—and the only hope I had to outpace this feeling was by getting in my car. It was light when I left the house, but already deep dusk by the time I reached the edge of town. Despite the early evening dark, it was warm enough for the tang of  the neighboring cow pasture to have started to thaw into the air: the first and truest sign of Spring, even with the blackened crust of ice still hemming the roadway. I followed a one-lane state route under a glowing moon, squirming in the driver’s seat. I should be working: it was like an accidental motto I’d adopted. There were always papers to grade, manuscripts to edit, rooms to tidy, muscles to tone—if it couldn’t be lauded as productive, it shouldn’t deserve my time.

I winced with every pair of headlights from oncoming cars. They were painfully bright, but also irritated me, the presence of others as I was trying to drive my way to isolation, someplace where it was just my thoughts and a simmering inexplicable urgency I assumed hurling myself into would help quell.

Capturing what this drive feels like and the need for it is hard. And for two reasons:

  1. The older I become, the more difficult it is to acknowledge and process my emotions. I feel an uneasiness around even the most benign of them. This is bad news for a writer.

  2. Some feelings do not lend themselves well to being portrayed in language altogether. At the end of the day, feelings are abstract, no matter how many sensory details we try to staple to them. This, unfortunately, is also bad news for a writer—along with probably everyone else who wants to meaningfully express themselves.

The pastures adjacent to both sides of the road are serene and mostly empty; they host a few trees, green-black in the darkness, that cast diagonal shadows across the dash. The radio station that I’ve been ignoring begins to play something that catches my attention: an electric guitar that is golden and melodic, a glockenspiel sounding like a celestial bell, a shimmering warmth that is the audio equivalent of the wavy distortions of air above summer pavement. “Little Wing” is unmistakable, and slows my spinning brain to match its meditative quality. It is languid like watching honey poured into a spoon, and sounds almost like the sunlight color of it, too. There is a reason Hendrix’s music is often labeled psychedelic. How else do I talk about what it makes me feel: soothed by melody, energized by the drum fills, sad and wistful and relaxed all at once? Look at those empty adjectives: what a cop-out.

The only other way I know how to talk about what this album can make me feel is the time when I was 8 and also heard Hendrix on the radio: legs plastered to the scalding vinyl back seat of my mother’s ‘73 Plymouth Duster. The music made me feel like the emblem on the car’s quarter panel: a spinning cyclone with big wide open eyes, a still image conveyed in a blur of movement, a cloud of electrons that could peer out at the world with an eagerness to take it in. On the spot, I asked for a Jimi Hendrix album for Christmas, still almost half a year away.

I delighted in discovering that Hendrix and I were both left-handed. I watched a rented VHS of him at Monterey Pop—which, in June of 1967, was when Axis: Bold as Love was in the early stages of recording. I leaned in close to the TV screen, watching his guitar in flames, Hendrix kneeling as if at an altar, lifting his fingers into the air like he was trying to coax the fire up as tall as possible, exorcizing something unsayable from it. It mesmerized me. This may seem like a stretch, but I suddenly felt understood all the times I cropped my doll’s hair, or drew on Barbie’s face and rubbery limbs with pink pen, or even the pleasure I felt at tearing snack wrappers into strips before tossing them into the trash: a feeling that could only be expressed through action, impulse.

Hendrix in interview footage (at least the clips I’ve seen) is taciturn, evasive, offering a shy smile or a shrug after a sentence into the microphone. But I hear so much else when I listen to the muddy, almost aggressive guitar of “Spanish Castle Magic,” the near-flippancy at how cruel life can be in “Castles Made of Sand,” and can understand how he could have recorded three studio albums between 1967 and 1968: this is someone who has a lot to say, who is trying over and over to present it to us just right, even it it might remain obscured.

I wonder if he, too, felt a churn in his stomach to be productive, to do everything possible, to maximize a checklist. Probably not in the same way, but given his brief but prolific life, it seems Hendrix may have also felt an encroaching ennui he tried to outpace with the aid of his guitar. I think of him singing, “I wanna hear and see everything” over and over on “Up from the Skies,” and it serves as an important reminder to recalibrate to a more meaningful definition of “productive,” one that values my time—my life—beyond how many tasks I can finish by the end of the week.

Maybe I can start by rolling down these windows, the meadow-scented air tousling my hair into knots, turn the volume up until I feel the bass beating through the seatbelt across my chest, until my shoulders unclench and it’s only high beams and stars and shadows of telephone wires cast by the moon, propelling into darkness. I am feeling something real and sincere, and I want to share it with you, for you to believe me, but I don’t know for sure if I can tell you in a way that’s easy to understand.

—Lisa Mangini

#84: Aretha Franklin, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (1967)

84 Never Loved a Man.jpg

I’ll designate the following sentence a command: Do not let yourself read what I wrote about this album before you have heard it. This is crude; it is words, a mere facsimile, a type of repurposing. Even if it works, this will be a loving tribute, which is just a shadow of art. I’m giving you permission—actually a kick in the pants—if you haven’t listened to the album yet: stop reading this, close the browser, and let it carry you away.

Aretha Franklin was called home on August 16, 2018. What she did for music, for soul, for Detroit, for America, is still being eulogized, felt, and processed. It is likely that no single memorial, no 1,000-page biography, no slide show at the Grammy’s, will ever capture what she meant to the world. The remembrances will ease the mourning, but it seems to me that the best way to honor her memory is to keep the words brief and let the music be eternal.

*

I finished the first two decades of my life before I heard I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. I never felt Aretha’s voice in my house as a child like many of her fans whose parents played it on vinyl while the kids splayed out and drew in coloring books on carpeted parlor floors. But I didn’t get too far into adulthood, where hardened tastes might have stopped me from letting myself fall in love with something new. The first time I heard Aretha Franklin’s 1967 masterpiece, I was smack dab in the middle of my 21st year.

I was en route to Europe, technically already in Europe, in Iceland, for the up-to-then longest stint of my life away from home. Markers of growing older and the thrill of a taste of independence had me thinking deeply. I remember feeling, prior to listening, that more of my life lay ahead of me than behind, and also that that fact scared, soothed, and amused me at the same time. Late-adolescent anxieties, private ambitions, public presentations of irony, graphic tees and one-off haircuts, ruminations about financial realities and political bullshit and feeling boxed in – that was the version of me that walked into the record store in Reykjavik, determined to find a soundtrack for my trip.

Three hours before, I had rented the only available Automatic for an absurd price, hoping to assert some American freewill one last time before giving myself over to European train timetables. Most of the albums in the first section of the store bore titles in a language I could only identify as something Vikings probably spoke. In the back, I found a section labeled “Classic American.” I’m realizing now that to see a sign like that in a record store in a foreign country is to benefit from a unique kind of cultural legacy. There is an American flag on the moon and a shelf of American music in Reykjavik. Of course, the gravity of home drew me in. Overwhelmed and caught somewhere between adrenaline-fueled and jetlagged, I didn’t give much thought to the album selection. I sifted through for a minute or two, then came to the checkout with I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.

After the rush of buying something with unfamiliar bills, I read the tracklist on the walk back to my rental. I sat inside and fiddled with the plastic wrap around the CD case for at least three minutes, at some point regretting that I’d bought anything at all, until finally I had the disc on my finger. The CD player ate the disc, and I backed out onto the street. From the silence came “Respect,” a song most people know even if they can’t name the singer.

The voice—Her Voice—slinked, and popped, and soared, and rolled, and fell out in a big heap from the factory-standard speakers of the Volkswagen Jetta, and it seemed to be living with me, speaking straight through fifty years of temporal haze. I felt warmth—as in, perceived actual warming, to the point of taking off a light jacket—and the power, the pain, and the emotional exposure lifted me up with the sensation of cosmic fellowship and raw humanness that sometimes accompanies the art of the most divine performers. It’s hard to find the metaphors, but people who have heard the album (all who are reading this far, I hope) have already felt them, so I don’t have to keep searching.

I drove around for an hour through clouds of gray mist and diffuse sunshine. More than once, passing pastel-colored houses and New Urbanist civic buildings, I smiled at the thought that a woman so black and an African American so female was getting playtime in a country of fair-skinned and mild-mannered Northern Europeans. Barack Obama summed it up: Aretha Franklin is American history. She is the confluence of every kind of music we can claim as ours. She channels the totality of the black experience in the United States better than any single musical artist before or since. But I’ll leave the reflections on the historical significance of Aretha Franklin to New Yorker think pieces and Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies. The first experience of listening to her cannot be so analytical simply because it is so overwhelming. I let the whole album play through twice.

I pulled into the hostel parking lot and turned the car off. I’d made up my mind: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You was my favorite album.

Inside, I met Vassili, Andrea, and Mauro (Ukrainian, Italian, and Italian, respectively). Including me, that’s four men, aged 20 to 53, sharing a small space with four twin beds, each with a different reason for our trips to Iceland. Vassili had just signed the papers for divorce number three, and this was his gift to himself. Andrea had begged his dad for a week off, and although the family livelihood depended on his ability to take over the management of a hotel from his aging father, the wish was granted. Mauro had escaped from a vengeful ex-girlfriend (also his former muse in his professional pursuit of fashion photography) and needed some time to lie low in a far off place.

My car cost $400 a day (Iceland prices things this way).

“Hey guys. Nice to meet all of you. Wanna go to a waterfall tomorrow? We can split gas.”

The next morning, our motley crew packed into the Jetta with a day full of plans. I put the keys in the ignition and suddenly there was Aretha, too. Volume way up in the stratosphere, exactly where I had left it the day before. I quickly turned it down. Up to this point, my three new friends knew me as pretty unassuming and maybe bland. Now we were listening to my favorite album, and no one knew the words except for kind of me, and it was not what you might picture a young WASP from Texas listening to if your image of a Texan came from Dallas and the Dallas Cowboys.

The volume stayed low at first. Ten minutes into our four-hour drive, we had already exhausted several small talk topics, and we all felt the need to pace ourselves so that we never stumbled into awkward silence. I reached for the volume knob and brought the speakers up to their loudest level without distortion, just in time for “Soul Serenade.”

Only you can hear my soul serenade.

Then the swanky brass. Then the electric piano. It feels so sexy without any of the embarrassment that usually accompanies sexy things for pasty American people like me. (I doubt the Italians needed this kind of comforting distance from all things corporeal.) What Aretha does so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly is meld the body and soul in a way that enhances both and elevates them to another plane.

Only sheep and very hairy cows shared the countryside with us, and I think the others in the car could confirm: I swear the car came a little bit off the ground.

I sang along, because how can you not? My European road trip comrades laughed, but the kind of laugh that offers support, like, “You do you, man.” And I just felt so intensely grateful in that moment, through the two and a half minutes of that song, for what Aretha Franklin did in 1967 and for what it was helping me do in 2015. She put goodwill, heartbreak, and the charming kind of confidence on a record. She sang with the jaw-dropping, thermonuclear power of the essence of thoughts and feelings. I had spent two years at liberal arts school looking for categorical imperatives, assuming the posture of the radical skeptic, learning the sociological theories of injustice, tracking the processes that formed my young mind and its prejudices and weaknesses, all of which produced a pea soup fog of fear and self-doubt bordering on self-loathing. And here, on this album, was someone so wholly transcending those thought experiments. With her voice, Aretha Franklin embodied being alive and at the same time projected a higher quality, one not bound by the limits of the body. No wonder the church was the starting point and finish line of her journey; the music she lived is the music of revival and salvation.

The waterfall was cool. No, really, it was sublime. I don’t mean to downplay it. Iceland’s natural beauty leapt out every bit as much in real life as it did in the online travel ads. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed further East, to my longer-term destination of Spain. And all the clichés about a semester in Europe came true: the best food of my life, the strange fellowship with other nomadic university students, a host mom with a larger than life personality and some skeletons in the closet from the Francoist era.

In time, I came upon new questions about myself and the world, some of which brought me down from the enlightenment high I had experienced in Iceland. I wish I could say this album holds the secrets to unending euphoria, but no single thing can carry us like that. Mundanities re-enter, doubts come creeping back, as they always have and always will, because the majority of our lives are simply spent living. Ups have downs and also very boring middles, like waves in the ocean have whatever happens between waves.

Still, I’m hopeful. And she is one of the reasons. What feelings her voice brings: goosebumps and unconscious dancing and strength in trying times.

I might be the only person that hears “Iceland” and thinks of America’s greatest soul singer, or hears “Aretha Franklin” and thinks of empty roads on a cold island. Whenever I want to get transported back there again, I can save the money I would have to spend on a transatlantic flight. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You is still with me, sitting on a shelf in my living room. And Aretha Franklin’s voice isn’t going quiet anytime soon.

—Logan Crossley

#88: Johnny Cash, "At Folsom Prison" (1968)

88 At Folsom Prison.jpg

Johnny Cash died fifteen years ago last month. Fifteen years ago I was in high school and music videos were my window into the world outside Lunenburg County, Va. Some days, getting to the top 40 countdown on CMT got me through school, my hour-long bus ride home, and the dusty walk from the stop home. And when the Toby Keith worship in the aughts was too much on CMT, there was always GAC to switch to.

Something funny happened on both channels in 2003. Johnny Cash released his version of “Hurt” and it rose through the charts and was in heavy rotation on the video channels up to his death. The song wasn’t his own but like his many covers, he made it his. In the video, he sits alone, surrounded by relics of his life, and videos clips from his youth cut in. He’s still the man in black in the video, but he’s Johnny without a June by that point, and his piano resembles a coffin’s ledge.

Cash was able to channel someone’s hurt and feel it as his own. But, he always could.

“Hurt” became so much his own that my friend and coworker Shannon thought he wrote it. While stacking books at the shop we both work for, she told me how in the early ‘00s she got into an AOL chat room argument with a whole group of Nine Inch Nails fans.

But long before that—50 years ago—Johnny Cash really lived. He played two shows at Folsom State Prison on January 13, 1968. The first recording makes up the bulk of At Folsom Prison.

There’s a certain magic in that first show. He riles up the crowd of prisoners with “Folsom Prison Blues” and settles them back down with “Dark as a Dungeon.” “Hell, don’t you know it’s being recorded,” he asks them in the middle of the latter song.

His perfection is a little desperate, maybe because he was. Cash was at a turning point in his career in 1968. He needed a hit and in the lead up to these two performances, he rehearsed the set list for days.

There’s an anxious energy to the album that could have only been captured at that point in America. 1968 was a restless year. Protesters were vocal. The album release preceded the killing of Robert F. Kennedy by just a month, which resulted in a cleaner cut of “Folsom Prison Blues” being released. In a time of stark divisions, Johnny Cash was the kind of man who could cross them.

It’s a lesson I’ve had a hard time internalizing, even though At Folsom Prison is on heavy rotation in my house. I have a problem with empathy. My mother calls it a problem with patience: the fact that I can’t sit still or care about the problems of people who I feel have had every advantage, and squandered it.

When my family runs into trouble (gets arrested, flunks out of school, gets locked up, ends up squatting with me) I have a hard time feeling much for them. If I could climb my way out of a situation through hard work, then surely so could they.

Maybe it’s misplaced pride. Perhaps I’m just a cold fish. But it’s hard to tell people close to me I understand, even though I’m a writer who pulls unlikable narrators out of thin air and cherishes them.

It’s easy to feel for the downtrodden, for the victims of weather, for those whose only crime was seeking a better life in a new country. But it’s hard to care for the discouraged, the ones who could turn a new leaf but are stuck on which direction to go.

It’s a heavy lesson and one that is reflected in the music. The opening riff of “Folsom Prison Blues” features eight laden chords. Merle Haggard did the same thing when he wanted his crowd to empathise with his narrator on “Mama Tried,” opening with a low, distinctive set of chords. Songs about jail start heavy, but they get lighter. They’re catchy. Cash so wants to reach out and reel us in.

But if every virtue is a vice, then the opposite is also true. Johnny Cash, a man of many vices, could empathize with the prisoners at Folsom like few others. He never did hard time, contrary to his lyrics, but he did spend a night or two drying out in local cells.

His career was in a downward spiral when he hit that stage. He had already reached fame years ago with “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”—both, notably, covers. He was climbing out of addiction and Columbia Records was wary of him. Columbia didn’t expect it to, but the album caught on. He won a Grammy. He sold a lot of records. Johnny Cash got the hit he needed all because he reached out to a group of people who were not used being cared about, because he could employ basic empathy.

Johnny Cash knew how to churn out albums; Folsom was his 27th. And he hatched the idea of playing in a prison years before. He wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 after watching a documentary about the penitentiary.

He wrote the famous line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” because it was the worst thing he could imagine someone doing. It’s devoid of compassion, but crafted in the spirit of it. And when he begins the song on At Folsom Prison, the crowd goes crazy for it, because it was written just for them, in anticipation of that moment.

Though it was his first live recorded prison performance, Cash played prisons before Folsom and he recorded more albums in them later. He went on to record At San Quentin in 1969, Pa Osteraker in 1973 and A Concert Behind Prison Walls in 1976. But none of those packs the same fire.

He ends the album with “Greystone Chapel,” another cover, which was written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. In an interview, Cash said he heard the song the night before the show and he stayed up all night to learn it. He needed to give Sherley justice. Cash’s own “Joe Bean” may be the better song about a convict on the record, but his insistence on hearing out the downtrodden makes his performance of “Greystone Chapel” so affecting.

Prison reform was Johnny Cash’s great cause, but Sherley was the face he gave the movement. Sherley’s story after prison doesn’t end well. It ends like a song Johnny Cash might have written himself.

But the contradictions in Cash’s own life make the record so beyond compare. The ultimate patriot, he could criticize his country. He was a backslider among backsliders who sang gospel that was deep and moving. He was a smooth operator whose pure love for June Carter made their story so sweet. At Folsom Prison is emotional in a way few albums are. Sincerity is something we take for granted, emerging in 2018 from the age of stubborn irony. It urges whoever’s listening to believe the addict as a gospel singer and the prison reform advocate as a patriot—and to understand that these identities are not mutually exclusive.

Johnny Cash would hit more hard times. His “Cocaine Blues” weren’t over. He’d be “Busted” again. And he’d climb out of it.

Here’s what Johnny Cash knew: We all build prisons for ourselves. I tend to imprison myself in work, in a shell of busy fervor. But I could take a page out of the book of the original non-role model and step out in all black, not just because it makes me look skinny but also because I should care about the dozens and hundreds and thousands of individual lives lived alongside mine, and say “Hello, I’m...”

—Lindley Estes

#91: Elton John, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (1973)

91 Goodbye Yellow Brick.jpg

You might not think of Summersville, West Virginia as a prime location for an award-winning show choir (who would?), but Daniel Seacrest, Josh Simpson, Brandon Hutchinson, and I won the Show Choir Invitational two years in a row, and Elton John was a part of that legend. Senior year, we had three Elton songs in the line-up: “Philadelphia Freedom,” a piano cover of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ’N Roll),” and “Harmony” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. We’d take our places onstage, blue sequin vests glittering in the spotlight, and wait for our director, Jason Hypes, to start playing. And then, before God and our parents, we’d sing, “Oh, Philadelphia freedom, shine on me and I love you / Shine the light through the eyes of the ones left behind!” Were we goofy? Yes, sure. Four white trash teenagers singing Elton John. We could have sung anything we liked, but Elton—at least our idea of him—was what we liked, and even if we didn’t know what he was singing about, it was different.

The evening after, our homecoming concert took a turn for the worse that I haven’t really told anyone about because I still don’t know what to make of it. Josh had just gotten a new pick-up, a graduation present from his dad, and said he wanted to take it muddin’ down at a vile place people called “N-word Hole.” He did this in the dressing room at the high school theater, shirtless, as if to show off his physique. He was tall, with a square jaw, and these arrogant blue eyes. His favorite hobby—his only hobby, as far as I knew—was lifting weights.

I changed out of the electric blue sequin vest, stripped to the waist, wearing only a pair of boot-cut jeans. I had long thin limbs, huge hands and feet, but thin and wiry legs as if I’d descended from some type of gibbon. Stupidly, I asked, “What’s N-word Hole?”

“A grave where they threw lynched slaves during the Civil War,” Josh said.

“You’re joking, right?” was the best I could come up with.

“They say it’s haunted,” Daniel said, changing into a faded T-shirt and jeans. Daniel came across as a conservative, corn-fed country boy, but he was good and decent. His fingernails and knuckles were blackened from his part-time job at the gravel plant. His posture—I could reconstruct it just from memory alone—was perfect, proud, and even after his accident he was impeccably built, with strong musculature. “It’s behind the Go Mart in Sugar Grove.”

“I-It sounds like someplace we’re not supposed to be,” I said.

“It’s not just someplace you’re not supposed to be,” Daniel said. “It’s trespassing.”

I wasn’t a troublemaker, as far as the others could see. I imagined being arrested for trespassing. Cops would be dispatched to the place to round us up and take us to juvie.

“It’s not trespassing, so let’s go,” Josh said. “Brandon, you coming with?”

Brandon was watching Josh as if he’d been placed there by some cosmic force to enjoy it all. Josh, you see, was bringing something out in Brandon. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Josh gave him the kind of look you wouldn’t expect from a friend, his eyes fixed on Brandon’s face, his lips curled into a sneer. “Brandon, you’re gay, Brandon.”

There stood Daniel, looking at Josh with uneasy disapproval.

I didn’t know Brandon as well as I knew the others. His features were more feminine, and he had a lisp, so he didn’t even have the advantage of fitting in with Josh and the good old boys. He’d spend his lunch not on the basketball court or the parking lot, but sitting with a few of the outcasts, mostly girls, in the lunchroom. And, while it’s harsh to say it, this is what I’m getting at: some people, born into their circumstances, are doomed from the start. Brandon, gay, growing up in the red center of Appalachia, the heckling and hazing, had a tough row to hoe. I can’t imagine trying to be oneself in Nicholas County. The courage it must take to do so.

Soon we were driving out to N-word Hole. Daniel brought his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road CD and we were singing along to his favorite track, “Roy Rogers,” still buzzing from the concert. The clouds were peeling back from the moon when we passed the old Go Mart at Sugar Grove, and then we hit a gravel road that ran perpendicular to the mountain, which had probably, at one point, acted as a logging road. Eventually, we turned off the music to concentrate on the road. Josh drove deeper and deeper into the mountain, across a creek and through a gate, until there was no road left. Nevertheless, the truck continued, and Josh winced every time a branch grazed the fresh paint. At its lowest point, the creek bulged into big, muddy pools, forming a swamp. Josh floored it and the truck rattled into the pools, splashing mud up onto the windows of the truck. The pools were waist-deep, but the monster truck had no trouble navigating them. Josh would rev and Daniel, Brandon, and I would holler, grunt, and whoop.

The truck jumped the creek and grumbled up the opposite bank and then down another hill. At the bottom, Josh stopped and put the truck in park. “There it is.”

At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary but a dark scatter of mountain laurel, but then I noticed the truck’s high-beam headlights illuminating a giant black sinkhole in the center of the woods. Josh got out to get a better look, and Daniel, Brandon, and I followed. I inhaled a stink of rotten roots and mud, but there was something else. There was something in the air that wasn’t natural, a thick, fecal odor mixed with an almost chemical petrichor. Even though it was just an urban legend, I thought this was an awful place. Images accumulated in my mind: a mass of faceless human suffering, rigid and naked, no trace of human decency, the worst of what we have been and still are. It felt like there was something dark settling over me.

“Come on,” Josh said, “get back in the truck.”

Josh was itching at the chance to go muddin’ in this sinkhole, so we all got back in the truck and we peeled out and then went round and round, hollering, grunting, and whooping, for what seemed like a long while. Josh turned to look over his shoulder, grinning at Daniel, moving the gearshift up a notch with a flourish. The truck pitched unsteadily and slid tail-pipe first into the sinkhole. Josh hit the gas and we smelled burnt rubber. We went nowhere. There was no yelling, but a chill spread through the cab of the truck, a silence.

Josh looked up, blankly, holding the steering wheel as if it were his junkie brother that he had just strangled in order to get some point across. “I think we’re stuck.”

As I sat there in the backseat, I heard something. Tump? And then, after a long silence, another one—“tump?”—and I felt the back of the truck sink further into the mud.

“I think we’re sinking,” Brandon said. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Josh said. He was flabbergasted, and he tried to speak lightly, a cautious approach, in case the truck sank further. “My dad is going to kill me.”

I started laughing in the face of the gentle hysteria. “This is bad, just bad.”

“It’s not funny, Joey. This truck. Is completely. Ruined. Shit! Do you get that?”

“Does it matter if we can’t get out?” I said.

“Of course it matters, dumb shit,” Josh said. He laughed, and Daniel laughed a little, too, though I wasn’t exactly sure what was funny to him. Josh was trying to concentrate.

Daniel gave Josh a long slow look. “Let’s try to pull it out.”

In the next moment, we were trying to get the truck out. Josh had taken off his shirt (because it was April and still chilly at night, and “It would be better to put on a dry t-shirt instead of a wet one”) and was down in the sinkhole, trying to clear enough mud for the tires to grab. We were stuck in that godforsaken hole, bickering and getting depressed. The four of us were lined up along the front of the grill, trying to pull the truck out of the sinkhole, when Brandon’s hand accidentally grazed Josh’s.

“Get your hands off me, Brandon—god,” Josh said. “Fucking faggot!”

Brandon stood and backed away, apologizing, saying, Oh, it was an accident. He was nonplussed, perhaps a bit hurt by it. Then there was a silence. A long silence.

“Brandon, you can be gay if you want to, buddy,” Daniel said, clapping him on the back.

“No, he can’t. I don’t want a queer hanging around me!” Josh said.

“What’s your problem? You’ve been singing Elton John the whole semester.”

Josh wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, and dried the mud on the front of his jeans. He looked at Daniel. He was confused, which I guess I understand.

“Elton John is gay, dude,” Daniel said, as if it went without saying.

I thought, Wait a minute—Elton John is gay? I was young, you see. Seventeen was young, especially in West Virginia. Suddenly I gained something we call clarity. I had thought that gay people were just something on TV—that there was Jack from Will & Grace and people on a show that I was forbidden to watch, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, on Bravo. That there were people like my uncle Darrell. I gained a new awareness, a heavy one, through which I understood all at once what my mom had meant when she said there was something “wrong” with my drama teacher, Mr. Reeves. Now it seems incredible to me that a satori like this can occur today in the 21st century. But consider the place, consider how seldom outsiders turn off onto the gravel roads that emerge without warning from the woods. And when those backwoods roads turn into dirt roads still deeper in woods; and when those in turn give way to roads that aren’t really roads at all, deserted for weeks at a time. It’s not hard to see how a kid growing up in the dark hollers can be virtually unaware of another human being’s existence.

“Yeah, Josh,” I said, shucking off my surprise. “Elton John is gay. C’mon, dude.”

“No,” Josh said. “Elton John is not gay. Now get behind the truck and push—”

“Yeah-huh,” Daniel said. “Philadelphia Freedom? The City of Brotherly Love?”

“Prove it then!” Josh shouted. “Prove to me that Elton John’s a fag.”

It was the way he said the word that made me understand who he was. His face was terrible in its anger, his cheeks gone oxblood red, spittle shooting from his mouth.

Daniel looked at Brandon reassuringly. “Brandon, God loves and welcomes you, man. If it’s okay for Elton John to be gay, then it’s okay for you, too.”

Josh looked at Daniel in disbelief and let out an operatic scream of anguish and then he went back to trying to rock the truck out of the sinkhole.

After a beat, I looked at Brandon. A curtain had fallen across his face, and he was shaking. With a voice gone rusty, he said, “Whatever.” He looked vulnerable standing there against the night. I looked at this tableau for a long time even though he wouldn’t look at me. I thought that I understood his grief a little more, but I could never, given a million lifetimes, understand what he must have gone through. You see, this was just one night.

At some point, Brandon wandered away. I tried to convince him to stay, until we got the truck out, but he went on. We eventually got the truck out of the sinkhole, mud-caked from head to toe. On the drive back, we drove in silence, looking for Brandon. I thought I saw him once, walking along the side of the road, but it was an old woman with pale yellow hair who looked uncannily like Brandon. Josh pulled up next to her and rolled down the window.

Have you seen our friend, we said. Blonde hair. About this tall. You seen him?

She started laughing. Who is it? she said. Who’d’ja say you were lookin’ for?

We whispered the name. We said the name again. Said out loud the name this time.

We saw Brandon at school a couple days later. He hadn’t moved away, or disappeared, but he had changed somehow. He was no longer Brandon. We rarely saw him. He rarely spoke to anyone, no more than was absolutely necessary. The show choir was effectively disbanded. Josh became interested in other things, as well, and pretended that Brandon didn’t exist.

Daniel felt sure that Brandon had made a kind of magical escape into some “yellow brick road,” as he called it, a fantasy world that Brandon had made up and now lived inside. The real Brandon would be a mystery to everyone, wherever he might be.

—Joe Halstead