#3: The Beatles, "Revolver" (1966)

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The dog has always been good at the vet. While the doctor and I talk, he sniffs around the examination room, looking at her occasionally to see if she’ll give him a treat like she usually does at the end of his visits. He might remember that from a previous visit, he might not. He’s almost fourteen and sometimes it seems like he doesn’t remember things as well as he used to.

I run through the list of my concerns. He slips on the stairs sometimes. We seem to surprise him sometimes. He doesn’t seem to hear as well. He’s lost a few teeth. Are his hips ok? Sometimes he takes a while to stand up.

The vet nods at all my concerns and tells me it’s all pretty normal at his age, and that his vitals are good.

“Basically,” she says, “you have a healthy elderly dog. He’s doing well. He’s got a good, strong heart.” She turns to him. “You’re a good old guy, aren’t you? Let’s get you a treat.”

The dog wags his tail in agreement.

*

I’ve thought a lot lately about reaching one’s peak. I still can run a half-marathon in a decent time, and my overall cholesterol went down at my last physical. I’ve got tenure in a field where full-time jobs seem to vanish regularly, have published one book, almost done with another, working on the proposal for a third. I’ve been married for nearly eleven years and I still look at my wife and think oh, I do love her.

I also spend a lot of time in the past, mine and those of others. At low points, I worry that I’ll never have a stretch like I did in graduate school when everything clicked in my life, and I lived a life that felt effortless and productive in the most gratifying way. I think about how I didn’t appreciate what my body could do from the start, that it took so long to start using it in all the ways I could.

Just about every morning for the last dozen years, I’ve woken up and walked the dog. Years ago, we both woke up ready to go, bounding out the door to greet the day. Now, we both slowly check ourselves as we get out of bed, flexing our joints. I get the coffee maker set up and running, and he takes advantage of the short break to lie down for a bit, whereas once he stood and watched me until I was done.

We aren’t done, not by a long shot. No one’s on their deathbed. But I’m a relatively healthy middle-aged man and he’s a relatively healthy elderly dog, and you can read it in our faces.

*

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In the ‘80s, my dad’s friend Randy made a series of cassettes for him of the Beatles’ discography so that we could listen to them without the risk of scratching my dad’s original vinyl. The seven cassettes held the entire output of the band in order, from Please Please Me on the first to Let It Be on the last.

The tapes were labeled BEATLES OMR, volumes one through seven. Years later, I realized that they came from the Original Master Recordings, but as a child, I called them “Oh, Mister.” Oh, Mister Volume I had the fun songs and Oh, Mister Volume VI had the songs that I skipped because they were scary, and one of the Oh, Misters had the 1963 Christmas fan club message tacked on the end to fill a few empty minutes.

Because of Randy and the Oh, Misters, I grew up with the UK versions of the Beatles—no Meet the Beatles, no Yesterday and Today, and no version of Revolver that cut three songs, all by John. In our basement and in my room, I listened over and over to the original thing, growing up in the Midwest with a version of the album that my parents hadn’t had.

According to the metrics of the RS500, Revolver isn’t the Beatles’ peak; that’d be Sgt. Pepper’s, the next album, crowned by the Boomers as the Most Important Album ever. But Revolver is the most golden moment of the band, the time when the band is on fire at every second of the record. It’s that time in their career when they can do no wrong, when everything is going to fall into place for them because of course that’s what going to happen. They’re about to leave touring behind, the screaming crowds of girls and boys, and they can hear themselves. They have so much to say, too, after all of these years.

Every previous album started with a love song, but Revolver’s first three songs are about money, loneliness, and isolation. A song for kids precedes a song with the line “I know what it’s like to be dead.” The love songs are bitter (John, “And Your Bird Can Sing”), or disinterested (George, “If I Needed Someone,” “Love You To”), or the Greatest Love Songs They’ve Ever Written (Paul, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “For No One”). Songs that sound like love songs turn out to be about drugs (“Got to Get You into My Life”) and songs that sound like drug songs turn out to be about love (“Good Day Sunshine”), or maybe vice versa. The whole album ends with a song so strange that decades later, Mad Men would use Don Draper’s befuddlement at it as a shorthand for the generational shift happening all around him—but then again, it turns out that “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the first song they recorded for the sessions.

Everyone’s playing out of their minds. Paul plays basslines like a man who knows he’ll never have to recreate them on stage. George embraces his love of Indian sounds while still writing songs inside that music, finding the sweet spot between the sitar accent of “Norwegian Wood” on the last album and the full-on “Within You Without You” of the next. John’s embraced the Nowhere Man he’s become and written songs that seem to get underneath his guarded persona; this is the guy who’s going to a show at the Indica Gallery in a few months and meet the woman to whom he’ll finally open himself. And Revolver is Ringo’s finest hour, the apotheosis of a drummer who could finally hear himself play. I’ve used Revolver as the response to anyone who tells me that Ringo’s a bad drummer. Ringo knows exactly what to play and when on every song.

So many gorgeous tiny moments in this: the yawn and the backwards guitar solo in “I’m Only Sleeping;” the way George and John’s backing vocals wind around Paul’s melody in “Here, There, and Everywhere,” never stopping through the entire song; the mysterious finger snaps that show up in the same song; Paul and George’s guitars driving “And Your Bird Can Sing” forward; Ringo’s giant drums filling up all the space at the bottom of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” They’ve got the studio time to explore, and they explore.

There’s no evident animosity, no tracks that sound like a band starting to disintegrate. All that will come later. Revolver’s sound is the sound of a band that knows it can’t do wrong, that the path forward is a path upward. It’s the sound of a band that has taken over the world and is now only trying to impress itself.

Is this a band that still wants to hold your hand? Sure, but they also want to explore the entirety of human consciousness and the universe. Not a big thing to ask of a listener.

*

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If Sgt. Pepper is the Boomers’ Beatles album, then maybe Revolver is Generation X’s—at least in America, where the full British version didn’t appear until it was released on CD when we were teens. It’s an album about all our favorite themes—alienation and love, ambivalence and exploration, enthusiasm and ennui, and that feeling of being stuck between adult things like paying taxes and childhood memories of yellow submarines with our friends all aboard.

I don’t think it’s a generational thing, though—Revolver is an album for everyone. Sometimes I meet people who don’t like the Beatles, and I cannot understand it. Why deny yourself that joy of hearing those songs? Why pass up the chance to hear four boys who loved music and all happened to find each other in a depressed port city and wrote the best songs in the world? Revolver is an album to remind us that we’re all capable of greatness, of doing something and making it look effortless, of knowing both that the top is still ahead of us and that we’re going to reach it.

*

The dog and I are good today. He’s been happy all morning, smiling a gap-toothed grin at me when I pass by, and I’ve been able to work today with a momentum that I wish showed up more often. I’m going to finish this, and then ask him if he wants to go for a walk, and if he hears me—and he should—he’ll hop up, and we’ll head out into the sunshine, two guys on a good day.

Are we past our prime? Oh, Mister, who cares? I know an album that’ll help with that.

—Colin Rafferty

#4: Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited" (1965)

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I have, over the last few years, spent an immoderate amount of time hunching before a microfilm reader on the second floor of the Dallas County Public Library in Selma, Alabama. I’d been travelling there regularly while reporting out a long story and, without fail, part of almost every trip would entail combing through newspapers from 1965. My hand on the broken control wheel, I would spin through stories about the first American combat troops on the ground in South Vietnam, who arrived the day after Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies beat, whipped, and gassed nonviolent Black demonstrators on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Stories about the Russian cosmonaut who became the first man to walk in space and about the holiday-weekend sale on chicken fryers. Stories about the release of The Sound of Music and the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk. The riots in Watts and a murder trial gone to recess so that a juror could advise his son on which football scholarship to accept.

On the gloomy, backlit screen, the film flitted forward then back, then forward again. Time with all its stories fit to print coiled and uncoiled on the reels with the slightest turn of the wrist. The microfilm reader provided a useful way to approach the delerium, the deep alienation and acceleration of 1965.

And it’s at the midpoint of this tumultuous year that Bob Dylan and a clutch of backing musicians recorded Highway 61 Revisited—a series of dispatches from within the upheaval.

It’s worth noting that when Dylan moved to Greenwich Village in 1961, he didn’t have much use for the daily paper. He was following different stories, different eras. He’d wander into Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal St. to spin old 78s, peruse sheet music from cowboy songs and sea shanties, read folktales and Wobbly journals. “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight,” Dylan writes in his memoir Chronicles, Vol. One. The sinking of the Titanic, the flooding of Galveston, “this was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.”

He was crashing, then, on a friend’s couch and was working his way through the books that lined the walls: Russian novels and romantic poetry, art books, how-to books, “stuff that could give you real hot dreams.” An archeologist, he called himself. But he wasn’t simply excavating the past. He was attempting to travel back in time to inhabit it. He’d read long poems and try to hold as much in his mind at one time as possible. He’d inhale tome after tome—Byron, Tolstoy, Balzac. Especially Balzac. “You can learn a lot from Mr. B,” he writes in Chronicles. And note what he writes next, how he refers to Balzac, the tense he uses: “It’s funny to have him as a companion. He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs up his mind.” Companions. Present tense. He found a way to get back there and be with him.

So maybe it’s understandable that Dylan found himself unmoved by the pop songs of the day. When you’re hobnobbing with Balzac and watching the Titanic go down, the radio might pale in comparison. Still, he switched it on every once in a while, if only by force of habit. “Whatever it played reflected nothing but milk and sugar and not the real Jekyll and Hyde themes of the times.” Dylan renounced the pop charts and its 45s which, he thought, were ill-equipped to contend with or capture the schizophrenia of the day. Instead he found ballast in the deep time of the long-play record and the traditions of the folk song.

He spent his nights at the Gaslight Cafe, where he distinguished himself among the folk revival crowd with his capacious repertoire. He soon caught the attention of John Hammond and signed with Columbia. But by 1965, four years and four records in, the old songs—the protest anthems, the talking blues, the finger-picking—had gone cold on him. And he chafed against his lionization. The voice of the generation? What did that even mean, man? As he told an interviewer that year, his old material consisted of “stuff which had reasons to be written, which anybody worth anything could see through.” He’d found a way to address the madly complicated modern world, but the topical protest song had come to feel insufficient, naive. Its motives too clear, its purpose too transparent.

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Ah, but by 1965, while Dylan was slogging through a solo tour of England, the Beatles and the Stones were expanding the possibilities of a pop song with each new single. Cosmonauts exiting the shuttle to walk in space, proving to Dylan that pop charts, too, could contain and agitate the foment of the times. The radio was a Jekyll and Hyde theme of the day, and thus had to be reckoned with.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable that an artist able to be present to so much past might at some point be present to, well, the present. Why not do it all, all at once? Why not make ambitious art that rubbed elbows with Balzac and could play on the radio? So Dylan started chasing a sound that he would later come to name “that thin, that wild mercury sound.” He’d waded into this territory that spring with the release of Bringing It All Back Home—one side acoustic, one side backed by a band. Then, that summer, with Highway 61 Revisited, he jumped in with both feet. And calamitous songs poured forth.

It’s likely that if you know anything about Dylan “going electric” then you know about the boos at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan and his band produced enough feedback to make Pete Seeger wonder where he’d left his ax. Or, in Manchester, England soon after—the heckler’s “Judas” accusation and Dylan’s response: an exhortation to “play it fucking loud.” These anecdotes might help characterize Dylan’s irreverence and his restlessness but there was something else afoot that summer, a deeper re-orientation to his sound, to his audience, to the past.

“I wanted to call that album Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan told his biographer Robert Shelton. “Nobody understood it. I had to go up the fucking ladder until finally the word came down and said: 'Let him call it what he wants to call it'." And a good thing, too, for it is precisely the right word. Revisited. You know Highway 61: the road that crosses 49 in the Mississippi Delta where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil so he could play the guitar. But as it appears here, it wasn’t some lost highway to be rediscovered or revived. Highway 61 was there, always had been. He’d long ago worked out a way to go back, now he wanted to see what carried forward. A revisitation suggests a here and a there. There he’s with Balzac and Muddy Waters, here he’s re-writing the chords to “La Bamba” to make a six-minute pop song.

Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie used to sing of the Gypsy Davey in the sort of song that Dylan might once have faithfully covered. But on “Tombstone Blues,” Gypsy Davey comes around again, this time with a blowtorch and a faithful slave and a fantastic collection of stamps. Quick on his heels are Galileo, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, and Beethoven. “I wish I could write you a melody so plain,” Dylan laments at the end of that song. But no plain melody will do. You can’t step in the same river twice, Dylan seems to argue, as Hereclitus once did. Because it has changed and so have you and besides, a hard, agent-orange-tinted rain has fallen, too. The past still presses forward, continues to form the contours of the present.

“My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing,” Dylan said the year after he recorded the album. “The newer ones are about the same nothing—only as seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called nowhere.” It’s one thing to sing about nothing. But to sing about it from nowhere? Now there are dimensions to it. Echoes. Hauntings. Revisitations. There’s a palindrome at work in a revisitation that’s missing from a revival. The “timelessness” of a folk song means it can be sung from anywhere. Now, with Al Cooper’s slow-on-the-uptake organ and Mike Bloomfield’s coiling guitar, Dylan is singing specifically, insistently, from June, 1965. And in that moment, Dylan tried to hold together all the previous moments that blew through it. “For as long as it lasted,” Greil Marcus writes about “Like a Rolling Stone,” “the sound would be the world itself…No sound holds the cataclysm the song is becoming; its general chaos is its portrait of everyday life.”

But for an album about nowhere, and which begins with such an assertion of uprootedness, the songs chronicle so many specific nowheres along Highway 61. The room you walk into with your pencil in your hand, where you want this killing done, where they’re resurrecting Paul Revere’s horse, where you receive Queen Jane and all her creations and conclusions. And, finally, when there’s no direction home, there’s Desolation Row.

Over the eleven minutes of the album’s closer, Dylan spins a zoetrope of dejection—historical and archetypal figures wandering into and out of Desolation Row. For the first twenty years of listening to the song, I thought I had a handle on which were historical and which were archetypal.But that changed recently. Not, as you might think, in the portal of the microfilm reader, but rather on the ride home.

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The road from Selma to Auburn takes me through Montgomery, where, on the city's highest ground, stands the Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, erected by the Equal Justice Initiative, is a square colonnade of steel markers, commemorating the victims of lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950. There’s a marker for each county in which a lynching took place—over eight hundred in all, arranged around four hallways. Many of the lynchings commemorated here took place in the South, but not all. The memorial tells of the 1920 public murders of three Black circus workers, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie in Duluth, Minnesota—an event that attracted 10,000 onlookers. Photographs of the crowd surrounding the bodies of the three men were distributed as postcards.

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” Dylan begins “Desolation Row.” The circus is in town, he tells us. And here comes the blind commissioner in trance, followed by a restless riot squad. Duluth, I came to learn, is one of the northernmost cities along Highway 61, where, in 1920, Dylan’s parents were living and where, twenty years later he would be born.

In the memorial’s first hallway the markers appear as columns, connected to the ground, holding the weight of the roof. When you turn the corner into the second hallway, though, you realize this is not so. The ground descends but the markers stay in place, so by the time you reach the end of the hallway, the markers are high above you. On my first visit to the memorial, I looked up at the markers as if I were among the 10,000 in Duluth that night in 1920, looking up at Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie.

This act of imagination is by design. And it’s similar to what Dylan must have done to pen that first verse of “Desolation Row.” He ends the verse by telling us that he’s been watching it all unfold with his lady there on Desolation Row. He put himself there. Reckoning with 1965 still entailed reckoning with 1920.

“There is a path to recovery and reconciliation when we tell the truth about our history in the public square,” the Equal Justice Initiative posits. That can only begin when white Americans square to this harrowing, discomfiting truth about our past, then use that truth to better understand our present. Doing so can be alienating—from communities, families, even from a sense of self. But, if we hope to change, that desolation is an essential first step. The songs of Highway 61 Revisited posit one way for that to sound. “Don’t send me no more letters, no,” Dylan tells us in the last line of the album, “Not unless you send them from Desolation Row.”

—Connor Towne O’Neill

#5: The Beatles, "Rubber Soul" (1965)

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It is summer 2019 as I write this. Over fifty years have passed since the Beatles’ final public performance, the legendary Rooftop Concert, and nearly as much time has elapsed since their final albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were released. John and George have been dead for decades. In that time, nearly countless books and documentaries and think pieces have sprung up around the shadow of the Beatles, including Julia Taymor’s film centered around the culture enlivened by the band, Across the Universe. All of these are attempts to keep their legacy fresh and impactful, their music and the discourse surrounding it in the spotlight. Innumerable products are named after Beatles songs, and satiristic takes on them still pervade media of all stripes. Many of these are accessible even to those who have never really listened to the Beatles. The Beatles, it seems, exist on a level wherein you don’t need to listen to them to get them. They just...are. The general consensus is often that the Beatles were the greatest band to ever exist, and thereby any discussion of that fact has fallen to the wayside in favor of considering the results of that supposed fact. After all of this, it seems that the only thing left to say about the Beatles is that everything has already been said about the Beatles. Unless, of course, you’re Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis.

Whereas Taymor imagined a world almost hyper-saturated with the Beatles to signify their importance, the pair appears to agree with the popular notion that the Beatles were the greatest band to ever exist, and then some. They believe this so strongly that their recently released film, Yesterday, wants us to believe that should the Beatles’ entire discography be erased from human memory and subsequently re-released in the late 2010s by a different performer, the songs would still rocket to the top of the charts, sell out arenas, save a desperate singer-songwriter from obscurity and have him team up with the still immensely successful Ed Sheeran. There are so many holes in this argument that I still have trouble understanding how the screenplay made it to popular release. To start, if the Beatles were so instrumental to the development of rock music we have today, how could Ed Sheeran of all artists exist in a universe without them? I find it hard to believe that we’d have “The A Team” without “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” or the multitude of songs penned by white men in the decades between them. The film’s premise rests, I assume, on the line of thought that the Beatles’ music is timeless in that it transcends time and generational tastemaking (as seen in the scene when the main character is asked to change “hey Jude” to “hey dude”), but that argument doesn’t sit well with me. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and context matters. Even if the Beatles themselves were born to be the same age as the protagonist, the Beatles that would have formed would not have been the Beatles we so desperately laud and mythologize. It is absolutely bizarre to argue that something means so much it ultimately means nothing at all.

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Yet, despite its logical fallacies, the film has garnered $80.5 million at the box office just three weeks after its release, and as going to the movies is too expensive just to hate-watch something, there is obviously a vested interest in the film somewhere. Perhaps the bulk of viewers are fans of either Curtis’s and Boyle’s past films, or perhaps they are Beatles loyalists intrigued by what the world would look like without the music they have so adored over the ages. Maybe, more likely, they are casual viewers looking for a fun summer flick and a chance to hear a few catchy Beatles tunes, searching for another Beatles memory to add to their personal catalogue.

This, I think, is what bothers me so much about the concept of Yesterday (and indeed much of the discourse around the Beatles). In the pursuit of the Beatles’ Big Legacy, we lose sight of why music matters in the first place. None of the artistic innovation credited to the Beatles would matter if there weren’t rabid audiences waiting to hear them. The British Invasion would be pointless if it didn’t fulfill the dreams of thousands of teenage girls’ greatest wishes, and their prolific discography would seem like fluff if there wasn’t a generation which seemingly created a culture around and moved into adulthood in tandem with it. Music matters because it means something to people, and the Beatles mattered because their music meant something to a whole lot of people at precisely the right time.

*

My memories of the Beatles are mostly memories of wanting to have a connection to the Beatles. I had a yellow cardboard replica of the Help! movie poster hanging in my childhood bedroom for almost ten years, but I’d never seen the film (I still haven’t). I bought it at one of those kitschy music curio shops, the sort of place brimming with Jimi Hendrix flags and Bob Marley grinders and, yes, Beatles memorabilia to excess. I was thirteen or fourteen, and I was very desperately trying to mold myself into a person I wanted to be. I had music I loved desperately—mostly pop punk a la Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco and indie bands like the Format and Death Cab for Cutie—but only a small sliver of that aligned with the tastes of the type of person I wanted people to think I was. I was a pretentious pre-teen; I wanted to be a writer who wore cardigans and used a typewriter and drank black coffee and strolled through autumnal quads, the type of person who played classic rock LPs on a record player and who surely had strong opinions on the Beatles. I probably spent three dollars on that poster in an attempt to be the person I thought I wanted to be under the assumption that the signifier of knowledge would suffice. I also spent countless hours watching and re-watching Across the Universe, a film I genuinely love, whose theatrical take on the Beatles catalog resonated well with my high-school-theater-kid self. I came to love several songs from the film, for their musical value, yes, but more for what they gave in terms of storytelling and character building: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was not just a song of longing, but a song of repressed sexuality and desperation amidst a daydream; “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a track about drugs, but also about artistic stasis and literal war, and the magnificent gospel take on “Let it Be” underscores a scene about the suffering and struggle of black Americans. The movie takes the Beatles’ grand cultural history and shrinks it down to personal narratives. It showed me why this music mattered so much to so many.

I’ve since given up pretending to like things to which I am ambivalent, and therefore have not listened to the Beatles much this side of twenty beyond requisite streams of “Dear Prudence” on particularly nice spring days. The only Beatles tracks I remember having any vested interest in are those on the white album, and even then, I was more interested in the project as a concept than the actual songs it birthed. While working on this, I realized that I could only even name three songs off of Rubber Soul: “In My Life,” which I didn’t know was on Rubber Soul, “Girl,” with which I was mostly acquainted through the phenomenal opening rendition in Across the Universe, and “Norweigian Wood,” which I’d never actually heard. I went into the album fresh, a 26 year old fifty years removed from Beatlemania, an experience akin to one of the characters in Yesterday.

It is, of course, impossible to completely decontextualize the music from the Beatles’ history; for instance, it is quite literally painful to listen to a song as gleefully misogynistic as album closer “Run For Your Life” while knowing that John Lennon was a violent domestic abuser. In similar stride, many of the tropes throughout the album are dated and stale, love songs indistinguishable from the rest of the mid-60s rock scene. This is something the Beatles themselves acknowledged; legend has it that the album name is a reference to their appropriated—or “rubber”—take on the Black soul and rock upon which they built their style and which catapulted them to stardom, an anecdote I cannot forget while listening to the album.

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I do not think that the Beatles are the greatest band of all time—I don’t have an alternate suggestion, but rather, I think the idea of naming any one band as such to be archaic and limiting. I do not think that the Beatles would have been superstars if they—or someone performing their songs—came on the scene in 2018. This is not to say that the Rubber Soul didn’t strike any chords for me.

I recently tweeted, half-jokingly, that “Olivia” by One Direction was my favorite Beatles song, all string sections and horns and singalong pastoral choruses, but it’s true—the Beatles songs that have always stuck out to me are the ones that move with a grandiosity, with a light, something into which you can willingly dive, then float. I listened to Rubber Soul first on one of the muggiest days of the summer, in the midst of a mental health period I will generously call “unpleasant.” I was doing research while listening to Rubber Soul but, on some level, I knew I was doing what I always do with music, which is to find some form of escape from whatever happens to be plaguing me. I was looking for something summery, light, something eons away from the anxiety consuming me, not unlike the One Direction song, or any number of Coldplay tunes, or something from Ed Sheeran’s more recent albums. I heard most of Rubber Soul on autopilot, the tracks blending together (something I learned was the Beatles experimenting with a more continuous, less singles-based album structure), until I came to “I’m Looking Through You.” It was poppy and jammy, the guitar memorable and fast. It was the kind of track you imagine blasting on a car ride, shimmying your shoulders, screaming when thinking about someone you have outgrown (maybe yourself). I listened to it no less than ten more times in a row, clicking with it in a way I haven’t with a song in a long time. I forgot it was Beatles song™️, forgot it was a song I needed to write about, forgot its role on the album or as a part of the Beatles’ grand musical legacy. It was simply a very good song, timeless in its appeal, that found me at the perfect moment.

—Moira McAvoy

#20: Michael Jackson, "Thriller" (1982)

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Live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, it’s the twenty-sixth annual Grammy Awards, with your host, John Denver!

“The big words this last year were video…Boy George...and Michael...”

Audience: “JACKSON!”

As the audience shouted the answer back, the camera cut to Michael, gotten up as the Rhinestone General, moving one seat over. That’s where the camera was.

*

“To announce this year’s Producer of the Year is last year’s Producer of the Year—ladies and gentlemen, Toto!”

Five nondescript looking guys in tuxes announced one nominee apiece. One person was actually nominated twice: Quincy Jones by himself, for producing James Ingram’s It’s Your Night, and Jones with Michael Jackson; the latter was credited as co-producer of the four Thriller songs he’d written. A year earlier, Toto had accepted Grammy after Grammy—six in total, including Album (Toto IV) and Record of the Year (“Rosanna”). The big winners, Quincy and Michael, hugged the members of Toto, all of whom played on Thriller—and plenty of other albums, since the band’s members were all highly in demand as session men.

Thriller was the culmination of Toto’s heavily worked L.A. session style, a hallmark of both black and white pop in the seventies and eighties. This smoothly played stuff was, as Mark Rowland and Nelson George noted in Musician, “the only black musical style that consistently dented white Top 40 radio” in this period. The obverse was also true:

The Doobie Brothers and the Eagles, who started as rockers and country rockers respectively, were recording in a “beige” style, similar to [Earth, Wind & Fire] and the Commodores, before their demise. Even Toto, the quintessential L.A. studio group, appears regularly on sessions of top L.A.-based black stars—including, of course, Michael Jackson. None of which should surprise. L.A. is the official capital of the entertainment industry and its commercial standards must reflect that fact. Since provincialism and eccentricity simply won’t sell in Middle America, edges must be rounded and homogenized, and if that sometimes makes the L.A. sound seem less a conduit than a Cuisinart, so be it.

Toto outtakes, keyboardist David Paich noted, went “on Michael Jackson albums...Steve [Porcaro, the band’s other keyboardist] had this song ‘Human Nature’ and he brought it to Toto, but we said, ‘We can’t use it right now. We’re into songs right for stadium rock situations.’ And sure enough, I turn on my TV and there’s Michael Jackson singing ‘Human Nature’ in a stadium. It backfired on us.”

By the 1984 Grammys, Toto’s day as a major band was basically over. The critics who’d called them names—Rolling Stone had memorably compared the sound of Toto IV to “a Velveeta-orange leisure suit”—had nothing to do with it. Guitarist Steve Lukather would refer to Toto’s prime as “the MTV horrific years, where they tried to dress you up like a fuckin’ clown, you know? You know, when I came up, I didn’t realize you had to be an actor too.” But Michael Jackson did.

*

“The main job of the producer,” Jones said at the podium, “is to produce, and see that everything works. And we’d like to thank the people that make this work.” He pulled out a folded-up sheet of paper from inside his jacket. “We’d like to thank Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, Vincent Price, [engineers] Bruce Swedien, Humberto Gatica, Donn Landee; sixty-two musicians, the best in the world; twenty-two of the best singers in the world; the voters of NARAS, Epic Records, the disc jockeys, Freddy DeMann, Ron Weisner; the songwriters, without whom we couldn’t fly: Rod Temperton, Michael Jackson, James Ingram”—a pause; the young girls in the auditorium’s balcony squealed at the very mention of Michael’s name. Michael grinned, relishing it.

Jones went on: “Steve Porcaro. John Bettis. My wife, who chose to take care of me rather than pursue her own career”—Quincy giggled—“and our family and I love her. And Michael Jackson.” Shrieks up. “And his beautiful family, and I also want to thank him for co-producing three of the sides [an old-fashioned term for a single track] on the album.

“And,” Quincy added, “one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century.” They embraced. Cut to a tight close-up of Peggy Lipton Jones, the woman who put her career on hold so her husband could make the biggest album ever made. She smiled savvily. They’d divorce six years later.

Other people getting credit for his work seemed to gnaw at Michael at the time—understandable for a young man who’d been carrying his family on his back since kindergarten. His suspicion even extended to his strongest musical ally. Though Jackson received credit as Thriller’s co-producer, CBS president Walter Yetnikoff alleged that Michael called him the night before the Grammys to insist that Jones “shouldn’t get a Grammy for producing the record, I produced it . . . go to the Grammys, tell them to take Quincy’s nomination off, I want to be the only one getting the Grammy for producing the record.” Walter responded, “Go to the goddamn Grammys, Michael, and act like you’re happy.”

You might have figured that Thriller’s becoming the most ubiquitous piece of music ever recorded would soothe young Michael’s emotions. Not entirely. Three weeks prior to the Grammys, on February 7, the Guinness Book of World Records threw a party for a thousand guests at New York’s Museum of Natural History, where Michael was the guest of honor. The occasion was Thriller’s inclusion in the year’s edition as the bestselling LP ever—23 million copies. “For the first time in my entire career,” Michael said, “I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

*

“For Album of the Year, the awards go to the artist and album producer.”

The Beach Boys were at the podium. Two months earlier, founding drummer-singer Dennis Wilson had drowned in Marina del Rey; as many pointed out, he’d been the only Beach Boy who surfed. When Dennis died, his blood alcohol level was 0.26, double the legal limit. “When you’re sixteen years old and you’re literally handed millions of dollars, you get crazy,” frequent Beach Boys session drummer Hal Blaine said of him. The Wilsons’ imbroglios could make the Jacksons seem serene.

But the Beach Boys acted nonchalantly as they announced the Album of the Year nominees—apart, of course, from the spacy Brian. “There’s no winner!” he barked upon opening the envelope; “Awww” the band responded in unison (not harmony). “Thriller!” Brian yelled. He knew the joy of writing songs that everyone wants to sing, and the darkness that can accompany it.

This time, Michael called up “the best president of any record company, Walter Yetnikoff—where are you? Come up here, Walter!” They embraced, and the bearded exec sonorously announced that Thriller was, officially, “the biggest-selling album in the history of music.” He did it so Michael and Quincy didn’t have to. A coarse loudmouth who’d do the yelling was just what Michael needed. That summer, Yetnikoff would tell Billboard that Michael “would be totally qualified to run a record company if he so desired.”

Back on the microphone, Michael tipped his hat to Jackie Wilson, who’d died the month before. “He’s not with us anymore, but Jackie, wherever you are, I’d like to say I love you and thank you so much.” Wilson had been one of R&B’s most electrifying performers in the fifties and sixties, first as Clyde McPhatter’s successor as lead singer of the Dominoes. In 1958, Wilson met another Detroit native, Berry Gordy, and recorded his song “Lonely Teardrops,” Jackie’s first solo hit. But Wilson was on Brunswick Records, a Chicago label whose owners favored middle-of-the-road pop treatments over the tougher, more soulful sound that Gordy would take to the bank with Motown.

On September 29, 1975, Wilson suffered a heart attack while performing “Lonely Teardrops” at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In a coma for a year, Wilson incurred brain damage that kept him living in nursing homes until his death on January 28. Michael Jackson had watched Jackie Wilson intently as a child, vowing to match his impossibly lithe physical grace—and not replicate his lack of power over his own career and fate.

*

“You’re a whole new generation, you’re lovin’ what you do...”

We have arrived at the world premiere of the Pepsi commercial, featuring the Jacksons, Michael’s scalp had suffered to make. The ad began backstage at, what do you know, the Shrine Auditorium, with close-ups of Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon, Randy, and Tito’s faces as their stage makeup was topped off, they put on sequined jackets, and Michael’s stand-in’s sequined shoulders cut dramatic angles. (In a sign of his enthusiasm for the product at hand, Michael limited his exposure to a four-second close-up.) The brothers walked through a scrim of people backstage to the stage, but Michael entered through the audience’s aisle, as if he were accepting a Grammy rather than performing a show. Seeing Michael stand dramatically at the top of a staircase, backlit by booming pyro, it was hard not to wince, even before anyone saw the actual footage of Michael’s hair catching fire.

Jackson attended the Grammys wearing a hairpiece. He was beleaguered in other ways as well. Thriller was sweet vindication that he didn’t need the family who’d surrounded him, cocooned him nearly, for his entire life and career. But the accident had come about because that family had insisted he do yet another tour with them—one that Pepsi would sponsor. The Jacksons—just what the world had been waiting for! Especially with Jermaine back in the fold! Wait—were those crickets? Or was it just Joseph, the Jackson patriarch, bending the room’s atmosphere with a furrow of his eyebrows?

The ads were not supposed to be public knowledge—they were intended as surprise spots for the Grammys. Bob Giraldi, who’d directed Michael’s “Beat It” video, was at the helm. The song was “You’re a Whole New Generation,” a Pepsi slogan Michael had draped over the tune of “Billie Jean.” They were doing the sixth take at half past six when Michael, atop a staircase, stood next to a magnesium flash bomb that exploded roughly two feet from his head. Several people—including Jermaine, standing just a few feet away—initially thought Michael had been shot.

Jackson was rushed to Cedar Sinai Medical Center; following treatment, he was transferred to the burn unit at Brotman Memorial Hospital. (He’d visited the latter twice before to cheer up the kids.) There, he watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the VCR and took his first painkiller, a Dilaudid. Nearly alone among those near his level of fame, Michael had never before taken a narcotic.

*

Michael doted on kids, quite publicly. In the Shrine audience, to Michael’s left—with Brooke Shields on the right—was Emmanuel Lewis, the pint-sized twelve-year-old star of ABC’s Webster, a family sitcom that essentially cloned NBC’s kiddie breakout hit Diff’rent Strokes, starring Gary Coleman. No one was publicly questioning Michael’s motives for being around those kids yet—those wouldn’t surface for a decade. Michael was a showbiz kid and liked being around others—he’d give Lewis piggyback rides, carrying him around the Hayvenhurst estate, playing cops and robbers like kids half Lewis’s age, and a fifth of Michael’s. What’s a little eccentricity from the world’s biggest star?

Soon Michael and Quincy rose to accept another award: Best Children’s Album, not for Thriller, but for the E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial storybook album, which Jackson narrated. “Of all the awards I’ve gotten, I’m most proud of this one, honestly, because I think children are a great inspiration, and this album is not for children, it’s for everyone,” he said.

*

When Michael won Pop Male Vocal for Thriller, he said, “When something like this happens, you want those who are very dear to you up here with ya—my sisters La Toya and Janet, please come up.” La Toya wore a glittering headband and a teal one-shoulder dress with a similar gold epaulet to Michael’s—very Wonder Woman. Janet was in a boxy red suit and bow tie.

Michael often used those two as his proxies during interviews—they’d repeat the question a journalist had asked, and he’d whisper his answer to them to give the perplexed reporter. “Michael told me when you hear bad things about yourself, just put your energies into something else; it’s no good crying about it,” Janet told Interview. “Just put it into your music—it’ll make you stronger.” The Jacksons were a competitive family, however loving, and Janet was no different, telling Michael after Thriller hit: “God, you make me sick. I wish that was my album.”

“My mother and father were with us all the way,” Michael continued from the podium. “My mother’s like me, she won’t come up.” Mother Katherine got a close-up anyway. “I’d like to thank all my brothers, who I love dearly—including Jermaine.” Nice qualification; nothing odd there. Finally, Michael’s oldest sister, Rebbie, joined them. Michael also thanked Steven Spielberg (he’d forgotten to earlier) and “Quincy’s wife, Peggy Jones—she was a great help on the E.T. album.” And then he moved in for the kill:

“I made a deal with myself that if I won one more award, which is this award—which is seven, which is a record—I would take off my glasses.” He stood up from his crouch, huge roar, turned back—golly, really? You like me? Shucks—and then put a finger up: “I don’t want to take them off, really, but...” Stood back up, ready for the wave. Finally, he explained that his good friend Katharine Hepburn insisted he take his sunglasses off. A brief hello from Michael’s preternaturally wary eyes; the requisite fan shrieks; a swift departure from the stage.

*

The plummy adult-contemporary singers Melissa Manchester and Julio Iglesias read the nominees for the night’s final category, Record of the Year, without bed music—a silence that, planned or not, jumped the tension on what amounted to a coronation. Manchester pronounced Irene Cara’s hit as “What a Feeling?” like a confused person asking directions. Soon enough, “Beat It” won. “I love all the girls in the balcony,” Michael began. They loved him back louder than ever.

After he and Q ran through their regular lists, Michael also made sure to thank Lionel Richie. “I’ve known him ever since I was ten years old.” Lionel, in the audience, pushed his hands down: Not so loud, a good comedic gesture for someone even more anxious than Michael to win one of these things. He’d been nominated some eighteen times prior to the 1983 Grammys, including seven the previous year, and whiffed them all. And finally, Michael again: “I’d like once again to thank Quincy Jones and the fans in the balcony.”

—Michaelangelo Matos

#42: The Doors, "The Doors" (1967)

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I know almost all the words to the Doors’ self-titled album, which sounds marginally impressive until you listen to it and realize just how few distinct lyrics its songs contain.

In my mid-twenties, one of my exes—a musician himself, whose lanky torso reminded me of the ubiquitous shirtless Morrison poster—proclaimed that a key stage in growing up is admitting that the Doors are not as good as we believed them to be in high school. I laughed too hard when he said it. Sometimes I worry that I imprinted on Jim Morrison like some type of sexualized duckling and that he is responsible for my taste in men: long-haired, beautiful rather than handsome, and junkie-thin.

The contemporary notion that the Doors are overrated is not uncommon, and I suspect the idea has something to do with the fans. See the 2015 open letter in McSweeney’s to seventeen-year-old white boys who just discovered the Doors. The letter’s author digs at Morrison’s self-centeredness, what he calls “masturbatory self-aggrandizement,” attributing the same tendencies to that particular demographic of the band’s admirers. I’m not saying he’s wrong.

Though I was never a seventeen-year-old white boy, I went through the predictable phase that’s a hodgepodge of Beat Poets, ‘60s music, Gonzo Journalism, cursory Buddhism, and drugs. It started when I was about fifteen (right on schedule, according to that letter) and since I’m just now coming out with my first book of essays, I wonder if it’s ever truly ended.

The initial appeal of the Doors, Jim Morrison himself aside, was the broad applicability of their lyrics, those stoned, profound-seeming statements that were vague enough that I could imagine they meant whatever I wanted them to. For instance, from the titular track of The Soft Parade

When I was back there in seminary school
there was a person there who put forth the proposition
that you can petition the lord with prayer.

Morrison repeats, three times, more incredulously each time: 

Petition the lord with prayer.

Then he screams:

You cannot petition the lord with prayer.

I have never met a teenager who did not wish with all her might for something, who did not afterward feel like all her wishes were for nothing.

Part of the issue with not being a seventeen-year-old white boy while still liking these things meant that the fallout for being a moody, promiscuous, strung-out adolescent was intense—in all likelihood, more severe for it. I’m mostly not bitter about it anymore, but I have to be in a particular mood to listen to the Doors these days. It’s music for when the sunlight feels like warm syrup, regardless of the temperature outside. It’s music for lying sideways across the bed for no particular reason or riding in the passenger seat of a car with your hand out in the window feeling the currents in the air.

Truthfully, the songs from The Doors I most enjoy now are the ones I initially ignored: “I Looked at You” and “Take it as it Comes.” Perhaps this is because there’s still a modicum of surprise left in the neural pathways when they fire along these melodies; perhaps it’s because I’m now more interested in being happy than in little girls and whiskey bars. But I still love the album because when I listen to it I remember how it felt to be fifteen, both the good and the bad.

The Doors songs that are about love but not betrayal are endlessly hopeful. It’s the kind of love that’s chemically-induced, that does not have time or perspective or scope to hold it down. “Light My Fire” in its album version is a full seven minutes and ten seconds. The Doors love is the kind of love that burns bright and then burns out or changes to something more sustainable, but is so goddamn beautiful while it lasts:

I’m gonna love you till the heavens stop the rain 
I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky
For you and I

Now I am thirty, and I currently live with a man who has gorgeous hair. I am forever trying to convince him to grow it out. The curls hang over his face like a dream. In some ways, we never grow up.

—Alysia Sawchyn

#45: The Band, "The Band" (1969)

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s wartime home still stands in downtown Richmond, Virginia’s Court End neighborhood. Dubbed the “White House of the Confederacy,” the austere, strangely bulky Federal-style mansion feels dwarfed by the towering hospitals and medical facilities that have grown up around it. On dreary days, when one is prone to metaphor, you could consider the mansion a tumor and the hospitals surrounding it as a robust autoimmune response. The White House of the Confederacy is part of a three-site Virginian empire commemorating the southern side of the Civil War. Since 2014 the enterprise has been known as the American Civil War Museum, but that part always appears before the colon—the real story is told in the subtitle. As in, the American Civil War Museum: the Museum and the White House of the Confederacy. Or the American Civil War Museum: Museum of the Confederacy, Appomattox.


For many non-Southerners, the name surely feels a bit redundant. At times the entirety of the American South feels like a Museum of the Confederacy, a living engagement with the history and enduring impact of the country’s as well as the consequences and failed attempts at redemption for this sins. 
The White House of the Confederacy was built in 1818 and served as the executive mansion of the Confederacy from 1861-1865. After serving as Jefferson Davis’s house, the building  served briefly as a Richmond field office for occupying Union forces and as a school. In 1893, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society took ownership of the house and turned it into a sanctuary to the memory of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. It opened as a museum in 1896. Docents lead several tours a day through the house, all of which start in a small, bare brick room in the basement.

The tour I took included 18 people, all of them white. When our guide, an accommodating young woman named Kathryn, asked if she was entertaining repeat visitors, five hands shot up. 


After providing a brief historical overview of the home, our tour began. Historic house tours are basically all the same. It’s an easy, genial fetishism—people seeing where their lives connect or miss the lives of their worthy or mighty predecessors. I would be lying if I wrote that I expected any bold critique of Jeff Davis’s politics during the tour, but Kathryn was at pains to point out the slave labor that kept the house running—early in the tour, she enumerated the number of enslaved people who labored for the Davis’s pleasure, and she told a few stories about them. 


Early in the tour, we entered a large, well-appointed room on the ground floor of the building, just off of the entrance foyer.


“What’s this room?” Kathryn asked.

“The dining room,” several of my tour mates announced proudly.

And indeed, it was a large, dark dining room, but lacking many of the artifacts you’d expect to see in the dining room of an historic house. Rather than flatware and serving trays, there were documents. The large concession to the original intention of the room were several wine glasses on the large table.

“Yes,” Kathryn said, “this is the formal dining room, but the Davis family rarely used it for that. Mostly they ate in the basement.”

She continued by saying that the dining room was most often used as a conference room for meetings between Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and military commanders. The Davis house, she said, having not been built expressly as an Executive Mansion, wasn’t as well appointed for the affairs of a state at war as the White House in D.C. The room had acquitted itself well, though, serving as a sort of stunt double role as one of Davis’s primary conference rooms.

The docent then relayed the story of a meeting when Davis met with General Robert E. Lee and some other confidantes to discuss elements of what came to be known as the Peninsula Campaign, a Union attempt to take the Confederate capitol. During the meeting the men discussed how best to impede Union progress.

“Like most slave owners, Davis thought of his slaves more as furniture than as slaves,” the docent said, showing us a meticulous woodcut portrait of a distinguished looking, middle aged African American man. The man in the woodcut was William Jackson, one of the enslaved Americans who attended to the Davis family during the war. Jackson, working both around the house and as Davis’s personal coachman, often found himself present during the Davis’s dining room strategy sessions. After overhearing details of the Peninsula campaign and also understanding that both soldier and executive morale was low at that point in the war—and ostensibly also understanding that the Union lines were as close to Richmond as they might get—Jackson fled Richmond. Jackson sought out Union troops at Fredericksburg and spilled his information and gossip to Union General Irvin McDowell.

I learned that this was common, enslaved men and women escaping across lines to provide intelligence to Union forces. In effect, these escaped people were spies embedded in the Confederacy and in the position to provide critical information to Union forces. Quite a bit of the actionable intelligence gathered during the war came from self-emancipated runaways such as Jackson, the docent told the politely attentive group. These reports came to be known as “black dispatches” before quickly fading from memory as notions of white valor and brotherly reconciliation eclipsed the African American contribution to the Civil War.

As the docent completed Jackson’s fascinating, if incomplete, story, she displayed the woodcut for us a final time and then asked if there were any questions.

“Why did they eat in the basement?”

The question was immediate and uttered with soft fascination by a middle aged woman who remained attentive throughout the tour, remarking on her appreciation of the furniture and how much she would love to be able to decorate her house in the same style as the Davis’s.

Why did they eat in the basement? This is not the question to ask at the end of Jackson’s story, a tale that invites so many avenues of inquiry. At the very least, what happened to William Jackson and how did he, a presumably impoverished black man recently self-delivered from bondage, have such a fine likeness made during the 19th century? He wasn’t Frederick Douglass. Nor did his absconding with Davis’s property (himself) change Davis’s attitude toward the people he kept enslaved. What actual impact did Jackson’s intelligence have on the war? Did Jackson have a family and, if so, what happened to them? Did the Davis family extend retribution to the slaves in the household?*

None of that. Just why did they eat in the basement.

Now, this story bugs the shit out of me, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I find something darkly illustrative about where we stand with regard to community, history, and empathy in the United States, all things that require thought to master in a nation as large as the U.S. To me, the “why did they eat in the kitchen?” question throws into stark, ugly fluorescence the self-centered, atomized nature of contemporary American white people. That kind of question can only be posed by someone who doesn’t understand what a national community should be.

But it’s possible that I don’t understand America.

I recently published a book about a pretty bad rock record, a record that sprang from the deep well of confusion sewn by Confederate apologists. At several of my book events, folks asked me, after I decried the record I wrote about as being beholden to the urges of the Confederacy, “what about ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’?” Folks asked me this question, I think, because they feel like they will easily pinion me between two positions. First, I either decry “Dixie Down,” showing my poor taste, and therefore rendering me unacceptable as someone writing about music. Second, if I don’t extend the same criticism to “Dixie Down”—which is surely a Confederate song—I reveal myself as a hypocrite, also rendering myself unfit for people’s attention.

I do not find this a hard question to answer. The obvious answer is in the first line: “Virgil Cane is my name.” The song is being told by a narrator, a narrative construction. More important to me, though, and this is cribbing a bit from something I think Greil Marcus once wrote about the Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is salvaged by the record within which it’s embedded. The context of that song is the Band’s brilliant 1969 second record, The Band, a record that is about and which manifests, the riotous confusion and beauty and fierceness of our sprawling nation. “Dixie Down” shares space with “King Harvest,” the best pro-union rock song ever written, and “Rocking Chair,” a wholly empathetic, aching look at old friendships and the ever-present confrontation between age and youth. The Band is nothing if not a twelve track, sympathetic exploration of the great and troubling America. As part of the exploration, “Dixie Down” reflects some tricky American deformations, but it is not truly fruit of that deformation.

Much like America, there’s not much that hasn’t been said about The Band. The irony that a bunch of Canadians and one Arkansan managed to nail something gnarled and beautiful and resolute about this country is one such notion. But it’s true. With the same truth as gravity. And in the same way that gravity will ride every newborn down off the couch or the tree or the bed; just because something is true and has always been true doesn’t mean you should overlook the fact that somebody has to learn it.

I find The Band spooky, preternatural. It feels old, drawn from a deep well of reckless American energy that isn’t itself menacing but that defiantly flirts with and invites menace onto the farm. “The hailstones beatin’ on the roof, the bourbon is a hundred proof,” Levon Helm wails toward the end of “Rag Mama Rag,” but the part of that story that isn’t told, at least how it feels to me when I listen to it, is that the family has holed up in the cabin, lit the fire, and started to play to comfort themselves as the demons of America whorl about in a frenzy on the other side of the door. The comforts of community and family are never as sweet as when destruction slams its delivering winds again the window and doors.

There are no solutions. If we look at our sad moment of civil and democratic fracture, there isn’t a single mechanism or balm for the healing. But that makes observation all that much more important. Remedies today can be observational as much as prescriptive. Diagnosis is the remedy. Maybe? Maybe not.


You’ll surely agree that I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a bind at this point. I’d like to lay blame for that at the feet of Greil Marcus who, when not bricking himself within some of the most opaque yet non-academic writing in the English language, can be rapturous about rock music, America, and history. “‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ for one…is not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” Now, this statement is itself a riff on Robert Penn Warren’s incredible observation that “the Civil War is our only ‘felt’ history—history lived in the national imagination.” This is true as anything any American has ever written. But it’s as forgotten as it is true. As of last year, the United State government was still paying on a pension earned during the Civil War. And this leaves aside the social, economic, and cultural ruin that people like Jeff Davis fought to defend and that William Jackson fought to escape.


“America is a dangerous place, and to find community demands as much as any of us can give,” Marcus writes toward the end of the Band chapter in his masterpiece Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N Roll Music. This is as true now as it was when Marcus wrote it. The nature of the danger has changed, though, I think. Most of us don’t want to give. Most of us are just in it for the taking, gaining sustenance from the place where some old racist ate.


* I asked the docent for more information about William Jackson and his woodcut. Harper’s ran a piece about his escape and his contribution to the Union war effort. The magazine commissioned the image to run alongside the story. 



—Michael Washburn

#6: Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (1971)

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“It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

— Isiah Thomas, on Marvin Gaye’s performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game


I chased the Holy Ghost through many years of childhood; never did catch it. I figured I was doing something wrong. I understood that you were supposed to act on faith, but there were so many stories of messages, visitations and answered prayers. I believed sitting in the pew week after week—and not even using the pouch of crayons or, later, giving in to the temptation to read my mystery novel—should gain me access to a magic moment of understanding.

Maybe if I’d been raised in the tradition that Marvin and Aretha were, I might have found something spiritual amidst all that spirituality. But I didn’t grow up on gospel—just lame four-piece Jesus rock and men with soul patches telling me what I believed in. Many people told me all I had to do was invite him in and I thought I’d done so. I waited a long time; I can be stubborn, too. By the time I discovered hymns that spoke to me it was the hymns themselves that settled into the space I’d left available. And then other songs, as well. I like to discover things all on my own.

*

Many people told me that I’d fall in love with Marvin’s music if I gave it a chance. I am still relieved that when I finally saw him sing (in footage of his 1983 national anthem) I wasn’t too thick-headed to give in to glory just because I wasn’t waiting for it—just because it was one I hadn’t discovered first and named my own.

It was the floating that captured me—the sense that he barely had to push air through the vocal folds to make his tone soar. The drum machine R&B backing track was a bold choice, sure, but that just set the stage for the calm, gently swaying revelation of what he did with his voice. What struck me was the confidence he had in being quiet and the certainty that he didn’t need to do something as impressive and desperate as belt.

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Where Mariah reaches for the shock of volume, Marvin whispers in perfect pitch. Where Fergie shouts with her hands, Marvin caresses his, a washing motion, something you might do while praying. And where most others dig in for the long and technically impressive run, Marvin smiles and sings a simple melisma back and forth between two notes that are not the ones we’ve learned; yet they fit the tune like a soulmate attaches, whereas previous loves just sat and occupied the right amount of space.

Marvin stated that he did pray right before the performance, and he asked God if he would “let it move men’s souls.” God must have agreed. Marvin’s belief that it would be affecting and his belief in the words he was transforming made me feel patriotism and spirituality, although I’d been pretty sure I possessed neither. And the fact that he loved his country so much in that moment, as much as he’d doubted it a dozen years earlier when he’d released What’s Going On, is the kind of contradiction I live for.

*

If Marvin knew when to be quiet, he also knew when to be loud. And he knew how to do both at the same time—how to package a brash, revolutionary suite of protest songs in a way that demanded your attention, but not because anyone was shouting at you. He floated in and out of scenes of police violence and crumbling cities and heroin addiction. He had the Trojan horse of that glorious, gentle noise. People paid attention.

It makes sense that What’s Going On had such a political and social slant. In a 1983 interview with Tom Joyner, Marvin explained that he wrote what he felt: “I write my music according to my lifestyle. If I’m sad I write sad music, if I’m being divorced I write divorced albums. If I’m uh, If I’m sexy, if I feel hot or horny I somehow write a horny album.” In 1970 America, as the album took shape, Marvin would not have been able to pretend his way into the typical Motown lover-boy fare that he’d long since grown tired of. He felt that the nation was broken and so he made an album that showed us, in no uncertain terms, that the nation was broken.

It’s an album that resists the favorite song dilemma. With seamless transitions, recurring motifs, and an unwavering message, it is a perfect concept album. For me, though, it doesn’t get much better than the final two tunes. “Wholy Holy” is an original composition that feels ancient. It’s a church song, a gospel song, that isn’t exclusively about Jesus. Like all the others, it’s a call to action (“rock the world’s foundation,” “holler love across the nation”) and it recognizes that redemption is going to take all the people, not just a solitary higher power. Before he sings that “we believe in Jesus” he makes a simple yet stilling statement: “We believe in one another.”

In “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” the relentlessly driving piano and bongo put you on edge even as the vocal lament is so unbelievably smooth. For over four minutes Marvin explores their plight—bills and bad luck and trigger-happy cops. He tells us over and over again that it makes him want to holler without ever losing control, without letting his voice approach anything like a holler. Instead he hums and politely croons his hymn. By the time he finally lets out that scream, I sure as hell believe him.

*

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Marvin didn’t make it far beyond that national anthem. It was one of his last public performances, which shouldn’t change the way I feel about it, but it does. It shouldn’t matter which of our heroes died early. Biography should be able to be separated from discography, but they are indivisible, it seems.

We embarrass ourselves as we get older. Athletes and musicians and artists, yes, but regular people, too. Each year we are more fallible and frail and more easily felled. We who live long and love hard and settle into comfort have too much time to let our edges dull. And while there is very little that is beautiful about being shot or taking pills, it is sort of beautiful that we can’t know what the rest would have been. Uncertainty is glorious. The inaudible whisper that Bill Murray gave to Scarlett Johannson at the end of Lost in Translation either makes you mad or knocks you over, and you know which it did to me. It can be perfect, in its agony, to miss something that was so healing.

We are allowed to wonder if Kurt or Janis or Marvin might’ve continued in their excellence forever like a line that is not a segment and pays no attention to the edge of its page. How can we know for sure they would have become less stunning just because of age? It can’t be proven or disproven and so I, at least, feel possibility in my teeth and in my jugular sometimes when they sing. The records hold up better than we do. Marvin, Jr. will always sound as young as he was before Marvin, Sr.’s tumor told him to put a bullet in his son’s heart, and then another in his shoulder.

It’s my tendency to still thank God sometimes, as a means of emphasis, though I’ve given up the habit of asking him for anything. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I don’t know if my place is to thank “goodness” instead. I’d written out a list of things to thank him for here. And I don’t think I’ll delete that list, because I think I mean it, one way or another.

It’s not romantic that he left us early and it wasn’t necessary that he be taken to cement his legacy. But let’s take comfort, always, where we can. Thank God that Marvin didn’t live to see us desensitize to police shootings, run out of ideas for how to preserve the world or save the babies. Thank God that Marvin never knew the aftermath of what his father did to him: the blood and the shock and the long road through the prison system, all mercifully hidden. Thank God Marvin never made another covers record or toured to pay off his tax debts despite having lost the high notes. Although he could have offered some healing to us, for his sake I’ll say it’s a blessing that Marvin never mourned Trayvon. Wholy holy; one day he left, and he left us some songs to believe in.

*

My father used to tell me not to make a mountain out of a molehill, but it’s all relative. Sometimes we need to be reminded not to exaggerate our own pain, yes, but other times we probably need to feel it real bad and in a demonstrative way, no matter whether others find it warranted. That’s what Marvin did on What’s Going On, without anyone allowing him his mourning or the studio signing off on his tantrum. In fact, Motown boss Berry Gordy hated the first song with a passion. The title track and lead single, born of unprovoked beatings and social injustice, was actually snuck onto the air, released by lower level studio employees without Gordy’s knowledge or permission. The label that tried to suppress the song sold more than 200,000 copies of it in a week.

Any monument or monumental achievement can lose luster or pale with a dash of context. With enough altitude, the family farm is a fingernail and the Great Lakes are droplets of fallen rain. Love becomes an unremarkable conversation. But the greatest people and artists—the most certain of what they were doing—resist this diminishment. You can fly away and nothing seems to recede. You can flip off the stereo and it does not become silent, exactly. You can close your eyes to rest and feel as though they’re widening. You can stop praying and then hear, very faintly, a sort of response. You can lay flowers on a grave years later and find that your grief is still a mountain, no closer yet to molehill.

Marvin, since I first heard his anthems, has not quit floating in my ears.

—Eric Thompson

#19: Van Morrison, "Astral Weeks" (1968)

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for Papaw

There was once a time when the Appalachian Mountains we drove by every summer looked like apricots from the backseat where I sat. Sometimes, my papaw would point them out. Often, we just kept driving through the West Virginian viaducts. In those days, he wore plaid button-down shirts tucked into his denim Wranglers. He kept a ballpoint and a handkerchief in the chest pocket, and I loved poking the fabric with my tiny index finger. I was the only person in the entire world allowed to drink Coke in his car, which wasn’t a special car, just a normal Buick he bought on a lease, and that small allowance was, at the time, everything to me. The way the pop fizzled as it sloshed against the aluminum tab sharp enough to cut my tongue drowned out the acoustic music oozing out of the car radio. I never knew what song it was until I was older. As a boy, I knew it as the song that said: “Would you kiss my eyes?” It always felt like 106.5 played it every year as we drove alongside eroded rocks ready to cascade down onto our car. I used to dream about those mountains, though. I always wondered if Papaw dreamt about them, too. Down a road made of dirt, that was somehow jagged like kitchen knives, the log house he was born in was gone. A man in a pair of black work overalls told him it’d been knocked down years ago, but he was wary of that, because he could still see the stains and indents in the earth where the foundation once sank into. Before I was born, he knew he’d have to one day try and explain to me how the bodies we’d grown to love and live in would crumble. His sister held a map of Central West Virginia up to the sun coming through the windshield and his finger, blackened from years of grease and truck driving, pointed at a speck about a nail’s length from where our car was. I remember the sound of his finger tracing the lines on the map. The way the friction of all of that could even make a sound amazed me. He pointed towards a mountainous ripple on the paper. The sound of that friction often returning when his hand would scrape the wall at night while he slept, until his fingers curled into a fist that he’d use to punch people in his sleep. When he woke he couldn’t remember any of that. When I was in that car, I thought being a man meant knowing where home is. He didn’t care about the flowers blooming near the plot of land he grew up on. To be born again. Instead, he fixated on how the road hadn’t been paved once in the seventy years since he’d left. He thought it would be different. Better. Some years after, I held his hand while lung cancer feasted on his body in the same way his hand would reach into the backseat and hold me against the polyester while the car twisted around the sharp turn of the Devil’s Elbow outside Morgantown. Bedridden, high on morphine, he whispered something about mountains in his sleep, and I waited for him to say it again, pretending I didn’t catch it the first time, but the summer breeze coming through his window ruffled whatever gray hair he had left, and the sun grabbed tight and stripped him away. To be born again.

—Matt Mitchell

#10: The Beatles, "The Beatles" (1968)

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What can I possibly say about the Beatles that hasn’t already been said? I will never stop being surprised that people still manage to write books—entire! books!—about them, apparently for other people to read. Even Rob Sheffield wrote a book about them in 2017, the same Rob Sheffield who I once admired for his memoir Love is a Mixtape, and who I now think of as the critic who can’t say anything bad about Taylor Swift. His book’s marketing copy bends over backward to differentiate itself from the other thousands of books written about the Beatles (it’s about fandom, NOT about their endlessly fascinating man-drama, okay?). (I’m sorry Rob, I am sure your book is very good, as evidenced by all the end-of-year lists it appeared on and blurbs bestowed upon it.)

Unlike Rob Sheffield, I have nothing new to say. I loved the Beatles. Do I still love them? I don’t know. I have loved them for so long that I rarely consider them anymore. They’re like my worn baby blanket tucked away and forgotten at the bottom of my dresser, which, upon seeing it every once in awhile during a frantic search for the one shirt I want to wear, part of my brain goes, Aw.

I have loved them into irrelevancy.

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The White Album was my “favorite album” when I was fifteen years old and I’ve neglected to update the designation ever since. It’s frozen at a moment when I felt strongest about music (also the last time I was at all interested in the concept of having a favorite album). But when I put it on now I hear nothing. Or rather, I hear my life, the things I love without thinking about them. Windows. Driving in rural Virginia during spring. Junior Mints and popcorn. The smell of the lotion my mother wears each winter, and the leggy, purple irises she grows each summer. Fog. Wearing yellow. Coffee with vanilla creamer.

I used to love falling asleep to John Lennon singing “Julia.” Every night from when I was fifteen until I was twenty I did this, waking up hours later tangled in my headphones, but I haven’t done that in years. When was the last night I fell asleep listening to “Julia,” and did I know it would be the last? My best friend growing up was also named Julia, and when she first started coming over in first grade my father would play this song for her. She didn’t like it, would shut her eyes and put her hands over her ears for the part where John Lennon sang Juuuuuuu-lia, starting off soft and then getting louder like an oncoming train. Maybe she hated the way it sounded, maybe she hated the song’s unbearable sadness in the minor key, maybe she hated having to share a name with John Lennon’s mother. I’d like to ask her now but I haven’t seen Julia in a very long time either.

The criticism I hear most often about The White Album is there’s too much filler, too many throwaway songs that don’t belong anywhere else. I think maybe that’s why I loved it—it was like a glorious scrapbook.

One of my favorite things I’ve read in the past year is Notes On by the artist Magalie Guerin, a book in fragments about her studio process which she copied from her actual notebooks and then reorganized. In one of her entries, she describes the process of making Notes On—”the project is more about the nature of thought, the act of thinking,” she writes, “ than it is about some singular truth.”

The notes range from her thoughts on her own artwork and process (“Made a good move on the green canvas—I painted part of the background brown. Brown is the ONLY non-decorative color”) to conversations with artist friends (“I want the paintings to present themselves as inviting and open without being entirely accessible—is that a contradiction? Fatima wisely says: ‘That’s why distance is so important. Let it be a question.’”) to things she’s read on other artists (“Charline von Heyl in BOMB—’I never doubted painting.’ ‘Always forcing things together that could not possibly work. It felt like bending bones.’ [I like that: bending bones.]”).

Her entries are at their most fragmentary when she’s jotting down notes during a class or crit or lecture, the sort of note-taking I always think of as a squirrel darting around outside its home-tree, gathering nuts for later. These kinds of notes are always more beneficial for the note-taker (whose memory of the experience might be jogged by what she chose to extract from it) than for anyone else, who is left to puzzle out the connections and meanings on their own. But I love her inclusion of these notes—incomplete, without punctuation, clearly written in a rush—for how she justifies this type of thinking and processing as worthy of its own book, which we tend to assume is a carefully polished, finished product. I like that she makes the means the end—that, despite the status symbol of the book’s two covers, a spine, and an ISBN, we are never finished.

Guerin also includes sections where she struggles against herself, trying to follow the pathways of her thoughts before changing her mind. If this were any other kind of book, I can easily imagine an editor slashing these sections because she doesn’t “go” anywhere new. But in these moments, her thought process is so visible, so on the surface, it’s almost tactile. I can feel the swish of her mind as it pivots. One particular passage that I enjoy:

“My shapes—

Furniture as a source of formal inspiration 

What is furniture, socially-speaking?

(say more about that—NO! fuck furniture, it’s not what my work is about)” [79]

Filler exists most often when it’s inside a form shaped by strict time or length requirements—a CD (80 minutes), a television show (twenty-two to forty-five minutes, depending), a book contract for 75,000 words, etc—and by definition has little to no purpose outside of “filling up” the time allotted to it (for example: the mind-numbing recap Hannah B. was forced to do with Chris Harrison on that recent episode of The Bachelorette).

But I think, in pieces where there are no time requirements, something can have the “feeling” of filler—seemingly subpar or random or out-of-place—yet still be beneficial and productive to the rest of the piece (for example, now that I am thinking more about it, I’m also glad for the recap Hannah B. did with Chris Harrison because it gave us the gift of knowing Marcus, which in turn, for the franchise’s purposes, also makes us more charmed by Hannah B. and therefore invested in her journey to find love, those crafty bastards).

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Yet part of me is sort of against this notion of every part of a piece being “productive” for the whole. I’m tired of being productive. Of trying to tuck a deeper, heavier meaning inside of everything—wearing yellow, the smell of lotion, listening to the Beatles, windows—so that it extends beyond itself, into the realm of importance. Can’t we just play? I would like to give myself the freedom to make things that don’t tie up all their ends so neatly. Even Lennon acknowledges his work as filler in “Julia”: “Half of what I say is meaningless.”

When people argue that The White Album has too much filler, I think that part of what they really mean is that the songs don’t go together. But why bother making a DOUBLE ALBUM, thereby creating more time to fill up, if half of those songs don’t belong?

A few pages before Guerin’s furniture passage, there’s a note that gestures toward an explanation of why I like that entry so much: “The visual traces of the process (doubt + dare) are so rich, the work just comes alive!”

Similarly, The White Album wouldn’t be The White Album without the exasperation, and yes, the risk, of a song like “Revolution 9.”  I think the album is an exercise in excess and weird juxtaposition. In so many of these recordings, you can hear each of them working things out, playing around. The White Album, like Notes On, is a studio diary that captures the process of each of Beatle becoming himself—John figuring out how to be solo John, George figuring out how to be solo George—and it’s a relief to experience such a weird, hodgepodge-y album, that not every song has to be this ornate, groundbreaking, meticulously-crafted cathedral (see: “A Day in the Life”), or the boring every-song formula of verse plus verse plus bridge plus—keY CHANGE!-verse equals hit. It’s the same sort of relief I feel when I read a really good book that still isn’t perfect. (I like being reminded that good art is still human, fallible, and subject to the same rules that I am.)

Last year, I attended a Q&A with the writer Sheila Heti. She spoke of how, during the editing process for her first novel Ticknor, she kept tinkering with one paragraph in particular. She couldn’t decide whether it belonged, so she kept removing it and putting it back. She ended up leaving it in. Once the book was actually published, she realized: of course it belongs. She was the one who put it there—she is the person in control of the book, the form giving it shape—so it belongs.

Half of what John Lennon says may be meaningless, “but,” as he concludes in the next line, “I say it just to reach you.” Magalie Guerin: “Silly ah-ha moments about color or deeper psychoanalytical reflections, it all matters.” I would like to stitch these ideas together—half of everything being meaningless; all of it mattering—and make them inhabit the same space, the way “Piggies” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” somehow live on the same record.

I’ve always loved that line in “Julia,” the hilarious futility of communication, and also how we still can’t help ourselves—we still insistently make our shit, imperfectly. I picture a million bathroom fans churning their meaningless songs in unison. In fact: can you believe I’m still typing words right now, filling this space up?? I can’t. Really, it would be easy to argue that this entire essay is filler: I’m not arguing anything specific, I’m just meandering around, taking up some time. If you are still reading this, I’m very impressed. I’ve actually been trying for about a half hour to find a way to end this piece, to get the fuck out of this paragraph while also doing that end-of-essay-thing where I light the building of text on fire and walk away as it explodes, shaking my hair and putting my sunglasses on, but I can’t find a way of doing it with this one. And it’s due, in fact, it’s already late. I’m out of time, even though I don’t feel finished.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt

#7: The Rolling Stones, "Exile on Main St." (1972)

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The air in the mansion is both hot and damp: when he veers too closely to the walls he can smell the must; it burrows down into the carpets. In the corner of every room, black abstract forms seep through the wallpaper, its pale green has faded to an uncomfortably biological yellow—a map of sinister continents, new dark lands. The ghosts of flowers—dried up roses blood red and the lavender now a purple almost black—collect cobwebs in corners, the water in their vases gone murky and brown. When he arrived he saw how the painted letters on the iron gates had faded; someone had recently attempted to retouch the N, as if a single gold letter could somehow make things better. 

He got the call a few days ago: he should come to the south of France, they were recording in the guitarist’s mansion on the beach, he could sit in. He had packed quickly and poorly, caught a flight too late from Memphis and arrived too early on the other side of the ocean.

Their revival happens in the basement, more hell than heaven. They grab instruments and pluck and bang, summoning gods and devils, they themselves are goblins, pressing the heat to their bodies so that they sweat through their clothes, sweat drips down their necks and soaks their collars. It smells of cigarettes and booze, undertones of something scraped from the bottom of a shoe. The first time he hears their attempt at jubilation, it sounds funereal. But he remembers not to mention death—not to stir up the ghost of that boy who got killed a year ago. Too many ghosts already stirred in this place.

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They drink wine like communion with their dinner, which is whatever they’ve managed to find at the village market that day, some kind of pale fish sauteed hastily and lacking salt. They dangle cigarettes over their plates until the ash too becomes garnish. For dessert, someone pours too many strawberries into a bowl and more wine into their glasses. A guest asks about the swastikas on the heating vents; someone laughs, and he thinks it odd that someone would be laughing about swastikas in France. The woman at the end of the table says you shouldn’t laugh about swastikas in France. Her accent is thick; her hair is dark and just past her shoulders. He looks at her, for the first time. As if she’s only just appeared, pulled up from the vents themselves, made of the air itself.

And then he sees her everywhere. She doesn’t seem to have a name. They call her darling, they call her babe. She sits on the arms of the baroque velvet and wood chairs, she leans against the walls. She paces the veranda, wearing peasant dresses, long skirts made of crisp white linen, wide-brimmed hats in the sun. She, like the damp, flows through every room of the house, she doesn’t stop anywhere for long, only once in a while holding still where a breeze has come through a window to catch relief from the heat. She is mesmerized and mesmerizing.

One night he walks past her room and sees her writing something in pencil on the wall, hears the soft whisper of graphite against plaster. Later he’ll pass by that room again, and when he sees she’s gone, he’ll go and read what she’s written and pause and whisper the words to himself.

Who’s that woman on your arm, all dressed up to do you harm.

*

I want to walk to the beach, she says. She has already started to gather some things in a string bag—a towel, a hairbrush, a book: Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux. She bends down to tie the string on her sandals and he watches as a dark strand of hair falls loose from the rest.

They walk along the tall stone seawall, up to the Plage des Marinières. A man is selling oysters in the shade of a plane tree; she orders a dozen of them in a breathless voice and they both watch as the man shucks each one, the knife as quick as his heartbeat. After the oysters, she is restless; she takes off her shoes, digs her toes into the sand. She closes her eyes and leans her head back to feel the sun on her face. Her nose is brown from a thousand of these leans. He imagines those thousand leans, back and back, back to her teenage summers, carrying another string bag, back to when she was little, carried in her father’s arms, plucking at the collar on his shirt as he carries her across the Playa Maderas in San Juan del Sur, back and back to the first touch of sun on her perfect little nose.

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Later that night he sits down at the piano and plays the chords in his head, B-flat, F, C, over and over, a refrain to drive her from his heart.

The next day he goes again to the beach, alone this time. The oyster man is no longer there; in his place is a young girl selling roses. He thinks of buying a dozen and bringing them back to the house for her, a different kind of dozen that might make her breathless. Instead he digs his toes into the sand and watches the waves punish the sand on the beach before heading back to the house.

He finds her in the library. She looks up from her book when she hears him at the door and before he can say a word she says at some point every girl wishes she were Célimène but not even Célimène wanted to be Célimène. She reads a line from the page where her thumb rests, her accent rendering the French even more potent: “Puis-je empêcher les gens de me trouver aimable?” He hears the cry of a slide guitar from deep in the bowels of the house, a voice scratching its way up through the vents:

Stuff is going to bust your brains out, baby
Yeah, it's gonna make you lose your mind

She stares at the floor for a moment, closes the book, and brushes past him and out the door. Darling. Babe. Célimène.

*

She knows what it is to feel their eyes on her. She sees the cameras trying to steal her image as she walks on the promenade. She knows their attention, their intention. She knows everything about what it is to be worshiped.

*

The next morning, she is gone. They say she was called back to London. He missed her; he misses her. His last night at the house, he sits down at the organ and joins them on a song.

Then you don't want to walk and talk about Jesus
You just want to see His face

The basement is hotter than he remembered, hotter than a Tennessee summer, suffocating and mind-altering. His breath is shallow. The beat of the drums urges him forward, his fingers caress the keys. He presses them, holds them, B-flat, F, C, harder. The air is stiff.

I just want to see her face, he thinks. He packs his things too quickly and carelessly. He catches a shirt in the zipper of his Tourister; one of his shoes gets left behind.

When he arrives back in Memphis, he suddenly realizes what an odd thing it was: those British boys in a French mansion recording a blues album. As if they were trying to possess something they never could possess. No: it possessed them. They keep his organ on the album, one song, but his name falls off the gatefold somewhere between Nice and Los Angeles. Her face comes back to him with the breeze. It says she has given birth to a girl, it says she was married in Saint Tropez.

He visits a church and says a prayer for her, but stumbles over her name.

—Zan McQuade

#8: The Clash, "London Calling" (1979)

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What are we gonna do now?

— “Clampdown”


We were pretending, all of us, comfortable middle-class college kids in New Orleans in the swelter and swoon of a final summer before life would steer us away from one another. It was June of 1982. We’d just gotten our degrees and were trying to figure out what pleasures and miseries lay ahead. First, though, was this shred of miracle: the Clash, veering toward ruin, about to implode, were coming to town.

So we did what you do for such an occasion: get yourself there, get yourself fucked up, get yourself lost in the blind raging energy and sweat and noise. Carl and Sal drove in from Baton Rouge, slamming down cans of Dixie and Miller pony bottles as they headed east on I-10 above the fetid swamps, Sal’s ripped red T-shirt clumsily stenciled with the word CLASH and a portrait of singer Joe Strummer—or bassist Paul Simenon? It was hard to tell—on the front. On the back, the outline of a gun.

We gathered outside The Warehouse, the giant brick and wood-beam, windowless, threadworn-carpeted and concrete-floored venue that had hosted countless ‘70s bands in New Orleans: the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Sly and the Family Stone, the Allman Brothers, the Who. We didn’t know it then, but it would shut down after only one more show, the Talking Heads later that year. We stood outside on the clamshell gravel and didn’t care (What the fuck did we know? Absolutely nothing) that we could barely hear local R&B legend Lee Dorsey, the warm-up act, above the thumping bass and the crowd’s electric hum. Anne—who had once been my girlfriend, but who’d furtively become my buddy Chris’s when I spent my junior year abroad in Wales—pierced her ear with a safety pin in the parking lot, her hair teased as high as the black heavens, the lines of her eyes thickly penciled in, her spandex worthy of a groupie for the sort of metal band her older brother was in. I don’t remember where Chris was that day—we’re not as good at keeping in touch these days as I wish we were, and Anne died six years ago. I assume Chris was there, that he and Anne were together. I’d spiked my hair, worn a gray-blue sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, knotted a red bandana around my neck. I smoked and drank whatever I was handed: cigarettes, joints, K&B beer, Tommy’s famous rum & Coca-Cola-Icee concoction. Was Sharon there as well? She was still with Tommy then, I think, and not, as she would be later, with me. Who else was at the show that night? Everyone, probably. Where else would they be? Today, no doubt, there’d be photos, selfies from our phones. It’s both a mournful truth and a mercy, I guess, that memory fades like a nasty bruise.

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None of us had yet met Paul, who was there as well, but we’d seen his band playing around town. We knew who he was. He was dark-eyed, paper thin, all skin and bones and manic flinching; he jerked and swayed around the stage with antic grace, guitar slung low. He was the only one not pretending. For him, a Clash show was high Mass, not theatre, not recreation. He already recognized what, years later, I came to understand—the need, as Frank Turner sings, for guitars and drums and desperate poetry. I was a writer, wanted to be a writer, dreamed I might someday have something to say about all the yearning inside me, all the useless beauty and torment, but I hadn’t found my way there yet. Paul, though, had done it, was doing it, was writing songs, playing guitar, letting everything out from inside of him. He watched Joe Strummer standing up on the warehouse stage and worshipped the defiant sneer, the slashing guitar. He held the microphone, Paul told me later, like the weapon it was for him. He showed me what a rock star looked like, what a rock star was. The first song they played, of course, was “London Calling,” that first repeated chord with its matching gunshot drum beat nothing less than a wailing siren, a squalling bell, a fucking call to arms: You better listen. You better listen.

We were listening, though we couldn’t have imagined that it was to us London was calling, that we were the ones being warned that war had been declared and the battle come down. What war? Which battles? We were kids, after all; we were acting out this adolescent rage. We didn’t imagine, I suspect, that the world we’d inherit might not turn out okay. Back in high school our hearts had been seized and shaken by Springsteen’s Born to Run, but that was a kind of pretense as well. It was his dusty streets we drove on, his language we learned, his blue-collar baritone we tried to summon up from our chests. Where was our own voice?

Those were the days of mosh pits, of flailing elbows and knees, but here’s one of that evening’s bits of magic: while the Clash played on the Warehouse stage, the entire crowd moved not in jerky spasms but like a mighty sea, a wave that lifted you and set you down five feet to the left then four to the right then two ahead then six behind. The band played nearly everything we loved, or at least enough of what we wanted: “Spanish Bombs,” “Clampdown,” “Safe European Home,” “Police and Thieves,” “Guns of Brixton”:

When they kick at your front door,
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?

They played the new songs from Combat Rock: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” “Rock the Casbah,” “Straight to Hell.” But Drummer Topper Headon had already been kicked out of the band, replaced by Terry Chimes. With his mohawk and sinewy arms and army fatigues, Joe Strummer looked like Taxi Driver DeNiro. We should have known the end was near.

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In the decades ahead we did what you do: grew up, got jobs, got married and divorced, had children or didn’t, succeeded or failed at our dreams. If you’ve ever heard the call, though, the urgent, desperate poetry of a band like the Clash, the barbaric yawp demanding a better world, it still rings in your ears, rings forever and ever.

Hearing the call and heeding it, of course, are two completely different things. I listen to London Calling now and still hear its power—the frustration, the rage, Strummer’s snake-venom snarl—but now I hear other things as well: the album’s remarkable art, its jukebox worth of catchy melodies, its frenetic tour through pop music history. And even this, a sweet fragile sincerity, as when Mick Jones steps forward on “Lost in the Supermarket”:

I wasn't born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see

I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That's how it's been all around me

It’s been nearly forty years since London Calling was released, and the week that I write this essay is the very week that Bruce Springsteen, after a months-long run on Broadway, has released an album inspired by ‘70s-era California rock.

The critics like it. Listening, I feel my soul crushed, beaten.

I’m sorry, and maybe I’m wrong, but I’d like to imagine if Joe Strummer were still alive, he’d give the Boss a friendly call or, in the manner of the day, a text. This is the age of Donald Fucking Trump, I imagine him saying. This is no time for sweet songs set to sugary orchestra strings, for fucking California sunsets and cowboys and beach boy nostalgia. This is the time to raise your bloody fucking voice to high heaven.

What do I know? What do I know?

I know this: We need London Calling now, again, more than ever. Not the old one, though, great as it is. We need a new one, a new voice, though I confess I don’t know who it’s going to come from. Someone young, of course. Someone angry. Someone who can call out and get our attention like a sudden rifle shot, someone who can move a giant sea of bodies as if by magic, who can set us all on some new and better and necessary course.

This is the line I keep hearing: London is drowning, and I, I live by the river…

How is it, Bruce? How is it, Joe, that we’re going to rise up, find that higher ground, save ourselves from this awful flood?

We need to know.

—John Gregory Brown

#9: Bob Dylan, "Blonde on Blonde" (1966)

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Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks on you when you’re trying to be quiet? Legend has it that Bob Dylan wrote the first draft of “Visions of Johanna” during the great Northeast blackout of 1965, in which most of New York City was without power for almost 13 hours (note the “ghost of ‘lectricty” that howls in Louise’s face). It makes sense to me that a song this hypnotic was written in the dark, in a state of least distraction. I’ve played Blonde on Blonde straight through hundreds of times, and I still think of “Visions of Johanna” as the opening track (it’s actually third). It's the moment on side 1 when I start paying attention; it’s the first song on the album that conquers my mind.

“Visions of Johanna” is a battlecry. But Dylan’s not fighting with an ex or a stand-in lover who keeps falling short (poor Louise). He’s fighting himself, or rather, his brain. It’s not Johanna that’s conquered, it’s visions of her, invasive thoughts vining the hippocampus. The song is less about unrequited love, and more a failed effort to steer your inner dialogue. It’s the racing narration of a sleepless night.

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My mind has been an adversary since I was a child. My default state is one of self-loathing; I skew sad. Don’t feel too bad for me—with years of medication and therapy and mid-day naps, I’ve functioned, even thrived. But it’s a lot of work. I am constantly thinking about thinking and feeling bad about how I think and thinking about how I feel bad about how I think. I’ve been trained to recognize the first curls of a downward spiral and employ a number of techniques to soften the landing. But I get tired. Depressed people receive conflicting messages from doctors and Instagram and Pixar movies: your feelings are valid—but you must change your attitude. Love yourself as you are—but here’s how to better yourself. Sadness is healthy—but hey, lighten up. You have more control over your thoughts than you think you do. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when I succumb to the lures of putting myself down.

A song can be one of two things: an activity or a soundtrack. I was in college the first time I really heard “Visions of Johanna,” fresh off my first heartbreak. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, superimposing my longing onto Dylan’s, immersed in the song and nothing else. All I did was hear and feel. Today, it's rare that a song will capture my full attention in this way, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that I’m usually doing something else while listening to a song—loading the dishwasher, working out, scrolling through photos of people osentibly having more fun than me. Recorded music enables multitasking more than any other form of art, freeing sight and movement. New albums usually drop on Friday mornings, so I listen to them throughout the workday, scoring my email replies. Music still bring me immense joy, but liking a song is different than connecting with it. I’m constantly tuning in and out, opening new tabs and refreshing old ones.

I also think I ask something different of music today than I did 10 years ago. In the throes of depression, I turned to music to find myself, seeking catharsis. Now I turn to music to escape myself, seeking distraction. I’m using the same medium to alleviate the same symptoms, hoping for a completely different outcome. I don’t know if it’s a sign of recovery, or simply getting older and less self absorbed, but I’m drawn to music that derails my train of thought rather than indulges it. And now that I carry hundreds of thousands of songs with me at all times, most of them end up as background noise. It feels miraculous when I come upon one that stops me in my tracks.

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Mindfulness meditation has helped with my depression more than another other treatment. With much practice, you can indeed conquer your mind, if only for one breath. One technique for detaching from your thoughts is to visualize them as moving objects—clouds floating by in the sky, or ships sailing across the sea. The idea is that you become an observer of your own thoughts, refraining from judgment or engaging further. There is no fight, no countertalk; you acknowledge the bait without taking it, letting the next thought roll on by too. Sometimes I pretend I’m wearing 3D glasses, telling myself that if I reach out to latch onto one of those magic swirling ships of despair, my hands will grasp nothing. 

“Visions of Johanna”—like most Dylan songs—is a reel of images: a handful of rain, the Mona Lisa, a mule’s head adorned with jewels and binoculars. He spits them faster than you can visualize; you see something new with each listen. You could spend time contemplating what the nightwatchman and his flashlight represent, but the most important vision in the song is the most straightforward, the one that Dylan is trying to keep away: Johanna. I’m not pining for a lover anymore, but other visions remain, keeping me up at night: that job I didn’t get, that awkward text I sent, those jeans that won’t zip anymore. The right song doesn’t remove these thumbnails of my inadequacy, but it keeps me scrolling before I can click on them. The miracle of the mind is that it is always moving. Every once in a while, I even catch it dancing.

—Susannah Clark




#37: The Eagles, "Hotel California" (1976)

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I listen to a lot of music. Over 104,000 minutes’ worth last year according to Spotify, which I’ve used for years to stream a nearly endless catalog of music after abandoning thousands of purchased (and pirated) mp3s on iTunes, which I used for years after abandoning the multitudinous CDs I listened to on a loop on my Walkman, the hunger for which was catalyzed by being entranced practically since birth by whatever we could find on the family car radio. Some of my strongest memories are driving to and from our local beach in the summer, on winding, narrow roads under a canopy of trees, and listening, primarily, to the local oldies and classic rock stations. This has to be the way I first heard “Hotel California,” though I cannot even begin to know how old I was then, let alone a specific first listen. Maybe it’s my age, but “Hotel California” feels to me like a song that has literally always existed, perpetually buzzing on the sunny haze of peripheral FM airwaves, waiting only for you to turn the dial to the right degree.

This, too, seems thematically appropriate, considering the song’s topic, however intentionally obscure the details remain to be. Members of the Eagles have gone back and forth for decades on what the True Meaning of the song is—alcohol, fame, nothing at all—but the resounding cultural interpretation is that it narrates an unwitting induction to a cult.

Welcome to Hotel California—such a lovely place!—you can never leave.

While this read has been disputed by the songwriters, it speaks to the same underlying feeling as their offered meanings: a sense of misplaced escapism, attempts at freedom which seem to only further ensnare you, a veritable removed, ethereal eternity.

In a way, this, too, is how I view music. Throughout my childhood, and especially in my adolescence, I viewed blasting music as a way to quite literally tune out the rest of the world, coddling my angst in a blanket of hearing damage. Even now, whenever I feel unbearably anxious or deeply sad, my first thought is to very loudly listen to music, hoping to drown out whatever overwhelming feeling I may be experiencing, or at least enhance it in commune with the musicians. This impulse figures in a huge way into my relationship with live music; I’ve sacrificed countless hours of my time waiting in lines in hope to snatch a barricade spot, spent thousands of dollars on tickets, lost many decibels of my hearing in the pursuit of the experience of live music. It’s the escapism I seek in listening to music in its purest form, all-encompassing and visceral.

You can imagine, then, my excitement when I learned—by way of a static-y, deeply unsettling hotline message I literally dialed in at midnight to hear—that two of my favorite musicians, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, had formed a band called Better Oblivion Community Center. The subsequent eponymous album deals heavily with how we process trauma, substance abuse, death, hopefulness, hopelessness. The lyrics are grounded, human, questioning, but the persona and overall marketing of the band helped position themselves, perhaps somewhat jokingly, as a way to transcend these struggles and enter a place of fraught euphoria. The thesis seems to be that we encounter many awful, soul-sucking oblivions in which to throw ourselves every day; what if they found one which was, for lack of another word, better?

The tour stops would  be called “meetings.” They sold membership pins. It felt very much like a temporary cult—one you know is a cult before you attempt to engage—a place where, ever so briefly, you were immersed in this beautiful, communal, all-consuming thing, and would walk away when it was over. I could stay in one such lovely place, then leave.

When I arrived at my BOCC show—front and center, after having waited hours in line—I was thinking about “Hotel California.” I’d agreed to do this essay months prior to BOCC’s formation  and had been grasping at something to write about the entire time; I’d continually returned to the cult-like aspect of the song (foregoing the many other notable tracks on the album), and the week before the show, the comparison between the song and this band struck me. Not knowing what the “meeting” would entail—I was unable to find much about the shows online beyond setlists and videos of the band crushing it on stage—I decided to ride with it and see if it would be a fruitful playout. I had envisioned strategically constructed setpieces, speeches about emotional openness, Conor musing on existentialism, many a ritualistic thing.

Though there were few setpieces beyond a keyboard stand cover with the band’s name and a few standing light bulbs along the front of the stage, one of the first things I noticed was the backdrop—a cartoonish, neon-colored depiction of a cinder block community center, doors flung open to unveil what appeared to be either a burst of light or the Abyss. A fluorescent pink graffiti message reading “IT WILL END IN TEARS” lorded over the whole affair. In any other set of hands, it would have felt like kitsch; here, it felt like a promise.

My friends and I passed the time before the show and inbetween sets talking about our star signs (there was Big Water Sign Energy in this group), timing runs to the bathroom, discussing how much we would break down during the set, recounting all the ways in which these musicians had broken us down before. There was an air that we were preparing ourselves for some great rite, a transformative experience. It felt, in the moment, very Hotel California, very ‘70s, very nearly tongue-in-cheek to the uninitiated outside observer.

As we would learn, nothing about this show was tongue-in-cheek, unless we were mocking our own preconceived notions about emotionalism in music. My sense of communal escapism through music is just that—communal. My sort of relationship to music is extremely common, and part of the beauty I’ve found in it comes from the fact that other people seek refuge in such experiences, too. The band began to play and every note was pitch perfect, every emotion I’d felt listening to these musicians over the years was amplified tenfold, crystalline and authentic, heightened by the sense of camaraderie and shared emotional surrender amongst the crowd.

After seeing the show, I can now say that, before experiencing Better Oblivion live, I didn't actually know what the album was about. I thought it was about sadness, about loss, about fear, carefully placed projections ignoring the layers of the work. I’ve been removing myself from the game of over-interpreting every line of every song in recent years, a recovering English major, trying to be, as Conor and Phoebe sing on “Chesapeake,” “all covered in sound.” In that vein, I know how I felt when the band closed their pre-encore set with a cover of Phoebe’s “Scott Street,” passing the mic into the crowd for the harmonious, sing-along outro. Conor, harbinger of my teenage ennui, a figure for so long trapped grasping at light and happiness, is dancing around, giggling with a tambourine, enthusiastically encouraging the chosen concert-goer through each round of “oooh-ooohs.” Phoebe is providing vocals and lead guitar, grinning as she repeats “anyway, don’t be a stranger,” then howling laughing, offering a high five in exchange for the mic. The entire crowd in the packed, loud club is singing in unison, swaying, the energy radiating, palpably infectious. Though I resist, I have the urge to hug everyone around me.

I want to live in this handful of moments forever, with this collection of people, under this fluorescent graffiti promise—crying as advertised, only this time, not out of our predicted one-dimensional sadness, but rather some mix of joy, awe, communion, rapture, redemption.

The literalist interpretation of “Hotel California” is that the speaker is physically unable to leave the hotel after checking in. This flattens the song, I think, and cheapens the way we think of the oblivions that can consume us. What makes a cult so intriguing is not what happens while you’re actively participating, but the hold it exercises over you the rest of the time.

Though I was able to physically leave the meeting, I spend every free second the next day watching videos on Instagram and invariably getting chills whenever a recording of “Scott Street” appears. I talk about almost nothing else, the sensation of the show still buzzing in my chest. On the metro home, I listen to the album and wear the membership pin on my jacket, a bronze medallion which reads “NOT A COPY.” I watch the usual train goings-on, the conversations and the kids running amok and doors which take two seconds too long to close. I’m usually painfully aware of what is happening around me, but in the moment, I am removed from them all, bouncing on my feet, feeling changed.

—Moira McAvoy

#11: Elvis Presley, "Sunrise" (1999)

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When I was on the cusp of 20, we went to see the Elvis impersonators. I was there with an ex and his whole family. Some of their friends came, too, and they talked for weeks about “going to see Elvis.”

I was so unimpressible at that age. The last time Elvis actually performed in Richmond, VA it wasn’t in the suburbs and it was 1976, I knew. June, 1976 to be exact.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how it wasn’t a performance, but a feeling they were going to see. It was about reliving a moment when rock ‘n’ roll was new. Everything was new because they were young.

There were two impersonators on that evening: a younger one dubbed “The Heart of Elvis” and an older ‘70s-era Elvis called “The True Voice of Elvis.” The crowd screamed for the first one, but when the second came on stage they erupted, rushed to the stage and clambered for towels and teddy bears “The Voice of Elvis” tossed off the stage after wiping his brow with them. That man’s name is Doug, I remember thinking, from my seat way back in the theater. You’re screaming for a sweaty teddy bear from Doug Church.

It was around that point I wondered what I was doing there with people who built Elvis shrines in their dens. They’re the same people who made Graceland the second most-visited home in America. But nostalgia, even the invented kind, is a powerful thing. One woman at the show couldn’t have been more than five years old when Elvis last performed, but she was screaming along with the loudest of them. And I get it. I go see an ‘80s cover band every couple of months and it’s the same. I didn’t live through the ‘80s. I write first drafts on a typewriter. It’s an image that feels safe and familiar.

Central to Elvis is the image of Elvis. When you think of Elvis, do you think of peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwiches? Do you think of lounge suits and the room where legends die? But people forget that his early recordings were damn good. It’s easy to remember the rhinestone suits. It’s hard to give oneself over to the authenticity of his early years and love it, which is what I didn’t get at that moment with the Elvis impersonators.

I thought about that night a lot in the years following. And I started listening to Elvis, really listening for the first time. Doug was fine, but I became curious about the frenzy of it all. I listened to the hits over and over before settling into 1999’s Sunrise, comprised mostly of his Sun Studios recordings from 1953 to 1955. Some call the first track, Elvis’s first record release, “That’s All Right,” the real emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe that's true. But it 's more rockabilly than strictly rock 'n' roll, and too distinct to just be part of something bigger.

“That’s All Right” was the recording that started the fervor we associate with his shows, with Doug, with the kind of screaming and single-minded adoration reserved for the Beatles at Shea Stadium. The story goes that Elvis Presley was in the studio, tooling around with the Arthur Crudup song when producer Sam Phillips told him and the band to “back up and do it again.” And he found his sound. It’s a great song, one that demands movement and repeated, obsessive listening.

Obsession is a funny thing. Doug’s fans have an excess of it. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with so many things. I obsessed over my mandolin even though I wasn’t any good at playing it. I was obsessed with music videos, less as I approached teenagerdom with Tim McGraw and more with My Chemical Romance. Gilmore Girls was on ABC Family every afternoon at 5 p.m. and I had to catch it every day. When I didn’t, it was a VERY BAD DAY. And growing up, I was growing out of my Lord of the Rings obsession and growing into one with boys and how much I could drink and my horse and low-cut Mudd jeans.

I was in love with everything outside of myself. And it’s only looking back at photos of this 15-year-old with her horse in those low-cut Mudd jeans that I really love her. It’s easy to forget how uneasy it felt to be in that skin and how I wanted so badly an identity that was clearly defined by my favorite band at that moment. By a genre. By a scene.

I want to tell her easy definitions aren’t necessary for anyone to love her. I want to tell her that she could contain a bounty of obsessions and not wither from the energy of it all. And to go a little lighter on the eyeliner.

Of course, there’s another picture of her out there, five years later in between two Elvis impersonators. It’s likely on a digital camera owned by the family of someone I wasn’t obsessed with. That was the real tragedy of her, dulling that obsessive spirit.

That’s not what it’s like for the fans of Elvis who have now become fans of Doug. They’ve never lost the obsessive spirit. They remember a time when their knees didn’t hurt and an entire life was undetermined before them. They remember the first listen of a fine record at 15 years old. There was this new sound in the air in ’55 and an entire generation had a collective identity through music.

What’s incredible about Sunrise is hearing how this new sound evolved. Elvis must have felt strange in that skin, too, on the verge of his artistic identity. Along with the studio cuts, Sunrise includes alternate takes and the 1953 recording he made for his mother shortly after graduating high school. It’s on the B-side, these alternate recordings. The slow version of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” is my favorite of the two. There’s a roughness to the playing in “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way,” and an awkwardness in “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You.” They’re punctuated with comments from the sound booth. Live performances round out the album.

“That’s All Right” appears three times and it feels new each time it comes on.

Doug’s fans, they’re the ones who get what’s rising up in this album and they’re cheering for the precipice of what’s to come after ‘55. They get what I’m feeling, and for them when everything else feels dull, when the new things aren’t new—when cutting carbs, running, and a shot of bourbon don’t cut it—there’s Doug.

—Lindley Estes

#12: Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue" (1959)

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You learn about jazz from insomniacs and early risers, nightfly DJs and space cowboys. Miles is your first and as such, your all things, what you carry when Manhattan has you up late and anxious, when he is snoring although he tells you he is not, when he has ripped away the part of you that once whispered yes and replaced it instead with a black oil slick that coats your whole soul.

So what you tell yourself. You will improvise your way out of all of this. That’s what life is, after all, a thumbnail sketch, a scribble of melodies from your mother—go to college, become a teacher, marry an accountant like your sister did. One apartment, then another in a series. You can’t sleep in any of them; in one, the cockroaches freeload in small brush strokes around a windowpane and in the other, car horns blow around your room at all hours, what they used to call taxis they now call Uber. You always come back to Miles and Bill, Coltrane and Cannonball.

In college you will deviate temporarily; you will fall in love with a man over a pair of slim negronis and the pulp-wood scent of paperbacks. He will whisper blue in green while you fail to sleep with him, despite your best dress, despite the candles you have lit. It rains almost daily where you are these days; your soul aches with broken voodoo as you watch each tender droplet on the windowsill, wondering what you have lost, wondering what might have never been found. Another will pretend to like Charlie Parker and give you a ring, and when you find out that this is one of a thousand lies he has told you, you will give back the ring and run off with the Bird. Despite false starts, you will, for a time, be happy.

You will never get the courage up to ask if he even likes jazz, instead you will invent a version of him with a winter-cool whisper on his lips. Miles and miles you will travel and give all your kisses to a straw between your lips while you savor the taste of cashmere, the scent of unmet desire. His eyes, all blues, will quietly wind up your soul like a red string around his finger, but you don’t mind, do you? Not one goddamn bit.

We let our heads get cluttered up until nothing makes sense. We try swapping out the piano player, a spouse, an old friend who isn’t as shiny as a new one. But when that horn comes in, clean and pure, you realize that you only have this one take. A fakebook can only take you so far, a sketch is not a lifeline.

So you close your eyes. You breathe in the scent of cigarettes and magnolias. You let your heart ache, and you let your heart soar. You will survive the improv, you know where the open road is even if you choose never to take it. Hell, maybe someday you will. Hell, maybe someday you’ll make good on a promise to make one perfect sound.

Just one.

—Libby Cudmore

#13: The Velvet Underground, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" (1967)

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I think of Lou Reed the way I think of this novel I read once called The Spook Who Sat By the Door. In it, the first black inductee into the CIA in the mid 1960s compliantly takes a desk job, doing his work in Langley without fuss, eventually gaining all the skills he needs in combat and subterfuge. Once he can quit without raising a fuss, he moves back to his home of Chicago, and starts a paramilitary group that revolts and liberates urban Black America. They made a film of it a few years later—and much like The Velvet Underground & Nico, the suits at the top had trouble figuring out how to market this work of art. It veered so far away from what they expected, in directions they weren’t prepared to navigate. People just stared at the thing, dumbfounded.

Sunday morning brings the dawn in
It's just a restless feeling by my side

Lou Reed, as it turns out, cranked out pop tunes at a label called Pickwick Records for others to record—rather like I used to imagine George Jetson making sprockets—before he released this album, and several tracks of the album have melodies that sound almost broom-clean and inoffensive, like they could have been written and performed by any other competent pop band of the day if they were cursed with a too-cool attitude and blessed with shit equipment. It’s as if Lou Reed wanted a censor from the label to hear the melody to “Sunday Morning,” nod approvingly, and walk off to lunch before track two.

Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind

Even “I’m Waiting For the Man,” the second track on the album, took several listens before I understood its context when I first heard it as a college freshman. It’s got a consistent, upbeat tempo, a feel like it’s too cool for its own listener. It almost flies by you, which is the right move for a song written in 1967 about a drug deal. In his pop-friendly songs, Lou Reed doesn’t sing to beat you over the head with lyrical meaning. It’s there if you want it:

I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, one, two, five
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I'm waiting for my man

A few pop-friendly songs are sprinkled elsewhere in the album—“Femme Fatale,” “Run Run Run,” “There She Goes Again.” It’s not hard to feel what the band felt when their producer, Andy Warhol, insisted that they take on German model Nico as a member of the group for this album. She feels tacked-on in a couple of her tracks, in the way, an imposition and a concession. She’s there to give the band a feel that Warhol thought would make them more marketable. She isn’t there organically—and while she obviously has agency in this and obviously doesn’t quite work, I can’t help but feel real empathy for her and the difficulties. I feel like she’s doing her best in a group that didn’t have the same vision for their music.

This is also how I feel about Velvet Underground’s place in the market. The first time I heard the album, years and years ago, I interpreted the pop-heavy songs as an exercise in pretension, even banality. This had to be partly due to its association with Andy Warhol’s crowd. I thought of the corporatism I perceived with the Campbell’s soup can paintings and such, and projected the contempt I felt for it onto the Velvet Underground. When Warhol got popularized, a lot of folks tried to see a Marxist-leaning motivation in his works. They assumed he was critiquing American consumerism, trying to subvert it somehow—that there was something more beyond the cans. I hear from people close to Warhol that he instead admired modernity as he conceived of it. He simply liked the soup, and the convenience and succinctness it represented. He thought this was the best of all possible worlds, and couldn’t see past it. When his work caught fire, he had his assistants silkscreening soup cans and celebrity faces as cogs in a runaway machine, and funneled the profits into ventures like the Velvet Underground.

Unlike with Warhol, who produced The Velvet Underground & Nico, I think there really is a hidden transcript available for people who peel slowly and see, as the album cover suggests with its removable banana sticker. A closer listen, undertaken by an older version of me, revealed the genius of the system Lou Reed has engineered to hide bare feeling. It’s leaking out the pain in spurts—regularly, in manageable chunks, until they crescendo into “Heroin.” This is all about pretending you’re not broken until the odd moment where you get called out, and I think Lou Reed knows it. The system is working as designed. There was a kind of woundedness, a gore that the contemporary market of rock wouldn’t bear to see. Lou is trying to get you to look at it the way Allen Ginsberg wanted you to see his generation’s best minds “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Eventually I looked it up, by the way, and my memory was wrong. George Jetson worked one hour, twice a week. He wasn’t a workhorse. His was a fully-automated luxury type of future—depicted in the ‘60s on prime time television, when that promise still came easy. He made sprockets the way I’ve been writing poetry these last few years.

*

I remember walking down the side streets at night in Washington, DC about twelve years ago with The Velvet Underground & Nico blaring in my headphones. I’d just left another party where everyone else—including friends I knew and loved—was much more comfortable in their skin than I was. They’d drink more whiskey, smoke more weed, flirt without being a visible wreck about it once it started to work. Hell, they could talk about sports and not sound like dolts. That was never me—even if I managed to pull one of these off, it was performance. I emulated people I thought of as successful. In the end, once I no longer had the energy to pretend, I felt alone.

The route back to our apartment was sometimes three miles home when there wasn’t a bus route available or affordable. I was used to trekking on foot across the city in a way that would give me both exhaustion and anxiety now. At the time, though, I just felt like a loser. I felt like I had tried, and failed, and was trying to see purpose or nobility in any part of that failure. It suited me. I’d tried to be thin and well dressed. Failing that, well-liked, funny, or just not alone. When it felt like I couldn’t make those stick, I settled for getting high—and failed at that, too.

I’ve been lucky enough not to break all my connections with friends and loved ones. I’ve been lucky enough that none of my demons have ruined me completely. I know people that have. For them, time must not seem cyclical. It must erupt and then peter out, like the tempo and drum line in “Heroin,” over and over. I’ve always wanted to believe that progress is an essential part of time—we get stronger, smarter, better. We grow, we heal. Nothing like an addiction to bend that lie to the truth. You will do this—and when you are tired of it, revolted by it, seduced by hope, you might still do this.

Even the name Velvet Underground suggests something refined, luxurious and pointless in the midst of something serious, looming, something both terrible and necessary. All along, while the eyes are seeking, while ears are to the ground, we sing joyfully about “Sunday Morning.” So long, at least, as the heart is not willing to listen to the words that try to blend in and pass by. But inside, we are scarred and in denial about it. With songs about BDSM, drug deals, and the thrill and lows of addiction, the Velvet Underground helped make rock a little more like poetry—and a little more acceptable for artists not to simply pretend to be the lie that sold records.

*

“Heroin” gives me the feeling of being unmoored under clouded skies. Without allies, without understanding, without a center to ground you or the motivation to push past it. I guess I just don’t know. This is how I’ve felt about my writing for the better part of a decade. Sure, I’ll have spurts of a month or two where I’m productive, writing poems and sending them out feverishly for publication, hitting the cafe with my laptop on weekends. I’ve written essays for publications like this one. I wrote my now-wife a chapbook of poems as part of my marriage proposal last year. But these were the exception. My default position is fear—namely, of failure. It’s paralyzing, and corrosive. You soak up the time with Netflix, Reddit, gaming. You forget that you said “tomorrow” yesterday.

Better part of a decade. I’ve been that way ever since I fell out hard at the end of my MFA program in 2012. I wanted to follow a path similar to that of colleagues I thought were on the way to success as young writers. That meant publishing books, entering contests, maybe getting a teaching job. Maybe for me, it’d involve a little more political activism than most, but that wasn’t essential to the forty-year plan. Nearer to graduation, I learned that a lot, if not most, start out teaching several sections of English composition, for peanuts, without health insurance (if they get the job). I learned how many were stuck in adjunct positions for which tenure was a dream, and how saturated the market was for writers looking for a place in academia. I know people since that have done it or are still doing it. For financial and health reasons, I couldn’t make that choice for myself.

All along, I had issues with the elitism I saw among some in the poetry community. Even with the influence of the great professors and students I met, I wasn’t sure there was any way to democratize my poetry and make a living doing it—and I didn’t want to try to monetize it if it was only going to be read by people privileged enough to teach it or study it. I was angry with a society that would kick the Occupy movement to the ground and expect so many of us to plead contentment with meager wages and nonexistent healthcare. Hell, I was terrified, and driven semi-underground. Most of that I might have weathered, though, if that had been the sum of it.

Sometimes, a wild narcissist appears—one who takes you under his wing for a while, shows you how to accomplish feats you didn’t know the first thing about, dominates the conversation in every room, encourages you to build trust and dependence in the dynamic between you and them. Then, when you’re no longer useful, they’re gone—and you’re left with confusion, some righteous anger, and a complex that assures you that you can’t do it without them. When it all imploded, several people were affected pretty deeply. All of them had an impact on my writing and my sense of myself as an artist, and I wasn’t even the most hurt.

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
On a sailor's suit and cap

I graduated right in the midst of this, and even on the day I received my degree, with family in attendance, needing to feel joyful for the cameras and those who drove so far, I felt a hollowness. The fallout of this re-framed everything for me. I realized the power of what I’d been subjected to, how oblivious I’d been under while its thrall. Mostly, I felt a fool, and developed major trust issues. Those doubts, perhaps without logical reason, extended to the writing world, and my participation in it.

I know that Warhol built a collective around himself, gathering people he thought were interesting or useful and either promoting their efforts or attempting to craft them along the lines he saw fit. It’s the sort of community that can either feed you inspiration and opportunities, or prove you don’t belong. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is allegedly about one of his get-togethers. Warhol clearly thought Lou Reed and John Cale were talented, and wished them the best in shepherding the formation of the Velvet Underground’s first album. But he pushed the Velvet Underground towards pop-friendly songs, booked them in venues friendly to the Factory art scene. He grafted a well-meaning but mismatched “chanteuse,” Nico, onto the band. All of it suggested that Warhol wanted them to be successful on his terms.

I wouldn’t write a word for months after I received my MFA, keeping in touch with only a handful of students and professors. I moved home into my old bedroom, sunk myself into television, video games, and post-rock music. When my savings ran out, I got a job with the state government, the most available employment I could find with health benefits and stable prospects. A year after that I moved out, kept climbing up the state career ladder, and met the woman who would become my wife. All along, writing never became more than an occasional act, never something I engaged in for more than a month or so at a time, with six fallow months or more in between. Spurts of hope and activity, trying to regain lost ground, followed by disillusionment, and a fear of failure. Inevitably, I’d let that urge to write poetry dry up until an opportunity or appeal from a friend forced my hand. It never became necessary again, and I think that’s because I’ve been willing it to stay gone.

Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils of this town
And of himself and those around

I’ve never fully nailed down this fear that keeps me paralyzed, locked in the same pattern of “short attack, long retreat.” Is it self-centered? Is it proof that I’m not over what happened seven years ago? Could be. I went to a reading by the poet Carolyn Forché a couple months ago—a big step, because she is a legend to me, and it felt like a way to begin participating in this community once again. In the audience, I saw someone a few rows ahead that looked, from the back, exactly like the person I’d hoped not to see. At that moment, I had an anxiety attack that I tried to hold back from being visible to everyone sitting near. Even the momentary, misguided notion that it might be him roiled me with fear, anger, shame.

Maybe it could be that the fantasy I have of making a difference in the world, making an impact with my writing, is only sustainable in my mind if I never really commit to it. Or, after all these years, part of me is still convinced that I can’t make it without dependence on a close artistic community, a mentor, or even an idol of the poet I wanted to be. Maybe it’s because I was projecting the hypocrisy I saw in a few people onto all of the school-centered poetry world, as a way of shielding myself from being burned again.

When the album didn’t catch fire, I’m to understand the Velvet Underground fired Andy Warhol. I’m honestly a bit jealous that they got the chance. Afterward, their subsequent albums didn’t receive major acclaim or popularity for years—but the copies that sold? They were sold to the right people. Brian Eno reportedly once said that The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought the record went out and started a band.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door went anonymous and laid low for as long as it took, I suppose. By the book’s end, they were impossible to ignore.

*

I bought my wife a record player for Mother’s Day this year, since her old one broke during our move and she still keeps an LP collection. Our son is three, loves music, and can’t buy his own presents yet, so I talked it over with him, and a turntable with a Prince album seemed the way to go. That’s her favorite musician, and it tracks with how I see her. My wife is incisive, empathetic, bold and unafraid to tell you how she feels. She’s been broken in her own ways, too, having known the power of a narcissist to warp you. She’s healed in the broken places—but even that requires recognition that scars count as healing. She is my living embodiment of what poetry did for me once, what Rainer Maria Rilke expressed in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

I know that during one of the tracks for the album, Nico tried over and over to record her vocals and each time, she couldn’t get her voice quite right. She can bellow like the best of them, but her bandmates wanted this to be vulnerable and comforting. In the wake of repeated failures, she started to cry, tried to give up. The rest of the band said she should give it one more go and if it didn’t work, fuck it. They’d move on. On the last chance, she did it perfectly. Funny enough, Andy Warhol originally wanted the Velvet Underground to put a big scratch in the middle of the record that would lead it to skip over and over when Nico sung the refrain, I’ll be your mirror.

It would do that forever, unless you moved the needle yourself.

—Benjamin Walker

#14: The Beatles, "Abbey Road" (1969)

14 Abbey Road.jpg

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

*

Dissolution (noun): the closing down or dismissing of an assembly, partnership, or official body. In other words, the art of coming apart.

*

Two hours before the end of the world, Pam sits behind the shop counter, flipping the pages of a magazine but neither looking at the pictures nor reading the articles. She glances up every time the bell over the door jingles, but it’s always a customer, a stranger, never Ricky. She sells packets of cigarettes, tins of tomatoes and beans, a tacky plastic necklace to a young girl who beams as she places it around her neck. Pam envies the girl her smile, her joy at such a small thing, so she takes a second necklace and pulls it over her own head. The light blue plastic shells settle against her chest, but as she watches the girl walk out of the shop, Pam share none of her happiness. She tugs the necklace and it snaps, scattering tiny beads across the floor.

*

Two days after the end of the world, Pam is once again in the shop, this time with her brother. He’s been sleeping rough again, a regular occurrence for him since his wife left him. Pam misses Candace, her sister-in-law. Or is she now an ex-sister-in-law? Pam’s not sure if they’ve divorced or not.

Her brother’s asking for money. Again. “You’ve got an extra ten pounds in the till,” he says. “I know you do. What’s the harm?”

The harm is that Pam doesn’t like her brother, hasn’t liked him since she was twelve and got her period and he took a pair of her blood-stained underwear to school to pass around. He charged the other boys two pounds each to—actually, Pam’s not sure what they did with them. She prefers it that way.

“Go away,” she tells her brother, wearily. The world has ended, and she has no time for him. “Just go away.”

*

The end of the world passes quietly, so quietly, in fact, that most don’t realize the world has ended at all. They wake, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, drive to work, come home, eat dinner, make love, go to bed, and do it all over again, and nothing has changed, or at least, nothing has changed that they can articulate. And yet.

*

Pam always assumed the world would end suddenly—an explosion, a flash of light, and then no more. Instead, it’s a long, slow, complicated disintegration, full of rumors and lawsuits and animosity. By the end of the first week, she’s exhausted by the news, no longer cares what Paul said in an interview, where John was spotted.

Ricky is gone. This, too, she thought she would care more about. Instead, he disappears from her life slowly, unceremoniously. Longer absences, first days, then weeks. She would blame the world ending, her distraction in the wake of its destruction, but the truth is, she’s been pulling away from him for months now, and he from her. One day, seven weeks after the end of the world, Pam realizes she hasn’t heard from him in nearly a month, and she feels a strange sense of relief as she closes up the shop, knowing that she no longer needs to wait for him.

*

What it looks like, the end of the world: abandoned guitars and drums, pianos and synthesizers. Recording equipment covered in dust. Four, where once there was one.

What it sounds like: silence. The heaviness of the air in the seconds after a guitar chord has cut off. An empty studio that moments before contained voices. The absence—of speaking, of singing, of chords, of beats, of shouts, of whispers, of breaths, of wind, of air.

*

There are some who say, later, that the world didn’t actually end. Look, they say, see how it’s still turning? See how the sun rises every day, how the grass grows, how we put petrol in our cars and drive to work? The dishes pile up in the sink, because we still cook, still eat, and someone has to do the washing up.

But Pam knows. She was there at the beginning, waiting outside the club in the rain, a plastic bin bag hanging over her like a poncho. She watched them on the stage in Liverpool, in Hamburg; she followed their careers, followed their rise, and so she knows: when a star so bright crashes, it burns, and destroys everything it touches.

*

One month after the end of the world, before Pam realizes that Ricky is gone but after she recognizes her weariness, a new album. It’s cruel, some say, like giving false hope. It was recorded before the previous new album, which some say makes that album the last album, not this album. Pam’s head aches when she tries to piece together the timeline. She purchases this new record, listens to it on repeat, plays it in the shop until she knows all the words. Sometimes, on the streets, in the stores, she sees people weeping. Pam doesn’t join in.

Pam’s brother is once again in the shop. “What is this?” he says, meaning the music. When Pam tells him, he says, “Who?”

*

Six months after the end of the world, Pam closes the shop and takes the train to London. It’s October, but the sun is still warm and the trees have yet to drop their leaves. She walks through the city, anonymous, smoking a cigarette, staring too closely at the storefronts and the faces of those she passes.

It begins to rain, so she goes into a pub and orders a pint. Her stool at the bar is uneven, and it wobbles every time she lifts the glass to her mouth. The man sitting next to her notices, laughs, makes a joke. She studies him. He’s attractive, in that weather-beaten, London sort of way. Before the world ended, she may have smiled back at him, flirted, at least considered leaving with him. Instead, she looks at him coldly, picks up her drink, and moves down two stools.

*

It is no small thing, to carry on after the end of the world. To continue in the face of carnage. To live with the agony of knowing that that which you have loved is lost, and, in its wake, to simply breathe.

Get over it, some people say. They complain about Pam, about all those who are unable to move past the world ending. They were just a band, Pam’s brother says. They weren’t even that good, and Pam screams at him to leave.

The reason Pam examines the faces so closely: because in the eyes of some, she can see a shared loss, and without speaking to them, she feels heard.

*

Two minutes before the end of the world, Ricky finally comes in the shop. He kisses her, his lips cool. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. They are both of them going through the motions now, but neither of them has yet admitted it.

Pam locks the till and pockets the key. “Ready?” she says. They’re going to lunch, a late lunch now, but lunch nonetheless.

Ricky walks toward the door. Something crunches beneath his feet, and he swears under his breath. He steps back, and Pam leans across the counter to see. One of the plastic shells from her broken necklace lies shattered. “It’s fine,” she says. She comes down from her perch on the stool, bends, and brushes the bead’s ashes into her palm.

*

At the moment the world ends:

Pam empties the remains of the plastic beads from her palm into the rubbish bin. Ricky holds the door open for her, and as she follows him out, she flips the sign in the window from open to closed. They walk toward the cafe, and Pam stumbles on a dip in the pavement, and as she tries to catch her balances, she reaches for Ricky, hoping to steady herself, but he’s walking ahead and hasn’t even noticed.

Pam’s brother, sitting on a bench in the park, rummages through his pocket for a cigarette and, finding none, curses his sister, because it’s easier to blame her than himself, easier to say that she’s selfish, greedy, and he tells himself that he never much liked her to begin with, though the truth, of course, is so much more complicated, and he does his best to ignore the regret that flickers at the edge of his mind.

The little girl who bought the plastic necklace from Pam sits in the back seat of the car as her parents bicker in the front. She sucks on the necklace, clacks it against her teeth, and her mother, catching sight of her in the rearview mirror, snaps at her to spit it out.

Pam catches her balance but stays where she is, watches Ricky walk away from her, and for a moment, she thinks about what will happen if she doesn’t follow.

And four young men, not yet 30, exit a door into the sunshine, maybe squinting a bit against its glare, maybe each gazing at the other three, remembering what they looked like when they were younger, happier, livelier, when there was joy and laughter, which isn’t to say those things are gone now, but they’re found in other settings, on their own or with other people, no longer with these three, though once they’d have sworn they were brothers; and they meet the eyes of the others, and then one of them nods, and then they all nod, and then they say, “Well, then,” and “So long,” and they leave in separate directions.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#15: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Are You Experienced" (1967)

15 Are You Experienced.jpg

I need to see him there, the boy huddled in a motel closet, shielding his eyes from the slatted light. Beyond, Al and Lucille: stumble-drunk, accusatory, shoving. Soon the sound of blows, a body flung across the rickety bed, a cheap lamp’s muffled crack like a firecracker bursting in a bottle’s throat. Maybe the boy stares into the carpet stains and makes of them a cosmos. Maybe he just weeps into the dust. Wherever his four younger siblings are—scattered with aunts, back in foster care—he’s glad they are not here. Here, a boy hunches into his knotted hunger and strums the bristle broom draped across his lap. At eight, he’s learned a truth some never learn, which is that our damage breeds something worse than fear: it is the terror we carry into our survival. Inside each self are the strangled selves that didn’t make it. Even now he hates the sound of his own voice, mumbly and coarse, how it strains to find a note and keep it. The story should begin with a boy jailed in screams. Who fills his ears up with himself. Who leans into the closet dark and hums.

*

Jimi Hendrix is where hyperbole goes to die. A half-century after his death, his legacy is an endless and insufficient heaping of glory. Greatest guitarist of all time. The sixties’ most tripped-out groover. Our Black Picasso. Sex symbol. Rebel. Icon. I don’t know much, but I know Jimi would have lapped this up, grinning. After being the neglected afterthought of his parents’ failure, an army washout, and a broke sideman for nearly a decade, what guy wouldn’t? Hendrix perfected cool, which might be best defined as the practiced air of not giving a shit, even though deep down, you are totally giving a shit. Unlike Dylan, who continues to court a mystery cult to offset the obviousness of his limitations, or Jim Morrison, who simply crumbled under the weight of his own pomposity and alcoholism, Hendrix took us by raw force of talent. He was a genius, he knew it, and he recorded the most visionary music of the 20th century in less than four years. He may have camouflaged his insecurities with swagger, but beneath the peacock blouses and burning Fenders, he knew his quarrel was with the universe. Can you imagine what an incomprehensibly liberating and lonely burden it must be, to be the best alive? Consider that Prince, the most gifted and prolific artist of his generation, basically spent his entire career trying to out-Jimi Jimi. And here we are, in their long shadows, rocking as we grieve.

*

The Beatles’ catalog aside, is there a more mythic rock album than Are You Experienced? For those of you who didn’t waste your teen years worshipping at the altar of psychedelia, let me give you the Spark Notes version. After years of toiling as an itinerant hired gun for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix is “discovered” in 1966 by Linda Keith—Keith Richards’s then-girlfriend—who quickly becomes the guitarist’s confidant and cheerleader. Enter Chas Chandler, former member of the Animals and aspiring producer, who hears one Hendrix set in Greenwich Village, whips up a contract, and flies his new star to London where the Jimi Hendrix Experience is hastily assembled as a power trio to showcase Jimi’s unprecedented pyrotechnics. The frenetic Mitch Mitchell joins on drums, and rhythm guitarist Noel Redding makes the switch—with uneven results—to bass. In less than nine months, from late September 1966 to May 1967, Jimi Hendrix signed with a label, moved to a new country, formed a band, began songwriting in earnest, proved his prowess in the studio, flabbergasted the entire British rock scene, and released his first album to rave reviews. He did this while simultaneously transgressing boundaries of race, culture, and class, which would have otherwise maintained his invisibility forever. The tired platitudes we typically ascribe to albums like Are You Experienced—groundbreaking, ahead of its time—don’t come close to articulating this kind of sudden historic arrival. With a modest budget and a timid, under-rehearsed rhythm section comprised of two English guys who were essentially strangers, Hendrix made, in eight weeks, an album that would obliterate most bands’ greatest hits. At turns incendiary and lyrical, his playing on these eleven tracks was, and remains, the proverbial throwing-down-the-gauntlet for every guitarist who dares plug in after him. And yet, Jimi’s artistic range should ultimately endure as his greatest legacy. Sure, “Purple Haze” and “Fire” offer archetypal machismo, but “Hey Joe” demonstrates Jimi’s gifts as an intuitive arranger of others’ work, so much so that few remember it is a cover. (This happens again two years later, when his recording of “All Along the Watchtower” makes Bob Dylan forget Bob Dylan wrote it.) “Manic Depression” and “Love or Confusion” may be the earliest examples of popular music interrogating the messiness of obsession and mental health. “Foxey Lady” is sexiness personified. And for those of us who view Hendrix as a poet, “May This Be Love” and “The Wind Cries Mary” are among his most introspective, ethereal ballads. It must have seemed like braggadocio in the spring of 1967 when prospective buyers skimmed the rear sleeve of Are You Experienced, which claimed the album breaks the world into fragments, then reassembles it. Bless that writer, unnamed and underpaid. They got it right.

*

Hendrix learned how to play guitar with his teeth before he ever dropped acid. If we’re going to have an adult conversation, which I regard as the only kind worth having in a nation bloated with hype and bullshit, then we need to talk about Hendrix’s substance abuse. Was Jimi a junkie by the end? Probably. Did he record hundreds of songs and tour the world in a strung-out daze? Hardly. While the recording of Electric Ladyland, his final studio achievement, ultimately became a Warhol-esque orgy that racked up six figures in debt, ran over schedule, and took on all the trappings of excess, for most of his career Hendrix was the kind of musician who arrived early, stayed late, and remained ferociously perfectionist. At seventeen, aroused by the titular song’s cheeky reference to tripping, I believed that adolescent nonsense about exploratory drug use serving as a gateway to transcendent inspiration. Now, in middle age, I suspect that Jimi’s steady flow of dope and booze (and Scandinavian models) was his only—if dysfunctional—means of coping with the crippling artificiality of the music industry. Electric Ladyland became a masterpiece because each time the party ended, Jimi nudged the mics and tweaked the nobs and cut another take. Similarly, Are You Experienced endures as the most authoritative debut in rock history because after twenty years of rootless rambling, a poor kid from Seattle resolved to fly across an ocean, knowing his country couldn’t hear him yet. I once had a high school teacher snarl at me and say someday you’ll realize all that stuff you worship is just about drugs. He was an asshole. If he’s still alive, I hope he’s slowly suffocating in his bitterness. Only in America could we conflate our self-destruction with our dreams.

*

Reportedly, when Hendrix, who was one-fourth Cherokee, first saw the sleeve design for his second album, Axis: Bold As Love, with its psychedelic swirl of Hindu iconography, a laborious and extravagant cover that cost his label $5,000 ($36,000 today, calculated for inflation), he simply sighed, I’m the other kind of Indian. Like most people of color, Jimi was woke before we had a word for woke.

*

They get the guitar wrong. Perhaps you recall Pepsi’s 2004 Super Bowl ad, where Jimi Hendrix is a doe-eyed suburban kid who, after a sip of the aforementioned soda, hears the opening riff of “Purple Haze” roaring in his head. Out of my many grievances with this objectification, the wrong model of guitar belongs low on the list, after they depict the mid-1950s as serenely post-racial and they fictionalize an adolescent Jimi as leisurely middle-class and they butcher the poetry of a poor boy pulling a one-stringed ukulele out of the trash. Even still, I cannot abide the aching irony that the Fender hanging in the commercial’s idyllic pawn shop window is a Telecaster, an instrument Hendrix played sporadically (if at all), and not a Stratocaster, his signature axe that he popularized the world over. Since the marketers aren’t worth it, I’ll spare us an even more savage Freudian reading of this premise, which might begin with the topic sentence Pepsi unwittingly pitches their sugar poison as a gateway drug. Imagine the boardroom fogged with aftershave where young executives, all Jared Kushner lookalikes, walked through the storyboard for this dross, smug and self-assured it was cool. Imagine their salaries, their Jaguars, the walls of glass that separate them from the custodians who wipe down their cubicles. Imagine them at their rooftop soirees, tipsy after two microbrews, trying to impress each other’s women as they strum haltingly through a Dave Matthews number. Their sunsets are bonfire orange. Their coolers are full. They harmonize through perfect teeth.

*

I need to see him there, the sophomore with a head cold, drunk on screwdrivers, surrendering to night. Stacked beside his dorm desk are a dozen inter-library loans on Jimi Hendrix for a term paper he isn’t qualified to write. The sentences he’s pecked since dinner are forced, disjointed, overwrought: Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore, black power trio as black power statement, “Machine Gun” as magnum opus against Vietnam. His only hope to finish school is a third and final year of overloads. His meal plan is running out. A Goodwill turntable sizzles down the hours. He’s learning the terror of reducing a thing you love to an assignment. He’s learning some stories aren’t his to tell. Outside, he sparks a Parliament and watches its smoke arabesque into Pennsylvania snow. When he shuts his midnight eyes, he can feel the flakes drift down the gap around his jacket collar. He’s going to stand there a long time, leaning on a lamppost, humming at the storm.

—Adam Tavel

#16: Bob Dylan, "Blood on the Tracks" (1975)

16 Blood on the Tracks.jpg

I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid, matching them with chords and melodies since I was a teenager. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I switched to an Apple computer that came with GarageBand, and found a midi keyboard, that I set out to record. Around that time, I was writing breakup songs, so my first self-published release was a breakup EP; I often wish I would’ve just kept the material to myself.

*

Fans and critics consider Bob Dylan’s 1975 release, Blood on the Tracks, a touchstone breakup album, but don’t tell him that. “I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce,” Dylan remarked to interviewer Bill Flannagan in 1985. “Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.” In the Biograph liner notes that same year, Dylan called those critics who saw a personal connection “stupid and misleading jerks.”

So Blood on the Tracks, at least, is an album of romantic separation, as referenced in the aching “If You See Her, Say Hello,” Dylan intoning, “Although our separation / it pierced me to the heart.” This separation parallels Dylan’s pre-divorce split with his wife of nearly a decade, Sara. In Dylan’s memoir, though, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan gestures to Blood on the Tracks as “an entire album based on Chekhov short stories—critics thought it was autobiographical—that was fine.”

It’s often difficult to take Dylan at his word. Online message boards float the idea that, by hinting at a Chekhov connection, Dylan was toying with his obsessive fanbase, sending them on a fruitless hunt through Chekhov’s stories for references and allusions. And they have, identifying a potential source text in Chekhov’s short story “The Steppe,” which begins as the album does: “Early one morning.” What’s more, the phrase “tracks of blood” appears in the story, proving… not much.

It’s more likely Dylan doesn’t want us to know where the songs came from—if he even knows. He wants us, instead, to appraise the tracks separately from his life. He wants us to leave him out of it.

Yet doleful songs like “If You See Her, Say Hello,” or the woman who was “married when we first met / soon to be divorced” in “Tangled Up in Blue,” or the backhanded compliment, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” do invoke Sara Dylan, implying some degree of personal connection.

“I’m going out of my mind, whoa,” Dylan wails in “You’re a Big Girl Now”: “With a pain that stops and starts / like a corkscrew to my heart / ever since we’ve been apart.” Never has Dylan expressed himself with such rawness, rendered heartbreak as such devastation. If this song isn’t autobiographical, then there truly is no such thing as listening to the “real” Dylan.

By the same token, Dylan has said that his songs come from an autobiographical place. “Songs are just thoughts; for the moment they stop time,” Dylan told Flannagan. “I usually have to have proof that something exists before I even want to bother to deal with it at all. It must exist, it must have happened, or the possibility of it happening must have some meaning for me.” So Dylan’s material emerges from experience—from dreams rather than fantasies, he said, and later wrote in Chronicles that “a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.” But those facts don’t box Bob Dylan, or Bobby Zimmerman, or whoever Dylan is into his songs.

*

I know where my songs came from: my breakup. I dated my now-ex through my late twenties. We moved to Boston together before breaking up. Around the same time, I got that MacBook Air and Line 6 midi keyboard.

There were six songs inspired by my ex, most written while we were still together and living in Tallahassee, and they arrived in various ways. The first came in a dream:

We’re light years apart
We’re farther than far
We’re satellites in orbit
Around two different stars

I rolled out of bed to my keyboard, found a spacey mode and key for the chords and melody, and finished the song the same morning. When I played it for my now-ex, she asked who it was about. I told her it was a fictional account of a troubled couple; my untruth seemed to satisfy her.

In the following weeks, another melody percolated up from my subconscious, and one day while lying on the couch in the three-room duplex we’d rented, I heard it for the first time in full. The lines, “This is something like torture / this is something like what torture is,” boomed in my brain, reflecting our inability or unwillingness to communicate in any honest or productive way. The scrap repeated in my head, running 3/4 time, with oohing background vocals. It made a fitting soundtrack for my unvocalized feelings.

Meanwhile a slow ska chord progression I’d banged out on the keyboard gradually took on some lyrics that went:

Girl I’m not happy being miserable
You’d better get that anger under control
I’m not saying I’m a perfect guy
But you got that homicidal look in your eye

These words I didn’t sing aloud, at least not in her presence.

But then, as if to remind myself of the domestic bright sides—the shared meals, the companionship, the inside jokes and banter—a brighter song occurred to me. “You and I got a good thing goin’,” it began. “Got a shotgun shack where our love’s still growin’.” There were upsides to this relationship, too, and in my mind this song developed as a celebration of our heterodomesticity.

Whatever optimism “Tallahassee” mustered didn’t last long. Another tune, “Didn’t Get Me,” developed from a recriminatory nugget: “You got everything you wanted / but you didn’t get me.” Near the end of the relationship, she moved to Boston a couple months ahead of me, as she’d gotten a new job in a glittering downtown tower, and I still had summer classes to teach. I cleared out our duplex, loaded my 2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan with the rest of our belongings and our two cats, and made the three-day drive alone, singing, You didn’t get me.

Two weeks later in Boston, I ended it, citing a dearth of affection, intimacy, communication. The fallout was nasty, but we split our things and went separate ways. Weeks later I was riding the city bus, on my way to my new teaching gig, when another melody arose, airy and ethereal: “I don’t wanna leave the past behind / don’t drive me from the ruins of my mind.” I missed her sometimes; that realization brought me relief, helped me feel like less of a loveless goon. It took months to find the melody, the chords, to record a demo.

Nothing was forced. It all came with time. Such an organic creative product must have integrity, right? Mustn’t it be correct?

*

So I get what Dylan means when he says the songs just come, as if he plucks them from the air. I remember each song’s arrival from seemingly elsewhere; yet I also maintain a sense of the events and emotions that prompted each tune. A composition, however, can reveal the circumstances of its creation: what the artist was reading, studying, thinking and feeling at the time. Likewise, the opening track of Blood on the Tracks, “Tangled Up in Blue,” belies Dylan’s influences. Those open, swelling chords provide Dylan’s speaker a platform for “standin’ on the side of the road /… / Heading out for the east coast,” launching into an American journey as epic as any laid down by Steinbeck or Kerouac, Ginsberg or Wolfe.

Dylan himself, when talking to Flannagan, invoked other modes of art to describe the song’s genesis. “I wanted to defy time,” Dylan said, “so that the story took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.” These new temporal connections renewed Dylan’s writing like a shot in the arm, and Dylan attributed the concept to his lessons from the painter Norman Raeben. The methodology concerned accessing the space where past, present, and future overlap. “I was trying to do it in a conscious way,” Dylan told Flannagan, “it” being inspired, impassioned songwriting. “I used to be able to do it in an unconscious way, but I wasn’t into it that way anymore.”

At the same time, Dylan exported his new artistic vision into his home life, deepening the rift in his marriage. “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day,” Dylan said. “She never knew what I was talking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.”

Others couldn’t understand it, either. Dylan tested out the songs with blues-guitar whizz Mike Bloomfield, who hadn’t recorded with Dylan since Highway 61 Revisited. “It was one of the worst social and musical experiences of my life,” Bloomfield later said.

Likewise, Dylan tried out the material on Stephen Stills; according to Graham Nash, Stills later remarked, “He’s a good songwriter, but he’s no musician.”

Even in the studio, Dylan hurried the recording, as if he couldn’t sit with this material a day longer. During those four days in New York City, September 1974, Dylan would run through changes for the next song while everyone present was trying to listen to the previous take. He’d switch songs in the middle of a take. Eventually he trimmed the studio musicians down to just himself and the bass player.

For these takes, apparently, Dylan didn’t even remove his coat, as the buttons can be heard clacking against the body of his guitar—noisy friction indicative of Dylan’s psychic discord.

*

I played it all myself. The keyboard sounds, the layers of piano, guitar, bass, and more. I recorded myself beating on a ceramic drum, along with a shaker and a tambourine. I hauled in pots from the kitchen and smacked them with drum sticks. I resorted to the midi sounds to flesh out the percussion with snare, symbols, high hat, and bass drum. With the tracks laid out on in GarageBand I listened closely, ironing out sour notes, bad timing—even with the aid of a metronome, I couldn’t help rushing the beat. I read websites about vocal recording, learned about audio mixing. I became absorbed in nailing the arrangements, tweaking the solos until they hit just the right notes.

I stole away from my writing, teaching, studying, to work on the songs. And when summer came, I played all afternoon, broke for dinner, and resumed late into the night, then laid in bed unable to sleep, the sounds running loops through my mind. In the morning, I listened for my roommates to leave so I could wail out my lyrics, essaying different inflections. I grew so close with the material I couldn’t tell anymore if it was good, or bad, or even representative of me as an artist. I could only trust the process.

Second Person came to me as an apt title, since all the songs were told from that perspective, focused on my ex-girlfriend and the arc of our relationship. I hoped to bring a factual, reportage style into my songwriting, pumping the songs with details. I sang jokingly in “Tallahassee” about how our cats “match our personalities,” hers was “full of cuddles” and mine, “full of fleas.” In “Outta Your Heart” I complained about her “angry temper” because, after all, I was her “live-in boyfriend … The guy whose name’s beside yours on the lease.” Even more specific, amid the enumerations in “Didn’t Get Me” I mentioned her “lime-green Kia,” her “tattoo of a dog” that “looks like its puking flowers.” Each of these inclusions stemmed from an aesthetic decision to seek the universal in the particular, the poetic in the personal. I’d written about my experiences plainly, all in attempt to affect a style of realism, of immediacy. Such was my training as a nonfiction writer. I hoped to bring these storytelling elements into my songwriting.

I set a release date, worked on the album cover—the yawning jaws of the fat black cat my ex had adopted then left in my care—set up an account on BandCamp and continued moving notes, adjusting volumes, toggling levels. Tinkering till the end.

*

Dylan finished his album and sent it off to Columbia, who planned to release it in time for Christmas, 1974. When Dylan returned to Minnesota for the holidays, he brought the album, pre-release, and played it for his younger brother, David Zimmerman, a record producer in his own right. David convinced Dylan the product he had—dark, limp, morose—would do nothing for his career. So Dylan phoned Columbia at the eleventh hour to halt the release. David put together a session with local Minnesota musicians to re-record five of the ten songs. The group met in Minneapolis in late December, attempted to mimic the sound of Highway 61 Revisited as best they could, and as a result played their way onto half the album’s songs. To the band’s disappointment, when the album finally hit stores on January 20, 1975, none of them had received any credit on the cover, which had already been printed.

Despite their anonymity, the group resurrected much of the album. “Tangled Up in Blue” changed from pensive folk to hangdog rock. From groaning about the “Idiot wind / blowing every time you move your mouth,” Dylan now shouted the invective: “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” In that song, the story scraps about a “man named Gray” distance Dylan from his speaker, though the verse sneering to the song’s female target that one day she’ll lie “in the ditch / flies buzzing around your eyes / blood on your saddle” stands as the album’s most venomous lash, and Dylan knew it. “I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind,’” Dylan told Flannagan. “I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. Which might be the same thing, I don’t know.”

*

My album spat its own venom. Yet I hoped the bookend confessions of ambivalent affection would bring it full circle. So I shared the links to social media, garnering a modest number of likes and comments, a couple shares. BandCamp’s statistics showed that several dozen people listened to the first track that first day, though less than half proceeded through the whole album. It wasn’t until the second day, when a comment popped up on my Facebook from a friend of my ex, that I knew there’d be pushback. “Is this for real?” she wrote with a straight-faced emoticon glaring from the screen.

My ex and I were no longer in communication, but I soon heard through some backchannels that she wasn’t happy. She didn’t like the reportage-style of the lyrics, felt they were one-sided, but that was all I heard. My mom emailed that she found the album “disturbing” and preached forgiveness. But when I pressed her on what exactly she was reacting to, she recanted, writing what she found disturbing was the fact I’d gone through such an experience, and that the words she should’ve used were “entertaining, satirical… a combo of Dylan and Weird Al.” A friend texted me that, “It’s great!... You should be proud.” Another blurted out that “Tallahassee” was “goofy as hell!”

One well-meaning, middle-aged man from Houston whom I’d met years earlier at a writers’ retreat wrote that he loved the songs, adding, “One or two are slightly misogynistic (but in the best sense of the word if that’s politically correct)!” I had to wonder, what was the best sense of “misogyny”?

I’d always imagined playing my songs for others, anticipating their reactions; now people had real opinions. And they all seemed to feel something different. By tracking the listens, I got the sense I’d failed to reach an audience beyond people I already knew. So my curiosity lingered: What did my EP sound like beyond my own social spheres?

Six weeks after the release, I received an email from a small album-review website. They said they liked the album (they liked it!), and that they’d review it, for a price.

I sent them sixty dollars and a couple weeks later, the review came out: 3.4 out of 5 stars. “Frivolous and quirky” the reviewer called the lyrics and delivery. The vocals, he wrote, were “something that you would hear on a kid’s show.” He latched onto the fact that “Tallahassee” didn’t “attempt any metaphors, puns, etc.,” and that the second track, “Farther Than Far,” has a “sing-along type vibe about 101 astronomy.” After those first two tracks, the rest of the album, though not “appropriate for children,” hardly seemed to register. The mix, he wrote, “was about average for home recording.” I bristled at the criticism, but his comments began to clarify the weaknesses in my first release. While I’d been focusing on the content of specific lines, in truth, my voice and word choice, along with the limitations of my home studio, were preventing wider appeal.

*

In the wake of my brief breakup album, the keyboards I’d played so diligently collected dust. I re-dedicated myself to my writing. Music just isn’t my primary mode of expression. Writing is. So here I am.

For Dylan, the inverse is true. He surmounts criticism of his songs with more songs. He writes songs any time of day. He writes them in cars, on the road. He writes them in his head while chatting with people, while milling in a crowd. And he enjoys how the songs don’t linger around; he gets them out and gets on with his life.

It’s time I do the same.

—Paul Haney

#28: The Who, "Who's Next" (1971)

28 Whos Next.png

The idea behind the Who’s aborted Lifehouse project was simple enough—in the future, everybody lives in special suits, through which the Government feeds non-stop entertainment to keep citizens numb and distracted. Then one day, a roadie named Bobby discovers that rock and roll music might have the power, through the performance of a perfect, “universal note,” to free these hyper-connected men and women from their digital shackles, and maybe, too, provide some sort of spiritual transcendence. As far as the first part of all that goes, looking at it in 2019, it’s an easy idea to wrap our heads around, sort of Fahrenheit 451 meets The Matrix meets the actual internet. What’s so difficult about any of that?

*

Obviously Townshend’s idea turned out to be more difficult than it sounded, as Lifehouse was never completed, becoming one of the most desired lost albums in rock history. All was not lost, though—Lifehouse ultimately became Who’s Next, one of the great albums of the classic rock era.

*

But to Pete Townshend, an album like Who’s Next wasn’t initially perceived as being enough. The impetus for Lifehouse was the success of Tommy. That is, the Who’s star, after a meteoric rise on the strength of early singles, fell into decline almost as quickly, with Sell Out, their 1967 classic, being their first LP not to crack the UK top ten. Across the pond, album sales were steadily increasing with each album, but the band still hadn’t wormed their way into the top forty on the LP charts—until Tommy. Tommy reintroduced the Who in England, and announced their coming out as a major act in the States. As such, as soon as the Who started thinking about what to do after Tommy, Pete Townshend was worried that the band would be perceived as having peaked were it incapable of somehow “topping” their beloved rock opera. Townshend became obsessed with doing just that. That’s where Lifehouse came from. And, really, that’s the only place an idea as convoluted as Lifehouse could come from.

*

To be fair, this is a fairly common place for lost albums to come from. The Beach Boys’ Smile was driven by Brian Wilson’s desire to surpass Pet Sounds. The project fell apart due to the pressure Wilson was putting on himself and his declining mental health. Prince’s The Black Album was driven by his desire to answer calls that his music had become too pop-oriented, and was shelved for years because he came to believe the album was evil. Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams was never realized due to the weight of a heavy concept—one side would be a history of America, the second side social commentary. Even Guided By Voices lost a number of albums to big ambitions, with a number of “shitcanned” albums, going by names like The Power of Suck and The Flying Party Is Here, eventually evolving and converging into Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the album that would follow Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, Pollard et al’s two undisputed masterpieces. For these “lost” albums, however, Pollard’s desire to produce a strong follow up was further complicated by his hyper-prolificacy and Matador’s desire that the band release only an album a year—by the time the new album could be released, Pollard’s body of current work had shed and regrown its skin, twice.

*

Of course, it’s rare for lost albums to stay lost forever. Smile was famously released twice, first as a Brian Wilson solo LP in the mid-00’s, and later as a Beach Boys sanctioned reconstruction from original studio recordings. The Black Album? It was released briefly in 1994. As for Lifehouse, like Chrome Dreams and those lost Guided By Voices releases, fans have reconstructed the album from outtakes and official releases, using studio notes, books, and published interviews to guide sequencing. These versions can be found fairly easily online.

*

Still, there is not, and almost certainly never will be, a full, finished, “canonical” version of Lifehouse. At least as an album, anyway. See, Lifehouse does exist as a radio drama, and as a “sessions” box set, and will, in 2020, also exist as a graphic novel. Honestly, that’s all Lifehouse should be, because, instead of Lifehouse, we have Who’s Next, born almost entirely from songs that had been recorded for Lifehouse (John Entwistle’s “My Wife” being the only one that never seemed earmarked for the failed album). For a project that failed so spectacularly, it’s odd to realize that many of the songs that had been recorded for Lifehouse are among the band’s best: “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes”—these have all become a part of popular culture, were part of popular culture before Who songs were adopted as opening credit anthems for CBS crime scene procedurals. Your friend’s parents might not know that it’s called “Baba O’Riley,” but the minute they hear that song’s opening synths and its iconic “teenage wasteland” refrain, they know exactly what song they’re listening to. A song from a failed album.

*

It’s clear that Lifehouse didn’t fail, was never going to fail, because of its songs. The songs were always there. No, the problem with Lifehouse was part narrative, part conceptual—that is, Townshend’s ideas for the narrative of Lifehouse were so convoluted and intricate that the rest of the band couldn’t keep up. Conceptually, too, Townshend’s ideas moved beyond the realm of reason into a bizarre notion of spirituality. As part of the album’s concept, the band booked a residency at the Young Vic theatre, with some heady goals, as described by Townshend: “We want to see how far the interaction [between audience and band] can be taken . . . I don’t seriously expect people to leave their bodies. But I think we might go further than rock concerts have gone before.” Townshend added, at a later press conference, “We shall try to induce mental and spiritual harmony through the medium of rock music.” Lifehouse had no prayer of succeeding.

*

Still, Lifehouse came remarkably close to becoming an actual album. Close enough that somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is a reality in which Pete Townshend completed the album. There is almost certainly not, however, a universe in which rock and roll music caused an audience to transcend their physical trappings, and no universe in which a perfect note came to embody spiritual awakening, or unity, or whatever it was that Townshend was going for.

*

When Pete Townshend tried to explain the various ideas comprising Lifehouse to the rest of the Who, Roger Daltrey famously struggled to understand how such a world was possible, saying, of the premise that all homes and people are connected, “They’ll never get enough wire.”

*

The cover of Who’s Next features the Who standing around a giant pylon in some sort of post-industrial wasteland. There are piss stains on the concrete object. Townshend appears to be refastening his belt. The band, we are to believe, have just finished urinating on the concrete object. There are theories that this cover was selected to imply that the Who were pissing all over the idea of Townshend’s masterpiece that would never be. If the lore is to be believed, though, the image came together organically when the band, driving with photographer Ethan A. Russell, saw the giant concrete block and decided it was a good spot for a photo. As it happens, the only member of the band who was able to actually piss on command was Townshend, with the photographer or an assistant splashing rain water from a tin on to the concrete, giving the appearance of at least one other member having pissed. Maybe Townshend liked the idea of pissing over his own failed narrative and conceptual ideas for Lifehouse. Or maybe the piss photo had nothing to do with any of that, was just some rock and rollers blowing off some steam.

*

And maybe this is, at least in part, some of the charm of Who’s Next. Townshend was all set to provide us with his second narrative concept album about how white rock and roll music could deliver us from evil, but instead, we ended up with just an exceptional collection of songs, sans narrative and concept—just some rock and rollers blowing off steam. There is no heavy handed symbolism holding the songs back, no convoluted narrative. Maybe Who’s Next is the greatest argument ever made against the artistic viability of concept albums. Maybe the Who and some of their contemporaries could have learned a thing or two from the failure of Lifehouse and the stunning success of Who’s Next. I guess that’s easy to say in retrospect.

*

Having listened to a couple Lifehouse reconstructions, I can say confidently that Who’s Next is the better album, by far. The bloat and mess of Lifehouse obscures the power of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Buries the beauty of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Defangs “Bargain.” Maybe, had Lifehouse been released instead of Who’s Next, it would have been just as much or even more of a classic, but I doubt that. Who’s Next was tight, powerful, brilliant. It showed the world that the Who didn’t need to do musical theater to make important music—they could still be just a killer rock band. So, why am I spending so much time writing about Lifehouse in this essay that’s supposed to be about Who’s Next? Because even though I know Who’s Next is better than Lifehouse could have ever been, I can’t shake the lost album’s mythology.

*

Consider this: what is the enduring legacy of Smile now that it more or less exists? The night that Brian Wilson’s version of Smile was set to be released, my friend Seth and I drove all over Dayton at midnight, looking for a twenty-four hour big box store that had already put its copies out on the shelves. When we found a copy, I don’t remember where, we drove up I-75 listening, then stopped at a Waffle House. We’d both known about the album for years, had listened to bootleg studio outtakes and half-formed reconstructions, had fantasized about it. For my part, I believed it would be the greatest pop record ever made. After that first listen, when Seth and I talked about the album, we were both in awe, sort of. Not long, maybe a year after the album was released, I downloaded the beloved “purple chick” reconstruction, which used original Beach Boys outtakes to piece the album together. When an official Beach Boys version was released a few years later, I bought, that, too—and sure, it’s the closest we can get to Smile, but it’s still not Smile, not the way it would have existed in 1967. I thought of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys as a contemporary American take on Pierre Menard, but instead of trying to “arrive at” the text of Don Quixote, word for word, in a contemporary context, Wilson and the Beach Boys were trying to recreate that text out of their own, original context, and in doing so, had somehow breached the authenticity that music fans crave. This is when I came to understand that I would never know Smile the way I wanted to, could never know Lifehouse.

*

Maybe the idea of authenticity in pop music is absurd. Is Lifehouse such an alluring idea because it was Pete Townshend’s original idea for the Who’s follow up to Tommy? Though I recognize that Who’s Next is the superior album, part of me still yearns to hear the original concept as Townshend originally intended. Just like I want to hear a 1967-released version of Smile, or a fully sequenced and mastered version of Jimi Hendrix’s fourth album, or a ‘70s-released version of Chrome Dreams. But none of these things can ever happen. And so if the “authentic” release in its “authentic” context can never be realized, what is the point of desiring these things? Isn’t what exists, be it officially released or cobbled together by fans, enough? Shouldn’t we respect the artistic process in which some ideas fail and newer, better ideas rise to the surface? I’ve written multiple drafts of this essay, trying to find the right balance between discussions of Lifehouse and Who’s Next, and discussions of “lost albums.” My original intent was bigger and messier, but this version is stronger. Maybe albums like Lifehouse and Smile are different because their creators are the ones who can’t quite let them go. If the creative muscle driving the music believes something great was lost when the album was shelved, maybe, it seems, we should carry a torch for that album as well?

We shouldn’t. Ultimately, Lifehouse is an unnecessary footnote in the history of the Who. Who’s Next may not have been Pete Townshend’s first, authentic vision of the project, but Townshend’s vision for Lifehouse failed, and as should happen with bands, all four members picked up the pieces of one member’s failure and turned that failure into one of the classic rock era’s true masterpieces.

—James Brubaker