#99: Sly and the Family Stone, "There's a Riot Goin' On" (1971)

99 There's a Riot Goin On.jpg

In 2003, all incoming freshman at Wauwatosa East High School were required to take a public speaking class, a time I like to revisit when I run out of things to be embarrassed about. There are many events and chapters in my life that I look back on with the sober wisdom of experience and think, "Man, I’d kick ass at [insert thing I used to suck at] now" or something like “That catering job that gave me food poisoning was a picnic compared to this office fuckery.” Something about the rose tint of hindsight refracts pain into a perverse longing. You don’t realize in the moment that being astronaut high and coming up with new ways to cut cantaloupes is perhaps an apex of some employment/pleasure ratio until you’re using your master’s degree to rotate pdfs for someone making three times your salary. That in retrospect, having a public speaking class as the only ringing problem in your life is pretty cushy considering some of the alternatives. But it’s hard when you grow accustomed to comfort to not look back in anger.

The crux or pedagogy (see I would kick ass at this shit now) of the public speaking course was to help all of us pimple-pocked, hormone-addled, unannounced-erection-having anxiety blobs get over our fears of being heard by a group of our shade-throwing and shit-talking peers; an experiment that proved woefully, if not frightfully, un-empowering. I vividly recall stuttering through a how-to demonstration on cookie baking, and holding back a stress poop as one of my fellow classmates whispered the terms of a handjob with another of my distinguished colleagues. So who’s the chump in this scenario: the sweat drenched incontinent covered in flour, or the system that allows for such a charade to occur? Now I’d go gluten free for a week.

But despite building a repertoire for failure, I always fell reaching, and the toast was my crowning achievement. We were told it was a chance at levity; that we could choose between solemn eulogies or frivolous homages. One of my compatriots, for example, gave a rousing tribute to his friend and fellow skater, regaling at length his ability to shred rails and thumb his nose at city ordinances, all while making oblique and obvious reference to their shared reverence for choice bud. This modern day Cicero went on to receive a week’s suspension for an honest attempt to hotbox the gym pool during a raucous game of unsanctioned water polo because not all heroes stop bad guys.

As I in no way understood how humor could impress a faded crowd, I let myself be intoxicated by the pomp of the assignment and leaned hard on both the grandiose and the sentimental. And I was in luck, because I’d just received a transformative musical bequeathing that thoroughly rocked my as of yet un(in)formed opinions.

For my birthday that year, my uncle handed me an open and unwrapped cardboard box full of CDs. As I read the spines (Blind Faith, Traffic, Roxy Music), he removed one of the cases and handed it to me. It showed part of an American flag with the stars replaced for actual suns, the plastic cover cracked on a bias.

“Now these cats,” he said, pausing for emphasis as he nestled a Camel filter into his faux-ivory cigarette holder before clamping it in his teeth like the Penguin, “these cats could play.”

So I started there.

Of course I’d heard Sly and the Family Stone before: “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” however you spell that “Thank You” gibberish. But this album was different. It sounded worn, yet unwavering and persistent, like a copper roof gone green. The way the sun looks through UV protective lenses. I spun it endlessly: my canary yellow Discman complete with athletic style wrap-around-like-a-record-baby headphones that looked like a croakie on full blast, pushing play again and again.

I had decided to honor Sly Stone with a lifetime achievement award as my final project. The toast was meant to combine all our new knowledge and acumen into one grand gesture of freshly tapped confidence. I memorized every member by name and instrument and sought out their other records, even some I learned Sly loved to spin as a DJ at KSOL in San Francisco before he met Cynthia Robinson. Pouring over lyric sheets, I followed their rise and fall and tried to trace the mountain. But it wasn’t until after I crossed the spotlighted stage of Wauwatosa East High School to stand at a podium with onlookers masked in the darkness of the theater that I felt the air get thinner with every word I uttered, for I had studied and agonized over the details of an artist I barely understood.

The panic that comes with staring down a fear is a cheap and uncomfortable high, one that tunnels the mind and dulls the senses. I don’t remember a thing about that speech other than the noises: my own mouth, dry and crinkling at the edges of words, the hum of the lights, the low-slung rustle of my classmates. The only proof I have of my performance is a C+ scrawled on paper and the memories of days of preparation. This was unequivocally something I sucked at, one that time and wisdom have done little to improve. Some things don’t get easier, we just adapt to shift their weight and put the odds back in our favor. I try to stay off stages.

But if forced, my wise and kickass self would have tried to get up and talk about how this record has swagger, a word that as a card-carrying member of the cool guys, I know and use regularly. I would have tried my hand at humor. But I’d still be grasping at the same inescapable quality that eludes me about this record, because with Riot there's something more going on.

I’d talk about how it’s a schism of body against mind; a record that revels in the need for swagger by confronting the things swagger is built to push away. That it's learning how to swim by treading water. That it’s hard bark against a double standard. That it’s emotional Kevlar. Gripping the podium, I’d talk about addiction, about the power of art, the question of race. And just as the heat became unbearable my time would be up and I’d recede back into the cooling darkness.

That is what Riot is about. It’s about who gets to catch their breath and when, and how those afforded that luxury make space for those society aims to suffocate. It’s disavowing a self-aggrandizing notion that we value the lives of those who stop providing us with a piece of themselves to consume. That as a species, we’ve evolved beyond empathy for the husk left over after creativity has been scattered to the winds.

When traveling, Sly Stone famously carried a violin case full of cocaine, which complicates the sociopolitical wokeness of “I Want to Take You Higher” when the means to that end proved chemical. Of course, that’s a glib summary. But when we talk about Sly Stone now it’s impossible to do so without landing on his eventual outcome: a drug-addled recluse familiar with experiences of homelessness. I type this hoping he’s OK, my ears red from the toast I don’t remember that didn’t end like this:

Being perhaps so exhausted by the thought that we the people would never get along, Sly traded in his 60s optimism for the disappointment from which we are all still hit with shrapnel. If “Everyday People” captured the hope of a generation, Riot reflects the bitter reality that rose from its ashes. It’s a record with unpaid debts and a limp, because at its core swagger is just bravado with panache, its purpose couched in whatever it serves: distant cousins of both the albatross and the Cuban Link. Because with there being so much to unpack from what Sly gave us, perhaps all we can do is keep listening and try to listen better.

So please don’t make me get up and talk about it.

—Nick Graveline

#101: Frank Sinatra, "In the Wee Small Hours" (1955)

101 In the Wee Small Hours.jpg

Dear Frank,

How’s it going? How is the great beyond treating you? Who you hanging out with these days—Elvis, Mozart, Biggie? Regardless, I hope it’s a jamming time! I was writing to say thanks, which I am sure you get A LOT.  Is Morrison jealous of how many fan letters you receive?

Anyway, I was about 8 years old when I saw your last concert on TV. It was summer, the night before my family was leaving for vacation. I had already been tucked into bed when my dad very excitedly ran to my door and told me to come into my parents’ room, where they were watching your concert. It was the first time I saw you sing and I drifted off that night to one or your last televisions appearances.

At age 8, I was very familiar with you, Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, the Voice. No other artist was more revered in my house growing up then you. I was that kid in daycare who sang every word to “Chicago,” showing off to all of my friends, not quite understanding that they were more impressed by the latest Ace of Base hit. By the time I reached 12, my knowledge on you rivaled any middle-aged man, with facts on your four marriages (say hi to Ava for me), and those crazy Vegas Rat Pack days. Speaking of, can you ask Dean if he plans to write me back anytime soon?

These trivia tidbits came from one person in my house, and one person alone: my dad. His love for you came from a true admiration of talent and feeling of kinship. My dad is Italian, and loves being Italian. My dad saw you as the true Italian immigrant success story, which needed to be shared with everyone, including his children, as early as possible.

We had every one of your CDs, and when a new rendition came out, you bet it was on the list for dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, or Christmas. They were all displayed together in our CD cabinet as if they deserved their own special recognition. I used to ask my dad which CD was his favorite and on more than one occasion the answer was In The Wee Small Hours. I think for him this album showed layers of emotions that we didn’t always get from those typical big band songs or those Cole Porter classics. This album was bluesier and therefore felt darker, sadder.

I think my dad related to this more. He is a very emotional man, one who can be angry, laughing, and loving all in a moment. His complete honesty regarding how he feels leaves him vulnerable. The lyrics in this album epitomize this type of man. One who is honest about his emotions, no matter how sad, loving, or brutal, which ultimately creates strength and hope.

You hear this with lyrics like “unrequited love’s a bore and I’ve got it pretty bad, but for someone you adore it’s a pleasure to be sad,” in Glad to be Unhappy and “I cry my heart out, it’s bound to break, since nothing matters, let it break. I ask the sun and the moon, the stars that shine, What’s to become of it, this love of mine,” in This Love of Mine. Your tone and enunciation are so clear that the honesty and layers of hope ring out with an even greater force.

We had one of those five-disc CD players and whenever we had guests over, I got to pick out the CDs on the player and one of your CDs had to be on rotation. Knowing that my dad loved In the Wee Small Hours, it was constantly picked. I remember whenever the CD was played, red wine was inevitably flowing and my dad would start reminiscing about his childhood. He would tell my brother and I stories about growing up in a Sicilian neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama in the ‘60s. Going to school with only other Sicilians and living next door to other Sicilians.  These moments were honest and emotional for my dad, much like the lyrics you sing. He shared with us in a way that inspired us and gave us courage, even if the stories felt sad, much how you sing. For my dad, your music became a connection to a community he had left and was a bridge for his kids to understand his history and our shared heritage.

So even though I am writing this fan letter to you, perhaps the true fan letter should go to my dad; a man who is completely honest, never shying away from emotions and filling his kids with limitless courage. And obviously, not least of all, a man with a strong love for your music and an enthusiasm for sharing it.

So thanks Frank for being a generation bridge, a common love, and a great listen!

Love,
Marie Sicola

P.S. If you want to send a signed headshot, I would totally win for best Christmas present ever!

#100: The Zombies, "Odessey and Oracle" (1968)

100 Odessey and Oracle.jpg

The summer of 2000 I was working for a small company just outside of Dayton. I’d be into work by 8 and home by 4:30. It wasn’t a great summer job, but the pay was good enough to keep me in records and help pay bills when I was back at school in the fall. I took apart old metal shelves that were no longer in use and swept out an empty warehouse space that the company had recently decided they no longer needed. While working in the empty warehouse, I somehow listened to music. Maybe I had a boombox? Something with a tape player on which I could play mix tapes? Maybe I just had a Discman? I don’t remember. Probably the boombox with tapes I made from my slowly growing collection of vinyl LPs. One of my best finds that summer was a used copy of the 1997 UK repressing of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle. I copied it to a tape to listen to in my car. I hadn’t known about the album for long, having previously and recently heard only “Beechwood Park” thanks to a mix given to me by a friend. I listened to the album at least a hundred times that summer. I was struck by the way most of the songs sounded like the past. But not “the past” as a particular moment in music history, but like someone remembering the past—those languorous tempos and reverb-soaked vocals begging listeners to remember whatever it is they desperately need to remember.

*

On the Fourth of July, we rode in the back of a friend’s pickup truck to see fireworks. I moped because I couldn’t stop thinking of an earlier Fourth of July when I was falling in love with a girl named Jess, holding her hand and stealing kisses during fireworks. That previous summer, the one with the earlier Fourth of July—the summer of ‘98—ended almost as soon as it started, that girl and I holding on to each other for dear life as my departure for college grew nearer. To help slow the passage of time, we went for long, slow walks through neighborhoods and parks. One night we got lost in a nature preserve and had to wade through a waist-high creek to get out, unable to navigate to a more convenient exit after the sun abandoned us. Another night, we walked through the neighborhood adjacent to my parents’—Beechwood Springs, the development was called— and we stopped at a park there, called Beechwood Springs Park. Bathed in moonlight and dripping with humidity that made our hair wild, we alternated between kissing and talking about a future that, realistically, we probably knew we weren’t going to share together. At the time, I didn’t know that a song called “Beechwood Park” existed, but had I known, I’m sure it would have been a favorite. Soon, though, summer ended and I went away to college. The relationship didn’t last past October, and I carried that loss with me for years, the way foolish young men sometimes do.

*

Most nights that summer of 2000, I’d meet with my friends at Denny’s, where we’d play euchre and smoke cigarettes. One night, while sitting at Denny’s, a man walked in the front door, picked up a fork, and stabbed that fork into another man’s head. I don’t know if they knew each other. Another night, a man OD’d in the bathroom. When police showed up, they found with the man a shopping bag full of bloody clothing. I don’t know why I remember these when there are so many other things I’d rather remember but cannot.

*

One Saturday in June, I came across the Clientele for the first time, found the Fading Summer EP at a record store in Cincinnati. This was a couple of weeks before I picked up and first heard Odessey and Oracle in its entirety. I was struck by the way that the Clientele sounded somehow simultaneously new and old, and always wistful. Even after I started listening to Odessey and Oracle obsessively, I frequently returned to Fading Summer—the Clientele kind of sounded like the Zombies, but filtered through cheap speakers and mixed with either ten percent more humidity or twenty-five percent more autumn chill, depending on the song. Regardless, both bands’ baselines seemed to be deep summer nostalgia. If both albums sounded nostalgic, I remember thinking, then maybe the Clientele were the more nostalgic of the two because of the distance between performance and sound implied by the mid-fi production in which the songs were wrapped.

*

That summer of 1998, Jess wore something, some sort of lotion or spray, with a fake vanilla scent to it. To this day, when I catch a whiff of that very specific, surprisingly rare scent, I remember more about that summer than usual.

*

But back in the summer of 2000, at work, I befriended the other guys in maintenance. They handled the real shit and gave me the special projects that none of them wanted to do. That was fine. They were nice to work with. When I turned twenty-one in August, they wanted to take me out for a ball game and a beer. I couldn’t make it because I was going to see some bands play in Michigan. The day I got back from that birthday trip, I was taking some metal shelves apart and one of the guys caught me singing along to “Strawberry Wine,” by Deana Carter, which had been playing softly over the PA, and which I’d not heard before that summer. That summer, though, when I was working in the main building, I heard that song at least once every other hour.

*

Some nights, when it was too early for friends to be at Denny’s yet, I’d kill time by driving to Miamisburg, across the river and up the hill, out to the house where my family lived for the first five years of my life. I don’t remember why I’d do that. Even then, I had only the vaguest recollections of living in that house. I’d drive to the end of the dead end street on which it sat, look at the house, then look at the large, empty field that ended the street—I’d feel some heavy sense of nostalgia, then I’d turn around in the driveway and head back down the hill and across the river towards Denny’s. One night, I parked my car a few streets away and walked to the middle of the field. I sat down and put on my headphones. I had my Discman with me, and the aforementioned mix with “Beechwood Park.” I put that song on repeat and looked up at the sky, then looked out of the field back at the neighborhood where I used to live. I don’t know what I hoped to see there. I remembered climbing the tree on the edge of the yard, and half falling out of it once. I remembered, one street over, a patch of apple trees that didn’t seem to be on anyone’s property, where my mother would take me to puddle jump when it rained in the summer. I remembered non-descript kids on bikes, the green glow of my dad’s old stereo receiver. I remembered the long, slow summer days spent outside, being read to under a tree by my mother. It was an easy, lovely childhood.

*

Another night in 2000, late, after the Denny’s crowd disbursed a little earlier than usual, but not really early at all, I returned to my parents’ house then walked to Beechwood Springs, parked my car on a side street and walked to the park from two summers before. I don’t remember having music with me, but I remember lying on a picnic table and smoking a cigarette and looking up at the starless sky. I tried to remember the way everything about my previous night at that park felt. I couldn’t—those feelings remaining stowed away just out of reach. But what I could remember was comforting, as if the memories could speak and were saying, “Of course you’ll someday feel those ways again.”

*

In the summer of 2014, I picked up a copy of the Clientele’s stunning first album, Suburban Light, the one compiled mostly from early singles and EPs, including selections from the Fading Summer EP. Printed on the insert was this quote from Joë Bousquet’s “The Return”: “The loveliest of the stars has raised up the night so as to blind me with its infinite presence; my gaze is submerged, like a silver ring tossed into the flood of my heart.” I’d never encountered Bousquet’s work before buying that record.

*

Now, in 2018, I am approaching forty and summers feel hotter. The dry heat burns harder and the humidity feels heavier, a wet hairshirt woven from memory. Some days I think that the heat should be unbearable, but really it’s not, because encoded in that heat is close to four decades of summers. Some nights, I almost feel as if, were I to squint hard enough, I might see the water everywhere in the air around us, and if I squint harder still, I might see fragments of my past at play with all that water.

*

The part of this story about Jess, it has a happy ending. I’m not sure it’s worth mentioning as this essay isn’t really about that, I don’t think. But maybe you should know that she and I are married now. We were apart for twenty-odd years, then somehow we found each other again. I’m not sure why or how it happened. We’re very different people, now, but it works.

*

Since the summer of 2000, I’ve visited places important to my past at least a dozen times each: Denny’s (until it closed), the old house and the field beside it, the park where Jess and I got lost and had to wade through a creek to get out. At times, I felt as if I was stalking my own history, shellacking each layer of new memory with nostalgia, so that now, when I visit the park in Beechwood, I remember the dozen or so other times I’ve visited since, as if the wistful nostalgia I felt on those subsequent visits has written itself into the narrative of that place almost as much as the initial visit in 1998. Almost.

*

I don’t know why reverb and lush production make me think of my past. I don’t know why young men and middle-aged men and old men are so inclined to remember the past through a nostalgic lens. I don’t know why we feel the need to try to reclaim our pasts even when we know they can’t be reclaimed. I don’t know why some days I feel old and tired and other days I feel young and excited. I don’t know much of anything about anything except the way that reverb and vanilla scent make me remember, and that’s not really important, anyway.

—James Brubaker

#110: The Velvet Underground, "Loaded" (1970)

110 Loaded.jpg

Doug Yule says, “The thing about making violins is the required attention to detail. You sand and warp and shave—you grip the plane and run it along the wood’s surface, go with the grain to keep it smooth. It’s some kind of beauty.” This is what Yule does now, makes violins.

*

Doug Yule says, “I never said that last thing—not all of it anyway, and not exactly.”

James Brubaker says, “We’re doing fiction now. Heavily researched fiction, but fiction nonetheless. I’ll be kind and fair, I promise.”

Doug Yule says, “But there are enough of my words from interviews all over the internet that you could construct this whole piece without making up a word.”

James Brubaker says, “Not the whole piece.”

Doug Yule, “I’ve said so much about my time with the Velvets.”

James Brubaker says, “The problem wasn’t you—it was the people asking the questions.”

Doug Yule says, “Will you at least use a quote where I refer to Sesnick as a ‘sleazy con person’?”

James Brubaker says, “I just did.”

*

Lou Reed says, “Caroline says, ‘Life is meant to be more than this and this is a bum trip.’”

*

A DJ at WLIR Radio says, “Where’s Doug Yule?”

Lou Reed says, “Dead, I hope.” This interview happens in 1972 when Yule, against his better judgement and at the urging of Steve Sesnick, is still touring as the Velvet Underground, without any founding members present.

*

Doug Yule says, “Say a word for Jimmy Brown. He ain’t got nuthin at all.” The words aren’t his, he didn’t write them, but when he sings them, they are beloved lines in a beloved song. Or at least as beloved as anything else by the Velvet Underground from when the band was still a going concern. Now, of course, the song is truly beloved. From the time Yule was brought into the band after Lou Reed and Steve Sesnick forced John Cale out, the multi-instrumentalist’s role increased from just performing on the band’s 1969 self-titled album, to collaborating in the studio on Loaded, and then finally to whatever the fuck happened after Reed left the band. Doug Yule doesn’t say much about those last years, particularly about Squeeze.

Critics say, “Squeeze is a Velvet Underground album in name only.” They say this because no founding members of the band were involved with the album.

Doug Yule says, “It was meant to be a solo album.”

*

Doug Yule says, “I’m sorry about Squeeze. I really, truly am.”

*

Velvet Underground Fans say, “Doug Yule is the Mike Love of the Velvet Underground.”

*

Doug Yule says, “I didn’t want to play those last shows under the name Velvet Underground. I truly wanted Squeeze to be a solo album.”

*

Lou Reed says, “Jenny said when she was just five years old, there was nothing happening at all.” It’s notable that Jenny “said” this in the past tense, instead of “says” it in the present. Loaded doesn’t include any of Reed’s “_______ Says” songs that he was fond of writing in the last couple of years of the band’s history. Plenty of those songs were written in the lead-up to Loaded, but they were either buried for more than a decade or saved for Reed solo albums.

*

Doug Yule says, “I was going to be an accountant. What happened?”

*

Doug Yule says, “I’m not going to say anything about how important I was to the band. I’m not going to talk about the parts I played on the self-titled album, or how I sang that beautiful harmony on ‘Jesus.’ I’m definitely not going to talk about how, on Loaded, Lou and me were collaborating, how we were arranging songs together. I’m not going to point out that I was around longer than John Cale, or that I did more on Loaded than other longer tenured band members. And I most certainly won’t talk about my live contributions to the band during those years. None of it is all that important to me.”

*

Doug Yule says, “Even the title was a reference to the fact that the label and Reed and Sesnick all wanted hits. The album was ‘loaded’ with hits. Obviously it wasn’t. I guess that’s what happens when you try to force a thing.”

*

Doug Yule says, “Something’s got a hold on me and I don’t know what.”

*

Doug Yule says, “The key is to live a simple, uncluttered life. Not to get hung up on the past, even when it stings. Even when interviewers ask questions that make you out to be a villain. Even when all they really want to know, still, is what Lou Reed was really like.”

*

Doug Yule says, “Candy says I've come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world.” They are the first words he sings on a Velvet Underground album, and they are the first words heard on the first Velvet Underground album that Yule is a part of. It is, of course, the album titled The Velvet Underground.

*

Zachary Lipez says, “With you singing ‘Candy Says’ which is probably the most lyrically-themed of the first two records—I read in the liner notes that [Reed] would give you good-natured grief for not really ‘getting it.’”

Doug Yule says, “Yeah, wasn’t always good natured.”

*

Doug Yule says, “I had no idea what it was about, ‘cause I didn’t come from the city, I came from the Island . . . I’d never really been exposed at all to the gay scene in New York. So when I was singing that song, it was about a young girl, that’s all; someone who had issues. It was later on that I found out who Candy Darling was and what that was all about. But one of the things about good songwriting is that it’s universal.”

*

Doug Yule says, “Sweet Caroline, any day she’ll be mine.” A line from one of the better songs on Squeeze.

James Brubaker says, “Maybe it’s best not to confuse ‘universal’ songwriting with vague, clichéd songwriting.”

*

Doug Yule says, “When I was young, I wanted to play violin. Somehow I played the tuba for a bit. Now I play the fiddle. I like that.”

*

Doug Yule says, “I tell myself, I tell my family and friends, I tell everyone who will listen, the past is the past and I’m done with the past. I tell them that how people feel about me or Squeeze, or the way Loaded sounds, or the tour after Lou left and without Moe and Sterling—I know those things shouldn’t bother me anymore, but maybe they do a little bit?”

*

Doug Yule says, “Say a word for Doug Yule, he ain’t got nothing at all.”

*

Doug Yule says, “I look at Squeeze as being, it’s like the equivalent of a tenth-grade term paper, it’s a piece of work that I did, it’s not my best work, but it shows a lot of where I was going.”

*

Doug Yule says, “The Velvets hired me because I was a Pisces. I don’t understand.”

*

Doug Yule says, “I’ve been a musician and a carpenter. Now I make violins and I am happy.”

*

Doug Yule says, “Really, the third self-titled album is the band’s best. I’m not saying that just because I’m on it. It’s the album that most sounds like the Velvet Underground.”

*

Critics and Rock Aficionados around the world say, “The Velvet Underground & Nico is actually the best Velvet Underground album. It’s the most important.”

*

James Brubaker says, “The Velvet Underground & Nico is the big one, the most influential one, the most iconic one. But Loaded—that one feels like a great, straight up rock record. That’s not why people care about the Velvet Underground, though—if the band just released Loaded, maybe people would still dig it because Reed’s songwriting was so fantastic, and the band, with Yule, was somehow the perfect combination of tight and loose, resulting in a warm and transcendent rock sound. Much of the credit for that sound should go to Yule.”

Doug Yule says, “Knock it off.”

*

John Cale says, “When I was fired from the Velvet Underground I thought: ‘Well, I should have seen that coming!’ We’d been doing shows where we didn’t talk to each other and in the studio we had a room each. We were four people who couldn’t be around each other anymore. I thought it was such a big mistake to fire me but between the touring, the drugs, the management and all the other activities, ultimately Lou didn’t want to keep the band together. So be it.”

*

Doug Yule says, “Yeah, I know Sesnick thought I was a pushover. Yeah, I know Reed wanted to sell records. Yeah, I know the point of me at the beginning was to sing and play what I was told to play and sing and to just stay out of the way. That’s how it worked for a little while.”

*

Steve Sesnick says, “If you write about me I’ll ruin you with lawsuits.”

*

Lou Reeds says, “Stephanie says that, ‘she wants to know why she’s given half her life to people she hates now.’”

*

Doug Yule says, “I’ve never hated anyone.”

*

Lou Reed says, “I was an asshole to everyone, except for maybe Metallica, and now I’m dead and I can’t defend myself, so leave me out of this. But I did invite Doug to record and play on tour well after the Velvets debacle. Give me some credit.”

*

Doug Yule says, “One time David Bowie mistook me for Lou Reed, and I didn’t even know who
David Bowie was. That feels like a pretty good metaphor for the last few years of the Velvet Underground.”

*

James Brubaker says, “I’m going to say something now, and it might sound strange, but I kind of like Squeeze.”

Doug Yule says, “Don’t patronize me.” He blushes a little, and seems to actively suppress a smile.

*

David Fricke says, “[Squeeze is] an embarrassment to the VU discography.”

*

Doug Yule says, “It should have been my first solo album. I wanted it to be my first solo album. Goddam Sesnick.”

*

Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, “[Squeeze] doesn’t just ride the coattails of VU’s legacy but deliberately co-opts their achievement—but it’s listenable, something its reputation never suggests."

*

James Brubaker says, “See! Listenable.”

Doug Yule says, “It doesn’t matter.”

*

Steven Shehori says, “If you pluck it from the shackles of its murky back-story, Squeeze is nothing short of a quintessential listening experience.”

*

Doug Yule says, “None of that matters. What’s really important is the shape of a line, the smoothness of a surface, the elegance of a plane. What matters is how each piece of the whole is connected, how the creation of a thing—a violin, anything—shapes the essence of the thing. What matters is the difference between shaping the curve of the instrument’s back and belly from the inside out, or from the outside in. I don’t know which is better, or more authentic, but maybe the going from the inside out feels more right.

*

James Brubaker says, “Yeah, Squeeze isn’t so bad. The only real difference between it and Loaded is the absence of Reed’s songwriting. That’s not a small difference, though. Still, does this mean that Squeeze illustrates Loaded’s actual mediocrity, or that Loaded illustrates that Squeeze is actually pretty good?”

Doug Yule says, “No really, none of that matters.”

*

Doug Yule says, “The only real music is the folk music that isn’t recorded. It can’t be sold. Maybe Loaded was always doomed because the label and Lou and Sesnick wanted a hit. Maybe Squeeze was doomed because it was nothing but a cash grab. You can’t force these things. Now I sell violins for money, and that’s ok—it’s the instrument I’m selling, not the music, and the instrument is a work of art.”

*

Doug Yule says, “What I’ve been playing for the last five years, for myself, is mountain music; fiddle music of Kentucky, Alabama, and Carolina, all through the Appalachians and I find that very exciting. It’s hard to describe why, if you come to Fort Worden in July and hang around for a week you could experience it, but it’s hard to explain how it works, but it does. It does what rock ‘n’ roll could never do, cause rock ‘n’ roll was ultimately always for money.

*

And Lou Reed says, “Lisa says, ‘Honey, for just one little smile, I’ll sing and play for you for the longest while.’”

Doug Yule says, “Yeah, yeah. Like that.”

*

Doug Yule says, “It’s the beginning of a new age.”

—James Brubaker

#102: Cream, "Fresh Cream" (1966)

102 Fresh Cream.jpg

I’m going to level with you all. I first found out about Cream through Guitar Hero. I knew I could make it up to level expert if I could impress my fellow 15-year-old friends by nailing Eric Clapton’s solos in “Sunshine of your Love” with those plastic, colorful buttons. Remember how big of a deal it was to reach the fifth, orange button? I do. As fake as it was, it also kind of feels like I was on Eric Clapton’s level? Looking back on it now, it looked completely ridiculous. In fact, here’s photo evidence of me and my best friend playing this song in our homecoming dresses. If you look closely, you can see I pull off this look with a peace sign necklace, braces, and a hemp bracelet. Hard to tell if it’s us or Cream in this picture, right? I thought so.

image1.jpg

I didn’t pay as much attention to the band itself during this time—I was too busy leveling up. I wasn’t even really a fan of “Sunshine of your Love.” It’s too boring. Jack Bruce, the lead singer, sounds tired and bored. I, however, really appreciate their first album Fresh Cream. Fun is the best word to describe it. It sounds like three men who really love playing music and decided to play together for the love of music.

Their lyrics represent this feeling as well. The album starts off with a song called “I Feel Free” in which they chant “I feel free,” over and over, and they have another song “I’m So Glad” in which they literally just chant “I’m so glad, I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad,” over and over. They pull it off, though. When you have three rock legends jamming together (Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Ginger Baker killing it on the drums), you don’t need much depth for it to be good. And I think the simplicity of their songs prove that they weren’t looking to outshine each other or become a huge sensation, they just wanted to play together because they’re all talented and they can pull it off. In their song “N.S.U.,” Jack Bruce sings, “The only time I’m happy’s when I play my guitar.”  The song “Cat’s Squirrel” is a super catchy, bluesy, uplifting jam song that doesn’t have lyrics but also doesn’t need any. It leads the beacon for all of the jam songs to come in the 1970s, and It should be playing in every movie sequence that involves a heist or car chase, in my opinion. They close off the album with a song called “Toad,” which is basically a five minute drum solo and no further explanation for the title of the song. I think it should just be called, “Ginger’s Time to Shine.”

Fresh Cream came out in 1966, which was a huge year for music. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Revolver, and the Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears were iconic albums that came out the same year. This was a time of incredible, influential music, and it was also a time when musicians were collaborating left and right, mainly because of their undeniable talent. This also meant, however, that musicians who were already talented and famous never lasted long when they worked togetherit was like a death sentence. Cream only lasted two short years before they broke up over creative differences. Fresh Cream is actually the perfect name for that album. Their work together was fresh, new, and exciting. I think everything after it is them feeling over-confident and trying to outshine each other. Their solos no longer seem fun, but rather like they’re lashing out at each other or letting their egos get in the way.

Perhaps if I could go back in time, I’d become a record manager that only allowed famous musicians who wanted to collaborate to make one, fun album together to prevent drama and intense band break-ups. But then again, if Cream hadn’t made “Sunshine of Your Love,” then it never would have made it onto Guitar Hero, and I wouldn’t have this embarrassing picture to post for you all to see. Maybe Cream didn’t have fun making that song, but I sure had fun playing it with my very real, plastic guitar.

—Jenn Montooth

#103: John Coltrane, "Giant Steps" (1960)

103 Giant Steps.jpg

Giant Steps in 7 Takes

 

Less than a month after Kind of Blue was recorded in 1959,
John Coltrane first entered the studio to make what in many
ways was that mighty album’s equal:
Giant Steps.

                                               -   Jazzwise Magazine

 

Take 1 (Giant Steps)

The opening cut takes off in a run: an open heat of veteran runners rising up into stride en masse. The pace set at a brisk clip…the runners a little tight in the arms, jockeying for position. Pace picked up…Trane, the lead runner, asserts himself, letting the group know how the race will go…and the players fall in line; Taylor, on drums, right there close behind, knocking around in his peripheral vision, already tuned into the leader’s moves, guessing fast what might grow out of them, what little surprises to prepare for…a rapid-fire tat-a-tat under feet to spark the forward drive. Flanagan, on the piano, creates a little distance from the pack, an amiable space and pace to reside in…knowing the lead will not long be his…just allowing the leader to take a breath before the final turn home…and, there he is, Trane, high-kicking the group fast to the finish line. Race over.

 

He showed me the answers just by playing them.   
Coltrane on Monk

Take 2 (Cousin Mary)

He’s been clean a while, been playing with Monk. The whole album his own compositions. Out from under Miles’s shadow. Get online and look it up; the myth is fully recorded. Better yet, play the music. Turn it up loud. Let your body take it in. Be cool with the fact that he plays way too many notes.

Listening to “Cousin Mary” is like driving down the Pasadena Freeway at night, headlights dimmed. Just running lights. Taking the curves hard, swinging out wide. When Master Flanagan takes his solo, you veer off the freeway, turning down one of the big boulevards. Chambers brings you to a stoplight, car revving, bass pulsing, the city’s released heat oozing off the sidewalk. Then Coltrane’s back and all of a sudden you’re up on Mullholland—warp speed hyperdrive jump—and the sky lays itself out in a roll of discount-black satin; windows rolled down; and you’re headed for Highway 1, pointed north, the engine opening up in intervals and a whole clock of hours to arc through…

 

But you have to be doing something. It has to fit the chord, the day, the weather and everything.
Miles on Coltrane, The Guardian

Take 3 (Countdown)

I’ll give my brother one thing, though; he’s got a great sound system. Top-of-the line Advent speakers that make the music come alive in the room. Giant Steps. Coltrane’s bright, frenetic tone jumping out into the room. "Naked," he likes to call it.

When played this loud, the acoustics seem to catapult Coltrane’s rapid-fire spray of notes into 3D, making them somehow both more soulful and more urgent at the same time—they explode off the walls. And the drummer’s steady top-hat work a little storm in his hands. Humming along with the pulsing bass line, running over the little bumps the drummer provides on the downbeat. As I walk back to the bathroom, I adjust my gait to Trane’s urgent, metered steps along the rope-ladder octave. Letting the door swing shut slowly behind me, in slow mo, before clicking into place.

 

Miles when Coltrane admits difficulty ending his extended improvisations:
Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth.”

Take 4 (Spiral)

The tourist is like the spurned lover, the unacknowledged soul with a crush who runs around a city that cares nothing for his attentions. He is denied access to the Real simply because he does not know the language of the city’s emotional life. Guidebooks are like old keys that don’t fit the new keyholes.

A horn blares. A call to prayer announced through the old village? No, a song, mid-tempo, swinging out into the winding streets! The bass and drums quietly punctuate and demarcate phrases in Trane’s runs then the piano steps gracefully behind the chords. Trane’s solo stopping as abruptly as it began. Standing back for the piano’s turn.

Flanagan mimics some of Coltrane’s runs but also ends with the comps he was making behind Coltrane earlier. Same technique for Chambers. But it’s as if he lifts up the bass and walks the whole song into the back room. Makes you follow him in. Then Coltrane just stepping back in, walking all over the last few notes of the solo. He holds his notes a little longer. Same repeated runs. A little gutbucket. Lets the melody drop down to a close. & Taylor using the brushes to tie up the song as if it’s a package, snipping off the ends.

I play the song again, and again I am walking through the ancient city, spiraling up its switch-backing cobblestoned streets. A small city in the nook of a courtyard under shade. I have always fallen in love with the visages of strangers in the coffee shops of strange cities. Why is this? Is it simply so I can walk through a secret entranceway and step into the courtyard in the heart of the city?

 

Coltrane, in the early ‘60s: “I can’t get in the woodshed like I used to…
Maybe I should just go back in the woodshed and just forget it.”

Take 5 (Syeeda’s Song Flute)

I can hear a little Monk in the tune’s opening notes—how he fills space with that jagged just-off-ness. And a little Miles from the recent Kind of Blue session in the way the song takes off the runway like that. The old clothes fitting so well before being flung off.

Still, the song works like a traditional jazz number—lead solo, piano solo, etc. That’s the looking back, the tradition. The old way establishing itself. Or maybe it’s Trane letting that familiar roll call do its workaday work. No need to overthink it. Get in line, brothers. The solo the thing. The second solo the real thing.

Chambers gives us a subterranean tour of the song’s ribcage—bass line as flashlight beam. Then Trane grabs a hold and starts pointing things out with that beam of light. Here. Here. And now we’re faced fully forward. The band in synch. Playing it out. Turning out the light.

 

Ben Ratliff describes a conversation Coltrane had with Wayne Shorter
“about the possibility of improvising as if starting a sentence in the middle,
moving backward and forward simultaneously.”

Take 6 (Naima)

This one could be an outtake from Ballads. A little like his work with Ellington. A nod to Bill Evans. You can almost hear Hartmann’s honey-scotch croon about to slip under the horn’s spattering rain. The whole song one big nod.

Back in that cave, pool of glacier blue water. Light percolating on the ceiling. Trane’s horn a flame flickering. A voice singing. Beckoning. Beacon. The bass like drums in the distance. The piano all big soft hands and comped chords. Invisible. The occasional shadow figure running up the wall, suggesting the melody. Coming out onto an empty beach, walking along a sand bar until it tails off. Walking on, still on the bar, but in now in waist-high water. Islands in the distance. A large dune curling around the horizon’s edge. A single gull finger-painting a slur of grey onto a canvas of clouds.

 

It was as if Charlie Parker had appeared in jazz three times.
Stuart Nicholson

Take 7 (Mr. P.C.)

Going through all my father’s old Coltrane LPs—and he collected quite a few—reading the liner notes, I find at least three references to the phenomena of Coltrane looking back and forward in his music at the same time—such and such a recording at the crux between his old way of playing and the yet evolving new. It’s there again with this recent “lost” album, laid out by son Ravi.

You can hear it in “Mr. PC.” How he opens (again!) in a sprint, chasing the ghost of Parker, and keeps up the pace for the first two minutes through breakneck changes; but then he starts breaking into plaintive wails and obsessive twirling runs—not so much circular breathing as holding his breath forever. At three and a half minutes he lets the solo go (a rabbit scurries under low bushes) and turns from the piano. He’s lost somewhere in the future.

Looking in both directions…It’s a fantastic idea, for sure. And maybe this Janus-like multi-directional vision was a consistent aspect of Coltrane’s genius. Maybe Coltrane always pivoted like that, swiveled like that, in his desire to do good in this world.

—Sebastian Matthews

#104: James Taylor, "Sweet Baby James" (1970)

104 Sweet Baby James.jpg

Newport Folk Festival - Fort Adams State Park
July 20, 1969

He couldn’t even see the moon at first. He could see masts and seagulls, lawn chairs, pot smoke. He saw two young girls on a hill by the walls of the fort passing a volleyball back and forth and he was stopped cold, stunned by the ease they had with the game and how long they could control its flight with perfectly placed forearms, simple flicks of the wrist. The longer the ball stayed in flight the calmer he became. Center stage, there was a stool with a pillow and he sat down.

He was twenty-one years old and felt like he’d already cheated his way into something, as much as he’d also been cheated. Seventeen had seemed like a midpoint to life, best-case scenario. He wondered if people would laugh at him, baby-faced and reminiscing about by-gone days. Long-haired, youthful, dashing, up-and-coming recording star crooning lines like, My body’s aching and my time is at hand. But people are sharp. They can hear the honesty in a line of melody cutting right through. Maybe they couldn’t see the spoons and needles but they could certainly hear weariness. You could be fresh and tired and full of promise and one quarter-note from death all at the same time.

His first American solo show had been last week, at the Troubadour. George Harrison had become a friend and then a former friend. Rich kids with drug problems bored him; he bored himself. He had been plucked off the street by the Beatles then tossed back where he came from. He wished he could remember it all better, but he was sure he’d had a great time. For some reason he felt like this night was an end to his career even as it was beginning. He felt famous and unknown and washed up all at the same time. He felt like the launch was less safe than he’d been led to believe—the rockets and thrusters were too powerful and not quite stable enough to be trusted. Ascending in a cloud of smoke would always be a risk.

In Stockbridge, at Austen Riggs, he’d stopped his life. He’d slept on a cot and shaken, forgetting what words meant, just dreaming of pressing a button again and again, one that made things bearable and paused the constant bone-shrinking, tooth-grinding everything. And he’d written some of these. He’d built worlds that were peaceful and mythical, fallen asleep watching the cowboy in front of the fire, holding the women, the bottle of beer. He’d learned to exert some measure of influence on his own visions. Deep greens and blues and all that.

James plugged in and strummed. People didn’t know him, really, but people clapped and stayed standing in the rain. People nodded their heads, people glanced at each other and held the glance.

The old guy in charge came out after fifteen minutes and stopped him in the middle of “Fire and Rain” with a lifted hand. He took the mic away and changed the subject: they had landed.

And goddamnit that would have been thrilling, almost was. But it was over, then. He’d never finish that set of songs, which would hang now in the blackness of space half-born, drifting around his heart and leaking out and skirting the walls of the fort and all of Rhode Island with nowhere to land and rest.

God bless America. Why the music had to stop, though, James never understood. Why would it need to be silent in order for the thousands of them to stare up at the moon together and scan for footprints?

 

Newport Folk Festival - Fort Adams State Park
July 25, 2015

He’s had bad astronaut dreams ever since that one small step. Dimly-remembered, black dreams of men in spacesuits stepping out to make history but slipping and sliding off the surface, drifting off into ether, hoses tangling, mouths opening into toothless Os of terror. The whole world is contained in these chaos dreams. A crack in the paneling, a faulty computer chip. Anything could send things spinning.

He stares into the well of one of the side-stage cameras and knows he can’t control what his face looks like on the huge jumbotron screens. He’ll be worn down and blown up in all his lack of glory. But he starts with “Sweet Baby James” and when he sings the first note, he’s relieved. He sounds like the same person he was at twenty-one, and each note thrums out like a vibrating arrow that shimmies across a plane into the bay and buries itself in the swells, completed.

He remembers feeling cheated at first. So angry, until later reading about how everything had stopped, and nothing was spared. He read the summaries of baseball games. The Cubs and the Phillies lined up along the base lines and prayed. In New York the umpires waved their hands and called off the play. The scoreboard read, “They’re on the moon!” Players stood around scratching themselves and kicking dirt, proud but unsettled.

He thinks about what it would take to bring things to a halt now, what it would take for everyone to look in the same direction for even a second, to pocket their phones and focus on one thing. Something huge, something burning. Something so dangerous nobody could help but recognize it. He wants to flip open a zippo and stick his finger into the flame, hold it there just long enough that something singes and stirs up his guts a bit, that his nerves become alarmed. Is it possible that absolutely everything could be paused? Arguments, sex, the pitcher’s delivery, dying, the song right in the middle of the note, the needle a millimeter from the vein? There are voices inside of him still that scream as he writes and scream as he talks and scream as he drives and only don’t scream as he sings. One small step for me, and one more small step for me, and one night without a highball and one morning without a panic attack on the toilet. One more small song for Warner Brothers, Columbia, Concord without worrying there’s not another one crowding in behind it to take its place.

Nobody yells up from the crowd for anything recent. Nobody is clamoring and wailing to hear Before the World, although it is a number one album this year. They want to hear songs from when he was too young to buy a fifth of whiskey. And that’s easy enough.

But if you sing the same line again, rather than daring to state a new feeling, if you just drop the needle into a groove it knows already and exactly, isn’t that a kind of terror? They want him to finish the set he left hanging there 46 years ago. Pick up where he left off, as if we just won the space race and the Beatles have said goodbye and soon Manson’s people will murder those girls and Ted Kennedy will be just about ready to sail off that bridge.

Here we are, sparks in the darkness, he wrote once.

Somehow I haven’t died, he wrote last year.

He sings “Carolina in My Mind” and the images start to crowd him out of his own head. The moonshine, the dark side, the dogs that bite. Hey, babe, the sky’s on fire, I’m dying ain’t I?

When it’s time to return to the song they interrupted, he glances up at the sky. He tells the crowd the story of 1969. “The moon was hanging right there,” he says, pointing, chuckling, “and somebody was walking on it.” Just yesterday morning, he sings, as if that’s when anything happened.

Why have these images had such a powerful hold on him all these years? He sat glued to the TV set when Challenger launched and felt as though he were inside the crew compartment as it began to break up. He saw out through their eyes, knowing the launch had failed but having enough oxygen and time to think about the fact that the launch had failed. It was a screaming sound, like a rabbit, he was sure of it.

Here he has this beautiful song, though, born of hospitals and heroin, that people still respond to, children sing along to on the lawn. He has managed to gather it up from the ether and begin it again. He still worries he’ll never write another note. Nobody puts much money into space anymore, nobody dreams about those kinds of things these days. He still feels like a fraud who might be interrupted at any moment so that we can all look at something else that’s happening elsewhere.

Jesus Christ, there are two girls. They are standing by the wall of the fort, barefoot and sweaty. They are shifting position, getting low to the ground, and bumping a gleaming white volleyball back and forth. It arcs up, then down, up, then down. But just as he takes a breath to begin the next phrase, the ball reaches the top of its path and sticks. It stops, like a basketball shockingly trapped between rim and backboard. It stops and hangs for a full second longer than is possible. He remembers to keep breathing, then remembers to keep singing. The ball falls down; he strums on and knows what he saw. The moon stays up there somewhere, hidden by too much light.

—Eric Thompson

  

#105: Ray Charles, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" (1962)

105 Modern Sounds.jpg

1.

I spent the summer after graduation working at the record store, and then I loaded a U-Haul trailer with all my stuff and moved from Kansas to Seattle. I had a degree in English, and it was 1998, and I didn’t want to stay in Kansas; the decision was pretty easy.

I gave all my co-workers at the record store a blank tape and asked them to make me a mix to listen to as I drove across the country. My friend Eric gave me two: first, one full of indie rock and power pop, and then a few days later, a second one labeled “Music From Before We Were Born,” because, as he told me, “I realized that first tape was full of dumb stuff that only I like.”

It took three days to drive to Seattle, and I didn’t listen to that second tape until the second day of the trip, during the Boulder-to-Twin-Falls stretch. The first side was full of British Invasion stuff—bands like the Kinks, the Left Banke, and Badfinger. In the middle of Wyoming, the least populous state in the Union, the tape switched over, and in the brief pause between sides, I could look out and see a whole lot of nothing going by—scrub brush, oil refineries, the occasional billboard for a truck stop called Little America.

The second side started with a guitar twang and a voice I recognized as Johnny Cash’s: I hear that train a-comin’ / it’s rollin’ ‘round the bend.

Oh, I thought. The second side’s all country. Like a lot of suburban kids who didn’t want to think about class, I’d disdained country music for pretty much my entire life. The town where I’d gone to college had a substantial country music fan base—enough to host a music festival each year called “Country Stampede” and for Garth Brooks to stop in while on tour (my roommate and I had hit his tour bus with a water balloon slingshot, if that gives you any sense of our attitude towards it). Country music, as far as I was concerned and as far as I knew, could be ignored as a bunch of line dancing, tobacco spitting, boot scooting morons.

But I was in a transitory moment on that drive. I was, as I had heard Grateful Dead fans say of people who just need to hear the right show, ripe. I was crossing borders, and the songs on that tape—Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams (senior! How had I never heard him?)—were songs of loss and loneliness and heartache that I understood for the first time, out there on the lonesome highway, as I moved away from one part of my life towards the next part.

 

2.

On the B-side of his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Ray Charles sings the second verse of “Careless Love”:

Well, you know that I once was blind, but now I see
I say that I once was blind, but now I see
Whoa, you know I once was blind but I’m so glad, so glad I see
That that old love has made a fool of me

Charles started to lose his sight around age four or five, and by age seven, was completely blind, thanks most likely to glaucoma. By 1962, at a time when Elvis making terrible movies (his album from the same time as Modern Sounds was Pot Luck with Elvis, which you haven’t heard of) and the Beatles had just blown their big audition at Decca, Ray Charles was already moving all over the musical map. On the heels of “What’d I Say?,” he released a blues album, a jazz album, and a big band album, and more importantly, he exercised a level of creative control that most artists didn’t, regardless of color.

They didn’t call him the Genius for nothing.

Those lines from “Careless Love” point to the genius of the Genius. It’s a song that predates recorded music, and, in a way, our need to categorize it. Buddy Bolden played it in the clubs of New Orleans, Pete Seeger in the coffeeshops of the Village, T. Texas Tyler in the honky tonks. It’s a song that doesn’t recognize borders, in part because that idea of the learned lesson, the knowledge that comes from suffering, is as close to universal as any other idea humanity has figured out over the years.

And yet, there’s something amazingly audacious about Ray Charles’s decision to walk into the whitest space possible and plant his flag. When Modern Sounds comes out, the Civil Rights Movement is occupied in Albany, Georgia, trying and failing to desegregate that city’s facilities. James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss the same year will spur riots by the white establishment. Next year’s March on Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act seem a long way off.

Maybe Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music isn’t as novel an album as it seems. Maybe it’s a declaration of capture and takeover and occupation. No Ray Charles album before it used that title—Modern Sounds—but here he was, declaring that the songs of loss and heartbreak could now be sung by him just as well as any white man. This was the sound of the time, the sound of 1962, the sound of all the genres and borders and barriers vanishing.

 

3.

Ray Charles stakes his claim to the whites’ music, and it becomes a hit. I heard a tape while crossing the country, between the chapters of my life, and the way I thought about music changed. Normally, I think we overestimate the power of music; for all the emotional effects it has on us, it doesn’t save lives, and it doesn’t change the world.

We live in an era where it’s easier than ever to hear music—no more tracking down a copy in an out-of-the-way store. Music should no longer spur possessiveness, the dark side of fandom, the idea that the music that we hear somehow belongs to us, and no one else can have it. Yet it still does; from country to hip-hop to punk, debates over who is allowed into that space still burn. For some reason, we’re still invested in keeping those fences up.

Music can’t change the world, but every song is an invitation into a space for a few minutes. In 1962, Ray Charles recorded an album of country and western music, saying, in effect, I belong here, too. In 1998, I heard 45 minutes of carefully chosen songs on a tape and stepped into that space as well. And now, in a time when we’re talking about borders and what they mean, about who can step across that line and who can’t, about people suffering for their attempts to access a space that others think belong to them and them alone, we might listen to an album, a song, a note held in the air, realize what fools we’ve been, and see once more.

—Colin Rafferty

#106: Ramones, "Rocket to Russia" (1977)

106 Rocket to Russia.jpg

Rocket to Russia, the Ramones’ third studio album, was released by Sire Records in 1977. At that time, my parents were newly married, over a decade younger than I am now, and living in Iowa City. Their work schedules were breakneck and their school debt high, but every Friday night they took themselves on a date for McFishwiches. Rocket to Russia was officially released in November, however “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” came out as a single earlier that summer, so folks were primed. My parents probably heard the song on the radio, mixed with cicadas and sleeplessness. That summer was the first big wave of punk bands signing with major labels in the U.S., meaning it was also the first lurch from punk-as-lifestyle to punk-as-costume. But these things happen, and often they have no effect on how much I listen to certain songs (or don’t).

I’m not sure if my parents ever heard Rocket to Russia beginning-to-end. I can ask them if I want to. I did watch Rocky and Bullwinkle with my mother, and was ashamed to realize that Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale were products of nuclear threat and American fear (though this didn’t stop me from wanting Natasha’s eye makeup).

I first heard “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in Seattle in 2001. I remember I had patchy green hair, though of course that has nothing to do with my hearing, and a friend sewed my favorite shirt, which he designed to look like a plastic garbage bag. I liked “Sheena” because it starts when Joey says, “Go!” I often brought it to bump during final sweep at my closing shifts in the Barnes and Noble music section, after which everyone went to the bar and I walked home through the park with my Walkman, because I was seventeen. At night my hair finally looked like everything else did, so I imagined the hot pink text of that Ramones album cover, and I wasn’t foolish to think it helped me get home safely.

In 1977, the average income in the U.S. was $15,000, though of course many people made less and many, vastly more. Elvis died on his toilet, the New York City Blackout lasted a day and an hour, Bubbalicious and Star Wars debuted, and the first West Coast Computer Faire happened. American peanut farmers were given acreage allotments and poundage quotas. The Torrijos-Carter treaty was signed, Roots aired, and the French government used a guillotine for the last time. It is easy for me to think that if I’d been Mairead in 1977 I would have been in New York, moth-to-flame, wearing knuckle rings because of the Son of Sam (not the Green River Killer, like I actually did). But another truth is that the wealth of my parents’ weekly fast food date, consistent in both time and oil, helps me imagine this most clearly. It’s not the only way to get to a city, but it’s mine.

I loved Rocket to Russia because its tempos matched the ones in my late-teenage brain, its rhymes were familiar (“Ramona / phone her”), and the band had dumped Phil Spector. Plus Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy looked like they would just let me chill. They were always leaning, not ogling, which meant they were True Weirdos. They asked questions (“Do You Wanna Dance?”) and shot straight (“I Can’t Give You Anything”). They wanted folks to keep up or go away. My body looked like theirs, and after attending Catholic school for eight years I knew that having a uniform (in the Ramones’ case: shag, stripes, shades, jeans) usually meant your brain was free to get mystically freaky. Next to the Sex Pistols, who made their recording debut that same year, the Ramones looked like monks. Indeed, Joey blamed the Sex Pistols for Rocket to Russia’s lower-than-expected sales, even though that album was one of the Ramones’ highest-grossing ever. I think it sounds best on cassette.

The Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2001, as did Hedwig and the Angry Inch (see: “Sugar Daddy”), so one day after therapy I rode the bus to J.C. Penney and bought a pair of black Converse high-tops. I bought them special with my own paycheck, as my own sugar daddy. I was trying for alchemy by adding one galaxy to another: Hedwig and Margot Tenenbaum. Rockets and Russia. Therapy and a bus pass. Four people (2+2) who established one same last name so critics would have to call them by their established first names (note: “established” is different than “invented”).

I liked Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy because they sang specifically about wanting to die, but in 1977, none of them had. In 2001, I laced and sprayed my new shoes (admittedly, Cons do not need spray, but I was learning to take care), and bounced in my head: “Hey hey hey why is it always this way?” I still don’t know, but as I listened to the Ramones I taught myself to see hot pink and keep walking.

—Mairead Case

#107: Sam Cooke, "Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964" (2003)

107 Portrait of a Legend.jpg

“It can only be romantic if it’s unfulfilled.”

This, whispered in moonlight, her hand still around me, squeezing. I’m a beat behind her, opening my eyes in time to see her slip through the screen, her camp-issued counselor’s uniform white and glowing like the cranes that haunt Loon Lake. She turns back once, pausing at the fence separating the girls’ cabins from the boys’, and then she dips beneath the rails and is absorbed by the night.

This is the third time she’s run off in the middle of things, leaving me in the archery shed, surrounded by spiders. Disappointment warps quickly to something like rage, every nerve in my body on end. I step back and crack a fallen arrow at the nock; I have to stop myself from grabbing the set in my fist.

She’s trying to control things, keep my attention. She told me early on that she doesn’t believe in me, thinks I’m just in it for a quick fix, a summer fling. She was suspicious when I took her walking at midnight by the Loon, playing music from my phone, asking her to dance. She said I was trying too hard. “Sam Cooke? You must think I’m such a fool.”

That was two terms ago, almost six weeks. Now, she just thinks I’m a sap. One afternoon during Quiet Hours, we were stationed at the docks, making sure none of the older campers were sneaking out to skinny dip at the Loon’s edge. She was flicking through my music, her dark toes skimming the water. She was going too fast, playing half a second of each song, and more to stop her than anything else, I kissed her. It wasn’t the first but it was the longest, and three full songs had passed before she pulled away.

“You know this is bullshit,” she said, and it took me a second to realize she was talking about the lyrics, not the kissing. Sam Cooke again, “Nothing Can Change This Love.”

“Unconditional love isn’t a real thing. Everyone has terms. Anything can happen.” She looked really mad, completely put out. My body was still imprinted with hers, her mint chapstick buzzing on my lips. I thought about it.

“Well, okay. But I guess that’s also kind of the choice we make, right?”

“I mean. I have some serious fucking conditions.” She was staring at me.

“Okay. Like what.”

“Like don’t kill someone. Don’t be a white supremacist.”

I pulled my foot from the water, stretched my leg out around her hip. I thought about the fake yawns they used to do in movies at drive-ins, and had to stop myself from pulling back. She didn’t seem to notice.

“We all have terms. Why do you even listen to this music?”

I looked at the water, Sam’s voice that rich, rasping well of longing that seemed to carry its own echo. “Maybe it’s about his kid,” I said. “I mean, if you had a kid who killed someone, wouldn’t you still love them?”

She looked at me.

“I mean, okay, you could be like really angry with them, and not approve or whatever—”

She started laughing. We let the song play out.

Looking at the water, I found myself wondering what I liked so much about Sam Cooke, why I included him on most of my playlists. “Look, Sam Cooke was a really important forerunner to so many greats in soul, in R&B, in black American music.”

I could feel her looking at me, felt her shift a bit against my thigh. “Yeah okay. But that’s not why you like him.”

I shook my head, thinking about it. “I’ll Come Running Back To You” came on, rippling out like a breeze. But even there, in this softer, brighter, happy sort of lullaby, there was something in his voice that ached, full of a yearning so deep he seemed to be both the roaring rush of a mighty river, and the passenger desperate to cross it.

But her fingers had found my belt loop, and I found myself ducking my head down to hers, tracing the soft valley of her jaw with my nose. “He just wants her so bad,” I breathed into her ear, watching the goosebumps rise on her nape. “What’s more romantic than wanting?”

Now in the shed, I brush cobwebs off my shoulders. I can see I brought this on myself. Fucking Sam Cooke. Without meaning to, I’d convinced her—I’ve since caught her humming “Bring It On Home To Me,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Send Me.” At first she was embarrassed, tried to play it off as some kind of proximity earworm. “Shit is catchy!” she’d claim, shrugging me off. But it was all strategy.

A few more minutes pass and the adrenaline seems to have shifted from anger to some other kind of emptiness. I’m already thinking about tomorrow, mentally reviewing her schedule, trying to figure out how I can sneak her off to some piney grove, convince her to stay just a little longer. If she wants me to be Sam, I’ll be Sam. I’m not ashamed, I almost sing, slipping from the shed, carrying this hunger along, not entirely sure if it’s romance or not, almost dreading what will happen next.

—S.H. Lohmann

  

#108: David Bowie, "Hunky Dory" (1971)

108 Hujnky Dory.jpg

“Bowie will never die.”

                   - Tracy K. Smith, “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?”


One of the deepest pleasures of David Bowie Is, an exhibit that began at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013 and ended at the Brooklyn Museum today (July 15, 2018), was the clothes. For me, they were the show within the show. As with the rest of Bowie’s life on display, they had come out of whatever photo session, concert footage, or video and became real; he was no longer a myth or an alien, but a man with a preternatural sense of style. If Bowie ever suffered through an awkward phase or a fashion disaster, he kept it to himself.

Hunky Dory is less an album to be assessed than it is a moment: Bowie in the “Life on Mars?” video, volcanic red-orange hair, turquoise eye shadow, and that suit, called “ice blue” in the exhibition catalog; it looks more saturated in the video. In the Brooklyn exhibit space, it was placed on its own riser, forcing people to look up and admire, or thrill to the sharp, wide lapels and knife-pleats in the trousers, striped cuffs peeking out from the jacket at the wrists. The video is set in an all-white space, and you almost forget about the song he’s singing. Almost. Bowie told stories through his songs and his clothes, and it’s hard for me, sometimes, to say which one I value more. In a 1974 interview with Fan Magazine, he said, “One of my great loves is clothes…I go through so many different phases, at the moment I’m into short-jacketed double-breasted suits, but next week I might be into something completely different.” I follow this in my own life; I’ve gone through so many hair color changes in the past five years that I don’t think there’s one I haven’t tried. Fashion empowers me, and it is the best kind of play. Bowie was one of the few who truly understood this, and we walk through the sunken dream he sings about in “Life on Mars?” together. Fashion is the conduit for how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves. If we’re lucky, these are not the stories that our parents want us to tell, or even the ones our friends want to hear. It is only for the self, and if people want to follow along, great.

Bowie understood this too, and maybe this is part of the reason why he made so many shifts in his persona and style. I dare you to follow me. I dare you to pull it off. This is what the “Life on Mars?” suit is about for me; this shot of glamour as he sings of a girl watching a movie she’s seen or “lived…ten times or more.” How will she shake the boredom? Will she hear Bowie on the radio or see him on Top of the Pops, and decide “I want that?” Or will she kick everything over in 1976-77, and make a DIY dress out of a garbage bag and safety pins, daring people to come at her as she sneers?

I missed that moment. I saw David Bowie for the first time at eight or nine, in the video for “Let’s Dance.” I wanted his seeming detachment, a guise that would let me go somewhere else but still let me see whatever was going on around me. That was not who I was. I cried at the smallest things, I was deemed “weird” by my classmates. If I had an armor, or a talent, then maybe I’d be left alone. Bowie had both, and had it until the end. It was only later that I figured out what I wanted, and learned how not to care about what anyone said about what I wore. I wonder, arrogantly, if the people who praise my style now are the ones who would have laughed at it when we were children.

Tracy K. Smith, in her poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?,” says that Bowie “leaves no tracks… // Silently, lazily, collapse happens. / But not for Bowie.” Collapse did happen for him, though. His body betrayed him, but whatever spirit is, did not. I go further into middle age, and some days feel twice the 44 I am. I’m not the girl with the mousy hair anymore, but she’s inside of me, looking for the next hair color, the next dress. The next story that I want to tell myself.

—Sarah Nichols
 

Note: Fan Magazine interview with Bowie is quoted in David Bowie is the Subject, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marks, eds. London: V&A Publishing, 2013. 250. Print.

#109: The Rolling Stones, "Aftermath" (1966)

109 Aftermath.jpg

When Homer Simpson lost his legal case against the Queen of England, he was literally dragged out of the courtroom, shouting: “America rules! Our Beatles are way better than your precious Rolling Stones!”

My parents quote this joke a lot. We are an American family who has adopted the four lads from Liverpool as our own.  As I’ve written about before, loving the Beatles is the closest thing my family has to a religious tradition. My parents came of age in the mid-‘60s, when teen magazines and radio DJs would pin the Beatles against the Rolling Stones, a rivalry both Brits dismissed at the time (at least in public). 1965 and 1966 were some of the friendliest years between the bands; they even coordinated when to release singles so they wouldn’t be directly competing with one another on the charts.(Things would get more outwardly contentious in the late ‘60s).

If you set aside individual taste, there is an objective winner. The Beatles outsold the Stones from day one and solidified their legacy by quitting while they were ahead. Both bands have 10 albums on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but the Stones only have one in the top 10, while the Beatles have three, including the number 1 spot. (If we’re counting solo records, the Beatles actually have 14 albums on the list). America made its choice decades ago.

Personal preference is a more complex matter. In his 2013 book Beatles vs. Stones, historian John McMillian frames the rivalry as “two sides of the one of the twentieth century’s greatest aesthetic debates…with some qualifications, the Beatles may be described as Apollonian, the Stones as Dionysian, the Beatles pop, the Stones rock, the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral, the Beatles utopian, the Stones realistic.” Or put another way, the Beatles were the American dream, and the Stones were British exiles, beggars at a banquet.

If the Stones were ever going to surpass the Beatles, 1966 would have been the year to do it. The Stones released Aftermath in April, and in the following months, the Beatles would perform their last ever official concert. The Stones, of course, would continuously sell out arenas for another 50 years. (They’re playing in Prague tonight!) In July, the Beatles’ persona as the more palatable, clean-cut option for Americans was jeopardized when John Lennon was quoted as saying that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” The commentwhich originally appeared in a British magazine months earlier, eliciting no reaction—inspired death threats and mass record-burning parties in the States. The Stones had a window.

Aftermath is very much a response to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, but not in the way that listeners might have expected at the time. The Beatles’ album title alone was a provocationa play on “plastic soul,” an insult often thrown at the Rolling Stones for being white boys co-opting an African American sound. While the Beatles had been guilty of the same, Rubber Soul was a artistic breakthrough, with its experimental instrumentation and sophisticated lyrics. Paul called Rubber Soul “the beginning of his adult life.” (John simply referred to it as “the pot album.”)

Aftermath also presents a maturing sound: it’s the first Stones album to consist entirely of original tracks, and one of the first records ever to exceed the 50-minute mark. The U.S. version opens with “Paint it, Black,” the most goth song of the 1960s. What a contrast to the only other pop song to have featured a sitar at that point: “Norwegian Wood.” Where Rubber Soul is dreamy, sentimental, Aftermath is brash, dingy. The Beatles abandoned the blues just as the Stones refined their approach to it.

Even as a Beatles disciple, I can’t deny the Stones’ genius. Exile on Main Street is a masterpiece, secure on my personal top 10 list. Aftermath has its moments, but speaking in Of All Time terms, l consider the unabashed misogyny in songs like “Stupid Girl” and “Under my Thumb” to be disqualifying. (McMillan describes “Under My Thumb” as “a revenge fantasy, a kind of introverted funhouse mirror sequel to Lennon’s ‘Girl’”). And while I acknowledge that not every Beatles lyric holds up to 2018’s moral standards either (see: John’s glib confession to beating his first wife in “Getting Better”), I ultimately deflect to my upbringing. That anyone would prefer the Rolling Stones to the Beatles is simply baffling to me. There is a right choice.

It’s no wonder Homer Simpson thought the Beatles were from the United States: Beatlemania has the fervor of nationalism, a superiority complex in line with the American tradition of embracing the right kind of immigrant. The Beatles are the best, so they must be ours. But to let it be is to let it bleed. Taste is only a matter a circumstance; I was born into a Beatle family, just as I was born with white skin on a certain side of an arbitrary border. To those who find more hope in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” than in “Hey Jude,” I’m glad you’ve found it at all.

—Susannah Clark

#111: Radiohead, "The Bends" (1995)

111 The Bends.jpg

Everyone is, everything is broken
Why can’t you forget ? Why can’t you forget ?

                      - Radiohead, “Planet Telex”

 

I didn’t hear The Bends, Radiohead’s second album, until 1998, when I received it as a 24th birthday present, along with OK Computer, which is the album that made me look around the year before and wonder what this thing called Radiohead was about. So much of what the nineties became for me had to do with drifting and aimlessness: I had dropped out of high school in 1993, and gotten a job at a local library. I started college in 1995, still working. I had vague and grandiose dreams: I wanted to be a writer, but had only written papers for school. In 1996, I fell in love with film studies, and saw myself (or another, more interesting version of myself) as a film scholar and a critic. The music that filtered back to me in those years didn’t speak to me: I felt like grunge and riot grrrl were too angry for me, because I was scared of the anger I already had, and that I pretended didn’t exist. The college rock/alternative station that I had listened to throughout my adolescence was losing its enchantment: I didn’t care about the battle between Blur and Oasis; I don’t remember ever hearing “Creep” on the radio, or anywhere else, although I read years later that Thom Yorke almost drowned in a pool during a performance at MTV’s annual Spring Break.

I was perfect for what Radiohead was trying to tell the world. It just took me longer to find them. The Bends is an extraordinary transitional album: it sounds exactly like its time (the midpoint of the nineties), and out of its time, too; an album that twenty years later still retains its desolation and instrumental pyrotechnics. If they had continued in the vein of Pablo Honey, they might have gotten a few albums in, had followers, and then maybe gotten bored or sick of their sound, and stopped. There is young adult, fashionable alienation on The Bends (“I wish it was the sixties / I wish I could be happy / I wish, I wish I wish that something would happen”) but there is also the pain of living with oneself, and with the world there, too, that goes beyond “I don’t know how to fit in (and I don’t want to),” to the weight of fear and existing in a place that’s going to be a dystopia much faster than anyone could have foreseen. If OK Computer shows us  the internal effects of that landscape in full, then The Bends gives us glimpses; ragged messages and calls for help:

I call up my friend the good angel
But she’s out with her answerphone
She said that she’d love to come help

But
the sea would electrocute us all

 

Yorke’s voice sneers and mourns through The Bends.  He condemns the popularity of his own creation, “Creep,” and its consumers, too, in “My Iron Lung,” and I think what drew me to this album then and, to a lesser extent, now, is the attitude of fuck off or fight me. I don’t care. But if that roiling anger is there, then the bottomless sadness is there, too, and it’s unfeigned:

If I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted
all the time. All the time.

 

I understand, up to a point, why there’s a nineties nostalgia going on now. People see some kind of freedom there, or better music, or a dream of progression. The gaudiness of the eighties had been stripped away for some sort of authenticity that became a commodity itself, and The Bends asks, Do you want to be pissed off or sad about it? Is one just a shade of the other? I wasn’t asking myself these questions when I was listening to it at twenty-four. I was trying to build a wall out of scraps of movies and books and music to keep all of that out. I let other people feel all of the things that I desperately did not want to feel: Rage. Loneliness. Joy.

Joy still remains tricky for me. I have to work at it. There are moments when I see it in the video for “Just,” with Jonny Greenwood making love to his guitar and upping the ante for the rest of the band, and Yorke spinning out his own moves in a too-small room while the rest of the world ends, or holding a book that I wrote in my hands, still wondering how I managed to do that. The Bends showed me a way out in 1998. It still does.

—Sarah Nichols

#112: The Mamas and the Papas, "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears" (1966)

112 If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.jpg

The Mamas & the Papas were one of those peculiar bands in the sixties that mixed the drugs, affairs, and conflict of their personal lives with the beautiful harmonies and innocent voices they projected. To me, they are yet another example of how unrealistic it is to ask a group of talented singers/musicians to come together and create music while doing press and tour. It almost always ended in feud and conflict for these sixties folk groups. Crosby, Stills and Nash? They all came together after being fired from different bands, and were determined to do things differently this time around. They purposefully named their group with their last names so no one could leave or be kicked out, but this talented group only lasted for two years before breaking up and creating a lifelong feud with each other. I’m sure it didn’t help that they were all in love with Joni Mitchell at the same time (who wasn’t?). Simon and Garfunkel? It was only two members and they still manage to hate each other after all these years. They blame it on disputes about performing and songwriting. A demanding music industry combined with the toxic coping mechanisms of fame led to a horrible, horrible cocktail. The Mamas & the Papas’ quick reign of success ended when Michelle Phillips, one of the vocalists, and wife of lead singer/songwriter John Phillips, had an affair with the only other male vocalist, and it drove everyone apart.

But underneath that toxicity and drama was a lot of talent. For the Mamas & the Papas, each of their harmonies was significant to the group’s sound. Even though John Phillips wrote the majority of their songs, their signature sound was the complexity and darkness of the group’s harmonies. Their most famous song, “California Dreamin’,” is about living in New York City’s cold, dark winters while dreaming of the warmth of LA. But their harmonies make it so much more than that. I picture the complexities that came with living in New York City in the sixties. The political darkness, winter depression, financial instability. Clinging onto LA warmth is also dreaming of better, happier, stress-free days. Their harmonies perfectly capture that desperation and yearning. I often cling to this song in the winter when I am feeling that January darkness, when it feels like the sky is dark 24 hours a day and there’s no chance of the weather ever becoming warmer or flowers blossoming or people interacting outside ever again. You look around in the winter and you are reminded of an isolated feeling, because there is literally no life around you.

Their other top hit on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, “Monday Monday,” starts off with a slow la-da-la-da-da-da and John Phillips’s soothing voice. When the harmonies come in, the song gets progressively faster, louder, and darker (“whenever Monday comes, you can find me crying all the time”).  It reminds me of every Lifetime movie or American Horror Story episode we’ve seen where a 50s housewife type starts off pleasant and then slowly goes mad from an unfaithful husband. Perhaps John Phillips  was already going crazy about his wife’s affair when he wrote this. After all, another on this album, “Go Where You Wanna Go,” is about Michelle’s affair with another songwriter/record producer. I swear, this drama is more intense than Fleetwood Mac’s scandalous album Rumors, based on Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s intense breakup.

Why do I know so much about this drama? Well, all of this information is accessible to us now from biographies, oral histories, band reunions, etc. But at the time of their fame, just like the industry today, this group was meant to look happy, put together, and excited to sing, no matter what. The cover of this album shows all four group members huddled in a bathtub together like college students messing around in a dorm. A famous live performance of the group singing “California Dreamin’” shows all four of them smiling and bopping around while they’re performing a dark song. Fame forces performers to withhold their real emotions no matter what, and to provide stunning performances for their audience. Performers were not allowed to have “off” days. When Mama Cass, the other female vocalist, went solo after the band’s breakup, she was forced to perform in Las Vegas even though she was shivering from a fever and sore throat. The performance went so horribly that people walked out; she struggled to fill chairs at her performances for the rest of her life despite her amazing fame and talent. Audiences show no sympathy, and it puts a lot of pressure on performers trying to keep their name.

I didn’t meant to turn this piece into a sympathetic look at the life of famous, successful 60s folk singers, but I do think it’s rather impressive that they were able to come out with chart-topping hits even when they made their songs political or reflective of their alternative lifestyles. The Mamas & the Papas in particular proved how powerful harmonies can be for even the darkest of songs.

—Jenn Montooth

#128: Iggy and the Stooges, "Raw Power" (1973)

128 Raw Power.jpg

The song ended as fast and hard as it had begun—heavy slap bass, double kick pedal moving strong, and the singer screaming through the final shredded chord. The gravel stirred by the pit lingered high in the air even after the cheering quieted and the local punk band left the stage. “Fucking killer;” “Yeah, way dope,” the crowd commented while the next band hurried to set up their gear. Ryan cognitively kept his mouth shut so as not to inhale the dirt that slowly settled—a first for a guy who’d gone to several outdoor shows with pits in his early youth. But after thirteen months of sand storms and monsoons in the desert, he hated the idea of feeling any such grime in his teeth.

“Dude, didn’t I tell you? That band kills it!” Kelbo jumped on Ryan’s back, the whiskey strong on his breath. The gravel lot just north of the highway had been rented to house the biannual Sunday punk rock flea market and bands that accompanied the event. “And if you think they were great, man, the next set is going to be even more sick. Burning Wire mixes a lot of great covers with their own shit—makes for a fun ass time!”

Ryan grabbed Kelbo’s wrist and playfully twisted it until Kelbo jumped down and laughed: “You fucker.” Kelbo stumbled for a second. “Still glad you actually left your house and came, even if you are an asshole.” He gave a slight push to Ryan’s chest, the sort of gesture Kelbo had made since Ryan first met him nearly ten years ago in Coach Dan’s government class. “Wait, wait, wait,” Kelbo said after taking a long swig of his Jim Beam and coke. “There’s that girl I want you to meet. Hailey! Hailey!”

“Seriously, Kelbo,” Ryan said underneath his breath as the girl—electric blue hair, cut-up Sniper 66 shirt, torn fishnets, and classic vans—approached.

“This is my friend I’d been telling you about,” Kelbo slurred. “Best guy I know. Solid, sensitive, loyal, war vet, a real son of a bitch.”

Kelbo had very actively been trying to set Ryan up ever since he himself had settled down with his own lady six months ago, and no matter how many times Ryan said to drop the war vet shit, Kelbo never excluded it from his pitch.

“Ryan, Hailey. Hailey, Ryan,” Kelbo made a drunken curtsy. “I need another drink. Can I grab you two anything?”

“I’ll take another IPA.” Hailey’s voice was deep and husky as she slightly lifted her nearly empty cup. The smile that formed on her face unveiled cute little dimples and straight white teeth, an offset to the dirt and sweat she’d acquired in the pit. Her mannerisms and style reminded Ryan of his first serious girlfriend.

“Naw, man, I’m good,” Ryan said as he put his hands wrist-deep into the pockets of his black denim vest still covered in band patches sewn on in his early twenties. Ryan had become accustomed to the line of reactions he usually received when others learned of his status as an Iraqi veteran. There were the meatheads that quickly switched to their most masculine demeanor, automatically expecting that Ryan had busted down doors while wearing riot gear rather than working in amnesty recovery during his service. Then there were the punks that looked at him with confusion. A member from a primarily anti-establishment scene in the Army? Then the pseudo-intellectuals that wanted to start a debate about the ethics of our involvement nearly 12 years after the initial bombs were dropped in Baghdad; the pseudo-sensitives whom Ryan should feel free to talk to, if ever needed; the ones who loudly and proudly thanked Ryan for his service with their altruistic motives and five dollar American flag T-shirts from corporate Wal-Mart; the ones who just looked at him uncomfortably, like they had no clue what to say in response to this information; and then there were the occasional assholes who immediately wanted to know if he’d ever killed anybody while overseas.

Another girl had run up to quickly give Hailey a hug before running off, so he couldn’t exactly judge Hailey’s own reaction. Kelbo gave Ryan another push. “Come on, man, not even one beer? It’s not like you got a job to go to in the morning. Let me buy you a drink.”

“I’m straight, dude,” Ryan said. Kelbo shrugged and headed towards the bar leaving Ryan and Hailey alone in a sea of kids with mohawks and studs.

“So,” Ryan said, unable to mask his discomfort. “Did you have your own DIY booth in the flea market today or just come out for a good time?” Ryan felt like a fish out of water in the scene these days—but isn’t that what the army forgets to tell you during recruitment: that the most familiar spaces will turn foreign upon being discharged.

“Both,” Hailey said, “I closed up my booth about an hour ago with the other vendors and all the shots I’ve taken since then were in honor of having a good time.”

“What’d you sell?”

“I make jewelry.” She pointed to the dangling grenade earrings gracing the second piercing in her lobe, next to her ½-inch gages. “I actually made a necklace once from some old bullet casings my great uncle, or maybe it was a great second cousin or some family member like that, had left over from Vietnam.”

Ryan nodded his head. “Cool.” Counter-culture is full of war remnants turned accoutrements—a fashion statement Ryan didn’t quite know how to handle after returning home.

“So, you on leave or something?”

“I got out about a year ago.”

“Have any old war memorabilia you might want to barter for? That shit, once turned into jewelry, sells.”

“Fresh out.”

Hailey laughed and chugged her beer, a little dribbling down her chin, probably from the shots she mentioned having taken.

“Yeah I guess that one family member of mine like lost an arm or a leg or something in Vietnam. Good job keeping all your appendages.”

“Thanks, I tried.” Ryan thought about the guilt he sometimes felt seeing the amputees down at the V.A.—their wounds clearly visible, their stories clearly told. He thought about the children amputees he’d seen in Khalis’s impoverished hospitals tarnished with bullet holes. Ryan couldn’t bring himself to talk at the V.A. support groups the one or two times he’d gone.

“So, what made you want to join?” Hailey asked.

Ryan looked for Kelbo, who had two drinks in hand but was still talking to the bartender. “Money, I guess. The 30 POGs I oversaw were mostly poor, thick-skinned kids: broke kids wanting to go to college, broke kids not feeling like they had any other good options, broke, rural kids presented no real option by a local judge.”

“Which one were you?”

Kelbo finally came back over and handed Hailey her beer. “Burning Wire is almost done setting up. Let’s head to the front of the stage.” Ryan reluctantly followed Kelbo and Hailey as the band did their mic checks. He stood their awkwardly while all the others seemed at ease in the crowd, drinks in hand, randomly making jokes. It wasn’t until the lead singer greeted everyone from the stage, signaling the beginning of their set, that Ryan felt slightly relaxed.

“What’s up, Tulsa!” the singer said. “Before we kick off with some of our new songs we must pay some respect to the Godfather of punk.” The rhythm guitar and drums kicked off the opening chords and beat of the first single from Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ Raw Power. Then the melody guitarists led the singer to the opening: “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of Napalm. I’m the runaway son of a nuclear A-bomb. I am the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys. Honey got to help me please. Somebody gotta save my soul.”

Ryan caught Hailey looking at him. He hoped she wasn’t thinking he’d get spooked by the loud bass and drums. While incorporating that raw sound—which had to have helped with the album’s title—the dissonance no way resembled the mortar shells that used to get fired into the army base day and night.

Ryan leaned down the foot or so to meet the height of Hailey’s ear. “I guess this song goes out to your uncle, or cousin or whoever,” he said as the singer repeated the chorus: “I am the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys.”

Hailey let out a laugh/grunt and said: “I guess that’s you.”

“What?” Ryan asked.

“I guess that’s true,” Hailey repeated, slightly louder.

Those around Ryan continued to dance to the chorus over and over: “Honey, I’m the world’s forgotten boy, the one who’s searching, searching to destroy.” The singer was throwing himself and the mic around the stage. Kelbo had joined in the pit forming to the left. Someone lifted up Hailey to crowd surf. Ryan had heard this song a million times before, but this time it hit him differently. “Forgotten boy. I said forgotten boy!” The lyrics now seemed a question more than the chorus of a song as the words floated underneath Ryan’s skin—somewhere near where the instability of his post-Iraqi identity harbored quietly, away from the crowd’s eyes, away from Hailey and Kelbo, away from all his other friends, away from his family, away from everything he’d once easily known.

—Angela Morris

#113: Joni Mitchell, "Court and Spark" (1974)

113 Court and Spark.jpg

“The trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they don’t know the game.”

                          — Bill Shankly, manager, Liverpool Football Club, 1959 - 1974

 

The day after I told him what I’d seen, Dave didn’t miss a beat. He took a step and stood square on looking me in the eyes and he said, “You know that’s just a thing, right? A thing some women like. It’s normal.”

It felt like fifteen minutes passed with him staring, and me making a series of tiny adjusted stares back, and also at the same time staring into nothing, and feeling very aware of all the other things around us, and Dave finally said, “So, maybe stop overanalyzing us?” and zipped up his bag and walked to his car. While he was walking off, he shook his head and gave that hands on hips pffffft of breath that he usually did when we were on the soccer field and he tried to give me a pass and I was a step late getting to where he thought I needed to be. He would always turn away before making that face, because he felt that in his role as captain he should never directly show us his disappointment.

It gummed me up for hours afterward: what’re you supposed to say if someone tells you to stop analyzing how they act with their wife? And Dave’s conversations weren’t usually that quick or pointed, so it had caught me off guard, and I worried I’d crossed a line. He was usually much more circumspect, if a little terse. He was a natural leader.

We had worked together for two years by that point and had become friends. We played on the same soccer team in the over-35 league. Dave’s wife was friends with my wife. And at that time, he was probably my only friend outside my marriage. Dave taught me everything about not just playing soccer in a functional way, but about how the game can be cruel, and turns on a moment, but can be so magical. He also taught me that it demands total commitment.

As the mysterious and legendary Yugoslavia defender Velibor Vasović is said to have put it, “I never understood why you'd play a game in which you lost four kilos of your body weight for nothing. When you put on the shirt and laced up the boots, you had to win. Otherwise you might as well stay at home and watch the television.”

But to Dave, winning was almost—almost—secondary to playing the game the right way. It turned out that in soccer there were rules—and the rules came in many layers.

There were simple rules, and even these had to be both learned and then gamed. These were things like the offsides rule (when in defense, every man must raise his arm in the international gesture to claim confidence the striker was offside; when playing as striker) and yellow cards (each ref had a threshold for yellow cards that demanded both a friendly chat after you committed egregious fouls that sounded like, sir, you know I had to go for that, or he was just a little too quick for me there). If you got away with a bad foul, you had to do the opposite—you had to get heated, and beseech the referee to book your opponent for making too much of what must have been a normal challenge. If someone cleated your teammate, you were to do the same to them at the next opportunity. These were rules that took some context to implement, but that were straightforward enough.

Then there were the complex codes a team lived by. Dave taught almost all of us that. Most of us had never played before, and Dave told us that he recruited us as a team of amateurs on purpose. The other over-35-league teams, he said, were composed of has-beens who both had passed their primes and worse, thought they could still play. He picked us because we still had hope, he said. We could still learn.

Dave had been our captain since forever, and he was a good captain because he was a good motivator and he looked after the details. He would call each of us before a new season and ask how we were feeling, what we had been working on, and whether we were ready to play another season. He would also bring beers for after the game for everyone for whom the night’s exertions had really meant something. We would always stick around another few moments, chattering about the yard dog tackles the other team had left on us, the coward of a ref, the missed chances on goal. After two beers, Dave mostly got up on his soapbox.

“Messi is not a genius,” Dave said once while we were cracking beers in the parking lot. He snapped the small, old cooler lid shut with a long plastic creak. “Xavi is a genius. Riquelme is a genius. Pirlo is a genius. Messi is just fast and left-footed and quick at math.”

I thought of Messi’s scrambling runs, thought of the sublime chips, the way giant defenders bounced off him, the quick passing.

“Why isn’t Messi a genius?” I said.

“Because he only plays well with the best players around him,” he said. As he slurped from his beer, he looked right at me. “A genius turns a team of scrubs into a great team.”

Josephus asked what made a teammate a great teammate—I think with a touch of irony, though his accent always made it hard to tell. Dave was completely silent for the rest of the night after that, but when we were the last two left in the parking lot, I asked him again what made someone a good teammate.

"Trust,” he said. "If we’re all committed and all always working incredibly hard, there will always be another defender to clean up behind us if we fall. And a good player also never—ever—shithouses out of a fifty-fifty tackle. Or even a losing tackle. And lastly, but just as importantly, no matter what the score, or how tired your legs think they are, a good teammate has to always be showing for the ball when your teammate needs to pass.”

*

Now that I am a team manager in my work, and have a team that reports to me, and squabbles, and hesitates in their own decisions, and routinely crumbles into a particularly bureaucratic dysfunctionality, I think of Dave’s list of good teammate qualities often, and I wonder why my repeating the same things he used to say won’t stick with them the way it did with me. I think the list is useless without the physical feelings of exhaustion, of futility, and of frustrations stemming from unanswerable questions posed by a defense of ugly, old, cheating shithouses. If you don’t know the bleakness of those feelings, what can a list give you?

I recall quite clearly the moment I realized I wouldn’t play forever. The vision that preceded the full realization—which only came after the ligament in the center of my left knee ruptured, and had to be replaced by a piece of my hamstring. Before those moments, it should have been much clearer.

When I saw Dave grab defenders by the throat in a fit of rage, it was right. Righteous, even. He was always quick to take a red card as long as it meant letting other teams know they could never put a dirty tackle in on one of us without answering to Dave. I still remember my first game, losing the ball out of bounds, but still getting clattered on both sides by two other players, one of whom stuck his cleats into my thigh and left a gash. The referee blew the whistle and was fumbling in his pocket for a card when Dave delivered a more swift sense of justice, and punched one of the offending players in the throat. Dave stood over the poor asshole holding one finger up in the gesture he always used to show a referee or the other team that he stood for principles and wouldn’t melt away when challenged. He would never shithouse out of a challenge. We all went out for beers afterward. The feeling was magnificent. Noble. Boundless. And it was as good as it would ever get. Genuinely.

The fields where we have always played are nestled between some train tracks and the river on what would otherwise be an empty floodplain. The tunnel underneath the train tracks that lets you exit the far side of the soccer fields is still there. It goes under the long berm that raises the train tracks above where the river usually reaches when it jumps its banks during a flood. It’s only a short tunnel, and it’s quite well lit, but still, not too many people tend to use it. It leads to behind the hospital where there aren’t many parking spots, but there are a lot of loud machines—air conditioners, ambulances, a rescue helicopter in a long shed. It’s a loud and chaotic space where there’s always something going on, and only a few places for a soccer player to park. But Dave has always used this tunnel, since his wife Sarah works for the hospital and has a spot in the big garage.

I remember that night, the referee was a very young boy I’m sure was still in high school, but hadn’t been a soccer player himself, and so refereed the league games. He was completely unprepared for the ugliness and Machiavellian shithouse behavior of these grown men. He had the look of an earnest young future lawyer, and I was completely unsurprised to find out many years later he was the son of immigrants who were supportive, strict, and unwavering in their faith of what the American legal and economic system could be for them and their son. We met as volunteer coaches at the high school. He did it to help give guidance to the young players—many of whom also came from the mostly Burundian and Bosnian resettlement population—while I just needed something to do after my MCL ended my playing days. The young man would not go on to be a lawyer, as I thought that night, but did, in fact, become a paralegal in the time I knew him.

That night when the referee blew the whistle to begin play, I had hoped so much that I would be able to set aside the tight feeling in my gut that being near Dave had given me after our conversation at practice the night before. A thing some women like.

Leaving practice two days earlier, Dave and Sarah had been about midway through the tunnel, and almost out of the glow of the streetlight. I was still on the edge of the field, unpacking the aspirin from my gym bag in the grass beside the tunnel, and in the falling darkness they did not know I was behind them. Dave was totally calm until the moment he reached out for Sarah, and grabbed her by the throat and held a single finger up for several pulses.

I felt my heartbeat in my temples. The scene replayed so easily. Dave held the lone finger up at Sarah and stared, and then he took his hand from her throat, and without any more words they walked out of the tunnel together and disappeared on the other side.

When I asked him about it after practice the next day, he was so sharp and so quick to put the right face on. And on the following day, playing on the field just 30 feet from the same tunnel, I had hoped with such a shithouse ache that when the game began it would be okay to forget the calmness and then the quickness with which he had grabbed her and pinned her to the tunnel’s walls, holding her at the throat, or the shunting of her shout as his hand cut off her air, or the quick and easy way he had talked to me after practice and walked off.

The ball bounced off my shins and out of bounds. I remember trying and trying to figure out where on the pitch I should have been standing. I remember thinking to myself, If we win this match, everything’s okay. I whispered it to myself over and over as I ran aimlessly through the midfield missing tackles, not arriving for the ball on time. Everything’s normal.

—Aaron Fallon

#114: Cream, "Disraeli Gears" (1967)

114 Disraeli Gears.jpg

On Saturday mornings old men pull up their socks and mow lawns. Listen to chainlink rattle against hard plastic wheels. Listen to motors stutter as blades choke on clumps of grass, heavy with dew.

Gary, though, he doesn’t mow the lawn on Saturday mornings.

Gary says, “Chad, meet me out in the garage in five?” but Chad, who is eating toast at the kitchen counter, doesn’t want to go into the garage because Gary has been out there all morning fucking around on his guitar, and any time Gary calls his oldest son into the garage after fucking around with his guitar all morning, it’s almost certainly because he wants to jam. Jam—Gary’s word, not Chad’s. Chad says, “I’m going to mow,” then walks past his father into the garage and begins to unroll his socks so they reach up his ankles. Gary follows Chad into the garage, says, “Easy there, old man.” And Chad says, “Somebody’s got to do it.” Even though he knows his father was mocking him for rolling his socks up, he’s decided not to engage with that bullshit.

Gary says, “Would it kill you to grab your bass for a minute?” And while Chad knows that it would not, in fact, kill him to pick his bass up for a minute, it wouldn’t be particularly useful or enjoyable either—Chad hasn’t played his bass, or any bass for that matter, in five years. He says, “I’m not going to play with you.” Chad can’t stand the thought of playing bass. The only times he thinks about it are when Gary asks him to jam, or when he reminds himself to remember to take it to a guitar shop to sell.

Until he was seventeen, Chad had played in a band called Bad Grey Alien that performed an eighty-twenty split of covers to originals, with covers ranging from the psychedelia and classic rock of the sixties and seventies to what was, at the time, the contemporary sounds of mid-to-late period grunge. Their originals ranged from songs that sounded a lot like outtakes from the first two Pearl Jam albums to square-as-fuck twelve bar blues tunes accompanied by lyrics about not having girlfriends or not being taken seriously by parents. Being in a band, mediocre as it was, provided a certain amount of smalltime acclaim and modest notoriety for Chad at the time, but he, along with his bandmates, knew all along that they weren’t going to write the kinds of songs that would catch anyone’s ear, and they were nervous about turning out like the guys in Missile Toe, a slightly older eighty-twenty band who hadn’t been ready to let go of their certain amount of smalltime acclaim and modest notoriety afforded them for being in a band, and so stayed in town to play local gigs at night and work jobs bagging groceries or bussing tables during the day.

The thing was, Missile Toe, too, knew they weren’t the kind of band that was going to “hit it big,” but still couldn’t let go. Chad sometimes thought that the guys in Missile Toe had done him and his friends a favor—maybe Bad Grey Alien would have tried to make a go of things had they not seen how sad the Missile Toe guys seemed. And so in spring semester of their senior year, Bad Grey Alien threw a big party and played their last ever gig together. That was the last time Chad played his bass. One might think someone who generally enjoyed playing music might pick it up to dabble here or there but between the Missile Toe guys desperately clinging to whatever it was they were clinging to, and his own father’s constant obsession with fucking around on his guitar in the garage, Chad stopped wanting to have really anything to do with music after his band’s last show.

And then, four days after that last show, Gail, she was—is?—Chad’s mom, ran off to check herself into a rehab clinic in New Mexico, claiming an addiction to booze and antidepressants. Chad had never seen his mom drink anything other than water, orange juice, or Diet Coke, and surely had never seen her take a pill in her life, so he wasn’t all that surprised when, two days after she checked herself in, she checked herself right back out, but instead of heading home, disappeared into America’s wide open West. Gary didn’t even bother calling the police or hiring a private investigator—he just continued his routine of working eight-to-seven at the firm, and upped his guitar time in the garage from one hour a night to three. So no, Chad hadn’t really felt like playing his bass since then, and who could blame him? Who can blame him now? Five years out of high school and still living with his dad, to pick up the bass now, Chad thinks, would surely signal something frightening and deeply unsettling about how he fits into his hometown’s ecosystem of aging boomers and their adult children.

“Seriously, though, I’m going to mow now,” Chad says. But before he can finish priming the motor, Gary says, “Remember that time you guys played “Sunshine?”

Chad says, “And you told us it sounded like shit.”

“You were what, twelve?”

“Seventh grade. So, yeah, twelve.” He continues, “You told us, twelve year olds, that we had no business performing the song if Todd wasn’t going to use the Woman Tone.”

Gary says, “The song doesn’t exist without the Woman Tone.”

“We were twelve.”

Gary says, “Still one of my proudest moments.”

“Shitting all over the greatest achievement of what was, at the time, your twelve year old son’s greatest accomplishment?”

“No, idiot—watching you play the song.”

Though this admission from his father surprises Chad, it doesn’t particularly move him. He isn’t sure he can remember the last time he had this long a conversation with his father, and sure as hell can’t think of a time when he and Gary talked about anything other than doing work around the house or what one of them needed to pick up at the store. So, really, the admission doesn’t mean much to Chad at all.

As Chad awkwardly stands over the mower, Gary spreads his fingers across the neck of his Les Paul and picks out the opening riff of “Sunshine of Your Love.” The notes seem to swallow themselves, then hum—as if anyone listening isn’t hearing the notes themselves, but the holes at the middle of the notes, the quiet vibrations rumbling out of each tone.

“That’s pretty good,” Chad says.

“It’s an easy riff—a twelve year old can play it.”

“The tone. You’ve got it down.”

“Like I told you then, the song doesn’t exist without the Woman Tone.”

Gary wasn’t wrong, and Chad knows it. Chad always knows it. Everyone who has ever played the opening riff of “Sunshine Of Your Love” on an electric guitar without at least attempting the Woman Tone knows it somewhere, deep down inside, even if they don’t know that they know: every teenage garage band, stringy-haired and gangly; every middle aged bar band, balding and beer-gutted; every semi-professional corporate event and wedding band, pony-tailed and arrogant; every pep band, karaoke singer, coffee house crooner, professional band who throws in the occasional cover—every single goddam last one of them knows, has known, will know that the song isn’t anything without that tone.

Chad says, “It’s not like I disagree with you.”

Gary turns up the volume on his amp and plays the riff again. Says, “Dennis wants to place this at our first gig. I told him only if we get the sound right.”

“Your first gig?”

“At the distillery. The new one.”

“You’re a band now?”

“We have been.”

Gary plays the riff—then plays it again, again, again. Chad doesn’t have anything to say, but feels weirdly betrayed by his father’s revelation, though he can’t put his finger on why, exactly. If his father wants to play in a band with other old men, that’s his business. As a brash, young twenty year old, though, Chad feels uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed at the thought of men in their late fifties and early sixties “jamming” in front of strangers. Chad feels blood rush to his face. He’s about to bolt so he can begin mowing when he hears his father begin to sing, “I’ll be with you darling soon.” It’s a whisper, a far cry from Jack Bruce’s guttural howls. “I’ll be with you when the stars are falling,” he continues.

Chad can’t help but note a surprising sadness in his father’s voice. He is surprised, period, to hear Gary singing, but to hear his father’s voice so quiet, timid even, catches him off guard. Soon, Gary switches from the famous opening riff to the rhythmically halting chorus, sings “I’ve been waiting so long,” and when he gets to the next line, “To be where I’m going,” Chad, without even realizing it, begins to sing along. Together, voices increasing in volume, the two sing the last line of the chorus, and then Gary is right back into the song’s main riff, while Chad sings the bass part, and bangs out a beat on his legs. The pair continue this way through the end of the song.

Gary says, “Why don’t you go grab your bass.”

Chad says, “I’ve got to mow.” He adds, “Maybe next time.”

And with that, he starts the mower and pushes it out of the garage into what’s left of this bright, crisp Saturday morning.

—James Brubaker

#115: The Who, "Sell Out" (1967)

115 Sell Out.jpg

Pete Townshend’s hawkish nose was flaking off. After a zillion washings, my favorite shirt had dulled from bright cerulean to mottled steel, so the cheeky photos of the Who posing for the cover of 1967’s The Who Sell Out were in various stages of unmaking. One could no longer read the brand name Heinz on the novelty-sized can Roger Daltrey clutched, sitting bug-eyed in a tub overflowing with baked beans. On the back, Keith Moon’s eyes peeled beneath his mop-top, making him look like a pharaonic hypnotist. Beside him, John Entwistle grinned mischievously in leopard print as Tarzan, a bubbly blonde model as Jane by his side. By now, it was hard to tell if the teddy bear he clutched in the crook of his elbow was a plaything or a dead toddler, limp in its father’s arms. If you had asked me then, as I dug it from my hamper to wash and wear it again for the second time in any given tenth grade week, so I could eat one-handed while clutching a lunch tray like a battle shield to block the greasy tater tots upperclassmen lobbed, I couldn’t tell you. Before dawn, I’d tiptoe downstairs to take it wrinkled from a cold dryer and fumble it on. The bus came at 6:17 a.m. All I knew, indifferently watching the passing dawns, was that each one was a lie. Each morning, through the loose-wire crackle of my headphones, Townshend’s thin falsetto sang you can’t switch off the sun.

*

Dominated by Townshend’s vision and voice, The Who Sell Out is a landmark album that documents the first cohesive effort by a band that had hitherto struggled to capture the effervescence of their live performances on two previous studio records. In 1967’s cluttered landscape of British Invasion rock, it is also the moment when the Who fully emerge as ironists, as personalities, and as musicians. Coarser than the Beatles, rangier than the Rolling Stones, the Who finally proved their melodies and social commentary had substance, charm, and depth. What did those pill-popping mod teens think when The Band That Smashed Their Gear turned their gain knobs down to debut the solemn minimalism of “Sunrise,” or the Latin-tinged grooves of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” or the naïve psychedelic cheer of “Relax”? With its faux commercials interlaced throughout, which simultaneously mocked the restrictive BBC and celebrated the pirate radio stations that pulsed offshore just beyond British jurisdiction, The Who Sell Out feels, as Tommy would two years later, too studied an effort for a working group of four to adequately replicate onstage. While the bare-chested live shows for Tommy would shake the concert halls of North America to become the stuff of legend, the only tune from The Who Sell Out that has endured the band’s slow passage into a greatest hits machine is “I Can See for Miles,” a jilted lover’s lament that coasts on atmosphere and sneer. Forty years later, the orchestrated fuzz of “Armenia, City in the Sky” and the floating harmonies of “I Can’t Reach You” strike me as far worthier of radio play. What would I have muttered to myself had I been an obsessive clinger then, amphetamined in the shadows of a Shepherd’s Bush club, nursing the last pint I could afford when the melancholy arpeggios of “Tattoo” diffused the night? I would have said my god, these blokes are selling out.

*

It is a poor reflection on my intelligence at age fifteen that I celebrated a kitschy pop-art concept album mocking consumerism—indeed, one of the earliest concept albums in rock history—through the totemic worship of a commodity. How many cool shirts were in my cool shirt arsenal? Seven? And what, in my adolescent fog, did I hope they would achieve, as I stood before their shrine at Tower Records, hoping desperately that this month the shipment from a distant corporate warehouse contained one Who shirt, size small, hidden deep in racks of jumbo tees pimping Korn and Nine Inch Nails? Perhaps deep down, in a fantasy I wish I could disown, I hoped that if I wore them long enough, some Annapolis princess would stun me at my locker, nervously swooping her long bangs behind her studded ears, and find me cool enough to flirt with. If the first two Rules of Cool are 1) don’t try too hard and 2) awesomeness can’t happen by osmosis, I failed both daily. Alexander Pope, in his 1727 essay on bathos, called the earnest but comically pathetic poets of his time “dunces.” Deli dishwasher, master of three power chords, your broke mother idles her rusted minivan in the parking lot while you frantically clack the bones of hangers. Can you see yourself in the store’s convex anti-theft mirror? Mark your skinny ghost, pale as eggshell, tearing a Velcro wallet open.

*

Last year I belatedly discovered that the mono and stereo mixes of “Our Love Was” (alternatively titled “Our Love Was, Is”) diverge at minute mark 2:09. The mono version contains clean, stately noodling on what is probably a twelve-string Rickenbacker, slightly out of tune. I want to go on the record as saying it sucks. The stereo mix solo blisters through a fuzz box dripping reverb sounding like your inconsolable brother leaping backwards off Mount Washington in a snowstorm. It only lasts fourteen seconds, but for me, these two versions embody anticlimax and climax as artistic weapons. It’s hard for me to even conceive of these as “versions,” really—they are two entirely different songs. Google this and you’ll find no one, anywhere, has written about it. Google this and join me in my distress.

*

Once, in my early years of teaching, before I learned to police myself against excessive authenticity in the classroom, I had a lecture on the rhetorical appeals veer painfully off course in a freshman composition class. Sweating through my PowerPoint behind a wobbly lectern, third coffee in hand, I began by saying it’s best to think of everything in life as an argument. In fact, you’re a dupe to think otherwise. Ethos, pathos, and logos are everywhere—these flyer-flecked hallways, your church bulletin, one-third of television is nothing but commercials now, I mean, Jesus, have you opened a magazine lately, there’s six fragrance ads before you even get to the masthead. And can you believe these sheep you see in the mall who pay $50 for a T-shirt with some sweatshop brand emblazoned across the chest so they can be ambulating sandwich boards for conformity? When I stepped out of the projector’s bright beam to take a breath, I scanned my eager, quiet students: American Eagle, Rocawear, Hollister, Nike. After a beat, I composed myself and said: please take out a sheet of paper, it’s time for us to write.

*

In 2005, Petra Hayden, the gifted vocalist and violinist known for her prolific studio work with acts as varied as the Decemberists and Weezer and Foo Fighters, recorded, by herself, at her house, on a creaky 8-track machine she borrowed from a friend, a note-for-goddamn-note a cappella version of The Who Sell Out. Fantastic and absurd, it is among my most cherished art objects of the 21st century. As each song passes through my headphones, I recall that line George Oppen wrote when he was startled by the majesty of deer: “that they are there!” Late at night, when I’m unable to sleep and staring at the ceiling, participating in that pathetic American delusion of imaging what I would do if I won the lottery, the prospect of sitting around and recording my own idiosyncratic tribute versions of Who albums isn’t that far down the list after paying off my bills and my family’s bills and quitting my job and building a Prince-style mansion in the woods replete with helipad. Reader, if you’ve made it this far, stop reading and go listen to it on YouTube before the lawyers take it down.

*

Two Led Zeppelins. Two other Whos. A Rush. A David Bowie. I puked pizza and vodka all over Bowie at Senior Week, but somehow he washed clean (as he always does), so I can’t recall when any of these shirts met their final disintegration. But my The Who Sell Out shirt endured college, two rounds of graduate school, my wedding day, and the purchase of our house. The last time I wore it, I felt like a squished cartoon. I remember, clearly, its final wash and later letting it dry on the clothesline, a landing rag for dragonflies in June. It sat in my dresser for months smelling of copper sunlight. That winter, in the weeks after we brought our first child home, jaundiced and ill from the neonatal intensive care unit, I channeled my powerlessness and fear at his sick arrival into a purge of all the teenage bullshit I had kept: mix tapes, hemp necklaces, hacky sacks. They say his friends turned away with pity and disgust when noble Pericles, dying, let the witchdoctors of Athens into the palace to lay trinkets on his plague-rasped chest. Doesn’t it sound like a wind-caught sail, the shaking of a trash bag open? I dumped my shirt drawer, found four wilted brothers in the mound, and threw them out.

—Adam Tavel

#116: The Rolling Stones, "Out of Our Heads" (1965)

116 Out of Our Heads.jpg

When I was little, one family rule was that I could read whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t listen to songs with bad words in them. It was not exactly clear what those words were. When this was a rule I followed, I was very young. Later, when I didn’t follow it, I learned a feeling torn between love like a magnet and love like vertigo. I listened to music lying flat on my back, tape player on my chest. At shows I liked pressing parts of my body into the amp so that I could feel the sound, too. These are facts. It’s important to say that every time I wanted to play a song for my family, they listened to it. Probably we are all figuring it out together. Once my mom taught my sister and I a marching dance to a Rolling Stones song: one-two. One-two. We thought the song was twenty seconds long, and in that case it was. We danced to it in my dad’s office.

In my early twenties I broke my ankle running on black ice while home for Christmas. I heard a wet wishbone pop, and I tried to walk but I couldn’t. A girl in a tutu and her dad found me on the sidewalk and drove me to my dad, who drove me to the emergency room. Once the swelling went down, they sliced me open and inserted a plate and pins. Those are all still in my body. Listening to music was hard because I was used to moving to it, only now my lower leg felt like a water snake wigglie. I would not have said or known this at the time, but when I broke my ankle I stopped being afraid that anything I put in my body would victimize me: music, metal, meat, alcohol. Because I am a writer I never worried that words would hurt anything. I have always written inside my books. I learned to write at the same time Mom taught me to dance one-two.

When I broke my ankle, my friend Michael invited me over for pizza and television. We watched cooking shows, for the food but also to sleuth out the background music. Michael let me be in my body without asking too many questions about how that felt. I was so grateful just to sit on his couch and exist, in gold standard friendship. One night we watched the T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 Electronovision film of a concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Michael chose it because he knew it. Tickets were distributed for free to local high schoolers, and the bill was R&B acts from the U.S. and England—not “all over the world,” as the theme song said, but anyway.

The Stones played last. Out of Our Heads came out that same year, but they didn’t play any songs from it. In 1964 the Stones were babies doing covers. Everyone knew the real finale was James Brown and the Famous Flames, who played next to last. Brown was angry about that, and of course. Nobody plays after James Brown, but also the Civil Rights act had just passed. These are also facts. Brown performed for eighteen minutes, with a cape and barely an extra breath. It is a holy performance. I play it for everyone I love. Prince looped it in his offices. In the audience, everyone is dancing together. Youth and music is always where that starts.

After Brown’s performance, the Stones look even more like goofball kids. Bebe Buell was ten at the time, but later she would write that Mick Jagger was like a child in the way he was fascinated with his own body. Their T.A.M.I. performance is a similar fascination: wobbly, shaggy, truculent, covered. This is similar to Out of Our Heads, which I first heard in my mother’s car, after we learned to dance in my dad’s office and before I broke my ankle. For me, the album connects to dancing and broken bones and James Brown, three things I know by heart. I don’t know Out of Our Heads by heart. Herman’s Hermits knocked it off the charts. On the album, the Stones cover Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Bo Diddley. In this way, my parents taught me to look for the source.

—Mairead Case

#117: Derek and the Dominos, "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" (1970)

117 Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.jpg

A theme as old as time, or at least old enough for rock and roll, is that of unrequited love. What that means in 2018, broadly, isn’t what it meant a decade prior, which is, unfortunately, a lot of what you’ll read about shortly, nor what it meant in 1970, but love without return is love without return, no matter the time or age. That Eric Clapton was trying to steal the wife of a Beatle, George Harrison, however, is the kind of hubris that straight white men aspire to without fail, up to and including in 2018. What that created is an incredible document of poise under duress and faith in an idea, more than anything else. What that created was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

What can anyone do to distract and enchant someone else long enough to fall in love? It’s a question Eric Clapton and I have both pondered for longer than I, at least, care to admit, but he managed to turn out a nearly-ninety-minute epic of a record once upon a time that said more for that than most people say deliberately in the entirety of their lives. I once believed in this record more than I believed in anything, short of God at least, and even then I knew some god was on this record, played on this record, and held a truth I’ve never stopped trying to find.

With Layla, we have to start at the beginning, which actually means starting with the thirteenth and penultimate track on the record that didn’t teach me how to love, but did teach me quite a bit about how to be sad about love, which is a hell of a thing for a teenager to learn from an Englishman with a heroin addiction that he doesn’t, nor will ever, know.

You never really hear “Layla,” the title track, for the first time. Or, at least, I didn’t, and I can’t assume many of my contemporaries—that is to say, white, suburban, American-born kids with Boomer parents and, as a result, a predilection for the electric guitar and its varied heroes—did either. We sort of absorbed it, whether from FM radio, in our dads’ garages or from the many, relatively family-friendly reruns of Goodfellas on AMC, if not all three.

So it’s there, from the earliest time, inhabiting your brain in a pervasive way. Even among the many male-slanted, forlorn flex bombs of the classic era, “Layla” is unique; the basis of its Albert King-inspired, Duane Allman-created hook and chorus is a relatively standard chord progression, but the verse progressions comprise a splash of creativity akin to the various bits of not-direct-blues found elsewhere on the record.

Those, and the words inside of them, are why Eric Clapton gets the writing credit for the first section, I guess, never mind that Allman cranked out an absolutely all-time, fuzzed-out riff on Clapton’s behalf before stealing the song entirely with his nigh-dog whistle slide solo. Noel Gallagher of Oasis once said of John Entwistle’s bass solo in “My Generation” that “if you could write it into words, that’s what you’d have on your gravestone.” As soon as I heard that, I knew that’s how I felt about Duane Allman’s slide solo on “Layla.”

It is telling that Clapton leaves the final word on the solo to Allman, the greatest slide guitarist ever and a man who would be dead within a year of the record’s release, courtesy of a motorcycle accident. Maybe Clapton felt that he had nothing more to give with the song, that the lyrics and chords were all he could bear to shoulder.

That Allman could pick up so seamlessly where Clapton left off no doubt had something to do with having digested John Coltrane’s brilliance within the confines of the first great Miles Davis quintet. The whole album is representative of that, reflecting Davis’ insistence that Coltrane accompany him on a final European tour before leaving the group. Clapton knew he needed to be pushed. Allman knew how to adapt. Having someone like Duane Allman in your arsenal is as good a support system as you’re bound to find in music, with all due respect to Art Garfunkel and U-God.

“Layla” is, with more due respect to Lou Reed, the single greatest representation of heroin addiction in rock music that anyone has ever conceived. Credit to Clapton for the chords and heart-wrenching lyrics; credit to the vocal melody from Albert King’s “As The Years Go Passing By” for inspiring Allman into action on the guitar riff; and credit to Duane himself for playing a guitar solo that made you feel like you were being painted into the Sistine Chapel by a Bob Ross happy accident.

Duane’s slide solos—both of them, and we’ll get to Jim Gordon’s piano section momentarily—are perfect, although the first is so frantic, so manic, and so fraught with all the things you expect drugs to do to you if you’ve never done any. The second is far more deliberate, like apologizing to your mom after coming home so late that it’s early. Allman doesn’t take you on a roller coaster ride, although that’s frightening enough; at this point, you’re skydiving with Skydog.

On the piano section—that’s what you hear in Goodfellas, accompanied by a montage of people killed in seeming glee, or for not particularly good reasons. It is unfortunate, then, that the beautiful passage of music came courtesy of Gordon, the Dominos’ drummer and a lauded session player with, among others, George Harrison, the Beach Boys, and Joe Cocker. Gordon’s undiagnosed schizophrenia led to him murdering his own mother, a tragedy far beyond anything described here.

*

If you’re lucky, or stupid, or both, you decide to delve deeper. It’s the great tragedy of music that the things you like often beget you listening to things you despise, but fortunately, the entire Layla record is expertly produced and engineered, with Tom Dowd and a host of behind-the-scenes folks creating a uniquely of-its-time, of-its-place atmosphere in Miami’s Criteria Studios.

I was, if I had to guess, fourteen or fifteen years old the first time I willingly chose to spin Layla in its entirety, sitting in the front office of my parents’ house in South Carolina, wasting time on addictinggames.com and Candystand while avoiding trigonometry homework. Around that time, I’d fancied myself a latent guitar god-in-waiting, the one who could revitalize blues rock if only he could convince the masses of its obvious perpetual relevance to everyone’s lives.

I’d seen Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance a few years prior to that and returned to the guitar, an instrument I’d learned previously via Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins and Blink-182 jams, with opened eyes. I learned and re-learned blues scales, running up and down the fretboard of my Squier Strat for hours on end, eventually purchasing an Epiphone Les Paul and a Marshall half-stack and committing myself to being the guy in my town’s blues rock musical scene, which—well, you’d be forgiven for thinking that any town in South Carolina had a terribly burgeoning blues rock scene circa-2008, but there we were anyway.

In engulfing all of this, I eventually traced my way to Clapton, first through Cream, the Yardbirds, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—the first album I ever learned to play all the way through, because Clapton was god—and then, eventually, to Derek and the Dominos. Of course I’d known “Layla,” in both its electric and acoustic forms, for the reasons listed above, but with the surface-level knowledge of Duane Allman in the back of my mind as well, I was ready to embrace the album with a different lens.

*

Clapton sets the tone by leading into the first track, “I Looked Away,” with country flavor; so many classic country and outlaw country songs, dealing with themes similar to Layla’s, have a comparable inflection. “I Looked Away” could have easily been a George Jones song, despite it being Clapton’s and Whitlock’s own.

My dad has always loved “Bell Bottom Blues,” and I’ve never been sure why he liked that one more than others. It has weird timing, oblique lyrics, and uncertain syncopation on a record chock full of straight-sounding blues and rock jams; on second thought, maybe I just figured it out for myself.

“Keep On Growing” is as close to a party track as you’ll encounter on this album, the first of many that feel like Clapton is trying to liven the mood while being a bit uncertain on how to go about doing that. I once played guitar in front of my friends, my crush, and my parents in high school “reluctantly,” when I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. It didn’t turn out as well as this song.

Again, Clapton seems to have positioned the songs so that Duane Allman wouldn’t show up until the fourth track, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and it’s a cover, no less. It seems a bit as though Clapton is proving himself to you, the listener—which, Patty Boyd is the only intended audience, to him, in 1970, so thanks for showing up, Slowhand—before breaking out Duane, a kind of human magic trick.

Lest you think of Duane as a gimmick, though, the man hangs around for the remainder of this gigantic album. Clapton, for all his individual clout, value, and influence, especially up to that point, was always at his best when surrounded by challengers of the highest order. Cream originally maximized what the Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers had cultivated, yet the story of Hendrix blowing Cream off a London stage during a version of “Killing Floor” (which is entirely believable, if you’ve ever seen Hendrix’s rendition at Monterey) proves that Clapton had to find more in the tank.

Duane Allman, however, is his best-documented and most complementary rival on guitar: by this point, Clapton had abandoned his Gibson-plus-Marshall setup for a Fender Stratocaster, when he could be bothered to play at all, leaving Duane’s Les Paul to take up the throne as one of the most recognizable timbres in Western pop music of the twentieth century.

*

“I Am Yours” is taken from the story of Layla and Majnun, the former of whom is the album’s namesake, an Arabic tale of forbidden love. In it, Majnun—the Arabic word for “a person driven to madness”—falls in love with Layla when they are both young, but her father forbids the marriage. After she is married to a man of wealth and high cultural status, Majnun wanders the desert, sometimes scrawling poetry in the sand in her name. Layla dies of heartbreak; Majnun dies near her grave. It’s a real barnburner.

As a young man in high school of social circles more aspirational than actual, particularly in the pursuit of the opposite sex, the album, and the story behind it, lent itself to the kind of bad poetry and talent show exceptionalist bullshit you’d expect. It drove me crazy, or felt like it drove me crazy as a sixteen-year-old, that I could be who I thought I was and not attract the kind of people, both romantically and otherwise, that I thought would come running, but then, Clapton was on heroin, which I very much was not, and felt the same way about Patty Boyd, so maybe I just needed to sleep more in high school.

“Anyday” is one of the great non-Allman Brothers triumphs in classic rock-era dueling guitars. No tone, not even Clapton’s beloved “woman tone” from the Cream days, has ever sounded like Allman’s Les Paul does here, and his pre-chorus raucous, when the participants are told to believe in each other, is one of the purest moments of ecstasy the genre has ever produced, even with a crew as Caucasian as the Dominos perpetrating the act.

Ever the self-styled blues purist, it would’ve been unbecoming of Clapton not to have given a song like “Key to the Highway” an earnest shot. The fade-in from out of nowhere, the randomized (and sometimes incorrect and/or incomplete, which is representative of the folk story origins of plenty of blues songs anyway) lyrics and overall production, again coming courtesy of Tom Dowd, give this the feel of the nicest, most easygoing—yet most musically-proficient—blues bar jam you’ve ever attended.

No surprise here, again, but Duane showed up to play, slide in hand. I love that Duane’s slide constantly sounds like it’s about to roll off the street and into the gutter, and I love that Clapton—heroin-infused, love-affected, and all—feels compelled to rise and battle Duane over the course of nine-and-three-quarters minutes. At this point, it starts to feel like he knows his shit is weak by comparison, guitar-wise anyway, but the overall product—including the desperation in his singing voice, a common theme on the record which rounds into form here—is so good that he can’t let go.

A good friend of mine, also a guitar player who is the most talented musician I’ve ever known personally, used to play the opening of “Tell the Truth” to me through a cornucopia of amps he hosted at any given time. “Tell me, who’s been fooling you?” is an excellent question for a blues song, and one worthy of the enquiry which “Whole lotta shakin’ now” at the chorus does not solve.

Again, Duane is in to save the day, his solo and subsequent fills acting almost as Clapton’s would-be woman, Boyd, defending her pride. It ain’t his right, nor does he do her any justice, but with Clapton not really standing to hear it right now, Allman does what he can, and it’s mega.

Similarly, “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” is a great question for a non-alcoholic, non-heroin-addict, which Clapton was neither at this point. For Clapton, it is a literal question of feasible humanity: “Can I go on existing without the presumptive Layla’s love?” is presented plainly for perhaps the first time on the record.

The minor chord structure and feeling on the verses play into the major, uplifting chorus and solo sections during which it sounds like Clapton and Allman play off each other freely, in the style of an Allman Brothers record. Allman was in an uncompromising groove at the time.

*

I first knew of Freddie King as a direct result of “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?,” which I essentially forced my band in high school to record as an outlet for my frustration and anger as well as a direct channel for pity, had it turned out well. (It didn’t, although I must say that the drums and bass on that recording are fantastic.) King’s catalog is many-splendored and lends itself to copycat playing in a way that many other blues heroes’ do not, and for that, I have to thank both him and Clapton, in that order.

We recorded our version of the song via a Blue Snowball microphone, which we fed through a Macbook, leaving our amps in the drummer’s closed-door bedroom as a means of sound cancellation. We were never better, in my opinion, at least on record; we were often worse, but we were pretty good nevertheless.

That led to one of a few full-on fights that we got into, usually at the behest of my ego, because if you’re the guitarist in a power trio, you tend to have a lot of say. At that point, I wanted to, and felt I could, be Clapton himself, dictating everything because I had the loudest instrument a lot of the time. I was a “blues purist,” man, and I was going to get this right, even if it required belittling and passive-aggressively playing improper scales at the wrong times to get my point across.

I was an asshole, is what I’m saying, and while Eric Clapton didn’t teach me how to be that, Eric Clapton taught me how best to go about being that. Nobody—not my band, not the audience, not the ladies I pursued without warrant—deserved that, nor did Clapton’s targets here, but maybe we both felt like we needed it at the time. The best guitar playing I ever did, I would hazard a guess, was when we played with another guitar player, like Allman stepping up to Clapton, unencumbered and unaccustomed to the British blues scene, nonchalantly unleashing preposterous and unprecedented slide lines on a flustered and shook Clapton. You want to be the sixth millionaire in a group of five millionaires, right? Get you a Duane.

*

Anyway, this is as good a showcase of Clapton vs. Allman as there is on the record, at least until the title track, and even that plays out in deference to Allman. Duane plays sixteen bars at his full-throttled best, howling at various injustices in what I can only assume belong to the Georgian peach farming community, until Clapton comes roaring in, again trying valiantly (and failing) to prove his supremacy.

His effort on the back half of the track is immense, as is Allman’s response, this time without the slide. Not for nothing, there is also perhaps no better representation of the Gibson vs. Fender dynamic than this, at least in recorded rock music history.

I hate hearing the cover of “Little Wing,” featuring two of maybe the eight greatest guitarists below Hendrix in the pecking order, because Clapton allegedly intended it as a tribute to a living legend, having already bought a left-handed guitar for the man who had once blown him offstage.

The degree of respect that Eric Clapton—and, by extension-via-participation, Duane Allman—had for Hendrix is one of the things I admire most about both Clapton and the British blues rock scene of the mid- to late-1960s, which had profited so generously from oft-castrated covers of black musicians whose health was, at that present, failing, if they were lucky.

To wit: What follows is “It’s Too Late,” originally by the incomparable Chuck Willis. Here is a man who had the devil’s stomach ulcers but who also wrote several timeless songs, like “C.C. Rider,” and this one, most notably covered by these cats (again, with Allman shining brightest on the solo), Johnny Cash and Otis Redding. Buddy Holly, a paragon of rock and roll, did it too, by the way.

Because “Layla” leaves you feeling like you’ve just barely avoided a car accident and are sitting in the middle of an otherwise dead intersection, clutching your chest in effort to remember you are alive and therefore must breathe, “Thorn Tree in the Garden” exists. It’s a Bobby Whitlock showcase, and Whitlock has absolutely earned it, what with previously being Clapton’s and Allman’s lackey for over an hour.

The song’s musicality is compelling, and it’s exactly the brand of hangover relief that the band would’ve needed after recording an album as great as this. It’s a comedown of muted proportions from stupendous heights, a period at the end of an exceptionally bombastic sentence.

It isn’t lost on me that the album implies a certain degree of misogyny—it certainly feels like Clapton thinks he deserves Patty Boyd’s attention simply for making an album essentially entirely for her, and I do wonder what it was like when he played it for her in its entirety in 1970, before its release, expecting some kind of redemption—and then Boyd did marry Clapton, in 1979, eventually getting a divorce in 1988. As in the title song’s origin tale, not everything is meant to end in happiness ever after.

—Rory Masterson