#216: Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley" (1986)

I come to rock ‘n’ roll for the peacocks. But it ain’t just the strut across the stage that does it for me. Any fool can do that much. Many cultures recognize that the peafowl display goes beyond braggadocio. That’s why images of these beautiful birds find their way into the iconography of religions all over the world. That’s why ancient Greeks considered them immortal beings. The immortal strut, that’s what brings me back to the godfathers of rock, especially Bo Diddley. If we’re talking about godfathers, let me go ahead and declare: Bo Diddley is the Godfather of Strut.

I mean, it takes a whole lot of strut to name yourself Bo Diddley then come up with a signature beat, so now you have 60 years of people talking about and playing the Bo Diddley beat. Add in that he invented his own type of guitar. His self-titled 1957 album, the first part of what ended up on the RS 500 as a double album (along with Go Bo Diddley), has three songs that include his name in their titles. I didn’t tally how many other songs on this double-album feature him mentioning himself in third-person. I could go track by track extolling this album, but those are just the feathers.

“I’m a Man,” which is reprised on Go Bo Diddley as “Say Man,” shows us bravado that both is the substance and contains the substance. There’s the surface level brag about sexual prowess, but I want you to imagine something more significant with me. Imagine a black man in the 1950s singing “I’m a man / I spell M-A-N, man.” You know what, imagine the stir if a black man sang that lyric today. We still live in a world where declaring your own intrinsic value requires a damn fine tuft of plumage and a strong soul. It’s a straightforward lyric, but the full measure of righteous pride is right there.

Another feather worth looking at more closely is his best known song, “Who Do You Love?” Even though this song didn’t make the charts when he originally released it, it’s floated through our popular music consciousness. Dozens of artists have recorded cover versions, but none of these, even renditions that migrate the song to a different genre, leaves Bo behind. His strut comes on through, but thank G-d strut like Bo Diddley had is transitive. It’s an anointing. Listening to this album makes me realize it’s available for all of us, not as something to steal like the surface musical elements that record labels literally stole from Bo and gave to pretty white boys, but something to inhabit and participate in, something deeper, something more important, something indestructible. Bo Diddley wants to know “Who Do You Love?” Tell the voice on the record player (or Spotify or whatever) that you’re ready to take the mantle of loving yourself.

That’s what I’m trying to learn, and maybe I make a little progress each time I listen to this album. I’m no Bo Diddley. I am over here checking out my feathers in the mirror, though. Here’s a little bit about one of my feathers: a few years ago, my wife did some genealogical research and found out that I’m not German but part-Jewish. The German narrative was some whitewashing that came alongside the second generation of my family to live in the United States, changing our name from Weisz to Weiss. With the resurgence (or just continuation?) of white nationalism, maybe this isn’t the best political season for this discovery. People have been making jokes about my schnoz since I was in elementary school, so discovery is too strong of description. This parenthetical isn’t about identity politics, but isn’t what is so often derisively referred to as identity politics just declaring how the feathers you wear affect your lived experience? The first conversation I had after the 2016 election started with the other person snidely saying, “Don’t you look like a smart Jew?” I said, “Well, I am a smart Jew.” No matter what your feathers are, you will end up in someone’s spotlight.

There’s been some speculation that Bo Diddley got his stage name from being told he wasn’t worth diddly squat. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like the idea of him taking what was meant to bring him down and turning it into the cornerstone on which this album is built. You can hear in how boldly the music is played that this album is a response to something going on deep in his soul, even if that isn’t the source of his stage name. The combination of the lyrics, which on their own might just be boastful, the music, which on its own might just be good blues with a new beat, and the way he brings it all together adds up and turns Bo Diddley into that rock ‘n’ roll peacock I was looking for. “Hold on to what you got but don’t let go / We’ve changed the tune and start singing a song” almost reads like Diddley’s thesis for the album and reminds me of the Psalmist being inspired to sing new song. It’s right here, y’all. Strut.

—Randall Weiss

#217: Bobby Bland, "Two Steps from the Blues" (1961)

Folks, I’m tellin’ ya, you’re gonna wanna come on down here. We’ve got Corollas, we’ve got Priuses, we got 4Runners, all brand-new and priced to dazzle. I said it at the top of the hour, but if you’re just joining us: we got the ‘18s on the way, so the ‘17s have got to go. If you’ve ever had too much of a good thingyou know how it feels, you understand why we got such great deals down at Don Malone Toyota, just a tick west of the Motor Mile. We got all these beautiful cars, trucks and SUVs under a gorgeous blue sky, so get excitedwe want to put you into a nicer, newer vehicle, all at a rock-bottom, no-haggle price. Get out of your old vehicle and into a brand-new or certified pre-owned Toyotafor a limited time, I’m offering zero percent financing for 60 months on select 4Runners, but you gotta get on down here fast.

If you’re ready to swap your clunker for a beautiful, dependable 2017 Toyota Camry, or any one of the hundreds and hundreds of other vehicles we’re offering, Don Malone Toyota is the spot for you. I pity the fool who misses out on our June clearance sale: we have the best financing, the most knowledgeable, friendliest sales staff, and acres and acres of new and certified pre-owned Toyotas. Now, I want you to see some of the incredible models we got on offer right now. My crack team is rarin’ to show you, so let’s get to it, let’s pull up the first car.

Now, this is the Camryyou know it, you love it, you’ve made it one of America’s top-selling mid-size cars year in and year out. Our no-haggle price is twenty three-four-three. All Camry models have 10 airbagsfront and rear seat-mounted, side curtain, even front passenger, on the knees. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m 46, I tell you what: I messed my knee up, I could use the help. No need to worry, I’m still fine like wine, just crunched it swervin’ from a deer. Now, all Camrys have that Bluetooth connectivity: call your kids, call your wifeif you wanna cruise to the blues, I got the car you can use. It’s got an estimated 24 miles per gallon in the city, 33 on the highway, but it’ll get you down those country roads to the Inn Between. Tell ‘em Don sent ya; it’s been a while.

OK, what’s next? Here we got one of ourhey, look out, Clarence! Darn near run my foot over, but you know what? That can happen on live televisionwave to the folks at home, Clarence. It’s all happening at Don Malone Toyotalook at the people! We’ve got balloons for the kids, and you smell that? We’re grilling that barbecue all day for yamm-mmm. So, here we have one of our older models, a certified pre-owned 2014 4Runner, only 16,000 miles, thirty-three thousand, silver paint, not so much as a nick, I tell ya. Always loved silver, may be my favorite color. After my knee got banged up, I had some colloidal silver on hand, started applying. Gotta love this 4Runner, ladies and gentlemenget on down to the lot and you can take it away today. As always, Don Malone Toyota performs a 120-point inspection on every certified pre-owned vehicle we sell.

Back to the ‘17s, folkshere’s a Prius, still the top hybrid on the market. This right here is a Prius C hatchback. The Hybrid Synergy Drive, pre-collision system, LED headlampsyours for the no-haggle price of nineteen three-seventy-five after the $1500 rebate. And my goodness, look who’s piloting this craft, it’s my lovely daughter Shaina. Shaina, wave to the folks at home. I’m sorry to say she’s not a standard feature, but she is a mainstay here at Don Malone Toyota, just a couple feet from the Motor Mile. If you haven’t heard me say it, Shaina is the brains of this operationshe does appraisals, she’s working the lot, she’s finding the best pre-owned vehicles all throughout the Memphis area. Frees me up to bring you the best financing and prices available, all from the air conditioned comfort of our showroom. We’re talking $4,000 off MSRP, $5,000 off MSRPthere was a whole summer after I wrecked where I was in my office all day, filing paperwork, applying that silver. I’d walk out to my vehiclereal slow, mind youand it’s already dark, time to drop by the Inn Between. Folks, my accountant had to beg me to stop buying rounds for the bar, I love saving people money so much.

I’m telling you right now, I’ll take care of you. We got a committed, friendly sales staff that’ll match you to the Toyota of your dreams. We have a certified collision center, with genuine factory parts. I called up my wife a week after the accident, I told ‘er, “Honey, it wasn’t a deer come at me, I was looking at my phone, almost clipped a truck parked off a country road. Slammed my brakes, skidded into a gatebut you know what, we got the best technicians around at Don Malone Toyota, and sure enough, these fine folks are gonna have me on the road tonight.”

After she hung up I looked at my knee. And it was the darndest thingit’d turned blue.

So I call my doctor, he says it’s local argyria. Too much silver, not enough time in the sun. I closed up shop, headed home, but folks, that was the beginning of the end. But here at Don Malone Toyota, we’re just getting started, showin’ off these fantastic vehicles at unbelievable prices. We got our ‘17s priced to move, and I’ll be here ‘til the very last one is gone. Then I’m driving my trusty Corolla to the duplex, scalin’ those concrete steps,  steeping some of that bedtime tea, then I’m dreaming of new ways to get you home in a nicer, newer vehicle.

Because, folks, there’s no feeling like making your dream of owning a Toyota come true! We have every model to choose fromwe got vehicles as far as you can look. No need to mess with anyone elseour committed, friendly staff will help you find the car or truck you want at a price you can afford. Check out all this hullabaloo! We got hundreds of folks lining up to check out the 2017 Tundras, Tacomas, Avalons, Highlanders, and much much more that we got in stock. All new cars qualify for free window tint and a free nitrogen tire fill.

As sure as one and one is two, you and Don Malone are a match made in heaven. We’re part of the community, locally owned and operated since 1976, ever since this was Duke Malone Toyota. Good ol’ Dukerest his soulhe even officiated my wedding, down the road at Scott Memorial Baptist. Sherrilyn chose our first dance, wouldn’t tell me, left it a surprise. We were just standing there… I tell ya folks, those moments waiting on someone, that’s an eternity. Then the high strings, they hit like a bolt. And the cellos pour out like distant thunder. I’m swayin’ here and there, gazing at my beautiful bride, but all I can think of is this lonely guy, he’s just fingertips away from what he wants, but it might as well be on the other side of the lot. I could hear him, you know? The brushes were like slow steps, and the flute was a songbird out just before dawn. At the end he sang “I’ll follow you,” and those strings pull the sod out from his feet.

I didn’t know if someone had heard the gate crunchI looked back, didn’t see anyone in the pickup. I put it in reverse, got free, found a side road a little ways down. I got out to check the damageleft headlamp busted, smashed hood, caved-in bumper, slow leak in the radiator. Battery looked secure, though, so I started walkin’ around the front, wanted to look at the wheel wellall of a sudden, the endorphins gave out. I just crumpledmy shins ached, I grab my knee and I don’t feel the blood until I can see it on my fingers. So I’m lying on my back, right? Just sprawled out, legs on the grass, head on the road. I’m moanin’, then I start thinkin’ about the folks nearby, then the cops. Maybe there was someone in that pickup. How long did I look? So I turn my head to the left and right and just listen. I don’t hear a thing,  just me breathin’ and some hissing and clicks. Dunno how long I was there, folks, but I do remember finally looking up, and there was the sky, and I could hear a warbler, and the sun wasn’t up yet, so all I could seebefore I crawled back into the car and headed back to Sherrilyn, back to our sleeping children and the argument over breakfast, the deer and the ride with Shaina and the genuine factory parts, my cool office and the cab ride to the Inn Between and everyone lining up to take these ‘17s homeall I could see was blue and silver, silver and blue.

—Brad Shoup

#218: The Smiths, "The Queen is Dead" (1986)

The night we meet, one of the first things she tells me is that she shares a birthdate with Morrissey. “We have a special connection.” She follows it up, moments later, with an apologetic comment about one of his more recent political statements: “It’s hard being a fan.”

It’s surprising, in retrospect, that I missed the boat on the Smiths, given that I spent my post-millennial suburban adolescence listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure on my Discman, living in my ’80s-of-the-mind. By then, “How Soon Is Now?” had been repurposed by Hollywood into a teen-witch anthem and I dutifully bought a copy of Hatful of Hollow but I didn’t connect with it. I had been put off by the reports of Morrissey courting right-wing nationalism and keeping the company of boxers, and the kids I knew who liked the Smiths were angry, chic, and cryptic. It was something I felt excluded from.

But for Dori—“Dorissey,” as one of her friends nicknamed her—growing up, Morrissey was something of a mirror image: a sarcastic misfit, angular and difficult, appalled by the world, lost in the world. From over on the east coast she turned to British music magazines to make sense of who she was. Beautiful, otherworldly David Bowie, whom she got mistaken for once in her androgynous phase; Mick Jagger in a dress, looking somewhere between Susan Sontag and Eileen Myles: the perfect crush for a closeted teen. And Morrissey with his NHS glasses and references to Maggie Thatcher making a mess of things.

Getting to know someone means getting to know their archetypes. That summer, ensconced in her apartment—which with its heirloom German antiques is as much a ‘law unto itself’ in the middle of LA as she is, and, along with her Anglophilia, is an odd throwback to the world I come from—we watch some of the black-and-white movies she loves on TCM: her cast of tragically glamorous women, solitary drinkers in pearls.

And getting to know someone means revisiting how you conceive of yourself. I’d never quite realized it, but much of my personal canon can be summed up as “shy rebel loving someone twice her age”—Carol, Loving Annabelle, Girls in Uniform—and Dori surprises me by being familiar with almost every single one of them. (Other favorites require some annotation. “What was it you liked about this movie?” she asks carefully, an hour into Lost and Delirious’ unabashed melodrama. “She’s into poetry and hawks,” I explain.)

When, a month into knowing her, I have to go back to my life on the other side of the world, I start sending her poems I like, and she starts sending me Smiths songs, which I save to a Spotify playlist titled “she says (that he says).” That autumn, I have the peculiar experience of Morrissey as a stand-in for Dori, telling me about her. Back amid the familiar contours of my English life, I listen to him and I hear her shyness (but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask), her loneliness (it’s so lonely out on a limb), her hope (I want to live, I want to love, I want to catch something I might be ashamed of). I blush when I walk through posh, bucolic Berkhamsted listening to “Skin Storm” for the first time, shockingly intimate when it’s being sung at me.

And he really does remind me of her: from his dark sense of humor to the way he moves, walking, fierce yet fragile, through the streets of Manchester with his boy posse in music videos. Sometimes, in those first months, I google Morrissey just to feel closer to her.

Post-Brexit Britain is an appropriate time and place to be listening to Morrissey’s anger with the establishment, and that it should be an American woman who whispers his voice in my ears fits my way of always doing things upside-down inside-out, the Union Jack-and-rainbow flag pin she unearthed from a drawer pinned to my lapel.

(On my way home from my writing session at the pub, I take the shortcut through the cemetery. Dori messages me, complaining about a new acquaintance trying to invite her to a basketball game: the introvert’s lament. She’d rather be indoors with her record collection and a new book on Frances Farmer, the tragically-mad Hollywood actress she tried to emulate in her twenties. “Books never let you down. Neither do records.”

I sit down against a pine tree, the autumn drizzle dripping around me off the branches. “I’m taking a moment to sit with the trees and the dead,” I write. “They never disappoint either.” She recommends “Cemetary Gates”. If you must write prose and poems

“I feel like such a caricature of English rebellion,” I say, “sitting here in my stompy boots listening to the Smiths.”

“I know! And thirty years too late!”—an observation which she punctuates with the heart-eyes emoji, which makes me laugh out loud, amid the darkness and the silence of the graves.

“Right? Story of my life.”)
 

*

That autumn, I go on a tour of the places that have made me: my hometown, the German city where I went to university. When you walk without ease on these streets where you were raised… But it’s not just about remembering that sense of discomfort, just as QID (as Dori tells me the fans call it) isn’t for me just about his angst, but always about hearing her underneath it, like pebbles shining at the bottom of the river.

I walk around my hometown, and I’m struck by the rainbow zebra crossing (installed by the council as an expression of gay pride and solidarity); by the little shrines everywhere (candles and crucifixes, the theatricality of Catholicism) and the beautifully renovated public library. I sit by my dad’s grave, wearing Dori’s blue button-down, and it somehow feels like honoring an appointment. (I take a picture of my silhouette against his tombstone and send it to her; like all my selfies, shadows and reflections.)

I take stock of the ways in which I’m different now. Me, an angry kid in combat boots, cutting class to read. (Keats and Yeats are on your side, and wild lover Wilde…) Me, a happy kid—still late for everything—kissing Dori goodbye and running down her marble hallway to catch my ride, dogs beginning to howl behind every door I pass.

I suppose love means your own archetypes plus one: her shadow walking beside me. And I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve always found it easiest to see myself through someone else’s eyes. It’s easier to describe myself when I’m thinking of how she would describe me: someone who sits in trees, a buyer of cut flowers, a witch.

(I’m surprised one night when I learn that “I Know It’s Over” is by the Smiths. I had known the Jeff Buckley version for years and assumed that was the original (“the sea wants to take me” always seemed darkly prescient). She tells me, “I think I cried the first time I heard it.” Moments later, it comes on the radio on her side of the world. “They never play this. You witch!”)

All of Morrissey’s music is threaded through with the yearning to be recognized in that way, the hope that—to quote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of Dori’s movies—sometimes “people do belong to each other.” Morrissey, the patron saint of the lonely. My friend Jonathan’s verdict on the increasingly embittered Morrissey of recent years is that he never found the clever, gentle gay boy he deserved. Dori’s comment on that is, “Do you know how rare it is to find the clever, gentle anything?” Dori, who goes to Pride wearing a self-made T-shirt emblazoned with the lyric, “Life’s hard enough when you belong here.”

When I hear the opening bars of Johnny Marr’s frantic guitar riff, I’m taken back to the first time she played the Smiths for me, on a road trip to Joshua Tree, right before the first time I had to leave the States. Driving in your car, I never want to go home… I was intimidated by her—self-contained, uncompromising, sharp chin poised above the steering wheel—and I wasn’t entirely sure she wanted me around yet. I remember the rush of gratitude I felt whenever she’d start a story unprompted.

Morrissey, Dorissey, a hopeful cynic: so acerbic, so gentle. I listen to Morrissey singing send me the pillow that you dream on, and I’ll send you mine, and I’m grateful for that small, resilient pocket of hope in spite of his self-consciousness, in spite of how he’s always half-anticipating crushing disappointment. I’m grateful for that space, because—riding shotgun, her warm hand closing around mine when traffic slows; my reflection against the desert moonscape—that’s where I am at home.

—Emma Rault

#219: Beastie Boys, "Licensed to Ill" (1986)

Beastie Boys is the group I should have listened to as a teenager, but didn’t. I discovered them long after I discovered other musicians in the punk genre they started with, and long after I found their peers in ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop. I only got my copy of Licensed to Ill in a record store in Princeton, New Jersey in 2013, while visiting a friend from grad school. I bought this along with albums by Band of Horses, 311, and the Knux. It was a strange set of purchases, even to my eyesI felt a tension between where my tastes were when I was young and where they’d ventured since.

On my way home from New Jersey, I popped Licensed to Ill into my busted-up Ford Focus station wagon. Listening to it at that point in my life was roughly the same feeling I got when I first read The Catcher in the Rye at age 25I enjoyed it, and appreciated how sharply it captures the biases, fears, and motivations of a teenager, but a tinge of regret crept out anyway.  I felt how Captain Picard must have when he finally played poker with his crew on the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, after Data had been schooling the others for seasonsI should have done this years ago.

The Beastie Boys started out in the hardcore punk scene, and couldn’t get traction. At some point, they recognized this, and decided to shift focus to hip-hop. They put out a 12” with a song called “Cookie Puss,” filled with prank calls they made to a Carvel cake shop asking to speak with the fictional character of the same name. If that doesn’t give you an idea of the maturity level to which the early Beastie Boys pivoted, know that they re-released these songs in 1994 for a compilation entitled Some Old Bullshit.

Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock managed to shift musical gears in a major way and still come off as authentic. They fostered a current of hip-hop flavored rebellion with a purpose beyond selling records, and separate from the revolutionary political bent of their contemporaries like Public Enemy. To me at least, they didn’t come across as cheesy or inauthentic in the same way that other ventures into the genre by white boys did (see Vanilla Ice). I listen to them and feel as if they’re giving us their true selvesirreverent, creative, vulgar, campy but with self-awareness. Their attitude, even if performed, is compelling.

The tracks I’ve heard from before their transition remind me of the DC hardcore band Bad Brains. I like their early punk music, but it doesn’t sound like the Beastie Boysand once they made the leap to hip-hop, the Beastie Boys sound like no one else.  Licensed to Ill, their full-length debut from 1986, still comes off as raw, unpolished, and unapologetically youngbut it’s them. It’s not even my favorite album of theirs. These guys took risks, grew their palate, and gave rise to better albums like Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty, and Ill Communication. For me, Licensed to Ill is not the one, but it is the prototype.*

*

In 2012 the band lost Adam Yauch, aka MCA, to cancer. After a while, Mike D and Ad-Rock confirmed that the Beastie Boys would not be continuing without him. The vacuum they left on the touring circuit was filled by at least two cover bands I’ve found out about since. One of them, Brass Monkeys, is based near me in York, Pennsylvania. They had a concert in early June and I bought tickets, hoping that the show would be skillful and spirited enough to capture some of what I never got to see in person.

I’m getting far from adolescence now, and aside from a few of its lingering totemsa love of junk food, a video game hobby, and an awkwardness around people I think are prettyI sometimes have a hard time recapturing it. The thirty-year mark approaches, and I’m currently writing this from a cafe during my first legitimate business trip, after debating whether to skip the whole cafe writing gambit and retire to my room at the Holiday Inn Express at 5:30 in the evening. At work, people keep introducing me as the “subject matter expert” for an initiative, as if the description makes me more legitimate. Back home, I’m dating a woman with her own business, great taste in music, and a two-year-old son she raises while also willingly watching Star Trek with me (I knowit’s awesome). I fight through my own anxiety to be honest and authentic with the pretty girl and her ‘tiny tyrant’ son, even when it means risking awkwardness or rejection.

When the night arrives, I take my date to dinner and a show. On the way, I tell her I discovered that the Brass Monkeys are one of at least two cover bands with the same name. The other appears based around Seattle, so I assume they can split the country fairly well and don’t have to start a beef over which group is the real Beastie Boys cover band. The concert’s in an art-deco style theater in the center of town. We get wristbands at the door as a sign of being legal to drink, and order a couple gin and tonics.

The Brass Monkeys comes out after some DJ work on the stage, walking down the aisles in hardhats and coveralls, high-fiving those of us in the crowd. They start with “Intergalactic,” and immediately I’m hooked. Several costume changes and a violin solo for “Eugene’s Lament” later, they’ve won us over. They finish up the set with “Sabotage”a track that has strangely become recognizable as the only one Captain Kirk knows in the rebooted Star Trek movies.

During the encore, the group finally gives us a solid dose of Licensed to Ill. We are rewarded for our devotion by getting to shout along to “Fight for Your Right,” “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” and “Brass Monkey”. We remember hiding pornography in our rooms, feeling bummed at school, wanting to get weirdand for it to be okay when we feel like we’re the wrong sort of weird. For two hours, nostalgia does its work, and I recapture something. The band members go back to their real, full-time jobs somewhere in the same town, and I do the same with mine.

*

Not a week later, I sit in the hotel room waiting for the business trip’s final day. I surf the internet with the Beastie Boys on my mind and the song “Paul Revere”where the boys tell tall tales of their originscoming from my laptop speakers. I pause it when I stumble upon a video Adam Horowitz, or Ad-Rock, recorded for Rookie Mag. It’s from a series called “Ask a Grown Man” that has also featured Radiohead and Run the Jewels. Adam gives honest and reasonable advice to the teenage girls who submit questions to him on relationships, kissing, and awkwardness.

The counsel rings true, even if it’s simple: talk honestly to people you care about. Be true to yourself. Pursue your art. Know that everyone feels unlikeable, confused, or lost sometimes. When in doubt, blame your parents. None of this is particularly surprising. What gets me is that at the beginning of the video. Adam introduces himself, saying he has been “asked to be a grown-up.” Then he stops for a moment, inspects the gray in his beard through the camera, leans in, as if he’s noticed it for the first time.

“Man,” he says, “I look weird!”

—Benjamin Walker

 

*Apologies to Andre 3000.

#220: The Meters, "Look-Ka Py Py" (1969)

The story of Look-Ka Py Py begins with the Meters departing New Jersey in a beat-up Mercury. Two bad pistons provide a background rhythm over which the musicians lay an improvised beat and vocal chant for 850 miles, delivering the title track at an Atlanta studio and the album into music legend.

My brother and I were both too young to say that we "experienced" the ‘60s, he of the massive Jew-fro and platform shoes, me with shoulder-length hair and Hush Puppies. We were unquestionably children of the ‘70s and its music. The differences in our appearances belied our shared musical tastes, save for the chasm between Disco and Punk that formed late in the decade.

My cousin Andrew gave me a poster that hung in the bedroom I shared with my brother in a Levittown neighborhood outside Annapolis, MD. As long and as wide as my twin-sized bed, it was a concert advertisement pinned to the wall above my headboard, a Bill Graham original taken from the concourse in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, 1973: A SWELL DANCE CONCERT - THE GRATEFUL DEAD, the guy and gal dressed in ‘50s teen hipHe's "Truckin',” She's "Posin'," it said. I wanted to Truck.

Andrew and his brother genuinely were children of the ‘60s. The younger two of four boys from New York, they always sent me music-related stuff. Mostly albums. Boxes of them. Bowie, Talking Heads, Dylan, Lou Reed, Poco, Blondie, the Residents, the Band, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Parliament, and the Meters.

I loved my cousins for this gifta foundational record collection that started a life-long love affair with music. It wasn’t until I’d travelled my own roads alongside bands in the coming decades that I understood the impact these records had on the music I listened to.

My friends and I spread our records across the carpet of my parents’ house and took turns wearing out our favorites on the massive console stereo in the living room no one used. Queen, Aerosmith, KISS, the Beatles, the Stones. Vinyl stacked high33s, 45s, even some of my dad's 78s. You’d never heard such low-end! My neighbors did though, and with a rap on the aluminum frame of the screen door, they let my parents know that the music was not to their liking.

I was a regular at Waxie Maxie’s, a record store in the corner strip mall where you could buy LPs for $8.40 a pop including tax, collect your orange ‘Free Records’ coupon, and grab a Slurpee from 7-11 on the way home. Waxie Maxie’s gave me my first job. “We should just pay you in vinyl,” the manager once said to me. “Every week I hand you your check and every week you hand it right back in exchange for records!” The easy life of a teenager. Biking home with a bag of records under my arm, one hand steering the bike in a wobbly path, dumping the bike in the front yard and bolting into the house, I’d unload my week’s pay onto the bed, swiping the edge of each album cover across my jeans to burn open the shrink wrap, placing the needle of the department store record player onto side one with a staccato scratch, looking at every picture on the cover, reading every word on the sleeve, and losing myself in music for the afternoon.

This ritual followed me through junior high and high school, where the breadth of my musical library expanded along with my circle of friends. Open lunch, afternoons, and weekends were spent with my patchwork crew gathered in the parent-free home of Alan, the living room furnished with one chair and a stereo. There were seven of us and we'd each bring a contribution of vinyl and aluminum, drinking the afternoons away air-jamming to ‘70s Prog, Punk, Jazz Fusion, and what was even then Classic Rock. Rush, Zappa, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jaco Pastorius, the Clash, Beastie Boys.

During college I moved in and out of dorm rooms and apartments with little more than a bag of clothes, a turntable, and about 1,000 albums. Walking the hall of my first dorm was like turning the radio dialthe Who faded into Prince into Talking Heads into Madonna into Tears for Fears into the Clash. Among our floor mates, knowledge of bands and the ability to cite liner notes was played out in substance-fueled contests of one-upmanship. My roommate and I excelled. As a member of SEE Productions at the University of Maryland, I experienced my music up-close and personal, backstage with the Godfathers, Living Colour, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Jane's Addiction, Butthole Surfers, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Neville Brothers.

The Meters started as a backing band, laying down the groove for New Orleans greats like Lee Dorsey and Earl King. And like Booker T and the MGs, who backed Otis Redding and Bill Withers, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers, who backed Aretha Franklin and Joe Cocker, the Meters were an unmistakable, but largely unrecognized, musical voice behind the Stars.

It was during that Neville Brothers concert in Ritchie Coliseum at Maryland that the Meters came back into focus and burst open my understanding and appreciation of ‘the groove.’ The crowd was unforgiving, booing the opening act, Egypt, who were, in my opinion, delivering a scorching set of Meters-inspired, funked-up rock. How can you not strut when this is the soundtrack to your life? The groove of your gait?

On the first warm day of the summer, fifty-year-old me, that boy riding his bike while balancing a stack of albums, loads up his Jeep and heads north, open to the sky, with the Mighty Imperials’ “Thunder Chicken” providing the soundtrack. The beating heart of funk re-connects across the years along a vein that runs through my entire record collection. Think James Brown. Think Sly Stone. Think Aerosmith and Run-DMC. Think Ocean's Eleven. Think the Meters. Think cool.

—Jack Mevorah

#221: My Bloody Valentine, "Loveless" (1991)

1995: Jeremy said that “To Here Knows When” was the sound of entering heaven. Jeremy grew up to be schizophrenic, I think, last I heard about these things anyway. I don’t know if I believe in heaven after death but I believe in heaven on Earth and Jeremy was right about that song.

1993: Steve said that “Only Shallow” was the sound of dying. Steve grew up to join the army, I think, last I checked. I’m no good at keeping track of these things. I don’t know what dying feels like, obviously. Dying violently, dying romantically. Loveless was released during the Gulf War; people were dying then but I don’t know if their dying sounded like “Only Shallow.”

199-: Someone once said that “Sometimes” was the sound of falling in love. Close my eyes / feel me now. Someone who was bold, who was sensitive; someone who had obviously been in love before. I was inclined to believe him. I can’t remember his name.

1998: Kevin Shields said he likes to look for his albums when he goes into record stores. This is true. I was twenty-one and living in London; I spotted him in the Virgin Megastore on Tottenham Court Road and walked up to him to tell him I loved him, or at least that I loved his music in so many words. I happened to notice we were standing at the end of the “M”s. I pointed this out, and laughed, and he laughed and I told him I loved his music and that it was very important to me. I don’t know if he heard me as I said these words of passion under my breath, masked by the droning sound of the Virgin Megastore crowds.

1844: Kierkegaard said that “The highest point of inwardness in an existing person is passion, for passion corresponds to truth as a paradox, and the fact that the truth becomes a paradox is grounded in its relation to an existing individual. [...] Subjectivity culminates in passion.” I know for a fact Kierkegaard never heard Loveless and that he was talking about passion in terms of religious truths, but there is a kind of religion in music. I don’t know what Kierkegaard thought the sound of entering heaven would be.

2017, 6:36 pm: My browser history says that I found that quote by googling “Kierkegaard + subjectivity + truth” and skimming a PDF of “Subjectivity is Truth” from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments posted by the philosophy faculty at UCSD. In case you had the false impression that I had a long history of studying Kierkegaard and was able to quote him off the top of my head. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve latched onto quotes from philosophers extracted from their meaning like song lyrics scribbled on a canvas binder, ink in layers for each new lyric we come across and fall hopelessly in love with. I don’t think this is a very intelligent thing to do.

2017, 7:10pm: My browser history says that I then googled “Kierkegaard + my bloody valentine” and found a review of a book about Elliott Smith that came out a decade after his death, and the index of a book on what popular music teaches us about faith. There were also interviews with several filmmakers and poets who said that they found inspiration in both. I found no quotes from Kevin Shields about Kierkegaard. I don’t thinkin spite of the obvious topics of death and faith and art and passionthat these are layers worth further exploration.

1992: Zach said “you’ve never heard of My Bloody Valentine?” And when I said “no” he put Loveless into the CD player and after four snare beats the sonic universe expanded and I’ve never been the same since. I had met Zach that same day when I was wandering through the college campus near my house and heard him playing bass in his dorm room. I was learning to play the bass too, so I followed the sound of the bass to his room and knocked on his door. Imagine! I was only sixteen; this was normal. Zach, if Facebook is to be believed, has a family of four now and lives somewhere near Chicago or Toledo. I’m too lazy to look it up right now, having worn down my computer battery searching for Kierkegaard quotes. It’s entirely possible it’s spelled “Zack,” not “Zach.” I'm too lazy to look that up too. I don’t know if he knew he would change my life forever.

1992-1995: N said…no, I don’t know if I can go there. I loved N too much for too long and I don’t know if he ever knew that. I met N through Zach; he loved My Bloody Valentine too and made me a cassette tape of their B-sides. I still have the tape. Every time I hear My Bloody Valentine I think of N. I don’t know if Loveless is meant to be a love album but it will always be the aching, horrible, heartbreaking sound of how I felt when I looked at him. The opposite of loveless. I was seventeen. I didn’t know better. He broke my heart but never knew it; he once tried to steal my car.

1991: Kevin Shields said to Melody Maker that “there’s still something organic about [the guitar], alive, like a living animal. I fall in love with guitars.” I fall in love with memories. I layer these memories on top of each other like Kevin Shields layers guitars, like blankets stacked one on top of the other: the weight of them is a comfort. The memories of Zach, and Jeremy, and Steve, and N. Not one of these encounters was romantic. But they live in my head with the importance of romantic encounters, strong memories etched deeply: I remember the posture of each one as he talked, and the details of the spaces: the dark wood-paneled room with beanbag chairs where Jeremy talked about entering heaven; the campfire in the woods where Steve talked about death. The dorm rooms with their tall white ceilings and echoing hallways. The echos layer on top of campfires and wood-paneled rooms with beanbag chairs, and the memories build and build like harmonies. At the end of our lives do the memories become so layered that we can no longer hear our own thoughts through the noise?

2008: The woman who worked at the upstairs bar at Roseland said that My Bloody Valentine was the loudest band she’d ever heard “and I’ve heard a lot of bands.” She handed me a beer and told me how much I owed and I could barely hear her under the howl of guitarslike a living animalthat filled the ballroom. I don’t know if she liked them. I kind of got the feeling she didn’t. Passion is subjective.

2017: I used to say that “When You Sleep” was my favorite song on Loveless. Now it’s “Sometimes.” I’m inwardly passionate about “Sometimes.” I cry every time I listen to it. Not because I think about N and lost love: I don’t. I think about what it feels like to be in love now. What it feels like halfway through my life to wake up next to someone I met when I was twenty-one and living in London, to have twenty years of memories of this person layered in harmony, each breath, each look. You can see, oh now, oh the way I do. Maybe I cry because I’ve been in love three times now. Maybe you have to fall in love three timesorganic love, animal love, some kind of mystical and ritual incantationin order to really love “Sometimes.”

20--: I don’t know if there’s something like heaven after death, but if there is, maybe when I enter heaven I’ll hear “To Here Knows When.” Maybe when I get there I’ll see Jeremy and tell him he was right. Maybe when we enter heaven the layers of our memories will peel back like wallpaper, revealing who we really are. Every layer of every year peeling back until we find the truth.

I grab an edge and pull back:

Here is every night I spent around a campfire
Here is every next morning when my hair smelled of campfire smoke
Here is every day I spent sick on the couch
Here is every book I’ve read about introspective women
Here is how the light in June looked on the walls of every house I lived in
Here is the sound of every year the cicadas came
Here is everyone I have ever been mad at
Here is everyone I have ever loved

I pull each layer and let them drop. The noise of their patterns falls from my shoulders, the mad escaping joy and growling anger I’ve carried with me all these years. Where am I? Am I supposed to be under there? I keep peeling.

What could I possibly be without that noise?

—Zan McQuade

#222: Professor Longhair, "New Orleans Piano" (1972)

“It felt like there were people representing different parts of music that we held in high respect,” the Band’s Robbie Robertson said recently in a press tour celebrating the run up to the 40th anniversary of his group’s classic concert film The Last Waltz. “Who’s going to represent the music of New Orleans? We’ve got to get Dr. John in here.”

But Robertson's goal wasn't to represent the music of New Orleans. He was aiming to represent the music of his era, the ‘60s, a time of innovation and self-realization and cross-pollination and deracinating appropriation, in the last moments of its waning light. “It felt like the end of an era,” Robertson said. “Something needed to be brought to a conclusion, in everything. Around the outskirts of what we were bringing to a conclusion, it felt like there was another kind of revolution stirring: Of hip-hop, and punk.”

So sure enough, early on in that classic rockumentary, Dr. John walks out onstage, foppish and pimpish in a beret and pink bowtie. Hirsute with a Cheshire grin, “The Doctor” squawks out a gratitude and and begins to tell of a starry tryst in his cajun accent. As the song comes to a conclusion, Dr. John, whose real name was Malcolm Rebennack, launches into an extended musical shtick: Tying together ending after ending after ending into a miniature suite of outros: cliche and familiar musical culminations anyone would recognize from the canon of American roots music. Then, it finally does end, dissipating in a gauzy billow of antebellum strings. He stands, glinting in a spangled coat, and bows to thunderous applause.

Growing up in New Orleans, Mac Rebennack naturally gravitated to music, and to Henry Byrd, the town’s legendary pianist. Byrd was an institution in New Orleans from the time Rebennack was born, and went by the name Professor Longhair. Rebennack remembers meeting Byrd, whom he idolized, and whose friends called him ‘Fess, as a kid: “I was also fascinated that he was sitting out there in a turtleneck shirt with a beautiful gold chain with a watch hangin' on it, and an Army fatigue cap on his head,” Rebennack remembered. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I never seen nobody dressed like this guy.’ Just everything about the man was totally hip. And he had gloves on him, too, beautiful silk gloves. I'll never forget this.”

He certainly didn’t. Rebennack sponged up the culture and identity of New Orleans and then took it to L.A., where he rolled it out for everyone from Frank Zappa to Sonny & Cher. He found an equation between the psychedelia of the late ‘60s with the voodoo mysticism of his hometown, and The Night Tripper was born: a cartoonish alloy of New Orleans culture and oddities, real and imagined. He could market it nicely toohe first went by Professor Bizarre, co-opting Longhair while exoticising him. But then he picked another honorific and another pseudonym, and became Dr. John. When the Band moved to L.A. to make their unimpeachable second album, everyone in the music scene knew Rebennack for his madcap stories of his hometown and his fabulous dress. So when, years later, the Band wanted a taste of the Bayou, that’s who they called.

About a year after The Last Waltz was filmed, but before it was released in 1978, Professor Longhair, who had never “crossed over” like Rebennack seemed to so easily, opened a club in New Orleans called Tipitina’s. The club was named after a song he wrote that was later added to the National Recording Registry for its cultural significance. That’s where Robbie Robertson finally got to meet Longhair, New Orleans’s most important jazz pianist after Jelly Roll Morton. None of Longhair’s recordings had made it far out of New Orleans in their time, so the opening of Tipitina’s, and its establishment as one of the city’s preeminent juke joints, helped get the word out.

Longhair recorded for almost three decades before any of his work was put together into an album, New Orleans Piano, 1972’s compilation of his singles made between 1949 and 1953. For three decades, he represented New Orleans’s odd musical amalgamation: creole, jazz, zydeco, soul, rumba, boogie-woogie, even when he was out of sight, or thought long dead. His music was carried by the city, in bars and clubs, because it celebrated its identity. His were sounds he picked up tap dancing on the street for snake oil salesmen, studying under Champion Jack Dupree and especially Tuts Washington, or sneaking into bars with a mustache drawn on to fake his age.

Even by New Orleans’s standards, Longhair’s piano playing was a hard-to-categorize mix. He learned boogie-woogie from watching local musicians’ hands, but when he played it himself he leaned further ahead on the beat so it sounded more like Latin music. No one really knew what to call it, other than New Orleans piano, which is what it was.

New Orleans Piano is bawdy and colorful, full of priapic metaphors like “Ball the Wall” and “She Walks Right In”. His band sets the roadhouse standard later aped by Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys on Exile on Main Street. But no instrument is more powerful in Byrd's combo, not even his multilingual fingers, than his voice. Every song sounds a bit like he’s hitting on someone from the bandstand, and just how he describes in “In The Night”“In the wee wee hours between midnight and day.” Byrd’s randy, winking baritone, like a bassy Groucho Marx or Shock G’s grandfather, turns into yodels on “Tipitina” and “In The Night”goofy, yes, but not shtick, or at least not for the purpose of getting on TV. “Hey Little Girl” and “Willie Mae” both rise from Longhair’s boiling gut and climb up to a raspy peak.

Longhair’s “Bald Head”, which isn’t on New Orleans Piano, had made it to #5 on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1950. But it did little for the man; that chart had been renamed the previous year, when it was called the “Race chart”. There was no money in it, and the only likelihood of commercial crossover belonged to white artists copping it. He got screwed on record deals too: by the ‘60s, he’d switched careers from pianist to professional card player. By the late ‘60s, Longhair had disappeared and was thought dead. A group of teenagers set out to find him in 1970, and did, where he sweeping up in a record shop. He hadn’t played the piano in years.

A new interest in cultural archivism gave birth to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and by 1971, Byrd was performing in front of thousands in his hometown. The world had changed dramatically during Byrd's chapter of hardship, and reemerging from it must have been a shock. In 1977, Paul McCartney hired ‘Fess to play a yacht party he was hosting; Byrd had no idea who McCartney was. He got to enjoy mounting fame and appreciation until his death of a heart attack in 1980. He was supposed to tour opening for the Clash that year, another kind of revolution.

Longhair hardly made it out of New Orleans himself. But thousands joined the second-line for his funeral. His “Go To The Mardi Gras” is a staple of the yearly carnival“as common here as holiday carols.” He became New Orleans, even if he’d never be its emissary.

And yet: when Robbie Robertson wanted to represent New Orleans, he called Mac Rebennack. This isn’t bad, inherently. There’s nothing to suggest that Dr. John’s a fake, or an undeserving songwriter. But it was wrong, incorrect. Dr. John didn’t write the music New Orleans parades to all year long. He didn’t stir its manifold soul with styles that were new and old. He was its emissary, not its doctor. He still holds some association with our imagination of New Orleans’s music, maybe because he was chosen to represent its music at a moment and on a stage where its image in popular imagination was asserted.

See, that's because the culture of a place can't just be folded up like a tent once a generation's music becomes passé. At The Last Waltz, when the whole history of New Orleans's music was to be advertised, who was under the spotlight? And who got to make that choice? Maybe Rebennack got called up when someone else deserved to. The tragedy is that person was back in New Orleans for just a little while longer. But the miracle is that he'll be there forever, too. Don't expect him to come represent itself. Go to the Mardi Gras.

—Charlie Kaplan

#223: U2, "War" (1983)

I.

u2 war.jpg

—Martha Park

 

II.

The world!, it starts out all wild notion and varicolored ponderance, but soon enough down the line, even the questions seem to converge. You start out twentyfirsted, giddy, fresh-faced, and soon enough you're jamming a battered old Cadillac into the same hazardous non-space, having hit the phone pole with your right bumper every other week for the last forty years. On each of this life's singular and urgently glorious days (without fail), you'll drink until you've only got the next fifteen minutes to make the drive home or else you'll fall to the sticky sweet floor and it takes the bouncer to peel you off. From then to here, your notions take on a more beautiful aspect: Who was it set these divebars into motion? What hand placed each of us, our winding gears and ticktocking hearts, plodding steady closer and closer to the bars over the hill under the glory of a temperate fall?

One beautiful thing to a constant divebar is the slew of second chances to make amends with songs you first hated. For me: I watched the years soften my scowl about poppy ballads and all manner of concretions put to page and vinyl by sex offenders, murderers, monsters. A tune can hang in your ears long enough for the quiet sag of the walls and the slippery nature of time to impress upon you that we are not the work we will leave behind. No, we only count time, most of us. When watching the last strength of our days slip through our fingers, our mind can wander, and in the absence of posture or solid thought, we find ourselves merrily whistling a tune, forgetting to cast stones. That's got to count for something.

Still, like the way our strong knees will wither through and one day give, there's limits to the kindness or redemption that can hang around long in a place like this. For example, in here, I've found time and again that at no time does “New Year's Day” sound good to my ear, or in any right appropriate to the milieu. Makes a small fury come trembling up from the deep of my spine bones. The world is white and underway. Chords to “Bloody Sunday” don't sound too good either, to stick with the theme. But for one thing, I find (I think) that Bono himself would slide right into this world. This world would have beaten him into a quieter, humbler version of himself, I'm sure, but there are plenty of weirdos in this long, sad room with a good sliver of brilliance hid behind their dirty ears. The spark's not gone, not all the way, anyhow. Does that qualify for a shot of redemption? A second chance grasped, two-handed, whole-hearted.

This isn't the exact way Bono meant it when he said, “Compromise is not a dirty word.” Then again, fella's been seen mugging it next to George W. Bush. (No part of me is surprised. The man's a majesty of ADHD and Bible passages and the notion to make wildness. He'll party with anyone, I'd reckon.)

Still, though, we sit. And wait to feel the rage subside and a kind of inner peace begin to take root. A serene acceptance of the things we cannot change.

My friend Steven. Hair thinning, and more smug with each year that passes. Sits back in his booth, right next to the door where it reads nnI ytinummoC on this side of the street-lit door, and he posts up all fucking night (like he doesn't have a kid and a wife to be home with) drinking water-warm Yuengling and laughs about the churchfolk more than he does about the hipsters. In this of all places.

Hey man, you tell me: We're not angelbits or divinely inspired. We're all made of this shitty decaying carbon. Next time you cut yourself slicing onions, or you find yourself underneath the turning wheel of a bad hangover, or come up short counting out the month's bills, you say the words of Psalm 40 back out, then tell me they don't have grist in them. No true alcoholic ever spat on those words, anyhow. No half-rate boxer. No constant penny-shorter. Only the fat and haughty ever have cause to laugh about the psalms, anyhow.

Still, Steven prattles. Opiate of the masses blah blah, forever arguing with the rest of 1983, and that, I suppose, keeps him at home amongst many in this room. To be sure, there always kindles in here a haphazard kind of hate. Simmering contempt, reducing always, thicker and thicker until it sets. We are always at war with them, to keep this room near tolerable. The kind of people with no room for Psalms are the kind of people with no room for Elizabeth Bishop or Pablo Neruda or John Keats or Rakim and Eric B., and they can all fuck off, every one of them. You don't have to like the Psalms, but Jesus Fuck-my-tits Christ, if you only see a world in which they (or Mercy) got no place, you don't deserve poetry in any of its forms. Jesus fucking wept.

You can sit there with him in silence for hours, having no better company to turn to and shout, Fuck's sake: look at a flower. Fucking miracle of a flower, it stuns the eyes, and fills the nose, and then in a blink it falls apart dead. Everything everyone says they hate about Bono is true, and yet, the days of our lives still blink rapidly to their dim end, and somehowmiraculously somehowhere you sit, beer full and warming quickly, midst the shotgun narrows of the Community Inn's barside row of tables, spouting about how you don't fucking like any of that religion bullshit. Here in God's own hinterlands, in the backwater of civilized existence, you claim some notion of completion. Fool: should your life have had the heft and merit of the ancient heroes of philosophy, we should never have chanced to meet you here. On the mountain, or in the street preaching, perhaps. But such grim shit-talking in a one-horse dive bar such as this?

No order to the astrophysics in the claustrophobic smoketrap of the pool room, no calming center of near-chaos at the bar. No end to the decay who come and go, and here you sit, Steven, lord of all our perpetual hopelessness, snark and grim, and utterly forsaken, and somehow you can squelch down that hot beer, totally unwilling to give even an inch and hope, and sing, But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God. Don't think twice.

—Aaron Fallon

#224: Neil Diamond, "The Neil Diamond Collection" (1999)

The first time I remember hearing “Forever in Blue Jeans” was in Michael Smith’s performance art class. It was the ending crescendo of what would become one of my favorite pieces of his work, Secret Horror, in which Smith plays his forever-stuck-behind-the-times protagonist, Mike. In Secret Horror, Mike is confronted by a series of horrors, from emulating ghosts to drop ceilings. One of the things I’ve always loved about Mike’s work is his hyper-focus on sound and music as a crucial part of the narrative and artistic device. Instead of using a subtle layering of literal sounds accompanied by a score which is an undertone for the scene, Smith uses folly, voice-overs, and songs in loud, distinct brush strokes of solid colors that are specific and designed to be exclamations. I will never forget a slide I saw of Mike performing a piece where he had a radio to one ear while blowing a huge bubble of lavishly pink gum. The image and piece were the promise of pop music, and it was this idea, a sort of manifesto on how music is symbolic and important to art as a canvas or chisel, that struck me about Mike’s work. Likewise, in Secret Horror he goes from huge strokes of things like a hissing iron, to a more charming almost impressionistic musical bookend at the conclusion of the piece, where the proverbial drop ceiling literally falls onto Mike, breaking his arm as the ghosts who copy him then abandon him one by one. Smith then masterfully and subtly finishes the piece alone with a dance and credit sequence set to “Forever in Blue Jeans”.

There’s a whole other terrible book of unresearched ideas I could write on why music means anything to anyone. Maybe I liked “Forever in Blue Jeans” because of Mike’s video; maybe I liked it because of Mike: I think therefore I am a fan of “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Whatever the case, I was excited to write about the Neil Diamond Collection because naturally in my mind it featured that song and I could expound on all the reasons we like something more than something else or seek meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. But here’s the shit of it…

THE NEIL DIAMOND COLLECTION DOESN’T FEATURE “Forever in Blue Jeans”.

There are 18 goddamn songs on this “collection” and not one of them is “Forever in Blues” OR “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon”. This is where I might acknowledge my own cognitive bias or the events in my life that lead me to believe that I couldn’t let my own opinions waver. It might be the reason I’m never emotionally ready for new episodes of Adventure Time that I watch clutching my kids. But, that would mean Neil Diamond wins, that I’m not aging gracefully, and that the things that happen between me and my friends aren’t as funny, if not funnier, than Master of None. An imperfect existence in an otherwise perfect series of rules and processes that justify and give meaning to our lives.

So, in light of this injustice to my specific and personal memory, and because I really don’t know shit about Neil Diamond outside of “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Sweet Caroline,” “They’re Coming to America,” and “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” I’m going to proceed to go through each track of the Neil Diamond Collection and determine why said track isn’t nearly as good as “Forever in Blue Jeans,” thus wallowing in my own emotional narrative, forever “Forever in Blue Jeans”. Otherwise, we might as well believe all the shit on Ancient Aliens.

 

Track 1 - Sweet Caroline

I’m going to be honest, this is a song that few people could have a problem with. With that said, I’m going to present you with the karaoke dilemma regarding it. If you were to sing “Forever in Blue Jeans” to a room of drunks you might garnish their favor; you can create enough gusto towards the end of that song to make friends out of most enemies, further, if your friend already loves that song they’re going to end up your best friend.

The problem with “Sweet Caroline” is that everyone loves that fucking song, I don’t even have to give a very scientific reason for why everyone sings it (including its horn sections) at weddings or whenever it appears on a jukebox. And I’m not saying that that makes it bad. Like with Secret Horror, one of the more formative memories I have about film and being an emotional teen includes this song by way of one of the greatest worst movies, Beautiful Girls. In it, a bunch of sad-dick old friends get together, get drunk, and feel better about life by singing “Sweet Caroline” together. This is something I longed to do one day with my friends, not knowing that when that time came, we then were the sad dicks. Which gets me to my real exact point.

Everyone loves to have rejoinders and sing along to “Sweet Caroline”; enough beers and a tiny amount of sentimentality will inspire even the lowliest of patrons to sign up for it at karaoke. But while you might think you’re killing it because everyone in the bar, including your sad-dick old friends, are singing along with you singing “Sweet Caroline,” you’re also singing along with Brian.

Brian is wearing basketball shorts to a wedding reception that has spilled over to the bar.

Brian is a huge Warriors fan and we know this because he shouts “GO WARRIORS!”, “WARRIORS RULE!”, or just “WARRIORS” every time he begins and ends his painfully rehearsed Eminem songs. Seriously, he doesn't look at the words because he's tattooed them onto his bitter, gross heart; he has a moleish-looking face and you can tell that he talks too loudly and stands too close to you while he cough/laughs about beating up "faggots." You can tell he has little bits of pizza crusted around his thick lips. He doesn’t realize that the KJ is just playing the songs off YouTube just like he doesn’t realize that the words he’s shouting/dedicating to the bride and groom are about rape and choking some girl to death. “KELLY AND MIKE I FUCKING LOVE YOU! GO WARRIORS!”

That’s fucking Brian. And Brian is singing the shit out of “Sweet Caroline” with you. And when you’re done, you and all your friends will still be sad old dicks except now when you stare down at your own sad old dick and wonder what happened to your life, it will stare back at you with a not so new but realized face: the face of Brian.

That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than even “Sweet Caroline”.

 

Track 2 - Cracklin’ Rosie

“Cracklin’ Rosie you’re a store-bought woman, but you make me sing like a guitar hummin.” And that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Cracklin’ Rosie”.

 

Track 3 - Song Sung Blue


There’s both a really charming and depressing quality to a lot of Neil Diamond’s work; it’s like the morning after an emotionally draining hot Texas night of drinking where you smoked too many cigarettes watching your friends perform, very distracted, at a Moose Lodge. It sounds like this girl you sort of dated, your short involvement was superheated but also ill-informed and incompatible, and yet, in the end, that lack of both perceived and actual resolution made for a melancholy pop song that had both all the emotions and none of the substance. It’s the same thing as even though she was a writer, you guys never had the right words, just tearful shrugs and awkward sex, the verses of that pop song. The uncertain loneliness of either a hangover or of the feelings you thought you had or could have had, the chorus. And because I loved and sometimes miss those nights and because of all the years I shaved off my life in 2009, when I tried to magically believe through Lone Star and wild optimism that a different lady could cure all the struggles I reluctantly wouldn’t let go, and how sometimes that charming but depressing quality to a lot of Neil Diamond’s work takes me right back there, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Song Sung Blue”.

 

Track 4 - Play Me

My first thoughts were “‘Play Me’? ...Fuck off.”

This isn’t probably a real thing but I assume Leonard Cohen wrote this for Neil Diamond but Neil was like “Yo Leonard, your shit is just too dark for the Diamond,” and went about rewriting the better parts of the song and Leonard was like “Oh for fuck sakes man, just give me the goddamn check and don’t change the sort of guitar solo thing,” and Neil Diamond reluctantly, but knowing Leonard was right, agreed. And because this song with the right words could have saved some doomed relationship and because it used a sun and moon metaphor which was frankly even tired as fuck for 1972 and if it hadn’t it could have been Chelsea Hotel #3, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Play Me”.

 

Track 5 - Brooklyn Roads

This song has all the gusto I want in a Diamond song and if you close your eyes you can almost feel the same “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon” singer making a leather clad return. There’s a great little bridge in this song where a french horn shows up with a horn and string section. He talks about his report card and if you could see it he got an A in the way his voice sounds both desperate but determined like his very vocal chords were trying to get into American Gods on Starz or AMC or whatever channel it’s on. It’s like the thing you love, fuck it’s a lot like that thing you love, but then you’re sort of lost and wondering what happened to the person who loved that show and did you love that thing because you were dumb and didn’t mind the main character was named Shadow Moon? Has your struggle to like American Gods somehow been mirrored by Neil Diamond’s own sentiment to recapture the time he spent as a youth running along those Brooklyn roads? “FUCK YOU WILL,” you would say to yourself if you were me. “Quit being such a goddamn slave to nostalgia and quit trying to get some kind of contact high off this repackaged thing you used to love. Either accept it for what it is now and enjoy it for what it is or keep curmudgeonly about it and reread the novel for an up to date perspective on the whole thing.”

The same goes for you Neil Diamond….that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Brooklyn Roads”.

 

Track 6 - Shilo

“Shilo” starts with a strong pulse and guitar tick, which would lead you to believe the Diamond in Neil Diamond is true to being rock, but you would be wrong. Like “Brooklyn Roads,” this is a little generic ditty waxing nostalgically about a little lady named Shilo; I do my best to relate and even though this entire review is predicated on my own nostalgia, I just can’t. All I can think about is how Thomas Dolby really nailed this genre of it being okay to be personal and inside about a childhood crush and it not sound super creepy as you retell it as an adult. And again, it’s probably just my bias, but Neil Diamond on this track sounds adult contemporary as fuck in a time that wasn’t even current to my parents, so when that sound accompanies his voice calling out to a kid he’s musing about, I get the itchy tingles. Shilo is never going to be the pirate twins again and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Shilo”.

 

Track 7 - Crunchy Granola Suite

I’m not going to lie, for a hot second I thought “for a song with granola in the title this track has legs.” That’s when this La Bamba half baked guitar lick shows up and won’t shut up and Neil starts into this Bruce Springsteen baby talk which…it’s about growing teeth or some shit but then the La Bamba part gets to be all too much again and as much as I try to believe in America and get behind the fist-pumping freedom sounds in this song, that “Deetle-ly Dee!” shit creeps back in. It’s like trying to love the Hulkster, but you’ve seen his sex tape brother and what it did to Gawker. It’s like all those times he used the N-word are just hanging over your head when you’re just trying to enjoy the $5 Blu-ray of No Holds Barred you found at a gas station. It’s like the second I hear the word “granola” in a song, I go from loving the shit out of an all American Big Foot crushing cars to remembering “Fuck man, fossil fuels are going to fucking kill the world for my kid that I brought to the monster truck show at the Roanoke Civic Center, which to be honest is way too short of a run for monster trucks to monster. And fuck, is that Brian? Now I hope fossil fuels kill everything.” Quit getting in the way of your own fucking freedom and my right to enjoy it, Neil Diamond, and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Crunchy Granola Suite”.

 

Track 8 - And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind

When God comes calling, would he be walking barefoot by a stream? I feel like if God did call you and put you on hold, the music would probably be similar to this song, at least the intro. This is another one of those times where Neil has just a generic enough playbook of metaphors and adjectives to keep the song functioning as a vehicle of sentiment and vague romanticism. “Touch my soul with your cries,” I’m pretty sure that’s what the lyric I just heard was….

Here’s the thing, Shaw and her man friend went looking for God once. They strapped themselves into the Prometheus with David because they thought they heard God calling. But you know what, it turns out God was just part of a death race who Ridley Scott assumed was mad about the way we killed Jesus/Prometheus/whoever, and like all lazy gods got sidetracked on their way to kill us. God was calling, we answered, and his message was “Bitch, I’m going to kill you.” So, it’s with some certainty after Alien: Covenant that the grass won’t mind if you fuck on it or go extinct because in the end gods are imperfect killers and grass is just grass. That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”.

 

Track 9 - Holly Holy

I feel like this song was written on a shag carpet, recorded on a reel to reel, in a sunken living room of orange, brown, yellow, sunset themes. I don’t know Holly or if she’s holy but I do know there was a special time in which things still smelt of nicotine and the faith that cigarettes won’t kill you was strong. Neil goes to church and begins to preach as he sings, he talks about flying but it makes me think about how you used to be able to smoke on airplanes. Think about that shit. Your holy faith put into a soaring metal angel, smiling through brown stained teeth that mock god and cancer as you smoke in a pressurized tube. Sing Diamond sing and smoke up, in just a few short years after this song was written we’ll know that the greatest generation is going to need a shit ton of radiation therapy to break off the mass building in their lungs. The song builds like my intense focus on death, musing on my grandfather dying in his fifties because of a lifestyle that included both travel and smoking. If death begets death like the Greeks always knew, then the engineers were my grandfather and I can only hope I’m David. I can’t believe in you Neil and your house of golden sunset cigarettes and that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Holly Holy”.

 

Track 10 - Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show

Fuck that’s a long title. I feel like we just covered a non secular song like this that was better than a title that’s not worth rewriting, so instead I’m going to talk more about Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I have a lot of questions and maybe some of them actually relate to Neil Diamond because they’re about god/man/android’s need to create. Ultimately, is that what makes us human? Whether it’s to procreate or build, this theme is constant, even for old Diamond. All this religion bleeding through right now on the too-long title, his focus on pointless overhyped biological romance described in a way that feels natural but is ultimately meaningless. Is he just some kind of weird cocaine prophet? Like an entirely truthful rhinestone mirror that is just a meditation on the fact that his work resonates with you because, like everything, it means nothing?

The answer is: Yes.

And since I already knew that from watching the Alien movies and being rundown by life in general, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than that song called, you know.

 

Track 11 - Stones

“Lordy child” where are we even? I think I pride myself in being able to create scenarios for sound in my head, but Diamond even does that thing with the percussion in his songs. It’s so basic that it could have been a bossa nova afterthought or like it was a complete and realized western that radiated with a thousand points and facets. But it got thrown into a river called Neil Diamond and worn down, pummeled over and over til its individual points and references were just featureless ghosts, a green 3-D vector recording of an engineer running from something nearly 2,000 years before, but thanks to the hit engine that is Neil Diamond, we’ll never know what it was running from, how it really felt, or what Prometheus even really means. That’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Stones”.

 

Track 12 - Sooliamon

Solomon? What the fuck are you saying Neil? What’s with all this Blue Man Group percussion? Did some weird god hear my complaints about the last song and give me the exact opposite monkey paw wish that anything he did meant something or was distinct? I would say yes because we get to this sexy “HUAH!” chorus thing. Because this song seeks to fuck with my basic understanding of Neil Diamond and is probably the result of having too much money for “exotic” equipment, too much studio time and some stupid word instead of being the the lavish delights a cruel god has in taking heed of my curses to the sky, that’s why “Forever in Blue Jeans” is a better song than “Sooliamon”.

 

Track 13 - Walk on Water

I…I can’t.
 

*


Maybe it’s important for me to take a minute and reflect on this a little bit.

“Forever in Blue Jeans” has all the hallmarks of “Sweet Caroline” or even “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon”. But instead of being like one of the spooks who are trying to impersonate Mike, it’s an original. Its exclusion from the collection that bears his namesake is something I’m fighting hard, and maybe in this way I can relate to Shaw more than I’m comfortable admitting. I don’t want to believe there is a world without justice or meaning, that the inclusion of “Forever in Blue Jeans” would mean that, in the words of my best friends Jacob, something innocent and perfect can’t exist in an otherwise flawed universe. That beautiful pure and precious stone, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” which bears similarities to its other ancestors and creators, but unlike “Walk on Water” or “Holly Holy,” it bears no hallmarks of man and his religion, ancient alien or otherwise. It’s why even though The Neil Diamond Collection made it onto the Rolling Stone 500 that just two short years later David, maybe the most beautiful of all god’s sons, set about creating The Essential Neil Diamond, which included “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” “America,” and…“Forever in Blue Jeans”.

—Will Sellari

#225: Green Day, "American Idiot" (2004)

I.

Every morning, I wake up to a message from a past self. I usually cringe. Facebook’s “On This Day” feature tops my news feed with posts from younger versions of me, girls I hardly recognize. Anything from before 2013 is more often than not a depressing song lyric, likely a cryptic signal to an unrequited crush. I know I’m alone with or without you. (I need to stop checking social media first thing in the morning.)

Through evolving mediums, I’ve relied on song lyrics to express my most intense emotions to the public. I used to write them on the tips of my Converse All Stars.The invitation to my Sweet 16, which I handily crafted on Microsoft Paint, featured a line from an obscure Blink-182 song, a reference only a few of the invitees might have understood. As a hormonal teenager, my feelings erupted faster than my ability to articulate them. When I couldn’t find the words, I could just use someone else’s. It meant, like Bowie said, I wasn’t alone.

Just a few days after I turned 16, Green Day released American Idiot, an album billed as the first “punk rock opera,” another year’s worth of whiny Facebook statuses on a platter. Wake me up when September ends, I’ve posted in more than one September. American Idiot was enormously successful, winning the Grammy for Best Rock Album and introducing Green Day to a younger generation yet to be concerned with the concept of “selling out.” It has since been adapted for Broadway, though curiously, is billed as a rock “musical” instead of an “opera.” Stylistically, the music in American Idiot is pretty much the same as every Green Day album before it, except the guitars are a bit louder and the tracks bleed into each other. There are characters, and a vague narrative, but calling their concept album a “punk rock opera” is mostly a nod to the Who’s Tommy, one of Green Day’s chief inspirations. Andrew Clements, classical music critic for The Guardian, dismisses the rock opera trend as “a new-fangled genre, with its vaguely subversive labelthe revolutionary language of rock imposing itself on the apparently elitist world of opera.” I’m sure the decision to drop the “rock opera” tagline on Broadway was purely for marketing purposes. Musicals sell out, operas do not.

 

II.

Green Day, like most pop-punk bands, is not known for poetic lyrics. Billie Joe Armstrong’s crowning achievement on American Idiot is a protest song called “Holiday,” what he has deemed a direct “fuck you” to then-President George W. Bush. The lyrics reportedly took him two months to write:

Sieg Heil to the president gasman
Bombs away is your punishment
Pulverize the Eiffel towers

Who criticize your government

Pause for a second. Look at the words above, look at how inadequate they are on their own, without context or chords or Billie Joe’s faux British sneer. Maybe you know the songit’s on the radio all the timeand could hear it in your head as you read. If you haven’t heard it, maybe you felt compelled to find the song and listen to it. Or maybe you just kept reading, completely unmoved. A lyric without music is merely a phrase; by transcribing it, you are removing something fundamental. Certainly, some lyrics stand well on their own; Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But as Shakespeare is meant to be performed, songs are meant to be sung. Writing them down is almost violent.

 

III.

I went to the opera for the first time recently: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which I only really wanted to see due to its significance to ‘90s rock. Much of Weezer’s sophomore album Pinkerton is based on this work, with references to its characters and themes throughout (Rivers Cuomo initially conceived the album as a rock opera of his own, and the song “El Scorcho” mentions Green Day and Cio Cio Sans in the same verse). Sung in Italian, this production of Madama Butterfly projected English subtitles on a banner screen at the top of the stage. To keep in time with the music, each verse faded quickly, fluttering like tweets. Halfway through, I stopped reading entirely. The story wasn’t in the lyricsit was in the instruments, in the power and vibrato of the vocals. Unencumbered by words, I let the sound wash over me. It was like I had relearned how to listen to music.

 

IV.

I recently noticed a tick in my writing, one I had to consciously avoid in drafting this piece: I like to embed song lyrics into my sentences, whether or not I’m writing about music. I haven’t grown out of co-opting lyrics after all, I’ve just picked up a bit more subtlety. Obviously I didn’t invent this trick; a lot of music writers do it, Rob Sheffield better than anyone else. On the one hand I’m showing off my music knowledge, an attempt to be clever while proving that I’ve done the research. But I think there’s more to it. The impulse comes from a larger desire to live rock ‘n’ roll, each song an instruction manual. I act out song lyrics all the time. I have little-to-no musical talent, but I’ve sat beneath blue suburban skies on Penny Lane in Liverpool. I’ve played the Paul Simon album on a road trip to Graceland. I once made my dad stop at a Tastee-Freeze in New Jersey so I could suck on a chili dog. Because rock ‘n’ roll makes even meat-topped-meat seem glamorous.

I read through the lyrics of American Idiot to see what turns of phrase I could quote at the end of this essay to drive home my point about lyrics and self-expression and the fantasy of rock ‘n’ roll. I thought maybe I could instead quote from the final track of Pinkerton, bringing it all back to opera:

Maybe I need fantasy
A life of chasing Butterfly

But it’s not quite right, is it? Too many steps for the reader. I want it to fit, so life can feel like a rock song for just a few beats. But I’m starting to realize that my words can be enough.

 

Coda.

...my words can be enough. That was how I wanted to end this essay until a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, and now what can I say? “I don't have words,” is how Ariana ended her heartbroken statement to her fans.

I write this while waiting for the names of the dead to be released. We do know that most of those who attended the concert were girls under the age of 18, who donned bunny ears and body glitter and recognized themselves in the lyrics of pop songs.

I thought about scrapping this draft completely. My self-centered ramblings about Facebook statues and pop punk seemed trivial only days after such horror. But as grief runs its course, the songs will stay stuck in your head. The bass will drop, and Ariana will perform again, swaying her ponytail from side to side. Keep listening, keep posting. And when a past self taps you on the shoulder, be kind to her.

—Susannah Clark

#226: Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska" (1982)

It’s 2017, and 228 million public, federal acres are leased to private oil companies for two bucks or less. Thirty-one years ago, Jeff Sessions condemned the NAACP because they force civil rights down the throats of folks. Six years before that the GOP declared war on secularism and Jerry Falwell trumpeted, We are fighting a holy war, and this time we are going to win. And in January of 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded most of Nebraska, a quiet document written from and into a United States ransacking itself, in a single night. The record opens with the lullaby of a man harnessing the meanness in this world for murders devoid of rage or thrill and ends in Hope salvaged from a dog dead in a ditch by the highway. Data to crunch and songs to document the American Century’s unraveling.

There’s a lot to unravel. The Trust Busting and the 19th Amendment and the Geneva Accords; the Voting Rights Act and the funeral for Jim Crow and the funeral for poisoning wells for child labor for wife beating for gay bashing for cold, blue PD murder for for for et al. It was a hard-won Americanism we had scrapped and bled up to the top of the national agenda in a promise for a stronger, more righteous U.S.A., and one swiftly bartered away for a self-esteem predicated on smashing all the mirrors in the house. And now, in 2017, we crouch hunkered down in a corner watching Jesus and Jeff Davis, Big Brother and Jeff Sessions, whet-stoning their knives. In a land of endless horizons, promises skin easy. Born in the U.S.A.? You fucking know it.

Family has always been Bruce’s inspiration, his jam, his hurt and hope, whether from his old man grinding the whole home into dust or Joe Roberts wrangling brother Frank or his challenge to all of America to invest our dreams in the fundamental goodness of each other. The need, the dream, the insistence on strong-arming our better angels up out of the smear of trauma and into the holy glory of All for One and One for All is his mission, and what’s more needy and dreamy, demanding and traumatic, than Family? What abhors Truth and also demands it more than Family?

Bruce’s American Family? Nebraska is a tapestry of us dirt-scrapers’ needs and of our lives in various states of bruised and broken. Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive, and if you can, if your heart and guts don’t die, you don’t kill anybody or go to jail, well, Mister, then maybe you’ll get to dream of and believe in the Land of Hope and Dreams. But our boy in “Nebraska,” our first hero on the record, blows that right out the gate, is a dead-heart-still-beating when killing those ten innocents with a sawed-off .410 lap cat, the meanness in this world or any other goddamn place a dead-eyed-still-seeing kind of explanation well-suited to a midnight prison storeroom execution chair, fertile ground for Bruce’s harp, a gleaming scythe slicing our boy’s soul into that Great Void on account of the need to murderously jump-start the American Heart flat-lined like the prairies of the long-drained sea.

And then the record proceeds through the bludgeons, writ large and embossed, that threaten the promises of life. The Collapse of the cash carnival promises because of debts that no honest man can pay. The Sacrifice of the promises of brotherhood in the brutal grace of a-hundred-n-ten through Michigan County and those taillights disappearing over the Canada line. The Longing for the East-Egg promises rubbed raw on the steel gates that completely surround the mansion on the hill. The Justice as promised scraped off the dead auto plant closed in Mahwah late that month and our hero requesting that execution line as the only winnable salvation from the unwinnable scams of the men who fleece the world. The simmering Shame over the promises of street-level gold and the dream to hit the gas, let out a cry, tell ‘em all they can kiss our asses goodbye; the Exhaustion of the Manifest Destiny Highway promises gone itchy in the eyes and the sun gone a red ball rising over them refinery towers; the Menace of the scam of promised Answered Prayers, the please don’t stop me and please don’t stop me and then into the hi ho silvero, deliver me from nowhere before Bruce’s howl, one of the great banshee howls of Rock ‘n’ Roll, cracks the Menace away like an exoskeleton and leaves the American Madman, a thing demented on promises, a sick thing desperate unto itself. Complicated needs in The Promised Land? You fucking know it.

*

But then the record caps these stories and songs of the American Century’s unraveling with a curious, precarious incarnation of Hope. Of its Mystery. Poking a dead dog lyin by the highway in a ditch, a groom waiting waiting waiting alone by the river as the sun sets behind a weepin willow tree, the dogged faith that What Is need not be, that the American crossroads of Drive and Demand, of Hope and Fear, create the omnipotence of a god. Manifest Destiny. But also the American family bound together and willed into a faith.

And faith is hard. Family is so fragile that Genus Homo has to make songs and stories to even begin to look our origins in the eye. Our incestuous, grasping fathers; our embattled, dethroned mothers; our children and carnage and first nucleic sparks of ourselves, all these threads of who we are must be run through a factory of brain-stem squish and slurp to be stitched into Fairy Tale forest clearings, rainbow’s-end gold, heroes nailed to trees. The Titans to the Gods to the Greeks, Adonai to Eden to the Israelites, the Cave to Vader’s mask to Luke’s face—the endless reenactments in our stories and between ourselves are buoys in the endless fog of our human Family but also the endless anchors ‘round the neck. American needs are made ludicrous by the ludicrous promises America makes to itself. We meet them as we can so our minds don’t fry in their brain pans, so we can face the fundamental threats to our ability to sate them. The Hope that closes out Nebraska is the refusal to take “no” for an answer. That’s the faith left after Bruce’s surgical scrutiny of the promises we hold to.

At the end of every hard-earned day in 2017, Hope feels particularly willed into being against all evidence. Fear is fundamental; our luck’s run dry and our love’s gone cold. Just crunching the world historical data—the data of two and a half million years of Genus Homo existence—would compute Hope as a statistical zero, effectively nothing. And yet we’re here in the streets. Alone, we are dust. Together, we punch back. I love far more people than I hate, and I have never shied away from hating. In the cracking, crumbling world of The Now, in the broad shallow mudflats of 2017’s existential dread, we can shiver back to ancestors with dry, needley legs scurrying in terror from borough to hole, the savannah grass and the wind of the winged, famished feeder, and how much can you live in fear every instant of the sun throwing shadows over the land? Only so much. Or only every gasp until the last. You choose. We can crouch and flick our eyes across the sky forever, but we know that just leaves us at the lip of the Great Void waiting for our souls to be hurled.

*

Or we can dash out for where the sand turns to gold, where the Father’s House in the Fairy Tale clearing throws wide the door rather than leaving us on the dark highway where our sins lie unatoned. The American Century is long gone. Our leaders dream only of gold, and not any rainbow at all. The odds that the next handful of American years will be anything other than terrifying are slim. We will molt and melt and our needs will boil down to things much more basic. We can keep our eyes and hearts open for that dead ditch dog staggering up to its paws, for the endless river rushing the bride back to her groom. We can listen to stories and songs that, in their catharsis and commiseration, strong-arm our better angels up and into an American Family of All for One and One for all. And we can salve our needs and save our souls with Rock n Roll’s most mighty sword, the one that slays fear and the trembling immensity of living, the one that kindles and feeds a bright, fierce heart.

—Jason Leahey

#227: Pixies, "Doolittle" (1989)

The only time I saw the Pixies was in 2004 when they stopped hating each other long enough to reunite and make money off the nostalgia. One of my best friends worked as a music journalist for a local “culture” magazine and got me in for free or else I wouldn’t have gone. There were songs of theirs I liked, stumbling onto them either in Fight Club, during the closing scene where the buildings explode to “Where Is My Mind?”, or whenever the DJ at Independent Bar played “Monkey Gone To Heaven” as a way to get everyone on the dance floor, or at least get everyone to drunkenly shout “And God is seven” over and over and over again during the climax of the song.

My mom introduced me to a lot of good music, like Talking Heads, Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Metallica (pre-haircut), and Pantera. She listened to Led Zeppelin so much, I couldn’t stand listening to them until I finally moved out of the house. When it came to discovering music on my own, I fumbled my way through it. Some of my initial discoveries included New Kids on the Block (I can still hit the falsetto in “Please Don’t Go Girl”) and Robert Palmer’s solo album Heavy Nova before I discovered Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and the band that changed my life, the Cure. Growing up, the Pixies were never in my listening rotation, partially because I didn’t really know about them, partially because my friends and I were listening to the aforementioned bands (with the exception of my other best friend, who was really into No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and Marry Me Jane).

The impulse to see the Pixies wasn’t out of need, it was more of something to check off my concert to-do list. This reunion, on the surface, was supposed to be a historical moment. I got the sense from my music journalist friend that this was a pretty big deal. I don’t remember, though, much of the show, which is both good and bad. I remember the good and bad shows in vivid detail (like the horrendous feedback during a Modest Mouse show years later in the same venue that the Pixies played years later or the rare experience of the Cure playing their first three albums with one of the original members playing with them for the first time in over 20 years). They sounded fine, and played the songs their fans wanted to hear. I didn’t hate the show, but I didn’t run out and buy their CDs afterward.

Part of this apathy towards the Pixies comes from a lack of an emotional connection on my end. Black Francis’s lyrics are weird and too high concept, like how, according to Genius, “Gouge Away” is the retelling of Sampson and Delilah. I write poetry and I wouldn’t have been able to figure that out without going to Genius. The music in “Gouge Away” is amazing, building to an all-out assault, and it’s because of the music that the song works. I feel like that sums up the Pixies in general. With the exception of “Here Comes Your Man,” their most straightforward song, the music carries the songs. The lyrics get in the way of enjoying the music fully.

Here’s how I know how the Pixies didn’t resonate that night, and the years after. I faithfully blogged about my life on LiveJournal from 2002-2010 and I had to do some digging to figure out whether 25-year-old me disagreed with 38-year-old me about my assessment of the Pixies show and their music. A few days before I saw the Pixies, I saw Pearl Jam for the first time during the Vote for Change tour. I remember a lot about that show (Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins’s band opened the show, then Death Cab For Cutie, then Pearl Jam played for over two hours in a venue that seated only 3,000 people, and it was during the long musical outro of “Black” that Eddie Vedder slow danced with Susan Sarandon on stage). I didn’t document a thing about the Pixies show probably because my concert bar was set really high only a couple of days prior. I even wrote in the journal entry on October 9, 2004 at 3:54 am (still awake from the high of the show, probably): “oh...my...god. the show was amazing. amazing. however, i saw many of the doctrine of rock concerts violated at said show by the audience and that will be touched on tomorrow when my ears are not ringing, my neck not so stiff, and voice not so lost from all the rocking i did. best concert of the year, hands down (i don't think The Pixies can top the 2.5 hours of solid rocking Pearl Jam committed on the 3000 people in the Silver Spurs Arena). Pearl Jam, thy name shall be inscribed in the hallowed halls of Rock and Roll Valhalla for your feats tonight. oh yes, it will!” Pearl Jam was a high point in a tough year (three hurricanes, quitting a weird job, working temp work while juggling a new relationship at that time).

To the diehard fans, there was magic probably seeing and hearing the Pixies live for the first time in a long time. I didn’t feel that magic and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes you need to experience things that are just OK, even bad, because it gives you a rubric to compare other experiences. I’m glad that I experienced the Pixies that night but I don’t plan on experiencing them again.

I’m sure after you read this, you’ll want to pull me aside and tell me why I’m wrong, how the Pixies are one of the greatest bands ever, how they influenced so many other bands, but I’m not into the so-called canon of anything. Something isn’t great because someone else tells you that it’s great; it’s great because you feel it is.

—J. Bradley

#228: Eric B. & Rakim, "Paid in Full" (1987)

Thought I was a donut, you tried to glaze me.

“Eric B. is President”

1987

I was giving Lisa a ride but she was the one who knew how to get there.

We were going to a college party at St. Peter’s in Jersey City. My friend Dominic Dimaano was spinning.

Lisa had high hair and liked to walk down the street singing 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy.” It kind of embarrassed me, but I also liked being around her. The first time I met her, she came out of her shower in a towel and kept me and Dominic waiting for half an hour while she dried her hair. She went to a public high school. I went to an all-boy Catholic school. When we stopped for gas, she asked me to steal her a cigarette, but I didn’t.

I hadn’t known the Filipinos in the party scene until I got my car, a blue and silver used Nissan 280ZX. It was a stick with four on the floor. My dad had taught me how to drive it.

On the drive down 280 I rapped along to Eric B. and Rakim and Lisa said, “That’s cute.”

*

My sister and I liked to watch Video Music Box on channel 31. She was into A-ha and Duran Duran, but I was all into New Edition’s “Popcorn Love” (“P is for her personality…”) and Whodini’s “One Love” until the night we heard Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” In the video Rakim stood on a street, surrounded by people. Wherever it was, I wanted to be there. He was writing his own legend in the song, saying nobody could mess with him. Like—who were the seven MCs?

Rakim was a little guy but he looked regal. He knew how to carry himself. I thought about this whenever I walked into a party and didn’t know if the guys there were going to be potential friends or enemies.

One time I was hanging out at the Dimaanos’ and Dominic flipped a record over and the “Paid in Full” remix was the B-side. “Let’s listen to this,” he said.

Later I danced to the remix in my room, thinking of my own master plan. Where would I go to college next year? Where would I live? Would I still have the same friends, or would I have to make all new ones, so soon after I’d finally found the ones I had?

*

By the time we parked in the lot at St. Peter’s, there were already lines outside the auditorium. The security guy patted us down. He was Filipino, shorter than me, but beefier. I wore Girbaud jeans that I’d tapered myself, a white Willi Wear shirt buttoned to the top, and suede creepers with a buckle and two-inch soles. I’d put so much Depp in my hair you could smell it.

Inside the party it was dark. I didn’t know who was local and who wasn’t. There was always the threat of a throwdown—last time there were Vietnamese guys rolling up to cars outside and saying, “Fuck Filipinos.” Lisa looked for her friends and I looked for mine, checking out the men to make sure there was no trouble, checking out the women to see who could dance.

I headed for the DJ booth. My friends were there, the Bastos Boy Crew. Dominic; Apolonario Bautista, who we called Jun-Jun, short for Junior; Kelvin Chua; Dominic’s younger brother Dante; and Dante’s girlfriend Dimples Gatchilian—we called them D&D because they were so attached to each other. The Gaon brothers, AJ and Victor, were there, too. All the guys had pompadours.

The Gaon brothers were from Jersey City. I liked how laid-back they were and always got along with them, but my other friends didn’t. We were suburban kids, not from Jersey City. And because we were suburban kids, we had the money to buy equipment and learn how to DJ. That’s how Dominic got the gig at St. Peter’s.

I worked in the Essex Street movie theater after school, cleaning toilets and pumping fake butter onto popcorn. My dad was an engineer. But my friends’ parents were doctors. They lived in Livingston, up the hill. They bought their clothes at Matinique at the Short Hills Mall, not at Marty’s Shoes in Secaucus, where I’d gotten mine. For their seventeenth birthdays they got brand-new cars bought right off the block. Dominic had a Toyota Land Cruiser. Jun-Jun had a white Mitsubishi Stealth. The first question I’d asked him after he got it was, “Is it manual?”

But I had already known the answer. The thing was an automatic.

*

Last year around this time, I’d just been getting in with the Filipinos. Kelvin had invited me to a party in the city, at NYU, and I didn’t want to go on my own so I took two of my friends from the track team, who were Italian and Black. Dominic and another DJ had a battle and Dominic beat the guy. I wanted to dance, but I didn’t because I didn’t know anyone, and we left early and went and got pizza. After I was in with the Filipinos I didn’t bring my track friends along to parties anymore. I didn’t need to.

*

I took off my coat and dumped it on a chair. Freestyle was playing. Then LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run DMC.

The drumbeat to “I Know You Got Soul” started up. Rakim went, “Been a long time.” Like he was saying: Where have you been? Now we can dance. This is a song we can dance to.

It was like—reassurement. I was an Asian guy listening to Black music but I had soul. I knew I could dance. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in here.

Years later I’d meet a guy who confessed to stealing stuff at the St. Peter’s parties, just going through the coats when people were dancing and lifting their wallets.

*

After the party, I carried the crates of records outside and helped load up the van. We went to VIP Diner on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City. Lisa was there, sitting in a booth with Dimples and some of their friends. We ordered veal parm, disco burgers with gravy and cheese, and fries. As the plates made their way from the waitress into the booths, guys would start biting into the burgers and taking fries before it got to whoever ordered it. Lisa found someone to bum a smoke from.

*

I’d move to Chicago after the end of the school year. The week before I left, I’d be in the city at a party and Dominic would say, “Do you really want to be leaving all this?” I didn’t, but I did.

—Lisa Ko

#229: Aerosmith, "Toys in the Attic" (1975)

I didn't go out of my way to choose Toys in the Attic—it sort of fell into my lap because no one else who writes for this website wanted to write about it. And I understand why people who love music wouldn’t want to write about this band. Because of their longevity, Aerosmith has managed to be present in every generation of music since the Nixon administration, but also to be strongly associated with none of them. Even as they re-emerge with each new generation, they seem to belong to no single era in particular. Having been constantly handed down, they are always re-invented, but never different. They are a product—an LLC in 4/4 time. The band is everywhere, from everywhen, but belong to nobody.

Younger Baby Boomers, whose older siblings had greedily claimed Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers for their own, saw Aerosmith as ersatz versions of those earlier, better bands. To Gen-X kids, Aerosmith sat between Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cheap Trick as one of the only rock ‘n’ roll bands from their parents’ collection that they could stomach, buoying those desperate rock ‘n’ rollers through the hair metal era until grunge could arrive. For millennials, Steven Tyler and Co. became ubiquitous and ever-presently acceptable. They were the white noise of rock ‘n’ roll, somehow evading the critical skewering they were owed for records like Pump and Get a Grip.

So, who would want to be stuck with the task of writing about a band as uninteresting as this?

I wasn’t upset about the assignment, though. For me, it was a nice surprise. It was like unexpectedly finding yourself in the same place, let’s say the juice aisle of the Walgreen’s, with someone you haven’t seen in awhile, let’s say…your dad. Yeah, I said it: this record reminds me of my dad. Because, of course it does. Sure, my dad is the one who first introduced me to the band, but even if he hadn’t been, I think we can all agree that for the last four decades Aerosmith has become the Dad of rock ‘n’ roll.

Mind you, I am not talking about the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No, that honorific goes to Chuck Berry or Ray Charles or someone foundational like that. I am not speaking about the prolific, Genghis Khan-esque parentage of Elvis Presley, nor the Abrahamic father to nations of Robert Johnson. I am talking about the Hootie & the Blowfish type, sandals and socks wearing variety of dad. I am talking a good old fashioned, scare your prom date away, burn the brats at every barbecue, farts in his sleep kind of dad.

Aerosmith, also not unlike most dads, has a special knack for being impossibly corny. Their songs are the equivalent of knock-knock jokes, their shows are cringey, hours-long Adam Sandler impressions. Some of the earliest levers the band used to fulcrum their way into power are just karaoke covers of songs like “Come Together” and “Train Kept a-Rollin”—soon to be standards the band changed just enough to be able to put on their records, but not enough to distinguish them in any way from the originals. Similarly, their own catalog is just a series of near-parodies; “Round and Round” is a fake Motorhead song, “Kings and Queens” a limp take on Black Sabbath, and “Back in the Saddle” is a dusty Skynyrd rip off. The rockabilly innuendo of “Big Ten Inch” is an old Bull Moose Jackson record that Aerosmith legitimately plucked from the Dr. Demento show, making it an actual, honest-to-goodness parody. Aerosmith established themselves as a variety act of sorts. A dress-up-and-be-someone-else-for-a-little while type of act. Not unlike the detachable thumb trick that your dad taught you, Aerosmith would pull any cheap gag just to get a reaction. And, just like your dad, Aerosmith inexplicably has cool friends, with Run-DMC and Willie Nelson popping up every once in awhile to lend credibility. People like to call Jeff Tweedy and Warren Zevon “dad rock” but there is no rock more dad-erific than Aerosmith. So sappy and melodramatic. So bland and cliché. So ubiquitous. (This is all not mentioning Liv Tyler, of course, whose movie career has made Steven Tyler one of the most famous celebrity dads in existence. But that is a whole other essay.)

They weren’t always like this, however. Aerosmith is from a generation of artists who came by their fame organically. They were discovered, more or less, not manufactured. They wrote “Dream On” in a tiny apartment in Boston. It wasn’t endlessly revised and tinkered with by songwriters-for-hire and image consultants. They are from an era of music that is often (for better or for worse) longed for wistfully by music fans, critics, and artists alike. They were even briefly considered dangerous, with the drug-addled Perry and Tyler referring to themselves as "the Toxic Twins," and the music press sometimes calling the band "the Bad Boys from Boston" (though that was probably mostly because the moniker was alliterative.) It seems impossible that they are now commonly called "America's Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.” (Go ahead and google it.) I’m embarrassed to admit that at one time I too put them in league with the sexually explicit 2 Live Crew, the satanic Slayer, the violently angry Sex Pistols, and the vulgar Ice-T. Aerosmith just seemed so wanton.

I remember an older cousin mischievously putting on a concert film called Aerosmith: Scrapbook that I was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to have. I can still recall the image of a groupie who turned toward the camera, a stand-in for Stephen Tyler, and who pulled down her bathing suit asking, “Hey Steven…remember these?” I probably remember her small, untanned breasts, poking out pink-tipped and beautiful from her sun-browned body, better than Tyler ever could.

Looking back, the video seems so tame, almost quaint; the woman wriggling on stage next to Joe Perry, Tyler sniffing his gloved fingers, the strange physics of the way breasts moved when women, propped on their male counterparts’ shoulders, bopped along to the beat of “Walk This Way.” It is almost coy compared to what a lifetime of internet pornography can impart. Compare the messy fun of that concert footage to the near antiseptic chic of a video like “Blurred Lines,” where the women are mere accessories, or to the exploitative faux-elegance of any Weeknd video. It is only the decades separating us from that Aerosmith concert film that teaches us how innocent all that cocksmanship was. The craven corporatism of the band in 2017 reveals how relatively harmless all that transparent phallicism was back in the mid-70s when Toys in the Attic came out and they were playing shows just to get laid.

Their relative inoffensiveness should make me hate them more, of course. Rock ‘n’ roll bands aren’t supposed to be benign. They are supposed to be dangerous and scary. Your aunt isn’t supposed to like the music you listen to. She’s supposed to think it’s terrible. But your aunt kinda likes Aerosmith. Everyone kinda likes them. Being kinda liked and accepted by as many people as possible has been their prime objective since they first became famous. In that way they are actually America’s least Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.

So, if they are doing this much posturing and most of their work is objectively terrible, where is the backlash? You’d think that now that the people writing for Rolling Stone (which we lately only read for the Matt Taibbi articles anyway, don’t we?) and the people who make the A&R decisions about music—people who, just like you and me, grew up on the Roots and Pearl Jam (each of whom have just as valid a claim on being called the Greatest Rock Band in America)—might get wise to hucksters like Aerosmith. I submit to you that it’s because of dads. All of them. All of our collective dads. American dadhood in general.

Our dads are embarrassing, goofy, and lame. Their hearts are in the right place, but they try too hard at the wrong things. They are just guys figuring things out as they go, but by the time we realize that, it’s too late because we’ve already built the resentments and anger towards them. They are guys who have a hard time realizing we aren’t little kids anymore and that, as much as we’d all like that, there is no way to get back that time. So, even though a lot of the mistakes they make are understandable or even for the right reasons, it’s still hard to forgive him. (Think of Liv Tyler, so emblematic of the catastrophe of American parent-child relations, being that she longed to know him, but couldn’t because she was busy being raised by Todd Rundgren of all people.)

So, as you can see, my relationship with Aerosmith, not unlike my relationship with my dad, is complicated. I look back on records like Toys in the Attic and I try to look past Revolution X, that awful videogame they were in, their dumb cameos in Wayne’s World 2 and Be Cool, those desperate attempts to cling to stardom by aligning themselves with the pop world, and their insistence upon still gyrating their hips into their guitars past retirement age, but I can’t. As much as I want to, it’s hard for me to forget those scarves flying out of everywhere like some bad magician when I am trying to enjoy the surprisingly melodic “No More No More.” It’s hard to nod my head to the good enough “Toys in the Attic” without thinking about the Cocked, Locked, and Ready to Rock Tour of 2010, or the band’s cozy relationship with professional phony Lenny Kravitz.

Even the problem of memory, though, reminds me of my dad. I’d like to think back to the time period when I first encountered Toys in the Attic without messy facts about my own dad emerging around the edge of my memory like detritus. I want to think back fondly on those days when he was teaching me how to work-in a baseball glove, how to pump gas, and how rock ‘n’ roll worked, without the recollection being smeared by estrangement and hostility. I’d like to look back on those trips in my dad’s car, driving around in the little blue Hyundai, listening to Aerosmith singles crackling from the radio, without looking past decades of debris; ruined Christmases, bitter arguments, or what his blood alcohol content was on his third DUI.

My dad was sort of an average type of dad and by that I mean he worked a job he hated, told a lot of bad jokes, and really liked Aerosmith. He had been in a band when he was a teenager. They broke up and reformed, replacing him with Tommy Hilfiger's brother Billy, of all people. I guess they ended up playing a few shows at CBGBs. I don’t think my dad ever got over the fact that he never became a rock star. So, despite or because of the disappointments of his youth, rock ‘n’ roll was very important to him. He taught me that Richard Thompson had the gift of story-craft and that Neil Peart was the most important drummer since Buddy Rich but that Mick Fleetwood was his favorite, and that Clapton was God.

“That’s Aerosmith,” he explained to me when I was eight and we heard “Sweet Emotion” on local rock station PYX 106. When we got home he plucked the Toys in the Attic cassette from his own collection and he gave it to me. I guess that for the entirety of the rest of my life I’ve been trying to get back to that moment of first hearing them because it’s been sort of all downhill for all of us since then.

Even though my dad saw himself as a failure, he wasn’t to me. I would look at old pictures of him playing drums in a cowboy hat and long blond hair, or picking on a guitar in his dorm room and he was a rock star, right up there in the constellation that contained Hendrix and Dylan. Because that is what kids do. They look at their dads like they are superheroes. Until they don’t. That is what kids do until they discover that their dads are just human beings, mixed-up guys who are doing the best they can, and often making a lot of mistakes.

Like most dads, Aerosmith is corporate, not living their dreams, but they are still going to work every day regardless. They are corny and silly. They are not the infallible superheroes we thought they were back when we were kids. They are flawed, sad, and human, making a profit on a product no one really wants, but doing it because they think that’s what their kids need. In that way, it seems less like they are sellouts and more like they are just guys, doing a job. Just stuck in a bad situation they don’t know how to escape.

And so now I’m a dad. I have my own hang-ups and problems, and one day my kid will hold resentments about all of them. So far I’ve taught him to love music, though, and I feel it’s my responsibility to carry on the tradition of listening to Aerosmith in the car with my kid. Do I feel 100% on board with it? Not really, but there are other traditions I'm not fully on board with that I participate in because that is what dads do with their sons. Like Christmas. Like telling bad jokes. Like making a lot of mistakes.

While I can't look back on the songs from Toys in the Attic without seeing embarrassments like the Gap ad Perry and Tyler did in the 90s and terrible music like Honking on Bobo, my son doesn’t have that problem. He just hears music for what it is and doesn’t come at it with a lot of baggage, which makes me sort of happy. I guess only children can hear Aerosmith for the first time the way any of us did, before the Armageddon soundtrack, before Dad died, before MTV. In a way, it gives us all a chance to start over.

So, when I hear “Sweet Emotion” come on the radio, I will turn it up and, even though I won’t be able to forget all the stuff that drives me nuts about them, I’ll tell my son, "Ya hear that, kid? That is Aerosmith." Because that is what dads do.

—Matt Meade

#230: Bonnie Raitt, "Nick of Time" (1989)

The second-saddest song of all timelines is “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn. Disagree? That’s cool, but you’re wrong. Want to physically fight me about it? Sure. Whatever. Get in line. Before we start throwing ‘bows though, hear me out.

It’s a song about regret, we can agree on that, right? The track opens with its speaker posted up alone in a Swedish discotheque, where she happens across a recent ex; it’s immediately clear she’s still in love with this person. Clad in a weird, bright feather-vest (per the now-infamous music video), Robyn dances like a woman possessed, like she’s fending something off. But that’s because she is.

          I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh oh oh
          I’m right over here, why can’t you see me, oh oh oh
          I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home, ooh
          I keep dancing on my own

On the surface, there’s really nothing special about these lines. By the end of the song, though, it’s clear that’s something’s missing, and it’s something we really want to know: what exactly caused this relationship to fail?

We’re never given a forthright answer. After taking in the entire track, though—Robyn’s lunatic dance moves, her insistent, uncomfortable voyeurism—an answer begins to take shape, at least implicitly: She blames herself.

There’s a quiet wistfulness in the song, a distance from and respect for her ex-lover’s situation that, to me, an esteemed scholar of Norwegian dance-pop, implies that the speaker feels responsible for her relationship ending.

And this is where the real weight of sadness enters. Breakups suck. So does being racked with guilt and self-blame. Honestly, though, I think we all get that, and have since we were like 11 years old. “Dancing on My Own” is so affecting not because of what the song is about, but because of how Robyn handles it. The singer’s futility, but more importantly her inability to come to terms with it head-on, to speak its name, is what breaks my heart.

She has to turn away. She has to.

Enter Bonnie Raitt, whose music was the initial inspiration for this labyrinth, Harry-Potter-hedge-maze-at-the-TriWizard-Tourney of an essay.

You’ve probably heard “Nick of Time,” the title track from her lauded 10th studio album (also the name of a terrible 90s political thriller starring Johnny Depp—lots of sorrow there, too). It’s an initially woeful, anxiety-ridden meditation on the monolithic progression of time, how age overtakes us all, wholly and unrelenting.

In the song’s final verse, though, all of that changes. On the cusp of hopelessness, Raitt is rescued. “Just when I thought I’d had enough / And all my tears were shed,” she sings, “I found love, baby / Love in the nick of time.” And then there are fireworks, a wedding, etc. You get it. The song ends happily.

Question: So you’re saying a song that resolves itself and is actually really uplifting is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard?

Answer: Yup.

Hold on to your kids and pets, people, this take is hot enough to burn.

No, I don’t despair in the happiness of others. At least not all the time. And even though the last movement in “Nick of Time” is ostensibly one of total reconciliation, this doesn’t change just how devastating it is to me.

Ok, so the structure of the song is straightforward enough—there are three verses, a bridge, a few brief refrains, and a chorus. I’ve told you enough about the last one, but her first two verses are the ones worth talking about—complicated and bleak and strange—these are the ones that eviscerate me.

Raitt opens with “A friend of mine she cries at night / And calls me on the phone / She sees babies everywhere she goes / And she wants one of her own.” The friend’s fear, ultimately, is that she will soon be too old to have the child she so desperately wants: “She’s scared, scared she’ll run out of time.”

On a purely narrative level, this verse is pretty affecting. For me, though, the real suffering in these lines comes from somewhere else. Before spelling this out (because that would be too easy and I prefer sticking it to the man), it’s worth taking a look at the next verse in the song, since the pair enforces each other, and both work in the same way.

Next, the singer turns to her parents. “I see my folks, they’re getting old / And I watch their bodies change,” she says. The same refrain marks the end of this verse as well, a singular line standing by itself: “Scared to run out of time.”

So I have this friend, right. It’s not me. No, really, it’s not me. But he, I mean she, has this weird rash on her foot, and I’m wondering, for her, which anti-fungal cream works best.

If you heard me say this, you would be next to certain that I had a weird rash on my foot. It’s the oldest, and worst, deception technique that exists. In my mind, when Bonnie Raitt talks about the fears of her friend, and the deterioration of her parents, she’s actually talking about herself.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the last verse of the song is explicitly about the singer. “Just when I thought I’d had enough / And all my tears were shed,” it starts, “You came along and showed me / How to leave it all behind / You opened up my heart again / And then to my surprise / I found love, baby / Love in the nick of time.” This erases any doubt to me that all of the earlier fears expressed belong to Raitt more than anyone else.

When this first occurred to me, I was wrecked.

I had heard “Nick of Time” before, but really hadn’t paid much attention to it. To be honest, this essay started about Raitt and the complicated image of Americana, and it would have turned out fine. Like being caught in a thunderstorm I didn’t see coming, though, I was overwhelmed by something bigger than me. I was soaking wet and I didn’t want to be.

I’m ashamed of a lot of things, and I have a lot of insecurities, too. For the most part I’m too afraid to admit them. This could be because I care too much about how people think of me, I’m not actually sure. My job, for example, is one of them. As a freelance writer, it sometimes feels like I’m not actually employed. That’s hard for me to admit, and it makes me self-conscious, especially when I’m surrounded by so many passionate, ultra-successful people my same age.

So often I just won’t talk about it, that is, until something good happens. I recently started writing for a well-known local publication, interviewing high-profile visual artists and writing about their work. I love doing it, and it’s respectable in my mind,  so of course I’ll bring this up in conversation.

This is very likely just projection on my part, but I see this entire complex playing itself out in “Nick of Time.” Be it from shame, or fear, or both, Raitt addresses her real fears, but does so behind a paper mask. Only in the end, when things find a neat resolution, does she come out and claim success.

At this point I should clarify: I fully believe Robyn and Bonnie Raitt are aware of what they're doing, and the speakers in their songs are personas—in literary terms, the unreliable narrator. Whether or not they're intended to represent themselves or meant to depict a complicated and painfully human emotional complex, I can't say.

What I can say, though, is that both of these songs represent something important in the realm of the ballad. Sad music is my thing. Ask anyone: sometimes I will actually bench press while listening to the Sun Kil Moon's cover of "Ocean Breathes Salty."

While it's impossible to say what exactly draws us to melancholy music, one thing is for sure: there is so much of it that sucks. Without throwing out names like Hawthorne Heights or Aerosmith, I'll say that there are probably at least 100 terrible sad songs for each one worth listening to.

Music is music, though, so a lot of this is way too subjective and visceral to understand, but there's something special, and something definite, about these two. Here's what I know. The actual content of a ballad is endlessly repeated: lost love, death, uncertainty. We've heard it all.

For me, what's more important than showing suffering in these tracks is showing how suffering is dealt with. And honestly, it's not pretty.

It's full of self-deceit and insecurity, of people not knowing how to face difficulty, so they turn away. It's painfully vulnerable. It's human. It's so meaningful to me because I've handled difficulty this same way, and I'll probably continue to.

For example, right now, I’m thinking of excuses to give my old friends about why I can’t go to our ten-year high school reunion this year, since running into that weird kid who’s now a NASA engineer doesn’t sound particularly appealing. Here’s a list of the good ones: car problems, copperhead bite, too many people ask for my autograph whenever I go back home.

Yeah, they’re all actually terrible, and this is probably a pretty bad way of dealing with a problem, but at least I guess I can admit that now.

—Jack McLaughlin

#231: Queen, "A Night at the Opera" (1975)

I'll be frank about the bad part: I'm not always the best employee, or always the best person to be around. I can broadly agree, I did not love my last job at the restaurant. Also, I'm pretty sure there were at least three or four good candidates to get fired ahead of me. There are still some persons in the employ of Southern Exposure: A Farm-to-Table Bistro who have stolen from the establishment, and astoundingly are known to have done so by the owner, who is a pale, cowardly fellow, always mumbling about why his managers are keeping him in debt (but never firing them either). So to the Tuesday crew who did me in, the surly small-timing of the brunch cooks, and that two-legged endlessly-gobbling sphincter of an owner: you can all do one in hell.

On the way in last Tuesday, I was walking through the tall grass of the empty lot, and I stepped on something huddled in the rough. I half-realized as I was stepping the ground was uneven, but couldn't keep my foot light enough not to crush the newborn squirrel that I found beneath the nonslip restaurant clogs I had on. Jenny told me later newborn squirrels often get pushed out of the nest when they're young, and has since insisted several times that I didn't kill the little thing. Still, not a great commute to work. And a night that begins that way goes the way it goes.

I threw the squirrel-squashing clogs in the dumpster when I left out the back door.

Having a sudden and newfound space for thought and analysis in my life, I have begun cataloguing the circus. The contents of my house and life: (one) live-in girlfriend of six years, Jenny; (one) Dachshund mix, Justice; (one) overweight grey tabby mix, Freddie; a fine automobile (one) 1989 Saab 900, which still starts every time; (one) set of bocce balls which we throw from the porch on Sundays every now and again when Jenny’s off work; plenty (approximately 24 bottles) of cold drinking-beers; and some (one-half bottle) Armagnac that smells like dried flowers. The rest could burn down tomorrow, I wouldn’t care.

We don’t own the house, and that makes me nervous the more things feel like they should settle down and take root. Our rent is probably too low, and that makes staying here the right answer. But it still makes me feel like a tourist here, or some kind of undercover anthropologist, bedding in to try and get the scoop out of the neighbors, except I don’t know what my mission is beyond the first steps. Dutifully, I’ve catalogued them, and done my best to figure them out. The contents of the neighborhood seem scattered on the surface, but I have come to believe in the past two years we have lived here that there is an underlying order to things. We have a magnificent Southern front porch, and I spend a good deal of time observing from it the orchestral qualities of the movements of the street that in unsuspecting moments reveal themselves, sudden and full of accidental perfection, and unmistakable intention.

There’s the bungalow across the street, which is neatly trimmed with flower boxes, and inhabited by an equally fussy and charming lady, Mary, who plows a lonely furrow in her war against the immorality of the street. Her neighbors left are renters and hell-raisers. Her neighbors to the right keep the house completely closed off and manufacture drugs of the new modern sort, and there are several long-term occupants who come and go in various states. They do yard work on Sundays to make sure no one from Code Enforcement has complaint. Cars come and go, and a few nondescript no-minders mosey in, and mosey on, and mostly things are quiet. I'll say this, as a heads-up, though: there is one lady who has had several crises out in the street, so if she yells at you, just know she's having a bad day, and her life's work has been a mighty effort, and her day-to-day now involves powerful and perhaps little-understood substances. Mary comes across the street sometimes, to talk to us about the state of the neighborhood cats, and perhaps to glare at her neighbors from new angles—maybe try to catch a peep between curtains to see the evidence of some powerful narcotics empire, but I think I am satisfied that these are no kingpins.

The house on our right (Mary’s left) was foreclosed the other day. It's got the giant padlock on the front door now. A very quiet, wispy lady with long hair lived there, and I don't know what the story is. She seemed to have been gone long before the padlock. I like to imagine if I got a letter telling me it'd all gone belly-up in my life that I'd slip away in the night like that. Neat, quiet, with the traffic from the neighborhood and the birds chirping and the backyard neighbor’s chickens milling about, and everyone would just say, "Used to there was a fella who lived there. Don't know what come of him, though," and my new life would feel as open and as settled as the echoes I would leave. As such things go, I reckon it'd be the best way to dip. But still. That padlock seems a bit heavy, like it's pulling at the whole door frame, and the house's foundation. I get that something’s got to happen with an unpaid house, but I wouldn't ever personally buy a house straight from foreclosure, because no matter what you tell yourself, it’s a nasty business.

When Jenny has back-to-back-to-back shifts in the hospital, I end up with a lot of time sitting on the front porch. You could hardly have a more pleasant porch to sit and think when the weather is nice. I think sometimes about how it would be with a big ceiling fan above, though. The mosquitoes come worse each summer. But it's a damn reasonable porch when the sun lets go in the evening. We usually get a bit of breeze mumbling down the hill towards the village.

I was out the other night, sat in the big rocking chair my roommate Brad had left behind when he moved out, and that night was the first good and hot one of the new season. I had my jeans and my boots still on, and even with the buttons undid on my shirt, I still could feel the heat coming together and rising up inside my body, starting in my feet like one of those animated diagrams of oil drilling in the science museum. My mouth was dry, and my beer bottle was empty and sticky. It was already deep into night where I’d just sat down for a minute to watch the sun cut flat across the neighbor’s trees, and without knowing, I'd let myself slip through the sunset drinking beers with all manner of notions trickling through my head until it was night, and none of the lights were on. I felt like I would need to eat something and get a Gatorade in me before I came unstuck.

I walked the uneven sidewalk panels down to Frank’s Key West Allnite Store, which is the neighborhood’s divebar equivalent to a normal 7-11. Frank is probably dead, but he loved Key West, whoever he was, and the shop is covered in fake palm leaves like he’s waiting for Jesus on the donkey. But it’s the only joint in the neighborhood open past ten, so it often takes on a strange energy—especially when the season changes.

When I turned the corner to the parking lot, I found I had to go around where three squad cars had cornered a couple of teens against a brick wall, with the blue lights dancing across the laundromat and the brick wall on either side of the Allnite store. I was going in the door when it touched off. One of the officers was using that needling voice that the hall principals in my high school had always used, asking with a little grease in his voice why if they hadn’t been doing anything that they had ducked back down the alley and hustled to the store. And it looked like one of the kids gave him a sassy shrug, and there was a loud rustle and the exchange of fuck you’s, and I watched one of the cops grab a kid by the ankles and tip him all the way upside down like a saltshaker, and the kid’s phone and his keys and his wallet scattered out. Another cop gave me a look like, move along, son, so I did and I let the door fall away behind me as I went in. The girl at the counter was looking at me like I’d started all that, but it was cool and bright inside, and the blue lights felt less urgent under the even fluorescence of the overhead lights, tempered by the fake palm trees. I began to feel suddenly very hungry. While I was in line, a different one of the cops came in and bought a few waters from the coldbox next to me, and gave me one of those, Citizen, nods.

When I was walking out, the kids were tucked neatly into the back of a car, and the cops were gathered around another car, with the doors open and the engine running, and they scribbled away at their reports. A big SUV tried to squeeze into one of the open parking spots, and a red-faced fellow got out and moseyed by me to put his cigarette out before going into the store.

I took the long-way loop around the block so I wouldn’t have to tread the same path twice on the way back to the house. The night felt more and more humid, and nearby someone had been smoking some great hunk of pig that hung around everywhere. It could have been before ten, or it could have pushed past midnight. I didn’t know how to read where the stars were for clues, and I still didn’t feel like going back home when the time to turn came. So I took another block in stride, with the odd car-blown breeze passing by me like some mercy from the heat.

At the top of the hill, I reached the point of return—a church on the outcropping with a giant red sign that reads JESUS SAVES, and everyone who lives along the river can see. At the top of the hill, with the dark river below, and some of the airport lights showing in the distance, I sat down on the safety railing by the side of the road and caught a little breeze. From here, I could see through a few trees toward the hospital, where Jenny would be until the sun was coming up, and when she came home, she would draw the blackout curtains tight and cuddle up next to me with her big quilt, because we slept underneath the window unit, which blows cold and steady, and, with its rumbling hum, blocks out the noises from the block, and makes our little room feel like it moves along in its own time.

The walk back felt clean and direct after sitting in the river breeze. It felt like I had begun to absorb some of the Gatorade, and my mind felt clear. Shapes in the dark felt sharp, and friendly. I could see into the houses where people were still up. At the edge of our block, from the alleyway, I could see lights still on in the new neighbors’ house behind us—whose names I forgot within minutes of their saying hello—and from somewhere deep behind the closed curtains and walls, I heard a TV going. It must have been blasting, but from outside, all I could hear was the theme song from The Simpsons.

I climbed up to the porch and sat again for a moment in the rocking chair. Freddie sidled up to me, and then hopped onto my lap, shoving his brittle-boned head into my hands again and again. He curled up after a few minutes and didn't leave my lap until I realized he was leaping up, and dashing down the porch where Jenny's car had pulled into the driveway. The horn beeped once when she locked it, and there she was, her rain jacket draped over her arm, lunch bag, purse, and her bag with her work clothes, and when she saw me in the chair, the early sun not yet shining down on where I sat, she didn't give the scolding look, or ask me why I had been sleeping on our front porch. She smiled, and I said, "I'm so glad you're home, my love."

—Aaron Fallon

#232: The Kinks, "The Kink Kronikles" (1972)

One

In the summer of 2010, when I was living in London, it rained every single day in August. I was renting a small room in a small house in central Ilford, a town about 9 miles northeast of Charing Cross. There were seven people altogether living in this house. Three men from Nepal made curries and momos at all hours, the scent wafting up the stairwell and under the door of my room so I would wake suddenly in the middle of the night, salivating and hungry. I existed on a steady diet of tortilla pizzas and spaghetti that I cooked in a Tupperware container in the microwave, not possessing the pots and pans needed for anything more elaborate. I knew that I was lucky to be living just nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, but sometimes, on my seventh tortilla pizza of the week, I felt slightly less lucky. At night I listened to the mice scamper across the floor. After one ran over me as I lay curled up under my duvet, I declared war on them. I put out poison and traps slathered with peanut butter. My mother, during a Skype call, warned me against the poison: the mice would eat it and then crawl into their home in the walls to die, whereupon their stench would enmesh itself in my tiny rented room forever.

“Don’t worry,” my dad said. “Mice are small. It’s not like it’s a raccoon or a groundhog or something.”

The August rain was not always a storm. In fact, it was almost never a storm, which made it even worse. I was used to lightning, thunder, skies that turned green and elicited tornado sirens, whereupon everyone in the neighborhood immediately stood outside their door, head tilted up at the sky. There was one day in London when it hailed, and I took shelter from the small pebbles of ice beneath a tree in a nearby park. But for the most part, the London rain was a drizzle. There were days when the sun would shine nearly the entire day, only to disappear behind rain clouds for fifteen minutes in the afternoon, just as I was, inevitably, setting out to walk to the grocery store or settling down in the park with a book. Every time it rained, I wanted to rage. This, I told anyone who would listen (which was no one), was why the first colonists had left England. This rain.

 

Two

See me, age 23, two suitcases in hand, boarding a flight to Heathrow. I had a haircut last week. I have bangs again. Since I don’t own a blow dryer, they aren’t working out very well. When I arrive at Heathrow, the immigration officers detain me. They make me sit on a bench next to the customs booths for an hour, then they take me to a large white room with flickering fluorescent lights and interrogation chambers and a woman in a miniskirt and tank top, who sits on one of the long wooden benches, sobbing. An officer takes me into one of the rooms to interrogate me. She brings me a Styrofoam cup of tea, which I don’t drink, but it gives me something to do with my hands as I lift the teabag in and out of the tepid water. When I am released, the woman is still there, still crying.

 

Three

Sometimes, I heard the Kinks singing to me as I sat on the bed in my tiny room in Ilford, nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, staring at the crack between the wall and the floor where the mice entered. My father introduced me to the Kinks when I was still in high school; before I left for college, he’d given me The Kink Kronikles as a parting gift. The songs from the album repeated themselves for me, a daily soundtrack. What are we living for? Two-roomed apartment on the second floor, the Kinks sang, reminding me that they had warned me about London, even before I’d arrived. They’d told me how it would be. No money coming in, they sang. I had no job. My American passport had made a work visa an impossibility, and so I was there on a tourist visa, my departing flight on the very day that visa expired. We both want to work so hard, I sang under my breath as I worked on grad school applications, studied for the GREs, anything to keep myself busy. We can’t get the chance. I spent a weekend cat-sitting for a friend of a friend. I’m allergic to cats. I made 40 pounds.

My intention with this essay was to write a love story about my relationship with London. A real love story, the kind that transcends time and place and language, the kind that reverberates in your head like the echoes of church bells or tornado sirens or cicadas. But instead, all I hear is the Kinks. People are dying on dead end street, they remind me, as if to say that since I moved out of that rented room nine miles northeast of Charing Cross, I dodged a bullet. The bulk of my memories of London are not of that room, not of the incessant rain, and yet, when I think about the city, when I look back on my time there, that is what is most clear.

This was the reason I was detained entering the United Kingdom: on my port-of-entry card, the one that all tourists fill out when entering the country, where it asked how long my stay would be, I wrote, in finely printed block letters, “SIX MONTHS.”

 

Four

Six months ago, I received my absentee ballot in the mail. I went to happy hour with a friend and, with her as my witness, filled in the oval indicating my choice for president. Just three weeks after that, the rest of the country went to the polls. That evening, I watched the election results with friends, texting with my sister, frantically refreshing The New York Times. A lot can change in six months.

When I lived in London for six months, after immigration decided that despite planning on staying the entire time allocated to me by my tourist visa, I had no plans to work illegally, after my passport was returned to me, a neat little stamp in its pages and a handwritten note confirming my “leave to enter/remain until/for SIX MONTHS,” a group of friends and I rented a houseboat and spent a week in Norfolk, traveling the length of the canals. Every day, I had a new injury. I fell and chipped my tooth. I fell and bruised my knee so badly that I limped for weeks afterwards. I fell and bruised my shin, resulting in a raised red welt. I fell, I fell, I fell. I fell holding a squirt gun, and my friends laughed, said how much I must love guns because I’m American. All Americans love guns, they said. Or if they don’t all love them, enough do, because America has a gun problem, America has gun violence, and it’s our fault for being American. I wanted to protest, not their words, but their tone, their condescension and bitterness, their ease at placing me with the rest of these anonymous Americans, but instead I pressed my palm to my latest injury until the pain began to ebb.

 

Five

Ten months ago, on the morning of June 24, 2016, I woke at 1 a.m. and checked the news. Britain had shocked the world, I read. I spoke with a friend from London, who tried to cheer me up, tried to say it wouldn’t be as bad as the Remain campaigners had predicted. In the middle of the night, it is easy to be fatalistic. I said, “Well, at least this day is probably worse for David Cameron.”

London voted Remain, but was overwhelmed by votes in the rest of England and Wales. It should have been a sign for me. It wasn’t. My confidence knew no bounds. “I’m not worried,” I said six months ago. “I’m just excited.”

A lot can change in six months.

And yet—at the risk of extending this already-shaky metaphor too far—here’s the thing: I don’t believe in dead end streets. Not in the real, physical sense, or maybe I do mean that, too, for in the movies, there’s always a fence to climb over, a doorway to duck into, a narrow opening to shimmy through. In real life, it’s never so easy as that, but still, I don’t believe in dead ends. And so, even now, I’m searching for that fence, that doorway, that tiny opening, as small as the one the mice used to sneak into my London room, and I’m tearing at it, ripping away the carpet, pulling up the floorboards, smashing the girders and beams, mice be damned, and I’m digging, and I’m digging, and I’m digging.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#233: The Byrds, "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965)

The climax of discomfort for me at Robinson Secondary was the middle school dances, where we crammed into a cafeteria with censored pop playing from a carpeted stage. I stayed in a cluster of my three loyal friends. My three loyal friends, who wore rhinestones on Limited Too T-shirts and wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction in their rooms late at night. I jumped up and down to music, my hair frizzing from the collective body heat of grinding 8th graders. Someone always said, “Watch it! Your ponytail just hit my face!” I was so relieved when the lights flicked on and the cafeteria was fluorescent-bright and safe again, telling us it was time to go home.

Middle school was a tedious and self-conscious two years. It was then that I entered a phase. I became fascinated with the 1960s and 70s. The phase came from a perfect storm of places. One: I noticed our U.S. History syllabus always stopped at the end of World War II (“Not surprising,” my dad would say), which gave the following decades a certain mystique. Two: I discovered a Polaroid album of my parents from high school. The album included a photo of my dad hanging upside down from a basketball hoop with an afro of brown curls, and another of my mom with sun-bleached hair down to her elbows, leaning against a door frame with her eyes shut, and smiling. I studied the album many times, the glue in its binding cracking every time it was reopened.

My 60s-70s fascination was fueled when my dad bought a clunky VHS set from the History Channel. Every video featured a different decade. One night I reached for the unexplained decades, the skimmed-over, disappearing pages of my public school education: 1960-1969 and  1970-1979. That night in my bedroom, I watched America revolt and explode from the prim, bubblegum early 60s to full revolution. I watched young soldiers wading through swampy grasses and students walking out of classes to march on their campuses. I was moved by the magnitude of change. I rewound the footage and watched again. Middle school felt very insignificant.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my parents asked me that year.

“I want all your favorite albums from when you were growing up.”

That’s what you want?

On Christmas morning my strange request was met. I was given two stacks of my parents’ favorite albums, each cover with bell-bottomed, hazy-faced singers. There was nothing hot and edgy about them. As my parents interrupted each other to defend their favorite albums, I doubted my Christmas present (all morning: “Really! You’ve never heard of Crosby, Stills & Young?” “I don’t think so.” “Just stunning harmonies.”). One day my dad told me to listen to the song “Mr. Tambourine Man” from the Byrds album of the same name. I sat in front of my bedroom stereo and listened. I didn’t even know what it was about, but the melody rose and fell in me in the best, most bittersweet way.

The Byrds were campy and harmonious, somewhere in between the sugary early 60s and the rock to come. They felt unthreatening. The DJ-scratching, sexualized pop of middle school dances made me feel false as I sang, “SO take off all your CLOTHES!” I started to bring my Walkman to middle school, playing my parents’ music in my ears, so that I was protected in a sort of time bubble of the History Channel decades: 1960-1969, 1970-1979. “I wish I lived in the 60s,” I told my dad once. “Things were actually happening. I wish I was a part of something big.” I was corrected. He told me the country was a divided mess, and I wouldn’t want to live in a time like that. Fifteen years after that conversation, I’m sitting in a time just like thata hot, divided mess.

Eventually, I stopped listening on repeat to the albums my parents gave me, as I learned to discover the music happening around me. But while the phase continued, I nagged my parents for frontline stories of social upheaval: “Did you go to protests??!” “No, not really.” “But was it crazy?!” My parents weren’t as interested in sharing stories about marches and flag burnings. They wanted to tell us about the time they went skinny dipping in the neighborhood pool with all their friends and almost got arrested. How the cops shone the flashlight at their best friend, the moment he was jumping nude on the high dive. Or the time they threw rolls of toilet paper around a rival school, and ran away into the woods as the sirens came. They told these stories again and again, interrupting each other, laughing until crying. I envied them and their stories.

My parents, unlike me, had lived fully in their school worlds, the national turbulence a blurry background behind their first loves and friendships. Meanwhile, I sought escape into history, into music that nobody was listening to anymore in the 8th grade. When my parents didn’t indulge my fascination with the past, I came back to my Christmas gift albumsthe homesick folk, the sunny California Byrds, the croaky, raw Dylan. What I didn’t know then was that things were happening in my time, things worth fighting for and writing music about. I just didn’t know how to be a part of it yet.

—Rachel Mason

#234: Simon & Garfunkel, "Bookends" (1968)

In her mind, she sees her life on the shelves. A display piece. Various conversation starters. It’s categorized. Organized in its dishevelment. Each phase confined with bookends. Hidden corners of her consciousness, loves and hatreds represented in LPs, foldable geographical maps, bound recipes, Steinbeck novels, ticket stubs, boarding passes, turnpike receipts, strayed packets of vanilla sugar, pressed flowers, napkins with various notes written on them, mailed postcards. Each oddity associated with memory; each memory evoking the recollection of a million different conversations.

She pulls piece by piece from the black bookcase in her living room and places each item in one of the small cardboard boxes she’s collected over the last week from friends, friends of friends, coworkers, the side of the dumpster by the craft store just down the street. She’s labeled some of the boxes. “Kitchen.” “Baking.” “Clothes.” “Bathroom.” She thinks of all the labels people have given her: “Low Life.” “Accomplished.” “Cold.” “Empathetic.” “Cowardly.” “Courageous.” “Weak.” “Strong.” Each ironic in its duality. Contradicting in its nature. All somehow simultaneously true.

She tapes up the small box and carries it to the couch a few feet from the front door. The floor space is already occupied by stacked barstools from the breakfast nook, luggage from the closets, a desk piled high with pillows and comforters. A walkway exists to the door and to the record player. Simon and Garfunkel can be heard through the speakers, despite the corner of the mattress somewhat muzzling them. The three-chord progression on acoustic guitarBookends’ opening themeseems fitting in its finality. In her head she sings the chorus that doesn’t yet follow in the introduction. Time it was, oh what a time it was, it was, a time of innocence, a time of confidences. She steps back over boxes packed full of Sylvia Plath, Timothy Ferriss, Susanna Kaysen, Heston Blumenthal, Allen Ginsberg, Edna Lewis, and Jack Kerouac, languid in the task of packing up the rest of that particular bookcase.

There are more empty boxes in the bedroom and as she heads to the back of the house to grab another, her feet sound slightly heavy on the floorboards. Had her father still been alive, he could have explained every detail of how the acoustics in a room shift with its contents. The walls barren of all the art she’d collected and framed photographs she’d once hung seem to amplify the placing of one foot in front of another as she nears the shelf again. It’s weird seeing the house so lifeless where she’s spent the last decade. Nearly a third of her existence held within its walls. A sanctuary and torture chamber. A place of growth and backslide. The ground beneath her feet after too long spent hopping from one shitty apartment to the next every few months. A space for regained consciousness after years of oblivion. For healing after death. In front of that bookshelfsometimes pow-wowed on the floor, sometimes relinquished to her chaise loungeshe had bookended spats of depression between heroin-addicted companions and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Save the Life of My Child.” She had bookended previous heartbreak between an empty bottle and a newfound love of traveling blossomed from money saved in sobriety. She had bookended the most previous phase of her life between trade school as a chefwith its subsequent job at Ludivineand the lyrics: When she goes, she’s gone. The girl does what she wants to do. She knows what she wants to do. And she’s no longer faking it; she’s really making it.

She pulls down the bookends holding upright her collection of atlases and travel paraphernalia. The distance from Oklahoma City to Austin: 388 miles. Austin to New Orleans: 511 miles. New Orleans to Pensacola: 202 miles. She pulls down her binders full of recipes and notes. Past down wisdoms of flavor blending. The best recipe for chicken and spinach veloute. The secrets for properly preparing salmon en croute. The atlases, travel paraphernalia, her amassed cooking bible, however, will not be boxed for storage, but left readily available in her backpack.

The gentle humming of Simon and Garfunkelthe opening of the album’s fourth trackwarmly fills the room, and for a second, she feels flush. It’s one thing to long hold a dream, another to execute it. One thing to look at the cracked-road behind you, another to willingly carve an unpaved path ahead. She takes a long breath and while exhaling sings the last line of the song’s first stanza, a hint of timidity in her voice: I’ve come to look for America. She thinks about the guest chef spots she’s already booked at restaurants in three different states. She thinks about camping out of her car and trailer hitch for a while, just like John Steinbeck did in My Travels with Charley. She thinks of all she’ll learn about the culture of creole food in New Orleans and fresh seafood in Florida. She thinks about how she’ll become rounded as a chef and a person, meeting new people, absorbing different traditions, interacting with those unlike her. She thinks about the millions of different backgrounds that lie ahead, the diverse stories, those who have overcome obstacles of a different spectrum, an entirely new color palate of flavor. A melting pot. A stew, they often call it. She imagines digesting it all deep in the belly of herself.

Around her, she sees the boxes and stacked furniture of her past. In her mind, she sees a future of sharing a love for diversity with each dish. The Simon and Garfunkel song crescendos into its climax and she sings louder than before: They’ve all come to look for America. All come to look for America. All come to look for America.

Angela Morris

#235: Patsy Cline, "The Ultimate Collection" (2000)

When I was eleven years old, my older sister ran a red light without even slowing. It must have been the end of the school year—she was looking through her yearbook while driving. Her junior prom dress was in the trunk. The car she hit sat yards from us afterward—the force of the crash must have shoved the two vehicles apart, like a chaperone to a couple of horny teens. My other older sister, a year younger than the first, was strapped into the passenger seat. When they looked back at me my nose was bleeding; I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me. That’s how numb it was, how broken. The other driver was a much older man, angry and discombobulated and unrelenting in his angry discombobulation. When the police arrived, my sister and I walked to the grocery store across the street to find a pay phone and wash my face. I was so afraid of driving afterward that I wouldn’t get my license until more than a decade later, at 23 years old. My sister took driving classes and was back on the road within the year.

*

On June 14, 1961, Patsy Cline is thrown through the windshield of her brother Sam’s car when another driver pulls out right in front of them to try and pass from the adjoining lane. The head-on collision gives Patsy a broken wrist, a dislocated hip, and cracked bones and lacerations on her face. She is 28 years old; her first major crossover hit, “I Fall to Pieces,” is only just beginning to make the rounds on stations across the country. Her friend Dottie West rushes there as soon as she gets word, sits picking glass from Patsy’s hair at the scene of the accident. Days later Dottie will call Patsy in the hospital so she can hear “Pieces,” through the phone line, for the first time on the radio. Back on the night of the accident, first responders fly to Patsy’s side on arrival but she insists they tend to the other car’s occupants first. She watches the other driver die there, on the road that night, despite their best efforts. The six-year-old boy they drive to the hospital will later that night succumb to his injuries as well.

The effect on Patsy is eternal and unavoidable. She tells Dottie, about the other driver, “It was like maybe I watched her die for a reason.” She questions what God could want from her out of this. There is a scar now the width of her pinky finger running across the length of her brow and up into her scalp, beneath her hair. For the rest of her life, she wears headbands tightly across her forehead to keep the headaches to a minimum; she kneels in the bathroom and rests her face against the cool bathroom tile when this doesn’t work. She lives with blackouts and layers of concealer. She only lives another 21 months.

*

On August 30, 1991, Dottie West’s Chrysler New Yorker sputters out in front of the Belle Mead theater in downtown Nashville. Kenny Rogers had given her the car just the year before, as she’d been working through the repossession of her home and most other worldly possessions in an effort to pay two and a half million in back taxes. Now it’s dead and she’s late for a gig at the Opry. Before long, her 80-year-old neighbor George spots her on the side of the road and offers to take her the rest of the way. She’s late for the Opry. She’s trying her damndest to make things right again, tonight and in her life. She is 58 years old and they still want her at the Opry. She tells George to book it.

It isn’t until his Plymouth Reliant takes the Opryland exit ramp going 30 over the posted speed limit and Dottie is suddenly airborne that everything comes into perspective. It’s a split second that feels exactly like a split second and at the same time lasts for years. She and George hit the underpass head-on. When the sirens arrive, she remembers Patsy—has spent it seems her whole life remembering Patsy—and tells the EMTs that she feels fine, that they should tend to George first. And it’s true: she does feel fine. A little sore, but adrenalized. She can walk, though she doesn’t. She can talk and think clearly. The problems, it will turn out only later that night, are everything they can’t see. A ruptured spleen, a liver torn practically to shreds, internal bleeding like a softly blooming flower. She is dead four and a half days later, her family at her side. George lives another six years and change.

*

The only time I’ve ever ridden in a cop car was after a car crash. Maybe seven years old, reading a Far Side compendium in the back seat of the family minivan, my head leaning forward until it rested against the driver’s seat. The goose egg on the crown of my skull afterward probably concussive, though untested. The other driver had been a teenage girl who’d driven straight through a red light. She was nearly inconsolable, but physically unharmed. My father comforted her in the middle of the stopped intersection, thinking I have to assume of his own daughters, not yet old enough to drive, but getting there. The van was so wrecked the police drove my big family home in a two-cruiser caravan. My brother tried to spit out the window at a stop sign; the glass was so clean he didn’t realize it was rolled up. The officer behind the wheel laughed as my brother turned red and used his sleeve to wipe up the mess.

*

A month and a half after Patsy Cline is pried from the dashboard of her brother’s crumpled sedan, she asks her manager to book her. I don’t care where, she says. Somewhere close by. Who’s got an opening? Her set from that night at the Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa won’t be released for another 36 years, after someone finds the tapes in a box in their attic. The tapes only exist because the house recorded the sound check—the show we get isn’t even the actual show. Patsy is on crutches; her scars have barely healed. And she sounds fucking amazing. Her voice is the enemy of death. She seems to be pushing herself to every limit of volume and power and melody. She is spitting in the grim reaper’s face and wiping her mouth with the scythe.

Between songs, she also jokes with the crowd about the crash. “I’m kinda outta wind,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve worked since I got outta the hospital.” And when the audience laughs: “What are you laughing about? You wasn’t there.” It’s good to hear her chuckle to herself. “Oh me,” she says. “I tell you, them women drivers are rough on us good folks.”

Later, after “Lovesick Blues”—an explosive take that turns the standard into a declaration, a flag stuck into the middle of Satan’s ass—she says, “The boss just give me an order,” and even though the house manager tells her, faint on the recording, “A request, not an order,” she proves to the world just how Patsy she’ll always be: “My, my. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: honey chile, you boss me anytime you want.” The audience hollers. She leads the Cimarron Boys into “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” doing everything she can to hold on to it all. Tonight she is not fragile. Tonight she is breaking hearts just grinning. Tonight she’s in the driver’s seat.

—Brad Efford