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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

—Adam Tavel

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Mairead Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Rory Masterson

#118: Kanye West, "Late Registration" (2005)

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This is an essay about being a young man.

On our 8th grade class trip, we boarded a charter bus to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. I was an only child and devastatingly young for my grade—I had started kindergarten when I was four years old; this was fine when I was younger, but the age gap grew larger and larger once when I was left behind when “young men” were separated from “the boys.” On this trip, I too, was left behind. I did not have friends close enough to hang out with. Instead, I walked the Inner Harbor, over, and over again. I made multiple laps—from the Barnes and Noble at one end to the Children’s Science Museum at the other. I stopped to look at the seals at the National Aquarium. I walked around the mall, going from one store to another, looking at all of the kiosks selling rubber bouncing balls, perfumes, beeper cases covered in fake jewels. I would linger far too long outside of the Hooters, not daring to walk too close in fear of getting in trouble, or being spotted by one of the cooler kids, who had bragged that they had been to Hooters many times—even had their picture taken with a tank-topped college student in bright orange short shorts. How a breast brushed up against their arm, how they were doing what men did and always did. How they paid for their wings and their bottomless Sprites and how they earned that photograph—earned that touch.

Instead, I walked around with a notebook and a pen and wrote a poem about the seals—how fat and happy they seemed; how there were dozens of them, huddled together on rocks; how nice it must feel to never be alone, to always be that warm.
 

This is an essay about late registration.

Like Kanye West’s mother, I teach college English. At least two or three students add my class during the drop/add period, which exists for the first week of classes. Some choose to introduce themselves to me, to let me know that they are now in the class and want to know how it is they can catch up to the rest of their classmates—what books to order, what to review before the midterm exam. Other students, typically male, find their seat in the classroom and say nothing, as if they have been there the entire time. Sometimes, I receive an email after a particularly bad grade or a misread assignment explaining that they were unaware of the parameters of the course—that they had registered for the course late and never received the proper run-down, the paper syllabus that I had dutifully copied for everyone in the course. They anticipate that the world begins when they arrive—that the class itself was some strange confluence of object permanence and creation myth; they can’t possibly be held responsible by their lateness, because they have always been on time.

During my undergraduate college experience, I was this student. My second semester of college, I missed the first week of class because I had mistakenly signed up for a macroeconomics class that I had no interest in taking. Instead, I decided to try to fulfill one of my prerequisite courses—an advanced level history class. The theme was on the United States after the Civil War. It was one of the first times that I had been over my head and it shocked me—something in the world that I thought that I was already prepared for. I had to write multiple papers surrounding one particular event—I chose the Great Chicago Fire; how no one knew the actual cause of the blaze, how everyone blamed Catherine O’Leary’s neglect of her cow, how they called her a drunk, how she had hidden the evidence out of guilt. I talked to my mother to exonerate myself from my own guilt—how I had walked head first into something and it didn’t go my way. I blamed the professor; a woman. I took the gap in my transcript, leaving the papers unwritten: of how the most accepted theory as to how the fire started was by Catherine O’Leary’s son, who was in the barn gambling with his friends by lantern light.
 

This is an essay about what we carry with us.

Once the nursing period is over, a mother shows no interest in her children. The pup stays around, always traveling in packs, hoping that one day their mother will show the same interest they did when they were newly-born.

Kanye blames himself for the death of his mother. It is the only way to make sense of what happened—we always look to the rational to explain the irrational, except when the narrative doesn’t fit: the drunk woman forgot to extinguish the flame and her cow, who should’ve known better if it was raised correctly, kicked over the lantern and burned the whole city to the ground. Kanye also blames the doctor who performed the surgery. The cousin who was supposed to care for Donda in post-op. Her mother’s best friend. Donda’s personal assistant.

A pack of seals, all huddled close to one another in blame and grief, choosing what to ignore.

What will become of me when my mother is gone? What blame will I carry, if any?

There comes a time when we stop showing our mothers our lives—we keep secrets; we put our best selves forward. I showed my mother the poem about the seals. She references my first free verse poem: one about a frisbee fading in color on the roof. Another poem, about football, was referenced at my wedding rehearsal dinner. Late Registration was for Donda—to prove, as she said, “some career goals don’t require college.” Everything that happens after, we ask “what would Donda think?” The poems about my own funeral. The poems about wanting to crack bones with my hands. The post-midnight AIM conversations—the erased browser histories. What would our mothers say?
 

This is an essay about toxic masculinity.

My mother’s favorite car is a Jaguar—it is something that she has always wanted. These are the facts that we learn about our mothers when we are young; where we are discovering what our favorite things are and we wish to know what theirs are too. This is a fact that has always stuck with me.

That day in 8th grade, in a Baltimore shopping mall, I purchased a Jaguar keychain—it was heavy and looked expensive; I imagine the metal to be brass. A keychain to tide her over until I could actually deliver on the promise of my greatness.

And what a thing to think: that I would inevitably be great enough to afford an S-Type, that this was something that was going to happen in just a matter of time. I would be the next great American author. Maya Angelou. Nikki Giovanni. Turn one page, and that’s where I’d be.

I matriculated to high school the following year—a massive leviathan of a campus with multiple buildings and little care for the students within them. My first semester, my classes were unfairly spaced apart. I had little or no time to unlock my combination (a terror in itself), and even less time to drop off my books and make it to my next class on time. Instead, I decided to carry all of my things for the entire day with me. I had a massively overstuffed backpack. I also carried a duffel bag full of my three-ring binders; taking each and every teacher at their word when they demanded a separate folder for their class. The weight left marks on my shoulders, turned my hands raw.

I spent my days waiting for my time to come, and it never did. We convince ourselves that life is full of checkpoints—that if only I can make it to the next level, things will get easier. Things will be better—the world will reveal itself to you in ways that allow you to manipulate it.

For men, especially, when this does not happen, optimism turns to pessimism. Pessimism turns joy into anger.

Any time we hear about another mass shooting at a school that reminds us of our youth, when we crane our necks to get a glimpse at a burned-out shell of a car flipped over, our minds immediately go to “that could’ve been me”—if we had left a few minutes earlier, if we were born a few years later. This could’ve been any of us.

I feel this deeply when I hear of another suburban white kid radicalized to violence.

I feel the hatred of my own body. I feel myself occupying an alternate timeline where my mother never told me that if I was unhappy I could switch schools—crying as we drove down Pleasant Run Road, not realizing that I had a choice in this path, how she saved me from another. The burden we put on mothers. The burden we put on women to keep us from hurting ourselves before our male egos tell us that we are not the problem.

A timeline where my mother is gone. A timeline where usenet groups were /r threads, where I would raise myself on the feeling of being superior—of being smarter than the world around me because the world around me was confusing. Of Doom WADs, and pick-up artist techniques. Of feeling ownership over all of the things that I love—as if changing the gender of a beloved character is an affront to the world that I have sculpted in my own image. Of educating myself only with things that I believed to be true.

And if somehow, like Kanye, I was one man with all that power—standing in front of a classroom, filling it only with my own voice. To be that far gone.
 

This is an essay about saviors.

There, too, is a timeline where Donda West is still alive. Where none of this would’ve happened if Donda West was still alive, as if she is the key to all of this—as if “The Old Kanye” would still be here, Benz and a backpack. The lush orchestral arrangements over her chopped-up favorite soul records.

This is too much to place on one woman, but mothers are mythological creatures to sad smart boys like me.
 

This is an essay about cars.

Two weeks before my wedding, my mother was in a car accident. She was driving to visit my grandmother in the hospital, and ran a red light. The airbags deployed, no one was hurt, but the car: a Lexus, the same brand as Kanye’s 2002 car crash, was totaled. I did not find this out until months after the wedding, on a trip home for a few weeks in the summer, when I received a text to look out for a silver SUV instead of the familiar black. When we got home, she told me everything—about how my mother, a skittish driver to begin with, looks for any reason to not drive anywhere anymore. There would be no reason to fulfill my promise of a sports car.

My mother is still here. Donda West is not. There is no one left to fulfill the promise of going back to school.
 

This is an essay about Late Registration.

In 2015, when Kanye was asked what he has had to sacrifice for his incredible success, he simply responded my mom.

In what ways have I sacrificed my own mother—the other women in my life? If “Hey Mama” was truly for Donda West, it would’ve never seen the light of day. It would have been performed for her and only her, instead of sandwiched in between a joke about being so poor that your mother had to pretend to be the Christmas tree, and a song about telling his own hypothetical son that his mother had a fat ass and that’s why he exists. For years, I have wanted to not only tell my story, but the story of other people—the story of my family; as if I was the only person who could somehow pull this off. My mother will read this essay about her, but it is not for her.

In 2015, Kanye West received an Honorary Doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He fulfilled his promise of going back to school, but in the half truths we love to tell our mothers—the same way we say this is for you.
 

This is an essay about my mother.

It is my mother’s birthday in a few days. We have a joke about how all birthday cards seem to “define the relationship”—My Darling Mother. Your Loving Son. This is who we are. This is who you are to me.
 

This is an essay for me, about my mother.

The day my mother told me that I could switch schools because she could sense my unhappiness, she simply said one thing: you have the right to be happy. If you’re not happy, you have the right to change it. Some days I fear as if I have taken too much ownership. Other days I fear not enough.
 

This is an essay for me.

But I will scream so loud for you.

—Brian Oliu

#119: Etta James, "At Last!" (1960)

119 At Last.jpeg

Abigail’s older sister didn’t understand why their father kept his old records when just about everything was available on CD and BMG would send you 12 CDs for the price of one, delivered right to your house. You couldn’t even listen to records in the car, Sarah said. Their 1989 Chevy Blazer had a tape deck so their father always had to bootleg records onto cassette to play his favorite songs on road trips, but Abigail loved those mixtapes, their father spending hours picking and cueing up just the right songs in just the right order and timing the record and the tape deck perfectly.

While Abigail appreciated the novelty of the BMG mail order forms with the little postage stamp album covers that you tore off and attached to the 12 little squares to choose the CDs you wanted, she loved her father’s record collection, loved it physically, the large cardboard covers, the way some of them folded open, displaying more artwork or lyrics, the paper sleeves nestling each vinyl disk. She loved that her father kept his favorite records in a wooden milk crate on the floor next to one of the speakers, loved the dusty smell of them, loved that he bought most of them before she was born.

She loved the sound, that initial pop and crackle, as the needle was carefully, so carefully, dropped at the first track, a process you got to repeat for the B side, and if you were really lucky and he was playing The Wall or Tommy, you repeated again and again for sides C and D.

Her favorite was Etta James’s At Last!, the strings on “Anything to Say You’re Mine” swelling from out of that initial pop, James’s imploring voice following directly. She loved the earrings that James wore on the cover, the style of her hair and long, thin eyebrows. When she was older, Abigail thought, she would do her eyebrows that way, she would have earrings like those.

Abigail wasn’t allowed to put records on herself, her father afraid she would scratch them, afraid she wouldn’t be careful enough with the needle, which made her love them all the more. So sometimes when the girls were home alone she would put on a record, drop the needle gently, so gently, on to the groove and listen to the familiar pop and hiss, Sarah threatening to tell on her, but the warm sounds worth the risk. And some nights, when she was sure everyone in the house was asleep, she would sneak down to the basement and plug in the headphones with the extra long cord and listen to an album or two, an hour stolen in the night that was all hers.

*

She loved the records, and the records taught her about love. Her friends all thought love was Disney stories, happily ever after, but the records taught her the truth. Sometimes love is work. Sometimes love goes bad. Her father’s country albums taught her that sometimes people cheat, sometimes people leave you. The doo-wop and girl groups taught her that you have to pledge your love, have to make promises that even those bad times won’t end your love. You have to promise that nothing, nothing, nothing can come between you. That’s what love is.

*

When she was little, Abigail loved to sing. Not in front of people, not to perform, but she would just sing. “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” or “The Wheels on the Bus,” she would sing these songs to herself while playing. She would sing them at the dinner table, in the car. Her parents would praise her, tell her how well she sang, but it was never about that, never about being good or about grown-ups’ praise or even their enjoyment. The songs just came out of her. She felt happy when she sang, so she sang a lot.

Her parents would often ask her to sing a song when they had friends or family around. They’d have a few beers, listen to music, and then before she went to bed they’d ask her to sing for their guests, so she would sing a few songs and all the grown-ups would clap and she would feel embarrassed because they clapped, not happy like the singing made her feel, but still she did it because the grown-ups liked it and she trusted them.

*

The records taught her about trust and love. She learned that she should hold out for a “Sunday kind of love,” a love that was more than the happily-ever-after, the love-at-first-sight the movies promised, a love that would “last past Saturday night,” though she had no idea what that meant. She figured that she would understand when she was a grown-up. But even if she didn’t know what it meant, she knew it was true because Etta James told her it was true.

*

When her mother went into labor with her younger brother, her parents dropped her and Sarah at her aunt and uncle’s house for the night while they went to the hospital. Uncle Grayson was her favorite, the one who could get her to sing whenever he asked, the one who made her laugh. But he was also the one who could hurt her most deeply, the one who could make her cry easier than any other grown-up could.

That night he had some friends over to play poker in the basement, the men sitting around a card table drinking Coors Light out of silver cans and playing five-card draw for pocket change and dollar bills. Before bed, Aunt Mary dressed Sarah and Abigail in their matching nightgowns and took them down into the basement to say goodnight to Uncle Grayson. He asked her to sing a song, so she did. She sang “Twinkle, Twinkle” and all the men clapped around their beer cans and whistled with cigarettes still hanging out of their lips. Uncle Grayson kissed the girls and they went upstairs to bed in the spare room waiting for news of their baby brother.

*

The records taught her that love was something people made to each other. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but the way Etta growled it out sent goosebumps down her arms. Whatever it meant, it was serious to make love to someone.

She couldn’t wait to be a grown-up.

*

Love was completion, the records taught her, so in that way she guessed Disney got it right. When you found love, when you found that Sunday kind of love, you were whole, and it was forever, you were never alone, and life was perfect. True love, she learned, was what was promised in songs.

She loved her family. She loved her parents and her baby brother. She loved her aunts and uncles and cousins. She even loved Sarah, even though Sarah was a know-it-all and a tattle-tale and often a bully, but still she loved Sarah because sometimes in the night she would have bad dreams and Sarah would make room in her twin bed and let Abigail cuddle up to her until the bad dreams went away and she could sleep again, and Sarah never called her a baby for having bad dreams or for still wetting the bed, the thing that Abigail was most embarrassed about. In those moments Sarah was kind to her and protected her, and she loved Sarah more than anyone in the world. But that didn’t last very long because Sarah would soon be mean to her again or tell on her and she would forget she loved Sarah.

She loved her family and she loved her father’s records, but she knew that true love, the real love that records promised, was something completely different, something she wouldn’t feel until she was a grown-up.

*

That night Uncle Grayson woke her up in the spare room where she and Sarah were sharing a double bed. He was drunk, and she could smell the beer and cigarettes on him. “Abby,” he said. “Come on Abby. Come sing for us again.”

He pulled her out of bed and dragged her down to the basement where the men were still playing poker. He stood her in the middle of the room and said, “Come on, Abby. Sing us a song.”

The men implored her to sing. She rubbed her sleepy eyes. She didn’t feel like singing, but all the men were looking at her and waiting for her, so she started to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Some of the men sang along with her, their rough voices slurred and staggering, others clapped. But then one of them pointed out that her nightgown was soaked in urine, pointed out that she had wet the bed, and they all laughed at her, even Uncle Grayson, until she ran back upstairs to the spare room.

She cried until she woke Sarah up, but she wouldn’t tell Sarah what was wrong, what they’d done to her. She was too embarrassed.

She would never tell her parents what had happened. She wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened, not for many years when she was an adult and had found people who genuinely loved her and who she trusted completely. It wasn’t the trauma that kept the story secret, but the fact that she continued to wet the bed even much later, all the way until she was twelve years old. Even with lovers and close friends, she wanted to hide that long into her twenties because perhaps they would judge her, perhaps they would laugh at her the same way.

*

She would never tell her parents what Uncle Grayson had done to her, but she refused to sing after that. For a while they would ask, their friends would ask, her aunts and uncles would ask, but she would just bow her head and say nothing until they stopped asking. She learned to hate being the center of attention, she learned to hate people staring at her, waiting for her to do something, expecting something of her. Eventually they stopped asking.

She even stopped singing when she was alone, when she was playing in her room by herself. That part of her life was clouded over now, no longer brought her joy. She loved to hear other people sing, just as long as she didn’t have to be the one to do it.

*

That was in part why she loved her father’s records so much, she would realize much later. She loved the voices of strong women like Etta James, like Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline or Janis Joplin, women who wouldn’t let the world silence their voices no matter the adversity they faced. She would realize and understand all of this much later when she was a grown-up and had been able to look back on her childhood with a critical eye. But at the time all she knew were the sounds of the needle dropping gently, carefully, that pop and sparkle, and that the first notes swelling out of the vinyl grooves was as close to true love, true happiness, as she’d ever felt.

—Joshua Cross

#120: The Byrds, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (1968)

120 Sweetheart of the Rodeo.jpg

Summer for me will forever be tied up with the sounds of my parents fighting. Hot nights now bring a strange feeling of nostalgia for the days when I lay in bed at night, my sheets in a tangle at the bottom of the mattress, sweat beading on my skin, listening to the sounds of crickets and my mother telling my father he’s a dirty son of a bitch and he doesn’t know a good goddamn thing when it’s standing goddamn in front of him hitting him in the goddamn face.

That might make it sound worse than it was, because the truth is, my parents seemed to take a perverse sort of pleasure out of their fights, and they often ended peaceably. After my mother screamed at him, after my father willfully tuned her out, after she screamed some more, after he finally snapped and shouted back, they would dissolve into laughter and kiss each other and go to bed. In the morning, it was as if nothing had happened: they joked at breakfast, asked me how I’d slept, what books were on my summer reading list, and my mother kissed my father goodbye when he left. It was when the fighting stopped that I became worried, and it’s also true that it was during a summer of silence, as if they no longer cared enough about one another to even dredge up anger, that they finally told me they were getting divorced. I was 13 then, and I think they expected me to cry or rant or even beg them to reconsider, but I just nodded and asked which of them would be moving out. By then, maybe I, too, no longer cared.

But over the next few weeks, I pestered them. I’d be entering eighth grade in the fall, and all summer long, my friends called me, wanting to go to the mall, to the pool, to the diner for phosphates and malts, but I always said no. I followed my parents from room to room—my mother during the day and my father once he came home in the evenings. Over and over, I asked them: which one of you is leaving? Which one of you is going away? Their stories changed. First, my mother would be moving out, into a house that had just gone on the market two doors down. Then my father was leaving, getting an apartment across town. Then my father was getting the house two doors down, then they were both moving, to make a clean break. They never answered what I was really asking though, which was, of course: What about me? Where will I go?

In the end, it didn’t matter. Neither of them moved out. My mother transferred her things to the spare bedroom, said she’d always preferred it anyway, and they continued on as roommates. They said they lived better that way, and it’s true that the silence stopped. They didn’t start fighting again, either. They joked with each other and chatted about their days and asked me about mine, and I could almost pretend that we were a family again.

One evening, toward the end of the summer, my mother went on a date. He was the cousin of one of her friends, she told me. His name was Rob, and he was an optometrist. He didn’t get out of the car when he picked her up, and I watched from the front porch as she got into the car. He said something, and she tilted her head back as she laughed. I wasn’t used to seeing her from this distance, and her neck had never seemed so long and pale.

My father had been working late, and I stretched out on the porch swing while I waited for him to come home. When he arrived, he didn’t see me lying there. He trudged up the steps as if his whole body had grown heavy.

“She’s gone, then?” he said when he saw me.

I sat up and used one leg to push the swing forward. It creaked with the movement. My father winced, but settled himself next to me.

“I guess it’s just the two of us now,” he said.

“She’s coming back, you know,” I said. “It’s not like she’s going anywhere. Neither of you are going anywhere.” This was what I had wanted, and yet for some reason, it made me feel inordinately angry.

My father started to whistle a tune I didn’t recognize. He was always doing that, humming or whistling or singing in response to something I’d said. I pushed the swing faster, but his foot was settled firmly on the floorboards, so the swing just wobbled in place.

“Stop it,” I said. “I hate when you do that. I hate when you do that!” I knelt, my knee pressed against the wooden slats, and punched him in the shoulder for emphasis. He flinched. I punched him again and again and again, harder each time. He did nothing to stop me, and soon I was pummeling him with both my fists, crying and still saying, “I hate when you do that! I hate when you do that!”

The next day, my father would jokingly lift up his shirtsleeve and show me the bruise my fists left, would laugh and say at least I’d only attacked his arm. My mother, having returned from her date early, rolling her eyes and saying she’d forgotten how boring people could be, would shake her head in exasperation, would remind me that, despite my father’s reaction, I shouldn’t make a habit of punching. I would retreat into sullenness, and my parents would continue their lives as roommates, a routine they would maintain for another ten years, until long after I’d moved out, at which point they would finally sell the house and each eventually remarry, finding new spouses who never questioned the friendship that still bound my parents to each other.

But for now, I swung my fists at my father, and he waited for my anger to ebb, and the swing rocked back and forth, back and forth, and it creaked with every sway until it sounded like it was groaning in response to my fury, and I finally exhausted myself and laid my head on my father, where my fists had landed just moments before, and he let me rest there, though my weight must have hurt the bruise already beginning to form, until finally, as the light from the first fireflies began to sprinkle the yard, he stood and said it was time to go inside and start dinner, and was I coming. He started whistling again, the same song from before, and I still didn’t know it, but this time I followed him silently inside and just before the screen door slammed behind me, I put one hand out to stop it and instead guided it gently into its latch.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#121: Sly and the Family Stone, "Stand!" (1969)

121 Stand.jpg

            Ever stop to think about a downfall?
            Happens at the end of every line—
            Just when you think you've pulled a fast one,
            Happens to the foolish all the time

This is the way we lived before, they’ll tell you—before Zuckerberg tried to get co-eds to rate each other’s hotness, before we all gave our photos and dreams and best one-liners away to analytics firms in exchange for a “quiz” about which superhero we most resemble, before Childish Gambino made that offensively terrible music video where he shoots the gospel choir in cold blood and keeps on dancing.

Everyone just left each other alone, they’ll tell you. White, black, purple, greenwe were all just Americans then. Don’t press them on it. You’re not supposed to read into them only taking one step beyond black and white before turning to colors not found among humans in nature. Then there’s the way they say Americana perfectly good label, but it’s the way they say it with reverence, like it’s primordial, like that sound made the earth tremble when the cosmic starting pistol cracked, and history began. It’s beautiful, fraught with meaning—and false.

Before we had all this coarseness, this discord, this chaos. Before was good. Pure. Before made sense. And now?

This is not what we ought to be. This is not normal. We must reclaim normal.

I alone can fix this. Well, I and the people who agree with me.

*

You could argue I’m part of the last generation to grow up in a way remotely familiar to the baby boomers. We played outside, sans cellphones, and wandered now and then. I remember fishing derbies, getting into fights with kids a grade above me, making up imaginary worlds with my friends while sitting on the swing set.

At the same time, my early memories include rounds of Street Fighter on my neighbor’s Super Nintendo, Captain Planet on Saturday mornings, squawking “Hello!” into a beige-circa-1994 computer microphone and watching an MS-DOS pixelated parrot repeat it back. A few years later, I was placing my Sunny-D on drink coasters that also gave you 300 free hours of AOL. My generation deviated from that My Dog Skip ideal, embracing a digital life as it spawned around me, and for that some punishment was due.

Because my grandfather worked in a factory and my father went to law school, I never once thought I was groomed or destined to join either of them. I studied what interested me, not what I thought would bring me a salary or someone else a return on their investment.

The world was too interesting to do anything else, and so much of it was so available, so quickly and so cheaply. We could do and be anything. Just don’t tell your dad that “anything” was a euphemism for “socially conscious poet” or that your high school nickname was “Commie.”

I watched Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shoot their classmates on one of those CRT monitors about a week after my family got broadband, at the age when 24-hour news was about to mature, as social media was about to take its first furtive steps. I’m not sure if I adapted to this environment or if I was sculpted by it. Both? Neither?

For twenty years or more, I’ve never really been offline. In fact, I’m borderline addicted to my smartphone. Video games are probably my biggest hobby, followed by streaming television and telling you how I’m right about something because I saw the truth on the right part of the internet. I think all that makes me relatively normal for someone in my generation, on balance. But if you believe that there was a primordial modern America—one that was once perfected and then corrupted, you could see me as a symptom of it.

This is all to say that I think a lot nowadays about what I was missing, and who wanted me to pay attention to the shiny objects in front of me instead of the “everyday people” nearby.

*

            Pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture
            Witty, witty, witty as you can be

If that isn’t a description of how to fall into a narcissistic feedback loop, I don’t know of one. I hear the lyrics to “Somebody’s Watching You” and wonder if I’m experiencing peak America. Maybe our collective subconscious is aware of this fear. We document our lives in public, and on constant refresh, like we need to record it for posterity to prove it really happened. We follow our news feeds and Twitter feeds like the bottom’s going to fall out one morning, and we might need a head start out of the country.

            Blind 'cause your eyes see only glitter
            Closed to the things that make you free

Who’s going to be the culprit? Ask around. You’ll find Uncle Sam has a hundred murderers. Maybe it’s unchecked immigration, racial tension, moral decay. Maybe the air will suffocate us, the water poison us, the crop seeds fail to germinate. Then again, maybe it’s North Korea out of left field, surprising us with a hidden armada that stirs the Pacific and blots out the sun like a strategy game from the ‘90s.

            Live it up today if you want to
            Live it down tomorrow afternoon

We talk about it for entertainment, for gossip, for fun. Guys like Alex Jones make the theater of collapse into a business, selling pills to keep you going to the End Times and urine filtration to get you through it. No matter what, no one seems to act like we’re going to pull out of this tailspin. Everyone’s breathing deeply into their oxygen masks, digging their digits deep into the arm rests, bracing.

*

The soulful, energetic melodies and rhythms in Stand! come off as the antidote to this pre-apocalyptic pessimism. Sly Stone’s lyrics evoke diversity, inclusion, and solidarity as armor against a world that was already polarized in 1969 and, in some ways, would only seem worse fifty years later. He rails against racial animus and celebrates the inherent value of all humans in his lyrics. This value isn’t just rooted in any sense that people are inherently worth something—for Sly, it’s also about what we owe to one another, and what we can accomplish together. One song on the album is titled “You Can Make it if You Try,” but really, he means “we” both times:

            Push a little harder
            Think a little deeper

The romance about social media uniting the world is dead. All our attempts to tether ourselves to each other through profiles and memes and viral videos really have done as much to sow discord and division as they have fulfilled any public purpose. I know I’m quicker to mock someone for their views online than I would be in private. If someone came out as a Trumpite in a work setting, I might engage them on it or even criticize them, but I’d probably feel the blood rushing to my ears and feel my pulse beating through my fingers while I did it. On the internet, I’d feel glee, even open pleasure, like I’d just dared a neighborhood boy to lick the flagpole in winter.

            Don't let the plastic
            Bring you down

There’s a real consensus now—or at least, prior to 2016, there used to be a consensus—about the need to foster racial and social harmony in America. You can also see, however, how we’ve actually been manipulated by elites who used this effort to keep us complacent—down and dumb and distracted from the venomous scourge of economic injustice. As I write this, articles are being published to discuss how MLK Jr.’s daughter was lectured by another Twitter user on why Dr. King would have defended him when he calls out the term “straight, white male” as “this century’s N-word.” Ms. King responded:

My father was working to eradicate the Triple Evils of Racism (prejudice + power = oppression/destruction of a race deemed inferior), Poverty (Materialism) & Militarism.

Pointing out the group that most commonly benefits from all 3 is not “labeling.”

Truth before reconciliation.

So who are the “Everyday People” glorified in Sly Stone’s 1968 album?

Would they recognize the country that the MAGA crowd is talking about, the Wahhabi Americans who believe the past was simple and pure and every voice added to it since carries the taint of corruption?

Would they see themselves as a united chorus representing all creeds and colors, every point of departure along every ocean, gathered here for the great experiment of living together?

Would they argue both cultural nationalism and cultural pluralism can be used as distractions from the truth—tools employed to diminish the wealth, unity and bargaining power of the underclass?

When they stop to think about a downfall, do they see Rome? Do they see somewhere closer? Or have we not looked up from our phones long enough to be recognized—have we not stood up to be counted?

I don’t know where Sly Stone and his crew stand on the class war, or the proliferation of digital barriers we build in place of real social capital. I’m not sure their music goes there. I’m not sure if they would see Donald Glover commit a mass shooting, then resume his dance routine, and get the point being made, or understand why our obsession with that music video constitutes a guilty plea on our part. Gun to my head, however? They think we’re all marvelous, and weird, and capable of more than we know. They believe we all belong, we all have dignity, and that wherever we go, we need to go together.

—Benjamin Walker

   

#126: The Wailers, "Catch a Fire" (1973)

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Envision is a professional office environment located in West Austin. Featuring a serene, furnished interior atrium, this property provides quality, affordable office environments with free space planning, primarily covered parking, and proximity to major thoroughfares. Expansions available at any time. You will try to remember what it was like when you were one of a hundred employees; they still had everyone introduce themselves at the monthly all-hands. The sales rep who rattled off your bio points mentioned, at your request, that you wrote for Stereogum. No one gave a shit. Did you expect them to?

Frequent nighttime security checks are conducted, but how will that stop the man in Building II who got fired and emailed a bomb threat the next day? As soon as your CEO gave everyone the option to go home, you booked it for the convenient, prominent emergency exit. But your manager intercepted you: she was making you the team lead. You stood in her office, looking over the gorgeous, expertly maintained natural landscape visible on three sides. Is there an increase, you asked. It’s classified as a lateral move, she replied. You drive home knowing you’ll be back tomorrow, and perhaps the weekend. You often take advantage of the twenty-four-hour programmable access: first to catch up on your caseload, then to file album reviews you always forget to invoice, then to give your son a well-lit space (cleaned, Monday through Friday, by our full-time maintenance crew) to toddle around with a dry erase marker.

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Make your family a part of the vibrant community at Riverview! Conveniently situated minutes from downtown Wilmington, Riverview is a hidden jewel in a park-like setting featuring acres of lush hills. Select units offer private entrances, and all apartments have modern kitchens, central heating and air and washer/dryer connections. Step out onto your spacious wood-floor balcony for a smoke and imagine you can hear the whirs and clanks from the long-dead Chrysler plant in nearby Newark. On a factual level, you understand that Marley—following his mother, who had remarried—did stints at Chrysler and DuPont. But it still feels like learning that Jesus Christ worked at a Damascus convenience store in between healing lepers.

Bat back death with a session in our brand new exercise and fitness center; after you cool off in the year-round indoor pool, think about your thin resume, how you’re seven months away from your arbitrary deadline to decide whether you can bluff your way into an engineering career. Imagine it’s 1972. The Wailers, the toast of Jamaica, are unable to put together enough scratch to follow their tourmate Johnny Nash out of England. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer: they are nobility within a nigh-impenetrable lineage of misspelled credits, on-demand knockoffs, hobbyist labels, and sound system clashes, and their best bet to return to the concrete jungle is to finesse some white Englishman. He’s no fool; the Wailers’ wattage dazzles; he remembers they bore themselves as princes. He gives them 4,000 pounds; as is proper, he does not care if this payment will ever return.

History’s greatest songwriter labored in our plants, and he does not have a statue here. Still, Riverview offers easy access to all areas of New Castle County, as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. Bob could have easily taken one of these nearby state routes in 1969; he had a friend who wanted to sell his jewelry at Woodstock. The night before the festival, his friend spent hours pleading for Bob to go, but he remained in Delaware. His legacy is honored every year with the People’s Festival, just a quick jaunt downtown. Wilmington’s status as Delaware’s largest city and economic engine gives us a big city feel, while our scale and walkability preserve that small-town charm. It’s a fantastic place to raise a family. Bob’s son Stephen was born in Wilmington on a cool April day in 1972—the first of three children born to him that year. The next month, flush with Chris Blackwell’s money, Bob and the Wailers began work on Catch a Fire.

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Sunset Bluffs is a full-service off-campus housing environment located just minutes from both Texas A&M and Blinn College. Partake in our best-of-class student living alongside a community of like-minded students. Enjoy our resort-style pool with volleyball, water basketball, and tanning pool. iMacs & HP touch screens available and always up to date. You will not live here: your girlfriend will. You will room with youth-group friends, the best people you know. At no point—not here, not at your campus radio station, not in the freshman dorms, not at rented houses with perpetual beer pong in the garagewill you recall ever seeing a Bob Marley poster. Should you wish to listen to the Wailersand you won’t—you can do so accompanied by a resident in a private room within our quiet study area. Complimentary printing offered.

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Hell—a dread expanse offering infinite square footage and easy access to the transfer stations of all condemned soulsis the ideal solution for the perpetual mortification needs of any belief system. This fully-staffed extradimensional locus of unending anguish allows for mass misery, or one-on-one consultations. Though the title of Catch a Fire may conjure thoughts of the Rastafarian faith, or the massive spliff Bob lifts to his lips on the cover of certain reissuesa condemnable offense we are equipped to punish, depending on the religion—it’s actually taken from a line in “Slave Driver.” The Wailers knew their Mayfield, and they plunge the knife so cleanly that the twin oppressors of capitalism and white supremacy barely get to lock eyes before bleeding out. Our credentialed and licensed staff is well versed both in immediate extermination and prolonged excruciating.

As they largely believe that they currently live in hell, and are awaiting the relocation of black Africans to the promised land of Ethiopia, adherents of Rastafarianism are encouraged to call our office to discuss alternate rental arrangements. Catch a Fire is sequenced in such a way as to begin with Babylon’s geography, then its ethnography. The grunting clavinet and yearning guitar that intro “Concrete Jungle” suggest Stevie Wonder leading Television; Bob roams the tenement yards, shining a torch into unkind eyes. Then comes “Slave Driver,” and Peter Tosh’s “400 Years.” The Wailers cut the song for 1970’s Soul Rebel; they practically tripped over themselves trying to convert the ska rhythm into the spacious urgency of reggae. Here, finally, after discordant strumming, they find the tempo: a procession of protest. This and “Stop That Train” (Tosh’s other songwriting credit here) are essentially folk music. Only after breaking with Bob (but keeping the Wailers’ band) did he break from this mold to make the kind of fully-inhabited pop-reggae his old partner had already mastered, an irony you will be able to ponder in the eternity of separation from the divine that awaits you.

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This restaurant and bar for sale has a beautiful buildout, including a fully equipped kitchen with 11’ exhaust hood, walk-in cooler and freezer, grease trap, and three fryers. Fantastic partially elevated and covered patio. Select furnishings (pool table, Metallica and Game of Thrones pinball machines, Big Buck Hunter HD) available for an additional fee. Convenient South Austin location, situated near two major thoroughfares. Sitting alone on a bench, half-ignoring tables of commiserating electricians and boisterous strip-club enthusiasts, everyone lit in the dull orange of nightlife, you will think of “Midnight Ravers,” the album’s final track. It’s a fantastically ambiguous tune, fidgeting in obsessive little circles. At the start, Marley turns up his nose at the androgynous dancers and their pollution. Then they’re in chariots, and he’s in their number. “Don’t let me down,” he pleads, riding this malign energy to an uncertain end. You never strike up conversations, and no one talks to you unless they want to trade tables. For hours, you pound pints of Lone Star and sit with your phone to your ear, tapping out searches for songs released in 1962, or 1973, or 1984, or 2003. You can watch your caralways secure in the on-site paved parking lot—through a couple slats. Then it’s about to be your son’s bathtime, or the time your wife goes to bed, and it’s time to ride on.

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Great half duplex with lots of recent updates! Two bedrooms with one and a half baths. Opens to patio. Large, fenced, private backyard. Recent new countertops and tile in kitchen. Newer fencing. One car attached garage with washer and dryer hookups. Desirable South Austin location on nice, quiet cul-de-sac. Expansive Spanish-language church property with on-site health care clinic nearby. It will occur to you, reclining on a couch in the living room which you and your wife moved, years earlier, in front of the well-maintained fireplace, that Marley was perhaps peerless at capturing domestic joy. There is a sense in which his entire output is domestic: the sound of someone secure in his circumstances, offering words of caution and comfort in a strong house built with longtime friends. (It is no coincidence that his bassist and bandleader, Aston Barrett, was nicknamed “Family Man.” He once sued the Marley estate over $113 million in claimed writing credits and royalties; he lost, but afterward said he was still on good terms with Bob’s clan. "Everything is pause, like it's never happen,” he shrugged. “It's like secret service, secret society.")

The big tune here, pop-wise, is “Stir It Up,” a Top 20 hit for Johnny Nash in ‘73. (If there was any bad blood stemming from the Wailers being stranded in Britain, hopefully the royalties did something to clot it.) The wah has a low-simmering hunger; the Wailers do some soul daydreaming; Marley employs the classic Jamaican metaphor of pushing a log into the fire. There are many Marleys, all of them regal. But this one—the one chasing and being chased around the kitchen table—is your counsel. Once a week, you chuckle at the high guitar sting in “Is This Love”: the truest love cannot fear humiliation. You will spend a Saturday in May with your son, watching him grab and release endless handfuls of dirt into the afternoon breeze. He will plop onto the sidewalk and make chalk scrawls just like his walking paths: looping into themselves, halting and punctuated with pleas for you to finish them. Finally, you point across the street and say a single word. After eighteen months in your care, he understands what it means. As you collapse onto the other couch, resting on a carpet (laid on the recently-stained concrete floor), he will look around the room and he will repeat it: “home.”

—Brad Shoup

  

#122: Various Artists, "The Harder They Come Original Soundtrack" (1972)

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I was at a crossroads in the summer of 1996. For the previous 5 years, my college career had been one semester up, one semester down—if I was lucky. At the beginning of that year, my GPA bottomed out at 1.5 or some ridiculous number. I was worn out, used up, floundering, flunking out of my journalism program, and, in retrospect, desperately un-medicated…I was years behind and ready to quit. My extracurricular activities of going to local punk shows and writing my music zine had me spent. Punk rock did not save my life. My best friend Chris was going down to Oregon for the summer to study archaeology at Portland State, and asked me to be his roommate. Before he could finish his sentence, my bags were packed.

“Many rivers to cross, but I still haven’t found my way over... Wandering I am lost...”

I had saved a bit of money from my barista job, but for the most part, I was broke—coasting on fumes. So I did a lot of walking that summer. One of the albums in ultra-heavy rotation on my Discman was the soundtrack to The Harder They Come. For those of you who were too young to remember 1996, the musical abomination called Third Wave Ska was in full flowering. My pal Brendan, who had a punk/ska band in Anchorage whose name is too offensive to say here, turned me on to the originators like Desmond Dekker and Toots and the Maytals. Chris and I, with our mutual displeasure of modern ska, sought out the originals and devoured that soundtrack all winter and into the spring. Most days I roamed downtown Portland, notebook in hand, jotting down things I thought were interesting. It was the first time I’d ever been to the Lower 48 (except the one time when I was seven, which I have no real memory of, save for family photos). I was in awe of how old and established things were. Journaling was one thing, but once I began writing a short story, or a poem, I got jammed up. I would write a line, consider it, and then scratch it out. Write another line, scratch it out. I mostly wrote autobiographical things, but my well had run dry and I had no patience. And a limited pool of inspiration, so I thought. Soon I’d become self-conscious about being self-conscious, get angry and shove my Moleskine back in my pocket. At times like those, when I was completely stuck, I’d browse zines at Reading Frenzy and maybe sell a few back issues of our zine Noise Noise Noise, walk to the fountain by Hawthorne Bridge and watch young families running through the water, or walk up to the Henry Weinhardt brewery and marvel at the beautiful brick and how old it was. Its staying power impressed me.

“Rome was not built in a day, and opposition will come your way...and the harder he battle you see, is the sweeter the victory now!”

The one thing I had proven I could write about was music. As burned out as I was, music still gave me great pleasure, and I was grateful for that. When I wasn’t wandering the streets, you could find me sneaking in to Portland State University to type up reviews for our little magazine. Chris and I saw many of our heroes perform that summer: The Cure, Buzzcocks, and Richard Hell, to name just a few. Witnessing their creativity fed me and writing about them gave me a kick in the ass. I felt like I could actually write something that entertained me, and hopefully others as well. I just needed to be patient. But undiagnosed depression and anxiety wait for no man.

“Pressure got the drop on you you you yeah, PREssure! PREssure! PREssure! PREssure! Pressure, pressure drop...whoa yaaa!”

Gravel and branches crunched under my boots as we hiked around Mount Hood. We stopped to admire the view, and Chris’s cousin passed him a joint. He declined. I inhaled the sweet smoke into my lungs and let the peace wash over me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t a big hiking guy back then. As I stood there, I wondered, why not? Looking out at the forest, and the little towns beyond, and what those families might be doing, how they lived, gave me solace. This summer helped me shift my focus away from myself. I would learn this lesson again. But at the time, the release of this self-generated pressure was a revelation. These songs were a giant part of my summer soundtrack, and their lyrics of yearning, resilience, and rebellion struck me deep.

—Josh Medsker

#123: Run-DMC, "Raising Hell" (1986)

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From the get-go, Run-DMC embraced the sonics of rock music. Their eponymous debut features “Rock Box;” the title track of their sophomore release King of Rock follows the same arena formula.

And witness Raising Hell, an absolute monster of an album: MTV staple “It’s Tricky” recontextualizes “My Sharona” so the original is initially recognizable only if you’re listening for it; “Walk This Way,” of course, grafts rhymes and thudding bass onto an Aerosmith oldie. (It wasn’t much later, better or worse, that the flagging Boston band rose from the grave, bolstered by their crossover success.)

Run-DMC’s videos were as much a part of their success as their rock leanings. They were the first hip-hop group I ever heard because of their regular MTV presence. I haven’t seen any of the videos since they were in heavy rotation, and here we are talking about Raising Hell, so I took another look.

It’s funny to watch the video for “King of Rock,” for a few reasons. One is Larry “Bud” Melman. Remember that guy?

Maybe not.

He was a pre-Internet meme, a recurring character who was funny almost solely because of his recursion on Letterman and elsewhere. In the video, he’s the gatekeeper for the rock museum Run-DMC are trying to enter, where they critically view videos first of Little Richard, then, later, Jerry Lee Lewis swiping Little Richard’s moves. Cultural appropriation is on full display, and Run-DMC are having none of it.

Which makes the appearance of Jamie Reid’s iconic cover for the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” all the more curious.

I didn’t catch the reference when the video was in rotation on MTV because back then, in 1985, I had no idea who the Sex Pistols were.

By including the flag, were Run-DMC dissing punk?

I’m not sure.

I’d like to say no, because so much of the spirit and inception of the two genres is intertwined: global recession, heat, and service strikes marked summers in England and New York, yielding the need to blow off steam, be it through block parties or primitive songs on cheap guitars. And punk wasn’t as canonical in the eighties as it is now, either: the Sex Pistols had been broken up for all of eight years when “King of Rock” hit the airwaves.

Maybe the flag was a nod to the two genres’ insurgent nature, or, alternately, a sign of what was to come. Run-DMC, after all, storm the place, give a bunch of old rock fogeys like the Beatles the gasface, and claim their rightful place inside the hallowed halls, much like the punks later would—or had, maybe, due to the inclusion of the flag. Or maybe they’re just sick of the hype around punk and decided to take a shot at it. Regardless, Larry “Bud” Melman mugs for laughs throughout the video, wearing a trademark Run-DMC fedora by the end. He’s a convert.

The video for “It’s Tricky” features Penn and Teller as con men running a game of Three Card Monte. They scam a woman for her money and gold chain, at which point she calls our heroes on a landline. The group arrives and beat Penn and Teller at their own scam, finding the right card again and again, taking the hustlers for all they’re worth. In the right hands, Three Card Monte is a ‘game’ that can’t be beaten—the scam is predicated on crooked sleight of hand rather than an honest finding of the right card. Regardless, Run-DMC turn the tables. Then Penn and Teller ask the group to show them some moves. Our heroes acquiesce before disappearing into the night, superhero style, in their own helicopter. Cut to the end of the video, where Run-DMC arrive ready to play at a packed show in Japan, only to find Penn and Teller’s game was a long one. They lost their shirts at Three Card Monte, but the game was all a feint towards a larger victory: the fame and cash of being Run-DMC onstage, with dance moves and purloined rhymes. The lyrics of the song concern themselves with the difficulties of fame, how the group is mobbed by fans and have no privacy. Penn and Teller are all too happy to adapt the group’s identities, a literal appropriation.

Finally, “Walk This Way” finds Run-DMC in their practice space, drowned out by the adjacent din of Aerosmith (really just Steven Tyler and Joe Perry). Jam Master Jay starts scratching the titular song and briefly overpowers the dinosaur rockers next door, before Steven Tyler smashes through the wall for the chorus. Cut to the two-man Aerosmith in concert. Tyler and Perry are rocking out when the crowd points to a pair of silhouettes behind a screen: Run-DMC. Our heroes interject themselves into the classic rock song, earning a group hug with Tyler to end the video.

It’s hard not to notice that white dudes sherpa Run-DMC in every video.

Michael Jackson was the Jackie Robinson of MTV, breaking the color barrier, and then Prince followed. But hip-hop was so new and so threatening that the group couldn’t appear in heavy rotation without white dudes in their videos, acting as ambassadors, legitimizing Run-DMC and hip-hop by saying, “I know these guys, they’re okay.” Thusly, gates opened for hip-hop, and, better or worse, for the Beastie Boys, who toured with Run-DMC and whose Licensed To Ill has not aged well (despite the fact that I still know all the words by heart). The Beasties’ stupid misogyny was way more of a threat than Run-DMC, who rapped about such erstwhile topics as not doing drugs and going to school to learn a trade.

In “King of Rock,” aside from Reid’s flag, which is shown in multiple scenes, there’s no nod to the Sex Pistols, pro or con. We see Run-DMC stomp a Michael Jackson glove under a trademark Adidas, though, which is pretty punk. And the Sex Pistols famously broke up on stage of the Winterland Ballroom, Johnny Rotten asking the crowd, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before dropping the mic and leaving the stage. Maybe Run-DMC felt the same way, cheated that they couldn’t get onto MTV without having white dudes vouch for them on screen, despite their prodigious talent and innovation. And not just white dudes, but B-list white dudes. Larry “Bud” Melman was an old man cast as the butt of jokes; Penn and Teller are magicians; Aerosmith had zero MTV presence prior to Permanent Vacation, rendering them invisible to a generation.

But here we are in 2018, and Run-DMC are renowned as godfathers of the genre, with Raising Hell still sounding as fresh and vital as when it was released. So maybe they weren’t cheated, after all. Maybe B-list white dudes were all part of the long game.

—Michael T. Fournier 

#134: The Notorious B.I.G., "Ready to Die" (1994)

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My family on both sides came to the United States in the late 19th century from Scotland and Ireland and settled in Cleveland, upstate New York, and New York City. I do not know if the phrase “American Dream” was in the parlance of their peers, if that storybook quality I now project onto their immigration story was at all a reality. If there was a fantastic opportunity sought here, what it ended up looking like was a locksmith business on Staten Island; a food brokerage firm in Buffalo; the New York State Police; and services in the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force with all of these accomplishments arrived at in the 1940s and 1950s. My brother, my cousins, and I are—as of 2018—the ultimate result of this pursuit, this dream.

I’m 25. I have a college degree. I work for the U.S. government. I have a car. I rent a house with two friends from high school. I’m unmarried. My mom, in thirty years of working in telephone companies, ended up making more money than me and my partner will make combined. In other words, there is a way in which the dream plateaus and a non-American group is normalized. The dream looks more like how it looks on Atlanta, where at every level on the ever-expanding and mutating spectrum of success, what you are left with at the beginning and end of a generation is a cheap “hustle,” some labor you produce while telling yourself you’re doing something else, going somewhere important.

A similar sense of dissatisfaction—not even disillusionment—is apparent in the suffering heart of Ready to Die, Biggie Smalls’s first record, and the only one released in his lifetime.

My introduction to Biggie was through VH1 programming, some specials on the history of hip hop, some lists of celebrity feuds, and some specifically about the relationship between Biggie and Tupac, the tragic and legendary rivalry that now acts as the gravitational center of ‘90s rap. I knew nothing of Biggie’s music outside of its association with violence and profanity. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I first had an impression of his skill and character, in a car full of young white teenagers rapping along to “Juicy;” I was the only one in the car who didn’t know every single word.

And “Juicy” is certainly one of the best—if not the best (and by a mile)—songs that the United States has produced about the “American Dream.” It’s the dream as witnessed in Biggie’s life as his impoverished childhood and hardworking mother somehow nurture in him the peerless capacity to rap, through which he becomes a superstar, The King. Echoing the introduction to the album, Biggie narrates his growing up in the context of his hip hop heroes:

                  It was all a dream
                  I used to read Word Up! Magazine
                  Hanging pictures on my wall
                  Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl

The song about Biggie’s life is by extension a song about the success of hip hop itself. He reminds listeners of its underdog status as a form of art (You never thought that hip hop would take it this far) and that he—Biggie—is its greatest product and purveyor.

But there is a tension between what “Juicy” is and what Ready to Die is. The opening song is “Things Done Changed,” a story about his world getting worse, not better. Biggie opines the increasingly violent state of things and the senseless corruption of his neighborhood normalcy:

                  Back in the day our parents used to take care of us
                  Look at ‘em now, they even fucking scared of us
                  Calling the city for help because they can’t maintain
                  Damn, shit done changed

While Biggie himself will see opportunities opened to him, more and more doors are closing to family and friends as economic conditions worsen. He watches as younger and younger kids get involved in the nightmarish world of drug distribution. With what is perhaps the most understated lyric of the album, he concludes “Things Done Changed” by telling the listener that his mom has breast cancer.

Biggie is obsessed with death in broader terms as well, telling the listener on “Ready to Die,” “Everyday Struggle,” and “Suicidal Thoughts” that he wants to kill himself, somewhat against the tone set by the underlying beat. The sound of Ready to Die is the sound of Mafioso rap, hip hop with nostalgia for crime, music that relishes what crime can afford the criminal. This can in part be credited to the orchestral soul sound of the beats, best exemplified on “Warning,” which samples Isaac Hayes’s “Walk on By”: electric wobble, symphonic purr, a mix of the psychedelic funk of Sly & The Family Stone and the lushly-arranged backing orchestrations for ‘50s jazz vocalists, something sexy and luxurious. A similar sound is used on “Things Done Changed,” which prominently features harp, and “Ready to Die,” with its distinctive wah-wah and crying strings. “Gimme the Loot” and “Everyday Struggle” have beats that sound genuinely fun, if not childlike. This is the music underscoring an album called Ready to Die.

At every turn, the celebration of newfound wealth and acclaim is measured against an alternate reality where Christopher Wallace is not the exception to the rule. Biggie’s survivor’s guilt is carried above him like the sky over Atlas. His “Suicidal Thoughts” stem almost entirely from guilt and shame:

All my life I been considered as the worst
Lying to my mother, even stealing out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wish she got a fucking abortion

For each “Juicy” there’s a “Things Done Changed;” for every “Big Poppa” there’s a “Me and My Bitch,” a song detailing the death of Biggie’s love by a bullet that was intended for him. This theme of dichotomy has been played out most recently in Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album DAMN., where opposing tracks (“Lust” and “Love”, “Pride” and “Humble”) play out the opposing beliefs and priorities of the modern U.S. resident. For every winner, there is a loser; for every moral, there is an economic or social incentive to act in its opposite. What was once an “American Dream” of opportunity could now be best described as a zero-sum game: the process by which one achieves success or acclaim might necessitate an alienation from that which gave you humanity.

The iconic image of Biggie wearing a crown speaks to his often uncontested spot as greatest rapper to have ever done the thing, with more than a few of his songs now canonized as summer barbecue standards and synonymous with celebratory atmosphere. This reality has to square with the artist’s own obsessive fear of violence, fear of being a father, fear of economic insecurity, a lack of trustworthy friends, and his self-acknowledged capitulation to the hopelessness provoked by it all.

—Jeremy Johnston

#124: Moby Grape, "Moby Grape" (1967)

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Moby Grape’s eponymous debut isn’t quite as ridiculous as the band name makes it sound, but the first few tracks come close. The album is standard ‘60s fare: smooth, harmonically stepped voices welded to a bit of brash guitar, which the producers have draped, like wet laundry, over some poorly coded lyrics about sex, love, and hallucinogens, not necessarily in that order. Not the worst thing I’ve ever listened to, but certainly not choice. Shout out to the folks loyally recording and reposting mono tracks to their YouTube playlists; I can honestly say that the ’67 mono version of “Hey Grandma” is the worst track to get ready to since Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead.

Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to live through those tight, terrible decades of government betrayal, through the draft notices and the dreams that came after, viscous and red. Maybe you had to survive those first skirmishes—the opening moves in a Western war against human decency—to truly go wild for this stuff. Timing matters.

Still, you can have too much of a good thing. All five members of Moby Grape can sing, and often do so as one, voices braiding into a single flame that spews relentlessly from a five-headed hydra of a peculiarly musical persuasion. They’re a sixties boy band, is what I’m getting at. What’s worse, they’re a boy band of Jefferson Airplane castoffs. They’re the hippie equivalent of when The X Factor forced a bunch of fresh-faced teens to team up to avoid elimination, only without the eventual cash payout and legions of writhing fans.

Moby Grape is an unsuccessful One Direction. There, I said it. They missed out on so much.

What is it about a crew of clean-shaven young men that jellies the knees of girls (and boys) of so many eras, and across so many cultures?

Many people far more clever than I have tackled this question, but the short answer is that they’re safe. A boy band won’t start rumors about you. It won’t read your diary or sneer at your dreams or post photos of you on social media without your consent. A boy band, like a benevolent sponge, just keeps absorbing adoration until the fancy wears off or the money runs out. It’s like a dress-up doll for your feelings.

Sounds silly, but look—we need this. Throughout my lifetime, American men and women have grown increasingly uneasy with each other. Last week on the way to the subway I overheard a man on a cell phone say that the only way a guy can be in a relationship these days is to completely subjugate himself to a woman. “We’re nothing but financial assets to them,” he complained, face so ugly with hatred that I spun to the edge of the sidewalk, happier to pick through the previous day’s trash than risk hearing any further revelations.

On the train, I edited angry treatises in my head: I don’t want control over anyone but myself. I am not financially or physically obligated to reciprocate to anyone but myself. I am not bound to love anyone—not even myself.

Our position is untenable: Men drive cars into crowds just to get at us.

The boys in bands that we cherish can’t stay boys forever. They grow up and into their father’s wars. Armed with partisan politics and other cruel machinery, there is no escape from their battlefield. The fighting is everywhere, her body the front line every time.

Only it won’t be every time, will it? The reality is that black bodies, sick bodies, gay bodies have also been victims in turn; that as distant as Moby Grape’s clumsy, escapist rock feels, they were following an impulse that infects many, if not most. To be human is to dream of release, from death, at first, and then from anything that mimics it: humiliation, ignorance, despair.

On some near or distant tomorrow, the front line will shift again, but the feeling will remain. Alongside it, artists will continue to do what they do best: open windows and fire-doors, prop the cellar hatch with a flip flop or better yet, copy a key. The present isn’t always the most important place to be. Choose your moments.

When I need to open a window, I tune my brain to Ezra Furman in fishnets and pearls, singing like a cat in a bag at the bottom of the river. Or I might linger on Harry Styles’s wretched suits, pale sleeves livid with blossoms that threaten never to fade…but you have to come back sometime, don’t you. There’s work yet to be done.

—Eve Strillacci

#125: Janis Joplin, "Pearl" (1971)

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Whenever I think of the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” no matter how many times it’s been recorded by various artists, I think of Janis Joplin. She recorded it just days before she died, of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, for her album Pearl. This album is already full of heart-wrenching songs about love, so it’s no question that this song was a perfect fit. A proper send-off to remember this talented, complex, badass woman who damn well knew what love and loss felt like. The song was initially written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster about a man and his girlfriend Bobby McGee, who hitch a ride from Kentucky to California, where they eventually breakup and leave the singer devastated. The song wasn’t written for Janis Joplin, but when I hear her sing it, I am entirely convinced that it was made for her.

Janis, trained in blues singing from a young age, really nailed that ability to put emotions into her voice. When I hear her rendition of Bobby McGee, particularly the build up of the la-da-da’s, her loud, powerful voice makes me feel every single emotion I’ve ever felt while in love and in heartbreak. Mind-consumption, desperation, frustration, joy, grief, it’s all there as I’m belting out all of the la-da-da’s with her. Bobby McGee is more than a person: it’s the part of our minds where we either desperately swear we’ll never fall in love again, or we can’t even imagine the thought of loving a different person from the one consuming our minds now. I always wonder what she was thinking in the recording studio as she belted those words at the top of her lungs. What did Bobby McGee, or maybe who, represent for her?

I’m an avid believer in expressing emotion through singing. I go to the same karaoke at the same bar every single month, and it is like therapy. It is an energy high that always makes me feel drunk at the end of the night, but then I remember that most of the time I was hitting the sparkling water fountain they have in the back. The high comes from the community of local, enthusiastic people who want to put their ALL into karaoke as much as I do. At this karaoke night, it doesn’t even matter if you’re a bad singer, because everyone else is singing so loudly you can’t even hear yourself sing. The people that show up also know an impressive array of songs; it’s always amazing to sing along to a song you totally forgot you knew all the words to. Now, have I sung “Me and Bobby McGee” multiple times, along with every other woman at the bar? You better believe it. It’s almost always a guarantee that someone is singing that song on karaoke night, and it’s always a woman. Suddenly that room is filled with everyone else’s representation of what Bobby McGee means to them, but it comes out in beautiful, drunk, loud unison.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. The Joplin version of this song is just really freaking fun to sing, and you know it’s going to be a crowd pleaser. But I like to think that there’s more to it than that. Janis Joplin released three albums and made herself known in the rock and roll industry before the age of 27. She was incredibly unique, and she embraced it, and when she wanted something, she went for it. For myself, a huge fan of ‘70s rock and roll, Janis is an empowering icon that made it in a male-dominated industry, and even managed to record songs that called men out on their bullshit. Her song “Move Over,” the first on Pearl, should be a prescription given to men that lead women on and string them along. With her powerful voice she cries, “You’re playing with me, come on now! Now either be my loving man, or let me be!” How many times have we yelled that, or desperately wanted to yell that at someone? Preferably in Janis Joplin’s voice as well. Ladies, tie your indecisive, distant men up and force them to listen to this if you have to. They’ll make up their mind, I promise.

So as I’m standing with a bunch of women and we yell/sing “Bobby McGee” at the top of our lungs while our drinks are sloshing around in our hands and we’re putting our arms around each other, I see women who are at the same age Janis was when she recorded this song. We are also struggling to make it professionally, most likely in a male dominated field. And we have all felt some similar emotions around love. So for that moment, we are all connected. And that makes all of those hard feelings in our 20s appear to be just fine and manageable. For me, Bobby McGee is a great reminder that love comes in many forms, whether it’s romance, friendships with drunk strangers, or just turning inwards and realizing no matter what, you’re going to be okay.

—Jenn Montooth

#127: The Byrds, "Younger Than Yesterday" (1967)

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Keys jangle. Nerves jangle. Most of all, the Byrds jangle.

It’s because the Byrds jangled that we have the Athenian jangle of R.E.M. and Love Tractor, the Antipodean jangle of the Go-Betweens and the Church. The Byrds compelled the Hang-Ups and the Jayhawks to jangle up one side of Hennepin Ave. and down the other. (The Replacements’ Let It Be is a catalog of embittered, dysphoric anti-jangles.) In far-flung Manchester, Johnny Marr became the preeminent jangler of his or perhaps any generation; in Glasgow, Edwyn Collins wore his fringe, by his own admission, like Roger McGuinn’s. Tom Petty—may he rest in peace—jangled.

The jangle is a kind of figuration, an element of musical material that occupies the foreground-most parallax plane. It’s often an accompanimental texture, but just as often—deemed sufficiently pleasing on its own—it accompanies nothing. Jangles lend themselves especially well to introductions, where the intricacy of their glimmering wiry webs can be admired before the singing starts. In virtually every case, a jangle is a warning that a white man is about to cut to what he perceives to be the heart of the matter in a way that is at once earnest and coolly detached, sunny and in shades.

Younger Than Yesterday is a Wunderkammer of jangles. They may not be what makes the album great—that distinction might go to the record’s wit, its geniality, or its generosity—but they’re the medium in which it is made great. Three of them are explored in greater detail below; each transcription is accompanied by a hierarchical reduction on the lower staff.

 

“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

The stereo release of Younger Than Yesterday begins with a riddle: a jangle, but only in your left ear. Until the silence of the right channel is broken by the drums, one has to wonder: did I buy the wrong version? Has one of my hi-fi’s banana plugs gone rotten? But the Byrds are laughing with you, not at you. You want to be a rock and roll star so badly? Here, join us on the stage—the only place where the guitarist is on your left and the drummer is on your right. In this relatively good-natured entry in the only somewhat sufferable canon of songs about what a drag it is to be an impossibly cool and famous rocker in 1967, the stereo mix is your invitation to walk a mile in David Crosby’s Chelsea boots.

 

   Fig. 1: “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

Fig. 1: “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

The song’s jangle itself betokens rock and roll: a heavier touch, a heavier amp, and it might have anchored someone else’s arena-rock single ten years down the line had McGuinn not scooped it up. In the right light, the parallel fifths that outline the harmonic progression from ♭VII to I are no more than deconstructed power chords. As presented, however, the jangle’s essential jangleness is unmistakable; it inheres in the syncopation that brings the A halfway through the second beat rather than on the third, the leaps from string to string, the ringing sustain.

This jangle is a prime specimen: clean, bright, endearing. Stephen Malkmus’s Ess-Dog undoubtedly loved it. The notorious jangle of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—with an overhanging ninth that seems to contain all the real wonder and tumult of an era now reduced to montages of hippies and Hueys—is an imponderable koan compared to the jangle of “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” You want to be a rock and roll star? It’s as simple as this.

 

“The Girl With No Name”

The ideal instrument with which to jangle is a twelve-string Rickenbacker (not least because it was McGuinn’s weapon of choice), but credible jangles have been perpetrated with Telecasters, Jazzmasters, ES-335s, and Les Pauls, among others. “The Girl With No Name”’s jangle is rendered by a twelve-string acoustic guitar, an orchestrational citation of the jangle’s fingerpicking folk origins.

   Fig. 2: “The Girl With No Name”

Fig. 2: “The Girl With No Name”

Like “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “The Girl With No Name” opens with a jangle whose job is to decorate a prolongation of tonic by way of its lower neighbor ♭VII. Unlike the former jangle, however, the latter has a small crease, an irregularity that casual listening may not reveal: the G-natural in the second beat prefigures the root of the second chord, and the A in the third beat recollects the root of the first. (The dashed slurs in figure 2’s reduction indicate this relationship.) We might instead expect an A in the second beat and a B in the third; this more normative arrangement would produce a downward G-major arpeggio, loosely mirroring the ascending A major triad in the first half of the bar.

But the jangle is heteronomous. Its suspensions and anticipations do not necessarily resolve as one supposes they will. It is captive to the affordances of the instrument, the chutes and ladders of fingerboard geometry. It unspools at the whim of the guitarist, who in the case of “The Girl With No Name” was almost certainly stoned at the time of its composition. (The songwriting credit goes to bassist Chris Hillman, but one imagines that the jangle itself must have been hatched by McGuinn or Crosby.) A jangle is a part of the song it embroiders, but sometimes it catches a fancy of its own—so satisfying to play, so happy to be heard.

 

“My Back Pages”

That’s only sometimes. Other times, a jangle is the only jewel that fits in the song’s crown. The chimes that begin “My Back Pages” represent a distillation of the jangle to its barest essence and a crystallization of the contradiction at the song’s heart. A janglified fanfare, an austere pillar of perfect fourths, a no-tricks demonstration of the guitar’s very tuning: the jangle of “My Back Pages” is even simpler than the one from “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” A fifth and its root, a root and its fifth.

   Fig. 3: “My Back Pages”

Fig. 3: “My Back Pages”

The last three notes of the jangle—A, E, and A—begin, in true jangle style, not at the halfway point of the bar but an eighth note earlier. They are the three dots of an ellipsis that turns what had seemed to be a wall into a door, or at least a raising of the eyebrows in the direction of a window. It turns a rote double suspension, almost a straight-up subdominant, into an unexpectedly broadened possibility-space. That’s the kind of renewed lease on the future you might enjoy if you’re finally old enough to recognize and correct your youthful foibles but still young enough to have plenty of road ahead of you—and if you have enough self-knowledge to be aware of your place in life’s journey but not so much self-knowledge that you recoil from the undeniable preciousness and self-involvement of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Now that you’ve got it all figured out, the jangle winks, the world is your oyster.

The Byrds were in their mid-20s when they made Younger Than Yesterday; it’s not hard to see the appeal that sentiment might have held for them. But what does it have to offer us now? When I was a few years older than that, I accompanied a vanload of North Dakota high schoolers on a tour of their home state. We were bringing a theatrical production to the public parks of their hometowns—some large, by the standards of North Dakota cities, and some very small. One day on the road (somewhere between Wishek and Jamestown, I think), a young man who was yet some years away from the kind of epiphany celebrated in “My Back Pages” asked me, wide-eyed, how to act on a first date.

It might not have meant anything to him, but I should have said that the jangle is how to act on a first date: light but honest, clever but genuine. That’s not a perfect answer, because the jangle’s not perfect; when it errs, it errs on the side of being too pleased with itself, and that’s not a great look on a riff or a dinner companion. All in all, however, it’s as good a model for construing and presenting yourself as any figurational construct in rock songcraft. If you have to be a white man with matters whose hearts must be cut to, let the jangle be your scalpel. That’s what I should have told that boy from North Dakota, with Younger Than Yesterday playing on the van’s stereo.

—Colin Holter

#130: Television, "Marquee Moon" (1977)

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There are points in Wyoming at which few, if any, signs of the human exist. A road, maybe. A fence. The railroad more often than not. Of what I remember—maybe too much—I remember significant sky, clear as hell at night. And the out-of-place pelicans on Lake Hattie Reservoir before the day was over and we were subsumed by stars. Our last summer in Wyoming. How do I say I was born there, left, returned, left again.

How do I say I woke up and it’s yesterday?

*

Television’s Marquee Moon, the band’s first record, was released in 1977. Also released that year were Aja, American Stars ‘n Bars, Before and After Science, The Clash, Hard Again, My Aim Is True, Low, Rocket to Russia, Rumours, Talking Heads: ’77, and Trans-Europe Express (among many great others).

On February 8, three days after Rumours, now one of the best-selling records of all time, Marquee Moon entered the world. The record, now 41 years old and considered one of the greatest debuts of all time, has aged only in the sense that it’s been here for a certain duration. It remains otherworldly, new, taut somehow, and—yes!—playful. When Tom Verlaine sings “Fantastic! You lose your sense of human” in “Prove It,” you thrill and you do. At the outset of “Friction” when Billy Ficca fires off a drumroll fit for the most gleefully warped magic show you can conjure, you don’t hesitate. And 3:08 into “Guiding Light,” everything in the song becomes the waves of the sea the song’s arrived at, and there are your goosebumps.

*

Aquarians, born January 20 to February 18, aren’t known for their warmth, or at least that’s the going line. Something about aloofness always manages to work its way into the discussion. Curious, observant, distant idealists the lot.

I’m not sure how much of this I believe. Some?

I remember being told to smile often as a child.

*

Start looking and it doesn't take long to find interviews with Verlaine that don’t go well for the interviewers; he answers only the questions he feels like answering. In a 2006 interview with Ben Sisario for The New York Times, Verlaine is asked how his life should appear in a biography. He responds, “Struggling not to have a professional career.”

*

At its worst, work as in “professional career” has left me feeling musicless and stupid, withering. At its best, it’s allowed me the day, promising little else. What's there to say that hasn't already been said about industry's penchant for quantification, the overall’s lack of joy.

How do I say I went for a walk and saw a couple pink packing peanuts winding down the street, heard a group of women hollering for the feel of it in someone’s backyard, held eye contact with an animal and counted to ten as a way to measure living.

How do I say I know these things matter as much as data.

How do I say I know these things matter so much more than data.

There’s too much contradiction.

*

Whenever I hear It’s too “too too” to put a finger on in "Prove It," I think of the final line of Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump”: Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the. Those lines are sonic siblings. The song and the poem work through their own respective tensions on the way to some kind of resolve.

To me, the space a listener inhabits, the space made by instrumentation and words in Television’s music, parallels the space a reader inhabits in a poem, the shapes to which words arranged on a page give way.

*

The run time on Marquee Moon is about 46 minutes (45:54 to be exact). The title track takes up 10 of those minutes, almost 1/4 of the whole record. The songs that orbit "Marquee Moon" are three- to four-ish minutes, then five, and finally seven. Hearing the record in its entirety feels much longer than 46 minutes, and that's not tedium at work. I want to say it's imagination at work. How else does one come to disregard time and just sit with a record on, listening? Imagination. And wanting to feel something

I've become so hesitant to say and write words like imagination, beauty, terrific—a side effect, I think, of feeling unheard for a long time. Those words border on grandeur, and grandeur can be exhausting. For now, though, in this instance, those three words apply to Marquee Moon.

*

In a 2007 interview with Dave Segal for The Stranger, ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd is asked what he provided Television that Tom Verlaine couldn't. Lloyd answers, "The fleshing out of all the songs. All the filigrees and arabesques on Marquee Moon are all mine.…I brought a rock-and-roll heart. Tom has some strange tastes. He likes cowboy music—I don't mean country & western; I mean cowboy music, and county fair music and TV theme songs and crap like that. He comes in and says, "Look what I got for 99 cents!" I'll look at it and think, 'Oh my god. Thank god I don't have a record player.'"

*

On a recent visit to Gillette, Wyoming, the town where I grew up, I found a compilation of cowboy songs and frontier ballads at a library book sale. On the compilation is "Tumbleweed Trail," a Sons of the Pioneers song. The group's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" is used to great effect in The Big Lebowski.

I drove around Laramie, where I lived at the time, listening to "Tumbleweed Trail" on repeat, allowing myself an all-new level of hokum. I couldn't ignore Where is the gal I knew in Wyomin'? Where are the songs she sang in the gloamin'?

Not long after that, I moved to Colorado.

*

In "Elevation," Verlaine sings The last word is the lost word with agony. Every element of the song is perfectly in place: sinisterly driven guitars, monolithic drums, and a deft bass line. It's the sound of someone beginning to know something will soon be over, might already be.

It's hard to explain how you begin to know such a thing, even when reasons accrue.

Or how, after being spectacularly lost, you find that the place you started from isn't for you.

—Shannon Tharp

#129: Talking Heads, "Remain in Light" (1980)

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1.

In fits of dissatisfaction with my job, I’d interview elsewhere. I found myself lying to the interviewer: “I shove my personal feelings aside because I know I am here to help the team run efficiently.” Smile with a nose crinkle. Nod empathetically.

Day to day the lyrics found their way into my head, a humorous reprieve: “Well? How did I get here?”
 

2.

The organic and the mechanical are at war on Remain In Light. The organic: voices, hands, a woman’s hips. They are pushed and pulled by the mechanical: synths, polyrhythmic structures, the dissociative process of day-to-day. The groove is composed of rigid loops, circuitry under the guise of funk. David Byrne yells, “TAKE A LOOK AT THESE HANDS” as if they are beyond his control, as if they are monstrous growths. It is possible to be hypnotized.
 

3.

There is a skip on my mp3 version of “Crosseyed and Painless.” I can’t remember where I got this album, who it was from, if it was a CD or a digital transfer. It makes the song sound crazier. “Crosseyed and Painless” tries its best to keep itself together (“Lost my shape / trying to act casual”). The song orients itself around the four note bass—if you are lost, you count from there. The other instruments chirp in and out, people striding past your desk asking, “Hi, how are you?” and leaving before you can answer.

4.

Byrne talks a lot about facts—things they are, things they aren’t. Remain in Light plays with the profound and never arrives at answers. (”Sometimes the world has a load of questions / Seems like the world knows nothing at all.”) Nonsense lyrics embed themselves into your brain, into your bones, you internalize the syllables and they become something else. A mantra, a religion, nothing at all. They are yours now.

5.

David Byrne arrives on screen, panting, heaving—in a horrible suit with horrible hair and horrible glasses. And slowly, hesitantly, his hips start to shake. He kneels and motions, as if tucking a child in, singing, “You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself––” now on his knees, raising hands in worship, “Well?! How did I get here?”

Then head on the ground, sweating. The edges of the green screen chop his body into pixels as he is shot, or pushed, or something, and bounces in recoil. In sweaty worship again he repeats, “Same as it ever was.” Hands belonging to an unseen body hold his head still. Just as he recovers, he short circuits once more.

The reprieve from the breakdown is a clean, glowy David Byrne, eyes shut, swaying gently. He become the background vocals: “Letting the days go by.”
 

6.

The latter, more conceptual half of Remain In Light is less feverish. “Seen And Not Seen” is spoken-word over floaty, dreamy loops. It is a literal account of a man changing his face to be more suitable, more pleasant. “The change would be very subtle.” Staccato synth fades in and out. Unintelligible background singing. The slow morph from You to Another You, unrecognizable to your loved ones, to your former self.
 

7.

Drop “The Overload” on a Joy Division album and I wouldn’t know the difference.
 

8.

Habits are hard to break. They’re harder when they become routine, such as getting up at 5:30 a.m., or telling yourself that stability is more important than ambition, that well, this is just how the world is. I examined the paths of other artists, musicians, writers. Did they have significant financial advantages over me? Was the economy different? How long did they stay at their day jobs?
 

9.

Last year David Byrne introduced Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense at a rep theatre on the Lower East Side. He wore a powder blue suit. He said some kind words in the hesitant David Byrne tenor we all love, and soon enough, a much younger David Byrne appeared onscreen, telling us there is a tape he would like to play.

Stop Making Sense is a play of additions and subtractions. Performers join the stage in groups, or one at a time, adding a new dimension to the arrangement. The original members of Talking Heads do their best to stand out: the Tom Tom Club performs a song, Chris Frantz ad libs “who’s got a match!” before “Burning Down The House.” But soon they are merely background to dancers, to Bernie Worrell, to a lamp.

“Crosseyed and Painless” begins as a repetitive groove and in an instant becomes a jerky, frantic version of the song. Gone are the slinky polyrhythms—this arrangement hearkens back to Talking Heads as a punk/new wave outfit. The song is recontextualized from paranoia to panic. This is the last song of the night, and the first time the camera shows people in the audience. Folks bopping in time, a child with a unicorn toy, guys with big monitor headphones.

Everyone is sweating like crazy. David Byrne’s suit is undone.

The audience in the rep theatre cheered. Like we were at a live show. Like they could hear us. Unmitigated joy.

—Erin Rose O'Brien

#131: Black Sabbath, "Paranoid" (1970)

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Rudell Bostic was sleeping in a Super 8 off Highway 51 in Carbondale, Illinois the night they arrested his fifteen-year-old son Johnny for vandalism and curfew. He worked as a service manager for a company that designed and manufactured electrical power distribution equipment for underground mines, which made him responsible for repairing his company’s equipment every time something broke down. Things broke down a lot in mines, so Rudell got sent to places like Carbondale or Hazard, Kentucky more often than his wife cared for. The company had shipped him off to crawl down shafts in Mexico and Guatemala and Guam, and one time even Egypt.

His wife Eleanor called his room at the Super 8 in Carbondale sometime after 2:00 a.m. to report Johnny’s arrest. Rudell was dead asleep when the phone rang and many of her details were lost, but he gathered that Johnny had snuck out with a group of boys and got caught vandalizing someone’s property.

Rudell held the beige motel phone to his ear and watched the cord sway with the air conditioning. “OK,” he said, “and?”

She said nothing at first. “What do you mean, ‘and?’”

“And what are the police going to do about it?”

“Officer says he’ll get an official statement tomorrow. He wants to question the boys one by one.”

“Right. And what do you want me to do about this? I’m in goddamn Carbondale.”

“You have to be here,” Eleanor said. “You’re his father.”

Rudell gave himself a few seconds to breathe. The middle of the night seemed the wrong time to start a fight that he had felt her building toward for months.

“I know that,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. Working. To provide.”

The line cut dead. That was Eleanor’s version of taking a few seconds to breathe.

Demand for coal had flatlined with the Clean Air Act, so companies were laying off miners quicker than you could blink, and all but the biggest companies were folding or selling out. Fewer mines meant fewer orders for his company, so they had cut back to one serviceman, meaning Rudell got sent to every job that needed service. Eleanor told him she thought he was on the road more often than he was at home. He hadn’t done the tallies, but she might be right.

He got up and made a pot of weak coffee from the cheap coffee maker that counted as an amenity in the Super 8 in Carbondale. The pot was small and the machine was nondescript black plastic. Brown crust stuck to places both inside and outside the machine, and the glass carafe was stained heavily. He drank the coffee and headed to the mine to finish the job he had driven all this way to do, which proved to be nothing more demanding than installing a new voltage regulator and capacitor.

The good news was he was able to put in a day’s work and start the drive back home to West Virginia before lunch. The bad news was his eldest was a criminal, a fact his wife blamed him for.

He knew his relationship with Johnny had strained. Talking to a fifteen-year-old boy seemed impossible, but seeing that boy only a few times a week didn’t exactly open up their relationship. When Johnny was little he had thought Rudell was magic—he could fix anything and could do no wrong. Rudell knew his son no longer thought that. He wasn’t even sure the boy loved him, not really. How could you know?

The service van didn’t have a tape deck, so Rudell scanned stations looking for classic rock or country, just about anything that wasn’t talk or Top 40. The heavy stomp of “Iron Man” made him take his hand from the dial. That riff brought him back to high school, ditching gym class to get stoned in Dayle’s car with Sabbath on the 8-track.

In a way, he was almost proud of his son—Johnny was a quiet kid, a little too much of a goody-good for his own wellbeing, Rudell thought. Hell, at Johnny’s age, he was getting into all kinds of trouble, though never with the law, but only because they never got caught. Johnny had started to act out lately, started to get in trouble at school, and his mother blamed Rudell. She thought Johnny was pushing his luck because his father wasn’t home. She might be right, but still, part of him was glad to see Johnny push the rules a bit.

But on the long drive home he began to think differently. Sure, when he was Johnny’s age, he had done a lot worse, but now, in his forties, with a career and a mortgage and a name in the community, Rudell had begun to want people’s respect, not least of all Sheriff Woods, who had been his friend for going on thirty years now since they were boys in the creek hunting for crawdads. Having a friend elected Sheriff made Rudell feel important, but he knew it also meant keeping his family name clean. Johnny’s arrest threatened that. Rudell was not sure what he would say to Sheriff Woods when he got home. Boys will be boys? That felt too easy, and he worried the Sheriff would think Rudell was trying to take advantage.

He made it home to Black Bear Creek in that space between dusk and full dark and found a Sheriff’s cruiser blocking his driveway—not Sheriff Woods’s beat up cruiser, but a shiny new one—parked catty corner across the opening to his driveway, so Rudell pulled the service van into the grass of his yard.

Rudell walked through his front door. There on the sofa was a young officer in a dark brown uniform, his pistol hanging bulky from his belt. The table lamp cast a weak, beige light that made the room seem dimmer than if no light had been on at all, but the beams fell perfectly on the officer sitting at the corner of the sofa. The officer’s pistol looked plastic, more like a toy than an actual weapon, and that made the gun somehow more terrifying as it bulged from the young officer’s hip.

Johnny sat on the loveseat and stared at the floor, refusing to look at his father, but Eleanor turned to him as soon as he opened the door. She was close to tears, sitting on the loveseat next to Johnny and rubbing his back.

The officer rose from the sofa. “Mr. Bostic? I’m Deputy Timmons.”

They shook hands.

“Your daddy Dayle Timmons?”

“Yes sir,” the deputy said. The way this younger man kept calling him “sir” made Rudell feel old and tired, especially since he knew the deputy held the power in this situation. And the thought that Dayle’s son was now an officer of the law almost made him laugh.

“I was friends with your daddy, way back when. Tell Dayle I say hello.”

“I will, sir.”

“Well, deputy,” Rudell said. “I got to say, I don’t know much about what’s going on.”

“That’s what we’re just getting around to.” Timmons sat back on the sofa. Rudell perched on the arm of the loveseat next to Eleanor, but Johnny still wouldn’t look at him. Rudell wondered which man Johnny was more afraid of, and he hoped the answer was his father.

“We received a complaint last night from a resident on Power Line Drive,” the deputy said. “Boys were throwing rocks at a satellite dish. I took the call, and found the boys a few blocks from the complainant’s house. Now, I went back over there today and looked at that man’s yard, and there were a good thirty or forty rocks in his yard, all around that satellite dish, which looked all beat to hell.”

Rudell caught himself about to laugh again. He’d been more than prepared to put the fear of God the Father in the boy, but it was just a damn satellite dish. He would personally go to Power Line Drive and write the man a check for a new one if it meant he got to come home, take a shower, eat a warm dinner, and go to bed without thinking about any of this.

“Tell me the truth, son,” the deputy said. “You throw rocks at that man’s satellite dish?”

“No sir, I never,” Johnny said. “I swear.”

The officer glanced at Rudell, and it seemed clear Timmons did not believe him, and neither did Rudell. Rudell knew all Johnny’s tells, so he saw the lie for what it was.

“John Michael,” Rudell said to the back of his son’s head. “Tell the truth now.”

“I swear,” Johnny said.

“If he says he didn’t do it,” Eleanor said, “he didn’t do it.”

That was just like her, always quick to believe one of her babies. She was gullible that way, in a way that Rudell’s own mother never had been. Had the cops ever picked up Rudell, his mother would have taken a switch to him until he couldn’t sit still long enough to spin these lies.

The deputy shook his head like he had never heard something so foolish. “You’re telling me none of you boys threw rocks at that man’s satellite dish, when I already told you I counted a good forty or fifty rocks in that man’s yard?”

“Nah,” Johnny said. “No sir. Them other boys, they threw rocks at the satellite, but I never did.”

“See,” Eleanor said. “It was those other boys! I’ve warned him about that Tyree boy. I’ve warned him again and again, and now that boy and his friends have gone and gotten Johnny in trouble.”

The officer looked up at Rudell. He was certain that Timmons knew Johnny was lying and that Rudell knew it too. The room felt warm, like the heat was running, but he knew there was no reason for that. The two men made eye contact and the lie stretched taut between them.

“Son,” Timmons said, “lying to an officer is a crime. You threw rocks at that satellite, didn’t you?”

Johnny began to cry, which embarrassed Rudell. His son was close to being a man, and he wished he would take this like a man.

“Didn’t you,” the deputy said.

“I swear,” Johnny said. “I never threw no rocks at that man’s satellite dish. I swear to God.”

Rudell was supposed to say something here, to choose sides. Johnny seemed to read the situation and finally turned to his father and pulled a frantic face.

“Daddy,” Johnny said. “I promise I didn’t do it.”

He could defend his son, or he could tell the officer what he knew to be true, that his son was lying as clear as day, a fact he read in the officer’s face. He could defend his kin or he could side with justice, but he could not do both, and he knew either choice would be wrong.

“Look, deputy,” Rudell said. “If the boy says he didn’t do it, I guess he didn’t do it.”

Timmons shook his head, wrote something in his pocket notebook, and flipped the cover closed.

“Today’s your lucky day,” Timmons said. “I already talked to all the other boys, already got all their statements. And all five of them, every single one of them, says Johnny didn’t throw any rocks. Out of all fifty or sixty rocks I saw in that man’s yard—hell, more like seventy now that I think about it—they say your Johnny didn’t throw a single stone. Hard to believe, but there you go.”

Rudell wondered why those other boys would lie for Johnny. What would be the point of standing around and watching your friends chuck rocks and not pick up a single one yourself?

“What’s going to happen to them other boys?” Rudell said.

“They’ll all plead guilty in juvie court and get community service. Nothing bad.” Timmons rose and headed for the front door. “We’re charging Johnny with curfew. Means he’s got a file now. He gets picked up again, for vandalism, curfew, underage drinking—shit, smoking a cigarette in public before he’s eighteen—and we’ll remember this.”

The deputy shut the door behind himself and the cruiser pulled out of their drive. Johnny wiped away his tears and turned his head away from his father. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Rudell felt a rage build up inside him, a rage at his son and his wife for making him a liar. His own father would be disgusted with him if he could see him now.

Eleanor pushed one hand against Johnny’s back. “You go on to bed,” she said. “We’ll all talk about this in the morning.”

“He’s lying,” Rudell said as soon as Johnny was out of the room. “We both know that.”

Eleanor said nothing at first. “Well, what matters is, Johnny isn’t getting into any trouble.”

“Maybe not with the law,” Rudell said. “But he’s in trouble.”

He had been on the road so long that when he shut his eyes all he saw were double lines of brake lights and headlights against the back of his eyelids. He was tired and he was hungry, but most of all he was a liar.

“It’ll be better coming from you,” Eleanor said. “You’re his father. Community service, anything the law might do to him wouldn’t make no difference.”

Rudell’s parents would have punished him hard enough that he never dreamt of vandalizing again, but this was a different age. Folk were soft now. Making the boy clean litter off the side of the highway, making him sweat and feel shame, that would do him more good than taking away his Nintendo 64 would. Shame and sweat, that was the answer.

“First thing in the morning,” Rudell said. “I’m taking him over to Power Line Drive, and I’m going to make him apologize personally. Then he’s going to pick up every single one of those rocks, and I’m going to watch him mow that man’s yard.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Eleanor said.

“Well I do,” Rudell said. “And I’m his father.”

—Joshua Cross

#132: Various Artists, "Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Sound Track" (1977)

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Two years ago, my family was tasked with beginning to clean out my grandparents’ house. It had been left empty in the years following my grandfather’s death, only to be visited when my grandmother needed something. Following her death, it was even more abandoned.

As a result, it had suffered the damage that a house does when left unattended. This included the back porch becoming unusable because of the rotting wood planks, the air, thick inside (ventilation isn’t a concern in an uninhabited house), and the dishes, once clean, now covered in a layer of dust. One of the realities of life, the uncertainty of it, had set in once we were surrounded by the physical remains of someone else’s. While there had been several minor repairs in times of emergency, there was one major issue with lasting effects: a flood in the finished basement which had left most of the belongings to be consumed by mold.

It was time to determine what was salvageable and what wasn’t. The unsalvageable would be tossed into the back of a U-Haul truck and later discarded at the local dump by my brother and me. I had to put on a white filter mask as my mother, brother, and I descended into the basement that had once been the hide-and-go-seek haven of my childhood. Now, the space was bleak and tainted with disintegrating cardboard boxes full of the things which used to define my grandparents’ lives.

One of the first sets of boxes I opened contained what I had hoped to find: my grandfather’s record collection. I marveled for a minute, checking how many boxes there were full of different records, the corners worn and the covers faded. I dragged one of the boxes into the main storage area, which had always functioned as more of a multipurpose room. It was longer than it was wide, with a workbench, two extra fridges, and boxes piled. For as long as I could remember it had always been cluttered; now it just felt like a mess. The warmth that had once inhabited the space survived only by the objects waiting to be useful once again, never sure if they would be. One of these objects was a record player, connected to a receiver with a built in radio, hooked up to small speakers that lined some of the ceiling. My grandfather’s handiwork for sure. The corners of the weak box began collapsing inward as I dragged it, but it was too heavy for me to lift, and honestly, the records would’ve probably fallen through the bottom if I had tried.

I wasn’t sure if any of the electronics still worked, but I turned on the receiver and, sure enough, static came flooding through the speakers. Quickly, I turned down the volume and tuned the radio’s dial, trying to see if I could get signal. I managed to catch the faint sound of some local station.

I flipped through a few of the records, grabbing the first one I recognized, the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown, and carefully took out one of the two records stuffed into the jacket. I put it on the platter, uncertain that the turntable’s motor would work. It did, and as the record spun, I carefully placed the needle. Barely any sound came out, just the faint recognizable melody of the Bee Gees that I could hear if I put my ear right near where the needle was. My mother and I fiddled around at the back of the player, eventually fixing a loose wire which suddenly amplified Barry Gibb’s more than distinctive voice. The basement was flooded with his high falsetto confidently singing, “And now it's all right, it's okay…,” a weird sentiment and life given to this otherwise decrepit, musty space. I realized quickly that that song wasn’t on the album Spirits Having Flown, and checked the label on the record. It was album one of Saturday Night Fever: The Original Movie Sound Track. Album two was the accompanying record stuffed into one side of the jacket, both uncomfortably tight.

When I thought of writing about this album, I immediately thought about that day. Throughout my life I have known who the Bee Gees are and I could name a decent amount of their songs, but I wouldn’t say or would have ever said they’re what I listen to on a regular basis. But this record has been in my possession for two years now, and I still don’t know why I’ve kept it. It’s left me sitting here contemplating how it might be some weird need to be close to someone who doesn’t exist anymore. Did I take music from his collection in some attempt to get closer to him when there’s no other way anymore? Music is such a big part of my life and maybe I could figure out something about his from the music he had? Have I imposed some greater meaning on these albums that I took from his collection? Who knows. But I can’t help but think that to him they were just albums, and to me they have now become more than that. They were his albums, and some I didn’t expect.

I never really took him for a disco fan, but there he was, owner of Bee Gees records and the soundtrack to a movie I had only ever watched as part of an assignment for Intro to Cinema Studies. A movie that, while having a great soundtrack, is problematic as hell! (Why couldn’t it have just been a nice movie about a guy dancing at a Brooklyn discothèque?)

Instead of listening to the record, which has been sitting with the rest of my vinyl for almost two years, I downloaded it to my phone on Apple Music and have listened to it whenever I have had the chance for the past few months.

Six of the seventeen songs on the soundtrack are performed by the Bee Gees, hence their photograph in the center of the cover featuring a discoing John Travolta superimposed in the foreground.

The most recognizable track from the band and the whole soundtrack is the first, “Stayin’ Alive.” An upbeat melody that leaves one with no choice but to dance, masking lyrics that I just can’t help but sympathize with. As a college student on the brink of graduation, the repetitive refrain

               Life goin' nowhere, somebody help me

almost feels like Barry, Robin, and Maurice stole my thoughts and travelled back nearly 20 years to write a song about the one and only thing we really have to do in life, which is stay alive. The coexistence of these qualities is what gives this song its timelessness. A prime example of this is the main line, a phrase jokingly repurposed constantly, most recently by a friend as we walked through the aisles of Michael’s, the craft store, and saw a calendar which had a section for “priorities”. My friend pointed at it before she began mimicking Barry Gibb: “ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive.” The most important priority of all.

The second track on the album is by, big surprise here, the Bee Gees. This song however, takes a more comforting and confident tone. The love song, “How Deep Is Your Love,” is less disco than the former track, but still just as Bee Gee-esque. The questioning of a lover, the intimacy that somehow exists within the generalized statements. It’s nothing short of lyrical genius.

               I believe in you.

Barry Gibb believes in me? Crazy how songs can convey such profound duality between a songwriter trying to communicate to that one special person while also connecting to greater human truths at the same time. Anyway, its chorus would, honestly, be a great Instagram caption accompanying a photo of that couple that got married in high school:

               Cause were living in a world of fools,
               Breaking us down,
               When they all should let us be.

               We belong to you and me.

The sentiment overall is sweet, as the chorus fades out to nothing. Fuck everyone else, how deep is your love?

There are two versions of “More Than a Woman” on this album. The Bee Gees version, which precedes the other, is melodically similar to the song it immediately follows on the soundtrack, “Night Fever.” I initially thought the song had repeated, since the chord progressions are either the same or indistinguishably different. The second version, which is the Tavares rendition, is faster paced. It has flute accents and a drum beat that makes it feel more energetic and celebratory than the sincerer Bee Gees version.

The second half of the album is mostly instrumental filler from the movie. It’s just as disco and upbeat, with a clear pacing that anyone could strut down the street to, imitating John Travolta circa 1977. If you want to feel cool while walking with headphones, take my word for it, these are the songs for you.

My favorite song on the album and the last I will comment on, is the fifth song: “If I Can’t Have You.” The drama, the commitment, the desperation—it’s all there as Yvonne Elliman insists:

If I can't have you
I don't want nobody baby

This ballad is beautifully underscored by a horn echoing the melody line throughout; like all the songs on the soundtrack, it’s a multilayered accompaniment with distinct vocal. Elliman offers such a human, lovesick take:

I gave it up
So easily
To you my love
To dreams that never will come true.

When I sat down to write, I had the album sitting next to me on my kitchen table, even though the only way I’ve listened to the whole thing is digitally. I pulled out the record, hoping it would impart on me some profound wisdom, and instead was met with a record titled Spirits Having Flown. Panic set in. I rushed into my living room, grabbed the electric orange plastic milk crate I keep all of my vinyl in, and fetched the leather brown case that some of the more damaged records from my grandfather’s collection live in, rushing in a way that startled my roommate. She asked for an explanation of what was happening, to which I had no response. I didn’t know how to explain to her the feeling in my chest that this record wasn’t here. Had I not had it all this time?

For the weeks and weeks that I had thought about writing this, I had been sure that the record was here, sitting in my living room, untouched for over two years, happily existing. But suddenly, maybe it wasn’t. I sorted out the twenty or so records that I’d pinched from those moldy boxes and searched through all of them. From the Beatles to Carly Simon, I hoped one of these jackets contained the record that I would have bet money that I had. After pulling record after record out of their dust sleeves, comparing the labels to the covers, I was losing hope; they were all in the right places. I got to a Bee Gees record jacket: Spirits Having Flown, and immediately remembered that day, in the basement, the two records shoved into one space, as they were now. I feel like a bad record owner for never having switched them, but now I have.

Every song on this album makes you want to dance. So listen to it and embrace the melancholy words. Feel the disco beat, layered with strings and synths, and dance. Have an existential crisis, love someone so much you don’t ever want anyone else, put on your “Boogie Shoes,” be as dramatic, as passionate, and as cheesy as these songs are. This record is indicative of how life really is: bittersweet. Just keep proving to yourself that you’re stayin’ alive.

—Grace Howie

  

#133: Bruce Springsteen, "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle" (1973)

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Sparks fly on E Street

Bruce Springsteen is not famous in 1973. Not famous in the way he will become, in the way he is now. Born to Run is two years away. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle drops barely nine months after his debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and is met with some critical success but does not do well commercially. Springsteen is skinny in 1973. Wiry and rangy with a scruffy beard and a closet full of tank tops. He looks like someone who knows how to replace a serpentine belt.

Julia Pellington is 16 in 1973. Most people call her Julie, not Julia, her father and brothers—all seven of them—call her Dame. She is skinny in 1973. There aren’t a lot of pictures of her as a child, as a teenager, but I must have seen one because I can imagine her at 16. A red T-shirt tucked into bell bottoms, dark hair feathered around a face that looks like mine and does not look like mine.

Christopher Carlton is 20 in 1973. Barely making grades in his accounting classes at St. Vincent’s. More interested in playing hockey, listening to records, reading Tolkien. He is skinny in 1973. There’s a picture of him at Christmas, cross-legged in front of a decorated tree, holding a copy of a Louis Armstrong biography and smiling at the camera. Conductor’s cap and thick framed glasses. A scraggly beard and a homemade Red Hot Dollars T-shirt. He looks like someone you’d see in a craft brewery in Brooklyn or Highland Park.

For me this boardwalk life is through

I’ve never been to Asbury Park. Our family vacation to the Jersey Shore always found us in Avalon or Stone Harbor. My parents rented the house so we’d be at the beach for the Fourth of July. I’ve never been to Asbury Park, but I have stood with my feet in the sand and my face toward the sky, watching fireworks explode twice—once in the sky, once on the waves.

Here she comes, here she comes

My parents, Julie and Chris, met for the second time when my mom came back to Columbus after spending a summer as a camp counselor in Michigan. They were at Max and Erma’s, a Columbus chain restaurant with telephones in each booth so you can call other tables. My mom with her boyfriend, Dominic. My dad with another salesman. Dominic left my mom at to talk to some girls at another table. My mom says my dad saw her alone at the table and that his face lit up. That he’d been asking about her at the National Road, wondering where she’d been all summer. My mom says that’s when she knew. They were engaged two months later.

Runnin’ home to some small Ohio town

Both my parents are from New Jersey. My mom is from Red Bank, down by the shore. An only girl with seven brothers. Making halter tops from bandanas and hand-me-downs. My dad’s family moved around before settling in Short Hills. My grandfather taking the train to his office in Manhattan. My dad making pocket money as an alter server for funerals at St. Rose of Lima, the same church where both his parents will one day be buried.

The Pellingtons moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1970. My parents met there in 1979.

My mom was working her way through Ohio State as a bartender at a place called the National Road. My dad was a salesman for a small chocolate company. His territory was Ohio and Michigan. Until they met again at Max and Erma’s in the fall of 1979, my mom only knew him as Chris who drank Heineken.

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night

Families create their own mythologies. The stories they tell each other to remember, to connect.

When I was really little, my mom used to tell me Greek myths while I helped her dry dishes. We lived in the house attached to the restaurant my parents ran. There was an industrial dishwasher in the restaurant kitchen, but none in our own. She told me stories of Titans, Cronus eating his children. Athena springing in full armor from Zeus’s head. Persephone in the underworld.

There were the stories on the stereo, from the records my dad played. Sandy. Spanish Johnny and Jane. Rosalita. My parents put headphones on my mom’s pregnant belly and played Springsteen records for me.

The story my sister and I wanted most of all to hear was the story of how my parents met. We thought Springsteen should write a song about them, even though they fell in love in Ohio.

Jump a little higher

A writer I follow on Twitter once shared the truest thing: there is nothing more joyful than Springsteen singing, “because a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.”

He’s singin’, singin’

I learned to tell stories from my mom. Her retellings of Greek myths, or Edgar Allan Poe, or whatever novel she was teaching her eighth graders. The story of how she and my dad met. The story of the day I was born. I learned to tell stories from the books my dad read me before bed: Rascal, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit. From the records he played. From Springsteen.

I think about the stories I’m going to tell my son. The story of how his grandparents met. The story of how his dad and I met. I am waiting for my belly to get big enough for headphones to fit, waiting to introduce him Sandy and Johnny and Jane and Rosie and Bruce.

—Meghan Phillips

#140: Blondie, "Parallel Lines" (1978)

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My mother, who, when she was young, had long, straight hair, which she often wore in two low ponytails on either side of her face, yet who, the entire time I’ve known her, has had hair cropped short and close, and is now entirely gray.

Rapunzel, Cinderella, and the miller’s daughter who weaves straw into gold, although even as I write this, I am questioning myself, for it may be that it was only the straw and the gold, and not the miller’s daughter’s hair at all. I am realizing that I do not remember her name, if she ever had one. It is ironic that in giving name to Rumpelstiltskin himself, she relinquished her own and will now forever be known only because of her relationship to the strange, magical man who stomped so hard the earth swallowed him up (or who tore himself in two, or who ran off in a fit of rage, or who flew out the window on a ladle, depending on which version you believe).

My friend Maddy, my best friend since infancy, whose hair was so light it was almost white, despite the deep brunette tresses of her older sister, and whose long locks were a source of envy for me when we were growing up.

Tib Muller, whose short yellow curls and petite stature made her the perfect literary counterpart for me, a role that I refused out of principle, for I was Betsy, despite her dark hair and lanky legs. Betsy the writer, Betsy the storyteller, Betsy who had a pencil box nailed to a branch of a tree, where she would sit and write her tales. (Me: “Dad, can I nail a box to the pine tree and keep stories in there?” Him: “Sure, but it’s just going to get ruined the first time it rains.”) (And it occurs to me now that there are likely many, particularly those not from Minnesota, not from the Midwest, who have never heard of this series that, along with the Little House books, taught me who I was.)

Brownies, when the cocoa powder is left out.

Rachel, or rather, Jennifer Aniston, who, in her Rachel days, became a paragon for women, but also for young girls, like myself, all of whom wanted to be Rachel, look like Rachel, talk like Rachel, though on returning to the series as an adult, I found the character to be unbearable.

Buffy Summers, my hero, killer of vampires and demons, whom I didn’t discover until 2013. (Me: “You guys will NEVER BELIEVE what happened on Buffy last night.” All of my friends: “You mean what happened on Buffy 15 years ago?”)

The titular comic strip character, who, in her 88-year existence has managed to maintain her hair color, has scarcely aged a day, though she’s grown in other ways, having gone from being a flapper to a caterer, and even relinquishing her comical antics, allowing her husband to take them on instead while she maintains order in the household. Did you know her maiden name was Boopadoop? Did you know Dagwood staged a hunger strike in order to marry her? Maybe that’s why she became his straight (wo)man: after a month and a half of watching her fiancé forego food, only to be disinherited by his parents anyway, maybe she felt the suffocating weight of responsibility, knowing that he gave up everything for her, knowing that she could never live up to the demands of such an act. (And maybe that also explains the sandwiches.)

The protagonist, and punchline, of many a joke.

Debbie Harry, who, contrary to common misconception, was not a solo act but rather the lead singer of a band, and, in fact, when we say “Blondie,” it is the entire band we are referencing, not Harry alone. Raise your hand if you knew that. (My hand is not raised.) When I was young, I thought Debbie Harry’s name truly was Blondie. It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a moniker, and it wasn’t until even later (last week) that I learned she suggested Blondie as a band name because it was what truck drivers shouted to her. (What I like to shout back when someone catcalls me: “We thought you was a toad!”)

In its 1982 review, Rolling Stone wrote of Blondie’s Parallel Lines, “Harry’s no longer the sexy zombie, and she won’t take any more abuse without showing contempt for her abusers.” Scroll up. Look at the album cover. Do you feel it? Her rage is palpable, it emanates from her as she stands among her bandmates. She’s done. (And maybe it’s the headlines that we wake up to every day, or maybe it’s the weariness I feel at every breaking story, or maybe it’s that I recently stood at the state capitol building, alone in a crowd of 20,000 people, and listened to high school and college students raise their voices together, but when I listen to the album, when I read this review, I think: yes.)

We’re in the car, driving through the endless Midwest plains, and there’s a storm coming, you can see the wall of rain approaching the windshield, lightning splitting the sky up ahead, and when it breaks, we will lower the windows, and raise our voices, and we will howl into the wind.

My cousin Alice, who, when she was three years old, had long curls, and when she took a bath, she tilted her head back so her hair floated in the shallow water, and she shook her head back and forth, back and forth, so the strands danced and swung around her face, and she called herself a mermaid.

My sisters, because it runs in the family, all three of us growing up with blonde hair trimmed short, so that people often asked my mother, upon seeing the photograph on her desk at work, “Are those your sons?”

I used to arch my back and stretch my neck, gazing at the clouds, the telephone wires, the airplanes passing overhead, and reach my hand behind me to feel the way my hair brushed the small of my back. When I straightened myself, it would be short again, but for a moment, it was long, and golden, and I was beautiful.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I whispered to myself. Let down your hair.

In my version, she lops her braid off, ties one end to the bedpost, throws the other end out the window, and lowers herself down.

I’m searching for the thread that connects the disparate elements of this piece, something beyond the obvious, beyond the hair color, to say something meaningful, something profound. But sometimes there’s no greater meaning to conjure. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of one thing, and another, and there’s no line in between, no overarching equation, no resolution.

Here there is a band. Here there is a woman. Here there is another woman. Here there is another, and another, and another, and another.

Maybe we’re leaving the Midwest now. Maybe the fields are giving way to forests, or maybe we’ve followed them all the way to the mountains, and beyond that, to the ocean, and the sky and water are the same color so you can’t tell them apart. And maybe now that we’re here, you’ve realized this is no destination at all, merely a bleak, gray landscape that stretches in front of you, behind you, all around, like ice or glass, achingly fragile.

Reach out. Scratch it with your fingernail. Do you feel it?

“Harry’s no longer the sexy zombie, and she won’t take any more abuse without showing contempt for her abusers.”

Picture this, a sky full of thunder.

It’s 11:59, and I want to stay alive.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann