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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela Morris

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

—Brad Efford

#236: Jackie Wilson, "Mr. Excitement!" (1992)

I want to tell you that before he broke through as a singer, Jackie Wilson aspired to be a boxer, but that is not true. The truth is that Wilson was a singer first, a church choir star next to his mother and then a quartet feature, years before he would be sent to juvie for the second time and learn to duck, swing, dive, weave, bob, hit, and, most often, be hit. The truth is that his Golden Gloves record had four times as many losses as it had wins. The truth is that his mother, aware of the danger inherent to building a living off a body, forced him to quit boxing shortly before Jackie became a father at seventeen. The truth is that, through connecting him to the infamous predator of black talent, Berry Gordy, Detroit’s amatuer boxing scene ultimately propelled Jackie Wilson to musical success. The truth is that though the word “exciting” could certainly describe Wilson’s octave-spanning tenor, the singer was dubbed Mr. Excitement because of his viscerally electric performances: hips gyrating to the point of contortion, feet slipping then snapping in easy precision, a body that would fallalmost collapsethen rise, spin, resurrect itself like the boxer rebounding from the ropes, all while crooning in near-perfect pitch.

*

I have a Spotify playlist entitled “werk flo,” which was initially created to be a motivational jamfest that could go from my cubicle to Rock Creek trail runs; thanks to limited space on my iPhone and a desire to avoid constant data overages, it’s become a catch-all collection of 300-some-odd songs I’d like to have on hand at any given moment. This is how two of Jackie Wilson’s hits, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher,” which is on Mr. Excitement, and “Because of You,” which is not, came to be spliced onto my half marathon training running soundtrack, sandwich-shuffled between the likes of Chance the Rapper and Third Eye Blind. His uptempo delivery of “once, I was downhearted; disappointment was my closest friend” is both endearing and infuriating as I crest an unexpected hill; the redemptive, thankful chorus of “Because of You” is a mockery at mile two but a near-hymn as I break eight miles for the first time under the shadow of the Washington Monument. Wilson’s music holds a specific sort of longing and desperation cradled in an even more specific sort of hope and cockiness and is, as a result, more human, more real, and infinitely more motivating than the majority of its playlist-mates. Sometime in the weeks before the half marathon, I promise myself to set these songs on my race day playlist.

*

Though not his biggest commercial success, “Higher & Higher” is arguably Wilson’s most famous songit also almost did not make it out of the studio. The story goes that Wilson initially sang the song as a longing dirge. His producer threatened to pull the track if he did not sing it as the celebratory record he envisioned it to be, and Wilson subsequently cut the lead vocals in a single take. This jubilance, almost ingrained in Jackie’s voice, is a trademark of the singer’s catalogue, wherein even what could be more prototypically read as a ballad is an infectious, energetic earworm taking the listener higher and higher, their toes tapping and shoulders shimmying almost as surely as the singer’s were during the recording. Wilson’s shows were exciting because he was a gifted performer, yes, but that particular excitement is contagious, it is all-consuming, it is undeniable and uncontrollable. Even without watching videos of Wilson’s performances, you can hear the rollicking of his muscles and the growth of his smile in his voice. Somewhere at his core, likely the same place that drove Wilson towards boxing, Jackie understood that joy is a bodily sacrifice.

*

I first took up running to get healthy in the traditional sense, after finding out my twenty-two-year-old body’s blood sugar was nearly pre-diabetic. I returned to it a year later to get healthy in the less traditional sense, a means of strengthening myself both mentally and physically in the wake of an eating disorder that developed after that first foray into the pursuit of health. Both turns to the sport were meant to reinforce the importance of a body by overcoming what I previously thought my body could or should do or be, the burning in my calves a metaphoric sort of cleansing. To motivate myself to stay committed, I register for a half marathon on the second day of the new year. While training, I run on injuries, in snowstorms, without socks, in gasping, heaving breaths over state lines between the commonwealth where I was raised and the city I have adopted. I give my body in an effort to find something like health, like happiness; most of the time, I think it works.

*

Because of his music’s occasional presence, I think about Jackie Wilson’s body while trying to accomplish the contradictory task of both ignoring and attuning myself to my own during runs. I think about the impulse of dancing and the joy of surrender, sure, but mostly I think about Wilson’s death. Jackie had a massive heart attack and collapsed during a performance on a Dick Clark revue. The audience saw the fall as another bombastic stunt, a descent meant to heighten the inevitable rise, and therefore wrote the emergency off as part of the act; the minutes without oxygen before Clark stepped in left Wilson in a semi-comatose state for the remainder of his life. Mr. Excitement passed bedridden and nearly vegetative nine years later, a victim of the very same limitless body that brought him prominence.

*

I run my half marathon through a swampland in my hometown that is preventatively burned on an annual schedule, shuffling through “werk flo” without any proper ordering. I arrive late and forget to stretch. I drink too little water. I get injured at mile six and keep going, my quad threatening to sheer itself away from the rest of my leg at any moment. Out of over two and a half hours of listening and running, Jackie Wilson’s songs do not surface once.

During the run, I think about the swamp and its fires, the way the peat is burned to protect the trees. I think about how once, when the fires burned out of control, the smoke that billowed over my childhood yard smelled faintly of liturgical incense. I think about religious offerings, about Abraham’s willingness to offer his own flesh and blood, about how the glory of that moment came from the realization of his not having to make that sacrifice and the blessings that were still bestowed as a result. My mind turns to Jackie and his losing boxing career, Jackie and the hip swing Elvis stole from him, Jackie and his body so energetic, so frantic, so consumed by the ecstasy of itself and its power. I think of how someone once described Wilson as the musician who took rhythm and blues and turned it into soul, how he was the man who gave a corporeal being to something as intangible and mythic as “soul," someone who understood that a body is not Abraham nor Isaac nor the ram in the thorns, but the knife, the altar, the long-carried torch upon which all may be offered and all may be done.

—Moira McAvoy

#237: The Who, "Sings My Generation" (1965)

Phil sat murmuring in the corner twirling his headphone wire. His left arm slumped into the shadow of an overhead projector cart, which his fingers danced across like braille. Gangly, perpetually rumpled, he was a head taller than most teachers, and spent our music appreciation period leaning on the wall at such jarring angles that it looked like he was trying to melt. Every few minutes his crow-black bangs would tumble down his brow, so he’d flip them back with a reflexive jerk of his neck. Staring into the dim eyes of an electrical outlet, he bobbed his head to a rhythm only he could hear, muttering lyrics in a low, atonal incantation that was part whisper, part moan. I’d come over to tell him that he’d missed the bell. He was oblivious that a dozen others had already slipped their backpacks on and slunk away, dreading equations, the storming of Normandy, or the knots their friends left in lab aprons and sometimes, as a joke, pulled tighter with their teeth. Plays by sense of smell, he repeated, zipping up his JanSport. How the hell do you play by sense of smell, he kept asking the hallway’s bank of dented lockers as I jogged to keep up. It was his first time hearing Tommy. This was my introduction to the Who.

*

On the last day of seventh grade, Phil lent me Who’s Greatest Hits on compact disc for the entire summer. I held the jewel case in my hands like a reliquary containing bone shards from a saint. At the time, I owned one CD (R.E.M.’s Murmur, if you must know), so the idea of anyone allowing me to borrow a disc for months on end left me inarticulate with gratitude. I got a Discman for my birthday just so I could play it. Mornings at my father’s house, I’d lie in the pale light streaming through the basement’s sliding door while he slept upstairs, keeping time against musty couch cushions that billowed dust each time I patted my hand. I didn’t comprehend it then, but Phil had discovered albums, so he had no use for a partial and poorly-made MCA compilation. I still wonder: Why was it so wildly achronological? For that matter, if you had to select a baker’s dozen Who songs to represent their oeuvre to the uninitiated, why would you include that one-chord sex joke “Squeeze Box”? Intentional or not, Who’s Greatest Hits made the underwhelming argument that here was a band that sounded like the Kinks for a while, then got heavier. Luckily for me, I was oblivious to rhetoric. I listened to “Magic Bus” on repeat because it was a cartoon and I understood cartoons. Dust motes swirled with Moon’s woodblock. I tried to hum the outro’s primal wail.

*

Each time it happens I hate the Who a little more. Currently, it’s “Eminence Front” shilling GMC trucks. I try to imagine the scene: a balding, mid-level ad executive in a shimmering board room, wearing a suit worth more than my station wagon, his construction site storyboards propped on an easel. And then we drop a bunch of bricks into the truck bed. And then the truck crests a mound of gravel. Pete Townshend likes to joke that “Eminent Front” was what it felt like to do cocaine. Monotonous and brooding, it’s the only passable song on 1982’s It’s Hard, an album I wish I could unmake. What did Kurt Cobain write in his journals? I hope I die before I become Pete Townshend. But now I’ve got ahead of myself. If you wait long enough in America, every dream devolves into a jingle. This piece is supposed to be about beginnings.

*

Before I gave up on symbolism, I bought My Generation, the Who’s debut, at the Virgin Megastore in Piccadilly Circus and listened to it on a double-decker bus during a Tube strike. For years, it was the only album in their catalog I didn’t own, and though I had all of its songs in other formats, guilt finally compelled me to get it. “The Kids Are Alright” and “My Generation” are its definitive tunes, and represent the two warring impulses at the band’s core: harmony and growl, composure and noise, Apollonian and Dionysian. “The Kids Are Alright” captures pop music at its best, with its jangly chords, tight arrangement, and understated lyrics masking their complexity. After all, what kind of jilted teenage lover leaves a dance, resigned that class consciousness and another suitor have bested him, only to wistfully opine, “better leave her behind, the kids are alright”? The song’s emotional sophistication, worldliness, and innuendo foreshadow the coming operatic masterpieces A Quick One, Tommy, and Quadrophenia. Bristling with bravado, “My Generation” snipes at the hypocritical social order and allows the unrivaled talent of Entwistle and Moon to overshadow Daltrey’s stuttered delivery and Townshend’s twangy power chords. Its cacophonic finish lays the foundation for the band’s greatest work, Who’s Next, an album for which, right now, as I type this, here on planet Earth, some soul slurping their third drink at the bar is making the rapturous claim that nothing else comes close. And who can blame them? It’s hard to conjure another record with such swooning melodies and chiaroscuro dynamics where the band grinds their guts out, only to have their singer triumph. The curious, if less memorable, tunes on My Generation, such as “La-La-La-Lies” and “A Legal Matter,” reveal the band’s cheeky humor and self-depreciation that would later result in The Who Sell Out. “The Ox” remains a titillating one-off—part surf song, part blues jam—that suggests what could have been, had Entwistle and Moon conspired to contain Townshend’s ego and let their superior musicianship shine. Time hasn’t done any favors for the album’s three R&B covers, particularly James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please,” which strikes my adult ears as a prelude to sexual assault. Its refrain doesn’t plead, it demands, just like the drunk I saw stagger into a subway car the week after the Tube strike ended, who put up his fists and slurred who wants some of this?

*

It was mild for October. Walking behind the dorms, I saw dozens of American flags framed in windows with overlapping strips of scotch tape. Reinforced diagonally at the corners, some doubly thick over riveted seams, they faced the train tracks behind Keister and Funkhouser, where patches of rust shimmered like koi in the sunset. I wondered what it would look like to some bleary-eyed conductor hurtling past, all those taped-up flags blurring to smeared specks in parking lot glare, like a painter’s rag daubed with smudges. When I arrived, my friends were already sipping drinks and talking anxiously about “The Concert for New York City.” It would broadcast that night on VH1, though I was clueless, having spent another week trying to escape the fog of national tragedy buried in the library. In those pre-social media days, people forgave each other for being oblivious, so I was excited rather than embarrassed to hear the all-star line-up Paul McCartney had assembled to raise funds for first responders. But as the night’s beer and grief wore on, I sank further into my seat, listless. How many ways can celebrities wince into the camera’s eye, murmuring from a teleprompter, as if collective pain at last was theirs to bare alone, as if scripted sympathies could bridge us over fear? Then the Who roared out. Vociferous and raw, tour-tight and lean, Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle were in rare form, backed only by Zak Starkey on drums and Jon Carin on keyboards. At the time I had seen the band in concert twice, but they played with such defiant urgency I could hardly believe it. Here they were, our prodigal older brothers, returning to destroy our nemesis. Some firefighters wept down their collars and waved their helmets, half-forgetting why they were there. That effervescent snarl from 1965 was back, if only for an hour, to remind us that the soundtrack to survival is a scream. It was the last time I believed rock ‘n’ roll might save us after all. I cheered the shock and awe. The Afghanistan invasion was on day thirteen.

*

The dumpster stank of oily dough and spoiled tomato sauce. I stood beside it, waiting for my ride, as line cooks fizzled out to smoke and bullshit. One guy liked to tell the story about how he leapt from a Honda in third gear after arguing with his girlfriend, unopened beers in his front jeans pockets, and neither bottle broke. They nicknamed me System because at fourteen I was the best dishwasher they’d ever had. Pre-soaking pots in one sink, chiseling plates in the other, I ensured no one, not even management, touched the pristine stacks on my four shelves. By the second hour of each shift, suds would soak through my apron to my shirt, and by closing, my $20 Payless shoes—bought to be destroyed—would squish when I fetched the mop. I could eat for free as an employee, but after a few weeks I could no longer stomach the grease, so on my breaks I’d run to the liquor store next door for pretzel rods and ginger ale. I’d stash what I couldn’t finish on the top dish rack, next to a flour-flecked Radio Shack boombox that was so tinny it sounded as if it had barely survived submersion in water. My favorite station played “Baba O’Riley” religiously every night, and about once a month they would spin “Bargain” or “The Seeker.” I forked over the bulk of each paycheck to my parents, but by fall, I had enough cash to buy the Who’s four-disc box set Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. It was a career-spanning retrospective and included a massive T-shirt that billowed down to my knees. On the last warm dusk of the year, I slept over at my grandmother’s house and stayed up past midnight creasing the glossy booklet again, trying to decipher all the mysteries beyond me: mods, pirate radio, Shepherd’s Bush. With my window cracked, over the crickets’ susurrus, I heard for the first time a freight train creep through the center of town. When I put my headphones on, the train sounded like a seal wrapped in chains being drug across a frozen pond. Reader, even the bones from that world are gone.

—Adam Tavel

#238: Howlin' Wolf, "Howlin' Wolf" (1962)

When Allen Ginsberg’s polarizing poem “Howl” debuted in 1956, it was already part of a controversy—not just from the obscenity trials that would shortly ensnare it, but in the very manner of its publication: unlike most books of the time, Howl and Other Poems was printed in paperback. Prior to the “paperback revolution,” typically credited to Sir Allen Lane, most books were published with an expensive hardcover binding, and they were not widely distributed as they are today. Penguin’s line of inexpensive paperback “Pocket Books” had begun to change that, but change came slowly, as it so often does.

By choosing to print Howl cheaply, Ginsberg (and his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) asserted that poetry was not merely for the educated and well off. The wild, degraded, obscene subject of Ginsberg’s poem was also its intended audience. Picture an endless feedback loop: a generation howls into the void, and the void howls back. Unfettered expressions of pain always invite controversy.

Of course, wildlife conservationists already know that.

The grey wolf, author of the original howl, has been under the cruel thumb of the law for generations. Archetypal adversaries of all that is good and innocent, North American wolves have been brutalized by one initiative after another, first falling prey to the bite of musket balls, then to the tightening noose of congress. S.164, known to some as the “War on Wolves” act, threatens to endanger the animal further.

Section 1(a)(2) of the Senate bill states that the bill will reissue “the final rule entitled Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Removal of the Gray Wolf in Wyoming from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Removal of the Wyoming Wolf Population’s Status as an Experimental Population.” In other words, the bill would remove or lower the threshold for the endangered species designation, allowing wolves to be taken off the list of protected animals.

More chilling yet is Section 1(a)(2)(b), which asserts that the reissuance of the final rules “shall not be subject to judicial review”. The bill, which has two Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, will be difficult to amend if passed.

Why, in the midst of such unrest at home and abroad, would policymakers spend time worrying about wolves? Bees kill more people each year, and “thinning” a pack of wolves actually increases the likelihood that the remaining wolves will prey on livestock, since a weakened herd is less able to pursue wild prey. What makes the grey wolf such an attractive target?

According to Wes Siler of Outside Magazine, wolf protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) “runs counter to the interests of industrial agricultural businesses and the oil and gas industry.” Because wolves conduct their business over broad swathes of land, the protection of wolves involves the protection of land—more of it than some people would like. Although wolves bring tourism money to the states they occupy, the land they roam cannot be processed for profit.

West Wing fans may recall press secretary C.J. Craig’s encounter with a conservationist group looking to gain funding for a “wolves-only highway” that would protect the land wolves need to travel through in order to prosper (for more information on wolf highways, check out “Lone Wolf,” Joe Donelly’s beautiful piece in Orion Magazine). Although C.J. laughs at the proposed price of such an endeavor, the cost of not acting to support wolves, and other endangered species, is far greater.

The presence of wolves in an ecosystem leads to what’s known as a “trophic cascade,” where predators restore limits to the populations of animals below them on the food chain, preventing overgrazing and creating a more resilient ecosystem, better able to withstand invasive species and other setbacks. That’s the scientific argument, anyway. The poetic argument is a little different, but no less true.

Ginsberg’s famous lament, “I saw the great minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” can just as easily describe the ravaged wildlife populations that, once chased from their habitats by urban encroachment and environmental degradation, must meet their deaths in the screaming grills of Peterbilts, or else from the poisoned crumbs of road salt and antifreeze. Driven mad by siren song and oil spill, the burnished flame of endless city light, the wildlife that captivated the imagination of generations of Americans will vanish into the gutter overnight.

Once, driving home in the first wet flurry of a Nor’easter, my mother and I spotted a deer passing through a gap in the woods. Robert Frost could not have been better pleased; the creature paused in perfect view through a frame of half-starved beeches and firs before threading into the thicket. In a moment, she was gone. But the scene was not over. Mom and I had not yet swallowed our first enchanted gasps before a coyote eased into the clearing. Snow knit itself into fine shapes just past his nose, as though hunger traveled ahead of him, silent as a ghost. Then he too was gone.

I do not have any stories about wolves, because I have never seen one; there are no wolf-only highways in the roads of my childhood, no place for such wildness to walk. I can only imagine what specters would have danced before a wolf, but they would not have been silent. In “A Man Among Wolves,” National Geographic photographer Ronan Donovan describes startling three black wolves after dark. He writes, “As I’m hiking out, the wolves are all howling to each other because it’s a social bonding thing. When they get scared or nervous, they come together and howl and it makes them feel better.”

Wolves howl. Poets howl.

Trans people howl as their lives are stolen; black people howl as their freedoms vanish; women howl as men look the other way; men howl against the bondage that constrains their hearts; Latino/a people howl and are not understood; children howl and are not heard. But we howl anyway.

We do it because it makes us feel better.

That is the real reason wolves will never be free. There is something undeniably powerful, something indescribably wild in a howl. No government could stand in opposition if one took hold of a nation. A howl says you are not alone. It says we will be free someday.

All it takes is a few deep breaths. Are you ready?

—Eve Strillacci


 

References:

Donelly, Joe. “Lone Wolf.” Orion Magazine, 29 August 2013.         <https://orionmagazine.org/article/lone-wolf/>.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Poetry Foundation. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-    poets/poems/detail/49303>.

“Penguin Books at 80: A ‘paperback revolution’ that helped keep Britain’s radical conscience in        order.” The Independent, 10  October 2015. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/penguin-books-at-80-a-paperback-revolution-that-    helped-keep-britain-s-radical-conscience-in-order-a6689321.html>.

Rappaport, Nora. “A Man Among Wolves: Photographing Yellowstone’s Iconic Predators.” National Geographic, 4 Jan. 2017.     <http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/04/man-among-wolves-photographing-    yellowstones-iconic-predators/>.

Siler, Wes. “Trump’s Presidency Means the End of the American West.” Outside Magazine, 19 Jan. 2017. <https://www.outsideonline.com/2151411/trumps-presidency-means-end-    wolves-american-west>.

S.164, 115th Congress, 2017-2018. <https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/164>.

#239: Madonna, "Like a Prayer" (1989)

Madonna released Like a Prayer right around the time my Aunt C took up with a black jazz saxophonist. Dating a black man had made her an outlaw in her father’s eyes, but it was her conversion to Catholicism that almost really did him in. Our lineage of Sweeneys hailed from Protestant Northern Ireland—not that anyone in my family except my grandfather had ever cared much about maintaining colonial British tradition.

My parents weren’t even religious—they were hippie pot smokers perennially on the brink of divorce—yet it was my own father who told me that Madonna worshiped the devil, and that my devotion to the singer was something called idolatry. The devil? Idolatry? It was 1989 and I was 8 years old. This was way out of my league.

I loved Madonna, purely and unapologetically. I loved the way she looked and sounded. My father had been right, though. I didn’t just love her, I wanted to be her: blonde or brunette, lace or crucifix. But after glimpsing Madonna’s Like a Prayer video for himself, my father banned MTV from our household. He’d turned to my mother and decreed, “She’s not watching that shit.”

But it was summer and school was out and, while my father was at work, I was free. Outside, the Carolina sun rendered asphalt to goo and I sprawled across our carpet, wide-eyed and watching Madonna dance beside burning crosses and find redemption from a black Jesus.

Then one afternoon my father’s words reverberated through me.

The devil.

Idolatry.

From my clandestine MTV viewing, I started to feel guilty. What if Madonna does worship the devil? I thought. What if God punishes me by killing my father?

Then I was on my knees, sobbing, praying. Please don’t kill my father, I begged. But please don’t kill Madonna, either!

We’d never been religious, and that was precisely why I suddenly wanted to be. And Aunt C’s Catholicism seemed so Bohemian—there were candles and chanting and incense and men donning robes. She could even shack up with black saxophonists! In the South! I wanted to drink the blood, to eat the flesh of the holy father too. The fact that I hadn’t started to feel like a significant absence.

My entire youth is a blur of being passed between aunts when my parents needed “to work on things” and during my father’s prolonged hospital stays for his severe Crohn’s disease. I was too young to grasp how sickness worked, but I lived under the steady fear that my father would be taken from me early—I just didn’t want my love for Madonna to be the reason for his heavenly summons by an almighty god I was suddenly so aware of.

I began praying constantly, pleading for salvation for Madonna and me. But nothing was like praying at Aunt C’s, the only place I felt safe, shrouded in the mosquito netting of her worship and the soothing sounds of Enya’s Watermark.

Madonna told The New York Times in 1989 that Like a Prayer “is the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life. From around 6 to 12 years old, I had the same feelings. I really wanted to be a nun.”

For years I prayed, right until my 10th birthday when my mother filed for divorce and told me that no, Madonna didn’t worship the devil, and that she never had. She reinstated MTV in our household and I was relieved, but angry. I’d been lied to and I didn’t know why.

Something in the “Like a Prayer” video had triggered my father. The video is ripe with religious symbolism—most of which I couldn’t understand because I’d never been to church—but it also deals with race. Madonna originally wanted the video to feature a mixed-race couple under attack by the Ku Klux Klan; she ended up using a storyline about the assault of a white woman and a black man who is subsequently, and wrongfully, imprisoned.

In The Billboard Book of Number One Hits author Fred Bronson quotes Madonna saying: “This story of a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the South, with this forbidden interracial love affair. And the guy she’s in love with sings in a choir. So she’s obsessed with him and goes to the church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry.”

I wouldn’t have called my father racist back then, yet I recognized that whatever messages he’d received from “Like a Prayer” he had determined to be harmful for me. I also knew that the world was changing for women, and Madonna was accelerating that change while constantly testing the boundaries of tradition and acceptability, too. The Vatican condemned the video. Conservative Christian groups called for her downfall. Pepsi yanked the song from a commercial.

My father was himself no saint, but it would take many more years for me to understand why Madonna’s boldness unnerved him. Society lets men be provocative and wild, but calls the same behavior controversial when it comes from Madonna or Aunt C. First we’ll be defying our fathers; next we’ll be dating black men!

As a kid, I knew Madonna was important, but I didn’t understand quite how. I didn’t know that my father wanted me meek and conventional, either. But Madonna scared men and these religious groups because her defiance—and her popularity—threatened their power. Sadly, a big part of being a woman is shirking what men—white men, in particular—have prescribed for us and what they’re always attempting to preserve.

The last time I prayed, my father really was dying. By then, he’d softened his stance on the world. I take credit for that. We lived together during my teenage years and managed to bridge a gulf most fathers and daughters never can. I wasn’t meek or conventional then, and I never would be. I’d gotten off my knees long ago. And I’ve never looked back.

—Sarah Sweeney

#240: Steely Dan, "Can't Buy a Thrill" (1972)

When Chuck Berry died a couple weeks ago, we lost a giant of rock ‘n’ roll, a man whose existence had arguably more impact on this list of 500 albums than anyone, living or dead. This is not really an argument so much as a basic tenet of rock music writing, one that’s been affirmed in the chorus of praise since his death. “Chuck Berry was to rock music what Louis Armstrong was to jazz—a foundational figure; if not quite singular, then as close as it gets.” That’s David Remnick, writing in The New Yorker, but you could look to any of the white, male zombies of rock writing—Robert Christgau, Jon Parales—for more of the same. In a piece published last spring, Chuck Klosterman declared Berry the John Philip Sousa of rock ‘n’ roll. Three hundred years from now, Klosterman argued, it would be Berry’s name—not Elvis’s, not Dylan’s, not the Beatles—that historians would associate with the genre, the way Sousa looms singularly over American marching music. Whether there’s any merit to this opinion is not my concern (if that’s what you’re interested in, I would steer you toward the comments section of that article). I only bring it up as a sad point of contrast: around 2009, when Chuck Berry was still very much alive and well, I had barely any understanding of who he was.

My ignorance first surfaced in the office of my college newspaper, where, believe it or not, I wrote about music for the arts and entertainment section. It was late and I was struggling to describe a campus band on a deadline, when I found Chuck Berry’s name under the influences section of their Myspace page, of all places. Without bothering to listen to even a snippet of a YouTube clip, I described the band’s music as “Chuck-Berry-channeling-madness,” and hit submit. Sad, I know. What I thought I was gaining by affecting a familiarity with art I was not at all familiar with, is a good question. Rest assured that, if there’s any cosmic justice, I will spend my next life as a roadie for Hoobastank.

A few years later, I was waiting for some hash browns to fry up, when a roommate put on a copy of Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits. More specifically he put on “Johnny B. Goode,” the same recording that Carl Sagan preserved on the Golden Record aboard Voyager 1, currently the farthest human object from Earth, barreling into deep space at speeds of 17 kilometers. In the implausible scenario that aliens recover this record (and have ears and appendages and the patience to sit through a Senegalese drum circle, a Bach concerto, and a Pygmy initiation chant), they will hear a defining document of American rock ‘n’ roll, one that I didn’t know until I was 20. My first reaction was a shock of recognition. This was Chuck Berry? He sounded like the guy who did that Christmas song about Rudolph. I think I said something to that effect aloud. My roommate just stared at me, without blinking. My second thought was that yeah, that college band did sort of sound like this. Which they did of course; every rock ‘n’ roll band sounds at least a little like that.

Well, almost every rock ‘n’ roll band. While Keith Richards was studying every inflection of Chuck Berry’s guitar, Donald Fagan was lying awake in suburban New Jersey, scanning the dial for jazz, standards, and vocal groups. Mostly he was drawn to black piano players: Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and the giants of Harlem stride piano—guys like Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, and Willie “the Lion” Smith. In his memoir/tour diary Eminent Hipsters, Fagan credits his mother, a jazz singer, for introducing him to the Boswell Sisters, a New Orleans vocal trio whose subversive chord changes and emotionally ironic singing style (a style he describes as both “hot and cool”) made a deep impression on him. An early love of Harry Mancini, the composer of classic Hollywood schmaltz like “Days of Wine and Roses” and “The Pink Panther,” turned him onto jazz music. By his teens, he was accompanying his older cousin to jazz clubs in the city, where they saw Mingus and Coltrane. Among a sea of folk-rock hippies at Bard, he bonded with Walter Becker over their shared love of Miles Davis. The two started writing demos together with funky grooves, jazz chords, absurdist lyrics, and names like “Barrytown” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”.

After leaving Bard, Becker and Fagan abandoned their collegiate material in favor of commercial pop music. They spent some time peddling tunes to Tin Pan Alley. They co-wrote “I Mean to Shine,” a largely forgotten Barbara Streisand single. They played in the touring rhythm section of Jay and the Americans, an early boy-band forerunner, known for their nostalgia-laced throwbacks to the ‘50s. By 1972, just three years out of college, they’d had enough of that. They decamped to the West Coast, where, with the aid of producer Gary Katz, they returned to their experimental college demos. They rotated through a cast of hot-dog session players, searching for musicians that could navigate the complex arrangements. Unsatisfied with what they heard, they decided to tone down the jazz stuff in favor of radio-friendly rock tropes. Those recordings became Can’t Buy a Thrill; Becker, Fagan, and the expansive roster of studio musicians in the liner notes became Steely Dan.

Nowadays, Becker and Fagan disavow Can’t Buy a Thrill as a minor work, a stepping stone to the records that came later. Certainly, it’s the only album-length concession they made to rock music of the Chuck-Berry-channeling variety. They keep the jazzy interludes and the hokey changes to a minimum. The solos they do include (classics like Elliot Randall’s on “Reelin in the Years” and Jeff Baxter’s on “Change of the Guard) feature mostly guitars. Lyrically, I never know what Fagan is going on about, but at least on this record, he doesn’t ruin a great melody with a line about a girl turning 18. To call any Steely Dan record emotional or heartfelt is nuts, but compared to the later records, Can’t Buy a Thrill has some seriously touching moments: the chorus of “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”; that high, lonesome steel guitar on “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”; the minor key strut of “Only a Fool Would Say That”. Not that Can’t Buy a Thrill doesn’t sound like a Steely Dan record. A pianist and a bassist respectively, Fagan and Becker remain one of the most idiosyncratic songwriting duos in rock history. They never wrote a song that didn’t sound like them, even when it was sung by Barbara Streisand.

For what it’s worth, Can’t Buy a Thrill is my favorite Steely Dan album, the only one I enjoy listening to front to back. There’s a wistful quality to it, a soft Latin soul, that goes missing as they progress toward the funked-up elevator Muzak of Aja. With a few songs excepted (“My Old School,” “Barrytown,” Peg,” and maybe “Bad Sneakers”), I could do without their subsequent records entirely.

My personal tastes aside though, I love the wedge that their work, taken as a whole, sledgehammers into our generational understanding of taste. In his RS500 piece on Pretzel Logic, Steven Casimer Kowalski touches on this: “Imagine your parents, imagine your mother and father, imagine them existing in infinite universes and then find the most embarrassing pair of the bunch. Those two are huge Steely Dan fans.” I would add that what makes Steely Dan parent-fans more embarrassing than, say, Huey Lewis or Journey parent-fans, is their disdain for convention. The conventional narrative around baby-boomer rock begins with black blues guitarists and runs through Berry, Elvis and the Beatles/Stones. By reaching around Berry to steal from black jazz pianists, and by elevating Hollywood cheesemongers like Mancini to the counterculture, Steely Dan twist that narrative a little.

In my family, taste in music is very much a generational thing. My record collection, which grew from my parents’ and my grandmother’s records, reflects this. Going back one generation are the Rolling Stone-approved records my parents loved, the ones I grew up with: Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, E.L.O. Going back another, are the jazz and standards that my grandmother loved: Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, and Mancini movie soundtracks—the kind of thing that Rolling Stone wouldn’t touch. For most of my life, I’ve written my grandmother’s taste off as boring and middle-brow, the mid-20th century equivalent of liking Dave Matthews Band and the Goo Goo Dolls. Once again, I was assuming some level of familiarity with art I was not at all familiar with—worse, I was passing critical judgment on it. Lately, I’ve been going through my grandmother’s records, trying to remedy that. Along the way, I’ve fallen hard for Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans. I’ve learned that Stan Getz isn’t always terrible. But the music that’s floored me most is probably Mancini’s. Specifically “Moon River” (the Audrey Hepburn version, from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack.) I’d never heard it. It’s a stunning song, a musical landmark that, like Chuck Berry, went from cultural ubiquity to outside my orbit in the span of only two generations. At their best, this is what Steely Dan does well: they get disparate corners of our vast culture to co-inhabit a three-minute pop song.

At their worst, Steely Dan is an affront to everything that rock music stands for. The recordings are too smooth. The lyrics are too cerebral. The songs are too fussy, the melodies too overwrought, the solos too self-indulgent. They’re too something, I want to say, in a French accent, while making a cartoonishly effete gesture with my thumb and forefinger. The most articulate critic I’ve read on the subject is William Burroughs, who was introduced to Steely Dan’s music in a 1977 interview with the now-defunct New Times Magazine. Burroughs, who claims not to know that a dildo in his book Naked Lunch inspired the band’s name, is unimpressed with the snippet of “Black Friday” he hears. “These people are too sophisticated,” he says. “They’re doing too many things at once.” He goes on, comparing the band’s efforts to literary success. “To write a bestseller, you can’t have too much going on. You take The Godfather, the horse’s head. That’s great. But you can’t have a horse’s head on every page. These people tend to have too many horses’ heads.”

If we can put aside the irony of Burroughs criticizing anyone for artistic over-indulgence, I want to dwell for a moment on the connection he draws between music and writing. No doubt you’ve heard that exhausted line, credited to everyone from Nietzsche to Elvis Costello, comparing writing about music to dancing about architecture. I hate this line. While it’s true that writing packs only a sliver of the emotional wallop that music can dole out, the two art forms have had a lot to say to each other over the years, even before Dylan won a Nobel. I can’t listen to Astral Weeks and not hear Lester Bang’s words in my head; if not for Peter Guralnick’s writing, names like Rufus Thomas, Ernest Tubb, and Sleepy LaBeef wouldn’t mean a thing to me. I can still rattle off the names of the Pitchfork writers who wrote about Sigur Ros, Broken Social Scene, and Animal Collective when I was in college.

What draws us to write about music? What compels us to read what others have written? In an era when the entire history of recorded music is at our disposal, why read about music at all? I don’t have good answers to these questions. Certainly, there are times, especially while struggling with a piece of music writing, when these answers devolve into wishing I’d read less as a kid and picked up a guitar instead. Confronted with an unwieldy paragraph, or a thought that won’t arrange itself into a sentence, I roll my desk chair over to the corner of my room and start noodling around on a guitar. I don’t really know chords, or songs, but I keep the thing in open tuning, so it doesn’t really matter. I pick around until I find a succession of notes that sound interesting and then I play them over and over, until the writing impulse returns or my roommates ask me politely to stop. I have no active interest in getting better at guitar; there’s just something about the immediacy of producing sound that is addictively different from the hard-wrung pleasures of producing written thought. The two arts complement each other in a strange way I’m struggling to articulate. I’ll defer to the late, great Guy Davenport: “Music is as close as we will get to angelic discourse,” he wrote in his essay “On Reading”. “Literature comes next, with a greater measure than music can claim of the fully human.”

One weird paradox of writing is that the amount of work I put into a piece tends to correspond inversely with the amount of work required to read it. This particular piece went through about five drafts. In my experience, that’s a healthy number. The horse heads don’t tend to rear up, if they rear up at all, until around the third or fourth draft. I’m not sure this paradox holds true for recording music. For better or worse, though, this is the Steely Dan approach to making a record. A quick listen to those early college demos reveals how much their music benefited from revision. There isn’t a note on Can’t Buy a Thrill, their sloppiest record by a mile, that sounds unconsidered or out of place. Whether this is the kind of perfection that belongs on a rock record is a question for the ages. But it’s only in the pursuit of some unattainable ideal—whether it’s an insane degree of sonic fidelity, or the more perfect crystallization of human thought—that you get that rich sense of loss, that heavy measure of the fully human.

—Ryan Marr

#241: The Replacements, "Let It Be" (1984)

241 Let It Be.jpg

In Memoriam, D. D. F.

 

“Open wide, you little snot!”

Instead of hangin’ downtown looking for somethin’ to dü, John Bartels insisted on driving straight to the Cabooze to drink in the car. He’d barely had his 1972 Mercury Monterey in park when he spun around, snatched a bottle of Seagram’s Seven from the back seat, opened it on the way up front, and shoved it down his brother’s throat. “Knock it off,” Tim gurgled. “The last time I did a 750 shot, I bought a headache that stung like a rattlesnake bit me.” He had Gary pass up another bottle and playfully pushed it into John’s gut.

“Awww, you guys love each other so,” joked Otto. “Closer than you know,” winked John, leaning over to plant a kiss on Tim’s puss. He wasn’t raised in the city, but John knew the Minneapolis music scene like the back of his hand, and the Replacements were his favorite band. Tonight was gonna be the others’ first Mats show. “This better be good,” Gary announced. “I could be gettin’ stoned with Steve Weuhrle.”

“Mr. Whirly,” John grinned. “What’s that dope smokin’ moron up to?” “Same old shit,” said Gary. “Spent all winter out at Buck Hill, even after the baby. He needs a god damn job. If he don’t get his act together, Wanda’ll find herself out on the street for a living.” “Look, everybody!” Otto tittered. “Gary’s got a boner!” “You’re high!” Gary sneered. “He’s right,” teased Tim. “Lookit those lovelines growin’ on your jeans. You know you’re sweet on Wanda.”

“Fuck off, both of you! Especially you, Otto. You’re no better than Steve. Completely shiftless when idle. You coulda gone to college, but you sit in your parents’ basement jerkin’ off all day!” “Fuck school!” snarled Otto. “And fuck you, too!” “Simmer down, kids,” steadied John. “This conversation is imploding faster than the Replacements themselves on an off night. Forget all that shit and focus on why we’re here: for you neophytes to meet the Mats, the greatest rock group ever. This is their hayday, gentlemen, and if the new songs I’ve been hearing are any indication, this next album will prove it, once and for all.”

“Yeah, well, I hate music,” Gary asserted. “I’m just takin’ a ride to the wild side to stare at chicks in leather.” “Be that as it may, it’s Hootenanny time!” proclaimed John, tossing his empty bottle into the middle of the street. “What the hell? Why do you always have to be so damn careless?” his brother demanded. “Don’t ask why!” John smirked. “Let’s go, gents! Gimme noise!”

“Lead the way, Johnny,” enthused Otto, climbing out of the car. “Cool kids don’t follow!” Tim exclaimed as he started sprinting toward the corner. “Last one to the door’s a rotten egg!” Everybody took up his challenge, giggling like little boys the whole way but looking like contestants in one of those spin-around the bat races. Tim beat Otto by a nose, panting, “Yeah, you lose! You lose, sucker!”

By the time the band kicked off their set with “White and Lazy,” John in particular was shitfaced drunk and trying to cozy up to a woman stage right he claimed had some sort of thing with one of the guys. Gary, meanwhile, only needed to hear one song. “The Replacements stink!” he pronounced. “Fuckin’ phony rock and roll. I need more cigarettes,” and off he went to drink at the bar. “Don't break your neck when you fall down laughing!” Tim called after him.

As the band waited for the lights to be turned up on stage so they could see better, somebody kept screaming, “Shutup!” again and again. “What’s his problem?” Otto wondered aloud. Tim barely had time to reply before the second number got going. “He’s just shoutin’ out a request; John sez that’s part of the fun.” By the time the Mats had crashed through their third song, Otto was hollering for Motörhead while Westerberg faux-crooned, “I’ve had a hell of a night.”

Tim smiled. This was going to be a hell of a night. The band was in good spirits and firing on all cylinders. Otto had volunteered to make regular runs for beer that Gary would order for them whenever he saw Otto coming, and Tim was glad Otto decided to go on the first of these as the initial chords to a song Tim had never heard before inexplicably sent him into a full body shiver. “Look me in the eye, then tell me that I’m satisfied.” He was a fan of the Replacements for the raw energy and reckless abandon that came through even on their records, but this slower open-gut gusher hit him hard, so he was happy he could close his eyes and sink into himself. “I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied.”

Tim wasn’t sure when, but at some point the woman up front had decided to dance with John. Eventually, though, either the novelty had worn off or she was too tired to keep up with him, and Tim noticed she was trying to head back to the stage, but John had grabbed her by the arm and wouldn’t let go. Extremely agitated, she started yelling at him, and before Tim could get over there, a bouncer separated them and was in John’s face. Uncharacteristically, his brother continued being an asshole, firing back at the big man like he was the one who outweighed the other by well over 100 pounds. The guy was dragging John away by the shirt when Tim finally made it through the crowd.

Stuck in the middle between them, he begged, “Please, please! He’s my brother. We’ll leave. I’m sorry. Really. Please!” The guy released John with a shove, threatening, “Go! While you can!” Tim motioned for Otto to get Gary while he pushed John (who was twisting his head back to bark, “I’m a customer!” and, then, “I’m gonna kick your door down!”) towards the entrance. As he was escorting John out, the band appropriately enough finished “Take Me Down to the Hospital.” John managed to turn himself around and, staring straight at the bouncer, let out a resounding “Fuck you!” that echoed across the whole place.

Outside, John was ranting about the incident. “We don’t want to know,” Tim snapped. He was pissed they were missing whatever was left of the show, and even more pissed he was gonna have to drive home drunk, for John clearly couldn’t even get them to the freeway. Stumbling back to the car, John changed his tune, saying he was sorry and asking if they were mad at him. “What the hell do you think?” Tim growled. “Love you till Friday, man.” “It’s Saturday,” Gary observed. “Exactly!” Tim replied.

Behind the wheel, Tim summoned all his powers of concentration, but it was obviously pretty touch and go, since it seemed like only a few seconds before Otto blurted out, “Red light!” “Run it!” pleaded John. “I think I’m gonna hurl.” Tim tried not to turn his head to look. “Willpower, dammit! Do not throw up all over this car!” He vomited on cue as they crossed the river, and Tim had to pull over on the edge of the interstate. “Shit!” Tim complained as John continued puking beside his door. “I’m in trouble. What if a fuckin’ cop comes along?” “If one does, your brother is treatment bound,” Gary muttered. Outside, the retching kept going on and on, until Otto gasped, “Johnny’s gonna die!”

It was a couple more minutes before they heard John moan, “Can you stand me on my feet?” As Tim put the car back in gear, he thought to himself, “One more chance to get it all wrong.” Thankfully, in only a few miles 94 became straight as an arrow all the way to the Capitol, and then, around the bend, it was sweet 35E, an even straighter shot all the way home, with only the two gradual curves where it briefly joined and then broke off from 694. It was just a matter of staying awake now.

Back at the house, Tim could finally wash his hands of his brother. He slipped into his room, right across from where John was throwing up again, knowing their mom would wake up in a minute or two and go to him. She was a stay-at-home nurse (friends called her Mary Bottles because of all the meds she miraculously managed for her family), so she’d help him through. Lying down at last, Tim didn’t know whether he felt deflated or elated. It was summer, which no Minnesotan takes for granted, but he was bored all day long. “Drive yourself right up the wall,” he’d warned Otto when he inquired about getting a job where Tim worked. “Everything drags and drags.”

He missed seeing Stacy. How’d that catchy new Mats song go? “Meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime.” He sat up. “I Will Dare.” He picked up the phone. Too late to call her house, but he could try Taco John’s. She was probably there, closing the store. He tried to imagine how she’d sound, what she’d say. Eventually, he settled on, “Really, Tim? A drunk dial? Color me impressed!”

He told himself nobody would hear it ringing over the music, anyway. “Not like I could leave a message or anything. I mean, how do you say, ‘I’m lonely,’ to an answering machine?” He winced when the dial tone suddenly cut out and a voice said, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” He placed the phone back to rest in the receiver, and murmured to himself in the darkness, “Die within your reach.”

Just then, he could see from under the door that a light had flashed on in the hall, and his mother started speaking: “If you need help….” John began sobbing “Sorry, Ma,” over and over, and Tim was pretty sure he heard her whisper to him, “Let it be, son. Let it be.”

—Chris Foss

#242: Run-D.M.C., "Run-D.M.C." (1984)

Hard times spreading just like the flu
Watch out homeboy, don't let it catch you

 

The first rule of swag is that when you got it, you don’t have to front or look like you’re trying. The second thing is trickier and more telling—when you got it, it cuts across generational borderlands, somehow immune to time’s curse of Corniness, or worse, Corniness’s bougie cousin Quaintness, who lives in the suburbs of Nostalgia City but still tries to claim hood status.

This immunity to time’s dusty hex is where Run-D.M.C.’s allure lies, at least for me. The question of whether or not I “like” them has never really been much of a question at all. Instead, I’ve gone back and forth for years over whether or not what I feel for them is actual love or just low-key bewilderment. I can’t really listen to them for long stretches—after a while, I can feel all of my senses overly stimulated: blood pressure up, head spinning, and a not-so-strange urge to shout along.

But these guys are certifiable legends, which means one could argue that my opinion of them amounts to almost absolute zero, especially considering that I will never redefine the future of hip-hop. (You know it; I know it; everybody knows it.) It’s really more a question of ingenuity: since their self-titled debut album Run-D.M.C. dropped on the scene in 1984, no one else has ever come close to replicating their sound without appearing to be obvious imitators. Them boys are just too weird; they’re just too, well, them—and their ushering in of hip-hop to the pop scene, when rap was still relatively primordial and amorphous, was a feat that earned them tenured seats among hip-hop’s greatest: electric guitars, heavy heavy synth drums, and all.

Sure, I’ve got my stylistic preferences—rap with a tendency for complicated rhyme schemes and pun-driven lyricism. But Run-D.M.C.’s debut is of a different ilk, one that re-carved the genre into something wholly other than what it would later become, while still holding on to the seeds of something new. Their signature shout-talking style self-creates its own kind of flow, one that, in its early stages, was less about rhetorical pyrotechnics than it was about making some noise and staking territory as the baddest boys in town. Just listen to “Rock Box” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or better yet, watch its music video, and tell me that Joey Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell are not the flyest guys in the room, who’d chew up your wack style and spit it right back out if you ever crossed them.

I can’t tell you when exactly I realized that I’m more of a pessimist, neither can I say with any certainty when it was that it occurred to me that this pessimism isn’t in any way in conflict with my belief in hope, or my belief in the necessity of it. I sincerely tend to believe that if something can at all go wrong, it probably will, though I simultaneously acknowledge that Murphy’s Law is a poor governance for one’s life. But what else is there, these days? Run-D.M.C.—the boys—help me feel more at home with this sense of angst and ambivalence, that peripheral, lurking cloud that I’m beginning to realize is less tied to adolescence than one might think. Theirs is the joyfulness of unmitigated youth. Bad boys, yes, but winningly cheerful, too, in their own brand of playful jadedness. Every song is a protest and a party, regardless of the topic, even when they’re rapping about an everyday world that looks much more apocalyptic than quotidian.

Run-D.M.C., the album, helps me in that I can (and do) crank it up when I’m feeling self-conscious about my own sense of uncertainty in the world. What I love most about my generation, Millennials, is our incredibly dark sense of humor—our ability to joke about our own health, spending anxieties, economic prospects, and our very mortality, with, I think, genuine earnestness. But we are, of course, not the first to feel as we do, though our world looks quite different.

Hearing the shared anxieties of these Generation X teens, these wildly confident and confidently wild boys who wore leather from head to toe while spitting bars that at times sound indistinguishable from nursery rhymes, is just a gift, plain and simple, in the way that good art is. To not merely see and hear, but to be seen and be heard, is the thing that pulls us back to a work in the first place. Run-D.M.C. pulls me back, makes me feel included—like I can chill with them and talk smack, too, if I want. Just listen to “Wake Up,” “Hard Times,” and “It’s Like That”—these were boys who get it, that sometimes things just are what they are. But don’t mistake any of this for futility. There is still room for dreaming, always, though you do have to “wake up, get up” first, fist raised and lit like a beacon.

—Natasha Oladokun

#243: Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath" (1970)

When you live in Austin, you typically fall into one of two camps in the ugly, imposing face of South by Southwest. The first is comprised of those who spend all year looking forward to it, who plan ahead for the wristbands and map out what venues to hit up on what days and where to end up at night for Maximum Free Drink Benefit (MFDB). The second houses those who lock the doors, draw the blinds, and spend the week staying far, far away from downtown. My favorite thing to talk about, write about, and generally do is music, so you might think, “Eh, Brad, who’d you see at South-by? I bet it was extremely lit, ugh I’m so jealous, I’ll visit for sure next year let’s do it up.” This would be foolish of you to sayyou would, in fact, be a fool. I don’t like festivals, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like drunk teens, and sometimes, tbqh, I don’t even like live music all that much. Like, what are you even supposed to do with your arms at shows? I can’t deal with it. So I stay in. I lock the doors. I draw the blinds. I fully admit I’ve missed hourswhole daysof excellent music because of this, but SXSW is a little deceitful. Shows are free for the most part, so long as you have the right badge at the right time and even with it are willing to spend like three hours in line. Life’s too short is a cliche, but it’s also a truth so…life’s too short, y’all.

THAT BEING SAID, I did a South-by thing this past weekend and here’s what it was: Hanson on the roof of the flagship Whole Foods. I got the free tickets days in advance, left from home more than an hour early, and waited in line for fucking ages, missing the first three songs of the set before even making it in. Wells Fargo reps walked the line handing out sunscreen in lime green Wells Fargo spritzer bottles, asked Hanson trivia questions with Skip the Line passes in hand for the winners, and maintained the upbeat sunniness of freshly-graduated first-job-out-the-gates millennial youths. The young woman in front of us in line had to have been one of the biggest Hanson fans I’ve met, straining to make out the songs being played based solely on the kick drum’s rhythm and Taylor’s harmonies once the music started up and we were still inching toward the entrance step by step. She very emotionally whisper-sang “Where’s the Love,” hitting all the “round and round and round”s right on cue and soothing her own late-to-Hanson anxieties in a truly admirable way. It was all very Austin; I kept thinking, “Austin is very Austin rn.” We were all sweating and trudging and nostalgic, all for the “MMMbop” kids.

And here’s the thing: I like Hanson quite a bit, was excited to hear not just Middle of Nowhere bops but Shout It Out bops or even that one bop from Anthem, an otherwise bopless record. This song”Get the Girl Back”they played. They also played “MMMbop,” eliciting the quickest Sea of Phones rise that I’ve ever seen at a show, Snapchat somehow already open and raring to go across the waves. I’m not sure how much fun the Hanson bros still have playing “MMMbop,” and you might have forgotten that it’s nearly five minutes long, but, much like Hanson’s entire esprit de coeur, it was undeniably, infectiously joyful. Even when they played a new song that was, to be frank, capital-B Bad, I sang and chanted along at the chorus. I fist pumped. I swayed. Etc. News of the great Chuck Berry’s death had broken while we’d been waiting in line less than an hour earlier, and before launching into their last song, Isaac Hanson told us it was their dad’s Chuck Berry records that had made him want to pick up a guitar in the first place (natch). “This might be a mistake,” he said, “because we didn’t practice this. But who cares.” And they closed out the set with “Johnny B. Goode,” and here’s the thing: it did! It b. goode! Hanson knows instinctively, like down in their bones, how to harmonize on a dime like angels, and they know instinctively how to charm the pants off an audience, and, well, they’re some talented fools. It’s Chuck’s song, I know, and it’s a song that’s a little hard to mess up, but it also kind of brought the house down.

Something casual readers might not know is that the minimum word count for this project’s pieces is typically 750I’ve now dedicated just over that amount of real estate discussing Hanson in the Year of Our Lord 2k17, in an essay purportedly about Black Sabbath. If you’re a big fan of the Sab, or if you’re Tony Iommi (hi Tony!), you might be long gone by now. Sorry. But look: are they much different from Hanson? I first approached this particular piece from this particular angle because yes, yes they are, in fact because I figured I’d had the complete opposite experience at a Hanson show from what one must have had at a Sabbath show from their 1970-75 heyday. Sabbath’s eponymous debut album was recorded in a single day in October of 1969. The way Ozzy and Tony both tell it, they had the studio rented for two days, and the second would be for mixing, so they played everything live, did a couple takes, and were in the pub before the streetlights came on on day one. That record is now credited for inventing the entire genre of heavy metal almost single-handedly (with apologies/middle fingers to Zeppelin). It inspired decades of stoners, goths, and sludge metalheads to get stoning, gothing, and sludging, and it was also the first time I can remember finding an album with the same name as both the band that recorded it and a track on the album (“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath, from Black Sabbath, the holy trinity hat trick, rarer than it might seem).

That last one doesn’t really mean anything, I know, but you still get my point. Ozzy sang about witches and evil and damnation and ghosty ghoulies and a “big black shape with eyes of fire” and a “chill that numbs from head to toe / icy sun with frosty glow.” More than once, he took Lucifer’s point of view on things, and never to, I don’t know, correct the cultural narrative or whatever. Listening to Black Sabbath (or more specifically “Black Sabbath,” or less specifically Black Sabbath) now does not in any way that matters feel dated or like a watered-down starting point of what the genre became: it’s got metal down to its socks, a heaviness that holds water in a way other progenitors just don’t.

Do you remember twenty years ago (almost to the day!) when “MMMbop” first came out, what a juggernaut it was, how inescapable, how fully committed to delivering joy to the world? And now that “MMMbop” is in your head, aren’t you glad it will take days for you to get it out again? When they wrote the song, the Hanson brothers were 10, 13, and 15 years old, a year or so older when it hit the Billboard charts in the remastered, Dust Brothered version we all now know and love. It’s crazy in some ways, this realization, but in more ways than one it makes total sense: even the original recording, what the brothers have called a “ballad,” before the backbeat and electro flourishes, is insanely joyful in the way only white teens in the heartland of America whose parents have always supported them can be. It’s a song about how ephemeral life is, how soon we all will die, how the friends we think we love in fact might not mean bupkis to us when it matters mostin an MMMbop they’re not there, you know? It’s a subject which on paper sounds utterly crushing but from the mouths of Hanson hopeful, promising, optimistic. Because they know how to write the hell out of a pop song, and because they sound like baby squirrels on tape and who can frown at a baby squirrel?

Is Black Sabbath joyful? Is the genre they spawned? I’ve gone through phases with metal, from Kill ‘Em All to Carcass to Arsis to Emperor to ISIS to Sabbath, etc., but I’d never consider myself a metalhead. I get it, I like it, I’m on board, but, well, it can be a lot. And the experience of bashing yourself and everyone around you at a metal show can certainly be joyful, but that’s different: that’s physical. You’re sharing in a moment with others, releasing energy and aggression and sweat, a release that’s just as much a rush as any other communal, shared activity bringing joy into people’s lives. But what about the music on its own?

I asked some folks I know who have a bigger stake in metal than I do, and there was a word that was used in response to my joy question almost every single time: catharsis. “The real joy in metal is in its catharsis.” “What I love about metal is its indulgence….To scream on top of heavy drums...and waves of noise is to throw everything you possibly can into a song. I think that can be so cathartic.” And maybe that’s the kicker. Maybe the joy in metal isn’t in the metal but in the way the metal makes you feel, even alone, even isolated in your headphones. Maybe the great irony buried deep inside the genre is that the darkness, the heaviness, the crush of Lucifer or corpses or divorce (hi Arsis!), becomes something brand new in its delivery. Becomes energy and movement and overwhelming emotion. Becomes catharsis. Becomes joy.

I thought it would be fun when I went to see Hanson, in their floppy blonde mops and rosy cheeks and expensive boots, with their good-time feels and cheerful awkward banter and three-part harmonies sent from heaven, to write all about Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath (featuring “Black Sabbath”) by writing about its utter opposite. But, well. I don’t know how wide that gap between the two actually is anymore. One makes joyful sounds, and one makes sounds that make you feel joyful. Just because the joy looks different doesn’t make it different. We all have our demonschoosing how to air them sometimes seems like the only real choice we have.

—Brad Efford

#244: Eminem, "The Marshall Mathers LP" (2000)

I was seven when I first listened to Eminem. I sat in the middle of the back seats because that’s where my parents said I would be safest; on either side of me faced speakers underneath the window cranks, stuck to their spots in their tan leather heat. My brother’s body pounded onto the driver’s seat, his hand jerked the car into reverse, and his other hand slid a CD into the little hole above the radio that had broken last year. His eyes blinked back to me in the rearview mirror, and he said, “Hey, Sara, you know you’re a little kid, right?”

“Yeah, so?” I said while pushing the top of my seatbelt behind my back so I could lean forward more, feel like I was in the front seat more, like I was an adult more.

This is another public service announcement, brought to you, in part, by Slim Shady.

“So this is music for grown ups that you’re not supposed to listen to—”

Slim Shady does not give a fuck what you think. If you don’t like it, you can suck his fucking cock.

—but I’m letting you listen to it because you’re smart, right?”

I nodded my head but he didn’t see.

Little did you know, upon purchasing this album, you have just kissed his ass.

Yeah. Don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

Slim Shady is fed up with your shit, and he is going to kill you.

My brother skipped the next song, and I listened to Dido’s soft voice come at me from either side, and for the rest of the day I had her lilting voice whispering through my head while my friend and I played with her new Barbies.

*

When I was eleven, my brother went to college and I started middle school, excited by the adulthood of having my very own locker. I washed my hands next to the girls giving each other piercings in the bathrooms. I changed for gym class next to the girls who looked like me, with their checkered Bermuda shorts and striped purple T-shirts. They talked to each other and smiled at me, and I smiled back. I was more afraid of talking to them than to the popular girls with their eyebrow piercings that they took out before they went home. At least I knew those girls would laugh at me.

A gangly girl with curly brown hairs that refused to stay close to her head elbowed me in the back a few weeks into school, and apologized while nervously squeezing a Gogurt tube between her hands. I accepted her apology with a smile, too nervous to talk to this girl in her muddy Converse and flare jeans. We smiled at each other for a moment, her fingers still kneading the Gogurt, and then the tube gave out, erupting with pink goo that sputtered onto her brown sweater and my white one. Our faces reflected one another’s: eyes wide, mouths open, cheeks on fire. “Ew!” she squealed, and I felt a giggle bubble out of me, and I started laughing harder when she said, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.”

Her large hands weaved through her hair, her fingers reminding me of spiders as they got stuck in the knots. I smiled at her, eyes in tears. We were splattered with pink yogurt, and I wasn’t afraid of her anymore. “It’s okay,” I said. “My name’s Sara.” She said her name was Tara. Tara with the spider hands and beige eyes and pink Gogurt sweater, just like me. We walked around the track together that day, and her friends tried to help us get the yogurt out of our sweaters, and we called each other that night after our moms yelled at us about the stains.

*

When I was twelve, my brother dropped out of college, and Tara and I declared that we were smarter than him. We asked him to prove he was as smart as us by doing our Algebra homework—his refusal was proof of his tiny brain. My parents asked Tara’s parents if I could sleep over sometimes, when my brother seemed angrier than usual, and they always said yes but nobody told us why. A few weeks into these split-second sleepovers (christened that the third time it happened), I came home to our light blue vase in pieces sprinkled across the floor, edges sliced into the dark wood. Nobody was home, our cat was stuck under the couch, and the dishwasher was open from when I had left the night before. My room smelled like beer. My brother’s room was covered in broken brown glass. I went back downstairs and tried to pry the cat out of hiding.

My brother moved to an anger management facility that year, and Tara moved away the year after. I went to high school with Tara’s elementary school friends, and by senior year our favorite topic was how different Tara was. We, her original friends, looked at her Instagram and Facebook photos, each adorned with Tara and a different man, or a half-naked Tara smoking something, or Tara with a red Solo cup in hand and dark circles under her eyes. We all agreed: “She obviously wasn’t who we thought she was, especially if she could party her life away,” we said. We giggled at the avocado masks we wiped on one another at our monthly sleepovers, resting our eyes under cucumbers like old women did in old movies, and we shat on Tara’s new highlighter hair colors and thong swimsuits. She was trashy.

College parted Tara’s old friends and me, and we stopped talking after sophomore year. My brother came home from the facility in a starched pink button-down and black work pants, and he moved into an apartment by my college. We weren’t close.

I was on my way to give him and his girlfriend their tickets to my graduation when I heard The Marshall Mathers LP again. Rain and Dido slowly got louder in my car, the beat seeping through the speakers next to the steering wheel. My chest ballooned with childhood joy—the song from when I was a little girl, before everything happened with my brother and Tara and before I knew any curse words. I sang along with Dido, instinctively and excitedly, and then Eminem started rapping, and I listened to him for the first time. I listened about the death of Stan and his girlfriend, pregnant with their baby. I listened to the rest of the album. I listened about Kim and Amityville. I sat outside my brother’s apartment for an hour listening to Eminem, looking at nothing. I listened until it ended, then I turned off the car and went in, hugged them hello and answered their small-chat questions about school until the questions petered out, gave them their tickets, and hugged them goodbye.

I pulled “Stan” up on my phone and listened again, staring at nothing again. I didn’t know what was going on with my brother when I was younger, but I hadn’t cared. I wanted to be bigger than him, smarter than him, happier. I never helped him. Eminem waited too long to write Stan back. Eminem waited too long to write Stan back and I had waited too long with my brother. I was waiting too long with Tara, I realized too, but why didn’t I care about that? Maybe I just wanted my brother in my life more. Maybe I just wanted what I never had.

I walked back to the apartment and knocked on their door, and I hugged my brother again and said, “I’m glad you’re here, and you have Ashley. Would you guys want to come over for dinner sometime?” I knew their answer in the silence.

—Nicole Efford

#245: Jerry Lee Lewis, "All Killer, No Filler!" (1993)

He was Punk two decades before Punk.

If he started his career in 1977, he would have shared the stage with Strummer, Patti, and Iggy. He had this nervy, maniacal piano-playing schtick, as if someone held a shotgun to his head, demanding he cover Hank Williams, or Roy Orbison—right now or else.

That’s Jerry Lee Lewis. The outlaw—and the outlier.

Man, myth, legend, and undeniable influence on first wave punk in the late ‘70s. His songs staccato, the piano playing brutal, and all with an intuitive understanding of youth culture and its infinite mystery—majesty in squalor.

As a kid in the ‘90s, born to bonafide rock ‘n’ roller parents, I quickly latched onto their encyclopedic record collection, devouring everything I could—from the Clash to new wave stalwarts like the Psychedelic Furs. But the thing that perplexed me most was what I thought of as ‘missing link’ type sounds that reminded me of Elvis and Joe Strummer’s long-lost brother.

That’s the Stray Cats, the Cramps, and “More Fun in the New World”-era X albums that had that raw, rockabilly twang, but with a slinkier, moodier sound, anxious and spindly like XTC’s first five years of output.

Now we’re in 2017. That Punk/Rockabilly hybrid sounds like a distant memory. A lot of what is dubbed ‘Punk’ now sounds staged and corporate—a glossy package of manufactured angst marketed primarily to 14-year-old boys. And Rockabilly kind of had a resurgence in the late ‘90s, manifesting itself in a big band sound with the resurrected career of Brian Setzer, among other bands with names that sounded like they were straight out of the 1940s—the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the like.

That revival didn’t really catch on, and Rockabilly faded back into the ether. So where’s the edge? Why does everything sound so safe now?

When I listen to the Cramps classic Bad Songs for Bad People I’m reminded of the twang, hillbilly yelp and urgency with which Jerry Lee Lewis played. Lux Interior was the first person I thought of when hearing “High School Confidential,” seeing Lewis possessed at the keys.

It’s as if Lux heard “Crazy Arms” or “One Minute Past Eternity” as a kid, sitting alone in his bedroom on Halloween night, and decided that he could make his own version of rockabilly, repackaged as late-night, cable-access horror schlock.

I wouldn’t be surprised if young Lux had a dream one night where Jerry Lee Lewis came into his room for a lesson in Shock the Audience 101. For Lewis, the mad piano work almost seems quaint now—probably antiquated even when Lux was a kid—but where does anyone even get the idea to play a gig at a sanatorium, as the Cramps did? Can’t you see it?

*

JLL: Lux, you can’t just stand in front of an audience and scare the hell out of them with your clothes, jumping around like an uncaged animal windmilling on your guitar—that’s for crusty guys like me. And Pete Townsend, of course.

Lux: But Jerry Lee, if I can’t howl and beat up on my guitar, how can I do this?

JLL: Ever been to a looney bin?

*

Now you must admit, it’s plausible that the whole idea for the Cramps’ infamous 1978 gig at the Napa State Mental Hospital came from a David Lynch dream sequence.

Then again, that’s the spirit of Punk. Go against the grain, shock the system, shake people up. That’s not possible anymore with leather jackets and spikes and Chuck Taylors. Or banging on pianos, for that matter.

Nowadays, the lines of what is and isn’t Punk are completely blurred, and have little to do with three chords and distorted guitars. Punk is becoming canonized, a museum piece like Rockabilly and the Big Bands of yore.

But that doesn’t mean it’s dead, or even dying a slow death. As long as there are people in this world who have the fire inside of them to take that road less traveled and say something different, even unpopular, about own humanity, then there will always be Punk.

Sounds change—but the sentiment never dies and the shared struggle is always worth defending, tooth and nail, for life.

Jerry Lee once said, "Elvis was the greatest, but I'm the best." He may be onto something there.

—Alex Fencl

#246: The Mothers of Invention, "Freak Out!" (1966)

In the space provided for a short answer, one of my intro to lit. students writes a poem in which he compares me to a peacock, no, a pheasant…oh, even better: a quail. Yes, there’s something very quail-like—quailish?—about me, he decides. He decides to tell me. He decides I need to know. I dig my fingernails into my arm when I read it. I feel lightheaded. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath. I call a friend and ask if I’m overreacting, if I’m the problem. No, that’s weird, trust me. No, it’s not okay. When I speak to the student after the following class, I have trouble telling him how, in what way, his poem’s inappropriate. I have trouble saying, you have made me animal, you have made me thing through your metaphor, a comparison between two objects without using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ a question on the test. He asks if I’ve filed a complaint, if he’s in trouble. No, I haven’t filed a complaint. I haven’t decided if he’s in trouble. I throw around a lot of conditionals: if you do this again, if you meant to insult me. He smiles, which unnerves me. “I was testing you,” he says. “I wanted to see if you were cool, or if you would freak out.”

*

I work nights at a cafe. I’m in college, and I get to know the regulars. We have time to talk on these shifts, unlike the morning rush. One of our regulars always orders an iced tea and then reads Marvels for a few hours, sometimes inside at a table or, when the weather’s nice, out on the patio. He’s thirty, a janitor at his dad’s machine shop. Sometimes I talk to him on my breaks because I’m bored. I’m nice to him because he’s a customer, because he’s someone to talk to. Maybe I flirt with him, or maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m just not sure what I’m doing, but it’s soon clear he’s waiting for my breaks, becomes desperate when I decide to eat in the back room my veggie fried rice from the Chinese buffet or chips ‘n’ queso from the Qdoba. There’s several times when I feel like he’s about to ask me out, that he’s trying to find a way to ease in, like a scalding bath. I never let him. I’m engaged to someone else. I start talking about my fiancee, about anything else. He stops coming so regularly, and then hardly at all, and then I don’t see him for a few weeks. Finally, one night, he approaches me at the register, rattling a metal Altoids tin. Open it. Inside are four kidney stones, though I don’t know what they are until he tells me. It’s his proof, his evidence. Too much black tea, the doctors say. He did this for me. Will I go out with him?

*

A guy I never talked to in high school messages me on Facebook. He’s heard I’m a writer. He’s writing a novel, here we go. He wants to know about book deals, about agents. Hold your little fillies—I’m a poet. I tell him I can’t help him, which he seems to accept. I tell him it’s been nice hearing from him. (I’m a liar.) He asks me if I ever wish I didn’t think so deeply about the world, didn’t feel so much, like all writers do. He wants to know if I sometimes wish I was ignorant, if I believe in bliss, like ghosts. He talks—types, rather—while I check my e-mail, like a friend’s photo. I think it ends with him saying, gotta go. He seems to feel inoculated against his boredom, immune to the mundane. I never speak to him again.

*

Another students borrows one of my books, tears some pages out, smokes with it, walks to return it to me in the rain so that it’s soaked by the time he hands it to me. He argues with all of my other students, but doesn’t deign to provide them with any feedback on their poems. He hates every text we read and quotes Ferlinghetti. He gets high/drunk/fucked up for his final self-reflection paper, types it without punctuation. In it, he says he hates people who call themselves poets, for people who call themselves poets are not the true poets of the world (a paraphrase) and then goes on to tell me I taught him nothing but does a flying backflip leap and sticks the “but i guess you did a good job kid” line at the end. I’m so angry I want to make flowers sprout from nostrils like nose hairs.

*

I’ve grown so weary of young men—and, don’t misunderstand me, it’s almost always young white men—who use me as a wall in their postured squash games of persona. As if they have to validate their uniqueness like a parking ticket. As if they want me to weigh their egos like a mongo-pumpkin at a county fair. As much as an old flame still burns for Frank Zappa, one of my early musical loves, when I listen again to Freak Out! by the Mothers, with its jangle-rock deadpan montage of doo-wop acid pop, I am reminded of all those young men, their shuffling little bird feet, their you-just-don’t-understand. I think about how some people, these men, take their silliness too seriously, how they wear Absurd AF like a brand.

As listeners, even fans, we must realize how privilege allowed Frank Zappa to be Frank Zappa; to sing about the yellow snow and poop-chutes and Catholic girls and dental floss; to testify against parental advisory labels at the Parents Music Resource Center Senate hearings; to organize a rotating cast of band members, including some of the best up-and-coming black jazz musicians like Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, and Chester Thompson; to embody both his anti-war-on-drugs and anti-drugs stance; and to funnel all of his creative energy into some troubling, late-life, right-leaning politics. Zappa leveraged his weird-hairy-white-guy-with-a-big-nose image in order to challenge the status quo—or did he empower a new one?

*

I’m not suggesting that any of these young men looked up to any of the Mothers of Invention, and, for that matter, none of them likely knew who they were, but I am negotiating a threshold a privilege allowed young, white men, our culture’s message that that their cultivated “weirdness” excuses their abusive behaviors, including hardcore or micro-misogynies. For years, I have attempted to reconcile my love of Zappa’s music with many of his lyrics’ misogyny, homophobia, and racism, all of which is excused as humor, as “just that crazy guy.” For white men especially, we are so used to excusing these abuses as side effects of genius, of eccentricities, but I don’t want that any more. Being deep is often so shallow. I want to call out our darling boys. I want to say you’re so unique you’re nothing special.

—Emilia Phillips

#247: Grateful Dead, "Live/Dead" (1969)

When I was thirteen years old, in the late ‘90s, I spent innumerable evenings pouring countless hours into the AOL Grateful Dead forum. Slouched in a stiff wooden chair, stationed in front of the bulky, wheezing desktop computer in my family’s den, I hung out in 710 Ashbury, a chat room named for the San Francisco address where the Grateful Dead lived three decades earlier in a Queen Anne’s Victorian rowhome. My screen name was Deadbear13, and my friend list had grown long with deadheads of all ages who’d formed an online community after Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the Grateful Dead disbanded.

Deadbear13:                It sucks I never saw the GD live. I was born 30 years too late!
Mntngrl52:                   Too bad, Deadbear13. I saw them 30 times
WharfRat69:                82 times here
CandyMan710:             I saw them 129 times

The volume of shows those folks had seen spoke to untold years on the road, to bonds forged in parking lots and VW vans, to the nomadic community finding a home online. I, meanwhile, was a pubescent kid looking for a community of my own.

Behind me on a spare dresser sat my stereo and my music collection. That included a brown case full of bootleg cassettes I’d acquired by trading through the mail with these deadheads. Next to the case was my CD tower, stuffed with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Beatles—nothing contemporary, nothing found on MTV, which my brother, two grades older, watched all night in the adjacent living room, always a notch too loudly. But when Mom, who slept alone at the end of the hall, or I implored my brother to turn it down, he sniped back: You won’t hear it once you’re asleep.

Tensions ran high after the divorce, after Mom found out Dad, a hapless alcoholic, had a mistress. Now Dad lived in an apartment across town, in south Orlando, binge-drinking toward bankruptcy. In the house he conceded in the divorce, I played my music just loudly enough to drown out the MTV, but not so loud as to wake up Mom. That night, as the monitor’s gray-blue glow washed over my face, I had on a CD: the Grateful Dead’s 1969 double live album, Live/Dead.

*

By 1969, the Grateful Dead were the leaders of the San Francisco Sound, a rock subgenre that embraced the counterculture while encouraging band members to roam around in the rhythms, chords, and progressions. Combining a mélange of influences in American musical forms—Jerry Garcia steeped in folk and bluegrass, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the blues, Phil Lesh in formal jazz—the Dead had served as the house band for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during their mid-‘60s Acid Tests. The anything-goes ethos of those gatherings allowed the Dead to experiment with free-flowing musical improvisations while dabbling in mind-altering psychedelics, investing their blues with a free-ranging otherworldliness that fueled their live shows.

They made studio records: The Grateful Dead (1967), Anthem of the Sun (1968), Aoxomoxoa (1969), but none faithfully rendered the band’s live organic inventions. And after Aoxomoxoa, an eight-month acid-drenched experiment with newly invented sixteen-track technology, flopped, the band found themselves $180,000 in the hole to Warner Brothers. That same technology, however, would soon prove their saving grace. The Dead hauled that sixteen-track recorder to a string of their concerts in early 1969, patched the machine into the soundboard, and finally captured a mixable recording of their live sound. Live/Dead would become the first live rock album recorded with a sixteen-track machine. It sold well enough to pay back Warner Brothers.

*

The album’s opening emerges from a silence peppered with drifting guitar licks and bass notes. Those stray sounds soon snap into the musical motifs that structure the “Dark Star” jam, building toward Garcia’s thin-voiced cry: “Dark star crashes / pouring its light into ashes.” The lyrics themselves trace the borders of the musical nebula at hand, beckoning listeners through “the transitive nightfall of diamonds.” Meanwhile the Dead’s two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, accentuate the fog of star-stuff with bursts and echoes of rhythm while Bob Weir’s guitar chords morph the cloud of notes into constellations. The extemporized jam, then, embodies the theme of decay and rebirth established in the lyrics.

This marriage of form and content envelops the audience, folding them into the performance. Track two, “St. Stephen,” spins from side one’s stellar furnace like a newborn solar system, one housing its own legend and lore. While flitting between St. Stephen’s history, surroundings, and observations, Garcia sings of a “Lady finger dipped in moonlight / Writing ‘what for?’ across the morning sky.” The lyrics look upward, toward the genesis of the stars while the song rushes forth into “The Eleven,” plying steadily to Phil Lesh’s jazzy bass and Kreutzmann’s kick-snare combo. The time shifts into 11/8. Each musician hammers through these burgeoning rhythms and progressions. Tom Constanten’s organ adds a bright, traipsing aspect to the snarls and bellows of the guitars and drums before, rolling into an interlocking group chant, the Dead bring the audience back to now: “Now is the time of returning…”; “Now is the time past believing…”; “Now is the test of the boomerang….” And when Garcia chimes in with “Seven-faced marble-eyed transitory dream doll,” the bounds of time and matter collapse into a force here and gone, real and not, live and dead.

*

Deadbear13:              What’s a seven faced marble eyed transitory dream doll?
Truckin123:                Drop some LSD, Deadbear13. You’ll figure it out.

*

I first encountered the Grateful Dead around the age of 12, at my buddy Alec’s house. His parents were music lovers, Woodstock attendees loyal to the Dead’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s sound. “Anything after Pigpen died in ’73 is really second-rate Dead,” Alec’s father Pete told me one day after realizing I was interested in his extensive vinyl library. Tall and lanky, a lifelong surfer with sun-bleached hair and a slow drawl, Pete pushed back his roller chair from the desk of his home graphic design office, pointed toward the other room and said, “Find Live/Dead. That’s their peak.”

Alec and I went digging. A minute later, Alec held up the faded, ruddy album. We marveled at the robed woman on the cover levitating over an open casket, waving a banner that read “DEAD” above elaborate calligraphy: “Live.” Across the back cover stretched the word “DEAD,” folded into an American flag, with the seven tracks listed along the bottom. Two records. Four sides. Seven tracks. My eyes bulged to see a twenty-three minute “Dark Star” filling the entirety of Side One. Side Two featured just two songs, “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven.” “Turn On Your Love Light,” at fifteen minutes, required the whole of Side Three, while side four included three songs: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Feedback,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight.”

Twenty minutes later, when Alec’s mom Tina came home with armfuls of grocery bags, she found us lying on the floor, absorbed in the spacey, thunderous improvisations of “Dark Star.” She smirked, reminded perhaps of her own first experiences with the Grateful Dead. Near the end of the song, Pete, knowing the album sides by heart, appeared just in time to flip the record.

*

Deadbear13:                Live/Dead is suuuuuch a good album. I think it truly is their peak.
CaseyJones:                Wise opinion, Deadbear13. Were you around to see them back then?
Deadbear13:                Unfortunately no. I’m only 13! Papa Jerry died when I was 10….
CaseyJones:                Wowow you’ve got an old soul, brother.

*

I loved when those deadheads talked about my “old soul,” even when I knew I was simply parroting Pete’s opinions. Now that I’m in my thirties, though, I’ll say it again: Live/Dead represents the group’s peak—or, at least the peak of the cosmic-jam, acid-blues Pigpen era. Side three flows from the outro of side two, but the content shifts dramatically. Here Pigpen steps to the fore to take on Bobby Bland’s 1961 swinging blues number, “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and the Dead range through rollicking jams, drum solos, and Pigpen’s vocal rapping, pleading, “I don’t want it all, no, no, no, I just want a little bit.” The rendition re-situates the band’s material in traditional American music before Jerry Garcia leans into Reverend Gary Davis’s slow blues, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Garcia’s guitar regains that ripping embryonic growl from “Dark Star,” accented by Pigpen playing a delicately trilling organ. In “Feedback,” the instruments do more than growl—they blip and burp, cry and moan like gasses in a star nursery, reigniting the generative process. An a capella “And We Bid You Goodnight” closes out the album, opening an egress through which band and audience can exit this musical universe.

*

While my Live/Dead CD spun, I grooved in my chair, scanning line after line of chatroom scroll. As Deadbear13, I pitched in my early-teen insights—“R.I.P. Pigpen, gone too soon”—and reveled in the digital embrace of a community that taught me to hear the sounds, follow the music, navigate the parking-lot scene and dance pit of any concert in the Grateful Dead tradition. The AOL deadhead community buoyed me with belonging while my family broke apart.

But like the sound waves themselves, Deadbear13 couldn’t last. My screenname was outdated by the time I turned fourteen. Before long, Mom sold the house, unable to manage the upkeep on a public school teacher’s salary without child support. The three of us, plus our dog and two cats, moved into a two-bedroom apartment where the computer sat in the living room, offering no privacy. And then, when my online girlfriend of sorts, Hippiedom420, said she was travelling through Orlando with a crew of other deadheads and wanted to meet up, I realized I didn’t want to—I didn’t want to run away with the Dead. I wanted to be a teenager. Ahead of me were sports teams and dates and keg parties. So I grew into my teenage years while AOL fell out of favor, its chatrooms slowly clearing out.

*

I frequented the 710 Ashbury chatroom at its late-‘90s peak, just as the Grateful Dead captured their late-‘60s peak with Live/Dead. And that year I spent as Deadbear13 was a kind of peak for me, too, when I wanted nothing more than to have been born three decades earlier and built my life around the Dead. But Deadbear13 didn’t just fade away; he burrowed down inside me, huddled in my bones, manifested in my musical tastes and outward appearance, the tie-dye shirts and the white-boy dreadlocks I grew my sophomore year. That deadhead veneer provided me cover to duck away from the shouts and simmering tensions at home, the jocks and bullies and rich kids stalking the halls at school. Plus, donning that persona invested me with automatic social capital. I could be a cool kid just by adoring Jerry, smoking dope, playing the hippie. Deadbear13 helped me become the next version of myself—the one I relied on to navigate my teenage years.

Ultimately, the Grateful Dead would assume the next version of themselves, too. American Beauty (1970) and Workingman’s Dead (1970) would take decidedly acoustic turns and become two of their most beloved studio albums. In the ‘70s, when Keith Godchaux brought a new level of complexity to Pigpen’s spot as keyboardist, the Dead’s sound evolved into a jazz-rock fusion—a subgenre they rocked like none other. Pete may have been right that the Dead peaked in 1969, and I may have peaked as a deadhead at thirteen. But as the push-and-pull of death and renewal would have it, we can always peak again.

—Paul Haney

#248: Ornette Coleman, "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959)

          In memory of Baltimore Greg Kaplan

 

Billy Higgins’s cymbal skips, followed by Charlie Haden’s bass shuffle, tracing the outlines of “Lonely Woman” and preparing the entrance of the unison plaintive howl of Don Cherry’s trumpet and Ornette Coleman’s saxophone, the latter of which then takes the lead. Ornette blows; someone in the studio yelps “Wooo!” He sinks back, he returns. The song ends with a return to the beginning, a repeating pluck at the bass, the cymbal underneath.

Bart’s CD Cellar on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado was where my jazz education began. First Miles and ‘Trane, Mingus. Then Dolphy, Pharaoh, Ornette. Onward to the likes of Zorn, Mitchell. Greg K. introduced me to Ornette Coleman, or maybe it was another guy at Bart’s—I can’t remember his name. I’ll give the credit to Greg.

Greg introduced me to Ornette Coleman, but as I recall I ended up liking Ornette more than he did. Greg couldn’t really enjoy it; for him it had become more of a theoretical exercise, whereas the seemingly random bleets and bloops fit right into me, wedging into the cracks and empty spaces of my aesthetic. I came to understand the freneticism though the likes of Aphex Twin, the Boredoms; my tastes got noisier and noisier.

Greg died from an overdose several years ago, leaving a wife and young daughter behind. The last time I spoke to Greg I was visiting Boulder for a few days; he heard I was in town and called, fuzzy and fucked up. He wasn’t making sense, losing his words, but he sounded happy to talk and wanted to see me. I blew him off, not wanting to manage his state. “Sure, just running around now, we’ll hook up later buddy, talk soon.” Click. That was our last conversation.

Greg was a mountain of a man, from Balmer (Baltimore); we shared the east coast and a childhood love of the Orioles, a disdain for Boulder, many things pop cultural. I remember a road trip to San Francisco from Colorado in a rented van: J. in a heroin nod in the backseat, listening to Allen Ginsberg recordings. Greg pissed me off about something and I called him Jabba the Hut and he was furious and chased me around a parking lot in Reno on his bad knees. I once said he looked like Black Francis. “Because I’m fat.” “Yeah, but he’s really cool.”

Playing bass in his cat-piss-smelling basement, he on guitar, he always accused me of noodling. “Just play rhythm fucker.” (Charlie Haden plays some mean slick bass on this record.) Greg with a Dr. Pepper in his hand. “You know they say the secret ingredient is prune juice?” “It’s a warrior’s drink!” we exclaim in unison. That’s Klingon Lieutenant Commander of the Starship Enterprise Worf’s line upon first tasting the octogenarian beverage. I was continents away at the time of Greg’s memorial service, but I sent along a Leonard Nimoy poem to be read in my stead, along with the above anecdote. Greg and I watched a lot of Star Trek. I got my Klingon tattoo at a headshop in Boulder.

I got fired from Bart’s CD Cellar because I slept through a staff meeting—I was perpetually late—what record store schedules a meeting for a weekend morning? (We had a new manager—she came from the Gap—Bart wanted to “professionalize.”) I moved to Rocky Mountain Records, some shitty chain store, sold a thousand copies of Celine Dion. It was my last record store job.

Ornette Coleman is good for your early twenties, esoteric and obtuse, annoying as fuck, but I’ve come back to it in the last few years. The benefit of age is authenticity; there’s no doubt I really like this stuff now; I’ve got no one I care to impress with my weird tastes. This record is even tame for Ornette, just the beginnings of where he would end up. “Focus on Sanity” is the roadmap.

I’ve been traveling in Thailand the last few weeks and I was walking through a park in Bangkok the other morning and for some reason remembered my first proper backpacking trip through Europe in my late teens….twenty years ago now. One of the coolest things was going to the record stores in London or Berlin and digging through bins and finding this super cool shit you’d never heard of. Pick up some flyers for shows, talk to the guys at the shop, get the lay of the land. I was thinking how sad it was that that doesn’t really exist anymore; look at some blogs on the couch, check Facebook, manifest Spotify algorithms. As I waded through my nostalgia like so many bargain bin Bee Gees records a thought occurred to me: there is a really kickass record label in Bangkok and I know (from Facebook) they have a storefront, so I garnered the coordinates from my pocket computer, hopped on the Skytrain, and went.

Just a few hours after visiting ZuDrangMa Records, courtesy of the Dutch guy behind the counter, I was one of about twenty people standing in a bar watching a 21st Century Molam show. To many, it’s probably about as grating as Ornette Coleman; I thought it was totally amazing. It’s also just the kind of shit Greg would have loved, experientially if not in fact. Miss you pal. LLAP.

—Erik Wennermark

#249: R.E.M., "Automatic for the People" (1992)

When Monty’s dad didn’t die right away, not even with a few tons of tractor on him, Garrick’s mom said we needed to visit. Monty needs friends right now, she said.

Garrick and I were playing chess and didn’t look up. “He’s needed friends for years,” I said, “but that’s not our fault.” You could talk like that to Garrick’s mom and she wouldn’t get upset. Not like my parents. They said I had a fast mouth, which was why I’d ridden my bike over to Garrick’s instead of driving their car.

But Garrick’s mom just leaned on the kitchen table and studied a strand of her hair. “Take your sister, too,” she said to Garrick. “Your sister can be very comforting.”

Garrick’s sister was nine and a genius. She looked up from her maps. “It’s true,” she said. “I can be.” She smiled and I smiled back. A few months before she’d given me a spoon she’d bent into a corkscrew. Besides my Walkman, it was the only thing I kept on my nightstand.

Since they’d run out of things to teach her at school, they let her do what she wanted. She read through the whole encyclopedia, then got interested in spoons. I watched her do it once, one Saturday when I was over and Garrick and I played Risk for three hours at the table. Andi sat with us, a table spoon in front of her, didn’t move or say a thing the whole time, and when we finally stood up, the spoon had a little twist in its handle. So Garrick’s mom bought her a bunch of spoons and Andi spent a month bending one for each kid in her homeroom. She got really good at it, and I said she ought to sell them.

Now she was looking for the Northwest Passage. Topographic maps all over the place. The explorers weren’t crazy, she said. The Passage was still there, just different from what they expected.

We took some games along. Life, Monopoly, checkers, things we’d played with Monty in grade school when everybody was still friends. God knows we didn’t want to just sit in the house with him while his dad was out there in a field underneath a tractor.

Garrick drove. “Just an hour,” he said. “Then it’ll be time for dinner and we can leave.”

Monty answered the door. He didn’t look good. He never had, but now he looked worse. Terrible acne, and under his shirt was the plastic scoliosis brace that always made it look like he was wearing body armor. He’d worn one for years and had to buy shirts that were too big and made his head look small. He looked at us warily. “Yeah?” he said.

“We came to see you,” Andi said. She smiled at him. “We thought you might like some company.”

“Oh,” Monty said. He looked past us, like maybe there was someone better back there.

Andi asked if we could come in.

“Okay,” Monty said, and it was like going back in time, the same dark hall I remembered as a kid, the same smell of lemon furniture polish. A few feet in we stopped at the living room. There was a beam of late afternoon sunlight coming in.

“We brought some games,” I said. I’d almost forgotten the bag in my hand.

“Games?”  Monty said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Monopoly, that kind of thing.”

Andi asked where his mom was. It was like she was way older than any of us and knew all the secret rules.

“Out there,” Monty said, and gestured toward the back of the house.

“With him?”

Monty nodded.

“That’s good,” Andi said. “That’s good for both of them.”

Monty nodded again.

Footsteps, and a woman appeared in the hallway. She introduced herself as Monty’s aunt. She’d been crying, but she got herself together and when she understood who we were, thanked us again and again for coming to see Monty. It was so kind, so thoughtful. She told Monty to go get us some Cokes from the fridge, and when he was gone she dropped her voice and said just between us, she thought it was getting close. It’d been a day and a half now, and wasn’t that too long to suffer so much? They couldn’t do anything for him except painkillers, but he wouldn’t take them, and that was terrible for everyone.

When Monty came back, she tried to smile at him, but it didn’t last, and she started to cry again somewhere down the hall.

“Jesus,” Garrick said. I looked at Garrick, and he looked as bad as Monty. It was terrible standing there in that dark hallway with just one sunbeam coming in.

Andi got us into the living room and we sat down and opened our Cokes. She asked Monty a couple questions, but I didn’t hear them and Monty didn’t answer. Then we just sat there for a bit without saying anything at all.

When the sun got low enough to make Monty squint, he asked if we wanted to see him.

“Your dad?” I said.

Monty nodded.

I started to say was he kidding, but Andi said of course we did, and I sort of hated and loved her for it.

So we went down the hallway and then out the back door and it shocked me it was still spring and a nice evening. A bunch of adults were standing around in the backyard. When they saw Monty they got quiet, and the aunt came up and asked if she could do anything for him.

“Nope,” he said, and we walked past them all and out into the field.

It was quiet for a while until finally Garrick said he couldn’t believe none of the adults had stopped us.  That wasn’t right, was it? I asked if we were getting close. We couldn’t see the house anymore.

Monty pointed ahead at a little rise. “Over there,” he said.

Garrick stopped and threw up. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it, too, an arm here, a leg there. Andi stopped and patted him on the back.

Monty didn’t stop, so I followed him. From the top of the rise, we saw the tractor right below us, and below that was Monty’s dad. His mother and someone else sat in the dirt near him.

We startled his mother. “Oh,” she said, “Monty. Where did you come from?”

The other person was a man. Near him was a little leather bag like doctors carried in old TV shows. He said hi to Monty, but Monty just stood off to the side a bit and didn’t answer.

“That’s Monty?” It was Monty’s dad now, and he wasn’t anything I’d imagined. I thought dying people were always on their backs, but Monty’s dad was flat on his stomach, the side of his face in the dirt. There wasn’t any blood, not any I could see, anyway. When I got closer I saw he was under the tractor up to his shoulder blades. There was a blanket covering what wasn’t under the tractor. He still had his wire-rimmed glasses on.

“That’s Monty?” he said again, and the man said yes. Monty and a friend.

“A friend? Which friend?”

Since there wasn’t any blood I felt a little better. I came around so he could see me. “It’s me,” I said. I said my name.

Monty’s dad said all he could see was my feet. I knelt and tilted my head. His glasses were bent and he was about my dad’s age. I got dizzy for a moment.

Monty’s dad squinted and said he remembered me, it’d been a long time. “You look uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s easier if you lay on the ground.” So I flattened some cornstalks and lay down a few feet away facing him. “Better?” he asked.

“Better,” I said.

“I’m Andi,” Andi said. She was suddenly lying on the ground, too, stretched out the other direction so the top of her head was almost touching mine.

“You I don’t know,” Monty’s dad said.

I asked what happened to Garrick, and she said she’d sent him back to the house.

“And where’s Monty?” Monty’s dad asked.

“Over there,” I said and pointed. “Want me to get him?” Monty’s dad closed his eyes for a moment and said, no, it was fine. Then he opened them. “Jim,” he said, and the man with Monty’s mom came over. “Get her out of here for a bit,” he said. “I want to talk to these kids.”

“I’m not leaving,” Monty’s mom said.

“Just the other side of the rise,” Monty’s dad said. “Take a little break. You’ll be close. And they’ll yell if anything happens, right?”

“Right,” Andi said.

Monty’s mom really didn’t want to go, but Jim got her to stand up. They went slowly up the rise and at the top she started shaking and Jim had to steady her for a second. Then they vanished over the side.

“Hard to watch,” Monty’s dad said.

“Hey,” I said to Andi. “Maybe you can help.” I told Monty’s dad that she could bend spoons.

“Oh?”

I told him how she bent spoons for everyone in her homeroom and also one for me. Maybe a tractor wasn’t that different from a spoon?

No, Andi said, it was pretty different, and it wouldn’t matter, anyway.

“That’s true,” Monty’s dad said. He had his eyes closed again. “But what a trick.”

I said she was a genius. Now she was looking for the Northwest Passage. “She’s getting close,” I said.

Monty’s dad didn’t answer for a bit. Then he asked what Monty was doing.

“Monty,” I said, “what’re you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. I raised my head and saw him looking across the field. The moon was rising.

“Nothing,” I said. “He’s watching the moonrise.”

Monty’s dad opened his eyes. “There it is,” he said after a moment.

We heard a flicking sound and then there was cigarette smoke. “Now he’s smoking a cigarette,” I said.

Monty’s dad had his eyes closed again. “I guess that’s about right,” he said.

“He’s allowed to smoke?” Andi asked.

“Nope,” Monty’s dad said.

It cooled off as the sun went down.

“I don’t think you’re going to find the Northwest Passage,” he finally said.

“No, she will,” I said.

Andi agreed.

I saw him shiver and asked if he was cold. He nodded as much as he could with his cheek in the dirt like that.

“Hey, Monty,” I said, “you got another blanket over there?”

“Yeah,” Monty said after a bit.

“We need it over here.”

“All right,” Monty said.  Maybe ten seconds passed and I asked what the problem was. Monty said he didn’t think he could come over there.

“Well, just throw it here,” I said.

“It’s coming,” Andi said.

“Monty,” I said, and finally a balled-up blanket landed near me. When I stood my ears roared like a plane was right above and I thought, Oh, Jesus, I popped an eardrum, until I realized it wasn’t in my head at all. Monty was also looking up, but nothing was in the sky except the moon and some early stars.

“What is that?” I said, and just like that the sound was so loud you had to yell, like tons of water now, a big wall of it racing at us. Jim and Monty’s mom appeared at the top of the rise and I tried to yell to them, but even I couldn’t hear me. I saw Monty running towards them, and I was about to follow when Andi grabbed my sleeve. Inside the noise was suddenly the smell of salt water and fish and warm rocks.

I clutched the blanket like a little kid and looked at Andi. She smiled and her eyes were brighter than the sky.  They told me, impossibly, what came next.

—Jeff Martin

#250: Jay Z, "Reasonable Doubt" (1996)

I'm a pacifist at heart, Paco said. That's one thing my mama beat into me. Paco was limping along almost faster than I could keep up with on two good God-given legs. His hand-carved cane with the frog on the handle was tucked underneath his arm, as it often was, unused. The boy, Toby, trailed close behind me like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. Poor kid would be purple for a week. We could tell that as soon as he turned up clutching a pair of underwear to his bloody lip.

What you gonna do? I asked Paco. Reason with him?

What aren't I gonna do? Paco said. What I aren't gonna do is be unclear.

We'd seen Toby around the neighborhood before, digging for gold with a shovel and a tree branch or hunting squirrels with his rubber band gun, but we didn't know him much.

Who did this? Paco had asked when he found him hurting, and as soon as the kid had said, My daddy, we were off.

Paco never knew his own daddy, who'd lost his babymama's number as soon as he'd found out there were complications. Paco was born with brain damage due to his mother's Hennessy habit, which was a big complication, but at least she stuck around to see if she could make up for it. Paco's got a low IQ but a high everything else. Got a job at Wendy's as a Spongebob, at least that's what he likes to call himself. Been flipping square burger patties for minimum wage without getting fired for twenty years, which is more than you can say for most people. I never knew my daddy either unless you count Paco, who took me in the day my parents died in a motorcycle wreck.

See, Paco doesn't like to see people hurt. You'd think that'd be a sentence we could say about just about any one of us. But the truth is some people can’t bear it, some it doesn't bother too much. Most of us wouldn't hurt a fly but wouldn't help one either. Paco sees people’s broken pieces and gathers them in. All he was was a neighbor to me, but he saw me and he gathered me in. Over the years, he’s been that way with me, three other kids, four dogs, and a rabbit with only one leg. See, Paco does not like to see people hurting.

We found Toby's daddy in their trailer home holding a Natty Boh with a sweaty hand and red knuckles. We could see him through the screen door and he could see us standing there. The sun was setting tomato red and safety orange and Paco knew his wife was on the other side of the block cooking barbeque brown beans and cornbread, and some men would have issued a warning and gotten home to their dinner and their own people, their own blessings and messes.

Instead, Paco jabbed his cane at the aluminum door and rattled it like a snake. Paco has a certain moral code that allows for some violence in the service of peace or peace of mind, swift action over a wait-and-see mentality or a long boring trial period. He’d rather be doing something than figuring out what to do.

Found somethin’ of yours, he said.

Where'd he get to? Goddamn kid don't know how to stay put.

He got hisself the fuck away from you, just where he needed to get. Toby's daddy heaved himself up from the stained La-Z-Boy and had to grab onto a floor lamp to keep his balance. He had a small piece of coleslaw stuck in his mustache. The cicadas had started up for the summer and it felt as though they kicked into high gear, then, cranked the volume in order to fill the space where somebody was expected to speak. None of us were, not even Toby, who had lowered the bloody briefs to his side and was squeezing them tight in his little fist like treasure.

Finally Toby's daddy told him to get inside. Paco knelt down and grasped Toby by the elbows and asked him if he wanted to go and Toby shook his head. Don't you shake your head, you little retard, his daddy said. 

*

I shouldn't try to say what Paco was thinking about—he doesn't like to be spoken for—but I guess I have a good idea. Paco used to get his ass kicked all the time, even as an adult. He was always big, but he was so skinny back before he got it into his head to start doing pushups out in the garage with me sitting on his back. Before he bulked up, some nights a group of the town kids would corner him by the dumpster behind the Wendy's. I don’t know this part for sure, because he’d never tell me about it, but I can make some educated guesses about the sort of names they might have called him. Some teenagers just hate a handicapped man even more than they hate someone like that of their own age. I do know that they’d force his head up against the leaky plastic bladders of ketchup or mustard. He'd come home with the stuff in his hair and he'd stick his head in the shower and I'd be peeking around the doorjamb from the hall and the water would run streaky orange and the bathroom would reek of corn syrup. It's not a smell I've ever forgotten, anyway.

You're not his daddy anymore, Paco said. He pushed the screen door open with his cane. I don’t know what you are now. Paco kicked Toby's daddy in the belt buckle and knocked him backwards, arms flailing for balance. His temple caught the lip of the kitchen counter and of course by then the cicadas had paused for a breather, left us too much silence, and nothing could drown out that noise. God gave Paco next to nothing to work with, but I haven't yet met what could stop him. We could have turned and walked away then, and I guess I should have made sure we did. But Paco went inside.

I took Toby a few steps out into the brown, weed-choked yard and asked if he knew the words to “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” and he said he did. I hate the sound of my own voice but I sang as loud as I could, a little scratchy and a lot wrong. Toby and I wobbled our ears around and pretended to tie them in a bow. It's a song Paco learned in the Boy Scouts, and it's what he used to sing to me when he first took me in and I was still waking up screaming and ripping my sheets off the bed.

Those nights Paco would comfort me just by existing nearby. There he was and he was strange but sure of himself. He was loyal, and I could feel that in nearly any action he took—wiggling his middle finger through a hole in a wool sock to make me look at him or lecturing me on the real causes of the Civil War. He’d take up some of the too-much space there was with an out-of-key song or the smell of Spam frying or one of his scratched-up CDs—usually Jay Z or Isaac Hayes, stuff he’d found at the Disabled American Veterans thrift store and fallen in love with. Paco took his mottos from his music, said things three, four, five, six times to make sure you were taking it in. Rather die enormous than live dormant. The size of that man’s life filled the room, filled the whole trailer, and left very few cracks for whatever force it was that’d been sitting on my skin like a dirty film and causing me to claw at my cheeks and thighs in the worst part of the night. You gotta learn to live with regrets, he always said, then said again.

Can you throw them over your shoulder….

Toby finally joined in. Like a continental soldier?

I feared that at any moment he might get bored of me and turn his back, turn toward this particular kind of love of Paco’s that I wasn’t sure he was ready to witness yet. I waggled my eyebrows at him, I showed him my teeth. I just kept doing whatever I could think of.

*

Paco came out of the trailer and saw us singing and smiled. His graying hair fell across his freckled scalp in thick uneven locks, heavy with sweat. He huffed gently and limped down the three steps. At the bottom he pulled an old-fashioned handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his button-down denim shirt and wiped off the frog on the top of his cane with it. Then he put the frog right up close to the kid’s face and let out a big, guttural ribbit; Toby giggled and glanced at his shoes. I felt then that Paco genuinely, to the bottom of his strange big heart, did not care what happened next, which was an attitude I’d never before known a person to have.

The sun was gone. The bugs were loud again. As we walked away, cutting through our neighbors' lots, we triggered their motion-sensor lights one by one. They snapped on suddenly as if to catch us in the act, but we didn't even startle, just kept on walking home.

—Eric Thompson

#251: David Bowie, "Low" (1977)

          And I will show you something
          different from either
          your shadow at morning striding
          behind you
          Or your shadow at evening rising to
          meet you,
          I will show you fear in a handful of
          dust….

                        — T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”


David Bowie always played with alienation, or so it seems to me. Think about Major Tom, helpless in the enormity of space in spite of celebrity (Planet Earth is blue / and there’s nothing I can do), to his return to Earth years later, in “Ashes to Ashes,” the junkie your mother warned you not to mess with. There’s the unnamed girl in “Life on Mars?”, that beautiful little vignette of angst and escape into fantasy, when the grim scene of parents fighting and absent friends proves to be too much. But those were other stories. Maybe they contained some of how Bowie felt at the time, but you can lose yourself in those songs; dance to them and mouth the words. They’re almost....comfortable.

Low, as a whole, or as (to quote Eliot again) a heap of broken images, remains, forty years later, profoundly uncomfortable. Low is the work of an artist struggling to reintegrate a broken self, and by the end of it, one is unsure if the treatment has worked for Bowie, or for the listener. For me, it has a tough beauty: floating and cold, with lyrics that fade in and out like a radio signal consumed by static. Even the most “accessible” of its songs, “Sound and Vision,” sounds like a plea: return to me the gifts of sound and vision; I’m lost without them.

Sometimes, for an artist, there are things that you want to make, and things that you have to make; whatever’s inside will come out, and maybe it will destroy you in the process. Low falls into this category. The life that Bowie was leading before Low, in spite of the output of those years, was no life: it was disintegration, coming faster and faster, and he knew it. Low does indeed show us one man’s fear, and the process of tunneling out: you retreat to your room, or create languages that don’t exist. Create an ambient suite of cityscapes. How will you come back to yourself, after the self you thought you knew, dies?

I don’t want to reduce Low’s achievement, or its influence on what came after it, to a mere therapeutic exercise for its maker, or for its listeners. It is larger than that, for me. While a current of fear is everywhere on the album, there is also its opposite: a calm underneath the relentless fragmentation. I have nothing to lose now. I’ve already lost it all. Bowie is not one of his personas here, those slick trickster selves that were so easy to slip on, and maybe so hard to leave behind. Everything has been stripped away here, and Bowie demands that we listen to it. “Warszawa,” the longest piece on the album, first track on the second side, is an astonishing sonic portrait, considering that Bowie spent so little time in Warsaw (accounts have him there for only a few hours at most, between trains). The music rolls in and over, like fog; what words are heard are a language that Bowie made up, sounding vaguely eastern European, but at moments a word that sounds like Kyrie leaps up, snapping it back into a real place, if not a real time.

For me, Low stands out of time. It doesn’t have the glam-giddiness of the Bowie from the earlier ‘70s, and you can’t hear what Bowie would become in the ‘80s, a bleach-blonde beast in a magnificent suit (another guise). If Blackstar is a meditation on the death of Bowie’s physical body, then Low is the meditation on the death of Bowie’s psychic self: all of the shards of his personality, wrapped up in Brian Eno’s ambient creations, filter out what he did not want. It is not easy to say what he did want; freedom, maybe, or maybe to be left alone with the sounds in his head. Inner space here replaces all of the outer space metaphors about loneliness and alienation that came before. Bowie’s sunken dream of a room filled with sound and vision is ours to have, if only we listen for the signals.

—Sarah Nichols

#252: Jay Z, "The Blueprint" (2001)

When I think of Jay Z, I think of his mother. Maybe that's because of the way he's depicted her, featured her, paid tribute to her, used her in his work over the years. I've heard her voice and listened to her tell stories—her son riding a two-wheeler, banging on the kitchen table just to make some noise. She has a voice like Maya Angelou or something, Jay Z said.

Or maybe it's because when I think of anyone famous I always think first of the peripheral people who have been gifted or cursed, touched or sucked in by whatever their loved one has managed to become to the world. My imagination is endlessly drawn to the impossibility of reconciling the child and the icon, the parent or brother and the tabloid headline. How could you be Scott Swift, Malia Obama, Gloria Carter? How could you be those people and carry on as though your life still made sense?

When I think of fame I think of a would-you-rather at a Mexican restaurant. Would you rather be famous or not? So loaded a question all on its own, I guess, that it doesn't require an elaborate premise. Four of us said no, three said yes, and I waited for the others to reconsider. In the end it was unanimous. Could you choose to be recognized or honored for your work without being famous? No, that wasn't the bargain. We sipped margaritas and chose to stay right there, where everybody else on the restaurant patio was a humming blur clinking their forks at a different table who saw the same when they glanced our way. We chose to sit there and eat our guacamole, feeling important to each other, but contentedly meaning not all that much to the world at large.

How many of us long for it, dream of it, strive toward it, sob because we will remain relatively anonymous? And how many of us would be depressed or destroyed if we got it? In Frederick Exley's “fictional memoir” A Fan's Notes it's the depressed alcoholic author's endless tragic struggle: attempting to come to grips with “life's hard fact of famelessness.” It's also one of Jay Z's career-spanning projects: detailing the double-edged sword of how much his unimaginable success has given and taken from him—how much people have demanded of him and stolen from him and coveted him, and how hatred of him has grown in parallel with the adoration.

One of my obsessions as a writer seems to be about how unexpected a life can be. I want to read and write about criminals and pop stars. I want to try to imagine what it would be like to viciously murder someone or play the Super Bowl halftime show, and yet to be someone who was not decidedly insane. These are people who knew from birth what they'd ascend/descend to or people who could never have predicted such an outcome for themselves. In the story “Escape From Spiderhead” the ghost or soul of George Saunders’s narrator has an epiphany after ending his life to save someone else's. He looks down at a facility full of murderers and thinks:

“....killers all, all bad, I guess, although in that instant I saw it differently. At birth, they'd been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life-enders?....No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light….”

Rightly or wrongly, I always see this as one side of the coin, and Beyoncé as the other—opposite, but equally as predestined in some ways, equally as unimaginable a thing for a baby to grow into.

I remember my childhood like I remember my dreams: often not at all, or obscurely, but sometimes in a concussive and unlikely moment of clarity that has me sitting up sharply in bed. There was a snake ten miles long and an abandoned schoolyard. When I pressed the elevator button it pricked my thumb. We rode a fire engine through a jungle, siren screaming, and the girl I thought I loved was there (but she wasn't her, not exactly, of course). Something was urgent. Something seemed life or death though who, anymore, could say what it was?

At a Minnesota Timberwolves game as a child, I couldn't think of anything better than to come down from the upper rows of Target Center and put my body in proximity to the people whose names lit up the jumbotron. I imagined meeting them, loving them, being them, brushing against them in line for the bathroom as if we were similar and both belonged in that same inglorious space. And after one game my dad and I stumbled through a tunnel in the bowels of the arena just trying to get home when the players walked by. I shouted and shouted for Christian Laettner. He heard me but didn't look my way. He strode by, cold, and broke my heart, and then here came a middle-aged woman trundling behind. He just didn't hear you, honey, she said. Her name was Bonnie, the internet tells me now. She touched my shoulder and asked for my name and address and a few weeks later her son's autograph on a basketball card arrived in the mail with a handwritten note from a star whose mother had dragged him back to earth and laid down the law.

When I wonder about humans I wonder about what is contained within each of us. I imagine how some doctor held each of us up by the leg, almost dropped us, didn't, blessed his non-mistake. That doctor knew the story was both written and unwritten, that the blueprint was rolled up inside us already, but at the same time nothing was set in stone, that we were capable of almost every single thing: of penning a love poem, succumbing to drink, building a temple, firing a handgun into the crowd at a festival.

When I think of this album I think of the Jackson 5 and Natalie Cole and Kanye West and September 11th and the Marcy Projects Jay Z came from and the rhythm and punch of the lyrical delivery, yes. But I mostly think of the title track. It seems to me like the first time that Jay Z chose to tell his whole story so succinctly and completely. It's not the first hook I hear, but it's what blew the doors off on my initial listen. It's where Jay Z says that where you came from is more than an origin, that backstory matters, maybe more than anything. It's his autobiography, which he'll keep telling on every album for the rest of his life, which begins with the line momma loved me and ends with the line my momma loves me. It had never occurred to me that that might be how even a star, even he, would choose to frame the story.

When I think of our president I wonder how many people love him. Not how many voted for him, or attended his inauguration, or support his policies, or hope he succeeds, or have been married to him, or begrudgingly wish him the best, or secretly hope he will save us, or saw his TV show. But how many people in the world would say they love him? Is that even something we ask anymore, and wouldn't that—couldn't we let it?—be the simplest measurement of some things?

When I think of Gloria Carter I think of her in the kitchen of her Jersey soul food restaurant, peeling potatoes and nicking her ring finger. I think of her son tricking her into coming to his studio and telling stories (not revealing he intended to get her on his new record). I think of the odd phrase she uses, which Jay Z would later sample on “December 4th,” for a different album: and a funny story is—setting us up and crafting the backstory that would humanize him for us, or even re-humanize him for herself. I think of her calling her son out for a diss track that went too far for her tastes. He apologized for it on a radio show. I think of the way she turns up from time to time, like the friends and family of the famous do, on red carpets or in online articles. US Weekly says she says Jay Z melts when Blue Ivy says Papa. Her restaurant is called Diamondz N Da Ruff because, she says, A diamond comes from coal.

And when she's there in the limelight on her own for a moment, at the opening of her little dream, the reporter doesn't seem to want to know about the grits or the fried chicken. Will they be coming out to Newark for a meal anytime soon? Or is it true? he wants to know. It couldn't happen to them, could it? Who could be better suited for either one of them than the glorious, untouchable other? A divorce between superstars?

The oil is bubbling in the kitchen. She's been up since dawn reprinting menus and trying to think ahead, trying to imagine and prepare for every last little thing.

But aren't they protected? is the unspoken question. The black eye of the reporter’s camera winks at her. Aren't they, unlike us, charmed?

That's not what this conversation is about. That's what she decides to say. That's what Gloria tells him.

—Eric Thompson

#253: Bruce Springsteen, "The River" (1980)

The first time Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was on November 5, 1980, the night after Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” Bruce told the audience at Arizona State University,  “but I thought it was pretty frightening.” The Tempe show is a milestone in Springsteen lore, cited as the first time the Boss spoke about politics publicly. Four years later he would release Born in the U.S.A., one of the most politically charged, and subsequently misappropriated, rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time.

But if you listen through the lyrics of those six records before Born in the U.S.A., you realize that Bruce’s music has always been political. With a technique he learned from Bob Dylan, he creates characters to appeal to a listener's morality: Mary, Queen of Arkansas; Outlaw Pete; Spanish Johnny and other tramps like us. In his memoir, Born to Run, Bruce writes:  “I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on.” We can never assume that the narrator of the song is him. And in that way, Bruce Springsteen is as much of a politician as he is a rock star.

There many reasons why Hillary Clinton is not president right now. When Wikileaks published excerpts of a speech she gave to Goldman Sachs, a line about having “both a public and a private opinion” revived the characterization of Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy, corrupt, queen of the establishment. (The quote, unsurprisingly taken out of context, was paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, and not made in reference to Wall Street reform.) For her entire career, Hillary has been accused of pandering, contradicting herself, and containing multitudes. But for her to have gotten as far as she did, there had to be several Hillarys: the policy wonk, the mother, the feminist, the down-to-earth daughter of a man who made window drapes. And likely due more to misogyny than incompetence, her performances fell flat. “The life of a rock band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and [they] can look up at you and see themselves,” Bruce told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1984. “If the price of fame is that you have to be isolated from the people you write for, then that’s too fuckin’ high a price to pay.”

Humility and authenticity are tenants of all of Bruce’s personas. In my favorite song, he sings: “Now I’m no hero—that’s understood.” My boyfriend recently asked me if Bruce had ever done or said anything that disappointed me, and I couldn’t think of anything. It was a few days later that I remembered I had written an academic paper not even a year ago about how Springsteen appropriates black culture in his stage performances, most egregiously when he speaks in the voice of a black preacher. And as an academic I stand behind this criticism, but his approval rating in my mind hasn’t budged. My love for Bruce is inherent—I respond to his music viscerally, not intellectually. I have both started and ended romances because of Bruce Springsteen. The River came out the year my parents met, and I can’t listen that album without imagining them falling in love, which might disqualify me from evaluating the album in any culturally meaningful way. My father has seen him more times than he can remember, and took me to my first Boss show when I was in high school. We had the worst seats in the house: behind the stage, in the very last row of the 18,277-seat Verizon Center in Washington D.C. I’ve since seen him a dozen more times, including a few shows where I made it to the front pit, but that first one when I stood next to my father in shared awe remains the most meaningful. Even with his back to us, Bruce still appeared to have as much faith in us as we had in him.

Bruce re-released The River in a box set at the end of 2015, accompanied by a massive tour in which the E Street Band would play the entire double album—20 tracks—all the way through. In April 2016, two days before he was scheduled to play a show at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, Bruce announced that he was cancelling the show to protest the HB2 law that prohibited transgendered individuals from using the bathroom of their preference, and further obstructed protections for the LGBT community. He posted a statement to his website explaining his decision, writing,  “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry—which is happening as I write—is one of them.” And while tickets were fully refunded, many fans posted their distress to social media:

So disappointed in you. Did you forget the little people? The ones that paid a week’s salary to see you play? You could have made this statement another way.

I am shocked and sad that Springsteen takes this stance against normal people and against protections for women and children. Giving in to vile sinful culture seems to be all you care about when it may affect your popularity among liberals.

Bad move Boss. Many people will miss a chance on seeing a great show because of the ignorance of a few lawmakers. Music should be bigger than politics.

It’s a fallacious argument Bruce has bumped into many times before: celebrities should stay out of politics for the sake of their fans. (Ironic, considering how many of those speaking out against Bruce’s cancellation likely voted for Donald Trump.) Springsteen’s music, and the characters he embodies, appeal equally to the white working class and the bourgeois, to conservatives and liberals. He is both Jon Stewart’s and Chris Christie’s favorite musician. And despite the “Bruce Springsteen for President” T-shirts and bumper stickers floating around, he knows the limits of his power. Politicians let people down, and rock stars help them back on their feet. Bruce manages to do both.

In an interview with Marc Maron after the 2016 election, Bruce described his fear of a Trump presidency as distinct from his reaction to Reagan’s, saying, “I’ve felt disgust before, but never the kind of fear that you feel now. It’s as simple as the fear of, is someone simply competent enough to do this particular job? Do they simply have the pure competence to be put in the position of such responsibility?” He did express sympathy for blue-collar Trump voters, a number of whom identify as Boss fans:

“I think if you were affected deeply by the industrialization, globalization, and the technological advances, and you have been left behind, and somebody comes along and tells you ‘I’m gonna bring all the jobs back. Don’t worry about it. They’re all coming back.’ You’re concerned about America changing, the browning of America—‘I’m gonna build a wall’....These are all very simplistic, but very powerful and simple ideas.” He added: “They’re lies. They can’t occur.”

Rock ‘n’ roll is also a powerful and simple idea—the notion that anyone with a hungry heart can find redemption in three chords, no matter what family you were born into. It might very well be a lie. The person on stage—holding a guitar or at a podium—might be in character, might just be after your money or your vote and nothing else.

There has been a significant protest in Washington, D.C. every day since Donald Trump got elected. Marchers often sing the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land,” as the lyrics have new resonance after the Muslim Ban went into effect. Nobody knows the words to the verses, one of which includes an obvious socialist message. But they sing it anyway, in several keys at once.

“I don’t think people come to music for political advice,” Bruce once said. “They come to be touched and moved and inspired....people aren’t coming on an informational basis. I was attracted to Dylan because he sounded like he was telling the truth. I didn’t sit there with a lyric sheet. It was just in the way it sounded.”

*

One of the last times I saw my grandmother, my dad and I sat with her as she slid into and out of consciousness on a hospital bed. We still talked to her, but it was unclear how much she could comprehend at that point. To ease the tension, my dad turned on the TV and flipped through the channels. Bruce Springsteen: Live in New York was playing on HBO.

“That’s my hero, Mom,” he told her, to no response. I had never heard my father speak to his mother like that, like how he might have spoken to her when he was a little boy. Your parents are the first politicians you know; from them, you learn how to read the room. I think he was taking his last chance to introduce her to another version of her son, and the people and things he believed in.

On the little screen, Bruce bellowed, asking us as he had so many times before: “Is there anybody alive out there?”

As my grandmother slept, my dad and I watched the rest of the concert in silence. The answer was understood.

—Susannah Clark