#29: Led Zeppelin, "Led Zeppelin" (1969)

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The female rock duo Heart starts off “Stairway to Heaven” light, but it doesn’t stay that way. Before long, the son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and a choir wearing bowler hats joins them on stage. The three remaining members of Led Zeppelin watch from the balcony wearing the rainbow Kennedy Center awards they’re being given tonight. There’s a lot going on in this moment. The camera moves between the old rock musicians, Heart and the band, people in the crowd in tuxedos and evening gowns, and the Obamas. But what always blows me away watching this are the faces of the three band members. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, consummate musicians that they are, smile and bob their heads along to the song and laugh at each new part of the song. Lead singer Robert Plant, though, tries to duplicate this and can’t. Instead, fighting back tears, he holds his hand over his mouth as if to keep the words in and stop himself from singing along. He shifts, uncomfortable for how much he feels and yet can’t express, watching the legacy of his work on display in one of the more well known high culture ceremonies in the U.S.

I’m not here to talk about the Kennedy Center awards, Led Zeppelin IV, or even “Stairway to Heaven,” but I did want to start here at the end because I think it’s always crucial to remember what music feels like. Not just listening to it but also making it. As someone with lifelong depression, emotion can be both rare and common in a weird mixture. Plateaus of general numbness combine with seasons of wanting to cry at every Hallmark commercial like my mother. Watching Plant hold back tears as he is overwhelmed hits me hard every time, but so does watching Jones bob his head as he feels it move through him in ways that Plant can’t.

The emotion of Led Zeppelin often gets lost in the technical prowess they unfurl over and over across their albums. Songs like “Stairway to Heaven” are so iconicly “impressive” to play that the music shop in Wayne’s World banned playing the song. Burgeoning musicians looking for something technical for an impressive showpiece turn to a lot of different outlets. When I was 15 and picking up a guitar and bass for the first time, I quickly got swept away in the various genres of metal, prog rock, alternative, funk, and even folk. You know the story. Show up at a party and wait the bare minimum amount of time before you take over the family piano or steal the acoustic guitar tucked away in the corner of every house and start playing something. Inflict your skill on the room or entice people to come sit at your elbow in some corner of the house to listen to you play. It never works that well and you’re usually just being a jackass to everyone in the process, but you keep doing it because an aesthetic is an aesthetic.

The guys in the room eventually start competing for the only guitar, itching to show up or get their moment in the sun. Usually the most tenacious and stubborn musician will win that fight, even if they’re not the best one in the room. You win, you get and keep the guitar and the room empties as Kevin and Lane leave and go back to everyone doing karaoke in the den. You play versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and that part from “Immigrant Song” you know until you realize it’s been almost half an hour since you saw someone. The bass from Avril Lavigne’s “I’m with You” thrums through the floor and you get an inkling of how much you’ve missed.

I’m not saying the mechanical and craft side of Zeppelin’s work isn’t important, though. After all, even Led Zeppelin’s I has some breathtaking moments. The folksy rock of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” bears the earmarks of what will later become songs like “Stairway,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “Ramble On,” and others. Plant’s vocal iterates around a lyrical theme of “I’m gonna leave you babe” with no real explanation of why. At times it feels like he’s just improvising the lyrics on the spot, since they seem to have no real direction but move in obsessive circles around the need to ramble. This need will thread through their work like the themes of infidelity and sex.

There’s an axiom in storytelling circles that there are only really two stories, stranger comes to town and the hero goes on a journey, and that those are really the same story from different angles. In a similar sense, Zeppelin songs seem to follow a reductive pattern, with “Good Times Bad Times” following the woman rambling away from the man and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” following the man rambling away from the woman. A life of transience, never feeling settled even when you stay somewhere for a while. You’re still a transplant and outsider, someone who never quite puts down the roots that you always wanted. Maybe that’s part of moving to a small school in a small town, the natural exclusion of a close-knit community. The times when you act like you’ve got more friends than you do as a way of creating an imaginary community. You say “I had a friend do [this]” or “My friend said [that]” until everyone gets sick of it. It’s almost always the same person or two, and you’re not fooling anyone in the process. Making your own blues is never as easy as Plant makes it look.

Because, if we get down to it, that’s really what gets lost in all these new musicians like myself or bands that want to sing about mythology or high fantasy: the feeling. Perfect arpeggios and strange chords weren’t what made Zeppelin fly, what made them an icon. No, it was the blues, the feeling that undergirded everything. When Plant groans his way through losing his woman or being “Dazed and Confused,” he does it like a man sitting on his front porch. Maybe this front porch is huge and surrounded by thousands of people, but it creaks and groans under the weight of sound roaring out of it nonetheless. When Jones rumbles up and down his bass or keeps pace just fine with Page, he does it with the structure and iterations of the blues. Jimmy Page attacks his guitars with a pick or a violin bow with feeling, just like Bonham does with the drums. When Page solos and makes something new each time through the song, he follows a guitar line running back through the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I never so much listen to them as feel them.

This is probably true of most good music in some way, but Zeppelin embraces the pain of the blues, appropriates it, with all the trappings that come with that practice. White boys singing black blues with loud guitars. Even if they never intended it, their popularity erases these musical roots but takes the feeling up for itself. Maybe the erasure wasn’t as strong when they made the songs so they never had to say, “Hey, you all remember Muddy Water? This is kind of like that.” But now, in the wake of a white audience taking up their sound, taking up that feeling, the connection is more of surprise than a given. Maybe that’s why they sang about Lord of the Rings and vikings, because they had no experience or history to tie themselves back to the spirituals belted out in the fields. And maybe they knew that, which was why they denied requests for their songs to be used in most films and TV shows until Jack Black in School of Rock managed to convince them by calling them the “gods of rock.” Even the film Dazed and Confused didn’t feature the song it likely borrowed its title from. What do we make of this? I don’t know.

The blues are tricky that way. I learned the twelve bar blues before almost anything else on the guitar and the bass. I played blues solos on the pentatonic scale, riffed across my guitar and bass’s necks in my room on the edge of the house and felt like it spoke something about me but I didn’t know what. Some deep yearning or loss pouring from the sound that kept me coming back to it so that even now, over a decade later, I still remember the two part blues song I wrote but never got anyone to play with me. What does it mean for me to play the blues? I don’t know that either.

So we come back to the start, the first moment they rang out on a record. It starts with the drums and guitar. Two hits. Rest. Two hits. Sprinkle in a some light cymbal like the ticking of a clock. Build to the vocals jumping in with the bass and open up the drums. Drive the rest of the song with the beat as your woman left home with a brown-eyed man but you still don’t seem to care. And away we go.

—Josiah Meints

#31: Bob Dylan, "Bringing It All Back Home" (1965)

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for Zach

I've been listening to Bringing it All Back Home in the car on the way to and from work for the past several weeks, in preparation for writing this piece. I was worried about what my angle would be—and in a sense I still am. I don't really know how to begin talking about Bob Dylan's music. Everything I've read about it seems to involve some thesis about who Bob Dylan, the man, the legend, is, of which the music is an example. But I don't really care about the historical person "Bob Dylan." In fact, I've barely gotten over the relative novelty (for me, anyway) of listening to a CD in a car during a commute. I'm so used to walking and using headphones, but for now I am consigned to use the old-fashioned, aux- and bluetooth-less sound system of my 2005 Dodge Stratus. If I hit a bump, the CD skips. The check engine light is always on because there's a leak in the fuel pump; by the end of the summer I will have to get a new car. But for now it's me and a motley assortment of CDs I bought because I was tired of listening to the radio while I drove. About half of them are by Bob Dylan. You can make of that what you will.

The Dylan that one finds leafing through my car's CD wallet is the result of what my friend Zach calls a "folkectomy." With a few exceptions, I dispense with the acoustic Dylan altogether, preferring to start when a backing band shows up—which means with Bringing it All Back Home. But I lose interest when that band becomes the Band; I don't care about polished surfaces and accomplished songwriting. At least, that's not what I listen to Dylan for. An aficionado might object: but the messiest Dylan is the youngest one, trying valiantly to imitate Woody Guthrie! To which I can only respond that the least interesting part of listening to Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan himself—or, more precisely, Bob Dylan by himself. He needs a band to keep him honest, to rein him in when he needs reining in, but also to accentuate those moments when he flies off the handle in ways that are at least interesting, if not downright beautiful. This is why I have no truck with the Band. By the time they show up, Dylan knows he needs them; this knowledge undercuts the bravado that gave us the best, or at least weirdest, rock albums of the 60s—Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Gone is the proto-punk thrill of wondering whether he meant to play that note, make that noise, miss that beat, say that word. When you get to The Basement Tapes, the answer is always "well, yeah, this seems intentional." And where's the fun in that?

Bringing it All Back Home introduces us to the bewildering, short-lived encounter between Dylan and a parade of brilliant studio musicians who are tasked with getting Dylan out of his own way while keeping him from becoming formlessness personified. Every song here is a balancing act that doesn't quite work out, resulting in a systematic sonic unevenness. In fact, by the time we get to the shift from Side A to Side B—from electric back to acoustic Dylan, but without any of the conscientious, "finger-pointing" lyrics for which the folk Dylan is often venerated—by the time we pass from "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" to "Mr. Tambourine Man," we are liable to suspect that the shift between sides is itself an accomplice to this unevenness, a calculated and deliberate moment of silence that primes us to expect a shift in gears that never quite happens. The shift from a rollicking, full-band electric blues to the spare and more melodic second side is ultimately a joke at the expense of the listener. We are led to believe that Dylan has gotten rock music out of his system, and is returning to a simpler, folkier time. But then "Mr. Tambourine Man" keeps going and going, and doesn't make much sense. I mean we could read the lyrics closely (I do not like Dylan's lyrics as a general rule, so I leave the task for someone more interested in them), but they lack the social sharpness of early Dylan, the sense that he's singing about a collective struggle against injustice. The allegory is more private than public now, and its basic message is borderline obnoxious: leave me alone.

This is what I love about rock and roll Dylan, to whom Bringing it All Back Home introduces us. He updates Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" for us, rewriting "I prefer not to" as "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more," suggesting that pure refusal can, in itself, be a desirable end. It's a little embarrassing to write about loving this aspect of Bob Dylan. But it's also way more interesting to me than the Dylan who conscientiously objects to the US war machine, not least because of how embarrassing I find it. I mean, why is it that I—or maybe we—blush, balk, hesitate, rationalize when Dylan blows us off? What do we expect that he has failed to deliver unto us? Do we assume he has an obligation that he has failed to fulfill? As I write this I wonder if I'm not just describing a general tendency in 1960s rock music, which, as I have learned from movies, TV, and my parents, was met with scorn, derided as hedonistic, and subsequently the cause of pretty much every bad thing you can think of in that decade. Probably it is wrong to say this is specific to Dylan. But is any of what is interesting about Bob Dylan specific to him? If you dispense with the various charismatic personae as I began by doing, what's left? I see two things. There's the studio musicians, who are brilliant and who do most of the work. About them there is not much else to say, except that they do most of the heavy lifting here and elsewhere, and the best reason I can think of to go back and listen to any given Bob Dylan album from this era (which, recall, is the only one for me, post-folkectomy) is to listen to what they're up to behind the scenes.

And then there are the conversations about Bob Dylan that spin out from this basic question of whether or not Bob Dylan is a singular entity in pop music. Obviously these are legion, and ongoing. I'm participating in one right now. And I think about this kind of talking and writing when I drive from Holyoke to Amherst and then back to Holyoke on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—a trip I will continue to make this coming fall, but which will probably change next spring, since I'm not teaching the same class anymore then. Suddenly I find myself talking, not about Dylan's music, but my own life; not about the unpredictability of Bob Dylan in the studio, but the unpredictable rhythms of my contingent, precarious employment. But this shift is itself an argument about why people are so hung up on the particularities of Bob Dylan. An artist who so frequently and explicitly changes gears and directions invites us to talk about these changes. In doing so he opens a window onto history, which is made up of changes much bigger than swapping an electric guitar in for an acoustic one, and yet which it can be helpful to think about figuratively, using the guitars to model on a small scale what happens on an impossibly large one.

Which brings us back to the tone of belligerent refusal: isn't this a kind of novel way to relate to all of these shifts and changes? Not with hope or fear, joy or sorrow, excitement or disappointment, but just feelingfulness untethered from any particular referent. It is, of course, a kind of open-endedness that a white straight guy like Dylan can embody more readily and with less possible risk than the rest of us. But I think we should take from this what we can, especially as it reminds us that the serious twists and turns of history often result in extremely unserious, downright petulant childishness, the official name for which is "art," which is what implicitly I have been discussing all along. The tone of Dylan, then, reflects back at us our basic desires for art; it does so in a way that reminds us that our stated preference for composure and maturity is always about to be undone by a gesture equivalent to throwing a pie at someone in a cartoon. (This is probably the best way to understand stupid slogans like "the children are our future," where the emphasis is on children as agents in their own right instead of on the implied act of procreation.)

All of which is at the forefront of my mind driving back and forth from work these days. Soon I will have to do something very mature and replace my 2005 Dodge Stratus with a car that does not have a leak in its fuel pump and which is therefore much safer to drive, but which I will have to make monthly payments on. I will, in this new car, probably be able to expand my listening repertoire beyond what I've got in my CD wallet. My personal version of "going electric," I guess. At least insofar as it involves kicking and screaming. And it is this more than a new car or an aux cord that finally returns my thoughts to society, that makes me wonder what kind of kicking and screaming might go along with the whole world going electric—which would mean changing everything about the way we live and relate to one another, whether we think we can or not. Such a radical change seems increasingly urgent, and it is increasingly clear that it won't come about through appeals to reason and polite compromise. The pump, as it were, doesn't work; the vandals took the handle. What better way to respond to this state of affairs than absolutely childishly?

—David W. Pritchard

#32: The Rolling Stones, "Let It Bleed" (1969)

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It was cold by California standards—in the thirties—but we didn’t care. We layered on sweaters and stood in line an hour to pick up Let it Bleed, my mom waiting in her Mercury across the street, flipping through the paper while she kept an eye on Patti and Ellen and me. She loved Patti and Ellen, it was me she didn’t trust because of the thing with the pot, but if she had known Patti was dating Meredith, she wouldn’t have even let us hang out at all. Mom was pretty liberal, so when she was going to say something racist she said it like she was only being practical. “It’s the way of the world, Denise. Some people take grave exception to a black man with a white woman.” Obviously I didn’t tell her about Patti and Meredith.

Patti was brave and free, like truly free, not just posing, and Meredith was so sweet. They say boys are behind girls maturity-wise in the teen years and I think I could see that with Patti and Meredith—there was something so innocent about him, artistic and fun, like everything was playacting, from the way he dressed to that stupid gun. Only a boy would do something like that, bring a gun, all flashy and shiny and unloaded, to a concert thinking he could protect people.

Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.

We piled into the back seat of Mom’s car and gazed at the cover. It was that crazy cake on a record player, layers of tire and pizza and film canister, cheesy little Rolling Stones figurines standing in the top cake layer like bride and groom, but this cake was for celebrating the feeling we had when we got the record home and dropped it on the spindle. Like we were receiving the gift of our own lives and times handed back to us wrapped in the eternity cloak of art. It’s hard to explain what it was like to hear that music for the first time knowing that we’d be in the crowd seeing the Rolling Stones live the very next day. Breathing the same air, vibing on the music and the people. Everybody said the only thing wrong with Woodstock was that the Rolling Stones weren’t there, and I’d been feeling so jealous of everybody that made the cross-country trek to Woodstock—my big sis and her friends—that when the Stones announced their show—free show, even—just a hop skip and a jump eastbound on the 580—we were going. We’d been hearing about it for awhile—at first they said it was going to be at Golden Gate Park but there was some trouble. Rumors varied, but finally, with the concert two days away, they said Altamont, Altamont Speedway, for sure this time. I don’t know if the Stones timed the release of Let it Bleed to be the day before Altamont, but if I had to guess I’d say no, since I don’t think anybody knew when that show would be until right before it happened and kids were pouring into the Bay area by the thousands, ready for the show wherever it may be.

Our way of being ready was this: listen to Let it Bleed all night until we had it memorized, then we’d get up early and head to the show. We’d be there all day, get good spots for when the Stones took the stage, and when they played the new songs we’d be ready to groove, to sing along, we’d know it all, and we did. We went straight to my room and sat on the rug. I pulled the record player between us and plugged it in while Patti tore the cellophane of the front and slid the black disk out of the paper sleeve. It was my record, so it should’ve been me doing the honors, but Patti had these delicate fingers and knew how to handle a record with the pads of her fingertips, get the tone arm in position, lower the stylus, so the job went to her. As the opening of “Gimme Shelter” started, we sat cross-legged, heads together, and studied the back cover, grinning.

Meredith got to borrow his mom’s boyfriend’s car, a ‘65 Mustang the color of champagne. He picked us all up at Patti’s house, smiling as he pulled up. We had all been up since early decking out for the event—putting on false eyelashes is no easy task and I was determined to have them. Ellen wore a paisley dress and Patti trumped us all with a suede mini skirt and a crocheted vest her mom had just finished making. But Meredith won the fashion show. He looked amazing, in a lime green suit with this black silk shirt underneath and a black felt hat. “They’re going to think we’re Sly and the Family Stone,” I said, scooting into the back. “They’re going to give us backstage passes.”

We debated the best songs from the new album on the way. There wasn’t a weak song on it, but to me, “Gimme Shelter” was immediately and obviously the best song in the history of rock and roll, of all music, of the human planet and the universe, but Patti had it bad for “Live With Me,” and “You Got the Silver,” I think because she and Meredith were feeling all that romance. They’re great songs, of course. Then, Ellen. Her picks surprised me. She’s this tall brunette with alabaster skin and no butt. She already looks like the matriarch of a really rich family. Her expression is naturally stern and she looks like somebody who does everything right, but for her, “Midnight Rambler” and “Monkey Man,” those raunchiest of songs, were hers. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was pretty philosophical and deep, and we reminded each other that Mick Jagger had attended college and was no dummy. I wish I knew which songs Meredith would have favored. He hadn’t heard the album yet and didn’t care about the Stones, really—Patti said he’d taken her to a Temptations concert, that was more his groove, and he’d been at Monterey Pop, but he was no Stones fan, more about the peace and the love and the spectacle. You just don’t want to miss a party as big as this was going to be. We headed east to the seedy rural edge of Alameda County listening to KNAN, singing along. They were playing a lot from Let it Bleed and I already knew most of the words. We debated who was hottest in the band and of course it’s Mick, and what would he be wearing tonight? He was so pretty like a girl.

Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today.

We got so bored and we wanted to go home. We sat for hours in the car parked along the edge of 580 and watched people pour in. I’d never seen so many people in one place in my life. All kinds, most of them older than us, straight-looking citizens and freaks, blankets over their shoulders, coolers carried between them, big glass jugs of wine passed around and the air green with pot smoke at all times. People were leaving, too, with bad reports.

Sitting on the hood of the car, Meredith called out to this pigeon-toed girl and her boyfriend, “Why you leaving?”

They came over shaking their heads. “It’s a bad scene.”

“Scary. The radio says there’s 300,000 people.”

“The Hells Angels are security. They rode right through the crowd on their bikes. Tasha almost died—they would have run right over her.”

Tasha nodded agreement. “They’re beating the shit out of people with pool cues. Like, wailing on them. And guess how they’re getting paid? In alcohol.”

“Who’s idea was that?” I asked. “Hell’s Angels hate hippies. They hate black people, they hate counter culture.”

“It’s wolves in the hen house. You shouldn’t go down there, man.” The guy looked at us all, but especially Meredith. “It’s a powder keg.”

We were quiet when they left. I wanted to go home so bad—I think we all did but nobody wanted to be the weakling. I was sleepy and hungry and I needed to pee. After a few minutes Meredith got up and opened the trunk of the Mustang and he got out this gun. A shiny revolver, big and kind of blue. He said it was to protect us all in case we got caught up in any bullshit like that couple told us about. He looked at Patti when he said it and I knew he wanted her to see that he’d take care of her.

I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement

It got dark and cold. Once we heard the Stones were about to take the stage we left the car and pushed in through the crowd until we were up front. The place looked like a Fellini film, bonfires casting light onto scaffolds draped with people, 300,000 people, and burned out cars from the race track dotting the scene. The stage was crazy low, like three feet high with no distance whatsoever between the band and the crowd, the way you find in a small club, and the Hells Angels prowling and beating. It was their stage and they were letting the Stones play. We got separated and I wasn’t sure we’d all see each other again until after the show, but then Ellen and I looked up and noticed Meredith standing up on a speaker box at the side of the stage. We were so glad to see him, so we started making our way over there. We knew Patti was probably right below him.

We saw the Hells Angels pull him down and start punching him. We saw four of them surround him, we saw him pull his gun. We saw the knife come down. Then they pulled him away—the gun was out of his hands and he was no threat but they pulled him away. We found Patti and we stood at their backs and tried to stop them, tried but they stabbed him four times. They knocked him to his knees then they held his head up and took turns kicking him in the face. Then the guy that stabbed him stood on his head for over a minute until all his features were crushed in on his windpipe. The Hell’s Angels wouldn’t let us carry him away on that side of the stage, so this guy helped and we went through the crowd and it took 15 minutes to get to the Red Cross tent. What could they do? They had bandaids, aspirin, tourniquets.

Just a knife sharpened, tippy toe
Or just a shoot 'em dead

brainbell jongleur
Everybody got to go

On the back of Let it Bleed, the cake is broken and ruined. A big piece has been cut out, toppling the band member figurines, who are about to fall into the gap, all except Keith Richards who is kind of sunk in frosting, but who seems unaffected, looking out like he doesn’t notice a thing. The record below is shattered and a piece of pizza has dropped on top of it. There’s a nail sticking out of the tire and a white medical bandage is wrapped around it. I’ve never been able to listen to it again after Altamont, but I hear it all around me anyway. I feel so guilty that if it catches me unawares, when I’m not thinking, I still love it. But I should be forgiven for this. It’s not my fault. It’s one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.

—Constance Squires

#65: Phil Spector, "Back to Mono (1958-1969)" (1991)

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I’ve been reading a Phil Spector biography for close to a decade.

Mark Ribowsky’s book He’s a Rebel is wonderful (and does a great job laying the groundwork to show what could have led Spector to later be found guilty of murdering actress Lana Clarkson). I just have always had things come up that have stopped me from finally finishing it (much like this piece).

Sometimes I wonder what piques my interest around Spector. Maybe it’s because without Spector, we don’t get the concept of a household name producer. Quincy Jones, Butch Vig, Jimmy Iovine, Mark Ronson, Rick Rubin, Kanye West, the Neptunes, Darkchild, Timbaland, T Bone Burnett, Brian Eno: these are all names we know because of Phil Spector.

The music he produced shaped the early ‘60s American pop music landscape and inspired several musicians, from the Beatles to Brian Wilson (who would go on to work with him) to Bruce Springsteen (if Mike Appel hadn’t produced the song “Born to Run” it could’ve been a Phil Spector record). Spector’s production style came to be known as the “Wall of Sound,” characterized with layers of multiple instruments (three pianos, five guitars, two basses, etc.), echo, mic spill (i.e. one guitarist’s riff bleeding into another microphone meant for another instrument), and, of course, mono recording.

The Wall of Sound is a perfect analogy for Phil Spector’s production calling card. It both describes what you heard in each of those mono recordings but also alludes to the structure that hid the countless musicians and production staff behind Spector’s name.

Many of the songs, often attributed to groups like the Crystals, were actually sung by Darlene Love and the Blossoms (see “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron,” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”). Singer Bob B. Soxx’s Blue Jeans were comprised of the Blossoms. In fact, if Darlene Love wasn’t singing lead on a Phil Spector record in the first half of the ‘60s, she was almost always singing background.

The orchestrations were almost always performed by the same group of session musicians, otherwise known as the Wrecking Crew. The lineup almost always consisted of Carol Kaye on bass guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, Tommy Tedesco on lead guitar, and a plethora of other session musicians who would go on to play on almost every ‘60s American pop record recorded in Los Angeles and would ultimately be the musical foundation behind the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Some of the other notables on these records included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Dr. John.

Behind the sound booth with Spector, you had Larry Levine as the sound engineer and Jack Nitsche putting together the arrangements that would be performed by the singers and the aforementioned Wrecking Crew. Music and lyrics were written by a large group of songwriters that contributed to a genre to what would be known as the Brill Building Sound, named for the building where many of these songs were composed. The Brill Building Sound’s songwriter teams from this era included Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich—even Spector himself wrote many of the hits.

If you look at the personnel credits for the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” it reads as an all-star collaboration: Darlene Love, Sonny Bono, and Cher on backing vocals, Hal Blaine on drums, Leon Russell on keyboards, Tommy Tedesco on guitar, and Carol Kaye on bass.

Hollywood has done a great job putting out documentaries that chronicle the unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. There was a 2002 documentary on Motown’s session musicians, aka the Funk Brothers, titled Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Tommy Tedesco’s son released a documentary a few years ago on the Wrecking Crew. 20 Feet From Stardom, a documentary on background singers and whose main subject is Darlene Love, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2013. Despite these documentaries and later recognition, it’s still Phil Spector’s name that’s on this compilation, and none of these documentaries’ subjects.

Why does Phil Spector get a “Best of” album, but the Wrecking Crew only gets a fan-made playlist on Spotify? There are no hour-long Time-Life informercials for Carol Kaye or Hal Blaine boxed sets featuring aging rock stars. Many of the Brill Building songwriters made names for themselves outside of the shadow of Spector (most notably Carole King), but a regular person on the street wouldn’t recognize Ellie Greenwich or Cynthia Weil’s names, despite them being responsible for a chunk of their life’s soundtrack.

Is it fair to call something a “Phil Spector Record” when there were several other common denominators on so many of the records? We celebrate Phil Spector’s genius the way we celebrate a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. They were ultimately the ones with the vision and drive to orchestrate the production, but it’s the sum of the parts that created the art. Steve Jobs had the idea for the iPod, but it’s Jony Ive who came up with the sleek white product design and Steve Wozniak’s engineering team that created Apple’s first computers.

Would Phil Spector have been Phil Spector if he had never met Darlene Love or if the Wrecking Crew musicians didn’t continue taking the gigs? Would his genius have shone as brightly if the Ronettes (fronted by Spector’s then-wife Ronnie Spector) hadn’t sung “Be My Baby”? Would the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” have been the most-played song on American radio during the 20th Century if the Wrecking Crew hadn’t been playing the orchestration and Cher and the Blossoms weren’t on background vocals?

Despite never having their own greatest hits compilation, those background singers, songwriting teams, sound engineers, and the Wrecking Crew’s legacy live on in the musicians that continue to reference them. While writing this piece, the legendary Hal Blaine passed away at the age of 90. Upon his passing, tributes came from Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Spector, the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Toto’s Steve Lukather, Rosanne Cash, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith. Bruce Springsteen has yelled out his name when Max Weinberg played a Blainesque drum riff during an E Street Band show.

Ultimately, these musicians, background singers, and production crew members will never be household names, but their legacies will live on in an E Street Band drum solo or even some of HAIM’s harmonies, and maybe that was Spector’s point. You may not know Hal Blaine, but if someone beatboxes that opening line to “Be My Baby,” you recognize it. The Wall of Sound ultimately hid its own foundation under a perfect monochrome wallpaper, but it was built to be indestructible.

—Emilie Begin

#33: Ramones, "Ramones" (1976)

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In May of 2004, End of the Century: the Story of the Ramones premiered at the Times Cinema in Milwaukee, WI and I went to see it with my dad after dinner on a school night. It was hot, the first flex of summer that brought the promise of cicadas on the other side of a strong rain. We walked. En route, my dad told me about the first time he saw the Ramones, and the second time, and the third. That was the summer my listening opened like a flower; the initial jolts of agential choice. I began to grasp the power and privilege one has in building their own sonic environment: a decision that to this day remains profound and humbling. Hearing my dad expound with such excitement about a feeling I would come to crave was tactile; I felt the rush and thrill of the noise and crowds, the lights and sheer power wrought by four sets of jeans and leather jackets burning through a setlist like a bandolier. The feeling was raw and real and then I was pulled back by the hiss of a hydraulic hinge and the rush of AC as we entered the cold breath of the theater.

I should preface here by saying that while my parents nurtured different tastes, music was always a focal point in our household because they loved what they loved in the same way. They taught me how to think about what I heard and how it fit together: what each member of the Beatles uniquely lent, the fact that Dee Dee’s bass was always cued to the L, and that new wave and power pop are both hills worth dying on. I would become a detective, a surgeon, a fan, but back then it was just beginning.

The seats at the Times were wood and cool to the touch. As the lights dimmed to a hush, the crest of a bald eagle with a baseball bat gripped in its talons blinked onto the screen. I remember watching in rapt silence as footage of the Ramones’ early days in Queens rolled past: grainy shots of New York City ravaged by negligence, the dank and hallowed ground of CBGB, cut with numerous snippets of time spent on the road, a van their choice mode of conveyance. What culminated was an understanding that the individuals behind the Ramones (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy; and later Marky, Richie, Elvis, and C.J.) were disparate parts that made a cohesive whole. They harbored opposing views on politics, drugs, culture, and control; yet were able to hold together in the service of a unified vision. They were amateurs who through sheer force of will became legends.

It has been years since I truly listened to the Ramones; being the pretentious boob that I am now I tend to eschew traditional punk for its post- and proto- iterations. Of course I knew “Blitzkrieg Bop,” but it wasn’t until recently, and after a hearty course of humble pie, that I came to view it as the perfect foil to understand the Ramones as a band, and frame punk more broadly as a lens through which the world was changing.

The song functions as a call to arms, forecasting a sea change in the way music was conceived of and performed. It’s unrelenting, encouraging, and inclusive in its desire to establish and dismantle order. As a listener, you’re one among a formidable array of bodies in lines and backseats stomping and sliding toward the breaking of new ground, proudly defiant in the face of the unknown. The Ramones were attempting to build something new through the destruction and perversion of the old, and en route struck a raw power roiling beneath the bored and dejected “tight wind” of youth culture.

When I revisited clips from the End of the Century to ensure accuracy for this piece, I was quick to note a flaw in my recollection: that no such eagle emblem appears at the beginning of the film. Rather, it opens with a clip of Dee Dee reflecting on what can best be summed up as disappointment: how life to a certain extent did not unfold how he or the band envisioned; “anybody else [would] probably be happy with what we have,” he says, following the observation with bemused laughter. This is followed by footage of the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony where the Ramones were honored the first year they became eligible, the honorable Eddie Vedder presiding. Joey Ramone had succumbed to lymphoma less than a year prior, and Dee Dee Ramone would die of a drug overdose three weeks following the induction.

Why did my mind place the emblem at the beginning of the documentary? Much time has elapsed since my initial viewing, which places an even greater distance between the Ramones in their heyday as a band, and their post-breakup status as a brand consumers can select when considering where they fall on the gradient of socially acceptable rebellion. A fitting image for a sound steeped in Americana that at its core is a rejection of its systems. Was the first punk show in America a tea party in Boston? But who goes all the way to the harbor when you can palm airplane glue for the price of a smile?

Memory is fallible, but I suspect it’s something more complicated. Conveniently, “Blitzkrieg Bop” serves as a prime example of how the forces that dictate our world manage to swallow all that meet them in opposition. Think how the song’s anthemic nature was so easily co-opted by stadiums and marketing campaigns. Or more broadly, how the band’s emblem of a bat-wielding bald eagle can be found on T-shirts in chain stores and on the backs of suburban mall punks with their parents’ credit cards. Did the song in some way anticipate the lockstep adherence popular culture must take to serve the gears of growth? Did the Ramones, through their strict adherence to the same sound that broke them as the one now used to date them, become quaint?

Then again, perhaps “Blitzkrieg Bop” still resonates as a counterpoint to the way of life it set out to lampoon. That regardless if it’s paired with a fast car, cued to the strut of an athlete, or plucked from a spinning disc, there will always be defiance in its very DNA. A pervasive sentiment for those tuned to the right frequency, a message both amorphous and eternal, outlining the window of time where freedom is allowed to briefly ring before succumbing to a gaping throat. A blitzkrieg is a thing which is rapid and unrelenting. A reminder that if you capture lightning in a bottle it can be used to see at night. That when we are feeling flat and defeated, the recordings are wells we can bend our ears to and drink.

It’s difficult to watch the footage and not think the Ramones gave their lives in service of a thing we all feel entitled to but few can summon forth. Rock and roll, as both a bastion and simulacrum of American culture, promises the potential for escape and the possibility of becoming the most in-demand commodity around. But punk rock was something different: a defining sound for outcasts, misfits, and miscreants. A wolfbane to polite society who predictably recoiled in horror. That by tethering fast tempos and loud guitars, and dismantling the requirement for discernable musical technique, a genre equally precocious and pugnacious was born. A sneering Icarus with wings of glue and gob, and a scene littered with those who flew too close to the sun.

I don’t remember the film ending. Just that my dad was beside me once again but this time we were both talking excitedly about the Ramones as if we had just swapped a crowded club for the warm hush of night air and the droning whirr of cicadas in the trees. We walked, and as our shadows lengthened in the streetlights we reminisced about how a band had helped us lose our minds, and agreed that in those moments they were truly brothers. When I think about the Ramones I am still in the same body that walked home from the theater, the streets awash in freshly fallen rain and water eddying audibly toward the open mouths of the sewer. And when I think about that night I wonder how it might have changed.

—Nick Graveline

#34: The Band, "Music from Big Pink" (1968)

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In the late sixties, the guys who made the Judas thump and fever of Dylan’s much-maligned electric tour rented a little pink four-square on a hundred acres in the New York countryside. Bossman Bob had them on retainer post motorcycle crash, so Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko shacked up and jammed with Dylan and Robbie Robertson who both lived close by. Soon enough, Levon Helm came back from the oil rig where he’d done his time in self-imposed exile, a conscientious objector to abject fame and success, and in the basement of the house they called Big Pink, this group, who’d been playing professionally together since they’d been an average of 19 years old, became the Band, which is about as un-self-conscious a name as could be imagined. If you’re a twenty-something-year-old member of a professional backing group with self-evident raw, natural talent, living your best life on Bob Dylan’s dime in the late ‘60s, the notion that you were hot shit might come pretty easily, and they really may have been the best band in America. They could knock you down, take your wallet, lick your wounds for you, liquor you up, and make you boogie before you could say how do you do sir.

In the Big Pink days, there was a typewriter in the house that everybody shared, and I’ve thought about it countless times over the years as a sort of ur-object of communal creativity. I always imagine peeking inside the window into a kitchen that is day-lit behind little floral curtains above the sink. There’s a percolator plugged in on a formica countertop, and roommates shuffle around sort of ignoring one another like roommates do in the morning. Somebody types a couple of lines on the machine, half of a couplet or an obscure riff on a Luis Buñuel movie that has crossed their mind. Later on, someone comes by and enters a slant-wise response. The pages stacked up, and this lived and practically applied Mad Libs/Burroughs cut-up technique, an ongoing experiment in associative synthesis—in play really— pervaded the house and filtered into the tunes on The Basement Tapes or Music from Big Pink. The Band set themselves up to stew in their own creativity together, constantly woodshedding, hashing out that sound that was actually innovative, and yet so cryptically familiar, even familial.

Between the thousands of shows played with Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks, into the Dylan era, and for decades after on the road as a group, Richard Manuel recalled, “We drove ourselves to as near perfection as we could get. To the point where we’d really thrill each other. There was a clairvoyance.” The 10,000 hours required to become an expert in any pursuit were, for the members of the Band, really spent learning to know what the other guys were getting ready to do, and what lies at the root of their sound is this ability to anticipate movement and get in the rut with the rest of the gang. This sense of individuals moving as one organism is everywhere on Music from Big Pink.

Put your head into the record and just marvel at the way the frequencies are separated from but cooperate with one another. That frizzle-fry proto-country-funk of tunes like “To Kingdom Come” next to the locomotive paddle-wheeler “We Can Talk” punctuated and bookended by the warm, dolorous Richard Manuel stunners  “Tears of Rage,” “Lonesome Suzie,” and “I Shall Be Released.” Where others have noted the album as an anthology of original songs cobbled together with a handful of Dylan tunes and a trad. cover, without the supposed cohesive novelistic thread of the Band’s eponymous second record, I find the freshman effort moving, balletic, and nuanced. The work of hyper-talented individual artists who have dedicated themselves to playing unselfishly, for the sake of the song.

What was finally formalized at Big Pink was the primacy of the song-as-objective, and the understanding that the Band was truly a sum of the parts. Performing live at Winterland in 1969, the group left Dylan’s employ and returned under their own steam as the Band with so much virtuosity that folks say even back then it was hard to decipher who was really in charge. There was a shifting center of gravity. They changed singers. Switched instruments. Everyone was an incredibly adept player and Danko, Helm, and Manuel could each assume the role of frontman.

I wonder how we would all think of the Band if Martin Scorcese had never made the thrilling but very imperfect and problematic documentary The Last Waltz which, I think, had the effect of obscuring the Band as a true ensemble. In the camera’s eye of The Last Waltz, and in the subsequent fog of the intervening decades, I perceive that many listeners and observers would attribute the lion’s share of creative drive to Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, with Rick Danko bringing up the rear. These three just happened to be the most outspoken members of the group who appear in the film more than anybody else. Garth Hudson was, I believe, very glad to live in the background of his younger peers as tutor and arranger and the most sagacious, musically adept member of the group.

Richard Manuel doesn’t appear in the film very much. He was in the throes of a pretty brutal collection of habits and depression that would culminate in his suicide in 1986. In the concert footage, he is infrequently in the center of the frame, and in the interview segments he comes off as a little bit of a fucking lunatic, a grinning, coked-up spider inhabiting a human frame. But he was considered to be one of the Band’s principal singers in the early years and has as many songwriting credits on the first record as Robertson. In the arc of the Band’s music, Richard Manuel can be seen as something of a vocal ace-in-the-hole. He just never fails to dazzle, but he took a backseat in popular perception, and I think that just piles one tragedy on top of another.

He was the youngest member of the the Band and the most soft-spoken. Shy to the point of seeming brittle, by some accounts. George Harrison would later recall an intimate recognition of his own timidity in Manuel, one that was focused into and contrasted by the strength and character of his voice. Manuel had a distinctive range that moved between a true baritone that noted the R&B icons he’d emulated as a young man, and a high, soulful uncertainty, a questing, somber falsetto that was as unmasked and vulnerable a voice as any I’ve heard. Lately when I listen to the Band, I just miss him.

Taking one of the most significant, dynamic all-star ensembles in the history of rock music and picking favorites is folly. And the Band was about the songs, not the individuals. But, damn, you collect all the cards and you tape a couple of them to the wall. Manuel was my favorite, and Music from Big Pink is Manuel’s record in my mind.

—Joe Manning

#35: David Bowie, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (1972)

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These beings, these Infinites, they go on and on. They go on forever, traveling across the universe through black holes. They travel through the universe until they arrive at the blue and green and grey planet called Earth, and one of them says, “Why is this planet grey?” and another one says, “The grey is the planet’s cancer, she is sick.” The first Infinite says, “We are infinite, we know better than to say a planet has cancer or is sick.” The second infinite says, “It was intended as a metaphor.” A third infinite says, “How can we help these people? I mean, while helping ourselves?” The first infinite says, “It’s not our job to help these people.” The second infinite says, “Maybe if we just make them feel a little better before they die.”

*

Meanwhile, the people of Earth, they sigh. And they cry. It’s because they’ve exhausted their planet’s resources, sucked the life from the blue and green orb circling the sun. What’s left to do but sigh? And cry? When the news of Earth’s end was announced—“We have five years,” the experts said—news anchors cried. Their tears filled screens, matching the tears of their viewers; tears so plentiful they threatened to spill out the front of televisions and soak the floors of homes. The more skeptical pundits challenged the idea that the world was ending—“How solipsistic,” one commentator announced, “to believe the world is ending simply because we have run out of the resources we depend on to keep us comfortable.” Others questioned the idea of having five years left for the planet—for many, once services and utilities began drying up, one more hour alive seemed incomprehensible, while for others, a life time post-civilization seemed like paradise. It wasn’t long after the news broke that Earth’s electricity supply was exhausted. Conversations and speculation about the current predicament became confined to private residences or among groups of neighbors in the safety of their backyards. Who dared venture out to the streets? Because of course the streets were overrun by the young and able-bodied as they attempted to—what? Provide for themselves? Seek the thrills that they were too frightened to seek when their existence stretched out before them for decades instead of for just a few more years? Maybe those young people were simply venting their rage at the older generations and the greed that caused the end of the world? It’s not like any of them could do anything to fix it. What did any of it matter?

*

A rock and roll band without electricity isn’t much of a rock and roll band, but that’s what Ziggy is left with here at the end of the world. Ziggy’s band is called the Spiders From Mars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ziggy or his band are from Mars, though some think they might be due to their, especially Ziggy’s, willingness to shuck gender norms and fashion conventions. Still, despite the band’s radical image, there isn’t much demand for rock music at the end of the world. Ziggy’s manager tells him, “Maybe you should sing the news?” And Ziggy says, “What are you talking about?” The manager says, “Like, there’s no news anymore, nobody knows what is going on, so maybe go out into the streets and sing the news.” Ziggy, not knowing what else the fuck to do with his final years of existence decides this seems like an OK idea, because at least he’ll still be making music.

*

[From “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie” as published in Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

Burroughs: Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years ago.] Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All the Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.]

*

Ziggy plays guitar, and the Spiders From Mars back him up. Without electricity, they strum and tap. Maybe their performances exist like in musicals, reality slipping away to show us the ideal performance, plugged in and loud. This is fiction, after all, why not take license with reality? On the streets, Ziggy and the Spiders From Mars observe and report the news through their songs, but they soon learn that there is no good news left anywhere—all they have to report is violence, crime, suicide, the stuff of rock and roll romance, of youthful excess, but nobody wants to hear that.

*

Elsewhere, one Infinite says, “We will prepare the Earthlings for our visit.” Another Infinite says, “Why bother?” The first Infinite says, “Our arrival will be smoother if they are prepared.” A third Infinite says, “It’s not like we’re really going to do anything meaningful while we’re on their planet. Maybe most of them won’t even know we’re there.” The first Infinite says, “But maybe if we’ve prepared them, they will celebrate our arrival.” The third Infinite says, “Why bother?” The first Infinite says, “Why not?” The second Infinite says, “Eh.”

*

One night in his sleep, Ziggy receives a message in the form of a dream: a Starman will visit the Earth and deliver the Earth’s people from evil, will become their salvation. Inspired by his vision, Ziggy decides that he will spread the Good News of the Starman to Earth’s people, will give them hope in the darkness. Of course the People of Earth are inclined to believe in this idea of a Starman who will come save them—the idea isn’t that far removed from Christianity, after all. For his part, Ziggy comes to believe that he is a profit of the Starman and preaches Judeo-Christian principles of love and acceptance, all while challenging the culture he lives in’s beliefs about gender identity. Now, as frequently happens in these types of rock and roll stories, as Ziggy embraces what he believes to be his new role as a prophet for the Starman, and as his popularity grows, the Spiders From Mars become jealous as they are being forgotten. Maybe the band breaks up? Maybe the whole Starman thing and Ziggy’s belief in it falls apart? Who knows, really.

*

[From “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie” as published in Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman,” which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.]

*

The Infinites slide out of a black hole like meat from a grinder and alight in Greenwich Village. They are labeled as a Black New Yorker, Resembles Brando, and Queenie the Fox. Nobody can see them, though, because they’re non-corporeal black hole jumping beings. When they get to Greenwich Village, they go for a drink. They can’t really drink because they’re non-corporeal. Nothing else happens. Nobody even really knows they’re there. Queenie the Fox says, “What’s the point?” The Black New Yorker says, “Because we are anti-matter, these people don’t even know we’re here.” Resembles Brando says, “Why do they need to know we’re here? We’re here, isn’t that what matters?” Then he adds, “Wait, why are we even here?” The Black New Yorker says, “Exactly.” Queenie the Fox says, “If only there were a way we could become corporeal.” Resembles Brando says, “What would we do then?” Queenie the Fox says, “I don’t know—touch stuff?”

*

For their part, Ziggy and his followers wait for the Starman. As their fervor increases, Ziggy’s disciples protect him, feed him, and bathe him. They do whatever it takes to keep him alive, even giving him increasingly rare food. They look at Ziggy and see hope for a time that they truly know is gone, but perhaps, too, they see in him forgiveness for the nihilism and hedonistic embrace of their pleasure drives from the time when they’d initially learned they only had five years left to live. Sure, Jesus came to Earth and forgave everyone’s sins, but then he was co-opted by those who would wield the power of his teachings to attempt to enforce “traditional values.” For Ziggy’s followers, here was an omni-sexual rock and roll star with his tongue on the pulse of the violence and lust of their young souls, offering still some kind of absolution, some kind of acceptance.

*

And maybe this is the part of the story where we acknowledge that the story doesn’t make any sense. Nobody even really knows what the story is. Some people say Ziggy Stardust was from Mars, that he was the Spaceman come to preach love to the people of Earth. But that’s not what Bowie said, though who knows if Bowie even knew what Bowie was saying through most of the ‘70s. I mean, who are the Infinites? Why do they tell Ziggy to preach of a Starman? Why doesn’t anything happen when they reach Earth? Why do they want to become corporeal? What the fuck does any of this mean?

*

[From “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie” as published in Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

Bowie: Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide.” As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today…]

*

And so the Infinites track down Ziggy, who is onstage singing “Rock and Roll Suicide” to his disciples, and the Infinites break off pieces of Ziggy, and they probably say something like, “Ziggy said, 'Take it and eat it, for this is my body,'” and they consume the pieces and they become corporeal, and Ziggy’s disciples look on in wonder, quietly murmuring, wondering if these are the Starmen who were sent to save them. The infinites look out at the crowd of disciples. The disciples look back, expectant—

*

The Infinites shrug. Or the Infinites raise their arms and stuff the Earth full of Infinite resources. Or the Infinites lift the people of Earth up into space to a new planet. Or the Infinites reach out and say, “You are not alone.” They say “Gimme your hands,” and the people comply, and they all die together, at least understanding they are all beautiful, all wonderful.

*

[Bowie: “I wasn’t at all surprised ‘Ziggy Stardust’ made my career. I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star.”]

*

And so what then? Did civilization end? Did the Infinites deliver Ziggy’s disciples and anyone else alive on Earth from their grim demise? Did Ziggy rise again three days later? On Ziggy’s future Earth, is there a church of Ziggy where attendees eat acid tabs and say, “This is his body”? We don’t know, will never know. There was no, will never be, a story.

—James Brubaker

#36: Carole King, "Tapestry" (1971)

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My middle school guitar teacher could hit all the high notes of “A Natural Woman.” I’d shown up to my lesson with my dad’s copy of the songbook for Tapestry along with my three-quarter-size guitar wanting to learn those songs. I needed to. I had to. I understood Carole King as the powerhouse that she is, a songwriter extraordinaire, a wholesome rockstar crooning about friendship, and I wanted to be just like her. I was a songwriter! I had songs written on scraps of paper and in notebooks, ideas on ideas on ideas. I was like J. K. Rowling writing her wizard story on napkins. I was like a young, female John Prine. I was like Gillian Welch wanting “to sing that rock and roll…to ’lectrify my soul!” You know, except that I didn’t stick with it or practice or make it much past the callouses phase of learning guitar, or, truth time: actually write that many songs. Now, that said, I did have regular lessons for a season, and I could play a handful of chords well enough that my teacher thought we ought to definitely perform “A Natural Woman” together at the talent show. I thought not.

I was twelve and where Carole King’s song “Beautiful” may well be right that “you’re as beautiful as you feel,” I wasn’t feeling it. Still, Tapestry was an ideal anthem for middle school me. I, too, was a skinny white girl with frizzy brown hair, and it was helpful to see her owning a look I was self-conscious of. Mood swings and the grandiosity of adolescence pulsed through me like the soda pop from a Happy Meal. Zip, zip, zip. I had glasses the size of my grandmother's and rubber bands affixed to my braces working to realign my jaw. Thank goodness for Carole—those curls, that confidence, that voice, offering up lyrics like “I didn’t know quite what was wrong with me,” that just resonated.

Carole King, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon—my parents’ music became my own, what I sought out and listened to. I was a frequenter of the CD store where I bought my very own copy of Tapestry (we only had the record at home as I remember it), and I asked a store clerk where I could find an Aretha Franklin album with "Natural Woman" on it. “For you?" he said, like it was so peculiar, like I ought to be looking for the Backstreet Boys or “MMMBop.” I left with a copy of Aretha Franklin’s Love Songs. It was the ‘90s. Weinstein was busy shaping the cultural imagination about womanness in movies with nightmares transpiring backstage. Bill Clinton was the President, and my mother, with grief in her voice, stood in the kitchen and said about his intern, “She was twenty-two! She was only twenty-two!” And who was it again who made those secret tapes? Tripp? Is that what friends are for? It was middle school. We were crying in the bathroom at school dances and trying to figure it all out—is this flirting?—in the hallways, the cafeteria, and the assigned seats of seventh grade science. And there was Carole King. That album. It could make a person feel situated in the world even as the earth moved under her feet.

While her songs often include self doubt, they don’t stay there. Out of sadness, “I used to feel so uninspired,” her songs often launch into love songs, “Oh, baby, what you’ve done for me.” And that’s not all, “Now I’m no longer doubtful, of what I’m living for.” And while we might be critical of how that move happens in many of the songs—that we go from there must be something wrong with me to bombastic talk of being saved by a romantic partner—“if I make you happy I don’t need to do more.” I’m wary of that criticism. While it’s true that other people don’t control our feelings and imagining self-worth as something we ought to seek and find in others seems like a dangerous perspective, I also think there’s something in these songs that can work to remind us of our interconnectedness and our capacity to alleviate one another’s suffering through community and kindness toward one another. The repetition across songs of moving from isolation to connectedness works as a reminder, too, that these are not static states of being. Over the course of our lifetimes, over and over, we must remember to reach out to others.

Consider a song like “You’ve Got a Friend” and those lyrics, “When you’re down and troubled / and you need some love and care / and nothing, nothing is going right….Soon I will be there….I’ll come running, to see you again.” There’s something lovely and true about the way a good friend, a true love, a welcome kiss, companionship—can make a person “feel so good inside (good inside).” Even as each of us falls short more often than we’d probably like to admit, in difficult stretches it’s helpful to hear Carole King sing what we know is true, “people can be so mean,” and for that truth to have only a comma and a “but” between it and her next one, “you've got a friend in me.” How hopeful and inspired and instructive, like those lines in “Beautiful”: “maybe love can end the madness / maybe not, oh, but we can only try.”

—Annie Mountcastle

#38: Muddy Waters, "The Anthology: 1947-1972" (2001)

38 The Anthology.jpg

August 2007, Long Island, NY

The ocean sounded like a chain gang breaking rocks, and the steady rhythmic quality almost caused Donovan to fall asleep again. A derelict in the grip of a codeine haze would have had an easier time waking up. He still hadn’t gotten used to the six a.m. alarm, nor the intense cold which lay in wait for him once he did finally get out of bed.

Most of the others had signed on to a life working at the winery, meaning they would chase the harvest around the world, live a nomadic existence, until one day they settled down. Donovan was still stepping his toe into that water.

Uncertainty plagued him about the future.

“Wake up, you bastard,” Chris said. Donovan sat up in the darkness.

“I’m up, I’m up,” Donovan recited in a Pavlovian response.

Previous mornings, Chris had taken to throwing various items if Donovan failed to rise at the designated time. Socks, compact disc cases, pillows, and a lit Zippo lighter had all careened against Donovan’s face throughout the last few days. Donovan was now conditioned to respect the wake-up call. He wondered how Chris could be so deadly accurate in the pitch black, and why the guy hadn’t been snatched up to do wet work for some black ops group.

Donovan sat up and turned on the lamp.

Chris was perched on the edge of his bed. He was already dressed, wearing scuffed jeans and a stained white T-shirt. He clutched an empty wine bottle in his right hand. Donovan couldn’t tell if it was an eye opener or something to be used as a projectile should Donovan have remained in bed. Before he could ask, Chris placed the bottle on the end table, along with the other empties, and walked out of the room.

The winery kept them placated with wine, and Chris took advantage. They all did. In the month Donovan had been working there, he’d consumed about two bottles a day, from tastings to the cases his group took home with them. At times, he felt like a kitchen sink writer fueling his creativity with alcohol in some Parisian haunt with the rest of the ex-pats while they seemed on the verge of solving various epidemics.

Donovan let out a deep yawn, the kind that comes from the soul, and followed Chris’s path to the landing.

The house was on the North Fork of Long Island at one of the most Eastern points. The couple who owned the house was gone for the winter, so they allowed the winery to rent it to their interns for the harvest months. Bookcases with porcelain nicknacks and wicker furniture were everywhere. Donovan stretched on the landing, sleep still not entirely out of his system.  He took the stairs two at a time and found the rest of his housemates scurrying about in some ritualistic fervor.

A big pot of oatmeal sat bubbling on the stovetop. The rest of the crew sat at the wooden dining room table, their empty bowls in front of them ready to re-enact a scene from Dickens’ orphanage.

Donovan had just turned twenty-two, graduated a year early with a classics degree, and like a long line of philosophers before him, made the decision to experience life before theorizing about it. That and his crashing on his older brother’s couch no longer suited either of them. They managed to live together in a studio apartment in Queens for three months before an ultimatum was issued.

The job at the winery solved both of their problems.

Donovan watched each of his housemates take a turn slopping oatmeal into their bowls and realized he still didn’t truly feel like he’d been accepted as part of this group. They were all aspiring vintners who would spend the new few years chasing the wine harvests from the North Fork of Long Island to New Zealand until they finally settled down at wineries which would come under their command. He felt like a transient among them. They weren’t openly hostile toward him; even when Chris threw projectiles, Donovan could sense there was friendship buried within the gesture.

Food eaten and dishes thrown haphazardly in the sink, the crew headed out to the cars. Donovan shut the door behind him and felt the chill of the salty air layer his skin like dew. The gravel driveway sang beneath his feet, and he took the shotgun seat in Chris’s blue Chevy Nova. Chris turned the radio and heater on full blast.

“Let’s do this,” Chris said and pulled out of the driveway.

The road was empty, and they were able to go twenty miles over the posted speed limit without any fear of reprisal. The sun appeared out of the water behind them, revealing rows of cornfield and vineyards on either side of them. If a realist painter were to do a landscape portrait of the area, it might be titled “Serenity.” The music coming from the stereo shattered this vision. The sun’s ascension happened quickly, and soon the whole of Eastern Long Island was awash in bright colors.

Chris pulled into the parking lot in front of the main building. He put the car in park but left the engine running. Donovan tried the door, but it was locked.

“Come on man,” Chris said.

Donovan sighed.

“Maybe just this once?” Donovan said, now beginning to feel physically ill. He tried to unlock the door and pull the handle rapidly, but Chris had pressed the button again before the mechanism on Donovan’s door could catch.

“That’s how the fabric of the system breaks down,” Chris began. “Classics guy like yourself doesn’t know that?”

“I don’t think the Sophists were talking about—” Donovan started to say, but trailed off. Chris wasn’t listening anymore. He was banging his head to the beat. Chris drummed on the steering wheel and added his own lyrical accompaniment. Twelve minutes later Donovan and Chris stood on the crushing deck outside of the winery awaiting delivery of one hundred and fifty FYBs. It stood for Fucking Yellow Bins. One yellow bin held about twenty-five pounds of grapes. Neither Chris nor Donovan was surprised when two hundred FYBs showed up. Next, they’d have to consolidate these into four large bins and dump it all into the press by the forklift.

“Smile, man, we could be doing something really bad,” Chris said.

Both of their arms got scratched by rubbing against the rough edges of the stems. Worse, the sugar from the grape juice attracted the bees.

Donovan never fully grasped the weight of the term swarm. To him, it was a word people on nature shows threw around. It was something he associated with plagues from the Bible. Now encircling him and Chris was a swarm of bees driven mad from the sugar, dive bombing them. It added another layer of misery to an already miserable situation. Donovan walked away from the machine and massaged the back of his neck.

That same day, it was Donovan’s turn at the tank. He grabbed a large wooden paddle, which rested against the side of the tank, and climbed the ladder up to the top. The tank was highly polished silver, full of fermenting grape juice. The top layer had foamed over into what looked like purple pond scum—the sound of carbon dioxide escaping made a constant hiss. For the next few days, the yeast in the mixture would feed on the sugar in the liquid. The byproducts would be carbon dioxide and alcohol. Donovan’s job was to swirl the mixture to help ease this part along. There was a catch though.

The amount of CO2 in the air was thick; passing out mid-stroke was a definite possibility, and an unconscious person falling off the ladder, or worse, into the vat, was something the winery was looking to avoid. Therefore, it was the policy that everyone swirling the mixture had to sing. It helped keep the person alert, but also acted as a beacon for the other interns. If the singing stopped, they knew there was a problem. When Donovan brought up the idea of using gas masks or oxygen tanks, management simply began to laugh.

Donovan dipped his paddle in the solution and began to sing.

“Woo, Freebird!” Chris yelled from across the way.

Donovan stopped singing. Chris sat on top of a pyramid of wine barrels with his Zippo out and flaming. Donovan went back to work.

He watched the pattern change and searched for meaning within the bubbles like a witch would tea leaves or chicken bones. If he could decipher a message, he thought he could somehow figure out the key to life. The mixture swirled into different patterns, much like the evolution of clouds through the sky. The CO2 bombarded his face, and he got lightheaded, but still managed to sing. He chose the song “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters.

“Jesus!” He felt Chris pull him backward.

Donovan shook his head and realized that in his haze, he’d nearly pitched forward into the vat.

“You okay?” Chris said.

Donovan stared at Chris’s mouth, but the sound was not quite in sync.

“Come on,” Chris said and helped Donovan climb down the ladder. Outside, the air cleared his head.

“Thank you,” Donovan finally managed.

“No sweat,” Chris said. “I gotta head back inside. You gonna be fine?”

“I’ll be fine.”

Donovan rested against the wall and stared out at the fields of grapes. He wondered if what he had experienced was a premonition or just the side effects of too much CO2.

Jasmine popped her head out of the doorway. She was his supervisor.

“Hey, you finished with the vat?”

“Yep,” Donovan said.

“Good, come with me.” Donovan followed Jasmine along to the other side of the warehouse to a machine he hadn’t seen before.

“You’re going to filter the lees from the last batch.”

Lees was the name given to the sediment of dead yeast which collected at the bottom of the vat. Hidden within the lees was still drinkable wine which could be extracted. It was a delicate process, however. If it worked, lees filtering could be responsible for saving up to 10% of the total output for the winery.

“We call this cookie baking.” Jasmine held up a large chunk of solidified lees which looked like a giant graham cracker.

“Too much good stuff in here.” Jasmine quickly showed Donovan how the filter worked. “Nothing is ever wasted,” she added.

“Wait, what?” Donovan said. The words seemed to ring and repeat themselves in his ears. He felt a wave of euphoria envelop him and felt better about everything.

Jasmine furrowed her brow. “You good with this?”

“Yeah,” Donovan said. “Nothing is ever wasted.” He nodded a few times.

Jasmine left him alone. Donovan lifted the first hardened section of lees and fed it into the machine. He watched as the instrument extracted the usable wine from the solid then separate the rest.

—Andrew Davie

#39: The Beatles, "Please Please Me" (1963)

39 Please Please Me.jpg

My niece learned about presidents the other day. She came home from preschool with a handcrafted portrait of George Washington cut out of construction paper, with googly eyes and cotton ball hair and a straight line for a mouth. She showed me her creation over FaceTime, proudly holding it up to the camera.

“And who was George Washington?” I asked.

She blinked her big blue eyes and pointed to the cotton balls. "These is his hair!"

I was relieved that she didn’t have an answer. Because understanding George Washington will eventually lead to understanding the presidency, to understanding power, to understanding oppression, to understanding that the first president was a slave owner and the current one...I’ll stop there. At three years old, my niece sees in the world in watercolor instead of ballpoint pen. It is precisely because I am not her mother that I feel charged with painting these broad strokes. I’m the Cool Aunt, a tastemaker guiding her spiritually while simultaneously protecting her from the corruption of context. A large part of that effort involves the Beatles.

I realize that they’re not even mine to pass down—Grammy and Papa, who came of age with the Beatles, have done a fine job of it. Every time I buckle my niece into her carseat, she makes the same request. “Beatles?” she chirps, and I know to put on the all-Beatles channel on satellite radio. There are some songs she definitely knows by heart—“Eight Days a Week,” “Yellow Submarine,” “All Together Now.” But on the few occasions when I’ve put on E Street Radio or the Underground Garage stations instead, she hasn’t seemed to notice.

So what are the Beatles to a three year old? They are not a cultural touchstone, they are not social currency. They are not even four lads from Liverpool. She has some notion of stardom—I’ll never forget the look on her face when she a saw a photo of her mother posing with Elsa and Anna at Disney World, a mixture of wonder and betrayal. But she wouldn’t know Ringo from Adam. As sincere as her head bobs and hand claps are, I wonder if loving the Beatles is a learned behavior not unlike listening or sharing. Is she pleased because of the inherent magic of the melodies? Or she is pleased because she can tell that she’s pleased us?

Given my age, the Beatles are not a memory, but a bedtime story. It began, once upon a time, in 1963. While she was just 17, you know what I mean. Apparently, we did know. The Beatles’ debut album was a stick of dynamite, and the big bang of Beatlemania set a new world in motion. Or so I’ve been told. I don’t know how old I was when I learned their names, who was the Cute One and who was the Quiet One, who sings lead on “Octopus’s Garden.” But for as long as I can remember, the Beatles represented a golden age that I was born too late for—a time when my parents were young and the streets were paved with tie-dye. 1960s America might has well have been Oz. I had to know more. I had to know everything.

When my niece hears “Twist and Shout,” she twists, she shouts. I do the same, but I also think about how the song was recorded in less than 15 minutes, how much better it is than the original version, how John Lennon had a wretched cold and blew out his voice for weeks afterward. I wonder whether there should be a comma after the first “please” in the album title “Please Please Me.” I make a mental note to Google if anyone’s written an oral history of shooting the parade scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There are plenty of songs I listen to without considering the biographies and procivilites of the performers. But when it comes to the Beatles, I’m so enchanted by the mythology that it's not enough to just listen. I must study, contextualize, grapple.

*

The fact that John Lennon beat his first wife has come up a lot recently, cited in dozens of articles and think pieces about men accused of abusive behavior in the wake of the MeToo movement. Most people seem to put John Lennon in a different category than R. Kelly and Woody Allen—maybe because he’s dead, maybe because he acknowledged his behavior (however glibly) in song lyrics instead of getting caught and denying it. The consensus seems to be that the Beatles are uncancelable anyway, too big to fail. But if I’m unwilling, maybe even unable, to disavow the band, I can certainly knock down the pedestal I’ve put these men on since I was a child. I remember a homework assignment in elementary school in which we had to decide who should go on an imaginary new $3 dollar bill (this was two decades before the campaign to put Harriet Tubman on the 20). While my classmates picked Martin Luther King and Sally Ride and other figures from our history textbook, I chose John Lennon.

In a piece grappling with disturbing allegations against Ryan Adams, Amanda Petrusich writes:

“...I also wonder if there’s a way for critical discourse to make more room for the receiver—to give more credit to our own consciousness, and the magic it makes of sound. That communion, after all—between player and listener, in which both parties create something extraordinary together—is just as sacred. Perhaps we can start to look for the genius in there instead.”

It’s too late for me, but I want my niece to love music, not musicians. I want to rid her taste of idolatry. Or at the very least, keep it away for as long as possible.

*

I got a practice-run at motherhood last December. While my sister recovered from a heart procedure, I took care of my niece and her five-week old baby brother, changing diapers, cutting off sandwich crusts, and fielding questions about where Mommy was. First it was “Mommy is sick,” and then it was “Mommy has a boo-boo.” I didn’t want to ruin her concept of a hospital—the place where her new baby brother had come from just a few weeks earlier, a happy place.

On the day of my sister’s surgery, I was in charge of picking my niece up from preschool. Overwhelmed by a lack of sleep and thoughts of the worst case scenario, I broke down in tears on the drive over. I pulled down my winter hat low to hide my face from her preschool teachers, but I couldn’t tell if my niece noticed my swollen eyes and blotchy cheeks as I carried her back to the car.

I buckled her in. “Beatles?” she chirped. After I turned the key, it was as if I had placed a needle on a record. The song began: Hey Jude...

We na-ed and na-ed and na-na-na-na-ed all the way home, slow over the bumps in the road. She cracked up when I howled in sync with Paul’s Jude Jude Jude Judey Judey OW WOW OW OW!  In our metal cocoon, for seven minutes and eleven seconds, things were better. That, she definitely understood.

—Susannah Clark

#40: Love, "Forever Changes" (1967)

40 Forever Changes.jpg

1967

They started at the Lincoln Memorial, where the Great Emancipator sat behind them, watching with stone grey eyes as they streamed toward the Capitol. Men and women marched along the Mall peacefully, at first. Thousands of bright blue jeans and paisley turtlenecks mixed with thousands of suits, fresh from skipping work that October day. Fists dotted the tops of the crowd next to posters of “Make Love, Not War” and “Resist the Draft.” A small girl named Mary toddled at the back of the crowd, one hand holding the hand of her mother, the other a small sign that said, “I miss Daddy.”

By the late afternoon, the mother had led her daughter away from the crowd after hearing a woman ahead of them shout, “We will dye the Potomac red and burn the cherry trees,” and the crowd surged forward. Others peeled away, too. But 50,000 people marched on, slowly.

Militia surrounded the Pentagon by the time the young protestors arrived. Helmeted men lifted bulletproof shields against the flower children who held nothing but a tear-struck rage for the president and his war. They just wanted to have a choice. The president’s men lifted their rifles and aimed for the people, and the people pushed back, tearing through a fence and hurtling toward the Pentagon’s doors.

Police swung batons forcefully, fearfully.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stared hard at the fight from his office window, sighing. Troops pushed the protestors back from the entrances; faces hit the sidewalk, young men and women alike, long hair matted with blood. Youthful, eager faces screamed for freedom, for choice.

The steps of the Pentagon were streaked in blood by the end of the day.

2017

Six-year-old Shiloh Eldridge swung her legs under her seat as her grandmother Mary braided her hair. Her mother smiled at the two of them as she held Shiloh’s pink hat, a lighter and softer shade than the hot pink hats of the older women on the metro. The little girl hadn’t known the world like the other women had, not yet.

Mary finished the braid and Deborah put the hat on her daughter, fixing the tassels when Shiloh asked, “Why are we all wearing the same hat, Mommy?”

The two older women smiled and Deborah crouched down to be eye-to-eye with her, then said, “You know how I tell you that you can do anything? Even be the president?” The little girl nodded, smiling, her eyes twinkling. “Well, we all wear this hat to show that we all can do anything.”

Shiloh nodded again, slower this time, processing. “Who are we showing it to?”

Her mother paused; how could she tell her little girl why people she didn’t even know wouldn’t believe in her?

Mary rested her hand on Shiloh’s cheek and, in a serious tone, said, “Do you think you can do everything your brother can do?”

Shiloh smiled, “Of course!”

“You’re exactly right,” Mary continued. “But there are some people who don’t think that. They think boys can do everything better than girls can. They think boys are very important.”

A frown clouded over the little girl’s rosy face. Shiloh’s eyebrows knotted together over wide eyes. “Maybe somebody could tell them that girls are important too?”

Deborah sighed, “A lot of people have tried, honey. Even boys too. But sometimes words don’t seem true if you don’t believe them.” She paused; Shiloh touched her hat tassels. “We have to wear these hats to try to show that we’re important. That people should believe we can do anything. All of us.”

Mary leaned in and said in a voice so low that it felt like she was telling a secret, “It’s called a protest.”

“A protest,” Shiloh repeated.

Her grandmother took her hand and squeezed it. “You know, I was around your age when I went to my first protest.”

Shiloh stared at her, awe-struck. “Was it for girls, then, too?”

Mary smiled, “No, it was for boys. We were in a war, then, and it took away a lot of our daddies and brothers. They didn’t get to decide if they left or not, but their choices were important then, just like ours are now, right?”

Shiloh nodded quickly and asked, “Did it work? Did the boys get their choices?”

The grandmother’s smile faltered. “Not that time.”

“Why?”

Mary blinked and took a deep breath. “Shiloh, sometimes when people are really angry, they hurt other people to feel better. A lot of people got hurt at that protest, but hurting people never helps anything. You remember that.”

The little girl’s voice gained strength as she asked, “Am I going to get hurt?”

Deborah tightened her hand around her daughter’s. “No. I promise you’ll be so safe.” She smiled and played with one of Shiloh’s tassels, “We even made you a hat so your head will be safe and warm! Right?”

Shiloh giggled. “Right!” She looked out the window for a moment, happy. Then she looked back at her grandmother and asked, “Did the boys ever get their choice?”

Mary smiled back at her granddaughter. “People had to protest for a long time after that, but the boys did get their choice in the end.” She paused. “Protests will always work if you believe in them hard enough.”

Shiloh looked out the window again, and murmured to herself, “I believe.”

The women in their pink hats got off the metro a little while later, and joined nearly 500,000 other women, dotting the Lincoln Memorial pink.

—Nicole Efford

#41: The Sex Pistols, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" (1977)

41 Never Mind the Bollocks.jpg

The Sex Pistols changed my life.

It happened to me.

Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am. Or who I am. Getting into punk rock made my world different.

You probably know someone who feels the same. Who has said the same thing.

I’ve heard it so many times that I have to wonder:

Am I a cliché?

*

Here’s an origin story:

*

I bought Never Mind The Bollocks on a Saturday afternoon while my mom did errands in downtown Concord. We went home before 4:30 mass so my mom could take a shower and change clothes. Before we left I had enough time to listen to the beginning of the tape and was completely shocked by what I heard: the music was primitive and the guy who was singing was awful. He couldn’t keep a tune or hold a note.

But I was captivated.

We went to church and I sat through mass trying to imagine what the guy looked like, what he was so angry about. How he could sing in a band even though he wasn’t a good singer. I was pretty sure his name was Sid.

If this guy could do it, than anyone could.

*

I learned to play a little guitar in college and was That Guy. Seriously, I was the worst: any time a guitar was handy I’d pick it up and regale whoever was around with renditions of Pavement and Bad Religion songs.

I’d play coffeehouses around campus.

I’d sit outside and play in the middle of the quad.

I always wanted to put a band together, but I didn’t know how to do it.

I told myself I couldn’t, because I didn’t have any gear except for an acoustic guitar.

I got to a certain point and stopped playing. I was bored with it.

I wasn’t any good, I told myself.

*

I managed to get into grad school and moved to Maine in 2008.

My first book had come out a few years earlier. I was hoping classes would propel me to finishing my first novel.

I saved afternoons for drumming. I put on headphones and went down to the basement to bash away at Zeppelin songs on my hand-me-down drums.

Six months later I had the hang of it enough to play once a week with one of the five other grad students in my tiny office. We had a great time covering Devo and the Damned and the Replacements and drinking domestic macros even if I could only really play one or two beats with any degree of competence. The proficiency wasn’t the point.

*

The guy I played covers with graduated.

The second year started. The final year. My girlfriend Bec and I went to the grad student party and we met the new crew. A guy with curly hair and glasses from Virginia said he wanted to play banjo in a band that covered the Velvet Underground.

Well, I said, I play drums.

*

This one woman had been in a summer course with me and Bec. The notes she took in the novels we read were like indices—mention a theme or symbol and she’d flip to the formerly blank few pages at the front, which she’d annotated by hand as she went. Amazing.

Later that summer Bec and I were walking on campus and bumped into the thorough gal from class. She was on a bike, and had a toddler in the backseat. Her daughter, who she introduced.

A few days after the party with the banjo guy I saw the thorough girl on my walk home. She was hanging out in a neighbor’s driveway. We got to talking. She said she played guitar. I invited her over to my garage.

Then I got in touch with the banjo player.

*

When I moved to Maine for grad school I had hoped the drums would give me just such an opportunity as this: I wanted to get a bunch of like-minded people together to hang out and play music. While in Boston I had been so jealous of my friends, who played in varying constellations of bands with each other, going on tour, coming back from the practice space speaking dialects of in-jokes that were simultaneously indecipherable and the coolest thing I had ever heard. While my friends created something together I sat in my room and worked by myself.

The little bit of guitar I knew wasn’t enough to get anything going. Drummers were in short supply. I thought I’d teach myself to play and reap the benefits of being in demand.

And it was happening!

*

Bec dug her old saxophone out of storage around the same time that the California surfer dude in the new cohort nominated himself the bass player. And thank goodness—the rest of us had no idea what we were doing. California had played in bands before, and acted as translator as much as bass player: he could decipher and communicate what any member of the band thought was a part and how many times said part should be repeated to constitute a verse, a chorus.

*

Man, were Fridays great. We’d all converge in the garage and play for hours, bashing out “No Fun” for forty-five minutes at a time. It’s a Stooges song, sure, but I heard the Sex Pistols do it first. (Sorry, Ig.)

We tried to remember what we’d played the previous week, jammed to come up with new ideas. Our friend’s daughter ran around, enormous protective earphones enveloping her tiny head. When the weather got cold we moved to the basement.

We started writing songs.

The first few were incredibly rudimentary.

So were the last batch, but by then we started to have a sense of when to ease up, when to go harder. Not just in terms of dynamics, but arrangements: half the band dropped out to let the other half have some. We didn’t totally suck at the end of our nine months.

*

The truth is I hadn’t been confident enough to be in a band. I only had a little skill on guitar compared to my friends—but that’s the problem.

Compared to my friends.

By comparing, I was putting myself out of the running.

Maybe on purpose.

*

During all this I managed the college radio station. I had no experience, but I acted the part and was hired. Funny about this.

I got into the habit of throwing Hail Marys to bands whose music I liked: hey, I’d say via email, let me know if you ever want to play way up in Maine.

I contacted Coastwest Unrest in part because they namechecked the Minutemen in a song. Unlike most bands, they wrote back, and asked if I could book something for them at the end of April.

Sure, I said.

I had booked what, two shows as an undergrad?

Barely anything.

But I mentioned Coastwest at a staff meeting and everyone was like cool, we like that band, and assumed I knew what I was doing.

So I acted like it was no big deal. Even though I was petrified.

And I put my own band on the bill and suddenly we had a deadline.

And needed a singer.

*

When I wrote my first book, I had all the interviews sitting in my little recorder, waiting to be transcribed, for more than a month. Every day I would think about sitting down and getting everything typed up and something inside my head prevented me from starting. Because once I started I’d have to finish—or not finish.

Maybe my book wouldn’t measure up to my favorites. To others.

Choosing not to choose was way easier.

And once the book was complete, I sent email after email trying to find readings, trying to set up a tour.

Because I had a reason to get out there, for the first time.

And I didn’t know any other writers who toured. I had no one to compare myself to.

The rejections and indifference didn’t bother me. I kept at it until I had a slate of readings—a tiny slate, but something.

Then I booked West Coast stuff after that.

*

Bec shared an office with one of the other fiction writers in the cohort. We knew she recorded her own stuff at home. I played some of it on the radio station. It was awesome.

We asked her to be the singer, and she agreed.

Everyone in the band wrote lyrics to a song or two, we practiced, did doubles as the show approached, and got better.

*

I don’t remember much of our first show, honestly, save for being so hyped that I drummed faster than usual, with the rest of the band, similarly afflicted, keeping up. We set up at the VFW hall, soundchecked, talked to friends who had come specifically to see us.

We played first, opening for Coastwest and another, bigger touring band. I grinned a little when the crowd thinned after our set. Our grad student homies represented.

Then there was the afterparty.

After all, our band had played a show.

We all wanted to do something, so we put in the time and did it.

I managed to get over myself, to stop listening to the voices I’d invent in my head to keep me from doing things I wanted to do.

I’m not sure why I told myself I couldn’t do things.

Maybe because I was bullied.

Maybe so I wouldn’t have to try.

To measure.

*

If this was a movie, there might be some kind of “where are they now?” or postscript.

There’s the triumphant moment, Rudy being hoisted up on shoulders or whatever, and the credits roll and hearts warm and that’s that.

Except it isn’t.

The next thing is never shown.

But life isn’t like that. You know this. Things begin; things end. The trick is starting new things.

Sometimes there’s no next thing.

*

After that VFW gig, we played a talent show, a release party for a professor’s novel, and me and Bec’s rehearsal dinner, in the garage. Then we moved to Western Mass so Bec could continue grad school.

*

We still see some of the Maine gang. Not as often as we’d like. That’s the way, isn’t it?

Out of everyone, we see our guitar player and her daughter the most.

Sometimes they come down for New Year’s Eve.

As 2017 turned into 2018, our friend’s daughter, age now in double digits, asked me if I knew anything about heavy metal.

I smiled and nodded. Do you know what kind?

Old stuff, she said.

Sure. Like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest?

She shook her head.

Some kids in school are talking about this band. The Sex Pistols. Do you know them?

First I thought I have been waiting my whole life to tell someone about the Sex Pistols.

Then I thought it’s going to be easy to overdo it.

They were my first favorite band, I said, thinking of all the books I collected on them as a teenager, all the times I’d watched the Grundy interview, the Winterland implosion that was “No Fun.” How, when some kid I didn’t know was giving me shit, I’d think of Johnny Rotten and his utter fearlessness. He was beyond compare.

She said what do they sound like?

And for the rest of the weekend, whenever we all went to a place with a jukebox, she’d ask me for money and I’d give it to her so she could first play her dad’s favorite song, a ballad by George Jones which would get everyone in the place nodding their teary approval.

Then “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In The U.K.” and “Holidays In the Sun” and the approval visibly turned to disgust and we all cracked up. “Pretty Vacant,” where Johnny Rotten yells “AND WE DON’T CARE.”

*

I didn’t say it was my origin story.

I said it was an origin story.

There are so many beginnings.

Maybe I’m making too much of it. Being presumptuous. Maybe it’s nothing.

But it’s nice to think there’s something more when the story ends.

That the tales change even if the structures are the same. Because everyone has a telling that’s different. That recursion and cliché aren’t the same.

That the storyline keeps unfolding even after the credits have rolled.

There’s no need to compare.

—Michael T. Fournier

#43: Pink Floyd, "The Dark Side of the Moon" (1973)

43 Dark Side of the Moon.jpg

True, the cosmos is full of darkness, practically seems to be made of it—the emptiness between stars, dark matter, black holes. There is also the “dark side” of the moon, but it’s not a thing that is actually dark so much as a cultural idea of darkness. And because the moon is tied to cultural ideas of mental illness and “insanity”—“lunacy,” they say—evoking the moon’s “dark side” carries with it, I guess, some sort of cultural weight along said lines. So, when Pink Floyd named their most beloved, successful, and acclaimed album The Dark Side of the Moon, I can’t imagine that anyone was surprised to learn that the whole thing ended up being about “madness.” How could it not be?

*

As if the album’s title weren’t enough, the first voice we hear on Dark Side of the Moon, buried beneath a building heartbeat and ticking clocks, says, “I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years.” The voice belongs to Pink Floyd’s road manager at the time, Chris Adamson. A moment later, even harder to hear as the sound effects intensify and new ones are added, a second voice says, “I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad.” This is the voice of Abbey Road studio doorman Gerry O’Driscoll. Soon, the sound effects build to a fever pitch. A third voice laughs hysterically, and a fourth launches into a blood curdling scream—then it all breaks against the shore of the album’s first song, the most Pink Floyd sounding thing of all Pink Floyd sounding things, “Breathe,” the song that invented the platonic ideal of the Pink Floyd Sound. But before we get to the birth of that platonic ideal of Pink Floyd, the preceding sound collage—“Speak to Me,” it’s called—establishes that the album to which listeners are about to listen, the album that’s soundtracked a billion burning dime bags and moderately paced fucks, is, as the title suggests, all about madness and the fragility of the human psyche.

*

The last time I saw you was right after Christmas, 2014. You were drunk and spoke about loneliness. I wasn’t drunk because I was the one driving. I drove you home to your father’s house, where you were staying while in town from London for the holiday. Your father had recently moved out to the suburbs, so it was a bit of a drive. In the car, you were talking about loneliness and love. You said, “There are women who I’ve loved and now they are married and have kids, and where am I? What do I have to show for my life?” And I said, “You have a career, and you have friends and family who love you.” You said, “But what do I have to show for it.” And I didn’t think much of it, not then, anyway, because sadness was nothing new to you—what was different was the way that, for your entire visit to Dayton, you kept circling the same sadness, stuck on repeat. Like you couldn’t break out of a pattern of thought.

*

The reason there even is a “dark side of the moon” is because of tidal locking, meaning that the Earth’s tidal forces have slowed the moon’s rotation so that it matches the moon’s orbit just right so that we’re always seeing the same side of the moon. The use of the word dark does not mean that the other side of the moon never knows the sun’s light, only that the other side is never seen by human eyes. More commonly known as the “far side of the moon,” it’s not that side of the moon’s fault that it’s considered by many to be the dark side of the moon. The first time the far side of the moon was seen by human eyes was 1959, when it was photographed by a soviet probe. I should note, though, that prior to that, approximately 18% of the moon’s far side could be seen at times due to libration, or the point from which people are viewing the moon.

*

Before we go any further, let’s be clear about one thing: by today’s standards Dark Side of the Moon’s approach to mental illness is bullshit. It’s big and romanticized, the kind of garbage high school kids consider “deep.” It’s not about the types of mental illness we see, daily, in the people we love. It’s not about the type of thing you, my friend, were dealing with before you died.

*

But maybe the album should get a pass because it isn’t exactly about madness in broad terms, so much as it’s specifically about two of the things with which Roger Waters, the album’s lyricist, was obsessed throughout the Floyd’s beloved run of ‘70s albums—the descent into madness and resulting absence from the band of founding Floyd member Syd Barrett, and Waters’s own fragile psyche. That is, Dark Side of the Moon seems to have begun as a response to Waters watching Barrett—whose already delicate mental faculties were compromised by his prodigious LSD usage—and then turned into Waters railing against his own fear of losing his mind due to things that cause stress to the wealthy and powerful: the all too quick passage of time (as evidenced on the cleverly named “Time”), paranoia (“On the Run”), mortality (“The Great Gig in the Sky”), pressure to earn money (on, ahem, “Money”), intersubjective conflict (“Us and Them”), and groovy synthesizers(?) (“Any Colour You Like”), ultimately leading to full-blown madness (“Brain Damage”) and some sort of vague absolution and/or healing (“Eclipse”). While we can’t really expect thoughtful, grounded discourse about mental health on a ‘70s corporate rock album, Waters et al’s approach, here, feels overly simplistic and linear, the bland kind of pop psychology that leads to people saying things like “It’s all in your head,” and “Toughen up!” to people who are struggling with real mental illness. It’s as if Waters watched as Syd Barrett lost his mind and said, “That’s interesting, let’s write an album about that,” but never took into account the fact that, according to many folks close to Barrett—members of Floyd included—he showed signs of mental illness long before he started ingesting fucktons of LSD and diving headlong into the road ravaged life of being in a semi-successful psychedelic rock band. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that The Dark Side of the Moon doesn’t account for biology, brain chemistry, or even any kind of trauma—the album is ultimately the equivalent of two guys playing golf and one saying, “Hard week at the office—feel like I’m losing my mind.” Then the other probably saying something back like, “Ditto.” And then, too, “I’m here if you need anything.”

*

While many critics look back and see Meddle as the album on which Pink Floyd finally “found” themselves after Barrett’s departure, the biggest change clearly came with the production of Dark Side. Not only was it the true birth of the “Classic Floyd Sound,” but it was also the coming out party for Roger Waters as the band’s thematic mastermind. In the space between Meddle and Dark Side, though, Waters provided a bit of a clue as to where his vision for the band might be heading with a song produced for a little known film called La Vallée. The song in question is a jaunty little cut called “Free Four.” Despite the song’s up tempo bounce, its lyrics are a grim rumination on dying. At the end of the first verse, Waters sings, “You shuffle in the gloom of the sickroom / And talk to yourself as you die.” The second verse begins, “Life is a short, warm moment / And death is a long cold rest.” Indeed, nearly every verse contains at least one mention of death. Meanwhile, Waters reminds us that “The memories of a man in his old age / Are the deeds of a man in his prime.” Not only is Waters fixated on dying, here, but he’s also terrified of living, warning himself and others to live good lives so as to die more purely? Perhaps more interesting, though, is a verse around the song’s midpoint in which Waters overtly dips even further into his bag of obsessions: “You are the angel of death / And I am the dead man's son. / And he was buried like a mole in a fox hole. / And everyone is still on the run.” In a single verse, we find Waters’s obsession with death, more specifically his father’s death at war, and a reference to being “on the run,” a phrase used on Dark Side to represent paranoia. While “Free Four” sounds nothing at all like the “Classic Floyd Sound” that would soon debut, it served as a crucial thematic stepping stone to get Waters from the trippy albatrosses and labyrinths and coral caves of “Echoes” (which, to be fair, does kind of preview the sound that the Floyd would pursue on Dark Side), to the death and taxes and fear that define Dark Side’s thematics.

*

But let’s talk about you for a moment, friend, because you loved looking at the night sky, and Pink Floyd’s album is laced with space imagery, mostly related to the moon. In June of the year you died, you visited your mother in Costa Rica and spent your nights looking up at the stars and all the nothing between them. I know with reasonable certainty that the moon you would have seen those nights would have been a waxing crescent, forty-one percent illuminated. I don’t know the exact day that you died in September, but depending on what day it was when whatever happened happened, the moon would have most likely been in waning crescent, at either twenty-nine or thirty-nine percent illumination. Whatever happened that September when you were back in London, whatever you did—I hope you got to see the night sky one last time, to see the stars, and the moon, its crescent when you died, again waning like your own light, more dark, at that point, than light. A waning crescent—I can’t even blame the full moon for your death, for causing whatever happened to happen.

*

We all know that the word lunar evolved out of Luna, the name of the Roman goddess of the moon, and the term “lunatic” was originally devised as a way to describe someone as “moon-struck,” again, implying that the moon was somehow tied to mental health. Of course, no research has ever tied the moon to insanity, temporary or otherwise, or even plain old wild behavior, no matter how many people tell us that the eighty percent of our bodies that are water get all stirred up when there’s a full moon, and no matter how many ER doctors or nurses say that the emergency room is crazier around full moons. Perhaps the most compelling theory on how the persisting myth of this connection between the moon and mental health originated comes from a study by Varinder Parmar et al, called “Effects of Full-Moon Definition on Psychiatric Emergency Department Presentations,” in which the authors suggest, “One plausible explanation is that this belief is a cultural artifact, left over from the time before artificial lighting, when the lunar cycle had a real influence on the severity of bipolar and epileptic symptoms . . . it was too dark for people to be active after sunset during the waxing and waning phases of the lunar cycle. The full moon provided an increase in the amount of nighttime illumination and caused a significant sleep disturbance as a result.” So, Pink Floyd made an album about mental illness and used for a central symbol a thing that is barely even tangentially related to mental illness. My impulse, here, is to dismiss the thematic elements of Pink Floyd’s album as irresponsible and lazy—but then, it’s not like they probably knew better in the ‘70s. When The Dark Side of the Moon was being written and recorded, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was still new. Treatment for mental health was underdeveloped and not yet much understood. Studies hadn’t yet been done to show the lack of connection between a full moon and “lunacy”/“insanity”/“madness” or plain old erratic behavior. And besides, despite all of its trappings, The Dark Side of the Moon barely seems to have anything to say about mental illness, anyway. With regards to mortality, however—

*

That last night that I saw you, I felt like I was seeing a side of you I’d rarely seen before, your own “far” or “dark” side of the moon, spun to shine in the acknowledgement of recognition. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of your sadness and weariness. I’d always known you as impossibly optimistic, upbeat and positive, willing to carry on your shoulders the burdens of anyone else in need—until that last time I saw you. Then, it was as if you’d been freed from the power of the tides and rotated to finally show off your dark side. I don’t think I understood how dark that side felt to you, how unwell you truly felt.

*

In many ways, The Dark Side of the Moon is more successful as an album about mortality than it is as an album about madness. Album opener “Breathe” is loaded with lyrics obsessed with mortality. Despite twice proclaiming “Long you live and high you fly,” the song ultimately tells us, “balanced on the biggest wave / you race towards an early grave.” This idea is extended on “Time,” in which David Gilmour sings “The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” Though “The Great Gig in the Sky” includes no lyrics, the song’s title, as well as Clare Tory’s ecstatic and mournful vocal performance, speak to death’s ever-presence. On that same song, the voice of Gerry O’Driscoll can be heard saying “And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don't mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it, you've gotta go sometime." Though his words speak to an acceptance of death, everything else about the song and the album seem acutely aware and terrified of dying. This idea continues into the screen projection footage employed by the Floyd in early concert performances of the album. The concert opens with a distant light that turns out to be an ambulance. When the ambulance stops, the camera tracks out of the ambulance’s rear doors, down the halls of a hospital to an emergency room. A light over the table begins to spin and is replaced by an extreme close up of a human eye, just as the sound effects opening “Speak to Me” begin to play. In the animation for “Time,” flying clocks dance through the sky. One notable moment finds a clock and pendulum ascend into light. During “The Great Gig in the Sky,” audiences were treated to footage seemingly taken within waves, creating the sense of drowning. And, finally, at the album’s ultimate track, “Eclipse,” the projection footage finds us back in the hospital, tracking down a long hallway lined with doctors. Curiously, we pass right by the psychotherapy wing as we barrel toward a flashing red light at the end of the hall, which starts inscrutable but turns out to be an “Emergency” sign outside of an operating theater. If Dark Side of the Moon is about mental health, it isn’t about madness—but maybe we can say it has a lot to say about anxiety?

*

Digging into the “madness” of Pink Floyd’s most beloved album, I can’t help but think of the very real, tangible ways that you were hurting in the months leading up to your death. I know you were lonely. We all know you were lonely. But I don’t think it was just loneliness. It’s never just anything. You were struggling and I’m not sure I ever knew how or why. In the last message you sent me—what was it, a month or two before you were gone?—you told me you were seeing a psychiatrist, that you were working on things, that things were looking up. I assumed, as you were seeing a psychiatrist, that you were on meds. I assumed that something in your brain chemistry made it so you felt alone in ways many of us will never know. I remembered the way, when I’d seen you in December, you seemed stuck in a loop of thought, and how maybe the meds would help you break out of that loop.

*

In early 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe became the first spacecraft to land on the moon’s far side. Within days, Yuta 2, the probe’s rover, sent back pictures from the moon’s surface, empty and desolate, but not any darker, or any more empty and desolate than the side of the moon we see regularly. In fact, the probe landed just as the sun rose on the far side of the moon, meaning that, because of the length of the lunar day, the far side of the moon would remain illuminated for close to two week’s worth of Earth days. The reason it took so long to send a probe to the far side of the moon is because of the problem of the probe remaining in contact with Earth so that it can send back data. The Chinese solved this problem using a relay satellite called Queqiao. The probe carries a tin of seeds from various plants and some silkworm eggs, and will monitor how the seeds and eggs react to being on the moon. How could anything grow or thrive in such desolate landscape and in the absence of other living things?

*

Looking at the pictures that Yuta 2 and Chang’e-4 have sent back from the moon, I can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic. There is no angle at which we will ever see our own planet in these images, only the impossible darkness of space’s expanse. Imagining the infinite beyond the moon’s gravity, and the nothingness everywhere on the moon, I feel my breathing accelerate, and I feel a sense of dread take root in my chest. Maybe it is best we refer to the far side of the moon as its dark side. Maybe, though I can never know what you were feeling, or why you were feeling that way, when I look at these images or listen to Pink Floyd’s album, I can begin to imagine the whatever it was churning inside you before you died.

*

The last thing we hear on The Dark Side of the Moon, as the album fades on a heartbeat echoing the one that opened the album, is one last bit from Gerry O’Driscoll, saying “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark.”

—James Brubaker

#44: Patti Smith, "Horses" (1975)

44 Horses.jpeg

Memory falls like cream in my bones
Moving on my own

– “Elegie”

How is it we come to be animated in this world? How are we stirred into action, how are we placed here, inert, given a little shove in the solar plexus by the finger of God, who whispers in our ears go forth and do things? How do we know when to shout and when to whisper? How do we know how to wear our hair and what color to paint the walls around us? How do we know who to be?

I wonder, sometimes, what it would be like to come to life fully formed, fully present without any sense of a past or a process that led you to this moment. What it would be like to have every fiber of your being created by the singularity of now—not before, not then. To be complete and comfortable with whatever is facing you, because whatever is facing you right in that moment is you. Isn’t that terrifying.

But we all have a past, a history we lean on heavily in our own self-creation. We lean on stories, and on experiences—both the beautiful and the painful—allowing them to guide us into becoming who we are. The past is behind us, sure, but it is a giant pile of rubble, and depending on whether we were already heading up or down the hill, it likewise elevates us or buries us. We are rubble—bricks and pebbles and stones of experience calcifying and hardening, the mortar of time filling the cracks in between to create a human being. Sedimentary rocks made up of everything we love and hate, little facts we learned, summer nights and winter mornings uniquely and haphazardly combined to create something else entirely. But some—the best, it seems—hide this process so well that you can’t possibly imagine that they came from any kind of past at all.

It's almost impossible to remember that Horses was Patti Smith’s debut album. This is because it feels as if Patti came into the world fully formed, entirely of her moment. Listening to it now, it’s a challenge to hear anything other than that very moment of existence, even though it is, at its heart, an album of influence and confluence—a beautiful pile of rubble on which Patti herself is lifted, her gaze penetrating, confident.

Each track of Horses is a callback to the things that allowed her to emerge in that moment as Patti Smith: Rimbaud, Birdland, Jimi’s long Fender whine, the Boney Maronie, Joan of Arc. There are songs that draw biographically from her own youth—“Free Money,” “Kimberly,” and “Redondo Beach”—aching to pull the memories out of the past (these, too, built her) and into a vibrating, pulsating present. The opening track is a blend of her early poem “Oath” and Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which, as Patti writes in the footnotes of her Collected Lyrics, “gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and disclaim our musical and spiritual heritage.” (Patti’s covers always belong in that special category of songs that have new life breathed into them through her voice. She lends them all a new sense of contemporary urgency using modern-day “heroes”—“Hey Joe” with the titular Joe reimagined as a gun-toting renegade heiress Patty Hearst, or “So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star” in which “you” is Sid Vicious being driven over the edge—and trying to take her brother Todd down with him in a brutal attack—by the rock-and-roll lifestyle.)

Patti’s inclination to draw from her own past was as apparent when the album was released as it is now. I wanted to discover what Patti Smith sounded like to the world before she was Patti Smith, and so I went back as far as I could, to John Rockwell’s review of Horses in the February 12, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone. “Smith is a genuine original, as original an original as they come,” Rockwell notes, before questioning whether rock audiences still might be inclined to dismiss her for her callbacks to the past without understanding that these “antecedents” help “place her newness [...] in its proper context.”

Horses,” Rockwell concludes, “is a great record not only because Patti Smith stands alone, but because her uniqueness is lent resonance by her past.”

*

Patti Smith was formed in religion, in poetry. She came to the world wrapped in words, breathing through prayer and poems, then coming to realize the power of performing those words out loud. In More Songwriters on Songwriting, Patti tells interviewer Paul Zollo that “Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.”

Patti Smith’s poetry has always had the drive of performance, the balance of loud urgency and the prayer-like whisper of her voice. In her most primordial state, Patti is both a scream and a whisper. I’ve always been terrified and awe-stricken by this dynamic: her ability not just to put words around an emotion, but to SHOUT, to claw her words into the world, and in the next breath to pray so quietly the words are returned straight to the ear of God. If you listen to her early spoken word performances, you can hear the same rhythms, the same breathless tumbling of ideas like water from a fountain. She spits back as much aggression as life spits at her, and then sings a line so soft that the leaves barely quiver when it sounds.

What her musical collaborators did on Horses was build her a stage to elevate this performance. Suddenly there’s Lenny Kaye’s guitar or Richard Sohl’s piano there beneath her feet; suddenly there are Tom Verlaine’s arpeggios swinging in on a rope from the wings, this beautiful wall of music, the rhythms of Ivan Král and Jay Dee Daugherty driving her on, urging her forward. A musical manifestation of past and experience, of the people behind her and around her that keep her going. Oh go Patti go.

*

The only time I ever saw Patti Smith perform I couldn’t even see her. She was tucked away inside Castle Clinton in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, the crowd inside too large to hold anyone else, but no matter: the wind carried her voice over walls meant to hold out shrapnel of enemies. (Walls can’t stop voices.) She called out to the people beyond the walls—can you hear me—and we called back—we can hear you.

I’ve always felt similarly isolated from her music—walled off, standing there in awe just outside, as if I wasn’t quite yet ready to enter. Whether it was a consequence of age or exposure, I experienced a deep intimacy with the music of nearly all of those Patti influenced (R.E.M., PJ Harvey, Hole) before I ever listened closely to any of her albums. And even once I did, I felt I could hear her, and her immediacy, but still it felt so far away from me. Her performance was so urgent, her energy vibrating, her thoughts so self-possessed and confident—how otherworldly (waiting for you, please take me up, don’t leave me here) it felt from my own existence. God’s finger clearly hadn’t pushed me as hard as he’d pushed Patti.

I would like to pretend I never existed before the moment when I first heard the urgency of these words, that muscular cavalry approaching:

horses horses horses horses
coming in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames
He saw horses horses horses
horses horses horses horses horses

But really it took me years to come even close to appreciating her deeply, and I was already long in the process of existing. We’re all in the process of existing, of debuting—even as we’re hearing something that changes us so fundamentally that the ground shifts beneath our feet with the approach of the herd.

*

Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. This—this is a poem. This is the self-involved pursuit of trying to discover something of myself in an album given forth unto the world when I was just a sack of cells walled off in my mother’s womb. This is me trying to relate my experience of this album and Patti’s influence in words that can only dare to measure up to hers, someone so self-possessed she can shout to the world what she knows, and me trying, through a nearly impenetrable wall of self-doubt, to tell the world what I know. Writing—songwriting, essay writing—is taking that step into the world, allowing our voices to be lifted over the wall, acknowledging that we can never be fully formed. That our influences will continue to shape us, that those closest to us will help build our stage. We are lent resonance by our past. We are always in the process of becoming. We are working through childhood memories, through our feelings for a handsome poet, through our rage at the state of the world and friends taken too early from us, through our fear of what that means for the future. We are in the process of amassing a pile of rubble, burying, elevating. There is no land but the land. We are in the process of being. We are the moment.

We are.

Isn’t it terrifying?

—Zan McQuade

#46: Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Legend" (1984)

46 Legend.jpg

I once spent a summer as a lifeguard in a landlocked waterpark that wanted to feel like a beach. Nestled beneath the roller coasters of the larger amusement part to which it belonged, this “beach” featured fake waterfalls, timed geysers, a winding swimming pool “river” with a mechanical current, slides tall enough that I learned how to move a person with a spinal cord injury, and a brand new 650,000 gallon wave pool. This was where I worked most days, pacing the paved “beach” or sitting in my wooden guard chair, scanning the deep end for swimmers in distress or children clinging to the wall, too short to touch the bottom as artificial waves crashed over them, banging their heads against the tile.

It was here that I, teenaged and naive and bored out of my mind, became a Bob Marley fan. The water park had a soundtrack, ubiquitous and repetitive, the same 20 or so songs on a 24-hour loop. They pumped the music in via speakers shaped like handsome, inconspicuous rocks or fuzzy black coconuts tucked between plastic palm fronds.

It was a predictable mix. There were surfer tunes like “Wipe Out” and Caribbean-inspired rock songs like the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” There was only one song by an actual Caribbean artist: the relaxed, seductive “Stir It Up,” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. With its slow, bouncy bassline and playful sexuality, it was just another part of the illusion. “Stir It Up” was meant to make visitors feel as if they’d stepped off the hot amusement park concrete and onto the glittering sand of some paradisiac Caribbean isle. But for me it was the soothing, syncopated rhythm that calmed my nerves as I performed my lifeguard-ly duties.

I heard it as I watched the waters, I heard it as I noticed something dark floating in the depths, I heard it as I blew my whistle, hit the big red button to stop the waves and used my megaphone to instruct swimmers to exit to the concrete beach. I heard it as I put up barriers to the area, explaining to park visitors that the pool was closed for sanitation, and I heard it as I fielded questions from angry mothers, afraid that their dripping children might have contracted something deathly, something for which they might sue the park and me, unable to read between the lines as I hinted that there was nothing to worry about, that the pool held 650,000 gallons of water and dilution was a thing and we weren’t talking about a chemical spill here, but I wasn’t allowed to just say, “Hey, look, lady, your kid took a shit in the pool. Everything’s fine. Go ride a roller coaster instead of yelling at me, please. It’ll help you dry off.” Lifeguarding at the waterpark wasn’t all Baywatch, although we did wear red one-piece bathing suits. But there was no glamor, nothing sexy. It was just loud and slow and smelly and sweaty.

But there were beautiful, quiet moments, too. I remember listening to “Stir It Up” in the morning, when the park was still closed and the air was still cool. I’d arrive early for the day, making my way past the groundskeepers fishing snakes out of the “river,” to swim in the still expanse of the empty wave pool alone, each ripple my own, water stirring in the early sunlight for only me; the Wailers’ backup singers crooned just for me, too, because I was the only person there to hear them. That was something real.

Half of my high school was employed by this amusement park every summer. Two of my uncles had worked there, too, back in the 1970s, when the park had had a monorail and a safari—a combination that resulted in disaster (lions on trains) and the subsequent removal of both of these attractions. Or so I’d been told. I had grown up visiting the place in spite of these stories, so I never really thought about how unreal it all was. A concrete beach felt perfectly normal to me when I was sixteen.

It also felt perfectly normal to me to alter my consciousness as often as possible, then. I went to parties with bonfires thrown by coworkers or friends of coworkers who introduced me to all kinds of drugs; hippie types, white kids in flowing, tie-dyed clothing, some of them even sporting blonde dreadlocks. These kids loved Bob Marley. They wore his image like a talisman. We smoked and drank together, and I can remember, one night, watching a group of them sway, stoned or tripping, eyes shut or squinting or wide-open, pupils dilated and turned towards the stars, as one of them strummed his guitar and crooned “Redemption Song.”

None of this sounds so normal now, does it? Not the concrete beach or the drugs or the blonde dreadlocks or the image of that white kid singing a song of freedom as if he somehow wasn’t or hadn’t always been free. I’ve changed. The world has changed. That kid has probably also changed.

My favorite Bob Marley song is “Buffalo Soldier.” I love it for its dissonance. Bouncy, slow yet joyful, with lyrics that speak directly of the transatlantic slave trade, chiding listeners, “If you know your history, then you will know where you’re coming from. Then you wouldn’t have to ask me who the heck do I think I am.” The chorus is an infectious round of wordless vocalization, a chant inviting everyone to join in. In his songs, Bob Marley challenges us to hold two opposing truths in our minds at once: “everywhere is war,” and “every little thing is gonna be alright.” Let’s all sing this together, he seems to say, and let’s also remember how we got here together.

—Claire Boswell

#47: John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme" (1965)

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John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a sonic dedication to the power of love to spark change and universal greatness. The format is a suite with four parts—Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalms. The music, recorded in just one session on a winter night in 1964, is accompanied by a poem, “A Love Supreme.” The fourth part of the suite is a musical narration of these lines.

Coltrane uses the liner notes to address the journey that brought him to the point of the album:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT ... IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME –.”

It is clear that Coltrane reveres God, yet taken as a whole, his meditation on the theme of love feels non-denominational. The love supreme that Coltrane shares with us is Agape, a universal love. His message extends far beyond the arc of religion.

Acknowledgment

If we think about what questions this work asks, it seems that it wants to know if we understand the value of love to heal.

Ashley Kahn, a music journalist who has profiled both Coltrane and Miles Davis, has said that talking about Coltrane ultimately means talking about yourself. “If you look at the book [A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album], it starts and it ends with me talking about myself and how A Love Supreme forces me to talk about my own spirituality. There is no way to avoid it. If you are going to be an open and honest listener, and allow this music to enter you—which was Coltrane’s intent — you have to be willing to speak about yourself.” When asked if Coltrane’s work was challenging people “to address their own seldom-visited emotions,” she said, “He often spoke about how music should be a challenge, and that it shouldn’t come too easily.”

What have we let go? What have we cast off that was holding us back from love? What demons have we exorcised? What weights can no longer claim us? What did we let go of for love?

What kind of love heals us? What kind of love is good for us?

On the other side of these questions is the love that we want, the peace we say we need. Name the thing. There is peace there. Where there was despair, there is now hope that something new is on the horizon. Maybe love is what we are led to after fighting off our darkest shadows. Maybe this is how we heal.

Resolution

Coltrane’s heroin habit threatened to take it all—it even got him fired from Miles Davis’ band.

“I have seen God – I have seen ungodly,” he tells us.

He eventually got clean. He made it to the other side. So great an effort that often fails and makes no promises—a true transformation with no simple solutions or easy answers, only hard-fought roads through.

In his essay “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin touched on the inherent loneliness facing  artists. “It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.”

Coltrane accepted the heaviness of the crown he wore, both for what he overcame and his role at the time of this album’s making as the unofficial arbiter of new musical possibilities. Clearly he felt the responsibility to share his spiritual ecstasy. A Love Supreme straddled the old and the new ways of looking not only at improvisation through sound but also through the artist’s journey.

“No road is an easy one, but they all go to God,” says Coltrane.

Pursuance

What is a love supreme? Many listeners have grappled with the ephemeral nature of this concept.

In the Paris Review, Sam Stephenson says Coltrane’s music “increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness.” Miles Davis said the album “reached out and influenced those people who were into peace. Hippies and people like that.” Is it a coincidence that after battling his own addiction, Coltrane inspired in others a spiritual, ecstatic devotion?

He was even the impetus for the creation of a church—Saint John Coltrane Spiritual Community—where the “A Love Supreme” meditation takes place every Sunday.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin describes the circumstances that bring us to an acceptance of the magnitude of universal love. “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left.”

It’s telling that many critics feel that A Love Supreme is not an album meant for the novice Coltrane listener, acknowledging that it was a very divisive album among jazz fans when it was released. “Musicians especially know the history behind it, where Coltrane came from, and the intensity that he put into his life,” says Kahn. “This intensity didn’t exist just for this one recording session. He was at it 24/7, for basically most of his adult life. Now, that is very daunting. And for the result of that work to be a recording like A Love Supreme, most people would retreat from that.”

Psalm

A Love Supreme is a meditation. The last part of the suite, Psalms, is a musical poem, where each line Coltrane plays represents a part of the poem he wrote to accompany it.

Lewis Porter, a jazz pianist who wrote John Coltrane: His Life and Music, says, “The four sections—‘Acknowledgement,’ ‘Resolution,’ ‘Pursuance,’ and ‘Psalms’—recreate Coltrane’s own progress as he first learned to acknowledge the divine, resolved to pursue it, searched and eventually celebrated in song what he attained. The first part is improvised over the repeated bass motif with no set chorus length. We don’t realize until the end of ‘Acknowledgement’ that this motif means the words ‘a love supreme.’ Coltrane prepares us for this near the end of his solo by playing the motif in each of the 12 keys and in various registers. He finally plays in unison with the bass in F and chants ‘a love supreme.’ It’s a sort of reverse development, saving the exposition, or perhaps ‘revelation’ in this case, for the end. He’s telling us that God is everywhere—in every register and in every key.”

God breathes through us so completely…
so gently we hardly feel it... yet
it is our everything.
Thank you God.
ELATION
ELEGANCEEXALTATION
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.

In just 32 minutes, we are asked to reckon with the transformative nature of love. Love doesn’t always have the power to quell demons, but perhaps when it does, the results are divine.

—Lee Erica Elder

#48: Public Enemy, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (1988)

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This is the monster that makes me fear to speak. Take a given Wednesday. You’re at work. You got cheated out of your break, your boss throws a new project at you out of nowhere, you get an email that your heating bill is double the month before. You rise from your labor for a moment to wipe your forehead, maybe grab some water and say to a colleague, this system should be improved somewhat, and what might they do?

If you’re lucky, they express some personal solidarity. “Yeah, man, that sucks, I’m sorry it’s rough for you.” Maybe they’ll give you some ideological backup too—if they’re anything like me at 11:00 am at work, they’ll even do it too forcefully, brandishing chips they can’t cash. “Yeah, man! We need to burn it all down—I’m telling you. Shit, a wall of skulls, that’s what we need—rich looking skulls with the perfect teeth or the fancy fillings. See that Starbucks CEO wants to run for president? The only thing billionaires should be running for is their lives.”

Or maybe the beast reveals itself—the one that calls you out as what you fear you are. You complain about the faults in the system and suddenly it roars back—“But you, you there. You participate in that system. You cash checks from it. You show up when it says, yes sir yes ma’am, laugh when it says hump day amirite and when it says eezy peezy I don’t see you gathering any skulls for bricklaying your wall.”

We gotta work, gotta eat. For most of us, surviving depends on us finding things we are willing to do for money, for people willing to pay us. Nothing I can say about artistic or revolutionary integrity has changed that fact, at least not in America. The proles have work in the morning, or another way to meet the challenge of making ends meet. Anyone who doesn’t has work working for them.

*

My first run-in with Public Enemy was when I was a pre-teen at the end of the year 2000, grinding through the airplane hangar level in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. As I bent my knees into the first ramp, I heard the collaborative mix of “Bring Tha Noise” featuring Anthrax. That mix is, as Chuck D describes it, “like shrapnel”. At first it just seemed like a fantastic song to play while fake-skating. Chuck D is a badass, and Flav’s enthusiasm is infectious. Eventually, though, the lyrics started to seep into my mind, before I had the context to understand what they mean when they say, “black is back, all in, we’re gonna win / check it out.” Going to win what, I thought? Who the hell is Farrakhan and why is he a prophet?

That led me to put down my Dreamcast controller (yes, I played this on Dreamcast—continuing my long streak of picking the underdog system, the band that broke up, or the show that got cancelled after two seasons) and led me down the early 2000s version of a Wikihole. That single rap lyric from “Bring Tha Noise” invited me, a husky white kid playing a video game, to learn about pro-black politics and social justice, and to delve into the Nation of Islam and its leaders. While there’s plenty to criticize about that group (and I’m by no means trying to diminish what’s problematic, bigoted, or downright nutty about them), Farrakhan’s group did one thing better than most in that era. They managed to help some black men like Chuck D feel powerful and purposeful while living in a system designed, from the ground up, to do the opposite.

That’s why Public Enemy works on It Takes a Nation of Millions. Chuck D brings the poetry and the politics, and channels the power. Flavor Flav is the hype man’s hype man. At his peak, he could probably get you psyched about endorsing your paychecks and rewinding your watch if he wanted to. Throw in Terminator X’s samples, beats, and scratching, and suddenly revolution has the polemical force of a pipe bomb, the appeal of a night headlined by the coolest guys in town.

It Takes a Nation of Millions is the second of four albums by Public Enemy that kept the party going strong, fierce, and vibrantly during the peak of their career. By building on the foundations laid by artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, Public Enemy brought political hip-hop to a new height in this period. This is why it’s so frustrating to see the drift of Chuck D’s career in recent years from revolutionary prophet of rage to the leader in the ho-hum, stale Prophets of Rage supergroup after the 2016 elections. I discovered Rage Against the Machine from Tony Hawk 2, as well, as “Guerrilla Radio” alternated with “Bring tha Noise” on the soundtrack. I always perceived them as the “real deal” regarding their activism and their political leanings when they were in their prime.

Then the vocalist of Rage, Zach de la Rocha, stood by while the other three members of the group formed a supergroup (a term which I’ve grown to loathe) with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. They called it Audioslave. Why, audiogods, why? Cornell had his own origin myth for the name, but it has the most focus-groupy feel to it, and to me, so did their music. It would seem that the members of Rage didn’t learn that lesson and didn’t communicate it to Chuck D, because after Trump was elected, they all took the opportunity to staple together Prophets of Rage and put out songs that felt like nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the nostalgic desires of people who remembered the artists’ good old days, and were fearful or angered by thoughts of the days to come.

Cashing in. What else can you call what Flavor Flav did after this? He starred in a Real World ripoff, got in a relationship with Brigitte Nielsen, and VH1 spins this yarn into two more reality shows afterward. You can’t get further from bringing the noise, or fighting the power, than this. But maybe I lack empathy when I say that. The music scene moved on from Public Enemy after the early ‘90s. Even politically conscious rap in general become about groups that drifted further and further from Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Meanwhile, you gotta work, gotta eat. People remember you fondly, so you take an offer from your agent to be on a quirky show. You find a wave, you ride it. Did you betray the revolution you believed in? Did you cancel out the brilliance of songs like “Mind Terrorist,” “Rebel Without A Pause,” “Louder than a Bomb”?

*

Maybe It Takes A Nation of Millions is the soundtrack to a revolt that never really broke loose. Maybe Public Enemy lost their moment. I really dove into their catalogue starting in 2005. That summer, a classmate at a program I attended in Pittsburgh—already a hip-hop reviewer himself—handed me a couple of mix CDs that included artists beyond Public Enemy—guys like Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kweli, Tonedeff, K-OS, Cunninglynguists, Immortal Technique, and KRS-One. It was as if to say, Here. Catch up. So I did, digesting all these artists and their albums, carrying It Takes a Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet to school with me in my Walkman. It was supplemental coursework. Sure enough, it made me feel ready.

I had a stint in college where I’d join a few people protesting in front of the Sudanese Embassy off Dupont Circle in DC. A few signs about the genocide in Darfur, a megaphone, and a car from the Secret Service Uniformed Division keeping watch on the block, seemingly cool with us. The album I played while traveling to Dupont on the Metro those few weeks was Game Theory by the Roots, which to this day is one of my favorites. It’s dark, layered, and deals head-on with the political and social crises of the mid-Bush era as the Roots saw them. It’s also heavily influenced by It Takes a Nation of Millions, with the track “False Media” repeatedly riffing on lines from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Both songs implore us to take the artists seriously—I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’, they say. They also express the same distrust of prevailing narratives that we see everywhere today: False media. We don’t need it, do we?

And with that, maybe the question of whether anyone has sold out becomes less important. Maybe this is why Rage Against the Machine, for instance, doesn’t see any need to record new music. The old tracks hardly feel old in some ways, and that’s how I read Public Enemy’s work here. This is from the time before the Million Man March, the era of Walkmen and pagers, but it’s still punching its weight and reverberating in an era of black disenfranchisement, police brutality, and bombastic New York real estate morons taking too much of the publi-

Yeah, nevermind, I hear it now.

*

Part of Public Enemy’s trek into the spotlight was opening for Beastie Boys. As I’ve said before, Beastie Boys managed to do juvenile bombast better than just about anyone on their album License to Ill. Part of that cred comes from their single “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” which, they claim, was misinterpreted as a celebration of debauchery and revelry at the expense of other priorities. They’d argue they were playing a joke on listeners who didn’t catch the irony—which I don’t put past them, even if I think artists are susceptible to finding the coolest critical take on their art and then claiming they meant it that way all along. I’m not above it, myself.

What does Public Enemy end this album with? Something more direct, something more earnest—“Party for Your Right to Fight,” a mantra that even might suggest that all this recording, promoting, signing, and merchandising bullshit artists subject their work to can be used toward something greater, something that justifies the apocalypse imagery, the blaring sirens, the thundering beats and cryptic Nation-of-Islam mythology. It’s as if Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and their crew want to reiterate that all this is in furtherance of something—a liberation struggle they deem necessary. So what if they had a VH1 show or a lame supergroup team up since—for better or worse they got you looking up Yakub and Elijah Muhammad, didn’t they?

They put this out into the world, and now you have the courage to say something yourself, don’t you?

—Benjamin Walker

#49: The Allman Brothers Band, "At Fillmore East" (1971)

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I’ve always resisted live albums, so naturally I thought it would be a good idea to write about what’s considered the greatest of all time. My dislike is partially from my father playing the Emerson, Lake & Palmer live album as he drove me to school sometimes. The endless solos were lackluster for me, especially since I would only hear about 5-10 minutes of them once a day. He would joke about pausing it after he dropped me off so I wouldn’t miss anything (still not sure if he really did) but it never clicked for me. Sorry, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The only live album I’ve ever owned was John Mayer’s Where the Light Is. I was never fully interested in that album either. There was something about listening to a show I would’ve rather been at that caused me to be disinterested in it when it was gifted to me for my thirteenth birthday.

I’ve held onto that for the past almost-decade. I’ve avoided live albums of current musicians and bands completely. I’d rather be at the show or not have a hand in the experience at all. I detest those 3D concert movies. I’ve categorized the whole thing in my mind as just some cheap way to turn a profit by recording something that was happening anyway. I had this whole impression of them that formed at thirteen and I’ve never reconsidered it until now.

While trying to understand why I felt this way I realized it was because at some point I convinced myself live recordings are just live renditions of album versions, no changes. But I’m an idiot. When I’ve gone to shows I’ve seen bands play different versions and arrangements of songs, something that’s so special and intimate. There was a disconnect; I didn’t fully think through that these moments happen at most live shows. Capturing these moments was then the point of a live album. John Mayer, a blues-rock artist, is actually a good example of someone who does the guitar solos and different arrangements, giving the album versions soul when performed live (I have since listened to it). I just didn’t give the album the chance to prove that to me when I was younger. I do admit, though, that I always became a total hypocrite and changed my stance completely when it came to music and bands that no longer existed.

It feels like cheating the system to be able to listen to and see videos of performances from bands and people that have already lived and died, whether or not the members themselves are dead. But that’s why they documented them (duh), for preservation and legacy. Can you imagine someone describing something to you but never being able to hear it? Tragic. It would be just as much a tragedy to not understand what an Allman Brothers Band live show was like. Luckily, their shows at Fillmore East in March, 1971 were recorded. These recordings became the album, released July, 1971, that is now considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. This album showcases and captures their unique sound which is a combination of blues, country, rock, and jazz. The incorporation of so many genres meant they weren’t confined to any one, allowing the Allman Brothers Band to be indulgent with not only their own songwriting but also with their changes to the songs they covered. No one had really done what the band was doing before, especially when it came to what it truly meant to jam onstage, so why wouldn’t you want to record that for everyone to experience? Again, I’m an idiot.

The album starts with the most modest introduction: “Okay, the Allman Brothers Band.” The crowd goes wild. When I first went to listen to the album I was having a bad day, turned it on in the car, and immediately had to turn it back off because it felt too positive, too upbeat—I was overwhelmed. So then to later realize the song was “Statesboro Blues,” oof, I had to readjust how I was listening to it. Sidenote: I’m not a blues expert but I do know that the blues shaped rock in a lot of ways, so the vibe of the song isn’t really that crazy at the end of the day, I was just having a bad one. The second run-through, I lay on my floor and closed my eyes, making sure this album had my full attention. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s song from 1928 (which I had heard before) had such a completely different energy and feeling than the original, partially due to their full band versus the stripped down version of the original. How they made this old blues song and rock ‘n’ roll fit together was the perfect introduction to the Allman Brothers Band.

It’s followed by another cover, Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong,” this time more closely related to the original blues rock track. Then another cover, T-Bone Walkers’s “Stormy Monday.” You can hear Gregg Allman catch himself as he introduces the song, “While we’re doing that blues thing, we’re going to play this song by Bobby Bland for you—actually it’s a T-Bone Walker song.” The commentary, the slip-up, something that wouldn’t have ever happened on a studio recorded album. This is their most original cover version throughout the set. The emotion captured in Gregg Allman’s voice is so raw, the same emotion which is then somehow echoed by either Duane Allman’s or Dickey Betts’s guitar—since they traded off solos, I’m really not sure (I bet a die hard fan could tell the difference). I’m always impressed by how vocal a guitar can sometimes sound, especially with the inflection it can communicate. And it’s not just the guitar, it’s the player’s ability to make it sing. Duane Allman and Betts could really make them sing.

Then they shift from the blues to a jazz inspired jam, “You Don’t Love Me.” Here’s where we really get audience involvement, as they clap along with the fast paced beat that makes me want to get up and dance. I thought about clapping along too. Alone in my living room, lying on the floor. Would I feel a part of it? Or just stupid? I didn’t clap. This song features my favorite guitar solo. The entire band falls silent, leaving Duane Allman to do what he does best. The moment with just him and a guitar is captivating to listen to. He slows it down and really takes his time. How does the cliche go? Sound is nothing without silence, and he uses the silence so intentionally. The sporadic and awkward claps are also something I relished in. You could tell the audience wasn’t quite sure when to clap, or when it was over, so there was a contradiction between regretting and embracing the claps as you would’ve wanted to applaud what was happening but also didn’t want to interrupt it. What was really the right thing to do?

Then they play another jazz inspired song, this time fully instrumental, “Hot ‘Lanta.” It’s followed by the second to last song, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” another instrumental. This seems to feature some latin influence as well, proving there’s no genre they can’t incorporate.

The final song on the album is “Whipping Post.” It’s from their first album, the recorded version a mere 5 minutes and 17 seconds. This version is a full 23 minutes and 9 seconds. It bears some similarities to the original but also diverges completely. It’s intense. That’s the best word I can think to describe it. Intense. Betts does the guitar solo and it merges into a chord progression they later said they’d never done before. The level of musicianship and how quickly the other members ran with it to end up with this 23 minute track, it’s immeasurable. What a way to end, as the album fades out with the crowd roaring.

Some of the wonder and fortune of this album also lies in its circumstances. There was a bomb threat the third day at Fillmore East and while they still played, this was recorded over the first two days. Then three months after its release, Duane Allman, founder of the group, died in a motorcycle accident. There was no way then that they could ever redo what they had done at Fillmore East. Someone else could replicate his slide-guitar parts and improvise their own solos, but it would never be the same.

The Allman Brothers Band’s original lineup formed and disbanded before I was even born. I missed out and didn’t even have the shot not to, but here we are, I still got to hear it. I’m still trying to figure out my full feelings on live albums, but there is undeniably a level of comfort and genuineness that a studio album can never capture, and this exemplifies it. It’s spontaneous, unpredictable, almost unintentional in some ways. There is value in the differences between live and studio albums, I just have to tell my stubborn self that thirteen-year-old me didn’t really know anything. Inevitably, someday, there will be a band that’ll redefine genres and the limits of what we think live performances are, and what a tragedy it will be if we miss it.

—Grace Howie

#50: Little Richard, "Here's Little Richard" (1957)

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"And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me.”

– Little Richard

Maybe it’s this: too much TV and not enough real conversation.

The first Little Richard song you hear isn’t even really a Little Richard song. You’re a few years old, watching a segment on Sesame Street done by the California Raisin people. An orange clay ball with red lips bounces and stretches to her theme song, which is a play on “Lucille,” only you won’t get that yet. It’ll burrow into your brain like all the other stuff you watch. You’ll understand references later—opera because of Bugs Bunny, Citizen Kane because of The Simpsons.

You’ll see and hear Little Richard properly soon after, on a VHS copy of Mother Goose: Rock 'n' Rhyme, a trippy-as-hell musical for kids where celebrities dress as nursery rhyme characters. Listen, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. You’ll only remember one thing, and it’s Little Richard. He’s a dreamy sugar confection, tall and glittering with a shiny, two-foot crown atop a mane of baby-pink curls flowing down his shoulders. He’s in a magenta suit, a hot pink feather boa trailing behind him, his shoes thick black high heels.

Then it’s like you can’t stop seeing or hearing him. You’re mesmerized. He does the Magic School Bus song, the theme of live-action Casper. “Tutti Frutti” is in It Takes Two, that Olsen twins movie your sisters love. He ice skates with Pee-wee. He pops up in episodes of Martin, of Blossom, of Full House. He sings “America the Beautiful” at WrestleMania X. You catch him on Sesame Street, but this time it’s really him, and he’s singing “Rubber Duckie.”

Your eyes don’t rest as a kid. You sit too close to the TV and you watch and you watch and you don’t say anything. You never say anything.

*

Maybe it’s this: fear.

It starts at like five years old maybe. Teachers call you “soft-spoken,” forget you’re even standing there, stuff like that. Like you aren’t really a person but more of a nerdy gentle breeze occupying a Catholic school desk. You keep to yourself, read lots of library books on dogs and insects, dress in baggy flannel, and grow your hair super long, like ridiculously so, like your hair is trying to overtake you, hide you, envelop you into Cousin Itt oblivion. And part of you would love that, too—just to fade absolutely, completely into the background.

At home, alone in the living room, you sing along to your mom’s Beatles Live at the BBC four-CD set. You listen close. They’re playing some Little Richard.

But at school? Anywhere else but home alone? You turn crimson when anyone talks to you. You spend hours sliding down spirals of doubt in your head. You watch other kids interact, watch normal human behavior go on in front of you and you just can’t participate. You freeze up.

It’s like you’re not physically capable of talking sometimes, of making yourself known. You could have the words halfway up your throat but then your jaw will stay locked tight. You’re stupid, you’re wrong. You don’t want anyone looking at you, anyone mad. You don’t want to cause a commotion.

You feel the fallout from this early. In second grade, when a kid chokes on a cube of cantaloupe, the teacher makes you run to get the nurse—you of all people. The nurse is on the phone so you make the decision to wait quietly (you were taught to be polite, not interrupt; you weigh pros and cons) until she finishes up her call. That kid could’ve died because you didn’t want to bother anyone.

Your nerves are shot by the time you hit third grade.

What are you afraid of, anyhow?

*

Maybe it’s this: God.

Maybe you’re so quiet and guilty-feeling and nervous all the time because you were raised Catholic. Something infected you early. Something happened while you were standing in line waiting to confess your sins at seven years old, struggling to come up with what you were going to say because you’ve got to have something to confess, right? Didn’t you disobey your parents? Didn’t you get jealous? Don’t you want to go into a little room with an old man and tell him how bad you are so he can give you a way to make it up to God?

At thirteen, just as you start public high school, you’re dragged back to your church and forced into confirmation classes. It feels wrong to go back, like you’re opening a closed book. Your teacher is some 80-year-old guy—just some guy, not even a priest—who talks to you and a group of your former classmates about being sinful and being teenagers and how the two things just go together. He weaves other boogiemen into this narrative—Muslims, gay people. You never understood this talking-out-of-both-sides-of-your-mouth thing, how God is supposed to love everyone but, you know, not everyone everyone.

You know God wouldn’t want you to lie to Him and get confirmed if you had doubt, if you couldn’t machete through the thick forest of people talking. Talking, talking, talking.

But you, not talking.

You fold. Genuflect. Take Cecilia as your confirmation name. She’s the patron saint of music, and music’s all you’ve got.

You sit in the pew and pull at the little clamp that used to hold people’s hats a long time ago. It’s worn and you can feel the metal smell dirtying your fingers. You pull and ease it back down. The pressure for it to snap is great.

You wonder if God hates you for lying. But if you’re sorry, if you come back to Him, you are forgiven.

You pull pull pull the hat clamp up. You wince.

*

Maybe it’s this: sex.

In high school, your friends talk about the crushes they have. They date and they kiss. You say you don’t like anybody even when you do, for fear your friends will tell your crush. For fear of complete rejection. For fear of a pity date. For fear of his eventual disappointment.

At fourteen, a boy comes to you, and you’re in such shock that you’d do anything to keep him. You don’t eat in front of him, you say yes to things you shouldn’t say yes to. You forget yourself. What are you afraid of, anyhow?

You are outside your own body, and when he leaves you, you can’t find a way back inside. The door has locked. You live the rest of high school viewing yourself as a cautionary tale, as trash. You watch your body from above.

Teenagers and sin just go together.

Your favorite college professor is a gay Jewish woman. She tells stories about how she was arrested for protesting years ago. She tells the class that sex is a mitzvah. That sex is a joy, a celebration.

You come out as bisexual in an essay you hand to her. You feel some kind of weight move—it’s not gone, the weight, but it’s shifted slightly.

You hadn’t known about the joy, how there’s supposed to be joy.

*

Maybe it’s this: introversion and obsession.

When you’re older, way after you dye your hair black and cut your bangs short and start digging through dead people’s trash to find novelties from the ‘50s, you listen to Here’s Little Richard in its entirety, like really listen. You try to undo all the pop culture association and corny covers and all that, try to undo what time and parody have done to it. Uncake the glitter and candy and sequins a bit—just a bit—and think of this meteor hitting people in 1957.

You watch clips of him online. You watch him in 1972 in a jeweled headband, telling an interviewer he’s never been shy, that he lets it all hang out. You read about orgies.

You watch him when he’s old, when he says Jesus is coming back and we better be ready. You listen to his gospel songs, the ones he made each time he abandoned rock and roll. His voice is deeper, a dirgey warble.

You watch talk show interviews from the ‘90s. You hear him say his dad told him he’s half a son.

You play the album more and more. The first track is “Tutti Frutti,” a song so iconic you assume it’s just always been there. You remember it’s the one playing in that Olsen twins movie, right when Steve Guttenberg gets pelted with a bowl of mac and cheese. You learn it was originally about anal sex.

Your favorite is “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave,” a slower song that opens with such a raspy rumble it sounds like he’s practically eating the microphone. He starts each line with that deep growl, but then flows into falsetto-y yelps at the end. Then a few songs later, in “Baby,” he’s practically cooing at the start. The whole album sounds effortless, like it’s pouring out of him.

You look at the back cover of the record. It shows two sketches of Little Richard, and they are both blood red, his pompadour slightly pointed. He looks like the Devil. He’s crouched below the copy, screaming, open-mouthed as if he’s vomiting up the track listing.

The back is a tall tale version of his life, his name capitalized at each mention, in black or red. You read the last lines, where it says Elvis “showed his admiration by recording four of LITTLE RICHARD’s songs,” that Pat Boone and others did the same. Admiration, they call it. Not whitewashing, not de-sexing.

You think about duality in words, pictures, appearances. You think about duality in people. You think about the complicated mess inside you, and how it’s in everyone. Only sometimes, they just live it out loud. You think about how heavy everything inside you feels.

Maybe it’s this: anything, anything, anything, just a fluke in your DNA.

Maybe it: doesn’t matter.

There are two places you feel normal enough to quit being quiet. One is when you’re at a rock and roll show, when it’s dark except for a glow over the band, when the bodies are packed tight and the music’s so loud that you could scream the words until your throat’s raw and still not be able to hear your own stupid voice.

The other is when you’re alone like this, and you put a record on, and you dance. You never dance in front of anyone—you are too aware of yourself, of your body from above, not within, how strange it is to never speak, how odd it is to be you. If you think about it too hard, you’ll surely quit. But don’t quit.

Turn the volume up as loud as it goes. Little Richard is screaming at you. Put your hand up to the speaker and feel the vibration, like it’s breathing. Sink closer, put your ear to the speaker. He’s pressed up somewhere on the other side. He is screaming to you, for you, and you close your eyes and imagine him so hard you can almost see it: soon he’s pressed completely through, each molecule of his shining being squeezed through the tiny holes like Play-Doh and then there he is, standing over you. He’s not young Little Richard. He’s Old King Cole.

Hey baby, he says. He is beautiful. His skin is glowing, glittering. His hair shines in the dim light.

Get up, he says.

And you say—no, you scream: I’m here, and I’m listening, and I want to be as loud as you, oh Lord do I want it.

—Emily Costa

#51: Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1970)

51 Bridge Over Troubled Water.jpg

Retired Sgt. Harry Dolan still rides out to the bridge on most nights. It’s the beat he rode for more than twenty years as a California highway patrolman. He’s retired the khaki uniform and tall, black riding boots for a windbreaker and blue jeans, a trade he made even before he left the force. Plainclothes are less intimidating to most people, especially the ones he meets. The only physical evidence of his time on patrol is the identification in his wallet and the police scanner on his motorcycle. He leaves an identical scanner in the kitchen flipped on in the evening, like some people tune into a baseball game on the radio. The chatter and hum make the house feel less empty as he moves between rooms. If he hears a “10-31,” at home or while on his motorcycle, he heads towards the bridge at once.

A “10-31” is bridge code for “jumper.” No patrolman has responded to a “10-31” more than Harry Dolan. All told, he’s talked more than 200 people off the two-foot outer platform and back over the slatted railing of the bridge. He’s trained dozens of other patrolmen to do the same over the years. Reporters tout him as the “Golden Gate Guardian” for his service, and the mayor of San Francisco once presented him with an oversized, old-fashioned key. If a reporter asks, he pulls it out of the closet in the front hall of his house. People get a kick out of seeing a bronze-colored key the size of an adult golden retriever.

Tonight, the bridge is quiet. Harry parks and starts across from the north. The walk is never the same twice. On a foggy night, the bridge arches out like a pirate ship’s plank, and pedestrians inch across the sidewalk, half-expecting to find the concrete vanish beneath their steps. This night has shooed the afternoon fog away, though. The soft glow of streetlights curls up around the suspension cables until dissipating into the night air. A soft purple drapes the city in the distance. Harry passes beneath the first tower and feels dizzy trying to eyeball the top. The sense of enormity never changes – the sheer tonnage of concrete and steel suspended 250 feet in the air, the 10,000 gallons of paint applied annually. Looking straight up, the bridge’s two spot-lit towers seem to pillar the sky, preventing the heavens from crashing down into the Golden Gate.

Harry thinks he smiles as he observes people crossing in the opposite direction. “Are you alright?” a young woman stops to ask him. He nods and walks on, not seeing her turn back to check on him several times until the man she’s with convinces her it’ll be alright. Harry looks down the sidewalk in both directions. All is calm. He stops and leans out against the rail. A gust of wind snaps against his jacket. The dark water below rocks undisturbed. He’s at the midpoint of the bridge, known as “the gateway” for the portal shape made by the cables sloping to and from the main towers. Many people have claimed to have seen ghosts out here. Others have said an almost tangible sadness hangs thick in the air, and the mind starts to get lost in dark thoughts. Still, others say the water itself calls out to people, luring them over.

The strait is full of names that drift through Harry’s mind. Less than a year on the beat, a teen named Brendan Skiles leapt but survived. The water shattered two lower vertebrae, and a broken rib pierced a lung. The coast guard officer naturally assumed he was diving in to recover a corpse. In the hospital, the boy told Harry that he had walked the length of the bridge three or four times that morning—crying into his cupped hands—but nobody stopped to check on him. One couple with a small child even asked him to take a family picture for them. That had been the breaking point. “I just needed someone to listen,” he said. “The moment my hands left that railing, all I could think about was how much I really wanted to live.”

Most jumpers don’t get to explain their experience. In his wallet, Harry keeps a folded letter from a Mrs. Irene Nance. “It must be hard to do what you do,” she wrote, “and to go back day after day to a place where there is so little hope and such overwhelming sadness.” The letter goes on to tell of her plans to walk the length of the bridge soon, maybe when the weather breaks. She hasn’t driven across or set foot on it since her son, Josh, vaulted the railing several years ago after his wife left him. Harry found Josh’s note on the bridge tucked beneath a rock. It read: “I love you, I’m sorry.”

The name that shakes Harry most, though, will always be Arnold Brown. He had spent more than three hours listening through the railing to the twenty-seven-year-old laid-off father of two. Brown told Harry about the factory job he had lost three months before, about the stack of unpaid bills sitting on his dining room table, about his two daughters, and even about the Niners’ chances at the playoffs that year. Harry had sunk a dozen “hooks” into Brown and allowed him to talk so long that his initial agitation and hollering had softened into a calm conversation. When this happens, most jumpers regain their senses and climb back over the rail to safety. However, Brown wasn’t most. “I want to thank you for all you tried to do,” he told Harry, pumping the officer’s arm twice. “But I think it’s time for me to go.” He took two steps backward and disappeared. They never found the body.

There are thousands of names floating in the troubled waters below. Names that Harry has never been able to set aside. Names that have kept in touch, thanking him for their second chances at life. Others are just faceless names appearing at the top of morgue reports. Elizabeth had tried to understand. She knew her husband’s job wasn’t normal or even like that of most police officers. After Arnold Brown, she urged him to transfer out of the area, to a patrol where that bridge couldn’t take any more from him or their family.

Harry instead opted to move them closer to the bridge. He started doing extra shifts and even patrolled the bridge on his free time, tending after the desperate souls who leap into oblivion about three times each month. That responsibility made it difficult to think of Sunday dinners or little league. He became all but a stranger to Elizabeth and the boys, spending his little time at home in the garage polishing his motorcycle and listening to the scanner for trouble. Eventually, like Arnold Brown, Elizabeth decided it was time for them to go. They had moved out three years ago last month. By the time Harry’s superiors noticed a change in him and nudged him toward a desk and then early retirement, the “Golden Gate Guardian” had nothing but an empty house to go home to.

The retired Sgt. bites his lip and begins rocking gently over the rail, using his palms and chest as a fulcrum. As Harry feels his momentum shifting away from the bridge and towards the open night, a voice breaks the spell: “Can I come closer and talk with you, sir?” Harry feels a cold, sobering breeze blow against the wetness on his cheeks. He lowers himself and turns to see a man in the same patrol uniform he had worn for so many years. The officer walks a few steps closer and kneels. “Were you thinking of hurting yourself tonight, sir?” he asks in a calm, even tone. The officer’s face is unfamiliar, but Harry recognizes the script, the one taught to all patrolmen who work the bridge beat. The one that had made him the “Golden Gate Guardian.”

“Would you like to talk?” asks the officer. “I’m here to listen.”

Harry nods and steps back from the railing. His chest heaves until he can choke back the tears. “Would you believe I have a key to the city?” the retired Sgt. asks the officer.

“Does that ever come in handy?”

“Truth be told, I don’t think it opens a goddamn thing.”

—Matt Melis