#173: Todd Rundgren, "Something/Anything?" (1972)

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“Records to most people just represent twelve songs on a piece of black plastic, but records are really a whole lifestyle. […] My attitude is that I make the music for me, and the people that think like me and want to know what I’m thinking. That’s what it’s for.” – Todd Rundgren, Creem, August 1972
 

Side I

Here I am in our church: the floors are carpeted to absorb the sound of our recitations. Twelve-inch squares of colorful cardboard line the walls like stained glass. The pews are bins of cardboard and black plastic, some of it even smells of incense. A hymn plays on the speaker, deep and droning, like monks saying morning prayers. We bow our heads over the bins, eyes lowered, solemn, circular breathing punctuated by the occasional cough or sneeze. Some of us have heads covered out of respect, or maybe just a bad hair day. We kneel to peek inside the bargain bins. We’re seekers: looking for salvation in used records, this place our temple, where lost souls are drawn, looking for absolution from our wrongdoings, seeking comfort from the grief of heartbreak or the pains of the world, music as healing for $4.99 a pop. We worship at the foot of these icons under “Used Pop/Rock R” – Ramones, the Raspberries, the Roches, Rolling Stones, the Romantics…. This is where I’ll find my chosen god. I begin to speak my mantra in the hopes of finding him there: Todd is god. Todd is god.
 

Side II

Every Todd Rundgren fan I know came to him through a different route; at fan gatherings, each relates his or her own Todd origin story with a personal reverence. I came to Todd through a song on Something/Anything?, but it wasn’t the stellar power-pop of “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” or one of the AM gold hits, “I Saw The Light” or “Hello It’s Me,” though certainly I’d heard them before; it was a pervy romp at the end of side IV called “Slut,” which is most notable for the fact that Edward James Olmos sings backing vocals. The first time I heard “Slut” it wasn’t even Todd’s version: it was Alex Chilton, performing the song with Big Star during their encore at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in 2009. The next day I visited my favorite used record store on the Upper West Side, a different kind of temple: a crowded little nook manned by an ex-music journalist who loved to regale customers with nuggets of wisdom about ELO and Kate Bush. I found a Todd Rundgren album, Faithful, on a lower shelfI had to kneel to find it, as if in supplicationnot even the one that had “Slut” on it, but I bought it anyway.

This was the moment of my conversion; after listening to Faithful on repeat, then deep-diving into old videos of Todd’s live performances on YouTube, I went back to the record store the next day and, as if in a religious fervor, bought every Todd album that I could find.

I own multiple copies of Todd albums, but just two copies of Something/Anything?. I justify the multiples by calling them “backups”in case one gets scratched, I say. But there is a deeper greed at work, a need to be physically closer to each of them. I want them to be a permanent part of me. I want to have them tattooed on my skin; I want to ingest them like communion. I want to consume them as they consume me, to feel them like God (or the Devil) inside me, flowing through my veins.

It’s a wonder I don’t own more than two copies: every time I come across the album in record stores I have to hold myself back from buying it. The cover of Something/Anything? is deeply iconic: a strong graphic of bright pink flowers with green leaves and stems on a magenta background with simple white lettering. I used to think these flowers were peonies, but then started to imagine they might be carnations. Pink carnations symbolize gratitude. The name itselfcarnationhas the root “carn,” meaning flesh, and I like the idea of this album as a communion of gratitude. According to Christian belief, carnations are said to have appeared on the earth as Jesus carried the cross; Mary shed tears and carnations grew where her tears fell. Peonies symbolize spring and renewed life. There’s another horticultural option: Rose Althea or Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus. Jesus himself is sometimes referred to as the Rose of Sharon. Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea, where its Korean namemugunghwameans “immortality.”

It’s hard to say for certain which they might bethe crucifixion, the resurrection, the everlasting life?

Any of these I could believe in.
 

Side III

Breath holds a sacred role in many religions: ānāpānasati, the mindfulness of breathing in Buddhist meditation; the practice of Sufi breathing; the Zoroastrians, who believe that life cannot exist without Dum, or spiritual breath; even a priest’s insufflation during a Catholic baptism. Breath is often tied to the soul; breath is life.

The songs on Something/Anything? are primal, so deep within me that they live beneath the realm of words; to listen to them is to breathe. The “sha-la-la-la”s of “It Takes Two To Tango (This Is For The Girls)” are my heartbeat; “Torch Song” is all the tears I’ve ever cried; the trembling guitar in “Black Maria” is every deep sexual urge: My eyes they burn; my insides turn. Even “Breathless”the upbeat instrumental that leads off Side II, or “The Cerebral Side”itself is breath.

Sometimes I find myself out in the world, shopping in a grocery store, standing there among shelves of canned beans, stressed and tired after a long day of work but knowing I needed something, if only I could remember what it was. And then “I Saw The Light”so deeply loved by the programmers of radio stations that cater to the worship of nostalgiacomes on the tinny speaker above the aisle, a heavenly voice from above.

A feeling hit me oh so strong; the answer was plain to see: Breathe.

And I can breathe again.
 

Side IV

There’s an iconic scene in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicidesa film itself in part about religion, albeit the more repressive sidewhere the protagonist and his friends (four suburban boys who have been receiving cryptic cries for help penciled on cards and stuck in their bike spokes) realize that they can communicate with the captive Lisbon sisters via telephone and their record collections. When the sisters pick up the phone, the boys put the needle on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” (Side IV, Track 4). Hello it’s me; I’ve thought about us for a long, long time… The songs are their salvation.

We worship records because they speak for us when we don’t always know what to say, or when we can’t say what we want to. They understand us; they speak to us, too. They’re incredibly personal; we find spirituality in them each in our own way. A song can say everything in your heart; the song seems to come from you and from outside of you all at once. We feel things we can’t always understand. Our eyes they burn, our insides turn. We believe as deeply as is possible with our earthly bodies:

‘Cause I believe it all along
I think I’m gonna love it
I know they won’t believe it

When they finally see the saving grace in me

Records are more than twelve songs on black plastic: they are religious experiences for those of us who feel the need for spirituality in our lives but might not ascribe to any single religion. We are seekers without a roadmap, nothing but a song to guide our hearts. I’ve found solace in Todd albums when I’ve had nowhere else to turn, and so I turn to him again and again. I go back to church, pay my tithing to the man behind the counter for yet another copy of an album I already own so that I might take communion, break bread with Todd and feel these songs in me, their saving grace burning like a holy light. Breath. Soul. Prayer. Salvation.

—Zan McQuade

#174: Bob Dylan, "Desire" (1976)

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Back in the kitchen of a dimly lit trattoria on Mulberry St. in Manhattan,  past metal shelves of tomato sauce, cans of olive oil, lemons, and vinegar, beneath the dishwasher’s cigarette smoke, past the crackle and croon of Wolf Man Jack on a transistor radio, and beyond the smell of disinfectant in the mop closet, a gentle rap on a maple door, a password whispered, a palmed-fiver-handshake. The Greek forgery artist, a conjuror and his wood-witch sister, and the ghost of a prize fighter sit down for a card game at a circular table whose smooth green felt is criss-crossed with incantations. One player indicates that they’ve not brought any money, but the dealer kindly holds up one hand and says, “It ain’t necessary,” as their chips—each etched with some faded rune—spill before them as though dispensed from the folds of an invisible purse. Their host turns his head to consult a distorted Mercator map of the Earth hung on the wall, and, thus assured of his task, deals each player one card face down, and names the game. 
 

 

In the spring of 1975, Dylan invited experimental theatre director, lyricist, and clinical psychologist Jacques Levy to join him for a month-long collaborative writing session in Connecticut, where Levy penned the lyrics to several songs that would become the most recognizable on the album Desire, and some of the most narratively cogent in Dylan’s songbook. The satellite orbit, post-beat associative verse that had piloted much of Dylan’s songwriting is in pretty stark contrast to Levy’s comparatively straight-shot narratives on Desire, very especially the record’s bookends: “Hurricane” and “Joey”.

When one thinks of Dylan as a titanic individual talent, the depth of this collaboration, in which Levy is attributed authorship of entire songs on the record, might seem anomalous, but it wasn’t unheard of. It’s interesting to think of it as having come on the heels of Dylan’s ‘74 tour with the Band, with whom he’d beaten a well-trod path of give and take, composition and revision and collaboration over the years. But the Great Flood Tour had not been the cohesive or compelling interchange they’d enjoyed previously. In his pretty damned excellent autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm describes the tour as having been extremely profitable (it has been alleged that roughly 4% of adult Americans attempted to purchase tickets) but that it was a little short on passion, and that nobody had a real good time. The tour marked the beginning of the end of Dylan’s routine collaboration with the Band that had bookended his pre- and post-motorcycle accident career.

By the time he sat down with Levy, Dylan had begun to conceive of a new musical family for himself, a caravan of troubadours that would extend its collaborative processes onto the stage and into an iconic position within his episodic, career-long rediscoveries and self-inventions. Dylan had started writing “Sarah” and “One More Cup of Coffee” on a trip to Spain where he’d spent time playing with some gypsy musicians, grabbed handfuls of the literal and subconscious messages their music conveyed to him, and proceeded to sprinkle it into his work without compunction. This method of ravenous consumption, theft, distillation, and re-presentation scans as a sort of table of contents to Dylan’s playbook as a whole, and I’m among those who find his brand of synthesis to be entirely natural and endlessly fascinating to unpack.

One wonders how deeply Dylan had formulated the sound he would summon so successfully with the group on Desire, or the depth to which they could invoke duende—the creative spirit of a performance—that “works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand…changes a girl, by magic power, into a lunar paralytic, or covers the cheeks of a broken old man, begging for alms in the wine-shops, with adolescent blushes: gives a woman’s hair the odour of a midnight sea-port: and at every instant works the arms with gestures that are the mothers of the dances of all the ages,” as Lorca would have it.

In June of ‘75, as he was driving through the Village, Dylan spotted a woman with crow-black hair down to her waist walking across the street with a fiddle case in her hands. He rolled down the window and called to her, asked if she could play good. She started, as anyone minding their business would have done—she was on her way to a rehearsal with her latin band—then she recognized him. Scarlet Rivera has described herself as having been a sometimes painfully shy person. At the time she was discouraged by her slow, halting progress in establishing the violin as a relevant, innovative presence in contemporary music. She was concerned that no one understood the instrument’s potential. She was good though, and she knew it. She accepted the opportunity to rehearse with him.

By dawn the next morning she’d traveled with Dylan to his studio; extemporized fiddle lines over early versions of “Isis”, “One More Cup of Coffee”, “Joey”, and “Romance in Durango”; gone with to a Muddy Waters performance where Dylan sat in for a few tunes and took the opportunity to announce that he’d found a new fiddle player. Scarlet took the stage when invited, soloed without hesitation, blew the doors off the joint, and accompanied the entourage till dawn. Within the month she was recording as a founding and critically significant member of Dylan’s new musical family and the gypsy caravan he’d been working toward, the Rolling Thunder Review.

In hindsight, Rivera has described the decisions she made in that moment as a crossroads with mythological import. The effect of Desire makes this assessment sort of hard to disagree with; Desire, as a composition, positively rings with archetypal overtones. It’s Dylan’s most mystically charged record, and it crackles with feminine mystique carried off by Rivera’s fiddle lines which alternately scratch beneath and then swaddle Dylan’s melodies, his sawn harmonica leads, and Emmylou Harris’s and Ronnie Blakley’s harmonies, which buttress and amplify a raw feminine power that is, in my mind, the signature effect of the record’s production. Sonically and psychically, Desire is owned by the women who populate it, none more than Rivera.

Attesting to why Desire is so successful and such a personally significant record to so many listeners, one that routinely appears near the top of attentive Dylan fans’ lists, is as difficult as it is unavoidable. It is an entirely alluring effort. Desire sounds like a mystery. It invites speculation and repeated listening and fairly bleeds with the sounds of pathos, love, remorse, lust. One hears a torchlit ceremony, the chemical wedding of the old philosopher king to his bride. Also: It. Grooves. So. Fucking. Hard. Maybe this can’t be overstated, maybe this needs some explaining, maybe it is as self-evident as the tides.

Rob Stoner and Howard Wyeth form what is among the most comprehensively groovy rhythm sections I’ve ever heard in my damn life. Stoner’s root-deep bass tones sound as though they’ve been thrummed on the umbilicus between the world and the moon, and the recurrent slap-back reverb on Wyeth’s drum kit echoes his deft, propulsive stumbling through some cavern toward the light. These tracks, stitched through with Scarlet Rivera’s silver thread, are, in my ears and chest, sometimes nearly overwhelming to consider. These are the sounds of musicians who—having just been introduced to one another and the songs—barely know the material they’re recording, and must rely on their gut to get them from one side of a tune to the other. Their mantra-like groove, a kind of madness born of the survival instinct, pervades Desire binding together the record’s constellation of narratives —historical biography, fantasy, western, revisionist journalism, late-capitalist lament, memoir. It’s as if we’ve tuned in a radio signal by happenstance, as if we might have jiggered the antenna, smacked the top of the radio, and grabbed a different story because we’re awash in them.

I think this record asks us to pay close attention to one another, though, to consider how the granularity of individual lives fits within an interrelated aggregation of those experiences. Clocking in at eight and eleven minutes respectively, “Hurricane” and “Joey” essentially demand a recognition that a discussion of any one life requires room and time to unfold. Alternately, the dizzying, through-the-looking-glass circumlocutions of “Isis” and “Black Diamond Bay” are as a cloud of volcanic dust, a storm of humanity that can be overwhelming to the point of inciting complacency and malaise. (Seems like every time you turn around / there’s another hard luck story that you’re gonna hear / and there’s really nothin’ anyone can say / and I never did plan to go anyway / to Black Diamond Bay.) Desire demonstrates that this blasphemous and sometimes forgivable impulse to look away must be counterbalanced with utmost care and attention to those around us, and how we walk with one another. “Oh Sister”’s solemn, reverential address of separation—which is always so imminent and always so fearfully charged—is unflinching in its clarity: we may never pass this way again. Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore, is a pressing message to consider and leads without pause to its own natural conclusion which we all must confront: You may not see me, tomorrow.

—Joe Manning

#175: Carpenters, "Close to You" (1970)

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It began with a challenge as they left Memphis, and now Caroline and Davis were playing the Kevin Bacon Game, with their own modified rules, as the car made its way through Mississippi and into Louisiana.

“I bet I can connect him with Clark Gable,” Caroline said.

“In seven people or less this time,” Davis replied.

“Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Misfits...Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot...Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas in The China Syndrome...Michael Douglas and Darryl Hannah in Wall Street and” Caroline’s speech slowed, and she looked out the window as if the answer would be on a billboard. The billboard they were approaching advertised an adult bookstore off exit sixty. The last few billboards had featured busty women in lace bras, glossy lips agape, looking from their billboard perches at the motorists with heavily lined eyes luring them to their gentlemen’s club like an interstate siren’s song. She found the sexy signs entertaining and not disturbing like the one in Byhalia that looked to be fifty years old and said, “Prepare To Meet Your Maker” in calligraphy that looked as if it came from a Gutenberg Bible.

“You’ve run out of steam already,” Davis said, “you only have two more links and then you’ve run out.”

“Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias

“Shit, it’s always Julia Roberts...she’s your kingpin.”

“I love her. She’s beautiful.”

“Go ahead, go on and finish.”

“Okay, for the win. Julia Robert and Kevin Bacon in Flatliners. My work is done here.”

“It always comes down to Flatliners,” Davis said, scowling behind a pair of cheap sunglasses he had found. They were gold frames with amber tinted lenses, the type Elvis wore during his later years that were handed out at parties and bars during Elvis Week back in Memphis. She knew he was not wearing them to be ironic, but because he needed sunglasses, and yet somehow could pull it off.

“Are you upset?”

Davis shrugged.

“You’re pissed at me because I used Flatliners?” She reached to the passenger side and shoved his shoulder with her hand, trying to be playful and hoping he wasn’t mad. She didn’t know how to read him yet.

“You use it every time.”

“Then let’s take Flatliners off the table. It can be off limits.”

“Do Clark Gable without Flatliners. You can’t do it.”

Caroline considered this.

“Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Misfits...Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot...Jack Lemmon and Darryl Hannah in Grumpier Old Men,” Caroline paused.

“See, it can’t be done.”

“Hush,” Caroline said, and continued, “Darryl Hannah and Tom Hanks in Splash...Tom

Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins in Big.”

“One more!”

A smile spread across Caroline’s face as she turned her head to him and said, “Elizabeth Perkins and Kevin Bacon in He Said She Said.”

He grinned at her, and she was relieved that he wasn’t angry about her win. His hair was dark and wavy, grown out in a shaggy yet fashionable way; he tucked some of it behind his ear and revealed his cheekbone, which was so pronounced it reminded her of last summer when she finally got to go to Rome and glance upwards and at The David, his chiseled features highlighted by the light streaming in through the skylight of the rotunda that housed him. Davis looked back at her and she returned to watching the road. She leaned up to, almost over, the wheel and knitted her brows together in concentration. She recalled her friends saying that she drove more like a grandmother than a twenty-two-year-old and leaned back from the wheel.

“So how do you know this stuff?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I’ve always loved the cinema but never really watched many old movies…just read until a couple of summers ago when I got really sick and it kept me in bed for a few months. Having the TV on was reassuring. I liked Turner Classic Movies and just let it run day and night and by the time I was better I had grown accustomed to it, so I keep it on still, even when I’m not home.”

“What was wrong with you?”

“What? You mean back then? Nothing romantic, just mono.”

*

They were driving the five and a half hours from Memphis to New Orleans because Davis was playing an impromptu gig at a small bar. It wasn’t Caroline’s job to drive Davis around to gigs, nor to guitar tech outside of the studio, but she was being paid extra for this road trip. She worked for the studio as a secretary and audio engineer apprentice where he was recording his second album.

The studio was a part-time job that she obtained for the purpose of living off campus in an apartment, for which her parents refused to pay the rent because they worried she was becoming antisocial. However, the owners of the studio, Jerry and Vic, found that she had a good ear from years of music lessons. They taught her to set up the studio, mic the instruments, tune drums, and tech guitars. Now, slowly but surely, she was learning to use the boards and check levels, and Vic let her record the hobbyists that came in to record something. Vic called them “trust fund musicians,” but after hearing Caroline’s mix of her first session he had told her, “You are a wizard of sound…you actually made this shit sound decent.”

Surprising herself, she loved working in the studio. Everything about the process: the placement of the instruments and mics, the levels on the boards, restringing guitars, even tuning drums. Caroline had won many awards in college, and had applied to several ivy-league schools for her masters in the Classics, yet she thought she might defer a year, if accepted, to work more with Vic and Jerry. She did not know if academia was for her, with audio engineering at least she would have a skill set. Caroline had yet to mention this to her parents.

Caroline thought the studio had a seventies feel, wood-paneled walls (both in the studio and out), carpeting that was probably once the color of an avocado, now dull and brown from being endlessly exposed to a constant stream of cigarette smoke. Gold records hung on the walls along with framed copies of the respective album covers. All of them were recorded here, some she recognized.

She answered the phones, made coffee, and rarely had to type up invoices (the studio wasn’t all that official and the invoices were simple), but, since the studio wasn’t that busy, mostly she just read. There had been a buzz among the musicians when Davis arrived in town, but then again, there were a steady stream of famous musicians that chose to record here over the years. As Vic and Jerry had reminded her numerous times as a selling point when people called about booking time, they recorded things the old way, the way they recorded Elvis or Johnny Cash down the street at Sun to get that rough and muddy Memphis Sound: all the players playing on a two track, no overdubs, with a slight tape delay that produced that quick slap-back doubling sound.

Davis was from New York and didn’t have a car, even though the label he was with would have probably provided one. Instead, he rode a bike around Memphis. Caroline was the only support staff in the studio, and Jerry and Vic worked the boards as engineers when legitimate musicians came into record. She’d overheard them talking with one another about Davis before he arrived to record, and gathered that his first album was a cult favorite, popular among other musicians, but his songs were too long for radio play and the label wanted the second album to be more commercial. He chose to come to Memphis so they couldn’t spy on his progress. Davis had insisted twelve mics for all the players and instruments as well as live recording with the other players. Essentially, he wanted to record one track with no punch-ins or punch-outs. This album would take a while. When she had heard his demands, prior to his arrival, she decided he was a pain in the ass.

*

When Davis walked in for his first session, she was sitting at the reception desk reading and didn’t see him come it. He startled her when he asked her what she was reading, and she looked up, confused because she was still thinking in Latin and not used to being disturbed. He was attractive in that mystical and grubby way that most of the musicians were; they

had a certain Parisian or Continental quality, but perhaps a bit more so in Davis’s case as there was a light and intelligence behind his eyes indicating that he was not impaired as most of the musicians were that darkened the doorstep of the studio.

“It’s Virgil,” she replied, and looked back down at the text. He stood there in front of her desk and she felt his gaze upon her head. His presence was warming, like one of those red lamps they keep fries under at a fast food joint. Her cheeks felt hot and flushed.

“The studio is back there,” she said, not looking up and pointing vaguely to the back.

He leaned over the desk closer to her and whispered, "Oh Muse, recount to me the causes," then walked away. She stared after him with a surprised glance, her head slightly tilted as if she were a dog trying to understand its owner’s words, and her gaze followed him as he walked into the studio. She got up quickly to follow him into the studio to check the mics.

She went to the record store and bought his CD on her way home from work. The liner notes gave a simple bio: he was raised on the outskirts of Los Angeles, no formal music lessons, and after high school he moved to New York and began to gig. He was thirty.

*

When her bosses not so much asked, but told, her to drive him to this gig, she was upset.

“Yeah, I guess this means no reading yourself Greek on our dime,” Jerry said. “You’re gonna have to actually work the rest of the week.”

“Unless they have Greek on tape for the car ride,” Vic said and spit some dip into a plastic Coke bottle. Jerry belly-laughed at Vic’s comment.

“I work plenty around here and you both know it. Why can’t you get one of the session players to do it?” she asked.

“Who in their right mind would want those drunks driving them around?” Jerry said. He and Vic looked at each other and laughed like they hadn’t heard a joke before. Caroline rolled her eyes.

“Besides, our college girl has a dependable car,” Vic said.

“He’s the one who’s paying and he wanted you,” Jerry added while raising and lowering his eyebrows several times.

*

“I mean, the best stories have already been written...long ago. The Greeks. Man, the Greeks. We still only have stories that operate on a number of plots, like thirty or forty, some guy wrote a whole book about it and the Greeks and the Romans are responsible for most of those. English Lit people argue Shakespeare, but c’mon. Poetry, too, it’s all from epic ballads. Doesn’t that bother you? While you are writing lyrics? Singing your songs and knowing that the best stuff has already been written?”

She looked at over at him. Davis was looking back at her, a half smile on his face, and he was not wearing his Elvis sunglasses. His eyes squinted from the afternoon sun, his hair fell in dark waves around his face and neck.

“Well...does it?” she asked, forcing herself to look away from him and back to the road.

“I’m sorry, what are you asking?”

“Hand me that Twix out of the bag,” she said with a sigh and paused as Davis retrieved then handed it to her. She opened the candy bar, took a large bite, and then said with a mouthful, “I mean, Virgil...he’s my favorite. He’s the shit. He must be a tough act to follow.”

As she finished the candy bar the cadence of her car’s tires slapping the causeway over the Pontchartrain signaled to Caroline that the drive was almost complete and Caroline felt a pang of regret about this. The drive and the city was familiar, her uncle lived in New Orleans and her family usually visited once a year. She hoped her knowledge of the city would impress Davis.

She glanced over at him as he looked out the window at the lake and the small fishing camps, houses on stilts, with fishing boats parked on the water nearby. The scenery alongside the interstate became the suburbs of New Orleans which was a strip-mall haven, and then came the above ground cemeteries that reminded Caroline of miniature cities, the crypts in neat rows like houses lining streets stretching across the green ground for acres upon acres. Concrete angels and crosses taller than the cemetery walls decorated the rooftops of the crypts.

“Okay,” Caroline said, “where is it again that you booked our rooms?”

“La Pavilion, but I promised a friend I’d drop by and say hello, so I guess head toward Uptown to their place,” Davis pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and read the address, “Jefferson and Magazine.”

Caroline noted his odd use of nouns and pronouns and suspected that the friend was a woman. Caroline tried to think of something to say but managed only to nod. The pit of her stomach hurt, and she told herself this was because of the Twix.

Fourteen blocks later, Caroline parallel parked on Magazine and immediately pulled a book from her bag.

“Sure you don’t want to come in with me?”

“Nope, I’m good. I’m at a crucial point and haven’t read this translation yet,” she waived her copy of The Aeneid at him without meeting his eye.

Her eyes drifted over the words of one line repeatedly and without comprehension. After five minutes she saw Davis emerge from the front door of the peach shotgun house with a long-limbed woman with a dark bob and translucent skin the color of cream. Caroline stared, taking an inventory of the woman’s appearance. She wore short shorts with a tank top and a pair of sandals and carried a large straw handbag. She looked artistic, sophisticated, and close to Davis’s age. Like Davis, she looked grubby and Parisian as if she belonged on a beach cruiser bicycle with a baguette and bouquet of flowers in the basket on the handle bars.

The woman got into the backseat and Davis returned to his front seat.

“We’re going to drop Ilene off at work, I think it’s on our way.”

“It’s on the twenty-four-hundred block of Magazine,” Ilene added.

“Sure,” Caroline said, and began to drive.

“Are you the girl that reads all the time?” Ilene asked, and Davis shifted a bit in his seat at this.

“Yes,” Caroline said, watching the road.

Davis and Ilene discussed the people they had in common, people Caroline did not know, and places Caroline had never been. They spoke about Ilene’s paintings and her newest gallery show and her creative process. At red lights she watched Ilene in the rear-view mirror and noted her flawless arched brows and crimson painted lips. Once, Ilene met her gaze in the rearview mirror and something about the way Ilene looked at her was both curious and apologetic.

Caroline knew then that Ilene was Davis’s lover or had been at one time.

Lover. It was such an adult word. Caroline had been with several guys, one in high school and three (maybe technically four) so far at college, but the thought of referring to them as her lovers was absurd and, well, pathetic. When she thought of those sexual experiences, she thought of them as close encounters. Like the time her family went to Mexico and swam with the dolphins: it was okay, the dolphins were nice enough, but it wasn’t like it was on Flipper and that was what she had expected it to be, wanted it to be.

Yet she didn’t think of her sexual exploits often. When she wasn’t at the studio, she led a life of quiet and solitude in the study carrels of the library, the glow of the green banker’s lamp illuminating Virgil, Ovid, and Homer, surrounded by the sweet scent of the decaying books in their stacks, a smell that made her salivate. These past few years in the library with her books and her few friends, most of which were either library workers, professors of classics, and, of course Vic and Jerry, were fulfilling and happy.

Working at the studio this summer or, more specifically, seeing Davis at the studio this summer, confused her. That day she first met him she tore open the excessive packaging of Davis’s CD, Found Melodies, while still in the parking lot of the record store and sat in her running car, AC blasting, listening intently. It was as if John Keats and Virgil had somehow gotten together to write lyrics and found the male equivalent of Edith Piaf to sing them. At her desk at work, her mind wandered from the dactylic hexameter of The Aeneid to the door of the studio and, in it, the artist. He was both bard and songbird. Her life no longer felt as full and her underarms never seemed to be dry anymore.

“Okay,” said Ilene, “this is it, up here.” Ilene leaned forward, sticking her arm in between the front seats to point to where Caroline was to drop her off. Her arm was hairless and slender like a vine. As the car pulled to a stop, Ilene whipped a scarf from the straw bag and, without effort or aid of a mirror, tied it around her head, making a perfect turban. Davis and Ilene kissed one another, but once on each cheek, to Caroline’s relief, rather than on the mouth. Caroline told her goodbye and Ilene smiled at her. This time she was unable to read what Ilene’s smile was telling her.

Ilene got out of the car and walked down the sidewalk, disappearing as she entered a storefront with a window that featured a sad-looking mannequin wearing a yellow dress. There was a heavy silence as the car pulled out onto Magazine and onward toward the hotel.

“Ok, do Greta Garbo.”

She couldn’t look at him.

“She was in movies with Clark Gable,” Caroline said and added, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

*

One night the previous week, Caroline had been doing her daily routine for closing up the studio office. It stayed light so late in Memphis in the summer. The front door of the studio faced west and the late evening sun, beginning to set above the Mississippi, cast the office in a bright-colored haze of pink and orange. The light streaming through the front windows made the dust in the studio office appear and dance in the air. She had traveled many places in the world and yet it always seemed more beautiful here at home, the summers here were like no other on earth: hot sun with the fuzz from the cottonwood trees, white and resembling snow flurries, blowing in the breeze.

She watered the sad potted plants that she had resurrected during her tenure at the studio. In the room with the boards it was dark and she scrunched up her nose as she emptied all the ashtrays, which were filled by the end of the everyday by Vic and Jerry alone with both cigarettes and occasionally the burnt-out ends of joints. The window over the board looked out upon the recording studio and the lights were on, Davis was still inside strumming his guitar, singing and jotting things down on a piece of paper balanced on a music stand. He wasn’t using a mic and she couldn’t hear him playing or singing, it was like watching television on mute. She remained unseen until, leaning on the control board, she hit a button, causing an amp or mic to squeal inside the studio.

Davis stopped playing and shielded his eyes from the house lights while looking at the control room window. Caroline darted out of the control room and to the kitchenette sink and began to rinse the coffee pot out. As usual, Vic had left it on when it was almost empty, cooking the dregs of the coffee into a black soot that stuck to the bottom of the pot. Hearing footsteps, she cleaned this pot as if the task fascinated her; she became a scientist of the coffee pot, scrubbing it and holding it up to see that her work was progressing.

“Was that you at the boards?” he asked.

“Yes, I had to dump out the ashtrays...apparently Jerry has been hitting the ganja again.” She felt him move closer to her, the nerve endings in her body felt as if her hands were on one of those static balls, the type at museums for children that made your hair stand straight on end like a dandelion, rather than on Vic’s nasty coffee pot.

“Are you still reading The Aeneid?”

“Yes,” she said as she put the coffee pot on the rack to dry, then turned from the sink, “when

Jerry and Vic aren’t busting my balls about...”

She looked up and his face was inches from hers. He put his hand on her cheek, cupping it, and she nuzzled her face against his palm. As if it were a reflex, she put her hand on top of his and moved it from her cheek to her mouth and kissed his wrist. Then, as if snapping back from a hypnotic state, embarrassed by her own bravado, she bolted from the kitchenette, grabbed her book bag, and walked out the door into humid dark.

They had not spoken of it since.

*

At the gig, Caroline set up the amps, making sure the Rickenbacker and the Fender were restrung and tuned. After talking to the man running the sound, and listening to the soundcheck to make sure nothing was too hot, Caroline went outside into the balmy air as people streamed inside. She pulled her book from her bag and forced herself to focus on the words, highlight passages, and take notes in the margins, yet every few minutes her mind worked its way back to Davis. There seemed to have been an unspoken understanding between them, an energy between them, an intimacy, and she felt foolish to have thought so. How would she know it if there had been?

She had not known hardship in her life and yet she had not known intimacy of any form, either. Many privileges had been afforded her by her parents and yet she was raised by television and books while her father sold bonds and her mother played tennis at the club. Her only company at home was the housekeeper who smoked Kool cigarettes in the backyard when she wasn’t scouring and scrubbing the house with a rightfully vindictive fervor, and a brother who was into golf, jam bands, and the Republican party. Neither of them spoke to her very often.

When her parents did speak to her, it was to criticize. She hoped each time they approached her that it was to tell her that she had been adopted and that her real parents were the hirsute bohemian couple from the illustrated sex book that she had found in her mother’s scarf box in the seventh grade, but that conversation hadn’t occurred yet. The response to her attempts to connect to them was always a reductive soliloquy by one of her parents, the sole purpose of which to let Caroline know that she was a mistaken fool. For instance, a couple of years ago, Caroline read a book for college orientation, the one that had been chosen for all entering freshman so they would have something to discuss together while doing ice breaker games and trust-building exercises in the quad. It was a memoir about growing up in the shadows of the nuclear generators of Three Mile Island and being a closeted lesbian. Caroline was unable to put the book down, she found it “honest” and “relevant,” just as the blurbs on the cover described it. After reading it, she gave it to her mother to read. Her mother read the book jacket and introduction where the author talked about her current life, living in a yurt in Colorado with another woman, then handed the book back to Caroline. Her mother shook her head and sighed, “This is emotional exhibitionism.”

“It’s about the environment,” Caroline replied.

“Everyone nowadays has to compete with each other over what all they’ve overcome,” her mother said, making apostrophes in the air with her manicured fingers. “It’s the goddamned pain Olympics.”

And yet she pitied her mother, who had her own “pain Olympics” in Caroline’s plain sight. The summer that Caroline was twelve, the turntable at their home was in constant use and her father, a bond trader, was out of the country for work. Her mother compulsively played the Carpenters’ Close to You, with special attention to the title track and “Baby It’s You” while moving the needle past the sad songs like “Another Song.” Caroline endured this with eye rolls, as the album was so dated, but soon knew the words to each song and warmed to it. She loved the country twang that was placed in “Reason to Believe.” The album bothered her in a way that she didn’t know how to explain then. Now she would describe it as being over-produced. Caroline longed to hear Karen’s voice; she felt that the horn sections and strings took away from it. It was almost as if the producer attempted to candy-coat her voice. Karen’s voice soothed her as the drama unfolded around her, but there was something else there, a subtext to that saccharine sweet voice that added depth. A sadness maybe?

Their pool house had been rented that summer by an artist named Hopper Williamson. He had a mattress on the floor and used the rest of the small space as a painting studio. His uniform: jeans and a white undershirt covered in paint drops. He ate canned ham from the can. His only belongings were his art supplies. Caroline’s friends thought he was a “stud,” and Caroline could see why they would say that, but she would never agree.

As Karen sang “We’ve Only Just Begun,” Caroline’s mother would hover at their house’s back window watching Hopper’s shadow paint on a large canvas. Her mother also took sudden interest in swimming in the pool, and traded her one piece for a string bikini. At first, Hopper would briefly came out to talk to her Mother when she swam, kneeling at the poolside, usually with smears of paint on his face. He wore a black bandana on his head. After several weeks, he began to join her in the pool.

After their daily swims, her mother would drape herself in the towel, come inside, and Karen would begin to sing from the turntable. Her mother would make lunch or start to prepare something for dinner in some sort of odd daze, smiling in intervals at nothing. For Caroline, this was disgusting, yet more intriguing than MTV.

One morning, Caroline woke earlier than usual, just after dawn, planning to use the pool before her mother claimed it. She looked out her bedroom window to the backhouse to see her mother kissing Hopper at the door of the pool house, then quickly made her way into the main house. Caroline made a beeline downstairs and nonchalantly poured herself a bowl of cereal. Her mother was startled when she saw her. Caroline smelled cigarette smoke and alcohol on her mother, but the glow on her mother’s face was something she hadn’t ever seen. She hadn’t ever really seen her mother happy. At that moment, Caroline decided to play along.

“We are out of Cheerios. Could you put that on the grocery list?”

Her mother’s shoulders relaxed and she said, “Of course.”

The summer of Karen continued like this until Caroline’s father returned at the end of August. Her mother became distraught, but still swam daily with Hopper while Caroline’s father was at work. From the back window, Caroline could tell that their conversations were becoming serious, tense even.

Hopper moved to Marfa, Texas two weeks later. Caroline’s mother never played music in the house again, and Caroline took the turntable and the vinyl to her room to listen to through headphones. That winter, Karen Carpenter died, and soon Caroline found out what all was hidden in that voice. That voice was art and it prevailed over the attempts to hide the emotion behind it. Her mother returned to her bitter state, but every once in awhile, Caroline would see her mother return from the empty pool house with her lashes wet and eyes rimmed in red.

*

It was nearly three in the morning when they loaded his gear into the trunk of her car and made their way back to the hotel.

After changing into a T-shirt, she sat on the edge of her bed, the hotel linens stiff beneath her thighs. He was in the adjoining room and she wondered if he would go back out or if Ilene would come over here with her straw bag and wrap her milky limbs around him. It was all for the best. Caroline did not want to end up crying into Vic’s ashtray. She immediately began digging in her bag for her Discman and headphones. After dumping the contents of her bag and realizing she did not have her headphones, she belly-flopped onto the bed and covered her head with a pillow that felt as if it had been heavily starched. The pillow crunched as she pressed it around her head. She decided that this arrangement would work almost as well as the headphones as long as she kept the pressure on the pillow throughout the night. As she set the pillow aside to peel back the bedclothes, she heard a rumple as a piece of paper slid beneath the door to the adjoining room.

Caroline walked over to the door and picked up the paper. It was a note scrawled on hotel stationery.

“Virgil opened up for me tonight. He was a tough act to follow. Did he ever work with Kevin Bacon?” it said.

She wrote on the bottom of the page, “I’m sorry I missed that (Virgil I mean, not you). He was responsible for the screenplay of Footloose, so yes, he worked with Bacon.” She slid the paper back under the door and after a moment she heard the lock on Davis’s side of the adjoining door unlock.

Caroline took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly as she unlocked the latch of her door and found Davis on the other side. He held out his hand and she took it.

—Edie Pounders

#176: Aerosmith, "Rocks" (1976)

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Ah yes, 1976. There’s not much that I don’t love about this year. It graced us with Blue Oyster Cult, Hall and Oates, Steve Miller Band, and Electric Light Orchestra. Rocky entered the ring for the first time as a mere unknown boxer, Travis Bickle was dubbed a hero, and every child in America pulled a Stretch Armstrong across the house. But in the same year, a 34-minute album that displayed a simple black cover with five diamonds on it emerged into our lives. How does this album the length of a Seinfeld episode (with commercials) stand out from the others?

It blew everyone’s minds with insane guitar riffs.

Rocks encompassed freedom. The band was allowed to play whatever the hell they felt. Most of their inspiration came while using various drugs, but this was their best time, before their health and career were in any kind of danger. Let’s face it, the lyrics on this album are not their strong suit (There’s got to be a more hardcore way of saying “Back in the Saddle”), but let’s remember that this was 1976, when Peter Frampton had a top hit in which he repeatedly asked, “Do you feel like I do? Do you feel like we do?” Poetic words weren’t exactly a top priority. But when you’re Aerosmith and you’re at peak fame with an empowering guitar that blends with Tyler’s harmonies, does it matter? It didn’t at the time, when several of the singles on this album went to the top. This was just the peak of their stardom, before there were any repercussions for doing whatever the hell they wanted. The same year Rocks came out, Steven Tyler appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, in which Ed McCormack hilariously claimed Tyler looked like Carly Simon’s kid sister. Looking at the cover now, making eye contact with Steven taunting me with his puckered lips, I think he looks like the hot, rock-star version of Ross Malinger (Google him, you’ll see what I’m talking about).

It’s funny. I don’t think Aerosmith is anyone’s favorite band. I’ve never heard anyone say “Favorite band of all time? EASY, it’s Aerosmith. I never take off my 1976 Rocks tour T-shirt, I even wear it under my suit. I don’t wanna miss a thing, am I right?” Perhaps it’s because they had a significant gap in their fame during their rehab stint in the 1980’s, while all of the younger bands who drew inspiration from Rocks took over the fame for awhile. When THAT cycle ended and all the Mötley Crües and Metallicas of the world had their own stay in rehab by the 1990s, Aerosmith came back just in time to give us a couple more chart-toppers. But by that point everyone was like, “Hey, that’s Liv Tyler’s dad! She’s really hot in Fellowship of the Ring.”

Even so, let’s not doubt how famous these guys are. They’re everywhere. One of my middle school teachers would constantly play the classic rock radio station during art class, and it felt like every five minutes or so “Rag Doll” would come on, sandwiched between other the radio classics “White Wedding” and “More than a Feeling”. I swear those three were like the holy trifecta of family-friendly radio throwbacks.

I grew up in the ‘90s just as Aerosmith was having their second wave of fame. We went through triumphs and flukes together. They signed on Alicia Silverstone to their music video, I managed to get my first boyfriend. While I was getting shiny, mouth-invading braces put on my teeth, they wrote “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” for the mediocre movie Armageddon. My favorite thing about music videos from the ‘90s is they always had to incorporate movie clips into the music videos, and it inevitably always looked corny. For this video, it’s made to look like NASA’s top scientists are looking at Aerosmith performing instead of a world-ending rogue asteroid. Can you blame them? Steven Tyler looks like he’s fresh out of the shower in this video. I personally think it’s worth a watch, and over 99 million people agree with me.

When I started to feel teen angst, they graced me with “Jaded”, the only song worth listening to on Just Push Play. The desperation in Tyler’s voice when he screeches “My my baby blue” with the moody guitar that transported me into a vortex of emotion that I desperately needed in a post-‘90s grunge era.

To me, it felt like Aerosmith was a hot family friend who you refer to as Uncle, who used to be a rebellious bad boy but suddenly found himself picking out curtains at IKEA and adopting small dogs with his wife. That persona changed after I heard Rocks for the first time.

I first listened to Rocks in 2006. It was exactly what I needed to enter high school with. It was the first time in my life where the blood rushed to my face out of pleasure instead of anxiety, and I channeled those feelings of anxiety, angst, and confusion into a carefree, sick-of-everyone’s-shit kind of attitude. This album transports me back to those days, when my priorities shifted from what people thought of me, to which Led Zeppelin album was better, III or IV? (IV, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

Even now, just re-listening to “Get the Lead Out” has transformed my walk to the metro. The usual bored, lifeless face I carry on my morning commute now has the confident side smirk of a 15-year-old who just spray-painted a mustache on a billboard. It’s all thanks to Joe Perry shredding it on guitar while Steven Tyler sings “Won’t ya grab my shaker / Got to meet your maker.” In the midst of work stress and the drama that encompasses my twenties, this album whisks it all away and I am suddenly turned into a hair metal groupie fuming with hairspray while wearing an Aerosmith crop top and screaming, “I’ll grab your shaker, Steven!” toward the stage.

There’s no doubt that the guitar solos on this album, along with their rebellious lyrics, inspired all of the big ‘80s heavy metal bands, but this album has its own personality. “Rats in the Cellar” has the harmonies and fast-paced energy of the punk scene emerging at the time, but Tyler makes it his own by throwing in a harmonica solo. We don’t hear harmonicas enough anymore. In the song “Last Child,” they even got Paul Prestopino to join in with his banjo. That would probably be dubbed a rock ‘n’ roll sin in the 1980s, but this again proved that Aerosmith could do whatever the hell they wanted in 1976 and make it work.

“Nobody’s Fault” has the most serious tone of the album, and a very fitting song as we currently find ourselves in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters. Their fear of earthquakes taken out in Tyler’s screech of “Sorry, you’re so sorry” and the very real lyrics

Man has known
And now he’s blown it
Upside down and hell’s the only sound
We did an awful job

And now they say it’s nobody’s fault

It’s pretty amazing, right? This entire album feels shorter than “Stairway to Heaven”, and has lyrics that the musicians themselves probably didn’t even remember writing. But the energy that this album formed in 1976 can still give a confidence boost to us 40 years later. It’s easy to feel like the world is out to get us, that we don’t stand a chance unless we’re always following the rules and counting down until the shift is over. I always appreciate albums like this when they give us at least the fantasy of the alternative: What if I say no? What if I talk back? What if I break the rules?

—Jenn Montooth

#177: Funkadelic, "One Nation Under a Groove" (1978)

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One of my best friends, Bailey, loves funk with all of her being. “It’s just nasty and raw and it’s this outpouring of cosmic energy and humor and anger and sexual frustration and dirtiness that you just can’t find in anything else,” she says.

When we talked about Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, she said, “Oh man, that album just grooves in your stomach and your body,” and I didn’t really get it but went along with it anyway. I didn’t want the poetry to seem over my head. But now, going on the fifth day sitting in the library writing and opening blank Word documents and writing and listening to George Clinton’s voice and writing, I get it. When you really get into writing, and I mean really get into it, where your fingers fly over the keyboard or your hands slide over the page, you’re in a groove. And you can’t stop listening, you can’t stop writing, and you’re not you anymore. You’re something greater than yourself, and maybe you don’t fully understand it yet but you’re trying to figure it out.

Listening to Funkadelic is like listening to passion incarnate. The claps and the cowbell and the backup singers who blend into the melody so well you barely recognize them as human—they all come together in a balanced chaos that I don’t really understand but I do, too. It’s the same balanced chaos of passion. Now, I have a lot of passions (just a few days ago I got in a heated argument about how pumpkins are just overhyped squash, for instance), but I’m really, really passionate about two things: writing and kindness.

I think I black out a lot when I write. Something washes over me and then I’ll check my phone and it’s two hours later and I’ve written four pages and I know what they’re about but could not for the life of me tell you what happened around me during those two hours. Every time, I feel the writing in my bones. It breaks my heart and repairs it, over and over again.

The opposite happens with kindness, though. Every few weeks my mom reminds me it’s important to be kind—to brighten somebody’s day and help somebody smile. “It’s the best thing you can do for someone,” she says. Kindness, true kindness, where you compliment somebody because they deserve it or you listen to somebody who needs to be heard, is so raw it makes my heart swell.

But when you’re out of the groove for too long—away from your passions for too long—it feels like you’re missing some part of yourself.

Like when I got too swamped with work to write, spending fourteen hours a day at the library and then passing out the second I lay down at night. My eyes hurt so much from staring at Word documents and online articles that the idea of keeping them open for thirty minutes longer to look at more words was painful. And then one of my professors asked us if we kept journals or diaries, and I was about to say I did when I realized I hadn’t picked mine up since August. So the next morning, November 1st, I brought my journal with me throughout the day and filled up eight pages with things I didn’t know I felt.

And like when I told one of my friends how a drunk man had followed me home the night before, shouting terrifying things about what he saw and what he wanted to see, and she said, “That sucks, I’m sorry.” Then she ducked her head back into her book, and I was alone next to her. But when I told one of my friends from home, she said, “I don’t really know how to help you feel better or what I should say, but I am so sorry, and if you ever want to talk about it I’ll always listen to you.” And I put my head on her shoulder and nearly cried. Her kindness helped make me feel more whole.

And one of the best parts of life is when these moments of wholeness and passion pop up randomly.

Like when I was sitting on a bench on day and a leaf, split red and yellow right down the middle, landed in my lap. I picked it up and studied the light brown veins that kept the leaf together, and wrote a three-page, terrible poem about it. “Bad art,” my friend calls it. “It’s meant to be bad,” she says. And that what makes it beautiful, I always think. That poem is one of my favorite things I’ve written.

And when a friend texted me, “Hey beautiful!!! I wanted to send a quick text to encourage you today to live your best Monday even though Mondays are terrible. I hope that school life will be less stressful for you and that you're able to remember how truly loved you are by all of your close friends. Hoping and praying that you have an uplifting week and a wonderful day.” I felt a surge of love pump through my heart.

When you feel something, a stirring, maybe, in places you didn’t know existed inside you—that’s when you know you’re in love with something. And when you get so mesmerizingly lost in something—that’s when you know you’re passionate about it. I’ve rarely had one without the other.

And that’s what makes One Nation Under a Groove so interesting and confusing to me, because it stirs things inside me and I can feel it course through my bloodstream, and I just appreciate it. I don’t love it. I’m not passionate about it. It’s not writing or kindness or the people I love. It’s not a music that I can’t live without.

It’s just really, really good.

—Nicole Efford

#178: Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, "The Anthology: 1961-1977" (1992)

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Disclaimer: This is one of those questionable picks that pepper the list: 16 years of music in a greatest hits double album…. Not sure that’s a particularly fair means of assessment or an accurate picture of Curtis Mayfield as an artist. For the sake of fairness I’d be happy to go straight to the late-‘60s and early ‘70s political flowering and Blaxploitation soundtrack cuts and skip the Motown-esque love songs of the Impressions years, as fine as they are. If, however, Rolling Stone had made the sensible rule against including greatest hits albums (which they really should have done), I’ll happily take Curtis, Roots, or the Superfly soundtrack and put it up against any other album in this general numerical range on the RS list (Curtis, his 1970 solo debut must have been a mammoth shock to the system: the opening cut, “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go…” Holy gawd! Get a load of me! A list of society’s ills followed by the lyric, “Nixon talking about, Don’t Worry.” America is great already.) Now I discover Superfly is already on the RS list at no. 72, one hundred-plus long albums away, despite several of its songs appearing on this anthology. I don’t get it. Anyway, sailing on. End Disclaimer.

In eighth grade, I bought a cassette tape from the bargain rack at Kemp Mill Music (same place I bought Hysteria, my contribution at #464, full price though) with a cool Black Caesar, Fred Williamson-looking dude in a colorful suit holding a gun in one hand and a scantily dressed babe in the other on the cover. It was entitled Greatest Pimpin’ Hits or something similar and anthologized many of the classic soundtrack cuts of ‘70s Blaxploitation-era cinema. Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft,” of course; Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and Marvin Gaye’s “Troubleman” are other ones I remember, along with Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly.” Come to think “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead” were on the tape as well. I would imagine three tunes making Curtis the leading representative of Greatest Pimpin’ Hits. If the pimp shoe fits.

I loved this cassette tape. Listened to it all the time. Not because Inestled in an affluent Washington, D.C. suburbwas particularly aware of the socioeconomic context and political backdrop of these films, or had ever even seen any of them at the time, but because it was damn funky soul music. I remember one summer I was mowing lawnsI hated mowing lawnsdespised it with all my heartand it was a regular in my Walkman. Now for a related embarrassing suburban-white-kid-early-‘90s-cluelessness anecdote: as junior high schoolers it was required of me and my buddies to hang out at the local mall, where we occasionally partook in the activity of “Pimpin’.” This meant we would dress up in ‘70s clothes gathered from the basement, attic, or bargain bin and strut around the mall blaring Greatest Pimpin’ Hits from a boombox. Curtis Mayfield’s smooth falsetto: “I’m your momma, I’m your daddy, I’m that nigger in the alley / I’m your doctor, when in need, want some coke, have some weed” and our long strides around the Sbarro’s and Cinnabon. Nigh 25 years ago in suburban Virginia we thought that was pretty sweet. Nowadays maybe not so much. I recall the people from the Glamour Shots appreciated it anyway, gifting us with some fine 8 x 10 glossies in our pimp gear in exchange for momentarily enlivening the tedious hours of their mall working day. Ah, the foibles of youth.

Having thankfully moved on from my pimping years, I came back to Curtis Mayfield via my preferred genre of metal, courtesy Fishbone’s cover of “Freddie’s Dead.” Thrashing about in the pit at some humid summer festival: hey, I know this songwait a second, this is from that tape! Then picking up this very anthology I earlier denigrated Rolling Stone for selecting at a used record store in a strip mall in Vienna, VA.

If I had to name my all-time favorite band, Bad Brains would get a better than decent shot at the title (as they will never ever see a list like this, I will include them here). Along with being righteous heavy music, Bad Brains tick all my personal boxes: subvert expectations, crash genre, local boys to boot, but as I think about it, maybe there is also some related connection to my early courtship with Curtis. They are, foremost, city music: Curtis from Chicago; Bad Brains, my own D.C. and later NYC when they were forced to relocate in search of an audience and clubs where they were allowed to play (see: “Banned in DC”). Their music speaks to an awareness and connection with legitimate social concerns developed from real experience and expressed in a kick-ass musical fashion. (The Clash is another band that does this for me—not coincidentally sharing the roots-reggae gene with Bad Brains.) Pusherman and Troubleman and Freddie-on-the-corner are from the same place that led to Bad Brains’ HR (Human Rights) screaming in “Big Takeover,” “Understand me when I say / There's no love for this USA / This world is doomed with its own segregation / Just another Nazi test.” And back to Curtis with another sentiment that hasn’t changed much these many decades later: “We’re all built up with progress / But sometimes I must confess / We deal with rockets and dreams / But reality what does it mean / Ain’t nothin’ said / ‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”

—Erik Wennermark

#179: ABBA, "The Definitive Collection" (2001)

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To tell you I listened to ABBA on my own would be a total lie. In reality, I listened to ABBA because of my mom. Before that, though, there were the A*Teens.

Sometime between 1999 and 2001, a group of polished-but-punky tweens would dance around between commercial breaks on the Disney Channel. The lyrics were super easy to remember“you can dance / you can ji-hive”and I would remember them in a heartbeat. I was in third grade and felt as if I’d been let in on the secret. I finally knew what song everyone was going to be singing along to during lunch time, and how nobody knew who these people were. The band had two boys and two girls, and we all longed to be like them because of the green streaks in their blonde hair. I remember a classmate named Victoria got pink streaks sometime that year. I asked my mom if I could and she laughed, asking why. “Because the A*Teens have them.”

Today, I know that the A*Teens were a Swedish ABBA cover band full ofyou guessed itteens. Initially, target consumers like my nine-year-old-self at the time were drawn to the combination of crop tops and highlighter streaks. The smoggy music videos, bubbly tone and easy-to-remember lyrics, though, should have made me suspicious; or maybe it was my mom singing along. The first nine years of my life were committed to Bollywood music because American music in many ways did not occur to me, much less interest me (with the exception of the occasional “Say My Name” video on Disney Channel). When my mom sang along to “Dancing Queen” by the A*Teens, I didn’t think much of it at the time. I figured my mom knew the words because the video would play on television so many times, and she had just learned it.

Looking back, I remember that it made me happy. My mom and I rarely sang songs in English growing up, with the exception of songs from Barney or nursery rhymes. I grew up on Punjabi music and Bollywood because of my parents; American music never sounded rhythmic or like something you could dance to, much less interesting, while I was growing up. A*Teens was a good balance between the two mediums I felt like I struggled to identify with at school: white faces, but actually good (to me) music. My sister and I would just bop around during the music videos, oftentimes singing it before staying up past 9 P.M. to watch Indian tele-serials with our parents. When I look back at this time, it felt as if we were starting to figure it all out. I felt more “normal” than before.

*

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize the A*Teens were an ABBA cover band until a family road trip. Specifically, a family road trip in India. My mom rarely sees her sisters, which consequently means that my siblings and I rarely see our aunts and cousins in India unless we go to India. When we are in India, it usually means that we are going on a road trip with my mom and our aunts because we won’t be together for another few years.

When I was eleven, my sister and I went to India again with our mom. Our mom, aunts, and cousins all rented a van and went to a remote mountain village in India called Nainital. Before this time, we did not have portable DVD players or Walkmen that we could use to drown out noise. We were all together, usually our moms all gabbing with one another while the rest of us would play card games. Eventually, we would all decide that it would be time for singing games. Singing games? Essentially sing-a-longs.

And that’s when I heard my mom and aunts sing “Dancing Queen” together. At eleven, I was still young enough to appreciate and be unembarrassed by this moment and I joined in unapologetically, proudly shouting along out of tune with my aunts. We all laughedheartily, no gigglesand I asked my aunts how they knew who the A*Teens were, told them how I only thought they were popular in America.

That’s when my mom and aunts laughed even harder, “This is ABBA. This is from our school days!” I still wasn’t embarrassed and, looking back, was surprised my mom and I had the same songs from our school days.

The last time I was in India was in 2014. All of us (aunts, cousins, uncles) went to Amritsar together. We rented a large van, and in the age of YouTube, my aunts were able to look up songs besides “Dancing Queen.” One aunt kept crooning, “Remember ‘Fernando?!’” while my cousin Purti said, “No no, sing ‘Mamma Mia!’” We were all taking turns recording videos of us singing and dancing to the songs, clapping on beat. A*Teens hadn’t mattered to begin with; this all started with the glory of ABBA. ABBA was what sisters sang with each other, to each other.

*

When writing this piece, I asked my mom if she remembers these moments of singing along to ABBA with her sisters. Did she even know what the band looked like when she was growing up? “I don’t care about those things!”

I asked if she had ever heard of The Definitive Collection, or cared to. In retrospect, she was sewing and did not want to be disturbed, but I was short on time (and ideas). “Stop bothering me!” So I kept it simple.

“What did you like about ABBA’s music?”

She didn’t even think about it. “The same way you and Ekta listen to and like music. I loved music too when I was younger. We loved listening to ABBA.”

—Upma Kapoor

#180: The Rolling Stones, "The Rolling Stones, Now!" (1965)

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What a drag it is getting old. It’s not just that I date from 1965, like The Rolling Stones, Now! It’s also that my opinions, beliefs and knee-jerk reactions, which once were passably progressive, have become antiquated, even reactionary. I feel my age in the classroom when my students condemn the blinkered views of 17th- and 18th-century authors whom I revere, or when they make it clear that my own thinking about gender, race and sexuality belongs to another century. Kids are different today.

I also feel my age on Facebook, which is where I go to interact with folks to the left of me. Last summer, for instance, I got into a Facebook spat about the Rolling Stones. I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two strangers. One of them, a woke-seeming young man named Jason, declared the Rolling Stones “stone cold racists” and “classic racist cultural colonizers.”

The Stones, Clapton, etc. are not important artists. They are products for white people. As an artist I just had to get real about it. These types of bands started and are popular because they give racists a place to safely enjoy black art without having to appear subservient or even respectful of a black person. […] Richards and Clapton (Jimmy Page, etc.) pay lip service to black artists. But they strip mined what they created without a second thought. They probably don’t even acknowledge to themselves what they represent. They are classic racists.

His interlocutor surrendered at that point (“Thank you for that info. Now I’m glad i never paid a dime for their music. Lol”), but I took up the cause. I argued that the Stones had always acknowledged and honored their African American idolsmost famously, getting Howlin’ Wolf on the TV show Shindig with them and sitting at his feet as he performed. Jason soon set me straight:

I don’t buy the photo ops and PR as genuine. It was all marketing slight [sic] of hand specifically designed to steal black music and re-market it being played by young white bands so the racist American audience would buy it. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Stones, right up to Beastie Boys (first number one hip hop album). It’s a standard marketing formula. I don’t consider the Stones artists on the same level as Wolf. They are not real.

I made one more effort to engage my adversary, proposing that there were many lazier, blander, and more cynical ways of stealing black music. “The Stones,” I proposed, “at least treated it as something to live up to rather than as something to water down.” I ended by asking, “Are there white singers/bands whose relation to black musical culture you can approve?” I got no reply. Jason was finished with me.

The Rolling Stones, Now! might seem to prove Jason’s point. It stems from the (brief) period in which the Stones were primarily re-marketing black musicstrip-mining it, if you will. The album has twelve songs, and only four are Jagger-Richards originals (“Heart of Stone” being the best-known). The rest are renditions of songs written and first recorded by African American musicians. There are two versions of Chuck Berry recordings, two songs belonging to other Chess Studios recording artists (Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley), two songs by fairly well-known soul singers (Otis Redding, Solomon Burke), and two songs from comparatively obscure R&B singers (Alvin Robinson, Barbara Lynn). In 1965, this selection would have struck few people as racist, of course. More likely it would have seemed the opposite: an eager embrace of African American culture, and a scrupulous desire to emulate it. The Stones were working hard to produce credible versions of these songs, and (pace Jason) their covers are if anything too respectful and subservient. They follow the originals closely, the changes mostly coming from the guitars of Brian Jones and Keith Richards having to compensate for a missing horn section. (Jones does this brilliantly with the fey slide lick that substitutes for the horn riff in “Down Home Girl.”) They show themselves to be sonic chameleons, mimicking the loose jalopy rattle of “You Can’t Catch Me,” the pulsating, reverberant throb of “Mona,” the jaunty groove of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” the languid, swampy feel of “Down Home Girl.” One can detect amphetamines goosing the tempos a bit, but otherwise meticulous imitation is the order of the day.

That doesn’t free them from the charge of exploitation, however. A lovingly crafted forgery is still a crime when passed off as an original, right? The Stones were presumably paying songwriting royalties to the original artists, all of whom are properly credited here, but they were also profiting from these pale imitations. Moreover, they have been pretty dismissive of this apprentice work; Jagger, at least, seems to have agreed with Jason that they were not “real” in the way Howlin’ Wolf was. He famously asked in a 1968 interview, “What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?” That question admits some plausible answers, however. Maybe you can’t hear Slim Harpo do it. It’s easy enough today to summon up the originals via the internet, but in 1965? And how would you, a teenager in Manchester or London, even know you wanted to hear this music without the intervention of local musicians? The radio, maybe, and those famous American sailors in Liverpool (“Cunard Yanks”) bringing vinyl treasures from the new world. But many of us, even in more enlightened times, have needed the Rolling Stones to get us interested in the blues. Jagger mused, in that same interview, “We did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid.” Stupid, perhapsbut doesn’t the opposite situation, in which I never learn there is a Slim Harpo, reflect a more unfortunate stupidity?

So at least we can defend the album in 1965. But do we need The Rolling Stones, Now! now? Does it belong in our top 500? Is it really better than Natty Dread (#181) and almost as good as Abba’s Definitive Collection (#179)? Is it even a real album, this U.S.-only release cobbled together from stray singles, cuts left off the first two U.S releases, and a bit of new material? Do we need it for the moody David Bailey photographs, or for the faux-Clockwork Orange liner notes (“Cast deep in your pockets for loot to buy this disc of groovies and fancy words. If you don’t have bread, see that blind man knock him on the head, steal his wallet and low [sic] and behold you have the loot”)? Other than nostalgia and antiquarianism and vinyl fetishism, is there any justification for The Rolling Stones, Now!, when you can compile in minutes (I just did) a Spotify playlist of the originals and “enjoy black art” in its unadulterated and undiluted form?

The answer to all these questions should be “yes,” but I guess I’m not really sure. Maybe this album is just a relic. What I am certain of, is that you need to know “Mona,” and “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Down Home Girl” and “The Little Red Rooster” and “Pain in My Heart” and the rest. They will enrich your life; they will explain your existence to you. Whether you get familiar with the originals or with the Stones’ mostly plausible covers (only “Pain in My Heart” eludes them entirely) doesn’t really matter to me. If authenticity is your bag, go for the originals. If you are interested in the early works of the world’s greatest rock and roll band, get The Rolling Stones, Now! But if you plan to dismiss the Rolling Stones out of hand, well then you’d better pay your own damn homage to Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and the rest.

—Will Pritchard

#182: Fleetwood Mac, "Fleetwood Mac" (1975)

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For years, I believed that Fleetwood Mac (1975) was Fleetwood Mac’s first album; in a sense, it was. It was the first to feature the band’s most successful lineup, as rounded out by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, the first to break the band into American rock consciousness, and the first built upon the swaying, lilting California ambiance that would become the band’s musical trademark and bedrock throughout the height of their popularity. It was the album that first led to public speculation that Stevie Nicks was a literal witch, the first that saw Christine McVie and Stevie alternating vocals to best salute their talents and songwriting ranges. It was the first on which the percussion section got due creative license. In many ways, while listening without any knowledge of the band or their history, the album feels like a birth, forward momentum accelerating beyond itself, a door opening, a fresh breeze coming off the mountain. Rumours is the album that cemented Fleetwood Mac in rock history, but the self-titled is the truck that poured the concrete.

If Fleetwood Mac is to be called a birth, let us specify that it is a reincarnation. It is not, in fact, the band’s first albumit’s not even the band’s first eponymous album. A previous iteration of the band, one that was bluesy and frenetic and entirely male-anchored, released another album, Fleetwood Mac, as their full length debut in 1968. That album, heavily influenced by the British blues scene as it was, feels miles and light years away from its 1975 counterpartthe vibe is less “fog rolling off the sea in gauzy sunlight” and more “smoke filtering through the window of a creaky door in a basement pub.”

Though nine albums and almost as many member lineups separate the two, the 1975 album feels like a direct, if unintentional, repudiation of Peter Green’s original efforts, a near total musical rebuilding of the band despite the presence of two founding members. Recorded mere weeks after Buckingham and Nicks joined the group, Fleetwood Mac is an album built primarily on material that is old in one way or another. Most obvious is the band’s live setlist mainstay “World Turning,” a rearrangement of the earlier album’s track “The World Keeps on Turning,” but nearly every other track had been written for some project, including nearly all of its hits, including, perhaps most serendipitously, Stevie Nicks’s pre-Fleetwood emotional masterpiece “Landslide.”

A live version of the song, recorded decades after the self-titled album, would go on to be one of the band’s bestselling tracks of all time, spawning several successful covers by the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins and the Dixie Chicks and being featured in innumerable books and movies and television shows. To some, it is the definitive slow Fleetwood Mac song. Ironic, then, that the song is the direct result of Stevie Nicks grappling with whether or not to continue pursuing a career in music at all. As she would go on to say in interviews, Stevie wrote the song while supporting Lindsey’s spotty bookings after their first duo release flopped and she was considering returning to school in lieu of chasing her recording dream. She looked at the Rockies surrounding her, the only time she lived near snow, and penned the groundbreaking song (which she often refers to as a poem) in a matter of days.

I cannot discuss Fleetwood Mac without talking about “Landslide,” and I can’t talk about “Landslide” without discussing how it first came into my life.

One of my top five least favorite books is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I’ve ranted through my litany of grievances innumerable times in the decade since I read it, but I’ll give the summary: the book reads like a post-season-three episode of Glee mixed, tonally, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fanfiction. The plot is overwhelmed with varying types of trauma handled with varying (and often inappropriate) degrees of care or attention, and filled with characters who could be interesting, whole people if Chbosky had allowed them to bloom beyond the stereotypes and after-school special issues they were written to illustrate. In place of meaningful looks at the lives of the teens populating its universe, Perks offers pithy, “relatable” lines of dialogue, platitudes on angst, quick resolutions to complicated and socially ingrained problems. Ultimately, though the book wants to be an emotional guidebook, a bible of feeling, it seems more concerned with performing the character’s pain as opposed to letting the reader truly experience it.

One of the few standout scenes in Perks features, of all songs, “Landslide.” In it, the three main characters are driving through a tunnel after a dramatic homecoming dance, awash with possibility and anguish and feeling of all stripes. The track begins to play off a mixtape and Sam, the requisite manic pixie dream girl, stands up in the bed of the truck, stretching her arms and declaring that she feels infinite. The line has since become a meme, and the scene can seem a bit overwrought with cliche youthful hopefulness, but there’s something about the earnest mix of desperation and almost impossible belief in possibility in “Landslide” which finally humanizes a story so previously detached from nuance.

I was a know-it-all, angsty teen when I read the book, bored by its performative anguish as I was dealing with my own personal emotional tumult and was fresh off of my first time reading The Bell Jar. I knew Fleetwood Mac, but only a few megahits in passing, like “Don’t Stop” and “The Chain.” I’m very attuned to music as a complement to writing, so despite my general annoyance with the book, I felt obligated to experience the written moments as closely as possible to how the characters would, songs played and all. When I first listened to the song as a necessary accompaniment to reading that passage, I felt the story transform. I didn’t see a cardboard prop of a character grappling with issues ultimately meant to be a plot device for the protagonist; instead, I saw a young girl on the precipice of herself and her life, the possibility and terror and splendor of it all, trying to contain and be contained by it all at once. In the song’s raw emotion, I saw and felt infinity.

Stevie Nicks was twenty five when she wrote “Landslide,” and twenty seven when the eponymous album was released. Retrospectively, her existential anxiety seems laughable for someone so young (and her talent for expressing it mammoth), and yet that disconnect is precisely what gives the song and its containing album its weight as well as its beauty. To feel that deeply, to express it that eloquently and achingly, is nothing short of purely distilled human experience.

“Landslide” seems to follow me wherever I and my emotional uncertainty go. It was there on the countless, endless night drives through my undergraduate ennui leading up to the void of graduation. It was there when I avoided seeing my high school mentor during a terminal illness, and there, too, when I had to face her funeral. It was there when I moved out on my own, it was there after every fight with my parents, it was there in a conversation with my boss about the fleeting nature of aging. It has, in fact, been the soundtrack to the seasons of my life. After every listen, I feel more whole, more in tune with anxiety and all its facets. It is both a balm and a sting, a feeling like I cannot breathe, am being crushed, can feel all of eternity closing in above and within me, a pressure and release all at once.

—Moira McAvoy

#183: Willie Nelson, "Red Headed Stranger" (1975)

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While in India a few years back, I traveled with a friend to the Taj Mahal on a day thick with fog. Down the road along the River Yamuna, past the camel carts and kids selling Taj snow globes, we could barely see ten feet in front of us. Our rickshaw driver was concerned we might not be able to see the mausoleum through the haze at all.

Inside the grounds, the pools designed to reflect the Taj reflected nothing, but we kept walking until the pure white marble of the Taj appeared a little at a time, like a ghost rising from the mist.

*

In Red Headed Stranger, we meet a man who has been betrayed by his lover. He seeks revenge by murdering her and her new lover, and then he finds new love and his pain is vindicated.

The story is simple, in a 1901 Wild West kind of way. The music is simple (Nelson used his own band to back him and many of the songs were recorded in a single take, relying on the three-chord structure of old country-western music and Nelson’s raw vocals). But the emotions are complex. Red Headed Stranger is about the kind of love that makes you do things outside of the norm. It’s a love that’s ever-changing and easily lost in the way that makes you strive to remember, to be remembered, or both.

*

It is said that the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan confined himself in a dark room for two years after the death of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. To prove his love and immortalize her memory, Shah Jahan recruited the world’s best architects and craftsmen to construct the Taj Mahal, the Crown Palace, a world wonder. The construction took 20 years to complete; the materials were carted in from faraway lands on the backs of a thousand elephants.

When the mausoleum was completed, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of the chief architect so nothing like the Taj could ever be built again.

*

In Red Headed Stranger, after heartache, love is described as a burning ember, where only memories remain. The Stranger says of his ex-lover: Through the ages, I’ll remember blue eyes crying in the rain. This refrain, low and slow and beautiful, comes right before he rides into town to kill her.

*

The Taj Mahal tour guide told our group that we were not allowed to go up in one of the minarets, the tall tower at each corner of the mausoleum originally used for call to prayer, since a man had flung himself from the top of it. Here the question is not why, which cannot be answered, but how. I imagine a man stepping barefoot onto the windowsill, his toes curling against the white marble, his eyes open as his body drops. I stared up at the minaret, the top barely visible in the fog, and considered how it must feel to fall.

I can consider this to the extent that I can consider how it must feel to ride into town on a horse and shoot the person I love with a smile still on her face. It’s something past imagination, and past empathy, except to say that there are human emotions too large to explain or contain.

At key points during the narrative, Willie sidesteps explanation altogether. After we learn of the murder the Stranger commits, we hear: Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, he’s wild in his sorrow / He’s riding and hiding his pain. The pain is acknowledged, but it’s a fruitless warning, looking back on what can’t be changed.

Later, during the second-to-last song on the record, Willie sings: Well, it’s the same old song / It’s right and it’s wrong, and living is just something I do. The line is couched in one of the happiest songs on the record, which paints the full picture of redemption with the Stranger finding new love. That the line comes here bothers me, because I can’t make sense of it against the rest of the story. It feels like a cop out.

*

Red Headed Stranger ends with an instrumental song called “Bandera.” You can hear echoes of the melodies that have recurred throughout, but the song is entirely its own, with a piano coming in about halfway through playing a tune that suggests resolution.

In Spanish, “Bandera” means flag. It’s not clear what that title means. It doesn’t evoke a literal flag flying in the wind or feel thematic at all. But the music does leave you with a feeling—one that encourages you to start again and to remember somehow that, Just when we think it’s all over / It’s only begun.

—Lacy Barker

#184: Madonna, "The Immaculate Collection" (1990)

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The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real names, settings, or situations is purely coincidental.
 

The day after the election, when the school gathered for its daily assembly, the English teacher, Sadie Jaffe, refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. That day, her thirty-ninth birthday, began like a nightmare. She woke, retrieved her iPhone from her bedside table and read the New York Times alert telling her he had won the election. When she saw the tide turning the night before, she’d taken a Xanax and crept into an uneasy sleep. After waking, she stood in the shower before work sobbing and too indifferent, too instantly drained of hope and of energy, to wipe away the snot and shampoo running down her face, over her body, and eventually finding its way to the drain.

She arrived at work puffy-eyed but ready to lecture on Langston Hughes’s “Evil,” something she had planned in the case of this worst-case scenario, now a reality, and yet a misty iridescent denial stayed with her through the day and whispered that someone would announce that this was a mistake, for it was. It was. The conservative all-girls private school catered to the privileged, but paid well. Sadie blamed herself for taking this job, for not seeing what type of place it was to begin with. She felt like wearing a hair sweater or flogging herself as she listened to the glee of the students talk about their pussy-grabbing president-elect. She saw her students, really saw them, and loved them and all the wonderful things they could do for the world, but could not save them from themselves or what they had been taught. She couldn’t save herself either, and this year, which had been infused heavily with the election, she relied upon Xanax to make it through her day and took extra before chapel, where it seemed that a line-up of manic clergy took to the altar to speak about random and offensive subjects in the name of Jesus Christ. These people were not sympathetic like mentality ill people, but simply hypocritical men breathing the death rattle of the changing of the world making their professions and importance obsolete. She simply could bear no more and ceased to attend chapel, but could not escape attendance of the daily assembly.

When she did not stand for the pledge of allegiance the day after the election, it did not go unnoticed; however, Sadie did not care, for her thoughts were focused on the semantics of the pledge: words written not by the founding fathers but pounded out due to McCarthyism. As the students and faculty said in unison “and liberty and justice for all,” she began to laugh and cry simultaneously and felt the faculty turn to look, shaking their expensively highlighted heads and whispering to one another. One other teacher had not stood; she was young, had blonde surfer hair, and this was her first year teaching here after attending a west coast school. When she had told Sadie that she was a libertarian, Sadie had just thought “bless her heart,” and realized that the young teacher either contained an innocent kindness and happy countenance that indicated resilience, or perhaps life had yet to fuck her over in a real adult fashion. With only a small bit of guilt, Sadie held only indifference as to which it was.

Sadie went home that night and drank the split of champagne that was meant for celebrating the first female president and listened to Patti Smith. She felt insulated by the books that lined the walls of the living room of her condo, for it was the books that kept her company and substituted for adult interaction. She checked her phone for missed calls or messages. It was her birthday and her son, Knox, who started college just a couple of months ago, had not called her. She thought back to college. Had she remembered her parents’ birthdays? Probably not. She could not remember going to the student union for a greeting card and stamps or using the precious minutes on a calling card to phone them. However, living on campus was short-lived, and at twenty-one she had become a parent herself. After that there was only one birthday that mattered, and that was Knox’s. The years flew by raising a child on her own, though not easily, and yet she looked younger than her age. This year as she had met the other parents at college orientation, on more than one occasion they had exclaimed, “But you are so young!” before realizing almost instantaneously their blunder by calculating in their heads that she must have had him too young.

More worried than hurt by Knox’s forgetfulness, she reluctantly checked social media to see if he had posted anything. Sadie abhorred social media, and the last time she had posted to her page was in summer: the photographs of herself and Knox in Greece weeks before he left for college. He had chosen to go to an SEC school in Mississippi to major in studio art, and to her surprise he joined a fraternity. She refused to pay his dues, but his all but absent father living on the west coast was more than happy to pay them. She found Knox’s page and was relieved to see his last post was less than an hour ago. It was a photograph, in front of the fraternity house, of a bunch of college guys dressed in khakis, ties, and blazers. She spotted Knox in the first row smiling. Dressed like the others, he had one of the disgusting red hats on his head that said, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Then she noticed the banner they held, a bed sheet with spray paint that said, “LOCK HER UP!”

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” she whispered. Her hands shook as she automatically began to phone him, but stopped herself. Soon he would make his monthly plea for money via phone or even drive the hour and a half back to Memphis to do laundry and eat something decent. She needed to calm down before she spoke to him; she needed a plan, an intervention, a shaman to sprinkle waters and anoint him with oil. She put her phone down, took a valium, and went to sleep, not noticing that she had been crying ever since seeing the picture.

*

Walking into assembly the next day, the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair told her that an administrator warned her to stand for the pledge or there would be trouble. While telling Sadie this, the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair seemed distracted by Sadie’s clothes and hair. Though it was November, Sadie had worn a turtleneck under a brightly embroidered sundress from Mexico with red woolen tights underneath and Clark’s Wallabees on her feet. Her hair had been braided and pinned up like Frida Kahlo’s. Sadie applied bright red lipstick effortlessly without aid of a mirror as the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair spoke; this also seemed to mesmerize the young woman and made Sadie want to interrupt her to tell her that the lipstick without a mirror thing came with time, but instead Sadie said nothing. When the girl with blonde surfer hair finished talking, Sadie paused and smiled a soft, warm smile without showing her teeth and placed her palm over the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair's cheek. Sadie wanted to tell her to join a commune in the Catskills, or go live on the beach in Hawaii and learn to surf and find a beautiful young surfer to fuck (maybe even fall in love with him or her), or, at the very least, get a Fulbright and get the out of the country for a while. Yet she didn’t say a word. Sadie withdrew her hand from the young woman’s cheek then turned and went into the assembly where she did not stand for the pledge. Again, everyone took note.

Thursday, on her ride home from school, she gave up on listening to Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, or any of the other musicians she usually listened to. A musician friend of hers once told her that her taste in music was of the genre of “Tenure Rock.” She dug in the glovebox and found the CD that she wanted: The Immaculate Collection by Madonna. She had bought it at a garage sale recently. She liked physical copies of music even as she conceded to subscriptions to music services, and she made sure that when she bought a new car that it had both bluetooth and a CD player. The CD slid into the slot with a swish, and she began listening to “Holiday.” Madonna, she thought, never got credit for being the first third-wave feminist. People called her an entertainer and not a singer, which might be fair enough, but no one said such things about Bob Dylan, who hardly had a great singing voice and just won a fucking Nobel for literature: poet, yes; singer, no. Reminiscent of the election, people criticized Madonna’s lyrics, her clothes (or lack thereof), her attitude, her constant reinventions of herself, and yet this seemed to encourage her to be more of a provocateur, more of a boss, and more powerful. She did what she had come to do, and she did it with a precise, almost surgical, precision. She did not need the word “feminist” lit up behind her at a concert; she lived the word and blazed the trail for others in her wake, leaving them to realize that they had more than two binary options to choose from: virgin or whore. Her final move of late, her newest reinvention and arguably the one causing more critique than any other in her past, was her refusal to “act and dress her age.” Madonna refused to don the veil of invisibility as women in their fifties were implicitly told to do. Sadie thought of Drake wincing at her kiss during a performance at an awards show. She wondered if Madonna went home that night and felt embarrassed, slighted, or ashamed, but preferred to think that she relished the attention, albeit bad attention. “Drake…what a little shit…what does he know?” Sadie said aloud to no one.

Most of the songs on the CD were from her childhood up until high school. Reagan. Bush. Clinton. What she would do to have any of them back. She had owned the CD before. Knox’s father had bought it for her at a used CD store during their short romance. It was the only gift he had ever bought her, and she had lost it in one of her many moves as she worked to earn more income to move Knox and herself into increasingly nicer apartments and eventually into a condo.

She had named him Knox after her hometown in Tennessee; it seemed fitting to install some piece of her southern roots, seeing as she gave birth to him at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City. Her parents had not been present, and showed no interest in supporting her choice to keep the child. Years later, they changed their mind and wanted to see Sadie and Knox. Sadie had lost all interest in seeing them and had refused. Connor’s parents had paid the medical bills, and that meant that her checkups had been at a fancy OB/GYN on the Upper West Side. They had the best magazines; W was her favorite with its oversized pages, endless pictures of celebrities and socialites, and fashion advertisements; however, she only remembered one photo from the plethora she viewed over the course of her pregnancy. The photographer had been a guest at the party and had quickly pulled out his camera to catch the shot, or so the caption read. It was a picture of Madonna seated at the party: her body faced what seemed to be the center of a group of people, yet her head was turned in response to a hand placed on her shoulder to gain her attention. The hand belonged to her ex-husband from long ago, Sean Penn. The photographer caught her look of recognition after she had turned. Her face gazed upwards meeting the eyes of her ex, and the expression on her face said so many things at once: surprise, happiness, grief, but above all else it showed vulnerability. It showed that she still loved him, just as she had declared in her documentary, filmed while she was dating Warren Beatty, that the love of her life was Sean. Madonna had requested that the scene be cut, and the director refused, for it was the only part of the film that showed her as a real person. At the time, she wondered if she would ever get over the heartache of Connor not wanting anything else to do with her or their future child. She did (and quickly), navigating her last year at Barnard with an infant. The name “Connor” became associated with strings of profanity when Knox was sick and a paper was due or traffic was bad and she didn’t reach the daycare on time.

The road, ironically named “Park Avenue,” ran parallel to the railroad tracks and offered views of dated ranchers eventually emptying itself into a less than desirable part of town before bringing Sadie to her condo in an artsy historic neighborhood. Within blocks of her home, her phone rang, and Sophie accepted the call, expecting Knox.

“Hey there,” the voice on the other end greeted her. She recognized the voice: Sam of years’ past. Sadie thought briefly of hitting “end” or saying “hello” over and over, acting as if she could not hear him, but with the thought she exhaled audibly. Sam took the sigh as an acknowledgement and continued, “I tried calling you last night for your birthday, but it was probably too late.”

Yes, it was too late, she thought. Everything about Sam was late or a miss. Five years ago, he had worked with her for a year; he was an art teacher. They had formed a fast friendship that slowly developed into something more. What it had developed into had never been defined, and soon he left and moved to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Portland? No, Seattle? It was somewhere that vaguely reminded her of flannel and grunge music, so it must be Seattle. After telling him that she fully supported his move, she distanced herself from him and Sam was filed in the “def con five scrapbook” in her head, though after she had wept over him in private. He called her on holidays and her birthday. Sometimes she answered.

“Thank you for thinking of me, Sam. It was very thoughtful,” Sadie answered slowly and with coolness, and a silence followed.

“Okay, if we are doing things this way…you sound like shit,” Sam said.

Sadie suppressed a laugh at his statement, yet this angered her at the same time. Sam read the subtext of Sadie like a dime store novel, and constantly reminded her of how uncomplicated she was (despite her best efforts to seem opaque).

“The world is shit, Sam,” Sadie said and parked her car in her designated spot at the condo, “and Knox has turned into some horrible plantation owner caricature.” She put her palm to her forehead.

“I think he might be rebelling. You know, making up for his years of being perfect as a teenager,” Sam said, and she could hear him lighting a cigarette.

“I wouldn’t mind if he were smoking pot, but becoming a member of the alt-right is a bit much. It is unacceptable. I didn’t raise him to be this way. A few months ago he was a cello player who walked around with a sketch book.”

Sam sighed, “Well, it is rebelling. That means you don’t get to choose his path of rebellion, and it probably means he will choose something that actually goes against your values.”

“Don’t use the word ‘values.’ It sounds so damn Dan Quayle, Sam.” Sadie began to cry.

“Look, I will talk to him,” Sam said. That was one thing that he got right: he kept his relationship with Knox intact. She knew that they spoke regularly. Knox had fallen for Sam just as much as Sadie had.

“I would appreciate that. Look, I am at home now, and I really need to just get myself inside and…”

“Sadie, I hope you have a great year ahead of you. I miss you—”

“Bye, Sam,” Sadie interrupted and hit end. She couldn’t stand it when he said that he missed her.

*

Inside her condo, Sadie pondered her life while she stretched out on her couch. It was a life so small it was peacefully contained in this small space that she had worked so doggedly to purchase. Her home had become her refuge; it had the strength of a fort and shielded her from the other disappointments in her life, but its four walls also kept her hidden, unseen. Her job had kept her busy all these years, but what had it kept her from? She had a son, but he was an adult now. She had provided him with so much, but that time had passed. The world had changed since she became a mother in college; the rage of the ignorant and the privileged had been awakened, and there was nothing she could do to change it, except her own small share of course, and she would do that, but she could not take responsibility for everyone else. The couch cushions became softer, the night became darker as Sadie meditated upon the thought of her own part…and began to think of the plans she had for herself so long ago before falling asleep.

Sadie woke the next morning fully rested. She had not taken any of her anxiety medicine and her sleep had been deep and peacefully opposed to the muggy, drugged sleep that the Xanax provided her. She cried only for a few minutes in the shower, applied mascara and lipstick, and reverted to her normal head-to-toe black wardrobe choices. She felt lighter somehow, resigned, and wrote this off as it being Friday, but something had changed. The air outside was crisp against her face and the sun shone as brightly as it possibly could in November.

She let Madonna serenade her down Park Avenue and into the gates of the school, and did not notice the stares of the other faculty as she poured her coffee into her thermal mug in the teacher’s lounge. When the secretary came to retrieve her and tell her to go to the headmistress’s office, she was only mildly surprised, but still, her stomach dropped.

As she entered the office, she saw that all her superiors were present, along with a few board members who were but well-groomed, well-married jobless mothers of students. Sadie marveled briefly, as she always did, at the headmistress’s once-a-week set hair. How neat it was. How solid and unchangeable it was! Hair like an institution, an entity in its own right. Sadie giggled as she sat down.

“Sadie, we have a problem,” the headmistress said, scowling at Sadie’s giggle.

“A serious problem,” another administrator said.

“Yes, I see,” Sadie said, leaning forward and interlacing her fingers over her knee. The headmistress opened her mouth to speak again, but Sadie was quicker, “I am resigning effective immediately. I have plans…huge plans!”

For the next fifteen minutes, Sadie told the administrators and the board members about her plans in great detail. She had, after all, listened to them, ad nauseum, for years. They stared at her with great confusion. When she was finished, she grabbed the legal pad that the headmistress held, scribbled the date, wrote, “I quit!,” and signed her name. She replaced the pad on the table and left the office.

Before leaving the campus with a box and accompanied by a security officer, she stopped the sweet girl with blonde surfer hair in the hall, handed her a folded note, and said, “I would love to have coffee with you sometime. I regret not getting to know you better.”

*

“But what are you going to do with our home?” Knox asked Sadie as she taped up another box of books.

“I am renting it out for a year while I am gone. I’m coming back.  Everything will be put back in it’s place. Our little fortress of books. A nice professor who is visiting Rhodes is staying here,” Sadie said as she hoisted the box on top of the others to be placed in the storage unit.

“Is this because of me?”

“No. It’s because of me. It’s what I need,” Sadie replied and started loading another box with books. “You are an adult now, but that comes with responsibilities. While I am gone, you’ll have to find a way to deal with those…like paying your car insurance and health insurance on your own…maybe getting a part-time job…earning for those expenses and spending money.”

“How do you expect me to get health insurance?”

“Well, it’s called Obamacare, or the ACA. I would register now if I were you. I don’t know if it will be around much longer though,” Sadie said and Knox frowned.

“You are doing this to punish me,” he said looking around the room.

“No, I am doing this for the benefit of us both. You’ll see. I feel like I have been asleep for years. Don’t do that, Knox. Listen to yourself,” Sadie said as she brushed a stray twig of hair from Knox’s brow. “Look, let’s get these boxes loaded and I want you to help me do something very important. I want to go and adopt a dog from the shelter to take with me to Marfa. I can bring a dog with me to my shifts at the bookstore.”

“A dog? After all the years that I begged for a dog and now you get one,” Knox said with a serious pout that made him look twelve again.

“The dog will be our dog, and you’ll have plenty of time with him when you come out this summer,” she replied and put another box on the stack.

“Why would you want to open a bookstore here?  Why not stay in Marfa? They are becoming obsolete. It’s not profitable anymore; they’re all shutting down.”

“Because they are needed, and it has always been what I have wanted to do. I have a home here, but I just need to get away for a minute. When I get back and open it up, I would love for you to curate the art and music books. You know much more of what to get than I would.” Sadie turned and saw Knox smile before quickly concealing it.

“Why go to Marfa to work in a bookstore?”

“I told you, I have to learn the business.”

“I know, but why Marfa?”

“I’ve always wanted to go there.  It’s a place that an artist built.”

“It’s that simple, Mom?”

“Yes, it’s that simple,” Sadie replied and watched her son. His dark brow furrowed as he stared out the window. He looked so much like her, especially his expression of concern, yet the lines disappeared when his face relaxed. How lucky he was to be his age, a magic age, with everything in front of him and nothing to lose. Functioning with a naivety of how the world works and having to be an adult at the same time. She didn’t blame him for joining a club for males; he’d been stuck with a doting mother for too long. However, she thought that the simple task of obtaining and paying for health insurance and other expenses would straighten his politics out; perhaps it wouldn’t though, and Sadie was okay with that…almost okay with that.

Knox turned toward Sadie with his arms open. Without waiting, he fell into her arms, and, though he was taller than she was by a head, he stooped over, resting his cheek on her collarbone, and tucked his head under her chin just as he had a million times before over the course of his life.

—Edie Pounders

#192: The Flying Burrito Brothers, "The Gilded Palace of Sin" (1969)

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Let’s start with the Nudie suits. When the band sported them in 1969 for the album cover of Gilded Palace of Sin, the Ukrainian-born, Hollywood-based tailor Nudie Cohn had by then outfitted at least half of the country stars who had graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry with his elaborate embroidered and rhinestone-studded suits. By 1969, rhinestones, spotlights, and country music were indelibly linked. Like the rap industry of today, the country-music industry was, then and always, about glitz and fame. It was about making it past your poor roots and becoming a star. As the rap industry is about escaping the projects, the country-music industry was about escaping rural America. Country was about gold records, large shiny belt buckles, seeing your name in the marquee lights.

In regards to rap culture: Cornell West has written that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Let Freedom Ring!” became “‘Bling! Bling!’—as if freedom were reducible to simply having material toys.” In wealth-obsessed America, the freedom we seek is less about the opportunity to pursue a spiritually fulfilled or a richly meaningful life and more about cash money.

The country music that also glosses the meaning of freedom commodified the rural American experience and turned it into profit; it was about capitalizing on one’s humble upbringing by conjuring all of its sellable images—dirt roads and hayfields and rivers and creeks and oak trees—while at the same time turning them into nostalgias, leaving the rural life behind. To make it —to become a star—meant to make it out of rural America. Living in the country was the past, and that’s what made country songs pure and sad and very big money among a rapidly urbanizing and increasingly wealthier and more depressed American population.

It was the “outlaw” country singer Waylon Jennings who in 1977, eight years after the influence of Gilded Palace had seeped in, insisted, “I don’t need my name in the marquee lights,” who suggested going back to Luckenbach, Texas (pop. 3) to live simply, with music, friends, and love, and renounce success. It’s funny that the term “outlaw” used to describe Jennings and other musicians who shunned the industry’s “slick” production, its rhinestones and marquee lights and gilded palaces of sin, means to have broken the law and to be a fugitive, which implies a restriction of freedom. It’s as if to seek fortune was to follow the law, while to shun material wealth was to break the law and thus to have one’s freedoms restricted.

“Baby, let’s sell your diamond ring / Buy some boots and faded jeans and go away.” To be a fugitive was to return to the country. But the fugitives who fled Nashville and Hollywood came later, in the late ’70s. The pianist David Barry, who played in L.A.’s music scene, has said that in the Flying Burrito Bros.’ time, “Real country stars didn’t want to wear [jeans and boots], because it suggested they came from country’s poor white roots.”

Real country stars lived in Hollywood. They wore Nudie suits.

That the suit that’s said to have launched Nudie Cohn into fame, one worn by a trying-to-make-it country singer named Tex Williams in 1948, featured a covered wagon and wagon wheels is not uninteresting. The covered wagon as American symbol stands first for manifest destiny, that notion that swept the new inhabitants of the continent ever westward, into already-inhabited territories that they believed, or made themselves believe, God had intended for them to have—what is now Mexico and Texas and New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. And California, the farthest West of the continent that embodied and made complete this notion of expansion.

The term manifest destiny was first used by a journalist named John L. O’Sullivan in an editorial in favor of the annexation of Texas, in 1845. He asserted the American Anglo-Saxons’ “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Three years after O’Sullivan’s editorial, when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, the Rush began, and covered wagons rolled in steady streams, and pack horses plodded in droves, making their way to the land that symbolized then and now both freedom and bling bling, or the material—if not spiritual, mental, psychological, or otherwise—freedom that bling bling affords. (“In your high society you cry all day,” Jennings would later sing.)

One hundred thousand Native Californians were killed or died of disease in those first twenty gold-rushed years, and by 1900 the Native population in California had dropped from perhaps a million to 16,000 people, while Los Angeles hit a population of over 100,000. It was exactly 100 years after the Gold Rush began that Nudie Cohn, newly relocated to Hollywood, convinced the struggling Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine with the money he’d made from an auctioned horse.

With the sewing machine, Nudie made Tex’s covered-wagon-covered suit that began his career of selling high-Western-style wear to stars at exorbitant prices. As Nudie rose to fame, he became known for promoting himself shamelessly, paying cash for purchases with dollar bills on which a sticker of his own face covered George Washington’s.

Nudie designed the famous gold lamé suit that Elvis wore in 1959 on the cover of his album of hit singles called 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong. Released by Hollywood’s RCA Victor, it turned into a bona fide Gold Record. Its cover featured no less than 16 identical Elvises in gold lamé suits, a fact that, coupled with its title and Gold status, puts the Elvis phenomenon in direct conversation with the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which argued that the aura of a work of art is devalued the more it is reproduced. (Hence the dollar bill is not-regrettably defaced, and, though it would take some time to explain the leap, hence also inflation, wherein the more money that is produced the less value it has, meaning that the $10,000 Elvis paid for his gold-lamé Nudie suit would have cost him $85,000 or so today.)

This idea resonates with the oft-told (and most often laughed at as outlandish) Native American belief that having one’s photograph taken robs a person of their soul. The duplicated Elvis photographs on the record cover look like figurines, toys ready for sale. Elvis would spend the next decade in Hollywood making films that preceded his long psychological crash and drug addiction that ended in 1977 with a pharmie-induced heart attack.

But when kid Gram Parsons—lead and harmony vocals, guitar, piano, and organ for the Flying Burrito Bros.—saw Elvis in Waycross, Georgia, Elvis was still 21, and his aura captivated the nine-year-old Gram. Elvis was a strange and different bird. He had grown up in Tupelo, Mississippi and in Memphis, Tennessee, sometimes in public housing projects in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, hearing blues musicians on Beale Street, and singing hymns in a Pentecostal church in which the Lord was made of blood, sweat, tears, and spirit, was a Lord who traveled through music, worked through song. When Gram saw Elvis, he was channeling something real and raw and profound on stage. It was the beating heart of America, particularly of the capital-S South. Seeing Elvis is often cited as the formative event of Gram Parson’s young life as an artist, and when Gram—also a Southerner with a background in church hymns, spirituals, and country—ended up in Los Angeles some ten years later, Elvis was living there too.

Gram was the grandson of a wealthy Florida citrus-fruit magnate. His parents had both died of over-consumption of drugs and alcohol. As a member of the Byrds, he transformed the group, as Country Music Hall of Fame writer Peter Cooper put it, “from America’s most popular rock band to one of America’s least popular country bands.” He can be seen as the force behind the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, which Gram didn’t call rock or country either but Cosmic American Music, and he and fellow Byrd Chris Hillman split off to continue the sound as the Flying Burrito Bros., along with “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and Chris Ethridge, on the Gilded Palace album.

A Rolling Stone article written at that time called Los Angeles a place to “get heard, get signed, get rich,” where “there are 318 record wholesalers and manufacturers listed in the yellow pages,” “a city crammed with writers, photographers, artists, critics, producers, marketing consultants, promoters, managers, publicists, messenger services, and at least a hundred other occupational categories—all of them devoted in part or wholly to the music business.” Not to music but the business.

No artist’s aura was safe there. The language of the music business echoed the language of Western imperialism and expansion—as in, for example, Columbus’s “discovery” of an entire continent already inhabited by intricate and complex civilizations, or Cabrillo’s “discovery” of San Diego Bay, or all the lands and places that explorers “found”—in that agents “discovered” new talent, original people and material they hoped to plunder for riches.

Thus was written the searing gospel anthem of Cosmic American musicians— “Sin City,” of Gilded Palace of Sin, the Burritos’ debut, recorded in Hollywood’s A&M studio. “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in,” were the first lines. It’s a visionary song. It’s slow and sorrowful and on fire. It’s everlasting. It seems to grow richer the more you hear it, not less.

The song’s central and invisible character was the former Byrds’ manager Larry Spector, with whom Hillman and Parsons had had bad dealings, and who Hillman said was “a thief.” The unnamed Spector stays hidden behind a gold door in the song. “On the 31st floor, a gold-plated door won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain,” Hillman and Parsons sang together, like choirboys.

Hollywood didn’t know what to make of choirboys, be they cosmic or not. The album was a commercial failure, while a few critics at the time insisted it had artistic value.

*

Rhinestones are imitations of actual stones. They’re sparkly, cheap, made to catch the spotlights. They are mass-produced, while real stones and gems are more rare, each one a wholly unique piece of rock from the earth.

The Flying Burrito Bros. did a photo shoot for the album cover in the Mojave desert outside of Los Angeles. Dressed in the rhinestone suits, they stood in the ruins of a wooden shack that looked like a hovel abandoned after the Gold Rush and left to dissolve again into the dust. Gram’s suit famously featured marijuana leaves, poppy flowers, and pharmaceutical pills, along with fire leaping up the sides and a cross on the back with shafts of light radiating from it. Was he country? Was he rock ‘n’ roll? He was a Cosmic American.

The Burrito Bros. wore the rhinestone suits for the cover, while on the “Sin City” recording, their voices shone like emeralds, the pedal steel a gleaming ruby. Real gems.

Gram died of an overdose in that same Mojave Desert, at the age of 26, four years after the photo shoot, after Gilded Palace of Sin, after a lot of commercial flopping, and with him died whatever his vision of Cosmic American Music was, except that it didn’t. It’s an aura that continues to penetrate in its mysterious way.

Elvis outlived him by four years. He lived to be the subject of the first global concert satellite broadcast; his image reached more viewers in the world at once than any human’s ever had. He staged more and more live shows than ever before while his addiction grew. Those closest to him say that he was not himself, that it was as if he’d disappeared, as if his soul, that raw spark that he was known for in the beginning, had vanished. He died, from a drug-induced heart attack, on the toilet in his gold-embellished bathroom, an American king.

—Holly Haworth

#185: The Stooges, "The Stooges" (1969)

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Two men from the local utility company visited our classroom in 4th grade to teach us about electricity. They looked like a comedy duo: one the lanky, clean-shaven, slick-haired straight man who did all the talking and the other one the funny man, shorter with a big gut that untucked his shirt from his low-riding jeans every time he bent or turned. The funny man seemed to stifle giggles every time he set up a demonstration to show us electricity’s dangerous side.

“1969”

The straight man started with a brief history of electricity and overview of how it’s produced. His history lesson focused on usefulness, mostly on the convenience of home appliances, then his partner jumped in with speculation about the potential of electricity. He must have been a Star Trek fan because his vision of the future included androids and interactive entertainment that reminded me of the Holodeck.

“I Wanna Be Your Dog”

“POP!” The funny man’s word jumped into the air like we were in an old episode of Batman. “That’s what you get if you catch an underground power line with a shovel.”

“You gotta be careful about letting your dogs dig too much, too,” the straight man added.

“Yeah,” funny man continued. “You have to stop them because they won’t stop themselves, and you don’t wanna hear the sound they make.”

“We Will Fall”

There’s no way for a person who comes across a downed power line to know if it’s live. It might jump around like you expect it to, or it can appear calm. In the video they showed us, a man lost control of his car and ran into a power pole. You get the idea from these types of safety videos that running your car into some kind of utility equipment is inevitable, something every driver does at least once. I hope I’m not due. Of course, after the man’s car hit the pole, a power line dropped onto his hood where it hummed while he made several attempts to escape his car. We saw him “die” repeatedly until he finally jumped out of the car without turning his body into a ground for the wire.

We kept watching him die; the humming continued like meditation.

“No Fun”

The straight man only needed to point north out of our classroom window to show us what a substation was. University Boulevard separated the school from the substation. Beyond that, the new hospital.

“See that big fence around the substation? That’s there for your safety,” he said.

Questions went to the funny man, who knew exact figures for voltages and amps. He also had a story ready. A friend of a friend of his who worked for a utility in California told him about a man who broke into a substation to steal copper.

“Imagine. Close your eyes and imagine with me. Imagine an arc of electricity like I showed you earlier from a battery magnified and shooting from one corner of the substation all the way around, back and forth, zigzagging all over the place. Exploding transformers exploding with that big shotgun KERBOOM!”

The straight man jumped back in. “And the man is now in prison. Maybe an example where someone miraculously didn’t get shocked ain’t the best one.”

“Oh, right. Well, you might get zapped. You might get locked up.”

“Real Cool Time”

“You really don’t want to get zapped by lightning,” he added, then popped the VHS tape back in for the next segment, a general piece about thunderstorms that wasn’t necessary for all us kids who grew up in tornado alley. Everyone in Oklahoma has an honorary meteorology degree.

If you learn to smell the storm that’s brewing, you won’t end up being the tallest object in the prairie or underneath branches of the tallest tree. Nothing short of storm chasers reporting in on the TV or radio that a tornado was on the ground nearby sent my family to the storm cellar. Every March, my dad and I pumped the water out of the bottom of the cellar that it collected throughout the rest of the year. Usually we had four to eight feet of water to pump out. I don’t think an electric water pump ever survived more than two years.

“Ann”

She sat one row up and two seats to the left of me. By the beginning of 9th grade I found the courage to ask her out. She and her family had moved away during the summer.

“Not Right”

I hate when butter doesn’t melt properly on a piece of toast, and I like a lot of butter on my toast. That’s how I started an electrical fire. After a run of warmed and crisp bread with cold blobs of Parkay on top, I needed better toast in my life.

Instead of toasting the bread then buttering it, I slathered two slices before dropping them in the toaster and walking back to my room at the other end of the house.

I guess the comedy act couldn’t warn us about all the possibilities of indulgence. Too bad I had no way to contact the funny man to add the tale of butter dripping onto heating elements and bursting into flames to his repertoire. I can see them clearly, the straight man holding a fire extinguisher while his partner goes WOOSH.

“Little Doll”

“What you really want to know is what would happen if you were electrocuted,” the funny man said as he set a car battery on the teacher’s desk.

“We’re going to show you using a little doll made out of toothpicks and canned sausages, but being electrocuted is serious business.”

The funny man couldn’t hold back anymore when the doll split open and shot pieces of itself off the desk onto the floor. He snorted.

—Randall Weiss

#186: Sly and the Family Stone, "Fresh" (1973)

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“In Time,” the opening track of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, is truly fresh. “I felt so good I told the leader how to follow,” Sly croons toward the end of the song, which, in all its 3/5 funky verve, makes you tap your foot in a way you never have. But rewind. Listen to those first thirty or so seconds. That’s Andy Newmark snapping snare shots atop the percussive syncopated undertones of a drum machine bopping along a groove. You don’t really know where it’s going at first listen. It sounds, in all honesty, like someone feeling something out. Like Sly told Andy to check out this groove and see what he could do on top of it. Like Sly told Andy this and then pressed record. And this would make sense if it wasn’t for the way, about 30 seconds in, after the guitar’s repetitively sneaky and snaky riff, Sly’s voice brings it both all together and to a head at once. The legend goes that Miles Davis played “In Time” for his band on repeat for half an hour. I’ve been listening to just the first 30 seconds on repeat for days.

“In Time” seems to build off of “Family Affair,” a track from Sly’s previous album, the seminal There’s a Riot Goin’ On. In “Family Affair”Sly’s last number one hitthe dark and funky drum machine syncopation is there, but the real drums are way back in the mix. I don’t know what made him bring those drums further up into the mix a few years later, but I think of those lines“I felt so good I told the leader how to follow”a lot when I think of Sly, who, at the release of Fresh in 1973, had just turned 30 and had seemingly lived a lifetime. I think of Sly wearing long fur coats and outlandish outfits, doing choreographed dances with his band at live shows. I think of him, in the years before There’s a Riot Goin’ On, missing so many of those same shows. I think of him using. I think of him figuring out his politics. I think of him making music for the Black Panthers. I think of him not making music for the Black Panthers. I think of him recording There’s a Riot Goin’ On, in all its confusing, gritty, funky, dark, hopeless, blunt, introspective glory. And then I think of him on the cover of Freshkarate-kicking his blackness against an all-white background, teeth gleaming, and then, in my thinking of that, I think of Zora Neale Hurston’s assertion, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and here I am holding the record and feeling its edges and corners, and I am thinking still of Morgan Parker’s poem after both Zora and Glenn Ligon, and how she writes, “I feel most colored when my weapon / is I feel most colored.” In that same poem, she writes, “Stone is the name of a fruit.” Heh, consider that. What kind of fruit is Sly? And how fresh? Sometimes I think an orange. Sometimes I think a ripe banana. Sometimes I think the beam of light yellowing the skin of an apple in a bowl, and how it shines the fruit to a polish so beautiful, you think the apple will pick itself out of its place and find its way between your teeth.

What I want to say about Fresh is that, like all great art, you should listen to it now and feel how it echoes against both its own music and the world that has given birth, died, grown back, waged war, made peace, and fucked and schemed and lived around that same music. On July 1st, 1973, the day after Fresh was released, the United States founded the Drug Enforcement AgencyDEA for shorta federal institution used indiscriminately in the War on Drugs to discriminate against people of color. It’s hard to think of this and listen to Sly croon on “The Skin I’m In,” where he sings, simply and full of verve:

    If I could do it all again
    I’d be in the same skin I’m in
    The clothes I wear and the things they dare me to do
    The places I go
    And the people I know
    The things I gain
    Sometimes they rain on me
    The skin I’m in
    And the things I never, never win

Combine Sly’s honest, tender hopelessness in this poem-of-sorts with the fact that, in 1973, despite massive civil rights gains in the years prior to Fresh’s release, there is still a not-so-secret war against people of color. Combine Sly’s painful awareness of his own future losses with the fact that, in 1973, the President of the United States pulled the country out of one of the most obscene wars in modern history. Combine Sly’s nostalgic sadness with the fact that, in the months that followed Fresh, that same President of the United States was under continued and worsening investigation for the Watergate scandal. Combine Sly’s understanding of his and his people’s own continued politics of interrogation, discrimination, and death with the fact that all of thisthis song, these verses, this albumwas composed while a nation made by and for white people was falling desperately out of control because of the failings and over-extensions and egotistical, racist motivations of those same white people. Combine all of this and more, and see how Sly and his family rile up their notoriously funky hope to sing, just a few tracks later, above a bouncy, pulsating rhythm: “If it were left up to me, I would try.” What can we make of this?

This is why art is both hopeful and hopeless, why we turn to it for comfort and why we turn from such comfort and face the world and all its burning, only to say, now what? Sly understood this. He always did. Which is why he can sing, on the same album, about everything he will “never, never win,” while at the same time begging to “let me have it all.” Great art exposes the contradictions that exist both in this world and society. It lives between the folds of our eyelids, between what we see and what we want to see, between what is and what could be, or what is and what was. Art, in many ways, is its own tense. To art is a verb of neither present nor past nor future. It is, perhaps, all three, all at once. What is the word for that? Eternity? God?

In Hilton Als’s beautiful, introspective piece on Diane Arbus in the June 8, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books, he writes, of Arbus, “She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed.” I think, with Fresh, one can say the same about Sly. But it’s worth noting that seeing the world whole carries with it its own set of possible consequences. Sly leaned hard and heavy on drugs. Sly and the band were pulled apart. Friends left, became friends no longer. There’s an idea about the way art takes its toll on the artist, about how it suffers the artist toward a too-short, often painful existence. I don’t want to believe in this. I don’t believe in it. But when I consider Sly, I dwell on this word fracture. What does it mean to be breakage? To inhabit it? To be, like a lullaby, in a world that is already and perhaps forever broken, that trying song before sleep?

On the subway, as I write this, “Que Sera Sera” comes on in my headphones. I’m on the elevated train in Queens, heading home from work. There is something about the light in Queens. I say this to everyone. I think it’s a little more orange, a little more golden. I think this has something to do with the fact that Queens lies a little lower than the rest of the city, its buildings not-so-much scraping the sky. I think there’s more room for light to do light’s work. It’s evening and all of this color comes in at a slant and the train car is not really full and we are all, each of us here, sitting in our own softened pools of color. We won’t have rainbows day after day, I know this. But we will have light. And soul. We will have ourselves living in such light, like cats sprawled out on the floor in the sharp rectangles of a shadow’s opposite. There is joy here, is what I’m trying to say. It is simple enough to point out and hard enough to find. The future’s not ours to see, I know, but I believe that it can be ours to determine. Even this light, this beam touching my boots, is a kind of future, how it has traveled such a great distance to arrive, and how traveling in and of itself, is a reference to a future. This is what I mean when I say we can be tenseless, when we can be both action and its result, the force to break the thing and the broken thing itself and the way a thing broken can always be referred to as a thing having been broke. Have you ever taken a mirror to a beam of light, and changed its course?

In 1975, a couple years after Fresh, Sly and the Family Stonea band of such great heart and funk and love and souldidn’t even come close to filling up Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Fresh, in many ways, was somewhere beyond the beginning of the end, closer to the end than any rumbling beginning of it. But, like hurt, like joy, like sorrow, like light, like every synonym for every word and every synonym’s oppositeI still can’t get enough of it. I’m still here, when the train pulls underground, listening to “In Time,” my foot bumbling along the floor, trying to follow Sly’s lead.

—Devin Kelly

#187: Peter Gabriel, "So" (1986)

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London never looks more beautiful than the day that Mara tells you she’d rather be with you than with him.

It has been a year since you moved in with her and her husband. You were a college dropout twice over by then and more than slightly adrift. Come and stay with us, she’d said; you and I can work on poems.

In the period that followed, she slowly remade you in her image, until you were twin shadows in ostrich-feathered hats like musketeers, walking hand in hand down the street in the late-afternoon light. But she modeled herself in your image, too. She was fascinated by your dreams. She asked you to write them down for her and used the images in her poems: a dream where instead of humans she was mother to a bevy of tiger whelps. You looked older with your hair pinned up dressed in her draped blacks, like a crow’s coat of feathers, but she looked younger with color in her cheeks, a red pen clipped like a corsage to her shirt collar.

I get the sense that you’d like us to do—more things together, she had opened the conversation. You immediately burst out Of course! and then blushed when she said, I’m fifty years older than you! After a pause, she added: It’s unusual, is all I’m saying.

The thing is, Martyn is going through some personal stuff right now, she says; we have to give him a wide berth. He’s jealous of our connection, she explains, and so it’s best if we have our relationship away from him. He has PTSD from his time in the army, he’s experienced such terrible violation in his life; he has to be handled with kid gloves. You nod, flattered that she is confiding in you. As she speaks, their relationship is somehow transformed into a testament to your empathy and magnanimity; it’s something you’re letting her have, because you understand it’s best for everyone involved.

If it came down to it, if I had to choose between you and him, it would be you. You know that, don’t you? He knows it.

On the steps outside the Cadogan, she kisses the corner of your mouth on a July day pregnant with rain. Afterward, you walk through all of Mayfair in the downpour to clear your head, Peter Gabriel’s breathless murmur in your ears: Oh, I wanna be with you, I wanna be clear. You feel like you’re hearing her voice—or your own.

*

That summer, London is yours. You meet at the hotel where Oscar Wilde was arrested; then you meet at the hotel where Kate Middleton stayed the night before her wedding, where for ten years Mara and her Great Love came every afternoon for a glass of champagne and a salmon platter. You wait for her in a little garden somewhere behind Piccadilly, reading a library book about primitive jewelry. After half an hour, she texts Sorry, can’t get away. Mx. You reply, Shame, I had Egyptian amulets to show you, trying to sound breezy, but feeling you’re coming off over-eager all the same (see? remember how smart and weird I am, how much fun?). Yes shame! comes her artlessly breezy reply.

She’s from a different era. When she left her husband in 1950s Missouri, the sheriff turned up at her door. She thinks that ‘marriage’ should be printed in a different color in the paper when it refers to two people of the same sex. I feel something for you, she keeps saying, but I don’t know what it is, and so you meet at Café Richoux for Black Forest gateau to try and figure it out.

I feel something for you that I’ve only ever felt for my father, she says. When she was five, she got a splinter and had to be taken to the New York Memorial Hospital. He picked her up and said, I’ll give you a piece of gum if you don’t cry.

Her favorite movie scene is Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club punching himself in the face. That’s the epitome of strength, she says. The great power women have, she says, is subterfuge. She has some sense that ‘feminine power’ is something that appeals to you, and so she alludes to that line of reasoning to justify a swath of different decisions: it’s why you should help her run an illegal B&B out of her apartment; it’s why you should sneak around meeting in the city; it’s why the two of you should never speak openly and non-circuitously about what you’re doing.

For a while, you think this is power. You feel plump with secrets, smug and exalted, striding down the long dark hallway in a seashell-shimmer cream silk slip, the apartment seeming to undulate toward you like a coral reef. You are the mistress. You decide to play the role to a T, coming up with the most extravagant outfits in which to meet her: a yellow asymmetrical Aquascutum raincape with a ruffled black dress and lace-up witch-heels. A man on the bus tells you you remind him of “a character in an Agatha Christie story.” When, after your meeting, you go for a walk on the South Bank, kicking off your heels on the beach down by Gabriel’s Wharf, a kid nudges his friend in the ribs, points at you and exclaims “Look! A lady!”

You stopped writing poetry after you moved in with her because her voice eclipses everything: her poems stenciled on the walls, silkscreened on the bedding.

You hide: in other languages (you discover that you can’t talk about your life in English anymore, and so you rekindle friendships with people from your time abroad); in magic. The more you feel at the mercy of the situation, the more you feel a need to appeal to primal, deeper things. You check out books about Druidry, runes, Egyptian magic. You feel that she has robbed you of speech—turned you into a Sphinx, beautiful and mysterious. You visit the sphinxes in Crystal Palace Park and allow yourself to be cradled in their laps, telling them what you can’t tell anyone else.

You go to the Greenwich foreshore one night, intending to do a ritual to banish him from your lives, but you chicken out at the last minute. It shouldn’t be up to magic to break them up. It should happen of her volition.

Martyn once said to you, My father always told me: if you have a secret, you can tell two people, but they have to both be dead. You note down the plot number of her Great Love’s grave in your journal when the annual renewal notice arrives in the mail. You consider visiting the headstone and asking him for guidance, but you never go.

*

At the end of the summer, you travel to Europe together. You leave two days later than her so as not to arouse suspicion; you tell him you are going to see your parents. You take a night train across Germany. Curled protectively around your luggage, you let the rumbling wheels rock you to sleep as Peter Gabriel sings in your eyes I see the doorway of a thousand churches. This is how you know yourself, this is how you know love: a pained straining, a religious fervor.

You meet her at midnight under a Medieval city gate—her sequinned top like chain-mail, she looks like a battle goddess from Celtic mythology. Over the winter, you will revisit the image of her waiting there for you as a way to reassure yourself of her love. You travel to Switzerland to do her banking business and then spend several days in her cousin’s holiday house on Lake Maggiore. When the cleaner asks if you are related she tells her, “We are sisters at heart,” thumping her fist on her chest for emphasis. You laugh because it’s such a lesbian cliché, or it would be if your situation weren’t so absurd.

You go into tiny churches; you watch her cross herself and you think on top of everything else, a Catholic—although she cares more about the pomp and circumstance of it than about genuine faith, genuine piety. Every day you go into the village to buy red wine, cheeses, meats, and have hot chocolate by the lake. She calls him and you’re afraid to even clink your spoon. Walking down the cobblestoned street, she can tell you’re downcast and puts an arm around you, asking, Does this help? You leave early because you have work, and you cry all the way to the airport.

Of course, these stories never end well. Love whispered becomes love hissed in anger, becomes hands flung up in desperation: what do you expect me to do? That winter, you argue on street corners in the biting cold and you can’t even stalk off, because you’re afraid she’ll fall on the ice and break a hip. You sit at night and his voice from the other room is like barbed wire digging into your skin; an assault on your existence.

By January, you decide something must be done. You book a cottage on one of the Dutch islands for a few days to think. You bring a stack of CDs, including So, and her poems, but instead you spend all your time on the freezing beach, walking with the wind.

You’re lonelier than you’ve ever been. You can’t stop singing.

—Emma Rault

#188: Buffalo Springfield, "Buffalo Springfield Again" (1967)

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Something terrible and irreversible happened when I listened to Buffalo Springfield Again.

I became old. Fully old. No more pretending otherwise.

Accepting it has taken a lot of processing and time set aside to listen to myself and to Buffalo Springfield Again again.

Where to begin? Not, actually, with my parents; they were a little too young for Buffalo Springfield proper, but they did have an LP of the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album packed away in the storage room of our old house. The one with the cover where the three of them are sitting on a couch and Graham Nash has his boots on the cushionwhich, even though it’s a raggedy old couch on someone’s porch, would not have been acceptable in my house growing up. This guy may as well have been Marilyn Manson.

My parents also had LPs of Neil Young’s Harvest and After the Gold Rush, but by my time, any mention of Neil Young would trigger an eruption of spirited mockery, with either or both of them launching into a nasally, geriatric rendition of “Heart of Gold” (“I wanna heeeeeal”). In my father’s view, ahistorical but experiential, Young was the paterfamilias of what he called “whiner rock,” an umbrella term for all that ailed music during the Clinton administration. Bald guy from R.E.M.? Whiner. Dirty guy from Pearl Jam? Whiner. Bono? Still whining. Bald guy from the Smashing Pumpkins? Wouldn’t know one of their songs if I heard it, but…. On MTV and VH1, FM radio and cassette, whiners were legion.

My folks never played the records they owned. Their LPs belonged to another time, archaeological remnants of a past discernible only through Polaroids pasted in albums, a hazy world of wood-panelled basements, very blue denim, moustaches, plaid furniture, Playmate Igloo coolers, white T-shirts with red rings at the collars and sleeves, large glasses, Virginia Slims, and cans of Schlitz. I never heard those records, so for the longest time I couldn’t give a damn about Crosby, Stills, Nash, or Young. But one by one I came to know each of them, each like a horseman of the apocalypse come to visit my own transience upon me, tolling adulthood with each song shuffled up by my iPod, each play another revolution of time’s dread wheel.

Crosby happened first, at age 16, thanks to a public library copy of the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. The Byrds I came to from my old soul’s love of R.E.M. (whiners!). R.E.M. I came to from a copy of Automatic for the People bequeathed to my older brother following a divorce in my extended family that broke in our favor.

Next came Nash solely because of the Hollies’ “Carrie Anne,” one of a few songs written about Marianne Faithfull before she started writing better songs by and about herself. I hope like hell it’s not true, but I have a chilling suspicion I first heard “Carrie Anne” on an episode of Lost in 2007. It adds up, but I’m not prepared to confront that possibility right now.

Then Stills entered my life from the unlikeliest of directions. It was April 2010, the month of the BP oil spill and the Icelandic volcano that blocked air travel over Europe with a giant cloud of ash. Cypress Hill dropped the video for their single “Armada Latina,” featuring Pitbull and Marc Anthony. Outrageously, brilliantly, the song samples the doodoo do do do DOO do do doodoo-doo part at the end of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album, with Marc Anthony lending some genuine robustez to the near-inscrutable Spanish cawed by Stills on the original.

In the video for “Armada Latina,” B-Real, Sen Dog, and Pitbull are partying at L.A.’s Mariachi Plaza, their three bald heads reflecting the tawny waning sun. The camera cuts to a silhouetted figure during the parts by Marc Anthony, who for reasons of scheduling (or conscience) declined to appear in the video. Pitbull, however, revels with the vigor of two men, gamely dancing with mamis and abuelitas alike, telling Castro to eat shit. And thenunder the gazebo!is a treat for the geezers: the actual Stephen Stills, nondescript as an IT specialist in his Hawaiian shirt, miming away at the guitar part he recorded 40 years earlier. I didn’t know at the time what Stills looked like, but I knew enough to know it must be him. The shame of recognition could have been no less crushing in that moment than if Stills had looked into the camera to watch me watching him, and said, Stop, children, what’s that sound? You’re becoming unrelatable to your peers.

And finally I made it to Young from Buffalo Springfield Again. Its cover drew me in. The band is floating over a row of mountains and a shimmering lake, holding hands with each other and what could be an angel or just a woman in a bathrobe. A Mothra-sized butterfly and a colossal bluebird are in flight too, the whole odd scene framed by a border of flowers. It has a certain slapped-together elegance, inviting and trippy but not alarmingly psychedelic (like the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears from that year). Eve Babitz asked to design it in exchange for giving Stephen Stills a ride home from the bar one night.

The album itself is a collage too; each song sounds like it comes from a different band, which isn’t so off the mark since the studio door seems to never have shut with the traffic of personnel and ideas across of most of 1967. It’s like Young, Stills, and Richie Furay decided to make a joint solo album featuring Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer. The effect is jarring.

Young’s brooding and almost sinister “Mr. Soul,” the opener, drives us through a dark tunnel to the wholesome country morning of “A Child’s Claim to Fame,” Furay’s toe-tapping out-Byrding of the Byrds’ “Time Between” from that year’s Younger Than Yesterday album. The volatility just keeps up from there, each song not sustaining but undoing the vibe of the last. Stills is feelin’ languidly groovy on “Everydays,” but then Jack Nitzsche’s Wall of Sound production on “Expecting to Fly” blasts Neil into orbit over that radioactive lake on the cover. Elsewhere is the incorrigibly patchoulied “Bluebird”; the derivative white soul of “Good Time Boy” (where, by the grace of God, Dewey Martin narrowly restrains himself from letting out a “sock-it-to-me”); and “Rock and Roll Woman,” written by Stills either directly or indirectly with David Crosby, a song whose harmonies break in the couch of the first CSN album.

The tenderest moment on Buffalo Springfield Again is also the least exciting: Furay’s near-solo performance of “Sad Memory,” a song he recorded for the album on a whim. It sounds like an early 60s song, not a late 60s songfrom a time before “For What It’s Worth” and all the generational chaos that song has come to signify in documentary montage after documentary montage. (You can see it now, can’t you: yellow flowers sliding into gunbarrels, purple smoke rising in plumes from the paddies.) According to John Einarson’s book about Buffalo Springfield, “Sad Memory” is one of the first songs Furay ever wrote, “when I was still a folkie in New York,” he said, “about a girl back in Ohio.” It’s a still point in the storm of Buffalo Springfield Again, an old-fashioned lament so generic it feels out of place.

For just that reason, though, “Sad Memory” represents better than any other song the album’s liminal quality: the band’s caught looking backwards and forwards at the same time, untethered from any one sound, any one songwriter, any one reality (as they drift hand-in-hand over the mountains). Hear the lyrics of “Mr. Soul” and “Rock and Roll Woman”: they don’t even sound in accord about what it’s like to be rock stars. They’re moving in five directions at once and somehow getting somewhere, though it would take until after one last album for what’s happening on Buffalo Springfield Again to resolve itself into the more comprehensible forms of Poco, of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and of the man who would be “Don Grungio,” Neil Young (whiner!). It’s like a transitional fossil.

“Sad Memory” is what made me old, not the fact that my taste ran to Buffalo Springfield Again or the Byrds or Cypress Hill (who formed before I was born). The song drifted by me dozens of times before I read about how Furay started recording it alone one day while waiting for the rest of the band to arrive at the studio. Years after writing it, he was still only in his mid 20s. It’s like he put his hands up six songs in and said,

I want off this ride for a minute. I want down from the mountains and the giant bluebird. I need to sing this very normal song about a person in Ohio I don’t even talk to anymore, who probably never thinks about me now. But I’m not ready to give this one up while I still feel it just a little bit.

I hear you, Richie, I replied to my own imagination. That’s our age for you. Revising the memory of every old thing in turn. Deciding what the past ever did for you. Returning sometimes or often to the most sentimental, irrelevant things if for no other reason than because you realize you’ll never have them at closer reach than they sit today. Call it the spirit of the empty high school parking lot at night.

So I listened again to Buffalo Springfield Again in that frame of mind. From beginning to end, I felt right there with them on the messy cusp of everything. And then I listened to it all again, and felt none of it.

—Andrew Holter

#189: Quicksilver Messenger Service, "Happy Trails" (1969)

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Here’s a weird thing to think about the next time you’re paralyzed by the sheer amount of music available on your phone: recorded sound has only existed for about 140 years. If we’re talking about popular music and the culture that’s sprung up around it—the kind of recorded sound that Rolling Stone is concerned with—then the timeline is even shorter. The oldest recording on the RS 500, Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road,” was recorded in April of 1926 (and later collected on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music). The most contemporary inclusion, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was released in November 2010. Stretching out between those two musical landmarks lies the wild and weird landscape of American music: the story of how, within the span of only one lifetime, our culture went from picking a country banjo to rapping lines like “Have you ever had sex with a Pharaoh? Put the pussy in a sarcophagus.

Before Edison invented his mechanical version of the ear drum in 1870, listening to music required putting your actual ear drum within audible distance of a musician. Unlike literature, which has been widely distributed since the printing press in 1440, and visual art, which has been widely reproducible (via etchings and then lithography) since the mid 16th century, music before 1870 was an elusive art form, unique to each performance. There may have been a number of ways to musically notate a performance, but there was no way to bottle the performance itself. Think about that for a moment. Mozart never heard an Indian raga. Louis Armstrong never heard the rain-forest chants of central African pygmies. Unless you were born in New Orleans before the Depression, you will never hear legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden. The idea that we might hear music made outside our own desolate crossroads of geography and time is, in the context of human history, a deliriously strange novelty, a gift.

So why, then, do Americans continue to go to great expense to put their ear drums in arenas, clubs, and other music venues? In 2015, Nielsen reported that half of every dollar spent on music in the U.S. went to a live event. In 2016, we spent twice as much on concert tickets than total music sales. I have no idea how much money I’ve spent on live music in my life, but I know that figure dwarfs whatever I’ve spent on recorded music. I recently paid 3% of my monthly income for tickets to see U2 perform The Joshua Tree, an album recorded to the highest degree of sonic fidelity in a studio. The concert was eventually canceled and the tickets were refunded, but still, I’m wondering: why do I put so much emphasis on “seeing” a music performance?

When I was 15, I went to see a now-defunct punk band called the Blood Brothers play a now-defunct venue in Richmond, Virginia called the Nancy Raygun. There was a now-defunct excitement in the air that evening: of being downtown, and not in a suburb; of being driven by my older brother, and not my mom; of being in a bar before I was old enough to drink. I don’t remember much about what the opening band sounded like, but I remember that all the band members wore ironic Nazi arm bands and that the lead singer opened the set by miming fellatio with the microphone. About a song or two in, he spat on an audience member, and the crowd imploded. People got punched. The crowd rushed toward the stage, knocking me down for a few panicked, suffocating seconds, before a stranger extended their arm into the fray and pulled me up. I squirmed my way out to the margins where I found a person-sized envelope of space from which to watch my brother, as he threw his elbows around like a madman in some kind of ecstatic trance. Nothing I’d experienced in the privacy of my Walkman headphones had prepared me for this, the wild communion of a mosh pit. It was a revelation, an awakening, a public exorcism of private angst. I’ve never seen anything quite like it since.

Mostly, though, I’ve stopped looking. Surely that fault lies with my own aging and boring music taste, but a great many of the shows I’ve seen lately have been predictably dreary affairs. Groups of mostly white guys singing and strumming the same things they sing and strum on the records that garnered them an audience in the first place. In a weird twist from the era of Uncle Dave Macon, recordings now seem to take precedence, and often prefigure, the performance itself.

The exceptions are those performers willing to improvise, to be vulnerable in front of an audience. About a year ago, I stood three feet from Ethiopian pianist Hailu Mergia, my jaw agape, as his nimble fingers ran up and down the keys, layering improvised melodies overtop each other with the same casual instinct my fingers tie my shoelaces into bows. There was an electricity to watching him perform, the urgent sense that whatever sequence of notes was passing through my ear drums would not pass that way again.

I’ll confess that I have very little idea about the kind of person who reads these things. In this time we live in, the golden era for having the attention span of a goldfish, I imagine that many, if not most of you, are writers yourselves, have written things on this site. And as someone who spends an increasing amount of their time writing, I wonder about the performative aspect of what we do, of how vulnerable we can be, sitting alone in front of a computer screen. Unlike the musician improvising on a stage, we have the liberty to write and rewrite our vulnerabilities on the page, to consider and reconsider—a process I can’t help but suspect is not super conducive to being vulnerable. If the best writers could somehow transform their talents into a band, one that revised with the same frequency as a writer, I can’t help but think that the results would be horrible. That they would make Steely Dan sound like the String Cheese Incident.

Writing is an extremely weird kind of performance, one in which the performer is physically estranged from the audience. The writer doesn’t get the laughter or the applause, the bored yawns in the front row or the distracted texting. And the audience doesn’t get to subject the writer to their gaze; at best, they get a well-lit head shot inside a book flap. No, the audience has to make do with reading the words on the page, a process so basic to literate society that we often forget just how strange it is, the ease with which we translate written symbols into our minds. Writing, when it works, allows us perform across time and distance, not with our actual voices, but with the much weirder, disembodied ones in our heads—the one that, throughout the writing of this piece, decided I needed to learn how to bake cornbread, to call my grandfather and listen attentively while he explained the fine print of his current cell phone plan, to Google the girl who got me in trouble in second grade for putting boogers on her desk. (She’s a project manager now, for a charity in Ohio.) Writing, when it’s going well, feels like a way of going to war with this crazy, chaotic voice, of wrestling it into the shape of something intelligible. Writing, on those rare moments that I’m satisfied with it, reads like a carefully rehearsed performance of how I wish my mind worked.

*

I signed up to write this essay because I was interested in Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that, three months ago, I knew next to nothing about. A friend I rely on for music recommendations is a big Dino Valenti fan, so when I found his name on the back of a couple Quicksilver records in a junk store over the summer, I bought them. I figured that writing this essay would be a good way to learn more about the band, the San Francisco acid rock scene in the late ‘60s, and why, exactly, I can’t get into the Grateful Dead. As it turns out though, I really just don’t care about Quicksilver Messenger Service. I listened to the records I picked up—Just for Love, What About Me? and Quicksilver— five or six times apiece, in various states of listening engagement (reading, cooking, doing the dishes) only to zone out each time, lost inside that chattering voice in my head, only snapping back to the fact I’d hadn’t been listening when the record ended. At one point I actually forced myself to sit down in front of my stereo and do nothing but listen to Just For Love and still, my attention span wasn’t up to the task. The record is plodding and aimless when I want melody and momentum. Even the Grateful Dead, it struck me, aren’t this boring.

Happy Trails, I’m happy to report, is a different thing entirely.  Happy Trails is a live recording, the first half of which serves as an extended riff on the Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love?” It begins with a recognizable take on the original, and then digresses into several different songs, all titled with different interrogative pronouns. On “Where You Love?” they break the riff down into an eerie drum and violin dirge that’s so quiet you can hear the evidently drug-addled crowd clapping and yelping along. A chord change later, and the original riff storms back in, crackling and humming with voltage. There’s an urgent energy, listening to them pare the moment down—almost to silence—only to pilfer a bit of a Bo Diddley riff and burn rubber like bank robbers in the other direction.

Rather than sludge through Quicksilver’s studio records, I found myself rummaging through old favorite live recordings instead, searching out more of these moments. What I’ve come to understand is that different performances are great for different reasons. (A shattering revelation, I know.) Some, like U2’s, are great as a kind of rock theater: a visual spectacle worthy of the music, a band worthy of going “to see.” Other recordings, like Blink 182’s The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show, or Neil Young’s Live at the Riverboat, or Judy Garland’s Live at Carnegie Hall are great because of a certain magnetism of personality. Some, like Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, are documents of a performer transforming their recorded body of work into something else entirely onstage.

Then there are those performances that feel very much of the moment, that rare confluence of the performer and audience entering a mutual zone, where ego shuts down and the music takes over. “Having a Party,” the last song on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, when the crowd’s singing overtakes his own, is a famous and justly-praised example of this kind of moment. Donny Hathaway’s live take on Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” is another one. I wouldn’t put even the most exciting moments of Happy Trails up with either of those classics, but it’s the same idea. These are the moments that, love them or hate them, just about every Phish fan will tell you about—the ones where the performer and the audience meld together, into some Hydra-headed creature of the moment, two massive eyeballs a stage’s length apart, staring back into the other.

*

Last spring, I saw Kevin Morby play a packed room at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. It had been a while since I’d gone out to a show, but Morby does this ‘70s-era singer-songwriter-y thing that my sister and I both adore, and she bought the tickets and coaxed me out. It was the day after terrorists exploded a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, a fact that I don’t think either of us acknowledged out loud but was undoubtedly on both our minds, being in a crowded public place in our nation’s capital in 2017. A relationship I’d been in for a long time had ended recently, too, and I felt sad and anxious, stuck in some inescapable vortex of public and private loss. I was hoping the concert would provide an antidote to this feeling. And to some degree, it did. Morby has assembled an incredibly tight four-piece, one that has an intuitive grasp on when to bust open a song at the seams and jam for five minutes, and when to get quiet and let Kevin’s voice linger. His guitarist, a woman named Meg Duffy, is a marvelous talent in her own right. More than once that night, I experienced that weird involuntary grin that happens when you’re hearing songs you’ve learned to love privately being performed well publicly. It was a good performance, but it didn’t entirely erase my crummy mood. Then Morby sent the band offstage, and came back up alone for an encore performance of a song called “Beautiful Strangers.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the lifespan of a song: the length of time between when it first slips through my ear drums to the point when it starts to bore me. Depending on the song and the frequency I play it, this period can range anywhere from a week to several months. “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis lasted a couple of days. Some songs, like Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go” and Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road,” have been bringing me joy for two decades now. Rarely lately though, has a song’s life span exceeded a year. “Beautiful Strangers” is one of those songs. The song is, among many things, a meditation on the value of community and the arts. It’s also extremely catchy and haunting. A big chunk of the second verse specifically addresses what happened at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015. “If you ever, hear that sound now,” a line goes, referring to gunshots. “If the door gets kicked in, here they come now.” The song makes some discomfiting questions explicit: Are you willing to risk your life to go see a band play? If shots ring out, are you willing to put your body between a gun and a stranger?

Sometimes audiences help shape a moment through their audible enthusiasm—clapping, singing along, whistling, shouting. And sometimes they communicate their engagement by shutting up. At a venue like the Rock & Roll Hotel, where the bar is loud and not that far from the stage, the silence that descended when Morby strummed the first few chords of “Beautiful Strangers” was eerie. It gave me that goosebump-y feeling I associate with being young, at concerts, when the communal mass of a mosh pit could still overwhelm me. It was the feeling that whatever we were experiencing that night was more urgent and important than anyone’s individual life, anyone’s private feelings of loss. It was the same feeling that gripped me at 15, at a show with my brother, and the same one that struck again at 27, at a Kevin Morby show my sister, who took this short snippet of the moment on her phone.

With the rise of the internet and the digitization—you could call it the disembodiment—of music culture, this is what we’re left with. This song means X-thing to me, and maybe it could mean X-thing for you, too. The fact that a crowd of beautiful, faceless strangers is able to listen to the same recorded things and then write about them, and maybe understand each others’ minds a little better because of it, without ever having met, makes my head reel a little. I know that 2017 has been a hard year for mental exercises like this, but still, think: what a time to be alive. What a gift, to hear all this music.

—Ryan Marr

#190: Elvis Presley, "From Elvis in Memphis" (1969)

190 From Elvis in Memphis.jpg

On an album with 11 ballads about sex and love and one about race and class, the latter was released as the lone single. It became a hit for Elvis and helped him pivot away from the singing-soundtracks-for-his-movies era. Thankfully. Soundtrack Elvis is my least favorite Elvis (Ballads Elvis > Hymns Elvis > King of Rock n Roll Elvis > Good Vegas Years Elvis > Bad Vegas Years Elvis > Soundtrack Elvis). Other than the single, “In the Ghetto,” I can’t point you to a specific standout song, and that’s what works for From Elvis in Memphis.

Sometimes we talk about great albums as collections of hit singles and/or thematically connected songs, but this album doesn’t work that way. A collection of mostly love songs doesn’t make for a “project album” in the same way as something like the Who’s Tommy, for instance. The songs are connected by their soundscape more so than their contentwhat some critics call “country soul” or “white soul.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s a style that works for Elvis’s voice. The performer grows up into the singer. Then it’s the mature singer who transitions, albeit abruptly, from love songs to “In the Ghetto.” That’s what we need to talk about.

When Elvis sings “As the snow flies / On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ / A poor little baby child is born / In the ghetto / (In the ghetto)” we don’t need to ask any questions. We already know. We know the child is black. We know what the narrative of his life will be by the fourth line, and that line, “in the ghetto,” is repeated throughout the song in lieu of a traditional chorus. We know what to expect from the ghetto: a violent end. The trope of the inevitable black criminal isn’t new.

I’m not saying Elvis, or songwriter Mac Davis, had nefarious intent, just that the song falls short as an attempt to humanize black people for a white audience. Its reliance on stereotype becomes a kind of voyeurism of black suffering, which creates an emotional response but doesn’t require discomfort with the existence of the ghetto. It asks for pity. Almost 50 years later, pity remains the official response of “high-minded” white people to redlining, education disparity, chronic underemployment, lack of government representation, police mistreatment, etc. The song encourages the listener to feel sorry for black folks without acknowledging that the ghetto didn’t spring up spontaneously. Black ghettos in the United States aren’t any more of an accident than Jewish ghettos were in Europe.

Also, the (slight and fragile) progress we’ve made that allows some people to escape the physical ghetto doesn’t mean it no longer exists. It is both more mobile and adaptable (racism adapts faster than most organisms) and still a real place. What are we calling it now? Bad neighborhood? Wrong side of the tracks? [cardinal direction]-side? Here in T-Town, it’s a variation of the cardinal direction moniker. When the local news reports a crime in North Tulsa, you get the subtext.

Here’s the origin story for North Tulsa. (Aside: Please become familiar with your city’s (or town’s) settlement patterns and how racial disparities work there. How the ideology of ghetto works varies somewhat and must be fought locally as much as nationally.) We had segregation from the beginning in Tulsa, ya know, after forcing Native Americans off the land we forced them to, but by 1921 black Tulsans were doing too well for the taste of city leaders like Tate Brady. A false accusation against a black man led to the Tulsa Race Riot, during which a white mob murdered hundreds of Black Tulsans, destroyed Black Wall Street (the wealthiest black district in the country), and drove thousands further north to keep Black Tulsa and White Tulsa separate.

Despite its blind spots, “In the Ghetto” does ask a few pointed questions: “Take a look at you and me / Are we too blind to see? / Do we simply turn our heads / And look the other way?” These are the best lines on the entire album and, for me, a challenge. Too many times I’ve turned away into my own secure life. The song’s proposed solution is charity, “The child needs a helping hand,” but charity wasn’t enough when this album came out and isn’t enough now (not that charitable actions toward anyone less fortunate than yourself shouldn’t be pursued). What we need is to bear witness with honesty that may be uncomfortable for those of us who don’t face the machine of government policy and apathy working against us. What we need is to strive toward justice, liberation from the political and economic factors that white supremacy uses to enforce its goal of imprisoning people in the ghetto.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll end with one such attempt to speak truth. The following is a poem I wrote a few years ago about the pogrom that created a ghetto where I live:

 

Tulsa, 1921
for the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot
 

Tate said he saw a n-----
noosed and dragged behind

a car. Crude thick blood
cries out from the ground

in the Oil Capital, congealing
along Greenwood Avenue

and flowing north. Black
Wall Street has crashed,

its wealth looted, redistributed.
The race riot suite sweeps

to Mount Zion Baptist Church
after rumors of guns there, where

they don’t belong. Klansmen run
a beat like deputies. They light homes

on that side of Admiral with
the white violence of Molotov cocktails.

The governor deploys the Guard
to protect white-owned property.

—Randall Weiss

#191: The Stooges, "Fun House" (1970)

191 Fun House.jpg

I came to the Stooges lateit must’ve been like 2003 when I started listening to Fun House (and after that, what else was there to do but seek out the other records?). But by the time I started, I already knew them:

*

As a teenager, I bought every Sex Pistols bootleg I could find. This was not an inconsiderable number, mind you, such was the interest (dare I say market?) for their stuff.

The cassettes’ qualities were no indication of vault-digging. Some of the shittiest releases, rehashing the same practice tapes for the umpteenth time, came packaged with J-cards boasting six or seven double-sided full color panels; some of the good ones, with unheard demos, offered only a single black-and-white photo on one printed side.

I remember being thrilled to find a VHS tape of the Sex Pistols playing Scandanavia, the first time I’d seen the band play at length; its rudimentary packaging listed only live dates and song titles.

A live cassette of American tour dates was much the same: song titles, a single black-and-white photo. An absolutely terrifying version of “Belsen Was A Gas,” which I didn’t know how to feel about, and a long new song called “No Fun.”

“You’ll get one number and one number only,” Johnny Rotten said, “because I’m a lazy bastard. This is no fun.”

Years later, first Julian Temple’s fantastic doc The Filth and the Fury, then YouTube, confirmed the performance was the last of the band’s career, in San Francisco (unless you count the reunion tour, which is a tangent we can agree I don’t need to get into here).

If you’re a Simpsons fan, you know the episode where Lisa gives Ralph Wiggum a pity valentine and subsequently breaks his heart on live TV. Afterward, Bart slo-mos the tape and shows Lisa the exact moment Ralph’s heart tears in two. If you haven’t seen the Sex Pistols’ last performance, check it out: like Ralph Wiggum, you can see the momentthe secondJohnny Rotten realizes the band is over.

*

Later, a buddy made me a mixtape with a bunch of songs from Dischord’s Flex Your Head comp, which I subsequently sought out. The full LP includes a version of “No Fun,” this time played at a million miles an hour by Ian MacKaye’s pre-Minor Threat group the Teen Idles.

*

One’s Sex Pistols obsession cannot omit repeated viewings of Sid and Nancy.

It’s a hard film to watch.

My friend (and RS 500 contributor) Connie Squires recently wrote a book in which a documentary filmmaker vowing not to interfere with his subjects does just that. He hooks up with the film’s subject, a musician, and tries to discover the identity of the musician’s son’s father, a shrouded secret.

In discussing her book Live From Medicine Park, Connie told me that everyone has a blind spot, some issue or idea they can’t see in the mirror. It’s that lack of vision that makes everyone a gently unreliable narrator about some subject(s).

Chloe Webb’s depiction of Nancy Spungen is nuanced: is she helplessly self-deluded when she continues to insist post-Sex Pistols Sid is a “big star,” or does she know the ship is sinking and she has no lifeboat?

Either way, in the film Sid sings “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to an empty club.

*

There wasn’t much of a scene in Concord, New Hampshire circa 1992. I knew some guys who recorded a basement demo, walking closer to or further from the boombox depending on how loud they wanted to be. And a bunch of skaters started a band and played covers of Minor Threat, stuff like that.

One weekend, a girl my girlfriend knew had a party at her parents’ place. Everyone under the wide umbrella of punk rock/crunchy/alternative/goth/skater showed up.

The boombox band played one of their two shows, with a cardboard cutout of Bartles and Jaymes next to them onstage. The skater band had already played a single show and broken up.

But a few other groups played. They were older than usin their twenties, easyand didn’t take breaks between songs, maintaining eye contact with the audience instead of glancing nervously at one another. They had long hair and grimaced musically and played gear that looked battleworn.

The girl hosting the party was in such an act, even though she was a year younger than me. Her band played a droning, repetitive song I recognized from repeated viewings of Sid and Nancy.

*

I’m big on repetition, on overlap. Doing the same thing on the same day the same way.

I moved to Boston around the same time as a bunch of other people, this huge batch of UNH friends and their friends and their friends’ friends who went to parties, attended shows, held vegetarian potlucks, fought, dated, broke up, formed and reformed in differing configurations of factions, cousins, bands, and splinter groups.

Early on, we met weekly at this one dive bar in Allston. You know the one. Dark, almost completely empty until ten at night, octogenarian cocktail waitresses tottering through the teeming crowd without spilling a drop.

The dive had a great CD jukebox. My roommate Brendan and I would play deliberately vulgar Ween songs and giggle in anticipation as the crowd swelled and the wait between cocktail waitress visits grew. But even when our songs came on, they were barely audible over the din of so many drunk conversations.

The only stuff that punched through the density of the room was primal and simple. Pounding and repetitive music sounded the best in the jammed bar.

The same pulses, rhythms, every time I went in, once a week at least for years.

*

One night the bar was empty when everyone arrived, meaning we could hear the music, not just feel it.

A familiar scream ripped through the speakers.

Cool, I thought, they got a Minor Threat CD. Someone is playing “Guilty of Being White.”

But instead of machine gun chatter, a slow riff unfurled instead, a TV Eye.

*

The house where I lived in grad school had a garage and a basement, both luxuries absent in city living.

My buddy Damian gifted me a drumset and I learned to play, dutifully bashing along with records in headphones for an hour a day.

I’d always wanted to be in a band. I figured drummers were more difficult to find than guitarists or bass players.

After my first year, a new cohort started the program.

At the inaugural party that August, I met a guy named Tyler who had moved to Maine from Virginia. He wanted to start a band that played banjo covers of Velvet Underground songs.

Well, I said, you should come over. I play drums.

We added Paige on guitar, Steve on bass, Bec on saxophone. Katie on vocals. And we learned “No Fun.”

I can’t think of a song more incorrectly named. Sometimes we’d stretch it out to fifteen minutes, twenty, laughing and mugging and having a great time.

Threads connected.

Certainly the Stooges’ influence extended because of bands that had covered them. But those bands had covered them because the music was fun. And easy! The fact that anyone could play Stooges songs meant that everyone played Stooges songs. Including us, in the garage, like thousands before and after.

*

The Stooges announced their Boston show, and I bought advance fan club tickets for me and Bec. Rich got one, so did Frank.

The band played the Orpheum, an old theater where I’d seen Johnny Rotten play with Public Image Ltd. when I was fifteen. At that show, I’d been way in the back of the balcony, nowhere near as close as Bec and I were this time, like five rows away, stage right.

When Iggy started yelling at the security guards during “I Wanna Be Your Dog”LET THEM UP! EVERYONE COME UP!it was easy for the front rows to swarm.

I stood, mouth open, thinking, This is amazing. Look at everyone get up there! There’s not going to be any space for the band with so many people jumping around. I wonder if

Bec grabbed me and pushed me towards the stage.

If she hadn’t, I might have stood there the whole time, mouth agape, watching in amazement.

Instead, I ran the few feet up the aisle and clambered onto the stage, where the band played “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Anyone could get onstage.

Anyone who wanted to could join them, no matter their entry point.

Maybe they’d been there back in the day.

Maybe they played covers in their bands.

Maybe they were new to the music.

It didn’t matter.

I didn’t know what to do with myselfI was onstage with Iggy Pop and the Stooges!so I pogoed, merrily crashing into other showgoers.

No, that’s not the right word.

Revelers.

I found Rich in the pogoing mass, Frank, and we grabbed arms and bounced up and down together, grinning like idiots.

—Michael T. Fournier

#194: Lou Reed, "Transformer" (1972)

194 Transformer.jpg

1. Vicious

Against the advice of my high school guidance counselor, who wants me to study something “worthwhile,” I move to Boston in September of 1996 to attend art school.
 

3. Perfect Day

I elect to live on a substance-free floor. It’s filled with kids like myself, who don’t do drugs, and with addicts trying to stay clean. In my room, I add a photo of my girlfriend, Jen, to the desktop. I splash one cinderblock wall with magazine cutouts of female musicians I crush over—Shirley Manson, Juliana Hatfield, Justine Frischmann—and a second with a poster for the film Trainspotting.

With every move, I hum Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” from his 1972 album, Transformer. The song, featured in Trainspotting, is one of my new favorites, and I keep on purring its tune as I settle into my new home.
 

8. Wagon Wheel

My roommate Andrew gets to know our neighbors. I tag along to become their friend by proxy. To say I’m typically shy is an understatement.

Most of the action takes place at the ping pong table in the dorm’s rec room. I’m horrible; so is everyone else. Enrique, the guard who sits at the front desk, shakes his head at our lack of finesse and fitness. Our group consists of:

  1. awkward nerds like myself,  and

  2. stoners who fell off the wagon immediately after their parents waved goodbye.

Volleys are hard to come by; our effort is spent chasing balls as they bounce down hallways. We don’t care. The game is fun enough, and we’re all at the same skill level, regardless of artistic ability.
 

4. Hangin’ ‘Round

Some nights, I act as designated scribe, writing out every stupid idea a couple of my recent acquaintances fire off after they smoke massive amounts of marijuana. Other nights, I can’t process their altered states correctly and wander on my own. It’s around this time that I befriend X and her roommate, Y, and we hang out in the lounge and watch television. They’re both drug free; sometimes that’s enough to make a friend.
 

5. Walk on the Wild Side

Not only do I taste freedom in Boston, but I imbibe it in an environment that encourages radical experimentation: intro classes screen films by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, and Phil Solomon; early design drops Joseph Cornell into my life; I walk to the Nickelodeon movie theater and buy a ticket to David Cronenberg’s Crash, rated NC-17, without the box office clerk giving a second look.

Lou Reed once said, “I know my obituary has already been written. And it starts out, ‘Doot, di-doot, di-doot…’” My hometown inspires no art, no sophistication. It is a dead end. Its obituary has already been written, I decide. The city is my home. Then, at a party where I am sober and just about everyone else is high, someone offers the following advice: “Whatever you do, don’t ever try heroin.” I nod and say OK, yet my head spins at the thought. What have I gotten myself into? Who are these people? My conclusion: I am a square peg, a sheltered kid who needs to start living.
 

10. I’m So Free

Eventually, I force myself to call the dorm home and it doesn’t sound strange. I look forward to ping pong matches, midnight movies, and gallery openings. I talk with Jen every other day (killer long distance fees) and visit her at Mount Holyoke once a month. Still, I’m not sure if this is where I’m meant to exist.
 

9. New York Telephone Conversation

Hello?
Hi, Ben, it’s X.
Hey.
(Long Pause) I was wondering if I could sleep over your place tonight?
Why?
Y’s boyfriend is visiting, and I want to give them our room. It’s awkward for me to stay, you know?
Oh.
Andrew’s away for the weekend, right?
Yeah.
It’s just you over there?
Yeah.
You must be bored.
I’ve got work to keep me busy.
You probably want someone to talk to, right?
What?
You can’t work all night.
No, I can’t.
We can keep each other company.
 

7. Satellite of Love

X arrives after eleven, carrying her pillow and a blanket. She’s in pajamas, but her face is radiant. We sit on my bed and talk for a while. Her voice is raspy. It gets late. The city outside is so very quiet.

When the time comes, though, I don’t make room for X. I don’t give X my bed, or Andrew’s bed. I ask her to sleep alone on the floor. I am incredibly naïve. This is the last night X stops by my room.
 

6. Make Up

In his review of Transformer for Rolling Stone in early 1973, journalist Nick Tosches filleted the song “Make Up,” writing, “It isn't decadent, it isn't perverse, it isn't rock & roll.” The critiques I receive in class sometimes rival Tosches’s assessment. Their words are harsher than I expect. My ideas seem so simple. Nothing breaks through, regardless of my persistence. Who defines rock & roll, I wonder?

I spend so much time carefully navigating the line of acceptability at art school, both in my work and my developing persona. Because of this, the desire to be surrounded by other artists in the big city, which sounded so lovely back in high school, weighs on my shoulders.
 

2. Andy’s Chest

Andrew resolves to shoot a short film near the end of the semester. I help out and set up lights. In one scene, he convinces the guy across the hall, a total live wire, to stick his dick in a jar of peanut butter. The whole ordeal is unnecessarily complicated. The “actor” makes us look away while he strips naked and prepares for his big break; I try my best to keep a straight face. I adjust lights without seeing what I’m doing, and by the end of the day, the room is hot and smells of sweat and warm sandwich spread.

It doesn’t take long before everyone on the substance-free floor is talking about the penis movie. The guy across the hall is famous for about five minutes. Andrew refuses to show the footage to anyone outside his film class, but the notoriety is enough to make him feel proud.

For the first time, I feel pretty good about being part of something, too.
 

0.

“The glitter people know where I'm at. The gay people know where I'm at. Straight people may not know where I'm at, but they find it kind of interesting when they show up and see what is sitting around them. It's interesting to have a conglomeration of people that covers the strata from A to Z….There's a certain element of the audience that's intellectually oriented, into the lyrics….then there's another element of the audience that's into a sex trip. I'm into both of them.”

– Lou Reed, Interview Magazine, 1973.

Though he’s talking about his audience here, Lou Reed also does a bang-up job in summing up art school. So much of the experience, I begin to understand, is showing up and seeing what is happening around you. There are occasions when you “know where it’s at,” and there are moments you’re last week’s big deal. The highs and lows are powerful and devastating, and they never stop. Art is fickle. Art cares little about the artist.

However, since you’re part of the audience either way, you might as well enjoy the performance.
 

11. Goodnight Ladies

December: I strip my bed. My clothes fit in one big bag. Final grades weren’t so bad, after all. That the school works on a pass/fail system probably benefits me.

Friends drop by on their way out. There are some sad goodbyes as parents linger in the shadows, like the band is breaking up, if only for a few weeks. It’s time to say goodbye, bye-bye.

I head home to spend most of my time with Jen. Nothing is perfect. One semester will not transform a person. If anything, I’m more confused than ever. But I hope that when I return to school at the end of January, everything is the same.

And, generally, everything will be the same. I will still wonder if I belong. I will still be impossibly unhip and naïve. Yet within this, I will also find solid footing in filmmaking. I will accept who I am and put in the work. I will remind myself, again and again, “I am different. I am becoming an artist.” I will hum Lou Reed and inch toward adulthood. I will be worthwhile.

—Benjamin Woodard