#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)

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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

#195: John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, "Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton" (1966)

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The smooth guitar sound threw Jim right back to university, nineteen in a questionable shirt, sweating near the stage. As the distinctive vocals kicked in

"Why's he reading a Beano?" Sally asked, studying the picture on the album sleeve yet again.

"You always ask that," Neil said.

"Dad never answers."

"I swear that's the only reason you ask for this one. I'm sick of hearing it."

"That's enough now," Jim said. "Neil, you can have your choice when Sally's gone to bed."

Jim couldn't imagine asking to listen to his parents' records, clamouring for the Andrews Sisters or Mrs. Mills. Was it simply, as he might argue, that he had such great taste in music that his daughter couldn't fail to respond to it, or had a point been reached where music crossed generations? The new Fun Boy Three single had been on the radio over breakfast and it was another good one. He might even treat himself to the LP, though he guessed he was twice the age of their average fan.

"This is boring old men's music," Neil said. "It doesn't mean anything."

"And punk's so profound, is it?"

"Eh?"

For a moment Neil looked like the confused child he was, and Jim had to remind himself he wasn't talking to his students.

"Punk lyrics, they speak to you do they? All that business about smashing things and Oi! Oi! Oi!"

"The Clash aren't like that."

"No, perhaps they're not."

Neil had saved up from his paper round to buy their new LP but he still didn't have his own turntable and Jim was wondering if he shouldn't step in and buy one for him. Evenings like this, with Neil rolling his eyes at every harmonica break while he waited for the chance to listen to his own music, were getting uncomfortable. Jim thought about pointing out to his sighing son that the Clash had harmonica parts on some of their songs too, but he didn't think it would go down well.

It was a good job Neil hadn't been around in the sixties; what with Bob Dylan and the British blues explosion, it was a boom time for harmonica makers. Even Jim had bought himself a cheap one, warbling away on it while his housemate tried picking out the chords to blues standards on his sister's Spanish guitar. It didn't matter that they weren't much good, it was all about self-expression and authenticity. Less than twenty years later a new generation was going through the same thing, only louder, and with brightly-coloured hair. Jim and his friends thought they were in at the dawn of a new age, the start of something better, but what good had any of their protesting done? Instead of a brighter tomorrow his kids had ended up with Thatcher and another war.

He closed his eyes and drifted away on Have You Heard, head swaying against the antimacassar. He was faintly aware of fidgeting on the rug at his feet, and Sally's muffled giggles.

"Ask him," Neil whispered.

He knew his kids were laughing at him, he might be aloof but he wasn't unobservant. He wouldn't have dared laugh at his father. So maybe this was what all the protests had been about, the right of children to prick their parents' bubble.

"Dad," she began, "tell us about when you met Derek Clapton." She turned to her brother, cupped her hand round her mouth and whispered, "Did I get it right?"

Neil covered his face with his hands and shook his head in despair. Thirteen and twenty-three at the same time, that lad. They grew up so fast.

"Eric, love," said Jim. "Eric Clapton."

"Go on then," said Neil.

"We were in the union bar," Jim began, knowing they both knew this story as well as he did. "I went to get a round inI was with Dick and Jerry, who I shared a house with." He'd assumed back then that the three of them would be friends for life, that someday he'd have kids who'd know them as Uncle Dick and Uncle Jerry, just as he'd be Uncle Jim to their kids. He hadn't seen either of them since his wedding.

"While I was waiting at the bar a man came and stood next to me."

"And?" Sally was jiggling cross-legged as only an excited seven-year-old can.

"And it was Eric Clapton. I recognised him from Jerry's poster."

"Then what?"

"Then I carried three pints back to the table and Dick suggested a game of darts."

"You didn't get his autograph."

"I thought he played boring old men's music?"

Neil shrugged but before they could get into the usual argument about autograph-hunting, Jim's wife leaned round the door.

"Sally, bed," she said, and then to Jim, "I've told you before about keeping her up. It'll be you that's annoyed in the morning when she's half-asleep and you think she's going to make you late for work."

"You heard your mum," Jim said, getting up to take the needle off the record so Sally had no excuse to linger.

"Night, Dad."

He bent so she could reach his cheek, and ruffled her hair as she turned away. He ached to follow her upstairs and read to her as she drifted into sleep but he didn't know how to say so, it wasn't something he ever did. It wasn't something his dad had ever done for him. For years Jim had thought he might read Neil a bedtime story tomorrow or next week, or on his birthday. He'd kept thinking that until he realised Neil was old enough for a part-time job, and he knew he'd missed his chance. He was going to miss his chance with Sally as well, another link in the chain of disconnected fathers.

"Right," said Neil, "my turn at last."

He slid his new LP from its sleeve and placed it reverentially on Jim's turntable. Jim put the Blues Breakers album away and settled back into his armchair. His son wasn't keen on most of his music but if he made an effort Jim might grow to like some of Neil's. He had an idea that if they had music in common, Neil could grow up to be different from him in everything else.

—JY Saville

#196: Various Artists, "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968" (1972)

196 Nuggets.jpg

“The first mistake of Art is to assume it’s serious.”

- Lester Bangs

The first time I read that line was in a high school yearbook, a manic pixie’s senior quote. I thought it was brilliant; Lester Bangs, what a cool name, and get this, the girl who had chosen it cut her hair into really cute bangs. It’s probably Lester’s second most cited quote, after “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool,” which made its way into Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Between those two nuggets, I had heard enoughthis man must be a genius.

In college, I finally read an anthology of his music writing, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Reading a string of Lester Bangs’s sentences for the first time was like hearing a new genre of music: psychedelic prose without pretense or proper punctuation, swinging syntax, alliteration abound. It’s an uneven collection; a number of his columns riddled with homophobia and the occasional racial slur have aged poorly. But everyone in the universe should read his reviews of Astral Weeks and Metal Music Machine, his interviews with Dick Clark and Richard Hell, and his obituaries for Elvis Presley and John Lennon. Editor Greil Marcus writes in the book’s introduction: “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.”

Lester made a name for himself in the early ‘70s writing about music from the mid ‘60s. In the collection’s eponymous essay, named for a Count Five song, he describes 1970 as the year “when everything began to curdle into a bunch of wandering minstrels and balladic bards and other such shit which was obsolete even then.” The era he yearned for was only five years earlier:

...and then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds’ sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter… oh, it was beautiful, it was pure folklore. Old America, and sometimes I think those were the best days ever.

Age 23, and already a curmodgeon.

Lester was writing about “punk bands” from 1965, a decade before the Sex Pistols and Ramones. In fact, that 1971 Creem magazine column contains of the one earliest written references to “punk” as a music genre. A year later, the same usage would appear in the linear notes of a compilation album including the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reactions”: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968.

In his 1973 review of Nuggets, Rolling Stone’s Greg Shaw wrote, "Punk rock at its best is the closest we came in the 1960s to the original rockabilly spirit of rock & roll.” Today, these songs would be classified more accurately as “garage rock.” The double album features 27 tracks from bands with names like the 13th Floor Elevators, the Electric Prunes, and the Chocolate Watchband. The songs are grittier than what you think of as ‘60s pop, but not enough to give you whiplash. No one was screaming yet.

“It wasn’t until much later,” Lester wrote, “drowning in the kitschvats of Elton John and James Taylor that I finally came to realize that grossness was the truest criterion for rock ‘n’ roll, the cruder the clang and the grind the more fun and longer listened-to the album’d be.”

The Nuggets compilation retrospectively defined a genre. Its influence might be less of a testament to the bands who wrote the featured tracks, and more to when and how they were re-released. Producer Lenny Kaye, who would later become the guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, curated the anthology with the idea that these forgotten gems were the only antidote to the lavishness of prog rock. And lo, bands paired back down to three chords. Soon enough, teens were sticking safety pins in their ears, and Lester could live in the now.

If the Nuggets tracks were lost scripture, then Greil Marcus resurrected a prophet when he complied Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung in 1987, five years after Lester overdosed on NyQuil and died.

“Lester gave a shit about music, and that’s partly what killed him, because music in the eighties was total shit,” musician Bob Quines told a man called Legs McNeil in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. But wasn’t it the shitty music in the early 70s that inspired Lester and Lenny Kaye to resurface music from the past? If he had only held out a little longer, think of what Lester Bangs would have written about the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, Nirvana. Punk seems to have a decade-long orbit, and the man just didn’t have another cycle in him.

*

Why do we so often leave our legacies in someone else’s words? Not only in yearbook quotes, but tombstones, email signatures, epigraphs. The line I opened this essay with is actually buried within a rambling paragraph in a rambling column called “James Taylor Marked for Death,” which is nearly 30 pages long:

Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery, it’s nothing but a goddam Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go for the next one tomorrow; and don’t worry about the fact that it’s a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness as if that’s gonna cause people to disregard it and do it in or let it dry up and die, because it’s the strongest, most resilient, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could possibly destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, mistake, foolishness. The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious. I could even be an asshole here and say that “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” which is true as a matter of fact, but people might get the wrong idea. What’s truest is that you cannot enslave a fool.

Quite a block of text there, huh? Did you make it through? Or skip to this paragraph once your eyes started glazing over? Try reading it out loud, it’s a trip. At 17, I read the standalone quote at face value, taking comfort in the prospect that anything could be laughed off. Rereading it in context, I realize it's a blanket statement that doesn’t quite cover your feet. It also directly contradicts almost everything else written by Lester Bangs, who claimed a Van Morrison record saved his life, who wrote that “the best music is strong and guides and cleanses and is life itself.” The artsy girl from high school probably found the line on WikiQuotes and assumed it was serious. So did I.

Maybe the first mistake of art is to is to assume any interpretation is a mistake. Of course Lester Bangs contradicted himself. Contradiction is rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll is contradiction. I’d like to leave you with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address at the 2014 South by Southwest Festival, a speech which, by the way, is framed with a quote from Lester Bangs’s “Where Were You When Elvis Died”:

Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. When you walk onstage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all we have. And then remember, it's only rock and roll.

Did you glaze over that one too? It’s still a little too wordy, wouldn’t fit in a tweet. How about this one, by Woody Guthrie:

Take it easy. But take it.

I know it’s more complicated than that, the seriousness of life. It’s just a nugget, something imprecise and punchy to tide me over until I can put it in my own words. Or until I give up trying to.

—Susannah Clark

#197: R.E.M., "Murmur" (1983)

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Kudzu. That was one of the first things I noticed about Georgia. The view from the car window on our drive down from Ohio revealed a glossy green vine that seemed to be everywhere.

“What is that growing over everything?” was one of my first questions about this strange place my parents had brought us to live in the summer of 1988. The second one being “why is the dirt orange?”

Kudzu as it turned out was an invasive species, brought to the U.S. from Japan in 1876 and introduced to the Southeast in 1883, where it was originally marketed as a decorative plant for shading porches, and where it now covers nearly seven and a half million acres. What started as an ornamental vine quickly revealed itself to be toxic, strangling native foliage and covering entire fields under a hardy blanket of leaves.

I was eleven when my family invaded the south, still barely young enough to be exploring our new physical environs in a way I’m not sure I would have had I been even a year older. On bike rides with my brothers, I discovered the red clay that gave the soil its unusual color, along with fire ants, ferocious mosquitoes, and relentless humidity that, like kudzu, had a way of devouring everything in sight. Between the two, it seemed to me that my new world was muffled.

“Muffled” is also one of the words I’d use to describe R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur. The cover art depicts a field overgrown with kudzu that has engulfed an abandoned train station before dying off itself. Looking at it you can practically smell the earth, the rot, hear the moldy crackle the leaves would make as you made your way through the field.

I discovered R.E.M. the year after my family’s move to southern climesthe video for “Orange Crush” was on heavy rotation on MTV, and Green made its way to my tape deck not long afterwards. Once I’d worn that out, I worked my way backwards through the band’s canon via dubs of whatever albums I could get my hands on. I started with Eponymous, R.E.M.’s first compilation, and then went back through the overt politicism of Document, back through the dreamy folklore of Life’s Rich Pageant, back through the nerviness of Fables of the Reconstruction, passing over Reckoning because I never got a copy, and then settling on Murmur and Chronic Town, the EP that preceded it, where I landed and stuck around for a while.

There was something about the band’s sound at that period that captivated the me of 13, and it continues to captivate me nowalthough R.E.M. remains one of my favorite bands 25+ years later, these are the only records I regularly return to. Much of Murmur sounds like it was recorded underwatera clangy, murky sound, like something submerged. And yet there is urgency in it, too. The taut production and jangly guitars overlaid with inscrutable lyrics that later became R.E.M.’s trademark sound is here in its infancy, years before the songs became more coherent and the band became iconic. In Murmur it’s just mysterious as hell, and, for my money, therein lies the album’s enduring appeal.

I’m not sure Murmur is what you’d call an accessible record. With a few memorable exceptions“not everyone can carry the weight of the world” from “Talk About the Passion” comes to mindthe lyrics defy interpretation. They’re a disjointed mess of imagery (“scratch those candles in the twilight”) juxtaposed with nonsensical declarations (“you’re so much more attractive / inside your moral kiosk”) that don’t describe so much as evoke.

But somehow it worksthe record overflows with emotion. “Radio Free Europe,” the album’s opener and the band’s first single, conveys both longing and a call to actionto what is up to the listener. “Catapult,” with its references to childhood, “ooh, we were little boys / ooh, we were little girls,” and its bouncy refrain, is a heady cocktail of exuberance and nostalgia. And cueing up “Perfect Circle” with the lights off and the ambient noise of nighttime around you is a sure way to get right into your feelings.

Murmur was recorded in the thick of the band’s formative years, a time when they would have been discovering things about themselves, each other, and making music; exploring their own environs, mental, physical, and otherwise. And as such, the lyrics don't seem written so much as retrieved from somewhere deep in Michael Stipe's subconscious. He didn’t quite know what he was on about yet, a fact he’s readily admitted in dozens of interviews over the years. But as with any creative endeavor, he and the rest of the band were making it up as they went along, feeling their way in the dark.

I was surprised to discover when I was researching this essay that, like me, no one in the band was strictly a Southerner. Michael Stipe was an army brat born in Decatur, Georgia who moved around when he was a kid and attended high school in Illinois before returning to attend the University of Georgia in Athens, where the band met. Peter Buck was born in California and moved to Roswell, Georgia when he was 14. Bill Berry was born in Minnesota and landed in Macon, Georgia as a teen, and Mike Mills was also born in California before moving to Georgia at the age of 10.

This is notable because R.E.M. is considered a quintessentially Southern bandwhen people hear of the town of Athens, the band is often the first they think of. Granted, that their sound was forged on the fertile soil of the storied south and the region’s influence is apparent throughout most of their work, but there’s something revelatory about the knowledge that the boys themselves were largely forged elsewhere. It leads me to a question I find myself asking more and more the older I get: how much of our lives are determined by what we’re exposed to versus what’s inside of us?

If the band had met anywhere else, would they still have turned out music that has influenced and continues to influence me and *millions* of other musicians and music lovers? If my family had moved to, say, Missouri instead of Georgia, would R.E.M. have struck the chord in my heart that’s still reverberating all these years later? Or would I have stumbled onto another band from, I don’t know, St. Louis, whose oeuvre would have had the same impact? Was it just a function of finding the music that matched the landscape that matched the era that grabbed me? Or something deeper? I’m honestly not surebut then I also can’t imagine a world where I haven’t sung “Gardening at Night” at the top of my lungs with the windows down dozens of times on Route 316 between Athens and Atlanta, so maybe that’s the answer.

There’s a famous quote attributed to Michelangelo that says, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” There’s a not-so-famous quote I came across recently in a novel by Anthony Marra called A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that says, “Perhaps our deepest love is already inscribed within us, so its object doesn’t create a new word but instead allows us to read the one written.” These ring true to me. Lately it seems that in the business of creating artand in the business of creating ourselvesour influences matter, but it’s the process of uncovering what’s inside that matters most. If you’ll allow me to use kudzu as a metaphorsurely you must have known it would come back at some pointyou can choose where you pare the weed back and where you allow it to grow, but there’s not much you can do about what’s underneath it.

—Sara Campbell

#198: Little Walter, "The Best of Little Walter" (1958)

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I was classically trained on the piano, taught to sit up straight with my wrists suspended in the air. Poor posture could cost you points in a recital, or at least that’s what my piano teacher would tell me. She was so set on perfection. To her it didn’t even matter if I was playing the right key if it was with the wrong finger, and she would immediately smack my hands if she caught me doing it. I wouldn’t get very far into Mendelssohn’s Hochzeitsmarsch before you’d hear the cacophony of my mistakes, the sound of my hands pressed forcefully against the keys. She was the devil.

My Senior year of high school, when our jazz ensemble pianist had graduated, I was asked to fill in, since our band director knew I played piano. Fuck, I didn’t know the first thing about jazz. Still, I went along with it because, well, they were so cool...like a bunch of band kids who went rogue. Every class, before we officially started rehearsal, our director opened the floor up for any improv. The drummer picked a beat on his hi-hat and the bass played a chord progression, and then people were given about 16 bars to play whatever they felt. That’s what jazz is all about, the metamorphosis of a feeling into music.

With no notes on a page to tell me what to do, I became acutely aware of my own rigidness. I would freeze, afraid of making a mistake. For hours after school, in the practice rooms where most band kids would go to make out, I would sit there and plan all my “improv” pieces, 16 bars’ worth. It wasn’t until the end of that year that it clicked: if jazz and blues is all about feeling, then it doesn’t need to make sense. In “Sad Hours,” there’s a part where Little Walter leans on the same note, he just wails it out over and over again, he didn’t give a fuck. He was musically unpredictable.

Little Walter reinvented the harp. When I first listened to “Juke,” one of the songs he’s most well known for, I kept waiting to hear a harmonica. Instead, from the sound of it, I pictured something like a trumpet with a mute? I’m not really sure, but definitely not a harmonica. Little Walter didn’t just make music, he brought new sounds to life. He pressed his harp right up to the mic and turned the amp all the way up, setting it free. While he stayed in the band with Muddy Waters for some time, he was too volatile to stay in one place. That kind of genius couldn’t possibly be contained. It would be like trying to pull a comb through Einstein’s hair.

I interject here, because recently, while writing this, there was a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. White supremacists united under the stated goal, “to take America back.” I watched the news coverage of the rallies, and was confused. The party chanted things like, “You will not replace us.” A part of me wishes I could pull one of them aside and honestly ask, What do you mean “replace you”?

At the turn of the 19th century, racism and prejudice were rampant, but I didn’t have to tell you that. Police brutality didn’t just suddenly become a thing because someone decided to tweet about it. Needless to say, there were A LOT of feelings, and out from the mud of the fields and the streets, the blues were born. But few people give credit to artists like Little Walter, Muddy Waters, or Bo Diddley, let alone even know their names. Ask anyone who Elvis Presley is, and they’ll tell you, “The King.” Some might recognize Willie Dixon’s song, “My Babe,” because Elvis recorded a live cover of it. However, this song was originally recorded by Little Walter and was a number one hit on the Billboard R&B charts. It’s funny how Little Walter’s own wandering and seemingly aimless spirit would become the roots or part of the foundation to legends like the Rolling Stones. He taught people after him how to feel with music, and they inherited the keys to the kingdom without the scars of oppression. So, I ask again: What do you mean “replace you”?

—Yuna Lee

#199: The Strokes, "Is This It" (2001)

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I have absolutely no idea when I first heard Is This It.

To clarify, that’s kinda strange for me. With almost every other song, album, movie, book, or TV show I love, I can vividly picture my first time with it and the person who introduced me to it. I know I was 8 years old when the album was first released, but my earliest memories of the album involve me (twice my life later, as a fresh-faced 16-year-old) boldly insisting it’s the “best album ever made.” I remember getting my inexplicably-sweaty Phrazes for the Young tee signed by long-time Strokes mentor JP Bowersock, explaining to my friend that “he’s the fuckin’ guru, man!” (and credited on Is This It as such). I remember starting a vinyl collection with the records I deemed “all-time greats”: Abbey Road, Is This It, and, somehow, Viva La Vida. I remember waiting all day to see “the boys” play a free concert, only to get myself crowd-surfed out of the audience three songs into their set. I remember proselytizing to anyone who’d listen about how Julian’s AM radio voice filter was the band’s greatest asset, as if it was an original thought and not the standout quote from an NME article I skimmed. I even remember Is This It being the album that fostered a close college friendship with the people who would teach me to play guitar and introduce me to Radiohead, and how I became the one defending the Strokes’ later output as “better than people say”but I have no clue when or how I was introduced to the record. The damn thing just fell into my life at some point, as if I sent it back in time from the future to follow me around like a specter. And I do mean follow: “Hard to Explain” regularly shuffles up on my walk to work, “Last Nite” is a staple of every friend’s karaoke outingseven “Someday” is almost guaranteed to play twice a day at any given store in Los Angeles. And as the album has soundtracked a good third of my life, I’ve found myself falling into auto-pilot and singing along with every track. (Except for “When It Started.” That song blows. It’s boring as hell and was written very quickly to replace “New York City Cops” possibly 9/11’s greatest casualty.)

All of this makes it very embarrassing for me to admit that until recently, I never once sat down and thought about the album’s meaning. In the many years I’ve spent with it, lyrics just sank into my mind through repeated listens and I went on to sing them, the way your dad might sing “Fortunate Son” or “Born in the USA” without realizing the parts that aren’t the chorus really fuck up the mood at the Fourth of July barbeque. Maybe I was just too arrogant to ever care if I knew what the record was about. That said, wanting to say something about the album was an easy decision; both the naked glove album cover and its psychedelic spiral alternate are seared in my brain as “important” symbols of teendom. It’s a beautiful case of dramatic irony that I only now understand whybecause Is This It is an album about youthful arrogance.

I don’t necessarily mean “youthful” as in teena lot of the ideas expressed in the album stick with people well into their adulthoods. I also don’t mean “arrogance” as in your abilities (although, wouldn’t you give anything to live in the universe where the Strokes wrote “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson?”). It’s an album about growing up and going through experiences believing that your love is the first of its kind, that your vices are unconquerable, that your problems and emotions are some unique cosmic experience that people truly “ain’t ever gonna understand,” whether they be girlfriends, grandsons, or galaxy travelers. The same song giving us those words hides them under an upbeat, swingy pop-rock sound, the same way you’d hide those “unique” parts of your life. After all, no one worries about the life of the party!

That’s not to suggest this album is the band’s massive cry for help (maybe a lil whimper at most) because it’s more of an offering to any young people that might soon cry for help, only written by five men that couldn’t even legally purchase alcohol yet. It’s the confident transmissions of a group that thinks they’ve been through the wringer and come out clean on the other side, ready to share what they’ve learned. It’s a 40-minute Sermon on the Mount from a pack of teenage Jesuses (Jesi?) come to spread their gospel to the unwashed masses. (First 9/11, now a little light sacrilege. Fuck it, mask off.)

My favorite feature of Is This It is how versatile it is in the meaning of each song. Obviously, the Strokes didn’t invent thatit’s the whole reason artists rarely step out to explain the meanings behind their songsbut they do it in such a fun way that it’s easy to be their intended audience and still come away from the album with the arrogance to think the songs couldn’t possibly reflect your experiences. From the first sentence, “Soma” is pretty explicitly a song about drugs, but on a deeper level it’s about the vices you use to cope before you’ve learned to do it responsibly. Yes, sometimes that’s drugs. Sometimes it’s alcohol, or sex, or companionship, or video games, or television….or drugs (I mean, a lot of the time, it’s drugs). “The Modern Age” is about the depressive feelings you push down, pretending the vices aren’t taking a toll on you. “New York City Cops” is about the idea that they’ll never catch up to you. Addiction isn’t within your sights, you lost the cops around the corner, you can quit anytime you want to. But you don’t want to. So the one night turns to two, and two turns to five, then to nine, then to fourteen. But it’s fine, because you’re a genius, and the forces running against youthey ain’t too smart.

When Julian Casablancas isn’t crooning about outrunning your demons, he’s probably singing about fucking them; “Barely Legal” is a song about lust and how unbelievably draining it is to be on any side of it, “Hard to Explain” is about how a relationship can be brought down by complicated differences, and “Trying Your Luck” is about the heartbreak of committing to a relationship, even when you see the iceberg coming in the distance. Even “Take It Or Leave It,” the final song on the album, caps the record with a “he ain’t shit” coda that’s also a searing break-up banger for the ages (which could have easily veered into a screed about girls only wanting assholes, but that’s besides the pointthe album is good!!)

I think most people make the case that “Hard To Explain” is the best song on the album, but for my money there isn’t a better song on this album than “Someday.” It’s the one song that breaks away from hammering you down with the frustrations of youth. The frustrations are still therebut they’re stated so plainly and honestly, with the understanding that this will all be a fond memory one day. It’s a beautiful song whose lyrics don’t try to tell you it’s not a beautiful song. It’s instantly nostalgic, and sweet, and positive and real, and it’s all the feelings you may recognize in a brief period of lucidity, if you can place yourself far enough outside of your own head to recognize that things are truly gonna be better, someday.

You know what’s particularly embarrassing to me as I write more and more about this album is that every message on this album that I internalized and ignored is right there, so plain and clear, in the title trackthe track I often skipped because it wasn’t as ritzy as the rest. It’s a perfect thesis statement. It’s about working so hard to get so little, and reckoning that exchange with what older people told you to expect. “Is This It” can be pronounced with a scoff or a sigh of disappointment. You can read it as a braggadocios middle finger to everyone who said it would be hard, or as a disbelieving question levied at everyone who said it’d be the best years of your life. Often, those are the same people. And often, they’re right. Maybe you’re just too young and too arrogant to know it yet.

—Demi Adejuyigbe

#200: AC/DC, "Highway to Hell" (1979)

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When I was in junior high my best friend had an older brother who was a few years ahead of us. He was a record collector constantly seeking new sounds. One glorious hot Texas summer, we raided and digested every record he had. This turned me onto a lot of great rock music I never knew existed. It also cemented for me the concept of the “Older Brother Band,” bands that are distinctly separate from the music of your parents’ generation but not quite a part of yours. For me, Older Brother Bands included groups like Deep Purple, Pat Travers, and Montrose. My parents’ record collection was amazing. It was filled with Beatles, Stones, Dylan, etc. In other words, it was filled with the music of their youth. This collection was filled with bands I had never heard of, or at best only a slight inkling of. These records were the door I passed through on my way from the musical identity of my parents to a musical identity of my very own. An identity that was informed by many sources but distinctly and rebelliously apart from the tastes of my parents. It did not hurt that these were records that often horrified my folks.

I’m pretty sure the first band I found on the other side of the Older Brother Band bridge was AC/DC. My 8-track tape copy of “If You Want Blood” got worn away by nearly non-stop play. AC/DC is music without subtlety. It is sledgehammer music built entirely on the dark impulses of id and existing entirely below the belt buckle. Their sound is a three-headed beast delivering a rock and roll throat punch that remains mostly unrivaled even today. First there is the nearly cruelly unyielding riff-and-rhythm machine that is anchored in Malcolm Young’s deceptively simple rhythm guitar marching lockstep with the bass of Cliff Williams and the drums of Phil Rudd. Second is the genius-level blues-suffused lead work of Angus Young’s Gibson SG. It is so ferocious it fooled an entire generation into believing that an Australian blues rock band was heavy metal. The third head of the beast is frontman Bon Scott, who takes the naughty bad boy pose of Jagger, mangling it and fusing it to the raw aggression and sexuality of a Neanderthal. AC/DC does not make smart records. They don’t make nice records. The records they make are records that terrify parents and drop panties in back seats. Part of their genius is they never aspire to be more than that. They never vary from this framework. You might find them offensive and dumb but their impact cannot be denied. They do one thing, and they do it better than anyone else.

Though they had several great records under their belt already, Highway to Hell is where the AC/DC sound formula finds mastery. It is, for my money, the greatest rock record of the 70s, a decade of many amazing rock records. From dropping the needle into the groove of the title cut and picking it up at the end of “Night Prowler,” you’ve got a record that perfectly reflects the vision and intensity of its creators, an unabashed mix of violence, brute sexuality, relentless crushing riffage, and hooks that are the envy and nightmare of every Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building huckster ever to put pen to paper.

The summer Highway to Hell was released, I spent a lot of time with my best friend Jason. Highway to Hell was our record. The older brothers of our crowd also knew and loved it, but this platter of wax was ours. We found it without them. Loved it without their input or influence. Everywhere we went that summer, we dropped quarters in jukeboxes filling burger joints and arcades with the sounds of Angus, Malcolm, and Bon. At home, our turntables spun this as much as anything else. Jason passed this summer very suddenly. I feel his loss every day. No matter where I go or what I do, he’s there at some point during the day. We weaved in and out of each others' lives for somewhere near 45 years. Every great turning point in my life, my losses and my victories, were shared with him, and his with me. We were as much brothers as friends and our families were intertwined as much as we were individually.

Great records are often about many things: the art, the sound, the lyrics, the moment they are born and the climate they are created in. They are also always about who you share them with. Jason and I howled and wailed with Highway to Hell in adolescent abandon, furious, hilarious. I have revisited this record over and over since it was released in 1979. I knew when he passed that telling my story of Highway to Hell would be mixed with him. I shared so much life with this man. We often moved in and out of each others' lives for a year or two at a time. There were marriages, moves, travel and careers, all the things life brings to the table. We never lost touch. Absence was almost irrelevant. We always picked back up as if nothing had changed. Most often it was like one of us had just left the room to refill a glass and was just now back to pick up the conversation where we had left it just a minute or two earlier. So, my story of this record, like many others, is woven through with Jason, the Biscuit Boy. We shared a lot of records. This one was a departure point for finding individual style and taste independent of your influences. It is also a touchstone for a time and place that’s both long gone but never far away. I am connected to it through an unfaltering friendship that endured everything life threw at it. The raw seething power of Highway to Hell is a glorious 100 MPH thrill ride through all the things you aren’t supposed to like about the world, all the things you aren’t supposed to want to be. We got to be all of them and tell the tale unashamed.

Hey Jason, look at us, we’re on our way to the promised land!

—Bosco Farr

#201: Nine Inch Nails, "The Downward Spiral" (1994)

Malcolm kept turning around to talk to a person in the backseat who didn’t exist. He kept trying to jump out of the car from the front passenger side while we drove full-speed down the highway. Malcolm was pumped full of opiates. Malcolm did this sometimes.

Dark lines of dirt outlined where the medical tape had been on his arms. Tiny traces of white fuzz stuck to the dried blooda ghost image of bandaging. The defined veins in the ditch of his elbow were baby blue, lightened by the freebased heroinMalcolm’s go-to replacement for fluoxetine, benzodiazepine, and chlorpromazine: the typical cocktail of drugs used to treat the symptoms of dissociative disorders.

“I just have to pick up a package real quick,” Malcolm whispered to the nothingness behind him as he reached for the door handle againthe car speedometer reading 80 miles per hour.

“I swear, Malcolm, you better cut that crazy shit out,” I said.

“The door is stuck.”

“I put the child lock on; you’re fucking out of your mind right now.”  I didn’t really have too much room to talk back then; driving fast with a pint of Kentucky Deluxe Whiskey in my stomach wasn’t exactly the definition of sane logic.

Malcolm tried to roll down the window. Locked as well. “He won’t let me out,” Malcolm said to his delusion. I turned up the music so I didn’t have to listen to him mumble.

The whacking noise that opened the album was a sample of a man being beaten with a baton from the 1971 George Lucas film THX 1138. The whacking and subsequent moans started slow and then sped up on the track, a heartbeat beginning to race, before the sound exploded into a multilayered cacophony of electronic discourse, drums, synthesizer, guitaraggressive, abrasive, inescapable.  Malcolm first introduced me to the album when we were in high schoolmaybe a year after he’d been emancipated from his mother and stepfather and about six months before my grandmother would tell me it hurt her too much to watch me live.

Over the discord of instruments banging out a beat fast and loud, Trent Reznor’s lyrics pierced through: I am the bullet in the gun (and I control you) / I am the truth from which you run (and I control you) / I am the silencing machine (and I control you) / I am the end of all your dreams (and I control you).

Malcolm quieted down some in the car once his favorite album was onhis delusion unable to compete with his idol. He sank back into his seat and said the song’s title out loud: “Mr. Self Destruct.”

Malcolm’s recent trip to the hospitalwhere I’d picked him up that morningwas at the referral of a woman at a gas station who noticed the self-inflicted cuts on his forearm which spelled out “Happy.”  “Apathy” would have been more fitting, but sometimes the two seemed interchangeable.

“Can you take me back to my house?” he asked as I cracked the window now that he’d calmed from the chaos erupting from the speakers.

“I’ve told you like five times already that’s where we’re heading.”

Trent Reznor transitioned tracks with a few inharmonious, looped synthesized chords resembling the unconnected frequencies in one’s head during a panic attack. Then a brief silence cued the rhythmic song “Piggy”. Trent Reznor had recorded the entire album in the basement of the house he’d rented at the time. He always maintained he had no prior knowledge of the fact that his house was THE house where the Manson Family had slaughtered Sharon Tate and her friends and then spelled out the word PIG on the walls with Tate’s blood. The gruesome acts of the murders made Charles Manson a symbol for pure evil in America. I sometimes wondered if there was one singular symbol for evil in Malcolm’s life. His father who molested him? His stepfather who beat him? His mother who did nothing to stop the abuse? The voices he heard, which the doctors would say were trauma induced? The razor blade he clung to as therapy? The heroin in his veins? The gun he’d buy at a trade show on his 22nd birthday?

“I think I had a stinger in my past life,” Malcolm said slowly, his eyes drooped halfway shut as he pressed next on the CD player until he reached track number twelve, “Reptile”. “Like I was a wasp or a scorpion. Or a honey bee.”

I very rarely responded when Malcolm would have these conversations with himself. I just listened, the way he could surprisingly be an exceptional listener whenever I spewed out my own war stories.

“I was a honey bee. The way they sting a person and then cannot pull their barbed stingers back out without leaving behind part of their abdomen, muscles, nerves, and digestive tract. The abdominal rupture ends up killing them. That’s how I died.”

I swerved left onto his street. The dilapidated duplex, where he’d lived for the last two years right after turning 18, came into view. Once I turned the ignition off, I unlocked Malcolm’s door and we both got out. There wasn’t a feeling of relief that we’d made it safely from the dealer’s house back to Malcolm’s. There wasn’t a feeling at all. Maybe that’s why Malcolm ended up doing it. There was just the door frontits paint cracked and its frame serving as a walkway for cockroachesopening towards the downward spiral.

—Angela Morris

#202: Simon and Garfunkel, "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" (1966)

It’s taken me weeks to get started on this.

No, that’s a lie, it’s taken me months.

That’s not to say that I haven’t tried. I’ve done the usual “writerly” things: I collected a drink of some sort and positioned myself in a comfortable chair. I opened my laptop and pulled out everything that I thought about Simon and Garfunkel and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and it came to nothing. Tiny fragments of prose strung together about my love for Simon or disapproval of his over-reliance on pastoral imagery, but nothing ever “worked” in that way our MFA and PhD and NYC and community workshops told us it should.

Delete.

Start over.

So this essay won’t be about Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel or Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in most of the ways I wanted or planned. This won’t even be about me in many of the ways I wanted it to be. That’s probably a lie too.

Delete.

Start over.

This essay will be about giving up or what I imagine giving up looks like. About existing within a climate of failure or pressure to stop or, as Kanye might put it, trying to “move in a room full of no’s.” Regrettably, this is the only time I will mention Kanye in this essay.

I wish that was a lie but it’s not.

Delete.

Start over.

Writing, like music, is both created by and understood through the gestalt of our experience of it. I will never separate my first experience of Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” from the isolation of living as a missionary in Kenya for a year, thousands of miles from anyone I had called a friend. The raw vulnerability of Garfunkel’s final “Oh, I love you!” at the end of the ballad still resurfaces a loneliness so intense I can barely listen to the entire song, even though it’s just over 2 minutes long.

You may never separate your experience of this essay from the text message you just got where he tells you he’s leaving and that she makes him feel “real” for the first time in his life. You cry and keep reading because it distracts you from the other words and what they mean. You will forget everything the essay says and who the author is because none of that matters compared to the act of reading through your rage and panic and how could he do this to you? If you ever read this essay again, you will not be able to finish it for the strength of the memory attached to it.

That’s also a lie, unless it isn’t. There’s no way to know which it is.

Delete.

Start over.

In the lighter songs of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, like “Cloudy” or “Homeward Bound” or “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” Simon and Garfunkel celebrate listlessness and inactivity in a way that seems counter to their art. These are not songs about being musicians as much as they are songs about being cool or artistic or just taking a break or something. Songs about how doing nothing or escaping the need to produce can be much more desirable than creation or action. “Homeward Bound” even wishes for a “love” who “lies waiting silently for me” as a sort of catatonic object that has let go of all purpose outside of Simon/Garfunkel’s presence. The ultimate passive love for the upper middle class white man disenchanted with his toil.

But beyond the disenchantment is a longing for contentment, for an ease they don’t seem to have. In “Feelin’ Groovy” they assert (in the most positive way they can): “I’ve got no deeds to do, no promises to keep.” This unhindered, unrestricted engagement with the world seems to be the pinnacle of their inactivity. No rules. No difficulties. Just being.

Delete.

Start over.

My 2011 Master's thesis was a train wreck. There’s no other way to put it.

Living with pretty brutal OCD at that time and having an incredibly inflated ego rolled together to make the worst cycle of objective realist short stories I’ve ever born witness to. Dialogue revolved around banal topics, plots were hyper-ordinary, and character revelation arose through such minimalist avenues that it felt like I was choking my characters or readers or both. It’s hell to reread it, so I don’t.

The real fallout from this period was with my process. When I wrote with OCD, sentences had rules I couldn’t even explain and characters avoided distinguishing qualities until everyone was a vague clone of my psyche. State of mind, physical posture, even the place where I chose to write, hundreds of rules that I’m still unpacking years after finally shaking the OCD. How do you write when your process was built around a mental illness you no longer have?

I still don’t really know the answer to this question.

Delete.

Start over.

In many ways, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme is an album that wrestles with giving up. In a context of war and the backlash against the Civil Rights movement and Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar and giving acoustic folk the finger, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sat down and made a record that at times feels more like a collection of Wordsworth’s poems than a protest album. The first song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” was even largely based on a traditional English folk ballad. Of course, Simon and Garfunkel counterpoint the 17th-ish century vocals with lyrics about soldiers polishing guns, killing, and fighting in a war that they no longer understand, but the instrumental and lyrical cores remain mostly intact.

On their own, the traditional lyrics are steeped in inevitability and failure. In them, the singer instructs a former lover to complete a series of impossible tasks: making a cambric shirt without sewing, reaping a field with a leather sickle, and finding land floating between water and sand. Once these are done, she will be his true love again. The counterpoint lyrics are similar, but take an opposite approach to inevitability. Simon and Garfunkel don’t describe impossible tasks for the soldiers but tasks they wish were impossible, and America becomes the former true love who lost our trust through abuse and warmongering. The civic relationship is as dead as the romantic one.

Delete.

Start over.

After 20+ years and two and a half degrees worth of working on my fiction, I gave up on writing entirely this year. Why doesn’t matter.

That’s a lie: why is all that matters even though I can’t exactly tell you what the why is anymore. I can only gesture around me at something off in the distance or in the next room or the basement of the building or inside me. At feelings like the desire to vomit and a sadness that settles into your marrow. Words like juxtaposition, ontology, and brick. Synesthetic groans. Oceans of profanity. Gestalt.

Maybe it was the years of slogging through workshops where I couldn’t explain why my writing was so bad because I didn’t even recognize the OCD, followed by years of rebuilding my brain and self with even more bad writing. Maybe it was having no one to tell me “Yes” about my writing during the time when I needed that the most. Maybe I’m just realizing that this was never really my thing. Regardless, I am an empty vessel. I feel the wind reverberate through my opening. I hum as it passes me by.

Simon and Garfunkel describe this in “Patterns”:

Like the color of my skin,
Or the day that I grow old,
My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled.

Or maybe this all has more to do with Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill and that boulder always rolling back down the moment he gets it to the top. Sisyphus remains determined to keep going no matter how pointless his task becomes. Albert Camus even calls him an absurdist hero for his relentless existence.

But what if he doesn’t keep rolling that boulder? I know the myth, I know he has to, but what if he doesn’t anyway? When does the boulder and hill become so a part of his essence that he could leave Hades and wander around Greece and still be watching that boulder tumble back down?

Friends might say, “Look, Sis, you got out of there, right? You aren’t stuck trying to get that boulder up that hill anymore. Everything is better.”

Or, “C’mon, Phus, you’re a good boulder roller. You can roll a boulder any time you want even if you aren’t in Hades.”

And he’ll smile and drink his coffee and never be sure which parts are lies and which parts are true.

Delete.

Start over.

Giving up isn’t always an easy prospect. I was once given a model car at a Christmas party. I opened the box and read the instructions and fully intended to put it together, but I never went to the store to buy the paint or the glue, so the car stayed in pieces in its box. Even long after my connection to the gift-giver had faded to the smallest of dots on the horizon, I avoided throwing it away because I hoped I would finish something I had never started. I kept the car because giving up the car was giving up a part of myself that I didn’t want to see die, as melodramatic as that may sound. I would cut off a possible future, however small, for myself if the car went in the trash or I gave it to someone else, and I resisted my limitations. I’ve seen this melodrama play out a million different ways in myself and others, but the motivation is always the same: fear of limited identity.

Simon and Garfunkel resisted their limitations as well, though in a more significant way. They resisted the impending changes to music brought on by Bob Dylan in their song “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission).” Mocking Dylan’s trademark sound and style, they unintentionally produced one of the most dynamic and interesting tracks on the album. They resisted narrow definitions of art in “A Poem on the Underground Wall” where a man spray-paints profanity on a subway wall and runs away, describing this event with an elevated language that clashes with the vulgar punk aesthetic of the graffiti. They resisted high art replacing human connection in “The Dangling Conversation,” a song that sometimes reproduces the elitism that it seeks to critique through its name dropping and diction. They resisted and resisted even though they admit that fighting the tide and making change is rare, if it’s even possible at all.

Or, as they say in “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall”:

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.

I threw the car away several years ago. I haven’t even thought about building a model car since.

Delete.

Start over.

Simon and Garfunkel eventually called it quits as a duo for the usual reasons. Simon became a hugely successful solo artist and Garfunkel sort of acted for a while and they both eventually got back together and toured and made more money than any of us will see in our lifetimes. But in the midst of their careers, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme sits as a sort of nucleus. At times equal parts melodically rich and artistically pretentious, it is beautiful and dated, irrelevant and timeless, light and sad, postmodern and formalist. Like its final track “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” which layers news reports over the Christmas song “Silent Night,” it’s a series of conceptual and musician pairings that can be clumsily obvious and incredibly profound. It is an album I love as much as it irritates me, one I never and always listen to. A boulder and a hill. Simon and Garfunkel.

Delete.

Stop.

It’s possible I’ve lied again.

Maybe I still managed to talk about Simon and Garfunkel in some of the ways I’d hoped. Maybe something crept out of me that I needed to say about myself.

Maybe I can dig that car out of the trash.

Or maybe that’s also a lie. There’s no way to know which it is.

—Josiah Meints

#203: Michael Jackson, "Bad" (1987)

There’s a meme where a guy dressed as an alien with a giant, bug-eyed head is chasing someone down a street. The caption says, “Me asking everyone I meet for their birth details so I can find out their chart.” I’m definitely that person. I’m not an astrologer by any means, but I do find it fascinating. I see at it as a way to look deeper at aspects of the personality. I find it usually leads to questions we already have or insights we already suspect about ourselves.

My friend Erin says that she’s never known anyone more proud of their sign than a Virgo. I’m sure many signs would disagree, but for me, it’s true. Besides the fact that I’ve been known to hashtag #Virgopower, or that I’m honored to share a sign with Beyoncé, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, Sean Connery, and Nas—just to name a few—when it came time to write about Bad, the first thing that came to mind was that the album is also a Virgo, born on August 31, 1987, two days after the birthday of Michael Jackson (born August 29th, 1958). There’s some speculation about his time of birth, but the prevailing theory is that it was 7:33 p.m., making his rising sign Pisces, same as his Moon sign.

If you go with that, it’s likely that his energy was a constant push-pull. Six signs apart, Virgo and Pisces are considered polar opposites. Virgo is usually typecast as the perfectionist: analytical, organized, conscientious, contemplative, and hard-working. Pisces is thought of as the daring, artistic, creative, intuitive, soul-searching free-spirit. Think of Beyoncé (Virgo) and Rihanna (Pisces). The relationship between these signs signifies the duality between control and escape. Astrologers believe that your sun sign is your identity, who you believe yourself to be, while your rising sign is what you show to the world, and your moon sign reflects your emotions, your inner mood. A prevailing theory is that anyone of any sign might do well to try to embody the astrological traits of your polar opposite. Still, none of this really matters unless you decide it does. That’s the magic of astrology—free will.

As with anything complex, astrology is often misunderstood, especially when trying to boil someone down to one aspect of a much larger puzzle. Just as easily as we brand someone with the character traits we think they might have based on their astrological sign, so we think we understand artists based on what they show to the world.

Many critical references to Michael share the undercurrent of extreme duality one could assume in his astrological makeup—shyness vs. gregariousness, masculine vs. feminine, the push/pull between tension and escape, wanting to be understood and accepted, and longing to be left alone. Good vs., well, Bad.

As Michael experimented creatively, writing nine out of the eleven tracks on Bad, his public persona appeared more and more theatrical—expressed in the paranoia of “Leave Me Alone,” and “Dirty Diana,” the groupie tale, the prayer for evolution of “Man in the Mirror,” and the bravado and machismo of “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” “Leave Me Alone” in particular—the psychedelic video for which won a Grammy—addressed the myth of Michael and the rumors that plagued him, like the stories that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber and that he wanted to buy the bones of the Elephant Man. There was a widely-held belief that his increasingly changing physical look—which he attributed to weight loss, diet, and diagnoses of Lupus and Vitiligo—and plastic surgery, meant he wanted to be white. Joseph Vogel, author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, writing in The Atlantic, says, “This was the ominous undercurrent beginning to swirl around Jackson and it had an impact on both his own psyche and that of the public (particularly in the U.S.). The tension between control and liberation or escape percolates throughout the Bad album and its accompanying music videos.”

The dichotomy and distance between what Michael gave to the world and what he kept for himself, his inner world, grew as his fame and success eclipsed every entertainer, and especially black entertainers, who had come before him. Of Michael’s trajectory, author James Baldwin said, “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…”

The term Wacko Jacko, which tabloids began to use in the 1980s, may have had some basis in some of his stranger behavior, but there’s no denying that its origins are racist, as the term came from a reference to a British slang word for monkeys, which has long held derogatory meaning for blacks. Vogel writes, Like Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” scene in Invisible Man, it was a process by which to reduce Michael Jackson the human being and artist, to ‘Jacko’ the minstrelized spectacle for avaricious amusement. (It is significant to note that, while the term was used widely by the white media, it was rarely, if ever used by black journalists.)”

Watching the “Bad” video as a kid, I most vividly remember his transformation into the leather-clad dancer strutting his stuff in the train station with his boys, so different from the suave Michael reclining with a tiger cub in a white suit on the cover of Thriller in the poster on my wall. I had no idea how different he already was, or what the racial and societal implications really were, except for hearing my dad lament the loss of the blackness of Michael’s original nose. Rewatching as an adult—impressed by the fact that it was directed by Martin Scorsese!—I’m struck by the sincerity in his acting as a city kid with a ticket to prep school. Once he’s off the Metro North train and back on the block with his boys—among them Wesley Snipes, no less—it’s clear he’s no longer at home with them, either. He belongs nowhere, really. Through that lens the transition into the epic choreography doesn’t feel so much like the incredible dance sequence I remembered loving as a kid. It feels like the artist’s way of revealing his fight to understand himself after such a long absence in his prime and distance from the fans that made him famous—five years since the success of Thriller, long having eclipsed his brothers in the Jackson 5. Also striking is its thread to our current racial climate: both the song and video for “Bad”were inspired by outrage at the death of Edward Perry, a black prep school student killed by a police officer in NYC in 1985.

Despite its commercial success, artistically, Bad may have just embodied a few too many Virgo characteristics to please its detractors. Critics felt it was too stylistically polished, Michael’s way of trying to recreate the success of Thriller. They thought “Bad” wanted to be “Beat It,” and “Dirty Diana” wanted to recreate the power of “Billie Jean.” They also thought Michael was trying to out-Prince Prince. Referencing “Dirty Diana,” writer John Tatlock called Jackson, “a boy-child trying to write a song about the kind of woman he never meets in the kind of places he’s certainly never been to.”

“Bad” was supposed to be a duet between Michael and Prince. Can you imagine that? Perhaps if they’d worked together, Prince’s Gemini sun and Michael’s Virgo sun would have created something special. Astrologically, Virgo and Gemini share a ruler in the planet Mercury, thought to be connected to the mind and rational thought. In Vibe, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson says, “I have an actual theory on why we started connecting Michael and Prince together early on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both were born in the summer of 1958 in the Midwest and both basically represent different phases of the coming-of-age life of black youth. Michael captured the imagination of post civil-rights America as a youth and he was their guiding light. And Prince captured the same post-civil rights America when they became teenagers and helped them mature into adulthood.” Prince’s former tour manager Alan Leeds suggests that the characteristics,  differences, and mutual respect the two shared that might have made for great music didn’t leave space for collaboration. “But the thing about Michael coming to Prince and wanting him to do ‘Bad,’ that really pissed him off. Prince was like, ‘Oh, he wants to punk me out on record. Who does he think I am, crazy?’ He couldn’t get outside himself enough to realize that it was the kind of thing that probably could have benefited both of them. Still, it would have forever been Michael’s video with Prince as just a guest. So that captured what the relationship couldn’t be. They were like Ali vs. Frazier. And the media couldn’t get enough of pitting these guys against each other. In the same article, writer Cynthia Horner captures what makes their mythology so alluring. “One of the reasons why we still care about Michael and Prince is because we will never know everything we want to know about them. They both understood the power of mystique,” she says.

The mystique and myth of Michael became increasingly harder to come to terms with as he dealt with the scrutiny and aftermath of his very public molestation trial. Writer Joyce Mason says, “Although he was found not guilty on all charges in his 2005 child molestation trial, he remained a symbol...of the Radical Virgo struggle to synthesize the extremes of sexual innocence and corruption.”

Karen Wink, in Pop Matters, says, “He became a figure in a myth that he (or we) did not expect to become real. In fact, we love our myths, those stories a culture believes as truth; tales that express the deepest truths of ourselves; tales mixing imagination and facts. And we do not like our myths to die.” She goes on to say, “As we sat in Jackson’s audiences, most of us experienced catharsis via his joy and pain: we exalted in his extraordinary entertainment, pitied his longing for a childhood, became mortified at his outrageous acts, then feared his demise. The myth was reflexive—standing on opposite sides of a mirror, we and he mythologized in likeness, constructing a superhuman place for him to live and for us to travel vicariously.”

Like Wink says about our voyeurism of Michael, we like stories we can believe, stories that express our truths, mixing imagination and facts. It’s exciting to have potential to reach for in our shared experiences.

What I enjoy about astrology is its promise. I like finding out someone’s rising sign, getting their chart details, because it means there’s a possibility of connection beyond what we already know or feel. We can connect to the positive traits of astrology just like we connect to the parts of the myths and mystique of our artists that suit us. But what about the parts of them that line up with the traits we don’t like? The ugly ones? The ones we hide? It would be easy to just associate with the positive qualities, but to do so would be disingenuous. Perhaps we should task ourselves with understanding the whole.

—Lee Erica Elder

#204: Bob Dylan, "Modern Times" (2006)

The good poet wields his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.

            -      T. S. Eliot

Wait, I’m deciding to be my own individual self, and it looks nothing like what anyone else is doing.

            -      Alicia Keys

Modern Times, Dylan’s thirty-first studio record and his third straight masterwork1 // is musically intricate, thick, and expertly played2. // Everything about this album is better than the two that came before3 // As usual, it's verbose4. // Dylan pours out verse after verse—aphorisms and parables, jokes and laments, valentines and metaphysical musings—over loose-limbed vamps from his excellent touring band5. // He snickers to himself, cooing about love, God, and doing it6. // He's 65 years old now and he ain't slowin' down7. // It’s clear that Bob Dylan’s life has been defined by his desire to break away from a contemporary context8. // Bob doesn't use the blues any more—he is the blues9.

//

I rolled and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long10, // wife and child back in Nantucket11, // blues this mornin’ fallin’ down like hail12, // beady black eyes following the nervous movements of13 // an army, some tough sons of bitches14 // carryin’ a dead man’s shield15. // There is a wisdom that grows up in strife16; // I’ll just slaughter ‘em where they lie17. // Ahab’s lust for vengeance18 // can’t explain the sources of this hidden pain19. // No one can ever claim / that I took up arms against you20. // I’m a thousand times happier than I could ever say21.

//

I wrote these songs in not a meditative state at all, but more like in a trancelike, hypnotic state22. // I knew this time it wouldn’t be futile writing something I really love and thought dearly of, and then gettin’ in the studio and having it be beaten up and whacked around23. // This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man24. // This is how I feel? Why do I feel like that? And who’s the me that feels this way?25 // When you play with guys a hundred times a year, you know what you can and can’t do26. // On this record, I ain’t nowhere, you can’t find me anywhere27. // I felt freed up to do just about anything I pleased28.

//

Will you call the doctor please?29 // Explain / the sources of that hidden pain30. // I’m touched with desire31: // mass media, commercial art, celebrities, consumer product packaging, comic strips, and advertising32. // I can’t eat all that stuff in a single bite33. // (But you have heard of them.)34 // For the love of God35, // there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones36. // Living this way ain’t a natural thing to do37. // Take pity on yourself38. // Tell the truth39. // We all wear the same thorny crown40.

//

ALL SONGS WRITTEN BY BOB DYLAN41 // bear some strong echoes to the poems of Timrod, a Charleston native who wrote poems about the Civil War and died in 1867 at the age of 3842. // Bob is not authentic at all43. // To discover that Bob has passed someone elses work off as his own is very disappointing44. // He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake45. // Bob really is a thieving little swine46. // This is, of course, not the first time that Dylan has faced charges of borrowing47. // This is really beyond the pale48. // Is it part of the “folk process” to lift a few specific metaphors or phrases whole from someone else’s work? I really don’t think it is49. // I wish I could trust it50. // Everything about Bob is a deception51.

//

You ever seen a ghost? No52. // The idea is that you hear the old songs53, // play them in the right time, in the right order, and fate is revealed54 // all across the peaceful sacred fields55. // I cannot believe these things could fade from your mind56. // I’ve been sitting down studying57 // fantasy worlds, religious mysticism, and ambiguous subject matter58. // (Maybe he’s just sitting a spell, catching his breath.)59 // I see all that I am and all I hope to be60. // Those are the only two things in the world, a duality that needs no explaining61. // I can’t go to paradise no more62.

//

Everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me63. // Sometimes what Dylan has done with material from other sources is witty, crafty, and sly64. // ALL SONGS WRITTEN BY BOB DYLAN65. // And if you think it’s so easy … do it yourself and see how far you can get66. // Other times it’s just sloppy67. // Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff68. // But to narrow the Dylan/Timrod phenomenon … into a story of possible plagiarism is to confuse, well, art with a term paper69. // All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell70.

//

I’m wondering where in the world71 // perfect proportion and logic instead of emotion72 // could be73. // Alicia Keys74 // (one of the loveliest creatures in the world of women)75 // encounters other whaling vessels76, // which, ere they feel a lover’s breath, / lie in a temporary death77. // We want to compete abroad78 // where wisdom grows up in strife79, // deprive them of their highly comforting sense of doom80. // I killed a man back there—81 // a non-Christian at that—82 // beyond the horizon right down to the bone83. // I felt transient joys84, // an angel’s kiss85, // 1,000 years of happiness86. // I can’t help it if I’m lucky87

//

When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature…88 // steal a little they throw you in jail, / steal a lot they make you king89. // “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Dylan would later remember. “It’s just this sense that you’ve got something to say.”90 // I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy91. // His singular, identifiable American voice is actually an amalgam of the voices of so many others92. // But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors93. // Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, … more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site94. // That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words95. // This key to the preceding essay names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I “wrote.”96 // Modern Times is probably Dylan’s least-surprising release in decades97. // ALL SONGS WRITTEN BY BOB DYLAN98.

//

If it keep on rainin’, the levee gonna break;99 // I ain’t gonna touch another100 // round of precious hours. / Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked / and strove, with logic frailer than the flowers101, // I’ve been in a brawl102. // When you’re with me103 // every nook and cranny has its tears104. // Shame on your greed, shame on your105 // thousand and one subtle ramifications106. // I’ve been conjuring up107, // more frailer than the flowers, these precious hours108. // Someone hit me from behind109. // The world has gone black before my eyes110. // I can hear a lover’s breath. / I sleep … / sleep is like a temporary death111. // But someday baby112 // I’m gonna wring your neck113. // You ain’t gonna worry po’ me any more114. // You will sort of understand115, // the gardener is gone116. // We can have a whoppin’ good time117.

1 Joe Levy, “Bob Dylan: Modern Times,” Rolling Stone, August 14, 2006

2 Amanda Petrusich, “Bob Dylan: Modern Times Album Review,” Pitchfork, August 29, 2006

3 El_Goodo, “Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Album Review),” Sputnik Music, September 1, 2006

4 Jody Rosen, “Bob Dylan’s Make-Out Album,” Slate, August 30, 2006

5 ibid.

6 Amanda Petrusich, “Bob Dylan: Modern Times Album Review,” Pitchfork, August 29, 2006

7 Robert Forster, “Modern Times and Times Before That,” The Monthly, October, 2006

8 Steven Hyden, “Bob Dylan’s Modern Times,” A.V. Club, February 14, 2012

9 Sean O’Hagan, “Bob Dylan, Modern Times,” Guardian, September 16, 2006

10 Bob Dylan, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” Modern Times; or, Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (1929)

11 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2017); or, SparkNotes, “Moby-Dick”

12 Bob Dylan, “Nettie Moore,” Modern Times

13 Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One (2003); or, Sax Rohmer, Dope (1919)

14 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

15 Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’,” Modern Times

16 Henry Timrod, “Retirement” (circa 1860); compare to Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” Modern Times (see footnote 79)

17 Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’,” Modern Times

18 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2017); or, SparkNotes, “Moby-Dick”

19 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times; compare to Henry Timrod, “Two Portraits” (circa 1860) (see footnote 30)

20 Ovid, Tristia (circa 8 A.D.); compare to “No one can ever claim / That I took up arms against you” by Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Modern Times

21 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times

22 Bob Dylan, qtd. in Jonathan Lethem’s “The Genius and Modern Times of Bob Dylan,” Rolling Stone, September 7, 2006

23 ibid.

24 ibid.

25 ibid.

26 ibid.

27 ibid.

28 ibid.

29 Bob Dylan, “Little Buddy,” a handwritten poem he wrote at age 13 (1944); or, Hank Snow’s “Little Buddy” (1947)

30 Henry Timrod, “Two Portraits” (circa 1860) (see footnote 19)

31 Bob Dylan, “Beyond the Horizon,” Modern Times

32 Bob Dylan, “Foreword,” The Beaten Path (2016); or, “Pop Art,” Glossary of Art Terms by the New Orleans Museum of Art

33 Bob Dylan, “Nettie Moore,” Modern Times

34 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times

35 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

36 Ovid, Tristia (circa 8 A.D.); compare to “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones,” by Bob Dylan, “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” Modern Times

37 Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby,” Modern Times

38 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

39 Adam Peterson, “#292: Bob Dylan & The Band, ‘The Basement Tapes,’” The RS500 (2016)

40 Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” Modern Times

41 Bob Dylan, Liner Notes, Modern Times

42 Motoko Rich, “Who’s This Guy Dylan Who’s Borrowing Lines from Henry Timrod?,” New York Times, September 14, 2006

43 Joni Mitchell, Interview with Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2010

44 Mister.Jones, “Many Lines in Chronicles are from Time Magazine” Discussion Forum, expectingrain.com, April 28, 2009

45 Joni Mitchell, Interview with Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2010

46 Harvey, Discussion Forum, Dylan Pool

47 News Desk, “Boots of Spanish Leather: Bob Dylan and Stealing,” New Yorker, September 30, 2011

48 supermabel1, “Many Lines in Chronicles are from Time Magazine” Discussion Forum, expectingrain.com, May 13, 2009

49 Suzanne Vega, “The Ballad of Henry Timrod,” New York Times, September 26, 2006

50 Paul Haney, “Need a Lift: Modern Times,” Dylan Hypothesis, September 6, 2016

51 Joni Mitchell, Interview with Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2010

52 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times

53 Adam Peterson, “#292: Bob Dylan & The Band, ‘The Basement Tapes’ (1975),” The RS500 (2016)

54 Brad Shoup, “#303: Bob Dylan, ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1967),” The RS500 (2016)

55 Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Modern Times

56 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times; compare to “Can’t believe these things would ever fade from your mind” by Ovid, Black Sea Letters (circa 8 A.D.)

57 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

58 Bob Dylan, “Foreword,” The Beaten Path (2016); or, “Symbolist,” Glossary of Art Terms by the New Orleans Museum of Art

59 John Gregory Brown, “#410: Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997),” TheRS500 (2015)

60 Bob Dylan, “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” Modern Times

61 Constance Squires, “#385: Bob Dylan, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001),” The RS500 (2015)

62 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times

63 Bob Dylan, Interview with Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan Unleashed, Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012

64 Scott Warmuth, “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One” (2008)

65 Bob Dylan, Liner Notes, Modern Times

66 Bob Dylan, Interview with Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan Unleashed, Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012

67 Scott Warmuth, “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One” (2008)

68 Bob Dylan, Interview with Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan Unleashed Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012

69 Robert Polito, “Bob Dylan: Henry Timrod Revisited,” Poetry Foundation, October 6, 2006

70 Bob Dylan, Interview with Mikal Gilmore, “Bob Dylan Unleashed Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012

71 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

72 Bob Dylan, “Foreword,” The Beaten Path (2016); or, “Classical,” Glossary of Art Terms by the New Orleans Museum of Art

73 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

74 ibid.

75 Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (2003); or, Robert Louis Stevenson, “Providence and the Guitar” (circa 1880)

76 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature (2016); or, SparkNotes, “Moby-Dick”

77 Henry Timrod, “Two Portraits” (circa 1860); compare to Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2” (see footnote 111)

78 Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Modern Times

79 Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” Modern Times; compare to Henry Timrod, “Retirement” (circa 1860) (see footnote 16)

80 Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (2003); or, “The Anatomy of Angst,” Time Magazine, March 31, 1961

81 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times

82 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2017); or, SparkNotes, “Moby-Dick”

83 Bob Dylan, “Beyond the Horizon,” Modern Times

84 Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” Modern Times

85 Bob Dylan, “Beyond the Horizon,” Modern Times

86 Bob Dylan, “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” Modern Times

87 Darius Rucker, et al. “Only Wanna Be with You,” Cracked Rear View (1995); or, Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind,” Blood on the Tracks (1974)

88 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2017)

89 Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You,” Infidels (1983)

90 Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012); this quote was later found to have been fabricated, leading to the book being recalled

91 Bob Dylan, “Banquet Speech” for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2016)

92 Scott Warmuth, “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2003)”

93 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2017)

94 Andrea Pitzer, “Did Bob Dylan Take from SparkNotes for His Nobel Lecture?,” Slate, June 13, 2017

95 Bob Dylan, Lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2016 (2017)

96 Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” Harper’s, February, 2007

97 Amanda Petrusich, “Bob Dylan: Modern Times Album Review,” Pitchfork, August 29, 2006

98 Bob Dylan, Liner Notes, Modern Times

99 Bob Dylan, “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” Modern Times; compare to “If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break” by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)

100 Bob Dylan, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” Modern Times

101 Henry Timrod, “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night,”(circa 1860); compare to Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down” (see footnote 108)

102 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water, Modern Times

103 ibid.

104 Ovid, Tristia (circa 8 A.D.); compare to “Every nook and corner had its tears” by Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’,” Modern Times

105 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

106 Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (2003); or, Jack London, Children of the Frost

107 Bob Dylan, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” Modern Times

108 Bob Dylan, “When the Deal Goes Down,” Modern Times; compare to Henry Timrod, “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night” (circa 1860 (see footnote 101)

109 Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’,” Modern Times

110 Bob Dylan, “Nettie Moore,” Modern Times

111 Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Modern Times; compare to Henry Timrod’s “Two Portraits” (circa 1860) (see footnote 77)

112 Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby,” Modern Times; compare to “Someday baby, you ain’t gonna word my mind anymore” by Sleepy John Estes, “Someday Baby Blues” (1935)

113 Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby,” Modern Times

114 Bob Dylan, “Someday Baby,” Modern Times; compare to “Someday baby, you ain’t gonna word my mind anymore” by Sleepy John Estes, “Someday Baby Blues” (1935)

115 Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Modern Times

116 Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’,” Modern Times

117 Bob Dylan, “Spirit on the Water,” Modern Times

—Paul Haney

#205: Cream, "Wheels of Fire" (1968)

When I lived in Hong Kong, I listened to a podcast called “Analyze Phish” starring Harris Wittels1 and Scott Aukerman2. Each episode, Harris would play different songs by the band Phish3 in the hope that Scott would eventually grow to love the band. Harris would employ different tactics, and on two occasions even took Scott to live shows. However, you always got the sense Harris would never succeed.

This podcast spoke to me.

I thought it would be fun to create a podcast based on a similar concept, and approached my friend and colleague Martin.

The subsequent podcast we created was entitled “A Fistful of Faceful4,” and the premise was that I, as the host, would expose Martin to various genres of heavy metal music in the attempt to get him to listen to it on his own time. Martin’s taste in music is drastically different from my own5.

The first episode was basically an exploration into the history of Heavy Metal, and of course, it’s difficult to pinpoint6, but Cream is where I should have began7.

Cream started with Ginger Baker8. He had been a member of Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization, along with bass player Jack Bruce9. He wanted to start a new band with Eric Clapton10.

While Clapton was receptive, he agreed to join on the condition that Jack Bruce would be their bass player. Baker conceded11. They started out as the Cream, since they were the cream of the crop, and later dropped the “The.” The band lasted for 2 years12, from 1966 to 1968, and released the following albums: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears13, Wheels of Fire14, and Goodbye15.

They are considered to be one of the first “Super Groups” and would go on to influence countless bands and genres of music16.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and are listed at 67 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, 61 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and 16 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock17.



1 Harris Wittels was a stand-up comic who wrote for Parks and Recreation, Eastbound and Down, and The Sarah Silverman Program. He also was a regular contributor to various podcasts. He was a dedicated Phish fan, having seen over a hundred shows. I also somewhat commiserated with his plight, as my favorite band is Sleep and I’ve been trying to get people to listen to their magnum opus “Dopesmoker,” a sixty-two-minute song, for years. That’s neither here nor there, though. Sadly, Harris passed away from a drug overdose in 2015. He discusses his addiction in an incredible interview with Pete Holmes on the podcast “You Made It Weird.” I highly recommend listening to it. Rest in peace, Harris.

2 Scott Aukerman wrote for Mr. Show, co-created and directs episodes of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, and hosts a podcast/TV show called Comedy Bang! Bang!. He is also married to Kulap Vilaysack. Yes, I would kill to be like him; we’re talking Faustian contracts and shit.

3 I too was into Phish when I was in high school. I remember we were coming back from a retreat (a bonding trip for the freshmen class). Waiting for the bus, I was lying on the grass by the luggage reading The Tao of Pooh and listening to “David Bowie”. The lyrics are just “David Bowie” and “UB40.” It’s like fucking Yeats... it would be another four years until a girl spoke to me. I just texted my mom and asked if she remembered when I played Phish during car rides. I don’t know how, but she remembered the lyrics “Wash your feet and drive me to Firenze” from the song “You Enjoy Myself.” This is a mondegreen (meaning the lyrics are mistakenly heard to be something else). Usually when I ask her about music (during car rides now—I don’t drive; it’s a long story—she lets me put on Ozzy’s Boneyard) she replies “This sounds like Castlevania or Metroid.” I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid. This probably explains a lot too.

4 Knock yourself out: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/a-fistful-of-faceful/id721681338?mt=2

5 We did an episode called “A Faceful of Fistful” in which Martin, a very meek British intellectual, tried to persuade me to listen to some of his music. This included the Kooks, Tim Minchin, and Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip.

6 There really isn’t a patient zero of heavy metal music, and attributions are given and taken away haphazardly. In fact, when you think of it, the various genres and subgenres of music are pretty much solely created so lists like this one can exist. Nerds love statistics and lists. It’s the reason why there were Congressional hearings about steroids in baseball, and people couldn’t care less about steroids in football. It’s cool, though, I can say that since I’m also a nerd about statistics and trivia. There’s a video of me on YouTube where I list the last fifty years of Best Picture/Best Director Oscar winners while blindfolded.

7 We spent a lot of time talking about Blue Cheer’s album Vincebus Eruptum being the first metal album (recorded in ‘67, released in ‘68) but mostly because I was fascinated by their manager Owsley Stanley. On his Wiki entry it says known for: Acid, Wall of Sound. I mean, Black Sabbath is the first metal band, end of story. Some people will talk about Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Sir Lord Baltimore, Jimi Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge, Led Zeppelin, MC5, the Stooges, Arthur Brown, but they’re wrong. It’s Black Sabbath. Cream laid the groundwork for heavy metal, though, since their first two albums were released in ’66 and ’67.

8 So, until I watched a documentary about him, all I really knew of Ginger Baker was that he was the drummer for Cream. I have memories of me and my friend Alex, who were acting in a high school production of a German Expressionist play The Firebugs, taunting our friend Jake, who was drumming for the concurrent musical Godspell, by calling him Ginger. Then, I saw the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. In the opening minute, he attacks the interviewer with his cane. He’s definitely one of the most influential drummers of all time and an incredible character. He pioneered using double bass drums, lived in Nigeria and drove across the Sahara, drum-battled Elvin Jones, Phil Seaman, and Art Blakey, and incorporated jazz and African rhythms into rock music. While people will argue about Keith Moon and John Bonham being the greatest of all time, you must include Baker in this list or put him at the top. In 2005, he made about five million dollars for Cream’s four-gig reunion and spent the money importing twenty plus horses since he’s a polo enthusiast. Currently, he lives in South Africa in a compound and currently has both health and financial difficulties.

9 Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker had a contentious relationship, to say the least. As Bruce began to sing more, and switched from upright bass to bass guitar, the problems increased. At one point, during their tenure in the Graham Bond Organization, Baker thought Bruce was playing during a drum solo, so he “offloaded a right hander on him,” then proceeded to stomp Bruce while he was down, pulled a knife, and kicked him out of the band. (See footnote 11). You might say the fact they managed to work together again, and last for two years/four albums as Cream, is a miracle. Bruce is heralded as one of the great bass players and singers of all time whose influence is profound. He’s responsible for changing the perception of bass guitar as a lead instrument. Since Cream, he played with a ton of musicians both as a session player and band member. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 from liver disease. Rest in peace, Jack.

10 There’s a famous photo of a dog urinating on graffiti which reads “Clapton is God.” Initially, when I thought of writing this piece, it was going to be from a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a fictional journalist named Herol McCatee who was given unprecedented access to the recording of Wheels of Fire. He would have spent his time chain-smoking Marb Reds and writing something that began with “God is crying,” about Clapton’s slow unraveling due to the stress of mediating the fighting between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. There’s really nothing new to write here about Eric Clapton. Although it’s interesting to note that when he left Cream, he formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood; during practice one day, Ginger just showed up, sat in, and became the drummer. That must have suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked for Clapton. Of course, he’s done alright since then.

11 Clapton is God > Threatening someone at knife point.

12 They disbanded primarily due to infighting between Baker and Bruce, but also because they began using Marshall amplifiers which cranked the volume to 11, and made it difficult to play as a cohesive unit at that decibel level. According to Clapton, one time he stopped playing, and neither Bruce nor Baker noticed.

13 A malapropism for derailleur gears on a racing bike. The guy was thinking about Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. You might be wondering “wait a second—who’s this titan that throws around words like mondegreen and malapropism?” I teach English. I spend all of my time reading/grading papers like this one: http://www.thers500.com/albums/215-new-york-dolls-new-york-dolls-1973/

14 Tom Dowd was one of the engineers on Wheels of Fire. He worked on the Manhattan Project after high school. He was going to get a degree in nuclear physics but was unable to use the classified research he had done in the army. Instead of pursuing this career, he went into music and became a pioneer of multi-track recording and helping to develop/record some of the greatest music of the 20th century. Felix Papalardi produced Wheels of Fire. He would later found and play bass in the Cream-influenced band Mountain. He was shot and killed by his wife, Gail, who was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. Wheels of Fire became the first platinum-selling double album. The first LP consists of studio recordings, while the second is live. Best well-known off of the first album is the song “White Room,” written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown; they also wrote Cream’s most famous song “Sunshine of Your Love.” This may have also been a bone of contention between Bruce and Baker since Bruce/Brown got the lion’s share of songwriting royalties for Cream’s hits. Lyrics/Melody = $. Drums count as arrangements, which do not constitute royalties. “Toad,” a composition by Baker, is probably the first example of what would be one of the earliest recorded rock drum solos. Martin Scorsese used this track in the film Casino, when Joe Pesci tortures a guy and puts his head in a vice. “Crossroads,” originally by Robert Johnson (about a man selling his soul to the devil for music glory—see footnote 2) gives Clapton the opportunity to showcase his guitar playing and make a case for the dog-urinated-on-graffiti. Also, see footnote 10.

15 Just to give you a heads up of how good this band was, three out of the four albums they recorded made the RS500 list.

16 Too many to name here.

17 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZVdR19E5mU

—Andrew Davie

#206: Prince, "Dirty Mind" (1980)

He received a postcard in the mail whose message read:

I haven’t written in far too long,
and for that I apologize

nothing more, no address or name, but he knew Thea’s handwriting so he waited a day then met her next sunrise at the pier.

“How many mornings have you been coming here?”

“This is the first,” she said.

“No way.” Larkin thought about that. “The postmark was three days ago.”

“Oh, I know you,” because it was true, he had waited a day: he’d studied the glossy photograph of the port on the postcard’s front and the loops in Thea’s t’s and h’s and f’s on its back. Purchased at a gift shop not far from where they sat. “And surprise surprise, we missed the sunrise.”

But they were seeing each other again in new morning’s light, in this familiar spot, where the ghosts of fishermen yawn with the sea breeze and the gulls squawk over fish wrappers in the trash bins. Larkin presented Thea with one of the twin iced coffees he’d acquired.

“How you like it,” because some things won’t change. She met his eyes as if to defy him, as if to say she had changed and no longer took it black with sugar—until she accepted the plastic cup, pulleying her stare from Larkin’s eyes to the sweating drink in her hands.

“Thank you,” she said. Had she changed her hair? Or did Larkin not remember how it once was, how it fell against a pillow.

“It’s astounding we haven’t run into each other,” he said, “in the neighborhood,” and so wondered if indeed she hasn’t been here this whole time.

Thea produced a flask and added some of its contents to her iced coffee. Larkin uncapped his drink and placed the cup on the bench between them; Thea obliged. “I never told you about my brother,” she offered after she poured.

“Kirby? Why, what happened?”

“No, I mean, we never really—just listen, okay? You’re always taking words out of my mouth, or putting them in or something.”

He cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers and remembered when he used to put his arm around her.

“It’s all about being here,” she said. Maybe Thea had gotten out of town for a spell. He had seen her once or twice, he was certain, but kept his distance all the same so how was he to know. When they’d split, Thea had cited their relationship as the safe bet. He had his regrets, too.

“So your brother.” Larkin replaced the lid on his drink and took a good pull: Thea had given him plenty.

“It’s just, he’s always running around with a broken heart,” she began. “I don’t understand how he does it. He’s like a child running with scissors.”

What Larkin knew of Thea’s brother he’d mostly garnered from the half dozen times he’d been in Kirby’s company: at a show for some unknown garage band, that night they all smoked cigarillos on Thea’s roof, their uncle’s retirement party. Kirby was Thea’s junior by only a year, but that year may have been a lifetime, Thea once said.

Thea unearthed from her purse a bundle of breadcrumbs wrapped in cheesecloth, tied with baker’s twine. “My gift for the morning birds.” She undid the pack and although no birds yet paid them any mind she tossed a few crumbs to the pavement and waited. The gulls didn’t bother but the smaller finches were pleased and hopped with glee.

“He was here visiting a month or two ago. He was in town to take me out. At least that’s how he sold it. Because we were both, uh, recovering,” questioning her diction, “so to speak, I mean we had been talking and it seemed like,” but she didn’t finish. “Anyway, Kirby was here. He asked about you,” she remembered, “of course.”

Kirby was in town at some point that summer: the thought strutted the sidewalks of Larkin’s mind. He imagined Kirby making the case for Larkin, trying to convince his sister she’d made a mistake, to go back, if at that point Larkin would have cared.

“He’d rented a room at the Edison,” Thea went on. “We were lounging by the pool. We never made it to the rooftop there, did we. It’s magnificent. They have this pyramid fountain thing going on, like these stepwise stone fountains all over the place covered with a film of running water, and you can rest your drink there or grab a seat,” but all Larkin could think of was Thea in some swimsuit he’s never seen. He glanced at her knee, her thigh, up to the hem of her shorts and what a bikini wouldn’t hide. “It was a scene,” Thea said. “I mean, it was nice that weekend. The sun and all. There were a lot of people. Partying up.”

Larkin said, “I know, I’ve been.” It was one of those things they were going to do but never did: the rooftop pool at the Edison. One of many. Which became a new kind of list, and Larkin had checked off a few on that list, sometimes alone and sometimes not.

“You have?” Thea tossed a handful of crumbs to the ground. “Right. So you know what I’m talking about then, they have that bar in the middle of the pool? We’d been all day drinking, Because there’s nothing else to do in this town, according to Kirby, and that’s what we were there to do, but you know how Kirby is, he makes friends everywhere, right? He can’t stand to be alone, is what I think it is.” Thea considered her revelation. “That’s what it is, isn’t it. He can’t stand to be alone.”

Larkin motioned for the bag of crumbs and Thea handed them over. “This right here,” he said, marveling at the charm of the package, the cheesecloth and the twine, “is attention to detail.”

“So he talks to some couple floating beside us for a while and then ropes in some passing whomevers, but they all lose steam and Kirby’s restless. He’d been restless all day. ‘So I’m taking a lap,’ he says. ‘I’ll get us drinks,’ drinks we already had. But I let him do his thing, in his funny, fat-striped bathing suit, like pastel green and blue and pink. ‘You look like a dyed egg,’ I told him. ‘No, it’s your eggs that are dying,’ he joked.

“I should have left that part out,” Thea mused.

“Anyway I’m sitting there and off he struts, leaving me alone. Fine by me. I have my drink, I have my book. Two guys tried to talk me up, the one more so than the other, but I was having none of it.”

“You did that thing where you don’t talk, you just nod and nod.”

“Uh huh.”

“Must have annoyed the hell out of him. But at least he tried, right?”

“You know, Larkin,” and Thea reclaimed the bag of crumbs, “you and me, we did have some of those things,” recalling an unfinished conversation from some time ago. “Not all, but some.”

“Don’t make me regret coming here this morning, Thea. I paid four dollars for that coffee.”

“So Kirby goes off on his merry, horny way.” Larkin laughed and Thea remembered another story. “So horny, that one. Ha, he tried to kiss me on the mouth once, when we were kids. We were very young and talking about kissing. I still tease him about that. I’m your sister, idiot. I slapped him in the face.” Thea said it again, “I slapped him in the face, although he insists it was a punch.”

“You’ve told me that before.”

“Fine. So he’s on his horny way. Gone maybe fifteen minutes, but when he comes back he’s got that patented Kirby smile. Christ, I saw it coming a hundred feet away. The worst part is he sees me see it on his face and that just makes him lean into it more, right? So when he swims up I just wanna punch his face—but he doesn’t give in yet. He swims up to my book and he flips the page with his wet finger and says, ‘Theodora, you’re going to have to toss the book one day. You can’t be one of those girls that doesn’t go down.’ Like, what the fuck Kirby.”

“Can I say I miss your brother?” Larkin said. “Because now I miss your brother. Tell him hello. Will you tell him we saw each other?”

“So ‘oh I forgot the drinks’ he says, by the way, and then swims away again, following that grin of his. He’s gone for ten more minutes, and it’s great, no one bothers me, I can read in peace or really just people-watch, but this time when Kirby returns he says, ‘You’ll never guess who’s here.’” Thea rolled her eyes at the memory. “Although he did have the drinks, I’ll give him that.”

It was a simple pleasure and a hope Larkin had not forgotten: to hear Thea tell a story again. He considered some of her clauses and let others meander this way and that, wondering how many of her words he’d heard in however many months, as if there were a tally somewhere.

“It was Emmaline,” Thea said. “Remember Emmaline? ‘Kirby,’ I said to him, ‘tell me you’re joking.’ ‘She told me weeks ago, sis,’ and this whole time he knew it! It was a bachelorette party and they—”

“Hers?”

“Please, Emmaline? She’s all about being free.”

“Have you seen her around?” Larkin did remember Emmaline, but only as a topic of conversation: he’d never met Kirby’s mythical lover, the one that got away but sometimes came back.

A tugboat bellowed out on the water, scattering the finches that had gathered by the breadcrumbs; just for a moment the birds thought of flying away, but with short memories returned to the crumbs.

“No, and I had no intention of seeing her anywhere. But Kirby dragged me over. She was with a whole slew of Kirby girls, you know what I mean? All with their tits out. Nice girls, I’m sure. I know I had met some of them before but hell if I knew their names. And Kirby girls are always surrounded by chattering boys. Right there in the middle of it all is Emmaline, with some guy on her arm, some scruffy boy with very few ideas. ‘You remember Thea,’ Kirby says to Emmaline, as if I’m his in, wading right up to her, and that’s when I see it in her eyes: she hadn’t invited Kirby at all. But that’s the way Kirby is. Doesn’t matter if he’s invited. Long as he’s there, she won’t want him to go.”

“I never saw the harm in Emmaline, to be honest,” Larkin said, and it raised Thea’s eyebrows. “Oh neither did you,” he added.

“Larkin, sweetheart, you don’t know what you’re talking about. What are you talking about? Did you ever even meet her? They’re no good for each other. They’re too,” and Thea looked for the word in her iced coffee, “emotional.”

He let that slide. “So there you are, face to face with Emmaline.”

“Okay so she gives me a big hug, and she’s all, ‘Thea, you look great,’ asking me what I’m reading, if I’m still living on Monroe. She was trying to play it cool, in front of this other guy I guess but as soon as Kirby showed up this poor sap was done for, because Emmaline and my brother, they’re magnets. ‘So Em, introduce us to your friends,’ Kirby says, because he knows he can. I don’t know how he does it. But that’s the thing with Emmaline, she’s not phased. So she doesn’t budge either.”

“And the guy?”

It was like a hostage negotiation, just keep her talking, because Larkin worried their morning would be finished with the breadcrumbs and so he snatched the bag and held it in his lap.

“Oh I don’t know, he disappeared. I did too.”

“Sounds about right.”

“‘Go get hit on by those boys,’ Kirby told me. He chased me down. I wasn’t going anywhere, but I don’t know, maybe I was. ‘And what, just go up to the blonde one and ask what’s his favorite color? Didn’t mother teach us not to talk to strangers?’ ‘I don’t usually talk to strangers,’ he says, but he was kidding. He wasn’t going back over there without me, but indeed he wanted to go back. ‘She told me she was going to be here,’ Kirby admitted, ‘but she didn’t know I’d show.’”

“Emmaline left the door open,” Larkin argued. “She wouldn’t have let on in the first place.”

“You’re right about that.”

“Why else would she have reached out to him?”

“According to Kirby, she was ‘kinda my best friend.’”

“Kinda?

“Sorta.”

“Well.”

“So I told Kirby I was going back to the room. ‘Just take the scruffy one off her hands for a minute.’ Did he need my help? ‘Sis, please. I’ve been waiting a bloody long time.’ But I refused. No, he didn’t need my help. So fine, he was going to do it himself, and I watched him go again. He swam right up to Emmaline, reached for her wrist—he practically took her hand out of the scruffy one’s—and leaned into her ear. And I saw it on her face: she liked what came from my brother’s lips.”

“What’d he say?”

“I didn’t find out until later.”

“Later when?”

“I went home. I saw Emmaline’s face and that was all it took. Kirby could handle it all by himself. He didn’t need me getting in the way. He didn’t need me to get rid of the scruffy guy. It was starting to get dark out and I got a taxi back to my apartment. I guess I was angry at the time but I’ve been angrier. And that was my day at the Edison.”

They’d finished the iced coffees and the finches had finished the bread. Thea carried the empty coffee cups to a trash bin stationed by the railing. She stood there overlooking the water. Larkin took his post beside her.

“So Kirby shows up the next morning at my apartment,” but there was something to her voice now, stained with regret or melancholy. “He had checked us out of the hotel, a day early. He came to drop off my stuff. And when he showed up at my door, I knew he was devastated. It was written all over his face. ‘I’ve got a broken heart again,’ and I’d say he was being dramatic but I knew better. So what was I to do? I let him in, I poured him a glass of seltzer.

“Apparently, Emmaline was going with another guy. ‘I knew that was a possibility,’ he said. It wasn’t any of the guys there. Not the scruffy guy or the blonde one. I mean, she and Kirby still went back to the hotel room. Like I said, he had her on the hook.”

“What did he say to her back at the pool?”

“Oh, right. That. I asked him the same thing, and Kirby said he went up to Emmaline and he whispered in her ear, I wanna do it. Can you imagine? Do it all night.”

“What confidence.”

“That’s the thing, I admire him for it. I don’t know how he does it, where that confidence comes from. He’s fearless. How does he get away with it? I do that and I’m a slut.”

“If you did that to me?”

But maybe that was too close to home. Thea backed from the railing. Like that she seemed to have lost the thread.

“I never knew your brother had it in him,” Larkin offered, although he did know, and Thea was somewhere else already. “Thea, why are you telling me this?”

“I told him he spends too much time in his own heart,” Thea resigned. “He said I spend too much time in my head. That it pollutes my heart. That’s the word he used, pollute.” Thea folded the piece of cheesecloth into smaller and smaller squares and then finally stuffed it in her purse. “All my life, he’s been out there, he’s taken those risks. The broken hearts, the vulnerability. I want to be like him, but I can’t recover from it.”

“And you regret not being like your brother.”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not him, I know that. I know I’m not him.” She had to repeat it to believe it. “What I’m saying is I regret not having this conversation with you earlier.”

Thea slumped against the railing and dared not look to Larkin, who dared not disturb this uneasy balance between them. The pier had settled past morning and would settle into the afternoon the way it always does, warming the air with the scent of the sea as the gulls circled the sky, led by their cries, waiting to dive.

—Peter Sheehy

#207: Santana, "Abraxas" (1970)

Listening to Santana in the UK is an odd experience. The clouds are overcast above me and a pigeon is getting dangerously close to my bag of chips, and I turn on Santana’s 1970 album Abraxas. I close my eyes, and I’m at a café overlooking water crashing against a shore. It’s eighty-five degrees fahrenheit with a slight breeze. There are seagulls instead of pigeons and they fly close enough to admire but far enough to stay away from me and my food. Abraxas is twirling around me, carried by the wind. Little kids are giggling in the waves and a dog is rolling around on the sand.

Wind chimes cling and clang as I walk through the town, any town, in the Caribbean. I imagine it to be small, with lights that twinkle above my head and plants that shine with dew by my feet. A man waves at me from a market stall and I buy a coconut to drink out of, and he smiles and says, “Have a nice day! Go to the forest today if you can; the birds are starting to hatch.” So I do.

There are ripe yellow bananas hanging from trees to my left and right, and a flock of birds of paradise are flying in front of me. Santana’s guitar solo in “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” rises and in front of me are red flowers, yellow ones to my sides, purple ones sprouting around vines above. Behind me is the blue of a stream.

When I hear Santana, I see colors. Each note is a slightly different shade during the slower measures, and when you least expect it Santana’s guitar collides with the drums and discordant colors splash together and create a mural of the tropical and the jungle and colors, colors everywhere.

I open my eyes and the British sky is a light gray, and the wind brushes up against my arms already covered with goosebumps. Tourists are getting yelled at for taking selfies on the grass that’s illegal to walk on, and my bag of chips are on the opposite side of the garden, surrounded by pigeons like it’s their holy temple. Drizzle has formed a cold and wet blanket on me. I’m getting weird looks from the locals for wearing a sweatshirt outside of my house.

When I was in Puerto Rico and listened to Santana, I closed my eyes and saw myself making fajitas and dancing around the kitchen with a beautiful man in New England while it snowed outside. I opened my eyes and watched the waves rush toward me and push away, anxious to do everything the island had to offer, but wishing for snow and a New England man.

When I was back in my apartment and Santana came on while I was doing dishes one day, I closed my eyes to find myself on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. I was leaving Morocco, approaching Spain. I was eating paella on the boat deck, and I opened my eyes and was elbow-deep in soap and hours-old grease.

Santana makes me feel like I’m in a fantastic, perfect world. Like everything around me could just be painted over, and I’d never known how colorful it could be. Things move slower when I’m listening to 1970s Santana. I look at the birds and watch how they glide around the tops of trees. I notice a piece of hardened gum sitting next to me on the bench. There’s a pebble in front of me that’s bluer than the others. People are talking far enough away from me that it sounds just like leaves rustling against one another.

But the second I stop paying attention the songs speed up and then they’re over. I didn’t pay attention and I missed it. I missed the colors around me and the breeze that grazed against my cheeks. I missed feeling alive for those few minutes that I let my mind carry away onto my home life, my love life, my phone, my money.

I think you really know you’re happy when Santana comes on and you don’t wish to be somewhere else, and you’re actually able to listen to it without thinking about all that’s stressing you out. When you close your eyes and you’re in the same place, and open your eyes to see everything brighter—those are the best moments to listen to him. And it’s the best because it’s so rare. It is so rare to find that kind of happiness and focus—of perfection—in a single moment.

I have only stayed in place a couple of times when I’ve listened to Santana. Once when I listened to Abraxas with my best friend on our way to a donut shop by the Potomac River, complete with the promise of a donut at the end of the album; the other when my dad first played Santana around me, complete with an air guitar routine and some overdramatized head-banging.

But these moments are rare for a reason: They’re too perfect, and they can’t last. If the moment’s lasting for more than ten minutes, it’s not real. That’s a fantasy world that Santana’s guitar serenades you to. You open your eyes and you’re back in reality, with all its stress and pressures. But it’s real.

So for now I’m sitting next to a piece of old, discolored gum and pigeons are eating my chips, and it isn’t perfect, but it is real. It’s life, and Santana is reminding me of how bright it could be.

—Nicole Efford

#208: Cat Stevens, "Tea for the Tillerman" (1970)

Side 1

1. Where Do the Children Play?

I know we’ve come a long way. We’re changing day to day…

I don’t go back there very often anymore. For one thing, it’s been more than forty years. For another, it’s still too close, still too near.

It’s unseemly, I know, for a fifty-seven-year-old man to revisitnot as a fleeting sentimental excursion, but as a true time-traveler, a this-for-that, a now-for-then the child he’d once been. There’s a great line by the songwriter Jason Molina, whose gloom-laden songs I adore: “Why put a new address,” he sings with his plaintive tremor, “on the same old loneliness?” In this case, I’m advancing the reverse of Molina’s rhetorical question: Why bother going back to that place where the loneliness started? Isn’t the here and now always enough of its own mess?

But we all do it, I suppose. There’s the comfort of that. We snake ourselves back through the years, touch the sore spots, the old bruises. We all had a first love, a first loss. It’s unlikely mine was any greater, any more profound. The only thing different for me, perhaps, than for some others is that mine brokeor broke loose?something inside me, drew a fine jagged path beneath my skin like the lines in cracked porcelain, a delicate and beautiful damage that became for me, for years on end, the single greatest measure of my worth. I’ve put that feeling to fine use, I guess: it made me maybe a little less of an arrogant asshole than I would have been, and it made me a writer, which gave me a way back in, again and again, to the anguish I felt inside me, scrubbing away at the pain until its black patina wound up burnished, strangely glowing. Beauty and torment, forever aligned, forever wed.

 

2. Hard Headed Woman

Yes. Yes. Yes…

I am a grown man now, more father than son. I have received love in greater measure than I have given. I have lovedand love stillmy wife and children.

But I was a child once, so here’s the child’s story: At thirteen, I fell in love with a girl whose life was a match for my own: she was one of seven; I was one of eight. Our families were Catholic, our fathers both physicians, our mothers both (though very different, each in her own way) wrecks. We talked hour after hour, though not a word of what we said survives in memory. Sometimes we visited her sister in a psychiatric ward uptown; late on Friday nights we snuck into a friend’s father’s optometry shopto smoke and drink, I suppose, but also to lay claim to this forbidden space.

Mostly, though, she and I sat cross-legged in her bedroom listening to 45s and LPs: James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Cat Stevens. Oh, how we loved Cat Stevens. We worshiped his frail beauty, his haunting voice, his songs’ endless quest for enlightenment, for deliverance, for grace.  She was an artist and made me a gift I treasured: the round Zen symbol from the album cover of Catch Bull at Four painted on a small wooden block. We found solace in each other amidst the awful vortex of adolescence and our fucked-up families. We learned something about desire and the longing for transcendence and escape. We learned it with Cat Stevens’ words echoing and echoing in our heads, telling us again and again that an arduous journey lay ahead but that pain would be followed by pleasure: If I find my hard-headed woman, I know the rest of my life will be blessed.

 

3. Wild World

Now that I’ve lost everything to you…

And that was it. She went away that summer, made some new friends, coolermore exciting, more experienced, more dangerousthan she figured I could ever be, which I knew was true, which I knew was true with every fiber of my beingand the cracking began, the fissure opening bit by bit by bit.

 

4. Sad Lisa

Open your door, don’t hide in the dark…

It would be years before the word depression showed up in my life, decades before I knew myself well enough to use it, to know that this was what I suffered from, what would rise up again and again for the rest of my years on this earth no matter what doctors I talked to or treatment I endured or pills I took.

Back then, when my teenager’s heart was broken, I thought it was just sadness, thought I was just the sensitive romantic type who couldn’t get over this one girl, what she’d done. I didn’t yet know about the romantic poets, about Whitman, about Lorca and Rilke. I hadn’t encountered Keats and his wistfully suicidal melancholy:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
        I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

        To take into the air my quiet breath…

But I knew I wanted to dig that deep, and it was Tea for the Tillerman that reliably took me there, the lyrics printed on the album’s yellow and blue back cover, encircling a brooding portrait of Cat Stevens seated against a tree. He looked away from the camera, his hair a dark mane of curls, his beard sharp, somehow menacing. He was angry, forlorn, doomed. He was St. Sebastian, the crucified Christ, a mendicant, a hermit. He was lost.

 

5. Miles from Nowhere

I creep through the valleys and I grope through the woods…

I was lost. I stayed lost. I wandered hour after hour alone between the leafy cul de sacs of her neighborhood, through the ruins of an old Spanish fort, along the lakefront levee. I sat for hours on the concrete steps that led, inexplicably, down into the water, as if inviting me to wander in. I wrote in notebooks, wrote poems, told myself I’d use all of what I felt some day, make something remarkable from it, some kind of testament towhat? I didn’t know, couldn’t find the words for it. I went back to my life, spun forward through the years, one girlfriend and the next, high school and college, but the feeling never left me, never quit. I stayed lost.


 

Side 2

1. But I Might Die Tonight

To say yes or sink low…

I was just a kid. Then I wasn’t.

Cat Stevens had been a kid, too, I realize now. Most folks know the story: a twenty-one-year-old British pop star laid low by tuberculosis, reemerging after a lengthy convalescence as an introspective troubadour, producing a series of remarkable albums that brought him worldwide acclaim: Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, Catch Bull at Four. He made more albums after thatI loved Foreigner, tried to love Buddha and the Chocolate Boxbut he struggled, as artists do, to be both brilliant and famous, to be content with what he’d done. In 1978, having converted to Islam and changed his name, he renounced his music career and disappeared from view.

I remember when it happened, remember how unsurprised I was, how it seemed the perfectly predictable culmination of all the searching he’d done. You wander long enough, and you’re likely to end up in a place from which you can’t return or don’t want to. Cat Stevens hadn’t been his real name. He’d been born Steven Demetre Georgiou, had performed first as Steve Adams, had chosen “Cat” because, he said, his girlfriend had a cat, because he figured people liked animals.

He’d never been who he was, I figured.

 

2. Longer Boats

Oh how a flower grows…

It took me years and years, but I did what I set out to do: I created stories that tried to name the unnamable sorrow that had split me open. By doing so, I discovered that the source of such despair is, of course, much more fundamental, much more nuanced and complex, than the child I’d been had assumed. Sadness hadn’t overtaken me because of adolescent heartbreak. That had merely been the spark for something larger, something patiently waiting inside mewaiting, I suppose, for life to leave its mark.

So I set about imagining families ruined by shame and silence, men tormented by longing, children abandoned and bereft, mothers so badly damaged they are incapable of love, fathers who disappear, sons who, forsaken, forsake and flee as well. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

Lo and behold, life brought me joy: a beautiful wife, beautiful children. A good life. I am so deeply grateful.

 

3. Into White

I built my house from barley rice…

It never leaves you, though. You can never do enough to fully set the feeling aside. Just about everyone with depression will tell you this: you live with it.

 

4. On the Road to Find Out

In the end I'll know, but on the way I wonder…

You live through it, it seems to me. Depression is as much of a lens as it is a weight. It makes it hard to be certain about anything, to think you know how you actually feel, to feel you know how you actually think. You’re forever wandering, forever lost, inching your way forward, hands out, cautiousor else you’re falling.

The fall is often precipitous. The well isor can bedeep.

And the well can disappear, can become the air, the falling become flight, a monumental feat of majestic soaring.

 

5. Father and Son

Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy…

I imagine Cat Stevens never imagined, not really, that one day he’d be old enough to sing the father’s words more authentically, closer to the bone, than those of the son. But here he is now, his music career heartily resumed as Yusuf, a sixty-nine-year-old graybeard confidently strumming, singing: It’s not time to make a change. Just relax. Take it easy.

Away. Away. I don’t believe it. Not completely. It often seems to me that we are always closer to the sons we once were than the fathers we’ve become. What plucked or scraped or tore at us all those years ago remains forever at hand.

 

6. Tea for the Tillerman

Oh Lord, how they play and play
For that happy day, for that happy day…

But what do I know? I’m just an old man, or nearly so. I make my coffee in the morning, slowly climb the stairs to my study, and sit down to fight the same quiet, unceasing battles: to make something beautiful, something lasting and good, from my life, to steer clear of the darkness, to find and follow the light.

I still don’t know when or why I’ll be laid low, any more than I know how that pain gets transformed into art, that art into joy, that joy into life

which goes on.

The sinners sin; the children play.

—John Gregory Brown
All artwork by John Gregory Brown

#209: Pearl Jam, "Ten" (1991)

1.
The first cassette I ever own is Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace. I get it for Christmas in 1983, the same year my older brother gets Peter Schilling’s Error in the System.

2.
I join a band as a freshman in high school. We call ourselves the More Than a Feeling Band because that is the first song we learn how to play. All covers. We are very bad. The drum set I am using had been the spare kit from my middle school jazz band, garishly ugly and made of fiberglass. It had been sitting, unused, in a closet. I asked our band teacher, a working jazz musician from Cincinnati named Bill Jackson, if I could buy it. He checked. He said district policies prevented him from selling any school property but that there were no similar policies in place against loaning it to me indefinitely. So my parents picked the drum set up after school, loaded it into the car, and we took it home.

3.
Billboard Magazine’s top song of 1989 is “Look Away” by Chicago.

4.
There is plenty of good music being made but I am resistant to almost all of it. Later in my life I wonder: Why didn’t I like R.E.M. at the time? Why didn’t I like the Cure? What was wrong with me? Then I re-watch the video for “Love Song” and remember that Robert Smith is absurd. Michael Stipe is embarrassing. The reality of 1989/1990/1991 is much more complicated than the memories. Pop music is absolute garbage and alternative music turns me off. So I throw up my hands and listen to whatever challenges me the least, which means classic rock radio and hair metal ballads. You think it makes me happy to type that?

I am too dorky for the mainstream and too dorky also for the skaters, the smellers, the moshers, the drama geeks. I am not nearly smart enough to fit in with the nerds. The good old boys ignore me, mercifully, because I’m barely there. But the girls ignore me too, because I’m barely there. I play bass drum in the marching band. I own more than one Julian Lennon album on cassette. I love Dream of the Blue Turtles.

5.
I tell people that the first CD I ever bought was Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, but it’s a lie. The actual first CD I ever bought was Wilson Phillips’ eponymous debut. This was 1990.

6.
Billboard Magazine’s top song of 1990 is “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. Number three is “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

7.
I happen to catch “Valerie Loves Me” on MTV’s 120 Minutes and begin to reconsider a number of things. It’s poppy, for sure, but also a little bit messy. The desperation in Jim Ellison’s voice plucks a string somewhere deep inside me. To this day, I can’t get past it.

8.
Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish comes out in 1991. Too scary for me. I pass.

Sting’s Soul Cages also comes out in 1991. I buy it on CD. I keep the empty long box for a long time. I still have the disc with its misprinted track listing.

This whole thing is a process.

9.
Somehow, I get a girl. She has one crooked tooth. She wants our song to be “Silent Lucidity.” I make the case that you don’t pick the song; the song picks you. Really, though, I’m just not into Queensryche. Who the fuck is? And why do I have to be such a stickler about things?

10.
Ten is released in August of 1991, though—like all good things—it takes a while to reach Ohio. It seems to arrive accidentally, like a cargo ship crash landing on a desert island. “Even Flow” burns through my roof and lands in a pile on my bedroom floor. I cautiously approach. I give it a sniff. I poke my finger into it and tap it onto the tip of my tongue. Those guitars like acid rain. Drums as big as timpani. That voice. It’s not bad.

11.
Everything arrives at once. There is no such thing as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and then there is such a thing as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There’s “Outshined.” There’s Ritual de lo Habitual. There’s “State of Love and Trust” and “Black” unplugged and “Yellow Ledbetter.” I am an Ohio boy raised on the Eagles and Supertramp and ELO. I have heard Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” more times than anyone needs to. This is all very challenging. But it’s exactly what I need, and not because Pearl Jam is all that radically different from Manfred Mann but because they aren’t.

12.
I join a new band and we’re still bad but it’s better than the last one. We slog through “The Spirit of Radio” for some reason, but we also do a pretty nice rendition of “Jane Says.”

My parents spend $400 on a five-piece Ludwig with actual wooden shells and a simple white finish. I love this drum set. I hammer on this thing for years. We give the old one back to Bill Jackson, who may already be gone at this point—back to Cincinnati to play real jazz with real musicians—and who may have already forgotten who I am. It doesn’t matter. It never mattered to him, but it’s 2017 and I still remember his name.

13.
Billboard’s top song of 1992 is “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men. Number eight is “Under the Bridge.” Number 32 is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Number 71 is “Friday I’m in Love.” Color Me Badd appear three times in the top 100. No one knows what the fuck is going on.

14.
I get a new girl. She’s every nerd’s dream. She has great taste in music and I try to stay receptive. She catches me up on Tori Amos and Toad the Wet Sprocket, and I drive us around to hear all of “Nights in White Satin.” We don’t declare a song until we dance to “In Your Eyes” at our wedding.

15.
Siamese Dream comes out in 1993 and by now I think I get it. My revelation gets backdated; I stop worrying about Michael Stipe and Robert Smith. I try not to be such a stickler. “Orange Crush” is still nonsense but “So. Central Rain” is so good. I do my best to let these things in, and mostly it works. I don’t realize until much later that I was never really a social outcast—I was only shy, and quiet, and that I closed myself off from people I probably would have liked under the assumption that they were not worth liking. This I regret even more than the hair metal ballads.

16.
Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales also comes out in 1993 and I definitely get it. I just listened to it again yesterday.

17.
These things are all just steps in a long process.

18.
The process is ongoing.

19.
I look back with gratitude at the people and things that shoved me forward—that said
open your goddamn eyes, kid. It’s always been easy to find reasons to reject things and much harder to find reasons not to. It’s easy to pretend that you were never wrong. It’s easy to listen with your ego. I try not to do that anymore. I think I’m getting better at it.

10.
It all goes back, more or less, to a single album in 1991.

—Joe P. Squance

#210: Neil Young, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" (1969)

I don’t know if everyone has moments like this connected so viscerally to mere pieces of songs, but I think even if I’m gripped by an early dementia or bang my head on a doorframe and it rocks me into a full amnesia, I will forever and always remember the first time I heard the first fifteen seconds of “I Heard Her Call My Name” by the Velvet Underground. I think it ruined the guitar for me forever—every other note played on the instrument became as flat as dead water after that. In 9th grade, a friend of mine stuck the song right in the middle of the A-side of a mixtape that had been collaged from fragments of found-sound samples and songs both in full and busted apart. I told him, The way you shoved part of that VU song on there so that it just jumps right out at you is real cool, and he laughed. No, that’s it. That’s the song. That’s just how it is. It was the wildest thing anyone had ever said to me.

Sterling Morrison played guitar on the song and he felt more or less the exact same way, even quitting the band for a few days after hearing the album in full for the first time because he assumed they’d put the wrong mix together. “‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ [was] one of our best songs that they completely ruined in the studio,” he’s on record as saying, and he’s definitely right about the first part. I’m not even sure you could call what Lou Reed does on the track “playing the guitar”—the sounds he makes are more akin to a subway car colliding with a Range Rover, or a toddler playing twelve terrible Fisher Price instruments at once. The chaos is illuminating though, the beauty of the silence when the song (“song”) comes to a close nearly deafening. It’s calmed my mind down on several occasions, and I think it was intended to do the exact opposite.

And what are we supposed to do with a guitar solo in the first place? How can we listen to one and not feel automatically and overwhelmingly like Someone Who Is Listening To A Guitar Solo, since in every solo lies the history of solos, with the role you the listener are meant to play already laid out before you. Guitar solos are supposed to take you...somewhere. They’re supposed to make you feel...something. Is the soloist trying to transport us, or tell us something more profound, something the lyrics aren’t able to verbalize? Both at once, ideally, and yet I can’t escape the feeling that the vast majority of guitar solos are so very guitar solo-y, so in love with their own awareness as a guitar in the act of soloing.

Obviously there are some who have found ways to continue to surprise, with sonic fun or sheer new-age smarts—Annie Clark and Nels Cline come most immediately to mind—but by and large the guitar solo’s a dead fish in 2017, as, in my mind, it probably should be. It died 50 years ago, with “I Heard Her Call My Name.”

Regardless, in December of 2015 Rolling Stone published a list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” (perhaps not of all time?). Dead Man composer and cameo artist Neil Young sat at number 17, and the magazine employed Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to write the paragraph-long blurb for him. This is how it starts: “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect.” I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit to the teacher that I’m not entirely sure what Trey means here by “original,” though my assumption is he’s talking about the studio version off of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young’s second album, and not some live or bootlegged nonsense. The guitar solo in question is fine; I mean, yes, it’s good. It’s a minimalist guitar solo, one that favors feeling and connection to the instrument over virtuosity. It’s definitely not just one note for a full minute—that would be insane (but better, strangely, I think)—and it’s not even close. For ten seconds it relies on that one note, then runs away into other notes, as one does, so I don’t know what Trey Anastasio was smoking, but sure, it’s a good guitar solo. It’s still just...a guitar solo though.

“Down By the River” is a great song, probably the best on Everybody Knows if you forget the title track exists and “The Losing End” is too Grateful Dead for you, but it’s not the guitar soloing that makes it great. It’s Neil Young’s terrifyingly timeless, unchanging voice, the unrelenting drive of Crazy Horse, one of our all-time great backing bands, and the gorgeous production of the tracking itself. The solo is merely a conduit for the feeling, a bit player in a larger tapestry. Why do we fetishize it so much, why exalt so ceaselessly the abilities of the guitar player above all else?

I’d have to imagine it’s mostly nostalgia. Rock music has guitar solos—that’s kind of it’s thing. So when we hear a rock song with a guitar solo we aren’t really hearing that song or that solo, we’re hearing the history of the genre and we’re comparing notes. Is this person playing like Hendrix? Are they playing like Page? I think I remember Allman using that same trick. That player’s got that Diddley or Holly or Berry or Santana sound. Blame it on drugs, or the penis, or the Summer of Love. Blame it on white folks and Vietnam and Les Paul and drugs. Actually, just blame it on drugs. Whatever you’re putting your pin in (drugs), the consensus is undoubtedly the same: guitar solos are hella sick and you can deal with it.

So fine. I accept. But it still bores the daylights out of me. Not the guitar solo itself so much as our insistent romanticization of it. Furthermore, the older I get the more I start noticing the complete absence of the guitar-as-principal-sound in my favorite records. The future is in cracker jack producers and tightly-wrapped, Mensa-smart pop songs. The future has little space for cock rock buffoonery, for soaring faux-emotion on a six-string. I don't know. Perhaps the future of music would do well to ignore its past entirely.

—Brad Efford

#211: Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here" (1975)

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here is an album about absence. About subtraction. It’s about the things we lose and the ways we lose them. It’s about losing Syd Barrett to the doomed combination of drugs and mental illness. It’s about a band losing its soul to the doomed combination of success, label pressures, and outlandish egos. It’s about losing connection and authenticity. It’s about losing, losing, losing.

And so this is going to be a story or essay about subtraction. Or maybe it’s going to be about subtraction through addition?

You see, because there was a breeze, and then a steel breeze, and then no breeze, and Syd was gone.

Just like there had been the album’s cover models, Ronnie Rondell and Danny Rogers, and also Ronnie Rondell’s mustache and eyebrows, and then there was fire—applied to Rondell’s clothing like makeup, like paint—and then there was the pose for the photographer, and then there was wind, and then Ronnie Rondell’s mustache and eyebrows were gone. Subtraction through addition—add fire to wind and a man loses his hair.

And there’s something to learn there, something we should probably understand—what is it? Don’t let someone set you on fire? Is that too easy?

But see, it wasn’t just Syd. And it wasn’t just Ronnie Rondell’s mustache and eyebrows, because not long ago, there was a breeze, and then a steel breeze, and then no breeze, and you were gone.

But let’s not make this about you. This is about Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here, which, as it happens, is an album I came back to after you were gone, is an album I came to understand in new ways after you were gone. It stopped being the Pink Floyd album about Syd and the record industry—those are just the album’s framework, not its big ideas.

Or maybe I’m finding license in loss to give Pink Floyd more credit than they deserve.

*

Let’s talk about Syd for a minute, and the way that Pink Floyd lyrics, whether written by Roger Waters or Polly Samson, always drape him in light. The opening lyric of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” is “Remember when you were young / you shone like the sun.” Then, of course, there’s the song’s title—Syd is a diamond that shines, and we know it’s about Syd, even without having to read the lyrics, because the song’s title tells us it’s all about Syd:

Shine On
You Crazy
Diamond

Of course, almost two decades after Wish You Were Here was released, on “Poles Apart,” one of the few decent post-Roger Waters Floyd songs, David Gilmour would sing words written by his wife, Polly Samson: “Why did we tell you then / You were always the golden boy then / And that you’d never lose that light in your eyes?” Even on “Brain Damage,” the immortal penultimate track from Dark Side of the Moon, when Roger Waters sings, “And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear / You shout and no one seems to hear / And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes / I'll see you on the dark side of the moon,” perhaps alluding to Barrett through thunder and darkness, there is the implied light of the lightning that accompanies thunder, and the implied light of the sun reflecting off the non-dark side of the moon. What does it mean that all of these lyrics compare Barrett to light? I don’t know—maybe it’s just an extension of several clichés about shining bright and burning out. Maybe it has something to do with the time that Syd set his own head on fire during a gig at UFO. Or maybe that’s all too literal.

*

There is another light I remember, too, and it wasn’t fire, and it didn’t burn atop Syd Barrett’s head, and it didn’t singe off Ronnie Rondell’s mustache, and it didn’t come from the sun, or a diamond, or from eyes, and it didn’t come from a bulb, it came from you, but it’s gone now, so what does it matter?

I don’t know what was added that took you away. Maybe this is just a story about subtraction for its own sake.

*

Inside the sleeve for Wish You Were Here, because that’s what I’m really talking about here, that album, not you, there is the red handkerchief blowing on a breeze—we don’t know if it’s a steel breeze or not, but it probably is. Because the image is a static photograph, we can only infer movement from the object’s relationship to its surroundings. Its motion is absent. Same with the diver in another of the album’s interior pictures: his body breaks the water’s surface but there is no splash, no ripple—the water appears undisturbed. The question: where is the absence here? Are the waves and ripples the absent things? Or are we meant to infer from the lack of splash that it is the diver who is absent? What I’m getting at: was Syd the water or the diver?

Are you the water or the diver?

Another question: why am I still writing about you in present tense?

There were other famous images on the album’s outer sleeve—the two men shaking hands, one on fire (and recently relieved of all the hair on his face), and the back-cover businessman with a flat, skin-colored cloth for a face, and without wrists or ankles—an empty suit. A bit on the nose, for sure. But here is more of that subtraction by addition. Add success, add fame, add money, and money, and money, and something will be lost, something for which we can name symptoms, but never the thing itself. Maybe Wish You Were Here is a bit heavy handed with its symbols, but this is something people can relate to. We grow up, get or don’t get old, make or don’t make money, incur or don’t incur debt, and everything becomes about money and debt until something is lost—subtraction through addition and subtraction and/or addition and probably a little more subtraction. And Wish You Were Here is right about that—the structures in which we live alienate us from ourselves and those we care about. Sorry if that’s all a little didactic, a little on the nose—but c’mon, we’re talking about Pink Floyd here.

*

In the years after Wish You Were Here was released, Pink Floyd would continue a slow dissolution that began with the success of Dark Side of the Moon and also, coincidentally, around the same time they introduced Mr. Screen to their live shows—that flat circle, like time itself, on which lights, movies, lasers would shine. A few years after the fact, touring behind their album Animals, Roger Waters would spit on a fan at a concert in Canada—a Canadian!—and then he would make The Wall, which is like Wish You Were Here turned up to fifty, like if Wish You Were Here is a little on the nose, The Wall is up to its elbows in the goddam nose. And let’s be honest—Animals isn’t a walk in the park either. Roger Waters was angry, and his art with Pink Floyd was about that anger, about his alienation. About losing Syd. About being afraid of losing himself.

And therein lies a, or perhaps the, fascinating truth about Pink Floyd: their story is Syd Barrett’s story. Their greatest, most beloved albums all, in some way, tie back to Syd. Except for maybe Meddle and Animals. But the big albums, the ones on the lists, the ones in every dad’s CD collection—those all come back to Syd.

*

But let’s forget about Roger Waters and Syd Barrett for just a second, because this is more important: One night in December, there you were in my car, drunk and almost crying on the way home from the bar. You were lonely, you kept saying. When would you find someone? Why did nothing ever work out for you? And I remember the way your voice broke. And I remember the green x-mas laser lights blasted across your dad’s garage. And your flight left the next day so when I pulled into the driveway, I got out of the car to hug you and you slipped on a patch of ice, but didn’t fall, and then you told me we’d talk soon. Told me you’d have a safe trip back. And then you slid under the half-raised garage door and I never saw you again.

You were here, and then you were there, and then you were gone, and now there is a park bench dedicated in your memory. This is not subtraction through addition. The park bench came after you were gone. This is subtraction, and subtraction, and subtraction.

*

During the production of Wish You Were Here, there was Roger and there was David, two men in the studio, their band starting to unravel around them. Following the somewhat surprising (to them anyway) success of Dark Side of the Moon, and before making Wish You Were Here, that band worked on an album called Household Objects, on which all of the arrangements would be performed, not on instruments, but on, well, household objects—an absence of instruments. We’ll call it subtraction through subtraction. But that didn’t take and the band began work on a set of songs that would eventually become Wish You Were Here and Animals.

And then there was Roger and there was David, both in the studio, both looking for an idea, and then there were those four notes, simple and easy, slow and pure, pouring like a molten steel breeze from David’s guitar:

Shine On
You Crazy
Diamond

Now, a little bit of music theory about those notes, found on the internet:

“The shape of the phrase is a significant factor not only in its memorability, but also in what it does – or rather, doesn’t do. The first two notes, Bb – F, describe an open fifth, suggesting the key of Bb – this is instantly negated by the third note, G, such that the phrase has described an arching minor seventh – G – Bb – F, and the ear expects the next note to be the missing dominant degree of the scale, D. But this doesn’t happen – instead, the phrase moves over the missing note and articulates instead an E natural. Coupled with the preceding G, it suggests now C major, the subdominant harmony of G; those four notes have suggested three separate keys – Bb, G minor, C major – in the space of four steps.

By the end of the phrase, the listener’s tonal ear is confused: what key am I in?”

And there was Roger, and he heard something in those four notes—perhaps their disorientation, their ambiguity, their uneasiness, their questioning—that made him think of Syd.

Not long after, as the band was either finishing up or listening to playback of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” who should wander into the studio but the man, himself,

Shine On
You Crazy
Diamond.

Until that moment, despite having been haunted by his presence for years and albums, no one in Pink Floyd had seen Barrett for seven years. But there he was, as if conjured by Gilmour’s haunted guitar lick, a ghost, traded for a hero, traded for another ghost, head and eyebrows shaved, far heavier than he used to be, wearing a white trench coat and white shoes. When someone in the studio asked him how he’d put on so much weight, he said something about a big refrigerator full of pork chops.

Fuck.

Subtraction, subtraction, subtraction, subtraction, subtraction. And a little bit of addition through pork chops.

*

I try to think of four notes that might conjure you. It couldn’t be the same four notes, couldn’t be the same song.

To try to conjure you with “Shine
O
N
You Crazy Diamond,” would be theft of an egregious order.

That one belongs to Syd. And anyway, even though Syd wandered into the studio, he was never back. Though he asked if he could pick up a guitar and play on the track, he would never play with Pink Floyd again. All Gilmour’s guitar lick did was summon a ghost, minus eyebrows and hair (and without the help of fire, even, as far as anyone knows), plus a belly stuffed with pork chops. As math, it might look like this:

Ghost - Head & Eyebrows + Pork Chops =

And I know there’s something to learn in that, but I’m still not sure what it is.

—James Brubaker