#14: The Beatles, "Abbey Road" (1969)

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“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

*

Dissolution (noun): the closing down or dismissing of an assembly, partnership, or official body. In other words, the art of coming apart.

*

Two hours before the end of the world, Pam sits behind the shop counter, flipping the pages of a magazine but neither looking at the pictures nor reading the articles. She glances up every time the bell over the door jingles, but it’s always a customer, a stranger, never Ricky. She sells packets of cigarettes, tins of tomatoes and beans, a tacky plastic necklace to a young girl who beams as she places it around her neck. Pam envies the girl her smile, her joy at such a small thing, so she takes a second necklace and pulls it over her own head. The light blue plastic shells settle against her chest, but as she watches the girl walk out of the shop, Pam share none of her happiness. She tugs the necklace and it snaps, scattering tiny beads across the floor.

*

Two days after the end of the world, Pam is once again in the shop, this time with her brother. He’s been sleeping rough again, a regular occurrence for him since his wife left him. Pam misses Candace, her sister-in-law. Or is she now an ex-sister-in-law? Pam’s not sure if they’ve divorced or not.

Her brother’s asking for money. Again. “You’ve got an extra ten pounds in the till,” he says. “I know you do. What’s the harm?”

The harm is that Pam doesn’t like her brother, hasn’t liked him since she was twelve and got her period and he took a pair of her blood-stained underwear to school to pass around. He charged the other boys two pounds each to—actually, Pam’s not sure what they did with them. She prefers it that way.

“Go away,” she tells her brother, wearily. The world has ended, and she has no time for him. “Just go away.”

*

The end of the world passes quietly, so quietly, in fact, that most don’t realize the world has ended at all. They wake, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, drive to work, come home, eat dinner, make love, go to bed, and do it all over again, and nothing has changed, or at least, nothing has changed that they can articulate. And yet.

*

Pam always assumed the world would end suddenly—an explosion, a flash of light, and then no more. Instead, it’s a long, slow, complicated disintegration, full of rumors and lawsuits and animosity. By the end of the first week, she’s exhausted by the news, no longer cares what Paul said in an interview, where John was spotted.

Ricky is gone. This, too, she thought she would care more about. Instead, he disappears from her life slowly, unceremoniously. Longer absences, first days, then weeks. She would blame the world ending, her distraction in the wake of its destruction, but the truth is, she’s been pulling away from him for months now, and he from her. One day, seven weeks after the end of the world, Pam realizes she hasn’t heard from him in nearly a month, and she feels a strange sense of relief as she closes up the shop, knowing that she no longer needs to wait for him.

*

What it looks like, the end of the world: abandoned guitars and drums, pianos and synthesizers. Recording equipment covered in dust. Four, where once there was one.

What it sounds like: silence. The heaviness of the air in the seconds after a guitar chord has cut off. An empty studio that moments before contained voices. The absence—of speaking, of singing, of chords, of beats, of shouts, of whispers, of breaths, of wind, of air.

*

There are some who say, later, that the world didn’t actually end. Look, they say, see how it’s still turning? See how the sun rises every day, how the grass grows, how we put petrol in our cars and drive to work? The dishes pile up in the sink, because we still cook, still eat, and someone has to do the washing up.

But Pam knows. She was there at the beginning, waiting outside the club in the rain, a plastic bin bag hanging over her like a poncho. She watched them on the stage in Liverpool, in Hamburg; she followed their careers, followed their rise, and so she knows: when a star so bright crashes, it burns, and destroys everything it touches.

*

One month after the end of the world, before Pam realizes that Ricky is gone but after she recognizes her weariness, a new album. It’s cruel, some say, like giving false hope. It was recorded before the previous new album, which some say makes that album the last album, not this album. Pam’s head aches when she tries to piece together the timeline. She purchases this new record, listens to it on repeat, plays it in the shop until she knows all the words. Sometimes, on the streets, in the stores, she sees people weeping. Pam doesn’t join in.

Pam’s brother is once again in the shop. “What is this?” he says, meaning the music. When Pam tells him, he says, “Who?”

*

Six months after the end of the world, Pam closes the shop and takes the train to London. It’s October, but the sun is still warm and the trees have yet to drop their leaves. She walks through the city, anonymous, smoking a cigarette, staring too closely at the storefronts and the faces of those she passes.

It begins to rain, so she goes into a pub and orders a pint. Her stool at the bar is uneven, and it wobbles every time she lifts the glass to her mouth. The man sitting next to her notices, laughs, makes a joke. She studies him. He’s attractive, in that weather-beaten, London sort of way. Before the world ended, she may have smiled back at him, flirted, at least considered leaving with him. Instead, she looks at him coldly, picks up her drink, and moves down two stools.

*

It is no small thing, to carry on after the end of the world. To continue in the face of carnage. To live with the agony of knowing that that which you have loved is lost, and, in its wake, to simply breathe.

Get over it, some people say. They complain about Pam, about all those who are unable to move past the world ending. They were just a band, Pam’s brother says. They weren’t even that good, and Pam screams at him to leave.

The reason Pam examines the faces so closely: because in the eyes of some, she can see a shared loss, and without speaking to them, she feels heard.

*

Two minutes before the end of the world, Ricky finally comes in the shop. He kisses her, his lips cool. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. They are both of them going through the motions now, but neither of them has yet admitted it.

Pam locks the till and pockets the key. “Ready?” she says. They’re going to lunch, a late lunch now, but lunch nonetheless.

Ricky walks toward the door. Something crunches beneath his feet, and he swears under his breath. He steps back, and Pam leans across the counter to see. One of the plastic shells from her broken necklace lies shattered. “It’s fine,” she says. She comes down from her perch on the stool, bends, and brushes the bead’s ashes into her palm.

*

At the moment the world ends:

Pam empties the remains of the plastic beads from her palm into the rubbish bin. Ricky holds the door open for her, and as she follows him out, she flips the sign in the window from open to closed. They walk toward the cafe, and Pam stumbles on a dip in the pavement, and as she tries to catch her balances, she reaches for Ricky, hoping to steady herself, but he’s walking ahead and hasn’t even noticed.

Pam’s brother, sitting on a bench in the park, rummages through his pocket for a cigarette and, finding none, curses his sister, because it’s easier to blame her than himself, easier to say that she’s selfish, greedy, and he tells himself that he never much liked her to begin with, though the truth, of course, is so much more complicated, and he does his best to ignore the regret that flickers at the edge of his mind.

The little girl who bought the plastic necklace from Pam sits in the back seat of the car as her parents bicker in the front. She sucks on the necklace, clacks it against her teeth, and her mother, catching sight of her in the rearview mirror, snaps at her to spit it out.

Pam catches her balance but stays where she is, watches Ricky walk away from her, and for a moment, she thinks about what will happen if she doesn’t follow.

And four young men, not yet 30, exit a door into the sunshine, maybe squinting a bit against its glare, maybe each gazing at the other three, remembering what they looked like when they were younger, happier, livelier, when there was joy and laughter, which isn’t to say those things are gone now, but they’re found in other settings, on their own or with other people, no longer with these three, though once they’d have sworn they were brothers; and they meet the eyes of the others, and then one of them nods, and then they all nod, and then they say, “Well, then,” and “So long,” and they leave in separate directions.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann

#15: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Are You Experienced" (1967)

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I need to see him there, the boy huddled in a motel closet, shielding his eyes from the slatted light. Beyond, Al and Lucille: stumble-drunk, accusatory, shoving. Soon the sound of blows, a body flung across the rickety bed, a cheap lamp’s muffled crack like a firecracker bursting in a bottle’s throat. Maybe the boy stares into the carpet stains and makes of them a cosmos. Maybe he just weeps into the dust. Wherever his four younger siblings are—scattered with aunts, back in foster care—he’s glad they are not here. Here, a boy hunches into his knotted hunger and strums the bristle broom draped across his lap. At eight, he’s learned a truth some never learn, which is that our damage breeds something worse than fear: it is the terror we carry into our survival. Inside each self are the strangled selves that didn’t make it. Even now he hates the sound of his own voice, mumbly and coarse, how it strains to find a note and keep it. The story should begin with a boy jailed in screams. Who fills his ears up with himself. Who leans into the closet dark and hums.

*

Jimi Hendrix is where hyperbole goes to die. A half-century after his death, his legacy is an endless and insufficient heaping of glory. Greatest guitarist of all time. The sixties’ most tripped-out groover. Our Black Picasso. Sex symbol. Rebel. Icon. I don’t know much, but I know Jimi would have lapped this up, grinning. After being the neglected afterthought of his parents’ failure, an army washout, and a broke sideman for nearly a decade, what guy wouldn’t? Hendrix perfected cool, which might be best defined as the practiced air of not giving a shit, even though deep down, you are totally giving a shit. Unlike Dylan, who continues to court a mystery cult to offset the obviousness of his limitations, or Jim Morrison, who simply crumbled under the weight of his own pomposity and alcoholism, Hendrix took us by raw force of talent. He was a genius, he knew it, and he recorded the most visionary music of the 20th century in less than four years. He may have camouflaged his insecurities with swagger, but beneath the peacock blouses and burning Fenders, he knew his quarrel was with the universe. Can you imagine what an incomprehensibly liberating and lonely burden it must be, to be the best alive? Consider that Prince, the most gifted and prolific artist of his generation, basically spent his entire career trying to out-Jimi Jimi. And here we are, in their long shadows, rocking as we grieve.

*

The Beatles’ catalog aside, is there a more mythic rock album than Are You Experienced? For those of you who didn’t waste your teen years worshipping at the altar of psychedelia, let me give you the Spark Notes version. After years of toiling as an itinerant hired gun for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix is “discovered” in 1966 by Linda Keith—Keith Richards’s then-girlfriend—who quickly becomes the guitarist’s confidant and cheerleader. Enter Chas Chandler, former member of the Animals and aspiring producer, who hears one Hendrix set in Greenwich Village, whips up a contract, and flies his new star to London where the Jimi Hendrix Experience is hastily assembled as a power trio to showcase Jimi’s unprecedented pyrotechnics. The frenetic Mitch Mitchell joins on drums, and rhythm guitarist Noel Redding makes the switch—with uneven results—to bass. In less than nine months, from late September 1966 to May 1967, Jimi Hendrix signed with a label, moved to a new country, formed a band, began songwriting in earnest, proved his prowess in the studio, flabbergasted the entire British rock scene, and released his first album to rave reviews. He did this while simultaneously transgressing boundaries of race, culture, and class, which would have otherwise maintained his invisibility forever. The tired platitudes we typically ascribe to albums like Are You Experienced—groundbreaking, ahead of its time—don’t come close to articulating this kind of sudden historic arrival. With a modest budget and a timid, under-rehearsed rhythm section comprised of two English guys who were essentially strangers, Hendrix made, in eight weeks, an album that would obliterate most bands’ greatest hits. At turns incendiary and lyrical, his playing on these eleven tracks was, and remains, the proverbial throwing-down-the-gauntlet for every guitarist who dares plug in after him. And yet, Jimi’s artistic range should ultimately endure as his greatest legacy. Sure, “Purple Haze” and “Fire” offer archetypal machismo, but “Hey Joe” demonstrates Jimi’s gifts as an intuitive arranger of others’ work, so much so that few remember it is a cover. (This happens again two years later, when his recording of “All Along the Watchtower” makes Bob Dylan forget Bob Dylan wrote it.) “Manic Depression” and “Love or Confusion” may be the earliest examples of popular music interrogating the messiness of obsession and mental health. “Foxey Lady” is sexiness personified. And for those of us who view Hendrix as a poet, “May This Be Love” and “The Wind Cries Mary” are among his most introspective, ethereal ballads. It must have seemed like braggadocio in the spring of 1967 when prospective buyers skimmed the rear sleeve of Are You Experienced, which claimed the album breaks the world into fragments, then reassembles it. Bless that writer, unnamed and underpaid. They got it right.

*

Hendrix learned how to play guitar with his teeth before he ever dropped acid. If we’re going to have an adult conversation, which I regard as the only kind worth having in a nation bloated with hype and bullshit, then we need to talk about Hendrix’s substance abuse. Was Jimi a junkie by the end? Probably. Did he record hundreds of songs and tour the world in a strung-out daze? Hardly. While the recording of Electric Ladyland, his final studio achievement, ultimately became a Warhol-esque orgy that racked up six figures in debt, ran over schedule, and took on all the trappings of excess, for most of his career Hendrix was the kind of musician who arrived early, stayed late, and remained ferociously perfectionist. At seventeen, aroused by the titular song’s cheeky reference to tripping, I believed that adolescent nonsense about exploratory drug use serving as a gateway to transcendent inspiration. Now, in middle age, I suspect that Jimi’s steady flow of dope and booze (and Scandinavian models) was his only—if dysfunctional—means of coping with the crippling artificiality of the music industry. Electric Ladyland became a masterpiece because each time the party ended, Jimi nudged the mics and tweaked the nobs and cut another take. Similarly, Are You Experienced endures as the most authoritative debut in rock history because after twenty years of rootless rambling, a poor kid from Seattle resolved to fly across an ocean, knowing his country couldn’t hear him yet. I once had a high school teacher snarl at me and say someday you’ll realize all that stuff you worship is just about drugs. He was an asshole. If he’s still alive, I hope he’s slowly suffocating in his bitterness. Only in America could we conflate our self-destruction with our dreams.

*

Reportedly, when Hendrix, who was one-fourth Cherokee, first saw the sleeve design for his second album, Axis: Bold As Love, with its psychedelic swirl of Hindu iconography, a laborious and extravagant cover that cost his label $5,000 ($36,000 today, calculated for inflation), he simply sighed, I’m the other kind of Indian. Like most people of color, Jimi was woke before we had a word for woke.

*

They get the guitar wrong. Perhaps you recall Pepsi’s 2004 Super Bowl ad, where Jimi Hendrix is a doe-eyed suburban kid who, after a sip of the aforementioned soda, hears the opening riff of “Purple Haze” roaring in his head. Out of my many grievances with this objectification, the wrong model of guitar belongs low on the list, after they depict the mid-1950s as serenely post-racial and they fictionalize an adolescent Jimi as leisurely middle-class and they butcher the poetry of a poor boy pulling a one-stringed ukulele out of the trash. Even still, I cannot abide the aching irony that the Fender hanging in the commercial’s idyllic pawn shop window is a Telecaster, an instrument Hendrix played sporadically (if at all), and not a Stratocaster, his signature axe that he popularized the world over. Since the marketers aren’t worth it, I’ll spare us an even more savage Freudian reading of this premise, which might begin with the topic sentence Pepsi unwittingly pitches their sugar poison as a gateway drug. Imagine the boardroom fogged with aftershave where young executives, all Jared Kushner lookalikes, walked through the storyboard for this dross, smug and self-assured it was cool. Imagine their salaries, their Jaguars, the walls of glass that separate them from the custodians who wipe down their cubicles. Imagine them at their rooftop soirees, tipsy after two microbrews, trying to impress each other’s women as they strum haltingly through a Dave Matthews number. Their sunsets are bonfire orange. Their coolers are full. They harmonize through perfect teeth.

*

I need to see him there, the sophomore with a head cold, drunk on screwdrivers, surrendering to night. Stacked beside his dorm desk are a dozen inter-library loans on Jimi Hendrix for a term paper he isn’t qualified to write. The sentences he’s pecked since dinner are forced, disjointed, overwrought: Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore, black power trio as black power statement, “Machine Gun” as magnum opus against Vietnam. His only hope to finish school is a third and final year of overloads. His meal plan is running out. A Goodwill turntable sizzles down the hours. He’s learning the terror of reducing a thing you love to an assignment. He’s learning some stories aren’t his to tell. Outside, he sparks a Parliament and watches its smoke arabesque into Pennsylvania snow. When he shuts his midnight eyes, he can feel the flakes drift down the gap around his jacket collar. He’s going to stand there a long time, leaning on a lamppost, humming at the storm.

—Adam Tavel

#16: Bob Dylan, "Blood on the Tracks" (1975)

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I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid, matching them with chords and melodies since I was a teenager. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I switched to an Apple computer that came with GarageBand, and found a midi keyboard, that I set out to record. Around that time, I was writing breakup songs, so my first self-published release was a breakup EP; I often wish I would’ve just kept the material to myself.

*

Fans and critics consider Bob Dylan’s 1975 release, Blood on the Tracks, a touchstone breakup album, but don’t tell him that. “I’ve read that that album had to do with my divorce,” Dylan remarked to interviewer Bill Flannagan in 1985. “Well, I didn’t get divorced till four years after that.” In the Biograph liner notes that same year, Dylan called those critics who saw a personal connection “stupid and misleading jerks.”

So Blood on the Tracks, at least, is an album of romantic separation, as referenced in the aching “If You See Her, Say Hello,” Dylan intoning, “Although our separation / it pierced me to the heart.” This separation parallels Dylan’s pre-divorce split with his wife of nearly a decade, Sara. In Dylan’s memoir, though, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan gestures to Blood on the Tracks as “an entire album based on Chekhov short stories—critics thought it was autobiographical—that was fine.”

It’s often difficult to take Dylan at his word. Online message boards float the idea that, by hinting at a Chekhov connection, Dylan was toying with his obsessive fanbase, sending them on a fruitless hunt through Chekhov’s stories for references and allusions. And they have, identifying a potential source text in Chekhov’s short story “The Steppe,” which begins as the album does: “Early one morning.” What’s more, the phrase “tracks of blood” appears in the story, proving… not much.

It’s more likely Dylan doesn’t want us to know where the songs came from—if he even knows. He wants us, instead, to appraise the tracks separately from his life. He wants us to leave him out of it.

Yet doleful songs like “If You See Her, Say Hello,” or the woman who was “married when we first met / soon to be divorced” in “Tangled Up in Blue,” or the backhanded compliment, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” do invoke Sara Dylan, implying some degree of personal connection.

“I’m going out of my mind, whoa,” Dylan wails in “You’re a Big Girl Now”: “With a pain that stops and starts / like a corkscrew to my heart / ever since we’ve been apart.” Never has Dylan expressed himself with such rawness, rendered heartbreak as such devastation. If this song isn’t autobiographical, then there truly is no such thing as listening to the “real” Dylan.

By the same token, Dylan has said that his songs come from an autobiographical place. “Songs are just thoughts; for the moment they stop time,” Dylan told Flannagan. “I usually have to have proof that something exists before I even want to bother to deal with it at all. It must exist, it must have happened, or the possibility of it happening must have some meaning for me.” So Dylan’s material emerges from experience—from dreams rather than fantasies, he said, and later wrote in Chronicles that “a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.” But those facts don’t box Bob Dylan, or Bobby Zimmerman, or whoever Dylan is into his songs.

*

I know where my songs came from: my breakup. I dated my now-ex through my late twenties. We moved to Boston together before breaking up. Around the same time, I got that MacBook Air and Line 6 midi keyboard.

There were six songs inspired by my ex, most written while we were still together and living in Tallahassee, and they arrived in various ways. The first came in a dream:

We’re light years apart
We’re farther than far
We’re satellites in orbit
Around two different stars

I rolled out of bed to my keyboard, found a spacey mode and key for the chords and melody, and finished the song the same morning. When I played it for my now-ex, she asked who it was about. I told her it was a fictional account of a troubled couple; my untruth seemed to satisfy her.

In the following weeks, another melody percolated up from my subconscious, and one day while lying on the couch in the three-room duplex we’d rented, I heard it for the first time in full. The lines, “This is something like torture / this is something like what torture is,” boomed in my brain, reflecting our inability or unwillingness to communicate in any honest or productive way. The scrap repeated in my head, running 3/4 time, with oohing background vocals. It made a fitting soundtrack for my unvocalized feelings.

Meanwhile a slow ska chord progression I’d banged out on the keyboard gradually took on some lyrics that went:

Girl I’m not happy being miserable
You’d better get that anger under control
I’m not saying I’m a perfect guy
But you got that homicidal look in your eye

These words I didn’t sing aloud, at least not in her presence.

But then, as if to remind myself of the domestic bright sides—the shared meals, the companionship, the inside jokes and banter—a brighter song occurred to me. “You and I got a good thing goin’,” it began. “Got a shotgun shack where our love’s still growin’.” There were upsides to this relationship, too, and in my mind this song developed as a celebration of our heterodomesticity.

Whatever optimism “Tallahassee” mustered didn’t last long. Another tune, “Didn’t Get Me,” developed from a recriminatory nugget: “You got everything you wanted / but you didn’t get me.” Near the end of the relationship, she moved to Boston a couple months ahead of me, as she’d gotten a new job in a glittering downtown tower, and I still had summer classes to teach. I cleared out our duplex, loaded my 2001 Chrysler Sebring sedan with the rest of our belongings and our two cats, and made the three-day drive alone, singing, You didn’t get me.

Two weeks later in Boston, I ended it, citing a dearth of affection, intimacy, communication. The fallout was nasty, but we split our things and went separate ways. Weeks later I was riding the city bus, on my way to my new teaching gig, when another melody arose, airy and ethereal: “I don’t wanna leave the past behind / don’t drive me from the ruins of my mind.” I missed her sometimes; that realization brought me relief, helped me feel like less of a loveless goon. It took months to find the melody, the chords, to record a demo.

Nothing was forced. It all came with time. Such an organic creative product must have integrity, right? Mustn’t it be correct?

*

So I get what Dylan means when he says the songs just come, as if he plucks them from the air. I remember each song’s arrival from seemingly elsewhere; yet I also maintain a sense of the events and emotions that prompted each tune. A composition, however, can reveal the circumstances of its creation: what the artist was reading, studying, thinking and feeling at the time. Likewise, the opening track of Blood on the Tracks, “Tangled Up in Blue,” belies Dylan’s influences. Those open, swelling chords provide Dylan’s speaker a platform for “standin’ on the side of the road /… / Heading out for the east coast,” launching into an American journey as epic as any laid down by Steinbeck or Kerouac, Ginsberg or Wolfe.

Dylan himself, when talking to Flannagan, invoked other modes of art to describe the song’s genesis. “I wanted to defy time,” Dylan said, “so that the story took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.” These new temporal connections renewed Dylan’s writing like a shot in the arm, and Dylan attributed the concept to his lessons from the painter Norman Raeben. The methodology concerned accessing the space where past, present, and future overlap. “I was trying to do it in a conscious way,” Dylan told Flannagan, “it” being inspired, impassioned songwriting. “I used to be able to do it in an unconscious way, but I wasn’t into it that way anymore.”

At the same time, Dylan exported his new artistic vision into his home life, deepening the rift in his marriage. “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day,” Dylan said. “She never knew what I was talking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.”

Others couldn’t understand it, either. Dylan tested out the songs with blues-guitar whizz Mike Bloomfield, who hadn’t recorded with Dylan since Highway 61 Revisited. “It was one of the worst social and musical experiences of my life,” Bloomfield later said.

Likewise, Dylan tried out the material on Stephen Stills; according to Graham Nash, Stills later remarked, “He’s a good songwriter, but he’s no musician.”

Even in the studio, Dylan hurried the recording, as if he couldn’t sit with this material a day longer. During those four days in New York City, September 1974, Dylan would run through changes for the next song while everyone present was trying to listen to the previous take. He’d switch songs in the middle of a take. Eventually he trimmed the studio musicians down to just himself and the bass player.

For these takes, apparently, Dylan didn’t even remove his coat, as the buttons can be heard clacking against the body of his guitar—noisy friction indicative of Dylan’s psychic discord.

*

I played it all myself. The keyboard sounds, the layers of piano, guitar, bass, and more. I recorded myself beating on a ceramic drum, along with a shaker and a tambourine. I hauled in pots from the kitchen and smacked them with drum sticks. I resorted to the midi sounds to flesh out the percussion with snare, symbols, high hat, and bass drum. With the tracks laid out on in GarageBand I listened closely, ironing out sour notes, bad timing—even with the aid of a metronome, I couldn’t help rushing the beat. I read websites about vocal recording, learned about audio mixing. I became absorbed in nailing the arrangements, tweaking the solos until they hit just the right notes.

I stole away from my writing, teaching, studying, to work on the songs. And when summer came, I played all afternoon, broke for dinner, and resumed late into the night, then laid in bed unable to sleep, the sounds running loops through my mind. In the morning, I listened for my roommates to leave so I could wail out my lyrics, essaying different inflections. I grew so close with the material I couldn’t tell anymore if it was good, or bad, or even representative of me as an artist. I could only trust the process.

Second Person came to me as an apt title, since all the songs were told from that perspective, focused on my ex-girlfriend and the arc of our relationship. I hoped to bring a factual, reportage style into my songwriting, pumping the songs with details. I sang jokingly in “Tallahassee” about how our cats “match our personalities,” hers was “full of cuddles” and mine, “full of fleas.” In “Outta Your Heart” I complained about her “angry temper” because, after all, I was her “live-in boyfriend … The guy whose name’s beside yours on the lease.” Even more specific, amid the enumerations in “Didn’t Get Me” I mentioned her “lime-green Kia,” her “tattoo of a dog” that “looks like its puking flowers.” Each of these inclusions stemmed from an aesthetic decision to seek the universal in the particular, the poetic in the personal. I’d written about my experiences plainly, all in attempt to affect a style of realism, of immediacy. Such was my training as a nonfiction writer. I hoped to bring these storytelling elements into my songwriting.

I set a release date, worked on the album cover—the yawning jaws of the fat black cat my ex had adopted then left in my care—set up an account on BandCamp and continued moving notes, adjusting volumes, toggling levels. Tinkering till the end.

*

Dylan finished his album and sent it off to Columbia, who planned to release it in time for Christmas, 1974. When Dylan returned to Minnesota for the holidays, he brought the album, pre-release, and played it for his younger brother, David Zimmerman, a record producer in his own right. David convinced Dylan the product he had—dark, limp, morose—would do nothing for his career. So Dylan phoned Columbia at the eleventh hour to halt the release. David put together a session with local Minnesota musicians to re-record five of the ten songs. The group met in Minneapolis in late December, attempted to mimic the sound of Highway 61 Revisited as best they could, and as a result played their way onto half the album’s songs. To the band’s disappointment, when the album finally hit stores on January 20, 1975, none of them had received any credit on the cover, which had already been printed.

Despite their anonymity, the group resurrected much of the album. “Tangled Up in Blue” changed from pensive folk to hangdog rock. From groaning about the “Idiot wind / blowing every time you move your mouth,” Dylan now shouted the invective: “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” In that song, the story scraps about a “man named Gray” distance Dylan from his speaker, though the verse sneering to the song’s female target that one day she’ll lie “in the ditch / flies buzzing around your eyes / blood on your saddle” stands as the album’s most venomous lash, and Dylan knew it. “I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind,’” Dylan told Flannagan. “I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. Which might be the same thing, I don’t know.”

*

My album spat its own venom. Yet I hoped the bookend confessions of ambivalent affection would bring it full circle. So I shared the links to social media, garnering a modest number of likes and comments, a couple shares. BandCamp’s statistics showed that several dozen people listened to the first track that first day, though less than half proceeded through the whole album. It wasn’t until the second day, when a comment popped up on my Facebook from a friend of my ex, that I knew there’d be pushback. “Is this for real?” she wrote with a straight-faced emoticon glaring from the screen.

My ex and I were no longer in communication, but I soon heard through some backchannels that she wasn’t happy. She didn’t like the reportage-style of the lyrics, felt they were one-sided, but that was all I heard. My mom emailed that she found the album “disturbing” and preached forgiveness. But when I pressed her on what exactly she was reacting to, she recanted, writing what she found disturbing was the fact I’d gone through such an experience, and that the words she should’ve used were “entertaining, satirical… a combo of Dylan and Weird Al.” A friend texted me that, “It’s great!... You should be proud.” Another blurted out that “Tallahassee” was “goofy as hell!”

One well-meaning, middle-aged man from Houston whom I’d met years earlier at a writers’ retreat wrote that he loved the songs, adding, “One or two are slightly misogynistic (but in the best sense of the word if that’s politically correct)!” I had to wonder, what was the best sense of “misogyny”?

I’d always imagined playing my songs for others, anticipating their reactions; now people had real opinions. And they all seemed to feel something different. By tracking the listens, I got the sense I’d failed to reach an audience beyond people I already knew. So my curiosity lingered: What did my EP sound like beyond my own social spheres?

Six weeks after the release, I received an email from a small album-review website. They said they liked the album (they liked it!), and that they’d review it, for a price.

I sent them sixty dollars and a couple weeks later, the review came out: 3.4 out of 5 stars. “Frivolous and quirky” the reviewer called the lyrics and delivery. The vocals, he wrote, were “something that you would hear on a kid’s show.” He latched onto the fact that “Tallahassee” didn’t “attempt any metaphors, puns, etc.,” and that the second track, “Farther Than Far,” has a “sing-along type vibe about 101 astronomy.” After those first two tracks, the rest of the album, though not “appropriate for children,” hardly seemed to register. The mix, he wrote, “was about average for home recording.” I bristled at the criticism, but his comments began to clarify the weaknesses in my first release. While I’d been focusing on the content of specific lines, in truth, my voice and word choice, along with the limitations of my home studio, were preventing wider appeal.

*

In the wake of my brief breakup album, the keyboards I’d played so diligently collected dust. I re-dedicated myself to my writing. Music just isn’t my primary mode of expression. Writing is. So here I am.

For Dylan, the inverse is true. He surmounts criticism of his songs with more songs. He writes songs any time of day. He writes them in cars, on the road. He writes them in his head while chatting with people, while milling in a crowd. And he enjoys how the songs don’t linger around; he gets them out and gets on with his life.

It’s time I do the same.

—Paul Haney

#28: The Who, "Who's Next" (1971)

28 Whos Next.png

The idea behind the Who’s aborted Lifehouse project was simple enough—in the future, everybody lives in special suits, through which the Government feeds non-stop entertainment to keep citizens numb and distracted. Then one day, a roadie named Bobby discovers that rock and roll music might have the power, through the performance of a perfect, “universal note,” to free these hyper-connected men and women from their digital shackles, and maybe, too, provide some sort of spiritual transcendence. As far as the first part of all that goes, looking at it in 2019, it’s an easy idea to wrap our heads around, sort of Fahrenheit 451 meets The Matrix meets the actual internet. What’s so difficult about any of that?

*

Obviously Townshend’s idea turned out to be more difficult than it sounded, as Lifehouse was never completed, becoming one of the most desired lost albums in rock history. All was not lost, though—Lifehouse ultimately became Who’s Next, one of the great albums of the classic rock era.

*

But to Pete Townshend, an album like Who’s Next wasn’t initially perceived as being enough. The impetus for Lifehouse was the success of Tommy. That is, the Who’s star, after a meteoric rise on the strength of early singles, fell into decline almost as quickly, with Sell Out, their 1967 classic, being their first LP not to crack the UK top ten. Across the pond, album sales were steadily increasing with each album, but the band still hadn’t wormed their way into the top forty on the LP charts—until Tommy. Tommy reintroduced the Who in England, and announced their coming out as a major act in the States. As such, as soon as the Who started thinking about what to do after Tommy, Pete Townshend was worried that the band would be perceived as having peaked were it incapable of somehow “topping” their beloved rock opera. Townshend became obsessed with doing just that. That’s where Lifehouse came from. And, really, that’s the only place an idea as convoluted as Lifehouse could come from.

*

To be fair, this is a fairly common place for lost albums to come from. The Beach Boys’ Smile was driven by Brian Wilson’s desire to surpass Pet Sounds. The project fell apart due to the pressure Wilson was putting on himself and his declining mental health. Prince’s The Black Album was driven by his desire to answer calls that his music had become too pop-oriented, and was shelved for years because he came to believe the album was evil. Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams was never realized due to the weight of a heavy concept—one side would be a history of America, the second side social commentary. Even Guided By Voices lost a number of albums to big ambitions, with a number of “shitcanned” albums, going by names like The Power of Suck and The Flying Party Is Here, eventually evolving and converging into Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the album that would follow Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, Pollard et al’s two undisputed masterpieces. For these “lost” albums, however, Pollard’s desire to produce a strong follow up was further complicated by his hyper-prolificacy and Matador’s desire that the band release only an album a year—by the time the new album could be released, Pollard’s body of current work had shed and regrown its skin, twice.

*

Of course, it’s rare for lost albums to stay lost forever. Smile was famously released twice, first as a Brian Wilson solo LP in the mid-00’s, and later as a Beach Boys sanctioned reconstruction from original studio recordings. The Black Album? It was released briefly in 1994. As for Lifehouse, like Chrome Dreams and those lost Guided By Voices releases, fans have reconstructed the album from outtakes and official releases, using studio notes, books, and published interviews to guide sequencing. These versions can be found fairly easily online.

*

Still, there is not, and almost certainly never will be, a full, finished, “canonical” version of Lifehouse. At least as an album, anyway. See, Lifehouse does exist as a radio drama, and as a “sessions” box set, and will, in 2020, also exist as a graphic novel. Honestly, that’s all Lifehouse should be, because, instead of Lifehouse, we have Who’s Next, born almost entirely from songs that had been recorded for Lifehouse (John Entwistle’s “My Wife” being the only one that never seemed earmarked for the failed album). For a project that failed so spectacularly, it’s odd to realize that many of the songs that had been recorded for Lifehouse are among the band’s best: “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes”—these have all become a part of popular culture, were part of popular culture before Who songs were adopted as opening credit anthems for CBS crime scene procedurals. Your friend’s parents might not know that it’s called “Baba O’Riley,” but the minute they hear that song’s opening synths and its iconic “teenage wasteland” refrain, they know exactly what song they’re listening to. A song from a failed album.

*

It’s clear that Lifehouse didn’t fail, was never going to fail, because of its songs. The songs were always there. No, the problem with Lifehouse was part narrative, part conceptual—that is, Townshend’s ideas for the narrative of Lifehouse were so convoluted and intricate that the rest of the band couldn’t keep up. Conceptually, too, Townshend’s ideas moved beyond the realm of reason into a bizarre notion of spirituality. As part of the album’s concept, the band booked a residency at the Young Vic theatre, with some heady goals, as described by Townshend: “We want to see how far the interaction [between audience and band] can be taken . . . I don’t seriously expect people to leave their bodies. But I think we might go further than rock concerts have gone before.” Townshend added, at a later press conference, “We shall try to induce mental and spiritual harmony through the medium of rock music.” Lifehouse had no prayer of succeeding.

*

Still, Lifehouse came remarkably close to becoming an actual album. Close enough that somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is a reality in which Pete Townshend completed the album. There is almost certainly not, however, a universe in which rock and roll music caused an audience to transcend their physical trappings, and no universe in which a perfect note came to embody spiritual awakening, or unity, or whatever it was that Townshend was going for.

*

When Pete Townshend tried to explain the various ideas comprising Lifehouse to the rest of the Who, Roger Daltrey famously struggled to understand how such a world was possible, saying, of the premise that all homes and people are connected, “They’ll never get enough wire.”

*

The cover of Who’s Next features the Who standing around a giant pylon in some sort of post-industrial wasteland. There are piss stains on the concrete object. Townshend appears to be refastening his belt. The band, we are to believe, have just finished urinating on the concrete object. There are theories that this cover was selected to imply that the Who were pissing all over the idea of Townshend’s masterpiece that would never be. If the lore is to be believed, though, the image came together organically when the band, driving with photographer Ethan A. Russell, saw the giant concrete block and decided it was a good spot for a photo. As it happens, the only member of the band who was able to actually piss on command was Townshend, with the photographer or an assistant splashing rain water from a tin on to the concrete, giving the appearance of at least one other member having pissed. Maybe Townshend liked the idea of pissing over his own failed narrative and conceptual ideas for Lifehouse. Or maybe the piss photo had nothing to do with any of that, was just some rock and rollers blowing off some steam.

*

And maybe this is, at least in part, some of the charm of Who’s Next. Townshend was all set to provide us with his second narrative concept album about how white rock and roll music could deliver us from evil, but instead, we ended up with just an exceptional collection of songs, sans narrative and concept—just some rock and rollers blowing off steam. There is no heavy handed symbolism holding the songs back, no convoluted narrative. Maybe Who’s Next is the greatest argument ever made against the artistic viability of concept albums. Maybe the Who and some of their contemporaries could have learned a thing or two from the failure of Lifehouse and the stunning success of Who’s Next. I guess that’s easy to say in retrospect.

*

Having listened to a couple Lifehouse reconstructions, I can say confidently that Who’s Next is the better album, by far. The bloat and mess of Lifehouse obscures the power of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Buries the beauty of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Defangs “Bargain.” Maybe, had Lifehouse been released instead of Who’s Next, it would have been just as much or even more of a classic, but I doubt that. Who’s Next was tight, powerful, brilliant. It showed the world that the Who didn’t need to do musical theater to make important music—they could still be just a killer rock band. So, why am I spending so much time writing about Lifehouse in this essay that’s supposed to be about Who’s Next? Because even though I know Who’s Next is better than Lifehouse could have ever been, I can’t shake the lost album’s mythology.

*

Consider this: what is the enduring legacy of Smile now that it more or less exists? The night that Brian Wilson’s version of Smile was set to be released, my friend Seth and I drove all over Dayton at midnight, looking for a twenty-four hour big box store that had already put its copies out on the shelves. When we found a copy, I don’t remember where, we drove up I-75 listening, then stopped at a Waffle House. We’d both known about the album for years, had listened to bootleg studio outtakes and half-formed reconstructions, had fantasized about it. For my part, I believed it would be the greatest pop record ever made. After that first listen, when Seth and I talked about the album, we were both in awe, sort of. Not long, maybe a year after the album was released, I downloaded the beloved “purple chick” reconstruction, which used original Beach Boys outtakes to piece the album together. When an official Beach Boys version was released a few years later, I bought, that, too—and sure, it’s the closest we can get to Smile, but it’s still not Smile, not the way it would have existed in 1967. I thought of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys as a contemporary American take on Pierre Menard, but instead of trying to “arrive at” the text of Don Quixote, word for word, in a contemporary context, Wilson and the Beach Boys were trying to recreate that text out of their own, original context, and in doing so, had somehow breached the authenticity that music fans crave. This is when I came to understand that I would never know Smile the way I wanted to, could never know Lifehouse.

*

Maybe the idea of authenticity in pop music is absurd. Is Lifehouse such an alluring idea because it was Pete Townshend’s original idea for the Who’s follow up to Tommy? Though I recognize that Who’s Next is the superior album, part of me still yearns to hear the original concept as Townshend originally intended. Just like I want to hear a 1967-released version of Smile, or a fully sequenced and mastered version of Jimi Hendrix’s fourth album, or a ‘70s-released version of Chrome Dreams. But none of these things can ever happen. And so if the “authentic” release in its “authentic” context can never be realized, what is the point of desiring these things? Isn’t what exists, be it officially released or cobbled together by fans, enough? Shouldn’t we respect the artistic process in which some ideas fail and newer, better ideas rise to the surface? I’ve written multiple drafts of this essay, trying to find the right balance between discussions of Lifehouse and Who’s Next, and discussions of “lost albums.” My original intent was bigger and messier, but this version is stronger. Maybe albums like Lifehouse and Smile are different because their creators are the ones who can’t quite let them go. If the creative muscle driving the music believes something great was lost when the album was shelved, maybe, it seems, we should carry a torch for that album as well?

We shouldn’t. Ultimately, Lifehouse is an unnecessary footnote in the history of the Who. Who’s Next may not have been Pete Townshend’s first, authentic vision of the project, but Townshend’s vision for Lifehouse failed, and as should happen with bands, all four members picked up the pieces of one member’s failure and turned that failure into one of the classic rock era’s true masterpieces.

—James Brubaker

#17: Nirvana, "Nevermind" (1991)

17 Nevermind.jpg

Truly undisputed generation-defining rock songs don’t come along very often.

The first time Nirvana played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” live was in April 1991. They recorded it in May, and that September, it became the first single off the band’s second full-length album and major-label debut Nevermind, a record that would knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the number-one spot on the U.S. Billboard 200 in January 1992.

The first time I ever heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was live—exactly three months before its release, at a show in Denver. The band had finished recording Nevermind in Van Nuys with producer Butch Vig not more than a month before, and they were already back on tour. They played after a blistering set by angular noise rockers The Jesus Lizard and were opening for the deafening Dinosaur Jr. As a drummer, I was sizing up the new guy, Dave Grohl. I had designs. Maybe if he couldn’t hack it, I’d introduce myself after the show and those two weirdos from Aberdeen would let me take over. Heh.

And then it happened. Kurt Cobain played the now-famous funky-discordant opening riff and Grohl came in like a goddamn clap of thunder.

Bleck-esh-da-bleck-esh-da-bleck-esh-da-BLOOM!

It was like a bomb went off in my head. I immediately started thrashing around, barely able to see the stage between the hair and the headbanging and all the air guitar and air drums I was simultaneously “playing.” And then Cobain got quiet.

“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” he said later about the song’s loud-quiet-loud structure, and I was big into the Pixies for sure but never connected it then. There was very little intellectualizing. The song was angry and gorgeous and foreign and new and familiar at the same time. I could make out few actual lyrics, but it didn’t matter because you could tell Kurt meant it. He wasn’t a tough-guy metalhead with chops for days, he was a pissed-off outsider whose guitar sounded like a chainsaw that also made vaguely guitar-like sounds too.

That set was a huge leap forward from their first album Bleach and even the SubPop single “Sliver/Dive,” which we wore out on my college radio show back home in Manhattan, Kansas. When the CD single for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came in the mail three months later, I cranked it as loud as it would go, reliving that glorious moment, jumping around like an asshole. After it was over, I rushed into the station manager’s office and beckoned him down the hall.

“You gotta hear this,“ I said, out of breath, putting it on again. “This.” I paused for dramatic effect—and I swear to God this is true—I said, “This is the future of pop music.”

For a brief moment, the guy who was raised on classic rock like Yes, Styx, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, paused to listen. And then he shrugged and said: “Well, maybe pop music according to Eric Melin.

That, in a nutshell, was why Nirvana was OURS. Late ‘80s indie-rock bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du had been simmering just below the mainstream for some time, but when Nirvana released Nevermind, it felt like Cobain had distilled all the fuzzed-out guitars, the sardonic humor, and the go-for-broke (pardon the reference) spirit borne out of bands who lived permanently in vans—and created a touring circuit in all ages clubs and shitty dive bars out of sheer will because they were so fed up with all the bullshit posturing passing for rock ‘n’ roll on the radio.

Rock wasn’t about rebellion anymore. It was about the appearance of being dangerous while playing it safer than ever and selling out. Van Hagar had just released an album titled For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge—F.U.C.K.—get it? Metallica hired a producer named Bob Rock (not kidding) to tone down their signature sound and get on the radio. (They were so far gone, they even released their “black” album seven years after parody-band Spinal Tap did it.) U2 had gone dance with Achtung Baby, and Guns N’ Roses were so far up their own asses, it took them a year and a half to make a bloated, self-important double album that was immediately dated (and virtually unlistenable) the moment it was released. 1991 was so shitty for mainstream rock that even Skid Row had a number-one album for one week. Skid Row!

The cover of Nevermind features a naked baby swimming to reach a dollar bill on a fish hook.

Nevermind is overflowing with 12 pure pop pleasures loaded to the gills with piss and shit and vinegar. Sure, with Andy Wallace mixing, it’s slicker than most of the independent rock of the day, but it rocks. Hard. Without showing off. Without vocal calisthenics. Without traditional guitar solos. And oh, the hooks. Kurt’s melodies are insanely infectious, he delivers them in two modes; either he’s shredding his voice to pieces or it’s cracking under the weight of his emotions.

The lyrics draw a clear line of demarcation. It’s us versus them. With “In Bloom,” Cobain is prescient about the meathead dumbshits who will soon be taken in by his hummable refrains and not even understand he’s making fun of them:

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
and he likes to sing a long and he likes to shoot his gun
but he don’t know what it means

Sometime right after Nevermind was released and before “Teen Spirit” was everywhere, I crashed a big house party with some like-minded friends. We took out the AC/DC cassette that had been playing on the stereo all night and slipped in Nevermind. The reaction was immediate, and we got all kinds of dirty looks. It didn’t last long. Finally: “Turn that punk shit off!”

It seems almost funny to consider an album that’s sold 30 million copies worldwide “punk,” but consider the perspective. This album signaled to classic rockers that everything they thought they knew about rock ‘n’ roll was about to change. The song “Territorial Pissings” features bassist Krist Novoselic mocking the Youngbloods’ peace-and-love anthem “Get Together” right before Cobain’s threatening guitar riff barrels into Grohl’s lightning-fast snare roll. The chorus “Gotta find a way / a better way / I better wait” signals both Kurt’s need to lash out at the status quo and his reluctance to commit to anything going forward.

Even though the band seemed like relative newcomers to the scene, Cobain was steeped in indie-rock history and had a deep respect for DIY rockers of all types, taking every interview and photo shoot as an opportunity to expose the public to someone like Bikini Kill, the Melvins, or the Vaselines. He didn’t want the mantle of generational spokesperson, but he tried to spread the word about the underground music he was passionate about.

As with anything pure and right and good and true, Nirvana couldn’t last. It was over way too quickly. Their place in history as spoilers remains, and for a good decade or so, bands like Motley Crue, Def Leppard, and Poison had to put their leather pants in the closet because they couldn’t be taken seriously. But the rise of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and shitty wannabe sound-alike grunge babies like Stone Temple Pilots gave way to a second and third wave of talentless hacks who got it all wrong and exploited the “Seattle sound,” changing modern rock radio forever with that goddamned warbly moaning that’s supposed to denote artistic sensibility but is actually the first sign of complete and total fakery.

What does Nirvana have that none of those other bands will ever have? Songs. Real fucking songs. Well-crafted pop tunes—with timeless lyrics and haunting melodies. You know, like the Beatles. And even though Cobain always seemed like he was on the outside looking in, his music had a unique ability to make us feel like we weren’t alone, even when we knew the world was stacked against us.

Nevermind was more than an album, it was a fucking movement. And fuck Michael Jackson, Nevermind was the real “dangerous.”

The day after Kurt’s body was discovered on April 8, 1994, I was walking across the street on my way into work and a pickup truck with three redneck shitheels in it drove by.

“Why don’t you kill yourself like Kurt Cobain, you long-haired faggot?” they yelled at me.

Some things never change.

—Eric Melin

#18: Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run" (1975)

18 Born to Run.jpg

The sun is finally starting to retreat into late afternoon, offering a little relief from the humid New Jersey summer. My arms and shoulders, despite my attempt at sunscreen, will undoubtedly blister tomorrow; they sting and radiate a heat all their own. My face has been, mercifully, mostly spared from the UV rays, thanks to my boyfriend’s mother insisting I take a hot pink floppy straw hat to shade me. My boyfriend and I trek across the boardwalk back to his car, carrying our towels, water bottles, and other beach paraphernalia, sand sliding in and out of our sandals. I am deeply grateful for the air conditioning in this modest sedan, and also for its radio: just a few hours earlier, I blurted out my first “I love you” while watching the waves with him—a sentimental move if there ever was one—and wanted whatever Fourth of July Holiday Countdown was on to cover up all the not-talking I was doing.

And the number one American Countdown jam is Bruce Springsteen playing “Jersey Girl” live. Who doesn’t love a Jersey Girl, huh? Enjoy this Tom Waits cover, and keep it tuned here for more holiday weekend music!

I perk up, and stare at the radio. I have never been interested in Springsteen before, but am intrigued by this homage to Tom Waits. I listen along.

“Do you want me to take you to where Springsteen’s from?” my boyfriend asks. “We’re not that far.”

On the way to Asbury Park, we pass sub-developments with looming McMansions, strip malls with Coach and Michael Kors and Le Creuset among their tenants. We drive past the Stone Pony, with my boyfriend offering the important musical history of the venue. The sun is setting behind the building, pink and orange and periwinkle fanning across the horizon. It is stunning, but I am also thinking about how we will have to go home eventually—in this case to his childhood home, where we are staying. This is the weekend I met his parents.

Not that it went badly. But it also did not unfold the way I hoped, exactly. The first question his father asked me over dinner last night was what I did for a living. I recently started work at a large health insurance company. And my parents? I took a long gulp of cabernet before answering. My mother has worked in various part time roles in a grocery store for several decades, along with the bulk of the childcare responsibilities. My father took a job as a custodian at the local high school, but was a skilled lithographer before the advent of Photoshop replaced that industry. I took another long gulp at the end, to unstick my tongue from the rest of my impossibly dry mouth. It felt to me like a scene from a Regency era novel, the kind where a suitor’s worthiness is being assessed. It is hard to feel proud of these origins—which I am—when the person you are dating went to elite boarding schools for eight years, and then to a selective small liberal arts college on scholarships. When I recovered, I quickly added that I purchased my own home at 24.

At the end of the weekend, my boyfriend offers a moment of vulnerability: he is nervous about the doctoral program he will start in just a few weeks. It is stressful and overwhelming, and, like many people about to embark on a PhD, he has concerns about being a failure. I want to comfort him, and I do—but it is mostly accomplished by my hugging him, rather than my claim that failure is relative, and that what constitutes success is highly individual. While probably true, it is questionable who, exactly, I’m trying to reassure with philosophical claims like that.

As I drive home, I hear the DJ introduce a Springsteen song (I’m still in Jersey, after all), and listen with a new interest. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” comes on, a song I recognize, but never realized who performed it. Something is trying to surface as I listen, and it’s the realization that I most often heard this song performed live by a cover band my dad was in while I was growing up. They played a range of basic rock hits, and would play at bars and local events—sometimes even the town’s 4th of July party on the public green. They had a saxophonist, and always struggled to find material that would include him. My father despises Springsteen, quick to chime in with “he’s not my boss” anytime his music comes on the radio or people mention him in conversation.

It is rather striking, actually, that someone who is perceived as an icon for blue-collar America has a nickname so fraught with authority.

*

Four years later, I’m head-to-toe in J. Crew, out to a moderately upscale dinner on a business trip in the Philadelphia suburbs. After a long day of intense meetings for a Process Improvement Initiative, a meal out together to decompress is required. Dinner is on the company card, so it is a feast. While alcohol is not included, it flows as if it is. It feels a little bit like Mad Men, with my black wool peplum dress and red blazer, knocking back vodka sodas, the blood of steaks pooling in everyone’s plates. I am awkward and soft-spoken in large groups, but suddenly, here, I am charming: they are laughing at my jokes, and leaning in, rapt, when I outline work-related suggestions. Is this what power feels like?

I am new to this world, but know enough to just follow the lead of the others, including sneaking away from my plate for an outside interlude of menthol cigarettes, exhaling into the cool spring night. Unlike most environments, smoking is not a trashy habit in this context, but something indulgent that is earned by those who are overcommitted to their work. A man who I’ve been working closely with on some troubleshooting pulls me aside.

“Have you thought any more about our conversation earlier?” Just outside the conference room that afternoon, when we were about to break for lunch, he told me he was impressed with my work, and was also looking to hire someone for his team soon. The position would be an enormous raise, and includes an option to work from home.

I nod. “Definitely interested. Thanks for thinking of me.” I smile before turning away to dispel my drag. I’m trying not to look too eager but also not disinterested. It strikes me that networking is not unlike a strange flirtation, a feeling that produces a faint souring in my stomach. Although it could just be all that heavy food swimming in vodka.

I check out of my hotel in the morning, and say my goodbyes at the local office branch, making sure to thank my boss for putting me up in such a nice room. I am the only one from my office in Connecticut who was invited to this meeting, and it would’ve been free to just dial in from my desk there. She is a loud woman in her late 40s, with big hair and blue eyeliner. She is known for being a bit bullish, and on weekends you can often find her on a motorcycle. I don’t think she went to college, and has worked her way up to a Very High Rank at our company after many years of service. We get along great. I think we understand each other, both of us valuing the intricacies of procedure and doing things right, and also sharing perhaps some similar strains of imposter syndrome reserved for women who grew up working class. I go to shake her hand, and she pulls me in for a tight hug goodbye.

I walk into the parking lot, laptop bag slung over my shoulder, heels clicking on the blacktop. It is a perfect day—blue and clear and temperate—and I am giddy, despite that I’ll be behind the wheel for at least three hours on such a beautiful afternoon. The minute I turn the key, the piano and harmonica of “Thunder Road” fills my car, and I smile. Born to Run has been in my CD player for weeks. It is undeniably a great album to drive to: high-energy and triumphant, sing-alongable, making even an arduous trip—like my drive in on I-95, over the Tappan Zee, through dense Northern Jersey highways—feel less miserable. I also smile because I’m not going back the way I came, but heading further west, to stay with my boyfriend for the weekend, and the drive is half as long from here as it normally is from my home.

The route is different from this far south, with plenty of highway, but also lazy cows meandering in green fields, smaller routes zigzagging between mountains. My mind wanders to what it might feel like not to have to drive like this anymore: no morning rush hour commute, no marathon drives to the middle of Pennsylvania only to turn around two days later and do it again in reverse. Springsteen’s voice, as hoarse as a construction foreman, brings me back to the double lines in front of me. I read recently in a feature article that Springsteen went straight from trying to book shows at Jersey bars to skyrocketing stardom; this was over the course of several years, but the point being that, despite the themes of his work, he never held a traditional job or had to answer to a supervisor.

I glance at the laptop bag in the passenger’s seat, along with my heels, tossed off to drive in something comfortable, and feel a kind of kinship with Springsteen: both performers in our own ways, faking our way through until it works. With more practice, could I do it even better at my interview in a few weeks? The next time I sat around that kitchen table in New Jersey?

And do I even want to? There is no track on Born to Run that shows us what Wendy and the other characters in the songs do when they leave that town; how unsatisfying to think of them as bankers and real estate agents and the things most people become when they say they’re “getting out.” The mile markers tick by on the shoulder of the road. I tap along on the steering wheel, perking up when I notice I’m just 15 miles from my boyfriend’s apartment. I shout along with the words, the most American of rock anthems to cheer me on, almost there.

—Lisa Mangini

#30: Joni Mitchell, "Blue" (1971)

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Joni Mitchell Wants to Shampoo Me

This is true of everything: already I am having trouble not making it about you, which means I am having trouble not making it about me. So I will make it about me. Like this: Wikipedia says Joni Mitchell’s fourth album explores “various facets of relationships” such as “infatuation” and “insecurity.” When it comes to my own blind certainty that turning yourself into a troubled monument to love for art can add something to the world, I am infatuated and insecure. And then there are those actual people we may never stop rearranging ourselves for, regardless of art. Though art helps. Who approaches music with a healthy sense of boundaries? Borderless, I boomerang back to Blue again and again like James Taylor broke my heart. Like it is itself a lover I can’t help insisting is worth the hurt to return to. Like a woman on the wrong plane home, this paragraph is already looking over its shoulder. It regrets its involvement with Wikipedia and the word “lover.” It is already, even, a little bit in love with its regret.

*

Before I’d ever listened to Joni Mitchell I knew my mother couldn’t stand her. She said she’d had a depressed, heartbroken roommate in college who would keep their shared room dark and listen to Joni Mitchell records under the covers and cry. I first hear Joni Mitchell in the seventh grade in a friend’s basement. She’s the kind of friend who keeps me around because she’s cooler than me. We listen to Ladies of the Canyon on her parents’ record player and I ask her to put on “Big Yellow Taxi” so many times I should probably be embarrassed. If I’d known how to be embarrassed I would’ve been as cool as my friend. She, my friend, is so blonde and unfazed. It is in this basement that I first understand that appearing unfazed is a source of cool, and that I will never be cool. I am hopelessly fazed. When I hear it for the first time a few years later, I determine my mother’s college roommate must have been listening to Blue.

*

At #30 in the definitive Rolling Stone list, Blue is by the same limited standard also the #1 greatest album by a woman, in that it’s the highest-ranking album by a female artist. The remaining 29 albums—apart from Fleetwood Mac’s #25 album Rumors, which is arguably powerfully female—are unsurprisingly male. I am not making a point about testosterone in the canon. This is just the way things were, and are. I was raised to expect greatness from men, and everything from love. I’m conflicted about one, and though perhaps I should be conflicted about the other, I can’t bring myself to grow away from it. I am conflicted about referring to Joni Mitchell here as “Joni.” I don’t know her, though her music and the way it is often discussed in terms of her relationships with the men who played on her records are both well known to me.

*

It’s 2019 and I’m in San Francisco because I’ve written a book that I hope is about more than “just” “love” and I’m traveling from city to city to read it at people. Sitting at a friend’s writing desk while she’s at work, I open an email to Brad Efford. I write: So I bit off more than I could chew, thinking I might write this Joni piece while on the road, and I’m already wondering if there’s some wiggle room on the due date. Classic Laura Eve! Then, later: I’ll actually be in LA next week, and were I to turn something in after that, I’d make a pilgrimage to some Joni places and see if I couldn’t weave that into the essay. When I leave my friend’s apartment I walk the hilly streets singing “All I Want” and “California” to myself the way I sometimes practice singing on the street in Manhattan, which I do because no one is ever listening and I don’t have a car I can sing in. I practice hitting the high notes in the open air, celebrate my enthusiastically on-the-nose song selection. Forever fazed. It smells like jasmine and basil and because you’re not here you’re everywhere.

*

In 1970, Joni Mitchell played a concert that the BBC videotaped and broadcast and now you can watch it online. I watch it for the first time, and then repeatedly, in the winter of 2014, in the middle of a long residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown, Massachusetts, is basically the edge of the world, if America is the world, and for me it more or less is. Socked in at the tip of Cape Cod in February, I am the opposite of California. Or, and maybe this is why I keep watching, it doesn’t matter where I am. Maybe love makes a person stateless, your loyalty is only to the act of longing. In my borrowed and temporary apartment, writing a book I’m hoping will be about more than “just” “love,” I deposit my full attention into this same 30-minute performance over and over until I’m obliterated, wondering what exactly it is inside me that is fed only when it is given, and giving, everything. Oh I love you when I forget about me.

*

During my first year of college at a big, lonely state school in the Shenandoah valley, a homemade flyer posted up around the English building advertises the first meeting of something called Classic Rock Club. One version of the flyer—there are several versions—features a grainy photo of Blue. I’m seventeen and I’ve never had an old man, never been on anything I could call a lonely road. I’ve never seen Richard for the last time, or been in love or heartbroken anywhere west of Indiana. Still, I follow myself to a stranger’s apartment out of a sense that I might find something meaningful among other people who, when it comes to music, would rather be fazed than cool. For a time, the man who put up the flyers and I try to be in love, though we don’t hurt each other in the good ways enough to make it count. We return easily to what we’re better at, which is caring a whole lot about music while we wait for the people we will hopefully one day care about as much as we care about music. Even out of love, I’m in love with the idea of vaulting myself into my future, which at seventeen I’m hopeful will look something like Laurel Canyon, which might as well be Mars, and Mars will be full enough of desire and ache that being fazed will emerge suddenly as the only rational response.

*

That same Provincetown winter, I watch a YouTube video in which Jian Ghomeshi interviews Joni Mitchell for CBC Music. The interview took place in 2013, although everything that takes place on YouTube takes place outside of time. I watch this interview repeatedly, as if it might tell me something about what really matters to a person of substance about the love subject, or how best to turn myself into a signal tower that broadcasts you you you into the universe. How a person may enter the wild and unknown heart and return with a message worth sharing. What does such a person look like? What do they eat? Joni Mitchell wears a delicate emerald tunic and chainsmokes while she talks.

*

When I think of myself as I am in language, as in here, in this essay, I am always apart. The mind alone in the world. I am the opposite of relationships. Each sentence is another in which I resist a level of description that might make the literal circumstances of my heart plain. No one will accuse me of being brave, but at least I’ve learned to be embarrassed by particulars. Who do I wanna shampoo? You. It’s how loss operates as commitment, how a person becomes a signal tower: you go on generally beeping. Do you see do you see do you see how you hurt me, baby. Tonight I am the mind alone in the world listening to “This Flight Tonight” without thinking of James Taylor.

*

This is the setlist for the 1970 BBC concert, the year before Blue was recorded and released:

“Chelsea Morning”
“Cactus Tree”
“My Old Man”
“For Free”
“California”
“Big Yellow Taxi”
“Both Sides Now”

When I watch the video I try to imagine what it feels like to be Joni Mitchell playing “My Old Man” and “For Free” and “California” in 1970. What it’s like to be able to give something to someone that they can only get from you. In 1970, these songs belong entirely and only to one body. They can’t be found anywhere except by finding Joni Mitchell in the room with you. When the same can be said of love, that it is a function of finding someone in the room with you, you are in it. A record is an object that can be experienced anywhere. This too is about love, a real and ongoing kind. I don’t know where you are. And yet I am accompanied by you wherever I go.

*

All day I’ve been playing “This Flight Tonight” on guitar, the rhythmic thrill of it, instead of writing this, because I can’t put the feeling of so many different parts of a body working against and in coordination with one another at once into language, though that is what I want to put into language. Like sex, maybe. Though this isn’t about that. Me, again: I’ve played guitar for over half my life. When you accompany yourself on guitar, you learn first to isolate each hand from the other, to isolate the voice from both hands, before you learn to fit them back together. The thumb bass ostinato acting as a series of cogs that catch the movement of melody in the top notes and voice to form a pair of gears, an interdependent system that relies on the independence of its parts and resonates outward. A machine, or love. Unlike almost anything else, when playing guitar it can be good if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and keeps doing its thing just the same. Of her guitar playing, Joni Mitchell said, I can tell you I had a good right hand.

*

Articles covering Blue’s release in 1971 contained the following headlines: “Joni Mitchell at a Crossroads,” “Joni’s New Album A Personal Statement,” “Joni Mitchell Sings Her Blues,” “How True Is Blue?”, “Singing-Songwriters: 1971 Is a Woman’s World.” Four decades later, writing for The Atlantic, Jack Hamilton calls Blue the “Greatest Relationship Album Ever.” Undeterred by understatement, Hamilton writes, This repeated inability to stop hurling ourselves toward certain and familiar pain might be evidence of deep-species insanity, but it has also inspired some pretty great art.

*

Making my way down the coast toward Los Angeles, I wonder what it would be like to find myself in a room with Joni Mitchell. I research The Troubadour, where she made her LA debut. I look at pictures of her house in Laurel Canyon. I fall in love with the idea of myself making a pilgrimage to these places. In the idea, I have cleanly defined borders. I am healthy and strong and walking along a golden road in what I imagine Laurel Canyon must be, a rutted bowl filled with light. To anyone who sees me, I am saturated with particulars. I appear full of interesting combinations of words.

*

When I first began listening to Blue I often skipped “Blue.” It frightened me in a way I couldn’t quite look at. I attributed it to the idiosyncrasy of the melody, the intensity of her vibrato. I don’t know if this is what my mother felt when her dorm room filled with weeping. Divorced from context, all behavior seems unreasonable; we turn to the details of circumstance for understanding, which is a comfort. I don’t know if, when I turn to that song now, I am any more able to identify what about it makes me feel almost uncomfortably animal, unless it’s that it holds a mirror up to my animal. Sophisticated animal, capable of infrastructure and government and language and deep degrees of uncool. Capable of holding a mirror up to your animal and saying, love. Behold the awesome power and abject ridiculousness of this animal on its knees and there it is: you. Meaning, me.

*

In the recording of the 1970 BBC concert, before she plays “California,” she says, This is called a dulcimer. A Canadian applying an Appalachian instrument to a song about the American west—something must have given her access to everything. Love, born as it is out of particulars, begins to imbue all particulars with the same meaning. Or else it obliterates or transcends them, levels the disparate and vast world into something that can be held, that fits in you and that you fit inside of. The entire animal, yours to sing to sleep or give away. When Kris Kristofferson heard Blue—or maybe “Blue”—it’s widely rumored he exclaimed, Jesus, Joni, keep something of yourself! Is it as simple as saying that Blue is the best way any of this can go? Here’s what I have kept: I want to visit Joni Mitchell’s house so I can miss you in Joni Mitchell’s house, despite how—and because—this will make Joni Mitchell’s house no different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. Which might somehow make it mine enough to give to you.

*

I’ll give you this, for real: I don’t make it to Laurel Canyon. The details that explain my lack of follow through will not make it onto the page. I remain less brave than Joni, a mind alone. Before I don’t make it to Laurel Canyon, I drive through Big Sur for the first time. What’s most surprising about it, I realize the moment I see so much greenness and all those thick trees, is that it isn’t a glowing golden orb floating above the surface of the water. I’ve always, I guess, pictured Big Sur as a glowing golden orb floating above the surface of the water. Capable of seeking out the actual particulars, I couldn’t say why I ignored them. Without, or in spite of, the far-from-me fact of Big Sur, something else made up my mind. Something stateless, maybe. But can you imagine?

—Laura Eve Engel

#60: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, "Trout Mask Replica" (1969)

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There are a hundred different moments scattered throughout Trout Mask Replica that trick you into thinking you’re listening to something familiar, something you could feasibly move your body to. Half an hour in, there’s even a bona fide blues song, no frills, very familiar; in this way, “China Pig” comes across as both the best and worst song on the album. It’s certainly the most listenable. You can fold laundry to it. It sounds like Muddy Waters. It’s got all twelve bars. Cool.

But it’s a respite from the hurricane, and however deeply you love a good hurricane will surely dictate your appreciation of the song, and of the album surrounding it.

What can we do with difficult art? Captain Beefheart did not know how to play the piano, not really, but still he used the instrument to write each individual part for every member of his Magic Band, for each song on their newest record. He asked them to get to know each of these parts blindly, without hearing what any of the other portions sounded like. It was cut and paste, a real ctrl+c, ctrl+v kind of music-making. Then when they all got together to rehearse and later record, he shouted surrealist poetry over it. He called one of the songs “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish,” and another one “My Human Gets Me Blues,” and another one “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica).” Its is 2019, 50 years after its release, and Trout Mask still sounds like difficult art. Which is another way of saying it sounds like nonsense.

When it comes up in conversation that I was in a band throughout high school and into college, the first question people always ask is “What instrument did you play?” It’s the logical question to ask; unfortunately, I don’t have an answer, or I guess I have too many. I played a Casio I stole from my mom’s basement. I played the ukulele, acoustic and electric. I played the banjo, poorly. I played a sampler at our live shows, and a pair of amps plugged into one another so that what came out when they were both turned on and turned up was a sort of modulated feedback loop. My favorite years with the band were the first two, when we were a noise collective who always asked to go up first on the bill so we could get the cops called on us before anyone else got the chance to play. My favorite performance is still the one where we covered “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” in a swirling mass of chaotic drum machines, high-pitched squeals, and a looped sample of a ringing telephone. I didn’t know how to do anything well, so I did whatever I wanted to.

Years later, there’s still one recording session I regret missing out on, even though I hadn’t been invited in the first place. My friend and bandmate had two younger brothers, and one Saturday afternoon the three of them decided to recreate A Love Supreme. The youngest, at 11 years old, played the piano. The middle brother, at 13, played the saxophone (he was in middle school band). And my friend, 16 years old, drummed on a toy drum set. They were methodical, almost scientific, in their process, listening to one minute of the album at a time, then recreating that minute of music to their best of their ability. They were hampered by their kitchen desktop’s Microsoft recording software, with which you could only record one minute at a time. They were not hampered by their inability to play music with any skill or practiced know-how. That piano sounds like this note, yeah? He maybe just zonked on the sax way up this high, right? Let’s just feel it out and see what happens.

The recording that resulted from this afternoon is a gauntlet for any sane listener, the simple vocal chanting at the end of track one a welcome respite from the chaos. I thought it was one of the funniest, most creative things I had ever heard. I likened it to the Shaggs and Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela. It should come as no surprise that at the time, Trout Mask Replica was one of my friend’s all-time favorite albums.

What can we do with difficult art? Where do we put it? Trout Mask Replica is 28 tracks long, falling just short of the 80-minute mark. If you cobbled together the even slightly more conventional parts from throughout its tracklist, you’d have maybe 10 minutes of easy listening, and this is being generous. There are whiffs of Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley and Edgard Varese and of course John Cage, but oddities of the stage almost feel closer to the project than anything else. Brecht and Ionesco, Breton and Artaud and Luigi Pirandello—all artists fascinated by the surreality of merely existing, of bringing this to the forefront at every given opportunity. In one scene, an actor throws a basket of live puppies into the audience. In another, the cast speaks in a gibberish only they understand. Just after intermission, all the actors die—it isn’t clear whether or not the characters do as well. If there are no rules then everything counts, everything matters.

Captain Beefheart lived outside of his Magic Band as Don Van Vliet. He considered himself an avant garde composer, and as a teenager made fast friends with fellow left-coast weirdo Frank Zappa. After a debut album of pretty standard blues rock songs punctuated here and there with shocking madness, Zappa would go on to produce Vliet’s sophomore record. With this one, Zappa said, leave nothing behind, pursue every radical impulse. He wanted him to take the blues artists he loved so much and filter them through free jazz, dada, childlike tinkering, Stravinsky. Beefheart composed each individual instrument’s parts for the new songs himself, on a piano he didn’t really know how to play, then spent eight months with his band obsessively rehearing the new material. They then recorded all of the music together over the course of a single six-hour session in a house in Los Angeles, the songs by that point more muscle memory than music. They were only going through the motions, Olympic sprinters finally at the block.

I lied before when I said that Don Van Vliet considered himself an avant garde composer—he considered himself an artist, medium notwithstanding, and honestly most likely not even that. As a child, he was by all accounts a prodigy of a sculptor, though his parents removed visual arts as a viable career path early on. Over time, he gravitated toward music, keeping reams of sketchbooks and stacks of canvases on his person throughout adulthood. When he left music behind at the tail end of the 1970s, he left it for painting, spending the last couple of decades of his life as a serious painter who eventually found serious fans in Julian Schnabel and Mary Boone before the rest was history. His work has been compared to Franz Kline and Rothko; I could study much of it in the same way I slobber all over Twombly. Van Vliet died in 2010 more a painter than a musician, for much of the art world—I was snowbound in a drafty house in Montana that winter, and remembered him the way that was most difficult and made the most sense: Trout Mask Replica on loud, on loop.

Because what it is we do with difficult art is the same we do with anything at all: choose to give it our time, or not. The only thing there ever is to “get” when the work feels ungettable is the notion that you could be moved by this particular strangeness, at this particular time, for this or that particular reason. Or perhaps no reason at all. As our organic selves and our digital selves blend deeper and more easily into a single suffering being, the echo chamber of our lives amongst others is only yawping louder and more cavernously. Grappling almost seems not worth the time at all. That’s your prerogative, and mine, most days. On our better ones, though, I like to think that we prefer the work of it.

—Brad Efford

#21: Chuck Berry, "The Great Twenty-Eight" (1982)

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Here’s a proposition: we should pay less attention to Elvis Presley (#11), and give more credit to Chuck Berry (#21), when we talk about the creation of rock and roll music. They were in one sense mirror images of each other. Starting on opposite sides, each bridged the racial divide of post-war popular music by blending white and black musical styles. But Elvis was neither a songwriter nor an instrumentalist. He contributed a vocal style and, more importantly, an attitude, but Berry’s contributions were more tangible and more lastingly listenable.

Berry’s music defined rock and roll as we now know it, but he began as more of a blues musician, and he always maintained a complex relation to the blues. He recorded for Chess Records in Chicago, the premiere blues label in post-war America, where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and numerous others recorded. Not surprisingly, then, the song with which he first approached Chess was a straightforward, slow, urban blues number entitled “Wee Wee Hours.” The Chess brothers were more interested, however, in the other song he brought along, an early version of “Maybellene,” then called “Ida May.” Berry later described it as his “effort to sing country-western,” and the effort was successful enough that (as with Elvis’s earliest recordings) some listeners were mistaken as to the singer’s race.

So “Maybellene” became the A-side, “Wee Wee Hours” the B-side, and the single was a huge crossover hit. The future course of Berry’s career was in that moment determined: he would produce music that was aimed primarily at a white teenage audience. “Maybellene”’s opening couplet also concisely marked out the terrain that so many of his subsequent songs would cover: “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill / I saw Maybellene in a coupe de ville.” This conjunction of cars and women recurs throughout Berry’s oeuvre. His song “Come On” begins, “Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted / All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn't get my car started.” In “No Particular Place to Go” he is unable to unfasten his girlfriend’s seatbelt: “All the way home I held a grudge / For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge.” The sexist potential of this trope is most fully realized in the song “I Want to Be Your Driver,” the last cut on The Great Twenty-Eight, in which he declares, rather starkly, “I want to be your driver / I would love to ride you.”

When he writes about women independent of cars, things are a little less crass. He writes more often, and more perceptively, about girls than about women, with a particular interest in girls who are on the verge of becoming women. “Sweet Little Sixteen” is the most famous of these songs, an extended portrait of a teenage pop-music fan who’s “got the grown-up blues”:

Tight dresses and lipstick,
She’s sportin’ high-heel shoes.
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend,
And be sweet sixteen,
And back in class again.

In this song–and in the follow-up, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” in which the girl is only nine–the singer views the girl from a distance. It is a gently satiric, detached, affectionate portrait of a music fan. In “Little Queenie,” however, the singer is quite explicitly trying to “make it” with a girl who is below the age of consent. Here, as in many of Berry’s songs, he is presumably writing and singing within the persona of a male teenager. Songs such as “Almost Grown,” “Oh Baby Doll,” and “School Days” all view high school life through an adolescent perspective, and that seems to be the goal here as well. “While writing [Little Queenie],” Berry recalls in his 1987 autobiography, “I relived the feelings of the character presented.” Still, the spoken internal monologues sound more like those of a calculating adult, and when the Rolling Stones recorded the song, ten years later, they brought to the fore the leering malevolence that is latent in Berry’s song.

In the decade between these two recordings of “Little Queenie,” Berry spent two years in prison for violating the Mann Act, that is, for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. Humbert Humbert declares in Nabokov’s Lolita, “I deplore the Mann Act as lending itself to a dreadful pun,” and while Humbert also despises American popular music, he might have sympathized with the protagonist of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis.” This song, written as one side of a conversation with a long-distance operator, depicts the singer’s efforts trying to “get in touch with my Marie” who has called him from Memphis. He reveals that he “miss[es] her and all the fun we had” and that “we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree / And tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee.” The twist that the song reveals at the end of the final verse is that “Marie is only six years old,” at which point we adjust our sense of the story: Marie must be his daughter, not his lover. But the song remains open to a Lolita-esque reading in which the young girl’s mother has taken steps to protect her daughter from a predatory stepfather. Part of the interest, and part of the creepiness of Berry’s lyrics, is the extent to which they court such misunderstandings.

As we saw in “Little Queenie,” there is frequently a tension in Berry’s songs, a tension between his attempt to adopt a fictional teenage persona and his eagerness to assert his real adult self. Berry repeatedly draws attention to himself as the creator of his songs by alluding to his earlier songs. Most famously, he does this with the well-known guitar lick that opens so many of his songs. The source of that lick is Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” (1946), and Berry uses it to open at least seven different songs between 1956 and 1965. This lick becomes a recurring musical motif, always pointing back to earlier recordings. Berry’s self-referentiality is lyrical as well as musical. He quotes “Maybellene” in the lyrics of two songs he recorded later that year. He wrote songs that continued the sagas of “Memphis” and “Johnny B. Goode,” and he wrote songs that were musical rehashes of “Maybellene” and “School Days.” He created fictional alter-egos such as “Johnny B. Goode,” and he wrote overtly autobiographical songs such as “Go, Go, Go,” “Bio,” and “Oh Yeah” (the last of these is a pastiche of song titles: “In the Wee Wee Hours / I used to play ‘Maybellene’”). All this self-quotation shows Berry perhaps too willing to recycle his early success, but it also marks him as an artist who is not willing to disappear behind his songs. Berry often peeks out from behind the persona in which he wrote, and his songs insistently remind us that they are part of a constellation of songs written by Chuck Berry. (When the young Bruce Springsteen played backup for Berry at a concert in 1973, he asked Chuck what would be on the set list. The reply was, “We’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.”)

Berry’s songs also remind us of their debt to the blues. Musically, he generally writes within the three-chord limits observed by blues and R&B music. Most of his songs have the simple structure of verse/chorus–or even verse without chorus–which is characteristic of the blues. He almost never writes a bridge–that is, a “C” section that varies the alternation of “A” (verse) and “B” (chorus)–such as one finds in Tin Pan Alley pop songs. Lyrically too, even as Berry courted a teen market with tales of adolescent travails, echoes of the blues can be heard. Consider, for example, the opening of “Thirty Days,” in which the singer, in a classic blues scenario, consults a gypsy woman about his love troubles. Berry refuses to play it straight, however, first calling the gypsy woman on the telephone rather than going to see her, as other bluesmen do, and then comically extending the traditional folk magic of the “hoodoo” into a “worldwide hoodoo,” and rhyming it with “suit you,” for good measure. Or consider another blues-inflected moment, this one the opening of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” Here Berry reworks a trope familiar from blues songs, in which the judge’s wife intervenes on behalf of an extraordinarily handsome criminal. In Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” as sung by Berry’s label-mate Howlin’ Wolf, we get simply “Accused him for murder, first degree / Judge wife cried, let the man go free.” Berry’s version of the trope is more ornate and elaborate, with the judge’s wife, for some reason, phoning the district attorney rather than appealing to her own husband. Furthermore, instead of pathetically crying “let the man go free,” she comically threatens the D.A.: “You want your job, you better free that brown-eyed man.” Berry embroiders the stark, spare poetry of the blues with the more verbose language and mundane details of 1950s American life.

A fair amount has been written about the content of Berry’s songs, particularly those which seem to touch, however obliquely, on the subject of race. Is the phrase “little country boy” in “Johnny B. Goode” code for little colored boy? Is the hero of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” more accurately a brown-skinned handsome man? Is it true, as Richard Meltzer famously argued in 1970, that “Berry’s ‘Rock and Roll Music’ predicted in 1957 the later outbreak of African nationalism” in the lines “It’s way too early for the Congo / So keep a-rocking that piano?” These questions are interesting, and they appeal because they confer socio-political importance on Berry, but his genius, I think, was not for social commentary.

I’m interested in Berry’s lyrics less for their political significance than for their vigorous, ingenious use of language. Berry loves words. Only in his songs does one encounter words such as “jitney,” “meddlesome,” “tussle,” “botheration,” “sulphuric,” “calaboose,” and (in two instances) “vestibule.” He occasionally coins new words, most famously the word “motorvatin’,” which appears in the first line of “Maybellene.” It’s a brilliant coinage, recombining the cognates “motor,” “motion,” and “motive.” This purposeful (if perhaps not intentional) looseness with language reaches its apex in his 1964 song, “You Never Can Tell,” the story of a teenage wedding and its happy aftermath. Here is the second verse:

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale,
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.

“Furnished off” is another clever coinage, blending “finish off” with “furnish.” Berry also demonstrates a fitting verbal economy in the phrase with which he suggests the couple’s domestic economy: “a two-room Roebuck sale.” A less elliptical version of this sentence might read, “They finished off a two-room apartment with furniture bought on sale at Sears-Roebuck.” Instead, Berry packs the words in as joyously and efficiently as his protagonists cram TV dinners and ginger ale into their Coolerator.

The rock critic Robert Christgau provides a brief but insightful discussion of Berry’s exuberant use of language, calling him “the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan.” He writes,

Both [Berry and Dylan] communicate an abundance of the childlike delight in linguistic discovery that page poets are supposed to convey and too often don’t, but Berry’s most ambitious lyrics, unlike Dylan’s, never seem pretentious or forced. True, his language is ersatz and barbaric, full of mispronounced foreignisms and advertising coinages, but then, so was Whitman’s. Like Whitman, Berry is excessive because he is totally immersed in America–the America of Melville and the Edsel, burlesque and installment-plan funerals, pemmican and pomade.

What Christgau calls “the childlike delight in linguistic discovery” can be seen in the flamboyance of Berry’s similes. His song “Nadine” features a number of these metaphorical flourishes. At one point the singer, as he pursues Nadine, is “campaign-shouting like a southern diplomat;” later he is “[m]oving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier.” Nadine herself “moves around like a wayward summer breeze.” The combination of fanciful similes and precise physical details–he spies Nadine walking towards a “coffee-colored Cadillac”–elevates the song far above its uninspired plot, which is essentially a retread of “Maybellene.”

The other aspects of Berry’s language that Christgau notes–mispronounced foreignisms, advertising coinages, a total immersion in America–can all be found in the song “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” We find here a strikingly mispronounced foreignism: the Venus de Milo is disfigured not only by the loss of her arms but also by Berry’s referring to her as “Milo Venus” (or, perhaps, “Marlo Venus”). Advertising culture is represented here by the mention of TWA, Americana by the joyous baseball verse. Other small delights are sprinkled throughout the song as well, such as the loss of Venus’s arms being foreshadowed by the phrase “she had the world in the palm of her hand,” and her dismemberment being compensated for by the acquisition of a brown-eyed handsome man. The phrase “walking thirty miles en route to Bombay” is so far-fetched as to be almost nonsensical, yet it is precise and vivid; the same holds for Venus losing both her arms in a wrestling (rassling?) match. And each verse is marked by the ingenious and surprising way in which it makes its way back to the song’s titular hero, and by the way the fifth line comes in as a breathless, comical afterthought. All this in two minutes and eighteen seconds, with time left over for three verses of guitar and piano solo!

One more example, this one 2:22 in length. Its title is “The Promised Land,” one of a handful of titles that Bruce Springsteen would later take from Chuck Berry. It was recorded in 1964, after Berry got out of prison, and while he was riding the wave of the Beatles’, The Rolling Stones’, and the Beach Boys’ professed admiration for him. This song, like so many of his songs, is narrative rather than lyric in its thrust; the singer is telling what happened to him in the past, rather than describing a present emotional state. It’s a seemingly straightforward narrative, telling of a journey that starts hopefully, nearly turns disastrous, and then ends happily. The song’s title and its final verse’s “Swing low, chariot” suggest two theological parallels for this voyage: the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, and the individual soul’s corresponding figurative crossing of the river Jordan into heaven. One possible historical context for the song might be the great migration of African Americans from the south, here given a westward rather than a northward trajectory. Another, more immediate historical context, as some scholars have recently argued, was the Civil Rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, particularly those of the Freedom Riders. Yet another possible context is a biographical one: Berry composed this fantasy of transcontinental travel while in prison for having crossed state lines with a minor.

These contextual readings of the song lend it weight–religious, historical, biographical–but perhaps they freight it with too much significance (“Too Much Monkey Business,” to borrow another of Berry’s song titles.) To some extent, the narrative of the voyage seems to be mainly a device on which to hang some brilliant turns of a phrase, such as the literalization of the metaphor of the Greyhound bus, which becomes an actual dog that the singer then straddles and rides into Raleigh. The “T-bone steak a la carty,” another of Berry’s mispronunciations, is a lovely detail, made more so by his verb choice (“working on a T-bone steak”) and by its coincidence with the pilot’s improbably precise announcement (“in thirteen minutes he would set us at the terminal gate”).

Perhaps because of their foundational status in the history of rock and roll, Berry’s songs lend themselves to abstract, mythic readings. Thus “Roll Over Beethoven” can be said to be about the clash of popular culture and high culture, the displacement of cerebral, white classical music by embodied, black rhythm and blues. At the same time, that song’s greatest accomplishment may be its offhand transformation of “walking pneumonia” into “rocking pneumonia,” followed in the next line by a corresponding ailment, “rolling arthritis.” I think that too often authors reach for large categories of “Race” or “Myth” or “History” to try to make popular culture worthy of serious attention. The small verbal felicities in Berry’s lyrics, and in lyrics in general, are as interesting and as significant as the moments in which those lyrics gesture toward or intersect with history or politics.

—Will Pritchard

#22: Robert Johnson, "The Complete Recordings" (1990)

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  1. The myth goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul in order to know how to play a mean guitar. Or in other words, knowledge (of playing) and pleasure (of being great).The guitar his apple of Eve. The sin of flesh, the longing of desire. Perhaps, to know how to pick a guitar where the song will outlive your body, like when the needle drops on the record, and Robert Johnson’s skinny fingers get to plucking, the wobbles between the crackle of vinyl, the voice smooth but rough, and your bones feel his woes, ache in all the ways blues is meant to make a person ache, the wounds synthesized as sound. Feel the fever. That fire. The flames rising. He went down to the crossroads, and ole Bob sold his soul.

  2. Robert lost his woman and baby, one ecstatic push between breath and legs, the baby entered and left the world all at once, taking her mother with her. In the myth, this is when he turned his back on God. He turned his back on God, like Eve when she took the fruit from the snake. Was it a snake slithering on its belly on the dark stretch of road in the Mississippi Delta, the roar of thunder, and then a flash of lightning? Or was it pitch night and still, no crickets or coyote’s howl, when Robert laid down his guitar for the devil to play? And when the devil placed it back in the heft of his hand, did Robert, like Eve, have to take it?

  3. A poet once told me that we are all myths of ourselves. What is a myth? Are we all just delusional? Is the trouble of the soul inside of us and only us fighting ourselves? Were myths created to explain away the worst of humanity? Or perhaps, to explain why the best die young. Was a black man playing the guitar the way Robert did too much for society? Maybe it was how the strum of his string unleashed the gash we try so hard to conceal.

  4. Would you sell your soul? What would you sell it for?

  5. I was twenty two years old writhing inside my skin across the bed, the bed that my brother had died in, shriveled down to bone from loving a man, seven years earlier. Dying for his sins, another Christian myth seeking to explain or even punish the young and innocent, the queer, to wrap them in lies instead of love. I was living with my mother because I couldn’t pay any bills. Bruises checkered my arms and a serpent coiled inside my belly. It was a hot summer day in Memphis. The air saturated with thick hot water. My mom’s air conditioner blew cool. She was at work and I had woken up with a commitment to be clean, but the sick settled in and shook me into longing. I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling fan overhead as the light of sun slipped through the blinds and tried to reach me. I thought of what I could steal from my mother, but she was at work, and so was her car, so I was stuck. The fan turned counterclockwise with a slight whir of a sound, and the occasional car rumbled past. I said aloud to the room, “I’d sell my soul for a hit of dope.” There was no music. No lightning. No man/beast with horns and pointed tail. The phone on the nightstand by the bed rang. I answered it. It was my dope dealer. He was nearby at a payphone. His truck’s air was out and he needed a cool place to dip in to his own stash. I gave him directions to my mother’s. And the stash was sweet, dropped me to my knees, and I stayed there awhile. Through the molasses of heroin, I could hear a whisper inside me, quiet but urgent, Did you sell your soul? And I answered, Yes.

  6. It is said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be the best guitar player. It is also said that a man poisoned his whiskey, a man whose wife Robert had been running around with. It took three days for him to die. He fell out of bed and crawled around on the floor barking like a dog, like the hellhound that had been on his trail had finally caught up with him. Maybe it was syphilis like his death certificate says, or maybe it was poison from another man.

  7. Robert was twenty seven when he died. The twenty seven club, another myth. Like Jimi, like Janis, like Kurt. All were twenty seven. Is this the age when the devil comes to recoup? All of them, those who shined but also quaked, those who the world was too much for and they drank and fucked and shot up and belted out their internal sores through song, through voice, through the guitar string’s reverb, and did whatever they could to ease the pain of living. Twenty seven. What is the significance to this number? Is it the two numbers, the two plus seven, sum of nine that John Lennon was obsessed with? In some strands of the Christian myth, nine means judgement. Jesus gave up his soul in the ninth hour. So is it redemption then? God taking back what is rightfully his? Before Robert died, he wrote a note to Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem / I know that my Redeemer liveth and that / He will call me from the Grave.

  8. At twenty seven, I got clean, and stayed clean, so far.

  9. Fourteen years clean, and I can still hear the call of the crossroads like I hear the twang of Robert’s guitar, his voice singing I gotta keep movin, with that raw patch deep inside, the place that won’t ever heal, the place where the hurt hollers, the memories of the departed, and the parts of ourselves where another person’s power dug in and took away our own, blues fallin down like hail. There’s a hellhound on my trail, breathing heat, the speakers tremble, flames burning at my heels.

—Kat Moore

#23: John Lennon, "Plastic Ono Band" (1970)

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There’s something in that primal scream that hits a nerve every time. It’s that howl, that core anguish surfacing. You know the one, at the end of John Lennon’s song, “Mother:” Mama don’t go / Daddy come home, shrieked into the world. It’s a yowl that sparks a glimmer of recognition that something similar lies within each of us, that we all have some old hurt waiting to make itself known. Lennon’s screams crescendo over the first several repetitions, filling our ears and the space around our bodies, then fade away, dissipating now that they’ve been aired.

The songs “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” bookend Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first solo album. It was released in late 1970, several months after the official breakup of the Beatles. These two songs express Lennon’s first pains: the loss, and then the loss again, of his mother, who did not raise him and who then died when Lennon was a teenager. While the songs in the middle of the album explore his relationship with Yoko Ono, and the prizes and prices of fame, the importance of the placement of the two songs about his mother cannot be understated—we begin and end the album with her absence. Despite what has been gained, the loss remains.

Plastic Ono Band reveals, again and again, that, despite his fame, fortune, and everything he accomplished musically, Lennon was haunted by his early traumas, as many of us are. Throughout Plastic Ono Band, Lennon gives us glimpses into his wounds and his worries. We hear moments of self-soothing, as in “Hold On,” and instances of acrimony, as in “I Found Out,” when Lennon sings I heard something ‘bout my Ma and my Pa / They didn’t want me so they made me a star. The damage, he acknowledges, has helped drive the creative work.

In addition to its deeply personal reflections, Plastic Ono Band offers instances of disenchantment with societal structures, most notably in “Working Class Hero.” Tonally reminiscent of Bob Dylan, “Working Class Hero” recalls Lennon’s middle-class roots in Liverpool. Though by 1970 he was extraordinarily wealthy, he had not forgotten the structures that shaped him or the way so many people are being doped with religion and sex and TV. I can’t help but wonder if Lennon here is also acknowledging his role in opiating the people as a Beatle. If he’s recognizing the unlikeliness of his own success and the near-impossibility of someone leaving the confines of the circumstances into which they were born. If he feels both played and complicit.

In “Isolation,” Lennon reveals more of his fears and anxieties. Despite his fame, he still feels alone, the song tells us. This confessional also points a finger at the people and forces that hurt him. I don’t expect you to understand / After you’ve caused so much pain / But then again, you’re not to blame / You’re just a human, a victim of the insane.

This song, like many others on this album, begins with “I” statements and shifts to “we” by the end.  Like most of Lennon’s solo work, it is both deeply personal and broadly universal. This expansiveness allows his listeners to recognize his feelings within themselves. To feel connected to this artist and to understand that accomplishment and fame do not make those dark feelings of loneliness, resentment, and longing go away.

Plastic Ono Band’s listing songs, “Love” and “God,” accompany emotional release with a view of Lennon’s philosophies. In the words Lennon chooses to list and sometimes repeat, we get a glimpse of the man’s heart and mind. According to “Love,” love is: feeling, wanting, reaching, asking, knowing, living, and needing, in that order. Seemingly one of the simplest songs on the album, “Love” redefines what love is, turning it from a noun into a verb, from a thing that happens to us to a thing that we actively do.

Love encompasses desire and doubt, yes, but also includes that risk of loss. In love, Lennon sings here, there is freedom, and life, but also, always, that little piece of us that needs something. The song’s last line, love is needing to be loved, reminds us that love is a need to be filled, perhaps more acutely for people who didn’t always feel so loved early in life.

The strongest feature of this album, what makes it so great, is its vulnerability. In almost every song, Lennon shows us his pains and fears and wellsprings of joy. In “Look At Me,” two tracks after “Love,” Lennon asks listeners to really look at him as a hurt and hurting human—not as the idolized star, but as the real man, who has doubts despite nearly a decade of public adoration. For most of the song, we wonder if someone is seeing him the way he wants to be seen. At the end of the song, when Lennon sings Who am I? / Nobody else can see / Just you and me / Who are we, we hear that someone has. He has let another person—Yoko—in. He is no longer alone.

Immediately following “Look At Me,” Lennon further emphasizes his belief in his relationship with Yoko by listing things he doesn’t believe in, and they’re some pretty powerful concepts. In “God,” Lennon dismantles most major religions, most major mythologies, twentieth-century politics, and the pop culture of which he was a formative part. Here’s a list of things he doesn’t believe in, in the mind-blowing order in which he sings them: magic, I-ching, the Bible, tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, the Buddha, Mantra, Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis, Zimmerman (Bob Dylan), and the Beatles. Instead, Lennon says that I just believe in me / Yoko and me.

A 2010 BBC review calls this song “still, very possibly, the most thematically ambitious and courageous rock song ever recorded.” Belief in himself and in his love is one of the most radical statements an already-controversial figure like Lennon could ever make. It’s saying that the structures that have run and shaped the world will no longer have an impact on him. He’s going to lead himself with his own heart, relying only on himself and on his love for his spiritual needs.

In one four-minute song, Lennon manages to make irrelevant the ideologies in which most of the world’s population believes, and the freedom he expresses here, the peace, is palpable. The rolling piano and drums that back the song come to a halt after the last item of the list: Beatle. The song makes the listener sit in quiet for an instant, processing the fact that Lennon no longer believes in the entity that heretofore defined him in the public eye. When Lennon sings I just believe in me, it’s a capella. Just his voice beaming into the silence until the music picks up again.

By the end of the song, and certainly by the end of the album, we have a deeper sense of who John Lennon was beyond the Beatles. This must have been an extraordinary realization for many of its early listeners to experience after nearly a decade of infatuation with the Beatles—that Lennon was a complicated person, made more complex because of the very fame that threw him to the masses’ love and judgment, and in so doing, isolated him. Perhaps some listeners were surprised to hear the undercurrent of bitterness that rumbles beneath songs like “I Found Out” and “Well, Well, Well,” but it makes sense to me. The Beatles made his fame, but then Lennon left the band. The association with it, though, stuck around.

Where do you go from there, once the most defining period of your life has ended? Plastic Ono Band is a reminder that Lennon was his own person, formed by tragedy, love, and fame, searching for his own meaning after years of being so externally defined. The dream of the Beatles is over, and he’s figuring out how to carry on. He’s moved on, and he expects his listeners to as well.

We must remember here the context of Plastic Ono Band’s release, in particular the fact that the Beatles’ breakup was and is still seen by many as Yoko Ono’s fault. They think the band would have stayed together, the dream would have continued, if only she hadn’t come into the picture. Of course, we now know from history that the truth of the band’s dissolution was not so simple.

Many people revile Yoko Ono to this day because they see her as the reason the Beatles broke up, but I think that the deeper reason people don’t like Ono is because they think that, by allegedly breaking up the Beatles, she took John Lennon away from them. When a figure of enormous talent and charisma like Lennon comes around, we tend to idolize and idealize them, and his relationship with Ono didn’t fit the fantasy script. But Ono didn’t take Lennon away from the Beatles or away from us; she brought Lennon into himself. Her love allowed Lennon to become his full self, a self that, in Plastic Ono Band, he reveals to his listeners. In songs like “Look at Me,” he is asking us to do just that: to accept him as is, scars and all.

That’s the gift of Plastic Ono Band, that’s what makes it so extraordinary. Lennon does here what few artists ever do, what few of us are ever capable of doing: he lays himself completely bare (though not on the cover—he’d done that already on Two Virgins, his 1968 collaboration with Ono). He shows us his vulnerabilities and asks us to really look at him without the veneer of Beatles fame. It is a self-portrait of the artist as a man, just a man, and yet what an extraordinarily brave and honest one.

Perhaps the greatest service we can do for someone is to see them for who they really are, which is what Lennon’s asking his listeners to do throughout this album. To accept the person they present to us as their truth. And perhaps the greatest service we can do ourselves is to present our true selves to the world. What a service Lennon did himself with Plastic Ono Band. Himself, and us, the grateful listeners, made better for his work.

—Marissa Mazek

#24: Stevie Wonder, "Innervisions" (1973)

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Stevie is in a coma. His head is swelled up big, fat like one of those punching bag balloons that kids play with, the kind that come in foil packages. Maybe it’s even bigger. John got off easy, comparatively, cuts on his thighs and glass up under his fingernails. Some of the papers are already reporting Stevie is dead. Of course they’re wrong. Management hasn’t stepped in to provide any information about his status so they assume the worst. Clearly the worst outcome, here, is Stevie dies, but it’s not like that’s the only bad outcome. The doctors are talking contusion—his goddamned brain is bruised. Even if Stevie wakes up, who knows if he’ll walk or talk again. Maybe he’ll never smash another piano key or sing another note. Doctors and nurses come and go, checking vitals, making sure IVs are secured, updating clipboards. The soft rubber of their white shoes barely make sound as they move across the room’s tiled floor. They are like ghosts. We are all like ghosts, caught on our own breath as we wait for Stevie to wake up.

*

This is happening because John drove the rental car straight up the ass-end of a truck. It was a farm truck, a ‘48 Dodge, the kind some folks use to haul timber, and so early reports stated that it was a log that did this to Stevie—as if some huge fucking tree trunk was jarred loose in the collision and shot through the windshield right smack dab into Stevie’s forehead. That shit didn’t happen, though, not like that. No, it was all far less dramatic—the truck, not loaded up with logs, slammed on its breaks and John didn’t stop in time. It was the truck bed that got Stevie’s forehead. He’s lucky to even be in a coma. Anyway, the other guys in the band came around not long after in their own rental car and found Stevie and John’s car fucked to scrap in the middle of the road, its hood smashed up under the back of this truck. I don’t know who called, but whoever it was said, “Ira, you need to come to the hospital.” I said, “Hospital? What hospital? Who’s at the hospital?” The voice on the other end said “Rowan Memorial. North Carolina. Salisbury.” The voice paused, then continued—“Fuck, it’s Stevie.”

*

In a little while, when all of this is over, when Stevie wakes up, he’ll say, “The only thing I know is that I was unconscious, and that for a few days, I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future, and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.” When I read those words I will feel a slight chill. That chill, it will be stupid of me. See, even before the accident, Stevie had been talking about his new spiritual consciousness. It was all over Stevie’s latest album—“Higher Ground,” “Visions,” “Jesus Children of America.” Stevie had really been getting in touch with that part of himself, and so when he eventually says the thing about trying “to reach another higher ground” I’ll get chills because something deep inside me maybe believes that something about what Stevie is going through with the accident and his recovery and spiritual awakening are somehow connected. That’s crazy, though, I know. That’s why my getting the chills was stupid. So forget all that shit. Forget it all.

*

The truck, the hospital, Stevie’s swelled head—this is all happening three days after Innervisions comes out. The album is dripping with spirituality. From the cover, which finds an illustrated version of Stevie staring a beam of gold light into the sky over the mountaintops, to the lyrics that are both spiritually and socially conscious, it was clear Stevie had some new shit to say. Just so we’re clear, though, he didn’t have something new to say because his subconscious or unconscious or whateverconcsious knew he was going to get in a car crash. No, Stevie had new things to say because he looked at the world around him and saw the ugliness, the institutionalized racism, the poverty, whatever, all of it, and saw that it was his duty as an artist to raise awareness about those issues while providing a way forward by championing human compassion and spirituality, and then after all that, he happened to be in a car crash that deepened his beliefs.

*

You know how sometimes people will talk to their friends and loved ones who are in comas? I sing to Stevie. He likes his music loud and so the doctor tells me to give it a go, so I get right down in his ear and start singing “Higher Ground” as loud as I can. After a few bars, his fingers start tapping along to the rhythm. For the first time I think that Stevie might pull through.

*

Also, not long after all this, Stevie will say, “I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ even before the accident. But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.” This won’t give me chills like the other thing Stevie said. This time, I will just roll my eyes, because what the hell else can I do? This whole narrative about Innervisions and Stevie’s ideas about it somehow being inspired by a car crash that hadn’t happened yet will be bullshit. I’m more likely to buy into the idea that time isn’t linear, that all moments exist at once but humans are capable of processing them only linearly. Or, like, I’m more likely to believe that trauma, as a rupture in a person’s life, can ripple both ways in time, but again, that’s dependent on the idea that all of time exists as a block of moments happening concurrently. Not to repeat myself too much, but even these ideas are nonsense. Stevie had some ideas about faith and goodness. And then he was in a car accident.

*

But Stevie believes in that shit. And I guess who can blame him. When he was recovering in the hospital and doctors brought in a plastic surgeon, Stevie told the surgeon to leave the gash on his forehead be. He wanted a reminder of the injury, a mark of faith. When he made his return to the stage the following year, at Fucking Madison Square Garden, after taking the stage Stevie pointed to the scar on his head, looked up at the sky, and thanked God that he was alive. The crowd roared their approval. The crowd was full of love and hope. Stevie was full of love and hope.

*

And, though Stevie’s music was growing more spiritual, it’s not like his approach changed that much on Innervisions. No, despite its lush arrangements and general warmth, the album is not particularly optimistic or uplifting—not the way someone who knew he was about to be “given a second chance” to inhabit a more spiritual space, or whatever, might describe something as uplifting. Sure, there’s a love song or two, and “Jesus Children of America” is basically a warm hug for those in need of one, but the rest of the album is dark. “Too High” is about addiction. “Living For the City” is about the toll institutionalized racism takes on individuals. "Higher Ground,” though vaguely inspirational, encouraging people to do better, ultimately and ominously promises that “it won’t be long,” the “it,” there, of course, being the end of the world. Hell, even “Visions,” one of Stevie’s most flat out gorgeous songs, asks if a land of equality and goodness “exists so beautiful / Or do we have to find our wings and fly away / To the vision in our mind?”

*

Eventually, after the accident, Stevie’s art will start to change—it won’t be like he starts seeing the world rose colored, or starts shying away from the shitshow around him, around all of us, but he will start emphasizing lifting up the wounded and scared, and spending a little less time on tearing down that which wounds and scares. But that was always part of Stevie anyway. Maybe that will just be me seeing shit where there isn’t shit to see. Here’s my take away: whatever Stevie will be after that accident is no different from what Stevie was before it. So of course Stevie could write a song like “Higher Ground” before the crash without somehow knowing that he was going to be in a crash. Stevie was Stevie was Stevie. Maybe it will make a good story to say the crash somehow redeemed the man, gave him a second shot at life, a new perspective. But you can listen to the records and hear that the man on Talking Book and Music of My Mind, and Innervisions isn’t that different from the man on Songs in the Key of Life.

*

When Stevie wakes up, we will bring in that clavinet he plays sometimes, try to get him focusing on something, give him something to get excited about. Stevie will look at the goddamn thing for a good long while without touching it. One of the other guys in there will say, “Ira—Tucker, man, you sure about this? What if he can’t play.” I won’t answer—if he can’t play, he can’t play. And then Stevie will put his fingers on that clavinet and start busting out some little tune, nothing big, something familiar, not one of his, and he will grin ear to ear and right then is when we will all know that Stevie is back, and Stevie is Stevie, and Stevie is going to be just fine. See, he doesn’t need to reach any sort of new “higher ground.” He is there already.

—James Brubaker

#25: James Brown, "Live at the Apollo" (1963)

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I’m going to be straight with you.

I don’t really like live music. Like at all. Before you raise your festival bracelet-festooned fist to shake at me and talk about the Grateful Dead at Cornell in 1977 in detail, hear me out.

I wanted to start by preparing a list of several of my worst experiences with live music.

When I was 19, I paid like $150 to go to Bonnaroo. After waiting for over an hour to get a spot to see Sigur Ros perform at night, it started pouring seconds after they walk on stage. During a humid summer in Tennessee, clothes do not dry. I also bought fake mushrooms from a guy in a Scooby Doo shirt while I was there.

I’ve been punched at a hardcore show.

For my mom’s birthday, I got us tickets to see Elvis Costello at Ravina, outside of Chicago. They have relatively cheap lawn seats, and encourage people to bring food for picnics. Great. The only problem is, we sat what was probably close to a mile away from Elvis, and he’s a short guy anyway. What’s the point of going to see a musician if you can’t even see them?

At a different hardcore show, I bit off a sizable piece of tongue after somebody with a wallet chain knocked me down.

One time a girl dumped me for a musician. We saw him perform live together. They are now married and have a child.

*

I mean, I understand loving concerts in theory: you get a chance to see your favorite musicians perform in real time, and up close. It can also be great to experience unique versions of the songs you know and love. That’s wonderful. If you’re really lucky, John Mayer might even sign your forehead.

But truthfully, the benefits of live music, to me, rarely ever overtake or even offset the pain of standing in the middle of a man-sweat sandwich while military-grade infrasound literally rattles your brain.

More than anything, it’s an issue of practicality for me. I get annoyed by a lot of things, and very easily. Anyone eating, anyone yelling, anyone being publicly happier than I am capable of being. You get it. Concert venues have the remarkable ability to combine all of these things into a space that is usually really hot, really loud, and dark as shit.

But a lot of people I know and like, most in fact, really like live music, and it makes me wonder if I experience music as a phenomena differently, plain and simple. My two favorite kinds of music are drill rap and ‘90s emo (should I even exist?). For me, the experience of liking either of these genres is having an intense response, either high or low, to the music at hand. I’m great about being vulnerable behind a keyboard, but when a patchouli-doused lunatic is watching you while you’re trying to enter that state at a concert?

No, thank you.

*

But ok. After spending a robust 500 words explaining to you, dear reader, why I do not like live music, please allow me to walk all of that back like an idiot. That’s because James Brown’s iconic album Live at the Apollo changes things for me.

Truthfully, I don’t really like James Brown’s studio music very much. When I agreed to write about this album, I wanted the challenge of trying to embrace something I knew, probably, that I wouldn’t like. I liked the idea of a challenge, and I thought it could have been productive. And, for the first time in a long, long time, I was right about something.

Throughout the entire album, there’s an ineffable dynamism present: these songs swell and shift; they always feel like they’re on the verge of collapsing or falling out of time, and then, somehow, everything falls perfectly back into sync. In a song like “I Don’t Mind,” a wandering bassline dovetails with a tinny, almost invisible guitar lead that seems to blink in and out of time, and just when you start questioning what’s going on, everything meets in the middle.

And then in a song like “I’ll Go Crazy,” you can almost feel the way his voice resonates in key, a small but achingly beautiful detail that even studio equipment in the early 1960s typically effaced. I haven’t found video from this show, but I can see James Brown during this song, with his twitchy, violent, somebody-get-me-an-exorcist energy, and there’s nothing like it.

On this album, in these moments, the music feels truly organic, you can feel it shuddering. You can feel it breathe.

The undisputed best moment of the album, and the thing that really converted me, comes on its third track, “Try Me.” The song itself is a sweet, slow, unadorned ballad to a loved one. Driven by a simple bassline played on a stand-up, Brown gets out two words, “Try me,” in the song’s opening seconds before the crowd realizes which song he is playing and explodes.

I’ve heard enthusiastic crowds before, but this isn’t the same. The screams that erupt from the concertgoers aren’t normal, they don’t even sound healthy. They’re high-pitched and frenetic, and the first time you hear them, it’s honestly unnerving. It sounds like these people are fearing for their lives; joy so intense it’s turned into terror.

And for a few seconds everything else is drowned out. Unmitigated chaos. After things settle and the song goes on, it’s still broken by intermittent cries: at an instrumental break just after the one minute mark, more wailing rises up from the crowd again.

“Try Me” is actually one of the handful of James Brown songs I truly enjoy outside of this record. The bizarre layers of audience interference present on the rendition of it on Live at the Apollo make it rendingly beautiful. There’s something impossible about it, a song so tender absolutely electrified by thousands of unbridled screams, like watching a handful of feathers catch fire and brilliantly burn.

And it’s this weird, shrieking, human presence I think that really let me enter the album, that made rethink, at least in some ways, my stance on what live music can do.

James Brown has been dead for more than ten years. In fact, I bet a lot of his fans who were packed into the Apollo that night—ones much younger than him at the time, ones who stepped over fallen October leaves that fall night in Harlem on their way to the stage—are dead too. And no, I’m not about to drop a platitude about capturing a moment in time. Because this wasn’t just a moment.

The way these people screamed. They ripped themselves wide open. They didn’t care what anyone thought, and that vulnerability, captured on analog and pressed into a record like a glittering, exploded fossil, is something beautiful.

It’s something, at least, that I could never get right.

—Jack McLaughlin

#26: Fleetwood Mac, "Rumours" (1977)

26 Rumours.jpg

“People who write things that mean something, usually they’re a little too personal for somebody else. That’s a risk that has to be taken.”

— Lindsey Buckingham to Rolling Stone, 1984

Side I:

1. Second Hand News

When you and I met, you wore a crimson tank, and I stared at your arms. A stranger to me, you drove to my newly-rented house and helped me lug my old life inside. We were both of us new to the mountain town where we were to spend the next two years. You brought another member of our grad school cohort, and the three of us drank beer, hoisted boxes in the August-Virginia haze, and tried to force my queen-sized box spring up the 1920s-narrow stairwell. (The boxspring ended up on the street, a chunk of plaster on the hardwood floor.)

We were all of us reluctant to give up before the truck was empty; no longer the lone oddballs, we wanted to prove ourselves to these other writers we might call friends.

Before you left that night, I pulled out my guitar. You played “Such Great Heights,” and I laid a clumsy harmony over top. You met my eyes and insisted: I’d hear the shrillest highs and lowest lows. Your voice was crackly, charming.

You had an out-of-state girlfriend, but I wouldn’t find that out for months, until the weekend she showed up holding your hand at our Wednesday-night dive bar. By then I had forced my attention away from you. Our refuge of writers in the rural south was too precious for such a wager.

*

Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks met in the mid sixties. One Wednesday night during Nicks’s senior year of high school, she ventured out to a Christian “Young Life” meeting, where she spotted Buckingham playing guitar and singing “California Dreaming.” She couldn’t resist; she piped in with a harmony line. She thought Lindsey was darling.

Lindsey never forgot Stevie’s voice. Years later, when Stevie was working towards her bachelor’s at San Jose State, Lindsey called her up and invited her to join his new acid rock band, Fritz. By the chilly San Francisco summer, Stevie held no college degree, but her band was opening for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Chicago, and CCR. She was in rock and roll.

They didn’t write their own songs yet, either Stevie or Lindsey, but their harmonies synced sweet and tight. They grew together those years, in that way you must when your job requires you to slip into you coworker’s chords.

But that was all. The other members of the band, all male, had agreed: hands off the singer. Buckingham’s entanglement with Nicks for those three and a half years was one of ear and mind.

*

“since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you,” you recited to me in a university parking lot. You did not mean it; we were practicing recitations for a class. “lady I swear by all flowers…. we are for each other.” You swung on “lady,” a monkey bar lodged unexpectedly in my veins.

When I began my own recitation—“You do not have to be good…”—my voice shook.

For a gestation period, we wrote and read and recited and edited, you and I. I read your poems and you read my stories, and you suffered my poems and I suffered your stories, and we complained about the workload, though it was the best work of our lives. You read about my father’s addictions, and I read about your mother’s depression. We both read Dillard and Carver and Wright and Doty and far too many undergraduate writers who wrote angry stories about sexist men, maudlin ones about dead childhood dogs.

We found each other’s eyes during class, at readings, across the fields on campus and at parties outside the cabin you rented. We sat in the tall grass around bonfires you built and drank late into new mornings, when everyone else had turned to water or sleep.

We crossed no romantic lines.

*

I know you’re hoping to find
Someone who’s going to give you peace of mind.
When times go bad,
When times go rough,
Won’t you lay me down in tall grass and let me do my stuff?

2. Dreams

In 1971, Fritz broke up, and Lindsey and Stevie got together. “Pretty soon we started spending all our time together,” Nicks told Rolling Stone in 1977. The duo moved to Los Angeles, armed with sparkling demos and a belief that they’d bag a record deal.

Buckingham worked on his music. Nicks worked as a waitress and a cleaning lady to make ends meet. “You have to understand,” Stevie told SPIN in 1997, “I didn’t want to be a waitress, but I believed that Lindsey shouldn’t have to work, that he should just lay on the floor and practice his guitar and become more brilliant every day. And as I watched him become more brilliant every day, I felt very gratified. I was totally devoted to making it happen for him.”

It did happen, for him and her both: they got a deal, with Keith Olson as their producer, to cut an album called Buckingham Nicks.

*

It was nearly summer again the night you ran your fingers through my hair.

What did we discuss—cut peonies in a mason jar on a wrought-iron table, bottles of wine empty on front porch floorboards—? Women, I think: those you were eying, the one whose heart I’d just bruised. You had left the out-of-town girlfriend by then, but a summer back in your hometown shimmered like a fresh new try.

When we said goodnight, your lips moved toward a whispered kiss, but my arms were already around your neck. Your fingers found my hair. Alcohol and familiarity, all. You’d spent the evening dreaming, out loud, of other women.

Into the night—warm and humid like the day we’d met—you flew.

*

Buckingham Nicks flopped. Polydor Records dropped the duo, and their manager released them from their contract. Back to work went Stevie, and Lindsey back to staying home, all day playing guitar. “We were broke, and we were starving, and we needed money,” Lindsey told Creem in 1985.

But he didn’t help bring the money in. Not yet, anyway.

*

The morning I woke with you in my bed, the days had grown long. Even so, the sun had hardly risen when you pulled on your jeans and patted the back pocket to ensure the small black notebook you carried everywhere was still there. I grabbed my cotton robe and walked you to the door, same spot where your lips had wanted mine a week before. For the first time in many months, we did not hug goodbye.

*

Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
Players only love you when they’re playing.
Say women they will come and they will go.
When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know.

3. Never Going Back Again

In an interview with BBC in 1984, Lindsey admitted that he and Stevie “always competed…ever since we started going together back in 1971….even though we were excellent lovers, we were competitors as well.” Even so, when Mick Fleetwood invited him to join Fleetwood Mac as the band’s new guitarist, Buckingham was clear: to bring on Lindsey was to bring on Lindsey and Stevie both. Their record may have tanked, but Buckingham and Nicks were still a package deal.

Playing in a new band—a genuinely famous one—didn’t cure the couple’s musical tension, nor did it seal the fault-lines in their relationship. Shortly after they’d joined, Stevie walked in on Christine McVie and Lindsey harmonizing on a song they’d just written: “World Turning.”

Stevie and Lindsey had lived and worked together for years, but not once had the two of them written a song. This was infidelity beyond body.

*

After you left that morning in May, I vowed to cut down on my drinking. It was to blame, I decided, and if I wasn’t careful it’d blow up our friendship. I told no one of our tangle, not even my roommate who, surely, through the thin 1920s walls, had heard.

That summer I went dry and tried to work out what had transpired in the last year of my life. I’d loved a woman. I’d loved a man—you—though I wasn’t ready to say so.

You were home in Pennsylvania, and I was working on a second masters in Vermont. I wrote to you about Calvino, Smith, Espada. You’d been working too many hours to read, living at home to try to save enough money to get through the next year of grad school. You wrote to me of your new dog, named after a writer we both loved. You knew, your slanted script proclaimed, that he’d love me.

*

Been down one time.
Been down two times.
I’m never going back again.

4. Don’t Stop

Everything the other did was wrong. Lindsey was an asshole. Stevie was a drag. They were both doing too much coke. “Try working with your secretary in a raucous office…then come home with her at night,” Nicks told Rolling Stone in 1977. “See how long you can stand her. I could be no comfort to Lindsey when he needed comfort.” In the same article, Lindsey admitted, “I’m surprised we lasted as long as we did.” Stevie was the one to end things, but they both knew the break was coming.

During the year that Fleetwood Mac wrote and recorded Rumours, there were long stretches when Nicks and Buckingham refused to talk. They sang in harmony, stared into one another on stage, but didn’t speak.

Instead, they wrote about their relationship, in songs the other would be required to perform. They punished each other in licks and lyrics.

But when Lindsey heard “Dreams” for the first time, he made eye contact with Stevie and smiled. “As musicians, we still respected each other,” Stevie explained to The Daily Mail, “—and we got some brilliant songs out of it.”

*

August. You and I both back in Virginia. You were the first to reach out. You were helping a new professor move into his on-campus home and would I like to join? We’d had such fun the last time, a year before, almost to the day.

I declined, but soon we were in your car together, both our dogs in the backseat, driving to a waterfall. Your dog threw up ten minutes outside of town, and I did the cleaning. For a moment, I felt I was proving something—giving you a glimpse of who I’d be as a mother, a wife. I shook it off. That wasn’t what I wanted.

Back on the road, I told you: I’d stopped drinking. My shoulders shrugged tight as I said it. You’d see it as a critique, I thought. So many of our shared hours we’d swum silly and happy in booze.

“You know,” you said. “I’m never really happy when I’m drinking. I’m something, but not happy.”

I nodded and we drove in silence to the falls, a sight that could kill us if we got too close, but, from where we stopped, just whispered mist. We crouched before thousands of cubic-feet-per-second of pounding water, held tight to our dogs, and grinned.

*

All I want is to see you smile
If it takes just a little while.
I know you don’t believe that it’s true:
I never meant any harm to you.

5. Go Your Own Way

“Tell me why everything turned around,” Buckingham signs on the fifth song on Rumors. “Packing up, shaking up’s all you want to do.”

Stevie was livid, but she hurled her harmonies over her ex’s brutal lyrics all the same. A cap put on their love, they boiled for one other in a different way.

One night during a show, Lindsey approached Stevie and kicked her, not enough to hurt her, but enough to spark an eruption. “He went off, and we all ran at breakneck speed back to the dressing room to see who could kill him first,” Stevie told Rolling Stone. The band’s bodyguards had to pull Stevie off of him.

*

On my 29th birthday, you and I met in a parking lot just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I got out of my car, and you kissed me, as if you did that every day. I took your hand.

We drove for hours. We kissed on small trails, at the edge of overlooks, in your car, breathless for what we’d been pretending not to want.

At my birthday dinner that night, you sat separate, careful not to hold my eyes or hand. We acted like nothing had changed.

*

Loving you isn’t the right thing to do.
How can I ever change things that I feel?
If I could, baby I’d give you my world.
How can I when you won’t take it from me?

You can go your own way…

6. Songbird

Lindsey had wanted his freedom, but he still resented Stevie for breaking things off. He’d been tossed around enough.

Even so, the two stayed in the Mac, long after each had written bitter words about the other, over a decade after Rumours was complete. Success is the best revenge, and they were competitive still. But when first Nicks and then Buckingham decided to cut solo records, they cheered one another on. Six years after their relationship tanked, Nicks told The Record, “I love Lindsey. I love him very, very much….For me, when you love somebody, you want them to be the best.”

*

I was in the last year of my twenties, the second year of a graduate arts program, when you got so under my skin that I agreed to love without strings. There were new girls in our program, and, well, you wanted to meet as many different types of people as possible.

You never were one for strict syntax.

At post-reading receptions, I’d sip a club soda and watch you flirt with other women, knowing I’d give myself to you later. I’d drive you home when you’d had too much to drink. I’d wake hours before you and lie in your bed, listening to birdsong.

Some weeks you’d bring me flowers you picked from the wilds around your cabin, take me on mushroom hunts in cool morning mist. Some weeks you’d hardly meet my gaze until, a party emptying, you’d find me: your dependable second choice.

You insisted we keep it all a secret. It’d get too messy if everyone found out. Really, you knew my power in that small group of writers. If those first year women had known, they would have let you be.

I learned to be present. Your arms, twice as thick as mine, belonged to me only for the instant I was in them.

*

And I wish you all the love in the world,
But most of all, I wish it from myself.

And the songbirds keep singing
Like they know the score.
And I love you, I love you, I love you
Like never before.

Side II:

1. The Chain

In interviews, Stevie and Lindsey don’t talk much about their relationship prior to joining Fleetwood Mac. In their songs on their first album with the band, though, they say plenty:

Buckingham: “First you love me, then you fade away. I can’t go on believing this way.”

Nicks: “Well, I’ve been afraid of changing ‘cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older, too.”

Buckingham: “I’ve been alone all the years. So many ways to count the tears. I never change, I never will.”

In truth, joining Fleetwood Mac both severed and chained Stevie and Lindsey. Their romantic relationship, already off-again, on-again, could no longer endure; their professional one could not be broken.

*

You began to moan other women’s names in your sleep. Other women I knew, whose writing I read, who read mine.

That was it: I wanted you to myself, and I wanted to say so out loud. When I made my ultimatum, you said you were sorry.

We saw each other nearly every day—on campus, at parties, at our weeknight dive bars, where I sipped club soda with lime. But we did not speak. It was then that you first made your way into my stories. It was then that I slipped into your lines.

*

Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night.
Running in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies.
Break the silence, damn the dark, damn the light.

And if you don’t love me now,
You will never love me again.
I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.

2. You Make Loving Fun

What is the measure of what’s worth it for art?

It’s no secret that Rumours hit like it did because of its haunting mix of bone-break lyrics and melodies so upbeat they claw into your mind, playing themselves and their barbed lyrics on repeat.

Near rending, plastered-smile insistence to hold on, the energy of atomic fissure. It makes gut-wrench love sound fun.

*

You asked if we could talk in December. We met at our Wednesday night dive bar and sat across from one another at a booth. Some game was on TV. Yes, you said, looking at the television screen, then at me. Yes, you’d do it. You’d be in a relationship. You had missed me.

It was December and it was cold and it was nearing the anniversary of my mother’s death. I stood and joined your side of the booth. I curved myself under your arm.

*

Don’t, don’t break the spell.
It would be different, and you know it will.
You, you make loving fun,
And I don’t have to tell you, but you’re the only one.

3. I Don’t Want to Know

Nicks wrote “I Don’t Want to Know” during the Buckingham Nicks years, before Fleetwood Mac was even a possible pitstop in their unmapped future. Though the tune’s treatment of infidelity fits in nicely with the rest of the record, it wasn’t supposed to be on the album.

“Silver Springs,” which has since been included on remastered versions of Rumours, was to be in its place, but Nicks’s new song was too long. The other members of the band made the decision to cut “Springs” without Stevie, recorded her old tune with Buckingham on both harmony and lead, and then begged her to sing over his lead part.

She wanted another songwriting credit on the record. She fumed, but she went along with the plan.

*

By Valentine’s Day, you were texting her every day. We still hadn’t gone public with our relationship. She did not know.

On that day of coupled love, you posted two pictures on social media: one of your dog in an empty guitar case (mine, but she would not know that) and one of your dog’s face close to your lap.

You made sure I wasn’t in the frames.

She Liked both pictures. You stared at your phone. I worked on my novel, furious.

When I gave my thesis reading the next week, you left the seat I’d saved you empty, sat on the other side of the room. Dozens of pictures were snapped that night, but in all the ones that show me, you’re absent from the frame.

*

Finally, baby:
The truth has come down now.
Take a listen to your spirit—
It’s crying out loud,
Trying to believe.
Oh you say you love me, but you don’t know.
You got me rocking and a-reeling…

4. Oh Daddy

I was always the one to end it. This time, it happened outside a diner. You’d been texting her, again, during breakfast.

But I didn’t mention that. Instead I tried to make summer plans, post-grad plans, what-are-we-doing-with-the-rest-of-our-lives plans. “If you’re so unsure about whether you want to be with me in three months,” I said, “I don’t see why we’re together now.”

Presence, your lesson, always. An exam, with you, I always failed.

*

Years later, after I moved to North Carolina and bought my first house, I pulled Rumours out of one of the same boxes I’d brought to Virginia. This time, the boxes were carted in by movers I’d hired. This time, there were no gouges in the stairwell.

The record turned up too loud, I danced in my empty house the way the Mac’s beat insists. I unpacked plates and forks and mason jars and set them gently on wooden shelves. I pushed the furniture that had once been my mother’s from one room to another. Unconsciously, I began to sing along with Stevie and Lindsey, then got catapulted back to you.

*

If there’s been a fool around,
It’s got to be me.
Yes, it’s got to be me.

5. Gold Dust Woman

Who sheds an addiction easy?

Though Nicks was by all accounts the most successful of Fleetwood Mac’s members after the band began to go downhill, she was also the one cocaine hooked the hardest. Before Rumours’ ten-year anniversary, she’d developed a hole in her nose, lost her voice, and crumpled under a new addiction to Klonopin, prescribed to help her shake coke.

She’d dated other men, and, for three months, even married one, but she remained devoted to Lindsey. As late as 2009, she told MTV, “Who Lindsey and I are to each other will never change.”

*

For a year, I quit booze and got my highs and lows from you, but it’d be years more before we left each other’s veins.

When I left our mountain town in Virginia, you and I spent another August day hauling furniture and boxes. You emptied the house you’d filled. We cried when we parted, but that was not that.

Once, you nearly came to D.C. for me.

Once, I nearly moved to Pittsburgh for you.

Once, we met each other halfway, in a town in West Virginia, and before I drove off, you told me—to my face—that you loved me.

*

Well did she make you cry,
Make you break down,
Shatter your illusions of love?
And is it over now? Do you know how?
Pick up the pieces and go home.

Postscript:

Silver Springs

Now, in 2019, Stevie Nicks is preparing for a world tour with Fleetwood Mac, and Buckingham’s not. The ostensible reason: timing. The reality? When asked last year about the band’s decision to tour without Buckingham, Stevie told Rolling Stone, “Our relationship has always been volatile.”

They met. They created. They entangled. They split. They channeled it all into art.

Lindsey Buckingham has been married to a different woman for nearly twenty years. He has three children who aren’t Stevie’s, and a net worth of around eighty million dollars.

Stevie Nicks’s net worth is estimated at seventy-five million. She’s happily unmarried and free. In 2012 she told CBS This Morning, “I have lots of kids. It’s much more fun to be the crazy auntie than it is to be the mom, anyway. I couldn’t do what I’m doing if I had kids.”

Hers is a household name.

*

You aren’t my you anymore.

We’ve seen each other since our last split. Conferences. Weddings. We’re chained to the same field, same handful of beloveds.

Last summer, you sent me a contributor copy of a journal where a poem of yours appeared. I looked for my prints on your words: maybe, find each other, change, Coronas. In a letter, you asked when you’d be seeing my work in a journal. Excellent lovers, once; excellent competitors, still.

Will we do this always? Hunt evidence of what we were and are in the marks the other makes on a page?

I promise you this: I won’t make you sing my lines out loud, or force you to look me in the eye and harmonize. But I think Nicks was right. You never escape the hold of the ones who loved you. You never shake the sound of the ones you managed to love.

And can you tell me, was it worth it?
Baby, I don’t want to know.

—Ellen Louise Ray

#27: U2, "The Joshua Tree" (1987)

27 The Joshua Tree.jpg

“Bad habits lately. Over-elaborating everything, dropping plates, screaming down everyone’s throat. It’s not just me, though, it’s the whole restaurant. When the whole thing goes to rot, it’s only so much you can do to push it the other way.”

We started brightly. Fucking sparkling, to be honest. No water-spots on any of the glasses, even in storage. The ones we broke went to the bin crystalline. The ones we washed came out even cleaner than they were unpacked. We were a machine that made things increasingly and dizzyingly beautiful. That’s what restaurant work is.

But to explain it, I need to know what kind of place you come from. So let’s get some things sorted:

If you’ve got those big-city blinders, fucking do us both a big-city favor and stop here. This is not Gramercy Fucking Tavern, and neither is Gramercy Fucking Tavern. No same river twice, like, and the rest is fiction. So fucking do us that favor already.

But equally, if you’ve got that small-timing, ticky-tack, one-horse-town bullshit backpack on, you can fuck off as well. Genuinely: step off here, close out your tab. Fucking no one else is worried about how your county seat decided we’ll collect the garbage and the recycling. The rest of us have done it a thousand and twelve different ways, and none of us is eaten up with guilt and regret. So if that’s you, here’s your coat.

And that’s the point. Right now, neither of us is in too deep here, so close it, close it, close it all the fuck out and know it’s the best of all possible next worlds, here. Say the prayer of the server station. Ask God’s mercy of swift resolution, the quick exit of customers who shouldn’t be here. That’s all we want as our feet ache, and the shadows of our shift stretch long across the grass.

*

The question isn’t how big your city is, and thank fuck we’re both past all that.

The question is your city, as filtered through what you can do in your moments, on your block, in your wack civic elections, in your slightly-less-wack regional elections, in your hassling of your stately-minded officials. I see we both know what bullshit it means, and also what joy it means to say you’re from your city. I feel now I’m among friends.

*

Since it’s just us, I could start with a list of cities I don’t like. New York is the king of over-promising salesmen, and we know that Memphis and Cleveland are right there on its heels. Chicago. I don’t like it, but unlike New York, I respect the hustle of Chicago, so let’s say half of Chicago is completely sound, and the other half are probably from New York originally. And if you’re here talking about LA, we both know how it ends. It’s not a city that can reckon with itself without resorting to nebulous shit or platitudes—even New York refers to itself with the dignity (the pompous dignity) of being a single fucking thing.

Or make a list of the cities we love, the cities (in their times) that showed us the right shit. Detroit. Bath. Baby-Polis. Savannah robed in the nastiness of High-Summer. The Ballou-side of DC. The cities of all them sweat-shirted paysans who call you in off the dusty roadside for a glass of Armagnac in their trailer. We know these places by the tables they prepared for us. Proper cities are always questions of tables.

*

Is there other cities out there? Yes. But they’re cities who owe themselves answers. (Not us.) So we can’t use this medium as a way to get to them.

*

“I used to like cooking in Boston. I used to like new weirdos wandering through and upending the whole spot for me. I used to love that know-it-all from the Greek spot on the corner. But I’ll tell you one thing about the ones who last in this game, is that they’re in love—no mistakes about it in love—with the prospect of Butterscotch Miso. If you’re not chasing something oddball and loving, you’re just another line cook, shuffling closer to death. It’s not my rules. Chef told Chef told Chef told me, player. Nothing else I can do about that.”

That’s what Chef first told me that made me think there was wheels turning in his head separate from the machinery of the tables, the servers, the scorching salamanders, and the Basil Hayden’s stashed by the walk-in out in the back lot.

So what do to two travellers like you and I share in this lot? A step to sit, a moment of quiet, a shared jibe at the expense of some well-meaning wage payer, or otherwise-acceptable rando in off the griddle?

No fucking way. We’ve got to be more honest than that. (Right?) No bank man is coming for to bail us out. No food inspector, for to put us into honest work. So fuck’s sake, let’s just have this.

*

When Jim started, I felt like it was a bad shuffle-&-deal. The kind of new-cards-deck that sticks you with the same motherfucker thirty times in a row for the same deck of shitty sidework. Sarah even called him Sir-Leans-A-Lot, which, as far as sidework goes, is like, fucking, death-knell devastating. How a fella scrapes together dignity after she walks through and says that, who knows. But life goes on.

But look, Jim is one of us. He hustles. He puts money in the pool, and he makes sure we all go home with a little extra crustcrumb. Not every asshole in the deck does that, and in fact: it’s pretty fucking rare. And in that same vein, there’s plenty of good restaurants in the world, but a right one is swimming against the grain like Jim. That’s the tradeoff. You swim this way or you swim that way. You end either way. You get less far swimming that way, but fuck’s sake, Siri, it’s a dazzling ride, isn’t it?

*

“When Stavros came in just in time for brunch service with his head bleeding, it was bad enough that Kevin had to take him back by the walk in and give him a concussion test. Or maybe just gave him another drink. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. But I tell you one thing: never had a better service than that. Loopy motherfucker wrapped up that cut and fucking grinded through that shift. Fucking: every plate hit them tables right. Never seen a fella sling brunch better than that, in all the wack cities I plied this trade.”

Or when Chef showed up the morning after knifing the pumpkins to the neighbor’s wall. This is a business that shows us only the best from a professional’s breaking body if they’ve got the requisite level of experience.

*

It’s one thing to say our shitty home-to-roost bodies mean something in their breaking. It’s an all too glorified thing to say a brunch service means anything—whether you cooked it concussed, or thirty-eight weeks pregnant.

But it’s a real fucking stretch to say it all has to be so. You can have a dirty egg sandwich, it won’t kill you. You can swish back a bottle of Cranky Lake Chardonnay from your grandma’s fridge some Sunday morning. You can always borrow your brother’s car if yours breaks again.

And you can stand to shovel a bit of that ancient grain salad plate down your gullet—for the fiber and the nutrients. We both can.

But we all have to reckon with what’s written on every new week’s marquee; what each optimistic tyrant who considers his dim self a shift manager writes on the menu; what’s left in the fridge after the last brunch rush; and what’s written in the stars for these civic institutions we keep with our honor and our naming. We see the God’s Country Interstate Stop-In Bistro and our hearts puff up like an ankle after a late-night tumble down the back stairs, and our stomachs fold in a sharp, defeated modesty that would have impressed even our provincial mothers; and we see our homes for what they are. That’s what this means. When Jim doesn’t finish the third rack from dish and slides out back leaving you with an extra slab of this bullshit, it’s fucking this. Here. It’s the cash-only version of all the Bruce Springsteen albums your dad couldn’t stop gushing over.

It’s not the feeling of tables in New York or Memphis, or any town caught between the sundown and the terrible prophesy of another tomorrow, another breakfast shift, another afternoon downtime, and another slow dinner shift. It’s the feeling of tables everywhere.

You know them. You’ve sat at them. You’ve served them. You’ve watched the sun set across the sturdy-glossed tops from your side work spot behind the bar. You’ve filled these cups before. You know you’ll fill them again, and you know they’re ready, so you know—you know—what you can do. There’s nothing stopping us.

—Aaron Fallon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Josiah Meints

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

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for Zach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—David W. Pritchard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brainbell jongleur
Everybody got to go

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

—Constance Squires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Emilie Begin

#33: Ramones, "Ramones" (1976)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Nick Graveline