#81: The Clash, "The Clash" (1977)

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I.

I started listening to the Clash in 8th grade, the same year our class bussed north from North Carolina on an annual pilgrimage to our nation’s capital. My brother and I were running multiple BMG and Columbia House schemes, pulling in dozens of “free” CDs for the bargain price of a penny before our parents received the bills for our crimes and shut the whole thing down. I was newly into punk rock and ravenous—the Buzzcocks, Blondie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex—and packed my Sony Discman with a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, a dreamy EP by the band Luna, and the Clash’s first album.

Our class stayed at a rinky-dink Days Inn somewhere on the Virginia border and I roomed with three other girlfriends, two on each double bed, sequestered away for the night by a piece of tape on the outside door, ensuring no sneak-outs, no boys, and no fun.

Only I’d picked up some fake blood pills at a gaudy prank store on an excursion to one of the area’s myriad malls—where a $5 psychic reading left me thinking I had a bright future in dentistry—and slipped into the bathroom, sometime around 10 o’clock, just as me and the girls were growing delirious with cabin fever. The pills frothed into realistic blood streams as I gnashed into them before lurching from the bathroom, groaning, to the utter horror of my friends before we all tore into laughter. The commotion signaled the red-faced teacher-chaperones who threatened us in their casual wear, always on high alert to squash whatever hijinks we might be up to. But the beauty of youth is feeling emboldened even when you know you shouldn’t, and so after they returned to bed, we cracked the hotel windows to smoke a surreptitious cigarette, passed between us and exhaled into the crisp night air of the biggest city we’d yet traveled to.

The next day, we wandered the Smithsonian and explored the National Mall in fragments I can just barely recall, but what I do remember happened on the bus ride home. The underwire from my bra had snapped on a tour of the aquarium and was jabbing the underside of my breast; so, in the aquarium restroom, I disposed of it entirely. My burgeoning knockers could still go without any real support and so I thought nothing of it—until we returned to the bus and settled in for the long ride back to Greensboro. I’d bent over to retrieve my Discman, totally oblivious that Mark, my ultimate skater boy crush, was watching, peering down my v-neck shirt as I rooted around my bag, emerging with my Sex Pistols CD in hand.

What happened to your bra? he demanded loudly, both indignant and satisfied, as though he’d caught me mid-crime and savored my humiliation.

I flushed and felt my whole body go hot. People were looking at me, and I knew I had to say something.

It broke so I got rid of it, I stammered.

Mark howled with laughter and glanced at the Sex Pistols CD I was still holding. God save the Sween! he crooned—standing up on his seat for the whole bus to see—She doesn’t wear a bra!

II.

I preferred the Clash, anyway, I remember telling Jeff almost a year later. Anytime I heard the Sex Pistols, I heard Mark’s song echoing and I winced—at the time, his cleverness bugged me more than his cruelty.

Up until this point, Jeff and I had led our parents to believe we were the best of friends, strictly platonic, but of course we were dryhumping like chipmunks in the hammock of his parents’ backyard and dryhumping in the car while we waited for his younger brother to finish class at Tumblebees.

I was just a freshman, but Jeff was a junior and drove a white Buick, and thus became my default chauffeur. After school, we landed at his house and I’d harass him while he attempted homework, distracting him into picking up his guitar and he’d break into Sonic Youth, Pavement, and the Clash, which I’d just turned him onto.

He preferred London Calling, but I still carried a torch for the Clash’s first album, and remember making my father drive me to the record store to buy it. Even if I now prefer London Calling—the band’s more literate older brother, back from study abroad—I seized upon the first album’s anger then because I was angry too. Angry that my mother had chosen her loathsome and jobless boyfriend over me, prompting me to run away from home and get picked up by my drunk father, who I loved dearly but who I’d never imagined as a qualified caretaker. Angry because those circumstances coupled with my age ostensibly rendered me powerless.

I loved the Clash’s first album for its visceral, political anger—which had always felt so romantic to me, a rebel child born from such Southern, genteel sensibilities—but also for the way Joe Strummer fused that anger with something that felt like joy. Janie Jones was a love song if ever there was one; Garageland an homage to a DIY musical ethos; and Mick Jones’s soaring, ribbon-light vocals gave me something to shout from the Buick’s open window—Let them know, let them knowwww-ooh-oh-ohhh.

One fall school night we were riding around, making out at each red light, which prompted Jeff to pull into the parking lot of a Baptist church off Friendly Avenue. Under a lone streetlight we kissed, we dryhumped, and then there was Jeff’s penis, the first real-life penis I’d ever seen, and at 14 and still clueless about sex I certainly didn’t know what to do with it.

But I’d wanted to see it because I was advancing—as a teenager, as a person in the world, and as a sexual being who’d someday soon know what to do. But that night, I looked at Jeff’s penis and nodded. Then I said, You can put it away now.

And that's when he got on top of me and pinned me to the car seat with the full weight of all his taut teenage body, still new and golden and filled with all the opportunities the world affords to bright young white men, while I writhed and struggled beneath him before starting to scream. 

As he simultaneously thrust his penis at my face while trying to wrangle my arms into submission, I remember screaming and staring at a blue dumpster up ahead, as if that dumpster might somehow come to life and rescue me.

And maybe my screams worked, because Jeff eventually stopped. But back then—North Carolina in 1997—no language for sexual assault was taught to young girls. There was only language for being molested by a family member or a friend of the family or rape, none of which happened to me.

I didn’t know what happened to me. But I know that Jeff drove me home and on the way, I remember thinking, Do not look unruffled in front of your father.

I remember thinking, What just happened, anyway?

I remember thinking, Do I tell my father? Do I tell anyone? Is there even anything to tell?

I remember thinking, It wasn't rape, though.

I remember thinking, If it wasn't rape, then I guess it was nothing.

Besides, I told myself, I started it.

III.

Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?

Lately I’ve been thinking about what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said of her decision to appear—though I want to say testify, even though we’re all supposed to believe she was not on trial—before the Senate Judiciary Committee and tell the world how the newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in a Maryland bedroom sometime during the summer of 1982.

On the day of the hearing, my coworker—a man I like very much, a man I consider a friend—asked to speak to me privately. I just want to understand, and I think you might be a good person to ask, he started. It’s just—what do you think of all this? Do you think she’s legit?

I closed his office door, and that’s when I told him about Jeff’s Buick, about the dumpster.

I feel lucky, I told him, because this is it. But isn’t that enough?

Isn’t telling my classmate that my bra broke enough? Isn’t telling Jeff no enough? Isn’t telling my coworker enough? Why must humiliation—annihilation?—be the cornerstone of womanhood, of our believability?

I still can’t listen to the Sex Pistols without wincing, without thinking about how I thought I loved Mark and how he was an asshole to me, and how I thought I loved Jeff and how he was an asshole to me, and how I’d come to internalize humiliation by men as a part of life—even as a token of love. Once I believed that pain was part of being a woman, that suffering for a man was the most valiant love in the world.

Years later, in college, I saw Jeff and asked him about that night in the Baptist church parking lot and he said he didn't remember. I'm really sorry if I did that, he said, but I just don't remember.

But women and girls—we remember.

When I listened to the Clash as a young girl, I felt powerful. I felt angry. I didn’t quite understand the political and social context of the lyrics, but intuitively I recognized that the songs were about injustice.

That night with Jeff may not have ruined my life, and he may not be on the Supreme Court, but if he were, I would’ve come forward too. I am now.

Appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2017, the singer Henry Rollins said of Trump’s regime: This is punk rock time, this is what Joe Strummer trained you for.

Now I know exactly what he means.

—Sarah Sweeney

#82: Neil Young, "Harvest" (1972)

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I knew Nash was coming over so I asked Elliot, who was working with me as producer at that time, to rig up the house and barn like we’d talked about. We’d been working on Harvest for months and I was ready for someone other than the two of us dimwits to have a listen. Nash was a good dummy run, always had been. He didn’t say too much and that was the good part.

It was a warm afternoon in late summer and the trees were just starting to turn on the ranch. Nash and I got to shooting the shit, I fed him a couple of beers on the porch while he talked about the Israeli athletes just killed in Olympic Village, and then I asked him if he wanted to hear some of the new stuff. He agreed, and suggested we go to the studio. Instead I got up, gathered our beer cans into a pile, and motioned for him to follow me down the hill to the lake.

I bent down to untie the boat from the dock. “Get in the rowboat,” I said.

“Get in the rowboat?”

“Yeah, we’re going into the middle of the lake.”

Now Nash had known me quite a long time by then and he was used to my peculiar requests. My ex-wife used to say the only people who could stand me were people fascinated by bullshit instead of put off by it. Nash never was presented with a question he didn’t want to tinker with, and when the answer seemed unknowable, he loved that the most.

My hair was long in those days and I was working on a scraggy little mustache streaky as a skunk. It was a windy day, and that shit was bothering my face so much I slid my sunglasses onto my head to push my hair back and sacrificed my eyes to the blinding sun. Nash had a similar haircut at the time, or lack of haircut I guess, but his hair was so heavy with grease it didn’t move an inch in that wind. The effect, coupled with his squinty eyes, made him look inhuman.

He got in the boat while I held it to the dock, and then I stepped in myself, one foot at a time, the boat rocking in the shallow water. The algae stank in the heat and a swarm of flies buzzed close to Nash’s head. You could see a couple of red-wing blackbirds floating in the distance.

I don’t know what he thought. Maybe he thought I had a cassette player ready to play him a tune, one of those early models that had just come out. Maybe he thought I was about to open up my mouth and serenade him and the birds and the fishes right there in the rowboat.

When we got to the middle of the lake, I called to Elliot and gave him the signal.

Then: the opening bars of “Heart of Gold,” that familiar thud of bass and guitar I’d heard dozens of times in recent weeks. This time it was louder than hell and I could feel it in my chest, rising and warm as bathwater. I saw the blackbirds whiz away over the hill, their red wings like some kind of flare.

Nash looked behind him, ahead of him, and side to side more than once before looking back at me. True to form, he didn’t say anything at all, and it took him until about the start of the chorus to realize what the hell kind of contraption we’d rigged up. Even once he realized it he clearly couldn’t believe it. From our spot in the middle of the lake, the whole house was playing the left-hand channel and the whole barn the right. In the house, Elliot had set up big speakers by every window, and in the barn, he’d cranked the recording PA system all the way up. It was the loudest surround sound we’d ever heard, out there under the open sky, the music drowning everything out.

Keep me searching for a heart of gold / and I’m getting old.

When “Heart of Gold” faded out, Elliot came running down the hill from the barn smiling huge. “How was that, Neil?” he hollered.

“Could use a little more barn,” I said.

Nash started laughing so hard the boat shook. “You crazy son of a bitch,” he said.

That much was true, to be sure. I stood right up and dove into the lake. Nash yelled after me, his voice garbled in that underwater way. The music started up again—this time it was “Harvest.” I could barely make out the piano chords or the tenor of my own voice, but I could hear the subtle high frequency notes of the slide guitar, more uptempo than it should have been because sound waves travel faster underwater, vibrating that heavy bone right behind your earlobe. I stayed under as long as I could, letting my ears quiver. After the first verse, I opened my eyes and took in the filth of the lake. The moss coated everything, from the scummy bottom of the boat to the frothy rocks and the fish fins. It was growing on me, too. I could see it griming up my forearms. But that music, though distorted, was more clean and pure and loud than it’d ever been, and I had to have it. I opened my mouth and swallowed up every last wave.

—Lacy Barker

#83: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Axis: Bold as Love" (1967)

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It was early spring. My husband was away for the evening, and I had the apartment to myself. I was restless and stir crazy and riddled with a sort of itch that indicated a quiet Friday on the couch with my laptop wouldn’t quite cut it—and the only hope I had to outpace this feeling was by getting in my car. It was light when I left the house, but already deep dusk by the time I reached the edge of town. Despite the early evening dark, it was warm enough for the tang of  the neighboring cow pasture to have started to thaw into the air: the first and truest sign of Spring, even with the blackened crust of ice still hemming the roadway. I followed a one-lane state route under a glowing moon, squirming in the driver’s seat. I should be working: it was like an accidental motto I’d adopted. There were always papers to grade, manuscripts to edit, rooms to tidy, muscles to tone—if it couldn’t be lauded as productive, it shouldn’t deserve my time.

I winced with every pair of headlights from oncoming cars. They were painfully bright, but also irritated me, the presence of others as I was trying to drive my way to isolation, someplace where it was just my thoughts and a simmering inexplicable urgency I assumed hurling myself into would help quell.

Capturing what this drive feels like and the need for it is hard. And for two reasons:

  1. The older I become, the more difficult it is to acknowledge and process my emotions. I feel an uneasiness around even the most benign of them. This is bad news for a writer.

  2. Some feelings do not lend themselves well to being portrayed in language altogether. At the end of the day, feelings are abstract, no matter how many sensory details we try to staple to them. This, unfortunately, is also bad news for a writer—along with probably everyone else who wants to meaningfully express themselves.

The pastures adjacent to both sides of the road are serene and mostly empty; they host a few trees, green-black in the darkness, that cast diagonal shadows across the dash. The radio station that I’ve been ignoring begins to play something that catches my attention: an electric guitar that is golden and melodic, a glockenspiel sounding like a celestial bell, a shimmering warmth that is the audio equivalent of the wavy distortions of air above summer pavement. “Little Wing” is unmistakable, and slows my spinning brain to match its meditative quality. It is languid like watching honey poured into a spoon, and sounds almost like the sunlight color of it, too. There is a reason Hendrix’s music is often labeled psychedelic. How else do I talk about what it makes me feel: soothed by melody, energized by the drum fills, sad and wistful and relaxed all at once? Look at those empty adjectives: what a cop-out.

The only other way I know how to talk about what this album can make me feel is the time when I was 8 and also heard Hendrix on the radio: legs plastered to the scalding vinyl back seat of my mother’s ‘73 Plymouth Duster. The music made me feel like the emblem on the car’s quarter panel: a spinning cyclone with big wide open eyes, a still image conveyed in a blur of movement, a cloud of electrons that could peer out at the world with an eagerness to take it in. On the spot, I asked for a Jimi Hendrix album for Christmas, still almost half a year away.

I delighted in discovering that Hendrix and I were both left-handed. I watched a rented VHS of him at Monterey Pop—which, in June of 1967, was when Axis: Bold as Love was in the early stages of recording. I leaned in close to the TV screen, watching his guitar in flames, Hendrix kneeling as if at an altar, lifting his fingers into the air like he was trying to coax the fire up as tall as possible, exorcizing something unsayable from it. It mesmerized me. This may seem like a stretch, but I suddenly felt understood all the times I cropped my doll’s hair, or drew on Barbie’s face and rubbery limbs with pink pen, or even the pleasure I felt at tearing snack wrappers into strips before tossing them into the trash: a feeling that could only be expressed through action, impulse.

Hendrix in interview footage (at least the clips I’ve seen) is taciturn, evasive, offering a shy smile or a shrug after a sentence into the microphone. But I hear so much else when I listen to the muddy, almost aggressive guitar of “Spanish Castle Magic,” the near-flippancy at how cruel life can be in “Castles Made of Sand,” and can understand how he could have recorded three studio albums between 1967 and 1968: this is someone who has a lot to say, who is trying over and over to present it to us just right, even it it might remain obscured.

I wonder if he, too, felt a churn in his stomach to be productive, to do everything possible, to maximize a checklist. Probably not in the same way, but given his brief but prolific life, it seems Hendrix may have also felt an encroaching ennui he tried to outpace with the aid of his guitar. I think of him singing, “I wanna hear and see everything” over and over on “Up from the Skies,” and it serves as an important reminder to recalibrate to a more meaningful definition of “productive,” one that values my time—my life—beyond how many tasks I can finish by the end of the week.

Maybe I can start by rolling down these windows, the meadow-scented air tousling my hair into knots, turn the volume up until I feel the bass beating through the seatbelt across my chest, until my shoulders unclench and it’s only high beams and stars and shadows of telephone wires cast by the moon, propelling into darkness. I am feeling something real and sincere, and I want to share it with you, for you to believe me, but I don’t know for sure if I can tell you in a way that’s easy to understand.

—Lisa Mangini

#84: Aretha Franklin, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (1967)

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I’ll designate the following sentence a command: Do not let yourself read what I wrote about this album before you have heard it. This is crude; it is words, a mere facsimile, a type of repurposing. Even if it works, this will be a loving tribute, which is just a shadow of art. I’m giving you permission—actually a kick in the pants—if you haven’t listened to the album yet: stop reading this, close the browser, and let it carry you away.

Aretha Franklin was called home on August 16, 2018. What she did for music, for soul, for Detroit, for America, is still being eulogized, felt, and processed. It is likely that no single memorial, no 1,000-page biography, no slide show at the Grammy’s, will ever capture what she meant to the world. The remembrances will ease the mourning, but it seems to me that the best way to honor her memory is to keep the words brief and let the music be eternal.

*

I finished the first two decades of my life before I heard I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. I never felt Aretha’s voice in my house as a child like many of her fans whose parents played it on vinyl while the kids splayed out and drew in coloring books on carpeted parlor floors. But I didn’t get too far into adulthood, where hardened tastes might have stopped me from letting myself fall in love with something new. The first time I heard Aretha Franklin’s 1967 masterpiece, I was smack dab in the middle of my 21st year.

I was en route to Europe, technically already in Europe, in Iceland, for the up-to-then longest stint of my life away from home. Markers of growing older and the thrill of a taste of independence had me thinking deeply. I remember feeling, prior to listening, that more of my life lay ahead of me than behind, and also that that fact scared, soothed, and amused me at the same time. Late-adolescent anxieties, private ambitions, public presentations of irony, graphic tees and one-off haircuts, ruminations about financial realities and political bullshit and feeling boxed in – that was the version of me that walked into the record store in Reykjavik, determined to find a soundtrack for my trip.

Three hours before, I had rented the only available Automatic for an absurd price, hoping to assert some American freewill one last time before giving myself over to European train timetables. Most of the albums in the first section of the store bore titles in a language I could only identify as something Vikings probably spoke. In the back, I found a section labeled “Classic American.” I’m realizing now that to see a sign like that in a record store in a foreign country is to benefit from a unique kind of cultural legacy. There is an American flag on the moon and a shelf of American music in Reykjavik. Of course, the gravity of home drew me in. Overwhelmed and caught somewhere between adrenaline-fueled and jetlagged, I didn’t give much thought to the album selection. I sifted through for a minute or two, then came to the checkout with I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.

After the rush of buying something with unfamiliar bills, I read the tracklist on the walk back to my rental. I sat inside and fiddled with the plastic wrap around the CD case for at least three minutes, at some point regretting that I’d bought anything at all, until finally I had the disc on my finger. The CD player ate the disc, and I backed out onto the street. From the silence came “Respect,” a song most people know even if they can’t name the singer.

The voice—Her Voice—slinked, and popped, and soared, and rolled, and fell out in a big heap from the factory-standard speakers of the Volkswagen Jetta, and it seemed to be living with me, speaking straight through fifty years of temporal haze. I felt warmth—as in, perceived actual warming, to the point of taking off a light jacket—and the power, the pain, and the emotional exposure lifted me up with the sensation of cosmic fellowship and raw humanness that sometimes accompanies the art of the most divine performers. It’s hard to find the metaphors, but people who have heard the album (all who are reading this far, I hope) have already felt them, so I don’t have to keep searching.

I drove around for an hour through clouds of gray mist and diffuse sunshine. More than once, passing pastel-colored houses and New Urbanist civic buildings, I smiled at the thought that a woman so black and an African American so female was getting playtime in a country of fair-skinned and mild-mannered Northern Europeans. Barack Obama summed it up: Aretha Franklin is American history. She is the confluence of every kind of music we can claim as ours. She channels the totality of the black experience in the United States better than any single musical artist before or since. But I’ll leave the reflections on the historical significance of Aretha Franklin to New Yorker think pieces and Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies. The first experience of listening to her cannot be so analytical simply because it is so overwhelming. I let the whole album play through twice.

I pulled into the hostel parking lot and turned the car off. I’d made up my mind: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You was my favorite album.

Inside, I met Vassili, Andrea, and Mauro (Ukrainian, Italian, and Italian, respectively). Including me, that’s four men, aged 20 to 53, sharing a small space with four twin beds, each with a different reason for our trips to Iceland. Vassili had just signed the papers for divorce number three, and this was his gift to himself. Andrea had begged his dad for a week off, and although the family livelihood depended on his ability to take over the management of a hotel from his aging father, the wish was granted. Mauro had escaped from a vengeful ex-girlfriend (also his former muse in his professional pursuit of fashion photography) and needed some time to lie low in a far off place.

My car cost $400 a day (Iceland prices things this way).

“Hey guys. Nice to meet all of you. Wanna go to a waterfall tomorrow? We can split gas.”

The next morning, our motley crew packed into the Jetta with a day full of plans. I put the keys in the ignition and suddenly there was Aretha, too. Volume way up in the stratosphere, exactly where I had left it the day before. I quickly turned it down. Up to this point, my three new friends knew me as pretty unassuming and maybe bland. Now we were listening to my favorite album, and no one knew the words except for kind of me, and it was not what you might picture a young WASP from Texas listening to if your image of a Texan came from Dallas and the Dallas Cowboys.

The volume stayed low at first. Ten minutes into our four-hour drive, we had already exhausted several small talk topics, and we all felt the need to pace ourselves so that we never stumbled into awkward silence. I reached for the volume knob and brought the speakers up to their loudest level without distortion, just in time for “Soul Serenade.”

Only you can hear my soul serenade.

Then the swanky brass. Then the electric piano. It feels so sexy without any of the embarrassment that usually accompanies sexy things for pasty American people like me. (I doubt the Italians needed this kind of comforting distance from all things corporeal.) What Aretha does so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly is meld the body and soul in a way that enhances both and elevates them to another plane.

Only sheep and very hairy cows shared the countryside with us, and I think the others in the car could confirm: I swear the car came a little bit off the ground.

I sang along, because how can you not? My European road trip comrades laughed, but the kind of laugh that offers support, like, “You do you, man.” And I just felt so intensely grateful in that moment, through the two and a half minutes of that song, for what Aretha Franklin did in 1967 and for what it was helping me do in 2015. She put goodwill, heartbreak, and the charming kind of confidence on a record. She sang with the jaw-dropping, thermonuclear power of the essence of thoughts and feelings. I had spent two years at liberal arts school looking for categorical imperatives, assuming the posture of the radical skeptic, learning the sociological theories of injustice, tracking the processes that formed my young mind and its prejudices and weaknesses, all of which produced a pea soup fog of fear and self-doubt bordering on self-loathing. And here, on this album, was someone so wholly transcending those thought experiments. With her voice, Aretha Franklin embodied being alive and at the same time projected a higher quality, one not bound by the limits of the body. No wonder the church was the starting point and finish line of her journey; the music she lived is the music of revival and salvation.

The waterfall was cool. No, really, it was sublime. I don’t mean to downplay it. Iceland’s natural beauty leapt out every bit as much in real life as it did in the online travel ads. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed further East, to my longer-term destination of Spain. And all the clichés about a semester in Europe came true: the best food of my life, the strange fellowship with other nomadic university students, a host mom with a larger than life personality and some skeletons in the closet from the Francoist era.

In time, I came upon new questions about myself and the world, some of which brought me down from the enlightenment high I had experienced in Iceland. I wish I could say this album holds the secrets to unending euphoria, but no single thing can carry us like that. Mundanities re-enter, doubts come creeping back, as they always have and always will, because the majority of our lives are simply spent living. Ups have downs and also very boring middles, like waves in the ocean have whatever happens between waves.

Still, I’m hopeful. And she is one of the reasons. What feelings her voice brings: goosebumps and unconscious dancing and strength in trying times.

I might be the only person that hears “Iceland” and thinks of America’s greatest soul singer, or hears “Aretha Franklin” and thinks of empty roads on a cold island. Whenever I want to get transported back there again, I can save the money I would have to spend on a transatlantic flight. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You is still with me, sitting on a shelf in my living room. And Aretha Franklin’s voice isn’t going quiet anytime soon.

—Logan Crossley

#88: Johnny Cash, "At Folsom Prison" (1968)

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Johnny Cash died fifteen years ago last month. Fifteen years ago I was in high school and music videos were my window into the world outside Lunenburg County, Va. Some days, getting to the top 40 countdown on CMT got me through school, my hour-long bus ride home, and the dusty walk from the stop home. And when the Toby Keith worship in the aughts was too much on CMT, there was always GAC to switch to.

Something funny happened on both channels in 2003. Johnny Cash released his version of “Hurt” and it rose through the charts and was in heavy rotation on the video channels up to his death. The song wasn’t his own but like his many covers, he made it his. In the video, he sits alone, surrounded by relics of his life, and videos clips from his youth cut in. He’s still the man in black in the video, but he’s Johnny without a June by that point, and his piano resembles a coffin’s ledge.

Cash was able to channel someone’s hurt and feel it as his own. But, he always could.

“Hurt” became so much his own that my friend and coworker Shannon thought he wrote it. While stacking books at the shop we both work for, she told me how in the early ‘00s she got into an AOL chat room argument with a whole group of Nine Inch Nails fans.

But long before that—50 years ago—Johnny Cash really lived. He played two shows at Folsom State Prison on January 13, 1968. The first recording makes up the bulk of At Folsom Prison.

There’s a certain magic in that first show. He riles up the crowd of prisoners with “Folsom Prison Blues” and settles them back down with “Dark as a Dungeon.” “Hell, don’t you know it’s being recorded,” he asks them in the middle of the latter song.

His perfection is a little desperate, maybe because he was. Cash was at a turning point in his career in 1968. He needed a hit and in the lead up to these two performances, he rehearsed the set list for days.

There’s an anxious energy to the album that could have only been captured at that point in America. 1968 was a restless year. Protesters were vocal. The album release preceded the killing of Robert F. Kennedy by just a month, which resulted in a cleaner cut of “Folsom Prison Blues” being released. In a time of stark divisions, Johnny Cash was the kind of man who could cross them.

It’s a lesson I’ve had a hard time internalizing, even though At Folsom Prison is on heavy rotation in my house. I have a problem with empathy. My mother calls it a problem with patience: the fact that I can’t sit still or care about the problems of people who I feel have had every advantage, and squandered it.

When my family runs into trouble (gets arrested, flunks out of school, gets locked up, ends up squatting with me) I have a hard time feeling much for them. If I could climb my way out of a situation through hard work, then surely so could they.

Maybe it’s misplaced pride. Perhaps I’m just a cold fish. But it’s hard to tell people close to me I understand, even though I’m a writer who pulls unlikable narrators out of thin air and cherishes them.

It’s easy to feel for the downtrodden, for the victims of weather, for those whose only crime was seeking a better life in a new country. But it’s hard to care for the discouraged, the ones who could turn a new leaf but are stuck on which direction to go.

It’s a heavy lesson and one that is reflected in the music. The opening riff of “Folsom Prison Blues” features eight laden chords. Merle Haggard did the same thing when he wanted his crowd to empathise with his narrator on “Mama Tried,” opening with a low, distinctive set of chords. Songs about jail start heavy, but they get lighter. They’re catchy. Cash so wants to reach out and reel us in.

But if every virtue is a vice, then the opposite is also true. Johnny Cash, a man of many vices, could empathize with the prisoners at Folsom like few others. He never did hard time, contrary to his lyrics, but he did spend a night or two drying out in local cells.

His career was in a downward spiral when he hit that stage. He had already reached fame years ago with “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”—both, notably, covers. He was climbing out of addiction and Columbia Records was wary of him. Columbia didn’t expect it to, but the album caught on. He won a Grammy. He sold a lot of records. Johnny Cash got the hit he needed all because he reached out to a group of people who were not used being cared about, because he could employ basic empathy.

Johnny Cash knew how to churn out albums; Folsom was his 27th. And he hatched the idea of playing in a prison years before. He wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 after watching a documentary about the penitentiary.

He wrote the famous line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” because it was the worst thing he could imagine someone doing. It’s devoid of compassion, but crafted in the spirit of it. And when he begins the song on At Folsom Prison, the crowd goes crazy for it, because it was written just for them, in anticipation of that moment.

Though it was his first live recorded prison performance, Cash played prisons before Folsom and he recorded more albums in them later. He went on to record At San Quentin in 1969, Pa Osteraker in 1973 and A Concert Behind Prison Walls in 1976. But none of those packs the same fire.

He ends the album with “Greystone Chapel,” another cover, which was written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. In an interview, Cash said he heard the song the night before the show and he stayed up all night to learn it. He needed to give Sherley justice. Cash’s own “Joe Bean” may be the better song about a convict on the record, but his insistence on hearing out the downtrodden makes his performance of “Greystone Chapel” so affecting.

Prison reform was Johnny Cash’s great cause, but Sherley was the face he gave the movement. Sherley’s story after prison doesn’t end well. It ends like a song Johnny Cash might have written himself.

But the contradictions in Cash’s own life make the record so beyond compare. The ultimate patriot, he could criticize his country. He was a backslider among backsliders who sang gospel that was deep and moving. He was a smooth operator whose pure love for June Carter made their story so sweet. At Folsom Prison is emotional in a way few albums are. Sincerity is something we take for granted, emerging in 2018 from the age of stubborn irony. It urges whoever’s listening to believe the addict as a gospel singer and the prison reform advocate as a patriot—and to understand that these identities are not mutually exclusive.

Johnny Cash would hit more hard times. His “Cocaine Blues” weren’t over. He’d be “Busted” again. And he’d climb out of it.

Here’s what Johnny Cash knew: We all build prisons for ourselves. I tend to imprison myself in work, in a shell of busy fervor. But I could take a page out of the book of the original non-role model and step out in all black, not just because it makes me look skinny but also because I should care about the dozens and hundreds and thousands of individual lives lived alongside mine, and say “Hello, I’m...”

—Lindley Estes

#91: Elton John, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (1973)

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You might not think of Summersville, West Virginia as a prime location for an award-winning show choir (who would?), but Daniel Seacrest, Josh Simpson, Brandon Hutchinson, and I won the Show Choir Invitational two years in a row, and Elton John was a part of that legend. Senior year, we had three Elton songs in the line-up: “Philadelphia Freedom,” a piano cover of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ’N Roll),” and “Harmony” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. We’d take our places onstage, blue sequin vests glittering in the spotlight, and wait for our director, Jason Hypes, to start playing. And then, before God and our parents, we’d sing, “Oh, Philadelphia freedom, shine on me and I love you / Shine the light through the eyes of the ones left behind!” Were we goofy? Yes, sure. Four white trash teenagers singing Elton John. We could have sung anything we liked, but Elton—at least our idea of him—was what we liked, and even if we didn’t know what he was singing about, it was different.

The evening after, our homecoming concert took a turn for the worse that I haven’t really told anyone about because I still don’t know what to make of it. Josh had just gotten a new pick-up, a graduation present from his dad, and said he wanted to take it muddin’ down at a vile place people called “N-word Hole.” He did this in the dressing room at the high school theater, shirtless, as if to show off his physique. He was tall, with a square jaw, and these arrogant blue eyes. His favorite hobby—his only hobby, as far as I knew—was lifting weights.

I changed out of the electric blue sequin vest, stripped to the waist, wearing only a pair of boot-cut jeans. I had long thin limbs, huge hands and feet, but thin and wiry legs as if I’d descended from some type of gibbon. Stupidly, I asked, “What’s N-word Hole?”

“A grave where they threw lynched slaves during the Civil War,” Josh said.

“You’re joking, right?” was the best I could come up with.

“They say it’s haunted,” Daniel said, changing into a faded T-shirt and jeans. Daniel came across as a conservative, corn-fed country boy, but he was good and decent. His fingernails and knuckles were blackened from his part-time job at the gravel plant. His posture—I could reconstruct it just from memory alone—was perfect, proud, and even after his accident he was impeccably built, with strong musculature. “It’s behind the Go Mart in Sugar Grove.”

“I-It sounds like someplace we’re not supposed to be,” I said.

“It’s not just someplace you’re not supposed to be,” Daniel said. “It’s trespassing.”

I wasn’t a troublemaker, as far as the others could see. I imagined being arrested for trespassing. Cops would be dispatched to the place to round us up and take us to juvie.

“It’s not trespassing, so let’s go,” Josh said. “Brandon, you coming with?”

Brandon was watching Josh as if he’d been placed there by some cosmic force to enjoy it all. Josh, you see, was bringing something out in Brandon. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Josh gave him the kind of look you wouldn’t expect from a friend, his eyes fixed on Brandon’s face, his lips curled into a sneer. “Brandon, you’re gay, Brandon.”

There stood Daniel, looking at Josh with uneasy disapproval.

I didn’t know Brandon as well as I knew the others. His features were more feminine, and he had a lisp, so he didn’t even have the advantage of fitting in with Josh and the good old boys. He’d spend his lunch not on the basketball court or the parking lot, but sitting with a few of the outcasts, mostly girls, in the lunchroom. And, while it’s harsh to say it, this is what I’m getting at: some people, born into their circumstances, are doomed from the start. Brandon, gay, growing up in the red center of Appalachia, the heckling and hazing, had a tough row to hoe. I can’t imagine trying to be oneself in Nicholas County. The courage it must take to do so.

Soon we were driving out to N-word Hole. Daniel brought his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road CD and we were singing along to his favorite track, “Roy Rogers,” still buzzing from the concert. The clouds were peeling back from the moon when we passed the old Go Mart at Sugar Grove, and then we hit a gravel road that ran perpendicular to the mountain, which had probably, at one point, acted as a logging road. Eventually, we turned off the music to concentrate on the road. Josh drove deeper and deeper into the mountain, across a creek and through a gate, until there was no road left. Nevertheless, the truck continued, and Josh winced every time a branch grazed the fresh paint. At its lowest point, the creek bulged into big, muddy pools, forming a swamp. Josh floored it and the truck rattled into the pools, splashing mud up onto the windows of the truck. The pools were waist-deep, but the monster truck had no trouble navigating them. Josh would rev and Daniel, Brandon, and I would holler, grunt, and whoop.

The truck jumped the creek and grumbled up the opposite bank and then down another hill. At the bottom, Josh stopped and put the truck in park. “There it is.”

At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary but a dark scatter of mountain laurel, but then I noticed the truck’s high-beam headlights illuminating a giant black sinkhole in the center of the woods. Josh got out to get a better look, and Daniel, Brandon, and I followed. I inhaled a stink of rotten roots and mud, but there was something else. There was something in the air that wasn’t natural, a thick, fecal odor mixed with an almost chemical petrichor. Even though it was just an urban legend, I thought this was an awful place. Images accumulated in my mind: a mass of faceless human suffering, rigid and naked, no trace of human decency, the worst of what we have been and still are. It felt like there was something dark settling over me.

“Come on,” Josh said, “get back in the truck.”

Josh was itching at the chance to go muddin’ in this sinkhole, so we all got back in the truck and we peeled out and then went round and round, hollering, grunting, and whooping, for what seemed like a long while. Josh turned to look over his shoulder, grinning at Daniel, moving the gearshift up a notch with a flourish. The truck pitched unsteadily and slid tail-pipe first into the sinkhole. Josh hit the gas and we smelled burnt rubber. We went nowhere. There was no yelling, but a chill spread through the cab of the truck, a silence.

Josh looked up, blankly, holding the steering wheel as if it were his junkie brother that he had just strangled in order to get some point across. “I think we’re stuck.”

As I sat there in the backseat, I heard something. Tump? And then, after a long silence, another one—“tump?”—and I felt the back of the truck sink further into the mud.

“I think we’re sinking,” Brandon said. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Josh said. He was flabbergasted, and he tried to speak lightly, a cautious approach, in case the truck sank further. “My dad is going to kill me.”

I started laughing in the face of the gentle hysteria. “This is bad, just bad.”

“It’s not funny, Joey. This truck. Is completely. Ruined. Shit! Do you get that?”

“Does it matter if we can’t get out?” I said.

“Of course it matters, dumb shit,” Josh said. He laughed, and Daniel laughed a little, too, though I wasn’t exactly sure what was funny to him. Josh was trying to concentrate.

Daniel gave Josh a long slow look. “Let’s try to pull it out.”

In the next moment, we were trying to get the truck out. Josh had taken off his shirt (because it was April and still chilly at night, and “It would be better to put on a dry t-shirt instead of a wet one”) and was down in the sinkhole, trying to clear enough mud for the tires to grab. We were stuck in that godforsaken hole, bickering and getting depressed. The four of us were lined up along the front of the grill, trying to pull the truck out of the sinkhole, when Brandon’s hand accidentally grazed Josh’s.

“Get your hands off me, Brandon—god,” Josh said. “Fucking faggot!”

Brandon stood and backed away, apologizing, saying, Oh, it was an accident. He was nonplussed, perhaps a bit hurt by it. Then there was a silence. A long silence.

“Brandon, you can be gay if you want to, buddy,” Daniel said, clapping him on the back.

“No, he can’t. I don’t want a queer hanging around me!” Josh said.

“What’s your problem? You’ve been singing Elton John the whole semester.”

Josh wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, and dried the mud on the front of his jeans. He looked at Daniel. He was confused, which I guess I understand.

“Elton John is gay, dude,” Daniel said, as if it went without saying.

I thought, Wait a minute—Elton John is gay? I was young, you see. Seventeen was young, especially in West Virginia. Suddenly I gained something we call clarity. I had thought that gay people were just something on TV—that there was Jack from Will & Grace and people on a show that I was forbidden to watch, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, on Bravo. That there were people like my uncle Darrell. I gained a new awareness, a heavy one, through which I understood all at once what my mom had meant when she said there was something “wrong” with my drama teacher, Mr. Reeves. Now it seems incredible to me that a satori like this can occur today in the 21st century. But consider the place, consider how seldom outsiders turn off onto the gravel roads that emerge without warning from the woods. And when those backwoods roads turn into dirt roads still deeper in woods; and when those in turn give way to roads that aren’t really roads at all, deserted for weeks at a time. It’s not hard to see how a kid growing up in the dark hollers can be virtually unaware of another human being’s existence.

“Yeah, Josh,” I said, shucking off my surprise. “Elton John is gay. C’mon, dude.”

“No,” Josh said. “Elton John is not gay. Now get behind the truck and push—”

“Yeah-huh,” Daniel said. “Philadelphia Freedom? The City of Brotherly Love?”

“Prove it then!” Josh shouted. “Prove to me that Elton John’s a fag.”

It was the way he said the word that made me understand who he was. His face was terrible in its anger, his cheeks gone oxblood red, spittle shooting from his mouth.

Daniel looked at Brandon reassuringly. “Brandon, God loves and welcomes you, man. If it’s okay for Elton John to be gay, then it’s okay for you, too.”

Josh looked at Daniel in disbelief and let out an operatic scream of anguish and then he went back to trying to rock the truck out of the sinkhole.

After a beat, I looked at Brandon. A curtain had fallen across his face, and he was shaking. With a voice gone rusty, he said, “Whatever.” He looked vulnerable standing there against the night. I looked at this tableau for a long time even though he wouldn’t look at me. I thought that I understood his grief a little more, but I could never, given a million lifetimes, understand what he must have gone through. You see, this was just one night.

At some point, Brandon wandered away. I tried to convince him to stay, until we got the truck out, but he went on. We eventually got the truck out of the sinkhole, mud-caked from head to toe. On the drive back, we drove in silence, looking for Brandon. I thought I saw him once, walking along the side of the road, but it was an old woman with pale yellow hair who looked uncannily like Brandon. Josh pulled up next to her and rolled down the window.

Have you seen our friend, we said. Blonde hair. About this tall. You seen him?

She started laughing. Who is it? she said. Who’d’ja say you were lookin’ for?

We whispered the name. We said the name again. Said out loud the name this time.

We saw Brandon at school a couple days later. He hadn’t moved away, or disappeared, but he had changed somehow. He was no longer Brandon. We rarely saw him. He rarely spoke to anyone, no more than was absolutely necessary. The show choir was effectively disbanded. Josh became interested in other things, as well, and pretended that Brandon didn’t exist.

Daniel felt sure that Brandon had made a kind of magical escape into some “yellow brick road,” as he called it, a fantasy world that Brandon had made up and now lived inside. The real Brandon would be a mystery to everyone, wherever he might be.

—Joe Halstead

#86: Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A." (1984)

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Bruce Springsteen on the choice of cover art for Born in the USA: “We took a lot of different types of pictures, and in the end, the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face, that's what went on the cover. I didn't have any secret message. I don't do that very much."


Born in the USA

Dad never fought in a war. No one sent him to kill anybody. They sent his father, and his father’s father, but he wasn’t offered a war. He never had a woman in Saigon hold him in her arms—so how could I expect him to tell me what it felt like? He couldn’t reminisce about her stroking his hair while he thought about fighting off the Viet Cong. He didn’t know the skin on the inside of her arm as it rubbed against his cheek, his head lazy in her lap.


Cover Me

Mom is so scared of me becoming a man in America. She doesn’t want me to grow a beard and keeps shaving it in my sleep. She doesn’t want me to marry a woman or make a woman pregnant with baby boys. When my hands get bigger and my knuckles grow hair like Bruce Springsteen’s knuckles, she would like me to shave the hair off and pretend my hands are still small and incapable of violence.

Men came to our house and they wanted to take me. They wanted me to join them, to run around the streets like wild dogs. They wanted to cover me in blood and honey and roll me around in gravel so that small pebbles stuck to my skin. My mom locked the door and kept the lights off. She told me that it would all be okay.


Darlington County

My sisters run fast enough on their own. But there are two of them, so they’d be able to move much faster if one tosses the other forward. How often has someone sha la la, sha la la la la’d them since they left our father’s home?

They need to open their eyes and run faster. God is coming. God is coming to scoop them up. His hands are splitting the sky. The angels are in his palms, running down his fingers. They’re gaining on my sisters; their angel breath is making goose bumps all along the back of my sisters’ necks.

There is too much glory. God is in America. God has come to carry my sisters away. I don’t know what he wants with them, or where he’ll leave you when he’s done, or if he’ll sha la la, sha la la la la.


Working on the Highway

I don’t know if Bruce Springsteen ever worked on a highway. He became so famous so young. Sometimes I think he’s the closest thing to a moral conscience America has.


Downbound Train

Your lungs exploded. They ripped through your chest. Why did you hold your breath so long? Remember, like I taught you: in-out-in-out-in-out. I blame myself. It’s my job to remind you, no one else will. There is no one else.

I crafted new lungs for you out of balloons. I borrowed the balloons from your room. They were in the shapes of animals: giraffes, elephants, monkeys. I un-animaled them and turned them into lungs. Lay still, I’ll stuff them where the old ones used to be. And I’ll tie this ribbon around your chest so they’ll stay in place.


I’m on Fire

Honey, baby, is loving me like a knife? Is it like a knife cutting you up inside? Am I like a knife, loving you, cutting your outsides and your insides and scrambling them? Is being loved like a knife? Are the two of us both knives, sharpening each other until the tips get too sharp and cut us through?

Maybe you’ll be comforted knowing that I dream about being around more often than I am. In my dreams I run laps around our house trying to find a door. I’m a sweaty mess, and I’m panting. Eventually—I love you so much—eventually, I cut a new door in the side of the house and crawl through it.

I crawl like those raccoons that lived under our deck. We could hear them in the wall when we lay in bed together. And we heard their nest of babies when the babies were born. And we heard the angry mother when she ran into the trap and it cut her like a knife. All she wanted was a place to keep her babies safe.

No Surrender

Close your eyes and go to sleep. I’ll make sure that no cars come this way. I’m sorry it’s not more comfortable. You don’t need to worry. I’m your best friend.

We’re not that different. You and I are a lot alike. Keep your eyes closed. We’re the wildest boys, you and I. When we look at the world we see all the same things. When you see a tree, I see the tree. What you call green, I call green. This town is the same to you as it is to me. This America is your America and mine.

It is rare to find someone who sees things with the same eyes. Keep yours closed, I’ll look at everything for the both of us. I’ll tell you what I see, and you can trust it.

I’m Goin Down

I asked if we’d met before and you said, “No, keep your voice down.”

But it felt like we had.

Now, when I pull you down and we kiss, your lips don’t trust mine. They’re full of doubt and unbelief. They don’t trust that my lips will be there. It’s as if your lips are falling down a very deep well.

We smoked cigarettes in the car with the windows down. It was too cold to smoke cigarettes with the windows down. We drove eighteen hours down to Texas. Six hours into the trip our car broke down. Smoke was billowing from the hood. We stayed in a hotel that night, pulled down the window in our room, and stepped out onto the rooftop. There was one chair and we took turns sitting down, smoking our cigarettes, and letting the ashes scatter around our feet.

Glory Days

I swear I left. You say it was only a few days, but it was longer. And now I’m back, and nothing has changed. I’m back with my daughter and she keeps winking at me. We share a secret, she and I, and it’s this town. This town is a secret imparted to children.

I really did leave, it was almost two years. It was long enough to learn that every town has a secret. I can only contain so many secrets, there is a limit. And I feel time ripping away the few secrets I have stored away. Thankfully my daughter’s mind is young, its capacity for secrets is expansive, and when I forget she can remind me.

Dancing in the Dark

Sometimes when I look at the people I love they are a mirror. And in the mirror I am building a fire. The fire won’t start, so I dance around it in a circle, begging some god, some spirit, some spark to descend and light it for me. I dance until I am sweating and unable to breath and the fire is roaring. There is enough light, then, to look into the faces of the people I love and see myself clearly. Seeing my face lit by the fire I could not start I realize how tired and bored with myself I am. I realize that I need to change my clothes, my hair, my face.

My Hometown

If we pack our bags we can take County Road 950 E out of town. Or, if we prefer, County Road 500 S. We could get out of bed right now—we don’t need the sleep—wake our daughter and hit the road. Why pack? We can buy new things. She’s not even old enough to remember the place.

We’ll leave. She’ll grow older. We’ll be somewhere new and full of life. I’ll sit her on my lap, let her hold the wheel of the car, and I’ll lie to her. I’ll say, “Honey, take a good look around, this is your hometown.”

—Stephen Mortland

#87: Pink Floyd, "The Wall" (1979)

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Pink Floyd’s “tour” for The Wall wasn’t really a tour. Not in the traditional sense—a week in L.A., then five months off, followed by six nights in London, then six more months off, then a week in West Germany, then three months off, followed by five more nights in London. Of course, “touring” in the traditional sense wasn’t particularly practical for the show, which wasn’t so much a concert as an intricately staged theatrical production. Every night, the crew build a wall across the front of the stage, obscuring the band from the audience. Every night, giant inflatable puppets dangled and danced across the stage, berating the show’s main character, subtly named Pink. Every night, animation flickered, first, on good old Mr. Screen in the center of the stage, and then, eventually, across the massive, blank face of the wall itself, looming over the audience, taunting them.

*

At the end of the show’s first “act,” which, of course, coincided with the end of the double LP’s first disc, Roger Waters would sing the brief “Goodbye Cruel World” from behind the wall, visible through only the last remaining hole in the monstrous, white façade. At the end of the song each night, he’d slide the last brick into place with his own two hands, completing his isolation, finalizing his and the audience’s alienation from each other, a process that maybe Waters felt more profoundly than those watching, but which, nonetheless, was one of the driving forces for the album/show/movie’s creation. Though it all reads a bit forced, a bit on the nose, I’ve always imagined this final moment of the first act to be haunting to witness—to hear the understated, short song performed by Waters as the last hints of light shining out through the wall are snuffed out. Watch—this…

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…become this

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*

The Wall grew out of an incident at a show in Canada at the end of the Animals tour. Floyd fans know what I’m talking about—when Roger Waters, disgusted at what he had become, disgusted by the nature of stadium tours, and disgusted at the alienation he felt from fellow humans in the crowd and the sense that those fellow humans felt alienated from him (as if he imagined a wall between band and crowd) spit in a front-row fan’s face. In retrospect, Waters reflected that what alarmed him most about the act wasn’t the disgust he felt at the fan or the circumstances, but the thing that allowed him to do it—the fact that he had been unwittingly buying into the idea that he actually was better than the blank faces in the audience. That Rogers recognized this ugly thing inside himself and wrote an album partially about it was maybe his one good impulse leading into The Wall.

*

This is an essay or story about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But it’s also going to be a story about losing you unexpectedly. I don’t know why I keep dragging you into these essays/stories/whatever they are about Pink Floyd albums. You deserve better. Was Tangerine Dream somewhere on this Rolling Stone list? You loved them. But maybe loving them isn’t enough. The reason I keep dragging you into these albums is because they’re all about loss, about absence. Because Syd Barrett was in Pink Floyd, and then he lost his mind and wasn’t in Pink Floyd, and then he was barely “there” at all, whatever or wherever “there” is or was. And also, and perhaps more pertinent to The Wall, because Roger Waters’ father died in World War II and Waters never got over the loss. From the moment the Barrett-less Floyd figured out what it was and who they were until the moment Waters and the rest of the Floyd split ways, these were two of the key obsessions that drove the band. Or rather, drove Waters, who was the key architect, as far as words and themes went, through the band’s beloved run of ‘70s albums. So blame Roger Waters for why I keep dragging you into these albums about loss and absence. Blame him for why I can’t listen to Pink Floyd without missing you.

*

But blame me, too. Because I’m the one who keeps reaching into memory and dragging your rotting skin and dead bones into this band’s nonsense. If Waters couldn’t let go of his father and Barrett, then I’m equally responsible for not being able to let go of you.

*

By the time Waters was working on The Wall, though, I can’t help but think that he had let Barrett go, at least partially. He hadn’t been able to move beyond the loss of his father, but he had come to terms with losing Syd. But still, Syd was part of The Wall’s DNA. On the album, particularly at the start of the second LP, Barrett is evoked on “Hey You,” with the line, “And the worms ate into his brain,” and more concretely in moments from “Nobody Home,” when Waters sings, as the song’s speaker, “I have the obligatory Hendrix perm,” a reference to Syd when he was still a member of the band, and “I’ve got elastic bands keeping my shoes on,” which references Barrett’s post-Floyd life when he had lost the mental acuity to lace up his boots. In the film, we see Syd references primarily when the Pink Floyd character shaves his eyebrows, head, and chest—as Barrett did in the mid-seventies. Upon finishing the gruesome task—bleeding nipples and all—the Pink Floyd character, played by Bob Geldoff, presses his body against a frosted pane of glass, becomes, for a moment, the bleeding ghost of Syd Barrett. So sure, Barrett was still a concern by The Wall, and sure, part of that concern was missing him, was the sorrow that came from his fall and from his absence. But, too, more in line with how Syd’s specter was used on Dark Side of the Moon, here, the real importance of Syd is cautionary, is emblematic of Waters’s—whose own life accounts for most of the material making up the The Wall’s first half, and most of the film—fears of becoming so engrossed in his obsessions with loss, with grief, with self, that he loses his shit completely, winds up, himself, caught behind a wall of his own making or on the dark side of the moon.

*

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*

Because I can’t let go. Not that my “not letting go” means anything because nothing can ever change the fact that you’re gone. And even if I someday learn how or why you died, that won’t change anything. And so I write these pieces about Pink Floyd albums and I send them to Brad for editing, and he sends them back for me to make the changes and then he puts them up on the site. Meanwhile, I continue writing a new novel that’s all about how it feels to have lost you and not know or understand how or why. That new book, it’s not too far along, only about thirty-some pages and 7,000 words. I’ve got pages of notes and sketched out scenes in a notebook, I just need to find the time to sit down with it, find the courage to confront the unsettled feelings I still have about your passing. Normally, around this point in the essay, or whatever it is we’re going to call this, I’d start thinking about bringing in some specific detail about you, but I don’t think I’m going to do that this time, because this piece isn’t about your unexpected death, it’s about me and my stupid inability to deal with it, even three years later.

*

(But, and this needs to be said, who even cares about me or my grief or what I have to say. One of the most consistently applied and apt criticisms of The Wall is that it was self-indulgent, self-important, egotistic, solipsistic—the album was a ninety minute sad-sack, wealthy-white-guy pity party. Oh, your mom and wife were mean to you Roger? Fuck off. Your dad died in the war fighting against one of the greatest evils humanity has ever known and so you’re going to cry about war? Fuck off, Roger. Likewise, who gives a shit about my grief? So one of my closest friends died and I don’t know how or why? Fuck off, Brubaker. The president of our country is stoking the flames of xenophobia, promising to build his own wall to enforce the isolation that The Wall, in one of its few powerful thematic elements railed against, is separating children from parents, is indulging the whims of sexists, homophobes, white supremacists, and every other deplorable with a nostalgic lust to MAGA in a way that it A was never really G to begin with. In the film version of The Wall, during the fascist rally that plays out during “In the Flesh,” the Pink Floyd character—jack-booted, head-shaved, surrounded by fellow skinheads, his isolation behind the wall and his fragile white male ego having eroded to the point that he becomes the fascist, nationalistic ideal, even if it’s only a hallucination—singles out different marginalized groups to have them beaten and removed. “Are there any queers in the theater tonight? / Get them up against the wall” Waters sings on the album, and Geldoff screeches on film. “There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me / Get him up against the wall.” And the crowd obliges. The song goes on to call out an audience member who “looks Jewish” (which is particularly unsettling considering Waters’ own issues with anti-Semitism in recent years), another identified as a “coon” and then two more, one “smoking a joint” and “another with spots”—all of whom are promptly accosted and removed from the rally by a combination of Pink’s “Hammer Guard” and audience members. The film is designed to show the horror of such fascism. The idea grew out of Waters’s feelings about the unhealthy, fascist relationship between rock star and audience at concerts, but I suspect, too, Waters’s own male fragility, his deep-seated anger makes the song “In the Flesh” read as a sort of threat—a sort of proto-gamergate juvenile lashing out, a way of saying, “If we emasculate our men, of course they’re going to become Nazi trash.” (Oddly, throughout the entirety of the film, Alan Parker’s direction makes the Pink Floyd character far less sympathetic, and reveals the raw ugliness and immaturity at the core of the character’s being—perhaps that’s why Waters was no big fan of the film in the end). But I digress—“In the Flesh,” in any of its iterations, was never intended to be Waters’s way of saying “we should all be fascist Nazi pricks.” The intent was always to say this is bad/wrong/ugly/deplorable/horrific/hellish—and somehow, now, here in the United States, we’ve arrived at a point where Trump rallies, minus the “Hammer Squad” uniforms and arm bands, aren’t all that different from what we hear/see during “In the Flesh.” So who fucking cares what I have to say about grief? About loss?  Who cares what I have to say at all? I don’t want to be like Roger Waters, railing at my own personal demons at the expense of anyone and everything else. I don’t want to be another white male writer, absorbed in his own privilege, navel-gazing, grappling with personal things in his art in the hopes that other people grappling with similar things may connect on some primal, emotional level, and thinking that maybe that’s enough?)

*

(It’s probably not enough.)

*

(But I don’t know how to be or do anything else.)

*

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*

I still don’t know why you died. I still don’t know how you died. I mentioned in another piece that one person told me you died of an accidental drug overdose, and another person told me it was suicide. I don’t think I believed either of those for a long time, because I couldn’t imagine you hurting yourself, and I’d never known you to use drugs. But now, I wonder how well I knew you at all. You lived in London for the last decade of our friendship. You could have easily started doing drugs, though I still don’t think I buy that. Which means, by default, if one of the two causes of death I was given must be the actual cause, then…

*

When I first bought The Wall on CD (I used money from umpiring, bought it from the CD Connection near the Dayton Mall), “Goodbye Cruel World” made me uncomfortable. Even at the tender age of thirteen, I knew the phrase “Goodbye Cruel World” to be one tied to the idea of suicide, the kind of thing one might hear flippantly spouted on a TV sitcom when a character is joking about committing suicide. Sure, in The Wall, the phrase is used more as a way of saying goodbye before closing one’s self off to the world, but it still feels heavier than that, more permanent.

*

In Alan Parker’s film version of The Wall, for most of the time that “Goodbye Cruel World” plays, the Pink Floyd character is sitting in a chair, not-quite-smoking a cigarette, the cylinder of ash dangling off the end almost as long as the cigarette before it was lit. He is already behind the wall, hiding. I get that. I get that—the hiding. But we can’t hide forever, and maybe that’s the one other idea in The Wall that doesn’t come across as utterly acidic and juvenile—we need each other.

*

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*

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*

┳┻|
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┳┻|
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┳┻| _
┻┳| •.•) I’m here for you,  I said. Fat fucking
┳┻|⊂ノ lot of good that did anyone.
┻┳|

*

But there’s that Waters-esque self-indulgence, again. You deserve better than to be a brick in my wall. I deserve better than to be a brick in my own wall. Fuck bricks and fuck walls. In the final shot of the film adaptation of The Wall, a small boy, wandering in the remnants of Pink Floyd’s exploded wall, picks up a bottle full of what appears to be gasoline, a rag sticking out of the top—a Molotov cocktail. Meanwhile, Waters can be heard singing the final verse of “Outside the Wall”—“…after all it's not easy / Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.” The kid discards the rag and sniffs at the bottle’s contents before pouring those contents out. The frame freezes on the kid and the credits roll.  It’s a weird, beautiful moment at the end of a weird, ugly movie. That end is maybe the most right Waters or Parker or anyone involved with the project got anything. The crowd chants, “Tear down the wall,” and the wall comes down, and then maybe something can be redeemed, then maybe there can be some kind of peace.

—James Brubaker

#89: Dusty Springfield, "Dusty in Memphis" (1969)

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“Small towns are not an aesthetic.”

— SZA, in a December 2017 tweet

Dusty Springfield arrived in Memphis skeptical.

“Like most people, perhaps, I associated Memphis with one kind of sound, a hard R&B sound,” she said. “That’s not the thing I can do, and I’d rather leave it those who can.”

What was it she could do? “Big ballady things,” is how she put it. At one point the top-selling female vocalist in the world, Dusty’s saccharine pop was starting to lose its charm in the swirl of the late ‘60s. The beehived songstress, born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in Middlesex, England, went to Tennessee looking for an edge. Her first album with Atlantic Records, Dusty in Memphis, was to be her entrance music at the soul debutante ball.

Certainly of its time, the copy on the back of the Dusty in Memphis LP, written by legendary music journalist and Memphis native Stanley Booth, reads as condescending today: “The Memphis Cats have a great reputation, but they are also associated with such artists as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett—not singers of ‘big ballady things.’’’

He then quotes Dusty: “I had no idea how far out of the R&B bag the Memphis musicians could go. I discovered that their versatility is amazing, and their musical knowledge is extremely wide.”

A commercial flop when it was released, Dusty in Memphis was re-evaluated in the 1990s as an all-time best precisely because of of its production—its gliding horns and and silky basslines cut right through any sentimentality. It would be easy to write off Dusty Springfield’s pivot to soul as contrived, a product of racist record executives hawking a White Aretha. Blue-eyed soul, no matter how groovy, must be listened to in context. Musical gentrification is certainly at play here, but note the marketing: it’s Dusty in Memphis, not Dusty Goes Soul. This album is attempting to capture the aesthetic of a place, as much as a people.

With her singular vocal prowess, Dusty Springfield would have become famous singing in any genre. The best singers are actors, on a stage with seamless set changes.The album’s lead single, “Son of a Preacher Man,” was originally written for Aretha Franklin, whose father and grandfather were preachers (she would record her own version years later). There’s no location mentioned, but it’s undeniably a song of the American South. The first words are “Billie Ray,” for god’s sake. Dusty was wearing Memphis like it was a new mini dress.

A song either needs a strong sense of place or have no setting at all—for this reason, “Small Town” by John “Cougar” Mellencamp is one of the worst songs ever written. But by distilling a physical space into sound, what do we lose? What do we risk?

*

I spent the second half of my twenties a rolling stone, trying on different lives in Boston, then India, then Oklahoma, then D.C. I moved to each place for a new job and a new folksy quality to add to my repertoire. I hoped to leave Boston plucky, lndia enlightened, Oklahoma humble, D.C. wonky. These attributes would be my rewards for undergoing yet another jarring transition; I’m a writer, I would remind myself, this will all come in handy one day. But instead of the artistic authority I felt entitled to, I left each of these places feeling like I only scraped their surfaces, painfully aware of the limits of an individual’s experience. I could only consume; even my floweriest prose would never capture the complexity of each terrain.

Now I’m turning 30 in New York City, one of the most written-and-sung-about places in the universe. I arrived here the age that Dusty arrived in Memphis, ready for reinvention. From day one, I’ve been wary of contracting the insufferable If-I-can-make-it-here attitude. Having embraced the beauty of so many other places, I’ve long resented the New Yorker superiority complex.

But I started to get it this summer, during a free concert in Prospect Park. There I was, listening to Anoushka Shankar play the sitar, having the musical experience I expected to have in India (but never did) just a mile from my apartment in Brooklyn. I realized that what makes New York the greatest city in the world is that it’s made up of little bits and pieces of all the other greatest cities in the world. New York wouldn’t be New York without Mumbai or Memphis or even a small town in Oklahoma.

I’ve been to Memphis once, a stop on a roadtrip with girlfriends to reacquaint myself with “Real America” before I left for a year in India. We listened to Dusty in Memphis on the way, along with a Stax compilation, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and even that goddamn “Walkin’ in Memphis” schlock. But we didn’t make it to Beale Street. After a tip from the front desk worker at our hostel, we ended up at a punk show at an indie video rental store. Surrounded by leaning stacks of VHS tapes (this was in 2014), we handbanged in the back, our itinerary long forgotten. Memphis rocked.

Perhaps Dusty in Memphis didn’t land in its own time because it doesn’t capture Memphis in 1968—it captures how people who weren’t there imagine how Memphis in 1968 was. What Dusty sought in Memphis—the same thing that Bowie sought in Berlin, McCartney in Nigeria, and Kanye West in Hawaii—can be found anywhere. You just have to take off your headphones for a little while and listen for it.

—Susannah Clark

#90: Stevie Wonder, "Talking Book" (1972)

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For the longest time, I thought one of my most treasured Stevie Wonder tracks, “Superstition,” was off 1982’s Original Musiquarium, and not 1972’s Talking Book.

That’s my fault.

When I picked up Musiquarium in college, I considered myself a “serious” Stevie Wonder fan. I’ve put that in air quotes because clearly, I was neither astute nor serious enough to realize Musiquarium was a greatest hits/unreleased-tracks compilation album. Being able to say I listened to the Beatles since I was nine, for example, doesn’t give me a pass for not reading the liner notes.

“Superstition,” a groove-heavy juggernaut tinged with evil and laced with apprehension, remains undefeated in funk music for Wonder’s still unsurpassed mastery of the Hohner clavinet.

And for years, I barely gave Talking Book a glance.

Other Wonder fans over the years told me I would like it, but I put it off. Ignorant and stubborn as I was (I’d like to say “headstrong,” but come on), I’m embarrassed to say its cover stopped me from picking it up sooner. He’s shown sitting on the ground, wearing an earth-tone caftan and jewelry and lazily touching the dune sand with his hands.

It all seemed too weepy, too sappy, and too touchy-feely. It appeared to me that Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, with covers that illustrate Wonder as being the center of a psychedelically woke universe, would be deeper, more spiritual and groovier than Talking Book.

When I finally did buy it, I didn’t appreciate most of it at first, simply because “Superstition” absolutely, every single time, blows me away, especially the way the swoosh-swoosh drum line plays cat and mouse with intertwined layers of buzzy notes from the clavinet. When it hits that sliver of a bridge, the horn section unravels and goes haywire, jeering and wailing and taunting Wonder as he cries out as if struck by lightning. The other tracks didn’t stand a chance. Forty-six years of “Superstition” have reigned on earth, unvarnished and raw.

Learning about the grace, inimitable heart, and genius talent of Stevie Wonder began in the mid-‘80s, when I found my mom’s CD (or tape, I can’t remember which), of 1985’s In Square Circle. Already his 20th album, he could easily make pop gems like “Love You Too Much” and “Go Home” instantly catchy, despite the synthy glaze that was so popular then.

But I especially loved the gentle vibrato and captivating lyrics of “Overjoyed,” which I played over and over. It brought me near tears every time I heard it, and I couldn’t place why for a long time. I can’t explain it, but I can only come to this conclusion: he could make his voice “smile” through the speakers. It’s one of his most endearing vocal qualities. It makes my eyes sting whenever I hear it on classics like “Joy Inside My Tears,” or “As,” or “Ribbon In the Sky,” or even “My Cherie Amour,” from his previous identity as a fresh-faced Motown wunderkind.

That exuberance shines on Talking Book, but it’s more than that. The album’s inner core comes down to love.

Love, in its many forms and interpretations, is always woven throughout Wonder’s vast catalog—love as lust, love as romantic, love as spiritual, love as universal, love that’s never returned, love as an arm of humanity. And spinning out from that bright sphere are warm rays of hope, faith, kindness, tenderness, celebration, and most of all, thankfulness for just being alive. That’s Talking Book.

Much of the album reflects Wonder’s wildly changing emotions and all the thorny complications caused by imperfect relationships. Its moods are punctuated by the familiar pangs and rushes of adrenaline rendered by pure joy and happiness, suspicion and desperation, cynicism and peace. As the album ends, he finally reaches acceptance and the hope that maybe next time won’t hurt so bad.

His love of love eventually extended, as he left his Motown roots further behind, toward socio-economic issues and championing political activism in his lyrics. That’s briefly touched on in one of my favorite songs off Talking Book: “Big Brother,” where he lambasts the white politician on his TV screen who spouts injustices as Wonder sings, “My name is Secluded / We live in a house the size of a matchbox.” And he throws in the imagery of roaches in that home, just for good measure.

While “Big Brother” previewed what would come in future albums, Talking Book as a whole is a revelation of these emotions. Its start, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” is undeniably shiny and mellow. But doubt and paranoia creep in on “Maybe Your Baby,” when suspicion, and then full-blown obsession, take hold as his inner monologue about his girl’s whereabouts runs amok. But love lurks, and his doubts never veer into maliciousness toward her; it instead wades toward emotions like sadness, frustration, and vulnerability.

When his love is unreturned, he grabs onto the silver lining of “You and I (We Can Conquer the World).” Though their future together is over, in his mind it’s eternal, and that’s enough. Again, Wonder never devolves into sappiness. “You and I” validates the construct that, even if it’s just for a split second or a sharply drawn breath, maybe he really could conquer the world. He lets in the notion that it’s okay to dream that big. The fuzzy, woozy splendor and jazzy keyboard of “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” closes Side A and fades into memory.

“Superstition,” on the other hand, is the monster that kicks open the second half of the record. It’s the beat-stomping, ass-shaking outlier here, a standalone piece of earth shattering art. When I first heard it as a kid, I was afraid that singing “13-month-old baby /  broke the looking glass / seven years of bad luck / good things in your past…” would actually reach out and shake me. Stevie Wonder represented something forbidden, something that was just down and out bad, and I loved it.

If that could be considered the album’s apex, “Blame It On The Sun” is its polar opposite. It’s about coming to a stark realization: he alone has sabotaged yet another failed relationship. At first he places the catalyst for its demise on not enough time, on the birds, on the always-changing tide—everything except himself, until he finally gives in. It’s the lowest and most revealing point of the album.

The optimism in “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love” turns his head toward the future. He thinks: Maybe this one is the right one. Wonder accepts his mistakes as an imperfect mortal, and again, reawakens that hopefulness. The song’s companion piece and the album’s coda, “I Believe When I Fall In Love,” tells us that all the pain, all the struggles we go through in life…it’s all worth it. This is Stevie saying, “Try again, even if the last one hurt you beyond recognition.”

So I want to thank you, Stevie, for reminding us to try love again. And if we fail, at least we can still smile inside our tears.

—Emily Reily

#92: Buddy Holly & the Crickets, "20 Golden Greats" (1978)

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“You know I’m from near there, right?” Adam says, tuning his rickety drum set.

I brush greasy hair from my eyes.

“No way!” I say, struggling to tune my top string.

“Clear Lake is spitting distance from my hometown. I used to drive out there and read the plaque they put up. It’s in the middle of a giant field. There’s nothing there.”

“Let’s do this fucking thing,” Pete says. “We starting with Buddy Holly or the Damned?” He looks over at me.

“Um, hey four-eyes,” he says. “Where are your glasses?”

I motion to the mixing desk.

“I hate those god damn things. Ugliest blue ever and those frames make me want to wretch. I got them when I was twelve.”

Pete laughs. “Yeah, well, you better pinch your pennies if you want to get those Buddy Holly birth-control shades.”

“So, Adam,” I ask, plucking out a blues bass-line. “Did you set the memorial on fire?”

He shoots me a look of death.

“I heard that about you, man. Isn’t that why you moved up here? To get away from the long arm of the law?”

No response. He practices the ferocious pounding of “Peggy Sue” while Chris practices his rockabilly hiccups.

Out of habit, we gather in a circle, our amps ringing us, but this time we have actual reel-to-reel tape recorders and a mixing desk—not my rinky-dink Panasonic tape recorder arranged in the center.

Normally we’d be practicing in Chris’s living room, but Adam got us some time at the radio station where he works. We’ve rolled in on a Saturday morning, posters of Seals and Crofts, James Taylor, and America greeting us as we humped our gear into the basement, kicking lumps of hard-packed snow off our Doc Martens.

“Hey Beethoven, you ready?” Pete says, strumming out that classic fury of chords. This is one of our nicknames for Chris, for his unusual retro 1700s hairstyle. He nods affirmative.

We sweat our way through “Peggy Sue”— and I just pound that low E. Frankly, I don’t know if anyone hears me over Chris’s histrionics.

“That fucking stomped!” Chris yells, grabbing me by the jacket lapels.

Pete smirks. “Indeed,” he says. “Now hopefully you’ll stop asking us to cover the Beatles. Now that you know where they got their best ideas from.”

Chris’s ears turn red and he tries to speak. Pete tut-tuts him with a finger.

“Let’s not talk about the horrifying Sgt. Pepper,” he says. Chris fumes in a corner, dancing around like a boxer. If Elvis were a boxer.

Pete turns up the reverb on his foot pedal until the whole session is underwater. 1! 2! 3! 4! And we’re off into “That’ll Be the Day,” but my fingers disobey me halfway through.

“Hey butterfingers,” someone says to me. “We are playing this fucking thing slower than dirt. You got this?”

I nod. I want to get it. I don’t look at any of them for fear of losing the beat again. Pete plays that ringing descending intro again. I stare at my giant fingers.

I walk up the bass-line, tentatively smiling. I walk down, really grinning. I tap my foot and look over at Pete and his delicate, bright lead. Adam’s blue mop sways left and right in time, Ringo-style, and as much as it pains me to say it, it’s perfect.

All the while, Chris/Buddy falsettos, growls, and hiccups from somewhere beyond, brushing his chin-length locks away from the mic. As I tremble on the last note, a wave of elation hits me. We all look at each other. They feel it too.

*

Adam was so mortified by his drumming that he never let us hear the tapes. Whenever I asked him about it, he’d always mutter that he wanted to re-record his part or something like that, swearing he’d give them over eventually. A month or two after that Saturday recording, he fled back to Iowa and took the tapes with him. I’ve still never heard them. Perhaps we didn’t sound as good as we did in my mind…but on that morning, we were rock ‘n’ roll gods.

—Josh Medsker

#95: Miles Davis, "Bitches Brew" (1970)

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That was all I was going to write. Actually, that was all I should have had to write, because I’m just going to sound like an entitled prick from here on out. I cut my teeth working in a pretentious record store in my formative years. My bias was unfiltered and undefined and I kept trying to convince the world that my taste in music was clearly the best and fuck you I was always right.

A pretty accurate description of my youth: Most of my time spent earnestly wanting people to hear something the way I heard it, in the way that I knew and learned it was perfect, and burning the woods down when the girl I was dating bought a Rusted Root album.

I acknowledge that music is subjective in the same way I accept that we just don’t have a better explanation for most human follies except we’re all stupid and doomed. This disposition, which was like if Cobra had made Serpentor out of the difficulty of Henry Rollins, the genius of Richard D. James, the shrewdness of Donald Fagan, the daring of Charles Mingus, and the ruthlessness of Ayn Rand*; was steadfast, unwavering, and entirely based on my own personal experiences and objectivity. It was my truth, but what is true?

I fucking hate that saying, misattributed to Einstein, about the definition of insanity. Trying something over and over again and expecting a different outcome. I hate it, but is it true?

I wanted to talk about this very clinically at first, this kind of verbose description of a perfect infographic tracking each of the players’ rise to perfection, or, in the case of Herbie Hancock, starting out flawless. The fact there was once an artist who, by ignoring that dumb old adage, meticulously and miraculously defied all odds, perfected his craft, compositions, and crew along the way. But I’m not sure that’s true either. There’s a truth to this story that isn’t told by facts. It’s not a history lesson but it’s the tendency for great things to take off and soar, but only before they come crashing back down to earth. That’s the problem with perfection.

This is where I’d tell the complete backstory of the B-52s, another perfect quintet. But the truth of their story isn’t important either. It suffices to say that the B-52s appear out of the blue, they release s/t and then Wild Planet, then what the fuck do you do? The part that matters is done. So you spend the next decade as a ‘90s cartoon parody of your former selves (not that I’m mad about that) because you’ll never make another “Give Me Back My Man.”

So, is it really that hard to believe that after literally creating the quintessential jazz quintet, a perfect bebop Voltron held together and powered by their sheer determination to not only be the fucking smoothest and greatest musicians who ever walked the earth, but also to not be outdone by anyone else, that the only reasonable outcome of being a megabeing greater than the sum of your parts is that you then have to self destruct into a droned-out drug-induced Apocalypse Now version of the worst aspects of your character? What’s going to happen if you try to be something other than perfect? Is the other a lie if the perfection is the truth?

Davis spent almost 15 years prior to Bitches Brew making legendary records.

And I get it, when you feel invisible you never want it to stop, nor can you believe, especially in that moment, it will ever end. Thus, if you make something precious and perfect, naturally you can do it again. I had a handful of ideas that haunted me for years, always sure they were the next big thing. I would add them to every project and to-do list until finally, like the good friend he is, Bo Fahs was like “Dude, you have to let that shit die, otherwise it’s going to be your Eyes Wide Shut.” And Bo, the same Bo who wrote the review for Paul’s Boutique on this very website, best friend Bo, call-me-out-on-my-stupid-shit Bo, was right. What Bo was talking about was an idea cemetery, a necessary feature in any creative city, in which you bury all your half baked ideas in order to really get to the good ones and get on with your life. The idea cemetery is right next door to the Derivative Dump.

The problem with that is no one ever told Davis about this till it was far too late. But to his credit, impossibly, Davis defied all the sound logic of putting things into the idea cemetery. If making revolutionary jazz recordings were a 3-point contest, Miles Davis would clearly win, but instead of simply winning, he tried to make as many consecutive 3-pointers as he could, moving farther and farther away from the goal just to prove what an unstoppable madman he is, impossibly getting slicker and better as he does so. Until he misses.

Bitches Brew isn’t a bad album, but is it great? How did we get here, to a place where the white people’s guide to free jazz is considered the masterwork of possibly the greatest human to ever put a trumpet to their lips? The best I can figure is that that accolade was given by the same person who feels like the sound of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, in all its wild possibilities and academic precision and sentiment is just not “crunchy” enough for their Fleetwood Mac-informed palettes.

What, by the way, is with the least qualified people talking about music using food terms? Nothing about the garbage you listen to is “yummy.” When you go to music school everyone wants their jazz band to sound like Miles Smiles. When you give up on your dreams because they seem too hard, decide to be worthless and waste your parents’ money on a kayak you never use, you talk about how “earthy” Bitches Brew sounds. But how did Davis go from rescoring Porgy & Bess to scoring Trevor’s Almost Formative First Year in College**?

The story that Ken Burns*** tells in his 8-part “here’s what jaded asses the Marsalis Brothers can be when reflecting on a time in jazz where they probably would have been Davis famous but were born too late and too Berkley****” documentary, is that Miles Davis saw Sly Stone get all the kind of attention and fame he once garnished at the Newport or the Montreal or the Paris Jazz Festivals. From this gnashing of teeth and ego, Davis created Bitches Brew. I feel like this might be true.

Davis probably did this to reclaim some former glory he thought he was owed. And I get it, the addiction to fame is tough. On one hand, being Beatles/Michael Jackson famous makes you a crazy person, but the only thing worse than being mega famous is almost or kind of being famous, especially if you’re an auteur. Since history is written by the victors and the Rolling Stone 500, not the people who think the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows is his best work, Davis had to chase fame, lose his mind, and wear tie dye. Also if there's no Elevator to the Gallows then there's no Twin Peaks, so you decide what's more important, the String Cheese Incident playing like a vacuum cleaner or the masterwork of David Lynch.

I wanted to close with something about that analogy where the only way to experience imperfection if you’re perfect is to make yourself forget. The only way to know what everything in existence is like if you made everything is to forget that you’re a god; living an infinite number of lives as a human with all our flaws and imperfections. It’s why we have to deal with life in the present tense and can’t deal with time being an illusion, histories and personal experiences that are all too big for one person to deal with. It’s what we need to get out of bed in the morning, the reason we fight, the struggle for what we think is real and what we already know. The truth about perfection and even just truth is that it’s all just noise, another illusion, which we try to make binary by comparing the present to the past, good versus bad, there and now. All we can really ever hope for is to be remembered for that one fleeting shining moment where we remembered we’re that god, and that others will remember us for it too. What the fuck else do you want out of this world?

Here’s the truth about Bitches Brew:

At the end of the day, Bitches Brew is more than a jam session. It is a jam session done by a practiced and genius musician who spent his previous, legendary career in a pressure cooker full of film scores and breathtaking compositions. Bitches Brew works because Davis did all the work, he surrounded himself by the best musicians and if he wasn’t playing with them they were challenging his throne, which he tirelessly defended until the jazz he knew was nothing more than a memory. Bitches Brew isn’t a bad album. It’s pretty good. But as the sneering teen clerk who’s disgusted that the money you paid for that Dave Matthews sticker pays his minimum wage needs to remind you, if it hadn’t been crafted by a trumpet player who once conjured perfect cinematic and scenic environments with sound, then it would just be the name of another IPA.

 

*Not that I’ve ever read Ayn Rand nor would I, but I did play BioShock about 5000 times so I am something of an Andrew Ryan expert.

**Sorry, for you film buffs out there I wanted to note that I used the shortened title and not it’s original Trevor’s Almost Formative First Year in College Where Instead of Doing Age Appropriate Nonsense like Drinking and Trying Boring Drugs When You Were a Teen, You Went Way Off the Deep End with Your New Found Freedom; Which Isn’t Really that Surprising I Guess in Retrospect Since You Tried to Portray Yourself as Kind of Like a Preppy Hippie Soccer Player who Wasn’t Good Enough at Sports to be a Bully Jock but was Still Kind of an Asshole Lacking any Kind of Real Personality or Uniqueness, Not That We All Should Be Artists or Whatever else that is Just Another Nice Way of Saying “Asshole” but Some People are Just Born to be Middle Management I Guess.

*** Incidentally, Bo and I used to work at this video store where besides making minimum wage when you were in your late 20s and rampant alcoholism, one of the perks was getting to rent all the movies your heart desired for free. In a lot of ways it was just like the previously mentioned record store I worked at as a brash teen. Anyhow, what this has to do with Ken Burns is that since Bo and I clearly didn’t have health insurance from said video store, as way to treat/deal with the rampant anxiety and insomnia that smoking 5,897 cigarettes a day and only consuming coffee and gas station food coupled with the shame spiral our lives were leading us down thanks to, you know being in your late 20s with a college degree making minimum wage at a video store in 2008 which inevitably creeps in the edges of your mind constantly but especially when you try to sleep at night, instead of being able to go to a doctor and get a prescription for Ambien, Bo beat the system by checking out every Ken Burns series that you’ve never heard of to get to sleep. My best guess is that Bo figured out this perfect alchemy regarding something just interesting enough to hold your attention while distracting you from everything in that previous run on sentence, scenic and calming, but also not interesting enough to keep you from falling asleep, ie the National Parks, Jefferson, etc. So, while I make it sound all romantic and fun, using record, video, and “cool” things to justify my position, know that it’s not and I can only do that because we literally had to force ourselves to sleep with constant voiceover narration and slow fades for like 15 years.

**** Wynton, Bradford, I love you guys. You’re true patrons and ambassadors of jazz, you’ll have more talent than I’ll ever understand, you’re understandably a little jaded about the state of jazz when you came along... but you kind of sound like this review reads my dudes. Plus, somebody has to stick up for all the Cecil Taylors of the world. I’m just saying. If it wasn’t me talking shit about you guys I’d be defending you too except it’s all inception now. Also, what are you reading this? If I googled myself and I showed up in the writing of Will Sellari, I probably wouldn’t read it. But again, I love you guys that’s what’s important here.

—Will Sellari

#93: Prince, "Sign 'O' the Times" (1987)

93 Sign O the Times.jpg

Perms were ascendant—weren’t they? Wasn’t that right? Even for guys? He had just gotten it figured out, the long bangs with the perm, super short on the sides, the shoulder pads, the boots. Prince—you couldn’t go wrong. He had studied his own round, pasty visage in the mirror, imagining his limp, grout-colored hair in tight, commanding ringlets, considered that, as a homeschooled, classical-music-playing geek, he knew less than nothing about what was cool, and he had asked his mom. She assured him, yes, of course perms are in, I’m so glad you’re finally taking an interest in your appearance, Gerald. You know that song, “Let’s Go Crazy”? That little fellow has a perm. He’s everywhere.

So Gerald asked for a cassette of Purple Rain and a perm for his sixteenth birthday, and now here he was, in a salon that his mother assured him did men’s perms all the time. The damage was done—Gerald was sitting in a red vinyl chair under a heat lamp, his eyes smarting from the pungent chemicals soaking his scalp.  He was in a row of chairs full of women under heat lamps, with another row facing him across a coffee table strewn with shiny magazines.

The women ignored him. All women—his mother had been wrong, no guys were in there getting perms. Even one would have been a relief. One guy, any kind of guy, a pudgy middle-aged dad kind of guy or a public school ruffian kind of guy, the sort he usually crossed the mall to avoid, any kind of male would’ve been a relief. He imagined the wry conspiratorial smile he’d give to this other guy, who would be sitting across from him under a heat lamp, too. His eyes would be red-rimmed and watering from the chemicals like Gerald’s and he’d look at Gerald man-to-man and they’d feel insulated from the world of women around them. But there was no other guy.

Then he looked down at the magazine-laden coffee table in front of him and saw a magazine with Prince on the cover. Prince, with glasses that made him look smart in a way that Gerald’s glasses didn’t, and—oh, God—a new hairstyle. The headline said he had a new album. Sign O the Times. Was that a typo? Didn’t they mean “of”—Sign of the Times?  But anyway, the point was, oh God, Purple Rain was like three years old, you dork, and Prince had already moved on. Sign O The Times—the new album, with the silly “O” all by itself, a kitschy abbreviation like what you’d see in an ad for cough syrup or an Irish pub. But that was Prince—even the silly o would get respect, unlike him, unlike Gerald. And Prince had a new hairstyle, which meant that everyone would have a new hairstyle, and, he had figured this much out about the world, anyone with the old hairstyle would be laughed at.

Prince’s curls were looser, the sides longer, the overall look closer to pre-Raphaelite than New Wave. God, now that was a look—it was like Beethoven’s glorious hair! Gerald had secretly studied the stiff plaster-of-paris hair on his musical hero’s bust that sat atop his Steinway in the living room at home. Beethoven looked like he’d sat for his bust after fighting a lion in a high wind! That was some hair! No one else would put two and two together, but he, Gerald knew things about Prince that other people didn’t. Being a classical pianist, Gerald understood that Prince was a real musician, a musician’s musician, not just some fashion icon who could kind of carry a tune that somebody else taught him while drum machines kept a beat. Prince knew his Beethoven, Gerald could just tell, so Prince had probably noticed Beethoven’s splendid tonsorial instincts as Gerald had, and was probably paying homage with his latest look, which was so viscous, so motile, almost like his hair was an organism dancing to the music he made. Gerald realized this—this Prince/Beethoven/cool hair connection with fifteen minutes to go in the setting period of his perm.

He picked up the magazine, and as he flipped through the glossy pages, sticky with hair product, to the article about Prince and found the picture he would point to when his hairdresser asked how he wanted his perm styled, a song started that made him lean out from under the heat lamp to hear it. It was the catchiest, sweetest, bounciest music he had ever heard, a pop song like no other, a pop song that made every other pop song sound like a dirge or a nursery rhyme. Never take the place of ol’ Han? Was it about Star Wars? He listened for the chorus to come around, imagining the keyboard before him and beaming in his red vinyl seat as he heard what Prince had done. Oh, it was fantastic! Never take the place of your man, that was it. This had to be a new release from Sign O the Times.

He had heard another one, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” inside the music store where the guy who tuned his piano worked. He had gone in with his mom to ask Todd, the piano tuner, who was also a fine piano player, if he could come over and see what was going on with his A-Flat. The store, a sunny, white-carpeted shop with plate glass windows across the front, usually had nothing newer than Mahler playing when Gerald went in, but he had found on this particular day, Prince, and not just any Prince, but a raunchy and confusing Prince song with lyrics that Gerald chose to ignore.

“He’s like Bowie, you know?” Todd had grinned at Gerald from across the counter top and pointed up, at the air, as he tapped out the rhythm of the song with his free hand.  Gerald didn’t know. “It’s like Ziggy Stardust or something. Another personality.”

“Prince has another personality?” Gerald tried earnestly to follow what Todd was saying. His mother was standing reverently by a white and gold baby grand by the front window, communing with the instrument like her focused devotion would make the instrument materialize in her dingy living room.

“Her name’s Camille.”

“That’s a girl’s name.”

Todd smiled at him. “He was going to do an entire album in his Camille persona, but it didn’t work out. Too bad, if you ask me. This song, though, it’s got to be one of the Camille songs.”

Gerald looked down at the bowl of twenty-five-cent picks on the counter. He felt like he was in a new place with a person he’d never met before instead of in old, familiar McMurtry’s Music with Todd, who had even been his music teacher for awhile in 6th grade before Gerald’s abilities surpassed him. But Todd was being different today.

“I didn’t know you listened to popular music,” he said.

“Prince isn’t like most of that stuff,” Todd said.

Gerald had told him then about his newfound love of Purple Rain, and had even made a shy inquiry about Todd’s opinions of perms. Was Todd’s hair naturally curly?

Todd had thrown his square head back and laughed. He patted his blond curls and pulled one down over his left eye, grinning impishly at Gerald.  “What do you think?” he asked.

“Prince isn’t embarrassed about his perm,” Gerald said.

“Prince isn’t embarrassed about anything, little dude, and neither should you be.”

“My A-Flat is wonky.”

“I can come by tomorrow.”

“My mom really wants that piano.”

“You don’t have the house for it.”

“I know. I think it’s that way with me and Prince hair. I don’t have the face for it.”

“Get the damned perm, Gerald. It’s not permanent.”

“It’s called a permanent. Perm means permanent.”

“I just mean, live a little, Gerald."

“I will.”

And he was. And he would. When his hairdresser finally came over and lifted the dome of the heat lamp from off his head, peering at him like he was a kitten hiding under a couch, he had pointed to the picture of Prince. “I want this,” he said. “Not what I said before,” he said.  “Can you do it?”

She patted her lips with two fingers, studying the picture.  “I’m glad you’re going for this,” she said. “It’s really new.”  She tilted his chin from side to side, narrowing her eyes meditatively.  “As long as you know you’re not going to look just like Prince.”

“I know,” he said. And truly, his expectations were modest, but after she rinsed and set, dried and styled his hair and spun him around to look at himself in the mirror, the effect was better than he could have ever hoped. He looked like a guy who could go to public school, who could go to the mall and walk right into the record store, and when Prince came on, he could make a sage remark about Ziggy Stardust, and to the kids who looked uncomfortable, he would smile and his curls would move like beings affirming his every word. As he left the beauty shop, he passed a boy about his age walking in with his mom. The boy’s expression, both mortified and hopeful, lit up when he saw Gerald. Gerald nodded, and his perm nodded right along with him.

—Constance Squires

#94: Hank Williams, "40 Greatest Hits" (1978)

94 40 Greatest Hits.jpg

My radio stays tuned to 93.3. WFLS Country. It’s not for the love of what’s on the radio as much as it’s a habit and a vice.

And because there is no greater vice than Florida Georgia Line.

In “This is How We Roll,” Georgia whines out the first two lines, “The mixtape's got a little Hank, little Drake / A little something bumping, thump, thumping on the wheel ride.”

Ignore that the second line is ridiculous. I believe that both Msrs. Florida and Georgia listen to Drake but name-dropping Hank Williams seems little more than a conveniently manufactured play to the powers that be in Nashville.

They are not the first to cement their authenticity in the genre by doing this, and they won’t be the last.

I believe Maren Morris, that her radio cranks out Williams. Country’s newest queen Kacey Musgraves covers his hits like she, too, feels his sparse poetry somewhere deep. I’d even buy that Eric Church had his “Record Year” with every artist he name drops.

But then there are the Justin Moore’s, the Brantley Gilbert’s. The Jason Aldean’s belting, "You can find me, in the back of a jacked up tailgate, chillin' with some Skynyrd and some old Hank.”

The thing about “bro country” is every song that invokes Hank Williams misses the mark. There’s a lot of time spent on parties and spotting the perfect woman across a field. And while Hank Williams did his share of partying and womanizing, these modern invocations lack that essential ingredient that makes great country music: hollow but all-encompassing loneliness.

Hank Williams’s 40 Greatest Hits is one of the only albums I actually own these days. Over the years the vinyl and CDs I scoured record stores for have found their way into my parents’ attic or my local Goodwill because being mobile became more important than collecting jewel cases.

Of course, I own it electronically.

*

I’ll give you this. I understand why the legend of Hank Williams as a good-time guy is so appealing. I even understand why songs like “Drunk on a Plane” are on heavier rotation than, say, anything by Sturgill Simpson. It’s because I’m the embarrassing friend: the one who drinks too much and dances with too many flailing limbs and cries in front of strangers and throws up in parking lots.

It was kind of cute when I was an out-of-control teenager. At 28, it’s losing its appeal.

A lot of people from my hometown think it’s romantic to live fast and die young, while I err on the side of living. Hank Williams was only 29 in 1953, when he died in the back of his own Cadillac, his heart giving out somewhere in the bleak Virginia darkness. It wasn’t a match for the booze, morphine, and chloral hydrate coursing through his veins.

At some point, at every high school dance, someone requested Hank, Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” The boys would line up, their arms around each other, and belt out the lyrics. They filled in the blanks in the chorus:

“Hank why do you drink?
To get drunk!
Why do you roll smoke?
To get high!
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?
To get laid!

If I had a picture of all those boys lined up, arms around each other, filling the brief pauses, I could mark out the faces of the ones who died too fast to live.

There went one to a crash, two to pills, three to living like a country song.

*

I drove to Oak Hill, West Virginia in late July alone because I wanted some divine insight into Hank Williams—and no one wanted to go with me.

I listened to him the whole drive up there—all five hours of it—thinking as I passed every gnarled tree, every gorge and mountain top, was he still alive to see this? Was this too much for the heart of a boy from the flat lands of Alabama? Hank Williams’s voice comes from some other place. It doesn’t seem possible that a human body can project that kind of heartbreak in a note. Maybe it helps if you’re outside yourself most of the time.

The thing is, Oak Hill has a complicated relationship with Hank Williams. I drove around the outskirts of town to find the Skyline Drive-in, where his driver Charles Carr pulled in only to find out the singer had perished. But that part of the legend is gone. It was demolished a few years ago over a monetary dispute.

Instead I holed up in a library archive. Just outside Oak Hill’s yellow brick library is the town’s Hank Williams memorial. It’s a waist-high plinth with a bronze plaque. At the intersection in front of it, a road crew worked through the July heat and stopped to watch the outsider taking pictures.

Inside, Kim the archivist, with her feathered hair, thick eyeliner, and floral T-shirt, also knew why I was there before I even spoke.

She said the Hank Williams box is the second most requested item in her archive. The first is graveyard records. She has every edition of the Fayette Tribune and can tell you, based on the obituary, exactly where that person is buried.

It was a tempting offer but the only person I knew of who died there is buried in Alabama.

The Hank Williams box has copies of his death certificate, a few local reminisces about the night that Cadillac rolled to a stop there, news clippings about the curse of Hank’s stollen hat in Oak Hill, fan letters sent to the archive, proclamations made at times when the memory was in vogue around town, and even a shirt depicting what can only be his ghost playing outside the car as it pulls in to the Skyline. And it has a menu from the Skyline Drive-in before it was torn down. It had a burger that cost $1.86 and a Coal Miner Special pizza: with green peppers, onions, banana peppers, green olives, mushrooms, sausage and hamburger.

The description of that pizza is my most detailed note from the visit. I was probably more hungry than curious.

I ended up, at Kim’s suggestion, sitting at the counter of Cafe One Ten down the street, eating a grilled cheese, the only person by herself at lunchtime. The waitress talked to me about hating computers and wishing she could just use a calculator, and the recent hot weather. I told her I couldn’t find the other statue I was looking for in town. She shrugged.

There was more going on there than I expected, but it was still every Appalachian town: half empty storefronts and weeds reclaiming the pavement. It was worthy of a country song, the kind the radio wouldn’t play.

This moment isn’t a natural one that occurred in my everyday life. I manufactured it just for you.

*

I sat down to write this section and couldn’t do it. I decided I needed to look the part. I put on makeup and curled my hair, listening to the entirety of Talking Heads: 77 because I needed a break from Hank Williams, but it wasn’t an uplifting choice. I checked on my tomatoes and my dog. I called my mother and argued with her on the phone.

It would have been about that yodeling kid in WalMart, you know, something about the masses.

Here’s a blank space to fill in: This is a performance.

*

The entire album revolves around “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

I read somewhere that the song’s original title was “I’m So Lonesome I Could Die” but it was deemed too depressing. The more I read about and think about the real “King of Country” behind the legend, I find that plausible.

The song is a poem with such natural angles and easy images that no word or chord is out of place. The third verse goes:

“Did you ever see a robin weep / When leaves begin to die? / That means he's lost the will to live / I'm so lonesome I could cry.”

He was already popular when it came out, but loneliness isn’t something that leaves a body when people arrive around it.

There’s someone on the radio who does understand Hank-ian loneliness. And I’m not talking about when the DJ deigns to play Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings or even Jr. My hometown radio station has a morning show called “The Trading Post.”

It’s Craigslist for people who don’t trust the internet, who need to hear a voice to be convinced of a seller’s virtue.

The absolute blessed miracle of internet radio allows me to listen to it in the mornings while I’m avoiding work and people. It’s an hour of bliss.

There are people looking for used TVs and the Tri-County Eagles call in to advertise their open house, “with a band, a hog, and all the fixings.”

On June 14 this year, a man called looking for help with his son’s funeral expenses. He hadn’t budgeted for a young death. He called back every day for a week.

It’s that kind of heartbreak that’s succinct and impossible to shake. I think about him almost every day and I think he understands how, as Hank Williams would say, the moon could go behind the clouds to hide its face and cry.

*

Not everything on the album is a downer.

Everything we know about the man plots out a myth rife with sadness. 40 Greatest Hits, though, was released in the 1970s, stripped of the layers that had been set upon his tracks: the remixes, the retouches, the harmonies recorded after his death.

It all ends with “I Saw the Light,” which he wrote about six years to the day before his death. He was drunk in the backseat as his mother drove him and his band back to Montgomery from a show. As they passed Dannelly Field Airport, the beacon there inspired the song, according to Colin Escott’s biography of Hank Williams. There’s a terrible irony in that inspiration.

There’s something beautiful in the ordinary, something conversionary, when you’re out of it. Every puddle is a depth. Every street light is a salvation. But even backsliders want to feel the warmth of the sun on their face in the morning.

There’s a reason Tom Hiddleston’s face looks so blank while he’s playing Hank in “I Saw The Light.” It’s doubtful Hank ever saw the light, unless that light was a high beam cutting through the darkness as 1953 began. Still, it’s the most uplifting song on the album, more than the blip of “Hey Good Lookin’” or “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”

When they announced his death in Canton, Ohio, at the show he was scheduled to play on New Year’s Day 1953, the crowd didn’t believe it until Hawkshaw Hankins began singing the song that ends it all. They all sang along.

Some things are for the living.

*

We have this venue where I live where big summer tours stop between bigger cities, especially top 40 country acts. Being the freelancer for the local newspaper who actually listens to country, I volunteer to write those pieces.

This summer I wanted to know, for someone with such a classic voice as Brett Eldredge but who sings almost exclusively about trucks and parties and reciprocated love, who were his influences.

Our interview fell through. Then he never returned the list of questions I sent to his people. I wrote a standard piece and never used my free tickets to the show.

The kind of artists I could find interviews with about how Hank Williams fused gospel and blues with the emerging honky tonk sound—how he changed the course of American music itself—aren’t actually country singers. They’re Beck and Bob Dylan and Elvis. It seems clarity of voice and the impulse to poetry is something that exceeds genre conventions.

When he was a young chart topper selling out summer venues, it was “Lovesick Blues” that caught the attention of the Opry that would kick him out and the MGM, which cut his singles.

He didn’t write the song originally, but played it over and over live, adding his own arrangement, working in the iconic yodelling and making the images simpler.

He was 25 years old when he released that hit. Songs like that could exist in the mainstream. They should.

This was a moment I could not manufacture for you. I’m so sorry.

*

I’m scared of cars. And planes. And needles and severe weather. At first, on the five-hour drive back to Virginia from Oak Hill, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, that Hank Williams was too depressing and that his ghost was working with my natural proclivity to gloom.

Each jolt my car took was like a little death. My heart stopped and started so many times that a little chloral hydrate might have helped.

I ended up with my check engine light flashing at the rest stop between Charlottesville and Staunton.

Not sure of what to do, I sat there half crying and contemplating the situation I found myself alone in. It was really no different than all the other solo commutes, the walks home in the darkness.

My notebook from that stop reads: “Shit.” It’s not exactly cowboy poetry.

And I didn’t even realize at the time, this was the moment I set out to manufacture.

*

Only Hank Williams could write his own tribute. The last song released before his death was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” It reached number one on the Billboard charts the same month. By February after his death, four of the top country hits were his, also including, “Kaw-Liga,” “Your Cheatin Heart” and “Take These Chains From my Heart.” They’re all on 40 Greatest.

We live in a world with a controlled narrative. Messy people and unfinished lyrics aren’t convenient for that mold. Hank Williams was blue—wasn’t he always—and stiff when the driver of his Cadillac read his last lyrics for the first time:

“We met we lived / And dear we loved / Then came that fatal day / The love that / Felt so dear fades far / Away / Tonight we both / Are all alone and here’s / All that I can say / I love you still and always will / But that’s the price / We have to pay.”

It never made it to a record, but you can sing it to yourself in the tune of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” And so you may know that you live in this legend.

—Lindley Estes

#96: The Who, "Tommy" (1969)

96 Tommy.jpg

“We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”

               -   David Bowie

 

“Tommy” seems to always have been in my life, but in periphery.

I remember being in the back of a minivan, nearly preteen, when my childhood friend first played me “Pinball Wizard.” “This song is awesome,” he probably said while flashing me the latticed, sky-blue cover on his iPod Touch. The memory is kind of hazy, but maybe I took an earbud, maybe I laughed while my friend mimicked guitars and sang along, maybe the minivan was packed with both of our families, maybe my mom or his mom was driving. I just know for a fact he showed me that song on his iPod Touch in the back of a minivan.

I remember when my older sister first moved back home after dropping out of college and how she would go out all the time. There’s a stack of memories in my mind where she would do her makeup in her room before going out while a record played. They all blend into each other as essentially the same singular memory, but when I try to recall a single one, I see her putting on mascara at night in front of her mirror, I’m sitting on her bed watching, and “Overture” is playing in the funny speakers of the silver record player her first boyfriend got her. There is a lingering scent of the candles she lit, and before she leaves she asks me to put them out.

I remember watching Almost Famous on a bootleg stream in middle school. I remember lying on my stomach in bed late at night when I saw That Scene on the tiny screen of my iPod Touch. The capital “T,” capital “S,” That Scene where a young William flips through the albums his older sister left behind for him when she left home. He traces Joni Mitchell’s face on Blue and flips past Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde before coming across a sideways Tommy. In the gatefold, his sister leaves a book of matches and a note that says “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.” Cue “Sparks.”

That scene is burned into my brain because at the time its strong awakening was something that hadn’t existed for me in the same cinematic way it existed for William, but I had a desire to know the feeling.

In high school, there always seems to be at least a few (typically white) teenage boys that are really, really into classic rock. I was friends with a few of them in high school, some of my friends dated them, they were in bands. They would sail through hallways in T-shirts that showed off what was always playing in their headphones. When I talked to them, I never felt like I knew or would know as much as them. I couldn’t understand the undying love for Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and because of this I constantly felt like I didn’t know or love music in the same fierce undying caliber that they did. I would file Tommy under this seemingly inaccessible category for years.

In those years I circled through so much music. There was a lot of dubstep, a Muse phase, emo bands whose T-shirts I bought to try to impress someone else, a ton of Hipster Runoff greatest hits, bedroom pop, indie darlings like Frankie Cosmos and Real Estate, and then an eventual swing right back to classic rock. The circling taught me to figure out what I got out of music and how much I needed from it. I built confidence little by little and came of age with an official soundtrack. Albums will often come and go like friends, and life is too terrifying and difficult to think that something will last forever. But some will come back.

The special thing I always feel like a jolt when it comes to music is that the take that makes it into the song and the song that makes it into the album is a moment in time packaged and produced, essentially crystallized to be played anywhere at will. Everyone with internet access has this new incredible power to summon any song when you please, and it will live in the cloud indefinitely. But we’ll keep making new stories for the people who listen to that song or that album. A song from long ago will keep returning like a comet to be delivered so seamlessly to someone who has never heard it, in the form of a YouTube suggestion or an automated playlist, and it will dislodge something inside them. Listening to a song from before you were born and really feeling it is like a time machine.

A little while after I was hearing hot takes about albums being dead, LPs came back in their solidly square shape. You can find them in Walmart now, which seemed foreign and impossible ten years ago. And my sister’s copy of Tommy eventually became mine when she moved on from owning her record player.

I played it on Spotify on my laptop for the first time in a long time, despite owning a record player, and I finally feel like I understand those boys in high school, my friend in the minivan, and William in Almost Famous, because I forgot all about them at the time. I was constantly trying to see it in their eyes and to experience it like they did, which I saw as the “right way” to love it, that I didn’t listen to the space between just the record and me. I grew up so terrified of not knowing enough and not trusting my tastes and my gut, of not looking the part, of not liking the correct things, of not listening to certain songs and albums at the correct time in my life, that I froze up and shut up. Thawing out took quietly pawing through a lot of music and finally admitting to myself that I liked what I liked and if I don’t like it now, perhaps later. I realized that I don’t need permission for music to feel like it belongs to me. It just does. Staring at my white ceiling, the songs fading into the next, I felt so present in my bedroom while I built my modern cathedral around the moment. I projected images onto the ceiling from memories that were too hazy they could be dreams, and dreams too real they could be memories. I don’t know if I saw my future, but I hope my future feels the same.

What I love most about Tommy is that it is so solidly an album. It is the perfect kind of operatic and epic with the twang and shimmer of rock music. I literally can’t tell you what song is my favorite, because they all seamlessly blend into one another that I just end up listening to the whole damn thing. But I can tell you that I love the little moments that circle back throughout. The desperate “Tommy, can you hear me?” The same stuttering guitar riff that always comes back. The grand horn section. I’m glad these things come back to me.

I am excited for when Tommy leaves me this time because it might come back. I know it will sound the same, but it will inevitably feel a little different.

—Sarah Kimura

#97: Bob Dylan, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" (1963)

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I hate the mall. That singular, non-count noun—“the mall”—that stands for every mall in America. The flashy coercive storefronts, the profuse consumer goods, the clumps of shoppers slouching down the left side of the walkway—this is America, ain’t it? At least, the post-war suburbanite version of it. The mall is the American Dream of consumerism writ large, oxygenated and illuminated, protected from the elements. It represents the modern public square of our democracy: mediated by materialism, co-opted by corporations, insulated by artificiality. I get there and I want to leave, but I still get there.

Today I’m going for a pair of boots. I’ve lived in Boston for a few years now, and I still haven’t found the right winter footwear. So I slide on jeans and a sweater, lace up my sneakers still damp from tromping through last night’s snowmelt, and catch the Green Line trolley outside my Brighton apartment. In the back of the train I plug in my headphones. I punch up Bob Dylan’s second album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and hear a youthful Dylan sing, “How many roads must a man walk down,” softly, over light strumming, “before you can call him a man?” The song is tranquil, hummable. It bespeaks the gentler side of a northeastern folknik subculture that embraced acoustic, conscientious music as a means of social action.

And “Blowin’ in the Wind” is one of the most famous “protest” songs of the early ‘60s folk revival. Yet the first time Dylan played it live, at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, he declared, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ‘cuz I don’t write no protest songs.” Even then, Dylan didn’t just reject labels; he actively refuted them. His only branding is his music.

Oftentimes, the songs come quick. Throughout his career, Dylan has claimed it only took him ten minutes to write “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “It just came,” he told Ed Bradley in 2004. “Right out of that wellspring of creativity.” By the time of that interview, the youngster from the Freewheelin’ cover, strolling through New York in jeans and a thin brown jacket, an inch of snow on the ground, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo on his arm, was a vague remnant in the shadows of Dylan’s face. The laugh lines around his mouth had twisted into a permanent smirk. His eyes were piercing, his face rigid. Hair still dark and curly, he wore a black shirt, gray jacket, long coat, leather pants. In his fingers he nervously twirled a pen. During the interview, Bradley chuckled often; Dylan rarely did.

A decade later, Dylan again commented on writing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” this time while delivering an acceptance speech upon winning the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. “If you sang ‘John Henry’ as many times as me…you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down’ too,” Dylan claimed. So the songs come from “that wellspring,” but they also come from history, from habit, from Dylan putting himself in their way.

Dylan acknowledges his predecessors, crediting himself only for sitting with the music long enough for the tunes to channel through him. And yet, the “how many” repetition that initiates each line isn’t found in “John Henry.” The repetition is Dylan’s invention, and it allows him a string of crucial inquiries that weary the reader with their enormity. “The answer,” he finds, is “blowin’ in the wind”: ever-present yet invisible; undeniable yet indefinable; springing not from man’s logic, but nature’s wisdom.

I’ve heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” a hundred times or more, but there on the train, Dylan’s rhetoric envelops me. It almost makes me forget I’m headed to The Mall.

*

The American shopping mall was a staple of suburban life from the mid twentieth century through to the Great Recession. Capitalizing on automobiles and interstates, financially privileged white folks fled the cities, seeking a comfortable homogeneity in a mass of suburban communities. Cars allowed those wealthier white people to adopt long commutes to work, and when it came time for shopping, their wagons and sedans—eventually SUVs—provided ample room for copious bags of purchased goods. In recent years, however, a variety of factors has led to The Mall’s decline. The internet has obviated the need for one-stop shopping; meanwhile, suburban Baby Boomers have seen their privileged offspring flea the suburbs and repopulate urban centers, gentrifying the most economically vulnerable areas.

Though parts of Boston have certainly seen their fair share of gentrification, it’s always been a college town, stuffed with young adults studying, working, frolicking. Out where I live, those students and young professionals fill five-story apartment buildings shouldering every street. From my vantage on the train, the second track of Freewheelin’, “Girl from the North Country,” transforms those blocky blonde-brick apartment buildings rolling past into the seaside Yorkshire hillocks.

Dylan derived the melody for “Girl from the North Country” from the English ballad “Scarborough Fair,” just as he borrowed most of the melodies on this album. He wrote the words, though, to all but two of the thirteen songs, and he told Rolling Stone in 1969, “I felt real good about doing an album with my own material….And I picked a little on it, picked the guitar, and it was a big Gibson—I felt real accomplished on that.” This sophomore effort also includes such songs as the finger-pickin’ “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; the condemnatory “Masters of War”; the simultaneously whimsical and haunting “Oxford Town.” Dylan’s own late-adolescent output announced his presence as a formidable new force in American music.

The freewheelin’ Dylan persona contains much emotion and complexity, a pairing that enlivens the student-busy streets of Boston University. As we turn toward downtown, the number of faces in my vision increases like the litany of images now filling my ears from track five, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The diction of the English ballad returns here, tinged with nursery rhyme, a parent asking their child, “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?” The answer contains “misty mountains,” “crooked highways,” “sad forests,” “dead oceans.” And it concludes with a haunting revelation, rendered in everyman dialect: “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” Images grotesque and foreboding flow forth—“I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken / I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”—suggesting the harm rendered on society by its warmongering officials.

I scoot over in my bench for a young woman to sit beside me on the filling-up train. She turns up her headphones and whips out her Instagram, her shoulder-length hair straight and auburn like Rotolo’s from the album cover. When the couple met, Rotolo was designing flyers for Gerde’s; her family held communist sympathies, and they enlightened Dylan to progress movements and civic protest.

In fact, Freewheelin’ could’ve been even more political, if Columbia Records would’ve permitted it. The original cut contained the song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a joking number that features an obsessive speaker hunting for communists, seeking them “up my chimney hole,” “way down my toilet bowl,” and everywhere else. When the speaker runs out of suspects, he turns his suspicion on himself. Dylan was scheduled to play the song on the Ed Sullivan Show in May, 1963, but the censors asked him to pick a less controversial tune. Rather than compromise, Dylan, whose burgeoning career could’ve benefited from the exposure, simply called off the performance. Columbia Records caught wind, reviewed the track and, fearing libel, refused to release a song that claims members of the John Birch Society “all agree with Hitler’s views / Although he killed six million Jews.” Freewheelin’ had already gone to print, and was recalled. Copies of that first Freewheelin’ are said to be the most expensive and sought after records in existence.

*

There are no music stores in the Copley Place Mall, nor are there any in the adjoining Prudential Central, both of which connect hotels and skyscrapers in a sprawling swath of Boston’s Back Bay. Unlike its suburban counterparts, this complex has thrived from the inner city’s growing wealth. I take a deep breath as I push through the revolving door between a Cheesecake Factory and a P.F. Chang’s, get in line behind a string of folks clogging the escalator, and listen while “Talkin’ World War III Blues” pumps through my ears.

The song’s inciting incident, that “One time ago a crazy dream came to me / I dreamt I was walking through World War III” compels Dylan’s speaker to the doctor, who tells him not to worry because “them ol’ dreams are only in your head.”

I pace through the high-ceilinged, halogen-lit corridors, looking for shoe stores and averting my gaze from salespeople lingering just outside their storefronts shilling clothes and luggage, perfumes and colognes. I feel stuck in my head, too. I’m the only one hearing this music, even as preening couples and young families traipse past. All the other solo shoppers also have their headphones in, listening to who-knows-what—top forty, probably, or some podcast—or maybe Dylan. We’re all so engrossed, yet we’re all so isolated, squished into ourselves by commerce and technology even while surrounded by each other.

In Dylan’s dream, he too finds himself isolated, stricken by the very real specters of red scare and nuclear fallout. Propelled by a major chord progression and repetitive musical phrases disrupted by harmonica bleats, Dylan’s song floats between his dreams and his pitiless real-world environs surroundings. “I was feelin’ kind of lonesome and blue,” Dylan speak-sings after failing to connect with the other few survivors, “So I called up the operator of time / Just to hear a voice of some kind.” This speaker inhabits a lonely continuum, existential and unstable, rife with hunger, paranoia, absurdity.

The doctor butts in to say, “I’ve been having the same old dreams.” In the doctor’s dream, though, Dylan isn’t there. It’s just the doctor, alone. And before long, more than Dylan and the doctor, but “everybody’s havin’ them dreams,” caught in their own desolated worlds, frustrated from a lack of connection.

This can’t be true for us. With our apps and our networks, we’re more connected than ever. And yet, the song, the lights, the oxygen all ensnares me in a spell, alone in the crowd. I plop down on a bench in front of a three-story waterfall, the pool at the bottom adorned with small trees and ferns. I’m searching the faces of these passing mall walkers, of the old man with a cane resting two benches over. “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours,” Dylan concludes. “I said that.”

Forget the boots. I want to know what that old man’s thinking, what everyone’s dreaming. I want to know if there’s room enough in any one dream for the all of us.

—Paul Haney

#98: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "This Year's Model" (1978)

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You cannot fall in love with a girl who loves Elvis Costello, Jacob says. She’ll always be too smart for you, you’ll never be able to keep her satisfied. She’ll leave you for something better, someone smarter, maybe a college professor. And the worst part is you won’t even be mad when she does. Better to spare yourself the heartbreak now.

I’m not even sure where we are or how we got here, some backwoods road only he knows how to drive to. A left past the Sloane’s barn. Up the hogsback, right at the light, the length of “Pump it Up” puts us into the woods, hidden from the rest of the world. His older brother has moved back home and lives in the basement; this is the only place we have to listen to music in solitude. He only plays this tape when we’re together, a secret we both share.

He lights a cigarette lifted from his brother’s pack. He passes it to me and I take a drag just to taste his mouth. The cuffs of his flannel shirt don’t quite cover his skinny wrists. He is all legs and angles and teenage melancholy. You get it, he says, taking the cigarette back.

There’s a girl in his history class, Chelsea, she’s got high dark hair and doll eyes and lips that don’t need Revlon to be rose-red. Yeah, I know Chelsea. Everybody does. She’s the star of the volleyball team even though she looks like she’d snap in half if she bounced a balloon. She’s the class VP. She’s nice to everybody, impossible to hate. But Chelsea’s not the kind of girl you take to a back road and play Elvis Costello for.

*

In the basement his brother plays the same Cure album over and over and over. He doesn’t emerge for days; Jacob brings him dinner and cigarettes and beers from the fridge. He does his laundry and listens to him lament. Don’t bother with girls, he tells him between drags and warm swigs. All they do is fuck you up.

*

Jacob plays me the mixtape he made for Chelsea. It’s unrecognizable, records he borrowed from friends. It’s cheesy. She’ll love it.

You have to deliver it to her, he says. You have to soften the blow.

Jacob knows I’d do anything for him. But I know you can’t fall in love with a girl who doesn’t love Elvis Costello. She will toss your heart aside like a Scrunchie with a stretched elastic, a broken Swatch band. You will have to keep up a charade for far too long, play too dumb until the day you become what you have pretended to be.

*

I swap the tapes. Instead of Crowded House and Billy Joel and Duran Duran, I give her the Smiths and the Replacements and This Year’s Model. I take the risk that she might love it, that she might foolishly claim “This Year’s Girl” as her own.

She hands it back to me in gym class. I make the swap one more time and hand him back the tape. I’m sorry, I tell him in a stage whisper. I almost believe it myself.

He throws the tape in the garbage by the flagpole. He gets in his car and leaves without speaking. He’s absent for two days. I collect his homework, take notes, tell anyone who asks that he’s home sick. He will thank me when his heart heals, I tell myself. Better now than at prom, or at graduation, or the first week of college.

On day three, I walk past the bus stop and over to his house on Elm Street. There are cars in the driveway, parked in the street. And when his mother answers the door, they have all been crying. Jeff is gone, she manages to get out before the tears come again. He was playing “You Belong To Me” when Jacob found him hanging from the rafters.

*

A few kids from school come to the funeral. I catch Jacob scanning the crowd for Chelsea, but she’s already forgotten about him. If she ever knew him at all.

I hold his hand when he lets me. Halfway through the reception I lose him. I search every room in the house until I spot him out the bathroom window, smoking a cigarette out by the old swing set. I approach him cautiously, like a wild animal. A boy in mourning should never be startled.

He invites me to sit. I obey. His tie is undone and he’s a little bit drunk. I let him lean into me. I guess it’s good Chelsea didn’t like the tape, he says with ash on his breath. Spared me the heartbreak down the line.

He glances at me out of the corner of his eye like he’s waiting for a confession that will never come. I say nothing. It’s a secret that will hurt for the rest of my life, a scar upon my soul that I can’t tattoo over. Years from now he will marry a wide-eyed beatnik he meets in college, they will have twin boys, we will call each other on our birthdays and catch up until it becomes merely a matter of performance. I will end up divorced from a man I loved too goddamn much; on late nights I will lie awake and ask myself if I did the right thing back in gym class a thousand years ago or if this is just karma catching up with me. My ex-husband adored Elvis Costello. He left me for a cute bartender because he said I was too smart for him. Jacob must have told him the secret to life.

Jacob comes back to school the next week. He sees Chelsea in the halls and avoids her eyes. He throws out Jeff’s tapes. I retrieve them from the curb and keep them, just in case he ever needs them again. In the box I find the mix he made for the car. We never take another late-night drive again.

—Libby Cudmore

#99: Sly and the Family Stone, "There's a Riot Goin' On" (1971)

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In 2003, all incoming freshman at Wauwatosa East High School were required to take a public speaking class, a time I like to revisit when I run out of things to be embarrassed about. There are many events and chapters in my life that I look back on with the sober wisdom of experience and think, "Man, I’d kick ass at [insert thing I used to suck at] now" or something like “That catering job that gave me food poisoning was a picnic compared to this office fuckery.” Something about the rose tint of hindsight refracts pain into a perverse longing. You don’t realize in the moment that being astronaut high and coming up with new ways to cut cantaloupes is perhaps an apex of some employment/pleasure ratio until you’re using your master’s degree to rotate pdfs for someone making three times your salary. That in retrospect, having a public speaking class as the only ringing problem in your life is pretty cushy considering some of the alternatives. But it’s hard when you grow accustomed to comfort to not look back in anger.

The crux or pedagogy (see I would kick ass at this shit now) of the public speaking course was to help all of us pimple-pocked, hormone-addled, unannounced-erection-having anxiety blobs get over our fears of being heard by a group of our shade-throwing and shit-talking peers; an experiment that proved woefully, if not frightfully, un-empowering. I vividly recall stuttering through a how-to demonstration on cookie baking, and holding back a stress poop as one of my fellow classmates whispered the terms of a handjob with another of my distinguished colleagues. So who’s the chump in this scenario: the sweat drenched incontinent covered in flour, or the system that allows for such a charade to occur? Now I’d go gluten free for a week.

But despite building a repertoire for failure, I always fell reaching, and the toast was my crowning achievement. We were told it was a chance at levity; that we could choose between solemn eulogies or frivolous homages. One of my compatriots, for example, gave a rousing tribute to his friend and fellow skater, regaling at length his ability to shred rails and thumb his nose at city ordinances, all while making oblique and obvious reference to their shared reverence for choice bud. This modern day Cicero went on to receive a week’s suspension for an honest attempt to hotbox the gym pool during a raucous game of unsanctioned water polo because not all heroes stop bad guys.

As I in no way understood how humor could impress a faded crowd, I let myself be intoxicated by the pomp of the assignment and leaned hard on both the grandiose and the sentimental. And I was in luck, because I’d just received a transformative musical bequeathing that thoroughly rocked my as of yet un(in)formed opinions.

For my birthday that year, my uncle handed me an open and unwrapped cardboard box full of CDs. As I read the spines (Blind Faith, Traffic, Roxy Music), he removed one of the cases and handed it to me. It showed part of an American flag with the stars replaced for actual suns, the plastic cover cracked on a bias.

“Now these cats,” he said, pausing for emphasis as he nestled a Camel filter into his faux-ivory cigarette holder before clamping it in his teeth like the Penguin, “these cats could play.”

So I started there.

Of course I’d heard Sly and the Family Stone before: “Everyday People,” “Sing a Simple Song,” however you spell that “Thank You” gibberish. But this album was different. It sounded worn, yet unwavering and persistent, like a copper roof gone green. The way the sun looks through UV protective lenses. I spun it endlessly: my canary yellow Discman complete with athletic style wrap-around-like-a-record-baby headphones that looked like a croakie on full blast, pushing play again and again.

I had decided to honor Sly Stone with a lifetime achievement award as my final project. The toast was meant to combine all our new knowledge and acumen into one grand gesture of freshly tapped confidence. I memorized every member by name and instrument and sought out their other records, even some I learned Sly loved to spin as a DJ at KSOL in San Francisco before he met Cynthia Robinson. Pouring over lyric sheets, I followed their rise and fall and tried to trace the mountain. But it wasn’t until after I crossed the spotlighted stage of Wauwatosa East High School to stand at a podium with onlookers masked in the darkness of the theater that I felt the air get thinner with every word I uttered, for I had studied and agonized over the details of an artist I barely understood.

The panic that comes with staring down a fear is a cheap and uncomfortable high, one that tunnels the mind and dulls the senses. I don’t remember a thing about that speech other than the noises: my own mouth, dry and crinkling at the edges of words, the hum of the lights, the low-slung rustle of my classmates. The only proof I have of my performance is a C+ scrawled on paper and the memories of days of preparation. This was unequivocally something I sucked at, one that time and wisdom have done little to improve. Some things don’t get easier, we just adapt to shift their weight and put the odds back in our favor. I try to stay off stages.

But if forced, my wise and kickass self would have tried to get up and talk about how this record has swagger, a word that as a card-carrying member of the cool guys, I know and use regularly. I would have tried my hand at humor. But I’d still be grasping at the same inescapable quality that eludes me about this record, because with Riot there's something more going on.

I’d talk about how it’s a schism of body against mind; a record that revels in the need for swagger by confronting the things swagger is built to push away. That it's learning how to swim by treading water. That it’s hard bark against a double standard. That it’s emotional Kevlar. Gripping the podium, I’d talk about addiction, about the power of art, the question of race. And just as the heat became unbearable my time would be up and I’d recede back into the cooling darkness.

That is what Riot is about. It’s about who gets to catch their breath and when, and how those afforded that luxury make space for those society aims to suffocate. It’s disavowing a self-aggrandizing notion that we value the lives of those who stop providing us with a piece of themselves to consume. That as a species, we’ve evolved beyond empathy for the husk left over after creativity has been scattered to the winds.

When traveling, Sly Stone famously carried a violin case full of cocaine, which complicates the sociopolitical wokeness of “I Want to Take You Higher” when the means to that end proved chemical. Of course, that’s a glib summary. But when we talk about Sly Stone now it’s impossible to do so without landing on his eventual outcome: a drug-addled recluse familiar with experiences of homelessness. I type this hoping he’s OK, my ears red from the toast I don’t remember that didn’t end like this:

Being perhaps so exhausted by the thought that we the people would never get along, Sly traded in his 60s optimism for the disappointment from which we are all still hit with shrapnel. If “Everyday People” captured the hope of a generation, Riot reflects the bitter reality that rose from its ashes. It’s a record with unpaid debts and a limp, because at its core swagger is just bravado with panache, its purpose couched in whatever it serves: distant cousins of both the albatross and the Cuban Link. Because with there being so much to unpack from what Sly gave us, perhaps all we can do is keep listening and try to listen better.

So please don’t make me get up and talk about it.

—Nick Graveline

#101: Frank Sinatra, "In the Wee Small Hours" (1955)

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Dear Frank,

How’s it going? How is the great beyond treating you? Who you hanging out with these days—Elvis, Mozart, Biggie? Regardless, I hope it’s a jamming time! I was writing to say thanks, which I am sure you get A LOT.  Is Morrison jealous of how many fan letters you receive?

Anyway, I was about 8 years old when I saw your last concert on TV. It was summer, the night before my family was leaving for vacation. I had already been tucked into bed when my dad very excitedly ran to my door and told me to come into my parents’ room, where they were watching your concert. It was the first time I saw you sing and I drifted off that night to one or your last televisions appearances.

At age 8, I was very familiar with you, Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, the Voice. No other artist was more revered in my house growing up then you. I was that kid in daycare who sang every word to “Chicago,” showing off to all of my friends, not quite understanding that they were more impressed by the latest Ace of Base hit. By the time I reached 12, my knowledge on you rivaled any middle-aged man, with facts on your four marriages (say hi to Ava for me), and those crazy Vegas Rat Pack days. Speaking of, can you ask Dean if he plans to write me back anytime soon?

These trivia tidbits came from one person in my house, and one person alone: my dad. His love for you came from a true admiration of talent and feeling of kinship. My dad is Italian, and loves being Italian. My dad saw you as the true Italian immigrant success story, which needed to be shared with everyone, including his children, as early as possible.

We had every one of your CDs, and when a new rendition came out, you bet it was on the list for dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, or Christmas. They were all displayed together in our CD cabinet as if they deserved their own special recognition. I used to ask my dad which CD was his favorite and on more than one occasion the answer was In The Wee Small Hours. I think for him this album showed layers of emotions that we didn’t always get from those typical big band songs or those Cole Porter classics. This album was bluesier and therefore felt darker, sadder.

I think my dad related to this more. He is a very emotional man, one who can be angry, laughing, and loving all in a moment. His complete honesty regarding how he feels leaves him vulnerable. The lyrics in this album epitomize this type of man. One who is honest about his emotions, no matter how sad, loving, or brutal, which ultimately creates strength and hope.

You hear this with lyrics like “unrequited love’s a bore and I’ve got it pretty bad, but for someone you adore it’s a pleasure to be sad,” in Glad to be Unhappy and “I cry my heart out, it’s bound to break, since nothing matters, let it break. I ask the sun and the moon, the stars that shine, What’s to become of it, this love of mine,” in This Love of Mine. Your tone and enunciation are so clear that the honesty and layers of hope ring out with an even greater force.

We had one of those five-disc CD players and whenever we had guests over, I got to pick out the CDs on the player and one of your CDs had to be on rotation. Knowing that my dad loved In the Wee Small Hours, it was constantly picked. I remember whenever the CD was played, red wine was inevitably flowing and my dad would start reminiscing about his childhood. He would tell my brother and I stories about growing up in a Sicilian neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama in the ‘60s. Going to school with only other Sicilians and living next door to other Sicilians.  These moments were honest and emotional for my dad, much like the lyrics you sing. He shared with us in a way that inspired us and gave us courage, even if the stories felt sad, much how you sing. For my dad, your music became a connection to a community he had left and was a bridge for his kids to understand his history and our shared heritage.

So even though I am writing this fan letter to you, perhaps the true fan letter should go to my dad; a man who is completely honest, never shying away from emotions and filling his kids with limitless courage. And obviously, not least of all, a man with a strong love for your music and an enthusiasm for sharing it.

So thanks Frank for being a generation bridge, a common love, and a great listen!

Love,
Marie Sicola

P.S. If you want to send a signed headshot, I would totally win for best Christmas present ever!

#100: The Zombies, "Odessey and Oracle" (1968)

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The summer of 2000 I was working for a small company just outside of Dayton. I’d be into work by 8 and home by 4:30. It wasn’t a great summer job, but the pay was good enough to keep me in records and help pay bills when I was back at school in the fall. I took apart old metal shelves that were no longer in use and swept out an empty warehouse space that the company had recently decided they no longer needed. While working in the empty warehouse, I somehow listened to music. Maybe I had a boombox? Something with a tape player on which I could play mix tapes? Maybe I just had a Discman? I don’t remember. Probably the boombox with tapes I made from my slowly growing collection of vinyl LPs. One of my best finds that summer was a used copy of the 1997 UK repressing of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle. I copied it to a tape to listen to in my car. I hadn’t known about the album for long, having previously and recently heard only “Beechwood Park” thanks to a mix given to me by a friend. I listened to the album at least a hundred times that summer. I was struck by the way most of the songs sounded like the past. But not “the past” as a particular moment in music history, but like someone remembering the past—those languorous tempos and reverb-soaked vocals begging listeners to remember whatever it is they desperately need to remember.

*

On the Fourth of July, we rode in the back of a friend’s pickup truck to see fireworks. I moped because I couldn’t stop thinking of an earlier Fourth of July when I was falling in love with a girl named Jess, holding her hand and stealing kisses during fireworks. That previous summer, the one with the earlier Fourth of July—the summer of ‘98—ended almost as soon as it started, that girl and I holding on to each other for dear life as my departure for college grew nearer. To help slow the passage of time, we went for long, slow walks through neighborhoods and parks. One night we got lost in a nature preserve and had to wade through a waist-high creek to get out, unable to navigate to a more convenient exit after the sun abandoned us. Another night, we walked through the neighborhood adjacent to my parents’—Beechwood Springs, the development was called— and we stopped at a park there, called Beechwood Springs Park. Bathed in moonlight and dripping with humidity that made our hair wild, we alternated between kissing and talking about a future that, realistically, we probably knew we weren’t going to share together. At the time, I didn’t know that a song called “Beechwood Park” existed, but had I known, I’m sure it would have been a favorite. Soon, though, summer ended and I went away to college. The relationship didn’t last past October, and I carried that loss with me for years, the way foolish young men sometimes do.

*

Most nights that summer of 2000, I’d meet with my friends at Denny’s, where we’d play euchre and smoke cigarettes. One night, while sitting at Denny’s, a man walked in the front door, picked up a fork, and stabbed that fork into another man’s head. I don’t know if they knew each other. Another night, a man OD’d in the bathroom. When police showed up, they found with the man a shopping bag full of bloody clothing. I don’t know why I remember these when there are so many other things I’d rather remember but cannot.

*

One Saturday in June, I came across the Clientele for the first time, found the Fading Summer EP at a record store in Cincinnati. This was a couple of weeks before I picked up and first heard Odessey and Oracle in its entirety. I was struck by the way that the Clientele sounded somehow simultaneously new and old, and always wistful. Even after I started listening to Odessey and Oracle obsessively, I frequently returned to Fading Summer—the Clientele kind of sounded like the Zombies, but filtered through cheap speakers and mixed with either ten percent more humidity or twenty-five percent more autumn chill, depending on the song. Regardless, both bands’ baselines seemed to be deep summer nostalgia. If both albums sounded nostalgic, I remember thinking, then maybe the Clientele were the more nostalgic of the two because of the distance between performance and sound implied by the mid-fi production in which the songs were wrapped.

*

That summer of 1998, Jess wore something, some sort of lotion or spray, with a fake vanilla scent to it. To this day, when I catch a whiff of that very specific, surprisingly rare scent, I remember more about that summer than usual.

*

But back in the summer of 2000, at work, I befriended the other guys in maintenance. They handled the real shit and gave me the special projects that none of them wanted to do. That was fine. They were nice to work with. When I turned twenty-one in August, they wanted to take me out for a ball game and a beer. I couldn’t make it because I was going to see some bands play in Michigan. The day I got back from that birthday trip, I was taking some metal shelves apart and one of the guys caught me singing along to “Strawberry Wine,” by Deana Carter, which had been playing softly over the PA, and which I’d not heard before that summer. That summer, though, when I was working in the main building, I heard that song at least once every other hour.

*

Some nights, when it was too early for friends to be at Denny’s yet, I’d kill time by driving to Miamisburg, across the river and up the hill, out to the house where my family lived for the first five years of my life. I don’t remember why I’d do that. Even then, I had only the vaguest recollections of living in that house. I’d drive to the end of the dead end street on which it sat, look at the house, then look at the large, empty field that ended the street—I’d feel some heavy sense of nostalgia, then I’d turn around in the driveway and head back down the hill and across the river towards Denny’s. One night, I parked my car a few streets away and walked to the middle of the field. I sat down and put on my headphones. I had my Discman with me, and the aforementioned mix with “Beechwood Park.” I put that song on repeat and looked up at the sky, then looked out of the field back at the neighborhood where I used to live. I don’t know what I hoped to see there. I remembered climbing the tree on the edge of the yard, and half falling out of it once. I remembered, one street over, a patch of apple trees that didn’t seem to be on anyone’s property, where my mother would take me to puddle jump when it rained in the summer. I remembered non-descript kids on bikes, the green glow of my dad’s old stereo receiver. I remembered the long, slow summer days spent outside, being read to under a tree by my mother. It was an easy, lovely childhood.

*

Another night in 2000, late, after the Denny’s crowd disbursed a little earlier than usual, but not really early at all, I returned to my parents’ house then walked to Beechwood Springs, parked my car on a side street and walked to the park from two summers before. I don’t remember having music with me, but I remember lying on a picnic table and smoking a cigarette and looking up at the starless sky. I tried to remember the way everything about my previous night at that park felt. I couldn’t—those feelings remaining stowed away just out of reach. But what I could remember was comforting, as if the memories could speak and were saying, “Of course you’ll someday feel those ways again.”

*

In the summer of 2014, I picked up a copy of the Clientele’s stunning first album, Suburban Light, the one compiled mostly from early singles and EPs, including selections from the Fading Summer EP. Printed on the insert was this quote from Joë Bousquet’s “The Return”: “The loveliest of the stars has raised up the night so as to blind me with its infinite presence; my gaze is submerged, like a silver ring tossed into the flood of my heart.” I’d never encountered Bousquet’s work before buying that record.

*

Now, in 2018, I am approaching forty and summers feel hotter. The dry heat burns harder and the humidity feels heavier, a wet hairshirt woven from memory. Some days I think that the heat should be unbearable, but really it’s not, because encoded in that heat is close to four decades of summers. Some nights, I almost feel as if, were I to squint hard enough, I might see the water everywhere in the air around us, and if I squint harder still, I might see fragments of my past at play with all that water.

*

The part of this story about Jess, it has a happy ending. I’m not sure it’s worth mentioning as this essay isn’t really about that, I don’t think. But maybe you should know that she and I are married now. We were apart for twenty-odd years, then somehow we found each other again. I’m not sure why or how it happened. We’re very different people, now, but it works.

*

Since the summer of 2000, I’ve visited places important to my past at least a dozen times each: Denny’s (until it closed), the old house and the field beside it, the park where Jess and I got lost and had to wade through a creek to get out. At times, I felt as if I was stalking my own history, shellacking each layer of new memory with nostalgia, so that now, when I visit the park in Beechwood, I remember the dozen or so other times I’ve visited since, as if the wistful nostalgia I felt on those subsequent visits has written itself into the narrative of that place almost as much as the initial visit in 1998. Almost.

*

I don’t know why reverb and lush production make me think of my past. I don’t know why young men and middle-aged men and old men are so inclined to remember the past through a nostalgic lens. I don’t know why we feel the need to try to reclaim our pasts even when we know they can’t be reclaimed. I don’t know why some days I feel old and tired and other days I feel young and excited. I don’t know much of anything about anything except the way that reverb and vanilla scent make me remember, and that’s not really important, anyway.

—James Brubaker