This is just some brief dialogue and the intro to the astounding “Here Is What Is” album by Daniel Lanois. It is so much more, however, as Brian Eno discusses in these 25 seconds the intense meaning he garnered upon obtaining an ornate chest of drawers. As he expresses: “If I followed the message of this little set of drawers, and built everything else around that, that would be a different life.” The idea of one significant object or idea being the foundation for a new perspective or change resonated with me with quickness.
As an adult, I have moved home to live with family 4 times. In total, I have moved 13 times since I was 22. I have sold off an enormous chunk of a large record collection. I have pared down my life so that it barely fits in my pockets. My longing for steadiness and my own homestead runs deep. I usually get back on my feet within a matter of months but not recently. I often think if I stumble upon a rusty jewelry box in an antique store or some weird artwork at the thrift shop that “this… could be the beginning of a new life for me.”
Hearing this bit at the beginning of the record always feels right. The songs that follow this heartening reflection on a piece of furniture open a lot of doors and offer new worlds of sound and musicianship. I will prevail with or without my own spirited chest of drawers guiding me, but what a beautiful story Eno has shared here.
Please do check out the entire album. The music and conversations on the album work in tandem with the companion documentary about the songs, collaborators, and the music ranges from warm notes of pedal steel to gospel choir. Daniel Lanois is a prolific producer but I find his own recordings to be far too underrated. “Here Is What Is” is just so nourishing.
October. Evening. A downtown bar. I swap stories about Pavement with Peter Coviello, visiting to read from his memoir, Long Players. The stories meander into talk about the Silver Jews, and then David Berman’s poetry collection, Actual Air. The talk opens a window on an evening I haven’t remembered in many years.
I’m twenty-one and inside an apartment just off the Cal State Hayward campus with a couple named Josh and Katie — fellow creative writing undergrads. It’s fall and by the end of the year, the three of us will leave for MFA programs. I’ll stumble upon Katie once years later in Fargo, ND but ultimately lose track of them both even in the age of social media.
Near the end of the evening, Josh slips American Water in the stereo and Berman’s voice curls out of the speakers, “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” They wait for me to acknowledge the great choice he’s made, but the music is unfamiliar. As a Pavement fan, they assume I know the lineage between Stephen Malkmus and Silver Jews, but I’m in unknown territory. Disbelief spreads across Josh’s face in a spectrum moving from disappointment to joy. He understands the pleasure of unveiling music to another listener.
Katie and Josh are intimate with the tracking of the album. They anticipate each coming lyrical turn and direct my attention to lines like “the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues,” from “Smith and Jones Forever.”
We drink beers, laugh, and patiently pause songs to discuss the poetic choices that David Berman delivers as the album progresses. And then we get to the back-to-back punch of “People” followed by “Blue Arrangements.”
“People” lopes to a climax as Berman’s voice drones, “The drums march along at the clip of an I.V. drip / Like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip,” while Malkmus’s voice dances in and out in accompaniment. And then “Blue Arrangements” sidles in. Malkmus on the front vocals this time, speak-singing “I see you gracefully swimming with the country club women / in the Greenwood southside society pool. / I love your amethyst eyes and your protestant thighs / you’re a shimmering socialite jewel.” The song rises into a frantic chorus and then transitions from coda into a rollicking guitar breakdown.
It’s a sublime four-and-a-half minutes of delight in language and sound. It’s perfect to sustain the three of us — so desperate to be in love with crafting words, so sure that this charm will never wear off.
Twenty years later in Iowa, Peter tells me his nephew has turned him on to a song (“I Feel Extra-Natural”) by a New York band called LVL UP. He half sings the lyrics, “I feel insane when you get in my bed / is something sweet that the Silver Jews said.” We both smile. We know the lyric’s sentiment is correct.
In his poem, “The Charm of 5:30,” Berman writes: “Somewhere in the future I am remembering today.” Over and over, in that future or this one, songs like “Blue Arrangements” call us back to remember.
Like any good piece, life is full of natural pauses.
Naturally, I go through moments where I even have difficulty doing things I love. Mostly comes the feeling that what I do is contrived. Or unseasoned. Or generally unaffecting in every way imaginable. Simple stuff like that.
So naturally I take a lot of pauses.
Whether it be a performance, piece of art, characters on a page, or even an evening meal, sometimes you get this sense that it has all been done before and we’ve all heard it and if you glance back you’ll see a bit of yourself that was ten minutes ago so true now look like a frumpy idiot standing in the corner with a mirror talking to himself about his genius.
Cringeworthy at best.
The first instinct is to pause, take a break — find something real — root yourself in that and go from there.
Of course within 5 minutes you are riding the current of the Milky Way wearing your childhood sneakers and using a stop sign as an oar. The sun is a soccer ball and somehow the smell of ice cream drifts through your nose, but you kind of see a light up ahead and you think maybe that is the point so you paddle on.
A guy vrooms on by in a car powered by the mitigated hours of his life and you see his thoughts being typed out on his company’s letterhead and filed into a briefcase marked “To be remembered” and there is a dull sense that he forgot something, and it lingers in his stomach with the burnt toast and instant coffee and you think “Hey, at least he’s smiling.”
So you try smiling and your teeth shatter and by now you have forgotten about the light and you say you know what, I think I’ll take a break from the break.
Good call. Put on some Satie. Or don’t, it’s your world.
The hero who squinted not to see but to absolve his shadow, who was serene about dirt and for whom the dust bowl was confidant, I copied him like a child. Copied his face and adapted it to my every twitch. That face meant the latent upside-up world I sought, and wearing it meant no more shameful recesses; no more disintegration, repeating words. Still awkwardness prevailed, and eventually the bone-knowing face wore off, otherwise I wore it out. Again I became my milieu; the words unruly.
Who am I? Over time the question cut wells in me, provoked whispering — you aren’t you aren’t you aren’t — until I told myself lies to deaden the pain of owning a body. Inventing stories became my second skin. I ignored the sandlot and the rainbow chalk lines, perceiving in them stipulation, and hung alone around the compact earth instead. I crumbled slate with my feet and made it into ant-countries. Inwardly I wrote families, heroes and betrayers of blood. I favored the ants with the big red bellies because, like jugglers on stilts, they were bound to generate the most noise.
David Bowie was the first star I saw who effused no fixed identity, and the movie he starred in was our lives. On Ashes to Ashes, when he re-assumed the Major Tom persona in the face of every “no” he’d ever received, trouncing through the desert with his freak-cortege and plastic soul, crooning about addiction and paranoia, I felt like I could be any damn thing I wanted. I felt again like the kid who had climbed half a vertiginous mountain assuredly springing up stone-steps when it was advisable to watch your feet. I heard “the shrieking of nothing is killing” like a knife, because I’d known that line to be true.
Bowie helped me see, through his exhilarating wayward world, that alienation, while an inconvenience, holds potential to embolden. He proved that identity had been a construction all along; that we can be the architects of our own selves; that being an uncertain creator was never regrettable. His was the secret of the mime, and if I could I’d thank him — for letting it slowly burn.
My husband and I recently celebrated 15 years of marriage. 15 years! There was a time when I wasn’t even sure I would ever get married. And I bet a lot of people who know me would tell you they were surprised when I settled down. I admit, I had commitment issues. Some of it was my attraction to emotionally unavailable people. But some of it was my own emotional unavailability, which no doubt stemmed from my parent’s divorce.
I was young when my parents’ marriage fell apart, and it was very difficult for me, as it is for most children. It doesn’t matter if your parents tell you they love you and it’s not your fault, etc, etc… You still feel a sense of betrayal and grief. And there will always be a part of you that doubts the existence and/or viability of love. For a long time, I did. The irony is that I was also a hopeless romantic. You can see how that contradiction could cause me so much trouble and heartache.
But this isn’t about my heartache. It’s more about my parents. See, my parents influenced my eclectic taste in music. And they are both romantics at heart, even though they built up hardened exteriors.
So, I have this vague memory of one of them telling me the song “You Were Always on My Mind,” reminded them of the other. I don’t know if this actually happened, or if my young mind played tricks on me. They say memory is unreliable, and I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that I was just grasping for straws of hope, wanting to believe that somehow, someway, my parents would find a way to reconcile and my family would be magically put back together.
There are a few different versions of the song. Elvis Presley’s is no doubt an American favorite. But when I think of my parents, I think of Willie Nelson. I honestly don’t remember if it was my father or my mother who first introduced me to his music, but I fell in love with it. And his version of “You Were Always on My Mind,” cuts to the core every time. There is just something raw and gritty about it. Something about the simplicity of it that allows the emotions to come through. All the pain and heartache and regret and longing. And I can’t help but experience all those emotions myself every time I hear the song.
My parents didn’t reconcile. But I like to think they still have love for each other, somewhere deep in the dark corners of their hearts, that they still think about each other from time to time. It’s the hopeless romantic in me I guess. And what do hopeless romantics do but listen to hopelessly romantic songs?
When I was young, I had this notion that life would turn out to be a party. However dissatisfying Midwestern suburban school life was, all I had to do was wait it out a little bit longer, grow a little older, find a more vibrant place to live, and then, at long last, the good times would roll.
My hopes had been raised by MTV. My childhood was the 80s, when MTV debuted and a song’s video concept became as important as its beats and lyrics. I liked music videos in general, but I had a favorite trope more than any other: the party video. This particular brand of video usually started out with the band or singer playing pied piper to some crowd and always ended up with the band and a motley gang of humanity, of ordinary and not-so-ordinary folks, dancing their way through a neighborhood or taking over an unsuspecting little house or secret nightclub or getting down together without judgment on a rooftop or in an alley. “This is what life should be,” I’d think, watching the videos for “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. My favorite, though, was “Party Train” by The Gap Band.
The Gap Band was a funk-flavored group fronted by the Wilson Brothers: Charlie, Ronnie, and Robert. They were based in Los Angeles but hailed from Tulsa, Oklahoma, which explains the cowboy boots and hats they often sported. Despite their western-style duds, their catalog includes everything from soulful ballads to club bangers. Their biggest hits were long-fuse bass-heavy disco burners like “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Burn Rubber,” and “I Don’t Believe You Wanna Get Up and Dance” (also known as “Oops Upside Your Head”).
“Party Train” was released in 1983. Like The Gap Band’s other dance anthems, it’s pretty irresistible. It starts with a slow choo-choo sound effect that suddenly kicks away to the riff, before slowing down just long enough to get the main lyrics out of the way (all a variation of “Everybody, all aboard”), then speeding up again for three minutes of unstoppable grooving. The song is mainly an excuse for Charlie Wilson to show off his impeccable vocal improv skills and any takers on the dance floor to show off their moves.
In the 80s, music fans were as inclined to ask if you “saw” the latest song by an artist, rather than just “heard” it, such was MTV’s influence. “Party Train” is a song I came to know and love through its video, which delivered what the title promised. The Gap Band pull up at Venice Beach in California in a white convertible with a bunch of cheerleaders and start dancing down the street in their cowboy gear, taking over the whole beach as easily and quickly as a funky bassline takes over a body. A few kids are seen passing out a flyer, inviting literally everyone at the beach to the party. And it’s one of the most inclusive things you ever saw. There’s breakdancers and moonwalkers, Hare Krishnas, snake handlers, senior citizens, grade schoolers, twins, rollerskaters, Hindu festival goers, and a dancing cop. There’s also some annoying ogling of women in bikinis, but the video equalizes it with as many shots of muscle dudes flexing and posing, not to mention Charlie dancing in the surf in a speedo. The video ends with someone checking a box on a ballot, rejecting the usual categories of the Republican and Democratic parties for the “all aboard” Gap Party.
You have to imagine what it was like to be a kid at an overwhelmingly white school coming home on a gray Illinois winter’s day, turning on the TV, and seeing this…this colorful, diverse, irreverent display of people having fun on a sunny beach, dancing and doing their own thing. Who could resist The Gap Band’s mighty groove? Or the dream of a life and a world so fun and funky and free?
The paradox of loving an artist, wanting to keep them to yourself like a polished stone in your pocket and posting a photograph on social media to share with the world is real. Samantha Crain is that rock for me.
I first saw her in 2009, Bend, Oregon at McMenamins Old St. Francis School with her band the Midnight Shivers. I hadn’t heard of her. I was on vacation and she was playing where I was staying. Why not? It was a free show.
The tiny Oklahoma, Choctaw native and winner of 2 NAMMYs (Native American Music Awards) began her set. The hair on my arms waved liked wheat in the wind. I knew I was watching something special. Dumb luck is what I do well.
Spellbound, I had her sign a CD after the show bumbling inanely about how much I loved it and her cover of Beck’s “Lost Cause”. I was an instant fan girl. Since then she has continued to put out solo albums that are lyrically exquisite, layered in self-effacement and humor.
The song “Santa Fe” from her 2010 release You (Understood)is a gorgeous example of what she does. She collaborates with the Michigan band Frontier Ruckus to deliver longing and hard decisions, regret about the life we choose.
I’m struck by the lines: “… And I don’t live my time like I should But they’re killin’ off my childhood Taking all my heroes babe One by one….” Stops me mid-step every time.
She’s an amazing artist. While I want to hold her in my pocket as my secret, I am compelled to shout out to the world, “Look at what I found.”
I used to be patriotic, in that t-shirty, tearing-up-at-the-anthem, wanting-to-execute-flag-burners kind of way, but when I was seventeen I got into Rage Against the Machine and Kurt Vonnegut and eventually grew into a real person. Ain’t saying that’s the only model to follow, just that some people never develop beyond self-parody, and those people are the subject of a wonderful John Prine song called “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
I don’t believe in having heroes, except for John Prine. I wish I could say I grew up worshipping him, but I came up in that New Country phase, Garth Brooks and his ilk. I actually did grow up a Prine fan; I just didn’t know it. One of my favorite songs was “You Never Called Me By My Name,” which was made famous by David Allan Coe, but written by Steve Goodman (who is credited in the song’s lyrics) and John Prine. That song exhibits the characteristics I love about John Prine, the playfulness, the wit, the self-awareness, all on display in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” the seventh track off his first album, John Prine. It gets overshadowed by more well-known songs like “Paradise” and “Angel of Montgomery,” but goddamn it is good. The opening lines, even with the misplaced modifier grammar nerds are about to spot, should be taught in writing classes:
While digesting Reader’s Digest in the back of a dirty bookstore
A plastic flag with gum on the back fell out on the floor
The narrator takes the flag with him and sticks it on his windshield, which by the end of the song is so full up with patriotic displays he can’t see out of it. When he dies in a car crash, the narrator finds himself denied entrance to Heaven because
Your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
We’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reasons for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
Some folks, the folks who approve of blowing people up with our fancy killer skyrobots, would say the lyrics are self-righteousness, but this song is the only anthem worth standing for.
I’m linking to a live version in which Prine says he had retired this song but brought it back in honor of George W. Bush.
Gotta have this song on your dance party playlist! If you like a feel-good tune that starts an instant shimmy, I highly suggest “Come on Now” by The Kinks! It has never failed me whether I have turned it up in someone’s living room after a potluck or when I put it on numerous mixtapes to fill the void exactly where a fun beat should be.
Early Kinks music was one of my favorite to explore when I first started growing my record collection. I was familiar with a lot of their 80s music and some earlier stuff. I had just stepped out of my indie rock comfort zone and sought out more garage rock of the 60s: The Sonics, The Shadows of Knight, The Remains. I was increasingly curious about the beginnings of bands I knew mostly by their hit single(s) or their incarnation in more recent times. Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks were a few bands whose 1960s presence was fascinating and essential in my reverse-order music education.
The overall sound and exciting energy of “Come On Now” is intoxicating. I used to have this vintage dress with mushrooms all over it. This was a party dress and perfect accompaniment to this song and at these Mod/60s/Britpop dance nights I attended with friends.
It amazes me as I write this that the lyrics never stuck. Other than the title lines and “It’s getting late and we better go,” I only knew partial lyrics. Reading those lyrics today I am thinking “What is this song even about?” Either a couple is on the way to or leaving from a party. Either the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek or are meant to rib the girl being told repeatedly to “come on.” I won’t try to analyze but isn’t it interesting how we can love a song and hear it an infinite amount of times and still have no idea what it’s about?
At least dancing around in that mushroom dress left me oblivious, but loving this catchy track so much.
I was sitting in a hostel on the other side of the world when I first listened to this track from Paddy Casey’s 1999 album ‘Amen (So Be It)’. It was a wet summer Down Under. I had run away from the horrors of PTSD brought on by a series of nasty incidents I witnessed working as a police officer in the UK. All the running away did was make me feel more vulnerable. Alone, a foreign country, unresolved trauma: a recipe for disaster.
A line in the song: ‘trying to catch the sun’, tucked in amongst the gentle piano and fractured vocal, echoed around the hostel walls as if it was trying to bring itself to my attention.
There I was, just another backpacker seeking a summer when it was winter back home, kidding myself I was hungry for adventure and long days on the beach with a beer, when really, the warmth of a winter by the fire: at home surrounded by family and friends is all I wanted.
The tracks of my tears were leading me home. This beautiful song which nestles towards the end of the album was the vehicle for the start of the next chapter of my life: one that started with returning home because ‘summer’s dark/took all it can steal’.