Life tends to have days where you get that sinking feeling of not being able to go on. People I know tend to either give themselves time to give into the feeling or somehow be able to draw on some limitless spring of optimism.
Me? I put “This Year” by The Mountain Goats on repeat.
When times are bad, my way of embracing it is giving myself a moment to get the bad stuff out of my system. I complain or feel bad for myself for a moment, then I get up and get going. This song is the perfect soundtrack to this. The refrain of “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” is uplifting to me. Belting it out is freeing, acknowledging how difficult a climb it’s going to be, but knowing that you will try anyway.
It is also in a time like this that I turn to this song for comfort. Between all the lockdowns, quarantines, financial worries and all the other things to feel down about, we still have to live. Life has to go on in some form or another.
I choose to be hopeful, even though the days feel like they can stretch on forever. We will make it. We will get through this. Together.
I love this song. Stephen Colbert does too. I hope you’ll find joy listening to it too.
“My broken house behind me, only good things ahead.”
Today, in a massive self-own, I downloaded my archived online diary, est. 2003. It was of course a huge, embarrassing mistake, but I did notice an entry from thirteen years ago: “Fucking Piebald fucking broke fucking up!” Some of the teenage melodrama I was writing about then — even though I can still easily conjure up that raw feeling, that daily heartbreak — was silly and unwarranted. But your favorite band breaking up? Man, it’s like a death.
Piebald grew out of the Massachusetts hardcore/emo scene in the ’90s, but to categorize them now seems impossible and maybe irrelevant. They’re less aligned with a sound and more with a feeling, their live show like a nostalgic party. To see them live is to witness joy, both within yourself, as well as what’s radiating from the band, from dudes playing for the love of playing. Piebald should’ve been bigger, but they’ve retained this heart, this thing that when you’re a fan, makes them feel like they’re yours, makes you feel included, like you’re part of it. They’re the band I’ve seen live the most, the band that defined my high school and college years, and the band that means the most to me.
Choosing a song here was difficult; do I go with something seminal like “Grace Kelly with Wings” or “American Hearts,” or do I pick one of my favorites like “Giddy Like a Schoolgirl” or “Holden Caulfield”? Ultimately, “King of the Road” has everything that makes a great Piebald song (but check out those others, too). It’s got witty lyrics, it rocks incredibly hard, and it gets a big response live. It’s about an ending, too: the death of their tour bus. In the last quarter or so of the song, Travis Shettel sings, “Now, it’s all the same.” And in ’07, when I read on Myspace that they’d ended things, I felt that. I felt like I had to grow up, get a boring job, change in some way. If a band that had warned of the dangers of getting a 9–5 and losing your soul in the process was quitting making meaningful art, what chance did I have of avoiding the drudgery of boring adulthood?
Turns out that you can always turn back to what you love, to the creative outlets that define you. Piebald did — they’re releasing new stuff, touring, back at it again. And I can, too, just by listening.
In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson had Sylvie and Ruthie drift in a boat on the lake harmonizing “Goodnight, Irene” — a song like a lullaby of enduring innocence. The characters were depicted in a time not far from Lead Belly yet worlds away: in pine-filled Idaho and not humid Louisiana; in a surface-water world and not in the deep Bayou. A world more like the one I grew up in, sometimes with my dad and sometimes without.
I guess you’re in my dreams
When I was in high school, my mom and her husband moved the family to Blues-infused Fargo, and, in college, it shook me. I had lost track of my dad for awhile and it was a weighty mystery. Not all songs struck a chord to acknowledge that weight. One night, a local musician sang of Irene as if life really were fragile. Guitar echoes filled the bar, the light tilted blue, and taking morphine was a far-off thing; nothing more than an ugly fiction. Walking among bare trees along the Red River in winter was cold on the skin but warm on the belly — similar to the shiver from hearing the woeful song in a dark bar with vodka coursing through my blood.
Sometimes I live in the country / Sometimes I live in town
All my life, I listened to my dad talk about places he traveled and musicians he liked as he sang out samples of their songs. They were often obscure to me — songs from his coming of age in the 50s and 60s. He’d share his internal monologue that was also part amateur opera or community theater. Musicians like the Everly Brothers I knew; Jim Lowe not at all. He could mimic Elvis like nobody’s business. Blues songs never came up.
Stay there by the fireside bright
His songs should have been comforting to him in hospice care, but the iPad they lent him at the VA was too locked down, too set in its ways. Like him. So it didn’t work. However, he mentioned “Goodnight Irene” on one of my visits, and I pulled out my phone and, fumbling, came across a video of Lead Belly singing. Knowing where the song would go, I still somehow managed to sit with him, calmly, singing along with him in raspy voices of our own.
I love her till the sea runs dry
The song rang true. He was taking morphine. He was dying. He had lost love and gained love. Yet we spoke only of the musician and listened to his early, crinkling recording. We were caught on the edge of a gloomy dusk, knowing the sun would still come up without us. He didn’t have much to say to me as he turned toward his ending, but we shared that song; we shared that time. I know where I can find him. Goodnight, Pops, we’ll meet in our dreams.
I’m drawn to songs that feel like emotional glimpses into another place, songs that I can envision an entire universe inside of, if even for a couple of minutes. “Describe,” the lead single from Perfume Genius’ upcoming Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is certainly one. From the onset, the song hits the listener in the face with layers of sunny, twanging guitars. As Mike Hadreas’ dream-like crooning enters, the listener is treated to a hazy description of a place out of time. The song ends with two minutes of ethereal, ambient electronic droning as Hadreas whispers beneath. It’s beautiful.
Maybe I can describe it for you.
No bells anymore.
The rental car thermometer registers in the mid-90s as my partner and I drive through the American southwest. We are both native to the humid forests of Ohio, and so the dry desert air, the absence of trees, the way the strange clouds race one another across the saturated sky, the mountains kissing the middle of the troposphere in the distance, the flatness for miles on either side of an endless highway are all so unfamiliar to us as to feel otherworldly.
The lock on the door is barely holding.
The little rental meanders ever closer to the foot of what was once an ancient volcano. The wheels splash red water onto signs warning of mountainous terrain ahead. I cover my eyes with a scarf as my partner maneuvers up steep ascents, around sharp, guardrail-less turns.
An echo in the canyon.
We make it to the cabin at the summit, just as the sun hides behind the edge of the neighboring mesa in front of us. We crack open celebratory cans in the gloaming and observe that the sound booms in this place so quiet, echoes through the canyon below like a stone skipped across the river we grew up on the banks of.
I hold my jacket closed in the sudden chill as my partner and I both turn our heads to the sky — only to see a fireball meteor softly surf the edge of the mesa, hear its flame fizzle out. Mouths agape in awe, we spend the next hour craning our heads to the heavens as meteors dance across the Milky Way.
Only history, non-narrative film, and non-fiction appealed to my sociologist-statistician father. Enticing him to read a novel or watch a movie that wasn’t a documentary was a fool’s errand. Now and then he would oblige, but the dour criticism that followed was always the price of admission.
When I was in high school, I asked my dad about Casablanca over breakfast one morning. I’d never seen it but I’d heard its signature song, “As Time Goes By” on the soundtrack to the 1993 film Sleepless In Seattle. My father surprised me with his response: a broad smile and an offer to watch Casablanca together. Perhaps it was the World War II-driven plot, or maybe my dad just had the hots for Ingrid Bergman — I’ll never know. But we did watch it one evening in our living room, and I’ll never forget the contented smile that appeared on his face at the very end of the movie when Rick says to Captain Renault, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Back then, I gravitated to the love story of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, but the piano player, Sam (played by Arthur “Dooley” Wilson), also delighted me. Hearing the oft-misquoted line, “Play it, Sam,” spoken in context for the first time was exhilarating. And then there was the song itself, the “it” that Sam is admonished to play by Ilsa soon after she arrives at Rick’s Cafe Americain: “As Time Goes By.” Originally composed by Herman Hupfeld for a 1931 Broadway musical called Everybody’s Welcome, it gained new traction in the early 1940s when it was used in Casablanca. Just about every well-known singer has recorded it, but my favorite rendition is still Wilson’s — full of subtle tenderness and warmth.
My father is 91 years old now and his health is failing. Dementia has begun to erase his memories and aphasia has robbed him of the ability to speak coherently, but he is more loving now than he ever was when I was young. For me, the past year has been a wild ride of pain, anger, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I don’t know how much time he has left, but I hope we can watch Casablanca together one more time.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by
The music in Soccer Mommy’s “Circle the Drain” sounds warm and bright while Allison Sophie sings about spiraling down into darkness. The sonic and lyrical tones of this song are conflicting and it creates a very unique feeling that is hard to describe. Imagine driving down the road with the windows down and listening to Sheryl Crow’s “Soak up the Sun” while crying uncontrollably. That may be a bit dramatic, but that’s how I’d describe the vibe of this song.
“Things feel that low sometimes
Even when everything is fine”
The song brings me back to a time a few years ago when I was depressed for an entire summer. It didn’t matter if I was at home in bed or walking on the beach with my family, I had this sinking ache in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away. It felt embarrassing and selfish to be so down when my friends and family were trying to cheer me up.
Allison captures the kind of frustration I felt with these lines:
I’m trying to seem strong for my love
For my family and friends
But I’m so tired of faking
’Cause I’m chained to my bed when they’re gone
Watching TV alone
Until my body starts aching
The contradictory tone of “Circle The Drain” is what makes it a good song to me. It doesn’t make sense that there can be a “happy-sad” feeling but it is something that many of us experience. It is a feeling that is almost impossible to describe with words, but it is one that this song captures perfectly.
I mistook her for my RA when we met. Bri is self-assured, mature, has always known more about the world. She’s the friend you go to when you need to know how to interpret news on global epidemics, presidential impeachments and primaries.
For many of the years we’ve known each other, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” has scored our hangouts. It might’ve started junior year, when half our friend group was studying abroad and we needed extra pep, when we wanted to flaunt dance moves with fancy footwork and swinging hips for snowed-in pregames in Maine. It might’ve started senior year. Over the summer we worked on campus, Bri used extra cash to make her room the hangout spot–a new mini-fridge, on her wall a tapestry of a forest at dawn. We’d play Mario Kart on her bed, that party lasting all night instead of the ones we could’ve gone to elsewhere on campus.
Petty’s jam is suited to tailgates, pregames, and belting on road trips (it surprised us when we heard Catherine Baker belt it behind the wheel in Silence of the Lambs). We lived together in Maine for two years, and Bri would ask me to queue it up during nights in, which led to us listening to Estelle’s “American Boy” more often because I’m dense. We’d pick through YouTube for recordings with high quality sound, ending up on a slideshow of various American girls. It always felt half-fitting because actresses like Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford figure in, and Bri is a film buff.
Now I’m in North Carolina. She visits me, gets sick, and we spend her visit watching Shrill on the couch and air mattress in my apartment. Only one night do we go out to play pool with my new friends. The bar has cracked cement floors, a poster for Sid and Nancy, skee ball, PBR, a photo booth. They don’t have Tom Petty on the jukebox, but the song would be perfect for a place like this.
I don’t remember how Jake and I got on the topic of Siouxsie and the Banshees one night hanging out at my digs on the east side of Manhattan in 2017. I knew that he had had some exposure to Siouxsie Sioux through the show Hannibal, which he’d introduced me to, because she composed the song “Love Crime” for the finale. Still, I’m not sure what ultimately prompted me to ask Jake if he’d liked or heard of Siouxsie and the Banshees, but his answer was “no.”
Jake and I have known each other since high school. Our families live literally a block away from each other. We didn’t really become tight friends until reconnecting in our twenties through Ben, a mutual friend from high school. I got into Siouxsie and the Banshees in 2016, when I started getting into The Clash, punk, and new wave. The combination of her gothic style, theatrical performances, and outrageous showmanship did it for me. I was still very much into her by the time I asked Jake about her.
I don’t know why out of all her songs I chose “Kiss Them for Me” for Jake’s introduction to Siouxsie and the Banshees. Though in time, Jake and I would listen to many Siouxsie songs, like “Dazzle,” “Hong Kong Garden,” “Spellbound,” “Dear Prudence,” and “The Passenger,” it was “Kiss Them For Me” that we heard first. To the sound of a tabla banging and Siouxsie singing baroquely, Jake seemed skeptical if not outright confused by the song selection. He looked like he had never heard anything quite like Siouxsie and the Banshees before that moment and wasn’t quite prepared for her sound as a result. “This is how I would imagine people reacted to rock n roll back in the day,” Jake later said.
Soon, his look started to change. His eyes began to light up and he started to smile. He was starting to get behind Siouxsie and the Banshees. Jake said, “I feel like I’m at an Indian wedding on acid.”
That day, I watched as my friend became a believer in Siouxsie. Years later, in 2019, walking around the lower east side, I spotted a totally rad Siouxsie Sioux shirt. I texted Jake a photo of the shirt, and he replied, “kiss it for me.” I did one better than that. I bought it.
The music video for Steve Gunn’s “Vagabond” opens with the sound of a guitar case being opened, a very apt visual and audio cue for the song, a transformative folk psych narrative on wandering, wondering, and wanderers. Gunn took inspiration for“Vagabond” from the great Agnes Varda’s film by the same title. The Unseen In Between, (the record that “Vagabond is taken from) was released in January of last year, a week before my birthday, a month or so after getting married and a few weeks into moving back to Southern California after years of living in Brooklyn. It was an interesting and difficult time. I was just getting my footing, I remember having to send in a piece of paper to the county department that said, “I, Alexandra Martinez, declare under penalty of perjury that I am unemployed and have no source of income,” — a small humiliation to endure to get enough money to feed my husband and I.
During this time, and the months after, “Vagabond” was a constant both in my mind and headphones. Gunn’s songs are so good at coming across as a simple song you’ve probably heard a million times before, but if you pay attention to the in betweens you hear the poeticness of it all. Even now, a little over a year later, and in a much better place than when I first heard “Vagabond” I still find refuge in how it layers simple guitar picking with a more psychedelic guitar while Gunn and Meg Baird’s vocals share space to tell the story of a woman vagabond. I moved back to California mostly out of homesickness but also out of necessity. My mother is ill and needs me. I’m able to live my life, but knowing there is someone depending on me on a daily basis has definitely forced me to change, and to make a lot of future decisions based on this. “Vagabond” is a reminder to make time for myself, and the creative pursuits I was able to do with more ease when I was still more of a vagabond — to “keep a hold on to [my] strangeness” and “move along.”