Back in 2017, I spent the year trawling the internet for interesting cover versions of the Jimmy Webb composition “Wichita Lineman.” Here’s a list of the versions I listened to and my notes on what I learned listening to them.
JANUARY–STONE TEMPLE PILOTS, FEATURING GLEN CAMPBELL
I loved the way that last year’s batch of covers of “I’m Waiting for the Man” turned out, but I couldn’t really imagine dragging the series on indefinitely, focused on just that song. (I was already starting to have trouble scraping together additional interesting cover versions each month.) So I figured why not just pivot to a new song for the new year. And after my boyfriend sat down with his guitar to start learning “Wichita Lineman” for an event at his school, I knew I’d found the perfect next song.
Because–it is indeed a perfect song. Perfectly, perfectly composed by the great Jimmy Webb and given its highest expression by the incomparable Glen Campbell. (I sort of ruefully chuckled after the clock ticked over to 2017 that, despite his Alzheimer’s, at least the celebrity deathsweep of 2016 left Glen Campbell behind.) His definitive version from his 1968 album of the same name is one of a handful of songs that will reliably bring me to tears nearly any time I hear it. So, let’s just get that out of the way now–no one will ever surpass it. Which, I think, is why doing a covers series around this song might be kind of fun. Like, if you know you’ll never record a better version than the one that already exists, what do you do with it? Let’s find out.
That being said, I’m going to cheat a little bit on this first one.
Yes, it’s Glen Campbell on vocals and his signature baritone guitar. But, he’s being backed by the Stone Temple Pilots (sans Scott Weiland). Just like I loved White Denim for having the balls to tackle Steely Dan’s “Peg,” I love that STP not only covered “Wichita Lineman” but covered it with the maestro himself singing lead (and, clearly, as the video shows, putting them through their paces musically). They do a lovely, restrained, refined, respectful take on it that’s all the more impressive for feeling genuinely laid back. As I’ve argued about them a couple times before, in considering what kind of hole Scott Weiland left in rock music, and in that band specifically, the DeLeos (and their cohorts) are clearly at the mercy, not necessarily in a bad way, of the quality of their frontmen. Here, they’re working, if only for a moment, with the best of the best, and it shows.
FEBRUARY–SAMMY DAVIS JR.
As I documented a few years ago, I became obsessed with the Sammy Davis Jr. live concert album The Sounds of ’66 after Brian brought home a copy of the CD and pressed it into my hands. I’d never thought much about Davis one way or another (well, despite being horrified after watching the original Ocean’s Eleven a number of years ago that they made him drive a fucking garbage truck while the rest of the guys were cavorting in the casino). But after living with that album for a while, I completely fell in love, convinced that he was indeed one of the greatest entertainers of all time. And I was of course delighted to discover that he’d covered “Wichita Lineman.”
His proper album recording appears on 1970’s Something for Everyone, and I found two different pieces of footage of him performing it–one on Dean Martin’s show and one on his own show, Sammy and Company. The Dean Martin Show version is maybe a little cheesy; it’s just Davis performing solo with a mic and a tambourine to a canned track. To my eyes, he fares much better on his own show when, like on The Sounds of ’66, he can lean into the support of a full backing band.
Unlike when Glen Campbell sings “Wichita Lineman” with his illusion of plainspoken subtlety (which is of course devilishly hard to actually pull off), Davis goes in the opposite direction. His delivery is HUGE, all characteristic razzle dazzle, with only a loose fidelity to the lyrics and melody. Which, I think, is a brilliant way to honor the song, by not being at all precious about it.
Contemporary covers of “Wichita Lineman” (which I’ll of course write more about below) tend to be overly reverent, similar to the gaggle of painfully earnest covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that were proliferating for a while there in the late ’90s/early 2000s. But Davis, as the consummate showman, knows that he’s the attraction here, that the song, no matter how masterfully composed, is supporting him. Which allows different, often unnoticed aspects of the song’s brilliance to be brought to the fore–like a certain funkiness in the signature instrumental riff, the bigness of that soaring melody line, and a twist in some of the phrasing that actually turns the song from melancholic and wistful to full of pride.
I mean, yes, obviously, it’s bombastic and over the top, but that’s what makes it so awesome–having the confidence to not only go all out, but having the chops (and then some) to make it cook.
Keith Urban seems like he’s having more fun being Keith Urban than should be strictly legal. I’ve always thought he’s just a straight-up terrific guitar player, and I confess I even have a soft spot for his cologne, “Phoenix.”
In this live cover of “Wichita Lineman,” he starts off perilously close to frat-boy singalong territory, but then quickly elevates it with a combination of his fleet strumming patterns, his winningly earnest singing, and the fact that he does a measure or two of Glen Campbell’s baritone guitar solo in a funny little bit of neener-neener vocalizing (which even cracks him up).
A couple years ago, my boyfriend and I were going through a box of my dad’s old 45s, and we came across Jose Feliciano’s absolutely incredible version of “Light My Fire.” My dad, evidently a pretty big fan, had also been known to play Feliciano’s album Steppin’ Out around the house and in the car in the early ’90s, so I have lots of fond memories of his music. So, I was naturally delighted to come across his instrumental cover of “Wichita Lineman” (even though I wish he’d sung on it as well–I would have loved to hear his soaring tenor hit that “still on the liiiiiine…!”).
Having grown up playing piano, I think I’ll always consider the guitar somewhat magical, and Feliciano is nothing short of a wizard. His dexterity and fluidity with the instrument makes it seem like he can pull more music out of those six strings than should be physically possible, especially given that it’s all acoustic, without the benefit of amps or effects pedals or anything like that. I love the gentle, flamenco-style introduction, but it’s his run getting into the solo around 1:36 that really makes my heart leap out of my chest. Casually rendered mastery at its smoothest.
Rita Wilson is apparently living my dream life.* (*Please note, however, that being married to Tom Hanks does not constitute any part of anything I ever dream about.) Not only is she a successful actress and producer, she also released an album called AM/FM in 2012 that’s full of super groovy and singable stuff like “Never My Love” and “Cherish” (someone’s a fan of the Association) and, yes, “Wichita Lineman.”
I totally understand the temptation to do an incredibly reverent version of this song. It just feels at this point like a secular American hymn. But the plinky piano and drippy strings on her recording unfortunately sound like they were flown in from a late-’80s Narada recording session. Her vocals are the saving grace here, though; they are, for the most part, simple and heartfelt. The one thing I do especially love about her take is that she sings the first line without alteration–“I am a lineman for the county”–rather than trying to fidget around with “I am a linewoman” or some equally unnecessary gender pivot.
JUNE–SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS
One of the sort of implicit concerns I’ve been curious about examining with this covers series is the question of identity. The identity of a song, the identity of a band or singer. How do they interact? Does one dominate the other? When and how does the hallmark of an identity become a blessing, or a curse, to any given performance? To whom does it matter, and why?
The Scud Mountain Boys’ cover of “Wichita Lineman” is a case where the identity of the song itself wins out, but in a way that just seems genuinely humble without being overly reverent.
I think it would be easy to listen to a group of guys playing ultra low-key like this and gripe that they’re not really “doing” anything. Especially given that, like, who even knows who the Scud Mountain Boys are? Isn’t the goal of a band to announce, as loudly and specifically as possible, “here I am! Here is how I am different from all the other bands!”? (Ahem, the Scuds are referenced most often these days in discussions of Joe Pernice’s career as a singer and songwriter, which is a polite way of saying that unless you were frequenting the club circuit in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early to mid ’90s, there’s little chance you’ve probably heard of or cared about them. And yes, I myself only know about them via being a fan of The Pernice Brothers’ album Overcome By Happiness.) I mean, I’m the kind of person who raves about the “labyrinthine complexity” of King Crimson, so, like, I totally admit to having a tendency to privilege flash and pizzazz, to crave the unmistakable.
But really, there’s no reason for this particular version of this particular song to be anything fancy. The Scuds were smart enough to realize here that they could best serve the piece not by trying to reinvent it, but just by presenting it, which takes a certain level of confidence and maturity that not every musician or band has. It’s a risk, but, to my ears, it paid off.
JULY–THE TERRY FELUS TRIO
In continuing to reflect deeply on my dad’s musicianship, I figured this would be the perfect time to bust out his cover of “Wichita Lineman” (which is the second song in a Glen Campbell medley, after “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”).
Personnel-wise, I’m fairly certain that this is not actually the version of the Terry Felus Trio that I grew up with. It’s my dad on Cordovox, I can tell that much, but I have no idea who the singer or drummer are. Throughout my childhood, the drummer and primary vocalist for the group was Don Graves, and though it might be him on drums, it’s definitely not his voice. (For reference, check out Donny’s incredible tenor on their version of the great Bee Gees tune “How Deep Is Your Love?” recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1982.) Whoever it is, though, does a great, simple but soulful take on it. The thing that really cracks me up here, though, is my dad’s immediately identifiable playing style. He would only have been 24 at the time this was recorded, but those jazzy chord stabs and the mini glissandos would remain a consistent part of his instrumental voice for the rest of his life.
And though as the years went on he played the Cordovox less and less, moving on to regular piano/keyboards and even just regular accordion, that sound will always be synonymous with Terry Felus to me. About ten years ago, I was in Boston for a friend’s wedding, and the day before the ceremony, I had dinner at a raw food restaurant with another friend in the North End neighborhood of the city, where the rowdy Saint Anthony’s Feast street festival was in full swing. As we dodged drunken revelers in the narrow streets, snaking our way through the festivities to get to the restaurant in time for our reservation, we happened to walk past a small stage where someone was actually playing a Cordovox. I hadn’t heard one in years at that point, and tears instantly sprang to my eyes. The sound of the thing was so familiar and so specific, and I was so grateful to be reminded of how singularly my dad utilized it in his work for so many of my, and his, formative years. You’ll hear it in full flower on “Wichita Lineman” here, in all its perfect, loungy goofiness and beauty.
I often get flummoxed when I hear people talk about, say, redecorating their house, and they insist that, because the blue paint they picked for the walls dried exactly two shades darker than they were expecting, the whole job is now ruined. I’m always like, “wow, where does that level of specificity come from and why does it matter?” Until, of course, I remember that my own similarly microscopic gradations of taste manifest themselves musically rather than visually. Like, I love dance music…but only when it has enough bass. New Wave and Synth Britannia stuff? No thanks! Brian will often playfully test my taste-o-meter in this genre, pulling up early ’80s English pop obscurities on YouTube until I realize what he’s doing and will start shouting, “ugh, no! It’s too bleepy bloopy!!” Similarly, I have very specific rules about the kind of reggae that I prefer to listen to–late-career Bob Marley is out (too preachy and weirdly stiff); early Bob Marley is awesome (Catch a Fire, yessss); but the totally demented King Tubby dub stuff is the very best of all (“Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber,” anyone??).
I’m not sure what flavor of reggae I was expecting when I found a recording of Dennis Brown singing “Wichita Lineman,” but I was pleasantly surprised to find how low-key and straight-ahead it is (at least until the solo; more on which momentarily).
Dennis Brown’s name is likely best known to most of us hipsters of a certain age as the nominal subject of the Mountain Goats’ “Song for Dennis Brown” from The Sunset Tree. But he’s also a straight-up musical hero in Jamaica. No less than Bob Marley said that Brown was his favorite singer, and it’s easy to hear why. His pipes are smoother than smooth, with a seemingly effortless panache. And if the dates I’m seeing online are accurate, he only would have been about 15 when he recorded this. (!!)
The tempo here is gloriously relaxed; if the song’s narrator is still on the line, he may end up being here for quite some time to come, so what’s the rush? The tempo, combined with the absurdly charismatic vocal, really pulls the song out of the realm of existential inquiry and reconfigures it as something more like a love song. Perhaps a love song to music itself? As the pop culture writer Matthew Perpetua once said about Huey Lewis, “If any other band in the world was playing this song it might make you cry, but Huey Lewis simply cannot sing without smiling. HE LOVES SINGING SO MUCH!!!!!” And it’s pretty much the same thing here. The song itself can be such a heartbreaker, but there’s nothing but joy in this particular vocal take.
And then there’s the guitar solo in the middle, where I suddenly remembered, oh yeah, these reggae guys were making all these crazy, inventive sounds with the most basic studio set-ups. I asked Brian what kind of effects pedal they would have been using to get a sound like that, and his response was basically “I have no idea.” Not because it’s necessarily complicated–today it would be easy to use a wah-wah to get that effect and call it a day. But in the very early ’70s, it would have been something unwieldy like an Echoplex, or some kind of panning effect in the mixing board itself. However it was generated, it’s pure ear candy, something fun and slightly off-kilter for no other reason but sheer delight. Glorious stuff.
SEPTEMBER–GUNS N’ ROSES
I know I haven’t written anything yet about Glen Campbell’s death, and I really think it’s because I kinda just can’t. I can’t wrap my head around how to process the enormity of his musical legacy, which is different than even the kind of cultural legacy left by, say, Bowie or Prince. But I love that apparently no such processing was necessary for Guns N’ Roses to cover “Wichita Lineman” as a tribute to Campbell at their August 30 show in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The fact that it’s not a particularly “good” or skillful cover, combined with the fact that they were sort of actively willing to alienate most of their audience, who most assuredly were not Glen Campbell fans (in the original footage of this I saw right after it was posted on YouTube, there was a woman who screamed, around the 1:55 mark, “I have no idea what this song is!”), to me, just means that they were really, sincerely committed to playing this song. I love that! It’s so pure.
Axl totally rushes through the first few lines of the verse, almost crashing and burning before the song had a chance to get into a groove. And even once they do manage to lock in, it all still seems incredibly tentative, like a group of middle school students who are just learning to play their instruments and are nervously stumbling through their debut performance at the talent show to the general indifference of the audience.
They are, though, of course, actually really good musicians, so Slash’s acoustic guitar flourishes kind of pull the whole thing together, as does the drummer when he really lays into the beat toward the end. And, how can you not love that big grin and shrug that Slash gives right after the final note rings out? I’ve made that exact same face on stage so many times over the years, that “maybe we pulled it off? Who knows?!” gesture of giving it your best shot, knowing it might have been a little shaky, but also knowing what’s done is done, no take-backs, and thank god it’s over.
“For Glen,” Axl says solemnly at the end. The sweet, plainspoken, vulnerable earnestness of it is actually in perfect keeping with the song’s spirit of dignified melancholy.
Sure, I saw them live once back in 2004, and Automatic for the People will always be a perfect album to listen to on a long drive in grey, cloudy weather, but I’ve never actually been the biggest fan of REM. I actually find them pretty boring most of the time! So I was all set to bag on their cover of “Wichita Lineman.”
Especially since they manage, somehow, to not play Jimmy Webb’s beautiful chord progressions accurately in a few key parts. But I couldn’t bring myself to be too hard on them, given that the recording is from ’94, when Michael Stipe was at the full height of his powers vocally. Ignore what the rest of the band is doing (OK, maybe give a little love to the nice and easy beat that Bill Berry lays down for it) and take a few moments to bask in Stipe’s weird, serpentine charisma and earnest, plaintive voice. That’s one of the main things I’ve discovered over the course of this year that makes the biggest difference to a successful cover of this song–the quality of the vocal. And of course that’s not always just about having a “good” voice. It’s more being willing to sing the song honestly and with a modicum of vulnerability. That was, like, Stipe’s whole deal, especially in that era of his career, which makes this a more than fine version of the song, despite the rest of its flaws.
For extra credit, compare it to Stipe’s performance of “Wichita Lineman” on New Year’s Eve 2011, sitting in at one of Patti Smith’s solo shows in New York City. The band is much stronger (and know how to actually play the damn song), but Stipe, without his youthful live-wire edge, slides into a technically proficient but much more emotionally distant, even smug, take on the melody. It’s actually the disappointment of this performance, despite the fact that it’s overall much smoother, that convinced me of the merits of the take from ’94.
This recording of Cassandra Wilson singing “Wichita Lineman” from her album Belly of the Sun was one of the first I found when I started researching different versions of this song.
First and foremost, my god, what a divine voice. There’s pleasure to be found in all kinds of different vocal styles, to be sure, but every once in a while, it just feels really good to let your ears be graced by the talents of someone with an exceptional command of their instrument. And that’s really the main selling point of this version, her utterly gorgeous deep alto range and subtly masterful phrasing and delivery. (Get your earbuds out if you wanna hear the smallest, loveliest intake of breath at about minute 2:59.)
The shimmery arrangement is pleasant enough (I nerded out a bit when I connected a few dots to discover that the guitarist, Marvin Sewell, has occasionally collaborated with one of my favorite drummers, Brian Blade). And I can kind of understand why she would do one of those jazz pivots where you change the shes to hes, although rewriting one of the most iconic first-lines-of-a-song in popular music history (to “my man’s a lineman for the county”) creates just enough of a speed bump that the song doesn’t 100% recover from the dissonance between your expectation and what you actually hear.
I very much wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for the change; I tried to hear it from a feminist/Shakespeare’s sister perspective, like, well, what does the character of this woman have to say about the guy who’s been out searching in the sun for another overload?? But, the lyric change alone doesn’t automatically turn it into a proper response song; it just kind of repeats everything the guy character already wants for himself in her voice. Which is…fine, it’s fine to love someone and want for them what they want for themselves. But then…why not just sing the lyric as written? Brian and I laugh a lot about lyrics where some rock dude is wailin’ about how he’s been working out at the docks or whatever, and we’re like, “sir, you’ve never worked the docks a day in your life.” Which is to say, suspension of disbelief is already such a big part of what it means to be a performer, and I sincerely don’t think at this point anyone is going to be confused to hear a woman singing the words “I am a lineman for the county.”
DECEMBER–THE FELUS CREMINS BAND
The primary lesson I took away from listening to and thinking through this year’s worth of covers of “Wichita Lineman” is that the best way to tackle this song is with ruthless honesty. And I don’t necessarily mean to equate honesty with simplicity; I think Sammy Davis Jr.’s bombastic take is just as honest as Dennis Brown’s reggae smoothness, which is just as honest as the Scud Mountain Boys’ stripped-down approach. The best versions let the best of an artist’s truth shine through.
After how much fun Brian and I had at the end of 2016 recording our take on “I’m Waiting for the Man,” I knew I definitely wanted to close out this year with our own cover of “Wichita Lineman.” And of course, I came down with a terrible cold in late December, so all my convictions about honesty being the best approach were going to be put to the test, given that my voice is not in the best shape its ever been in. But hopefully the depth of our affection for this song comes through loud and clear.
I lived in Indiana for the first 23 years of my life and have only ever lived in Chicago subsequently, so even though I have an internal conceptualization of myself as extremely worldly and sophisticated, let’s face it, I’m about as Midwestern as they come.
In my first couple years in Chicago, I lived with roommates who originally came from Philadelphia and Ithaca, but I don’t think I’d ever met anyone as thoroughly “East Coast” as Brian until he and I started playing music together. He grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the way I always describe my impression of his extreme East Coastness is that I never really felt like I truly got the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.
But it’s not just the seedy, bitchy, casually brilliant aspects of that tri-state area that I came to know better through him; it’s the smallness too. The way that closely guarded generational memory is such a real and present driving force in people’s everyday lives. The way that loyalties and clan kinships form ley lines that define and delimit people’s understanding of themselves. And of course the hauntings too—the unspeakable grief that lurks in the shadows and saturates the landscape. I find it all terribly fascinating, a welcome counterpoint to the bright, open Midwestern obviousness that I grew up with (which manifests even in the Heartland’s own attempts at familial machinations and backstabbing).
I’ve always been very up front about the fact that I have an enormous black hole where my familiarity with the music of the ’90s should be. I was a musical theater nerd as a teenager and basically couldn’t stand much of anything that came out of the Seattle scene, finding it too noisy and abrasive and petulant in a way that didn’t resonate with my own defense mechanism of insistent cheeriness. At the time, I just thought current popular music was not, y’know, for me, the end.
Once I started working at the student-run radio station at Indiana University as an undergraduate, my eventual tip-toe into pop and rock music was still qualified by a preference for Broadway-esque “big” arrangements and “clever” lyrics. Ben Folds Five and the Divine Comedy were in heavy rotation during my shifts and on my own dorm-room stereo. But while working the 4-6 am shift my first semester on the air, I stumbled across the Pernice Brothers’ debut album Overcome by Happiness. It’s one of the first albums that I remember feeling cool and smart for knowing about, not that anyone had asked or cared.
Around the same time that I was discovering this album, Brian was playing guitar and singing in a three-piece band while he was in grad school at the University of Connecticut. They’d actually played a bunch of the same clubs as Joe Pernice’s previous group the Scud Mountain Boys, but it turns out Brian didn’t know Overcome by Happiness at all. I tend to assume that his knowledge of the music of the mid to late ’90s will necessarily be much broader than my own, but he’d somehow conflated the Pernice Brothers with Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers (!) and written them off entirely as not his cup of tea.
As we inevitably bonded over the music we loved in common, we also rushed to fill each other’s blind spots. I gave him Jason Falkner and the Clientele; he gave me Chris Whitley and Mink DeVille. But somehow when I gave him Overcome by Happiness and he gave me Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band, it felt more significant. I was introducing him to an album that had originated in his homeland; he’d even spent time recording at Mike Deming’s Studio .45, where both Overcome by Happiness and Eccsame had been made. Since I had introduced him to an album that had originated in his homeland, I felt like it cemented some kind of karmic inevitability in our own friendship.
I remember listening to Eccsame the Photon Band on my headphones one night walking home from my neighborhood El stop and feeling uncannily like I was somehow listening to shadow transmissions of my own band. The Lilys’ inky black bass lines and thoughtful, whispery vocals are specific to the ’90s, yes, but I can also now hear how very specifically Connecticut they are. They added new context to Brian’s own songwriting sensibility for me. The cavernous drum sounds and dissonant chords that he prefers, coming from this slightly different angle, helped me hear his own past even more clearly than his old band’s recordings did in some ways. I felt almost projected into the past, like I was recalling a false memory of having known him decades before we ever would have had reason to cross paths.
And beyond the glitchy déjà vu, there was a sense of mourning there for me as well. I can imagine how incredibly perfect “Overlit Canyon (The Obscured Wingtip Memoir)” or “Radiotricity” would have sounded swelling from the speakers of my car stereo as I drove late at night down the flat, dark back roads of rural Indiana in my own teen years. If I’d heard these songs then, would they have been welcome medicine, a tether to the reality of that era that I otherwise felt desperate to escape? Or would I have been too stubbornly entrenched in my own taste to enjoy them?
As a Buddhist and a clairvoyant, I make an effort to sit for a few minutes each day in silent meditation. The meditation helps me quell, a bit, my obsession with time. I’m impatient and ravenous for experience and sensation and gratification. I want to know the world, and I want to know my place in it right now. The summer I graduated from college, I made a comically mournful list in my journal of all the things I had to accept that I’d never be and never do. I’d never be a skilled athlete, I’d never be a ballerina, I’d never be a world-famous musical prodigy that released an immaculately wrought debut chamber pop album at the age of 22. Did I actually want those things or was I more bothered by the fact that I didn’t feel I’d been presented the opportunity to choose and/or discard them at my own convenience?
I have to catch myself from feeling this way about smaller things in my life even now—and that includes something as trivial as wishing I’d somehow known Eccsame the Photon Band closer to when it had originally been released. In accepting my present-time experience of this album, I allow myself to find gratitude for its delayed appearance in my life. Sure, maybe it would have sounded great in my car when I was a teenager, but it definitely sounds great on my iPhone in my 30s. Mostly because, here and now, I have a fuller context to appreciate what it means to receive it from someone I love deeply, a grace that allows me the patience to open a window onto his experience of it, rather than being so locally fixated on my own.
This essay originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of the now sadly defunct Maura Magazine and was meant to be read in tandem with Brian Cremins’s essay on the Pernice Brothers’ Overcome by Happiness. It has been lightly re-edited.
January is secretly my favorite time for listening to music.
I mean, I’m exaggerating a bit. I’m always listening to music, and there’s no bad time to listen to music, ever.
But over the past thirteen years that I’ve been making mixes in December full of my favorite songs from the preceding eleven months, I notice a curious thing starts to happen to my ears in January after all the selection and curation and analysis is over. My tastes become broad, and catholic again.
While I’m making a mix, I’m of course focused on music that was released that calendar year, or within a year or two prior. I’m also somewhat necessarily focused on making sure that the mix itself flows together like its own cohesive statement. Not only that, but I’m also imagining what it will sound like to other people, wondering if the charms of a particular track will be readily apparent to my dearest friends and other folks that I nerd out about music with. I’ve always got my eye on posterity a bit too, asking myself, “how will this mix sound in the context of previous years’ mixes? How does it compare? Have I still got the knack for making these?” And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I still poke around online to see what other folks are citing as the year’s best music, seeing where my sensibilities have definitively diverged from the indie mainstream, as well as where my taste is falling right in line with what I’m told I’m “supposed” to like. It’s a lot of mental gymnastics!
But in January, all those rubrics fall away. Music doesn’t have to appeal to anyone but me. It doesn’t have to fit in with what anyone else is listening to. It can be poppy or abrasive, barely recognizable as music or laden with saccharine strings. And since there will be plenty of time later in the year to listen to new releases that will be eligible for inclusion on the subsequent mix, age is of no importance during this window of time—a track can be four or forty years old. Music’s main job for me throughout January, especially here in Chicago, is to keep me centered in a sense of delight and the promise of pleasure, even when the weather is forbidding and it’s a challenge, to put it mildly, to get out of my warm bed in the morning.
Having the chance to sit with an album or an artist that’s particularly knocking my socks off is as pure a motivation as I can think of to get me out of my house and onto the train on a snowy, frigid day. When I’m released into permission to do nothing but sit quietly for 30 or 40 minutes while I’m whisked through the city to my office, disappearing into a musical bubble for that length of time is almost more than compensation for the attendant hassle and the stress. I mean, I barely even sit in my own apartment and do nothing but listen to music for that length of time (as opposed to having it on in the background while I’m cooking in the kitchen or putting on my makeup in the bathroom). The fact that the Chicago Transit Authority gifts me with that indulgence five days a week is something I’m not nearly thankful enough for.
One of the albums I associate most strongly with this cold, but potent, time of year, this month that’s often so empty but also so full of promise, is electronic sound artist Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet.
Back in my days of more avidly reading Pitchfork and trawling blogs for hot new shit, December wrap-ups were a goldmine for finding new-to-me music that I’d not heard of or had otherwise overlooked the year before.
Harmony in Ultraviolet was appearing on plenty of best-of lists at the end of 2006, and there was something about the way that people were talking about his work that drew me to it. (Call anything “oceanic” and that’s kinda gonna automatically do it for me.) Even though I’d only previously dabbled the very tiniest bit with what I then broadly thought of as “ambient” music, it ended up being the perfect soundtrack to a very cold, very snowy January.
Hecker’s mournful strings coupled with fat, fuzzy blankets of distortion and blown-out washes of sound felt desolate yet contemplative, mirroring January’s barren landscape. The tensions and dissonances in the music heightened the contrast between the incredibly cold air outside and the coziness of my being wrapped in a winter coat and hat while smashed into a tiny seat on the train, surrounded by dozens of other chilled, sleepy commuters. For all the drama of Hecker’s soundscapes, though, they didn’t remove me from the mundane but somehow situated me more firmly within it. And a large part of that effect was because of the way that the sounds combined and layered together to produce a sense of timelessness.
When I was listening to music that had a regular meter and predictable structure, I knew I could listen to about seven to nine songs between the time I left my home and the time I would arrive at the station nearest my office. Each song with a familiar verse-chorus-verse format became its own tiny, dread-filled countdown to the time I’d have to abandon the solace of my own interiority for the chatter and distractions of an eight-hour workday. I would start being sad about the train ride ending nearly before it had begun, simply because I would look at any given playlist on my iPod and would know I probably wouldn’t reach the end of it before I had to go put on my professional face.
But the formlessness of Harmony in Ultraviolet released me from that pressure. Since I could barely tell where one track ended and the next one began, I discovered that I wasn’t mentally rushing through one song to the next, that I was allowing myself to simply be present with it. There were no melodies to cling to, despite the occasional appearance of the ghost of a melodic hook, so the tracks themselves prevented me from craving the cathartic release of a shouty chorus or an epic guitar solo. Since I wasn’t waiting for the catchy part of the song, and thus unconsciously wishing away the rest of the track (not to mention also wishing away a whole micro-chunk of my morning me-time in the process), my commute started to feel extended, in the best way possible. I suddenly had more time within my time.
Harmony in Ultraviolet, in its own mysterious way, reminded me that I didn’t solely exist to be shuttled from one obligation to the next. It assured me that my purpose for existing wasn’t just my utility in others’ agendas. It inserted me back into the middle of my own life and regifted me with the ability to find expanse in the midst of what otherwise looked like restriction.
My fascination with Call Me By Your Name began, as it did for so many of us, with that clip of Armie Hammer dancing.
Armie Hammer is one of those celebrities I mostly know because of social media, and not because I follow him anywhere, but because the people I do follow have an affection for him and post lots of GIFs of him looking handsome and saying funny, self-deprecating things. (I’m confounded by the sudden and mysterious ascendance of all these extremely handsome dudes, including Chrises Hemsworth and Pine, who are somehow also genuinely, extremely funny.) But then that dance went viral and lots of other people started getting obsessed with him in that singularly social media-informed way that’s beyond just Andy Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame, that instead casts everyone who reaches a certain level of fame as the star of their own fanfic, where they can be dressed up and outfitted with each individual viewer’s very specific and often very quirky desires. That’s the point I knew the movie was probably going to be A Thing when it finally came out.
So I downloaded the ebook of the novel onto the Kindle app on my iPhone and spent a few weeks reading it during this past rainy October.
It’s a lovely, erotic little bit of writing that made me wonder how the film was ever going to manage to convey the painstaking, multilayered interiority of Elio’s sexual awakening without resorting to voice over. It also made me preemptively appreciate Hammer’s casting all the more; there is no one else I could imagine playing the role of Oliver.
One of the things that bugs me most about current practices in film distribution is the way that everything revolves around hype. Not that it hasn’t always, of course, but it feels particularly intensified now. Everything’s a summer tentpole; everything’s year-end awards season bait. I see and feel how easily I’m played through targeted promotion and the relentless unavoidability of advertising, at least for the chosen handful of films that can afford such tactics.
It always reminds me of the summer that I drove from Chicago to Chelan, Washington, with three friends. None of us had ever been to Wall Drug in South Dakota before, even though we’d all seen the bumper stickers and knew the main gist of its legend. But, as we were first setting out and planning when and where we’d take our rest stops, none of us felt any particular need to actually go there. Until, of course, we’d been driving for hours with very little scenery to capture our attention other than Wall Drug advertisements along the side of the road, and suddenly its allure became that much more understandable, and irresistible.
Even after all those times we joked about its omnipresent, single-minded advertising juggernaut, still, after all that build up, we somehow started to feel like, gosh, we kind of have to go now, don’t we? And so of course we did. My actual memories of the place are pretty vague, mostly informed in retrospect by the few snapshots I managed to take with what was probably the last film-based camera I’ll ever own. But, by god, the photos prove I was there!
And that’s pretty much what it feels like to go to the movies now.
I don’t get as excited about an actual film as much as I get excited about my idea of the film. And my idea of the film is carefully implanted in my imagination by a canny and cunning campaign that’s solely meant to get me through the theater door, preferably sometime during opening weekend. At which point my idea of the film ends up not mattering at all after I’ve shelled out my cash at the box office.
And even if a tiny film ends up blowing up beyond its initial projections, it’s ultimately still hype that gets me to see it, when I read people talking about this small great film that’s so winning, so charming. And so many times I leave wondering what the big deal about it was in the first place, wondering why that random film, among so many others, was the one that found its statistically unlikely success.
The big deal, of course, is innocence. It’s the simplicity of a piece of art’s is-ness, before it’s burdened by its audience’s opinions of it.
As I wrote about in my 2016 film write-up last year, I have no head for plot and thus I rarely have ever cared about spoilers. If I’m watching a movie for its mood, for the vibrancy of its symbolism and for its ability to make me feel something, I’ve always thought its plot actually hinders me from contemplating those elements with the depth that I want to. Like, I’d seen Kubrick’s The Shining I don’t know how many times, but it wasn’t until I made my boyfriend, a lifelong Stephen King fan, explain the mechanics of the story to me that I could finally watch it as a piece of art without being breathlessly frightened by every cut to a new scene. I’ve always kind of felt like, if a movie can be ruined by being spoiled, well then, maybe it deserves to be spoiled. If there’s not enough there there for me to appreciate beyond a simple progression from “A then B then C to—whoa!—D,” then it’s probably not worth my time in the first place.
But now that GIFs on Tumblr and micro-analyses on Twitter have become the de facto water cooler chatter where I often inadvertently pick up information about any given movie before I’ve actually had a chance to see it, there’s this new level of, like, emotional spoiler that I have become much more wary of. When some actor’s sidelong glance at a character in a scene in a film can be not just captured, but repeated ad infinitum via an animated GIF, its power, which was maybe so vital, so trenchant in context, becomes siphoned off and turned into this weird commodity, just another way for us to perform our own identities online. Now that there’s this new technologically based ability to extract the very thing that I go to the movies for in the first place, I find that my investment in the anticipation of these moments completely robs me of my ability to feel the profundity of the thing.
Like, when I finally got myself to the movie theater to see Call Me By Your Name after nearly two full weeks in bed with a terrible flu, I was so primed for the moment when Oliver says “I remember everything” on the phone to Elio near the very end of the film, that the moment blew right past me. I felt nothing because I was expecting it to feel like everything. I had read so much about it and was expecting to, like, levitate out of my seat with sympathetic grief and rapture. And when I didn’t, I of course was looking somewhere to place the blame: with myself, with the people who’d hyped that moment on social media, with the film itself.
There has to be a way to talk about the things we love in a way that illuminates rather than colonizes them. And, don’t get me wrong, I fully admit my own culpability here; I’ve written reams and reams about film online since 2001, much of it laden with the kind of emotional spoilers I’ve just spent this whole post deriding. In my own small way, I’ve contributed to this me-first, everyone’s-a-critic discourse that has turned into this monster that destroys pleasure by isolating and magnifying it in the name of critique.
So my small act of penance, my small gesture toward allowing precious things to remain precious, is that I’m not going to tell you about my favorite moment in the film. I’m not going to tell you about the line that made me cry twice, first in the theater and then later again in the car when my boyfriend and I were talking about it on the way home. The moment may not hit you in the same way it hit me; hell, it may not even hit me the same way again when and if I see the movie a second time.
Because, that’s the whole message of the movie, right? Don’t deaden your reactions to life by brushing the overwhelm of your feelings aside or stuffing them down. Or, I might extrapolate, by elevating or otherwise blowing them up as a way of fashioning them into a substitute for your personality. As that devastating final shot of Timothée Chalamet’s face shows us so vividly, it’s entirely possible for love, even when painful, to be an experience of accretion. This brief affair not only restored elements to the character’s life (such as the Star of David that he began wearing again around his neck), it also added to it (he got a secret new name, a deepened relationship with his father, etc.). Love, even when it’s fleeting, is something you can keep.
And until I can figure out a more effective way to elevate the things I’m compelled by rather than flattening them through indiscriminate sharing, I’m choosing to keep what I love close to me for a change.
I put a photo up on Instagram a few weeks ago with a snotty caption explaining that I don’t really watch TV anymore because of technical limitations.
There’s no longer an actual television set in my apartment, so if I want to stream something on Netflix or via iTunes, I have to set my laptop up at the foot of my bed on a barstool, then connect it to a small guitar amp, which is precariously balanced next to it on the laundry hamper. I let the supposed hassle of this rickety set-up stand in for the true reality of the situation, which is that TV makes me sad.
Oh sure, I have plenty of positive associations with TV. It’s not that I don’t get the pleasure of it. Binge-watching Gilmore Girls and Deadwood with my former roommate; having a standing Thursday night date to watch the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with two dear friends over the course of my first year or so living in Chicago; or even discovering Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night in reruns on Comedy Central during my final year as an undergraduate at Indiana University. I have nothing but fondness for all these shows and the situations in which I watched them. There’s so much joy to be found in the ritualistic qualities of proceeding through a narrative with dogged regularity (or in big gulps of obsessive attention), in the coziness of sharing a meal together and then slipping into that mindset where you’re temporarily unbound from prosaic time and lost in another reality with your viewing companions, where the regular concerns of your day-to-day life are suddenly much less vivid than the plot conflicts of the characters onscreen you’ve come to love. My roommate and I even used to joke about how much we “missed our friends” when we’d come to the conclusion of a season or an entire series.
But behind and beyond all that, there are my more formative childhood memories and associations with TV, which are not as fond or rosy.
I grew up in a house where the TV was pretty much always on. And, yes, of course, there was a lot of stuff that I loved to watch when I was young–the usual kid fare like The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My dad also used to delight in telling a story about how he figured out how to play that iconic opening riff from the Barney Miller theme song on his old Rhodes electric piano, just so that, as a toddler, I’d come tearing into the living room when he’d play it. As soon as I heard those first few notes, I’d start to boogie, and I’d scream, my Ls and Rs not yet distinct in my baby mouth, “Bawney Miwwew’s on!!!”
But after my mother died and a lot of my dad’s vibrance and creative spark began to dim, thanks to financial stress, lack of romantic intimacy, general overwhelm, and certainly undiagnosed depression, I began to notice the way that the TV had become an emotional pacifier for the household.
My dad was never a substance abuser in that he hardly ever drank and had probably rarely if ever used other chemical intoxicants; TV, instead, was his drug of choice. The addiction started off benign, understandable. During the early years of his marriage to my mother, in the years just before and just after I was born, when he was gigging with his band or conducting the pit for a local musical theater production on the weekends, he would come home late at night, wired with post-performance adrenaline, and crash in front of the TV. He’d sit there until he’d come down enough to be able to crawl into bed and finally get some sleep. But this template eventually began to inform the rest of his life. Any time he was desperate to switch himself off, the TV was switched on. It had to have been an attractive option after a full day of work and a grueling commute home to Indiana from downtown Chicago, and especially so on a Friday night at the conclusion of a week spent at a job he needed but didn’t particularly care about.
In the early ’90s, these Friday night veg-out sessions neatly coincided with the “TGIF” sitcom programming on ABC. The ritual became: dad gets home and orders a pizza; he and my siblings and I eat pizza in the living room, sitting in front of the TV for two hours; then we scatter to our individual rooms and go to bed. It started off feeling like a treat (pizza! funny shows!), but soon became a prison.
I’ve always been highly verbal, longing to talk and communicate about everything, wanting to notice any and all glimmers of nuance and meaning in the world around me. Instead, though, on those Friday nights, I was forced to be silent, to train my eyes on the flashing screen, to accept the flattened meanings and prepackaged narratives that I intuitively knew had nothing to do with real life. Yet the propaganda inevitably began to seep into my early adolescent consciousness. I reasoned that these stories must be telling some sort of truth that I maybe just didn’t have access to if they were being presented, so relentlessly, for our mass consumption. It was dissonance on top of dissonance, further compounding everything that I was already starting to feel was wrong about me.
So, instead of us talking to each other about the pain and sadness of living without our mother, we sat and watched Full House, a “cute” sitcom about a fictional motherless family who, in their scripted and sanitized way, were also not dealing with any emotions that couldn’t be tidied up in 22 minutes punctuated with catchphrases, mugging, and the occasional musical interlude. It was the site of incredible psychic pain for me. Last year when the show was rebooted, I grimaced nearly every day as someone on social media would cheer, with varying degrees of kitsch or camp awareness, about how much they were looking forward to the new episodes.
Unlike my experiences in my late teens and early 20s, where I truly felt like I was watching TV with my friends, that we were journeying into these worlds together, TV in my childhood always felt profoundly distancing. It isolated me from the people I most wanted, and needed, to connect to. I wanted to scream about how lonely I was, at how much I resented the way the TV took us away from each other. Maybe it was also partially a narcissistic wound as well, that I simply wished to have that much undivided attention focused on me.
Much like my dad, I’ve never been much of a drinker or drug taker. But I recognize the part of myself that loves to attempt to “entertain” myself away from my problems and pain; these days, it takes the shape of endless, bleary-eyed iPhone scrolling. And I know that if I had a TV in my home, I’d be powerless against its seductions too.
Oh sure, I’d probably tell myself that I’d just be keeping up with pop culture by watching the hot new shows of the moment, that I could blog my thoughts about all the sophisticated narrative techniques and gorgeous production design and gut-wrenchingly honest acting that are part and parcel of these newly prestigious series. And, knowing my nasty little competitive streak, I would also feel like I’d have to know All the Shows so that I’d never have to admit “oh, I haven’t seen that one” when people began freaking out about something new and delicious. The time suck would be real. As would the drain on my emotional health.
So, just like someone who has seen drug or alcohol addiction ruin their family but also knows they have the capacity to lose themselves to the same addiction, I’ve had to go cold turkey. Now it’s easier for me to just watch no TV at all.
Which is of course not true. In the past few years, I’ve seen a few episodes of the Kenneth Branagh version of Wallander, a few of the Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes, and literally one episode of Stranger Things. But mostly, when someone gets in my face with truly evangelical enthusiasm to ask “have you seen this show?!” or “do you watch this series?!” it’s just cleaner for me to say, “no, I don’t have a TV” and leave it at that. There’s no simple way in the moment to explain that it’s not the show, it’s me. Of course, there’s the part of me that also sees that, ironically, I’m sometimes actually missing a moment of potential connection with whomever may be asking me that question, and connection is exactly what I’ve been attempting to foster by cutting TV out of my life.
More important to me than any connection with a random friend or coworker at this point, though, is the connection to my childhood self, who can now have the freedom to communicate with me, far away from the distractions of the TV screen.
In high school, I developed this theory about my personal vocabulary.
The theory went that I was allotted a certain number of words throughout the day, and once I had used them up, they were gone until they regenerated the next morning. I came to this conclusion when I noticed that on days after long theater rehearsals or other tasks that stretched late into the night, I would find myself spluttering to get my thoughts and feelings across, which inevitably led to my swearing like a sailor more avidly and frequently. It seemed to make sense that, if I’d used up everything else over the course of the day, all I would have left by the end of the night was curse words.
(This was well before the current theories on decision fatigue had been documented, so I guess there was some kind of intuitive grain of truth to my otherwise silly notion.)
Similarly, later on in college, I noticed that I would go through these weird phases where I would just straight-up lose words.
The first one I noticed was “thermometer.” I’d have this blanked-out moment of aphasia where I’d be looking at a long glass thing filled with mercury that was divided into evenly spaced units of measurement, and it would take me several generous beats before I could pull the word “thermometer” to the surface of my consciousness.
The next one to go was “report card.” It got to the point where, when I couldn’t wait those extra few seconds for the right phrase to appear out of the depths of wherever it had gone missing in my brain, I’d improvise a close-enough equivalent. I remember having a conversation about grades at some point and breezily referring to “you know, the summary report.” An Anglophile friend often accepted these substitutions with a laugh, suggesting that I should just pass them off, if ever questioned, as obscure British slang.
So, this is just a thing that happens to me for whatever reason. (The reason usually being that my mouth is moving way faster than my brain.)
Recently at my day job, two women in our marketing department were telling me that the new CFO, who was just hired this summer after leaving his gig at a big fancy publisher in New York City, had been scrutinizing the editorial department’s invoices. He was wondering why we’d recently ordered a set of bound galleys from Printer A rather than Printer B. The implication being that we were foolishly wasting money by using Printer A since Printer B could do the job a buck or two cheaper.
This has been a recurring power struggle over the years, and I, as the person in charge of tracking the book budgets, have had to explain to numerous people numerous times that while we do still use Printer B on occasion, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth, despite the relatively minor cost savings. Printer B will take three or four rounds of corrections just to get all the text on the front and back covers right, and their schedules are often unpredictably slow, which causes trouble downstream for our publicists, who are trying to get galleys out the door to their contacts at magazines and journals as soon as possible. So, the extra money that we pay to Printer A is worth it to us, because they get the job right the first time and routinely turn around the finished copies in two weeks or less.
Even though I know the women I was talking to probably knew this, my temper still flared a little bit and I ran them through this basic explanation all over again. Exasperated, I rolled my eyes and assured them, though, that the only reason the new CFO, with all his East Coast bravado, was suddenly bugging us about this was that he was…and here I hit one of my aphasic moments.
Deep in the caverns of my brain, I’m pretty sure I was looking for the phrase “throwing his weight around.” But as I shouted through the climax of my monologue, not wanting to take a breath and ruin the illusion that I was the second coming of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, what I managed to spit out was that the CFO was just “feeling his bones.”
Guys, I am literally laughing out loud about this right now as I type. Feeling his bones! What the! Holy shit. “Feeling his bones.”
Though I knew it made no sense as soon as I heard the words come tumbling out of my face, I was so committed to being professionally annoyed that I couldn’t bring myself to stop and acknowledge the ridiculousness of what I’d just said. But maybe that’s the ultimate revenge of my perpetual inner mischief-maker. Maybe, all along, it’s not that the words necessarily disappear. Maybe it’s that, when I’ve devoted myself to other people’s projects for too long and have ignored my deep inner thirst for pure silliness too egregiously, they’re just temporarily taken out of commission so that I have no choice but to get a little playful with the weirder and funnier substitutions I reach for to replace them.
To the best of my knowledge, In May is this: a chamber opera for one voice, its narrative unfolding as a series of letters from a youngish man dying of cancer to his father who is living in California. The songs are all titled by the dates of the letters, the time counting down to the young man’s inevitable death (um, in May). In the course of the piece you learn some facts about his life—that his (former) girlfriend’s name is Anna, that his mother is dead, that his doctor is named Eisenstein—but beyond that, it’s mostly day-to-day ruminations on his mundane activities which of course take on a sense of profundity in light of his imminent passing.
It’s also this: a collaboration between lyricist Frank Alva Buecheler and composer Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. From what I can gather, Buecheler was inspired to write the piece after visiting a friend who was dying at a young age. After first putting together a set of (fictionalized) letters in German, he had them translated into English and then approached Hannon, basically out of the blue, about contributing the music: “I told him his Divine Comedy songs were dramatic pieces—and that I thought he was an opera composer.” The piece has only been performed live a handful of times and now has been released as a new recording that was made available as part of the deluxe edition of the most recent Divine Comedy album Foreverland. As written, however, the piece is actually meant to be sung by the character of the ex-girlfriend Anna.
There are a few glancing evaluations of In May online, primarily in reviews that came out around the time that Foreverland was released. The bulk of these reviews tend to just mention Hannon’s collaboration with Buecheler or describe something of its chamber music setting of strings and piano and leave it at that. But I haven’t really seen anyone give it a proper full-length write-up or come right out and say what I overwhelmingly felt when I finally listened to the whole thing for the first time: that this is the best work Hannon has done in almost twenty years.
I’ve lived with The Divine Comedy’s music longer and cherished it more fervently than pretty much any other band I can think of, so I say this with nothing but love and admiration in my heart, but—the albums that Hannon has put out since 2001’s Regeneration have been spotty at best. There have been glorious individual compositions like “Our Mutual Friend” from 2004’s Absent Friends and “A Lady of a Certain Age” from 2006’s Victory for the Comic Muse, but too often these 21st century albums, as a whole, have had a jokey, shrugged-off quality that felt a bit like phoning it in.
Neil has said in the press that he realizes his cultural relevance is well behind him and that he enjoys the freedom that gives him. But I have to wonder how true that is, how much spin is being put on the issue, because it feels a bit like the thing he actually never recovered from was his mid-career attempt at a sonic pivot into Britrock territory.
Regeneration was released in 2001 and was produced by Nigel Godrich, who was at that point most well known for his hugely successful and influential work with Radiohead and Beck. This album was meant to help Hannon “leave behind” what he perceived as the stuffy fussiness of the suits he wore on stage and the literary pretentiousness of his songs and their arrangements. But, despite being 16 years old at this point, Regeneration actually sounds way more dated than any of the albums he made between 1993 and 1998 (the ones that were, ahem, full of literary pretentiousness and featured Hannon wearing suits on the album covers). It’s a solid album, to be sure, but I’ve always had the somewhat intuitive impression that he was surprised and disappointed that it never catapulted him into Radiohead-level success. Absent Friends, the album he made a few years after Regeneration, though delightful and lovely in its own way, always reads to me like a retreat into the familiar, a resigned sigh heaved in determination to just give the people what they want.
And while he hasn’t necessarily suffered, career-wise, from that commitment (he routinely continues to sell out tours all over Europe and is able to make new albums every few years when he feels like it), I think there’s a slight misunderstanding, on his part, of just what it is “the people” actually want. I think that he thinks, given the fairly massive UK success of his song “National Express,” that his fans want more dorky joke songs, clever lyrics, and cheeky historical references. And, yeah, all those elements are a huge part of what people came to love about The Divine Comedy. It’s a huge part of what I love about The Divine Comedy. But why were those elements so appealing? From my perspective, it’s that they were always folded in with an extremely grounded sense of mortality.
All his best songs have always been steeped in death (eg, “Lucy,” “Tonight We Fly,” “Eric the Gardener,” “Absent Friends,” etc., etc.). My favorite Divine Comedy album, Fin de Siecle, which, for a very long time I considered my favorite album full-stop, is about the death of a whole century. The joke songs were never the point of The Divine Comedy; they were merely context and contrast and comic relief to the true meat of his ruminations on life, death, the universe, and everything. In mistaking what his true gifts are, it’s almost like Hannon took the diametrically opposite path to his idol Scott Walker—rather than veering hard into nearly unlistenable experimentation and impenetrable high-art conceptualism, he went toward softball/cheeseball/cornball dork-pop.
Happily, though, In May is a return to form. Maybe it’s that he was freed from the pressures of writing “clever” lyrics since he was only responsible for the music; maybe it’s due to the fact that his own father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s while he was working on the piece; maybe it’s because he’s also getting on in age. Whatever the case, he’s finally given me the album I’ve, in many ways, been waiting for him to do since I first heard Fin de Siecle.
While certainly not a perfect album, especially with nearly twenty years of hindsight, Fin de Siecle has always appealed to me for its combination of gigantic orchestral arrangements, Hannon’s delightfully cheeky baritone croon at the peak of its richness and clarity, and lyrics surveying a panorama of late 20th century white Western middle class concerns and observations (from newspaper scandals and gossip and the romance of public transportation to disease, environmental collapse, technological dystopia, war, and death). For me it’s always hit a sweet spot of sounding amazing and being fun to listen to while dealing with serious subject matter with a thoughtfully light touch, while also still being capable of smashing your heart into a million pieces with the melancholy dance-tronica of “Eric the Gardener” or Neil’s first explicit reference to having grown up in Northern Ireland in album-closer “Sunrise.”
Bringing all these elements together so seamlessly and effectively was a delicate balancing act, one that he’d seemingly built up to over the course of his three and half previous albums. It would have been impossible to sustain or repeat. I’ve always thought that the song “Too Young to Die,” which was recorded for his singles collection A Secret History, was a fairly bald-faced admission that he didn’t even want to try to replicate it, that he felt he was too young to allow himself to remain aesthetically pigeonholed. In some sense, it was no wonder that Regeneration sounded the way it did; it was a necessary palate cleanser, a way of honoring just how special Fin de Siecle was by leaving it standing as its own monumental achievement, by going off in a totally different direction.
However, with In May, Hannon has finally worked himself back up to an equal pitch (over the course of, yes, three more albums and a handful of side projects). Except here he’s working not at the scale of a whole century but instead in miniature—within the sonic limitations of a string quartet, single piano, one voice, and someone else’s lyrics (lyrics which narrate just six months of one man’s life, in an environment limited to the man’s house, mind, and very immediate surroundings).
The musical reference points in In May’s compositions range from familiar Hannon touchstones like Scott Walker and Michael Nyman to English musical theater composers like Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Bart but also, crucially, The Divine Comedy itself. Freed to shop his own back catalog, presumably by the assumption that the theatrical audience for In May wouldn’t necessarily cross over to his own fanbase, he’s able to lift familiar little idiosyncratic intervals and motifs that are most recognizable from the Divine Comedy’s heyday. There’s Promenade’s urgent, sawing string parts, A Short Album About Love’s down-tempo grandeur, and Liberation’s deep sense of place and space.
All those elements would of course be present in any production of the show, wherever it might be staged. But in this specific recording, there’s also Hannon’s use of his own speaking voice. He’s always been a bit actor-y in his music, slipping into the characters he’s invented for his songs, but usually with a heavy dose of wink-wink, nudge-nudge archness. At last, here he’s allowed himself abandon that hammy self-consciousness and to just breathe through the material. And I really mean breathe–just listen to when he sighs, “oh, my lovely feet!” in “3rd of January,” when his voice cracks on the word feet.
There’s no wink, no quote marks around it, no referring back to well-known podiatric literary references of the Western canon. It’s simple, intimate, honest, and completely soul-stirring.
The soaring perfect fifth at the conclusion of the whole piece, that big “your son!” at the end of “31st of May”, is the same interval as the one at the end of Fin de Siecle’s album closer “Sunrise.”
Sonically linking his hope for peace and reconciliation after The Troubles to a man’s final goodbyes to his loved ones after a rapidly progressing terminal illness is, when you take the long view, just a completely brilliant encapsulation of The Divine Comedy itself—his ability to marry the inevitability of darkness and death to a defiantly buoyant embrace of hope and beauty through the interplay of words and music.
But I think it also points, again, to the strengths that I don’t think Hannon even realizes he has. While he’s busy assuring everyone “I’m just basically a show off,” it’s his ability to craft these intensely personal, intimate, honest, unadorned moments that has fueled my love of his music for close to twenty years. Hearing him finally embrace this, at length, without apology, is enormously heartening. After all the musical deaths of 2016, how wonderful that no one actually had to literally die here in order for a great burst of life to be breathed back into the whole project of The Divine Comedy.
Early my sophomore year at Indiana University, I went to an orientation session for students who were interested in volunteering at the campus radio station.
In my typically over-serious fashion, I was worried that I hadn’t sufficiently taken advantage of the many social and extracurricular activities at the school during my first year there, and so this was one of my attempts to address that perceived lack.
I’d spent my four years of high school ensconced in the music and drama departments and made most of my friends that way. (Well, I guess it wasn’t so much “making friends” as “spending all my waking hours outside class with a certain cross-section of people who became my closest friends by fortunate default.”) But since I had no intention of pursuing performance at the university or professional level, I suddenly found myself adrift without a scene or (I feared) an identity. The radio station seemed like an ideal place to bridge my interests and concerns—listening to and appreciating music, yes, but also performing that appreciation by talking about music on the air, and hopefully also meeting other music obsessives who might want to be my friend.
I dutifully filled out the form applying for my own show and indicated that I’d also be happy to be part of the committee who would review incoming CDs. (That job mostly entailed listening to music and then noting which songs were interesting and cool and worth listening to, but also, crucially, which contained swear words that couldn’t be broadcast on the air.) I, like the asshole English major I was, corrected a bunch of typos on the intake form. Despite being that girl, when the station manager sent out assignments subsequently, he granted me a two-hour on-air placement—which he took the liberty of dubbing “The Grammar Rodeo.” (It was literally years before I found out that that was actually a Simpsons reference.)
The kicker, though, was that my show was scheduled for 4-6am on Tuesday mornings, pretty much the worst time slot imaginable—too late for most night owls to still be awake, but also too early for early risers to be getting up. But, Monday nights I’d do my best to get a few hours of sleep, then peel myself out of bed around 3:15 so that I could set off on foot across campus around 3:30, so I could get to the station in time to take over at 4 for the guys who were on the air before me.
This was, perhaps needless to say, not the ideal time slot for socializing and making friends—no one else was ever at the station during those hours, for obvious reasons. (This would have been the fall of 1998, and thus the infancy of widespread internet use, though, so the station actually had an online feed that broadcast the shows from their website. This enabled a dear friend of mine who was attending the University of Southern California to be able to listen to my show during his own late-night study sessions, which was one of the nicest things that anyone had ever done for me at that point.) But, thanks to my solitude, it was at least a great time to nerd out and listen to music for two hours straight.
At some point that semester, I had reviewed and put into rotation an album called Adventure by a group I’d never heard of called Furslide.
As I’ve written about before, I’d never had that much interest in electric guitars. (This was right on the cusp of my burgeoning obsession with Jimi Hendrix.) My dad was a piano player and trumpet aficionado, and, good girl that I was, my tastes had followed suit—I liked anything that was “jazzy” or that hearkened to the show tunes that I’d spent my life listening to and performing. I was way too square and sheltered to have had any interest in Riot Grrl in the early ’90s, and I generally sniffed my nose at most of the more mainstream, Lilith Fair-approved artists as well. All of which is to say, if I’d not been assigned, at random, to review the Furslide album, there’s very little chance I ever would have encountered it otherwise.
But, oh, how fortuitous! I fell head over heels in love with Adventure.
Unbeknowst to me at the time, Furslide’s lead singer and guitarist, Jen Turner, was already something of a legend among guitar nerds for her work on Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, especially “Carnival.”
But, similar to how I came to love Jimi Hendrix’s vocals as much as his guitar playing, I was first and foremost bowled over by Turner’s voice.
As a musician myself, I always paid extra attention to any woman vocalists who were doing stuff that I couldn’t replicate while singing along with them in the privacy of my car—whether that was Tracey Thorn’s soulful croon on Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart or Alanis Morissette’s stratospheric yelp on the ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill. With Turner, it was that shred at the top of her range that really killed me. Check out what she does when she really gets cranking at around 2:59 in the song “Shallow” and you’ll hear what I mean:
And even though I willfully harbored an almost complete blind spot for most contemporary electric guitar playing, I couldn’t deny how much I loved the punch and crunch of her sound. It was playful yet edgy, somehow spacious inside its laser-sharp rhythmic dexterity and sonic density.
Much like how my love for Counting Crows confounded friends who didn’t understand how or why I could like that band’s noisier moments, even I had trouble defending and defining for myself what it was about her sound that I loved so much, or why it was that I loved her playing and specifically didn’t like the playing in, oh, Weezer or Nirvana or Pearl Jam or dozens of other beloved guitar rock bands.
Even though I probably wouldn’t have understood it as such at the time, I think I needed that little bit of inscrutability in my life. I’d always attempted to make myself as legible and understandable as possible, assuming that, even if I were “quirky,” as long as people essentially could get where I was coming from, I’d be easier to love. But silently, unconsciously, I think I was already starting to realize how exhausting that attempt to art-direct my own image was. I was allowed to have a little bit of privacy, to maintain a little bit of mystery, to cultivate a degree of unpredictability.
Not unlike my wandering around an all-but-abandoned campus in the middle of the night in an effort to find a place where I belonged, Turner’s music was something of an island unto itself in the mid to late ’90s. Goddesslike to those in the know, but easily overlooked by those who weren’t, as she sang herself in the song “Hawaii,” “everyone is looking for that fine, fine line / between contentment and the troubled mind of genius.” She, I would argue, found that line on an underappreciated album released in 1998, which gave me a nice little nudge in the right direction to keep looking for my own.
To learn more about Jen Turner and her various other musical projects, check out this great short blog post, which seems to be updated periodically.
When I was more actively pop culture blogging in my 20s, the end-of-year reports were obviously one of the big highlights.
What was the best music? What were the best movies?
Much of this list-making was performative and ego-based, of course—wanting to appear to have seen and heard the smartest and coolest stuff, to have the “right” opinions on it all, to be unassailably in-the-know, to be safely elevated as some kind of taste-maker even if it was just to my tiny band of followers and friends.
The ego of this wasn’t only to receive praise, to want to, as our dear departed Carrie Fisher once put it, “be the greatest person you ever met…to explode in the night sky of your approval.” There was also the ego-based need to assert some kind of usefulness in the world, to make myself somehow indispensable so that I wouldn’t be so easily cast aside and forgotten.
If you’d asked me at the time about why I wrote about the stuff I wrote about, I probably would have said something to the effect that I just hoped my reviews would be useful to someone, that I hoped they might introduce someone to a piece of art that they would deeply connect with and love, or that I might steer them away from something that would offend, disturb, or disappoint them.
The thing that I never could have admitted, though, was that I also wanted desperately to be given credit, forever, for that service. I wanted to be assured of my worth, to essentially be some kind of helper animal wearing a t-shirt or harness announcing my centrality to the smooth working of the world around me, announcing that I was engaged in doing a very important job, so that I could combat my terrified suspicion that I was, in fact, inconsequential, not only to the wider world but also to those who were kindly but most likely lying about loving me.
Come for the pithy one-liners about George Clooney, stay for the darkly desperate tap-dancing for validation!
Not dissimilarly, as far as searching for my unique place in the cosmos, this year-end list-making always had a touch of the metaphysical or mystical to it. (Perhaps invisibly, but it was folded in there for me at least.) Somehow I thought that the art that I’d consumed over the past twelve months was some sort of oracle that, when regarded as a whole, could teach me about myself, where I’d come from and where I was headed.
I think it’s no coincidence that I eventually ended up in a clairvoyant training program whose whole method entailed teaching students to describe the pictures that they saw in their own minds’ eyes. I think this must be why I took to my psychic abilities so naturally—seeing and reporting on the details and vividness of clairvoyantly received images was, for me, basically exactly like seeing and reporting on the details and vividness of scenes in a movie.
As a film student and amateur critic, I never had a head for plot. Logical contradictions or absurd suspensions of disbelief or internal consistency meant nothing to me. It was all about vibe, emotion, meaningful rhymes with other films in the genre or director’s body of work, subtle betrayals of stated meaning revealed by a carelessly chosen bit of mise en scene or dialogue.
Almost as soon as I recognized this, I shut that blog down.
Partly, yes, it was because I’d been writing there for nearly six years and was simply getting bored with it. Partly it was because my life had become busy in a way that didn’t afford me the time to write there on any kind of regular basis anymore. Partly it was because that busyness also meant that I didn’t have time to see as many movies or go to as many concerts as I used to, hence eliminating the fodder I would have written about anyway. Partly it was because I was finally ensconced in several communities where I had actual, real people to talk to on a regular basis so that I didn’t have to shout into the void of the internet as desperately in order to feel like I had someone, anyone, to communicate with.
But, undeniably, partly it was also because I was getting a purer hit of the drug, so to speak—rather than reading pictures at a remove via a director’s art, I could read the pictures that I was seeing with my own inner vision just by being awake and alive in my own everyday life.
All that being said, it blows my mind a bit that I’ve seen so few films this year. (Or in the past several years, really.) I still get a huge thrill out of going to the movies; I still treasure them as an art form that even well-regarded serial television will never duplicate or replace; their visuals, at their best, still enhance and inform my own inner visions. Even though the stuff I have seen would hardly be considered important or essential or somehow defining of the year just passed, I greedily treasure every moment that I spent dreaming, wide awake, in the dark.
To the best of my record-keeping ability, I’m pretty sure this is everything I saw since January, both first run and revival:
Chimes at Midnight
Superman vs. Batman
Born to Be Blue
Captain America: Civil War
The Seventh Seal
Love and Friendship
Stranger than Paradise
The Red Shoes
Older than Ireland
Star Trek Beyond
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
The Magnificent Seven (2016, dir. Antoine Fuqua)
Queen of Katwe
I think a lot about an interview that Quentin Tarantino gave a little over a decade ago where he said,
A movie doesn’t have to do everything. A movie just has to do a couple of things. If it does those well and gives you a cool experience, a cool night at the movies, an emotion, that’s good enough, man. But movies that get it all right are few and far between. It got to a point in the ’80s when you didn’t even hold a bad ending against a movie, because every movie had a cop-out ending. If you were going to hold bad endings against movies you’d never have liked anything.
Maybe I’d always agreed with that assessment without having had the words to say so. Or maybe I just read that quote at the right moment, while my own tastes and filters were still at the outside edge of being moldable. Nevertheless, I deeply agree. And I make it a point to try to identify those couple of things that a movie does well every time I watch something. Both so that I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time and money if I happen to see a movie that didn’t particularly appeal to me, and, more cosmically, so that I feel like I’ve made some small attempt, in my own way, to honor the time, effort, and talent that went into making even a subpar film.
Here, then, are a couple of things that have stuck with me the most, from the small selection of what I’ve listed above.
“No! For sport!”
Werner Herzog, at this point, is not only a complete parody of himself but also one of the few remaining directors whose films I will see without question, regardless of whether I’m inherently interested in the subject matter or not. Lo and Behold was tremendously spotty, thanks to both his own pushy first-person intrusions and a few of the vignettes that devolved into holier-than-thou condescension (the bits featuring the family who professed that the internet was the work of the devil and the kids in the rehab facility for game addiction most especially).
But, as ever, there were beautiful moments of humanity revealed. Ted Nelson’s glee near the beginning when Herzog credits him for the elegance of his conception of how hypertext links should have worked was breathtaking in its innocence. But the moment I find myself replaying in my mind again and again is when notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick is concluding his story about worming his way into a major communications company, basically just by making a series of exceedingly polite telephone calls. Herzog asks him something to the effect of, “why did you do this? For malicious reasons?” And Mitnick instantly shouts back, “No! For sport!” with a passionate purity that totally knocked me out. That, to me, is on a par with Philippe Petit walking between the towers of the World Trade Center on a high wire, just for the useless beauty of it, just because he, alone, could.
The last three minutes of “The Magnificent Seven”
Embarrassing admission time: I’ve never seen The Seven Samurai nor John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. But, I had an unexpected evening to spare this fall and the 2016 Magnificent Seven remake by Antoine Fuqua happened to be playing at the movie theater around the corner from my apartment and I liked the casting enough that I figured why not catch it. So, though the film student in me is dying a humiliating little death right now that I can’t do a proper compare/contrast with the older versions, I’ll just say that the whole point of this particular movie was its final (approximate) three minutes.
After the savagery of the final gun battle, who remained? Among a town now populated and left to be led solely by women, children, and old or somehow infirm men, one young (white) boy looks up to watch the heroes of the day riding off into the horizon. And who were those heroes? A black man, a Mexican man, and a Native American man. This is what I mean about the power of movies to inspire, enhance, and inform our own inner visions—I want to live in that world. I perceive the necessary inevitability of that world. A world where it is unquestionable that young white children should be able to see and know, at an early and formative age, men of color who are heroic, who are depicted as survivors, as powerful, as worthy of emulation and inspiration.
“I shall remember this hour of peace, the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk.”
Further embarrassing former film student admissions: I’d somehow never seen The Seventh Seal before this year. But, as I am lucky to live near the Music Box Theatre, where I can easily see classic films, on a big screen, on a regular basis, I was able to catch it at a matinee with some friends over Memorial Day weekend.
No one ever told me how genuinely funny this movie is! Having only seen Persona in a feminist film class at Indiana University, I was in no way prepared for the genuine delight woven throughout what popular wisdom led me to believe would be another Very Serious and Important Art Film. (No one ever told me what a babe young Max von Sydow is either.)
And of course the hinge on which the film rests is the incredibly tender strawberries and milk scene.
In about nine short minutes it manages to hit all of my emotional buttons in the way that it celebrates an ephemeral moment of beauty and intimacy among an improvised group of friends and chosen family.
In that spirit, I thank you for sharing time and sweetness, even for just a few moments, with me here.
1. Rock music has, stylistically and technically, never moved beyond Jimi Hendrix. Fact.
2. My dad was a keyboard player with a trumpet fetish who mainly listened to jazz, show tunes, and doo-wop around the house, so I actually grew up hearing very little guitar-centric music. The hair metal bands of the ’80s were mainly heard through maxed-out sound systems in cars speeding past the busy intersection where our home was located. As a child, I found those sounds off-putting, if not downright frightening. The ’90s grunge bands, to me, were even worse, all the moreso because my angsty younger brother adopted Nirvana as his band and would play their albums at deafening volumes in his room. Prissy teenage do-gooder that I was, I fucking haaaaated it. In subsequent years, my brother was eventually inspired to pick up an electric guitar of his own, and my dad optimistically viewed this as their chance to bond over music the way he and I had previously bonded over the piano. In one of his finer and more sensitive moments of parenting, he chose not to criticize the grunge that my brother loved but instead attempted to merely enhance his CD collection with recordings of other great electric guitar players. To this end he’d purchased a copy of the Hendrix compilation Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience for my brother at some point, but for whatever reason, I dubbed it onto cassette and adopted it as my own.
3. Mainly, I remember driving myself back to Indiana University after some vacation or other and listening to the tape in the car on my way down. The comp is paced really thoughtfully, and I remember getting toward the end and hearing his live recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in its entirety for what was probably the first time. I was stuck in traffic somewhere on I-465 and just sat there sobbing my eyes out.
4. After college graduation, I spent a few months bumming around Seattle, living with a dear friend who’d recently moved there for a job as a sales rep with Samsonite. The Experience Music Project Museum (now officially known as MoPOP, I guess) had just recently opened and we were eager to check it out. In one of the first exhibits that we walked through, there was a display featuring Jimi’s handwritten lyrics for “Angel.” I cried standing there in front of it.
5. Thanks to all this, it got to the point where I both considered myself and was known as A Jimi Hendrix Fan.
6. Another good friend gave me a couple Hendrix CDs for either my birthday or Christmas one year. He was a devotee of Eric Clapton and so affixed handwritten speech bubbles onto the covers that said things like, “Allison! Hey, baby. I’m just practicin’ to get better than that dandy Clapton.”
It was cute and it made me laugh but was also one of those does-not-compute moments for me. Like, literally? There are people in the world who actively prefer Clapton to Hendrix? And not only just “people” in the abstract, but one of my best friends?? How is there any contest or comparison between them at all? As Charles Shaar Murray puts it in his book Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop:
Eric Clapton, on the other hand, played the blues something like Vladimir Nabokov wrote English: with the masterful formal grasp of one who has studied so intensely that he learns the rules of his chosen language or discipline to a far greater extent than many who have always simply assumed them and instinctively operated within them. Like Nabokov—and, for that matter, like Joseph Conrad and Jack Kerouac, both of whom came to English from, respectively, Polish and French—what Clapton was able to create and express through his acquired outlet was both a revelation to and an influence on many native “speakers.” Yet the cultural distance which provides perspective also imposes isolation; and in an art form where nuance is all, sterility is the almost inevitable result.
7. Stupidly, though, I think there were times that I actually forgot Hendrix was primarily revered as a guitar player. Because I actually really loved his singing voice. I know he didn’t consider himself much of a singer and credited Bob Dylan with giving him the courage to utilize his own perfectly imperfect vocals. But, partially because I was a singer myself and partially because I didn’t have much frame of reference for what made him such a uniquely gifted guitarist, I really gravitated and responded to the good humor, ease, and mysticism in his voice.
8. In my early days working as the editorial assistant at my day job, I found myself doing some light production work on Greg Tate’s book Midnight Lightning.
Tate’s writing totally blew my mind, but the bit that really knocked me out was this quote from Albert Allen about Hendrix’s death:
While the other type of sleep, the light sleep is coming upon you, there’s two sockets where you can go into. One socket is death and one socket is the socket to live. I think they call that an “alpha-jerk.” An alpha-jerk is—have you ever felt as though, “Oh wow, I’m going into the wrong hole here”? And you really feel funny, like that’s possibly the hole to die. And the other side is to go ahead and sleep and get into your subconscious and whatnot, which we normally go into. I believe that Jimi, possibly, could have got into his alpha-jerk field and it kind of felt groovy to him because he was high, slightly high, and he said, “Damn, I’m Jimi Hendrix, I wonder if I can die?” And the alpha-jerk came on him and he just said, Fuck it, let me try the alpha, and slipped on out.
9. In early 2011, I’d been singing with the band Tiny Magnets for about a year. In part because we were such a guitar-driven band, I found myself, perhaps naturally, listening to a lot of Hendrix. I’d dump a couple of different comps and maybe Are You Experienced into a playlist on my iPhone and would set the tracks to shuffle. One day on my commute to work, “Can You See Me” somehow came up twice. And then a day or two later, I went to see a friend’s band play at the Empty Bottle and one of the other bands on the bill covered “Can You See Me.” “That’s weird,” the bass player in my band—another huge Hendrix fan—laughed. “That’s not really one of his songs that gets played that often.” We left rehearsal together one night soon thereafter and saw, in an otherwise un-graffiti’d alley, a stencil of Jimi’s face on the garage door across from where we were parked.
11. I was about six months into my formal training as a clairvoyant at that point, so I had no choice but to go into psychic meditation about all these signs and coincidences. And I discovered, with no small amount of incredulity, that Jimi kept showing up because he wanted to be my spirit guide (or tutelary ghost companion). “Hi, Jimi,” I welcomed him, deciding it was best not to let my own energetic signature slip into fawning fan girl mode. He came and sought me out, after all; I thought it was only polite to stay cool, acknowledge his presence, and carry on as equals.
12. Mostly, I called on his spirit whenever I went to band practice. He, quite naturally, loved the noise, loved the energy, and I felt that he just really missed the vibe and camaraderie that arose when a group of people were assembled to play, loudly, in a room together. It was a pleasure to invite his spirit to be present with us. We played really well that spring and through the summer when we recorded and released our album Time to Try.
13. As thanks and tribute to his spiritual influence on my life, I bought this gorgeous necklace to wear to my clairvoyant graduation:
14. My clairvoyant training ended in late September 2011, and Jimi’s energy kind of dissipated from my life after that. My band then ended up playing what would be our last gig in that four-piece configuration in late October.
15. I somehow don’t think the two of those things were unrelated. As much as we might long for him to stick around, Jimi always knows when it’s time to make an exit.
OK, wow, my extreme, deep, immediate love for this video of the band White Denim playing a cover of the Steely Dan song “Peg” puts me right at the center of a Venn diagram that I previously wouldn’t have ever considered I’d need to talk about. Where do I even start to connect the dots?
I’ve written a bit before about how during the bulk of my 20s when I wasn’t, for various reasons, making that much of my own music, I compensated for that lack by listening to and exploring a ton of other artists’ stuff—mostly new, mostly “indie.” I wrote about the music I was hearing and the concerts I was attending a lot on my old blog and at some point parlayed that into a brief stint reviewing albums and live shows for Daytrotter.
I am a terrible, terrible journalistic writer—I have no head for, like, narrative or facts, just wild associations and strongly voiced opinions—so this was really mostly a way for me to try to get my writing in front of more eyeballs and to maybe get into some shows I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. (For a stretch of time when I was single in my late 20s, I used a similar, in-through-the-side-door approach to look for tickets to sold-out or expensive shows on Craigslist—instead of checking the for-sale section, I would comb through the M4F dating sections, looking for guys who had optimistically bought two tickets and turned out not to have found anyone else who wanted to go to the show with them. I went to a handful of concerts and even one opera, for free, that way.) Anyway, one of the best events I attended while I was writing for Daytrotter was the two or three day stretch of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival when it was still being booked solely at Schubas.
My editor put my name on the guest list and I did my due diligence in the days leading up to the festival, trying to listen to as many of the new-to-me bands as I could, so I could at least feign some sort of awareness of these acts before I started attempting to evaluate what they were doing live. I was introduced to so much incredible music in that short stretch of time: Baby Teeth, White Rabbits, Illinois, the Redwalls, Bon Iver (!), and White Denim.
I believe you can still read some of my original write-ups of this festival via the sidebar of my old blog (in the event that the URLs are still even active), and I could of course go on at length about my memories of all this. 2008 doesn’t feel that long ago to me, yet I know it sorta is at this point.
Anyway, I pretty instantly fell in love with White Denim, both thanks to their chaotic, frenetic EP Let’s Talk About It and subsequently their funny, ferocious live set.
Side note on funny bands—god bless ’em. I will always have a soft spot for a funny band. Not like a ha-ha-funny jokey novelty band, but a band full of performers who have a sense of humor about themselves, life, and the whole endeavor of being in a rock band. This is what initially drew me to Baby Teeth, and I’ve always held that Dan Bejar/Destroyer is WAY funnier than anyone gives him credit for being. It’s a rare, underappreciated skill.
Because of the way that I grew up around musicians, I’ve always been pretty fearless about marching up to them after shows to at least say “good set,” no matter how nervous or excited I might be about it on the inside. Musician to musician, that’s just what you do, even though of course these random bands would have no idea that I played and sang too (especially in those days when I was actively doing neither). But to me, at some level it was a participation in the wider project of honoring music itself, of paying obeisance to the greater spirit of the thing that we were all, ultimately, in service to. I can’t remember anymore which of the guys from White Denim I happened to run into that night, while the club was still, frankly, kinda empty, but I raved “GREAT SET!” emphatically at him in passing, trying not to seem awkward or pushy while still conveying my sincere enthusiasm. He responded, “yeah, I could see you grinnin’ out there!” which made me feel like a total Band-Aid in the best way possible. It was a perfectly heart-swelling Almost Famous moment of the purest reciprocity one could hope for in that specific environment.
At the end of that year, I put “Mess Your Hair Up” on my Best of 2008 mix, citing its “itchy post-punk pleasure that surprises and delights me every moment that it doesn’t just completely fall apart.” (Dear Lord, save me from the acute pain of reading through my own archives.) As I recall, it was kind of hard to find their subsequent full-length releases, and since this was in that weird window of time when artists weren’t required to have quite as strong a presence on social media, I kind of lost track of them for a while, though I did finally hunt down a digital copy of their album Exposion.
Just before my current boyfriend and I started officially dating, I made him a mix CD with “Migration Wind” on it, and I was thrilled when he told me that it was one of his favorite tracks on there, especially since that song seemed like such a departure from what I’d loved about the EP, and in some ways, an even bolder stylistic choice for the band. The band was confident enough in itself to say, “yep, we’re going to hit you with some Doobie Brothers-level AM radio gold right now.” Since I’d become sort of ashamed of my true tastes and preferences, and was in the process of easing myself out of a phase of chronically attempting to present myself as somehow cooler or into more edgy art than I actually was, this felt like an extremely, attractively radical stance.
And, that was it for a while. I clung to that small batch of songs and stopped tracking new music as avidly while I got back into making more of my own.
Until, I guess, late 2013 when my boyfriend told me about this great new song that he’d heard on the radio, which the DJ announced was by White Denim, the same band, he realized, that had done that song “Migration Wind.” I got super excited when I realized the band was still together, and got even more excited when I finally heard “Pretty Green,” the first single off their album Corsicana Lemonade.
They’d apparently gone even further down the choogle hole in the intervening years and had reemerged as this incredibly tight, incredibly skilled yet still incredibly fun and funny band, with James Petralli ultimately becoming the most charismatic frontman I’d heard in ages.
The album has not, I think, left my iPhone in the last two and a half years. It’s become one of the rare albums that I don’t have to be in a specific mood to listen to. It’s not bound to a season or a state of mind, the way that, say, The National’s Alligator and The Clientele’s Strange Geometry will always feel like wintertime albums to me, or Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and Duncan Sheik’s Humming are usually my go-tos in early spring. It just makes me happy whenever I hear it. The musicianship is impeccable, each song is killer, and there’s absolutely no dead weight. Pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to an album these days is if it’s something I would actively rather listen to straight through instead of just putting a playlist on shuffle.
Part of the reason I love that album and love them as a band so much is that their goodness is legible to me. By which I mean, I love what they do because I respect what they’re doing because I understand the mechanics by which they’re doing it. I hear these tricky guitar lines and hooky melodies and propulsive song structures and recognize the perfectly balanced combination of chops and smarts, and it feels relatable to me. Like, I recognize how good they are because I recognize that their skills are in line with what I also aim to do musically. It’s just that they’re a couple notches away as far as how deeply and thoroughly they’ve been able to accomplish this. I say this neither to be self-aggrandizing nor self-deprecating; I’m just saying I recognize the continuum they’re on because in some ways it’s the same one that I’m on. Like, for as much as I love and respect, say, Iggy Pop, I have no access to the continuum he’s on. I recognize his genius, but I don’t relate to it, as such. It doesn’t feel “close” to what I know how to do musically.
But anyway, the closeness I feel to White Denim’s music also feels something like having bet on the right horse. Having so embraced their early stuff, and then coming back around after a bit of a gap in time to see their subsequent progress and expanded prowess feels like seeing the compound interest in my 401k starting to accrue. Like, I made a good decision by being at the right place at the right time, having a bit of taste and a bit of luck, and now it’s paying off. Lots of the bands I first saw at that Tomorrow Never Knows festival have since split up or disappeared or become uninteresting to me for whatever reason, so it just feels really satisfying to know that White Denim are not only still around but are also at the top of their game. I freaked out when I realized that they were going to be releasing a new album this spring, Stiff, and to a certain degree, I feel like it even has surpassed what they achieved with Corsicana Lemonade. It’s more soulful and more confident in ways that I’m still getting to know, but impossible not to be instantly moved and excited by.
My love for Steely Dan, then, is both incredibly prosaic and incredibly specific. It’s prosaic in the sense that they’re hugely famous and successful; their talent is obvious and unsurprising. That I enjoy their music so much is in no way special or unique. But, my window onto their work, specifically Aja, feels really bound to that mode of online music criticism that I was steeped in from about 2004 to 2009.
As I started consuming more of that kind of writing on Pitchfork and Stereogum and a variety of music blogs, it was impossible to ignore many of these (mostly dude) writers’ attitudes toward Steely Dan. The attitude was simultaneously reverent, in-jokey, holier-than-thou, and deeply nerdy. I mean, the very nature of the band itself basically invites that kind of conflicted response, but for a time, loving Steely Dan in a very specifically bloggy way felt very secret-handshakey. And, more than anything else, it really revolved around the cult of “Peg.”
Which was really the cult of that guitar solo, which was really the cult of the knowledge of what a notorious industry legend had arisen around that guitar solo, which was really the cult of having your cake and eating it too—being able to deeply enjoy a thing at the same time you could get WAY insider-baseball about its technical details and other trivia. I mean, I’ve watched and linked to this video I don’t know how many times; I’ve read the Don Breithaupt book. All this behind-the-scenes info genuinely satisfies the part of me that always longs to know the more technical aspects of how any given piece of art gets made.
But, as I said above, and as I’ve written about in other posts here, that period of music consumption, while extremely fun and informative and fulfilling in many ways, was also pretty deeply marked by shame for me.
I was ashamed that I no longer felt like a real musician. I was ashamed that though I’d auditioned for a handful of bands after moving to Chicago, none of them seemed to want me to sing with them. I was ashamed that those rejections led me to rack up a chunk of credit card debt as I shelled out money I didn’t really have for a series of classes and lessons I couldn’t really afford because I couldn’t otherwise figure out how to be actively involved in making music on a semi-regular basis.
I was ashamed of my self-described “barfy” taste in popular music. (Guys, I own several Dave Matthews Band CDs. My justification for liking them because I respected their musicianship always reminds me of that Patton Oswalt bit about Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required being “pretty fuckin’ dark!” [Even though, let me not hesitate to remind everyone, I love Phil Collins.]) I was ashamed of the way that not only did I not know anything about cool current music, I also didn’t know anything about the reference points these reviewers had to cool music of the recent past, so I, filled with the shame of my ignorance, rushed to fill the gaps in my knowledge of Pixies, Pavement, The Smiths, and a bunch of others. (Real talk now, OK? I hate Pixies, Pavement, and The Smiths. I mean, sure, there’s a handful of their songs that I genuinely enjoy, and I get why they’re popular and beloved. They’re just mostly not for me, and it was starting to get exhausting to pretend otherwise.)
And so, I tried to navigate this new world of music nerdery, which seemed like it should have been similar to the way I grew up loving and learning about music from my dad and his fellow musician friends. But instead, it just made me feel like I had to abdicate anything I actually knew or liked from those first two decades of my life because it didn’t fit the mode of discourse that was deemed acceptable. Thus, Steely Dan felt extremely confusing to me. Like, here was this band that I could recognize as being “good” on a continuum that I inherently understood (jazz chords! literate lyrics!) that was also somehow acceptable under the terms of this rockist worldview I was straining myself to adopt.
So, I think I dove into proclaiming my love for Steely Dan as something of a talisman to protect myself against any hypothetical, imaginary charges that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I didn’t belong at the cool kids’ table. It was like I’d found a wormhole that allowed me to slip into this other dimension that I’d been trying to get myself into with varying degrees of prior success. But, I don’t think I really even wanted to be at the cool kids’ table because I actually cared about being cool; it was just the only space I could see at the time that felt like it connected to my passion for music. It was less that I wanted to be cool for the sake of being cool; I mostly just wanted to feel like I had the permission to openly express my tastes, to have a legitimated platform for spouting off about the stuff that I so deeply cared about. Which was music. Appreciating it, getting inside of it, living with it, connecting to grace through it.
That being said, none of that at all diminishes how much I do genuinely love Aja! I remember, when I first started really getting into it, the brown line stop at Rockwell nearest my apartment was closed for construction, so I had an extra seven-to-nine-minute walk to the next one at Western on my way to work in the morning, which got me through “Black Cow” and a chunk of the title track. I can remember standing at the Western station waiting for the train to pull in and just totally nerding out on that ending freakout of “Aja.” And then, once I was eventually on the train, by the time we were pulling into Belmont, I was usually toward the middle or end of “Peg,” just inwardly losing my shit over, of all things, the elegance of Rick Marotta’s ride cymbal work as the song plays and fades out.
I love the album’s elegantly knowing cynicism the way I love the hyper-intelligent, intricately wrought, stylish nihilism of Kubrick’s films. Any music that so instantly and intensely conveys that level of louche exasperation with, you know, the business of being alive at the same time that it revels in the exactitude of its own artifice is just infinitely OK by me.
My friend Ben and I will still occasionally text each other if we’re out and about and happen to hear “Deacon Blues” playing on the sound system of a restaurant or store. It’s one of those friendship shorthands that has long since lost its original reference point but still remains an active, potent way of conveying “I love you and I’m thinking about you.” I hope to eventually have a chance to see Steely Dan in concert before they stop touring so I can add them to my list of beloved classic artists I can say I’ve seen perform live at least once. I will sometimes say “they never knew it went down! They never knew it,” a la Chuck Rainey, when I feel like I’m getting away with a bit of benign mischief.
My boyfriend and I will go through phases of listening to Steely Dan’s greatest hits CD Showbiz Kids every once in a while, and I have a handful of their other proper albums in my collection, but honestly nothing of theirs has ever captured my brain and heart and ears the way that Aja did that spring a decade ago. So I just allow myself to be open to loving “Peg” whenever I hear it, which is fairly often given its massive, continued popular success (as well as its prominence as a five-starred song in my iTunes library), hoping in some indefinable way that the music’s own paradoxes will give me the courage to stand firm in my own.
“Holy shit!! The harmonies aren’t really all the way there (you can’t step to McDonald), but White Denim just did a super, super, super respectable job covering ‘Peg.’ Bold move, guys!!!”
This is what I e-mailed my boyfriend, with the link to the YouTube video, immediately after I saw the White Denim Facebook fan page mention that it had been posted. This was the only way that my brain could manage, in the heat of the moment, with the implied weight of everything I’ve been discussing above, to convey my excitement about what had just unfolded in front of me like some kind of hyper-personalized cosmic gift.
In 2013 and 2014, my band participated in a year-end holiday fundraiser event (at Schubas, appropriately enough) called Covers for Cover. The concept is that bands play cover songs to raise money for various shelters in the area (ie, for cover). The first year we played all animal-themed songs (to connect with our band’s name, Pet Theories) and the second year we did a set as The Police.
None of us are the types of musicians who would insist on getting these covers too “right” in the sense of note-for-note accuracy or anything like that. As long as the song was mostly recognizable, we felt comfortable adapting the arrangements so that they were more “us.” Not quite as far afield as something like a punk band doing a cover of “The Rainbow Connection,” but also not, y’know, at the level of The Fab Faux or one of those bands that specifically exists in order to present itself as as close to the real deal as you’re gonna get.
Anyway, my whole point is that I’ve had a little experience recently in learning to play cover songs, so I can appreciate the thought process that must have gone into White Denim deciding they were gonna bust out a cover of “Peg.” There’s this delicate nexus of “shit, can we pull this off?” / “what’s something recognizable but not too overdone?” / “what’s something that sounds a bit like us without being too obvious as a reference point?” / “what’s a song we love enough to deconstruct that we won’t subsequently ruin for ourselves through repetition?” The fact that any band would spit “Peg” out at the end of this chain of questioning is so incredibly ballsy that, truly, the only proper response is to laugh with utterly delighted incredulity the way that you can hear Petralli doing just before the camera cuts away to commercial. It’s the laugh of, “yep, we really did just do that; can you believe it? Wasn’t it absurd? And wasn’t it awesome?”
Because, playing a cover of “Peg” is in no way, of course, just playing a cover of “Peg.” It’s referencing all that deep music-nerd knowledge of Steely Dan as these legendarily exacting players. It’s having the chops to actually pull it off. It’s gesturing toward the music people who will get the reference and understand the complexity of the choice and be duly surprised and impressed by it. It’s having a solid enough identity as a band that the song comes off as affectionate rather than ironic. It’s operating at a level of success where all these factors add up to, like, just a fun thing to try to do if you happen to be touring behind a new album anyway.
And, holy crap, it works! I mean, for me, given all of the above, it so works.
I have STRONG feelings about Petralli honestly being one of the best rock vocalists working right now. On White Denim’s proper recordings, he simultaneously manages to have great intonation and soulfulness while pushing the emotional content of his singing beyond just, I dunno, the standard romantic angst or exhaustingly hip self-regard. One of my favorite moments of any rock song in recent memory is toward the middle of “Let It Feel Good (My Eagles)” on Corsicana Lemonade where he laughs a little bit at the end of a phrase and then his articulation changes because you can actually hear him still smiling on the other end of the microphone. Like, the honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, and generosity of allowing that take to stay on the track just astounds me.
You definitely get some of that quality in this live version of “Peg” too. I mean, I have similarly strong feelings about the glorious sneering irony of Donald Fagen’s vocals on the original (if you don’t believe in the singularity of Fagen’s voice, just listen to David Palmer’s lamely vanilla singing on Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and tell me he in any way advances the band’s sensibility), and it’s a testament to his musical intelligence that Petralli manages not to make me miss Fagen at all, through either imitation or by somehow misguidedly trying to outdo him.
My dad was a legendarily excitable guy. People used to dryly poke fun at him, “gee, Terry, don’t you ever get excited about anything?” when he’d be shouting and getting red in the face about some new thing that had caught his fancy. I’ve definitely inherited this tendency and often find myself trying to temper my enthusiasm, assuming that, I dunno, if everything is so exciting then maybe nothing is? But, I don’t know how much I actually believe that. The obsessive excitement itself may be fleeting, but to me, it always points to a richer story, with far deeper roots, in a specific context, that’s trying to be told. Thanks for sitting with me while I got excited enough to tell this one.
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