“Clampdown,” The Clash

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Last week’s necessary listening was Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain” but this week I needed to hear the Clash. This song is perhaps not their best but is my personal favorite, a warning against complacency, a challenge to the listener to want more from themselves, their work, their country.

Some friends had an inauguration de-celebration last week and we each were asked to bring something hopeful to read. The best was a poem about organizing by Marge Piercey. I was tempted to read these lyrics, which are more cautionary than hopeful but very, very timely. You’d need the Clash’s musical maelstrom to do them justice though (check out some of the live vidoes on Youtube, amazing). Instead I shared a few readings about American exceptionalism, a topic I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about over the next four years.

I sort of believe in it but see it more as a responsibility than entitlement. I chose a paragraph from Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train” that spoke about how we are all of us in a kind of partnership to make America live up to its ideals and then a stanza from a John Ashberry poem my college professor Lee Schlesinger introduced us to that compares those American ideals to a letter we wait and wait to arrive and then when it does we accidentally tear in half. In the poem the letter’s still legible, though. Maybe it says something like this:

Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
Don’t you know that you can use it

Back in the day I found the Clash too on the nose, too direct. I still privilege the subtle but have gained respect for sometimes saying exactly what you mean in as clear terms as possible.

The inauguraton unparty was the rare room where I was one of the more optimistic people. We’ve had demagogues before, I said. They do damage but the system survives. Eventually he’ll lose control of the American people, and then of Congress. As the Clash say here, evil presidentes do sometimes fully get their due. There are people in power who care about more than power. Even some Republicans!

I could be wrong.

Vivid memory of dancing to “Clampdown” with a room full of friends at my wedding reception. The personal and political, they are intertwined, just the way Joe and Mick and Paul and Topper intended.

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2016 Favorites

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Superlatives:

Favorite Album: Once again I bought so few albums that this category should be retired for lack of candidates but it provides another opportunity to shout out the Hamilton soundtrack, which remains to me a jaw-dropping piece of work. How did Lin Manuel Miranda do this? For my best of below I chose “You’ll Be Back” which is not very representative but nothing else seemed to fit in with the rest of my picks.

Favorite Fast Song: Fill in the Blank, Car Set Headrest. Great vocal, great guitars, great lyrics. Drunk Drivers/Killers Whales may actually be the better song but I give the nod to this one for the lines, “You have no right to be depressed/You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” I sequenced this after Leonard Cohen below and I can imagine the Act 3 Leonard Cohen saying something to himself…although not necessarily the Act 1 Leonard Cohen. Same holds true for me!

Favorite Slow Song: Needed, Robbie Fulks. I waxed eloquent about Humble and Kind as an advice-to-my-kid song but damned if a better one didn’t come along toward the end of the year. One of those songs that makes me feel like the writer is reading my mail. “May you steer past shallow freedoms,” there’s some advice we could all periodically stand to hear.

Song That Makes Me Inexplicably Happy Every Time I Hear It: Nobody Wins, Brian Fallon. It’s kind of a sad song, addressed to an ex-lover who’s probably not remotely interested in listening. But it seems to have a stoic acceptance of the passing of time that I am currently attempting to cultivate. Plus there’s something in the vocal so contradictorily unaccepting of the passage of time, so up to the challenge, so up to any challenge…file under early Bruce.

Disk 1:

  1. Leaving the Table, Leonard Cohen
  2. Fill in the Blank, Car Seat Headrest
  3. Shilpa Ray on Broadway, Shilpa Ray
  4. Fake I.D., Joyce Manor
  5. Shut Up Kiss Me, Angel Olsen
  6. Roller, Quilt
  7. Mono Pt. II, Trapper Schoepp
  8. Never Be It, Cotton Mather
  9. Easier Said, Sunflower Bean
  10. Impossible Hand, Stephen Steinbrink
  11. How Lucky Am I?, Lemon Twigs
  12. Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous, Walter Martin
  13. You’ll Be Back, Hamilton Original Broadway Cast
  14. A 1000 Times, Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
  15. Talking Quietly of Anything With You, Free Cake for Every Creature

Disk 2:

  1. Humble and Kind, Tim McGraw
  2. Wreck You, Lori McKenna
  3. Nobody Wins, Brian Fallon
  4. Back, I Don’t Cares
  5. Longer, Lydia Loveless
  6. Anyhow, Tedeschi Trucks Band
  7. Changes, Charles Bradley
  8. All Around You, Sturgill Simpson
  9. Northern Highway, Martin Courtney
  10. You Say, Dori Freeman
  11. Porch Light, Aoife O’Donovan
  12. If I Ever Was a Child, Wilco
  13. Hands of Time, Margo Price
  14. Only a River, Bob Weir
  15. Needed, Robbie Fulks

“Yeah, I Know, It’s Christmas,” Andrew Dost

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This starts out like that Martin-Short-as-Ed-Grimley on Christmas Eve sketch on SCTV, a throbbing piano and spoken delivery conjuring the singer’s too-excited-to-sleep thoughts:

Yeah, I know, it’s Christmastime
And I don’t care
Because I don’t ever get anything I want

Among the the things he does get: videogames, toys he’ll only play with once, and advice. (I think he says “bikes” but I prefer hearing “advice.” I personally hate getting advice for Christmas.)

But then he catches himself:

Of course I’m kidding
I love this freaking day
In fact the whole month leading up to it is great

…and then surrenders entirely:

Oh baby, baby, baby I can’t wait!

The song slows down, background voices enter, and the singer starts to actually sing, enumerating the stuff about the holiday he loves. Which, unimaginatively, turns out to be the same stuff about the holiday all of us love or say we do, snow, the skating rink, the Christmas tree, the whole “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” shtick.

All right fine, we have the same small town in all of us (thanks, Don Henley) and have all been sold the same dream of Christmas (RIP, Greg Lake). But what’s great about the song is that the singer doesn’t stop there with the standard-issue Christmas trappings (okay, I love them too!) but throws in enough quirky details to convince me Christmas really is his favorite time of year. Being together with people he’s not together with often enough allows him to let down his guard enough to dance to a Billy Joel song. Taking a break from all those people for a long walk in the cold with a special person, holding hands through gloves.

This comes from a mix CD I made about 10 years ago of Indie Rock Christmas songs. They are not genres that mix well. Indie rockers are generally too self-conscious and suspicious to give up much ground to a holiday like Christmas, and the result tends toward the morose or snarky. These are not the qualities I look for in my holiday music. I don’t play the CD very much.

But I love this song, which you can find on Youtube but not Spotify. I have no memory of where I originally stumbled over it or who Andrew Dost is or what else he’s recorded. But I hope Christmas is still his favorite time of year and that this holiday is the best he’s ever had, and I wish the same to you.

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“Ariel,” Dean Friedman

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“Have you heard the Paramus Park song?”

We lived, as the song says, on the other side of the Hudson, deep in the bosom of suburbia, and there was just something so cool about hearing one of our hangouts (it’s a Mall, or was back in the seventies) mentioned in a song that was playing on the radio. Others have spoken about how validating it can be to see people like yourself or a place you’ve been in a book, a song, a movie (and how excluding it can feel when you consistently don’t) and that may be one (of many) of the things we’ve lost in the Internet age. Every moment is captured and screened; it’s not a novelty anymore. There’s probably a Web site with old photos of Paramus Park. All is public, and so that thrill of seeing something you’ve felt was private suddenly opened up to the world (and it is a thrill, except to a few malcontents) has lost its intensity. Though I did think it was pretty awesome the other night to see the Boston Common rendered on “The Simpsons.”

The song was pretty good too, sort of bubblegum/Beach Boys with a touch of Elton John. The singer had a drawling, oddly-accented voice that could have come straight from one of the weirdos at the lunch table. The story was typical: boy meets girl, boy invites girl to gig, boy gets (romantically) laid. The saxophone solo was squirmy but the chorus was killer, just the word “Ariel” stretched over many notes, genius in its simplicity, the kind of thing you’d find yourself singing while driving without even noticing you were doing it.

Besides the ripped-from-my-life details (my Dad hung out at the American Legion hall!) what’s striking is how much we find out about the girl. She’s Jewish, vegetarian, pot-smoking, a good singer, bra-challenged. So much detail, as opposed to the faceless “you” of most (written-by-men) love songs!

Me and my girlfriend at the time (not Jewish, not vegetarian, not pot-smoking, but a good singer and also bra-challenged) loved the song, which we could only find in its single version. We also loved Dean’s second album, “Well Well Said the Rocking Chair” when it came out later that year. We played the cassette I made of it on many of our trips to Paramus Park, and were especially partial to the title song, “Sunday Papers,” and “Lucky Stars” (it said what we felt!) Listening to it now (I still own the album) is as squirmy as that sax solo in “Ariel” but that’s part of the fun, right?

From the Web: Dean is still around, still making (self-produced, self-released) music. He’s got name recognition enough to tour in the UK, where “Lucky Stars” was a big hit  (I had no idea). He seems to have made some money in video game companies. He still lives deep in the heart of suburbia, not far from where I grew up. The cocained-up Barenaked Lady (Steven Page) sometimes covers one of his older songs in concert. Good for Dean on all counts!

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Recent Songs #2

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New-ish songs that bear repeating listenings:

  1. “Northern Highway,” Martin Courtney
    Martin from Real Estate (the band, not the backup career for midlist rockers) wants to express sadness about being apart from his girlfriend but he’s too excited by the catchy guitar figure he’s come up with for much sadness to come through. It’s a great guitar figure! He plays it what feels like 80 times over the course of the song and at the end just gives up on the words and plays it over and over. Words are a pain in the ass anyway.
  2. “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous,” Water Martin
    Walter from The Walkmen (the band, not the Wednesday morning fitness club at the senior center) recounts awful jobs he’s had: mowing lawns, delivering roses and pizzas, working the switchboard at the Metropolitan Museum and the information counter at the Cloisters Museum. While he’s working at the Cloisters who should walk in but Billy Joel, now a “dignified old music man.” Walter has an epiphany: being a rock star would be better than all these stupid other jobs! So he becomes a rock star. Randy Newman territory, but still charming.
  3. “Talking Quietly of Anything with You,” Free Cake for Every Creature
    A whispery, slow motion appreciation of having someone to sit on the couch and chat aimlessly with after a long day. “Your face in the lamplight/I want to frame it.”  “Soup on the stove/tonight there is a moat around us.” “We’re not old/but we’re getting older.” I’ve been there, and as I’ve said before about of songs, lovely of someone to notice it. (The someone in this case is named Katie Bennett, and I hope the topic of changing the name she records under comes up during one of these end-of-day conversations.)
  4. “Shilpa Ray on Broadway,” Shilpa Ray
    I have no idea who this person is or why she feels she’s earned the right to namecheck herself in a song title (or maybe “Shilpa Ray” is the name of the band?) but what a fun song it is! Snare drums, cheesy organ, vocal that feels delivered from the corner of sneering lips. It seems to have something to do with being resentful of poverty and of a boyfriend who can “stand in front of [her] and have no feelings” and therefore must be lobotomized. I like the line about having a “shopping cart filled with cheap thoughts.”
  5. “Impossible Hand,” Stephen Steinbrink and “Mono Pt. II,” Trapper Schoepp
    We are in “people who like this sort of thing will like this sort of thing” territory with these two sunny, winsome pop songs. “Impossible Hand” has “ahhhh” background vocals. “Mono Pt. II” has a horn section. They are both about love, “Impossible Hand” the jilted aftermath and “Mono Pt. II” the unrequited non-beginning. Both would sound excellent coming out of a transistor radio.

“Soul Deep,” The Box Tops

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For the last few summers in addition to our usual vacation packing list (sunscreen, blankets, bottle of Rioja) we’ve purchased a commemorative oldies CD, the poppier the better, preferably by a band we know only by one or two big hits. We play it on the ride down and then constantly as we shuttle from house to beach to restaurant to outlet store. (Our vacations seem to involve a lot of outlet shopping.) Past years have included: the Turtles, the Grassroots (underrated), the Cowsills (not underrated but still fun), and the Left Banke (not beachy enough but you can play “Walk Away Renee” at my funeral).

This year we didn’t do a beach vacation but instead spent the week touring colleges, accumulating data points for what will turn out to be the second-most expensive single purchase of our lives after our house. (I’m not anticipating a Tesla in my future.) But we still found a few minutes to stop in a great record store called Bull Moose in Brunswick, Maine, where we picked up a compilation by the Box Tops.

(An aside about compilations: they are better shorter! Those 20th Century Master CDs that give you the one or two big hits and then the eight or nine lesser hits, those are perfect, a half hour and you’re out. There is no need to include the ambitious side two experiments or the songs that someone from the record company forced the group to cut because the writer was a relative. All of which to say, this 18-song Box Tops compilation is okay, but a 10-song Box Tops compilation would have been killer.)

Anyway, “Cry Like a Baby”is the best song here but “Soul Deep” is the one I’ve had on repeat play during my commute, perhaps because I’m less familiar with it. It’s the last of the Box Tops charting hits, from 1969, and is typical of their blue-eyed soul approach, the horns, the plucked guitar, something a little fuzzy and messy about the whole thing. The vocal is great, Alex Chilton doesn’t sound like he’s trying too hard as is the case on other Box Tops songs, and the lyric has the shambling, thrown-together feel of someone struggling to find words to express an inexpressible joy:

I worked myself to euphoria
Just to show I adore ya

What does that even mean? “Soul deep,” though, that means everything. Did the phrase exist before this song? The Internet hasn’t been able to answer that for me.

(An aside about Alex Chilton: I don’t totally get him. I have listened hard to Big Star because bands I love have noted them again and again as an influence, and there are great songs there, but none I’d trade for the Replacements or REM or even Matthew Sweet’s best. And the Chilton solo stuff is self-indulgent and forgettable. RIP, or course, and thanks for inspiring those bands I love, but in this case I’ll take the ones who came along later and did it pretty over the genius who did it first.)

So let me bring this full circle: Alex Chilton was a whopping 18 years old when he recorded this, which begs the question of whether an 18-year old has any idea of what it’s like to love something soul deep. But I reject that question because if he can make me believe he does then I am happily along for the ride. Or maybe it’s just that after spending a week listening to 18-year olds telling me why I should spend $65,000 a year on the product they were selling–while walking backwards, no less!–I am in a vulnerable place to submit to the authoritative voice of youth.

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