Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 30: “Lover’s Return,” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

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In one’s life, one is lucky to get one or two genuinely perfect moments. This song soundtracked one of mine, which I described here on Whatever a couple of years ago:

It’s 1999. Krissy and I had our first house. Our daughter was newly born. I had gotten my first book contract, or was about to, and was successfully freelancing as a writer. On the evening of one of those days, Krissy was bathing our infant daughter while I talked to her about the day. Our dog Kodi napped contentedly in a corner, and a song was playing in the background.

It was a simple, ordinary and absolutely unremarkable moment in my daily life, and yet in the moment I had the presence of mind to recognize that in that simple, ordinary and absolutely unremarkable moment, I was absolutely and transplendently happy with my life and the people in it. I was happy. We were happy. We were all happy together. It was a clarity of joy that one gets only a few times in one’s life, and here it was, while my wife was bathing my daughter and talking to me about nothing in particular. It was at the time, and remains in my memory, a perfect moment.

Why was I listening to this song? Because I was a music critic at the time, and Trio II, the album it was on, had come out recently, and I was planning to review it. There was no planning for it to be on at that moment; I had put it on and then checked in on Krissy and Athena, and then quite accidentally stumbled into this small perfect moment. I’m glad I had the presence of mind to remember it. I’m pretty sure having this song, with its close harmonies from Ronstadt, Parton and Harris, helped anchor it in my mind.

Listening to it now does not take me back to the moment. But it reminds me I had it, and that is more than enough. The memory of a perfect happiness is in itself a happiness.

It’s why, among other things, I’m choosing this song to close out this series. We are ending, emotionally and in the case of Dolly Parton’s harmony line, literally, on a high note. Thank you for coming along with me on this tour of music that has mattered to me. I hope you enjoyed reading and listening to it as much as I enjoyed presenting it to you.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 29: “Boys,” by Charli XCX

This one’s appearance on my personal playlist is not complicated: It’s just so delightfully and almost innocently randy that it just makes me laugh and be happy. Whomst amongst us has not been where Charli XCX is in this song: So blissfully wrapped up in thinking about the objects of their affection that everything else just plain fades out? She admits she wishes she had better excuses for zoning out, but in the end, come on: Boys. It’s okay, Charlie XCX, I get you. Boys aren’t my personal heart-tripper, but otherwise, boy, do I ever know where you’re coming from.

There are better songs on this list. More meaningful songs. Songs with more cultural and social impact and import. Is there a song on this list that gets me in a better mood? Maybe not! I can’t not be happy when I hear this song. That’s all you need, sometimes! Well, that and puppies, which the video has an abundance of. So there’s that, too.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 28: “Ride the Wind to Me,” by Julie Miller

Julie Miller feels like secret knowledge, and someone who have to know someone else first to meet. She’s a contemporary of musicians like Sam Phillips, Shawn Colvin and Victoria Williams, all of whom had far higher public profiles in their day. She’s written songs for or covered by some hugely prominent country musicians, including Lee Ann Womack and Emmylou Harris. She’s married to and musically collaborates with Buddy Miller, himself a bit of a secret weapon in country and Americana music. There are all these doors to find Julie Miller, you just have to walk through them.

My own door was through Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, on which Harris sings Miller’s “All My Tears.” Harris and producer Daniel Lanois turn the song into a haunted, gothic bit of gospel; you can almost hear the Spanish moss hanging off it. When, a few years later, Julie Miller released a new solo album (Broken Things), I was curious to hear what she herself sounded like, when not filtered through Emmylou Harris.

The answer: Not haunted, and not gothic, but still, really, really good. Miller’s voice is a plaintive tremolo, singing poetry, and in “Ride the Wind to Me” that poetry is of the “you’re shattered but you can get better” sort, in which Miller consoles a heartbroken friend, and promises more and better. “Someday your tears will turn to diamonds,” she sings, which is just one of several really excellent bits of lyricism Miller spins. The song is a healing spell, and whoever that heartbroken fellow is, if he’s not in love with Miller by the end of the song, the problem is with him, not her.

Miller is a gifted songwriter and is still at it; she and Buddy are still releasing albums together, and they’re quite fine. That said, Broken Things, released in 1999, is the last album under her name solely; I wouldn’t mind another from her. Having learned the secret knowledge of Julie Miller, I’d be happy to learn more.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 27: “Fire Drills,” by Dessa

Dessa is the one musician in this series who I met prior to hearing her music. She and I were guests at John and Hank Green’s NerdCon: Stories convention in 2015, where among other things she and I participated in a team debate event in which we expounded the value of putting on foot attire in a sock, sock, shoe, shoe fashion rather than in the (obviously inferior) sock, shoe, sock, shoe fashion. Dessa was great fun to hang with and exuded cool from the moment she stepped into a room. I was a fan before I heard a single note.

I have heard, shall we say, several notes of hers in the time since. Dessa is one of my favorite working lyricists: Ferocious and vulnerable, smart and witty and true, and with the ability to take a turn of phrase and use it to hook your heart and your head. Her lyrics read like poetry (no surprise, as she is a published poet) and are often as dense as an essay (also no surprise, as she is a published essayist) and revealing as a memoir (if you did not guess at this point she is also a published memoirist, you’re not paying attention). Dessa is reporting from the front, and the front is the world and her movement through it.

Which brings us to “Fire Drills,” which I think is, to date, her finest hour. In it, Dessa lays out what it takes to be a woman in the world, because she has been a woman in the world, among other things touring with Doomtree, the rap collective she is part of (and was the CEO of, for a time) and doing her own solo work and other appearances and projects. Being out in the world means she knows what it takes from her to be in it, and how much of it isn’t available to her. As she says in the song:

You can’t be too broke to break
As a woman always something left to take
So you shouldn’t try to stay too late or talk to strangers
Look too long, go too far out of range ’cause
Angels can’t watch everybody all the time
Stay close, hems low, safe inside
That formula works if you can live it
But it works by putting half the world off limits

“Fire Drills” is reportage, presented relentlessly and to a beat, and tells you a simple fact: That so much of a woman’s life in the world is running the fire drills of the song title. Doing the cautionary heavy lifting and planning that men don’t have to, and don’t have to think about — or, because, we’re so often blessed in our often willful ignorance, even know was a thing that had to be thought about at all.

And, of course, this is bullshit. “I think a woman’s worth, I think that she deserves, a better line of work, than motherfucking vigilance,” Dessa raps in the song.

She is 100% fucking correct. Dessa deserves more than vigilance. So does my wife. So does my daughter. So do all my friends and peers who are women. So does every woman anywhere, regardless of whether I know them or not. None of them are getting it, and, how to put this, recent events in the world and particularly in the United States make “more than vigilance” harder for them all. “Fire Drills” is more relevant in 2022 than when it came out in 2018, and that is infuriating.

“Fire Drills” was brilliant since the day it dropped, but today, now, here in this time, it hits me like a punch in the face. It starkly reminds me of what I get for free that others get only at high cost, and sometimes not at all. There’s nothing in Dessa’s words here that to me tries to make the individual male listener to feel guilty about this, and guilt is not what I feel in any event.

What I feel, and what Dessa’s words pull from me, is a sense of responsibility; first to bear to witness to and to acknowledge the truth of what Dessa is saying, and then to put in some work, in support of women and others whose rights are being threatened today. People who have privileges in the world tend to sort into two camps: Those who believe privileges must be horded, and those who believe privileges should be shared. The hoarders are having their moment right now. My work needs to be in making this hoarding moment as short as possible, and, in support of others, help to bring things around to sharing once more.

I’m glad that meeting Dessa inspired me to seek out her music. I’m even more glad that Dessa’s work is challenging me to do and be better, and serves as a reminder of what this moment asks of me, as one who does not have to lead a life of vigilance. Dessa didn’t write this song for me or about me, or to require me to do anything. It inspires me to do it anyway. Listen to the song, maybe it’ll do that for you, too.

Dessa (left) and Aviva Jaye, on JoCo Cruise 2022.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 26: “Cut Your Teeth,” by Kyla La Grange

Because I am a hopeless, story-seeking nerd, I have created a whole backstory to the video to the Kyla La Grange song “Cut Your Teeth,” which is taken from the album of the same name. Very briefly, La Grange and her background singers are in hell, for whatever reason they have found themselves in hell, and their eternal damnation is to be part of a kitschy music box-like existence, in which they perform for whatever devil spawn happen to be wandering by and want to be momentarily entertained. There’s more to it than that — I could go on — but that’s the gist of it. Whether this has anything to do with how La Grange and her collaborators imagined this particular video is aside the point. This is my fan fiction and I’m sticking to it.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be whomping up a whole backstory to the video if the song didn’t work for me so well that I made a choice to listen to it over and over. And in fact this song, and the entire album it’s part of, are very much up my alley, icy electronica paired up with stories of loneliness and heartbreak (sometimes La Grange’s, sometimes someone else’s), sung in a sweet but disaffected voice by La Grange. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t listen to albums all the way through very much anymore, but Cut Your Teeth is one I put on and let run. It’s a whole mood, and sometimes I want to spend an hour inside a mood.

That mood is enough that it’s fair to say that La Grange is my favorite “new” artist of the last decade or so (“new” in quotes here because Cut Your Teeth is from 2014; as I get older my definition of “new” stretches). She in fact just put a new album this year, which makes me happy. There are new videos. I have no made backstories for them. Yet.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 25: “Bachelorette,” by Bjork

One thing I have long admired about Bjork is how unapologetically weird she is, musically speaking (I don’t know how she is in her personal life, and it’s not my business anyway). The less ambitious version of her could have made a decent career out of being merely quirky, but nothing about Bjork could ever be described as “less ambitious.” And thus, a musical career that has ranged from, yes, quirky pop hits to entire albums done acapella, because that’s what Bjork wanted to do and who is going to argue with her, she’s Bjork.

There’s a lot to admire about Bjork’s entire discography, but the album I’ve connected to the most is Homogenic, and of all the songs there, “Bachelorette” is the one that stands out for me. Part of it is the lyrical imagery (any song that begins “I’m a fountain of blood/in the shape of a girl” is one that is trying for something different than your average pop hit), and part of it is the relentless thrum of the music itself. This song is going places and it’s taking you with it. Do you want to go where it’s taking you? It hardly matters, you’re going anyway.

I love it. I love that you have to take Bjork on her own terms; it seems doubtful to me she’s worried about having a hit single since the 90s at least. There’s something to be said about having to take the walk to wherever an artist is and appreciating them on their terms, not yours. And if you can’t or don’t, that’s fine! They’re going to do their thing no matter what. I don’t want everyone I listen to (or every creative person whose output I admire) to be this way. But I’m glad Bjork is like this. I honestly can’t imagine her any other way.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 24: “Calling All Angels,” by Jane Siberry

Sometimes you connect with a musician for only one song or one album, but that connection, when it’s made, is a strong one. I feel that way about Jane Siberry; most of her oeuvre is not for me for various reasons, but then there’s When I Was a Boy, an album-length mediation on life and what surrounds it, before and after. It turns out that this was extremely my thing, or at the very least, Jane Siberry’s take on it was my thing, none more so than the song “Calling All Angels.”

I actually connected with “Calling All Angels” before the album it is on, because it was part of the soundtrack album for Until the End of the World, a science fiction film directed by Wim Wenders. The movie itself is a bit of a mess, but the soundtrack is magnificent; Wenders went to a bunch of musicians during the production of the film (it came out in 1991) and asked them to imagine where music would be in 1999. Uniformly the answer from these musicians was that would be in a dark and moody place (thus the later irony that, when 1999 actually hit, it was the realm of boy bands, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera). In this collection of dark moodiness, “Calling All Angels” was a contrast and counterpoint: It was moody, but that moodiness was ultimately hopeful. The song is better integrated in When I Was a Boy; that album was all of a piece.

I think it’s interesting when you have such a small window with an artist. Jane Siberry’s other work is excellent, it’s just not something I connect with or come back to in the same way that I came back to When I Was a Boy. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it is what it is. I’m glad we had that particular moment, and I treasure it.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 23: “On the Radio,” by Regina Spektor

For this series I’m picking one song per artist to represent them and why they’ve mattered to me. Usually, this isn’t too difficult — sometimes it’s that one particular song that’s resonated for me, and other times there’s usually one song above several other equally worthy songs that I thing be represents what I like and admire about the artist. In the case of Regina Spektor, however, I had an excruciating time picking between two songs: “Fidelity” and “On the Radio.” Both songs resonate almost equally for me; both songs are on my Forever Playlist.

That’s because both songs, each from Spektor’s Begin to Hope album, really quite excellently nail what it feels like to surrender one’s self to love. “Fidelity” covers the effort it takes to make that surrender in the first place, to really let someone in, and by doing so, open one’s self to the terrifying everything that comes with love; “On the Radio,” goes into what opening one’s self actually entails. Of the two songs, “Fidelity” is the more complete and lyrically coherent song on the matter; it’s also arguably Ms. Spektor’s signature song.

“On the Radio” is more scattershot — its first verse feel more like stream-of-consciousness lyrical warming up than anything else — but when it gets into gear in the second set of verses, it’s so devastatingly correct and beautiful about what it means to be in love with another person that is literally breathtaking to me:

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

This song is sixteen years old as of this writing, and I’ve heard it dozens if not hundreds of times, and rare is the time that I get out of this verse without tears. This is it; this is indeed how it works, and how wise of Ms. Spektor to recognize that fact.

And it’s a lot! You can understand why, in “Fidelity,” she’s reluctant to surrender into it at all, or why anyone who actually does understand that terrifying everything of love, can hesitate to give themselves over to it. You have to really want it and you have to accept responsibility for yourself in it. It’s certainly easier not to take it on. I don’t fault anyone who chooses not to.

But if you do, there are rewards. Are they worth it? That’s up to each person to decide. In my particular case, I can say: Absolutely, so far, and I’m working hard to make sure it stays so. I play “On the Radio” every now and again to remind myself of the feeling that saying yes to it all has gained me.

(Quick note: Regina Spektor’s newest album, Home, before and after, comes out tomorrow (6/24/22). What I’ve heard from it so far is very good. I’ll be getting it.)

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 22: “Something That You Said,” by The Bangles

There’s a natural progression to the careers of most (successful) bands: The scrappy “new kid” phase, where the band is starting out and struggling, and maybe has a couple of songs passed around by their “first in,” fans; the “rising star” phase, where they get picked up by a major label, get their first Billboard hits and gold records; the “Imperial” phase, which is where the big hits that define their career happen; and then everything else. The “everything else” phase is not a bad thing, per se — you can make a lot of money touring in the “everything else” phase! — but from a creative and legacy point of view, it means that everything you do in that period has a tendency to be overlooked or an afterthought. This is why, at a concert from a band in the “everything else” phase of their career, the phrase “this is from our new album” is so frequently taken as the cue to hit the bathroom.

The Bangles had their imperial phase in the 80s, with hits like “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Manic Monday” and “Eternal Flame,” and then broke up at the end of the decade, sitting out most of the 90s before coming back with their sole first post-imperial studio album, Doll Revolution, in 2003. Doll Revolution went essentially nowhere on the charts; Wikipedia tells me that it got to number 23 on the US Independent Albums list. It’s too bad, because the album itself is pretty good (if, like so many albums of the CD era, overlong — it has 15 tracks where it should have ten or eleven at most). It also has, in my opinion, one of the finest singles the Bangles ever put out.

That would be “Something That You Said.” Sonically, it’s right in line with the band’s poppier output, and would not be out of place on Different Light or Everything, the band’s two biggest albums. Lyrically, on the other hand, I suspect it could have only been written outside of the band’s imperial era, after the individual members of the band had gotten a chance to step back from the treadmill of constant fame and were able to, you know, live different lives than those of being a rock star. The song is about being in a place and time in one’s own life where one has the perspective to actually appreciate love, and the effort it takes from both parties. It’s a grown-up pop song! Which is nice.

Not for nothing, the listed songwriters for the track include Charlotte Caffey, best known as a member of the Go-Gos and the writer or co-writer of most of that band’s big hits. The Go-Gos followed a very similar arc to the Bangles: Big in the 80s, sat out most of the 90s, popped out an album in the early 00s. That album included “Talking Myself Down,” a co-write with Susannah Hoffs, so perhaps “Something That You Said” is Caffey returning the favor. Whether it is or not, what is true enough is, like the members of the Bangles, Caffey did her own time away from the spotlight. I’m pretty sure it informed the songwriting.

Which was fine by me. I was 34 when this song came out, and lyrically and sonically, it hit a spot in my psyche that no other Bangles song had previously managed. I was ready for that song because of my own life experience at the time. Basically, the band and I had aged into each other just a little bit. I had liked the Bangles well enough before this song, but this song became and remains essential to me, and for years was my one “go-to” song from the band (in the fullness of time I have also become fond of their cover of “Going Down to Liverpool”). Should I ever manage to see the Bangles live, I will be the one cheering for this song the loudest. I don’t mind being an outlier in that crowd.

What does “Something That You Said” tell us about the nature of pop and songwriting — and, dare I say it, creativity in general? Mostly that no matter how or when an artist’s “imperial period” happens, they are likely to creative interesting, excellent and sometimes cherished work outside it; this in itself is a reason for fans and others to explore their work, and for artists to keep creating, whether “the market” cares if they do so or not. Those works can still matter to people, like this song matters for me.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 21: “Day After Day,” by The Pretenders

I suspect most people, if you asked them, could tell you who they thought was the coolest person in whatever genre of music they liked the most, or maybe who was the coolest person in all of music. “The Coolest Person” was not necessarily one’s favorite musician, although there was usually a high correlation between the two, but it was certainly the person who, when you saw them in videos or in concert or being interviewed on MTV or whatever, you thought, “damn, they’re so cool, it must be awesome to be them.”

For me, that was Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. The Pretenders were not my favorite band growing up — although I did like them a whole lot — but, bluntly, most of the bands I did like growing up weren’t all that cool. I loved Journey, but any pretense of cool they might have ever had went out the window with that infamous “Separate Ways” video, and the other AOR bands of the era I enjoyed were saddled with the edge of ridiculousness that is fun in retrospect but did not exude cool at the time. I also liked Depeche Mode and a lot of their British synth-based contemporaries, but they were all too mopey to be cool. Other stuff I was listening to at the time – Billy Joel! Vangelis! Men at Work! — were almost aggressively anti-cool. Which was fine by me; I was not then nor am I now, anything close to cool, and one should not expend a lot of time worrying about whether the things one likes are cool or not, one should just like them.

But I knew what cool was — or thought I did — and Chrissie Hynde was it: Smart, attitude-filled and not here to take your shit, whoever you were, and the leader of a band that would rock your face off and maybe beat you up in the parking lot later if you needed an ass-kicking. Is this who Chrissie Hynde actually is? Got me, I don’t know her, and if I had to guess I would suspect on a day-to-day basis she’s probably just trying to get through life like the rest of us (you may recall I said similar things about Shirley Manson of Garbage, who also exudes cool, although a couple of decades later). In public, however? A fuckin’ star.

Who also not-entirely-coincidentally made some of the greatest rock of the late 70s and early 80s! The first two Pretenders album, largely written/co-written by Hynde, are a masterclass of guitar rock that no one else has sounded like before or since. Then, after half the band died of drug overdoses and a bunch of other wild shit happened, Hynde picked up the pieces and wrote the band’s biggest album ever. She’s a badass.

Any number of Pretenders songs could go be picked to exemplify Hynde’s coolness; the one I’ve picked is “Day After Day,” which I think has all the elements that go into that band’s great songs in almost-perfect balance: James Honeyman-Scott’s ringing guitars, Martin Chambers’ relentless drums with Pete Farndon’s bass keeping time, and, way up in the sky, Chrissie Hynde, and a voice that will never be confused with anyone else’s, singing about loneliness. There are more popular songs in the band’s canon, but I would argue, not better songs.

Chrissie Hynde is still out there, still spitting attitude and still being cool. I could never be that cool; I don’t aspire to that level of cool. It would be a lot of work for me, especially at this late date. But I like that she is cool, and when I think of what it is to be cool in the world of music, she’s still who I think of.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 20: “Jennifer,” by Falling Joys

I think everyone has a favorite band that literally no one else they know has ever heard of. Not in the gatekeepery “I’m so unbearably hipster I only listen to bands that broke up even before they recorded their album” sort of way, but in the enthusiastic “I don’t understand why more people haven’t heard of this band, they’re really cool” sort of way. For me, that band was the Australian group Falling Joys, who arrived on the scene (here in the US) in 1990, cranked out three albums over a few years, and have spent the rest of the time since then mostly doing other things, with the occasional reunion gig, one presumes mostly for fun at this point.

The Internet being what it is, even mentioning the name of the band will have people crawling out of the woodwork to say “Hey I love Falling Joys too, you’re not special, pal,” so let me qualify that my being The Band’s One Fan is a highly qualified thing. They were popular in Australia, to begin; the song noted here, “Jennifer,” was a number one indie hit in its day, and at least a couple of their songs made the mainstream charts. So Australian Gen-Xers, I see you! Thank you for your service. Likewise, I imagine there are American/Canadian/UK fans as well, even if they may be sparsely dispersed. They’re not hopelessly obscure. What I mean, however, is that in my day-to-day life I’ve never met anyone who, when I mentioned the name of the band, was “Oh! I know them!” I always had to talk them up.

Which was fine! Randall Munroe talks about the 10,000 people daily who learn about something that “everybody knows,” and that the best response to people who don’t know what you is not to ridicule them but to be excited that you get to share with them. Well, clearly in my experience, more than 10,000 people daily don’t know about Falling Joys, and Whatever, via direct visits, RSS and e-mail, has about 50,000 readers daily. So I’m really outkicking the coverage in getting to bring them to people’s attention.

So, here’s “Jennifer,” which is my favorite Falling Joys song (although I understand in Australia “Lock It” is their best-known song, which is fine, it’s terrific, too), for its jangly guitars, snappy drums, and story by lead singer Suzie Higgie of a singular sort of girl who moves through the world on her own terms. Rather later I found out Higgie wrote the song about her own sister Jennifer, who would become a writer and editor of some note; she has written essays, books and films, the latter of which makes the song’s observation that “her dreams could be filmed for a motion picture” somewhat prescient. I think that’s kind of cool.

“Jennifer” was a staple of my post-college mixtapes-and-CDs for friends, back in the day when we used to do that. I was always happy to put the song on there and to give my pals something they might not have already heard, that they might like. I guess I’m still doing that. What can I say, I like sharing.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 19: “Beloved Wife,” by Natalie Merchant

I don’t think most people would make a connection between my military science fiction novel Old Man’s War and the works of the famously earthy-crunchy singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, but there is one, and it’s pretty significant: her song “Beloved Wife,” which was originally on her 1995 album Tigerlily, but which I first encountered on her Live in Concert album a few years later (and is the version I’ve included here). The song is from the point of view of an elderly man grieving the loss of his wife, and Merchant captures perfectly the plaintive devastation that a stoic, hurting man of that age feels but doesn’t necessarily say out loud. The song feels like an internal monologue; a storm of emotion, all kept inside.

I, who at the time had been married only a handful of years, was nevertheless struck by the song — even at that early point in my marriage to Krissy, I knew how I would feel if she were suddenly gone. It would be a lot like the man in Merchant’s song, although I would probably neither be as quiet nor as stoic about it.

The Live in Concert album came out in 1999; fast forward a couple of years to 2001, and I have begun writing Old Man’s War. I knew that for the purposes of the book, and my own personal inclinations, I needed to have the book start with John Perry, our protagonist, at the grave of his wife, saying goodbye to her for what he believes will be the final time. I also knew I needed to convey a lifetime of his love and feeling for her in a relatively few pages. I was 32, and this was my second attempt at a novel, and so I might not exactly have the life experience, as a human or a writer, to convey what John Perry, at 75, would feel.

So I put “Beloved Wife” into the CD player, let it run, and let how it made me feel sink into my bones. And then with it in mind, I wrote the scene at the graveside that begins the novel.

Anyone who has read the novel (which, at this point, is probably a lot of you who are now reading this) knows how important that visit to the graveside is to the rest of the novel, in establishing who John Perry is and how and why he reacts to certain events later in the story. Now you also know that “Beloved Wife” is the soundtrack to that scene. Again, not a connection people would necessarily make on their own.

But it exists, and I’m grateful that Natalie Merchant wrote and performed a song that helped me to convey a depth of feeling I might not otherwise have managed to do as well. This is how art inspires art, sometimes in surprising ways.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 18: “Higher,” by The Naked and Famous

My inclusion of this song is pretty simple: Late 2016 was a pretty rough ride, emotionally, and I needed something anthemic to keep my spirits up. “Higher” fit that bill pretty well: Quiet(ish) verses raising up to big fist-pumping choruses, catchy, defiant lyrics, and a spirit of hopefulness that for me acted a bit to counteract the dread I feeling about the approaching years. Over the four years that followed, I would put it on every now and again whenever I needed a little boost to my mood. It helped! There’s not all that much a single song can do when was is confronted with a relentless stream of incompetence and malice, but, look, every little bit helps, and sometimes you just have to cling to what you have.

As a band, The Naked and Famous are probably best known for their debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You, and the song “Punching in a Dream,” which memorably accentuates singer Alisa Xayalith’s siren-like vocals. Both that song and album are pretty darn good, but Simple Forms, the album “Higher” is on, is the one of theirs I come back to. Aside from “Higher,” the songs on Simple Forms focus on the frailty of people and their relationships, and yet still trying to do and be better despite those frailties. That was also something I identified with, or at least, sympathized with, over the last several years, I have to say.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 17: “Help Me,” by Concrete Blonde

I decided to highlight Concrete Blonde today because today is my and Krissy’s wedding anniversary, and when we met and for a long time afterward, Concrete Blonde was Krissy’s favorite, and still remains high up in her personal musical pantheon. When Krissy entered my life, the amount of Concrete Blonde I listened to went way, way up, particularly the Bloodletting album. It’s the band’s best-known album, loosely inspired by Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and also featuring the band’s biggest hit, “Joey” (which I don’t think has anything to do with vampires at all, except possibly the emotional kind).

I didn’t mind, because, as it happened, I was already a fan of the band, albeit not on the same level as Krissy. I even had my own go-to song from the band, the one that was in high rotation in the mixtapes I made for friends: “Help Me,” from the band’s second album, Free. The song captures what I really liked about Concrete Blonde: It’s a hard-driving blast of guitar rock that’s not exactly punk, not exactly metal, but definitely all attitude, most of that courtesy of lead singer and principal songwriter Johnette Napolitano.

I interviewed Napolitano once, around the time of the Bloodletting album; she was profanely opinionated about many things in the course of our half hour conversation and the impression of her I came away with is that she was probably the sort of person who if she were your friend would help you bury a body, and if she weren’t your friend you should not cross her, because then you would be the body she was burying. This attitude is amply evident in Concrete Blonde’s work.

I liked Concrete Blonde for another reason, and that was that they felt deeply rooted in a particular scene and time, namely, Los Angeles of the late 80s and early 90s. Not the pretty parts of LA either: the blue-collar, sometimes seedy, no-bullshit parts of LA, the parts that don’t get ocean breezes or are up in the hills. The other LA, the part with the struggle in it. Concrete Blonde is a soundtrack of that LA to me. I didn’t grow up in it — I was in the other valley of LA County, the San Gabriel Valley, which is much more interesting now than it was then — but I grew up close enough to it that I could see it from where I was. Napolitano’s spitting attitude felt about right to me.

When Krissy and I met, I dug that she dug Concrete Blonde as much as she did; it was a point of connection in growing series of connection points. When Concrete Blonde (and then Napolitano, solo) would put out new albums, I would pick them up for her as a surprise. In fact, I did that just this week, because Napolitano put out a new solo album last Friday; I’m posting a song from it at the end of this piece. It’s cool that nearly three decades on, we still connect through this point among all the others. Happy anniversary, Krissy. I love you the most.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 16: “Tear In Your Hand,” by Tori Amos

There are any number of reasons why “Tear In Your Hand” has remained in my mix of Highly Significant Songs, but possibly the most important reason is that it’s rooted into a very specific place and time for me: Fresno, California in the early 90s. This is where I had gotten my first job out of college, as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. At the time I was listening to quite a lot of music, but almost all of it was from bands or musicians I was already listening to before I had come to this new town. Tori Amos’ album was, at least as far as I can remember, the first new music from a new artist that I really connected with —

— well, okay, I just checked and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out literally the week I started my job with the Fresno Bee. But! “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is not a song I associate with Fresno, and Nirvana is definitely not a band I associate with my time in that place. I don’t know, maybe it’s because (to play off the title of Amos’ album) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a large earthquake, literally the sound of popular rock music being wrenched into another shape entirely. I didn’t feel ownership of that song or that band; who could?

“Tear In Your Hand” and Little Earthquakes, on the other hand: Here was music that was speaking to me at that time in my life, and in that place, where I did not yet have a solid context and was looking for things to help set me there. Here’s Tori Amos bleeding onto her piano with intimate and occasionally terrifying songs, the prettiness of the compositions distracting you from the words until they were well and truly sunk into your brain. It’s inaccurate to say Little Earthquakes was not a popular or influential album; it’s the work that established Amos as a force in pop music, and was a touchstone for all manner of artists who admired and followed her. It may be more accurate to say Little Earthquakes was a slow burn of an album; not everyone found it, but those who found it, cherished it.

I certainly did. It went into heavy rotation on my CD player and “Tear In Your Hand” in particular got a workout; when Amos sang “There are pieces of me you’ve never seen,” that was a sentiment I wholly understood, and the drama of the song in general fit my mood at the time. I put it on repeat enough at the time that whenever I listen to it (or any other song from the album) now, I get a jolt of “You’re 22, you’re in a new place, this is your first job, whoa.” It only lasts a second, but it’s still a bit of a rush. As it turns out I (mostly) liked where and who I was in 1992, so it’s a pleasant remembrance.

I have other Tori Amos music for other times and places too, but none quite as strong a sense memory as “Tear.” Which is fine. One can have only so many madeleines, if you know what I mean.

As an aside, the first time I listened to “Tear In Your Hand,” I had a nice little moment of recognition when she sang “If you need me, me and Neil will be hanging out with the dream king.” This line was referring to Neil Gaiman and his comic book series The Sandman, which at the time was beloved of goths and comics nerds but otherwise had not broken into the mainstream of culture. Amos making a reference to it endeared her to me; it meant we were in the same kinda-secret club. Then she sang, “Neil said hi, by the way,” and I was all, like, whoa, she actually knows the guy, and my estimation of her went up a couple of levels, because how cool was that, she hangs out with Neil Gaiman.

As it turns out, when she wrote that line, she didn’t know him, she just admired his work. My understanding is he heard the song, reached out to Amos, and then they did hang out, and became friends. In fact, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Little Earthquakes, there’s going to be a graphic novel in which various writers create stories about the songs on the album — and appropriately enough, Neil’s doing a story about “Tear In Your Hand.”

I’m kinda seriously geeked out that. I’ll have to tell Neil the next time I chat with him. Neil says hi, by the way.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 15: “Coming Up Close,” by Til Tuesday

Specificity is a valuable thing when it comes to popular music, which is a thing that I’m not sure everyone who makes pop music always understands. Popular music, after all, is meant to appeal to a wide number of people, to hit charts and be turned into viral TikToks and so on. One way to do that is to make the song general enough in its themes and lyrics that anyone can see themselves in those elements, or can ignore them entirely to simply chase the beat and let the song be the background and mood. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I’ve bopped along happily to enough work like that, that I could never fault it for being what it is.

With that said, a song being specific in its theme, or lyrics or point of view, doesn’t mean it can’t be engaged with by people who have not experienced the specifics of that song. It just means the song (and the songwriter) has to get there by a path less traveled. The upside to a song like that is when it works, it can be breathtaking.

“Coming Up Close” is a specific song about reaching for grace, not quite achieving it, and being transformed by the attempt anyway. Aimee Mann, who wrote the song, puts in all the details, describing the event in its particulars: Night. Iowa. Borrowed car. Farmhouse. Carved hearts. Dylan tape. Hopefulness. Sadness. It’s all there, painting a picture that is about Aimee Mann herself, in that small slice of time.

So, if it’s about Aimee Mann, why was it, when I heard the song for the first time in high school, it felt like Aimee Mann was writing about a moment in my life? I had never been to Iowa, I didn’t particularly like Bob Dylan’s music, I had never charmingly vandalized an abandoned structure. I didn’t know Aimee Mann! How was she breaking my heart?

The answer was that in the specifics that belonged to her, she was painting a picture that I understood in my own life: A feeling of yearning, of hoping, of knowing this time is not quite your time — of, well, coming up close enough to a moment to see how much you wanted it to be yours, to hear it calling to you, to have it feel like home, and still having to turn back. My own specifics were different in the details. But I had been to the emotional place where Aimee Mann had been in that song. I took a different path. I got there all the same. She hadn’t broken my heart. She gave me a moment from her own experience (or at least, her own talent) that allowed me to understand my own broken heart.

Aimee Mann and her band Til Tuesday gave me two gifts in that song. The first was the song itself, because right up to this day it remains one of my favorite songs, and Aimee Mann one of my favorite songwriters, precisely because so many of her songs — from “J for Jules” to “Goose Snow Cone” — are blessed with a specificity that speaks to me. The second gift was for later, when I became a creative person in my own right, hoping that what I wrote could connect with others: it’s okay to be specific, either from your own experience or in the telling of the experience of your characters. If you do it right, and if you do it well, people will see themselves in what you write anyway. That’s been a very useful gift over the years.

As a coda to this discussion, these days, I do know Aimee Mann just a little bit. She and I have been performers on the JoCo Cruise over a number of years, and in that time we’ve hung about in the green room and on the lido deck, had conversations and become friendly to and familiar with each other. To my credit, when I first met her I did not say “Hey, Aimee, thank you for helping me understand creativity, and the nature of my own broken heart, when I was seventeen, you’re awesome” because, you know. That’s a lot to lay on someone the first time you meet them.

But she did, and she did, and she is. I’ve known her long enough now that maybe it’s a little less awkward to have it out there. Thanks, Aimee. You’re pretty great.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 14: “Extraordinary Thing,” by k.d. lang

I believe I was slightly behind the rest of my generational cohort in coming to k.d. lang. Most of the people who I know admire her work came on board with it in the Ingenue days, with “Constant Craving” being the Canadian singer’s biggest pop hit, now and then. I thought the song was perfectly fine, but it didn’t move me to think of her work as just another perfectly fine song on the radio.

What actually got me to k.d. lang was a follow-up album, Drag, an album of songs from other writers, where the (rather) loose theme was of cigarette smoking. I bought it because I had heard her cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” which was terrific, slow and sultry and showcasing lang’s genius at musical interpretation and phrasing. The song was the album’s calling card but not its standout track; that would be Roy Orbinson’s “Til the Heart Caves In,” in which lang Orbisons her heart out. In truth the whole album was smartly done, and now lang had my attention.

It was Invincible Summer that brought it all home for me. Unlike Drag, lang wrote or co-wrote all the songs on Summer. Unsurprisingly, the album has the consistent feel of summer (it’s right there in title) — but for me, not just of summer, but late summer, where things are still hot but where the frenzy and crush of the crowd is over. It’s the summer afterglow, and there’s no rush, but there’s still possibility. It’s not the summer of teenagers and amusement parks and ice cream; it’s the one you get after that, when you’re grown up just a little more and can take a moment to appreciate the sunset over the ocean, possibly over a drink, with that person you’ve become increasingly intrigued with. As the kids say, it’s a whole vibe.

A number of tracks from the album capture that vibe, but none more perfectly than “Extraordinary Thing,” in which lang, posing as a rather ordinary person, celebrates the extraordinary person who has been put in her path, and is just… kind of overwhelmed? But tastefully! And in song! And with k.d. lang’s ability as a singer, which is, in a word, extraordinary.

And, well, look. Anyone who has ever looked at their partner and thought, Jesus, how did I ever manage to convince that person to be with me? knows exactly what lang is singing about here. I certainly did. I get this song every time I look at Krissy. I live it every day. My heart overfills with it. I’d sing it if I could. Fortunately, lang’s got that covered for me.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 13: “The Big Sky,” by Kate Bush

It must be an interesting moment to be Kate Bush. 39 years after her masterwork Hounds of Love came out, it’s back, thanks to a canny placement of its song “Running Up That Hill” in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. And when I say “it’s back,” it’s actually to say that it’s hitting higher than it ever has: “Running” is at #8 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the US making it the first time Kate Bush has ever hit the top ten in this country (it only got to #30 when it originally came out, which was her previous high water mark on the US charts). Hounds of Love as a whole reentered the album charts at #28, two positions higher than its peak in 1985. In fact, the album has gotten as high up on the Billboard 200 as Bush has ever gotten, tied with her album The Red Shoes. It’s possible both the album and song could chart even higher this week. (Update, 3:33pm: Yup.) We should all have work we did decades ago hit so well with the youth of today.

Having legions of Those Kids Today glom onto one of your favorite artist is a perfect time for old people to go all hipster and gatekeepery, so I’m delighted to see that, so far at least, old school Kate Bush fans have not been like that at all — they’re genuinely happy to see one of their favorite artists have a renaissance in to pop culture. I think this is especially the case since the Hounds of Love album is probably the best marriage of Kate Bush’s commercial sensibilities (see: the first side of the LP) with her experimental urges (see: side two). There aren’t many albums that could feature both crowd-pleasing pop hits, and a thirty-minute conceptual song suite about drowning in the North Sea. That Kate Bush offers both without apology, and indeed with a certain witchy sort of glee, is part of what makes her unique in the canon of Anglosphere rock musicians. Why wouldn’t her old fans want to share this album?

And while “Running Up That Hill” is indeed probably the best Starter Kate Bush song out there — there’s just so much drama in it — allow me to suggest “The Big Sky” as a follow-up for the folks who don’t know if they want to commit to a whole album just yet. “The Big Sky” is, as they kids say, a whole bop: relentless but not unrelenting drums, bouncy rather than thundering, hammer on while Bush sings a paean to the glories of the huge bowl of the universe opening up above you. It’s not about much, but does it have to be? No! It can be about clouds looking like Ireland, and maybe people being confused about why Bush is so darn pleased about that. Be happy with Kate! Dance with her! Pause for the jet! Then dance again! Maybe it’s possible not to be happy when this song is playing, but I think you really have to work at it.

The whole of Hounds of Love is terrific, and it is one of my favorite albums. But in the days when I was still making mixtapes, it was “The Big Sky” that I picked more than any other Kate Bush song. Listen to it. Maybe you’ll hear why.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 12: “Fast Car,” by Tracy Chapman

A number of years ago, when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, killing a thousand people who had chosen to stay in the city when the storm hit, there were people who wondered why they didn’t just leave. The answer, I knew, was: because they were poor, and they couldn’t just go. But if I had said it like that, it wouldn’t have been useful, because people who have never been poor wouldn’t be able to grasp the “they couldn’t just go” part. So I wrote a piece about what it is like to be poor, based on my own experiences and the experiences of people I knew, one example after another of what it’s like to be poor in the United States, until the final line brought home why people didn’t leave.

Sometimes you can’t give the short answer. Sometimes you have to tell a story.

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is the story to the question of how it is people get trapped in the cycle of poverty. It’s one of the most beautiful and effective songs ever about running as fast as you can just to stay in place, in a place that is never enough for one’s life and soul. It’s sung simply and plainly and heartbreakingly, and anyone who has even been in that situation, or knows someone who has been in it, knows how perfectly observed it is, and how well it describes the ache of wanting, just for a moment, to have that feeling of breaking free.

In 1988, when I first heard this song, I heard some of my own life experience in it, and the life experience of many of the people I know. It’s not my own life experience any more, but I will note, because I must, that luck — for starters — is one of the reasons why. It continues to be the life experience of people I know. It’s not that they haven’t tried to change their lives. It’s that changing your life is harder than you know, if you haven’t known poverty.

That this song was ever one of the biggest songs in the world is a small miracle. That it is as current now as it was when it was released 34 years ago is a tragedy. There are people who, as you read this, are working to keep it relevant in the future. That is the sort of shame that not even a song like this can address.

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 11: “Ray of Light,” by Madonna

For nearly all Gen-Xers, there are three artists who can reasonably be said to have been universal experiences, i.e., they were in the soundtrack to your life whether you went out of your way to listen to them or not: Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. They were everywhere, the musical air that one breathed, there in the malls, in the schools, on MTV and radio. Even if you dove deep into heavy metal, goth or rap to escape their presence, sooner or later they were there, leaving you flabbergasted that, somehow, they found you. I’m not saying they were necessarily your favorite musicians (although they certainly were the favorite musicians of a great number of our contemporaries), or even that you liked them. I’m saying that no matter where you went, there they were.

In the fullness of time, it’s come as a little bit of a surprise to me that of this universal Gen-Xer triumvirate, it’s Madonna that I ended gravitating toward the most. I think if most people had to guess which “team” I was on of these three artists, they’d probably pick Prince. He was the most obviously restlessly creative of the three, who did his own genius thing however he chose and didn’t care if you liked it or not. This is clearly in line with who I would like to think I am as an artist and how I run my creative life — not a genius, and not on Prince’s level (who is), but happy to do my own thing without regard to anyone else’s preferences. Michael Jackson was a monstrous talent with a chip on his shoulder; it’s no secret that he was so incensed that his Off The Wall album was (relatively) overlooked at the Grammys that he designed Thriller to Win Everything, Everywhere, All the Time — and it did, carrying off eight Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year, for starters.

Madonna had the stubbornness of Prince and the drive of Michael Jackson, and added something of her own to the mix — a reinventiveness that proved critical to her longevity. Prince would always do his own thing, and Jackson could always make the world look at him. Madonna knew that for her, fame was something more of a moving target, and that she had to keep shapeshifting to keep the spotlight on her. She went from spangled club kid to seductress to chanteuse, and so on, every step made to remind us all that we haven’t seen all of who Madonna was or could be. At every step of Madonna’s career she dropped essential music: “Lucky Star,” “Like a Virgin,” “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” “Vogue.” Every step a hit, as it were. Ultimately I think that’s why I gravitated toward her as a fan: with every step, I heard a new side of her.

For me, the biggest step of her career, and the one she and I intersected best at, was the album Ray of Light. In 1998 I was used to the idea of Madonna reinventing herself on a regular basis, but I still wasn’t expecting this particular reinvention, which leaned heavily into the more ambient and dub sides of electronica. This was an album in many ways closer to, say, U.F.Orb than Like a Virgin. It wasn’t a repudiation of what Madonna had done before — Madonna doesn’t work that way, as far as I can tell — it was her saying that what she had done didn’t need to be immediately revisited. It freed her up to do and be something else.

And in “Ray of Light,” the song, that thing she was freed up to be was… joyful, in a way her music hadn’t expressed before, or at least, I hadn’t heard before. It’s not that she hadn’t done giddy or effervescent pop in her career to that point — “True Blue” and “Cherish” come to mind — bit to make a food comparison, those are bon-bons of pop songs, and “Ray of Light” is full meal, from vibe to instrumentation to lyrics. Madonna has made the point that Ray of Light was the first album from her after she had become a mother, and part of the goal of the album was to incorporate some of the changes in perspective that event and others had placed in her life.

I don’t want to say Ray of Light is Madonna’s first “adult” album, because that’s belittling to adult life experience minus children. I will say that the album came out when I and Krissy were expecting our own child, and the song “Ray of Light” then and now captured some of what I felt as we were waiting for Athena to arrive, and immediately after she did: A wonderful wrenching of the world, a feeling of happy potential, everything upended in the best way possible. It was music for a new era, for Madonna, and for me.

Madonna hasn’t stopped doing her thing, and of the Gen-Xer universal triumvirate, she’s the one that’s still with us, now in the Grande Dame phase of her career, putting out albums and singles that still chart. She doesn’t have to — it seems likely that Madonna will be remembered as long as anyone in pop music ever was — but I like that she does. She’s still reinventing herself. I like hearing where she goes next.

— JS

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