Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.
I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.
The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.
With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.
The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.
I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang. Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.
If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.
Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship. Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of “Other People,” she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.
“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”
The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.
But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.
(Other People by The Rails, on Psychonaut Sounds, is available via iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)
(Oct. 12 – The Women’s March announced today that Bernie Sanders will be the opening night speaker at their “Women’s Convention,” being held in Detroit on Oct. 27-29.)
Other Speakers Who Were Considered for the Opening Night of the Women’s Convention, but Had Previous Commitments
The boy who sat behind you in fifth grade and copied off all of your tests, and when you told him to stop, threatened to destroy your bike.
The male co-worker who brainstormed a new social media campaign with you, took all the credit, and got a promotion.
The guy in your fem studies class who mansplains Kate Millett.
That record store guy who told you Beyonce would be nothing without Jay Z.
The random dude in your mentions who “well, actually’s” your opinion that “The River” is Springsteen’s best album.
The bro who argued with you on the street last year when you were wearing a Planned Parenthood T-shirt and a Hillary button, because, according to him, Hillary and Planned Parenthood were part of “the establishment” and you need to get over your identity politics. Oh, wait — that was Bernie.
The guy in the comments section of ESPN.com who complains about the tone of Jessica Mendoza’s voice.
The New York Times writers still bravely clinging to the idea that Hillary was unlikeable and didn’t connect with “people.”
The progressive bro who would vote for a woman, just not “this” woman. Or that one. Or that other one.
How do you keep yourself together when everything around you is broken? I’m not the only writer who hasn’t been able to focus on writing ever since the election. I’m not the only person on permanent high anxiety, who wakes up everyday dreading the fresh hell the news will bring, who compulsively checks Twitter, while hating Twitter (and Facebook) for its complicity in installing a monstrous right-wing/Christian fascist/white nationalist/oligarchic puppet regime in the White House. Everything is broken, and I can’t fix it. I want my life back, I want my country back, I want my kid’s future back, I want all our kids’ futures back. Like everybody else, I’m tired of fighting on so many simultaneous fronts. I’m tired of seeing that loathsome piggish face and reading his imbecilic tweets. I’m tired of watching cowards sell our democracy down the river. I’m tired of being tired.
But yesterday was a pretty good day, because for a couple of hours, I managed to get lost in the joyful, brilliant and deeply, satisfyingly eccentric world of interdisciplinary artist NinaKatchadourian. Her various works and projects span photography, performance, sound installations, taxonomies and charts, sculpture and video. But the unifying theme is, well, unity. She takes broken things and repairs them; she sorts, orders and categorizes; she tries to make sense of what might at first appear to be nonsense. Wandering through her solo survey show “Curiouser,” at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, is like entering a lost Eden, where everything is whole again, and nothing is inexplicable or out of our control.
I (belatedly, I know) first came across Katchadourian a year or so ago when photos from her “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style” were being shared around Twitter. For this series, Katchadourian photographed herself in airplane bathrooms, using her phone’s camera, the available harsh bathroom light and whatever props were on hand to turn herself into a Flemish master’s subject. (See photo above.) Toilet paper became a frilled collar, a black scarf became a depth-adding background, a neck cushion became a merchant’s headdress. The wittiness and astonishing creativity of these portraits stopped me in my tracks on Twitter. Seeing Katchadourian’s deadpan, dignified gaze hanging in stately rows on the Cantor’s walls magnified both the humor and the singular vision of those photos. Looking around at the handful of my fellow museum-goers, I could see that everyone’s delight matched my own. (If you get to this show, watch the accompanying “Flemish Style” music videos. I won’t spoil them. Enjoy.)
“Lavatory Self-Portraits” is part of the ongoing project “Seat Assignments,” in which Katchadourian uses her in-flight time to make and photograph mixed-media works out of materials at hand, which include in-flight magazines, snack food bits, sugar, salt, and pepper from dinner tray packets, etc. Some of the results are dreamy, like the white puff of sugar sprinkled onto a magazine photo of a wolf, so that it becomes frosted breath or the visual representation of a howl. Others are giddy, like those in which she pokes her finger through magazine photos, so that the digit becomes an ominous part of the composition. As a nervous, claustrophobic flyer, I love Katchadourian’s in-flight work, because it’s all about grabbing back control of an uncontrollable situation through carry-on-bag self-sufficiency; there’s also a healthy undertone of mockery at (and transcendence of) the dehumanizing aspects of flight.
Repairing brokenness is a recurring theme throughout “Curiouser.” The poignant photo series “Mended Spiderwebs” documents Katchadourian’s efforts to fix holes in webs using red thread, efforts that were always rejected by the spiders. Elsewhere in the show, a moving, yet often darkly hilarious video tells the story of Katchadourian and her younger brother’s elaborate fantasy life centering on Playmobil figures; as we hear audio from one of these childhood play tableaus, which the adult Nina has spliced into a re-creation of the doll-centric scene, we realize that what we’re watching is the kids’ attempt to make sense of their own terrifying, Playmobil-related near-drowning experience.
My favorite piece on the “broken” theme was the breathtaking “Songs of the Island: Concrete Music from New York” (1996-98), for which Katchadourian collected bits of discarded, unraveled cassette tapes found littering gutters and caught in subway grates, then cleaned them up and spliced them together. The final work is a mix tape which you listen to through headphones while consulting the large map of New York City upon which Katchadourian has numbered and pinned the bits of tape to the places they were found. The mix tape is hypnotic and vibrant, a scratchy melting pot of snippets of reggae, salsa, Indian pop, punk, R&B, country-rock, old-school rap, metal, Vietnamese, all unidentified (though I think I caught James Brown and Gladys Knight). There’s also a bit of an NPR interview with a psychic and a strange recording of an “All in the Family” episode with what sounds like a parakeet chirping in the background. The jumble of music, noise and cultures, and the lives it conjures, felt comfortable to me. Here was my world. It hasn’t disappeared.
I loved all of “Curiouser,” but the half-hour my companion and I spent raptly giggling over “TheGenealogy of the Supermarket” was probably the happiest I’ve been in a long time. This ongoing work, begun in 2005, is a family tree of advertising characters, some instantly recognizable, others obscure, that takes up an entire red-flocked wallpaper wall. Here are faces that have greeted generations from supermarket aisles and kitchen cupboards, faces that are so familiar as people that you sometimes have to stop and think about which product they represent, all thoughtfully ordered by marriage and offspring. In Katchadourian’s reasoning, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are siblings, the Green Giant and the Land o’ Lakes Butter Maiden are married and the parents of the Argo Corn Starch maiden, and Mr. Clean and the Brawny paper towel guy got married and adopted the Gerber Baby and the Sunbeam Bread girl.
In “The Genealogy of the Supermarket,”as in “Songs of the Island,” Katchadourian links objects that join us as modern humans, even though we might think that our daily experiences of them are uniquely intimate and personal. And in doing that, she reassuringly shows us the connecting lines across race and culture, class and era, that make us family.
Maybe we’re not beyond repair after all.
(“Curiouser,” which was curated by Austin’s Blanton Museum, runs through Jan. 7, 2018, then moves to the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA in April, 2018. Nina Katchadourian will appear on Oct. 19 at 6:30 at CEMEX Auditorium at Stanford, followed at 9 p.m. by an “On-Hold Dance Party,” audio made by Katchadourian from music played while waiting on-hold. For more information on “Curiouser” at the Cantor Arts Center, click here.)
Last week, Apple announced the death of the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, its last two stand-alone MP3 players. Most people might have been surprised to learn that those two lower-end iPod models had been, in fact, still alive in 2017. As music players, they were eclipsed years ago by the iPhone, and, to a lesser-degree, the iPod Touch (basically, the phone without the calling capability). For younger people, the iPod is as attractive as a gramophone.
The news didn’t surprise me. As the owner of a 2008 4th generation iPod Nano, which I still use every day, I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time now. Apple all but abandoned iPod fans like myself when it shifted its focus to the iPhone. I see the business logic to it: Unlike the iPhone, the iPod wasn’t a robust revenue stream. You bought an iPod, you loaded your music onto it, The End. But Apple’s announcement still makes me angry.
Look, I know that, as an old lady who doesn’t see the point of replacing a perfectly good working gadget every five seconds with a shinier iteration of the same, I am not Apple’s target consumer. I can live with that. Tech moves fast, and I made my choice to not move with it.
But it pisses me off that the most perfect portable music delivery system I’ve ever known is now — like a string of forerunners — over. Ever since I was a kid, I carried my music with me, consuming it in my head, on a succession of ’60s transistor radios and ’70s boomboxes, followed by an ’80s Walkman and a ’90s Discman. Just typing the names of those devices conjures flashes of memory. Transistor: On the front porch, in the summer, 10-years-old, AM Top 40 countdown. Boombox: Road trip to Asbury Park, Springsteen cassettes blasting out the windows. Walkman: On the bus, on my way to work, earphones in, listening to mix tapes. Discman: Man, I really disliked the Discman. Yes, CD’s sounded better and were more convenient to search than cassettes. But, unlike the Walkman, it was practically impossible to be mobile while using one. The discs skipped and I hated the stupid foam fanny pack-type belt holder accessory. I still have a Discman in the junk drawer. What a ridiculous invention.
But my first iPod … sweet liberation! Light, palm-sized, skip-proof, no physical media to carry, yet you could take your entire music collection with you — it was the best of all worlds. I had a 2004 1st generation iPod Mini, green, with the tiny screen and the big click wheel, and I used that baby everywhere. I hooked it onto my waistband, hit “shuffle” and listened to my own freeform radio station when I was cooking dinner (still my favorite use for the iPod). Holding the Mini now, it seems like it weighs a ton, but compared to the Walkman and Discman, it was light as a feather.
I stuck with that Mini until it stopped holding a charge, and moved onto the model that had replaced it, the Nano. Mine was a 2008 16 GB 4th generation, blue, with color display. It was so much lighter and smaller, yet it had a bigger screen and video playback capability, a pleasing, slightly curved, rectangular body, and, of course, a click wheel. I loved the feel of her in my hand, and I’ve had her for nine years, but she needs more charging all the time. I fear the end is near. Apple stopped making MP3 players with click wheels in 2014, switching everything to touchscreen technology. If mine can’t be fixed, I’ll have to hunt down a 4th or 5th generation Nano, or any MP3 with a click wheel, on eBay or someplace.
What is it about the click wheel? It’s simple. You can control it blind, without having to look at it and touch a screen. Use it once and you know instinctively where to place your thumb on the wheel to skip and pause play, how much pressure to apply in circular motion to control volume. With the click wheel, it just takes a second to put down the chopping knife, touch the “skip” or “volume” place on the wheel without taking your eyes off what you’ve got sautéing on the stove, and go back to work. Without the click wheel, it’s impossible to do that. And thanks to that click wheel, the iPod kept me calm through more dental and medical procedures than I care to remember; I’d hold it in my hand, thumb on the click wheel and turn up the volume to drown out the medical machinery and take my mind off the pain.
When I travel, I carry both my iPod and my iPhone. I could just accept defeat and stream music on my phone, but … no click wheel. And the thing is, more than half of the music on my iPod is my music, that I own, that I loved enough to buy on physical media and then wanted to carry around with me in my pocket, so I transferred it into my iTunes library. Yes! I still do this! I sit there at my laptop feeding CD’s into the slot and picking and choosing tracks to add to my library. And, yes! I own an old MacBook Pro that I won’t replace because it was the last model with an onboard CD drive. Are you seeing a pattern here? (I also refuse to update to the latest version of iTunes, because it sucks, and has sucked for years, and I have the last non-sucky version. As long as it still works, it’s staying.)
I’m fussy and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I accept that the world will not conform to my fussiness. Which is a good thing, because Apple couldn’t care less about me and my quirks. But it’s not my fault that once upon a time, Apple designed a product that so impeccably fit my needs, I saw no need to replace it. I’ve loved its iPods long and well, and in return, Apple sees us both as obsolete.
I’m sorry I haven’t written here in months. I’ve been having trouble focussing on the things that used to be so important to me. Music, TV, arguing about the fine points thereof … that was life before. Now, I spend more time glued to Resistance Twitter and poring over the Washington Post and New York Times for glimmers of hope that our national nightmare will end in something other than an ignorant, grifting fascist tweeting us into nuclear war.
But I was roused from my tunnel-vision by the realization that there is a meaningful anniversary to mark this week. Twenty years ago, on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB. At the time, I was the TV critic for Salon, and writing about BtVS and its darkly satisfying vampire/detective-noir spinoff Angel was one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Both shows still rank in my Top 10 of the best TV dramas ever.
Throughout its six-year run, BtVS remained a cult hit on the WB and (for the final two years) UPN, marginal broadcast networks that didn’t even reach every major market; the show never cracked the top tier of the Nielsen ratings, never earned any major Emmy nominations (star Sarah Michelle Gellar did pick up one Golden Globe nomination). Rich in mythology, seeded with zingy pop culture references and crackling humor, the then-singular tone of BtVS would have been perfect for Netflix or Amazon, but those cachet-dripping alt-TV platforms had yet to be invented. The influence of BtVS, though, reverberated through the past two decades in shows about uncommon young women (and their friends) fighting seemingly unbeatable evils, from Veronica Mars to Orphan Black to Supergirl to The Good Place.
The tale of Buffy Summers was a feminist hero’s journey; the snarky California teen grappled with her responsibilities as the once-in-a-generation Chosen girl tasked with protecting the world from the supernatural evil known in the show’s shorthand as “The Big Bad.” Created by Joss Whedon, BtVS mashed together a slew of genres — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, John Hughes teen angst, Anne Rice vampire hotness — into something thrillingly new.
There were moments of genuine terror, of both the scary-monster variety (all these years later, the free-floating, skeletal “Gentlemen” still give me the creeps) and the quiet, personal kind (the premature death of Buffy’s mom). The empowerment of women, their strength, courage and sexual agency, was a central theme of the series. Not that the show put Buffy on a pedestal. She was Chosen, but she was also a poignantly human young woman. She struggled with being a savior; she sometimes made bad choices that hurt the people she loved, and herself. She was realistically imperfect, and as the series went on, we watched her come to terms with her imperfections and her life (and death).
One of Buffy’s flaws was that she took too much on her shoulders, shutting out the loyal members of her “Scooby Gang.” The Scoobies each had a role to play in saving the world from the demons that issued forth from the Hellmouth beneath Sunnydale, Buffy’s suburban hometown. This misfit gang was named for the crew in Scooby-Doo, which itself borrowed from Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. Buffy’s Scoobies included a Jewish-computer-geek- lesbian-witch (the incomparable Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan), a proper British middle-aged librarian (Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head), a mean girl (Cordelia Chase, played by Charisma Carpenter), a loyal platonic guy friend (Xander Harris, played by Nicholas Brendon), and a platinum-haired punk vampire (Spike, played by James Marsters) with whom Buffy indulged in a masochistic affair that even now retains its power to polarize fans.
Despite their differences, the Scoobies were a true community; in fact, their power derived from the linked diversity of its members. Willow’s computer skills early in the show and her witchcraft later in the series, Giles’ knowledge of occult arcana, Xander’s selfless dedication — these were just a few of the weapons in Buffy’s arsenal.
I’ve been thinking a lot about BtVS, and Angel since the election. How did this happen to us? How could a cabal of the worst and the ugliest turn our democracy upside down so quickly? Russia? The KKK? Nazis? It’s as if the Hellmouth opened and set all our existential foes running wild at once.
But if we learned one thing from BtVS and Angel it’s this: We know what a diverse group of people working together for the common good can accomplish.
So much of BtVS and Angel seems astonishingly familiar now. Mike Pence, fronting homophobic and anti-woman politics with an impossibly tidy veneer of churchgoing blandness, could be a doppelgänger for the creepily paternalistic, gosh-golly Mayor Richard Wilkins of Sunnydale, who lurked through early seasons of BtVS. The Mayor was the Big Bad of season three, secretly fattening up on dark power until he shed his human form and revealed himself as a giant snake bent on destruction. Mr. Vice President, we see you.
Creepy paternalism and rapey and misogynistic men made for a recurring theme throughout the run of BtVS. The Trio, the Big Bad of season six, were three computer game nerds who couldn’t get laid; they developed the magical equivalent of a date rape drug and built robot women (including a robot Buffy) to abuse and debase. (Sound familiar?) Later, in the final season, an army of young women — the entire line of Slayer succession through time — banded together to help Buffy fight Caleb, a misogynistic preacher who railed against “dirty girls” and the primal evil of woman. The preacher was clearly meant as a personification of the religious right’s contempt for women’s rights — contempt that has become bedrock Republican policy today.
Angel, which ran for five seasons on The WB, was even more persistent in weaving social and political commentary into its storylines. One of the most indelible of the show’s story arcs transported the vampire-with-a-soul and his own Scooby Gang into the home dimension of pal Lorne, a gay, disco-singing demon. In this brutally Medieval shithole, women were regarded as “cows” and there was no music; being able to hear music in his head made Lorne so different, (read, “gay”) as a child, that he’d had to flee this place for his life. This three-episode arc from season two has only grown more biting with time. And the ending of the last episode of Angel still gives me chills, a tiny band of comrades steeling themselves against dire odds, as every beast and monster ever known is unleashed on Los Angeles. “Personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon,” says the battered Angel with a grin. “Let’s go to work.” Freeze-frame.
The fact that BtVS and Angel are so on-the-nose in our current political reality is not an accident. As a country, we’ve been locked in the same cultural war — women’s rights, LGBT equality, racial equality on one side, and fear and meanness hiding behind a warped version of evangelical Christianity on the other — for the past two decades. Back then, BtVS and Angel showed us the monsters that lurked beneath the surface of our country. The monsters all out in the open now.
But, on the upside, isn’t it easier to slay the dragon you can see than the one you can’t? Which is why, on this anniversary of the birth of the Buffyverse, I’m taking solace in the organic Resistance that arose on November 9 and continues every day against xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia and, yes, Nazis. The Resistance is the Scooby Gang writ large. We may be snowflakes who watch too much TV, but we know how this story goes. We know the sacrifices and the setbacks. We also know that if we stick together, we will win.
Buffy once said, “I’m the thing the monsters have nightmares about.” The Big Bad that slimed its way into the White House when we were looking the other way? It’s more afraid of us than we are of it.
Here are a couple of my favorite BtVS pieces from the vault:
I pretty much fell apart on November 9, so apologies for not writing anything new here in a while. I intended for this post to be a year-end list of my favorite new music and TV, but it kept wanting to go in a different direction. So, here are 10 songs that defined 2016 for me. Most of them are old, a few are new, some are offered in tribute to the departed, and all of them have taken on new meaning or been a comfort through the post-election gloom.
1. “Lazarus,” David Bowie. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about everything falling apart this year because David Bowie was holding together the fabric of the universe. His death on January 10 hit like an earthquake, and 2016 never stopped shaking. Two days before he died, Bowie released Blackstar, which in hindsight, reveals itself (like the clues embedded in the cover of the album) as an urgent, feverish and brave farewell. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sings the Starman on “Lazarus”; his battered voice flickers with mischief and a daring sort of relief (“This way or no way/I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free”) throughout the song, until it’s replaced in the long fadeout by a somber, lowing sax riff. In the eerie accompanying video, Bowie is in the middle of writing a sentence, creating until the last moment of his existence, when he is pulled away and shut up in a coffin-like closet. Of all the gifts Bowie gave us and all the frontiers he journeyed, pulling us (and the entirety of pop culture) along with him, his final act might have been his most generous. It was death-defying in every sense but the literal. Then again … maybe that too.
2. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul. During the string of police shootings of African American men earlier this year, when half the country lost its mind over the assertion that black lives matter TOO, I was driving around one day with the radio on and heard Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This was a Top 10 hit for Wonder, but I had only dim memories of it from my childhood. But there it was, playing on Sirius XM’s Soul Town channel, which is devoted to R&B and soul hits of the ’60s and ’70s. Arranged in a country-gospel crossover mode (like his soon-to-be bigger hit, “A Place in the Sun”), this version lives and breathes the injustices counted in Dylan’s lyrics. It reminds you that this song is a protest for civil rights: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?,” “How many years can a man exist before he’s allowed to be free?”
Hearing the infuriating relevance of those questions in 2016, fifty years after Wonder and Paul recorded them, reminded me that the greatest, and most widely disseminated, protest music of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded by black artists, including Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Gil Scott-Heron. Edwin Starr’s ferocious anti-Vietnam song “War” went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970; Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” was number 12 in 1971. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of James Brown’s empowerment anthems, reached number six in 1968. Volumes could be written on the powerful statement made by Aretha Franklin’s Afro back in the day. And somehow, I had never heard Lamont Dozier’s 1974 single “Fish Ain’t Bitin’,” with its imprecation, “Tricky Dick, stop this shit,” but Soul Town remedied that. This music was created by and for people fighting for their lives and legitimacy in America. White liberals who are only now discovering what it feels like to be strangers in their own country are advised to listen and learn.
3. “Uptown,” Prince. I’ve listened to Prince every day since April 21. Some days, I need the cathartic “Purple Rain,”a modern hymn, to combat the heartache that has yet to fade. Other days, it’s the unrepentant dance funk of “Housequake” or “Sexy M-F.” But of late, when I hear “Uptown” from DirtyMind (1980), I’m cast back to what it felt like in those days when “disco sucks” was code for white people (guys, mostly) to indulge in racism and homophobia — it didn’t all start with MAGA. Just one year after the idiotic “Disco Demolition” riot of 1979, Prince released his electro-funk-new wave tune about a dance utopia where “white, black Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’,” and proved that disco was on the right side of history.
I first saw Prince in a rock club in Boston, the city itself only a few years removed from the turmoil surrounding desegregation of the public schools. With a cheeky punk swagger, the diminutive singer packed both the showmanship of James Brown and the guitar-god sexual mojo of Jimi Hendrix; the predominantly white audience didn’t know what hit them (that goes for me, too). In Prince’s world, all were welcome; his racially-diverse band included two out lesbians. And Prince’s persona itself — the falsetto, the female aliases, the eyeliner and furry jockstrap — blurred boundaries of sexual orientation and gender (although he exhibited troubling homophobia later in his career). “Uptown” was a joyful place where society’s marginalized and demonized could be free. I refuse to believe it was an illusion.
4. “Daddy Lessons,” Beyonce. Beyonce was the cultural figure of the year. Like Luther, President Obama’s Anger Translator from the Key & Peele show, Beyonce was Michelle Obama’s off-duty secret self — check out FLOTUS grooving to “Single Ladies” and rapping along with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” during this much-shared installment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Just like the first lady, Beyonce became a lightning rod for bigots who smeared her as an Angry Black Woman and cast her in vile racist memes, but she kept on singing, angrier and blacker, as the year went on. The Black Panthers fashion nod at the Super Bowl. The sinking police car and Black Lives Matter imagery in the “Formation” video. The “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” line. The baseball bat and I-ain’t-sorry.
A few days before the election, Beyonce teamed up with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards for a rowdy, unrepentant performance of “Daddy Lessons” from Lemonade. With the country polarized by the open racism (excuse me, “economic anxiety”) embraced by the supporters of the bad-daddy authoritarian in the cut-rate trucker’s hat, the CMA Awards moment took on an electrifying subtext. Here were the second most powerful African American woman in the land and the liberal country music pariah Natalie Maines (both Hillary Clinton supporters) celebrating the common roots shared by black blues and white country. Of course, there was outrage from the usual suspects. But Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks are not sorry.
5. “Under Pressure,” Queen and David Bowie. A song that encapsulated the Cold War nuclear fears of the Reagan Era comes back to haunt us. I put “Under Pressure” on a Bowie playlist, to which I’ve often escaped, post-coup. Most days, my mood pinballs between “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” and “Can’t we give love one more chance?” And Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s operatic swirl of compassion bittersweetly marks the challenge we face. Love’s such an old-fashioned word, but so what? This is our last dance, this is ourselves, under pressure.
6. “Livin’ in the Future,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s underrated 2007 album Magic, which largely concerned itself with the smoke and mirrors of the Bush II Administration, contained brutally clear songs warning about what happens when abuses of power become the norm. In the bleary morning hours after election night, lines from “Livin’ in the Future’ popped into my head — which was strange because this was the one song from Magic that I never cared for. I thought its apocalyptic visions were too overheated and its illogical chorus too tricky (“we’re livin’ in the future, none of this has happened yet”). Yet, every day since November 9, Springsteen’s lyrics become more chillingly true: “My ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon/ The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” That weird chorus wasn’t a trick after all. It was precognition.
7. “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley. Another song that is stuck in my head, for better or worse. Henley wrote it about the Reagan years (see a pattern here?), another autocratic presidency claiming to Make America Great Again (for Rich White Men) and the hell with everyone else: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening/They’re beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king/Armchair warriors often fail/And we’ve been poisoned by these fairytales/The lawyers clean up all details/Since daddy had to lie.” How many times can you lose your innocence as an American? More than I thought possible.
8. “All American Made,” Margo Price.Price’s debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was one of the best albums of 2016, but this song is as yet unrecorded. Price sang it on an NPR Tiny DeskConcert on the morning of November 9, looking the way so many of us felt: Stunned, weary, heartsick. “All American Made” is about the bamboozlement of working people by deceitful politicians wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible: “1987 and I didn’t know it then/Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran/But it won’t be the first time, baby, and it won’t be the end/They were all American made.”
This is the kind of finely etched, honest sociopolitical narrative that Johnny Cash used to write, that Springsteen is still writing. It’s the kind of truth-to-power bluntness that will not endear Price to country radio, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The set’s last song, “About to Find Out” from Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was transformed from a rollicking takedown of a self-centered hipster to an acid-dripped direct hit on our new “leader”. And she didn’t even have to change a word: “You have many people fooled about your motivation/But I don’t believe your lies/You blow so much smoke it’s bound to make you choke/I see the snakes in both of your eyes/But you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/And you’re standing much too tall/You may have come so easy and happened so fast/But the harder they come, they fall.” At the end of the song, Price opened her blouse to reveal a T shirt reading “Icky Trump,” and wiped the tears from her eyes.
9. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Hamilton soundtrack.Hamilton has become a constant companion. It will be remembered as the Camelot of the Obama presidency. For cultural moment of the year, consider the Broadway cast of Hamilton making an eloquent curtain address to audience member Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (author of homophobic “electrocute the gay away” legislation, among other far-right lunacies), asking him to respect all Americans, whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion. The speech drew the pathetic wrath of the Twitter Troll in Chief, but then, what doesn’t? “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is the final song of Hamilton, in which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda refutes the saying “history is written by the winners.” Alexander Hamilton lost the duel, but in death, his legacy outshines “the fool who shot him.” However, in one of the more fitting ironies 2016 bestowed upon us, one of those legacies is — the Electoral College. Still, it’s the duty of anyone who loves democracy to call bullshit, loud and long, on whatever fact-free, fringe madness come from this already-chaotic new White House. We need to be the ones still standing to tell the story.
10. “My Girl ,” The Temptations. Another Soul Town epiphany from within a fog of post-election grief. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/And when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” I’ve played this song countless times since I first heard it on the radio as a girl. But now, I’m hearing something new. “I don’t need no money, fortune or fame/ I’ve got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.” “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, was released in December, 1964. The Vietnam War and protests against it were escalating. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches were still three months away. African Americans in the South were still obstructed from voting. The Watts riots in Los Angeles were on the horizon. These were hard, desperate times. But here was a song that offered listeners a refuge from the pain and turmoil around them. It wasn’t about refusing to acknowledge the struggle; the narrator of “My Girl” sees the clouds and feels the cold and knows that money is short. But in his heart and soul, hope blooms and he is free. “My Girl” is a song about love remaking the lover’s world. Today, we have to remember that we still have the power to look at ugliness and imagine better things, to keep faith in sunshine on a cloudy day.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, pp. 510, $32.50)
Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain age have been living with his warm, sturdy, weathered voice in our ears for more than 40 years. The music has seeped into our DNA. The concerts are tattooed into memory. The lyrics, interviews and biographies have been parsed like holy scripture. We thought we knew all there was to know about our hero The Boss.
It turns out, we were right, and we were so wrong. We might have correctly intuited the shape of his life from the music. But as the 67-year-old Springsteen reveals in his new autobiography Born to Run, the details of that life are darker, tougher, more joyous and so much sadder than fans might have guessed. There are parts of this generous, fearless and gracefully-written book that will pierce your heart. Springsteen’s prose voice — like his songwriting voice, part-compadre, part-carney-barker, part-hardscrabble poet — is so familiar by now, that his pain isn’t the pain of some remote celebrity, it’s the pain of a family member. And it hurts.
The story begins in Freehold, New Jersey, with a couple of stunning chapters about growing up in the bosom of an eccentric (sometimes poisonously so), blue-collar extended family of first- and second-generation Irish and Italian immigrants. He is doted on by his paternal grandmother, with whom he and his parents, Douglas and Adele, live. His grandmother Alice was long ago broken by the death of her five-year-old daughter Virginia. His grandparents’ house — “the greatest and saddest sanctuary I have ever known” — is dominated by the loss of the little girl. “Her portrait hovers, breathing a ghostly air into the room and shining her ill-fated destiny over our family gatherings,” he writes. “Her seemingly benign gaze … communicates, Watch out! The world is a dangerous and unforgiving place that will knock your ass off your tricycle and into the dead black unknown …”
Grandma Alice takes up little Bruce as a surrogate for her lost child. He is spoiled and protected, with no bedtimes, no rules. “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today … It was a place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible, unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me. Ruined, in that for the rest of my life I would struggle to create boundaries for myself that would allow me a life of some normalcy in relationships. It made me in the sense that it would set me off on a lifelong pursuit of a ‘singular’ place of my own, giving me a raw hunger that drove me, hell-bent, in my music. It was a desperate, lifelong effort to rebuild, on embers of memory and longing, my temple of safety.”
The yearning for home recurs throughout the book; in a shiveringly evocative passage, he cruises the old neighborhood, even after his family has moved on and success has claimed him, driving slowly after midnight, parking on his old street, but not getting out of the car.
By the time Bruce is elementary school age, his unorthodox family situation has rendered him “an outcast weirdo misfit sissy-boy … alienating, alienated and socially homeless.” He is unable to conform to the outside world and, especially, to Catholic school. Reclaimed by his parents, he is moved into a house darkened by the hulking silence of his father, a laborer with a boxer’s menace who will later haunt Springsteen songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory” and “Independence Day.” As he once did in long, therapeutic stage raps, Springsteen lays out an eerie portrait of his father sitting at the kitchen table, seething and smoking cigarettes in the dark, waiting to lash out at his disappointing son: “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me.”
Why did his sunny, lively mother submit to her husband’s passive hostility and madness, he wonders. “What penance was she doing? What did she get out of it? Her family? Atonement? … She loved my dad and maybe knowing she had the security of a man who would not, could not, leave her was enough.” When Bruce is 19, Douglas packs Adele and their youngest daughter, Pam, off to start a new life in San Mateo, California, a last-chance power drive to lift the blackness in his mind. “Get out, Pops! Out of this fucking dump,” his son writes. “How much worse off can you be?” At the time that Bruce signs with Columbia Records, in 1972, he is essentially homeless, crashing in a surfboard factory. He has no credit card or bank account, has never visited a dentist and has yet to learn how to drive.
It wasn’t just the generation gap that had colored the mood inside the Springsteen home. “We are the afflicted,” is how Springsteen characterizes the “serious strain of mental illness” that plagues the Irish side of the family. In later chapters, he writes movingly of his father finally being diagnosed and treated for the depression, paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that had gone unnamed for so many years.
Springsteen candidly details his own depression and anxiety, which arrived in his 30’s around the time of his mid-eighties Born in the U.S.A. superstardom and his short-lived marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Therapy helps, and also touring and playing. But it remains an ongoing struggle. He writes of antidepressants that stop working and bring on non-stop crying jags, unyielding depression kept secret while recording 2012’s Wrecking Ball (his greatest late-career record to date) and a terrifying six-week bout with “agitated depression,” during which, he writes, “I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. … For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss.”
Knowing the extent of Springsteen’s battle with depression now brings deeper meaning to a song like “Your Own Worst Enemy” from 2007’s Magic (“There’s a face you know/ Staring back from the shop window/ The condition you’re in/ You just can’t get out of this skin”). Taken literally and not as a metaphor for economic hard times “This Depression” from Wrecking Ball (“I’ve been down, but never this down/ I’ve been lost, but never this lost”) becomes simply shattering.
In an extraordinarily revealing section, Springsteen traces the connection between his father’s and his own mental illness and “the rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of manhood ‘50s-style … The hard blues of constant disaffection … A misogyny grown from the fear of all dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.” Springsteen describes himself during his marriage to Phillips as a “passively hostile actor” given to “cowardly” acts of emotional violence. “I wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it. It was all out of the old man’s playbook.”
Too many rock memoirs merely polish the image set in granite. In Born to Run, Springsteen tells us from the first sentence that he is tinged with fraud, and then, sets about showing us his fragility, his failures, his shame and finally, with almost palpable gratitude, the hard-won lessons that taught him how to be a caring, emotionally open modern man. The pumped-up physique from the Born in the U.S.A. days was, he ruefully explains, “a symbol of an imaginary commanding manhood and masculinity” akin to the ship captain’s hat his father took to wearing in California. “For me there’d be no captain’s hat! Just ‘THE BOSS!’. Bulging muscles, judo and the lifting of thousands and thousands of pounds worth of meaningless objects every … single … day.” Some folks who stopped listening to Springsteen in 1985 might be surprised at how forcefully he takes apart that guy in the red bandana and the muscle shirts.
One of the strengths and pleasures of Born to Run is how we can discern the origin of songs rising up through the narrative, without Springsteen even mentioning their names. The shaggy boardwalk stories recounted here cast your memory back to the bar-band, Jersey shore world of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “The E Street Shuffle” from his first two albums. The self-lacerating “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up” and “Two Faces” from Tunnel of Love (1987) immediately spring to mind while reading his searing descriptions of his failures as a husband to Phillips. And he returns again and again to the class realities internalized from growing up poor in an economically depressed region in the 1960s, realities incorporated into his late-70’s-early-80’s albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, TheRiver, Nebraska, and the song “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A..
The teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who played for the preppies in wealthy Rumson, New Jersey eventually bought a house there. But Springsteen tells of being acutely uncomfortable with being tagged as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt” when he decides to write about the lives of Mexican immigrants and the rural poor on the 1995 solo album The Ghost of Tom Joad. His songs are “emotionally autobiographical,” he explains. “The piece of me that lived in the working class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was … No one you have been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.”
Springsteen’s assessments of his talents swing between wry humility (“I was not a natural genius”) and a seasoned showman’s pride in knowing how to leave it all on the stage. Though he makes it clear that he is THE leader of the E Street Band (“Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb”), he writes with appreciation and love for the men and women with whom he makes music; they are a long-running train filled with like-minded saints, sinners and lost souls (as he mythologized the band in the beautiful 1999 track “Land of Hope and Dreams”) and they’ve endured through time and age and even beyond death. As for his fans, he counts us as an essential part of the equation. Almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, he tells us of struggling to find a spark while rehearsing the band in isolation for its 1999 reunion tour, until some die-hards loitering outside the hall were let in and “suddenly there it was … there’d been only one thing missing: you.”
Springsteen’s writing is as windy and wordy, funny and rich as his lyrics. There are a few patches of mere workmanlike prose when he gets into track-by-track roll calls of one album or another. But most of his insights into how particular songs came to be are essential. He angrily defends “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the song he wrote about the 1999 shooting death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police as he was reaching for his wallet — a song that has proven to be sorrowfully prescient. He writes that no other song of his, including “Born in the U.S.A.” (famously misinterpreted as a patriotic ditty by then-President Reagan) “ever received as confused and controversial a reaction … it truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race and in America, race cuts deep.” For writing “American Skin,” he was given a plaque by his local NAACP: “I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”
If the soul of the book is Springsteen’s long road to making peace with his father and himself, its heart is his marriage to Patti Scialfa, the singer and Jersey girl who cracked the E Street Band’s boys club when she joined in 1984. Springsteen writes tenderly of Scialfa, who seems a patient, loving and no-bullshit-brooking soul. Under Scialfa’s guidance, Springsteen learns how to be a true partner, as well as how to be a father to their three children — no easy task, having grown up nearly feral himself. And becoming a father brings him closer to Douglas. When the latter lays dying, Springsteen makes a head-to-toe study of the elder man’s illness-ravaged body: “It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man … His feet … are the feet of my foe, and my hero. They are crumbling now at their base. … I feel warm breath as my lips kiss a sandpaper cheek and I whisper my good-bye.”
Just when you think Born to Run has hit its final emotional peak, out comes one last, house-lights-up encore, an autumnal last paragraph in which Springsteen once again speaks directly to us. He has worked and fought to understand his own life, he writes, to turn its peaks and valleys into music, into shared experience. “This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass it on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.”
I heard my story writ large the first time I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was 1978, I was 21 and it gave me the courage to believe that I wasn’t going to be stuck in this house of fear and this defeated Northeast town forever. I carried it with me to California. It inspired and comforted me through depression, parenthood, illness, middle age, loss. And whenever Springsteen comes to my town, I’m there, surrounded by my fellow aging fans, with our aches and pains of body and soul. We all have our own stories, but in every one of them is a chapter called “Rock and Roll Salvation,” subtitled “Bruce.” We are all part of that train that Springsteen set in motion, and now, with the bittersweet summing-up of Born to Run, he’s taking us home.