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Nota Bene (On the Title)

Benvenuti al mio blog!

Or, you know, Willkommen, because that’s where I live!

(But I took this photo in London.)

In which I introduce myself and explain the forthcoming venture

This blog will not begin with me. That honor belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart’s comic opera Così fan tutte follows two sisters’ madcap scheme to—what else?—marry their men of choice. The Italian libretto, written by longtime collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte (who *FUN FACT* lived for a while in the town adjacent to my Pennsylvania college town), is not among the texts I have studied in eight years of exposure to the language, nor in any opera studies class. But I did sing an aria from it at a workshop, and I can roughly translate the title to “All women do this.”

Really? All women? How disappointing. I mean, I know I take great pains to deceive everyone in my life into believing I’m devoted to one person before zanily swapping them out for someone else, but I figured that was what made me special.

In any event, I’ve modified the phrase for my agenda: the conjugation of the verb fare (to do) is now in the first-person singular. Così faccio io. This is what I do. I am like this—besotted with music, books, film, theatre, language, travel, and all things cultural.

A few other things I am: a brand-new Master of Arts in English Literature, having graduated this past May from Central Connecticut State University; a singer-dancer-actress; an expatriate Berliner; an Anglo- and Europhile; a voracious reader; my own greatest audience for my jokes and monologues; the biggest Beatles fan in almost any given radius; a high-functioning neurotic; and very, very Italian.

I do hope something in that list resonated with you. Even if not, cut me some slack. I’m new here. And the obscure tidbits and minutiae that occur to me might just have occurred to you too. The human mind is an extraordinary thing. It’s boring to explore it alone.

So give me a chance, why don’t you? Or if not, at least give peace a chance. That’s all we are saying.* Right?

*John Lennon is my love. God help the man I marry, if I marry a man, if I marry at all.

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Brunette on Blonde on Blonde

In which I record the stats

So amidst all the Pet Sounds ballyhoo I forgot that I should also commemorate the 55th anniversary of the release of the album I literally just called my favorite of Dylan’s. Which happens to be today.

Among other reasons (its sense of humor, its drum parts), it’s my favorite because it has 14 tracks—a little unhinged given the length of some of them, but it means there’s always something to rediscover. Here’s an overview of what it means to me, in data.

Age at which I first encountered the record in full: 15

Age at which I got more into it than is probably healthy: 16

Age at which I will stop enjoying it and/or it will stop reminding me of that time in my life: TBD

Season with which I most associate it: Summer (what a stretch)

Time of day with which I most associate it: Late night (11 p.m.-4 a.m.)

Song I knew best going in: “I Want You”

Song that surprised me: “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”

Song that is so underrated it is a Crime(TM): “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

Songs I’ve had fun listening to recently: “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” “Obviously Five Believers”

Song I love covering on the ukulele: “Just Like a Woman”

Song I’ve referenced most often, usually in contexts where the reference goes unappreciated: “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”

Song that never ever gets old: “4th Time Around”

Song with the best backstory: also “4th Time Around”

Song that proved this guy was the only one who stood a chance of outwitting John Lennon: “4th! Time! Around!!!!”

Song with the most impressive breath control: “Pledging My Time” (very long harmonica notes)

Song I mistook for something else at first: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”

Song where he is actually not even trying and it still sounds great: “Temporary Like Achilles”

Song whose arrangement I love most for some reason even though instrumentally speaking all the songs are basically the same: “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”

Song with the best title: “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” again

Song that I definitely do not know all the words to, which annoys me because I have essentially mastered all his other lyrics of this era, but doesn’t annoy me enough to induce me to do anything about it: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Song that has elicited the widest range of reactions from me over time: “Visions of Johanna”

Times I’ve promised myself to shut up about this record and about Dylan: 56+

Times I’ve kept that promise: ?????????

Image: released 20 June 1966 on Columbia Records

An Update

In which I, um, update you

Hey all. I’m low on energy this week tbh—Berlin is in the middle of a heat wave—so while I get other stuff together I thought I’d link you to the latest episode of the pod. Recording-wise, we’ve reached our halfway point, a couple weeks ahead of release schedule, and I’m pretty thrilled at how it’s going.

(You know the “how it started/how it’s going” meme? To quote another meme, they’re the same picture.)

So if there is also a heat wave where you live, take a load off and have a listen. And even if you don’t tune in right away, check back in a month from now. I already predict losing my mind a little on at least one of those episodes.

Keep an eye out next week for special Pride content!

Love—Cecilia

Update within an update: Reason is our newest platform!

Lit Review: POP SONG

In which I jump on a brand-new book!

“No one could have predicted Gigliotti would be drawn to a title like this,” alien scholars at the inter-terrestrial conference will quip years later, eliciting a chuckle from the panel crowd, after humanity is gone and the only remains of literature are this blog and a beat-up copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Don’t ask how I know this.

I spotted Larissa Pham’s Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy among a stack of books in a photo taken by a writer I follow on Twitter, and yes, the title alone caught my eye. I searched it and knew I had to read it; two pages into the second essay I knew I loved it. (And not only because its publication date was just over a month ago, the collection new enough to reference the pandemic—rarely do I feel so hip.)

So far there was no indication of music playing more than a walk-on role in the narratives. The first essay was called “On Running.” I, too, run. Certain pop songs surface amidst the Art of the subtitle: but it’s visual art, much of it belonging to the category dubbed ‘modern,’ and Pham’s response to it, that takes center stage. Having studied art at Yale and immersed herself in opportunities and ways of creating through people she met there, she is understandably and uniquely predisposed to meditate on the impact of a museum visit, an installation, a single work.

As a ‘fan’ of modern visual art myself, though often not feeling in a position to appreciate it down to its molecular elements, I was by turns comforted, affirmed, and blown away by her observations. I learned about artists I had never heard of (Cerith Wyn Evans, Louise Bourgeois, James Turrell) and learned more about artists I had heard of (Agnes Martin, John Baldessari, Roy DeCarava). These artist biographies and works and stories are bound up in Pham’s travels: a painting studio in Provence, a chaotic daily existence in New York, a writing retreat in Taos, a vacation to Mexico City, a sponsored art festival in Shanghai. It is nice to have places, and dates, and things, to match names to.

Dates especially. She chronicles her own life and development with specific years and months, years and months whose significance overlapped for me, because I am a few years younger than she is and was also grappling with difficult cusp-of-maturity truths at those times. I’m still trying to divest myself of the compulsive comparisons (they never do any good), but I felt oddly close to her for some of the desires that took hold of us at similar ages, some of the things we got involved in, some of the things that befell us, some of the things we fell for. Or maybe it isn’t odd at all, this feeling of closeness; it’s the mark of good writing.

The Intimacy half of the subtitle was distinctly more foreign. Yet she renders her intimate experiences comprehensible to someone with a pretty short record in those areas. In her accounts of dating, sex, BDSM, I could scarcely wrap my head around the layer upon layer of complications she was confronted with while her personhood was still forming. Desire was difficult enough for me. What one-of-a-kind suffering did it mean for her?

And my heart ached for her at points, though it never broke. Because she is not broken. A broken person could not write, for her parting line, “I opened the door.”

Art and intimacy always make sense together, the way I see it. I learned early on to approach intimacy through shared encounters of art. (Why yes, I do spend time in museums fantasizing about my fellow museum-goers. How could such a setting not be deeply romantic?) Reading someone from a different background, with different training, whose approach was nonetheless similar, stirred me up. I was struck by her descriptions of other art forms besides visual, how she uses the act of writing to “pull a sieve through the disorganized world.” She refers to a “hierarchy” of fine arts in the midst of expressing a wish to be a musician. I never thought to rank these practices in any definitive way; at the end of her story I’m even less inclined to. I think Pham disproves her own idea by discussing nightclub dancing with the same reverence she gives photography and drawing. You do the art that speaks to you, through you. Every medium deserves to be celebrated, platformed, and taken seriously—that is, legitimately and joyfully.

She relies on small word-motifs (Wortmotif, I guess the people in my immediate vicinity would say) to bind the essays together, to justify their collection: the “hot liquid” sensation of getting lost in love, the “blue place” of distance, the “dark vessels” that can be both person and object, presence and absence. Her writer’s words are shot through with an artist’s impulse. It all made me wonder, not for the first time, what it would be like to study art. Like, for a grade. Like, for a job.

The titles she gives her essays are also intentional, which sounds perfectly obvious, but it’s wonderful to draw out the significance of each as it goes on. “Blue” dwells on travel and movement; but it was not lost on me, a Joni Mitchell devotee, that Pham later analyzes “A Case of You” (albeit not Joni’s version), which appears on the album Blue. (At one time anyway, Joni considered herself a painter first.)

The rest of her words, ordered in the way they are, wield their own pull. After reading “It’s too much; I’m too much” in the essay “Crush,” I had to pause, regroup, recoup. The specific situation she was talking about almost didn’t matter. Great nonfiction—maybe great writing in general—both reveals the author to you and reveals you to yourself. In this respect Pham has given me much more than I bargained for.

I was amused and unsettled to stumble upon a second scene this year depicting a pivotal trip to New Mexico, the first being the adventure out of ‘civilized’ bounds in Brave New World. Different genres; different characters; not entirely different motivations; universal conclusions. If for no other reason—and there are many other reasons—read this book for the sheer magnetism of location.

Oh, and I have to shout out her uncanny shout-out to Caroline Polachek, whom she describes listening to as she writes. Funnily enough, I rediscovered a track of hers a few weeks ago and have welcomed her into my workday, too.

Image: Catapult Books edition, 2021

Nothing Alike But Very Alike

In which I really might take this analysis business too far

Okay friends. I was listening to music this week—as, you know, I do—and something occurred to me that I think has something to it. Either that or it will evidence an overstimulated brain whose sleep schedule this week has been erratic. Maybe the coffee my flatmate has been making is stronger than I realize??

Anyway. You already know Dylan’s been on my mind (mama you been on my mind? stop making puns and get on track). As a matter of fact, in a turn of self-skepticism that surprised even me, no sooner had I opined that Blonde on Blonde was my favorite record than I got suckered into Highway 61 Revisited. As if the universe were asking, “You really wanna make that call? You really wanna commit?”

Blonde on Blonde’s acronym is literally BOB. What do you WANT from me.

Seriously, though, I was drawn back to its predecessor like a fly to…to…vinegar. Because that’s what it is, acidic and acerbic and ready to take no prisoners. I don’t know if I consciously knew this about myself until relatively recently, but I love a mean song. Not a violent one necessarily (unless it’s by a woman—flip that table, girl), just one that reads you, that says you can drop the act I see right through you or hey guess what guys this thing isn’t as great as you all think. And H61R is full of those attitudes. Pretty impressive, as there’s only nine songs.

Then I also had one foot outside the Dylansphere. And I can’t believe I’m about to talk about this song for the second time, but once I noticed the debt that the one owes the other I couldn’t un-notice it.

So here it is: “Semi-Charmed Life,” by Third Eye Blind, is the “Like a Rolling Stone” of our generation.

(Whose generation, Cecilia? The song came out in your infancy. Well, tell that to the group of baby millennials singing along word for word when one of us chose it at karaoke a few years ago. Leave me aloneeeeeee.)

Now, on its own this claim sounds ridiculous. I don’t mean that the late-‘90s gem has had the same musical impact or carries the same cultural weight or whatever. I mean that the wholes may have turned out very differently but the sums of their parts share surprising commonalities.

Their highly disparate texts explore a uniting theme, specifically that of an idle, privileged girl who gets into trouble because of (or to escape from) her sheer aimlessness. Stephan Jenkins, for all intents and purposes the personification of the entity that is Third Eye Blind, renders this girl a recurring character throughout their debut album—another single, “Losing a Whole Year,” which happens to be the opening track, states:

Rich daddy left you with a parachute

Your voice sounds like money and your face is cute

But your daddy left you with no love

You touch everything with a velvet glove

And now you wanna try a life of sin…

Always copping my truths

I kinda get the feeling like I’m being used

By track 3, “Semi-Charmed Life,” the girl bonds with the narrator almost solely through their use of crystal meth. Ironically, Jenkins’ major inspiration was Lou Reed, the song an alleged response to “Walk on the Wild Side” (the “do-do-do’s” are the most explicit reference). In discussing the song he has said that he intended it as a cautionary tale. That mood doesn’t exactly translate when you listen. Herein lies the biggest difference from “Like a Rolling Stone”: the narrator is in this situation with the girl instead of criticizing her from afar; and while he recognizes the danger of their addiction (and when the plane came in she said she was crashing…we tripped on the urge to feel alive / but now I’m struggling to survive) he is either unable or unwilling to try to get out of it, and it falls to her to take action:

She said, “I want something else

To get me through this semi-charmed kind of life…

I’m not listening when you say goodbye”

The problem is intimate—and the narrator seems pretty apathetic, in fact content to continue their destructive routine. Jenkins gets a little too smug for his own good on “she comes round and she goes down on me” (not to mention “and I make her smile, like a drug for you”). But then it really isn’t far removed from Dylan’s “don’t the sun look good going down over the sea / but don’t my gal look fine when she’s coming after me” elsewhere on H61R. Slightly more subtle, perhaps, but the same act. Neither catalogue is known for portraying women as practical beings with wants and needs of their own.

That said, Dylan at least has never written a line like “how do I get back there to / the place where I fell asleep inside you.” Asfhszfjskghnklsfjt.

(The line “I believe in the sand beneath my toes” has a definite “Mr. Tambourine Man” / Bringing It All Back Home vibe to it. See, the stamp is there.)

The gap between the lyrical content is closed somewhat by the singers’ delivery. Very, uh, energetic. (The way Jenkins shouts “come on like a freak show takes the stage” is what got me on board during my first listen.) The verses are almost spoken-word-esque, full of internal rhyming—and, especially in Jenkins’ case, rhythmic hip-hop-influenced word-painting—and leading to highly singable choruses. Nor are their musical choices alien to one another, even if again they sound nothing alike. Not many chords (five in Dylan’s case, three in Jenkins’), heavy on the V (the leading chord back to the root). It’s good pop songwriting that lets listeners feel like they know what’s going on.

Meanwhile, just as “Like a Rolling Stone” begins with a single drum kick that Springsteen famously described as “like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” “Semi-Charmed Life” ends with the same thing. (There is a drum fill at the top, but the final stroke is a better comparison.) And if for Dylan the drum is a door kicked open, for Jenkins it’s a door slammed shut. Both pretty effective if you ask me.

I think this is how the Comp Lit kids do?!

Anyhow, I hope some song from some era is stuck in your head by now. Sorry not sorry. I’m switching to tea and going to bed.

Image: Third Eye Blind’s eponymous debut album, released March 1997

Happy birthday, Bob!

In which I count a love minus zero

On Monday the greatest lyrical poet of his generation turned 80. I’m going to eschew songwriter, although (or perhaps because) plenty call him that unhesitatingly—many artists of that generation, male and female, produced songs and/or albums that could justify their bid for the title. But his mastery of imagistic wordplay and world-building is of such status and stature that I say lyrical poet. Plus he’s a Nobel laureate in literature, so.

I feel very cliché for loving Bob Dylan. I feel cliché for the fact that the first song to make me go holy shit this guy’s onto something was “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and that the one whose lyrics I race through in my head for a mental-acuity checkup is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and that the one that sends me into a strange trance every time is “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I feel cliché for having fallen for him at fifteen, because it ostensibly gave me a reason to feel superior to my peers, because I was taught (as we all are) to casually despise teenage girls and belittle everything they love. Let’s face it, had I been born in 1950 I would be the most basic bitch alive. I am in no position whatsoever to judge, as he reminds me even when his lyrics aren’t actively slashing me to ribbons.

I don’t feel nearly so cliché for loving the Beatles, which on the surface makes no sense to me, but there must be a reason. Maybe it’s because the Beatles as a united entity have not existed for half a century now, whereas Dylan has never stopped being an entity, and a high-profile one at that.

I feel a little cliché for calling “Visions of Johanna” my favorite song, albeit not enough to be ashamed. (The full story is going in the memoir.) I feel less cliché for calling Blonde on Blonde my favorite record since it’s often made to exemplify excess, the shtick taken too far, past the balanced act of Highway 61 Revisited. I don’t care if it goes too far; I think it’s perfect. And even though it features the aforementioned song, my favorite track on the album is “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” How does this add up?

But then cooler kids than I profess a love of Dylan and get away with it, so I guess I should go easy on myself.

I always joke that he spent the first five years of his career trying to be famous and the next fifty-five years trying not to be. With all the buzz around this date, it’s safe to say he hasn’t exactly made strides toward fading into obscurity or whatever it is he wants to do. Which is just better news for the rest of us.

Happy day, Robert. I know nothing annoys you more, but we love you!!!

P.S. in case you guys didn’t catch it last year, this gem merited some kind of award in and of itself. THAT is the correct way to do quarantine. ⭐️

Image: my estimate is early ‘66 but I can’t trace the source, shout it out in the comments if you know

I Feel Fine (Or Not)

In which I pull apart a Weltanschauung

*CW: suicide ideation*

German coming along, is it? LOL I learned that word years ago from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Good weekend, all. This is not a Beatles post; sorry to anyone who may feel misled. Today I’m wondering whether, or when, to say you’re fine if you’re not.

I talked a while back about the inherent limitations of asking how someone is doing, especially in English; that was a discussion of semantics, whereas this is a meditation on…emotics? (Nobody submit that to the OED, I’m going straight to Urban Dictionary.)

Recently I was prompted to remember a teacher at my old primary school. I was never in his class, but we all knew him. His sunny disposition was renowned throughout the building. Whenever you asked how he was doing, his invariable reply was “outstanding.”

An admirable approach; there’s much to be said for it. I would bet that he was not doing outstanding one hundred percent of the time—although he biked to and from school, which jacks up endorphin levels—but he certainly lifted others’ spirits, and probably his own, by saying so. At least one person was okay, or so the message went. In fact, you got the sense that if he was okay, the world was okay. The mystery, in my mind, is whether he managed to speak himself beyond a temporary mood-booster into a permanent sense of happiness.

I’m not saying you can be permanently happy. Life has its highs and lows, and you will inevitably experience corresponding emotions, and they will affect your worldview. Some highs or lows will last longer than others. But can you convince yourself that you are happy? Or trick your brain into thinking you are?

Let me lead you to where you likely guessed this was going: this approach, for the most part, has not served me. I’ve always had a pretty optimistic outlook (and been fortunate enough to live a life that supports that outlook), but I can tell when a ‘good’ mood is strained or disingenuous, and it doesn’t sit well. It feels like toxic positivity. I can’t manifest cheer if something is wrong. I can’t use a blanket word like outstanding and make it so. No amount of convincing or trickery can persuade me; these tactics usually make the situation worse.

And not for lack of trying. In late college I did go around saying “great!” when people asked, which only served to highlight in my own mind that I was anything but. I was overworking myself in efforts to wrap up my studies a semester early; I had the loosest of plans for what to do next; I took the stress out on my body, which felt more like a war zone than a home. The disconnect was glaring—I thought there must be someone itching to call me on my dishonesty with them and with myself. “Can’t you see how not great I am?” I wanted to shout. But I didn’t know how to do that, how to admit that I was carrying more than I could hold. The world at large was not great by any means either, and the stream of bad news didn’t help. It reached the point where, at the tail end of a frosty November, I experienced my first and only tangible suicide ideation. I was lucky to have a support system to rely on, with whom I could securely share these thoughts, and once I had the space to look back at the darkness and hopelessness and terrifying anxiety of that former state of mind I vowed to do whatever I could to keep from ending up in that place again.

What I can do most consistently is express my feelings openly and honestly. Not being melodramatic or excessive about it, but (for example) informing people when I’m not in the best of moods as a frame of reference for how I might behave toward them that day, or asking a trusted someone to help me put a problem into perspective. Just, you know, not resorting to the knee-jerk reaction of “great!” if that isn’t in fact true. And—mutually exclusive—foregoing the intrinsic impulse to appear chipper. Nice. Non-confrontational. I hardly enjoy confrontation; but I’ve learned that you can’t always be true to yourself or say what you really mean without causing some upset along the way.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that you not think before you speak, or antagonize people for no reason, or spill the contents of your brain to anyone who will listen. This sounds straightforward but can prove hard to resist in the heat of the moment: I’ve had times where I was definitely inclined to react in anger or defensiveness but knew in hindsight that doing so wouldn’t have helped my case. I mean that if there’s something on your mind or in your heart that cannot be kept to yourself, whether for reasons of principle or safety, you have the right to take up the space you need to put it out there. That goes for all your interactions with everyone. Sometimes these things might not make you very popular, but you need to be willing to assess—and, if called for, take—that risk. For what it’s worth, I tend to regret the things I left unsaid more than the things I said. And the fact is that if you don’t speak up, the chances decrease of your getting what you need, whether that be material resources or respect/decency/support.

But I’m also not going to pretend this isn’t gendered. “Outstanding” was a voluntary choice for that male teacher (and probably not a difficult choice, him being a white man with a full-time job) when there is much less flexibility for women and modes of female self-expression. The aforementioned risk skews higher for us across the board. We are under external and internal pressure to be not only liked but likable, to make ourselves generally palatable and inoffensive, until the line between what is genuine and what is performed blurs within our own consciousness. Merely expressing ourselves as we feel necessary can, in certain contexts, be enough to vilify us; a woman getting what she needs is all too often painted as selfish, and selfish all too often equated with evil. A woman whose emotions get the better of her even once is haunted by the incident long afterward, especially if she is in the public eye. Saying something with the chance of it not being popular comes with extra ramifications. We frequently hazard being branded as dislikable at best and being dismissed from the situation or cut off from people at worst; thus we frequently opt for silence, and settle for alienation from ourselves. And then a silent woman who declines to engage is called cold or a bitch. Hence why so many women alive today confront inherited rules about what makes a ‘lady,’ about what a lady ought to be instead of what she can be or chooses to be. As if all that weren’t enough, these concerns divide women across race and class and lock us in conflict with one another instead of unifying us against common adversaries. Each generation has their own ways of challenging and subverting the narrative, and still the sea change has yet to be fully accomplished.

Well, if I’m going to be a bitch, I’d like to be an authentic bitch.

As for my teacher’s method, I used to wonder if I was doing it wrong or not trying hard enough. But I don’t think so. I think what’s good for the gander simply can’t be assumed to be good for the goose.

The irony that tops all? I am happier for it. Acknowledging whatever unhappiness I detect frees me up to experience happiness. Being more generous with my expressions has allowed me to tap into what I need (time alone, time with friends, a return to a hobby) and sit with unpleasant or unwelcome feelings. I continue to be blessed with wonderful people who share in my burdens as I share in theirs. Because I have been authentic with them, they know that they can be authentic with me, that I am a ‘safe’ person who will handle their worries and struggles with care. I can take stock of myself and of how much I feel able to give them—and, as a result, I have more to give.

Over the course of the harrowing psychological journey that has been this pandemic, when asked how I am doing, the phrases I’ve gravitated toward are “I could be worse” and “I’ve been worse,” because both are true. I don’t unleash the complexities of what I may be feeling at any given moment on an unsuspecting small-talk partner, nor do I claim to be dandy when I’m not. It’s a comfortable grey space that accentuates the greyness of that space.

And, you know, sometimes even this year I am just plain doing well. Sometimes I have an energetic day, or am in a bright mood for a minor or nonexistent reason, or got a good night’s sleep. If I say I’m doing well, you can count on it being more or less accurate.

I’d like to stress that I speak to my experience. If you find it easiest to say you’re outstanding, or great, or even fine, when it doesn’t fully reflect your state of being, please absolutely feel empowered to say that. Do what’s good for you, to quote an album I just celebrated, or you’re not good for anybody. It doesn’t happen to be the most effective strategy for me, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

What I remind people—and often have to remind myself—at this particular standstill in human history is that no one is where they thought they’d be or anywhere near as happy as they hoped. Give yourself a break. Having self-compassion will make things more bearable in the long run. This is a universal predicament, and, like everything else, it won’t last forever.

By the way, I hope that teacher really is doing outstanding. He deserves to.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is 1-800-273-8255. Resources in the UK and Europe are listed at www.suicide.org.

Why TURNSTILES Made Billy Joel Great

In which I say goodbye to Hollywood

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Billy Joel’s fourth studio album. This boils down to convenience; it simply gives me a chronological excuse to talk about something I’ve wanted to talk about for some time now. Mostly because I never hear anyone else doing it.

Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. Far be it from me to call myself a scholar of the Bard of Long Island.* But given that people will analyze The Stranger until they’re blue in the face (not unjustifiably), I figured I’d transfer a byte of that energy to its immediate predecessor, which I wasn’t exposed to until much later, and which is in many ways equally strong.

Only eight tracks, and not a weak one among them. I don’t go crazy for “New York State of Mind”—chalk it up to too many second-rate covers (except this one)—but nor would I call it a bad song. From the Spector-esque glory of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” to the keyboard-sweeping range of “Miami 2017,” it’s basically all killer no filler.

Come to think of it, Joel does not make records with lots of tracks. He takes musical ideas and follows them through to their endpoint. This results in many of the songs being quite long, compensating for length in time as opposed to quantity. I think he is one of the artists who helped usher out the era of people couching their singles among two-minute throwaway tracks to reach a total of 14 (thanks, Capitol) and usher in an era of greater democracy for what constituted ‘radio-friendly’ or a proper LP.

For me, the album happened slowly and then completely. I listened to it at intervals—particularly over the past year as a sonic background for work—then realized one day that I knew all the words. Although the first song I knew to be a Turnstiles song was “Summer, Highland Falls,” which I learned because my dad needed me to sing it as part of a presentation he was giving. Long story.

“All You Wanna Do is Dance“ struck a big chord last fall, when…all I wanted to do was dance. Some projects were stressing me out and I decided not to think about them until I absolutely had to. The line “you don’t want to deal with the future / you don’t want to make any plans” seemed to me to sum up the entire COVID-ravaged world. “James,” meanwhile, is as beautiful a tune as he’s ever written—disclaimer: this statement may not be impartial, as it holds specific connotations for me. It’s also a suitable precursor to the next year’s ballad, “Vienna,” which if you ask me is his greatest song, full stop.

It is a Power Move that “Prelude/Angry Young Man” has the word “prelude” in its title and is not the album opener. No way could he have pulled that off a couple years prior. This one too has a weirdly COVID-relevant line: “I found that just surviving was a noble fight.”

“I’ve Loved These Days” is the last one I got to know, and I was like, wait a minute, this is an incredible song. It’s like any number of those Grand ‘70s Nostalgia songs, except it isn’t like any of them at all because it doesn’t drown us in sentiment. It sounds instrumentally full, but there’s a hollowness just underneath. “I don’t know why I even care,” the narrator admits. The Marvin Hamlisches of the world were not writing those feelings into their songs.

I did hear “Miami 2017” a lot as a youngster, when the date seemed impossibly far-off, so the fact that we are now four years past it is a whole different level of crazy. And the Mafia haven’t taken over Mexico yet, to my knowledge. But that chord progression is Good Stuff. The rise and fall of the orchestration? Never gets old. This one must be a real stunner live.

But my favorite at the end of the day might almost definitely be “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” I just, I can’t. The melody sounds like it was preordained by God. Whoever arranged the strings deserves an award. Go listen. I mean, it’s in C fucking major. Using the simplest of tools to create something incomparable.

No less notably, I really like the cover photograph. It seems to me to reflect the artistic essence of the man: someone who will play wherever he is needed, surrounded by a ragtag cast of everyday characters thrown together in an urban setting as spirited as it is grungy, deriving their transient glamour merely from their appearance in the songs. You may be a nobody, but if Billy Joel writes a line about you, you may just be a somebody.

My dad and I used to debate whether Joel was the best of the ‘bad’ songwriters or the worst of the ‘good’ songwriters. Now I know this album, I reject both of those categories. He could have just been the Piano Man, ridiculously lucky on one isolated occasion, but putting together a collection of songs like this one proved that he was only getting started. I don’t think he straddles any kind of middle zone. I think he is simply a good songwriter.

*Not my intellectual property. But I ain’t citing no sources.

An exciting new project…

In which I unveil another (ad)venture

It’s been a little while in the works—really just a couple months—and now I get to announce that I am one-half of a brand-new podcast!

(Possibly the only podcast dedicated solely to The Beach Boys??)

In this limited series the Connecticut Half-Wit and I dissect the classic album Pet Sounds from beginning to end. So far we’ve gone on a lot of tangents, too, so there’s plenty of bonus content. If you enjoy what I do on the blog, chances are you’ll dig this.

It drops Sunday 16 May, precisely 55 years since the album’s release. You can hear the trailer now on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, Anchor, and a bunch of other platforms. Distribution on Apple is still pending, but with any luck it will be there soon too.

Oh, and use the hashtag #PodSoundsPodcast to interact. Can’t wait for you to hear it!

I knew my past thoughts would come back to haunt me…

Update: we’re now on Apple too!!

Image: the work of the immaculate @sarahnhixsonart

The Artist, Not the Art

In which I reassert an opinion

A short while ago I read a collection of stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the ones he sold to magazines to make extra money (read: stay afloat) between novels.“Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” etc. Most were written by the early 1920s but sold in the ‘30s.

I was glad to have read them. In fact, the act of reading reaffirmed a long-held suspicion: that I don’t enjoy Scott’s work very much. That I am largely fascinated by his life and method and largely frustrated by the content of his catalogue.

No doubt he writes well and displays a special knack for description. I like his voice, and even what he writes about for the most part. It’s his characters who bother me. They just happen to appear unsympathetic and sometimes even flat. Now, their definition—or lack thereof—could be a product of my considering them a century after the fact, in light of all the progress that has supposedly taken place since then. It also begs the question, currently plaguing Hollywood, of how likable characters ought to be. Isn’t it truer to life in many ways to depict corrupted people with unsavory characteristics?

But first a bit of background. Ever since reading The Great Gatsby at fifteen I’ve had a weird thing for Scott. Don’t ask me why, I can’t exactly put my finger on it. The pictures of him prove that he was as capable of looking terrifying as attractive, and the descriptions of him by such frenemies as Ernest Hemingway suggest a person whose constant insecure jabber would annoy me to death. It sounds like he was really only aggressive and unpleasant when he was drinking, but then it sounds like he was drinking…all the time.

I’ve talked about him and Zelda, so that’s a factor. I became invested in them around the time of—partly because of—my own first romantic relationship. My boyfriend, who knew of my interest, sent me the newly published Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and it remains one of the reasons I continue to read (and write) historical fiction. So I associate their story with a certain period and experience in my life. Which could explain the attachment.

From there it was natural to sort of accept Gatsby at face value. Here were these people I liked, whose narrative was reflected in a heady, lively era, whose fictional alter egos threw crazy parties and had intense affairs. All stuff I wasn’t exactly doing in high school, so you can’t fault me for seeking the vicarious thrill. But it took only a couple years and a slightly closer look to realize that something is really off about every single person in that story. And it took only one more novel, The Beautiful and Damned, to realize that maybe the problems weren’t unique to those characters. And then it took this collection to cement in my mind the sad but ultimately unsurprising truth that these characters are in fact All The Same.

Young male character “goes East” to an Ivy or (worse) finishing school, meets fellow males with whom he probes the root of money and power, meets girl who appears to be some kind of woodland sprite or other inhuman, unattainable creature. Expensive hijinks ensue. Needless to say, the cast of his collective works encompasses the whitest bunch of white kids you’ve ever seen.

Rehashing this template in various tessellations starts to grate before very long. What makes the short stories worth engaging with is the almost science-fiction/magical-realism element to them, particularly “Benjamin Button” and “The Diamond.” Things happen that the characters can’t explain; nature doesn’t always behave according to laws we recognize. One imagines that, had Scott received a certain kind of mentoring or led another kind of life, he would have grown and developed the presence of those genres in his work and could easily have left quite a different legacy.

As it is, he gets bogged down in the character tropes. One upside to Gatsby is that he evidently outgrew some of said tropes by the time he wrote it, or at least knew how to do the tropes better. Everyone is older and a little (or a lot) jaded, factors which exacerbate their interpersonal drama. Jordan Baker is no woodland sprite; nor does the label apply to Daisy Buchanan, as there are too many far more condemning things to say about her. The really remarkable thing is that it compels me in spite of its characters being so dislikable. Or maybe because of? That’s a surprising, subversive success. I don’t care what happens to these morally (and, in some cases, financially) bankrupt people—so why do I care about the story?

A discussion of what draws us to such situations can be a derailing one. I had a morbid fascination with Gone With the Wind upon first seeing it in my late teens, but I wouldn’t classify determining which character suffers from which severe personality disorder as ‘enjoying’ a film. Sometimes you just find yourself there, in a fictional world you would avoid at all costs if it were real, and you don’t know why you can’t bring yourself to leave.

A writer who gets you into that fix has obvious chops. Like I said, the guy’s talent was never up for debate in my mind. And Gatsby, first and best in my experience, continues to influence me in ways big and small. It’s a bit too late to escape it.

The matter is complicated. But regarding the question recently put to me of whether I’m no longer a Scott fan, I can happily answer that that isn’t the case. I’m a bigger fan than ever, just properly aware that my fandom has always been more for the artist than the art.

Image: from the Bruccoli Collection. When he was fine, he was fine as hell, though, amirite?

5 Times I Related Way Too Hard to Elton John’s ME

In which I say “oh God same”

*CW: addiction*

Last weekend I listened to Elton John’s recent autobiography on Audible, read in alternating chapters by the man himself and Taron Egerton, who played him in Rocketman. And let me tell you: you do not need to have had a sixteen-year cocaine habit to find at least something familiar in this story. Well, not if you’re me, anyway.

Here’s some stuff we apparently have in common.

Mentally devolving into a series of what ifs.

Throughout his journey, from his first attempts to break into professional songwriting to long after becoming obscenely successful, he describes feeling an enduring uneasiness around what a coincidence it all was. What if Ray Williams (the guy at the office in Denmark Street) had handed him anyone else’s envelope of lyrics other than Bernie Taupin’s? What if he had tossed it on his way home? What if he hadn’t thought to do a handstand on the piano at the Troubadour? What if he had seen then-manager-and-boyfriend John Reid doing a line of coke and just…walked on by? It really goes to show that so much of our lives comes down to total chance. Not that we don’t work hard and have talents, but there’s a good bit of Random Generating done by the universe to account for.

Not belonging, but also not not belonging?

Hanging out with some of the people he met through Long John Baldry and Bluesology, the band he was in for a gazillion years before making a name for himself, young Reg not only first perceived what his sexuality might be but realized that he felt at home among these people in a totally novel way. The thing is, he hadn’t exactly felt lonely prior to that. He had never been a loner—as he says, he was often surrounded by friends at school, and he was definitely influenced by his family even if he found it safer not to spend too much time around them. But it took him a while to distinguish between people he just enjoyed being with and people who truly allowed him to feel like himself. Naturally, this only got more difficult as the chasm widened between his public persona and his private self. And while I have yet to suffer that kind of identity crisis, I know what he means. Growing up I was often on the fringe of several social groups, different enough to be set apart but close enough to enough people to never really be at a loss for company. I think everyone experiences this to some extent, depending on how popular they are (and with whom), but I hadn’t ever heard it articulated as it is here.

Arriving at a thing as it’s on its way out.

By which he is referring to the dying years of the songwriting/publishing business, which happened to be the formative years of his partnership with Bernie. Is the resemblance obvious, asked the girl who started a blog at the tail end of the 2010s?

Delayed adolescence.

I was pondering this not too long ago, so it was both affirming and unnerving to see the thought process mirrored in the words of a very famous personality. He describes only first becoming tangibly interested in sex in his twenties—understandable given his growing access to and knowledge of the gay community. I identify with this experience, if for slightly different reasons. But even beyond that, he describes never much caring for having a lot of sex, which runs counter to the image we’ve cultivated of the rock-star lifestyle. Among the many and conflicted messages we receive in our teens, we don’t typically hear how nonlinear the process of growing up can be. We each experience it differently. My own delayed adolescence has come mostly in the form of how I contend with anger, as I talked about last week—a struggle our subject here, saddled with the “Dwight family temper,” didn’t have in quite the same way.

How much glasses is too much glasses?

Little Reg got his start wearing specs just for reading but became very attached to his pair out of a desire to emulate Buddy Holly—attached enough, as he recalls, to actually ruin his eyesight. Concurrently, he stopped engaging in certain activities which have been rumored over the centuries to cause blindness. While I credit Buddy Holly with having had the exact OPPOSITE effect on me in terms of engaging in those activities (*wink*), I do have something meaningful to say about the glasses thing. I too have never worn glasses necessarily to correct the quality of my eyesight (I am somewhat nearsighted, and my peripheral vision leaves a lot to be desired, but it has more to do with protection—there’s a whole medical history there) and in fact often elect to perform in musical or theatrical contexts without them for the purposes of aesthetic and character. I guess the logical next step would be to design crazier ones to match whatever persona I’m inhabiting. I’ll try it when I have more money. Recently I’ve taken to packing mine along on any outings; they fog up while I have a mask on, and I’m not dealing with that.

Also, did you know “Tiny Dancer” wasn’t even a single? Or a hit, at the time?? Some people just don’t have to try, do they???

(PSA Bernie we NEED your side of the story like right away)

Image: at the Troubadour, 1970 Ed Caraeff