Stones Studies, Part I: Watts happening

In which I pay tribute to the single one of these people that I know what to make of

Consider a band. They build a reputation on noise and pugnacity, in both their music and their behavior. One of them has wildly surpassed the once-improbable fantasy of upward mobility he set for himself. One has, against all odds, survived a frightening array of substance-related traumas. One has allegedly slept with over a thousand women (and it’s not who you think it is).

One is arguably out of place among the rest, and yet makes them unmistakably what they are. That’s the one I want to discuss, the one I feel is under-discussed: the Drummer, Charlie Watts.

As a respected forebear of mine points out, Charlie has never bothered to cultivate a look akin to that of his bandmates, nor to engage in the antics for which they are notorious. He is a bit too…together. He’s got all his ducks in a row, his ducks have been sitting in a row for decades, and he knows it. He’s a clean-cut kid at seventy-nine; you wouldn’t believe he’s seen some of what he’s seen. But he’s been there basically from the start, and he’s seen just about everything it’s possible for a successful musician to see.

What fascinates me about his musicianship is that it appears to run counterintuitive to his image, at least within the context of the group. His driving, propulsive percussion–racing, four-on-the-floor, heavy on downbeat–is largely responsible for their aggressive sound (because, well, collectively they’re nothing if not aggressors). I might even argue that his contributions constitute the single most recognizable feature of their work. On any given track, he knows how to make an entrance. And it’s unexpected, these gritty, tough, boastful patterns coming from such a proper- and meek-looking guy. Compared to the others–all of the others, over time–he is what you would call unassuming.

Here’s the thing. We may take for granted that this is not exactly subtle music. But Charlie’s playing is no more simple than it is subtle; the traits are hardly mutually exclusive. Enter his original love of jazz and its attendant fluidity. He has no qualms switching time signatures mid-song: he takes “Midnight Rambler” (on Let It Bleed) from shuffle to straight time and back over nearly seven minutes, and he can go from laid-back tripping along to insistent and attention-commanding within a bar’s time. Similarly, he is game to mix and mangle genres: that aforementioned switch renders “Rambler” a corrupted blues; and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (on Sticky Fingers) is one part structured rock & roll to two parts jazz-informed jam, in which he does minimal solo improvising but keeps tabs diligently on Bobby Keys’ saxophone and Mick Taylor’s guitar. During the evolution of the whole, more flexibility and dexterity has been demanded of him, and he’s risen to the occasion.

Not to mention he’s accumulated a host of endearing personal isms for our listening enjoyment. He doesn’t shy away from the toms, always a musical power move. There’s one drum fill he’s immensely fond of, a pounding syncopation on the three-four of the measure–it’s hard to explain verbally without charts and stuff, but it’s all over Let It Bleed and also makes an appearance on “Honky Tonk Women” (though to catch it you have to listen past the cowbell, and that’s no easy feat). Speaking of cowbell, he’s happy to go wild on the bells and whistles, literally. Cymbals, hi-hat, tambourine, bongos…oh, and even if he isn’t the mastermind behind the shakers, he cooperates closely enough with them for some songs to actually rattle your bones.

All this to say that, in a group who went out of their way on principle to be neither classy nor stylish, Charlie Watts remains a paragon of class and style, from his ties to his semi-bored facial expressions as he pounds out those patterns. (Well, most of the time.) We salute you, sir.

Image: 2010 didn’t have much in the way of dapper, but when it did… (radiox.co.uk)

Stones Studies: An Overview

In which I introduce a thermostat-inspired trilogy

Something happens to me as spring turns into summer. It’s been an annual occurrence since 2012. The change in the weather, the ratcheting-up of the heat, impels me to spend some amount of time (brief or not) absorbing everything the “World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” did between approximately 1968 and 1972. I’ll elaborate on the specific period later–I’ve spent years winnowing it down–but suffice it to say that whenever it gets too hot or humid to keep my attention span from functioning at full capacity, I start thinking about the Rolling Stones.

I’m not sure if it’s coincidental or completely logical that this should happen concurrently with my (and others’) exploration of Black musical traditions and their appropriation or exploitation throughout white culture. Almost no one has benefited from such appropriation quite like these guys have: or, whoever else has, they learned it from the group who have predicated a fifty-plus-year career on it. They got their start playing the Delta blues and, were it not for certain early handlers nudging them in the direction they eventually went in, might have gone on doing just that until they either gained a modicum of status within that niche or simply faded into obscurity. Instead they took their favorite genres, just about all of which originated in the American South–blues, country, jazz, of course the classic first strain of rock & roll–and updated them for a new generation, in fact basically transformed them into a brand, one which mainstream (read: white) audiences found appealing.

The paradox is that if white suburban postwar parents were so distressed about their kids absorbing the music of pioneering Black artists–even though they themselves had done the same in the nostalgically-named Jazz Age–then they ought to have been even more riled up by these unkempt boys whose presence on and offstage was actually less benign than the very artists they were imitating. But at the end of the day, as unacceptable as they supposedly were, the Stones were still acceptable. They could get away with it. That’s the West for you.

Variations of this cultural story had played out before and have played out since. The good news is that these musicians don’t hesitate to give the greater glory to Big Mama Thornton or Muddy Waters or James Brown or any of the vast array of influences they have credited for the feel of their sound. The bad news is that in spite of all this, we somehow ended up with a lyric like “Brown Sugar”* (or “Under My Thumb” or “Stupid Girl” or, again, any of a vast array), which likely would not have been a thing in the present day and age because it would have gotten them cancelled. Apple Music calls it “pushing boundaries.” I don’t think that goes far enough.

But I’ve renewed my ticket on this train of thought (oy with the trains already) for other reasons, too. Maybe the quarantine experience’s distortion of reality draws one too many parallels to the Exile on Main St. sessions at Villa Nellcôte, summer ’71, with its serial distractions and interminable anxiety and threatened, thwarted creativity. Maybe this soundtrack represents a last-ditch effort to romanticize the harrowing uncertainty of being young and on your own in a foreign place and sorting out the next way to get by. Maybe, after what has essentially been a months-long psychological obstacle course, I just need to jump around.

Whatever the case, the next few entries will probe the mystique, the madness, and the miraculously tenable formula that took the Stones from success to SUCCESS. It will make for a rather specialized study, as the stretch I care about is the stuff I really care about, and if I were to try to treat the whole half-century run with the same critical eye I wouldn’t live to see the end. Call it a bit of escapism, courtesy of one of the most alluring band mythologies in the book. Who knows, I might even tell you what their best song is–and it’s not up for debate.

Just go with it. You’ll see.

*I’ll refer you here once more, because this one might top that list. It possibly invented the tradition (followed by songs like “My Sharona”) of a riff absolutely wasted on a lyric.

Image: not totally sure where this one comes from, but I hadn’t seen it before and I took an instant liking to it, and not only due to the presence of Brian Jones

The Manly Men of Motown (& More)

In which I give into temptation (I’m so sorry, please don’t leave)

This week is the week I sit down and hash out something I’ve had on the brain for years now, which involves taking a closer look at two musical factions which were essential to my musical education. I do say factions, because they were forces to be reckoned with at the peak of their powers.

I’m speaking first of Motown Records, which celebrated the sixtieth (6-0!) anniversary of its incorporation back in April. In the wake of the death–literally and figuratively–of the first wave of rock & roll, the label became a fixture of American popular music as well as a prestigious platform for artists and groups of color. The packaging and presentation of these artists and groups was famously pristine, each ensemble armed with impeccable uniforms, clean harmonies, and synchronized dance moves. They set a standard of attractiveness and discipline the likes of which was rarely seen–because, well, their white counterparts seemed to garner recognition without being held to a certain standard. Unsurprisingly, such a standard took a physical and emotional toll on the performers, particularly the women, as Mary Wells or Martha Reeves or literally any of the Supremes will tell you.

Much as I love harping on the (mis)treatment of women, that isn’t my focus here. Instead, I’ll draw attention to two singles that evoke the Motown sound at its most potent and also seem to reinforce a tenet of so-called masculinity: the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Now, I, like many people, straight-up love these songs; whatever sins they commit are nothing comparable to the “problematic faves” I called out a couple weeks ago. But I’ve long noticed a uniting theme between them–that of grudging vulnerability. Both songs credit Norman Whitfield as a co-writer, so I suppose it checks out that the same songwriters would explore the same themes, especially when producing material for artists on the same label. While these songs add their two cents to the common subject of romantic trouble, and even give a fair amount of free will and control to the women depicted, they pointedly condemn the act of crying as unmanly and shameful.

Observe: for the Temptations it’s

Now I’ve heard a crying man is half a man

With no sense of pride

But if I have to cry to keep you, I don’t mind weeping

If it will keep you by my side

and for Gaye it’s

I know a man ain’t supposed to cry

But these tears I can’t hold inside

Losing you would end my life, you see

‘Cause you mean that much to me

Superficially these lines suggest forward progress: the male narrators are willing to endure the stigma of open emotion because of how dear they hold their jeopardized relationships. The problem is the stigma itself, so stiff that it worked its way into music, so taboo that Black songwriters and artists felt compelled to disclaim and justify emotional displays and relay the message that such displays should occur only in the most dire situations and only as a last resort. What’s more, this message came wrapped in sugary, easily digestible pop coatings. Black listeners must have absorbed it; of course, continuing brutality and violence from a white-supremacist system was all the more reason to internalize it, to be strong in the face of a social structure designed to oppress them. (This is a good example of what is meant by the adage that America loves Black culture and not Black people.) The effects, I need not say, are still being felt. At bottom, these lines signify how much farther we had, and have, to go.

To paint a fuller picture of this uncomfortable trend, though, and to honor the “& more” of my title, let me take you back another twenty-odd years to the heyday of my favorite bandleader, Glenn Miller, and his hit “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”

Wait a minute, what’s this white guy got to do with anything? We appear to be veering off-topic, at least on the surface. But if we examine this particular song in the context of the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade–which was one giant vehicle for Miller and his orchestra–it takes on more than its share of complexity. The main thrust of the song is performed by Miller’s longtime vocal collaborators Tex Beneke and the Modernaires, all of whom are white. In the first verse, the Modernaires pose the question, “Can you afford to board the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” to which Beneke responds, “I’ve got my fare, and just a trifle to spare.”

Two things to note already:

First, the use of call-and-response. This is a staple not only of jazz, which originated in Black communities, but also of the field-song genre, which had its origins in the group mentality of slaves picking cotton or doing other outdoor plantation work. Such experiences also gave rise to the modern spiritual (and I’ve sung way too many of those in all-white choirs).

Second, the train theme. Since the Industrial Revolution of the previous century and the subsequent “shrinking” of the world, mechanical transportation had become etched in the public psyche, cultural consciousness, and musical tradition–specifically in the blues, yet another Black-originated genre. Trains are synonymous with the blues. They analogize the relentless forward motion of life or fate or whatever force has the singer down. Jazz and the blues overlap in many qualities, often including subject matter, as indicated here.

But on to the crux of my point. After the song (lyrical segment, shout chorus, etc.) is completed by Beneke, Miller, and the group, we get a reprise from a new set of performers: Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, all among the most acclaimed Black entertainers of the era. The Nicholas Brothers especially were known for stunning feats of contortionism in their choreography, which they showcase in the finale of the number. This represented both the idea that Black artists needed to demonstrate almost superhuman talent to be considered worthy of a career and the idea that Black performance was strictly for the edification of white audiences rather than for their own artistic fulfillment (residue from the days of minstrelsy which would find a later incarnation in the “Magical Negro” media trope). Foreshadowing Motown, methinks?

Anyway, for all these reasons, the reprise sets this act apart from the preceding white act. When the Nicholas Brothers echo the Modernaires’ question, Dandridge turns the tables: “I’ve got my fare, but not a nickel to spare.” Beneke has “a trifle” left over, which is no great sum; but Dandridge has nothing at all. Is this a commentary on the general disenfranchisement of African Americans, an assumption that most of them–even one who managed to make a name for herself in Hollywood–would only barely be able to cover their expenses? While we’re at it, we can infer that the disembodied “boy” to whom Beneke earlier says “you can give me a shine” (referring to his shoes) is also Black. Another jazz standard would soon make the rounds among the usual suspects (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, et al.) called “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.” That sounds suspiciously like dialectical appropriation. Maybe I’m reading too far into it–maybe it’s my deep dedication to lyrics talking–but the choice of diction strikes me as very telling. The fact that the songwriters would modify the lyric just so for singers of color is their own brand of message, just like the Motown songwriters’. It sheds light on perceptions and expectations of Blackness in the American arts, which have changed less than we probably think they have over time.

Tying it back to the discussion of masculinity, one of the last lines of the song–“she’s gonna cry / until I tell her that I’ll never roam” was altered, for female-sung covers, to “he’s gonna sigh.” Clearly, right from the get-go, it was God forbid that a man shed even a hypothetical tear.

All these observations may or may not be practical; at the end of the day they are meant simply to raise awareness. I don’t claim to be an expert on the minutiae, but this through-line has only become more obvious to me, and I believe it is worth talking about. Or, at the very least, worth keeping in mind on your next listen.

Image: I can only hope to presume it will be back once Broadway is back…

An Emergence/Emergency Kit

In which I prepare a launch pad

The wave of protests across the United States and beyond in pursuit of just responses to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and a whole horrible timeline of others–protests which, in their own right, have been mostly peaceful and entirely necessary–is different from previous expressions of outrage. Different for all the right reasons, as hitherto-quiet intersections of people voice (and back up, physically or financially) their intolerance of the violence perpetrated and perpetuated by the state.

Accompanying the movement is a heartening push toward encouraging and enabling self-education, particularly the self-education of white America. Social media channels overflow with threads of Black-owned businesses in need of support, Black creators in need of patronage, and Black perspectives in need of amplification. Not to mention long reading lists in which political theory meets Black history–Black history being essential to, and synonymous with, American history.

It remains only for us to genuinely work our way through those lists, as we prepared to do more, so that we might be able to do more.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have not, up to now, done The Most Work to consistently further the cause of true equity and justice despite my love and respect for my Black friends and colleagues. Love and respect don’t hold much weight without Work. But the ideas were heavy. The reading was difficult. News flash: that’s the point. Heavy and difficult don’t begin to describe the lives fraught with exploitation, abuse, and immanent fear of institutions designed more for their persecution than for their protection.

In the present moment, as the potential for real change looms large, as I search for ways to contribute meaningfully from a great geographical distance, I am trying to do The Most Work. Commit to being vocal for the long haul. Make up for lost time, for the lenient attitude I once thought I could afford to adopt. Lenience was never an option, not since American history began, and certainly not now.

During this quest to fill the holes in my own education (left by the public school system, might I add), I owe what little platform I have to providing resources for the education of privileged individuals, and to spotlighting the thoughts of a community still resisting the extermination they have resisted for four centuries and counting.

To say there’s a wealth of material out there–on intersectionality, civil rights history, abolition of prisons and police, etc.–would be a gross understatement. It can be hard to know where to begin. So here is a (hopefully) non-overwhelming selection of media which have informed me and inspired continued learning. I hope they can do the same for you.

Texts:

Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein, “What Abolitionists Do” (2017)

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics” (1989)

Angela Davis, Women, Race, & Class (1981)

Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003)

bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1982)

Lewis Nkosi, “An UnAmerican in New York” (2000)

Podcasts:

NPR’s Code Switch, hosted (primarily) by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby

Call Your Girlfriend, hosted by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow

Waiting on Reparations (brand-new–only one full episode–a great way to get in on the ground floor), hosted by Dope Knife and Linqua Franqa

And, as a starting point for access to petitions, funds, and other avenues of action: Black Lives Matter.

Change begins with understanding, and understanding begins with us.

Abolish corrupt systems. Fight fascism. Uplift underrepresented and undervalued groups.

And do your part. It’s a bigger part than you realize.

P.S. As it’s Pride Month as well, we would do well to strive to specifically illuminate and validate the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ community.

Image: the Black Power salute, officially dating back to 1966

Songs I Love to Hate to Love

In which I admit guilt

Popular music is fraught with problematic songs. There’s just no way around it. They express a sentiment which was commonly accepted in its day but hasn’t aged well, or they start out edgy by expressing a risky sentiment which really hasn’t aged well, or something else feels off-color or icky or uncomfortable. I’m not talking satire; that’s a genre meant to prove a point or highlight an issue, as any fan of Randy Newman’s solo work will tell you. No, I’m talking tunes that reinforce those issues or try to play them off as no big deal. Inexcusable, right?

Put simply, yes. And yet some of these tunes are encased in such an enticing sugarcoat that, changing public taste buds notwithstanding, they’ve contrived to keep their flavor. The protocol I’ve observed is to proceed with caution: acknowledge the inherent flaws in the structure and resolve that enjoying the art will not (should not, cannot) make you complicit in the system which once, if ever, normalized this type of expression. Here are a few of my picks for awareness-raising, always-qualified bops.

“Run For Your Life,” The Beatles (1965)

John Lennon had not a little anger in him, for perfectly legitimate reasons. Some of his early contributions to the Lennon-McCartney catalogue hint at that underlying aggression (“I’ll Cry Instead,” “You Can’t Do That,” even “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”), but it rears its head unavoidably on the closing track of Rubber Soul. “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, / than to be with another man” is the first and repeated line. He’s adopting a persona, but it’s a persona which amplifies his own more unpleasant and dangerous traits. You can hear it in his voice: the performance is snarling, searing, compelling in all the scariest ways.

“Island Girl,” Elton John (1975)

I have been known to lavish praise and appreciation upon Bernie Taupin, and even so it’s clear that he missed the mark on this one by a long shot. Some of the descriptions of the titular girl are questionable, but it’s the broken English throughout–horribly stereotyping the speech patterns of her Jamaican roots–that makes me cringe. Sir Elton’s bouncy arrangement is a welcome distraction, though nowhere near a fix. Rock of the Westies as a whole is lyrically dicey (see “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” if you doubt me). To those seeking less morally ambiguous material from these two, still dated 1975, I recommend Captain Fantastic.

“My Sharona,” The Knack (1979)

What a crying shame, this one. It’s set up to be the most unstoppable bop–drum hook, guitar hook, and all–and then the lead singer slides in with a sleazy lyric about a real-life seventeen-year-old girl whom he met (and became obsessed with) when he was twenty-six. Doesn’t look good. Certainly causes reluctance to sing along. Throwing matters into even starker relief is the blazing guitar solo toward the end, in a different key, which lasts ninety seconds–the band just really lets loose–and accomplishes more than anything the singer could hope to have done. Ninety seconds of distance and relief. Almost like their way of rebelling against a lyric that might have tanked the song. The only upside I can see is that the muse took the opportunity to get some power for herself: she now sells real estate at mysharona.com.

“White Knuckles,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1981)

For a guy who has spent much of his career claiming (justifiably so, I think) not to be a misogynist in life or in songcraft, Elvis walks a thin line on this one. The lyric depicts a pattern of domestic abuse, mostly physical and a bit verbal besides. Hallmarks of his material include psychological manipulation and power plays aplenty, but this (from his fifth studio album, Trust) is the first display of outright violence that I know of. In accordance with another hallmark, I didn’t get all the words at first, and even after I did I wasn’t clear on what everything meant. What hooked me was the chord progression: if you couldn’t tell this about me by now, I’m a sucker for a creative chord progression. Give a girl a good set of chords to cling to amid a stream of sometimes-garbled lyrics–well, not really garbled, that’s just his voice–and she’ll become attached before fully grasping the scope of the narrative damage. So maybe don’t sing the text, but you can compensate by singing along to Steve Nieve’s “twinkle-twinkle” keyboard variations.

“No One Else,” Weezer (1994)

Guys, don’t turn your girls into kept women. Out of touch in 1994, out of touch over a quarter of a century (!) later. Also, don’t you dare “and if you see her” them; break up with them to their face! (This particular garden weed of communication has only proliferated with the advent of texting.) Still, I have to appreciate Rivers’s rigid grammatical structure on “My girl’s got a big mouth / with which she blabbers a lot.” Giving a Harvard education a good name, giving masculinity…not so much.

“Semi-Charmed Life,” Third Eye Blind (1997)

A fantastic song that doesn’t even pretend to be about anything other than doing crystal meth. Now, this may not be the most salutary use of one’s time, but it is Stephen Jenkins’s choice what to do with his body. That isn’t the point. The real issue is his narrator-self’s exploitation of his girlfriend during their shared high–because it isn’t his choice what to do with her body, and he doesn’t appear to recognize that. If she’s “face down on the mattress” in the comatose state suggested, she probably isn’t in the mood to do stuff. Also, she probably didn’t wear “those little red panties” merely to “pass [your] test.” And for the love of God, don’t cast her going down on you as any fun for her. The sense of entitlement to male pleasure is palpable here. Moral of the story: do what you want on your trip as long as it doesn’t involve coercing someone else into doing things they don’t want to do. All that said, attempting to resist those “do-do-do’s” is a losing battle.

“A Night to Remember” from High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

Make no mistake: in a three-quel whose songs largely disappoint, I know this number by heart, and it’s a staple of my workout playlists. But it also entrenches gender roles in a way we should have progressed past by 2008. (I mean, long before then, in an ideal world.) Overall there could be more diversity in a franchise centered on teens who do theatre, especially concerning LGBTQ+ representation–let Ryan come out already!!–but this number takes a step back even from that and makes prom preparations all about the girls “dressing to impress the boys.” And of all people, who should get this line but Taylor McKessie (played by minor deity Monique Coleman), the intellectually fearless science geek who is all Gabriella could aspire to be? It’s uncharacteristic to the point of being jarring. Meanwhile, the guys adopt a straight-male aversion to fancy occasions, which is not only stereotypical but just plain false: many guys I knew in high school were really excited to clean up good for prom. At the end of the day, I’d think a cast of characters who were usually All In This Together would be focused more on getting gussied up to make themselves feel good and celebrating jointly as opposed to fretting over the reactions of their individual partners. The obvious exception being Ryan and Sharpay, who prove yet again that a sibling duo can be the only true power couple in school.

“Ignition (Remix),” R. Kelly (2011)

I need not go into much detail as to why I shouldn’t endorse this song, but it’s just such a jam. Mama’s not the only one rolling her body. But this is it! This is our one R. Kelly allowance! Otherwise, let’s stick to Ginuwine. (Actually, “Pony” could be the angel to this song’s devil.)

Sweet but Psycho,” Ava Max (2018)

This one’s a kicker because its main hook can sustain you for days. But it diminishes and oversimplifies mental illness, and what’s more, it does so pretty nonsensically. The singer’s portrait of a so-called ‘psycho’ character has none of the sensitivity of, say, “Psycho Killer,” whose narrative occurs within the mind in question (I’m sure I’ll talk about it at length sometime; it’s one of my favorites), nor the fleshed-out detail of Rihanna’s “Disturbia,” another first-person meditation. The narration of this song is muddled: the singer sometimes seems to identify with the character and sometimes not. On top of that, said character strikes me as neither particularly sweet nor particularly unbalanced. Screaming “I’m-ma-ma out my mind” does not mental illness make; rather, it’s cartoonish and insultingly reductive. (The artwork for the single helps nothing, featuring a young woman affecting a sexy pose atop a gurney in a pink-lit padded room…pink being representative of…sweetness?) Saying things like “she’ll kiss your neck with no emotion” and “she’s poison but tasty” leads me to believe this girl is simply a mean person who gets away with it via her conventional attractiveness. This trope has plagued visual media forever, and the current fight against it–led by small independent studios–does not need to be set back by messages like this one. Not to mention that material and/or emotional destruction can in no way be categorized as endearing; it requires real medical attention. So, if for no other reason than that we’ve reached the tail end of Mental Health Awareness Month, spare an extra thought next time you listen.

Songwriters are constantly pushing boundaries; if they didn’t, music would at some point cease to be interesting. But this is the nature of the beast. It’s beneficial and important to recognize societal sea changes as reflected in our pop culture. Be sure to give a nod to what has or hasn’t held up about your favorite relics–it enriches and humanizes the experience.

P.S. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list: in fact I’ve left out a couple noteworthy offenders which I will address soon in a different context.

P.P.S. That last entry is the only fully female representation here, which must not come as a shock, but there is the one! Girls can propagate unethical codes too!! #feminism

Every Musical Biopic Ever

In which I map it out

(trailer is a miniature of the following)

ACT I

Establishment of band of hometown/university friends. Shots of small-time gigs at local clubs. Unrecognizable snippets/early drafts of what will evolve into hits.

Idiosyncratic performance methods (e.g., dancing) which lead family/naysayers to ridicule the band’s dream of mainstream success. Band members stand by these peculiarities, knowing they can’t abandon what makes them them.

Protagonist/narrator musician confesses to first girlfriend that he wants more from his life. Dramatic irony: he should be careful what he wishes for…

Influential somebody likes aforementioned idiosyncratic performance methods. Career gathers speed. Collective pact that fame and fortune will never come before friendship.

ACT II

Worldwide acclaim. Fame and fortune starting to come before friendship. Montage of sold-out shows, crazy afterparties, and introduction to hard drugs.

Pivotal songwriting scene: emergence of one of the Big Ones. May or may not also be the movie title.

Crossover from strictly commercial into critical approval. Collective acknowledgment of imminent legendary status. First evident cracks in foundation–flare-up of members’ festering differences and exacerbated character flaws.

Major scandal involving drugs/politics. Future success jeopardized. Dark/blue-lit scenes manifesting protagonist’s doubt of self and system.

Possible courtroom scene featuring quotes and general irreverence which reinforce the mythology.

Protagonist admits that despite his promiscuity he does ultimately want love, as a total rejection of conventional romantic partnership would threaten societal norms. ‘Funny’ bandmate jokes that protagonist’s notorious sexual escapades aren’t quite finished yet. Comic smash cut to bedroom scene, where protagonist confirms bandmate’s prediction.

Career headed for the rocks. Someone dies, or nearly.

ACT III

Tough late-night conversations. Squandered recording sessions. Mutual admission to missing the lighthearted simplicity of the early days.

Shot at redemption. Protagonist apologizes to bandmates/family/love interest(s). Montage of work charged by renewed vigor (and more hits).

Spectacular comeback signified by limited engagement or series of shows. Once-idiosyncratic performance methods now iconic. Authenticity wins out.

Vignette and/or text tying up “where are they now” loose ends. At least one is funny because this isn’t all drama.

Credits supplemented by live stills from respected photographer. Soundtrack streamed thousands of times, sparking a resurgence in the group’s popularity and speculation over whether its (living) members will go on tour.

Optional: scene featuring deep cut which turns it into a belated hit

Optional: Discovery of Sexuality

Lit Review: THE GIRLS

In which I defect to the dark side

*WARNING: SPOILERS &/OR TRIGGERS*

Social distancing has inspired me to make considerable room for pleasure reading. And I find myself branching out, an instinct which was enabled but not precipitated by our isolated conditions. While to some extent I’ve been drawn to beautiful dark twisted tales since reading Lord of the Flies in eighth grade over ten years ago, I’m consciously letting myself be swept along in the psychological thriller current these days. It’s what led me to Bunny (which I reviewed here) and, most recently, to Emma Cline’s The Girls.

Even so, there’s a pattern to the specific subgenres that hook me. Both these works happen to be horror stories written by women about women. They use their own distinctive methods–for the former, magical realism; for the latter, a blueprint of real-life events–to depict young women’s mutual envy, torment, and influence. And while the former appealed to my literary-minded-twentysomething current self, the latter tapped into the difficulty and darkness which confronted me in my younger and more vulnerable years. I might even go so far as to call it the desperation.

Desperation is an inexorable undercurrent of The Girls, which was published in 2016 and which seems slated for ‘summertime classic.’ Set in the thick of summer 1969 in small-town California, it follows lonely, observant fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, who is on the cusp of shipping off to boarding school and unsure of her place in the world. At first she is desperate for her parents’ attention: a losing battle, as her father has run off with his assistant and seems much happier in his new life, and her mother is distracted trying every homeopathic trick in the book. Next she is desperate for Peter’s attention, the elder brother of her best friend Connie–even committing petty destruction of property to catch his eye–and she does get something of a reward, though she doesn’t know what to make of their encounter. But this too comes to naught; and finally, having found herself at odds with everyone in her life, she funnels all her desperation into a desire for the attention of a strange black-haired girl she sees in the park one afternoon.

This girl, leading a ragtag band of girls in raiding a dumpster for scraps, is Suzanne.

Suzanne is the single catalytic force driving almost all of Evie’s subsequent actions. She makes an impression on Evie that day at the park, though they do not interact; it is only on the black bus barreling through town, during which ride she spots Evie beside a broken bicycle, that she pauses and makes the conscious decision to pull Evie into the world of the girls. And it isn’t all girls, Evie discovers upon accompanying them back to their ranch–there are boys, playful and dangerous, as well as the man at their center. Russell, the commune’s seemingly eternally patient and loving leader, who constitutes Evie’s first sexual experiences, albeit not necessarily as she’d imagined them. She intuits, correctly, that Russell has relations with all the girls–most consistently the core group she falls into, Donna and Helen and Roos (Roosevelt) and Suzanne–and feels honored to be included, even accepted. The girls are older (most are at least sixteen; Suzanne is nineteen) and appear impossibly sophisticated to Evie, ironic given their community’s philosophy of detachment from the harsh material world. She wants to emulate all of them, but she wants especially to be close to Suzanne.

And Suzanne seems to reciprocate the desire for closeness, or at least demonstrate a special brand of tolerance, taking Evie under her wing and letting her sleep in her bed alongside her. What Suzanne doesn’t realize until the last possible moment, after all their drink- and drug-fueled nights around bonfires–and what Evie herself even takes a while to understand–is the depth and intensity of Evie’s burgeoning feeling for her, a feeling Evie identifies relatively early on:

I sat on the floor in front of Suzanne, her legs on either side of me, and tried to feel comfortable with the closeness, the sudden, guileless intimacy. My parents were not affectionate, and it surprised me that someone could just touch me at any moment, the gift of their hand given as thoughtlessly as a piece of gum. It was an unexplained blessing. Her tangy breath on my neck as she swept my hair to one side. Walking her fingers along my scalp, drawing a straight part. Even the pimples I’d seen on her jaw seemed obliquely beautiful, the rosy flame an inner excess made visible. (112)

Cline’s narration is ruthless, unapologetically probing every nook and cranny of her protagonist’s brain. We can watch her thought process play by play. As Evie separates herself from her family and spends more time at the ranch, she develops increasingly possessive feelings–mostly toward Suzanne–and engages in increasingly exploitative behavior to cement her place and prove her worth in the community. She shakes down a neighbor boy for drug money (though the weed supply she promises is nonexistent) and takes advantage of his adolescent attraction to her; later, she, Donna, and Suzanne actually break into the same neighbor boy’s house, but are caught in the act. Evie’s mother sends her to spend some time with her father and his mistress, delaying her return to the ranch for a considerable time. Then she exploits a good-natured Berkeley student for a ride back to the ranch, at which point she is so wound up about the possibility of having let Suzanne and the others down that she begs her way into participating in the main event.

Along the way we meet Mitch Lewis, a record mogul who seems to have made some sort of arrangement with Russell. Evie ends up losing her virginity to this monstrous man one night while Suzanne looks on; but Suzanne’s very presence changes the game for Evie, who takes every opportunity to kiss Suzanne and explore her desires physically. This is what makes her able to tolerate Mitch. Evie and Suzanne certainly share a bond by this point, but one wonders if Evie eventually begins to project her own desires onto Suzanne and imagine that Suzanne reciprocates them. This distorted reality reaches its apex, along with everything else, on the night Russell decides Mitch has let him down.

From there, it’s only a matter of time until the story plays out like the one you know. There is a Sharon Tate figure (in this alternate universe, she has had the child, a young son) and attending unfortunates (the caretaker, his girlfriend Gwen), all of whom pay the price for Mitch’s stubbornness at the hands of Russell’s crew. Cline describes the scene in grisly detail, the methodical dispatching of each victim. When Gwen makes a break for the front gate, Donna catches her and “crawl[s] over her back, stabbing until Gwen ask[s], politely, if she could die already.”

You get the gist.

Ultimately, Evie’s weakness for Suzanne, a soft spot which grows beyond her control, is…well, her weakness. But I won’t spoil the mechanics of that sequence. Suffice it to say that most of the story is middle-aged Evie’s remembering, sometimes recounting aloud, from the house one of her friends has lent her, decades down the line. The cult predictably met its end and has gained a measure of notoriety with history, leaving her ample time to muse on her petulant teenage wants with an adult wisdom. Though the experience hardens her in many ways, she observes the oddly mellowing effect it had on her opinion of her father:

I didn’t hate my father. He had wanted something. Like I wanted Suzanne. Or my mother wanted [her new boyfriend] Frank. You wanted things, and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong? (278)

We see a young woman rather violently coming into her own in a violent age, gaining awareness of her body and her physicality, trying to use them to enact the changes she wants to see in her world. But, as her adult self astutely and acutely tells us, her actions are bound up with jealousy, possession, powerlessness, the need to be noticed and to matter. Coming of age at the height of American involvement in Vietnam, she understands death in more than the abstract and at least begins to understand the ways in which some people are able to hurt and control others.

Not to mention she is a teenage girl, and teenage girls are renowned for their manipulative skills. Herein lie the most unsettling commonalities. I did not expect the story to hold a mirror up to me quite as it did. Mind you, I’ve never come close to committing murder, and even my day-to-day life as a fourteen-year-old differed from Evie’s in almost every way; but I recognized the ache to belong, recognized the brazen and sometimes irrational behavior of a girl who has never fit in easily and for whom fitting in is only getting harder. I have said and done many regrettable things, especially in that period, in the name of belonging. And I have used those experiences to write stories–some of these my first full-length stories, not too long after the fact–about girls and young women who do some awful things to one another. The Girls is a painful and gorgeous portrait of what can happen when those social patterns find a hospitable environment, and when they go too far.

Image: cover from Random House’s 2017 reprint

Jai Guru Deva Om

In which I mark the last major moment in the ‘Beatles 50’ decade

The past ten years have been one long fiftieth-anniversary party for Beatles fans. Album after album, moment after famous (or infamous) moment, has celebrated its half-centennial.

On Friday, we celebrated the last one, or at least the last of the official releases.

Let It Be was the final studio album from the by-then-formidable business entity known as The Beatles–on their own label, Apple, and after some label-related ventures (e.g. the store) which ended in financial near-disaster. But, as many fans know, it did not correlate with the final material they recorded. Most of its tracks were laid down in January-February 1969, right around the time of the storied rooftop concert; “Across the Universe” was even done the year before, while they were putting the finishing touches on the White Album. But aside from that they were preoccupied with refining, recording, and releasing Abbey Road, which appeared in the UK on 26 September 1969. I’ve always considered that one their formal sign-off and Let It Be more of an afterthought. An epilogue. A coda.

Listening to it now, I would say it almost functions as a mini-White Album in its exploration of a wide range of styles and genres; the members’ distinct musical personalities have become even more entrenched. (Producer George Martin had famously encouraged the group to pare the White Album down to a single album; perhaps this one, in his book, was where they finally got it right.) It’s often described as a ‘back-to-the-roots’ project, and we certainly hear that element: “One After 909” was a very early Lennon-McCartney effort, at least seven years old by then, and “For You Blue” was Harrison’s blues contribution. “Maggie Mae” was also their take on an English folk song. But there’s more to it than that. McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” feels closer to the Great American Songbook than to British music-hall tradition (see “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on Abbey Road for that). The title track, for reasons that are probably obvious, reflects discernible gospel influences. “I’ve Got a Feeling” taps into the burgeoning British progressive-rock scene (hi, Led Zeppelin). “Two of Us” is super country. “I Me Mine” is Harrison’s chronicle of the band’s toxic internal environment, the product of years of baleful accumulation. And it’s Lennon, rather than the expected Harrison, who channels tenets of Eastern mysticism on “Across the Universe.”

The album also contains a rare listed credit for a musician besides the four Beatles. Eric Clapton’s lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” might have gone unlisted back in the day, but former child prodigy Billy Preston gets a shout-out for the keyboard on “Get Back” (among other tracks). He was twenty-three at the time; he had known the group since age sixteen, when they were Tony Sheridan’s backing group and he was part of Little Richard’s touring band.

(Moment of silence.)

This recording really made him pop off—he was a fixture throughout Harrison’s solo career; he later worked with Clapton, incidentally; and he contributed to the two pretty obscure projects Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. Not bad.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Let It Be one of the albums that has best stood the test of time, because every Beatles album has demonstrated some sort of staying power. But it does contain a couple of their most enduring statements, and the lesser-known ones are great as well. I love me some “Dig a Pony.” Then there are the pieces that didn’t even make the final cut, like the beautifully raw “Don’t Let Me Down” or the silly “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”—which was the B-side to the single “Let It Be,” and which always comforts me for its portrait of a band who still knew how to goof around even though they basically couldn’t stand one another anymore. Let It Be is a testament to hope.

If you need me, I’ll be giving the proverbial record another proverbial spin on the proverbial turntable. Or I might switch to Let It Be…Naked, a solid alternative. Nothing’s gonna change my world.

A Brief History of Gouda

In which I consider a career change

One of my more bizarre priorities in this pandemic-induced wilderness has been maintaining access to good cheese. Don’t roll your eyes at me, it’s a legitimate concern. (Difficult enough in non-troubled times, if you ask me.) Anyway, I did recently happen upon some quality Gouda–tangy but mild, probably pretty young–and I decided to do a bit of research into it. Over the course of my adult life I’ve sort of accidentally accumulated knowledge on the history and practice of cheesemaking, so I thought why not give it an intentional go this time.

But I absolutely had no idea what I was in for with Gouda.

It is a cow’s-milk cheese hailing from the Netherlands and taking its name from a Dutch city; technically the g is pronounced like a guttural h (think the h in ‘human’; the same goes for van Gogh, but I doubt native English speakers are ever going to come around to either). Written records of it first appeared in 1184, in the Geschichte des Käses, or ‘Book of Cheeses’–because, of course, ‘Dutch’ is only a corrupted form of ‘deutsch,’ or German. (For the record, I translated that easily, thanks to my growing German vocabulary. Enough about me.) This makes it one of the oldest known and named cheeses still produced today.

Likely due to that elevated historical status, certain aspects of its production are protected by regional law, as well as by a Protected Geographical Indication from the EU. (And, I suspect, by the memories of women; cheesemaking was originally a task imposed on women, ergo a female-dominated industry. What a power behind the throne we turned out to be.) Although a lot of Gouda, like a lot of other cheeses, is made industrially by now, there remains in the Netherlands a group of about three hundred farmers designated to continue on the traditional method of making boerenkaas (‘farmers’ cheese’ in Dutch) with unpasteurized milk.

And the auxiliary traditions that accompany this process are almost unbelievable. For starters, I was basically assuming that the cheese was named for the place where it was made until I found out that Gouda, South Holland, is merely the place where it is traded. Since the Middle Ages, the city has held market rights (originally feudal rights) to more or less monopolize the sale of this particular cheese. Which means that on Thursdays from June through August, 10:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m., for centuries on end, farmers have gathered in the city to have their cheeses tested, weighed, and priced.

Who gets to do all that testing, weighing, and pricing? Is that the job I’m destined for??

(How are they going to do it this year, if people aren’t allowed to–no, don’t get ahead of yourself! You’ll freak them out! Just tell the story!)

So, on such a Thursday, the market square in Gouda would teem with farmers looking to sell their wares and customers looking to buy them, as well as ‘cheese-porters’ (yep, that’s a thing) wearing colorful straw hats and toting the cheeses in wheelbarrows to be weighed. (I was personally hoping they’d just roll the cheese wheels down the cobblestoned streets, which would look awesome, but I guess would be kind of unsanitary.) Potential buyers would then sample the cheeses and employ a system of negotiating prices by performing something called, in Dutch, handjeklap. Look like something to do with hand-clapping? That’s because it is. The buyer and seller would clap each other’s hands and yell out prices until they reached an agreement. I really hope they kept yelling until they happened to say a single figure in unison.

A whole crowd in the center of the city, high-fiving, shouting out numbers, eventually leaving with huge blocks of cheese. Can you imagine?

I’m not entirely sure any of this extra negotiation happens today, but it certainly happened once upon a time, and the current industry–at least the historically-preserved one–bears the mark of the ritual. If there’s such a thing as a heartwarming capitalist tale, this one just about hits the bullseye.

Gouda of all ages continues to be enjoyed in different ways in its native country. Relatively young Gouda is an everyday snack; once it reaches about ten months it tends to be dressed up with sugars and syrups, and after twelve months it is often consumed alongside a good beer or port wine.

If only we could respect the aging of people the way we respect the aging of cheese.

Dang, now I’m hungry.

Image: from cheesemaking.com (really!)

One Great Music Video: “Sledgehammer”

In which I get animated

A literary magazine recently sent me one of the best rejection letters I could hope for. Even if the short story in question didn’t make their cut, they did call the opening sentence ‘a sledgehammer of engagement.’ This was pretty good bad news because 1) I had done something right, and 2) I could topically console myself by watching Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video for the billionth time.

I think it remains the music video to beat. Well, when the folks at Aardman Animations are on it, what did you expect? (The whole middle section, with the Claymation and stop-motion effects, was engineered by Nick Park–this was still a few years before he created Wallace and Gromit.) It seems to factor significantly into the song’s status as Gabriel’s biggest North American hit and his only U.S. #1–notwithstanding the song’s own merits, and there are many.

To be frank–and this may well reflect the times we live in–I have neither the energy nor the desire to search at length for something novel and compelling to say about this video. I can’t help thinking it would be a fool’s errand anyway; exactly 34 years on, it’s perfectly novel and compelling in its own right. The guy didn’t lie under a glass sheet just to kill sixteen hours. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this is a doctoral dissertation.

So for once I’ll content myself simply by bringing this jewel to your attention, or more likely back to your attention. Let it take you on the most exciting journey you’ve had since you were last allowed to actually go somewhere. Mmmmm, fruit.