I came late to music that was not classical. I didn’t hear my first “pop” song until I was twelve—Michael Jackson on the van to day camp, Champions Day Camp, where I’d get terrorized for eight hours and then sent home. Back to the van, more MJ. In short, pop music began, for me, as a way to bookend terror. And it’s probably stayed that way insofar as I usually listen to music when I first wake up and before bed. Need I say more? Probably not. Following is what I’ve been listening to lately, or what I return to with a frequency that questions the line between love and compulsion.
1. “Runaway” – Kanye West. It is not the writer’s life to be sequestered from all things popular and relevant, that is just my life. And so, herewith, the first Kanye West song I ever heard, uh, last week. I bet there’s not a woman in America who doesn’t like this song, though I find its appeal issues less from content than denouement. Who ends a song like that? The way this song begins vs how it ends invites interpretation. Likewise the way KW sings the word intimacy completely out of tune. An accident? Methinks not.
2. “Falling Off Your Bike” – Black Eagle Child, pen name for Michael Jantz, whose music I cannot stop listening to. Experimental folk guitar? Is that what I should call it? I have no idea. I don’t have the language or connoisseurship to describe what this guy’s doing. Field recordings, pedals, E-bow, and who knows what else, but the result is kinda stunning.
3. “The State” – Destroyer. Last year I got really sick en route to giving a reading at Pete’s Candy Store. I have Crohn’s Disease, this stuff happens. So there I was, stalled on the sidewalk, and there was “The State” in my pocket, which I’d been listening to nonstop for days. I have a “No Ipod” policy for commuting because I want always to be open to the world around me, but there are exceptions, there are crises. And so: “The State,” which got me up and over to Pete’s. Hardly a heroic overcoming of trauma—it’s not like I won the marathon—but it felt like a big deal to me.
4. “Hospital Beds” – Cold War Kids. I like the way the lead flings his voice at the mic. If I had to picture his voice in scene, I imagine a guy throwing slabs of meat—raw steak, maybe—at a wall.
5. “I Have a Secret” – Half Japanese. It’s true, I can like something a lot without having much to say about it. How ‘bout those horns.
6. “Astronaut a Short History of Nearly Nothing” – Amanda Palmer. Exercise almost always feels like rage therapy, which is why I often listen to music like this when I work out. Last summer I was in Denmark, rural Denmark, and running through the moors. Palette of summer sky all the right colors. Sheep, cows, dung. Halcyon in the extreme minus Amanda Palmer.
7. Turns out teaching requires massive stamina, which I don’t have. You gotta perform, get amped. So if you’re me, and your natural state is catatonia, you gotta find an antidote. Mine is loud music. On my way to class each week, I blast into my head whatever makes me feel alive in the moment. Last I checked, it was “Swim” by Caribou.
8. “Chief Rocka” – Lords of the Underground. Let’s hear it for nostalgic appeal! Yay, college!
9. “1984” – Jay-Jay Johanson. He’s not a eunuch, but he sounds it. And since I like all things transgender, and especially things transgender that intersect with things depressing, here we are.
10. Nothing gives me more pleasure than playing my guitar. Problem is that I suck. And I can’t seem to get any better. I’ve been trying to use my mediocrity to teach my 4-year-old niece that it’s okay to be bad at something so long as it makes you happy, and to prove it, I play her “Close My Eyes” by Arthur Russell, which I play horribly despite its ease. But then, to teach me a more important lesson about love, she tells me I played great.
11. “I Would Be Your Slave” – David Bowie. Not his best, not even close. But then I often feel about an artist’s lesser work the way I’ve read the great Barry Hannah felt about Bob Dylan—that we like him because he has the desperation of not being able to sing, which is better than Glenn Campbell, who can.
12. Hysterical dysphonia: loss of the power to vocalize in the absence of organic pathology. Not sure there’s anything worse for a singer, and yet: Linda Thompson, whose diaphragm lurches up the inwalls of her gut so that she cannot sing. Or used to lurch since she sings “Beauty” with Antony Hegarty with utmost conviction. On a side note, I guess it’s apparent I have a weird rapport with the maudlin. I don’t like it at all, and yet.
13. “Nursie” – Jethro Tull. Feels like a short short. Slaughters like one, too.
14. “Chelsea Hotel #2” – Leonard Cohen. I saw Cohen live two summers ago. Freakishly moving, totally memorable. I think I cried through almost the entire show. “I never once heard you say I need you, I don’t need you”—has there ever been a more compelling binary of emotion dispatched thus?
15. “Look at Miss Ohio” – Gillian Welch. Oh, hell, I’m from Ohio. Sort of from Ohio. That or I just want there to be more music about me. Lyle Lovett once wrote a song called “One-eyed Fiona,” and if you swap out some letters, “My Sharona” gets hagiographic enough, but still.
16. “Babe, You Turn Me On” – Nick Cave. Yep, I have a Nick Cave obsession. I’ve always loved him. So why choose this song? He’s got so many great songs, and I’m choosing this one? Well, fine, I choose it because a) he rhymes panties with ante, and b) he’s put the word panties in a song, which bears out my theory that no matter how dumb, if Nick Cave is singing, the result will make me want to have sex.
17. “Lonelier Than This” – Steve Earle. My new novel is about loneliness. It’s called Woke Up Lonely. It’s about six horribly lonely people whose experience questions whether loneliness is congenital or circumstantial, and whether it even matters. So while I was writing it, I got to listening to whatever I could on the subject. Then again, for being rather lonely, myself, I’d probably be listening to that stuff regardless.
18. “Your Praise Shall Continually Be In My Mouth” – Total Praise. Sometimes I go to church if it’s a Sunday and the door is open and I hear music. I’m Jewish, agnostic, but still, somehow, engaged with God. Or so I’d like to think. I have spent years trying to cultivate a spiritual life, which means cultivating hope where there was none. About six years ago, I started listening to snippets of Christian music on this Time Life infomercial, which aired late at night. It was selling a six-CD set of “contemporary gospel”—“Shout to the Lord,” “God Will Make a Way,” Darlene Zschech, Don Moen—and while I find most of this music appalling, I was also moved. And I will listen to anything that moves me, no matter what is it is, or what its quality. However, for the purpose of this foray into my life, I offer up some people who can sing.
–Fiona Maazel is the author of the novel Last Last Chance. Her new novel, Woke Up Lonely, is in the works. http://www.lastlastchance.com/
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March Mix by J. Robert Lennon
February Mix by EL Staff