I started out trying to put together a mix that expressed, and engendered, hope, in peculiar forms. When I looked at the list, I realized I’d put all these boasting, large-egoed vociferations on there. There’s a strange quality to all the boasting songs, though: good-heartedness, kind-spiritedness, happiness.
1. Arthur Russell, “This Is How We Walk on the Moon”
Arthur was a gay dude from Iowa, a cello player, with a face pocked with acne scars; he moved to New York in the old gritty days, and made oddball indie disco and country records. This song is spare, haunting, and, on some weird intangible level, funky. “Every step is moving me up,” is the refrain.
2. ESG, “Erase You”
Three sisters from the Bronx put this band together in the early ’80s, ran around the margins between the punk/no-wave and rap music universes–they opened for Johnny Rotten’s Public Image, Limited, at the Ritz–the tour where Lydon played behind a screen, and the audience booed, then rioted. The song’s attitude is — as the children used to say, fierce — a stellar fuck-off track. “Last night, I went out with Tony / He had on so much gold / But it was phony.”
3. Cheap Trick, “Reach Out”
From the soundtrack of the cheesy animated sci-fi movie Heavy Metal, this is such a full-guns karate-training-montage song from an ’80s tune it’s ridiculous. It’s like the song the red-leather-clad Dirk Diggler sings in Boogie Nights, but real. (and P.S., the song is real-life amazing, not ha-ha freaky). “Don’t be afraid to drive the nail in the wood,” goes an oddly surreal go-get-’em! lyric, “and drink the water that t-t-tastes so good.” I met Rick Nielsen when I was fourteen–I was waiting outside the theater before the show–and requested this, and he looked at me weird.
4. Camille, “Ta Douleur”
Ta Douleur means “your pain.” The first verse, translated, is: “Wake up, it’s been decided–I’m taking your place. I’m gonna take your pain.” And the general theme is, “I’m gonna punch your ex repeatedly.” She calls her a sale chipie de petite soeur (dirty bitch of a little sister), and cette incrustée, which the lyrics page says means “that gatecrasher,” but Google says means “encrusted” — so I imagine there’s a more direct, and possibly poetic, translation.
5. Boogie Down Productions, “My Philosophy”
KRS-ONE, coming back after the death of his DJ, Scott LaRock. One of those amazing, long-versed flights of braggin g– pointed and wicked but playful. “How many MCs must get dissed, before somebody says don’t fuck with Kris?” (in fact, the curse is bleeped, which is kinda cute) And: “Rap is like a set-up / A lot of games / A lot of suckers with colorful names / I’m so-and-so / I’m this, I’m that / But they’re all just wick-wick-wack.” (Yeah, the wick-wick-wack sampled by the Beasties.) It ends with a triumphant — but, from the vantage of decades in the future, elegiac — “Fresh! For ’88! You suckers!”
6. Minutemen, “Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want the Truth?”
Rather swirly and dreamlike — one of D Boon’s more contemplative moments. The title frames it as defiance — actually the subtext here is that playing gorgeous cloudy music like this in punk rock clubs in the early ’80s, angering moshers, was pure defiance.
7. Bessie Smith, “Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer”
A sublime fuck-it. It starts with Bessie laughing sneeringly when asked for a 25¢ cover charge. “Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin,” she sings. This lady is tough as fuck, partying with a violent segment of the demimonde. “Check all your razors and your guns / Do the shim-sham shimmy ’til the rising sun.”
8. Otis Taylor, “Resurrection Blues”
Odd to put on a setlist intended to convey confidence and hope, because the tune is about a guy waking up in the morning transformed into Jesus. “I don’t want to be crucified,” he sings. The music is hypnotic, and very, very dark. For me, there’s something about this that makes the terrifying side of the Christian story — God, greater than all things, becomes a human being, and is subjected to horror and pain — shockingly graspable. I’m a Christian by no means, but this revelation of mortal vulnerability makes me hopeful.
9. Tomte, “Ich sang die ganze Zeit von dir”
Another melancholy black sheep on this list. The chorus translates to: “Some sing for Him [meaning God] — I sang the whole time for you.” Maybe an inversion of the Otis Taylor song above. Such a gripping, urgent expression of love.
10. Mike Doughty, “Are You Here? I Am Here”
OK, so this is off my electro/slicey-dicey album Dubious Luxury, but I’m putting it here for the sampled vocal of the great poet Joanne Kyger. It’s her adaptation of a Mayan prayer, recorded during a 1978 reading at St. Mark’s Church, in the East Village. It seems to be a scene of epic, ghostly heroes greeting each other. “Breathing the gods,” she says, “and getting the goods.”
11. Black Sabbath, “Johnny Blade”
This is my favorite Black Sabbath song. Literally. As in, “War Pigs” and “The Wizard” are tied for my second-favorite Sabbath song. Yeah, I’m serious. Such a weird red-headed-stepchild of a song in their repertoire, with the surging-alarm synthesizers along with the guitar buzz. “You know that Johnny’s a spider / and his web is the city at night.” Teen-rebel stuff. Very compelling.
12. Heather B, “All Glocks Down”
Yeah, the Heather B from the Real World: New York, in 1992. I had this on cassingle when it was new. She’s a potent, tough, blustery rapper, i.e.: “The bulletproof lyricist is knocking at your door,” and, “T.K.O. by the third / Fuck what you heard.” I hope she makes some new records — I’m a big fan.
13. BT, “Simply Being Loved”
BT’s good at finding where the limits of melancholy bump against the anthemic. Also, all that weird-sounding, cut-up, vocal-fragment collage stuff is done by hand–well, hand-on-mouse, making minuscule cuts and edits, manually–it’s not a plug-in effect. This song brings hopeful tears to my eyes on bad days–thus, some embarrassing experiences listening to it on the Q train. “Simply being loved is more than enough,” he sings.
14. Fannypack, “Theme From Fannypack”
“The prettiest girls who cash the most checks,” they sing. They’re too long-spooled to list here, but the lyrics are fucking funny. I wish I could come up with a synonym for “sassy”, but alas. These girls are sassy as a motherfuck. I also hate the word “attitude”, but there you go. It’s an amazing track of the old style — one would, perhaps, say “super fresh.” When Hot 97 stopped calling their midday feature “The Old School at Noon,” because the term had achieved masscon saturation, did they suspect they’d have the same problem with the re-dub, “Throwback at Noon”, when Pepsi co-opted the phrase?
15. Mick Jagger, “God Gave Me Everything”
I feel dumb and boring being a huge Rolling Stones enthusiast, but that’s how the cookie crumbles. This is the best Rolling Stones song of the past 25 years. And the best one before that was also not a Rolling Stones song, but Keith Richards’ solo “You Don’t Move Me,” in 1987. What makes me happy about this song is that it’s sung by an adult, comfortable in his skin — not a dude pretending to be a savvy, low-dwelling teen. He talks about the taste of good wine, his father’s face. The hope part: “God gave me everything I want,” he says. “I’ll give it all to you.”
16. Jorge Ben, “Umbabarauma”
No idea what he’s saying. I think the song’s about a soccer player. But the riff is ridiculous.
–Mike Doughty is a singer/songwriter, but hates that term. He’s written a memoir, a book of poetry, nine one-acts for The 24 Hour Plays, and an Aquaman story for DC comics. He released three albums in the past eight months. He resides.