I had a lot of ideas about how to approach this project—none of them very good. I thought about a “winter” mix, but this has been an eerily easy winter, at least in Brooklyn. (Last week, at my girlfriend’s parents’ home in the Florida panhandle, we watched live local news coverage of a tornado as it formed over a nearby Alabama town and then ripped through it.) I thought about trying to relate my mix to my short story “A Talking Cure” [available next week at Recommended Reading] but music doesn’t play a role in that story so I felt like anything I’d come up with would be a stretch. I decided, finally, to make the case for the longer song (9 to 16 minutes, say) which is a form I like a lot and that I believe—perhaps incorrectly—most people don’t like nearly as much as I do.
I picked out five songs in a variety of styles with a collective running time of just about an hour and was satisfied, though also nervous. A novel may wait an age to find its true readership, but the Grooveshark playlist longs to be played now. So I broke down and threw in some shorter songs as breathers between the longer songs. The shorter songs have nothing in common except for the fact that I love them. The result is a potpourri, though I realize as I’m writing this that, formally, the playlist adheres to the same basic structure as the interval training I’ve been doing at the Y. Those of you in the Park Slope area may be interested to know that new members are entitled to four consultations with a “personal coach” and that registration fees are waived through February 4th. I didn’t have an appointment with my coach today, but he happened to be out on the floor when I was there earlier, and seemed pleased to find me engaged in executing the routine he had designed for me. I should or should not mention that he is twenty-four years old. I hope you enjoy these songs.
1. “Let It Rock” – Jerry Garcia Band, The Jerry Garcia Collection Vol 2: Let It Rock
A smoldering take on a two-minute Chuck Berry toe-tapper. This recording, from 1975, captures Garcia at a moment when the Grateful Dead were on hiatus—temporarily, as it turned out, but for all anyone knew at the time they might have been done for good. So if you’re interested in the biographical aspect, just imagine being him and having that in the back of your mind. Anyway, I love Garcia’s jazzman instinct for taking tight little pop songs and stretching them out into spacious, even cavernous environments, possessed of their own weather, suffused in their own mood. This version of this song, to me, is all about lazy energy, force gathered but unspent, a lion at rest on a rock in the sun, one eye open, half awake.
2. “O My Stars” – Michael Hurley, Snockgrass
An old freak-folkie I discovered when I was watching Deadwood and got obsessed with a song called “Hog of the Forsaken” that played over the closing credits of one episode and it turned out to be his. I bought the whole album that the song appeared on (Long Journey) but then it turned out he’d recorded different versions of “Hog of the Forsaken” on three or four albums over the years, and I’d actually bought the wrong one, so I bought all the others, too, and by the time I figured out which one was the “right” one I was a fan. “Hog” isn’t the only song he has recorded on multiple records. Re-recording is kind of a thing with him, which I have to say didn’t hurt in terms of getting me into him. I own two versions of “O My Stars” but not this one; I just found it on Grooveshark and thought it was pretty. My friend Mathias says this is his favorite love song—over Facebook, granted, but I think he really meant it.
3. “Nothing But Heart” – Low, C’mon
I think Low is making the best music of their career right now. Drums and Guns, The Great Destroyer, C’mon. Each record has been more powerful than the last. They just hypnotize me. I’m almost scared to listen to the new one, The Invisible Way, which comes out I think in March. This song is from near the end of C’mon.
4. “Ohio River Boat Song” – Bonnie Prince Billy, Sings Greatest Palace Music
Another re-recording. The story as I understand it goes: After Oldham retired his “Palace” moniker(s) in order to “become” BPB for good, he decided to mark the occasion with an album of BPB renditions of songs from the Palace catalog. Most of the Palace-era music is hushed, raw, ghostly, etc., so he cut this record with a bunch of Nashville session musicians to make everything sound full and clean and countrified. Though certain individual songs fare better than others in the new arrangements, Greatest Palace Music as a whole is a small masterpiece, and one of my favorite Oldham records. I think the re-arrangement of “Ohio River Boat Song” is particularly successful.
Hard to say much about this since I only heard it for the first time this afternoon. My friend Peter, an old college buddy, sent me an email that said he’d been listening to Matthew E. White’s Big Inner all day and kept thinking I’d love it, in no small part because a lot of the lyrics are re-arranged bible verses (I’m a sucker for most kinds of religiously-inflected music; maybe that’ll be the next list). “Brazos” was the first White song that came up when I searched for him, and I liked it right away. The horns, somehow, make it perfect. When it ended I was so shocked to see that nine and a half minutes had gone by that instead of going on to another song of his I played this one again.
6. “Sleep Dirt” – Frank Zappa, Sleep Dirt
I was a Zappa-phile in high school, thanks to LSD and the listening habits of the kid who at the time I thought was the smartest kid I knew. It’s hard to go back to things you liked when you were some other version of yourself and to regard them with any kind of objectivity, or even a properly contemporary subjectivity, and Zappa’s a pain in the ass anyway, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about him. Which is unfortunate considering what a fucking genius guitarist he is, and how crazily intricate his studio compositions could get. This is a three-minute guitar instrumental, quite beautiful, and the odd-ball entry on Sleep Dirt even though it’s the title track. Most of the rest of the record is songs from a sci-fi opera Zappa was working on—another Joe’s Garage, maybe, if he’d ever finished it.
7. “Ghosts: Second Version” – Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity
I don’t know enough about jazz to explain why I like this so much, but this never seems like a problem while it’s playing.
8. “Be Kind To Me” – Michael Hurley, Armchair Boogie
One more by Michael Hurley just because I can. If I’d discovered this guy ten years ago I’d have been in a rage that he wasn’t more famous than he is. I’m old enough now to feel as though I understand why he is exactly as famous as he is. What I mean is that I’m glad he exists.
9. “David Bowie” – Phish, 2003/07/29 Burgettstown, PA
Now that it’s cool to like the Grateful Dead it’s less cool than ever to like Phish. Weirdly, I can understand this. I’ve been up and down on them myself plenty over the years. But for what it’s worth, I’ve been way up on them lately and I think this “David Bowie”— from the second set of a summer 2003 show at the Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown, PA—is an exuberant rendition of one of their best songs, from a show that itself may be the highlight of an admittedly uneven year. “David Bowie” embraces the band’s essential silliness, but there are few enough lyrics that only true assholes will find time to roll their eyes. Like a lot of early Phish compositions—“Harry Hood,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Run Like An Antelope,” “The Divided Sky”—“David Bowie” is divided up into distinctive movements, with room for improvisation at each stage and a big explosion at the end.
—Justin Taylor is the author of the novel The Gospel of Anarchy and the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. He teaches at the Pratt Institute and Columbia University. He collects cover songs and standards, keeps a personal website, and lives in Brooklyn.