freakwater2It was the mid-’90s, and we were all just discovering what was starting to be called “alt-country,” which mostly meant a whole lot of punk rockers who’d discovered that it could be just as effective to turn off your amps and focus on acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, just like the DIY musicians of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s had done. Pete insisted that I had to listen to one particular band, a pair of women from Louisville who sang old-timey songs about dead babies and betrayal, accompanied by guitar, banjo, upright bass and some stunning harmonies. He was particularly enamored of a song called “Crazy Man,” with its tale of family dysfunction (“I have met your momma and she’s crazy too/You got more from her than just your eyes of blue”), which was fun to play and sing ourselves. (It wasn’t long after this that Pete and his friend Marianne and I formed our own alt-countryish band. Our version of “Crazy Man” was enthusiastic, let’s just leave it at that.)

Once I’d started picking up Freakwater albums, though (my first acquisition was at a live show at the Mercury Lounge, purchased from a band member at the lip of the stage), I was more drawn to “Gone to Stay,” a country song about a familiar topic — untimely death — but with an unexpected lyrical twist:

And there’s nothing so pure
As the kindness of an atheist
A simple act of unselfishness
That never has to be repaid

That stopped me in my tracks. It still does, really.

I had stumbled upon the true magic of Freakwater, which was that as gorgeous and unexpected their vocal interplay, as talented their musicianship, as uproarious their stage banter, they are absolute lyrical geniuses. In particular, not to disparage Janet Bean in the slightest (her “Cloak of Frogs” is a thesis-worthy trove of layered metaphor), but Catherine Irwin soon became one of my absolute favorite writers of any kind, someone who has inspired me in my own work to choose words with incredible care, because they have incredible power. (The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks is the other lyricist I’d put in this category.) Check out this lyric from “Good for Nothing,” off of 1999’s End Time:

Forgive and forget are words that never slid across my tongue
Revenge like a fleeting Christmas morning I knew when I was young
Put the toys back in their boxes
Let me tear the ribbons off them just once more
Inside my little box of bones a ray of light shines
Where I’m slowly keeping score

There’s an awful lot going on there, an entire short story’s worth of character development and emotional backstory. Or you could drop the needle just about anywhere on their sublime 1998 album Springtime and hear … you know, I tried finding various snippets of lyrics to quote, I tried listing some of the subjects explored in the songs (Muhammad Ali and his experience with racism, the long legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the ways in which working-class solidarity has foundered on the evil genius of modern capitalism), but some things just work better in context. You can listen to the songs yourself by clicking those links, or you can take my word for it that all of these expansive ideas, and more, are handled deftly and brought down to personal size, even while being plumbed for unexpected depths. As Irwin explained later about the care that she takes in writing her songs, “As a fiendish NPR listener, I’m aware that it’s easy to be heavy-handed, particularly about something that you’re really passionate about.”

(She explained that to me, in fact: That line is from an interview I got to do with Irwin on her 2002 solo tour, an interview that ranged from the Amish and the Wobblies to authenticity and elves, and which still makes me think, and crack up laughing, all these years later.)

Freakwater has only released one album in the last decade and a half, and they tour infrequently — rumors of a 2013 tour with members of the Mekons, to be called the Freakons, sadly turned out to result in only a couple of shows, including one at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival — but they recently headed into the studio to record some songs, which hopefully will mean an album and live shows sometime in 2015. As Irwin memorably said at another time, “If I had a master plan, it’d be trying to get people used to the idea of frumpy middle-aged losers singing music.” It may not be one big union, but as missions go, you could do much, much worse.

Neil Young

Neil-YoungThe notion of being “introduced” to Neil Young seems ridiculous: In the 1970s, his music was always in the air, and on the air. On rock stations like WPLJ and WNEW (which all the cool kids listened to), and even Top 40 stations like 99X (which I listened to until it switched formats to disco and then the cool kids and Dr. Johnny Fever shamed me into listening to the rock stations), they were always playing songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Ohio” and “Southern Man” and “Like a Hurricane” and that one with the line about “Johnny Rotten,” whoever that was.

At some point, I’m pretty sure, my friend Chris, who wasn’t one of the cool kids but had a lot of surprisingly cool musical tastes, brought over a copy of Live Rust, the live album recorded on the tour for Rust Never Sleeps, the album with that song with the Johnny Rotten reference. (Rust Never Sleeps, I would find out years later, was also recorded mostly live on a previous tour, but was considered a studio album, while there was also a movie called Rust Never Sleeps that was of the concert that on record was called Live Rust. These was just some of the many things about Neil Young I would have to puzzle out in coming years.) It was pretty cool: There were a bunch of sweet acoustic songs I’d never heard, like “Sugar Mountain” with its lyrics about not wanting to grow up; and then a bunch of rocking electric songs I’d never heard, like “Cortez the Killer,” with its lyrics about brave and strong Incas and the European conquerer who came to slaughter them and, for some reason, a woman who still lives there and “loves me till this day.” And there was some bizarrely fascinating banter, like a reenactment of the scene in the film of the Woodstock festival (which I’d never seen, but would soon enough) where someone announced from the stage, “Maybe if we try real hard we can stop this rain! NO RAIN! NO RAIN!”

Something was happening here, and what it was wasn’t exactly clear.

More information became available a couple of years later, when Neil played a show at the Beacon Theater, an old movie palace that was only a few blocks from my house growing up. I would see pretty much anyone halfway interesting who played at the Beacon (I later went to a show by GTR, a deservedly short-lived band featuring Steve Howe from Yes and Steve Hackett from Genesis, which will not be showing up on this site under any circumstances), so Neil Young was a no-brainer. I’d only been to a couple of concerts ever at this point, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this: Neil, alone on stage, wandering among a few guitars and a piano, searching his pockets for the right harmonicas and singing songs from all over his discography, and some from off the map entirely. After playing the then-unreleased “Too Far Gone,” he quipped, “If I’d known you’da liked it that much, I woulda put it on the record.” It was enough to make me a fan for life, even if bits of it were kind of weird.

Okay, more than kind of weird. The acoustic set was just the opening act, it turned out: After a little over an hour, Neil left the stage, and returned with a full band in the rockabilly guise under which he’d recorded his recent album “Everybody’s Rockin’.” While it wasn’t exactly bad, it was also a puzzling encore to what had been a folk-rock master class.

Thirty years later, my feelings haven’t changed much. One can’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young — it’s more like love/bafflement. I’ve since followed him through some of the greatest albums (and shows) I’ve ever heard — just last week I took part in a Facebook debate over which of his 1970s albums, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/After the Gold Rush/Harvest or On the Beach/Tonight’s the Night/Zuma, might be the best three consecutive albums by any artist — and some of the worst as well. (This is a man who in complete seriousness released an entire album of nothing but guitar feedback. Eat that, Lou Reed.) Sometimes it’s impossible to separate out which is which, as in possibly my favorite Neil Young lyric of all time, from 1975’s Tonight’s The Night:

It’s too dark to put the keys in my ignition
And the morning sun has yet to climb my
Hood ornament

A lyric that only Neil Young could get away with? A lyric that not even he should have tried to? Is there a difference?

After a stellar solo show at Jones Beach in 1989 (accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith and with a special guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen), I went years without seeing another Neil Young show because they were always at the Enormodome. Finally, in 2012, I went to see him during his maybe-final tour with Crazy Horse; I hated it. (I can’t say how much was due to self-indulgent feedback solos, how much to the self-indulgent record he was then touring, and how much due to it being at the Enormodome.) A year later he played solo at Carnegie Hall and I skipped it; I later saw a video of it and he was terrific. Most recently, in the last year he has divorced his wife of 36 years, started dating Daryl Hannah, and written and recorded an entire album about it, using an orchestra and a vintage microphone that once belonged to Barbra Streisand.

There is no excusing this kind of thing; there is barely any understanding it. It is all part and parcel of what makes Neil, as he loved to say of others in Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating biography of him, Shakey, an “inneresting character.” There’s a recording of a Neil Young show from 1971 in which he pauses in the middle of playing “Sugar Mountain” to explain that he initially wrote 126 verses to the song, and purposely left in the absolute worst one, “just to show what can happen.” Whether that’s true or just a story that his muse told him sounded good at the time, it’s about as Neil Young a concept as you can get.


110907-superchunk_617_409_Jason-Arthurs-CI’m pretty sure the first time I heard of Superchunk was in a story told to me by my much-aforementioned friend Pete, back when we were writing an article about how Nirvana were just riding on the coattails of more worthy indie rock bands. (It made sense at the time. Though come to think of it, Michael Azerrad concluded pretty much the same thing.) As I remember it, Pete was telling me about a Superchunk show he went to during the first Nirvana frenzy when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was everywhere; Superchunk had their own mini-hit, “Slack Motherfucker,” and people in the crowd kept calling out for it. Mac McCaughan turned to one of the shouters and said sarcastically, “You know, there’s a Nirvana show across town you could be at.”

I saw Superchunk once in the ’90s (at Lollapalooza of all places, another long story involving Pete that I’ll tell another time), but they didn’t make much of an impression other than being energetic and impossibly young-looking. The next time they sideswiped my radar was at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show, when Mac’s solo project (also involving Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur) Portastatic was the opening act, playing a short set that included a couple of memorable-because-unexpected Bruce Springsteen covers.

Jump forward another few years, to an outdoor show at South Street Seaport. I was there for the opening band, Versus (another Yo La Tengo Hanukkah opening act discovery), but Superchunk was the headliner, and I was there with my friend Courtney, who loved them. I liked them okay — nice crunchy guitars, hooky choruses — except for one new song, “Learned to Surf,” which I loved.

If you’re going to have a gateway song to Superchunk, you could do worse than “Learned to Surf.” It starts with a killer guitar riff (which I have tried and failed to learn how to play many times), then launches into what I have come to know as a quintessentially Mac-esque extended metaphor about how to get through life when trying to keep your head above water seems too much. It had an infectious mix of cynicism and enthusiasm, and lines that stuck with me:

When I learned to talk, I found words they weren’t worth dirt
Heavy like the rocks we carry, I stopped sinking and learned to surf

“Learned to Surf” first appeared on an excellent EP called Leaves in the Gutter, which I played out, all five songs of it (one of them another take of “Learned to Surf,” an acoustic demo). It appeared again on the even more excellent LP Majesty Shredding, which remains my favorite Superchunk album, with terrific songs like “Digging for Something,” “My Gap Feels Weird” (inspired by a dental visit by Mac’s daughter, but transmogrified into a commentary on something else entirely), and “Fractures in Plaster,” which retains Superchunk’s raw punky energy and takes it in a totally other direction. While I’ve grown to appreciate their earlier albums, I am a late-Superchunk fan, and make no apologies for it — I don’t know if it’s the self-taught pop lessons Mac learned with Portastatic during Superchunk’s early-2000s hiatus, but there’s a maturity and complexity to their more recent songs that has made them, belatedly, one of my favorite bands. (It doesn’t hurt that they are brilliant live, not least because you get to watch Jon Wurster’s incredible drumming while singing along to the beats, which is endlessly entertaining.)

And yet there’s still something preternaturally young about them, in the best sense of the word. Superchunk’s latest album, I Hate Music, is — like Fade by their friends Yo La Tengo, one of the videos from which features Mac miming to Ira Kaplan’s vocal parts — largely an exploration of mortality, but somehow Superchunk manages to combine this with a youthful enthusiasm that is neither naive nor affected. I mean, seriously, just check out their recent non-album single “This Summer.” You could do worse than that for a Superchunk gateway song, too, so dive right in — we’ve got a clear path down to the sea.

Shonen Knife

ShonenKnife130527-smallerAh, Shonen Knife. This is another band that I can credit to my friend Pete’s indie rock re-education project: He loaned me a copy of their then-new album Let’s Knife in 1993 or so, telling me something like “They’re a bunch of Japanese housewives who play Ramones-style rock.” (I may be misremembering the “housewives” part, but that misconception stuck with me for a while.) Let’s Knife was an excellent introduction into the madness that is the world of Shonen Knife, seeing as it features:

Let’s Knife is also the home of what might be the strangest song in the entire Shonen Knife catalogue, which is saying something. It is titled “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme” and goes, in its entirety:

Tortoise Brand Pot Cleaner
Specially selected Pot Cleaner
The best pot cleaner in the world is
Specially selected Tortoise Brand

This appears twice on the album, in a slow version (“Sea Turtle”) and a fast version (“Green Tortoise”).

All of this is, needless to say, hilarious. It’s also great punk rock music, very much in the style of the Ramones, though some clever metal and pop touches float to the surface in places as well.

That was my first Shonen Knife record, and for a long time my only one. My second Shonen Knife acquisition came in 2003, when our friends Hova and Belinda started playing songs from the album Heavy Songs on their alterna-kids radio show, Greasy Kid Stuff, then airing Saturday mornings on WFMU. (It’s since moved to Portland’s, where you can listen to it streaming or archived, as I do each week without fail.) In particular, one song, “Rubber Band,” was not only insanely infectious (and hilarious, with “boinggggg!” sound effects and lyrics about how “you can wipe away wickedness from the Earth using it”), it was the perfect song for bouncing my then-infant son on my knee to, provoking an inevitable giggle fit. (Even better, the next track, “Heavy Song,” is super-slow and ideal to make a giggly child stop bouncing and fall asleep in your lap.)

After that, I was a full-fledged fan. Founding bassist Michie Nakatani had left by this point, with drummer Atsuko Yamano shifting over to bass in her stead, but Atsuko’s sister Naoko was still there writing lyrics and playing guitar, and they were clearly still in top form. Eventually I got to see the band perform live, which was even better (it didn’t hurt that they played “Rubber Band”), as they blasted out song after song while wearing matching outfits and engaged in rock-band cliches like synchronized hair-flipping and pointing their guitars at the audience like machine guns.

This, in fact, is the essential mystery of Shonen Knife that I’ve yet to unravel: Are they serious about acting like heavy metal rock gods while singing songs about candy and bugs? Or is it all a goof? Or, possibly the most likely, is this some kind of Japanese merger of the two that has no direct analogue in American culture, like the opening of Iron Chef — something distantly related to “camp,” maybe, but without the irony?

It doesn’t really matter. Atsuko has since left the band as well, leaving Naoko as the only original member (Andrew likes to refer to them now as “Shonen Starship”), but new members Ritsuko Taneda and Emi Morimoto are great, and they continue to write songs that are both brilliant and loopy: Recent albums have included tributes to capybaras and to green tea ice cream. My son has grown into a big fan as well, coming with me to see them several times, including a show at Maxwell’s in 2012 where we were mere inches from the stage. The encore, at an audience member’s request, was “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme” — played three times in a row, each one faster than the previous. If anyone went home unhappy, they don’t know what joy is.


Yo La Tengo

YLT_earlyIn 1991, at loose ends and with nothing better to do, I decided to spend the summer visiting a friend in San Francisco. At that point, two things happened (well, more than two, but let’s stick with those): I was offered a full-time job as production editor at the late, lamented Guardian Newsweekly. And I found out that the Mekons would be playing a free show in Central Park, of all places, at the end of June. I hurriedly moved up my return flight to the day before the show.

I, my not-yet-SO Mindy, and our friends Pete and Tara arrived super-early, to be ensured of getting seats up front and center. It was only at this point, if I’m remembering right, that I noticed the name of the opening band. Pete, my guide in all things indie rock, explained them: “They’ve been around for a while, playing around the city. The two main members are married.”

They were odd, that’s were for sure. “Around for a while” or not, they looked super-young, especially the aforementioned couple, who were both short and slim and dressed like they were headed to a high school yearbook meeting. (The third member, a bigger guy who played bass, was harder to pin down in age.) Their first song was a beautiful, quiet song that featured both of the married members playing guitar at the front of the stage. For the second, the woman went behind the drum kit, and the three of them unleashed some of the most cacophonous rock noise I’d ever heard. And so it went like that, through a dozen songs that were by turns folky and abrasive, all of them terrific to my ears. (Mindy and Tara were less enthralled, going for a walk mid-set during one particularly lengthy feedback solo by the little guitarist with the frizzy hair.)

A few months later, Yo La Tengo came out with the record most of the songs at their Central Park set were from, May I Sing With Me, with a cover featuring a black and white photo of Georgia, the drummer/guitarist/singer, holding an umbrella beneath a cascade of painted dots. (There was later an EP of one of my favorite songs from the album, “Upside-Down,” that featured Ira, the guitarist/singer, protecting himself from the same painted rain, but with a cymbal.) I listened to it incessantly, and snapped up their followup Painful as soon as it arrived the next year. It turned out they played around town lots indeed, and I got to see them a couple of times at Tramps, and grew to appreciate not just their dual loud and quiet modes, but their proficiency with coming up with offbeat covers of songs I didn’t always know but knew I should, and the gorgeous vocal interplay between Ira, Georgia, and James (the by-comparison-hulking bass player, who turned out to have a remarkable singing voice high enough that he would later record an entire album of Prince covers). They weren’t my favorite band, but they were definitely in the mix.

Then came their 1997 album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which won me over completely for several reasons:

  1. Its second song, “Moby Octopad,” not only had the most unexpected tune I’d heard from them yet, with a funky, loping bassline, but it was about falling asleep on the sofa while watching a Mets game. (Yo La Tengo’s name, I had recognized immediately on hearing it, is a reference to one of the most infamous, if possibly apocryphal, moments in Mets history.)
  2. Its third song, “Sugarcube,” which kicked in with a crazy drum fill followed by a blast of sweet guitar-and-organ wash, and offered lyrics that were simultaneously cynical and heartfelt about the demands of love, struck me as just about the perfect rock song. (I didn’t yet know it also had just about the perfect rock video.)
  3. The other 14 songs on the album were equally great, and equally all over the map in terms of style and sound.

I was in awe. As was my stereo, apparently: The second time I blasted “Sugarcube,” one of my speakers promptly exploded.

And then, four years later, came the Maxwell’s shows. I’d already seen YLT at the legendary Hoboken club a couple of times: Once on New Year’s Eve in 1996 when the club was about to close to make way for a brewpub (the band honored the moment by opening with the Stones’ “This Could Be The Last Time,” eventually leading into covers of “What I Like About You” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as cautions of what could be around the corner), once in 1998 for the club’s celebratory reopening under the management of its longtime soundman (in the midst of a run of four shows, the band perversely played all their songs, including rockers like “Sugarcube,” at a whisper, Ira thanking the audience at one point for their indulgence). But this was going to be different, a series of shows on the eight nights of Hanukkah to raise money for charity, and promising unexpected guests: On the first night I saw them, the opening set was by some guy named Clint Conley, followed by none other than Penn Jillette and Gilbert Gottfried performing the “Who’s On First” sketch (kind of).

The Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows, which ended up stretching over nine non-consecutive years before Maxwell’s finally shut down for good in 2013, marked another level in my fandom. It became an annual ritual: lining up at the Manhattan record store Other Music to grab some of the few available tickets, usually half of them for people from out of town who planned to make a holiday visit to New Jersey, then shlepping out to Hoboken on the PATH train and sidling up to the door to peek at the handwritten sign revealing that night’s opening musical and comedy acts (neither of which were ever announced beforehand, by official custom). One night in 2002 (opening band Portastatic, comedy act Soundtrackappella) I cautiously approached a guy with what looked like small microphones clipped to his shoulders to ask if I could get a copy of his recording, and met my friend Brandon, who will be appearing further in these pages shortly. And I received a new education in bands in Yo La Tengo’s orbit (many of which will also be appearing in these pages shortly), and entered at least peripherally into the world of Maxwell’s, all of which my friend Jesse (who I also befriended at a Hanukkah show, after noting that he was carefully compiling setlists on a notepad as the show unfolded) has honored in his outstanding book.

Are Yo La Tengo my favorite band? That’s a really difficult question. I certainly listen to them more consistently than any other band, often delving into the mammoth collection of live fan recordings of their shows that they officially tolerate. I don’t always love them — while I don’t have quite the love/hate relationship with them that Mindy does (she invariably heads for the lobby the minute she hears the opening bassline of their epic drone-fest “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”), there’s plenty that they do that I’m not a fan of. (I am almost as lukewarm about their 2009 CD “Popular Songs” as I am in love with its predecessor, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.”) Much like WFMU — the famed New Jersey freeform radio station that Yo La Tengo takes on-air requests to raise money for each spring — I know that YLT is going to sometimes enthrall me, sometimes challenge me, sometimes disappoint me, but never, ever be dull or predictable. And really, what more can you ask for in life?


Television-bandAs I’ve noted in a couple of other items here, one recurring feature in my musical life has been discovering bands a few years after everyone else knew about them. (Or everyone else who was cool, anyway.) Television is one band where I was behind the curve by the least amount of time: I’m pretty sure I was in high school, sometime in the early 1980s, when my friend Chris came over with an LP of Marquee Moon, their instantly classic 1977 debut.

I was still mostly listening then to the kind of prog rock (though we didn’t call it “prog” then, and certainly not “classic” — it was just “rock”) that bands like Television were largely a reaction against; for me, CBGB’s was just an odd storefront that I walked past sometimes on the Bowery, though I’m sure I had at least heard of the Ramones. Still, this was a language I could understand: interweaving insistent guitars, obliquely clever lyrics (“I want a nice little boat made out of ocean” from “See No Evil” remains one of my all-time favorites), and even some epic song lengths (the title track is 9:58, closing with a several-minute guitar duel between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd) that wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place on a Yes album. This was rock music, and brilliant rock music, and I couldn’t get enough of it. And it definitely pricked up my ears for the rest of this “punk” thing that I’d previously mostly ignored.

Being five years behind the curve on Television, though, was as good as a century. Soon enough, I’d discovered their 1978 followup Adventure, and that that had been their swan song to date, as Verlaine and Lloyd had famously imploded right after it was released. (Founding member Richard Hell had previously left after another run-in with Verlaine, and Lloyd had almost departed on another occasion, so really it’s somewhat of a miracle that there were any albums at all.) I ran across a Reach Out International Records semi-official live can you buy inderal online cassette called The Blow-Up that had a couple of songs that hadn’t made it onto either studio record, and those three albums became my only glimpse into this strange phenomenon that had just barely passed me by.

Verlaine and Lloyd later made up, or at least decided to put aside their differences, and Television finally came out with a third studio album, Television, in 1992. I wore that one out, too — I remember a stretch of time when that and Sugar’s Copper Blue were all I would listen to, possibly the only time in my life when I was listening solely to music released that year — but never saw the band on its ensuing tour for some reason. I finally got my chance in 2007, when they were booked to play an outdoor show at Central Park’s Summerstage festival — one that Lloyd soon announced would be his last with the band, as he was leaving yet again. Unfortunately, the week before the show, he ended up in the hospital, and the band went on with Verlaine’s solo bandmate Jimmy Rip in his spot. (The only mention of this from Verlaine was to mumble between songs, “Our other guitarist couldn’t be here today,” at which point Rip had to chime in, “We all wish Richard Lloyd a speedy recovery.”) The show was still great — in particular, it gave me an appreciation of how much of what makes the band special comes from Billy Ficca’s incredible drumming — but it wasn’t entirely Television.

The band is still around, with Rip on board full-time now: I saw them last year play an odd instrumental set over a screen lit with projections by the Joshua Light Show. I’ve still never seen Richard Lloyd in any shape or form. And I still listen to Marquee Moon more than any other Television album, and as much as most any other album in my collection by any artist. When you get something that right, I guess encores aren’t really necessary.

The Mekons

14-28aI cannot begin to imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t picked up the Village Voice one day in 1989 and flipped to the music section. There my eye happened to land on a Robert Christgau column whose title I’ve long since forgotten (and it doesn’t appear to have made the transition to a digital afterlife); it was about some British punk band called the Mekons, and their new album The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll. This, Christgau assured readers, wasn’t a straightforward turn toward mainstream rock, but an album that slyly deconstructed the rock ‘n’ roll myth while simultaneously being the rockingest album the band, which had emerged from its raw three-chord origins to become known for pioneering forays into country-punk, had made yet.

I had no idea what Christgau was on about — I seldom did, though I liked to let his words slide over my eyeballs — but it hit enough of my interests at the time (left-wing politics and loud guitars) to pique my curiosity. I headed down to whatever record store was most convenient (probably Tower or a Virgin superstore, as The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll had somehow ended up with major-label distribution) and picked up a copy of the CD. And then I went home and played it.

The first song was a revelation: an onslaught of guitars, multiple voices, driving beats, and weird electronic noises that immediately filled the room and my head with its message:

Destroy your safe and happy lives
Before it is too late
The battles we fought were long and hard
Just not to be consumed by rock and roll

The second song was a revelation on top of a revelation: The multiple vocalists disappeared, to be replaced by a woman with a remarkable voice — Sally Timms, according to the insane liner notes, which folded out to reveal strange art surprinted over the hand-scrawled lyrics and a bizarre story about bored British youth and Khrushchev building giant sofas — singing of how “when I was just seventeen, sex no longer held a mystery; I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock ‘n’ roll.” And of dance clubs, and shop window displays, and vampires. And there were ten more songs like this, each one both a densely packed essay on life under late-20th-century capitalism and a joyous rock song. I probably listened to the CD five times that night.

A few months later, I got my first glimpse of Mekons in the flesh, at Tramps in Manhattan, and discovered two other things about them: First of all, they were great live musicians, the mob of people crowding the stage including a mad-genius fiddle player and a drummer who, I later found out, had played on any number of hit songs like “Watching the Detectives” before joining this odd collective. Second, they were brilliantly funny — especially the pudgy fellow on guitar at stage left who yammered menacingly about Bono between songs, and the wiry guy on guitar at stage center who shared vocal duties with him (and Timms) and was more prone to occasional wry comments that would stick with you long after the show had ended.

And after that… well, after that. The Mekons are, as its fans have found out as well as its members, less a rock band than a way of life. (Nearly 40 years in, they’ve all taken to joking that “the only way out of this band is in a box.”) Many of my best friends are people I’ve met at Mekons shows, or on email discussion lists about the Mekons, or somewhere else in the real or virtual world when the magic word “Mekons” popped up, and we knew we’d happened across a kindred spirit. Probably half my music library is of bands that in some way I found out about via the Mekons or their various spinoff projects, especially after Jon Langford (the Bono slagger) began recording on a tiny Chicago label called Bloodshot Records that helped pioneer something called “alt-country.” I have been introduced to books and movies and political history through references in Mekons songs, which have addressed everything from the colonialist history of the drug trade to the perfectly agonizing push and pull of heartbreak to how to make a zombie to political terrorism in 1910 amid the terrors of modernity. (One album, So Good It Hurts, even contains footnotes, though in true Mekons style these are more hilarious than scholarly.)

It’s hard to sum up an entire way of looking at the world in just a few sentences. (Though filmmaker Joe Angio has done an admirable job in 95 minutes of documentary.) The best I’ve heard came from Langford, during an amazing multimedia piece he wrote based on his own life story, the history of country music, and the Illinois campaign against the death penalty (this is a more or less typical Mekonian mashup), in a section recounting the lessons he learned as a supporter of his local soccer club, the terrible lower-division Newport County:

The fact that they weren’t much good and were despised by my Welsh-speaking, rugby-loving uncles only increased the attraction. Soccer in the lower ranks was not about the big victory or big money or big success, it was about the lack of it, and getting by against the odds, and somehow, sometime scoring some amazing heroic victory — but often as not, not.

If there’s a better credo for trying to survive as an artist, as a music fan, as a political activist, as a human in the modern world, I haven’t found it. The Mekons didn’t invent laughing your way defiantly through pain, but they may have perfected it. I cannot begin to imagine my life if they hadn’t come together in Leeds in 1977, and if Christgau and others hadn’t championed them, and if someone at A&M Records hadn’t briefly decided to give them major-label standing (a decision that was immediately and decisively reversed, as documented by their followup album The Curse of the Mekons), and if they hadn’t perversely insisted on carrying on for all these years. If the Mekons didn’t exist, no one else could have invented them.

The Feelies

feeliesIn 1991, at loose ends with both my work and my social life, I decided to spend the summer in San Francisco. (It didn’t quite work out that way, as will be covered whenever we get to the Yo La Tengo entry.) My friend Pete, who I’d met the previous summer when we worked together proofreading liner notes at CBS Records, celebrated the occasion by making for me a mixtape of all the post-punk bands he’d spent the previous decade listening to, while I was off gorging on the likes of Talking Heads and R.E.M. (It was one of the many phases of my life where I was about 5-10 years behind the musical curve.) The tape’s title: “Music for Neil’s Trip.”

The selection was heavy on tracks from bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, who I otherwise knew of only from their occasional appearances on the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop music poll. He also included a pair of songs from some band called the Feelies, who were apparently also supposed to be part of my catchup canon. Pete being Pete, however, he had inscrutably chosen two songs that, I was later to discover, weren’t entirely representative of the Feelies songbook: “The Last Roundup” and “Two Rooms,” a pair of songs off their 1986 album The Good Earth that, coupled with the cassette transfer quality, gave me the impression that the Feelies were a semi-lo-fi group that made droney jangly songs with mumbly vocals. I filed away the name for future reference, but even as I picked up Flip Your Wig and Tim on Pete’s recommendation, I didn’t rush out to buy any Feelies records, something that became easy as over time most of them slipped out of print on CD.

Jump ahead to 2008. The Feelies had long since gone on indefinite hiatus after co-guitarist/co-vocalist/co-songwriter Glenn Mercer famously called his counterpart Bill Million at his day job at a video store and was told, “He’s not here, he moved to Florida.” But now, Sonic Youth were playing a free July 4th show in Battery Park, and had invited the Feelies to reunite to open for them. I already liked Sonic Youth and summer outdoor shows, and the chance to see this dim ghost from the past with my own eyes was a can’t-miss opportunity.

I think everyone who saw that show would agree that it was not the Feelies at their live best: They hadn’t played much together for a while, and more to the point, it was broad daylight under the open sky, and they thrived in enclosed, intimate spaces such as Maxwell’s where everyone’s focus was fixed on the stage. Never having seen them before, I didn’t care: There they were, looking only slightly grayer and more frizzy-haired than the band I’d seen on snippets of video from the ’80s, driving through song after song of concise, hooky, subtly offbeat music with what I would eventually come to know as their trademark precision abandon. For me, it was all encapsulated by percussionist Dave Weckerman, who sat in the back left with an assortment of drums, shakers, and other assorted objects and played them with an otherworldly concentration — watching a man play a wood block as if the fate of the universe depended on it was transfixing, and utterly characteristic of the Feelies’ self-appointed mission: to make the best music that possibly could be made, every time.

That show ultimately led to a full Feelies reunion, with the band releasing one album that picked up right where they’d left off in the early ’90s (Here Before) and currently working on another, while playing the occasional show, mostly in the New York/New Jersey area. They are one of the few bands I will never miss, no matter what. Part of it is because you never know what new wonders a Feelies show will bring: five separate encores, an unexpected Velvet Underground or Neil Young or R.E.M. cover, or that one night when the pipe that Weckerman was intently drumming on for the band’s idiosyncratic take on the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey” slipped off the rack it was hanging from, and a roadie had to hold it in place by hand while Weckerman kept going, barely missing a beat. (You can catch a glimpse of it around the 2:30 mark on this video shot by Joe Angio.) But mostly, it’s because there is no one on earth quite like the Feelies — though it’s a standard that the rest of us can strive for.

The Beatles

beatlesWell, this is an easy one. Or an impossible one. Definitely one of those.

According to family lore, when I was a baby, the only music that made me rock back and forth in my crib was the Beatles. As early as I can remember, I would go to sleep listening to Beatles records, eventually stacking them up to play sequentially once we had a record player that would drop one disc after another onto the turntable. (As you might imagine, none of my surviving original Beatles records are in very good shape now.) My parents didn’t exactly have broad musical tastes — my dad listened to a lot of classical, my mom had more of a taste for ’70s pop like Helen Reddy and Linda Ronstadt — but they agreed on the Beatles. Hell, everyone agreed on the Beatles in those days, I guess except for the holdouts who insisted on the Stones.

I remember clearly the day I found out that the Beatles had broken up: I must have been five or so by then, because I know that we already had a couple of solo albums by Beatles members (McCartney, certainly, maybe Imagine), and I was surprised to hear that this meant there wouldn’t be any more Beatles records, ever. Until I was at least ten or so, the Beatles remained my primary musical soundtrack — I recall getting one of those 1970s portable cassette players that everybody was getting and listening to tapes of Band on the Run on an earplug (portable headphones weren’t really a thing yet) while waiting to go somewhere on the subway with my parents. That was the height of technology then: You could actually listen to music outside the house, sorta kinda.

And then I stopped. I discovered radio stations (first Top 40, eventually rock stations like WNEW and WPLJ that all the other kids were listening to), and anyway McCartney’s records were getting weird, and John wasn’t recording anymore, and I still loved all the old Beatles songs but I’d heard them so many times and I just couldn’t anymore. When John died, I picked up a few records that I’d somehow missed along the way (his Shaved Fish compilation, Hey Jude, Abbey Road which I know I’d had but had somehow gone missing — I can tell these today because they’re not scratched to death). But then it was on to things that were new and exciting at the time: Pink Floyd and Yes and Jethro Tull and all the wonders of what I’d missed listening to The White Album over and over for years. (Never side four, of course, because then I’d hear “Revolution No. 9” and be freaked out and never get to sleep.)

I watched the Beatles Anthology TV documentary when it came out, but never was tempted to buy the Anthology CDs, because I had better things to buy than Beatles records, you know? At some point, my dad bought me the 1 compilation CD of all their number-one hits, which seemed pointless to me as I had them all already on various albums, but it was his way of trying to hold on to a connection. Eventually I started playing it for my son, since it was poppy enough and had a good beat, which was all he required when he was little.

He got hooked. When Paul McCartney played at Citi Field the summer he was six and his cousins went, he complained bitterly that we hadn’t taken him, and demanded that we go the next time he came to town. (We did. He only fell asleep for a few songs in the middle of the show.) We bought all the albums on CD that we hadn’t had on CD, and the Anthology as well. For a while, he went to sleep every night listening to the Beatles.

Now my son is almost 12, and is discovering new things: rock radio, Jimi Hendrix. (Okay, not new new things, but new to him. Pink Floyd wasn’t new in 1980, either.) But he still listens to the Beatles, and so do I, not as often as I once did, but more than I have in a long while. They wrote some pretty okay songs, you know?

They Might Be Giants

And the honor of being the first band discussed on this site is … They Might Be Giants? Okay, sure, They Might Be Giants — can’t argue with the invisible hand of iTunes. I wouldn’t say exactly that They Might Be Giants are typical of my music listening habits, but then, just what is “typical” is half the point of this project.

Anyway: As best as I can remember, I was first introduced to TMBG by my friend Dave, who had spent much of his college career singing their songs on long road trips with his Ultimate Frisbee team. (This probably tells you a lot about Dave. Also about the late 1980s in general.) [Edit: Dave writes to clarify that while it was a college classmate who introduced him to TMBG, it wasn’t a frisbee teammate. I stand corrected.] I know that the first album of theirs I heard was Flood, and that I was instantly drawn to their smart, goofy lyrics and broad range of musical styles.

And then I more or less forgot about them. Except that they kept popping up here and there: My co-worker buy inderal la Carmen, who brought in a cassette of Apollo 18 to listen to at work (which tells you a lot about the early 1990s); a live show that my friend Andrew brought me to, featuring one song sung by remotely controlled puppet heads on ten-foot-high poles (the song was not “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” but I think possibly “Exquisite Dead Guy”); a concert in Prospect Park that led me to buy my first album of theirs in years, The Spine, and discover that they’d taken some fascinating turns in the intervening time span.

The two Johns aren’t for everyone — my friend Pete, who will be showing up a lot in these posts, once made me stop singing “Ana Ng” after one verse because it had the word “perpendicular” in it. But then, bands that are for everyone ultimately aren’t for anyone, are they? (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” leaps to mind.) TMBG are pretty damn amazing at what they do, in any event, and if anything are only getting better at it. Dave had a prescient frisbee team.