It’s fascinating to me how people are drawn to different slivers of our culture, whether music or film or whatever. To investigate this, I decided to start with my own record collection.
This is the story of my musical life, as curated by the iTunes shuffle function.
It took a lot of prodding from the universe to get me to start listening to Antietam. I first heard them back in the days of tape swapping, when my music-mentor friend Pete put their album Rope-a-Dope on a cassette for me; I liked it fine as straight-ahead postpunky guitar rock, and noted the presence of Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan as guest organist on the excellent opening song "Hands Down," but was mostly distracted by the other side of the tape featuring Madder Rose's Panic On, which became an instant favorite. A few years later, I got word that Lianne Smith — a renowned New York singer-songwriter with an equally renowned aversion to issuing recorded music, who I'd gotten to know somewhat through the nascent-internet-era online message board ECHO — was playing a show with her even more seldom-chronicled country duo Shackwacky. Opening was an assortment of guitarists who sat in a circle on the stage at the Lower East Side club Tonic and, if I'm remembering right, improvised a set; among them were both Kaplan and Antietam's Tara Key, who lived up to her deserved (if somewhat undeservedly backhanded) reputation as "New York's best female guitarist" but didn't make me immediately run out to buy any Antietam albums. And so it went: I went to see Eleventh Dream Day, the indie-rock-famous Chicago band that featured Janet Bean of my beloved Freakwater as their drummer, and there was Antietam, almost stealing the show as the opening act. I finally got an opportunity to see Dump, YLT bassist James McNew's solo project, along with fellow indie-rock legends The Scene Is Now (whose cockeyed classic "Yellow Sarong" Yo La Tengo had covered on their album Fakebook) and, hey lookit that, Antietam again. (All the Yo La Tengo adjacency is not coincidental: That band's first-ever gig was opening for Antietam, and Key had joined YLT on numerous occasions, most notably to fill out the three-piece's impersonation of the four-piece Velvet Underground in the film I Shot Andy Warhol. I've frequently joked that most of my record collection can be divided into bands I discovered through the Mekons and bands I discovered through Yo La Tengo, and Antietam is the first planet in the Yo La Tengo orbit.) By this time, something clicked: Seeing Antietam live, with the low-slung Key's feet-planted guitar rave-ups bouncing off her gangly husband Tim Harris's melodic bass lines and air-grabbing leaps and Josh Madell's just-on-kilter-enough drumming, gave me a new appreciation for their music being more than just fun punky guitar rock, and drove me to make my first actual Antietam album purchase. Whereupon I discovered something unexpected. Opus Mixtum, as its name suggests, is an extremely wide-ranging album. It opens with "Tambo Hope," a quiet, almost meditative looping instrumental featuring acoustic guitar, tambourine, and cello — immediately followed by a squall of feedback, which then launches into "RPM," an arena-rock anthem for a band with no designs on arenas. And there were other earworm gems to come: "Turn It On Me," a conflicted love letter to Magellan, or at least a Magellan, from his lover ("When will you look at me/The way you look at the sea?"); and "Time Creeps," a consideration of "all the babies in the bars and the subway cars" that deserves to be on an aging-punk split single with Superchunk's "My Gap Feels Weird." It only took 15 years, but I was finally hooked. Helped along by Antietam being a band that seldom tours but plays shows every few months in their adopted hometown of New York, and by the fact that once I got a chance to meet Tara and Tim they turned out to be the nicest, most down-to-earth people (let alone indie-rock legends) imaginable, I started becoming an Antietam regular. And not only did my appreciation for their music grow with each performance and each new album — one moment imprinted on my memory, from the now-defunct Brooklyn dive bar Hank's Saloon, is of Tim and Tara playing back-to-back while Josh unleashed a fury of drumming by the back wall — but it turned out to be an education in 1990s-era indie rock: I never would have heard Sleepyhead, or Two Mule Team (featuring 75 Dollar Bill's Rick Brown and his wife Sue Garner, formerly of the duo Pot Liquor alongside Angel Dean, who had also been the other half of Lianne Smith's Shackwacky), or Ruby Falls, or Escape By Ostrich or numerous other bands if they or their members hadn't shared a bill with Antietam. I also never would have met my friend Jeff, who I finally introduced myself to after seeing him at innumerable Antietam (and Yo La Tengo) shows, and who as a film production worker had helped midwife the two bands' appearance in I Shot Andy Warhol; with Antietam, it's all connected. I now try never to miss an Antietam show; I even helped record sound for their video chronicle of their release shows for their 2017 album, Intimations of Immortality, which features horns and fiddle and banjo and yet remains unmistakably Antietam. I've also read Tara's mom June Key's amazing autobiography Blue Streak (edited and shepherded to publication by Tara) about her life and unexpected emergence as a national school-integration advocate, and am currently trying to decide which of Tara's photo postcards (fading Manhattan advertising murals, clouds over the New Jersey Turnpike, patterns of brick in Cartagena, Colombia) to put up in my apartment and which to send to my far-flung fellow residents of Antietam Nation. And Madder Rose? I don't listen to them much anymore. It's funny the directions life takes you.
I never set out to be a sportswriter. Oh, as a kid I was a baseball fanatic, and absolutely wanted a career in sports, notwithstanding that I didn’t play any competitively — in my neck of 1970s Manhattan, competitive sports leagues were nearly unheard of. At around age 11, I got a book written by the Mets’ team statistician, and for a while was dead certain I wanted to be the Mets’ team statistician, notwithstanding that I knew the job was taken because I’d just read a book by the guy who’d taken it. Still, it was almost entirely by accident that when I finally got what in retrospect turned out to be my big writing break — a small-press publisher who spotted an article I’d co-written on stadium subsidies and offered me and my co-author Joanna a book deal — it was sports-related. (Okay, actually it wasn’t at first: He wanted us to write about corporate subsidies broadly, and we had to convince him that a sports stadium book would be easier to tackle and would sell better. But that’s mostly because his knowledge of sports, as he explained it, was that “I went to a hockey game once.”) Where was I before getting lost in that parenthetical? Right, the book deal. That led to a book, and eventually a semi-regular writing gig for the Village Voice’s sports section. That worked out great for about five years, at which point my Voice editor called me to say, “The good news is your latest article is running this week. The bad news is it’s the last piece that will ever run in the Voice sports section, because they just eliminated it.” If I was going to continue to capitalize on my newfound expertise in sports-stuff-having-nothing-to-do-with-the-games-themselves, I was clearly going to have to find another outlet. In the course of writing a Voice article about this strange new breed of sports analysts calling themselves "sabermetricians," I'd gotten to know Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, so I shot him an email: Did BP need freelancers? His answer: Sure! Having money to pay them, now that was another matter... Fast-forward seven years and change, and I'd graduated from writing for BP's website and books to editing articles, as part of a four-headed team that churned through the site's daily content. Which is how I got to know Ben Lindbergh. I could dedicate an entire entry to Ben Lindbergh's writing — his book with Sam Miller on getting to run a minor-league baseball team on sabermetric principles is a masterpiece — but right now all we need to concern ourselves with is that he loves music almost as much as he does baseball. And not just music, but especially a particular strain of smart power pop that doesn't always get its due: This is a guy who once wrote an article ranking the best Paul McCartney non-Beatles songs that weren't on any of his solo greatest-hits compilations, which requires a special commitment to the task at hand. If Ben has a single musical passion, though, it is Sloan, the Canadian rock band who, Ben would tell me on a regular basis, were Beatles-esque pop songwriting geniuses if you just listened to them long and hard enough. Ben may love Paul McCartney enough to have listened to the deep cuts on "Red Rose Speedway" enough to rank them, but I doubt he would have chosen to get engaged onstage at a McCartney concert, even if Sir Paul had been willing. Anyway, it was during one long instant-message conversation with Ben about Sloan that I figured I needed to give them a shot. To start with, I chose their 2006 album "Never Hear the End of It," which was described by Ben as "very Abbey Roady"; it also features 30 songs in 76 minutes, so I also probably figured if I didn't like any particular song at least there'd be another one right around the corner. Two songs in, I realized I did already know one Sloan song: “Who Taught You To Live Like That?” which I’d heard on a WFMU live compilation. It's a joyously snarky (or snarkily joyous?) pop confection of willfully obscure verses ("The piano was upright/Attendance was uptight") bound together by the group-sung chorus, and even more so by the propulsive piano riff and hand claps that would make this an earworm even if the words were nonsensical. (Which in places they are: See above re: piano.) It was an impression that stayed with me until I got to the end of “Never Hear The End Of It”: These guys were clearly master songsmiths. But then, you know, so are, I dunno, Squeeze. Or Fountains of Wayne, as Robbie Fulks famously (and, he always insisted, well-meaningly) lampooned them. ELO, as I never fully realized until I saw that Doctor Who episode. These are all bands that I can respect, but I don't generally find I want to listen to them all that much — I tend to demand more sand in the gears of my music, a topic that requires a deeper discussion of the varied functions music serves in different people's lives than I have time to get into here, now that I wasted so much space talking about baseball. Anyway, if you want perfectly crafted clever pop gems, you could do worse than listen to Sloan. For me, I keep them around on iTunes partly because I respect Ben, and partly because in small doses Sloan songs can be a welcome palate-cleanser, music simply for the joy of music. Which reminds me, it's been a long while since I've listened to "Red Rose Speedway"...
I went to my first Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show by accident. When I noticed, in the fall of 2001, that Yo La Tengo were set to play a series of shows at Maxwell's in Hoboken, I didn't think twice about it. The band had done similar residencies before — there was a 1997 series at Westbeth Theater in Manhattan where, on the night I attended, Ira Kaplan memorably climbed behind the drum kit alongside Georgia Hubley to play a cover of "Ant Music" ("Don't hurt me," she warned, as he picked up a set of sticks); and a 1998 series at Maxwell's where I arrived ready for some rocking out, only to discover that this was the one night they'd decided to play every single song in shoegazey Velvet Underground mode. So another run of shows at Maxwell's seemed only normal — even if it was slightly confusing to me why Penn Jillette and Gilbert Gottfried for some reason came out in the middle of Yo La Tengo's set to do a comedy bit. The year 2001, it turned out, was to be just the first of nine (non-consecutive) years that the band would play eight nights of charity shows, each with a special guest opener and special guest comedian and most with a special encore guest as well, at their favorite hometown venue. The one night I picked in 2002, I ended up witness to openers Portastatic and the incomparable Soundtracapella, and also first met my friend Brandon when I spotted him making a recording of the show (something that at the time had the band's blessing) and asked if I could get a copy. At a 2005 show — I had graduated to attending two nights of each run by then — I began chatting with someone who was scribbling down the setlists, and who turned out to be Jesse Jarnow, later to go on become YLT's official biographer. In 2010 I finally won Hanukkah roulette and, instead of finding out belatedly that I'd missed the one night I desperately wanted to see — guests were traditionally announced only at show time, via a discreet notice on the club door — ended up with tickets for the night where my favorites Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby were guesting; naturally, I then came down with the flu during the opening act (by famed food critic Robert Sietsema's '80s band Mofungo) and ended up having to go home before the main set. In 2011, Ira played the entire eight nights sitting in a chair after undergoing an as-yet-unrevealed medical procedure, bringing on guest guitarists (my nights featured Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Tara Key of Antietam) who made the shows wonderful in all new ways. Maxwell's was shuttered by gentrification in 2013, and at first it looked like the Hanukkah tradition would end as well. But in July 2017, at a free show in Central Park, Ira announced a surprise: They'd be trying it again, this time at Manhattan's somewhat-less-minuscule-than-Maxwell's Bowery Ballroom, that fall. Then, as a taste of what would be to come, he brought his mother up onstage to sing "My Little Corner of the World," as she had to close many of the Hoboken runs. I'd never been to more than two Hanukkah shows in a single year, but with the venue closer to home and not knowing if this revival would be a one-time thing, I bought tickets to all eight nights, and attended every minute of them. I saw Nick Lowe and John Doe and John Hodgman and Jeff Tweedy and Jim Jarmusch and Sun Ra Arkestra, and, on two different nights, two different guest harpists; I saw many, many old friends, and Brandon even flew in from Nebraska for five nights of the run. I bought a "Yo La Tengo Good Guy" t-shirt and a poster I still haven't put up and several mix CDs put together by the band and its friends. The Exiles' "Church Street Soul Revival" was on Night 5's disc, put together by the members of Antietam, who I have a long, surprisingly not-entirely–Yo La Tengo–dependent history with — but that's a story for another roll of the iTunes dice. And the Exiles? Much as you might expect from the title, this song turned out to be a gospel-tinged nugget soaked in equal parts organ wash and vinyl crackle. Wikipedia tells me the band started in 1963 in Lexington, Kentucky, and soon became featured on Dick Clark's touring revue, and that they later changed their name to just Exile, at which point they recorded "Kiss You All Over," which until just now I hadn't thought about in 40 years. Then they became a country act, then they broke up. I would dearly love to read an extended biography of this band, but until then, I'll be glad of the strange little window I've been afforded into a story that I otherwise would never have known about. A Hanukkah miracle, indeed.
I know absolutely nothing about the band Cat Fight — I couldn't even find a photo of them, so that's a photo of my cat. There's a reason why I have a copy of their song "Do the Pussycat," though, and why it brought a smile to my face when it came up on iTunes shuffle. Back in the early '90s after I first discovered the Mekons, I went to see them play live as often as possible. And that was a lot of possible: Despite living mostly in England (and partly in Chicago and other places), they still found time to play New York–area venues like Maxwell's or the Marquee or Irving Plaza every few months, and I made sure always to be there, front and center. After a bunch of these shows, I started noticing that there were a few other people who kept showing up front and center as well, and worked up the nerve to introduce myself. One was a woman named Courtney with a purple streak in her hair — I almost wrote "a woman with a purple streak in her hair named Courtney," which would be a totally different thing — who I still go to shows with today, and who you may remember from her appearance in the Superchunk item. Two others were a couple about my age, he wry and friendly and she enthusiastic and quick-witted (and vice versa); most nights she wore a shirt with "Mekons" embroidered in script over the chest pocket. They were Hova and Belinda, and it is no exaggeration to say that this meeting changed my life. Hova and Belinda, it eventually transpired, had just started hosting a Saturday morning radio show on a radio station called WFMU, which was off in northern New Jersey somewhere, but you could just about tune it in from New York City with some perseverance and a good enough antenna. (One article in the WFMU magazine, I recall, recommended taking a wire antenna, balling it up in your hand, and throwing it onto a coffee table to see if it landed in a way that would provide good reception. I eventually tried this method; it didn't work too badly, or at least not any worse than any other methods.) At the time, I'd vaguely heard of WFMU, from my friend Stacey who knew about strange countercultural artsy things, but had never actually listened to the station. After meeting real live WFMU DJs, though, I tuned my stereo to 91.1 FM and checked out my first "Greasy Kid Stuff." I would usually describe GKS to friends and other potential converts as "a kids' music show for grownups," but it was more than that — and more even than a grownups' music show for kids, which it also was at times. Mostly, it was a weekly two-hour celebration of music for all ages, with a particular twisted humor that was all its own. It's where I was first introduced to James Kochalka Superstar's "Monkey vs. Robot," and Logan Whitehurst's "Lizard and Fish," and the epic birthday song "Gimme" by the epic New Zealanders Fatcat & Fishface, and the bit of beautiful inspired lunacy that is Gloria Balsam's "Fluffy." There were regular visits from Uncle Randy's Story Minute with its tales of the sad-sack protagonist Lance and his run-ins with vanishing pants and ducks that practiced mind control; each show ended with a sound clip declaring, "Now beat it, you little mountebanks, back to Whimsy Town with you!" Greasy Kid Stuff was a better place, where mad geniuses were patron saints, and we all joined together each week to celebrate anyone who was having a birthday, or anyone who's ever had a birthday, or anyone who was thinking about having a birthday. I still have to remind myself sometimes that it really existed. But then, as I soon discovered, much the same went for WFMU as a whole. If we left the radio on after being dispatched back to Whimsy Town, we would get to visit Laura Cantrell's Radio Thrift Shop, which dug through dusty shelves of pre-Nashville country to find old-time magic. A couple of years later, the slot after Radio Thrift Shop was filled by Terre T's Cherry Blossom Clinic, where I was introduced to a world of garage and punk rock that existed in a place far afield even from the likes of the Mekons. And then there was the whole rest of the week, and the annual fundraising marathons that put NPR's tote-bag peddling to shame (one year I won a G.G. Allin bobblehead), all dedicated to the oft-stated premise that no matter what kind of music you preferred, there was always a good chance that you could turn on WFMU any time of the week and hear something you absolutely hated. Six months after our son was born, Hova and Belinda had a daughter named Georgia, who was quickly incorporated into the on-air lineup (first as DJ Waah Waah, eventually under her own name); a couple of years after that, they moved to Portland, Oregon. The show eventually followed them, first to a commercial rock station that trimmed it to an unconscionable half-hour, and eventually to XRAY.FM, a clearly WFMU-inspired freeform station, which launched in 2014 with an hour-long GKS back on Saturday mornings, still staying crunchy in your milk. Hova and Belinda finally ended Greasy Kid Stuff for good in June 2017 after 23 years, choosing to retire from the show while they were still young enough to enjoy their now-free weekends. WFMU, of course, is still around and going strong (or as strong as an entirely listener-supported radio station with a million-dollar-plus budget to meet every year can ever be); I'm listening to Michael Shelley's latest show (via archive streaming) as I type this, and I tune in regularly to Todd-o-phonic Todd and Joe Belock as well, and irregularly at other times when I need a bit of random weirdness in my life. (There is, or was, a death metal show that I absolutely can't stand, but it's also the only place I've ever heard Hatebeak, so I have to check in every once in a while.) And XRAY is still around as well, and I'm always pleasantly surprised when I tune in, which is not something I've been able to say about any other radio stations — or Spotify or what have you — in, oh, decades. Greasy Kid Stuff also still lives on, not just in its archived shows on WFMU and XRAY, but also in three professionally released CD compilations (one of which was playing in the delivery room when our son was born), plus a dozen or so CD mixtapes issued as premiums for pledgers to WFMU's fund drive. "Do the Pussycat" features on the 2005 edition, a set of dog-and-cat-themed songs appropriately titled "DJ Waah Waah Stepped in a Poodle." I may never find out what strange corner of the universe this song emerged from, but I give thanks to Hova, Belinda, Georgia, WFMU, the Mekons, and the front section of Maxwell's for helping lead me to it.
Reader advisory: This essay about Kate Jacobs is not strictly about Kate Jacobs, per se. But it's more about Kate Jacobs than anything else I'm going to write, and is more about Kate Jacobs than about anyone else. All will become clear, more or less. I've puzzled and puzzled over this, but I have no recollection how or where I came by the one Kate Jacobs CD that I own. It's entitled Hydrangea, and it has an intriguing sketch of a swan biting its own neck on the cover, and it's been sitting on my CD shelf, between Luscious Jackson and Jefferson Airplane, for who knows how long. It was likely a pickup at an annual WFMU record fair — there's something about the combination of "I wonder what this sounds like, it's only $5" and "the money is going to a good cause anyway" that tends to loosen my wallet — but which year's record fair is anyone's guess. My record collection is littered with albums that appeared mysteriously this way; sometimes they turn out to be among my favorites, sometimes I listen to them once and then never again, and sometimes they emerge unexpectedly years later, gifts from a former version of myself. Okay, I can pin down the date just a bit: It had to be sometime since 2010, since that's when Jacobs — who I'm sure I'd heard vaguely of before, as one of the singer-songwriters I tend to lump together into "the more interesting WFUV types" — started co-hosting one of my favorite internet-era music programs, the Radio Free Song Club. The premise was simple: Get together a bunch of itinerant songwriters (Peter Holsapple, Freedy Johnston, Victoria Williams — "people who played at Maxwell's at least once" is a reasonable umbrella term) and give them a monthly deadline for writing and recording a new song, which would be played on the air (well, the internet air) either live or on tape. That premise was also instantly discarded — Freakwater, who were the main reason I tuned in in the first place, submitted exactly one song before disappearing, and the rest of the roster tended to rotate from show to show, which began to appear less monthly than "whenever everybody got around to it." In the course of this, though, the RFSC mutated into something far more interesting: a loose collection of friends and friends-of-friends, getting together every once in a while to test-drive material, often hot off the lyric sheet. The Radio Free All-Stars, a likewise see-who's-available-to-show-up ensemble centered around Dave Schramm, a frequent Yo La Tengo collaborator (and original member, briefly) and leader of his own excellent band The Schramms, provided expert backup, nimbly accompanying performers who might not even be in the room at the time, on songs that they might never have heard before. Playing host to all this improvisational wonder were Jacobs and Nick Hill, who prior to this I'd only known as a legendary figure at WFMU. (It was on Hill's live music show called the Music Faucet that Yo La Tengo, then including Schramm, famously played Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" while Johnston sang the lyrics over the phone; you can listen in amazement here.) Hill was charmingly acerbic and a skilled raconteur, while Jacobs kept him more or less on track and chimed in with her own music-world esoterica; sometimes they performed songs themselves, but more often they bantered and introduced and invited listeners into a private world where some of the world's most interesting musicians show up unexpectedly, or send in a song via email, to let the rest of us know what they're up to. I even got to go to a live recording of the show once, at the now-departed Living Room on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and I mostly remember Hill and Jacobs at a small table on the side, listening in rapt attention just like the rest of us in the room, no doubt thinking what a privilege it was to be there for such a special time. The Radio Free Song Club eventually fizzled out, and is presumably on permanent hiatus now. Hill suffered a stroke last year, and is currently recovering; you can help donate to his recovery expenses here. Jacobs is still out performing, as well as, I recently learned, running a bookstore in Hoboken that hosts not just readings but occasional music performances as well, under the "Little City Limits" banner; I recently caught Amy Rigby — an occasional RFSC contributor — there, and hope to go back soon for more. I still haven't listened to that Hydrangea CD. I plan to, but there's just so much music to get to. In fact, I think I just spotted an old Radio Free Song Club session I haven't heard yet...
And then there are bands that pass into and back out of your life, and leave an uncertain footprint. My CD collection is organized alphabetically, but if I'd chosen to do it thematically instead, there would be at least a couple of shelves reserved for Bloodshot Records. I first discovered the label existed in 1997, when I was visiting my friend Michele in Ann Arbor on a trip to research the Detroit chapter of my stadium book; I'm pretty sure she took me to the record store and instructed me to buy albums by the Bad Livers and the Old 97's, neither of whom ended up making much of a dent in my listening habits. But she also tipped me off to this new Chicago alt-country label that Jon Langford of the Mekons had done some recording for, both under his own name and with something called the Waco Brothers, who I'd spotted in New York newspaper listings a few months earlier but hadn't gone to see because I didn't known anything about them. That would soon change in a hurry. One of the best things Bloodshot did from the start was put out compilation albums that showcased bands exemplifying what they called "insurgent country" — a Langfordism, I think, that defined the music not just as a namby-pamby alternative but as a would-be uprising. The first of these collections was a revelation, opening with Moonshine Willy's "Way Out West" and introducing me to both Robbie Fulks ("Cigarette State") and the Bottle Rockets ("Every Kind of Everything"), and the second was pretty excellent as well. But it was the two-disc Bloodshot 5th anniversary collection that was a true tour de force, with 40 terrific songs from start to finish by the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, Neko Case, Hazeldine, and Fulks and Langford and so many more. And, ensconced somewhere in the middle of disc two, there was a band called Trailer Bride covering the early cowpunk band Gun Club's "Ghost on the Highway," with swooping slide guitar and yowling vocals courtesy of someone with the memorable name of Melissa Swingle. I don't know that I decided to seek out more by Trailer Bride, but I certainly filed them away for future reference. The other best thing that Bloodshot did was, during the annual CMJ music conference in New York, to host an afternoon of music and barbecue featuring Bloodshot artists and various friends. Starting out at Brownie's in the East Village and later moving across the river to Union Pool in Williamsburg, these events were invariably welcoming and hilarious, and a terrific place to find out about bands you hadn't heard of, in that pre-YouTube era. I don't actually remember if the first time I saw Trailer Bride was at a Bloodshot Barbecue; it could have been at a show opening for Neko Case, but since Neko was a friend of the Bloodshot family, it's all pretty much the same thing. I don't even remember how many times I saw Trailer Bride live, though I do remember Swingle always spent at least one song playing musical saw, and on one occasion griped loudly about the sound or something else, perhaps even storming offstage. (Not only were there a lot of barbecues over the years, but they were heavily beer-fueled, which has not helped the specificity of my recollections.) She always seemed combustible, in both the good and bad senses of the word, which was precisely the promise and the threat of her band's music. Eventually Trailer Bride broke up, and Swingle went on to form the Moaners, who I never saw at a Bloodshot show or bought any CDs by. But I kept on going to Bloodshot events, and buying records at them, collecting albums by the Sadies and the Blacks and Split Lip Rayfield and so many others. (Though CMJ and its festival are long gone, Bloodshot recently revived the barbecue, and I came home with excellent albums by Al Scorch and Cory Branan, neither of whom I'd so much as heard of before leaving the house that morning.) These all ended up sitting in my CD collection alongside Trailer Bride — or, really, a shelf or two away, unless they also started with T — some becoming favorites, while others just pop up every so often in iTunes, reminding me of the glorious variety of inventive music that challenges the dominant musical doctrines by drawing on both the future and the past. Friends, you might even call it an insurgency.
Can anyone who grew up in the ’70s truly be said to have "discovered" Queen? The band was just there, bubbling up through the rock zeitgeist, everywhere at once with no discernible starting point. If there was ever a time that "Bohemian Rhapsody" was not on the radio, that epoch, much like the period before "Stairway to Heaven," has been lost to my personal prehistory. I didn't get into Queen, in the sense of owning any of their records, until The Game, which came out in 1980 and coincided with my discovery that there was a music store ten blocks from my house where I could augment my meager record collection (no one called it "vinyl" then) for $5.99 a pop. The hits from that album, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust," were all over the radio the year I entered 9th grade, and so when my English teacher, a rock fan (no one called it "classic" then) who looked to have modeled himself after Bruce Springsteen on the Born to Run cover, assigned us to write an essay that was a review of a favorite album, I picked The Game. I no longer remember what I wrote, except that I thought it was pretty bad even at the time — one of a series of essays I cringed to be forced to read aloud in class — and that it left me with the indelible conviction that writing about music is an impossible task. But I do remember what my classmate Adam said, as we were leaving class that day, a remark that may have been meant as offhanded but which cut to the bone: "Nice review. But you didn't mention that 'Another One Bites the Dust' is one of the top disco songs." We need, perhaps, some context. This particular Adam was one of the cool kids in my grade — all the Adams were, for some reason — with an encyclopedic-compared-to-me music knowledge and the enviable ability to get through the day without a dozen insults lobbed at him about how he looked, acted, or dressed. And he was fairly friendly to me, for some reason, so had earned my admiration as a potential lifeline out of my being a loser and a reject and whatever other categories high-school kids consigned each other to in the 1980s in order to clamber their own way toward the top of the pecking order. As for "disco," there was hardly a more loaded term in 1980. This was the time of Disco Demolition Night, the rock-radio-themed baseball promotion that began with the promise of blowing up a crate of records between games of a White Sox doubleheader and ended with a riot; and of WKRP in Cincinnati's Johnny Fever, the epitome of aging-rock-guy cool who spat the word as if it were a hideous slur. And it did stand in for one. And that slur was "faggot." If there was one word that otherwise liberal high-school kids on the Upper West Side of Manhattan used to consign each other to the ranks of loserdom, that was the one. I'm pretty sure not a day went by that I didn't hear somebody using it to refer — or one of its adjectival forms, like "faggoty" or "faggotized" — to refer to a classmate in a way that conveyed utter disdain, connoting not merely gay but also weak and uncool to the point of being beneath contempt. Racial slurs were tremendously uncommon at my school, and would ensure you a talking-to from a teacher at least if they were overheard; the F-word, though, was safe for all, except those who it was directed at. I didn't understand at the time that discos were associated with proud homosexuality. (I didn't even understand the double entendre of Queen's band name.) All I knew was that it was established doctrine that rock was good, and disco was bad. And Queen, somehow, despite being one of the staples of rock radio — with a massive guitar sound and thundering drums and, yes, strangely baroque choral vocals, but no more so than other accepted rock bands of the time such as, yes, Yes — had in recording a song that could be played in discos crossed the line to the dark side. Looking back, I can only think of the moment when Queen came of age as a kind of magic, or at least a capitalization on an instant in music and cultural history that would never quite come again. In 1975, when "Bohemian Rhapsody" exploded onto the radio, the rock/disco and straight/gay splits had presumably yet to become fully ingrained in music culture. And so Queen could be loved by hard rock devotees (no one called it "metal" then) and gender iconoclasts alike, for different reasons and by different subcultures to be sure, but without setting off outrage and epithets, at least not that trickled down to my pre-teen ears. (I didn't understand at the time that David Bowie was associated with transgressing sexual limits, either, because it was still a thing not publicly spoken about, by straight-assumed young teenagers at least.) There was no contradiction to any of this at the time, and while that no doubt relied a good bit on being publicly closeted — Freddie Mercury, incredibly, never officially came out during his lifetime, though he hardly tried to keep it a secret — it also meant that a band like Queen could have it both ways, if making proudly gay-positive music while appealing to the homophobic rock masses is having it both ways. I stopped listening to Queen eventually — it may even have been abruptly, after Adam's comment let it be known that I'd find more favor in the straight-assumed high school pecking order if I listened to, say, Rush. (Led Zeppelin would have been even better, but I had my limits.) The band didn't reenter my life, or my iTunes collection, until the last few years, when my son, inspired equally by classic rock radio and the sublime Muppets version of "Bohemian Rhapsody," became a fan. We even went to see "Queen with Adam Lambert" last summer, where the former American Idol star camped it up in the Freddie Mercury role, making plain for 21st-century crowds what was always implicit in the original lineup. That he could — and get an arena full of rockers to clap along — is undeniably an advance in some ways, but I couldn't help feel like he got something wrong, in an ineffable but important way. By seizing the iconography of rock swagger and making rock's promise of liberation stand for more than just the freedom to grow your hair out, Freddie Mercury was more revolutionary than that; even if, by 1980, the counterrevolution had already won.
I'm pretty sure this one is down to Pete. I don't think he made me a tape of Bettie Serveert's music during the first years after we met — at least, I don't have one floating around like the Antietam/Madder Rose tape that I all but wore out one winter — and I don't think he loaned me a CD like the Shonen Knife and Amy Rigby albums that lived at my house for a couple of years. But the early '90s were the time of the Great Catchup for me, and I can't think how else I would have learned about Bettie Serveert's great first album, Palomine, unless it was via Pete. Pete arrived in my life unexpectedly one morning in 1990, walking in through a door at CBS Records and landing like an effusive grenade. I had just started working as a proofreader there — mostly checking liner notes to be sure that no assistant engineer's name was misspelled in the ongoing conversion from vinyl to our glorious CD future — and as some anonymous VP had vacated their corner office, the corporate honchos decided to fill the space with a pair of low-level copy readers. Pete and I instantly started talking politics — I seem to remember we got started by discussing some ACT UP meetings he'd recently attended, though our discussions soon ranged far afield of that — and passing the time by reading copy out loud in silly voices, inventing pretend indie-rock band names (I particularly remember the mythical tour pairing Powerclown and Rainshovel, the former of which is now an actual clown-themed Iron Maiden tribute band, though the latter remains up for grabs), and trying and mostly failing to get the higher-ups to allow us to fix some of the album packaging's more egregious errors — my favorite being the Robert Johnson complete collection that to this day contains a description of how Johnson's "mother and brother-in-law attended his burial in a wooden coffin furnished by the county." And we talked music, incessantly. I introduced Pete to the Mekons. In exchange, he would introduce me to pretty much everything else. Bettie Serveert were exactly the sort of band that seemed to be everywhere then: hailing from an unexpected part of the world (the Netherlands, though their lead singer Carol Van Dyk was born in Canada to Dutch and Indonesian parents, leaving her with an accent that is probably best described as singular), inspired by both stripped-down post-punk aesthetics and older rock traditions (guitarist Peter Visser was especially fond of, and adept at, Neil Young-esque guitar freakouts), and bearing an inexplicable name. (It translates as "Betty Serves," and turned out to be from a photo caption of a tennis player, though to this day I'm still not sure I entirely get the joke.) It all came together in ways that felt both familiar and utterly new, something that seemed to be happening on a daily basis in rock music at the time. "Kid's Allright" and "Leg," in particular, remain for me two of the greatest guitar-rock songs of all time, singalong radio staples from an alternate universe. And then, like many other bands of that era — or any era, I suppose — after their first great album, they sort of drifted off my radar. I remember hearing their followup, Lamprey, at a party (at Pete's house, of course), and thinking it was fine enough but not groundbreaking, and then I didn't get around to checking out their album after that. It was still a time in my life when I could dedicate myself to the relentless search for newness, and there were other bands out there to explore, especially seeing as I was still working my way through much of what I'd missed in the '70s and '80s. I had almost forgotten about Bettie Serveert, in fact, when they unexpectedly showed up live on my radio on WFMU in early 2003, and it was ... new. From the syncopated drum intro of "Given" to the whistles-and-power-chords explosion of "Smack" (which a couple of years later I discovered was accompanied by a hilarious video that for a while had my then-toddler son referring to Van Dyk as "Carol with the silly hair") to the outsider anthem "Wide-Eyed Fools," these were decidedly Bettie Serveert songs, but reinvented in new and surprising ways. Their then-new record, Log 22, quickly joined or even surpassed Palomine as my most-listened-to of their output; later that year, I slipped out from child-care duties for an evening to see them live for the first time, and was equally blown away by Van Dyk and Visser's guitar interplay, as well as bassist Herman Bunskoeke's understated melodic counterpoint. (I completely forget who the drummer was on that tour; one constant in Bettie Serveert's history has been that no drummer has lasted all that long.) Had I now seen the error of my ways, and realized never to turn my back again on a band I'd once loved? Not quite — I did pick up those '90s albums I'd missed, but I'm a couple behind again now, and haven't seen them live in a few years. (It hasn't helped that their American tours have become few and far between, though they still play semi-regularly in Europe.) But in the modern age it's easier to keep tabs on bands, so I follow them on Facebook, reading their (often in inscrutable Dutch) posts about shows and band members' birthdays, and make sure to check in every once in a while to see what they're up to. There's no telling when genius will strike unexpectedly, and I can't depend on Pete for everything.
When I first settled on the format for this feature — write about how I first discovered the various musicians I listen to, and let the iTunes shuffle feature pick who I would write about each week — I didn’t consider some of its unavoidable quirks. Like, what to do about musical acts who go by different names at different times? Mac McCaughan is the central songwriter and vocalist for two different bands that are among my favorites. I could easily write at length about Superchunk: About the funny story that my friend Pete told me about Mac’s onstage response to the unexpected success of their early song “Slack Motherfucker,” about seeing them on the second stage at Lollapalooza when the chaos of the mosh pit first stole and then mysteriously returned my baseball cap, about the show where I rediscovered them 15 years later as they prepared to release possibly their greatest record yet. But this isn’t the Superchunk entry, so I can’t tell those stories. And then there’s Portastatic, McCaughan’s side project for his (mostly) quieter (mostly) solo recordings, which I’d never heard of until spotting them opening for Yo La Tengo one year, at a show where they covered Bruce Springsteen and where I first met my friend Brandon, which would ultimately lead me to discover ... but again, wrong band for this item. Mac has released precisely one album under his own name: Non-Believers, which he issued in 2015 as an exploration of the early-'80s post-punk that, in his words, began “using keyboards and drum machines to relate through their music a disaffection or alienation." That era of music is not, frankly, one that I ever spent much time with. And while the album had a lot of the lo-fi tunefulness and clever wordplay that marks the best of Portastatic — it started out as a Portastatic record before McCaughan decided that he needed an even more personal name for an even more personal project — and I like it okay, it's not especially my favorite of his output. When his brief tour for it stopped in Brooklyn, I wasn't even able to go, so I have no stories there, either. So let’s talk about how I became a fan of Mac McCaughan, the person. It was via seeing him play with Superchunk and Portastatic, obviously. But also his ability to show up in the background of so many other musical and non-musical events: serving as co-founder and operator of Merge Records, sitting in on vibraphone and guitar and drums and whatever else was available at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show (that same one where I met Brandon, in fact), sitting in on a Yo La Tengo video (though he didn't appear on the recorded song), tweeting about politics and music and hockey, all with the same wry-but-never-cynical wit that illuminates his various bands' songs. The best artists touch you not just through their art, but through the way their art puts you in contact with their personalities, or at least their personas — I've never met Mac, but getting to see him, on stage and Twitter, has provided me with another valuable perspective on the world that I wouldn't want to have missed, even aside from all of his great music. In fact, I should probably go back and listen to the recording of that Non-Believers tour show that I didn't get to attend. One of the distinctive traits of great artists is their tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it.
It took me a long time to fully appreciate the Rolling Stones, and I've come to the conclusion that it was the Stones' fault. I had a weird musical childhood. My first love was the Beatles, because that's what my parents played for me (somewhere I still have some much-battered 45s of "Penny Lane" and the like), but that was as far as they took my musical education. So when the Osmonds got their own Saturday morning cartoon show — and trading card set, just like the Beatles — I adopted them as well to make one very weird two-band favorites list. I didn't start listening seriously to Top 40 or rock radio until I was a teenager, and by then the Stones ... well, kind of sucked. I had heard most of their hits, over and over, given it was hard to avoid them, and enjoyed them well enough as yet another of those raunchy, sex-obsessed guitar-wielding bands that suffused all of '70s rock radio (and '80s rock radio, which was largely backward-looking to the '70s). But If you'd asked me at the time to name a Stones song, based on what I heard the most on WPLJ or WNEW, I likely would have come up with, say, "Satisfaction" and "Start Me Up" — not the worst songs in the world, but nothing to make me understand why they were considered by many to be in the same league as the Beatles as rock gods. I therefore pretty much wrote the Stones off as there being no accounting for some people's tastes, and even as I explored the back catalog of other '60s-spawned rock legends — the Who, the Kinks, the Doors — I never bothered to pick up any Stones albums, not counting the vinyl copy of Undercover that a friend of my parents gifted me after her young child got too interested in peeling off the stickers to see what was under them. Thus did it come to pass that I became possibly the only person on earth to discover the Stones via the Deadstring Brothers. This was one of those bands that I stumbled upon totally by happenstance. I was in the habit of attending Bloodshot Records' day-long barbecue on the Saturday of CMJ's annual music festival in New York (back when CMJ still undeniably existed), and one year, there they were on the stage at Union buy inderal tablets Pool: a crew of young folks with slide guitars and a Hammond organ and other '70s rock staple accoutrements, led by a long-haired guy and gal who made a roomful of jaws drop with their blues-rock duets. And word came down that they were inspired not just by the Stones, not just by mid-era Stones, but by a single Stones album: Exile on Main Street. This was a new way for me to parse the Stones: They were not a single band, but rather a series of bands, all sharing the same name, with a slightly shifting membership. (Brian Jones begetting Mick Taylor begetting Ron Wood.) As it turned out when I actually went and listened, I was at least a moderate fan of mid-era Stones (though if I had to choose, I'd take Sticky Fingers over Exile by a nose), and grew to have a greater appreciation for their Jones-era experimentation (it helped as I read more about the friendly rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones, and how each band was inspired by the other). I finally picked up a copy of Hot Rocks, the best-of-through-1971 package that I'd likewise always known about but never felt the need to own, and realized that I actually loved many of those songs that had always flitted by on the radio. None of this will be any surprise to anyone who listened to the Stones before the age of 40 or so, which is to say most everyone. Still, it strikes me that the Stones' late decline into relative mediocrity — something that can happen to the best of bands, mind you, especially those that don't break up after less than a decade — coupled with a certain weird ahistoricism of rock radio that flattened an entire career into an amorphous collection of hits, stood in the way of my appreciating their particular kind of genius for far too long. I still skew way to the Beatles side of the Beatles-Stones divide (though most of the other bands I listen to are on the opposite side, if you hold to that dichotomy), but I can now better enjoy the Stones for what they were at their creative peak. On second thought, maybe it's the Beatles' fault that I didn't fully appreciate the Stones. I might've been better off if my first love had been the Osmonds.