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.
I'm not often tempted to cheat and see if re-shuffling my iTunes library will serve up a different musician to write about than the one that the random number generator has landed on. Even when it's a band I've barely heard of or one where I can't even locate a photo of them, there's usually an interesting story behind how I came to have one of their songs in my music collection. Juliana Hatfield, though, is a stumper. If you'd asked me if I owned any of her albums, I would have said, "Not that I'm aware of." It turns out I do have one — How To Walk Away, which iTunes tells me was released in 2008 — but if I've ever actually listened to it, that occasion is lost to the mists of time. I first heard of Juliana Hatfield the same way most people did: With her song "My Sister," which was everywhere in late 1993. This was the early months of the Year of the Woman, when rock (or alternative rock, or indie rock, or whatever we were calling it then) radio was abruptly turned over to female singers and musicians: It was the time of the Breeders' Last Splash, and Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, and Lisa Loeb and Melissa Etheridge and that Sheryl Crow album with "All I Wanna Do," which apparently won a damn Grammy, albeit in the Record of the Year category that seems to mean "song you couldn't escape all year no matter how hard you tried." I have a vague but definite memory of listening to "My Sister" on the radio while driving around northern California on a visit there, and of it seeming, if not groundbreaking, at least like a historical shift. (A shift for white women, at least: Hip hop had had its momentary gender awakening earlier, TLC having debuted in 1992, and Queen Latifah and Monie Love way back in 1989. But though I bought those albums, I first learned about them from MTV, not the radio stations I listened to, where racial diversity meant playing an occasional Lenny Kravitz song.) That sea change didn't last long, at least in terms of what was being played on the radio. By 1994, as I recall, WDRE, the modern-rock station (formerly WLIR) that my friend Carmen and I had taken to playing at work when not listening to They Might Be Giants cassettes, had switched over more or less entirely to post-Nirvana sludgy guitar dude bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox and Bush, none of which I could distinguish at the time and certainly can't now. The female-fronted acts that had briefly dominated the radio carried on, but none would ever be designated flavor of the month again. Juliana Hatfield, meanwhile, completely disappeared from my radar after "My Sister," even more so than Monie Love. She only reemerged recently when my friend Andrew asked me to keep an eye out for live recordings of her shows, and it occurred to me that she must still be performing live. I thought maybe I'd picked up a cheap copy of How To Walk Away from the $3 bin at the WFMU record fair (where pretty much anyone whose name I've heard of ends up in my to-buy stack, since at worst it's a $3 donation to a good cause), but I can't actually find a CD, just ripped mp3 files, so the mystery endures. Maybe my computer just came with a Juliana Hatfield album pre-installed? Anything is possible. Listening back now to "My Sister" — which I did via YouTube, since why would I have ever bought it back when it was inescapable — it's hard to see quite why I remember it so much more clearly than other songs from that time. It has an R.E.M.-lite feel (which makes sense since it had R.E.M.'s longtime producer), and Hatfield sings it well enough, kind of like a punkier Suzanne Vega. And if the song also rhymed "sister" with "miss her," it made up for it with a personal-is-political vibe that probably felt subversive in 1993. The part of "My Sister" that mostly likely grabbed my attention was the last verse, which is the only part of the song I still remember:
She's the one who would have taken me To my first all-ages show. It was the Violent Femmes and the Del Fuegos, Before they had a record out. Before they went goldIn reality, Hatfield doesn't have a sister, and the song is mostly about her older brother's girlfriend. But there was a story here that drew me in: Getting to go to all-ages shows and see bands before they were big, something that I, what with coming late to the small-club rock scene, had mostly missed out on, though I was trying hard to play catchup at the time. It spoke to the element of music fandom that involves wanting to be cool — legit cool in a "knows music history and how it all fits together and who's worth listening to regardless of whether they won a Grammy," not flavor-of-the-month cool — and trying to understand how one achieves that, a question I'm still trying to answer with, among other things, this website. That's ultimately more interesting to me than Liz Phair breaking new ground in use of the word "fuck," so it's worth having a Hatfield record in my collection. Maybe one day I'll even listen to it.
The One Rule of this project — let iTunes shuffle pick the band from my record collection, then I take it from there — sometimes provides lovely surprises where I’m reminded of performers I haven’t thought about in a while, and get to revisit how they first came to occupy a room in my musical head space. And then there are bands like Rodan, where the iTunes randomizer lands on the one song from them that somehow ended up in my collection, and I have to look up their Wikipedia entry to figure out who they were exactly:
Rodan was an American post-hardcore band from Louisville, Kentucky The best known lineup of the band consisted of Jeff Mueller (guitar/vocals), Jason Noble (guitar/vocals), Tara Jane O'Neil (bass/vocals), and Kevin Coultas (drums).
Okay, that gives me a little more to go on, if not much. I know that Tara Jane O’Neil is Kentucky indie music royalty, being the other Louisville Tara (alongside Antietam’s Key), as well as collaborator with Catherine Irwin on her great solo album Little Heater. The other members of Rodan remain a mystery to me, though presumably they were fans of giant irradiated pteranodons.
How Rodan ended up in my iTunes library is a story both straightforward and not at all. The one song of theirs that I own, “Tron,” is on Half-Cocked, the soundtrack album to a movie that I’ve never seen. The movie (so I learn, once again, from Wikipedia) stars Tara Jane O’Neil and her bandmates as a bunch of high schoolers who steal a van full of music gear and decide to pose as a band called Truckstop (whose fictional members presumably didn’t watch enough Japanese monster movies).
I only discovered the album 20 years after its 1994 release. The proximate cause: Tara Key had been one of the organizers for a benefit show for North Carolina musician and poet Letha Rodman Melchior, who at the time was fighting cancer and writing a blog about it. Tragically, Letha died before the concert, which instead turned into a celebration/memorial, with Antietam and Versus and Thalia Zedek of Come and the Rogers Sisters and Cynthia Nelson (who also appeared in, and on, Half-Cocked) and slideshows of Letha’s life and work. There were a lot of happy memories and tears, all of which I was caught up in despite knowing barely anything about Letha before this.
After the concert, I told my friend Jay about it and how much in particular I had liked the Rogers Sisters, who I’d also never heard of before, and he replied, "Oh, yeah, I think I saw one of them in Ruby Falls once." So I looked it up, and it turned out Ruby Falls was: Letha Rodman, Cynthia Nelson, Jennifer Rogers, and some drummer who was later replaced by the other Rogers sister, Laura. Plus Cynthia Nelson had formerly been in a relationship with none other than Tara Jane O’Neil, who had been scheduled to play at the memorial show but had to cancel last minute. (Still later, I discovered that Cynthia Nelson was the guitar teacher for the daughter of friends of mine in Oregon. The indie-rock world is inexplicably tiny.)
When I mentioned the Cynthia–Tara Jane connection to Jay, he replied, "Oh yeah, I think they were both in that movie Half-Cocked by Michael Galinsky from Sleepyhead." Which confused me for a minute because I knew that name from somewhere else, and then realized: Michael Galinsky directed a documentary about the new Brooklyn Nets arena and, after finding me (via Tara Key, if I'm remembering correctly) and discovering that I wrote about sports stadium scandals, friended me on Facebook.
A couple of days later, I was telling this story to my other friend Jamin while listening to Wild Carnation, which had led me to a review comparing them to Flower, Richard Baluyut's first band before Versus, and got me realizing how many layers of '90s NYC indie rock I had yet to explore. And halfway through the story I noticed (probably from checking Wikipedia) that that "some drummer" originally in Ruby Falls was the drummer for Flower.
I then tried to explain about the inexplicably tiny indie-rock world and all the bands that involved Sue Garner and Rick Brown (who I saw in the crowd at the Letha Rodman show), and went looking for the email from my other other friend Brandon where he’d sent me the link to an excellent graphic of the many many Rick-Sue bands. But all I found was an email where I mentioned Sleepyhead and Brandon replied, "Looks like Sleepyhead had a song on the great Half-Cocked soundtrack.”
So I bought the Half-Cocked soundtrack. Do I consider it great? That would be stretching it — I like it, but not more than many compilations of a lot of bands of that era. That Rodan song, for example, has some nice crunchy guitars and jerky tempo shifts and chanted lyrics; I suppose I should throw in some more rock crit verbiage here like “lo-fi” or “post-hardcore,” but I don’t know that I’d be using them right, or if they’d tell anyone much even if I were. Mostly the album leans toward the loud and edgy and raw, which are all good things but not especially unique; it does feature songs by my longtime favorites Freakwater (which, now that I listen closely, actually sounds like just Catherine Irwin solo?) and, hey look, Versus, and Slant 6’s “Time Expired” is kind of a pleasant surprise, sort of ... proto-riot-grrl? Maybe? There’s a reason I never became a music writer.
Even if Half-Cocked isn’t a must-listen for me, though, it is a must-own, because it helps me understand the lineage — no, the community — that helped create a lot of my favorite music. And who knows, maybe one day I'll start exploring Tara Jane O'Neil recordings, and discover what was hidden behind Track 5 of one of the many occupants of my iTunes Compilations category. Or even watch the movie, maybe: "What starts as a romantic adventure degenerates into bickering, bad luck, and boredom" sounds like a lot of my favorite movies, actually. And if nothing else, I'll be able to hum along to the soundtrack.
One of the toughest things about parenting a small child is finding stuff to do. Not for the kid's sake — they'll happily play Monopoly Jr. for hours at a time or have you draw endless subway train logos or pretty much anything else — but for your own, so that there's even a little bit of variety to your child-care time. Movies are especially good, because they get you out of the house and let you sit in the dark (it's almost like sleep!), which is almost certainly why most movies made in the 21st century are either animated or feature superheroes or both. For the years when my son was little (the progression of children goes "baby" to "little kid" to "big kid" to "teenager" — actual ages have no meaning except to the Department of Education), an annual highlight was the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMkids Film Festival, which brought together features and shorts from around the world for a weekend of cartoons that were a cut above what you'd find on PBS Kids or, god forbid, Disney. And best of all, there was usually some other kind of programming to go along with the films: music or other performers occupying BAM's second-floor cafe, which would end up packed wall-to-wall with toddlers and their exhausted caregivers. One year, when my son was probably five or so, the featured performer was something called Care Bears On Fire, which if I'm remembering right (I no longer have the program) was touted as something like "pre-teen punk rockers." Sure, can't hurt, I figured; though when a tiny girl carrying an electric guitar that was bigger than her cautiously made her way onto the BAM stage, I admit I began to have second thoughts. And third thoughts, when she sheepishly shuffled back off stage and announced to her mom, "I forgot a pick! Do you have one?" She then shuffled back onto the stage, walked up to the mic — and delivered a flurry of power chords that would have blown me into the back row, if I hadn't been sitting on the floor and buffered by toddlers. That first song was "Everybody Else," and featured not just Ramones-esque guitar but a killer hook: "Nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah, I don't want to be like everybody else!" Sophie (that was the tiny guitarist) and Izzy (the powerhouse drummer, no older but maybe slightly taller) had both musical chops and enough energy to hold the attention of jaded aging punk rockers, let alone their kids in Dead Kennedy t-shirts. (I no longer remember the name of their bass player at that show, who was never heard from again: CBoF went through bass players like Spinal Tap did drummers.) I've no doubt already shared my predilection for bands that both rock and have a sense of humor, and Care Bears On Fire had both in spades: Their debut album featured a song about an online relationship that goes sour when it turns out the singer's crush is actually a unicorn, plus a song called "Baby Animals" that starts out naming their favorites ("I like piglets/I like puppies/I like kittens/I like tadpoles...") then eventually deteriorates into a chaotic swirl of noise and shouting. My son and I soon became regulars at their shows; once we arrived early at a park they were playing at to discover that they were the last of four bands scheduled to play, and chose to stick out the long wait — we were rewarded not just with a great performance but with one of Izzy's drumsticks, which flew out of her flailing hand and into the audience, where my son ran to retrieve it. (After the show he brought it back to Izzy, who stood flummoxed until her bandmates shouted at her, "You should sign it for him!" We still have it.) Soon there was a followup album, which had more great crunchy guitar and wry teen lyrics ("Barbie Eat A Sandwich" was a favorite feminist anthem), but also a pop production sheen that was a little off-putting for a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dirt fan like me. A year and a couple more bassists later there was an EP — with an excellent cover of "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" — and then that was it, as the band members got busy with other projects (there was a brief followup band called Claire's Diary), and then eventually college. It was still a pretty great run. Many years later, I was working as an editor at the Village Voice and scouting around for writers when my eye fell on an excellent article in The Nation about sanctuary cities fighting against the Trump administration's attempts to cut their federal funding. I looked at the byline: Sophie Kasakove. It was vaguely familiar for some reason, so I Googled her and ... oh. Child performers are a weird bunch: Whether they're acting or singing or whatever exactly Mason Reese was doing, you have to remember that they're still kids, and likely to entirely change their conceptions of who they are and what they want to do when they grow up. Hopefully they'll find a way to keep up the creative spirit that animated them when they were young — I was recently heartened to discover that Quinn Cummings, of Family and Goodbye Girl fame, is now a blogger and podcaster with an excellent Twitter account. My son is now a good bit older than Sophie and Izzy were when we first saw them at BAM, and a drummer as well — I have no idea whether he'll keep it up as he heads into adulthood, but hopefully what he's learned from music he can take with him in some form wherever he goes. There are many ways to be punk rock.
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.