The Trypes

We’ve already covered the Feelies and how I fell in love with them following their return from a 16-year hiatus. But as I soon discovered, the Feelies’ road has been long and wandering, and has led down many side paths and cul-de-sacs. During their long break, there was Wake Ooloo, a band with many Feelies members that played Feelies-esque songs but which was not the Feelies; concurrent with the Feelies’ first heyday, there was Yung Wu, which was the Feelies lineup but with percussionist Dave Weckerman singing on songs that he had written. (One of these, “The Empty Pool,” ended up being covered by Yo La Tengo on their first record, which was how I first heard of it, and them.) There were the Willies, who were the Feelies performing all cover songs. And before all of this, during an early, antediluvian hiatus following the departure of the Feelies’ original rhythm section following their first album, there were the Trypes.

Pinning down exactly what the Trypes were, when I first heard their name back in the early days of Wikipedia, was no mean feat. They were some kind of band that was formed in the early ’80s by a group of New Jersey musicians — keyboardist John Baumgartner, flautist and vocalist Toni Paruta, bassist and vocalist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski, guitarist Marc Francia, possibly a few others — and somehow accrued surviving Feelies guitarist/singer/songwriters Glenn Mercer and Bill Million after the initial version of that band fell apart. They released one EP, which by the time I learned about it was long out of print, and then promptly split in two, with Mercer, Million, Sauter, and Demeski bringing back Weckerman to form the Feelies 2.0 (and Yung Wu), while the original Trypes (more or less) simultaneously continued as Speed the Plough. It was all dimly documented prehistory, more music trivia than anything I could ever reasonably hope to hear for myself.

And yet, no music history ever remains buried for long, especially not since the rise of Bandcamp. Soon enough, that long-ago EP had been packaged with some other rarities into an LP reissue called Music for Neighbors, and suddenly the Trypes had been elevated from myth to become another real band on my CD shelves.

So what do the Trypes sound like? They were not unlike the Feelies, moody and precise and melodic; but also not exactly like the Feelies. There were keyboards, for one thing, courtesy of Baumgartner, and woodwinds, courtesy of Paruta (latterly Toni Baumgartner after she and John married); and seemingly everyone joined in on vocals at one point or another. They similarly chose fascinating-verging-on-bizarre covers, outdoing the Feelies’ famed version of “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey” with three of the closest things to deep cuts in the Beatles catalog: “Love You To,” “The Inner Light,” and “Blue Jay Way.”

If you had told me that Music For Neighbors was a lost experimental Feelies album, I might have believed you, and you might have almost been right in a way. But it’s also arguably the first, inchoate Speed the Plough album. And, at the same time,p a glimpse of another band that never completely came to fruition, a road not taken that ended up leading in unexpected directions.

But then, everything is transitional, ultimately. For me, the mystery of the Trypes led to me discovering not just Speed the Plough but Sauter’s spinoff band Wild Carnation. I even got to see the Willies eventually, or some form of them, at an immediately legendary show in Jersey City where the band sat in armchairs and were lit by desk lamps, and which was interrupted by the fire alarm going off mid-set and the entire audience and band alike having to go stand around on the sidewalk for 20 minutes or so. A few weeks from now, I will be going to a double bill of Speed the Plough — with Glenn Mercer back in the fold, if “back” is the right word for a band he was never quite a member of in the first place — and something called Brenda+1, which is almost, but not quite, Wild Carnation. Some of my favorite art, it turns out, consists of side paths and cul-de-sacs.

Jeffrey Lewis

It’s December 2018, and I’m waiting, as I have for the seven previous nights, for the doors to the Bowery Ballroom to open. After 12 years at Hoboken’s beloved Maxwell’s, Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah benefit shows relaunched the previous year at the Bowery in Manhattan, and I’ve taken advantage of the straight shot on the F train to be in attendance for the entire run, the better not to miss any special guests, as invariably happened when I only went two or three nights across the river. (Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan always used to promise, “If there’s someone you really want to see, we guarantee they’ll play the night after you go.”)

Since tickets went on sale months earlier, and there’s no way of knowing who the opening acts, comedians, and encore guests will be until you get to the show, I’ve ended up with stray tickets for some nights, and this is one of them. So when a guy comes up to the line and asks if anyone has any extras, I’m happy to oblige.

“Thanks,” he says. “I actually may be playing with them tonight, I’m not sure.”

This is not the response I expected, though random people off the street performing as special guests isn’t exactly foreign to the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah spirit. “And who,” I ask, “are you?”

“Jeffrey Lewis,” he says. “I’m a musician and I also make comic books.”

Lewis, it turns out, does end up playing during the night’s set, accompanying primordial weirdo-folkie Peter Stampfel on a Fugs song. It is decidedly odd, but given that Stampfel later duets with Ira’s mom on his song “Griselda,” not anywhere near the oddest moment of the evening.

I wouldn’t say that I forgot all about Lewis after that, but he wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind. Until, that is, I stumbled across his song “LPs,” I no longer remember how. (WFMU compilation? Best-of mp3 mixtape from Brandon? Either is a reasonable guess.) The song is an equal parts hilarious and poignant travelogue of the evolution of record collecting, all delivered in Lewis’s patented torrent-of-words-falling-down-the-tenement-stairs East Village yelp. (My spouse would eventually come to refer to Lewis as “the guy with the songs with all the words in them.”)

And then. And then! When I bought the Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage album with “LPs” on it, it also turned out to be a treasure trove of equally hilarious and poignant songs, including “Take It for Granted,” a testimonial to the importance of the cherished mundane, and “Exactly What Nobody Wanted,” which is practically a how-to guide for the kind of anti-success that I’ve valued all my life:

You had a vision that was clear and directedAnd the way the words were all unexpectedYou were unbelievable and you were undauntedYou were exactly just what nobody wanted

But to me, it was so awesome, so awesome, so awesomeSo awesome, so awesome, just awesome

Thus launched my surprisingly arduous mission to try to see a Jeffrey Lewis live show — surprisingly because, as noted, he lives just a subway ride away from me, and he plays locally all the damn time. Unfortunately, I always seemed to find out about his shows right after they happened, or before they’d happened but after they’d sold out. (Discovering him right before the COVID lockdown didn’t help.)

Finally, in late 2022, I was able to catch Lewis’s band at a tiny, cramped club in Bushwick; a few months later, I caught him again in more comfortable confines at Union Pool after racing there from another show earlier in the evening. Between the two, I got to hear some of my favorites — including “LPs” — and see him play musical accompaniments to some of his comic books — his multi-part “The Complete History of Communism” is especially memorable, at least the two segments I’ve caught so far (Chile and Cuba). Plus at the second show he played “The Complete History of the Development of Punk on the Lower East Side of New York City (1950-1975),” which fortunately someone has captured in its full glory on YouTube.

If you’ve clicked through on one of the links above, you probably have already come to love Lewis as much as I do; either that, or you have no idea what I’m going on about and can’t wait for the next installment in this series. And that, I have to say, is just awesome.


Nina Simone

Nina Simone is a fairly recent arrival in my music collection, though I had known her name, and at least a little bit about her music, for years before. For much of that time, she was one of those figures from just before my time or just outside my musical spheres of influence, like Wanda Jackson or Billie Holiday, who I figured I would learn more about someday. I vaguely recall tributes following her death in 2003, providing me with a hazy image of her as a bad-ass Black woman who was around in the 1960s. Sometime since then, her song “Mississippi Goddam” entered my consciousness, though whether it was because Mississippi was in the news again for doing something awful or because I was watching something about the civil rights movement, I no longer remember.

I do clearly remember when Questlove’s documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, “Summer of Soul,” came out a couple of years back. And I looked at the artist list and thought, “Okay, I’m finally going to get educated about Nina Simone.”

I had known that Simone was seen as a great singer and great activist, but I had no idea until seeing her performance from 1969 that she was such a force: Fixing her eyes on the crowd, crashing on the piano keys, schooling the audience about Lorraine Hansberry, absolutely grabbing the moment by the throat. Watching her too-brief appearance in the documentary — if ever there’s a movie that calls for an expanded edition, or just an expanded soundtrack release, it’s this one — you can’t look away, and it makes you think that music, and the world, can be something completely different.

At the same time, I am not precisely the ideal target audience for Nina Simone. Much of her music is in the wide expanse between jazz and blues, and there are only a few odd corners of jazz that I enjoy. And while I appreciate messages of Black empowerment plenty, that’s still different from being Black; when Charlayne Hunter-Gault tells Questlove that Nina Simone’s records got her through the racism she faced as one of the first two African American students at the University of Georgia, it’s not a relationship to the music that I can ever hope to fully appreciate.

Not long after watching the documentary, I found myself at Amoeba Records in San Francisco, which is one of my go-to places for grabbing up music I’ve waited too long to check out. (The other main one, needless to say, is the WFMU record fair.) I came away that day with, amid my stack of new purchases, a pair of CD reissues encompassing four mid-’60s Simone albums: In Concert, I Put a Spell on You, Pastel Blues, and Let It All Out. They’re good, if very geared toward a certain kind of audience — her version of “Sinnerman” is rightly viewed as a classic, but as someone who was introduced to it by the later Peter Tosh renditions, I can’t say that my favorite is one that features an upright bass solo. And none of the four albums managed to grab me quite like her performance in the Harlem festival movie did; there’s a difference between appreciating and being transfixed.

Nina Simone is probably going to be one of those artists who I respect the hell out, but who I don’t listen to that much, and that’s okay. There are other people who are following in her footsteps, or expanding on them with some of the same power — Rhiannon Giddens and Amythyst Kiah come to mind — who are more my speed. I’m still hoping to one day find the right Simone album that captures what the excerpts of her performance in Harlem did, but it’s entirely possible that I never will; it was a moment, and it was for the people there, and that’s enough.

Times New Viking

The One Rule for this site is that the topics are selected by the iTunes shuffle function from my music library, and I try not to deviate from that. So it sometimes comes to pass that I arrive at a band like Times New Viking, about which I know precisely three things:

  1. They are named, in one of the most ill-advised plays on words in music history and that’s saying something, for a typeface.
  2. I saw them open for Yo La Tengo once.
  3. Georgia from Yo La Tengo put one of their songs on a mix CD that the band sold as a charity fundraiser during one of their Hanukkah runs.

There’s not much more to be said about item #1. As for the others, Times New Viking is exactly the kind of band I have grown used to seeing open YLT’s Hanukkah shows: obscure to me at the time, but clearly a significant presence in the band’s ever-expanding musical universe. I recall them from their opening set mostly as impossibly young, but this was in 2007, so presumably they’re older now. I do not remember much of anything about their music, and it’s entirely possible I spent most of their set avoiding the crush of the Maxwell’s back room and instead wandered out to the front room to get some dinner.

(A review of my concert notes reveals that I also saw Times New Viking opening for the Feelies in Prospect Park in 2011, but I don’t remember this at all. The disconnect between my ticket stubs and my memory is disconcerting at times — I have a torn stub from a 1988 Sugarcubes show that I have zero recollection of seeing, and you’d think that would have been memorable, especially given how into the Sugarcubes I was at the time.)

As for the mix CD, this is one of my favorite traditions of the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows: Each night, a member or friend of the band puts together a playlist that is then played over the PA before and between sets, and which can be purchased from the merch table for a nominal fee. (All proceeds from all of the Hanukkah shows, dating back to 2001, go to charity.) My collection of Hanukkah CDs now includes discs curated by a bunch of people including members of Antietam and the Feelies‘ Dave Weckerman, and they’re always interesting, if nothing else.

I don’t listen to them all that much, though, except when they pop up on iTunes shuffle. So this particular Times New Viking track, “Devo & Wine,” is pretty much entirely unfamiliar to me. I have a handful of other Times New Viking songs in my collection from other sources, none of which made much more of an impact.

Most of my time writing this site is spent explaining how I became a fan of bands, but this raises a parallel question: Why did I not become a fan of Times New Viking? They certainly fit into plenty of the categories for other bands I discovered opening for Yo La Tengo at Hanukkah and fell in love with, so what did they do to get on my bad side?

Could it be the “lo-fi” thing? I’m not exactly sure what “lo-fi” is supposed to mean — sometimes it means cheapo production values, but here it seems to mean “everything is recorded well but then layered with so much distortion that it sounds like it’s playing through blown speakers.” It’s tuneful enough underneath all that, with overtones of bands like Pavement — but then, after loving the first Pavement album to death when it came out 30 years ago, I’ve had very little interest in that band ever since as well, for reasons that I similarly can’t put my finger on.

And by this point some readers who are Times New Viking fans (or Pavement fans) are probably shouting at their screens, “OMG, you don’t know what you’re missing!” Except I do know what I’m missing; it’s right there in my iTunes “Compilations” folder. What I don’t know is why I’m choosing to miss what I am.

This may seem a weird rabbit hole to go down, but then, “Why do we like what we like?” is kind of the mission statement of this site, so it’s frustrating when I’m not able to answer it. Times New Viking’s music is abrasive, certainly, but I like plenty of other music that can be abrasive: Sonic Youth and the Ex, to name two. It’s sing-songy in places, but much less so than, say, Kimya Dawson, who I like. What’s the line dividing pleasantly unsettling from unpleasantly so, and is there any way for me to define it without launching into impenetrable rock-crit verbiage?

I have a clear memory from around 25 years ago of my friend Pete making a mixtape from my R.E.M. CDs, for which his process was to listen to the first four or five seconds of a song, go “Nope,” then skip ahead to the next one, then repeat. (About every sixth song he’d hit a keeper.) I probably ridiculed him for it at the time — really, you’re going to make a snap judgment on whether you will ever enjoy a song based solely on the opening chords? — but in retrospect I kind of get it: Even more than TV shows or movies, songs tend to either click right away or not, and while I can spend (and now have spent) many paragraphs trying to figure out why, it’s not going to change that gut reaction when the music kicks in and I’m either pulled in or pushed away.

I’m going to keep puzzling over this, probably for as long as I listen to music, or consume culture in general. (Don’t get me started about why I can’t watch “Breaking Bad.”) Meanwhile, if your gut works differently, by all means check out Times New Viking, they seem to be good at what they do, even if it’s not for me.

Joe Walsh

Seriously? I’m supposed to try to explain how I first learned about Joe Walsh? I grew up in the 1970s, when the air was literally saturated with Joe Walsh; even now, it’s hard for me to think about anything from the decade without picturing those aviator goggles. It would be like asking me where I first learned about “All in the Family” — it was just there, man.

But I suppose not everyone who grew up in the 1970s has any Joe Walsh in their record collections. So, on to the investigation:

In the beginning, there were the Eagles. Not literally, obviously, and I do remember a time when I had not yet heard of the Eagles. (It was a time when I’d only heard of the Beatles, the Osmonds, and Josie and the Pussycats, and two of those were because they had their own Saturday morning cartoons.) But the Eagles somehow took over FM radio when no one was looking, much like and in parallel with Fleetwood Mac, to the point where their records ended up in my parents’ record collections (which were not extensive) by some sort of cultural osmosis. Dinosaur Rock was not yet a thing, I wasn’t old enough or sophisticated enough to be a punk aesthete, and I accepted the Eagles as part of the cultural landscape just as I did Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder and John Denver.

(An aside: My friend Brandon recently tipped me off to the existence of archival episodes of the live music show “Midnight Special,” and it is an absolute trip to see the diversity of music styles that are crowbarred into a single episode — the one featuring Ray Charles, Billy Preston, Steely Dan, Fanny, and Waylon Jennings, and hosted by Bill freaking Cosby, is enough to break your brain. By a couple of years later the music was far more regimented, but the early-mid ’70s really did embrace breaking down genre barriers, at least for a hot minute.)

Then came “Life’s Been Good,” which devoured FM radio whole in 1978. On the surface a novelty song along the lines of those popular in those days (good lord, “Convoy“), it told a self-mocking tale of rock star excesses, all delivered in a tone that let you know it was clearly a joke even as it wasn’t. And it was accompanied by some ferocious guitar playing, sounding a bit like, hey, isn’t that the guy on “Hotel California”? Huh.

Jump forward in time six more years. I am living in Berkeley, California, after an ill-advised decision to attend college at UC-Berkeley, mostly under influence of the leftover fumes from the ’60s. (Political fumes, that is, not cannabis. I did manage to attend one Free Speech Movement 20th anniversary rally during my one semester there before fleeing.) While I found the campus unexpectedly packed with business majors, the surrounding city still had a fair bit of detritus from the preceding decades, including a ton of record stores selling off the collections of those who had gone before.

One in particular where I spent a lot of time was a place on Telegraph Avenue whose name I’ve long since forgotten, if I ever knew it. It had a normal collection of records (we didn’t yet call it “vinyl”) downstairs, but upstairs was the treasure trove: an enormous room with bins and bins of used albums, all in no particular order and all for $1 apiece.

If UC-Berkeley’s massive intro lecture halls were a disappointment, this was why I had been drawn to the campus. I don’t know how many records I bought at this store, but it had to be in the dozens, mostly early-album-rock era classics like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. I recall dozens if not hundreds of copies of Jefferson Starship’s Red Octopus, though I never risked a dollar to actually buy one. And it was where I bought my first Joe Walsh albums: So What?You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind, and the perfectly titled The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, the last title a perfect expression of Walsh’s uncanny blend of absolute mainstream rock and resolutely weird. My closest companion during my four months of Berkeley exile was my record player, and it spent a lot of time playing “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Turn to Stone.”

More time passed. I transferred to a less ill-fitting college, my record collection expanded, and Joe Walsh found his way to the back of the vinyl crate. I had barely thought about him in decades when I finally got around to seeing Tom Petty in concert (on what turned out to be his final tour), and lo and behold, the opener was Joe Walsh. This should be interesting, I thought.

I didn’t know the half of it. From his opening greeting of “How ya doin’?” to the incomprehensible call and response, it was the Joe Walshest performance possible; as I wrote to Brandon afterwards, “Walsh both talked and sang like he’d forgotten to put in his teeth, but was hilarious and played guitar as brilliantly as ever.” There is a magic trick to Joe Walsh, which is that things that might come off as creepy and self-indulgent for anyone else of his age and classic rock legend status instead somehow feel charming and funny — probably because it’s clear that he doesn’t take himself seriously, or his persona doesn’t, at least.

Did I go home from that show and immediately put those Joe Walsh albums in heavy rotation? Maybe for a day or two, then i forgot about them again. The true joy of Joe Walsh is that no matter how much time you spend forgetting about him, he’s always there.

Dean Schlabowske

I first learned about Dean Schlabowske via the Waco Brothers, of course. I’m pretty sure the first time that band came to my attention was via a Village Voice (R.I.P.) concert ad that read “WACO BROTHERS (feat. Jon Langford of the Mekons),” though somehow I didn’t run right out and see that show, instead waiting several months before I discovered Bloodshot Records, whose second full album release was the Wacos’ first album, and the whole country-punk nexus came into full focus.

But that’s the Wacos’ story, and this is Dean’s item, so we’ll get to that another time.

Dean was, from the beginning, The American. Despite being an “insurgent country” band that wore its Hank Williams and Johnny Cash influences on its sleeves, the Wacos then consisted mostly of Brits: Langford, mandolin player/singer Tracey Dear, bassist Alan Doughty, and drummer Steve Goulding. But there at the front, generally holding down the middle of the stage with guitar crunch and a sweet drawl while various lunacy exploded around him, was Deano, with his curly hair and Buddy Holly glasses, quietly churning out instant classics like “If You Don’t Change Your Mind” and “Red Brick Wall,” earworms with subtle political bite. In one of my favorites, “Lincoln Town Car,” Schlabowske sang of the eponymous vehicle rolling by with mirrored windows, bringing to mind both the workers who built it and its unreachable occupant with “angry, squinting eyes”:

Where we go, we go together
Some will pull, some will get dragged

Schlabowske was a child of the Midwest, a Milwaukee lifer who had been in a punk band called Wreck and ended up drawn into Langford’s Chicago orbit. He eventually started a spinoff band called Dollar Store to make use of the torrent of songs he was writing that wouldn’t fit on Wacos albums; I saw and enjoyed that group a couple of times at Bloodshot’s annual New York barbecues, where artists and fans could eat tacos and watch bands together for a long afternoon of music and rabble-rousing.

I didn’t really fully appreciate Deano, though, until he released Deano Waco Meets the Purveyors, a collaboration with The Meat Purveyors, another Bloodshot signee that had fast landed on my short list of bands that I would throw myself in front of a train for. When I say “released,” I mean that in large part euphemistically, as “Deano Meets the Purvs,” as it was sometimes known, was a free online download that wouldn’t take physical form outside of home-burned CDRs for years.

(This was in 2009, which was for me the year when the music industry got weird: My three favorite albums of that year were the Deano/Purvs record, a tribute to Paul McCartney’s RAM that was a WFMU fundraising premium, and a playlist of the original songs covered on Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook that was compiled and shared by fans, none of which were “albums” in any traditional sense. But I digress.)

This record, with Deano stepping out front and backed by TMP’s hot-wired punk-bluegrass devotees, was a revelation even for someone like me who was already a fan of everyone involved. The opening song, “Taken,” is a slide-guitar-drenched musing in the wake of a disaster, natural or otherwise, eventually leading up to the bone-chilling refrain: “I feel like the next wave is meant just for me.” Or take “Box Store” — which I’ll always think of as “08-Box-Store,” the name of the track as I received it in the homemade download — an exemplar of Dean’s particular view of America through the prism of its everyday victims:

I work (I work)
In a box store (in a box store)
Stand beside you on most days (on most days)
I love to hear you talk
I just can’t stand the things you say
If I could fly (if I could fly)
So high, and look down upon this place (upon this place)
I would blow out all the walls
And wake up feeling different each day

Flash forward to the year 2020, by which time Schlabowske had issued several more brilliant records to no particular commercial acclaim, including two in his mock-folk-troubadour persona, Ramblin’ Deano, plus another couple more with members of the Meat Purveyors, one of which trickled out only belatedly and turned out to be perhaps my favorite of any of his releases. When lockdown started, Dean started passing the time by airing daily live webcasts where, sometimes joined by Meat Purveyors singer Jo Walston — the two had married the year before — he chatted and told stories and sang: songs he’d recorded, songs he hadn’t yet recorded, songs by forgotten country stars and reggae legends and Amy Rigby and the Kinks and George Jones and more George Jones and everyone else in his voluminous record collection. Deano’s Coffee and a Song became a lifeline, where a handful of his friends and fans, usually no more than 20 of us at a time, gathered to listen and join in the Facebook chat and take a tour through American music and culture and politics that we hadn’t known we needed so badly.

When live shows resumed in 2021, one of my first trips out of the house was to see Dean play two shows in New Jersey, each a 25-plus-song-long extravaganza that still barely scratched the surface of his repertoire. Here in 2023 as I write this, Dean and Jo, newly transplanted to a house in Lafayette, Louisiana whose fix-up has its own Facebook group, just put out yet another great album, with cover art (by Langford) of their two dogs, and recently visited my neck of the woods for a terrific live show that was seen by a wildly appreciative audience of maybe 40 people.

Whenever I write about seeing a great musician like Dean (or Antietam, or Barbara Manning, or lots of others in my iTunes library) before way too small a crowd, I have mixed emotions. I know that Dean would love to sell more records and play to bigger audiences, and I would love that too — if nothing else, it would mean more money to record that insane backlog of songs that he showed off on his livestreams, not to mention more chances to see him (and Jo) live than an occasional weekend jaunt. But there’s also something special about being one of a few dozen people to be clued in to a hidden gem: It feels not just like a badge of honor, but less like mass consumption and more like a club of friends, especially when some of them literally greet you by name.

Which, given that much of what I love about Deano’s music is that it’s a trip through the secret corners of both everyday American life and musical history, is probably appropriate, if not entirely fair to his bank account. I’m not going to be able to resolve here all the mixed feelings about popularity and success that underlie so much of “indie” music fandom — entire books have been written about that — so the best I can do is appreciate it for what it can be in this particular commodity culture. So long as there are only two sides to the Town Car window, I know which one I’d rather be on.

Sonic Youth

Record stores used to be a big deal. There was, for example, the one between 77th and 78th streets on Broadway near where I grew up, which had a sizable collection of what would now be considered classic rock standards, a generous cutout bin of $1 cheapies, and a couple of guys behind the counter who could be counted on to share their thoughts on your purchase. (I still remember the warning I got from one of them about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s split LP Live Peace in Toronto 1969: “Don’t put on Side Two, it sounds like one long scratch.” This was a very 1982 Rock Guy Opinion.) And in the days before instant global distribution of everything, going to the local record store was a big adventure when visiting another city.

I don’t remember the name of the Washington, D.C. record store I visited one day in late 1989, or why exactly I was flipping through the Neil Young CDs when I already had pretty much all of his albums that were then in print. I do remember spotting the compilation tribute album The Bridge, and being intrigued enough about the names of the bands on the back, or just of the concept of younger bands covering Neil Young songs, that I bought it.

Looking at those band names today, I’m not entirely sure which ones I recognized; I’m not entirely sure how they were selected for the project, even. There were a few that would go on to greater acclaim once indie rock exploded in the early ’90s (Soul Asylum, The Flaming Lips, Pixies), plus some that defied explanation or even description: The cover of “Mr. Soul” by Bongwater, a band that featured actress/performance artist/future Starfleet admiral Ann Magnuson on vocals and doomed Shimmy Disc records impresario Kramer on bass and tape loop manipulation, is especially bonkers, with its intro of bizarre sound samples and fading-into-the-background vocals. And I remember cracking up laughing as soon as Dinosaur Jr.’s take on the normally-acoustic-guitar-folk “Lotta Love” came blasting out of my speakers, and not stopping laughing until I’d listened to it twice more. (One of the changes wrought by the advent of CDs that you don’t hear talked about so much: It made listening to one track over and over way more of a thing. Also made referring to songs as “tracks” more of a thing.)

The name that most likely caught my eye on the tracklist, though, was Sonic Youth. I doubt I had ever heard any of their songs at that point — I was probably only familiar with them as a name that popped up periodically in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop rankings, which I dutifully eyeballed even if I didn’t know who they all were. But it was a selling point all the same: These aren’t just no-name bands covering Neil Young, these are bands I should be checking out because they could be interesting.

Sonic Youth’s cover song of choice certainly was: “Computer Age,” one of the most unloved songs in the Neil Young catalog, a relic of the entire album he sang through a vocoder that made his voice unrecognizable in a quixotic attempt to convey his disabled son’s difficulties communicating. The quartet of Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley, Lee Ranaldo, and Thurston Moore, as I learned from The Bridge‘s liner notes (poring over liner notes used to be a big deal, too), turned the song into a propulsive straight-ahead rock song for starters, then eventually dissolved into a squall of barely controlled noise.

It wasn’t my favorite track on the album, but it piqued my curiosity enough that the next year I immediately bought their next album Goo, which also featured a striking album cover by what I later learned was legendary punk rock illustrator Raymond Pettibon. (It piqued Neil Young’s, too, as he went on to invite Sonic Youth to open for him on his 1991 tour, where they were relentlessly booed by Neil’s fans who clearly hadn’t bought The Bridge.) Nearly two decades later, I would see Sonic Youth play in Battery Park and buy a shirt with an equally excellent WFMU-themed version of the Goo artwork.

There’s a theory that the first album you hear by a band is most likely to end up your favorite, but Goo might have ended up that for me regardless. Its first five songs are all monsters: “Dirty Boots,” “Tunic,” “Mary-Christ,” “Kool Thing” (with a maybe-intentionally-uncomfortable Chuck D cameo that only endeared the band to me more, as I was playing Fear of a Black Planet to death at the time), “Mote,” all ablaze with raw energy and contorted guitar tunings. The one that had me reaching for the repeat button, though, was “Tunic (Song for Karen),” a haunting elegy talk-sung by Kim in the voice of Karen Carpenter, ascending to rock-and-roll heaven on the wings of her bulimia while reciting her mother’s misguided admonition: “Honey, you look so underfed.” If you want a primer on the perils of music stardom and toxic patriarchy all wrapped up into one ball of pain and tuneful noise, I dare you to do better.

You could say much the same for Kim’s memoir Girl in a Band, which recasts the entire history of Sonic Youth, so much of which centered on her seeming storybook punk-rock marriage to Thurston, as a cautionary tale about the collision of the music industry’s veneration of man-childdom and the male gaze’s obsession with women who are expected to hold everything together, either as band mom or onstage sex symbol or both. The end result: betrayal, resentment, breakup. Sonic Youth played their final show in 2011, not long after I saw them in Prospect Park at a tempestuous show where you could feel the bad vibes coming off the stage, and the crowd was raucous and frantic, verging on ugly, rushing the front of the pit and shouting over the music.

I bought Girl in a Band only recently, after I spotted it on a trip to Amoeba Records in San Francisco; I left with both it and a huge stack of albums that I probably could have bought as easily and cheaply online, but for whatever reason hadn’t. I’d heard people rave about the book for years before I bought it; for that matter, I’d heard people rave about Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On for years without thinking to pick up a copy, until there it was in front of me in the bin. Record stores, the few that remain worthwhile, are still for me a big deal.

Chuck Prophet

As a rule, I rarely go to see musicians I haven’t heard. My tastes are way too idiosyncratic and polarized — despite the best efforts of “You may also like…” algorithms, I still remain determinedly indifferent to, for example, Guided By Voices — and I’ve learned that I don’t really enjoy seeing bands that I’m not already sure will hit my musical sweet spot. With Chuck Prophet, I got lucky.

Back around the turn of Y2K, a window opened for me into a motherlode of music via the wonders of CDR trading. In those days of the growing-but-still-low-bandwidth internet, music lovers could share lists of what they had in their hoarded collections of live concert recordings — often transcribed from handwritten or typed lists onto freshly composed “Web sites” — but to actually send music files over wires would of course take impossibly long. Not having a fleet of tractor-trailers at our disposal, we instead turned to the U.S. Postal Service, and burned and mailed each other CDRs — a huge upgrade over the cassette tapes that were the standard medium of just a couple of years earlier — containing live and radio recordings that would otherwise remain trapped on dusty shelves in another part of the world, far from our ravening ears.

Somewhere in there, someone I had swapped a few discs with realized I lived in New York City, and could record shows off the radio that he wanted to hear but would never be able to, obviously, because he was in another part of the world. He would send me lists of upcoming shows, and I would dutifully tune my radio to WFMU or WFUV at the appointed hour, bending the wire antenna this way and that to try to minimize the unavoidable static. I don’t even remember all the bands I recorded at his request, but I’m pretty sure there were appearances by the Moldy Peaches, by the folksinger Lucy Kaplansky, and by a guy with a funny name: Chuck Prophet.

I hit record on whatever next-generation recording device I had at the time (probably a minidisc, magical for being able to record 70 whole minutes without tape hiss and only minimal digital compression), burned the results to CD, mailed them off, and forgot all about them.

Leap forward to a somewhat later part of prehistory: 2009. Mindy and I were looking for somewhere to go for an evening out with our music-loving friends Josh and Lisa, and as I scrolled through a list of upcoming shows — in a few short years, music listings had jumped from ads in the Village Voice to listings you found on your computer — up popped the name Chuck Prophet. I vaguely remembered him as being someone who was supposed to be cool, or at least no less cool than Lucy Kaplansky. As this was in the days before you could fire up Spotify or YouTube and hear anyone you wanted, and anyway we were just looking for someplace to go spend what had become a rare kid-free night out, I figured, what the hell. At least the venue, a former 99-cent store turned rock club called Southpaw, was close to home if we wanted to bail early.

Reader, we did not. From the ridiculously hooky opening guitar crunch of “Sonny Liston’s Blues,” the lead track off Chuck’s then-new album ¡Let Freedom Ring! — to this day, one of my favorite guitar sounds of all time, to the point where I even bought the same pedal he uses so I could try to emulate its tone on the rare occasions when I play guitar — I was won over. Chuck and his band the Mission Express rocked, they grooved, they had witty lyrics and wittier stage banter and a secret weapon in Chuck’s keyboardist/backing vocalist/spouse, Stephanie Finch, who stepped out front mid-set for her own solo song. At one point Chuck went off on a long speech about how he had been informed by security that some audience members might be illicitly recording the show, and he hoped that those people would have respect for the needs of a working artist … and be sure to include this next song, because it was a new one and it needed the publicity. How had I missed this guy for the previous 20 years?

We stayed to the very end, past the show-stopping show closer “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)” and into whatever garage-rocky covers Chuck had lined up for the encore, and I’m pretty sure I left with a copy of ¡Let Freedom Ring! If not, I bought it not long after, and have been sure to buy all of his subsequent and previous albums in the years since.

Chuck Prophet, you see, turned out to be a practically perfect cult artist, in the best sense of someone who has at best a moderate fan base, but one that is willing to lay down and die for him. At some point I spotted a review that called him “the indie-rock Tom Petty,” and that was sort of right in terms of his musical tastes and vocal style and attraction to songs about noble losers, but it also gives him short shrift: Petty, for all his undeniable greatness, never wrote a song cycle about San Francisco that includes shoutouts to hometown heroes as diverse as Harvey Milk, Willie Mays, and the strip-club-baron Mitchell brothers, whose partnership only dissolved when one shot the other to death. One of Chuck’s signature moves is to build a spiderweb of imagery to wrap his stories in, then undercut them with a punchline, as in “Hot Talk” off ¡Let Freedom Ring!:

I said, “Your laughter’s like a drug to me,
I only wish it weren’t at my expense.”
She said, “It ain’t costing you a dime.”
I said, “I know it’s not, that’s not what I meant.”

Or, even more directly-indirectly, in “Coming Out in Code,” off the tremendous Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins:

You can say that I’m well-traveled
I’m a pauper, I’m a king
They call me Willie Wonka boys
You tell me what it means

Have you seen my candy man
Does anybody know?
I’m speaking to you from the heart
But it’s coming out in code

While waiting out the pandemic and the return of live music, I’ve been eagerly gobbling up Chuck’s email newsletters (no one, except perhaps the sainted Rennie Sparks, has better mastered the form) and listening to him spin records for Gimme Country radio on Friday afternoons. (His show is not mostly country music, or at least not what one would narrowly consider country, unless you have enough room in your big tent for Waylon Jennings and the Rubinoos, both constellations in his personal pantheon.) He was the host of the video anthology that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass put out in 2020 in place of an actual festival in Golden Gate Park, and he’s done occasional exquisite video streams from his and Stephanie’s kitchen, but nothing can take the place of hearing him where I first did: on a stage, with his band, convening the power of a G chord.

I’ve been witness to a lot of bad live music over the years, and even a fair bit of good music where I went home at the end of the night thinking: That was okay, but it wasn’t necessarily worth standing through two opening bands and then dragging myself home on the subway at 1 am for. Every time I’m tempted to skip a show and just stay home instead, I remind myself of that first Chuck Prophet experience, and where I would be today if Josh and Lisa and Mindy and I had gone out to dinner or something instead. There are some wonderful corners of the world just out of sight, and you can never find them if you don’t duck your head in to check them out — which, come to think of it, is one of the things Chuck has been trying to tell us all along.

De La Soul

I was a little too old to be part of the Napster generation. I remember when filesharing became a thing — I’m sure I dug around the dark recesses of the internet to find a few songs at the time — but for me acquiring music inherently involved going to a store and buying an object, or maybe having someone make me a mixtape. When I hear friends even a few years younger than me talk about all the songs they accumulated by grabbing them off other people’s hard drives half a world away, I feel like they come from another universe.

For many people, of course, downloading was a big enough thing that it eventually led to the more-or-less-collapse of the whole music industry. And from there, it was on to once-bizarre notions like musicians making songs available for pay-what-you-like, or even giving their entire catalog away for free. That was an offer than even a physical-object diehard like myself couldn’t pass up.

It helped that De La Soul was one of those groups I always thought I should be listening to. I’ve always tended toward doing deep dives into a few musicians more than expanding out broadly, and my early rap experiences were no exception: There was likely a point where I had every Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy album and no other hiphop at all. By the turn of the ’90s, though, I was starting to look to branch out, and had read (in the Village Voice, most likely) about Native Tongues, the New York–based loose collective of artists that was starting to gain a name for itself. And while De La Soul wasn’t my favorite from the collective — that would have been Monie Love, who I thought blew everyone else out of the water, including her more famous sometime collaborator Queen Latifah — they couldn’t help but be on my radar, especially after their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising won the Voice’s Pazz and Jop awards in a runaway.

Still, I didn’t go out and nibuy it. I also didn’t buy De La Soul Is Dead, or Buhloone Mindstate, or any of the De La Soul albums that followed. Rap production styles gradually shifted away from the dense sonic soundscapes of the early ’90s to the more straightforward beats and samples of the post-gangsta era — in large part thanks to changes in copyright practice, possibly the biggest influence of intellectual property laws on culture outside of the Marvel universe — and MTV started showing reality shows instead of videos, and I lost track of what was new in hiphop, or even old.

Until I saw that note about free De La Soul downloads in 2014, anyway. At which point I grabbed them all, dropped them all into iTunes, and … mostly forgot about them.

Having to write this entry has had me trying to puzzle out why. I certainly don’t dislike De La Soul — there have been a bunch of times one of their songs has popped up on the radio or on iTunes shuffle and I’ve been grabbed enough by it to check the playlist to see who it was by. But I still tend to listen to music the same way I did in my formative years when it was all on vinyl or CDs: Put on an album, listen to the end, put on another album, repeat. And for whatever reason — no specific positive associations, no album covers or liner notes to get me thinking “I should listen to that again” — I haven’t dialed up any of those free downloads very often.

While I was puzzling over how to finish this post, WFMU’s Michael Shelley Show played a weird spoken-word song by rock critic Gene Sculatti called “What Is A Rock Critic?”, which patched together hilarious excerpts from New Yorker music reviews that included the line: “Rock critics save their highest praise for records like De La Soul’s debut, which ‘imbued hip hop’s sample-based aesthetic with a cheeky intentionality.'” Was that it? Was I somehow turned off by an element of their music that appealed to pointy-headed spewers of rock-crit verbiage? Or at least turned off by the verbiage itself, to where De La Soul ended up excluded from entry onto my deep-dive list? Were they too jazzy, too lite-clever, too something?

It doesn’t matter, really. This project — the blog one, I mean, but I suppose examining one’s own musical tastes at all — ultimately isn’t about trying to talk myself into listening to things, but explaining why I do or don’t, and sometimes there is no explanation other than “I like what I like.” (Why I sometimes start to like what I formerly didn’t like is an even bigger puzzler.) I admit, I’m tempted to give 3 Feet High and Rising a long listen now that I’ve spent so much time thinking about why I haven’t listened to it more, but — hmm, I wonder what Monie Love is up to these days?


This one I remember clear as day, though the moment was more than 30 years ago. I was watching MTV, which wasn’t a thing I did often, but I had just graduated from college and didn’t have much to do and MTV was a good way to kill hours and hours (and hours). It still showed almost entirely music videos then, not yet having discovered that it was more lucrative to put seven regular people in an apartment and turn cameras on them, which didn’t even require paying a veejay.

MTV at the time had a newish show called 120 Minutes, which showed videos of songs that were considered “alternative,” a designation only then beginning to take form as an delineated genre. I didn’t necessarily know if I liked “alternative” yet — even in college, I had yet to discover what was then being called “college rock,” though I’d nibbled around the edges with bands like Talking Heads and R.E.M. — but I knew I hated the non-alternative, which in 1988 included both Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So even if all 120 Minutes promised was something different, different at least promised to be interesting, and possibly even good.

The video in question on this night was both, in the extreme. There was was an off-kilter rumbling drumbeat, a man with a shaved head playing an atonal trumpet, and what looked like a 14-year-old girl screaming unearthly sounds. In between howls, she was singing about a five-year-old girl and her bearded friend and her birthday and painting huge spools. And they were from Iceland? I had known hardly anything about Iceland until earlier that year, when I’d read an amazing article in the New Yorker about people there fighting off a lava flow with hoses; from this video I had learned slightly more about Iceland, and it was even more improbable than I’d thought.

If you know the song “Birthday,” or just read the heading on this post, you know where this is headed. The 14-year-old girl was actually 22 (she was born exactly two days after me) and was in fact Björk. The band was the Sugarcubes, which she’d founded when she was 20. The man with the trumpet was named Einar Örn. The album that the song was from, Life’s Too Good, featured songs about having sex with God in a bathtub and luring a naked man down from your roof with strawberry cake. There was nothing about this that was not alternative.

We’ve already covered how I ended up watching 120 Minutes, but how did the Sugarcubes end up there from their end of things? The band’s Wikipedia page credits John Peel, the tastemaker of all things alt, for bringing “Birthday” to the British public’s attention, and eventually to the world’s. Bjork’s Wiki page, on the other hand, claims that “Birthday” was named single of the week by Melody Maker one week after it was released; pick whichever story you prefer. Either way, it grabbed something about some people, or some alternative people, and soon was … a hit? Maybe not, from the blank stares I tended to get around my newly adoptive home in Brooklyn when I mentioned the Sugarcubes, but 1988 was a time where it was starting to feel like you could be a hit even if no one knew your name. Jesse Jackson briefly seemed like a contender for president. It was that kind of time, the closest I’ve come to thinking that the ’60s’ spirit of change might finally be about to return, like those kids in Dazed and Confused, depictions of the generation just a few years older than me, had grown up waiting for.

The Sugarcubes made two more good records, and I eventually got to see them live, at the Limelight, a Manhattan club carved out of an old church; I mostly remember the deafening dance music that was played while we waited for the band to go on. Björk was weird and endearing; Einar Örn was if anything even weirder than Björk, which is not easy to pull off. Not long afterwards the band broke up, and Björk became Björk, and she was a hit but not alternative, or alternative was now a hit, I never was sure. Her first solo album was called Debut, which it was, if you don’t count the earlier ones she’d made starting at age 11; I saw some of the videos on MTV in my very latter days of still watching music videos. I remember “Human Behavior” being endearingly loopy but sadly missing demented trumpet blasts.

A couple of years ago, when Björk came to Brooklyn to play the gloriously reopened Kings Theater within walking distance of my apartment, I thought about going, but didn’t. (I hear she was great, and dressed as a snowflake or maybe a sea urchin.) But I do still sing to the cats sometimes the Sugarcubes song “Cat,” which is in Icelandic except for the refrain “Cat cat cat!” sung by Björk as if her life depended on it. Everyone has to choose the alternative that holds meaning for them.