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.

Logan Whitehurst

Like the previously covered Cat Fight, Logan Whitehurst first came to my attention via the great Greasy Kid Stuff show on WFMU. The difference is that while Cat Fight I barely remember, Logan Whitehurst instantly became a treasured member of my musical world.

Some of it was timing. My son was born in February 2003 (with the first Greasy Kid Stuff compilation CD playing in the delivery room), and by November, according to WFMU’s excellent playlist archive, the first song by Logan Whitehurst’s album Goodbye, My 4-Track showed up on Greasy Kid Stuff. Technically credited to Logan Whitehurst and the Junior Science Club (but only technically, as it was mostly Whitehurst on all instruments), the album was a crazy quilt of home-recording genius, clearly kin to They Might Be Giants with its omnivorous stylistic experiments but with even more of a focus on absurdist comedy.

The very first Logan Whitehurst song I heard — because it was the first one that Hova and Belinda played that greasy morning, out of three total they selected from Goodbye, My 4-Track — was “Happy Noodle vs. Sad Noodle,” and to say it blew my mind would be an understatement. It was the straightforward story of a happy noodle who “always smiled and tipped his hat and said, ‘Nice weather we’re having!’ regardless of the weather,” and his “antagonist, a polar opposite bent on nullifying his happy existence.” All this — and that the song was to be the story of their ultimate battle — we learned during the first verse, a spoken-word-at-breakneck-pace appetizer for the impossibly singalong chorus, which goes, to the best of my transcriptive abilities: “HAPPY! NOODLE! Vs. SAD noodle! Happy NOODLE! Vs. SAD SAD noodle!”

I will not reveal the result of their duel to the death. Suffice to say that the battle itself is narrated in rap, and afterwards there is pie. It was smart and silly at the same time, and the perfect song for bouncing a nine-month-old baby up and down to, both of us giggling hysterically.

Needless to day, I immediately bought the record. Maybe even better than “Happy Noodle vs. Sad Noodle” was “Lizard and Fish,” a jaunty piano-based tune, with a clarinet solo clearly swiped from Disney’s “Cruella de Ville,” that tells the tale of two friends trapped in a pet store and dreaming of their eventual escape. (Sample dialogue: “Lizard said, ‘Fish, how’s the water today?’ And Fish said, ‘Glubglubglubglub.’”) I also fell in love with the the hidden-track album closer “Monkeys Are Bad People,” which perhaps more than any other of the 23 tracks toes the line between music and sketch comedy, starting off-kilter then rapidly losing sight of any kilter at all, built around the irresistible refrain “Monkeys are bad people/And so are you.”

I couldn’t wait to hear what Whitehurst would do next. The next time I saw Belinda, I asked about him, and she said she had a sad story to tell. She’d called Whitehurst for some trivial music-related reason and asked, “So what’s new with you?” And he replied, “Well, I have a brain tumor.”

Logan Whitehurst died on December 3, 2006, at the age of 29. “Happy Noodle vs. Sad Noodle” posthumously appeared on the Greasy Kid Stuff 3 compilation CD. Fans of his, I just discovered while writing this post, subsequently created an entire record label just to re-release Goodbye, My 4-Track on CD, vinyl, cassette, and download.

As I write this, my son is about to turn 18; Whitehurst, if he had lived, would now be 43. It’s tempting to bemoan all his music that we will never get to hear, but that’s a cliche by now, and anyway, he outlived Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, D Boon, and Kurt Cobain, among others; I’d rather bemoan the fact that someone so clearly joyous about life didn’t get to experience it for longer. There’s apparently a documentary about Whitehurst in the works, or at least a Kickstarter for one. I’m not sure if making sure he’s posthumously appreciated makes it any less sad that he’s gone — though if a few more people listen to “Happy Noodle vs. Sad Noodle” as a result, that’s at least some extra joy in the world to go with the sadness. And then it’s time for pie.

Juliana Hatfield

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 gold

In 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.