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.

Care Bears On Fire

One of the toughest things about parenting a small child is finding stuff to do. Not for the kid’s sake — they’ll happily play Monopoly Jr. for hours at a time or have you draw endless subway train logos or pretty much anything else — but for your own, so that there’s even a little bit of variety to your child-care time. Movies are especially good, because they get you out of the house and let you sit in the dark (it’s almost like sleep!), which is almost certainly why most movies made in the 21st century are either animated or feature superheroes or both.

For the years when my son was little (the progression of children goes “baby” to “little kid” to “big kid” to “teenager” — actual ages have no meaning except to the Department of Education), an annual highlight was the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMkids Film Festival, which brought together features and shorts from around the world for a weekend of cartoons that were a cut above what you’d find on PBS Kids or, god forbid, Disney. And best of all, there was usually some other kind of programming to go along with the films: music or other performers occupying BAM’s second-floor cafe, which would end up packed wall-to-wall with toddlers and their exhausted caregivers.

One year, when my son was probably five or so, the featured performer was something called Care Bears On Fire, which if I’m remembering right (I no longer have the program) was touted as something like “pre-teen punk rockers.” Sure, can’t hurt, I figured; though when a tiny girl carrying an electric guitar that was bigger than her cautiously made her way onto the BAM stage, I admit I began to have second thoughts. And third thoughts, when she sheepishly shuffled back off stage and announced to her mom, “I forgot a pick! Do you have one?”

She then shuffled back onto the stage, walked up to the mic — and delivered a flurry of power chords that would have blown me into the back row, if I hadn’t been sitting on the floor and buffered by toddlers.

That first song was “Everybody Else,” and featured not just Ramones-esque guitar but a killer hook: “Nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah, I don’t want to be like everybody else!” Sophie (that was the tiny guitarist) and Izzy (the powerhouse drummer, no older but maybe slightly taller) had both musical chops and enough energy to hold the attention of jaded aging punk rockers, let alone their kids in Dead Kennedy t-shirts. (I no longer remember the name of their bass player at that show, who was never heard from again: CBoF went through bass players like Spinal Tap did drummers.)

I’ve no doubt already shared my predilection for bands that both rock and have a sense of humor, and Care Bears On Fire had both in spades: Their debut album featured a song about an online relationship that goes sour when it turns out the singer’s crush is actually a unicorn, plus a song called “Baby Animals” that starts out naming their favorites (“I like piglets/I like puppies/I like kittens/I like tadpoles…”) then eventually deteriorates into a chaotic swirl of noise and shouting. My son and I soon became regulars at their shows; once we arrived early at a park they were playing at to discover that they were the last of four bands scheduled to play, and chose to stick out the long wait — we were rewarded not just with a great performance but with one of Izzy’s drumsticks, which flew out of her flailing hand and into the audience, where my son ran to retrieve it. (After the show he brought it back to Izzy, who stood flummoxed until her bandmates shouted at her, “You should sign it for him!” We still have it.)

Soon there was a followup album, which had more great crunchy guitar and wry teen lyrics (“Barbie Eat A Sandwich” was a favorite feminist anthem), but also a pop production sheen that was a little off-putting for a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dirt fan like me. A year and a couple more bassists later there was an EP — with an excellent cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” — and then that was it, as the band members got busy with other projects (there was a brief followup band called Claire’s Diary), and then eventually college. It was still a pretty great run.

Many years later, I was working as an editor at the Village Voice and scouting around for writers when my eye fell on an excellent article in The Nation about sanctuary cities fighting against the Trump administration’s attempts to cut their federal funding. I looked at the byline: Sophie Kasakove. It was vaguely familiar for some reason, so I Googled her and … oh.

Child performers are a weird bunch: Whether they’re acting or singing or whatever exactly Mason Reese was doing, you have to remember that they’re still kids, and likely to entirely change their conceptions of who they are and what they want to do when they grow up. Hopefully they’ll find a way to keep up the creative spirit that animated them when they were young — I was recently heartened to discover that Quinn Cummings, of Family and Goodbye Girl fame, is now a blogger and podcaster with an excellent Twitter account. My son is now a good bit older than Sophie and Izzy were when we first saw them at BAM, and a drummer as well — I have no idea whether he’ll keep it up as he heads into adulthood, but hopefully what he’s learned from music he can take with him in some form wherever he goes. There are many ways to be punk rock.


It took a lot of prodding from the universe to get me to start listening to Antietam. I first heard them back in the days of tape swapping, when my music-mentor friend Pete put their album Rope-a-Dope on a cassette for me; I liked it fine as straight-ahead postpunky guitar rock, and noted the presence of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan as guest organist on the excellent opening song “Hands Down,” but was mostly distracted by the other side of the tape featuring Madder Rose’s Panic On, which became an instant favorite.

A few years later, I got word that Lianne Smith — a renowned New York singer-songwriter with an equally renowned aversion to issuing recorded music, who I’d gotten to know somewhat through the nascent-internet-era online message board ECHO — was playing a show with her even more seldom-chronicled country duo Shackwacky. Opening was an assortment of guitarists who sat in a circle on the stage at the Lower East Side club Tonic and, if I’m remembering right, improvised a set; among them were both Kaplan and Antietam’s Tara Key, who lived up to her deserved (if somewhat undeservedly backhanded) reputation as “New York’s best female guitarist” but didn’t make me immediately run out to buy any Antietam albums.

And so it went: I went to see Eleventh Dream Day, the indie-rock-famous Chicago band that featured Janet Bean of my beloved Freakwater as their drummer, and there was Antietam, almost stealing the show as the opening act. I finally got an opportunity to see Dump, YLT bassist James McNew’s solo project, along with fellow indie-rock legends The Scene Is Now (whose cockeyed classic “Yellow Sarong” Yo La Tengo had covered on their album Fakebook) and, hey lookit that, Antietam again.

(All the Yo La Tengo adjacency is not coincidental: That band’s first-ever gig was opening for Antietam, and Key had joined YLT on numerous occasions, most notably to fill out the three-piece’s impersonation of the four-piece Velvet Underground in the film I Shot Andy Warhol. I’ve frequently joked that most of my record collection can be divided into bands I discovered through the Mekons and bands I discovered through Yo La Tengo, and Antietam is the first planet in the Yo La Tengo orbit.)

By this time, something clicked: Seeing Antietam live, with the low-slung Key’s feet-planted guitar rave-ups bouncing off her gangly husband Tim Harris’s melodic bass lines and air-grabbing leaps and Josh Madell’s just-on-kilter-enough drumming, gave me a new appreciation for their music being more than just fun punky guitar rock, and drove me to make my first actual Antietam album purchase. Whereupon I discovered something unexpected.

Opus Mixtum, as its name suggests, is an extremely wide-ranging album. It opens with “Tambo Hope,” a quiet, almost meditative looping instrumental featuring acoustic guitar, tambourine, and cello — immediately followed by a squall of feedback, which then launches into “RPM,” an arena-rock anthem for a band with no designs on arenas. And there were other earworm gems to come: “Turn It On Me,” a conflicted love letter to Magellan, or at least a Magellan, from his lover (“When will you look at me/The way you look at the sea?”); and “Time Creeps,” a consideration of “all the babies in the bars and the subway cars” that deserves to be on an aging-punk split single with Superchunk‘s “My Gap Feels Weird.”

It only took 15 years, but I was finally hooked. Helped along by Antietam being a band that seldom tours but plays shows every few months in their adopted hometown of New York, and by the fact that once I got a chance to meet Tara and Tim they turned out to be the nicest, most down-to-earth people (let alone indie-rock legends) imaginable, I started becoming an Antietam regular. And not only did my appreciation for their music grow with each performance and each new album — one moment imprinted on my memory, from the now-defunct Brooklyn dive bar Hank’s Saloon, is of Tim and Tara playing back-to-back while Josh unleashed a fury of drumming by the back wall — but it turned out to be an education in 1990s-era indie rock: I never would have heard Sleepyhead, or Two Mule Team (featuring 75 Dollar Bill‘s Rick Brown and his wife Sue Garner, formerly of the duo Pot Liquor alongside Angel Dean, who had also been the other half of Lianne Smith’s Shackwacky), or Ruby Falls, or Escape By Ostrich or numerous other bands if they or their members hadn’t shared a bill with Antietam. I also never would have met my friend Jeff, who I finally introduced myself to after seeing him at innumerable Antietam (and Yo La Tengo) shows, and who as a film production worker had helped midwife the two bands’ appearance in I Shot Andy Warhol; with Antietam, it’s all connected.

I now try never to miss an Antietam show; I even helped record sound for their video chronicle of their release shows for their 2017 album, Intimations of Immortality, which features horns and fiddle and banjo and yet remains unmistakably Antietam. I’ve also read Tara’s mom June Key’s amazing autobiography Blue Streak (edited and shepherded to publication by Tara) about her life and unexpected emergence as a national school-integration advocate, and am currently trying to decide which of Tara’s photo postcards (fading Manhattan advertising murals, clouds over the New Jersey Turnpike, patterns of brick in Cartagena, Colombia) to put up in my apartment and which to send to my far-flung fellow residents of Antietam Nation.

And Madder Rose? I don’t listen to them much anymore. It’s funny the directions life takes you.



I never set out to be a sportswriter. Oh, as a kid I was a baseball fanatic, and absolutely wanted a career in sports, notwithstanding that I didn’t play any competitively — in my neck of 1970s Manhattan, competitive sports leagues were nearly unheard of. At around age 11, I got a book written by the Mets’ team statistician, and for a while was dead certain I wanted to be the Mets’ team statistician, notwithstanding that I knew the job was taken because I’d just read a book by the guy who’d taken it.

Still, it was almost entirely by accident that when I finally got what in retrospect turned out to be my big writing break — a small-press publisher who spotted an article I’d co-written on stadium subsidies and offered me and my co-author Joanna a book deal — it was sports-related. (Okay, actually it wasn’t at first: He wanted us to write about corporate subsidies broadly, and we had to convince him that a sports stadium book would be easier to tackle and would sell better. But that’s mostly because his knowledge of sports, as he explained it, was that “I went to a hockey game once.”)

Where was I before getting lost in that parenthetical? Right, the book deal. That led to a book, and eventually a semi-regular writing gig for the Village Voice’s sports section. That worked out great for about five years, at which point my Voice editor called me to say, “The good news is your latest article is running this week. The bad news is it’s the last piece that will ever run in the Voice sports section, because they just eliminated it.”

If I was going to continue to capitalize on my newfound expertise in sports-stuff-having-nothing-to-do-with-the-games-themselves, I was clearly going to have to find another outlet. In the course of writing a Voice article about this strange new breed of sports analysts calling themselves “sabermetricians,” I’d gotten to know Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, so I shot him an email: Did BP need freelancers? His answer: Sure! Having money to pay them, now that was another matter…

Fast-forward seven years and change, and I’d graduated from writing for BP’s website and books to editing articles, as part of a four-headed team that churned through the site’s daily content. Which is how I got to know Ben Lindbergh.

I could dedicate an entire entry to Ben Lindbergh’s writing — his book with Sam Miller on getting to run a minor-league baseball team on sabermetric principles is a masterpiece — but right now all we need to concern ourselves with is that he loves music almost as much as he does baseball. And not just music, but especially a particular strain of smart power pop that doesn’t always get its due: This is a guy who once wrote an article ranking the best Paul McCartney non-Beatles songs that weren’t on any of his solo greatest-hits compilations, which requires a special commitment to the task at hand.

If Ben has a single musical passion, though, it is Sloan, the Canadian rock band who, Ben would tell me on a regular basis, were Beatles-esque pop songwriting geniuses if you just listened to them long and hard enough. Ben may love Paul McCartney enough to have listened to the deep cuts on “Red Rose Speedway” enough to rank them, but I doubt he would have chosen to get engaged onstage at a McCartney concert, even if Sir Paul had been willing.

Anyway, it was during one long instant-message conversation with Ben about Sloan that I figured I needed to give them a shot. To start with, I chose their 2006 album “Never Hear the End of It,” which was described by Ben as “very Abbey Roady”; it also features 30 songs in 76 minutes, so I also probably figured if I didn’t like any particular song at least there’d be another one right around the corner.

Two songs in, I realized I did already know one Sloan song: “Who Taught You To Live Like That?” which I’d heard on a WFMU live compilation. It’s a joyously snarky (or snarkily joyous?) pop confection of willfully obscure verses (“The piano was upright/Attendance was uptight”) bound together by the group-sung chorus, and even more so by the propulsive piano riff and hand claps that would make this an earworm even if the words were nonsensical. (Which in places they are: See above re: piano.)

It was an impression that stayed with me until I got to the end of “Never Hear The End Of It”: These guys were clearly master songsmiths. But then, you know, so are, I dunno, Squeeze. Or Fountains of Wayne, as Robbie Fulks famously (and, he always insisted, well-meaningly) lampooned them. ELO, as I never fully realized until I saw that Doctor Who episode. These are all bands that I can respect, but I don’t generally find I want to listen to them all that much — I tend to demand more sand in the gears of my music, a topic that requires a deeper discussion of the varied functions music serves in different people’s lives than I have time to get into here, now that I wasted so much space talking about baseball.

Anyway, if you want perfectly crafted clever pop gems, you could do worse than listen to Sloan. For me, I keep them around on iTunes partly because I respect Ben, and partly because in small doses Sloan songs can be a welcome palate-cleanser, music simply for the joy of music. Which reminds me, it’s been a long while since I’ve listened to “Red Rose Speedway”…