When musicians have unshakeable faith, it can give their work an unparalleled color and vibrancy. You can lean against it and it will hold you up. Think of the Staple Singers and how real their message feels, how much you believe it, even if only for the three minutes one of their songs lasts. Think of Alice Coltrane’s sublime devotional recordings at the Shanti Anantam Ashram, of the way Buddhism has deepened Leonard Cohen’s insight, of the moral vision Kendrick Lamar’s Christianity brings to his work, of the aching spiritual yearning of early Bob Marley. Even John Lennon’s atheist proselytizing has something like that effect — you feel like he believed in something intensely, and that belief was like a kind of devotion, and that devotion was more important to him, as a musician, than making money or getting laid or impressing you. And because of that you trusted him not to lie to you, and then the music became something more than entertainment — it became something that could help and even heal. That’s what Bill Fay has. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a contemporary musician who has more of it than he does.
I’ve been thinking recently about the French singer Françoise Hardy, and specifically thinking about the first Hardy song I ever heard, which did nothing for me. The song was “All Over the World,” one of Hardy’s songs in English. I remember feeling that there was something vaguely silly about it, that it felt kind of lightweight. The melody and backing track were pretty enough, but they also felt kind of clunky and conventional, with Hardy’s accent awkwardly distracting from the emotional pull of a lyric that felt generic to begin with. I kind of discounted the song, and even, at first, the singer. Then, about six months later, I was listening to another Hardy record and was struck by a beautiful, stately ballad; Hardy’s voice was gorgeous and whisper-quiet over an almost funereally solemn classically-derived piano arpeggio, and the lyrics, in French, seemed profoundly meaningful even though I didn’t know what they were about. I realized, when I looked at the title of the song, that it was “All Over the World” – the exact same recording, in fact, but with Hardy singing in French instead of English.
I had a band. So far we’d played about three shows. We’d done a show at a downtown Austin blues bar that on Monday nights would take pretty much any new band so long as they’d promise to pack the club with their friends who would buy drinks. We’d done a show at an “alternative bookstore” on the college drag that one month later had closed to make way for a chain store that sold fake-vintage pre-faded jeans. We’d done a show above the grease vents on the roof of a hamburger bar. One day, in the late summer of 1998, I got an e-mail from a band called The Eyesores.
Here’s the deal, guys: somewhere around Birmingham my computer went down. I switched it on and there was this weird squiggly low-res pattern happening on there and then nothing, just a grey screen that popped up and wouldn’t go away. I tried “zapping the P-RAM,” which they tell you to do. I tried mashing the various combinations of keys they tell you to while you boot up – nothing worked.
Okay so do you remember the part in Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis is down in the basement of the fire station with a spazzed-out and spirit-possessed Rick Moranis and suddenly Annie Potts comes down the stairs with that pissed off EPA guy pushing in front of her (William Atherton) and she says, “Egon, I tried to stop him! He says they have a warrant,” and then Egon says, “Excuse me, this is private property,” and the EPA guy says “Shut this off. Shut these all off” in this teeth-gritted, intense, red-faced way, pointing around the Ghostbusters’ HQ basement, at all the gadgets and gizmos and containment units we’ve been enjoying for 45 minutes or so by now, determined to ruin everything, to definitively end all the fun? And can you, like me, lipsyc basically the entire scene that follows because you have seen this movie so many times it might as well be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids?
The song “Black Sheep Boy” appeared on 1967’s Tim Hardin 2. It was the third track, sandwiched between “Red Balloon” and “Lady Came from Baltimore.” “Lady Came from Baltimore” was a love song – one of the simplest, purest, and more affecting love songs you’ll ever hear, written about Hardin’s new wife Susan Morss, who is referred to as “Susan Moore” in the lyrics. “Red Balloon” could also be described as a love song, though, the object of Hardin’s affection wasn’t Susan Morss, but heroin.
I’m told that at some point, usually around age 30 or sometimes later, a great many people basically stop seeking out new music. They circle back around to the same old albums, their favorite albums – the albums of their childhood, or of some time when they were happiest. Their iTunes library (if they have one) may slowly grow, but the amount of records they actually listen to contracts. It circles around the same twenty records, and then fifteen, and then maybe ten. They might occasionally be curious about their favorite band from fifteen years ago putting out a new record, or doing an overpriced reunion tour, but mostly they’re indifferent or even hostile towards the idea of new music. And then – and I’m scared to tell you guys, because I don’t want to believe such a thing could be true – it’s said that somewhere out there are people who have actually stopped listening to music.
When I was in high school, a kid gave me this Velvet Underground tape. It was the first two records, dubbed onto a cassette pretty carelessly, with songs cutting off at the end of sides A and B. The kid who gave it to me was a fellow guitar player, but a lot cooler than me. He was a slouchy guy with greasy shoulder-length hair, and he told me stories about the Velvets tuning all their strings to the same note, or physically carving the frets out of the necks of their guitars so they could slide dissonantly between microtones during guitar solos. I put the tape on and it sounded like what I imagined taking drug (a lot of drugs) felt like. It scared me. And it made me want to take drugs, which also scared me.
John Agnello and I met for the first time about a year ago, in a bar. We were feeling each other out. He was deciding if he wanted to work with me and I was deciding if he was the right guy do take over production duties for a collection of songs that was really close to my heart. I had loved recent records he’d worked on by Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur, Jr. (Agnello’s J. Mascis association goes back decades), but it also appealed to me that he’d been involved with some of the defining records of my pop childhood, singles like The Outfield’s “Your Love” and Scandal’s “The Warrior,” pop milestones like Cyndi Lauper’s incredible She’s So Unusual, and even grunge records I’d enjoyed like Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion.
The meeting went great. John and I talked for hours. He really got where I was coming from with the project. I left the bar feeling very excited.
In the early days of touring with Okkervil River, the van would be filled with boxes and backpacks of CDs from home, personal favorites we’d all brought with us, that we couldn’t imagine going several months without. We’d observe a strict rotation on the van stereo; if Jonathan wanted to listen to Lou Reed’s Berlin and I wanted to listen to my weird CD of Irish octogenarians singing a capella jigs with nonsense syllables it was tough shit; Jonathan needed to wait for his turn to roll around. We brought a log-book with us where we’d write down every CD we listened to every day, in what order, and who picked it. I suffered through some stuff I hated and I was turned on to some stuff I will love for the rest of my life.