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?
I often make the outrageous drunken claim that the Rock*A*Teens were the single best rock and roll band of the 1990s. It’s sort of ridiculous to say, but as I write this sentence stone sober and drinking a glass of juice, I still kind of believe it. I keep waiting to not believe it, as I very frequently don’t believe all kinds of outrageous claims that I make, but I just cross-referenced with all the other 1990s rock and roll bands in my iTunes and I’m pretty much ready to double down; this disastrously scrappy Atlanta band with their not-very-good-sounding recordings and their name half-swiped from a 50’s rock outfit were…okay, let’s not say the “best,” because I don’t really believe there’s any objective truth when it comes to evaluating music – let’s say they were my favorite.
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.
Little Beaver made music that deserves to be the soundtrack everyone forevermore associates with Florida; if there were any justice in the world there would be Beaver-themed bars all over America and nobody would ever mention that Buffet fellow ever again. It is impossible for me to separate Beaver from Florida, from humidity, from relaxation, from jocularity. His songs all wear a tipsy perma-smile, and you can feel a hot, sticky sheen of sweat across them.
“Lola” is rich and complex, heroically humanizing a character who could have been an adolescent joke (one year after the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” admittedly) before crowning her and seating her at the center of a song that testifies to the primacy of love over all things.
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.
I figured I’d write about George Jones for First Song of the Month, and I figured I’d jump the gun and put it up today instead of on Wednesday. He was one of my very favorite singers of all time, someone I would think about on a daily basis. When an artist like that passes away, suddenly the whole world feels cheaper. I can’t think of a country singer better than him, past, present, or future. Country music has its towering, legendary writers, and its icons, and its total-package musicians, but it only had one George Jones and everybody pretty much knew no one else could touch him when it came to that voice. Like Johnny Cash, I imagine that as time goes on it will get harder and harder to believe there really even was a real George Jones, that the legend is going to devour the man, because those records are just going to grow and grow in stature until they loom above all the puny contemporary efforts of everyone who is still somewhat sincerely trying to make country music.