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.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, the album this song is from, was released in 1986, when Van was 41. Rarely-mentioned and underappreciated, the record is in many ways a perfect rock album for grown-ups. The production is professional and slick – at times, almost overly slick. The tempos are slow and relaxed. There are no fast songs, no moments of urgency, no rock and roll franticness. The instruments – keyboards, pianos, backup singers – all float in a glassy kind of haze. Fans of a rawer Van Morrison – from his earliest albums and his work with Them – would be excused for thinking of this album as soft. It is soft. This is the work of a middle-aged rock and roller who is fully, openly copping to and embracing his middle-agedness. As such, the general inoffensive prettiness of the music is a perfect extension of the theme. Under the musical haze, though, all the big themes of middle age are pondered. Looming death. Bodily “defects.” The temptation to sell out. Lost childhood. This last theme is most poignantly handled by Van’s frequent overt references to Astral Weeks, which this record is trying in some way to respond. On “In the Garden,” Van takes us to “that garden, we with rain.” It’s the same garden from “Sweet Thing.” Or at least it’s the same words.
I’m starting a new feature for this site called “First Song of the Month.” It’s just what it sounds like – a monthly feature on songs that have struck me recently, and why.
I was on tour in 2009 when McSweeney’s contacted me about contributing something for an issue they were doing on extinct literary forms and said they wondered if I might be interested in writing something in the style of a Norse “Fornaldarsaga.” The Norse sagas represent some of the earliest written fiction and they’re pretty incredible. Purporting to document true events in Scandinavian history, they’re actually breathtakingly violent, quirky and fast-moving adventure tales that are still fun to read today.