Tag Archives: Constructing an identity through media

Dr. Dog

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 19, New York: This is the final post in this theme, as I think it’s appropriate to conclude the construction of a personality with a wedding.

Choosing a song for one’s wedding can be a difficult task. For Jill and I, the first thing we did the morning after we got engaged was start constructing playlists of our favorite songs to force our friends to dance to. Music was at the center of the ceremony from the beginning. That meant, though, that extra special care had to be taken for the Important Songs. And most especially, our first dance song.

After many months we decided on “California” by Dr. Dog. It fit all the criteria: sweet, fun, short, and with lyrics reasonably connected to our story. “Shoot the cannon / blow the horn / love was born / in Californ-/ -ia!”.

“California” is from Dr. Dog’s Takers and Leavers EP, their second release I had in my collection. I’d been listening to them for a long time, and absolutely loving their music. For a long time, I’d convinced myself that Dr. Dog hailed from New Orleans— half for their ragged, piano rag sonic qualities and half for how close to the heart each song hit me. (They’re actually from Pennsylvania.) Songs like “Oh No” get me every time, the fuzzy guitar, banging on the keys, ragged sing-alongs waiting to happen behind the wheel of any car. All of Easy Beat, really. I still get chills listening to “Wake Up”. These songs were prominently in our playlists for northen California excursions.

I still remember the moment in which we chose “California” as the song we’d dance to. Let’s say I chose it, suspected it could be the perfect song. It came on the car stereo as we were driving home on Highway One from a weekend spent north. I pulled the car over, turned the stereo up, and we danced on the Pacific seaside cliff as the seals played below.

Get to know your friendly neighborhood piano-slapping doctor, and buy some Dr. Dog.

The Decemberists: Castaways & Cutouts and Her Majesty

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: I first discovered The Decemberists around the release of their second album. I listened to and liked both very much. They were full of clever, fun, intelligent little songs. I went to a couple of Decemberists shows and saw them live. But these songs didn’t begin to fuse themselves into my life until I began to create collections out of them on my Ipod. Rending apart the delicately-constructed fabric of studio albums to create infinitely shuffle-able playlists hours in length.

To listen today, these two are no longer albums to me. The experience, then, is wildly mixed. Songs like “Leslie Anne Levine” and “A Cautionary Tale” are jarring in their graphic detail. But “Grace Cathedral Hill” is stitched through my heart and to re-listen is to run my fingers against a familiar cloth. To listen to “Red Right Ankle” is to wrap myself in the best old blanket.

These are songs I know now from playlists long repeated, the most memorable of which being one called “Easy like a Sunday Morning”. This was the musical accompaniment to long Sunday drives through the eucalyptus and sea cliff landscapes north of San Francisco. These songs were the soundtrack to Jill and I first falling in love, sneaking out of the city in secret on the weekends to weave through mountain roads on California Highway One. At the very beginning, Jill told me she loved picnics and on one of our first dates I drove her to Point Reyes for a picnic overlooking the Pacific. We listened to “Easy Like a Sunday Morning” all the way there and back.

For this reason, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” is the song that always gets me. While I was falling in love with my wife on those drives, I was also falling even more deeply in love with California. When I left the state (thankfully, with the woman I’d found there) it broke my heart to listen to this song. I still get sweetly wistful to listen to it today. I know these two albums are struck through with Colin Meloy’s complicated attraction to and disdain for the state of California, but I’ve mapped my own meaning and emotion to the lyrics and songs. By soundtracking my own drives, they began to follow my own grooves of emotion. He might be dismayed to hear me say it, but in my ears the music of The Decemberists is all about truly loving a woman and truly loving the state of California.

Buy these albums from the ol’ Amazon.

The Faces: Four Guys Walk Into a Bar

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: One emerges from a dark bad time slowly and does not mark the passing upward from bad into good as starkly as the memory of the guideposts on the way down. I could probably mark both directions around the dark bad time in my twenties by my various trips to Joshua Tree, east of Los Angeles. I would, from time to time, escape to the desert to clear my head. These decisions were usually emotional and without pre-planning (hence one night I found myself in the desert right in the middle of a heat wave and thinking better of it, checked myself into a hotel). For the sudden decisions, I kept a tent, a camping chair, and a plastic bottle of Kessler whiskey stowed permanently in my trunk.

Camping in the desert alone or with a few friends is an incredibly soul-cleansing experience. You drink by a campfire into the night, wrapped in your heaviest garments. You stare into the fire and let your mind wander until the whiskey makes you tired enough to sleep. The sun rises and you rise with it, groggy until coffee, and you spend the day hiking around on rocks with your thoughts. I went to the desert at the lowest points, discovered its mental healing properties, and then I began to go to the desert to ensure that my upward climb would not backslide. To shore up the new foundations any time there looked to be a risk of flood or quake. You felt stronger in physical and mental fiber after a day of clambering across hot boulders.

Another great thing to do in the desert is drive. Roll the windows down, turn the radio up, put on your sunglasses, and go. That’s where The Faces come in. A friend gave me this Faces boxed set: Four Guys Walk Into a Bar which, in the depths of an iPod, is just a perfect shuffle of rock n’ roll piano, deep organ, fuzzy guitars, and Rod Stewart. It’s hours-long played in its entirety and one day I listened to it at least twice through, just driving. A bad time might have forced me out of the city into the desert, but that day is one of the happiest I remember from my twenties. It was pure being; an enlightened state.

Given that my listening to this collection is all about the shuffle, most of the music blurs together. A few songs still stand out: the BBC recording of “Stay With Me” is just incredible. I’ve always loved “Maggie Mae” and “Ooh La La”, but the covers of “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” and “Jealous Guy” are really quite special. Struck throughout is the sumptuous organ; I’ve long held a fantasy of buying and learning to play an old Rhodes, just hammering away on the keys.

It is just as fun to listen to this now as then, though I no longer own a car and couldn’t replicate the experience. (Instead I listened to this on an airplane while I worked on a Keynote presentation. Less pure being.) The one thing I had a hard time shaking this listen, however, was how perfectly representative The Faces are of white appropriation. Rod Stewart is blue-eyed soul personified. Forgive him that if you can, ignore that Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” is far superior, and let “Stay With Me” be the soundtrack to some long drive you’re taking.

Four guys, four discs, buy it for your next long drive.

Le Switch

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 18, New York: My friend Aaron Kyle is a very talented singer-songwriter. When I first met him, he was fresh off of a bad break-up and the writing and recording of the subsequent EP was an exhalation of all the pent-up fury and frustration from the period that came before. Those songs were angry and passionate and struck through with pain. But when I first met Aaron Kyle, his ambitions were turning to f-u-n, FUN. And that’s where Le Switch came from.

Le Switch (The Switch before some metal band sent a cease and desist) consisted of five of my good friends, led by Aaron on the microphone and lead guitar and joined by Maria Deluca, Joe Napolitano, Josh Charney, and Chris Harrison. They played fun, sometimes poppy songs with a country twist. Maria brought both the viola and the trumpet, so one could also argue that they played country songs with a Southern California twist. Aaron sang everything from bouncy country ballads to heart-rending songs of despair (from the previous period). One time a music writer called Aaron’s vocals “whiskey-soaked”, which while apt, does not take into account that one sip of whiskey transforms him like the Incredible Hulk into Angry Aaron.

Le Switch was a rarity in the Los Angeles music scene of the mid-aughts: they aimed to make every show a dance party. And in Spaceland in Silverlake and the Echo in Echo Park, us hipster kids would just stare back and nod our heads to the beat approvingly. I always danced at a Le Switch show. I had one goal in the Los Angeles music scene and that was the be the absolute biggest fan of this band. When I later moved to San Francisco I would go see them every time they came to town (and once even drove out to see them in Sacramento).

It is a treat to sit down and re-listen to the Le Switch discography. Toe-tapping “Hard Talking”. Dark and haunted “Out of My Mind”. My perpetual request (to Aaron’s great annoyance) “Le Country Song”.

Le Switch eventually disbanded but most of them continue to make music. Aaron now plays under the moniker Geronimo Getty (and I will see him play next weekend in New York). There’s nothing I loved better in those years than being a true and honest fan of this music, made by some people who I thought were so talented, but also happened to be my friends. It would give me a rush of pride to bring a San Francisco friend to a Le Switch show and have them leave with the LP.

You too can buy some of that Le Switch, right here.

Donny Hathaway: Live

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 15, New York: There was a period in our lives in which my dear friend Aaron Kyle and I passed many nights in the Short Stop in Echo Park. Part cop bar, part Dodgers bar, part hipster mecca, the Short Stop offered Pabst Blue Ribbon for a buck-fifty at happy hour, and we would find ourselves there early on a weekday night after work (and then, quite to our surprise, late on that same weekday night). It was one of those nights that we initiated “Music Exchange”.

It began chiefly because I realized Aaron had never listened to Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. (Aaron hated the Stones.) And God knows how much music I’d never heard; Aaron was the musician between us. We agreed to exchange five albums every week— on burned CD. We were diligent about it and kept up the practice for probably a full year. Some of the best music in my collection came from Music Exchange… and I like to think I shared some good stuff with Aaron, too. He still hates the Stones, but he begrudgingly acknowledges that Sticky Fingers is a great album.

One the absolute pearls of the bounty of Aaron Kyle was Donny Hathaway Live. Soul was a weak point in my musical knowledge and Aaron dedicated multiple weeks to catching me up. They were all fantastic, but man, Donny Hathaway? This album? Whoadang. The Live album ruined me for his studio albums, and there’s not a ton of live material, so it’s me and this album, forever. Every song is an incredible jam. The organs are so good. And Donny Hathaway is just incredible.

My favorite from Live is “You’ve Got a Friend”. So favorite that I danced with my mother to this song at our wedding. I chose the live version— even though it plays more poorly through speakers— because the energy is just so good. The whole crowd behind Donny singing: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall… / All you got to do is call”. And that was my mom and my wife and both of our families, everyone’s arms interlaced and singing at the tops of our lungs… “All you got to do is call.”

Thank you, Aaron Kyle, for Donny Hathaway, for this version of “You’ve Got a Friend”, and for the absolute betterment of my musical knowledge.

Get yourself Donny Hathway Live and sing along at the top of your lungs.

The Mountain Goats

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 6, Flying from New York to San Francisco: John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats have been with me for a while. Jed introduced me to Nine Black Poppies in college, specifically to “Cubs in Five” which was just the most clever little ditty I’d ever heard. (“The Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league / And the Tampa Bay Bucs will take it all the way to January / And I will love you again…”) Darnielle’s song were raw of emotion and of production— they were stripped down to the barest elements of guitar and voice and the lyricism shone right through. He’s a fantastic story-teller and the tales in those songs were angry and sweet and sad and loving sometimes all at the same time.

I think there are three distinct periods of the Mountain Goats. The third and most familiar is everything that’s come after Tallahassee, in which Darnielle is joined by a band and the songs are well-recorded and sometimes the whole albums tell stories. The first period was all cassette releases— the Ur-Mountain Goats. And the second, in the middle, was where I found them. In which all the collected material of Darnielle’s prodigous output was collected in digital formats. I bought every CD, re-released or compiled or EP or LP I could find for the next five years and there were plenty to find.

Jed and I both remained enormous fans of John Darnielle. We went to see him every time he came to town. We knew all the words to All Hail West Texas and The Coroner’s Gambit. Jed, a sometimes musician with the most incredible Soul voice (god, could he belt “Bernadette” at karaoke) would write songs in the Darnielle style, and record them as such, too. See, most of the discography we were consuming sounded like it was taped in a bedroom on a four track. We once heard a legend that one Mountain Goats cassette had been recorded on a floor display four track in a Wal-Mart. Many of the songs sounded that way, the wheels of the mechanism turning audibly behind the music.

Once Jed and I went on a roadtrip and we called it a tour and we emailed Darnielle to ask him where to play in Denton, Texas (which we only knew from “The Best Death Metal Band Out of Denton”). Remarkably, he emailed us back and he said the Rubber Gloves. Jed played an open mic there and we both left with t-shirts. Later, when Jed got cancer and moved back to Indiana I went to a Mountain Goats show and John Darnielle was kind enough to write “Hey Jed, Fuck Cancer, Love John” on a cocktail napkin for me.

Jed came back after beating cancer and I had compiled the most incredible collection of Mountain Goats CDs. Every time I’d go to Amoeba on Sunset Blvd I’d check the rack and one in five times there would be a used CD I’d never seen before. I’d always buy it no matter how broke I was. Ghana, Bitter Melon Farm, Beautiful Rat Sunset, there ere so many.

For years I listened to these albums, let them wear themselves into grooves in my memory, packed with forgotten and lost emotions. Yesterday, listening to “Alphonse Mambo”, I was moved to tears on the streets of New York. Some long-forgotten emotion rose up from some long-forgotten sad episode in which I must have listened to this song and its line “…waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay” on repeat for hours.

John Darnielle is an incredible songwriter. Nearly all of his songs are stitched together with this remarkable vulnerability, a vulnerability I can’t help but opening myself up to now when I listen to them. I am unsurprised he wrote a book and that it’s been edited by the fantastic Sean McDonald at FSG. I can’t wait to read it when this year is completed.

There’s a lot of Mountain Goats out there. Though I do love Nine Black Poppies, you should probably start with The Coroner’s Gambit.

The Manchurian Candidate

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 5, New York: When Friendster rolled around and we all had to tally up our favorite books and music and movies, I crafted my list of films with the utmost care. One would have to with a degree in filmmaking. That list included an odd addition: The Manchurian Candidate, a 1960s psychological thriller about mind control and political assassination.

I have often called this my favorite film. Above even Casablanca. Why is that? I suspect I was attracted by its obscurity, but re-watching it today was a test to see if there was some secret genius in my choice, long-forgotten.

The answer is no. It’s a fascinating movie, but it’s no masterpiece. The editing is superb— particularly in the various dream sequences, mixing up the Ladies’ Hydrangea Society and the Manchurian Pavlov Institute in innumerable formats. It’s a great concept, though perhaps giving fancifully a little much credit to the power of brain-washing. And the camerawork at times is inspired— urgent and inventive— but then there are times where you want to shout at the DP to find the right focus. Frank Sinatra’s face NOT HIS EPAULETTE!

Sinatra’s in this movie and so is Janet Leigh, but their first scene is so stilted and neither of them ever really sings after that. (Leigh gets a clever line in with a deadpan “I was one of the original Chinese railroad workers who built this track.”) The real star here is Angela Lansbury, who plays the secret power wife behind the McCarthy-inspired Senator to the hilt. She’s so good at being evil.

I like the movie just fine, but it’s a good example of why we’re reevaluating the canon. Certainly fantastic, but I don’t know about “favorite”.

I had to buy a DVD of the Manchurian Candidate from Amazon, which I offer now as an option to you.

Kanye West: College Dropout and Late Registration

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 4, New York: Kanye West is a genius. I think that’s pretty unassailable. As a producer, as a rapper, as a conductor of album-length musical experiences. He’s also one of the contemporary lyricists with the most authenticity. Each album is a reflection of what is happening in his life, for better or for worse. Each song, even a club anthem, is a short slice of autobiography. That makes the arc of Kanye’s albums dizzying as his life has changed so much over the last ten years. He rockets from nobody to somebody to ego to just-plain-strange and records it along the way.

My two favorite Kanye albums are the first two: College Dropout and Late Registration. In these two, he’s still hungry, eager to prove himself. The first is exactly that: his chance to show the world that he’s more than a producer, that he’s a rapper in his own right. And it’s shot through with that ambition. It leads to some really incredible songs: “Get ‘em High” with guest spots from both Talib Kweli AND Common is just so good. “New Workout Plan” is fun and fantastic. “Through the Wire”, in which he raps the whole song with his jaw wired shut? C’mon.

In Late Registration Kanye is still hungry, but the tone shifts to “holy crap I can’t believe this is actually happening.” The historic story-telling of the first album is still apparent here (it finally disappears by Graduation). This second album is full of solid gold HITS(!)— ”Golddigger”, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, “Touch the Sky”, but still so many songs that call back to his life before fame. You still know this guy, you remember him from the last album, and you’re totally rooting for him.

I was in my twenties and living in LA when these albums came out. It was invigorating to suddenly have such a great new voice in hip-hop and we drove around listening to these albums on repeat. I still grin and shake my head in disbelief to the stanza in “Get ‘em High” where Kanye just drops the beat out and raps over silence. Twice. He is so good. “Gone”, from Late Registration, was totally my jam for a long, hot minute. I’d listen to this one song on a loop. I’d drive around the block a couple extra times just to hear it one more time. The orchestral arrangement, the tinkly rock piano, Killer Cam’s guest spot. The refrain (“We starve at home / we ride on chrome”) is still in that humble theme of these first two albums, still congruent with the second albums “Broke Phi Broke” skits. It’s great.

I’m not ever going to be a successful musician. I’ll never be a hot rapper. But in that time with these two albums, I could sort of identify with Kanye. He was talented and hard-working and he made it happen. My friends and I, we were rooting for him. We were struggling in obscurity, we were broke phi broke, we thought we were talented, too. And here this guy had made it and was humble and ambitious and having fun all at the same time. Every creative person in their twenties wants to be the Kanye that just released College Dropout.

Kanye remains a genius. He’s never stopped making incredible music. It’s just harder to identify with songs that reflect the singer’s life when that life has become so difficult to identify with. The ego that leaks out in Graduation. The raw sexual orgy of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The stark loneliness of fame in Yeezus. It’s interesting to watch, sometimes great to dance to, but it’s unrecognizable. But Kanye we still love you. And we’ll always have these two fantastic albums.

Root for Kanye again and buy his first two albums.

Lifter Puller: Fiestas and Fiascos

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

Friday, October 3, New York: Fiestas and Fiascos, like the other handful of Lifter Puller albums, tells anecdotes of a drug-addled nighttime scene in a nameless city with reappearing characters and locations. Katrina or K, Juanita, Nightclub Dwight, and the nightclub the Nice Nice. Songs about doing drugs and drinking hard and scoring drugs and waking up on lawns, all layered in with exquisite detail (most impressive as it’s in a fictional setting) and hard-scrabbled desperation. While the album doesn’t follow a strict narrative (it’s not quite a rock musical) but it does build to a conclusion.

The first thing one notices about this album is how incredible Craig Finn’s lyrics are— the scenes he paints in a line or two, the clever rhymes that drive them. “Do you like lighting fires? / I’ve been looking for a fire-lighter for hire. / Do you like lighting fires?” But it’s not just the lyrics. Lifter Puller is just fucking great rock and roll. “Bruised hips from doing the bump too much. / Blue lips from slipping the tongue too much.” Half-sung, half-spoken vocals, hot fast drums, sexy organs and keys. The genetic codes on display here pop up again in The Hold Steady, but this is a whole separate species. A homo superior of rock music.

There was a specific temporal slice of my life to which this album was the soundtrack— being in my early twenties in Los Angeles. The sun would go down, this album would come on, and you wuold drive around feeling dangerous and itching for the start of the night. I never lived the Nice, Nice life (“Dry ice and knifefights on every other Wednesday night”) nor the 90s rave scene that inspired these songs, but hell, my buddy Jed and I would go in for a dirty martini-soaked Koreatown karaoke club tour and we’d warm up the pipes screaming about Nightclub Dwight on the way.

The final thing to say about this album is how it ends: There are two songs that complete the record (notably, Lifter Puller’s last studio record before pulling up stakes and evolving into The Holy Steady). “Lifter Puller Vs. The End of The Evening” describes the scene spiraling out of control and spinning downward. You’d think it would be the perfect conclusion, title and all. But no. There is “The Flex and the Buff Result”, which describes in exquisite detail the “eye-patch guy” (“he was dripping wet with gin fizz / he was half dead and dynamite / he had needle-marked arms like the front man for some grunge band / he cooled himself off with a Japanese hand fan…”) and his orders… (and this is the point at which the album rocks the hardest) “I want Nightclub Dwight dead in his grave I want the Nice Nice up in blazes. / I want Nightclub Dwight dead in his grave I want the Nice Nice up in blazes”. It’s SO FUCKING GOOD.

Lifter Puller, I’ll always love you. Bring on the bed spins, bring on the mini-thins.

Buy this album and listen to it driving around at night instead of doing a bunch of drugs.

The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 1, New York: I can easily say Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Genet’s mastery of the prosaic meditation is extraordinary, even in translation. The book, an autobiography of a life’s moments, travels the synapses of recollection and reconsideration in the most gorgeous sentences.

I can also easily say The Thief’s Journal is one of the gayest books I’ve ever read. In it, Genet recounts his life as a thief and as a homosexual, the latter in extraordinary physical detail. It was published in a time when a first person account of both of those was shocking. And it is the beauty of the book crossed with the supposed vileness (let’s call it “other-ness”) of its themes that make it a work of genius.

When I first read Genet, I was in Europe with a group of male friends. I don’t remember who brought this book, but we all passed it around and read it on trains and in bus stations. We all shared the experience of being seduced by Genet’s depiction of his life as a homosexual. On every third page, it seemed, was another exquisite and explicit portrait of gay sex. We all shared the experience of our faces turning pink behind the cover of this book in public places. And more, unlike most young, heterosexual American men, we had provided ourselves with a readymade discussion group to talk about how the book affected us. None of us discovered we had been gay the whole time, there was no closet-exiting or drunken experimentation, but we all grew a little closer to a conceptual Other.

The book is still beautiful, but that experience was hardly revelatory on this reading. I think it made the book less interesting then I remembered it. There was more of a struggle to get through the 268 pages of lengthy meandering meditations, albeit beautifully inked, to follow the plot. I found myself more intrigued by the other Other Genet offers: the thief. I don’t think I’ve ever seen villainy in homosexuality, but it’s certainly the character I would ascribe to the muggers and pimps and burglars Genet describes. And he wraps them in this exquisite lace, these beautiful anti-heroes (barely -heroes, even), gushes with true and honest love for them and dares you to love them too.

Do. Go ahead and love them all. Buy a copy of the Thief’s Journal.

Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 1, New York: There are exactly 69 love songs in the aptly titled 69 Love Songs and they are a mix of the poppy, the top-tapping, the cute, and the strange. In late college and the years that followed, it seemed everyone I knew had this three disc set hanging out somewhere on their CD rack, and many of these songs were ubiquitous in the cars of friends. Listening this week, it was funny how patchy my familiarity with them is— some of these songs I know completely by heart: “Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”, “Busby Berkeley Dreams”, “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old”. And then there are the ones that are completely foreign (and odd): “Fido, Your Leash is Too Long” or “Love is Like Jazz”. Partly I wonder if this a change in media; when I listened to these it was on three CDs and you made a conscious choice which CD you’d put in. Or if it’s a reflection of the age of the playlist; all of these songs cry out to be removed from their context and wrapped up into a mix CD with some other sweet indie rock tunes for your crush.

At its core, 69 Love Songs is an experiment, a concept album. Wikipedia tells me (which I never knew) that Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields originally conceived of this as a live orchestral revue. And much of the time, it feels like an experiment. Despite “Love is Like Jazz” or “Punk Love”, though, there are some absolutely perfect little pop love songs scattered across these sixty-nine. It’s the great shame of our time that these are not being covered like crazy by teeny crooners the world over.

The most enjoyable part of this listen was stumbling across the songs I just love, the ones that made me grin ear to ear when they came on. “Washington, DC” with its cheerleader bridge— oh how I love to clap along. Or “Reno Dakota” (“you make me blue / Pantone two ninety two”). And possibly the sweetest song on the album to my ears: “Papa Was a Rodeo” (“Home was anywhere with diesel gas / love was a trucker’s hand.”) I can’t remember is anyone danced to this song at their wedding, but I’ve been to a few where they should have.

Buy this album and relive your early aughts with Stephen Merritt and his ragtag band of lovers.

City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 30, New York: I’ve never been very good at reading poetry. I don’t say I’ve never liked poetry or that poetry has done me some offense, no, it’s just that I rarely have the patience for it. I do not read and reflect, I read for volume. I read for progress made. I consume prose, rarely do I marinate.

One of the few times I broke that was hurtling around Europe on trains at 19. I kept this book tucked close to me in a man purse (a camo green Army surplus bag) next to my writing notebook and whatever novel I was reading. No matter how often the novel changed, this book remained a constant. The pace of life for that six weeks was different; there was much time to kill across Europe. For once, I was happy to spend much of it reading these poems.

The City Light Pocket Poets Anthology is a compilation of beat and post-beat poems spanning multiple decades of City Lights’ history. There is Ginsberg and Kerouac, and also Frank O’Hara and Pablo Picasso and Malcolm Lowry. This little book is a treasure. When I first thumbed through it I still had never been to San Francisco; I hardly knew what City Lights was other than I knew Kerouac and Ginsberg and had heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been named the city’s poet laureate. The very first time I ever made it up to SF, long before I moved there or even thought of it, I made a pilgrimage to City Lights. Originally, it was for this book, but I fell in love with the store. When I moved to San Francisco, I’d try to go at least once every couple of months.


Photo by Ris Rosko, from here.

This time, I read this book all wrong. I am in the middle of a reading sprint! I am measured by books completed! So I would open this guy up on the subway, struggle with a poem or two and then just begin to page through, scanning. Terrible poetry reading! Ultimately I focused on reconnecting with old favorites.

“Mexican Loneliness” by Jack Kerouac: “And I am an unhappy stranger / grooking in the streets of Mexico—”

“Why I Choose Black Men for My Lovers” by La Loca: “In 1967 I stepped through a windowpane / and I got real / I saw Mother Earth and Big Brother / and / I clipped my roots which choked in the / concrete / of Sunset Boulevard”

“Why is God Love, Jack” by Allen Ginsberg: ” Because I lay my / head on pillows, / Because I weep in the / tombed studio”

I discovered a handful of new poems this time around, which is actually one correct way to read this book. Of course, my Neal Cassady theme made a heart-shot out of “Elegy for Neal Cassady” by Allen Ginsberg: “Kesey’s in Oregon writing novel language / family farm alone. / Hadja no more to do? Was your work all done? / Had ya seen your first son? / Why’dja leave us all here? / Has the battle been won?”. And I loved Kenneth Patchen and Jacques Prévert and really, really liked “Room 5600″ by Ernesto Cardenal, all about the Rockefellers: “They had a happy childhood on the banks of the Hudson / on a 3500-acre estate / with 11 mansions and 8 swimming pools / and 1500 servants / and a great house of toys / but when they grew up they moved into Room 5600 / (actually the 55th and 56th floors of the tallest skyscraper / at Rockefeller Center) / where hundreds and hundreds of foundations and corporations / are managed like / —what truly is— / a single fortune.

Perhaps then, it is not that I read this book the wrong way, because this is how I believe one can appreciate poetry: groping around for the gem that catches you. To be between 34th Street Herald Square and 28th Street on the N/R and suddenly be bowled over by a line like “See how those stars tramp over heaven on their sticks/Of ancient light” (Patchen). Now if only I was reading poetry on the subway every day. I hereby resolve to have a bit more poetry in the 66 Project.

Buy the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology straight from the source itself.

Jay-Z: The Blueprint

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 26, Chicago: When you talk about the best rappers of all time, my mind (and my heart) always goes to Biggie. For a long time, I wrote Jay-Z off because I didn’t really care about the radio hits. Don’t get me wrong, I knew all the words to “Big Pimpin’” and could never pass up a chance to dance to “Crazy in Love”, but it wasn’t canonical. It was getting into this album that changed my opinion on Jay-Z forever.

My favorite song continues to be “Heart of the City”. I love that beat and the hook is so infectious. This song, like so many on this album is filled with memorable zingers like “Sensitive thugs y’all all need hugs”. So great.

There is of course “Takeover”, which despite disciples of Nas who might claim it was bested in the rejoinder, is still my favorite battle rap song of all time. That beat snipped out of the Doors, that whole verse for Nas with its absolutely specific detail about the business of the game (“I know who I paid, dog / Searchlight Publishing”), and that super hot final line in “half a bar”. And then “Girls, Girls, Girls” which despite its casual racism and expected overt sexism, remains a fun-as-hell song. (The jam, of course, is the second version over that Pretenders sample; Young Kanye you really were a genius.) And “Renegade”, which as Nas notes, is really Eminem’s song. And how. So. Many. Hot. Tracks. On. This. Album.

Really dedicate yourself to some Jay-Z and listen to this album.

Style Wars

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 24, Flying from LGA to ORD: The scene is 1982 New York City, and this super-sincere film crew is out by the subway tracks shooting shot after shot of amazingly painted trains on 16mm film. That film becomes Style Wars and it is the most awesome portrait of early graffiti, breaking, and rapping you’ve ever seen. Oh sure, you might have seen Beat Street or Wild Style (or, forgivably, Crush Groove), but this, my friend, this is the source text.

They’re all there: From Seen to Skeme. Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew. White kids, black kids, Latino kids— it’s a real all-city movement. And the cops are there too (including the guy who states flatly: “Is it art? I don’t know, I’m not an art critic. But I can sure as hell tell you, that’s a crime.”) The great soundbite that begins the Black Star song “Respiration” is here in all its filmed glory: a super young and skinny Skeme talking about bombing a train. And the art on that train is amazing. What geniuses, these kids!

It’s a lot of fun to re-watch this movie. There’s just so much great stuff here. This was the first time I’d watched Style Wars as a New York resident and the part that newly resonated with me was the brief series of soundbites from New Yorkers complaining about the graffiti in the trains. And frankly, I agree. It looks disgusting in there! It’s easy to imagine not ever understanding this movement as a New Yorker— when would you ever see whole cars if you lived in Manhattan? All you’d really see would be tags upon tags upon tags in the hot metal tube you had to cram into on your way to work.

Dig into the hip hop creation story with a little Style Wars. Available from your friendly neighborhood Internet superstore.

Black Star: Mos Def & Tali Kweli are Black Star

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 23, New York: As the first track began (“The mighty Mos Def is a real life documentarian. / Talib Kweli, real life documentary”) I immediately wrote in my notes: “This might be the best album of all time?” It just might be. Talib Kweli and Mos Def are truly incredible behind their respective microphones. The guests across the album are all fantastic; I could listen to Jane Doe rap for hours. The beats are stellar, the message is important but the album is still fun. It’s a masterwork.

But let’s say you disagree. Let’s say there’s some other album out there that has your heart by the tail. Well let me at least make a case for “Respiration” to live in the all-time-greats canon of hip hop. Holy crap this song is incredible. The Spanish-language hook? The Style Wars sample at the intro? That line “blasting holes in the night til she bled sunshine”. Wow. Not too mention— this song has Common!

I spent my entire early twenties praying to the lords of rhyme that we might have a hip hop supergroup of Kweli, Mos, and Common. Pretty please? I remember hearing a rumor about a Rawkus Records supergroup: Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Pharaohe Monch, Hi-Tek, maybe more. I believed that rumor a little bit too hard. In the end it was probably just the wishful thinking of other Rawkus fans.

But looking back now at the full discography of Rawkus, it’s incredible. So many of my favorite hip hop albums. Mos Def and Kweli, of course. But Beatminerz, Big L, Soundbombing, High & Mighty. All such fantastic stuff. Thank you, Rawkus Records. But most of all, thank you for Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star.

You should own this album. It’s important both to you and to humanity that you are listening to “Respiration” on a regular basis.

Mos Def: Black on Both Sides

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 22, New York: I’ve been too busy to stick to my strict consumption schedule. Work got hectic, the weekend was well-booked, and so I dragged my feet on posting about this album and I missed my goal of seven for last week. Also, honestly, it was because I wasn’t done listening to Black on Both Sides yet. It is just too good.

When I first discovered Mos Def it was when I was realizing there was more to hip hop than the radio and here was this voice that was honest, sincere, compassionate, and holy crap could he rhyme. A track like “Mathematics”? Stop it. Just stop. “Ms. Fat Booty”? “Got”? Gawd. Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) is a god among men. There’s not a single track on here that doesn’t impress.

Mos Def – Ms Fat Booty (1999) from Golden Era Videos on Vimeo.

And this is one of the first self-aware hip-hop albums I’d heard. An album with a point (or a few). I’d missed Public Enemy, safely ensconced in the dirty south. But here was an absolutely invaluable lesson in race and identity. Here was a complex and challenging use of the word-that-began-with-n-that-I-should-never-use, not just as a generous sprinkling to emphasize the choruses. Here was a whole song about the political power of clean water. Here was a song arguing for a black history of rock and roll that ended with a bad-ass punk rock bit.

Listening to this album today is such a treat. I probably listened for four days straight, every time I put my headphones to my ears. Music is lucky to have the occasional album like Black on Both Sides, and America is lucky to have a voice like Mos Def.

If you’ve never heard Black on Both Sides, you must amend that and do so now with your One-Click-Purchase.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 21, New York: When I was 19, I went to Europe. It had been a bad year, maybe a bad couple, and the summer rolled around and my high school friends and I had scraped together and borrowed enough money to take a six week trip to Europe. We had plane tickets, Eurail passes, big backpacks, and wild ambitions. Our great inspiration was The Sun Also Rises, so we had to go to Spain and we had to bring some Hemingway. This was the book we chose.

Our itinerary, loosely recalled: Joey and I flew into Madrid; took a bus to Pamplona where we walked the medieval walls and drank far too much red wine; took a bus to San Sebastian and the TGV to Paris then a train to Cherbourg and a ferry to Portsmouth and a bus/ferry combo to Dublin; in Dublin we picked up Jonathan and kissed a girl or two and then we flew to Amsterdam; we did the thing 19 year old Americans did in Amsterdam at that time and we left; in Paris I moved in with a French girl for a week (this is not a lie) and Chris joined us and then things didn’t really work out with the French girl and I fled; by train we went to Prague, which was amazing, and two spots in the Czech countryside; then a whirlwind through Vienna, Florence, and Rome, where we were ripped off by a hotel but took baths, glorious hot baths, and drank ice cold red wine on a hot summer night; then back to Madrid after a brief French Riveria stop and Joey and I had one final night together in the Spanish capital and we got shitty drunk and relieved ourselves on some government property while guards yelled and gave chase and we ran away as quickly as we could to America.

It was a hell of a trip.

19

One of the most important packing decisions we made was what media to consume, what books to bring with. A Moveable Feast was on the top of our list. It was one of maybe a dozen books we shared between us and all read by the end of the trip. And it was exactly the magic of what we wanted from a trip to Europe. Seeing Paris and reading about Hemingway’s Paris, together, is magical. (It is also, to my adult eyes, the very definition of cliché, but we forgive our younger selves some things.)

I half blame this book for nearly not coming home from that trip. The French girl I met, fell in love with, and moved in with— she was going to support me while I wrote books in Paris. In her top floor apartment in Montmartre. I mean, come on. Ripped from these pages. I wrote my mother a beautiful letter explaining that I wasn’t coming home and my wise friends forbade me sending it until it had been at least, I don’t know, a week. And it turned out to be unsurprisingly tempestuous and that was all a part of it until it ended. (On her side, she was on the rebound from a multi-year relationship; we were both playing out narratives on one another.)

Reading A Moveable Feast today still has the same power, the same impact, to make me want to move to Paris or to move to any place in exile and live there in the truest possible way. I’ve never known exactly what that means— “truest”— other than I hope I’d know it when I felt it, sort of like Hemingway did. The great lesson I took from the book and from the trip on which I first read it was how powerful a change of scenery can be. To be in a new place, in a foreign place, is inspiring in so many ways. And reading this book again, today, I want it again. I want that right now. For real.

Buy, own, cherish this book.

Ghostface Killah: Supreme Clientele

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 17, New York: Honestly, I don’t know why it’s this album. There are so many Wu-Tang solo albums and so many of them that are so great. There’s Method Man, there’s the GZA’s Liquid Swords, there is (and there will always be) the ODB, whose “Baby, I Got Your Money” will never, ever fail to move me in a dancefloor direction. But Supreme Clientele, for some reason, is totally my jam.

Maybe it’s the whole Ghostface canon, though this is by far my favorite. I am completely a sucker for Ghost’s nonsense rhymes (“Yo, this rap is like ziti / facing me real tv / crash at high speed / strawberry kiwi”) and his great story-telling raps (or the ones that are just stream of consciousness reminiscences). The beats on the album are slick, even when they’re sometimes a little obtuse and weird. Ghost pulls that shit off.

Ghostface Killah – Apollo Kids (feat. Raekwon) from Tarik Azzougarh on Vimeo.

I also love about Ghostface that he has so many identities. Where other rappers (so many) have adopted Tony Montana as their second/third nickname, Ghostface chose Tony Stark. Which actually gives him two additional identities: Tony Stark AND Iron Man. Then he waves clips from the old Iron Man cartoon throughout the album.

Rappers are totally superheroes. They have alter egos and costumes and super powers and fantastic wealth and crazy origin stories. Ghostface pulls it off the best. That’s why it’s this album.

Go listen to Supreme Clientele and try to come back and tell me Method Man and Redman are better.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 16, New York: Oh Lolita, Lola, Lo. This clever little book that so many have loved and hated. I read it in college, like so many others, and instantly fell into ironic love with its premise and actual love with its prose. It’s a perfect book for cocky nineteen year old pseudo-intellectuals to whom “banned book” is about the funniest phrase in North America. How sweet it was to offend. My college class was called “Deviance” and in it we discussed “the monster” in various forms, scattered across a steady drumbeat of books, discussed by the class weekly. Lolita was supposed to occupy two or three weeks of class time. We easily spent six dissecting it. We spent one entire class period debating, as a group, whether or not Humbert Humbert achieves orgasm in the scene when Lolita first sits upon his lap.

Reading this as a full adult the answer is clearly yes. It’s obvious that he, stealthily concealed behind flowery language, does indeed climax and then hide it from the child. And it is terribly uncomfortable to read. Which ended up being much of my experience of reading Lolita this time around. It started off so clever (and so well-written!) and then it became an absolute horror. Exceptionally disturbing.

This is a part of Nabokov’s genius— and I think he does so very consciously— to draw the reader in with such beautifully gilded prose and then from time to time remind with a brutal, physical detail. Paragraphs of love showered upon Lolita with a quick sentence or two that hints at awful rape, almost so slight a mention as to be missed. The beautiful American scenery marred by the horror of the nights spent in motels; the pastoral time spent at Beardsley College blackened by the monetary exchange for child sex.

Yes, it was still worth reading and yes, it’s an incredible book. But I no longer felt titillated. I was no longer gleefully in on the secret that was Lolita; there’s a big difference between the ironic indifference of 19 and the sympathies I’ve developed at 33. Mercifully, Nabokov gives us a scene toward the end where Humbert himself recognizes the monster in himself, and that makes it a bit better. But man oh man, this was a hard book to read.

And yes, how did they ever make a movie out of Lolita, which was this movie’s tagline?

Buy Lolita. If you’re reading it again, know it will have changed on you. If you’re reading it for the first time… well, I warned you.

Beastie Boys

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 14, New York: “Sabotage” was my original entry point into the Beastie Boys library. There was that incredible music video and it was all over my MTV and it was loud, fast, and awesome.

I never bought Ill Communication as a teenager. It wasn’t until I had been in college for a bit that I really discovered the Beastie Boys, amidst what was for me a hip hop renaissance. A glorious period of a year or two in which I kept discovering incredible music that was so different than what I’d grown up with. There is a veritable gulf between the 69 Boyz and Black Star and I spent this time of my life happily rowing across it.

For the Beastie Boys, that re-discovery most likely began with Paul’s Boutique and that’s where I started this time. Listening to Paul’s Boutique now, as at any time, the first thing that washes over you are the samples. So many samples! The ones you know and the ones you don’t; they are so deeply layered into this album. And the music is so funky: “Egg Man” is incredible (“when I say dozen, you know what I’m talking about boyeeee”); “Sounds of Science” with its wildly long build-up and utterly satisfying breakdown; and of course all that “Boullaibaisse” including rapping over the Isley’s Brothers most delicious riff.


If I had to pick a favorite Beastie Boys song, it would probably be “Sounds of Science”.

From Paul’s Boutique on to Check Your Head, which experiments more widely with instrumentation. Then I went into Hello Nasty, with even stranger, further experiments in instrumentation. And yet so many classic lines: “Dogs love me cause I’m CRAZY sniffable.” “I’m the king of Boggle / There is none higher / I gets eleven points / off the word quagmire.”

Back to Ill Communication. If I had to name a favorite Beastie Boys album it might be this one. It’s so widely varied, yet feels to me like the most sonically consistent. Its experiments capture the same energy as songs like “Sure Shot” and “Root Down”. The punk rock of “Heart Attack Man” sort of makes sense with “Sabotage”. And of course: “Get It Together” with Q-Tip (“Phone is ringin’/ Oh my god.”)

What’s I found fascinating about the Beastie Boys is that no matter how widely they experimented on each album, the core was always the same: three dudes rapping in that late-eighties group rhyme pattern. They finish each other’s verses, they all chime in to punctuate a syllable. While hip hop changed around them, they stuck to that, and frankly, kept it pretty fun.

I’ve been listening to the Beastie Boys for the whole week, waking up with their songs stuck in my head and every day digging deeper into the library. But it was crushing to remember as I was working my through these albums that this is a finite canon. Absolutely heartbreaking. #RIPMCA

If for some reason you’re just getting started, probably your best bet is to buy the Beastie Boys Anthology.