ONLY NOISE: My Parents’ Tapes Taught Me How to Love ‘Uncool’ Music

Kiri Oliver dyes Easter eggs at her grandparents’ house in the Car Tapes era.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Kiri Oliver takes us on a trip with the soundtrack to her childhood – before “coolness” dictated the playlist.

Growing up, my parents rarely played albums in the house — I mostly remember hearing classical radio in the background. But they had three portable cases of cassettes that they brought on car trips, most often to my grandparents’ house in Connecticut. It was an eclectic mix of ‘80s and ‘90s albums, many of which remain among my favorites to this day.

I’ve realized over time that these albums embody a strong sense of nostalgia for me — nostalgia for a very specific set of circumstances that allowed me to listen to and absorb music without context. It was the pre-internet era, and therefore pre-everyone having takes on everything all the time. It was also before I started talking to other people about music, going to shows, being a part of scenes, and building my identity around the bands and genres I liked.

I really appreciate that I had the experience of learning what I liked musically as a kid and preteen without anyone telling me what was cool or not—messages I later had a hard time disentangling from my tastes. In some ways, I knew what I liked when I was nine and rocking out in the backseat more than I did when I was 19 and hanging out with indie rock snobs who worshiped Pere Ubu and said things like “don’t worry, your tastes will mature.”

And now, when I go back and listen to what my nine-year-old self flipped out over, I still hear what excited me so much the first time around. I also hear so many of the elements I’m still drawn to as a fan and songwriter, including theatricality, giant hooks, piano, harmonies, and vocals shot through with emotion. A few highlights from the car tapes are below, and my full playlist is here.

Enya – “Book of Days”

I don’t know why my parents were so into Enya, but we had at least four of her tapes in the car. My favorite song was “Book of Days,” a lush, rousing number with approximately 1,000 layers of vocals in Irish Gaelic that predicted my obsessive love of the Titanic soundtrack. I listened to it just now and had a minor life crisis wondering how I never noticed the chorus was in English—according to Wikipedia, the original version was replaced with a bilingual one that now appears on the album instead. Irish Gaelic 4ever.

REM – “Try Not to Breathe”

REM was another heavy hitter in the car rotation. “Try Not to Breathe” from Automatic for the People was always one of my favorites, but I honestly didn’t realize until now that it’s about death. How did I not get that before, you might ask, when it includes lyrics like “I will try not to breathe/This decision is mine/I have lived a full life/And these are the eyes that I want you to remember”? I have a different relationship to the music I loved when I was very young, which I didn’t necessarily absorb or connect with on a topical level even though I could sense the feelings being expressed. So I knew this was a sad song—just not this sad.

Phil Collins – “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven”

I still haven’t figured out whether liking Phil Collins is definitely uncool, or passably cool if it’s ironic, but I don’t care—I love Phil Collins. This song’s dramatic, horn-laden introduction sounds like the lead-up to a West Side Story-style dance fight. In 2018, the chorus lyrics “you can run and you can hide, but I’m not leaving unless you come with me” sound a bit ominous and coercive. But in the song, Phil sounds naively hopeful enough to pull it off—and the cheery horns definitely help.

Sarah McLachlan – “Vox”

Before she was known for her coffeeshop fare and Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan made ethereal new-age albums in the ‘80s. My evidence backing up this statement is that I listened to her album Touch a LOT and the tape said 1989 on the back cover. Anyway, “Vox” is music for frolicking fairies, full of sparkling acoustic guitar and soaring vocals (including a less-angsty version of a Tori Amos wail). It also has a bouncy synth riff thrown on top of all this, which both makes no sense and is perfect.

Live – “Pillar of Davidson”

Is it weird for a 5th grader’s favorite song to be an almost 7-minute album track that I just learned is about factory workers’ rights? Probably. Does this song still rip? Absolutely. It starts with an old western, rolling-tumbleweeds feel and escalates into one of the biggest choruses I’ve ever heard, with Ed Kowalczyk rhapsodizing about “the shepherd of my days” while the drummer goes to town on the ride cymbal. I still lose it every time I listen.

Patty Smyth and Don Henley – “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough”

This is a beautiful and melancholy duet about adult heartbreak that I couldn’t have possibly understood at the time, but it still genuinely moved me. Did I know from my ten years of life experience that “there’s a danger in loving somebody too much”? Definitely not. Did I personally relate to Patty’s lament in the bridge that “there’s no way home when it’s late at night and you’re all alone”? Nope, but I’ve apparently always been a sucker for power ballads.

Meat Loaf – “Everything Louder Than Everything Else”

My revelation from revisiting Meat Loaf’s albums is that Bat Out of Hell is the original American Idiot. Listen to this song from part II: it starts with a chant of “wasted youth,” it ambitiously crams a ton of parts into 7.5 minutes, it has a whole background choir, AND it’s about both war and chicks. Key lyric: “You gotta serve your country, gotta service your girl/You’re all enlisted in the armies of the night.” It’s insane to me that it took until 2017 for Bat Out of Hell The Musical to exist (it ran in London and Toronto, with a tour and NYC run in the works).

I think my parents still have the tapes in the back of a closet, although they’ve long since upgraded their car to one without a tape deck, and I’ve achieved the stereotype of native New Yorker who can’t drive. But I’ve been rocking out to my Car Tapes playlist for a few years now, and I’ve found that it brings me comfort, joy and a break from the endless pursuit of keeping up with new media. We spend so much time taking in new information so we can carefully curate our image and tastes for the consumption of friends, acquaintances and strangers; it feels like a radical act of self-care to detach and dance around my room to a goofy song I loved deeply and unironically when I was nine. I was so sure then of what spoke to me, without needing to explain or even understand why. All these years later, with a head full of countless other people’s musical opinions, it feels so good to tune that out and tune into a channel that feels like mine alone – a channel that happens to play a lot of Enya.

ONLY NOISE: David Bowie’s Death Revived My Inner Rebel

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Phoebe Smolin recalls how justifying tears for an idol she’d never known helped her end an abusive relationship.

David Bowie was, at age 12, the first person (Starman? Twisted angel? Rock and Roll Fairy Dust Creature?) who taught me how to hang onto myself. Growing up a strange cross between a hippie and a punk kid in Los Angeles, at the intersection of worlds that were often in conflict with each other, Bowie’s glittery shamelessness became my unrelenting ally. As I navigated how to jump through the fiery hoops that came with being a weird kid in a city with teeth, he was there, singing me along. When I started guitar lessons at 13, I spent a year learning how to play the entire Ziggy Stardust album. “Changes” was the first song I ever played in front of an audience. “Oh You Pretty Things” was my alarm clock for all of high school, holding my hand when I didn’t want to face any other kind of music. “Rebel Rebel” and its life-giving melody got me on my feet after I got rejected from 11 colleges on the same day and eventually decided to move back east to study Ethnomusicology at the only school that accepted me (it was amazing). Pin Ups was on a loop when I moved to Chile during college. Diamond Dogs kept me joyful when my first label job revealed the evils of the music industry all too quickly. And my warped vinyl of Aladdin Sane was there the night he died, spinning as I cried into my wine glass, hollering love has left you dreamless into the mirror at a 25-year-old girl who didn’t yet understand how far away from herself she’d grown.

For three years I had been living in the palm of a Monster’s hand – a person who ate my love for breakfast. His name was Dylan.* It probably still is. On January 10, 2016, I had already grown used to waking up in tears next to someone who forced me to the edge of the bed, I’d learned to dig for the affection in every ‘you’re incompetent’ and ‘shut up,’ I’d stopped playing music because he told me I couldn’t, I’d thrown my go-go boots away. All of the weirdness that defined and guided me (and that Bowie taught me was okay) was tucked away, and my defenses had taught me to redefine pain as love. It seems severe, but, as I later learned (thank you, therapy), a standard part of this cycle makes all of that severity feel very normal.

The day Bowie died was the first genuinely beautiful day I’d had in a long time. Dylan had gone back to his home country (though kept me at a close grip despite the ocean between us) and I did something that he would have hated: spent the day with two of his friends (who were, of course, also mine, but only when I had permission). For hours on end these boys and I ran around Disneyland sneaking joints behind roller coasters, blissfully staring at exaggerated notions of America’s imagination, having laugh attacks on the Indiana Jones ride, perfectly soft pretzels, and periodic group hugs that felt as if we were hanging on for dear life. It was the first day we had alone without him. We were allowed to love each other openly, finally. I had no idea our last hug that day would be a goodbye that would last years. I had no idea that moments later my heart would be broken. I had no idea that hours later, I’d realize it’d been broken for much longer.

I was on the 405 smiling (a rare occurrence on the 405), giddy from the day’s adventures. My phone was dead, and I turned on the radio to facilitate a traffic dance party as I drove toward the tacos I was craving. Instead, I heard one minute of a song before KCRW’s Dan Wilcox interrupted it with tears in his throat: “I… I don’t know how to tell you this- but David Bowie has died.”

I felt my hands shake, swatted at the stars in my eyes, and pulled to the shoulder because the mere act of driving stopped making sense. Mortality is never clearer than when you’re on the 405 between Anaheim and Los Angeles beginning to process the death of someone you forgot was human. I sat there, flipping through the stations hoping it wasn’t real. It was. Starman was gone.

I pulled myself together and raced home, stumbled into my apartment, and put on the Aladdin Sane vinyl that I shamefully hadn’t listened to in ages, cracked a bottle of cheap Trader Joe’s red wine, slipped on a glittery jumpsuit, lathered on lipstick, and threw a farewell party.

After calling my mom, I called Dylan. At that point, I didn’t yet understand that he was a monster; I loved him, deeply. He was my – well, I never really knew what to call him. He’d repeatedly tell me he’d ‘never be my boyfriend’ – usually when I tried to grab his hand in the car or kiss him in public. We showed all the signs of a relationship – we slept in the same bed nearly every night, he hated the thought of me with anyone else, I made dinners after work and we went to movies. I was his when he wanted me. But he was never actually mine.

I felt like I needed to call him, because if he loved me like I’d always wanted him to, he’d understand that my world had just been shattered. At that point it had been nearly three years of that blurry hopefulness – maybe this time would be different, maybe this time he’d see me.

It was the early morning where he was and I woke him up. “Hello?” he answered with that morning voice everyone knows.

“Sorry to call so early I just needed to talk to you about something,” I blurted.

“Ok, what?” he asked, emotionless.

“David Bowie died. I can’t really believe it.” I said, still teary-eyed.

There was a long silence before he responded, “This isn’t about you. I can’t believe you’re making this about you. How could you be so selfish? You didn’t even know him. You disgust me.”

My immediate reaction to the last three years of that was always to say “You’re right, what was I thinking? I’m an idiot.” But this time I hung up the phone (still in tears), saying nothing, and let my head spin as it needed to. I felt angry for the first time in years; how dare he? With no doubt in my mind, I flipped the record and started writing. This IS about me. This is about songs that have held me and healed me through my entire life, a person whose art made me feel less alone, a starman who told me that weird was okay – that it was essential. I never knew Bowie. I always knew Bowie. He somehow knew me, in a way that Dylan never would.  

I wrote furiously on my apartment floor and, as I was beginning the grieving process for this glittery hero of mine, I also began another sort of grieving process. A spell began to break. I remembered my first kiss with Dylan, which wasn’t romantic. It was at my best friend’s birthday party, very quick, and ended with him scolding me for not having done it sooner and promptly leaving and walking a dramatic mile back to his downtown apartment – something he never let me forget. I remembered the first night we spent together, in a fort my roommate and I built in the living room. and how the first thing he said the next day was “That could have been so much better.” I remembered the ways he criticized my work and eventually convinced me to stay home from certain professional gatherings because there supposedly was no point in me being there. I remembered how he made me sneak out of his apartment when his brother was visiting so his family wouldn’t realize I existed. I remembered the girl in New York who he kissed while looking me in the eye. I remembered how he called me stupid. I remember feeling like a distraction and adapting to being hidden. I remembered how I cried every day. I remembered having to fight for eye contact and intimacy. I remembered that one time he started yelling when we tried to play guitar together because I messed up the chords. I felt the weight of being a secret for three years. I felt my bruises. I understood in that moment it had never been right. That this wasn’t love. That I was hurting. I heard myself screaming, as if all of my weird pieces that I’d locked away broke through their chains. And there was Bowie, wailing through my crappy speakers: ‘‘Watch that man! Oh honey, watch that man, he talks like a jerk but he could eat you with a fork and a spoon.’’

Looking back on it, my personal funeral for David Bowie was exactly what it should have been. There I was, covered in glitter, dressed up and in tears, crying for the person who taught me to see (and not fear) myself. After three years of muzzling her, I welcomed her back. Even in death, Bowie was saving my life. That night was the beginning of a four-month process of finally freeing myself from the Monster who swallowed me. That’s not to say that everything immediately got better – it actually got worse for a while. In ridding myself of that person, it also became apparent that my whole world was built around him, and with him went everything. But then it did start to get better (in a very nonlinear way; healing from this stuff is a process that is literally forever, and I need constant reminders to be patient with myself). June of that year was the last time I spoke to him. I’m dressing up in glitter again, I’m working my ass off for all of the things the Monster told me I’d never be able to do, I’m singing from the rooftops when I need to and letting love in again. I’m hanging onto myself – for dear life this time.

Bowie’s been gone for three years now, and I still miss him constantly. The day he died, he revived a part of me that I thought was gone forever – and, in that way, he’ll never really be gone. Your idols will teach you just as they’ll hurt you when they leave. They’ll open doors and point mirrors in your face as if to scream remember who you are whenever you choose to listen to them. You might never know them. But you always have. You know their songs, their songs will tie everything together in ways as natural as sunlight. Cry for them when they leave. Love them for helping you. Question them. Let them go.

*Name has been changed

ONLY NOISE: Marjorie’s

On Sunday, in a part of town I rarely get to visit, I sat on a hard wooden bench staring at a wall. From beyond that wall I could hear trumpet, bass, and a drum kit played by invisible musicians. Their presence was confirmed not only by the sound, but by the rows of people sitting in fold up chairs in front of me, who had a better view of the action. The only musician I could see was an elderly woman in a close-cut purple sheath dress, hunched over a piano. She sat framed by a doorway, and if I craned my head to the right, the discomfort in my neck was worth what I could see.

The woman in the purple dress was Marjorie Eliot, and she was playing in the Harlem apartment she’s lived in for 36 years. For 25 of those years, Eliot has hosted a weekly Sunday afternoon jazz concert in her parlor, free of charge and open to whoever can get there on time. This magnitude of kindness is unusual coming from anybody, but especially someone like Marjorie Eliot, who has endured more tragedy than most – even for a decades-long New Yorker. The concerts began as a way for her to ease the pain of losing her son Phil to kidney failure; fourteen years later she lost another son, Michael, to meningitis. Another son briefly went missing in 2011 – Shaun Eliot, who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness, boarded a bus en route to a transition house on Wards Island and wasn’t heard from for over a month, when a nurse at Metropolitan Hospital finally identified him and let Marjorie know he was safe.

I learned about Marjorie Eliot’s personal tragedies days after I left her home at 555 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. But I was already well aware of the events’ popularity, however. When my roommate brought me and a couple of friends to Harlem for Marjorie’s March 11th performance, he was somehow under the impression that her cover of obscurity had only recently been blown (isn’t it just like a white man to think they are the first to notice something special?). The fact of the matter is, The New York Times wrote about Marjorie’s in 1996, and NPR in 2006. Marjorie’s weekly shindig has pages on Yelp, My Secret NY, Facebook, and Place Matters. The cat is, as they say, “out of the bag,” and has been for quite a while. And that’s okay.

One of the most remarkable things about Marjorie’s was how gorgeous and unspoiled it was by the sheer volume of people in attendance. The apartment was packed like a sardine can. There were people crammed into the kitchen, peeking out from behind the doorjamb. Several rows of metal folding chairs held folks with far better views than mine, but this was the shared fruit of their punctuality. The sturdy wooden pew I perched on seemed to extend all the way down the hall, where more people simultaneously watched the band and waited to pee. And in the last grasp for a place to listen and maybe look, a string of guests lined the doorway and wrapped around into the outside hall, waiting for people to give up their seats. It was one of the few times in life I felt that the old saying, “the more, the merrier” actually applied. I occasionally wondered if the apartment was at capacity, or if Marjorie ever got hassled by the fire department, but not knowing only enhanced the experience – like there was some grain of mischief in music again.

Because Marjorie enlists a rotating cast of musicians on Sundays, the music is nonstop. She relinquishes the piano to a man in a fedora, so she can host and greet friends. Trumpet and sax players emerge from the parlor to rest, and beyond the wall another set of woodwinds and brass picks up. Most songs are instrumental, but Marjorie and a few male vocalists pepper in gospel and jazz standards here and there. I feel fortunate that these songs are rare, as it becomes increasingly difficult not to cry during them. For those of us who don’t do church, this is about as close as we get to seeing God.

Marjorie’s Parlor Jazz presented not only one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve had in my nine New York years, it was also one of the most wholesome, which is probably why the comparison to church springs up (not to mention the Lord-forward lyrics Marjorie sang). It felt so inexplicably wonderful to sit quietly for over an hour, not only not touching my phone, but witnessing dozens of phone-free people marveling at this exquisite music we were hearing, free of charge.

When I was in Paris last summer, my French friends and I ended up at a house party. Sadly, I can’t tell you which arrondissement we were in. By then I had imbibed two beers spiked with some kind of diabolical walnut liqueur, and all I remember is being invited to the party on the street. On the street is how most things begin in Paris, in my experience. Once inside the party, my friend told me that it was “nice luck” that we got invited, as seeing the inside of a Parisian’s apartment is a very rare thing. This moment rushed back to me as I sat in Marjorie’s home. It is just as special to see the inside of a New Yorker’s abode, given the premium put on personal space and privacy in this bustling burg.

While the Parisian soiree was fueled by cheep beer and menthol cigarettes, I was just as thrilled at Marjorie’s party favors. About an hour into my stay, an impeccably dressed woman in her 70s came around with a tray full of granola bars, and later one lined with Dixie cups of orange juice. In a city where the best stories are usually born in the wee drunken hours, it felt good to sit in an old woman’s home, drinking OJ in the middle of the day, accepting the enormous gift she gives the city, every week.

ONLY NOISE: Christmas Wrapping

I’m not one to jumpstart holiday season. For the previous nine years, I’ve left Christmas shopping until December 23rd – and if it weren’t for my annual Christmas Eve flight, I’d likely wait another day. As of now, I haven’t even begun making my Christmas list, on which I assign gift ideas to relatives. This usually occurs on December 22nd. Fortunately, my unquestionably kinder and more responsible older sister texted me earlier this week, asking if a certain member of our family would or would not like a couple of albums she was considering gifting them (I can’t get too specific for obvious reasons, unless I want a lump of coal for Xmas for ruining surprises).

In 2017, buying an album for someone’s Christmas present is a little weird. A staggering number of listeners can find the music they want via streaming services, and though the vinyl industry has made a robust comeback, my sister is not talking about vinyl.

In my family, a CD is still a 100% acceptable gift to give and receive. My dad still has two wooden shelves of them, towering next to his vinyl collection in the dining room-cum-office. His collection is growing, too, as a favorite weekend pastime of his involves visiting the bargain bins at the local Silver Platters. He typically gives me a report of any new purchases, including how big of a deal he scored.

In a way, the CD has simplified gift giving in my family. It’s cheaper (and more flight-friendly) than vinyl. Sure, it’s more expensive than an MP3, but you can’t exactly wrap an MP3, now can you? Regardless of your family’s preferred musical medium, here is a shopping list of new albums for the whole family: from moms to dads, brothers to cats.

Mom: Not Even Happiness by Julie Byrne

My mom would probably prefer the new Quiet Riot record, but I’m not going to recommend that for your mom, who is probably a far classier lady. Julie Byrne’s sophomore album Not Even Happiness is, dare I say, indisputably gorgeous. Byrne’s lyrics are devastating and poignant, formed from her wind-song voice. Mom can do about anything to this record: drive, read a book, sip some wine, or simply listen intently on a Sunday evening.

Dad: Semper Femina by Laura Marling

I’d say it’s a pretty good time for men to listen to overtly feminist music, and this is a great feminist record by brilliant songwriter Laura Marling. Marling’s writing expertise matches her guitar playing and steely-sweet voice, of which she has astonishing control. She can reach soprano heights in one bar, and plumb the depths of early Fiona Apple in the next. Songs like “Wild Fire” and “Nothing, Not Nearly” codify Marling as a master of the craft, weaving soul, folk, and pure poetry into accessible pop melodies.

Sister: Ash by Ibeyi

A record of, by, and for sisters, brought to you by Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Diaz. The French-Venezuelan Afro-Cuban twins give a whole new meaning to the word “sisterhood” considering their highly collaborative songwriting process. Ash, the duo’s sophomore LP, is steeped in messages of racial equality and female empowerment, the later shining through in cuts like “No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms” which features samples from a Michelle Obama speech. “The measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls,” Obama insists. I’m sure your sister (and hopefully your entire family) will agree.

Brother: DAMN by Kendrick Lamar

This record needs no introduction, nor explanation. Kendrick has done it again! Plus, gifting this to your brother ensures great one-liners to pen inside the corresponding card. For example: “Why don’t you already own this, are you living under a rock?” and “Bitch, be humble.”

Aunt who’s into crystals: A Common Truth by Saltland

One of my all-time favorite joke-news headlines read: “Local Woman Believes In Crystals But Not Herself,” a hilarious dig, but one you have to shelve during the holidays. In all seriousness, Saltland’s atmospheric A Common Truth is both a stunning record and a perfect present for someone who’s into “vibes.” Cellist Rebecca Foon collages rippling soundscapes atop sparse vocals extolling environmental preservation. Also, there is literally a crystal on the album cover.

Uncle who rides a Harley: Villains by Queens of the Stone Age

I’m not going to lie, I’m not a big Queens of the Stone Age fan, and I don’t love this record… but your uncle will. Just imagine him ripping open the wrapping paper to find a dude in a motorcycle jacket and the devil himself riding on the back of his bike. He will undoubtedly shout “bitchin’!” and take you out for a spin before dinner.

Your significant other Your Ex: ÷ by Ed Sheeran 

Step one: burn Sheeran’s insufferable third album onto a blank CD. Step two: write, “Best Bands of 2017” on the disk in sharpie, mixtape style. Step three: send it anonymously. Hopefully it will take your ex a while to realize he’s been listening to Ed Sheeran unwillingly.

Your Cat: Music For Cats by David Teie

A record designed to please Mr. and Ms. Kitty. David Teie, a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, developed Music For Cats with animal scientists. The result is a lovely mélange of string swells, birdsong, and of course, purring. Though it’s “for cats,” it’s a score I’d be happy to listen to with or without a feline companion. The standout track? “Katey Moss Catwalk,” of course.


Somewhere in a parallel universe lives a Karma Comedian, a Cheerio Girl, and a one-winged dove. Dirty deeds are done by Thunder Chiefs, and Tony Danza holds us closer…so close. This is the Land of Misheard Lyrics, and it is a silly, silly place. Yet it is a place we are all familiar with, having suffered varying degrees of humiliation during our visits there.

For this installment of Only Noise, I reached out to my friends and fellow music journalists to ask: what lyrics have you tragically misheard in the past? And oh, how the gems rolled in. Some misinterpretations were almost universal in their familiarity. Take one colleague’s aural rendering of a Manfred Mann mega hit: “The best one has to be ‘wrapped up like a douche,’” she said. “I thought those were the lyrics to ‘Blinded By The Light’ for half my life.” I’m still convinced that’s what he’s saying, personally. In fact, if you played that song through text dictation, I bet five dollars the “douche” version would end up on your phone.

Some misinterpretations directly correlated to the age of the listener. For instance, a friend of mine admitted: “I used to think, as a child, that Prince’s ‘I Would Die 4 U’ was ‘Apple Dapple Do.’” Another pal misheard ABBA during “Take a Chance on Me.” “I used to think, when I was a kid, that the lyric ‘Honey I’m still free’ was ‘Olly oxen free.’” And perhaps my favorite instance of pop-music-through-the-ears-of-a-child: Madonna’s chart topping smash hit about a balanced breakfast: “Cheerio Girl.” Madonna wasn’t wrong (she rarely is) when she sang, “We are living in a Cheerio world/and I am a Cheerio girl.”

Similar such nonsense insisted that Steve Miller was not in fact singing “Oh, Oh big ol’ jet airliner” in “Jet Airliner,” but rather, “Bingo Jed had a lina,” whatever the hell that means. Who is this “Bingo Jed” anyhow? Some kind of gambling tycoon at the local retirement home? And what in God’s name is a lina? Only parallel universe Steve Miller can tell us.

The Land of Misheard Lyrics can be goofy, for sure, but it is also a realm of longing, proven by groups such as TLC, who once pleaded, “Don’t go, Jason Waterfalls!” And we must never forget the picturesque isolation painted by Stevie Nicks when she sang, “Just like the one-winged dove/Sings a song/Sounds like she’s singing/Ooo, ooo, ooo.” Those “Ooos” were merely the painful cries of a newly one-winged bird. Now she’ll have to apply for bird disability, and I don’t even know if that’s a thing.

If sad and silly are high rollers in the Land of Misheard Lyrics, then absurdity is king. Remember when Mick Jagger swore he’d never be “Your pizza burnin’,” or when ‘90s dance sensation Eiffel 65 confessed: “I’m blue and I beat up a guy”? Me too. Or what about the time all those “Dirty Deeds” were done by “The Thunder Chief”? Or how ‘bout that darn Karma Comedian, who was perpetually coming and going, for six choruses and a bridge? Ugh. Comedians.

But that’s just the PG side of things. Some folks heard lyrics that Freud would have a grand old time picking apart. Take Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ love ballad, “Sweetheart Come,” which a fellow music writer heard as, “Sweet Hot Cum.” To be fair, I don’t blame her for thinking that. I mean, have you ever listened to the lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? Pervy-ness abounds in the Land of Misheard Lyrics, where Ziggy Stardust can be found “Making love to an eagle,” and Sir Mix-a-Lot likes “Big butts in the candlelight.” Not fluorescent. Not incandescent. Specifically, only in candlelight. To Sir Mix-a-Lot’s nonexistent point, candles are the sexiest light source.

My personal best example of misinterpreted lyrics occurred at age 10, upon the release of “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” by Destiny’s Child. “Ladies leave your man at home,” Beyoncé and the other three sang, “the club is full of ballers and their COCK is full grown.” Say huh? How did this get past the FCC? I wondered. Did my mom, from whose car and therefore radio we were listening to such filth hear what I heard? Furthermore, if the club was full of ballers, and “their” cock was full grown, did that mean that these ballers possessed one, collective cock? The peoples’ cock? I needed answers. All I knew was one thing: you can’t say “cock” on the radio! Or could you? Was this profanity Beyoncé’s fault? Or the DJ’s for not bleeping out the “cock” word? Or was it as the great Jimmy Buffett once sang: “Some people claim that there’s a walnut to blame”? We may never know.

ONLY NOISE: With A Bullet

Last week, after publishing “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” I took the train across the East River to see a movie. A bit of distraction seemed necessary in that moment, even if it was in the form of a demonic clown named Pennywise. Sitting on the Manhattan-bound C train, I noticed a man in a grey flannel suit to my left. He, like most modern passengers, was fixated on his smart phone. The glow of its screen did not reflect Candy Crush, Snapchat, or Instagram, however, but a P.O.V. shooter game. The tap of his thumb did not cause hearts of affirmation to burst with confetti, but rather, launched bullets from a high-power rifle, bumping off “bad guys” one by one. I watched as my well-dressed neighbor selected guns, tightened his scope, and fired and rooftop gunmen.

At that moment, it had only been four days since the mass murder of festival goers in Las Vegas, and seeing any gun, whether real, toy, or two-dimensional gave me a swift kick of nausea. It goes without saying that the events that plagued Las Vegas on October 1st still plague us today, and will continue to do so – and it is because of that lasting sickness I write on this topic again.

There were a lot of things that didn’t make the final draft of last week’s Only Noise, in part because I felt there was a hierarchy of importance with certain details – namely pointing out the arcane excuses for assault rifle-ownership in America. What I did not have the word count to include, were profiles on the scores of musicians who have had the guts to protest groups like the N.R.A., and ideologies which uphold the mass armament of US citizens with little to no discernment.

Artists like Harry Nilsson, who, after his best friend John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan with a .38 revolver, became the official spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). In 1981, a year following Lennon’s death, Nilsson told the L.A. Times, “I’ve never been an activist before, but when I was one of the people who had to hold Ringo’s hand after John Lennon was shot, I became involved. I said to Ringo one night just after the shooting, ‘If I could take this from you, I would. But I can’t.’ I was helpless, and that was the worst time in the world for me.” Nilsson’s life work became twofold: music, and gun control. Eventually he became National Chairman of a campaign called End Handgun Violence Week, which ran between October 25th and October 31st in the early 1980s.

247 people have been fatally shot in this country in the 10 days since the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Perhaps the CSGV could bring back End Handgun Violence Week, although the public faces far more frightening weaponry than just handguns these days.

Despite her recent op-ed in The New York Times, Roseanne Cash is no rookie to the gun control debate. Her activism traces back twenty years. She spoke out in 2015, when a gunman at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon killed nine people. This tragedy coincidentally occurred on the first of October as well – two years to the day before Stephen Paddock wreaked death on Las Vegas. The day after the 2015 attack, Cash urged citizens to sign a petition to reinstate the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons. “If you are as sick of gun violence in this country as I am,” the country artist wrote on her Facebook page, “then let’s stop talking about it and just do ONE simple thing.”

Unfortunately, this ONE simple thing has not appeared so simple to lawmakers. The 1994 assault weapon ban was never reinstated. Assault weapon opposition does continue to grow, however, especially after so many lives were lost at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Guitarist Caleb Keeter of Josh Abbott Band was one of the first country musicians to completely alter his stance on gun ownership in this country, after the massacre in Las Vegas (he was at the festival when the shooting occurred). “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life,” Keeter wrote on Twitter the day following the shooting. “Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was.” He added, “We need gun control RIGHT. NOW.”

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a long list of country musicians who have done a 180 on their firearms position since the massacre – but a few do seem to be distancing themselves from the NRA. On October 2nd, the artist roster on the website for NRA Country (an organization linking upcoming country artists with the NRA brand and lifestyle) shrunk from 39 names to 37 – the slots for Florida Georgia Line and Rhett Miller had suddenly vanished.

Of course, more opposition has come from musicians outside of the country bubble. Artists like Lady Gaga, John Mayer, The Chainsmokers, and Vic Mensa have all spoken out on social media, demanding gun control. Ariana Grande, who has seen her fair share of concert-targeted violence, tweeted, “My heart is breaking for Las Vegas. We need love, unity, peace, gun control & for people to look at this & call this what it is = terrorism.”

Moby posted a meme on his Instagram reading, “MAKE IT STOP” above an assault rifle graphic. Below it, the artist wrote, “How many more mass shootings will it take? How many more lives ended? How many more families destroyed? We need sane, rational, sensible #guncontrolnow. The @nationalrifleassociation and every Republican who opposes gun control has so much blood on their hands. Mass shootings are evil, passing legislation that enables them to happen even more so.”

One can only hope that players in the country music scene – the scene most affiliated with the NRA and gun ownership – will eventually put aside the political demographics of their fan base and speak out. Perhaps country artist Will Hoge put it best when he spoke to Marissa Moss for Politico Magazine:

“Will this be the thing where all of a sudden every conservative artist comes out and supports gun control? That’s an unrealistic idea,” he said. “I do think this is the point where country artists are going to have to take long hard looks in the mirror and ask, ‘What’s more important to me: maintaining success at commercial radio, or doing what’s right?’”

I hope there are plenty of mirrors in Nashville.

ONLY NOISE: One More Cup of Coffee

I’ve stopped counting the number of times “coffee” is mentioned in Patti Smith’s M Train. The short answer is: a lot; coffee is the lifeblood coursing through the entire book. Coffee is the daily elixir of Smith’s life, and she finds great poetry in every sip – from hand-selected, highland grown beans in Veracruz, to the charred offerings of Styrofoam deli cups – she wants “to write an aria to coffee.” Yet, quite surprisingly, the poet and songwriter never did. Smith’s connotations with coffee result from her caffeine-fueled memoirs and New York coffee shop patronage, and she is therefore one of the artists I most strongly associate with those bitter brown beans. I imagine that her version of heaven is an eternal corner table in her favorite café, where the brown bread and olive oil never run out and the coffee flows black and hot.

Considering today is National Coffee Day, I can’t help but think about the decades, even centuries long relationship between music and coffee. Who are the musicians who’ve paid homage to the drink named Joe? And which artists, like Smith, evoke coffee shop romanticism without needing to sing of a single sip?

Since Smith never wrote her aria di caffè, I can only speculate what coffee represents to her. In M Train it signifies ritual; each day of import is commenced with a description of her coffee and breakfast regimen, but not in an Instagram diary manner. Smith isn’t keeping a food journal for fitness purposes. Rather, it seems that every sip of coffee transports her back in time, where she can commune with her beloved Beat poets, and sit in Mohammed Mrabet’s fictional The Beach Café for a little while. Surely it must also evoke her greatest influence, Bob Dylan, and his early days at the Gaslight Café.

Coffee pairs with Bob Dylan just as well as cigarettes (a classic duo we’ll get to in a moment.) From his Greenwich Village coffee shop days and his caffeinated delivery on songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Talkin’ New York,” to his 1975 ballad “One More Cup of Coffee,” Dylan and java go hand-in-hand. In fact, because of his proximity to the Beats, Dylan was one of the musicians who pioneered the image of a rock n’ roll poet holed up in a café, dousing themselves with free refills and stamping out smokes while scribbling lyrics. Smith merely conjured her idols, and eventually became one herself.

Like Patti Smith, Tom Waits never wrote a song with the word “coffee” in the title – but can you think of a musician more at home on the pleather booth seats of a 24-hour diner? Waits is seemingly made of coffee grounds, burger grease, and cigarette tar. The same year that Dylan released “One More Cup of Coffee,” Waits recorded his iconic live album Nighthawks at the Diner, a jazz-beat-opera to the greasy spoon lifestyle. The most caffeinated track on Nighthawks has to be “Eggs And Sausage (In A Cadillac With Susan Michelson),” which relays the deadbeat clientele and menu options of a roadside-dining joint. “…There’s a rendezvous/of strangers around the coffee urn tonight/all the gypsy hacks, the insomniacs…/eggs and sausage and a side of toast/coffee and a roll, has browns over easy…/it’s a graveyard charade, a late shift masquerade.”

If Bob Dylan and Patti Smith claimed cafés for the poets, Waits reclaimed them for their rightful patrons: nightshift gas station attendants, prostitutes, and aimless drunks. When bars are only open until 4am (2am if you are on the West Coast like Waits), where is one to go in the wee and in between hours? The diner of course, where coffee flows cheaply and liberally. That is the beauty of coffee shops and canteens: they offer refuge for those who don’t have an office or a studio, and can’t afford to wash themselves in fine wine or dine out on the regular. In the coffee shop, you can purchase a single item (a cup of coffee) and sit for hours on end working, reading, or simply sipping. And not too long ago, you could also smoke.

It’s no coincidence that Waits sings of “cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud” in “Eggs And Sausage.” The narcotic pair has been canonized in literature, music, and film for years. Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 flick Coffee and Cigarettes plumbs the eternal relationship between the two vices, and whom does he turn to for much of his cast? Musicians, naturally. Coffee and Cigarettes is comprised of eleven short scenes revolving around the titular pleasures. Three of these scenes involve famous musicians, the most memorable being Somewhere In California, featuring Iggy Pop and, you guessed it, Tom Waits.

The rock icons meet in a corner booth, sipping black coffee and making awkward conversation. Though Pop and Waits both quit smoking long ago, a mysterious pack of Marlboros sits on the table. The marriage of coffee and cigarettes (and coffee and rock n’ roll and cigarettes) is so undeniable, that the smokes have just magically appeared. After realizing that since they’ve already quit, they can now partake every once in a while, Waits and Pop light up and bask in nicotine. “Hey, cigarettes and coffee man…that’s a combination,” says Iggy. Waits nods in agreement. “You know, we’re really like the coffee-and-cigarettes generation, when you think about it,” he says. “Well I mean, in the ‘40s it was the pie-and-coffee generation…”

When Otis Redding recorded “Cigarettes and Coffee” for The Soul Album in 1966, the substances seemed to represent domestic bliss as well as stimulating conversation. “It’s early in the morning/About a quarter till three,” sings Redding, “I’m sittin’ here talkin’ with my baby/Over cigarettes and coffee, now.” Perhaps Redding’s positioning of coffee in rock n’ roll is the most honest – suggesting that its warmth and ceremonial nature recalls home.

Other than booze and blood, coffee has to be the most romantic liquid in the Western Song Book. Cowboys and rappers like it black (unless you’re the Beastie Boys, and must have your “sugar with coffee and cream.”) Blur has it with TV, Squeeze drinks it in bed, and Kate Bush wants it homeground. And in the 1970s, Patti Smith ventured to all the way to Mexico is search of the ideal brew. “It was February 14,” she recalls in M Train, “and I was about to give my heart to a perfect cup of coffee.”

ONLY NOISE: Fall Preview

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Benjamin Clementine’s I Tell A Fly arrives October 2.

Tomorrow marks the first day of autumn. You might not believe it given these muggy 80-degree days, but Fall is upon us nevertheless. Fall is the best for multiple reasons, including turtlenecks, Halloween, and mock-necks; but it is also a time when things die. Leaves. Bar backyards. Your summer tan. All gone. Looking back on this time last year, I was writing about the death (or at least prolonged hibernation) of CMJ. Now I could add the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and potentially The Deli Magazine to that obituary. Sure, the Voice is only going out of print, Rolling Stone is only up for sale, and The Deli Magazine is only half the size it used to be – maybe “death” is too harsh a word – but that’s what it feels like.

Today I happened upon one of those familiar red boxes and snatched up the last copy of The Village Voice I will ever hold. The cover was nearly text free, save for the paper’s logo and the words “Final Edition” in tiny print at the top. A black and white photo of Bob Dylan giving a salute filled the page. It is a somber image, and almost made my knees buckle on West Broadway. I could only think: “what next?”

And then, in rare moment of attempted optimism, I asked myself again: “yes, what next?” This time, instead of asking with dread, I asked it with the expectation of wonderful things. New York may be missing some iconic music venues, festivals, and print publications, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a wealth of great music coming our way regardless. So rather than mourn the lost, let’s look forward to the season’s best musical happenings, shall we? We shall. Here are the Fall 2017 record releases I am most looking forward to.


Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers

The difficult-to-define, experimental Canadians Godspeed You! Black Emperor will drop their sixth LP tomorrow – the much anticipated Luciferian Towers. Fortunately we don’t have to wait another second to check it out, as the group shared the album in full with NPR last week. In keeping with GY!BE fashion, this record is dense, sprawling, and frenetic. Now we can only hope the band will accompany its release with a US tour sometime soon!


Protomartyr, Relatives In Descent

Next week, Detroit post-punks Protomartyr will release Relatives In Descent – their debut LP for Domino Records. After seeing Protomartyr play a dynamite set at Basilica Soundscape last weekend, I’m especially thrilled for this new album, which according to the band’s Greg Ahee, was inspired by Mica Levi and the Raincoats’ Odyshape. Relatives In Descent was co-produced and recorded with Sonny DiPerri, who has worked with the likes of Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective. What’s not to love?


Benjamin Clementine, I Tell A Fly

Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine is one of the more fascinating characters in contemporary music. While his debut album 2015’s At Least For Now was a sweeping affair between neo-classical and Nina Simone, I Tell A Fly promises theatrics and a bit of the political. The record’s leading single, “Phantom Of Aleppoville” is an album all its own, volleying from marching snares to parlor piano and soul harmonies. It’s a tour de force, and I imagine the whole LP will be nothing short of the same. Don’t miss Clementine when he plays Carnegie Hall on October 5th.


Kelela, Take Me Apart

Two very different records drop on October sixth, one being the long-awaited full-length debut from R&B artist Kelela. Take Me Apart (Warp Records) is the follow-up to Kelela’s 2014 EP Hallucinogen and her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me. According to the artist, the album is a blend of personal themes, politics, and genre. “Despite it being a personal record,” Kelela stated in a press release, “the politics of my identity informs how it sounds and how I choose to articulate my vulnerability and strength. I am a black woman, a second-generation Ethiopian-American, who grew up in the ‘burbs listening to R&B, Jazz and Björk. All of it comes out in one way or another.” Catch Kelela November 12th and 13th at Bowery Ballroom.

Marilyn Manson, Heaven Upside Down

On the other end of things, Antichrist Superstar Marilyn Manson is back with his first new track in two years. The garage-pop cut “KILL4ME” is Manson’s leading single off his forthcoming record Heaven Upside Down, and it’s far more catchy than disturbing. Perhaps all of Manson’s interactions with Justin Bieber have affected his sound? Manson will perform at the Hammerstein Ballroom on September 30th and The Paramount on October 3rd.


Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice

 Mid-October treats include the debut duet Lotta Sea Lice from Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, who make such a natural pair it’s amazing they didn’t cut a record together years ago. The record’s first single “Over Everything” is an expert blend of deadpan romanticism and tangy guitar riffs – elements both artists know their way around quite well. Kurt and Courtney (no, not that Kurt and Courtney!) will play The Beacon Theater on November 1st.

King Krule The Ooz

Archy Marshall is set to release his sophomore LP as King Krule. The Ooz is already garnering a lot of excitement from the music community, and if the entire record is half as good as its first single “Dum Surfer,” all the hype will be justified. For those of you who’ve yet to see King Krule live, he’ll be headlining Greenpoint’s Warsaw on October 24th and 25th. Get there early and eat some pierogies while you’re at it! 


Destroyer, Ken

The first two singles from Destroyer’s forthcoming LP Ken sound completely different from one another. But then again, that’s the Destroyer sound: constantly morphing. Check out the frenetic and haunting “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” and keep an eye open for Destroyer’s 2018 US tour.

John Carpenter, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998

Right in time for Halloween, Sacred Bones Records will release John Carpenter’s Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. This collection of Carpenter’s film scores (that’s right, he directed the flicks and composed the music to cult classics like Escape From New York and Halloween) will be limited to 500 hand-numbered vinyl LPs, pressed on “Anti-God Green” wax, of course. Get your copy quick, and don’t miss Carpenter’s Terminal 5 set on November 16th.

If that list of killer music-to-come doesn’t dissolve your Autumn blues, then I don’t know what will. Perhaps this list of incredible Fall concerts, happening right here in NYC:


 The Spits @Brooklyn Night Bazaar

Pill @Secret Project Robot


Xiu Xiu @Union Pool


Wild Yaks @The Safari Room at El Cortez


Songhoy Blues @Bowery Ballroom


Alex Cameron @Rough Trade


Sean Nicholas Savage @Baby’s All Right


Billy Bragg @City Winery


Big Freedia @Brooklyn Bowl


Sheer Mag @Villain


Diamanda Galas @Co-Cathedral of Saint Joseph


Ezra Furman @Baby’s All Right


The Raincoats @The Kitchen


Vagabon @Bowery Ballroom


Perfume Genius @Bowery Ballroom

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ONLY NOISE: Back In The New York Groove

It was native New Yorker Lou Reed who sang, “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor/I’ll piss on ’em/that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says” in “Dirty Blvd.” The wry piece of poetry was one of many city-centric tracks to grace Reed’s New York LP from 1989. While Reed’s lyrics sound hateful towards NYC, you might consider them more love/hate when you realize that the man who wrote them never left New York (well, New York State, at least). Lou Reed remained a New Yorker when he passed in 2013, and his city praises him still. I am no stranger to the Big Apple ambivalence Reed has put to music since the 1960s. Once you’ve put in enough time here, you tend to make love and fight with this city like a spouse. But good times and bad times aside, New York is hands-down the best boyfriend I’ve ever had.

Today is my first day back in town after being away for more than a month. You can imagine my delight the moment I landed, grabbed my luggage, and ran down JFK Airport’s many moving sidewalks after weeks of sitting. That’s a lot of what you do on the West Coast: sit. I sat in cars, on couches, and at bars, my legs nearly atrophied from disuse. So thirsty was I for the unrelenting motion of this city, and the ability to walk anywhere if you have the time. I longed for efficient but banal things like the Air Train and the MTA, and I beamed when finally boarding them, despite it being 5:38 in the morning. My MetroCard even had $10.50 left on it. Damn, I love this place.

It’s surprising to me that I haven’t written an I <3 NY piece until now, but sometimes you have to step away from something to appreciate it, as the old cliché goes. Fortunately, hundreds – likely thousands – of artists have enshrined their love of New York in song, and that makes things a lot easier for me. Why use my own words, when I can defer to the borough-praising rhymes of say, The Beastie Boys? Their 2004 hit “An Open Letter To NYC” is a sprawling poem to the city, with more New York in-jokes than Seinfeld. But the chorus alone says it all:

“Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan/Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin/Black, White, New York you make it happen.”

I can’t boast East Coast origins like The Beastie Boys, but creeping up on a decade of living here, I’m that much closer to earning my I <3 NY t-shirt, and I sure as hell feel all the love for this place evident in “An Open Letter To NYC.”

If you’ve been reading my column lately, you may have noticed a less-than-optimistic taint to my voice. I blame the infernal state of the world, of course – but why the sudden burst of joy? It’s because I am back. And dear sweet New York, I am never leaving you again.

I have just come from Huntington Beach, California, where the idea of culture is bottle-blonde, bronzed, fond of CrossFit. Young professionals can be found dancing to “Margaritaville” and the musical cannon of Pitbull, all while shouting “let’s do shots!” sorority style. One such cultured resident harassed me at a bar a few days ago. She was a former hairstylist-turned-Billabong-clothing-designer and breathing stereotype who proceeded to tell me to shut the fuck up, threaten me with her assault history, and hug me while saying, “I love you” in the span of 10 minutes. Then she flashed me.

If people think New Yorkers are cold, I much prefer our brand of chilliness to the Southern Californian “warmth” I often experience. Everyone makes the assumption that New Yorkers are rude, brash people, but I never get offended more than when I go to other parts of the country, particularly Surf City USA. When the fit, well-hydrated inhabitants of Huntington Beach ask me why I’d ever want to live in such a dirty, crowded city, I just respond with the words of Judy Garland: “The more I see New York, the more I think of it/I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it/I Happen to Like New York.”

No truer words have been sung. I love New York for its music, and films, and fine art, sure, but also for its sludge, and grime, and smog. When I travel to clean cities, my first question is always, “Where is all your trash?” Cleanliness unsettles me. Dirt=history. Do you think London and Paris would possess the same je ne sais quoi if their cobblestones hadn’t been washed in blood and filth for centuries? No. Filth=character, and if the lyrics of The Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” (“You got rats on the West Side/Bed bugs uptown”) or Fear’s “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones” (“New York’s alright if you like drunks in your doorway”) doesn’t convince you of that, I don’t know what will.

You can say what you will of New York. Call our city expensive and wretched and unsanitary. Call us snobs, hipsters, careerists, assholes and aesthetes. We’ve probably been called worse. We don’t mind the hassle or hustle so long as we never run out of music, or museums, or midnight movies to enjoy. And in New York, that’d be pretty unlikely.

Perhaps the countless songs by artists like Leonard Cohen, Grandmaster Flash, NAS, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and so many others will better encapsulate the sprawling organism of New York City. I certainly can’t do better than them. So here is a playlist of all of my favorite New York songs. If you still don’t like it here after listening to “Chelsea Hotel #2” or “The Message,” get out. No one is asking you to stay, and the subway’s too crowded.


Sometimes, these columns are damn hard to spit out. It’s not always easy to remain enthralled with the music world, especially when the real world seems to be crumbling around us. We don’t have to pretend. 2017 has been a fucking nightmare. We’ve witnessed the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, North Korea launching a missile over Japan, devastating floods in Houston and South Asia, and rallies filled with actual Nazis, just to name few lows.

I’m not a religious person, but I’m starting to expect widespread plague and a swarm of locusts any minute now. Just visiting The Guardian’s World News webpage fills me with terror – especially when the top headline reads: “Armageddon. Scientists calculate how stars can nudge comets to strike Earth.” What the fuck?! I’m a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but you know what? Maybe there is someone up there, ready to just take us all out with a flaming space rock, because we clearly can’t keep things together down here.

“Um…what does this have to do with music?” you ask.

Here’s the thing: being a music journalist is pretty great. I love it more than any non-human in my life. However, when the world seems to be blazing in what Evangelicals would call “hellfire,” it’s hard to feel motivated to write about anything but serious shit. Rolling out a “think piece” on hidden messages in Taylor Swift’s new video feels like you’re stuffing your soul into a manila envelope and shipping it off to Satan for safekeeping. Even if you understand that it isn’t wrong to write about the VMAs, one still gets the sense that they are ignoring a towering elephant that is not only in the room, he’s bending the baseboards and demolishing furniture.

Of course, when I say “you” and “one,” I ultimately mean “me.” I cannot speak for other music writers. Though I can assume that many of my colleagues, who are intelligent, compassionate people, must feel some of this weight. It’s not possible that I’m the only person who suffers nauseating guilt reporting on Panorama Festival the same weekend journalists discover that North Korean missile tests have the capacity to reach New York.

So what does “one” do? Writing about art and pop culture in frightening times is a delicate matter. To say nothing of the floods, the violence, or the fear seems grossly irresponsible. To mention it only to alleviate one’s own guilt is possibly worse. I would never say making art in times of strife is a waste of time – I will always argue the opposite. I will even go so far as to say that it’s impossible to stall creativity in dire times, as conflict is one of art’s great muses. Critiquing art amidst global devastation, however, can be a task colored with shame. The question often clanging in my head being, “Does it even fucking matter?

I don’t know. I am unfit to answer the question. Here is what I do know. This is my job. My dream job, really. Artists and the music they make are kind of like my religion (or as close as this godless writer comes to it). Even on the worst of days, when my personal and family misfortunes could inspire an entire season of All My Children, I can still be brought to my knees by the beauty of a song. I know it’s corny. I also know that a song won’t drain the waters in Houston, or rewire the brains of white supremacists (if they have anything to rewire, that is). A song can’t do much when it all comes down to it, let alone a writer writing about a song – but artists can.

While I’ve been distraught by this year’s cruel newsreel, the artists who have leveraged their platforms for good causes have given me some sense of pride in humanity. 2017’s first cry from outspoken celebrities occurred at the Women’s March on Washington (and its sister marches around the world), where the likes of Madonna, Alicia Keys, The Indigo Girls, and Janelle Monáe either performed or gave impassioned speeches denouncing Trump’s election. That same month, Canadian electro-pop group Austra released their third LP Future Politics. The album is revelatory and filled with political insight, proving that pop music doesn’t have to be sugarcoated.

In 2017 there have been countless benefit concerts for organizations like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and CAIR-New York (Counsel On American-Islamic Relations), to name but a few. Now the charitable hands of artists will extend to Houston. Solange has planned a benefit show later this month in Boston where 100% of proceeds will go to victims of Hurricane Harvey and its destructive floods. Fall Out Boy and rapper Bun B have planned separate but similar benefit shows, and numerous celebrities have either already given money to relief organizations (like $500,000 from Miley Cyrus and the $25,000 DJ Khaled shelled out) or promised to do so in the near future (like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Demi Lovato, and DNCE).

Many of the aforementioned performers are ones I don’t artistically care for that much, but these days I’m elated they’re around. It seems that with their immense command of the public interest and disposable income, artists have taken on responsibilities that our government should have the answers and funds for. It’s a sad and beautiful truth. That these seemingly “frivolous” celebrities go above and beyond their job title in times of crisis is noble; that they even need to in the first place is appalling.

So coming back to that initial question: what does “one” do? Let’s practice some simple logic. Things are bad right now. Things are really bad; and yet, artists both famous and obscure continue to defy the idea that humans are selfish, no-good creatures. If “you” are a music writer – why not write about those artists and their honorable efforts? It’s the least, and sometimes the most “you” can do.

ONLY NOISE: Waiting on Waits

This is the closest I will ever get to Tom Waits. I’m sitting at the bar of my dad’s bistro, listening to a live performance by The Bleeding Romeos… a Tom Waits cover band. Much to Mr. Waits’ presumed chagrin, I do not sip from a flask of cheap whiskey, but a glass of red wine. And no – it is not Carlo Rossi.

My father has been planning this night for months. Having me home in Washington, fixed on a barstool, drinking in the songs of my favorite artist. I on the other hand, have been apprehensive about the evening; tribute bands aren’t really my bag. Additionally, there is an issue of ambience. Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents’ restaurant, but it’s a bistro – a classy dining establishment filled with respectable patrons and wonderful food. It’s no place for an ode to the king of scoundrels. Meanwhile, there is a perfectly wretched dive bar across the parking lot whose smoke-infused walls and carpeted floors beg for a Tom Waits cover band. It almost seems like two bookings got confused, and while muffled trombone and busted lungs rattle my dad’s joint, there is a fabulous jazz band dodging beer cans at the North City Tavern.

But I’m not here to book The Bleeding Romeos at more “Waitsy” venues. They’re working musicians, not method actors. Instead, I am here to answer one question: am I enjoying myself? Despite my reluctance, it turns out I might be. Of course, it could be the wine. It could be the simple pleasure of hearing two and a half hours of your favorite songs, fortunately played pretty true to form. Or, it could be simpler. Yes, impersonators get a bad rap, and the above scene might not sound romantic to you – but to understand its appeal, you must first know the complete desperation of being a Tom Waits fan.

I keep a long list of musicians I need to see in concert before they die. These are my favorite performers, aged between 50 and Bob Dylan, who are statistically more likely to die than those aged between Lil Yachty and 50. The litany of must-see artists goes on and on: Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave; but at the top of this list, in all caps, is the name TOM WAITS. Unfortunately, he is the least likely to go on tour of this bunch (save perhaps, Mr. Bowie and Mr. Cohen, who are respectfully resting in peace). The fact of the matter is, Tom Waits just doesn’t widely tour these days. Even when he does, he covers strange territory.

Take for instance Waits’ 2008 Glitter and Doom tour, during which he played 28 dates over a month and a half. Where were these concerts held, you ask? Oh, bastions of culture like: Dallas, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Mobile, Alabama. No New York. No Seattle. No Los Angeles or Nashville. Waits toured a portion of the American South, slapping on Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona presumably just for kicks, and then jetted to Europe and the U.K. for sets in Prague, Edinburgh and the like. I was devastated.

Part of the reason I live in New York is the guarantee that every living musician I love will play there. NYC is like a pop culture security blanket, smothering you with endless opportunities to see great music, film, or even vintage condom collections, if that’s what you’re into. Tom Waits however, does not need New York like it needs him. He once sang, “I’ll Take New York,” but in 2008, it seemed he was leaving New York behind for more exotic locales… like Birmingham, Alabama. More recent years have found Waits scaling back his already limited tour map. In 2009 and 2010 he played two dates total, both in Cork, Ireland. In 2011, three dates in The Netherlands. In 2013, three concerts in France, and one in Mountain View, California. The pattern is not looking good.

Maybe you’ve given up on seeing Tom Waits in concert. Maybe you were alive and hip in the 1980s, and caught Waits live in his Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs days. For that, I would likely trade lives with you. I would take on your wife, your mortgage, and your closet of ill-fitting pinstriped shirts. I would swap my young-ish, able body for your arthritic limbs and thinning hair, just to have the memory of Tom Waits flailing on stage like a crazed train conductor.

But, until life-swapping is legitimate reality, my Tom Waits meet-cute will be reduced to secondhand smoke. For instance: I once met a girl in college from Sebastopol, California who used to babysit Tom Waits’ kids. Once released from my stupor, I implored, “What was he like?!” I had hoped to hear of his dried bat collection, his secret wooden leg, or of his nocturnal cake-baking habits. “He was nice,” she said. A couple of years later I met someone who once worked in a used bookstore in San Francisco, where “Tom Waits would come in and buy huge stacks of old, dusty encyclopedias.” Old, dusty encyclopedias! How strange. How quirky! How utterly Tom Waits. “Well,” I asked. “What was he like?!” “He was pretty shy and quiet.”

Ugh! I was again disappointed. Had these eyewitnesses no better descriptions for one of the oddest men in rock n’ roll? What was he wearing? Surely not khaki shorts and a Heineken t-shirt. What did he smell like? Perhaps a sweet mingling of cheap cologne and cremation ash? Was there a moth fluttering around his person at all times, or a bone ring on his pinky? I will never know.

It appears that my last salvation is in the hands of The Bleeding Romeos, tonight, at my dad’s restaurant. Despite my burning urge to cut the lead singer’s hair, I stand impressed at their approximation of Waits’ sound. They throw down a hefty chunk of his catalogue – everything from “Old 55” to “Swordfish Trombones” – and they don’t fuck it up. True to their namesake, the band’s most accurate rendering of Tom Waits is their version of “Romeo Is Bleeding” from 1978’s Blue Valentine.

I begin to feel like a recovering alcoholic who finds bliss in a virgin cocktail – the effect is working. When I close my eyes, I can almost convince myself I’m in some dingy club on Santa Monica Boulevard 40 ago. But when I open them I see racks of fine wine lining the walls, and those well-dressed diners, smiling. I may never get to see the real Tom Waits live – but I can at least crawl to the dive bar next door, and drink a cheap beer in his honor.

ONLY NOISE: Campfire Songs

I never went to summer camp as a child. In fact, I didn’t really believe that anyone else did, either. Summer camp, like talking dogs and successful marriages, was the stuff of movies. Camp was a tradition I never longed for, or understood, or even thought of. So I was a bit surprised last month when my sister asked me to help out at her Teen Songwriting Retreat – as a camp counselor.

A singer/songwriter, producer, performer, and music teacher by her own right, my sister has been cutting records and touring extensively since the early 2000s. Comparatively, I am far newer to the biz, and much more detached considering I merely opine when other people make music, but certainly don’t make my own. My few musical efforts have been tortured and short-lived, contributing only to a novice career in music criticism.

Music is sort of the family business, however.  Our dad, uncle, and grandfather have all played music professionally at some stage in their lives.  Our dad has worked in pro-audio, co-owned a record store, and currently owns a bistro-cum-music venue, where my sister plays a few times a year.  Because I live so far away, and cannot contribute to the family showbiz community in quite the same way, working at my sister’s retreat seemed like a nice way to finally complete the circle.

Though I had no prior experience working with teenagers in any capacity, and the thought of singing in unison around a campfire makes my blood curdle, this occasion was not to be missed. Firstly, my sister is like, the most wonderful person in the world. Secondly, my sister’s wife (who was manning the kitchen for the retreat) is like, the second most wonderful person in the world. And thirdly, they both live on big, gorgeous farm acreage in rural Washington…in grain silos. They’re pretty much a hippie dream couple torn from the pages Modern Farmer, but better.

In the weeks leading up to the retreat my sister asked if I would be down to talk to the kids about what I “look for” in new artists as a music journalist. Perhaps I could answer their questions, and maybe even inspire them with my fangirl banter. Sure. Why not? But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if I had anything at all to offer these kids aside from my jaded New York sensibilities (“All of the music venues you love will eventually shut down.” “Never trust drummers.” Etc.) Would I only be able to contribute cynical ramblings?

As it turned out, there was a lot more I could offer them. Namely: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My task wasn’t so much to inspire young Dylans and Nilssons with tales of freelance writing, as it was to make sure they stayed alive for three days. For the camp’s duration I was kitchen assistant to the head chef (my sister’s wife), or as we called her, the “Kitchen Goddess.” The Kitchen Goddess (KG) was an expert at organizing the day and delegating tasks. This created a symbiotic relationship, as I (unlike a musician, but very much like a journalist) am great at taking direction from higher ups. The KG was like a dream editor, stepping in only when a serious rewrite was in order – like the time I over-stuffed a quesadilla, setting it up for structural failure.

Our daily routine was nothing short of divine; I can only hope that by the time I hit 70 my life will be so blissful. To start the day, the kids (ages 12-16) woke up in a yurt tucked away in the woods, roughly 200 steps from my sister’s farmhouse. From 8:30-9:30 we would enjoy the aptly but un-poetically named “Coffee, Tea, and Cocoa Hour” while watching the resident dachshund lope around the garden. Once adequately caffeinated, the KG and I would report to the kitchen for breakfast duty as the songwriters partook in any given form of exercise; some days kicked off with Tai Chi, others with freeform dance parties – anything to get the blood moving, short of Cross Fit.

As the day rolled along I’d shuffle between meal prep and long stretches of reading. I’d started the weekend with a Norman Mailer novel about a man strangling his wife to death, and finished with a historical essay on blues legend Robert Johnson, who was poisoned by a jealous husband – hardly the stuff of typical YA novels, but hey, at least one of the books was about music! Throughout the weekend I’d catch snatches of songwriting challenges the kids would participate in, the most memorable being a “Chip Bag Challenge” in which teams had to write an entire song using only the text from, you guessed it, a bag of chips. The most successful hit to surface was a severe earworm entitled, “Cheetos Crunchy.” I’m tellin’ ya, all these nascent hitmakers would have to do is send this cut to Frito Lay and they’d be set for life. The composers of “Cheetos Crunchy,” however, had far more integrity than I do.

Aside from making hits from a bag of chips, the whole goal of the retreat was to nurture the kids’ creative tendencies as they labored to write, record and perform one original song in under four days. Because of the compressed time frame, the bourgeoning writers were allowed large patches of alone time to hone what my sister called, their “song babies.” The kids would spread out all over the farm, sitting in the grass with their guitars and notebooks. My main interaction with these rehearsal periods occurred on my break time, usually spent picking blackberries or collecting eggs from the chickens.

It was one such evening in the blackberry brambles that I heard the cry of a song baby. A sixteen-year-old kid named Caleb* from Blaine, Washington was strumming his guitar aggressively, singing the roots of a well-formed ballad. It struck me that this was the closest I had ever come to witnessing raw process in terms of songwriting. Hearing a song’s formation is a bit like watching time-lapsed photography of a plant sprouting – you’re not quite sure how all of that change occurred in plain sight, and yet went unnoticed.

By the time Sunday rolled around, all eight of the kids had achieved more than most artists accomplish in a year: they’d written great songs, recorded them in a nice-ass studio, and performed in front of a crowd. Meanwhile, my crowning achievement had been finding a trick to chopping onions without weeping: sunglasses.

All jokes aside, there was more to the retreat than morning coffee, s’mores, and singing. The entire weekend was like a crash course in vulnerability – whether that meant pouring your soul into an in-progress composition and sharing it with a dozen strangers, or playing your favorite song for the group. The crazy thing was that when it came time to share music, or even just stories, the kids were the brave ones; I on the other hand, a 27-year-old college graduate, found myself worrying if a bunch of teens would think my favorite song was cool. While I squirmed in vulnerable moments, the participants of the 2017 Teen Songwriting Retreat flourished. Maybe that’s the difference between a musician and a critic.

ONLY NOISE: Beautiful Losers

Repeat after me: Loser. Double loser. Whatever. Moron. If you were a certain age in the late 1990s, this insult – when paired with the correct hand motions – was the ultimate dis to peers, siblings, and losers of every stripe. The term “loser” in the nineties and early ‘00s was plastered all over the place, from Beck’s breakout hit, to anti-drug PSAs, and that movie starring Jason Biggs’ trapper hat. The identity of the “loser” in music, however, is a far more complex thing than a girl with her finger and her thumb in the shape of an “L” on her forehead,” as Smash Mouth sang.

The loser is not simply a spinoff of Jay and Silent Bob, or Bill and Ted, or Beavis and Butthead (as you can see, losers often come in pairs). It seems that the loser of song tradition is more akin to a hero than a villain. A flawed bearer of mediocrity and wearer of slouchy clothes, the loser archetype is as quintessential to rock ‘n’ roll as the rambler and the romantic. Some losers are self-proclaimed, like Derrick Harriott as he sang his reggae hit “The Loser,” and Merle Haggard, who released the gorgeous but self-effacing song “I’m a Good Loser” on his 1971 record, Hag. “Yeah I’m a good loser/Born to be that way/This dog, he never had his day,” croons Haggard, no doubt lamenting a long-gone woman.

Though country stars were often self-critical in Haggard’s era, hearing him sing the words, “I’m a good loser” is still jarring to this day. Who could ever think of Merle Haggard, one of the coolest men in the history of country music, as a loser? Only he had the power to slander his name, illuminating the fact that loss plagues all of us – even rich and famous country singers.

In many ways, Haggard was a loser. He certainly didn’t have a winning relationship with cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, the combination of which contributed to his many years of poor heath, and eventual death in 2016. The Hag was also known to lose in love, and to the law. He was married five times and served two and a half years at San Quentin prison in 1958 for burglary and attempted escape from county jail. Add all that up, and you might not call Merle Haggard a winner – but he sure lost with the best of ‘em.

The desperate nature of a country music persona made the genre natural loser territory. From Hank Williams singing “You Win Again” to Linda Ronstadt’s “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win,” to the real-life rise and fall of Townes Van Zandt – the songs wouldn’t have been as good if everybody was winning all the time. But music’s hopeless manifesto didn’t reside only in blues and country – pop is full of losers, too. Of course there’s “Three Time Loser” by ultimate sexyman Rod Stewart, “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, “The Winner Takes It All” by ABBA, and countless others. Even The Beatles, the untouchable Fab Four, had a song about being a loser: “I’m A Loser” from 1964’s Beatles For Sale. “I’m a loser/And I lost someone who’s near to me,” sings John Lennon. It’s hard to imagine John, Paul, George or even Ringo identifying as losers while watching them perform this cut to a crowd of shrieking women, but then again, as the song warns, “I’m a Loser/And I’m not what I appear to be.”

Still, The Beatles don’t quite fit the loser archetype. I mean, look at those suits and those haircuts. Even when they got mustachioed and Sgt. Peppered it was hard to see them as anything but rock n’ roll all-stars. Folks like Roy Orbison, on the other hand, had a tougher time making it as a cool kid. “Roy was the coolest, uncool loser you’d ever seen,” Bruce Springsteen said of Orbison in a 2012 keynote address at SXSW. I doubt Orbison would deny such a claim had he been alive to hear it. The dark genius behind masterpieces like “Only The Lonely” and “Crying” knew much of loss and sorrow.

Orbison, aka, “The Big O” went through numerous catastrophes in his lifetime – in fact, there is even a section of his Wikipedia page entitled, “Career decline and tragedies” – and it’s lengthy. Orbison suffered heartbreak, infidelity on the part of his first wife Claudette (yes, that “Claudette”), and a lifetime of mourning. In June of 1966, Orbison and Claudette were riding motorcycles through Gallatin, Tennessee when Claudette struck the door of a pickup truck that had pulled out in front of her. She died instantly. Only two years later while touring England, Orbison received a call relaying that his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee had burned down, leaving his two eldest sons dead. If to be a loser you must suffer great loss, then perhaps Orbison was the biggest loser in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Where Haggard and Oribson’s losses were the stuff of tragic poems, the loser that rolled up in the ‘90s was cut from a different cloth. Take Beck’s “Loser” for instance – the lo-fi hit that put him on the map in 1994. Far more blasé than self-loathing, Beck traipsed through that music video like a shabby bon vivant rather than a hopeless burnout. He owned his loser-dom in secondhand duds and ill-fitting hats. Beck was the loser we’d never seen in music before: mildly defiant, nihilistic, and chic in his refusal to look to the future. Suddenly, the loser wasn’t tragic – it was cool.

But where have all the losers gone? We’ve seen plenty of pop stars in the past decade donning thick-rimmed glasses and identifying as “geek” (which, by the way, is not the same thing as a loser), but where are the deadbeat, worn-down, desperate stars of today? And please do not mention Ed Sheeran – he has a full torso of professional tattoos, and is therefore stripped of any potential loser accolades. Everyone keeps shouting that “the ‘90s are back!” but I don’t see rock ‘n’ roll losers anywhere. Who are kids supposed to look up to these days anyway, Adam Levine? That guy has far too many abs to be a loser. Mainstream music seems to be populated solely by shiny, auto-tuned sex symbols (and Ed Sheeran), and it’s just not enough. We need our poor, our weary, our roughened-up chumps, too. We need our losers. We are lost without them.

ONLY NOISE: Bringing It All Back Home

By the time you read this, I’ll be home. Not the home I’ve made for nearly a decade – not New York home. I’ll be “home” with a big “H.” The “home” Carole King sang of in “Home Again,” the home James Joyce fled but could never stop writing about, the home of countless poems and plays.

It’s not controversial to say that most songs are about love in some capacity, but I would wager that music about home – whether leaving or returning – makes up a hefty portion of the American songbook as well. Some say there’s no place like it, some say you can never go back to it, but everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter.

I recently conducted a small and unscientific social media survey attempting to crowdsource peoples’ favorite songs about home. This is something I frequently do for various reasons, including a desire for musical diversity, and plain ol’ laziness. But of all my little studies, I’ve never been met with so many responses as this one produced. Home is clearly a topic that hits, well, home.

But why? The participants in my study don’t have too much in common, so their suggestions were all over the sonic spectrum. The only consistent factor between the contributors is that each of them has left home; none of them currently reside in the place they grew up. That seems to be the defining aspect for music about home as well – the longing needs the leaving. How can you miss something, how can you return to something, unless you’ve left it to begin with? In fact, the only song I’ve found thus far about just staying at home is Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” But only the angelic Ms. Parton could be wise enough to appreciate what she has in the moment – the rest of us must lose it first.

While I love and respect Dolly’s depiction of home, I sure as hell can’t relate to it. “Church on a Sunday” and “June bugs on a string” are foreign things to me, about as foreign as Tennessee itself. Bob Dylan’s 1961 “I Was Young When I Left Home” however, strikes quite a chord. “I was young when I left home,” Dylan cries. “And I been out a’ramblin’ ‘round/And I never wrote a letter to my home.” This early-career track captures a far more familiar feeling than Parton’s jovial country ballad. While Dolly evokes domestic satisfaction, Dylan unmasks guilt.

Guilt, along with a strong cocktail of superiority and shame, seem to be the base ingredients for songs about home. Dylan’s portrayal of guilt came in the form of negligence – the thought that while, and perhaps because you are off making a life for yourself, the people you left behind are suffering: “It was just the other day/I was drinkin’ on my pay/When I met an old friend I used to know,” Dylan continues. “He said your mother’s dead and gone/Your baby sister’s all gone wrong/And your daddy needs you home right away.”

The call home is something many of us will experience at some stage in our lives, and it is always a strange beckoning. Revisiting the point of origin you love or hate, or love and hate, is an exercise in ambivalence. We miss home, and we dread home. We want to pay our respects to the cities that birthed us, but we also want to look good for it like home is an old flame; we want to let it know we’re doing just fine without it. As Dylan sings, “Not a shirt on my back/Not a penny on my name/Well I can’t go home this a’way.” The thought of returning to our doorstep worse off than when we left it seems humiliating.

I was young when I left home, too, but “home” for me has always been a fragmented thing. Before I left for New York, I’d lived in nine different houses, and my parents have since moved into their tenth, then eleventh, abode (oddly enough, I sometimes think I moved to New York to settle down). When I “go home,” it isn’t technically going home. The remnants of my childhood belongings are in boxes, save for some clothing hung in the closet and records parked in my dad’s collection. I don’t really have a childhood home, but this is more of a blessing than you might realize. For instance, my childhood home will never burn down. I will never have to sell my childhood home, or squabble over its title with siblings. I will never watch it decay or become condemned – because it doesn’t exist. Home for me has never been a house – it has never been measured in shingles or siding, but in people and meals and songs. I remember when interviewing Bill Callahan last summer I asked what made him feel at home. “My wife,” he said. “My nylon string guitar if that’s all I got to hold on to. Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill.”

Similarly, my version of home resides more in my father’s jumbo 6-string guitar than any midcentury bungalow or wrap-around porch. My dad hasn’t owned a home since 1998, and his rentals have been numerous. Some were even pretty badass – one had a pool table and a hot tub, but while the billiard balls and Jacuzzi did not travel on, the instruments and 4,000 LPs always have. When moving, the turntable and albums were always the first things to be unpacked and set up properly.

Still, “home” encompasses a lot more than just the nuclear family and its hearth. It’s the surrounding town too, and for me that’s the tricky part. The dissonance of visiting a place you never quite belonged is best depicted in songs like Catch Prichard’s “You Can Never Go Home Again” and Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons.” Songs like these remind us that home is a construct; it is a perfect merging of time and nostalgia that you can never physically return to. Foley was well aware of this fact when he sang, “I could build me a castle of memories/Just to have somewhere to go.” 

It’s a troubling thought, but maybe we’re so intrigued by the idea of returning home because we want to be rewarded for escaping it in the first place. Look at movies like Garden State and Columbus, or really, any flick about self-righteous, post-collegiate white people returning home to assert their superiority over the ‘townies’ they left behind. Music has a far more graceful relationship with home I reckon, but one can’t help but notice the conflict residing in cuts like “A Long Way From Home” by The Kinks. “I hope you find what you are looking for with your car and handmade overcoats,” Ray Davies snipes. “But your wealth will never make you stronger ’cause you’re still a long way from home.”

Perhaps it is the artists who fled home so quickly that spend the most time singing about it; those who are never home, who are in constant motion, are the ones continuously pondering stillness. Or maybe home is so appealing because the future is always so uncertain. To quote another Kinks song about home, “This Time Tomorrow”: “I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t want to see.”

ONLY NOISE: Leave The Party

Think about the last party you threw. Think about the beer bought and balloons inflated. Remember the quiche you labored over, only to realize no one wants to eat quiche at a party. Now consider the playlist you made. Don’t deny it – we all know you spent three lunch breaks compiling a shindig score entitled “Fiesta Mix.”

Now tell me – was your party (despite irrelevant quiche) a hit? Did “Fiesta Mix” incite a collective boogie? Did hips swing and booties shake, rattling the room with merriment? Well congratulations, my friend; you have accomplished something far beyond my abilities. You’re allowed to pick the music for the party.

“But, don’t you write about music…for a living?“ you ask.

I know. It doesn’t make any sense. You might assume that all these years of music fanaticism, self-dedicated mixtapes, and belabored op-eds would prime me for the simple task of DJing a party – and somehow, the opposite is true.

Proof of such failure lies in every birthday party I’ve thrown since 2012. Each year I, like you, spend hours crafting a party soundtrack featuring all of my favorite “happy” songs. As you can imagine, this is a fairly difficult task for someone whose self-described musical tastes are that of a 45-year-old divorced man. Nevertheless, I press on – crafting my little playlist for my little party with utmost care.

And yet each year like clockwork, usually smack in the middle of “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” by Ian Dury and The Blockheads, someone pulls the plug on my tunes. Someone (usually my roommate) decides that a grubby punk with polio shouting “Two fat persons, click, click, click/Hit me, hit me, hit me!” is not party-worthy. I beg to differ, but that does no good. Within minutes my entire playlist is cast aside like an empty PBR can, and the bump n’ buzz of Top 40 hits crashes my b-day bash. I’ve gotten used to it, as well as the badge of honor I’ve earned in recent years: World’s Worst Party DJ. If I only had a sash embroidered with the accolade.

Fine then. If I can’t play my music at my own birthday party, I might as well take my talents to other soirees – clearing them out with the most un-danceable sounds. Embrace your strengths, am I right? Sure it takes some skill and intuition to boost the party the mood with music – but what about killing the mood? Doesn’t that take a certain aptitude for emotional sensitivity, too?

If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. Trying to break up a party? Want to ruin a perfectly good game of beer pong? Looking to cock block Steve? Here are some tracks that will ensure record-scratching fun-terruption.

“Rhesus Negative” by Blanck Mass

Nine minutes of unrelenting, furious noise. Employ when the new Justin Bieber hit has begun its rotation, and everyone is dancing in unison. The room should begin to vacate around minute 4:35, when Blanck Mass’s Benjamin John Power starts screaming like a demon.

The entire Colors album by Ken Nordine

Nothing could be less conducive to partying than this 1966 spoken word jazz album by the eccentric Ken Nordine. Each song is dedicated to a color, to the point that it is supposed to sound like the color. Favorite cuts include, “Olive,” “Mauve” and “Fuchsia,” the latter of which contains the line, “we don’t wanna lose ya, Fuchsia.” It will derail any and all sexiness.

“Between The Bars” by Elliott Smith

If angry and awkward approaches don’t work, go with depressing. Who better to aid your mope attack than Mr. Misery himself, Elliott Smith? It will definitely kill the party vibe, but at least that guy slouching alone in the corner will appreciate it.

“Dear God, I Hate Myself” by Xiu Xiu

Pro tip: project the band’s music video (which is three minutes of Angela Seo making herself vomit while Jamie Stewart eats a chocolate bar) onto a nearby wall. Party over.

“Imagining My Man” by Aldous Harding

What says “party” more than a woeful folk singer? Just about anything. Funnily enough, this track comes from Harding’s most recent record, which is entitled Party.

“Japanese Banana” by Alvin & The Chipmunks

Think of this one as a little party favor – something to stick with the fleeing guests. There’s a reason my friend refers to this cut as “mind herpes;” it will be remembered long after it has ruined the festivities.

Pretty much anything by Tom Waits.

I personally like “What’s He Building In There” or “God’s Away On Business,” but let’s face it – no one’s going to be happy with gravelly voiced, vaudeville-inspired rock and if anyone is, marry that person immediately.

“Waking The Witch” by Kate Bush

From the dark side of Hounds Of Love, this number features chopper-like percussion and male vocals that literally sound like Satan. It’s impossible to dance to and sure to terrify everyone.

Whale Songs (various whales)

Any whale will do.

“Leave the Party” by Happyness

If all of your subtle sonic hints to GET THE FUCK OUT are for naught, perhaps a bit of direct lyric-messaging will do the trick. Happyness’ drowsy pop number literally says, “Leave the party, head right home” in the chorus. If guests refuse to hear that, then maybe the words, “kill everyone at the party” will be more audible.

ONLY NOISE: Not With The Band

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Sam Riley as Ian Curtis and Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik Honore in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control

Imagine it. Spring Fling, 2005. Kevin, the object of your eternal tweenage desire, is playing the school dance – in his band. That’s right. Kevin is in a band. Or, more accurately, Kevin has a band. You see, he writes the songs, and the lyrics. He sings them, and plays the electric guitar. It’s a Stratocaster. He got it last year for his birthday.

Kevin looks great tonight. He’s just gotten a haircut, and he’s wearing that shirt that you love. Kevin looks great in shirts. He’s even swapped out his glasses for contacts, making him look more Kyle MacLachlan than a bespectacled Morrissey. To be honest, you can’t even decide which Kevin you prefer – the one with four eyes, or two. Both Kevins are equally foxy.

This occasion – the Spring Fling of 2005, (which certainly happened and is in no way a thinly veiled decoy for more recent events) should be a wonderful time. You should be dancing, and singing along to Kevin’s trite love songs. Unfortunately, Kevin dumped you last week, and all those songs he’s singing involving words like “baby” and “love me” and “crying” ain’t about you, sweetheart.

Now imagine, that it is not in fact the Spring Fling of 2005. It is the Summer Bummer of 2017. You are not a tweenager. You are a grown-ass woman, and the above scenario involving Kevin and his poorly structured songs is just a taste of what it is like to date and get dumped by a musician. It reduces you to tween angst and humiliation. It makes you feel as though you are standing alone on the Spring Fling dance floor, while everyone else couples up to do that slow eighth grade penguin dance.

As Murphy’s Law would have it, if you have been burned by a musician, chances are you will definitely get his new single emailed to you by a publicist. You will for sure show up to a gig he is playing by accident, because he got added to the bill last minute, sans announcement. But wait – why would you get an email from a publicist? Because in addition to being a grown-ass woman, you are also a journalist. A music journalist.

As a music journalist, you have a staunch, zero tolerance policy when it comes to dating musicians. Even when approached by the most casual of guitar hobbyists, the answer is always no. N.O. Always, except those four five times you permitted an exemption due to… well, proximity. And charm. But mostly proximity. Because here’s the thing about working in a creative field that writes about another creative field, a.k.a., music journalism. You literally meet two kinds of people. 1) Other writers. 2) Musicians.

It’s almost impossible for you to meet men who aren’t musicians – they just flock to you. You hang out in the same places: concert venues, record stores, and bars (while I can’t find statistics on what percentage of musicians are bartenders, I am positive that it’s a very high number. Regardless, Luke O’Neil of Stuff Magazine assures us that “100 percent of bartenders and musicians are drunks,” so there). The point is, a music journalist swearing off musicians of the preferred sex is like a photographer saying he will never date a model, a director never sleeping with an actor, or an author never getting drinks with her publisher. It’s rather difficult.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried dating other writers, but I think we are (somehow) far more insufferable than musicians. The competition, the anxiety about typos in your text messages, and the fact that neither of you can get anything done while in the same room together. Historically, writer-on-writer romance hasn’t gone so well, anyhow (see: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath).

Musicians, on the other hand, deal in a different medium – your favorite medium! Plus, they’re too self-absorbed to be competitive, and they’ll always put you on a little pedestal, because you get paid to write your opinions about the thing they live for: music. They may even hope that one day you’ll write some nice opinions about their music (which you would never do, because that would be unprofessional). In turn, you might get a song written in your honor. Oh, I know it sounds corny, but everyone wants a song written about them, just like everyone wants to be a backup dancer in a music video (just once!). It’s as human as the need for love itself.

Sure, a music journalist dating a musician has its obvious downfalls (see: Ian Curtis and Annik Honoré). Of course, the quality of the songwriting can complicate things, but despite what you think, dating a shitty artist is always better than dating a goddamn genius. Look at what Suze Rotolo, Joan Baez, Sara Lowndes, and probably anyone who ever slept with Bob Dylan got – a handful of songs to plague them for all of eternity. Really, really good songs that you can’t even make fun of. Not even a little bit. Rick Astley, on the other hand, has been with same woman since 1988, and he’s never gonna give her up – but if he did, she probably wouldn’t miss that song.

Yeah, yeah, it may seem awesome to date a super hot singer/songwriter, who writes gorgeous melodies about you. It may sound fun to go to their shows, trying not to sing along to every word, because that would be very lame. But here’s the thing: the breakup with the savant is way worse. First of all, you already looked up to them for their abilities. You know they’re hot shit, and you can’t knock their new material, because it’s still kickass. Naturally the chances of their success is greater, which is a catastrophe. This means that you will have to hear about them from people you barely know and see them in magazines. This means that potentially, the barista at your coffee shop could one day be singing along to a song written about you while you wait for your goddamn Americano. Or, in Suze Rotolo’s case: you and your former beau Bob Dylan could be seared forever onto a classic album cover. This is no good.

Conversely, dating a mediocre songwriter ensures a tiny morsel of humiliation to savor after they break your heart. Even if they are otherwise flawless – intelligent, kind, funny, attractive, fabulous hair – their crappy music is your secret weapon. Because no dis hurts a music man’s heart more than “your band sucks, Kevin.”

To be fair, some wonderful art has sprung from the agony of bedding and wedding songwriters, but usually from the hands of other songwriters. If loving a musician wasn’t a complete pain in the ass, Stevie Nicks would never have written “Silver Springs” (for Lindsay Buckingham), Joanna Newsom wouldn’t have penned “Does Not Suffice” (about Bill Callahan), and Mandy Moore might still be married to Ryan Adams (who might have never recorded his last three albums). Considering all of the great songs that have been sown from breaking up, I can’t exactly hate on the heartbreak itself.

But maybe that’s the trick: maybe musicians can date musicians, because the fallout produces great art. Imagine how Bill Callahan must have felt when hearing his former girlfriend Joanna Newsom sing the words, “The tap of hangers swaying in the closet/Unburdened hooks and empty drawers/And everywhere I tried to love you/Is yours again and only yours.”

Ouch. That’s the kind of pain you just can’t conjure with an op-ed…but it doesn’t mean we won’t try.


ONLY NOISE: Songs From Abroad

The plan was as simple as it was unprepared; utilize my two-week vacation in Paris and the UK to discover new music, catch some live shows, and, well…write about it. It would be a piece of cake (or, as the French say, a piece de cake). What I didn’t expect was that my innate aversion to planning anything while on vacation – even so much as Googling what concert to attend that night – was far stronger than my desire to potentially write off my entire trip (hiiiii IRS).

You see, I’m a big fan of the “stumble-upon;” those situations you find yourself in by complete accident. Like that time in 2013, when I somehow managed to wind up at a makeshift punk concert. In a cemetery. Attended by patients of a nearby psychiatric hospital and their families. You just can’t plan this stuff.

I like to think I have a particular knack for “stumbling-upon,” in part because I am a nosy journalist who is perpetually eavesdropping and looking for leads. The other part being my inability to read maps or best any skill related to cardinal directions. You’d be amazed at the things you can find when it’s taken you nine years to realize that Seventh Avenue turns into Varick Street, for instance.

Instead of making a thorough agenda to catch live local music, I would let the music find me. I would leave the details of this vacation up to fate – a concept I absolutely do not believe in, but often pretend I do for romantic purposes. Like Baudelaire’s flâneur, I would “walk the city in order to experience it;” though conceivably in less chic duds than the French poet, who rocked a cravat with the best of ‘em.

Despite my brief and faux dependence on “fate,” I did not magically stumble upon a small and dingy jazz club in the 18th arrondissement, or a searing disco dancehall in Belleville. I didn’t even see one accordion the whole time I was in Paris. What le fuck? Was the music angle of my trip stamped out for good? Not exactly…

There was one thing I hadn’t considered while embarking on my journey: music is unavoidable. It’s actually impossible to go anywhere without hearing something – a car radio blaring, a subway busker, a woman singing on the balcony next door. Or, in my case, a variety of mundane and accidental situations that perhaps don’t have the headline power of “In-patient Punks at Graveyard,” but are memorable nonetheless.

So here are my travel scraps; my sonic sampling platter that may seem unremarkable, but will always signify those two lovely weeks spent alone and abroad. The first notable event was a result of my traveling trademark: getting horribly lost. For like, five hours. During this unintentional excursion I somehow managed to wind up smack dab in the Paris Gay Pride Parade. Twice. Two times, separated by two hours, I turned a corner, and was wedged in a river of half-naked bodies covered in glitter and sweat. Not so bad, you say…unless you’re claustrophobic, such as myself.

Naturally music was blaring from every parade float, and there were moments when the mass of limbs felt like one big, mobile dance party. The playlist? Tous Américains. There was a strange call-and-response adaptation of Del Shannon’s 1961 number, “My Little Runaway,” a healthy dose of Riri, and 4 Non Blondes’ only hit, “What’s Up,” shouted by a throng of women holding hand-painted signs. My personal favorite parade song, however, was the Adele vs. Eurythmics mash-up that blared down Rue de Rivoli. The smash-hit hybrid expertly entwined Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This.” (According to the Internet, this version is called “Rolling In Sweet Dreams.”) The mash-up was oddly stirring, and admittedly gave me chills considering the context. The mash-up was empowering – which is a sentence I thought I’d never write.

Because I often experience music in a public sphere (concerts, clubs, and now parades), it is easy to forget that some of my most prized musical discoveries transpired in a private setting. So many songs and artists have come to my attention at small house parties, in the passenger seat of a car, or in this case, sitting in my French friend Mathieu’s petit apartment the day after the accidental parade attendance, playing that age-old game of “what should we listen to?”

This was tricky – Mathieu and I have diametrically opposing tastes in music. He makes beats and loves chart-topping rap. We also barely speak each other’s language. Fortunately, sharing and enjoying music has no linguistic boundary. The most polarizing aspect in this is exchange was the taste barrier; there’s something about playing music for someone with a different sonic palate that suddenly makes you question all of the songs you love. Perhaps it is a flaw of the over-empathetic, but I begin to hear my beloved music through their ears, predicting all of the things they might dislike about it. I squirmed while playing him Suicide (super accessible), Pavement, and Maribou State, and Mathieu seemed…politely disinterested. “Ok,” I said (which is fortunately the same in French), “your turn.”

Mathieu’s offering was the Belgian Congolese rapper Damso, who’s 2017 LP Ipséité struck me with its equal propensity for darkness and melody. Naturally I have no fucking clue what Damso is rapping about (though Mathieu assures me he is one of the few “self-deprecating” rappers), I can enjoy his music without the burden of words. Ipséité has been on heavy rotation ever since I left Europe.

Thinking back a few years, I realize that every time I visit Paris Mathieu manages to turn me on to at least one intriguing rap artist. In 2013 it was the oddball South African Okmalumkoolkat, and now, it’s Damso. I’d like to think that I’ve enlightened my friend to some more guitar-based tunes in turn – but I highly doubt it.

If Paris taught me I could be tenderized by a Top 40 mash-up and moved by a rapper I can’t understand, the UK would reveal far darker truths. Namely: my disturbing and newfound affection for DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean.” DNCE is the dance-rock, Jonas Brothers’ spinoff group formed by Joe Jonas, drummer Jack Lawless, Cole Whittle, and JinJoo Lee in 2015.

Jonas was ostensibly the group’s sole namesake, just as 2015’s “Cake By The Ocean” was their only single verging on, dare I say, a quality tune. The song, or, as I like to call it, assault weapon, is terminally catchy. If Katy Perry’s “Chained To The Rhythm” is an earworm, “Cake” is an ear viper, wiping out every other song in your brain with its venom. The glittering, cross-genre (disco, Broadway musical… calypso?) hit has plagued me for the past five days.  FIVE DAYS of non-stop, constant rotation. I’m beginning to worry I have brain damage as a result, as repeating “Ya ya ya ya ya ya” too many times must surely stunt cellular growth. Should my cognitive abilities be compromised – should I suddenly manifest a secret adoration for Joe Jonas – I will know whom to blame: British Top 40 radio.

“Cake By The Ocean” bombarded every bus, convenience store, and cab I was in. It was following me (like a malicious viper!), slowly poisoning my eardrums, trying to dismantle my precious collection of “good music.” Jonas and Co. threatened to undo years of “good taste” with one insanely catchy song that on paper, I would hate. Those bastards.

They say when you travel alone, you “learn about yourself.” While this may be true, it doesn’t account for the kinds of things you learn. Sure, I learned that I can in fact read maps, sleep anywhere, and have half-assed conversations with my high school-level French. But I also learned that deep inside me, there is a dark, shameful little place that loves, and I mean LOVES the song “Cake By The Ocean.” And that is something I can’t unlearn.

ONLY NOISE: Aural Anesthesia

Last year, before the presidential election tore through the fabric of reality like Dr. Who’s Tardis, a friend invited me to indulge in her Groupon – for a float. “Floating” aka “Flotation Therapy,” is a physically simple practice achieved by resting your naked self atop a highly concentrated saline solution. The super salty pool (upwards of 1,000 pounds of salt for just a bath’s amount of tepid water) suspends your bod like a buoy, and allegedly alleviates you of any tactile sensation. Though comprised of rudimentary ingredients, this spa trend can cost exorbitant prices ($75-$130 per “float”) when paired with mood lighting and Pandora’s “Enya radio.”

But what is the purpose of Flotation Therapy? The answer might be found in the treatment’s other name: the “Sensory Deprivation Tank.” Aside from sounding like the title of a Ken Russell film, the name taps into a deeper human longing than relaxation: the desire to feel nothing. Sure the tank suggests the separation of mind and body, spinal alignment, and even hallucinations. Benefits of a good “float” nod at the metaphysical – spiritual transcendence that can be accomplished by many trips to the tank over a period of time – but it was the nothingness I was most intrigued by (in part because I don’t believe in spiritual transcendence).

“Numbness” and “nothingness” are concepts more foreign to me than “health insurance” and “good credit.” Truthfully, I’ve always felt all the feelings; and if there’s one thing I’ve never felt, it’s nothing. I can’t help but wonder – if there’s a new age miracle treatment for feeling that boils down to a well-lit, salty bath – could music conjure a similar absence of stimulation…or better: emotion?

For music to negate feeling would be a true feat of inversion, like a baker un-baking bread. Music was made for emoting; it’s an especially potent dialect of emotional language that can make us dance to songs we think are crap and cry during trite commercials. But is there a song in existence capable of evoking the anti-feels? If so, I am desperate to find it.

Just as I was skeptical of the tank’s pledge of “sensory deprivation,” I doubted I could find a song, let alone an entire record, that would act as an aural anesthetic, an antidote to pop’s poisonous love songs, rap’s wrath, and disco’s boogie. But despite my suspicion, I knew right where to start looking: the ambient soundscape. After all, what better to numb ourselves with than the a-rhythmic, a-melodic wanderings of the ambient-electronic canon? I set myself up for a series of highly subjective, uncontrolled tests after a period of distress when even listening to the new Harry Styles single would make me weep (and not because it’s bad).

I first selected a couple of records – my “test drugs.” Then, during a moment of particularly intense emotion, I would pop one of my pills and see what happened. The first tablet to swallow was William Basinski’s groundbreaking Disintegration Loops. In making this four-album saga, Basinski recorded fragments of ambient music through a tape loop that captured the gradual deterioration of the tape itself – the subtle corrosion of the magnetic strip barely audible, but somehow still palpable to the listener. The result is a somnolent meditation on repetition, impermanence, and decay. It is a beautiful and delicate work that could probably benefit someone with insomnia, but that wasn’t exactly my problem. Sure, “somnolent meditation” and delicate beauty sound all good and anesthetizing, but then I thought about it a bit more: the Disintegration Loops are literally the sound of something (though tape) dying. Dying is sad. Sad is an emotion. Next.

Surely I could turn to my trusty No Wave hero Glenn Branca for a good shot of sonic Novocain – he doesn’t even believe in melody! I swallowed the eccentric composer’s 1981 album The Ascension like a fistful of Advil, and awaited its sweet relief. Unfortunately, The Ascension goes down a bit differently when you’re having an off day, and though I’m all for aggressive music, the record should perhaps be labeled thus:

“Side effects of listening to The Ascension during a period of emotional distress may include: discordant notes, furious drumming, agitation, crashing synth-cymbals, blood-boiling rage, satanic distortion, terror, and face melting guitar solos.”

I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks. William Basinski was too soft. Glenn Branca, too hard. Where was my happy medium? And by happy medium, I mean complete and utter nothingness.

I trudged through countless artists; Michael Gordon, Nils Frahm, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Oneohtrix Point Never – each sound, though wildly unconventional, still managed to stoke that pesky human defect: feeling. I was about to call it quits on my quest…and then I remembered his name.

Steve. Reich. If I had taken in Basinski and Branca like vitamins, maybe it was time to inject myself with Reich’s 1976’s masterpiece Music For 18 Musicians. Reich has long been a pioneer of minimal music, and it’s silly I didn’t turn to his catalog for my little experiment sooner. Could his compositions truly make me comfortably numb?

The answer, at long last, was yes. I had found the song to feel nothing to.

Music For 18 Musicians, though technically an album, really functions as an unyielding 59-minute song. Its continuous nature (there isn’t one breath of silence in the entire record) is necessary for optimal catharsis, because while music is the space between the notes, those spaces can destroy you. Space allows for thought, and thought is no damn good when you’re trying to sedate emotion. Music For 18 Musicians on the other hand, is so relentless, so packed with notes, that your brain is constantly trying to keep up with them, and has no capacity for wandering thought. Perfect.

When looking into the history of Music For 18 Musicians, I found that Reich was inspired by Psychoacoustics, which is the scientific study of our psychological and physiological response to sound (noise, speech, and music). Knowing this I feel a bit less nutty for reacting in such an intense way to Reich’s piece. Perhaps he wanted to offer the ability to momentarily transcend sentiment in the same way Flotation Therapy seeks to transcend sensation. Maybe more than an aural anesthetic, Music For 18 Musicians is an antibiotic, obliterating the good and bad bacteria simultaneously, destroying all cells in its path. Like a natural disaster, it has no emotional motive; its dense mass is purely self-perpetuating.

Aside from being the anthem for neutrality, I must say: Music For 18 Musicians is also the best break-up record of all time – if you’re actually trying to get over the break-up, that is. Trust me, I’ve tried all the others, and a year ago my heartbreak playlist would be wildly different. I’ve bathed in Muddy Waters and drank Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.” I’ve anointed myself with Nick Cave’s rage and drowned myself in the cold cruelty of Smog. But all they’re good for is salting the wound. Now, I don’t want a Hank Williams Band-Aid… I want a Steve Reich IV drip.

So what do you do when you’ve found the perfect drug? Get it approved by the FDA, patent it, and stock up. But the problem with any medication is twofold. Firstly, the effects wear off after a while, and secondly, you tend to build up a tolerance. Sure, the flotation tank and Steve Reich can suspend you in salty and sonic pools of beautiful nothingness – they can even eviscerate the pain for a whole hour. But what do you do for the remaining twenty-three, when you can’t be naked in a bath or listening to music? I guess therein lies the real experiment.

ONLY NOISE: A Femme’s Guide To Northside

The first step is acceptance: you can’t see it all. It’s just not possible. The second step is showing up. But there are many more steps to doing Northside Festival right – and I don’t mean right as opposed to wrong – I simply mean having fun, staying hydrated, and not passing out from a sudden drop in your blood sugar. Take it from someone who makes a living overbooking herself at events like these (I once thought I could manage seeing six shows in one night at CMJ… after working from 9-6).

With over 350 bands playing in four days, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed, stressed, and eventually hammered with buddies to calm your nerves; the next thing you know, you missed that New Zealand artist you’ve been waiting to see for two years, who probably won’t return for yet another two years.

Sure, going to a festival like Northside is fun – but it also takes physical and emotional stamina, focus, comfy shoes, a robust bladder (or a willingness to pee in public,) and so much more. Because I can’t physically deliver care packages with tiny water bottles and snack-size packages of Goldfish to every single one of you (though I wish I could), I give you my tips for staying alert, alive, and having fun during this four-day music extravaganza.

1) Make a Plan.

First thing’s first: make a list of ALL the bands you want to see at Northside. Now chop that list in half. Now chop that list in half. If you don’t work during the days, my guess is you can swing between four and six shows a day. If, like me, you have a 9-5, it might be wise to stick to a 3-show maximum per night to stave off utter exhaustion. Got your list? Good. Now go to Google Maps. Make a route for each day of the festival; your chronological trajectory following the set times and venue locations. Obviously you can do this on your phone, but if you’re a luddite such as myself, you can print your map out, and draw on it like a treasure-hunting pirate, or disturbed toddler. (I KNOW I can just use the Google Maps app on my handheld talky computer, ok? I just like carrying paper!)

Whether you are in touch with touchscreen technology, or like pretending you’re Indiana Jones on a quest for the Holy Grail, getting your coordinates down and planning a path will definitely help you maximize the gigs you see.

2) Bring snacks.

Unless you like spending unnecessary cash on overpriced food truck items, or enjoy nearly fainting/murdering someone due to low blood sugar, I highly advise you stow away some treats in your tiny backpack. If you’re traveling sans purse, get creatively invasive with your undergarments – you’d be amazed at the places you can hide a Kind Bar. But seriously – you’re going to be out and about for HOURS. You will have more fun and be more fun if your caloric intake is on point.

3) Hydrate.

Not exclusively with beer. This one’s trickier as venues typically don’t let you bring water bottles inside. Fortunately most clubs/bars will give you tap water (and sometimes sparkle water) for free. Of course you could spend $4 on bottled water, but I’d rather cup my hands under the bathroom sink faucet and lap up H20 like a dog – an activity that will never be below me.

4) Dehydrate.

People say “Brooklyn has changed” and that you can tell “Brooklyn has changed” due to all the high-rises rising, strollers rolling, and music venues morphing into Dunkin’ Donuts and fancy gyms. But I say that the big indication for “Brooklyn changing” is that you used to be able to pee anywhere in public. I don’t mean to be crass, though I do enjoy public urination more than most people. (What? I grew up camping!) But regardless of my territorial complex, peeing in the street is a simple matter of necessity most of the time – especially during an event like Northside, when so many gigs are outdoors and have meager toilet offerings. So, if you’re doing a good job hydrating, but have a squirrel-sized bladder like me, squat in those dark, tucked away hedges; that spot behind that dumpster, between a couple SUVs, next to a traffic cone, etc. You can even invest in one of these bad boys, which helps you aim your stream like a dude.

5) Go solo.

For most people, festivals (or concerts in general) are social occasions – a time for you and a pack of pals to gallivant in shorts, meet hotties, and dance. That’s all well and good, but if you’ve never seen a show stag, I assure you you’re missing out. Fellow music journalists are used to seeing concerts alone. I have seen far more gigs solo than with friends, and while a lot of people seem to find that sad (“you’re SO brave!” they say), I must admit: it’s fucking awesome. And it’s fucking awesome for a bunch of reasons. For example:

  • You don’t have to stress about whether or not your plus one is enjoying the music or themselves – because you are your own plus one.
  • You (or at least I) tend to drink less alone, which means you spend less money!
  • You actually meet new people.
  • You pay way more attention to the music, because no one is chatting in your ear, or complaining, or asking you to hold their shit while they go to the bathroom.
  • You get to leave whenever the fuck you want.
  • You get to do whatever the fuck you want.

6) If you are feeling social, take up smoking.

I consider smokers to be one of the last unified social groups in our heterogeneous culture. Their blood runs thick – probably because smoking increases plaque build-up in blood vessels – but that’s not the point! Ok, ok, I’m not actually recommending that anybody start smoking, but if you already do it, leverage it as a way to meet people at shows! Maybe you are an ace in social situations, and don’t need the quintessential human prop (the cigarette) to help you strike up a convo. But if you are painfully shy like me and terrified of approaching people you don’t know, the best thing you can do is ask for a light. For example: “Hey, do have a light by chance? Thank you. DO YOU WANT TO BE FRIENDS?!”

7) Put your phone down.

No one wants to watch the show through your iPhone screen as you carefully direct the cinematography of your Instagram story. Just put it down and enjoy the music analog style. #Lo-fi.

8) If you can, buy a record from the merch table.

Smaller touring bands make most of their dough on the road playing gigs and selling merch. When you by an album, or a t-shirt, or a beer coozie, that $20 is going straight to starving artists, as opposed to the $0.00001 they get from a Spotify click.

9) Wear comfy ass shoes.

If Larry David can make it look cool, so can you. You’re literally going to be on your feet ALL day and night. Don’t make your feet and lower back hate you.

10) Bring a book.

While I do a lot of going to shows, I also do a lot of waiting for shows to start. I don’t know what the hell I would do if I didn’t have reading material on me at all times. I’d probably have to…talk to people!

ONLY NOISE: Come Dancing

My earliest memories of dance involve ballet – or at least my sloppy stab at it. More than actual dancing, I remember the shined and scuffed Marley flooring; that pleated, boiled-wool skirt flopping over Ms. Burgwin’s sad calves; and most of all, the utter confusion as to why the hell my fellow ballerinas and I weren’t wearing tutus and tiaras at all times. Was ballet not princess training after all? Was I in the wrong room?

Ballet class was a rigid environment that, even at five, I failed to see the point of. I thought I wanted to learn ballet…but what I actually wanted was something far less dignified: to simply prance around while wearing a fluffy pink outfit. Why an overbearing septuagenarian was constantly shouting at us about prancing around in fluffy pink outfits, I never understood. So when my older sister decided to leave the hobby behind, I followed in her pointy pink footsteps. It was only after abandoning ballet that my first memory of enjoying dancing surfaced, featuring my older siblings and I bouncing around in the kitchen to the entirety of Cake’s Fashion Nugget and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” I realized from an early age that kitchen dancing was a lot more fun than ballet, and required a sense of humor, to boot.

Perhaps my conflicted relationship with dancing was born of those two polarities: the super-structured, formal lessons vs. the more primal movin’ and shakin’. The former must be rehearsed and perfected, while the latter demands almost nothing of the body. Simply acquiesce to the music, and the rhythm will move your limbs for you.

Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 22 (with the exception of a brief foray into swing dancing) I became a kind of non-dancer. This could largely be blamed on my punk rock leanings, which forbade any attempt at social normality like, say, school dances. Not only had I embargoed myself from musical genres outside of punk music, I had slow-cured and hardened into a person that no one in his or her right mind would invite to a school dance; and no one did… until I moved to a new high school.

Woodinville High School’s Homecoming soiree of 2006 would be the first and last school dance for me. Some of the evening’s most memorable factors were countless Black Eyed Peas hits, dinner at Olive Garden, and my date Kevin’s parents, who chauffeured us around in their totally dope Kia Sedona. While at the dance itself, I almost incited a riot after approaching the DJ and requesting that he play “some swing music,” which prompted a six-minute electro-swing mash up only I boogied to. People were shouting angrily, looking around for the culprit (me) as if someone had let out an acrid fart and its creator had to be identified for purposes of justice.

I didn’t dance in public again for years. You could say I forgot how to dance. This amnesia was a result of a few things. 1) The aforementioned investment in punk music that only allowed for “slam dancing,” in which the word “dancing” is used very loosely. 2) Lack of venues. Where was I supposed to dance as an underage kid in a small town? 3) Music choice. Had I been a tween, teen or young adult in the ‘60s, I could have done the twist. I would have warmly welcomed the discotheques of the 1970s, or the techno clubs of the 1990s. But no, it was the mid 2000s. What was I supposed to think of dance music in a time of The Pussycat Dolls and Paris Hilton’s cover of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”? I had to become a “Private Dancer,” but not in the way Tina Turner meant it.

I began to dance in secret. In high school, I’d do it before my parents got home from work. In college, I’d wait for all three of my roommates to vacate the apartment, before putting on “Face To Face” by Daft Punk, or “Suspended In Gaffa” by Kate Bush. Those two artists were particularly helpful in getting my body to move, especially Bush, whose sweeping, avant garde pop music lends itself to wild and unstructured flailing quite nicely. I would play entire albums by these artists and dance around my kitchen and living room in the midst of doing dishes, rolling on the dining room table, leaping past the confused cat, and only occasionally breaking something.

It was cathartic, this silly thrashing of limbs. But where could I find this perfect cocktail of adequate space and music I actually liked? Certainly not in da clubs of the Meatpacking District. Where does one go to, as Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay once sang, “just dance”? Not a place to be seen, not a place to meet dudes – a place to just dance.

In an attempt to quench this new thirst of mine, I started trying out a couple of different dance classes – mostly because dancing is the best way to trick myself into exercising. Unfortunately, I found that even amateur classes at the YMCA run on the same, overly disciplined air as my old ballet lessons, and on top of that, they are filled with dancers. Or, as I should say, !!!DANCERS!!!. You know, the chick wrapping her feet at the afternoon Zumba class. She wants you to know, she is no mere Zumba dabbler, but a !!!DANCER!!!. These classes always reveal themselves as a special circle of hell, in which I am not the graceful interpretive genius sashaying across the kitchen while holding a rose whisk betwixt my teeth, but a clumsy lump of flesh that doesn’t know left from right.

So I ask you: is there a secret Kate Bush dance night I don’t know about? Can someone please start one?

There is one place I have found that meets my criteria of good music + people I don’t hate + ample space, however: the wedding. About two years ago, one of my best friends got married, and was gracious enough to make sure her guests were plied with ample booze and good tunes. It was perhaps one of the first times this group of pals had seen me dance, despite the fact that I met them in 2009. Though dateless, I did everything I could to make up for the last decade or so of burying my need to boogie. Half of my friends were horrified and confused (or as I like to think, totally jealous of my moves), but one of them got it. She leaned in, looked me in the eye and said, “You are a dance machine.”


ONLY NOISE: Personal Record

I no longer own my very first record. It was AFI’s Very Proud of Ya, (that’s pre-emo AFI for those of you wondering), and I bought it in Seattle with my own allowance. I can still hear it spinning on the portable turntable my dad leant me for late night bedroom listening. The portable record player was a goofy little invention. It was called a Discman, which is hilarious in retrospect considering its makers couldn’t have predicted the imminent reign of CDs and their portable players. The Discman was essentially useless – the LP’s edges protruded from its sides, there was no real way to carry it around, and of course the moment you played a record in transit, it would skip violently.

Therein lies the paradox of the “portable record player,” but it worked perfectly for my pre-bed indulgences. Every night for months I would load up the Discman with Very Proud of Ya (it was the only record I owned for a while), slip on a pair of padded headphones, and gingerly lie on the brown carpet, my head inches from the swirling black polyvinyl. I was tethered to the music physically, but if I closed my eyes, I was transported miles and decades from post-millennium rural Washington.

Listening to Very Proud of Ya now, I recognize it is not a very good album – and yet some odd memories strike me – the first of which being the above scene, in high definition. The smell of the carpet, the temperature of my middle school bedroom…the nightly ritual I haven’t thought about in so many years, despite how much joy it brought me. I remember specific parts in each song – riffs, drum rolls, and Davey Havok’s snarling delivery.

I notice that all of my favorite parts as a 12 year old are the same today. And though I don’t find it to be an exceptional record as I listen with 27-year-old ears, I do miss it. I wish I still had it. It is, for some reason, particularly upsetting that I no longer possess the first record I ever bought. Its absence feels like losing all of the love letters from your first boyfriend. You weren’t clinging to those! They were emotional artifacts!

Ok, I’m an emotional hoarder – so what?

I can’t remember exactly why I got rid of Very Proud of Ya, but I can take a pretty educated stab at what happened. I reckon that one of my very few friends enlightened me to the fact that in more recent years, Davey Havok and AFI had gone the goth/emo route – so I wanted to absolve myself of any association with the band whatsoever. I then sold the LP back to the very Seattle record shop from whence it came, and bought an original pressing of The Incredible Shrinking Dickies on store credit. Is The Incredible Shrinking Dickies a better record? Yes. Does it flood me with tingly memories of my 12-year-old self? Sadly, no.

Since abandoning my very first LP, I am a bit more careful about the records I let go of these days; though arguably, too careful. The level of sentimentality devoted to my record collection can be summed up by that brilliant line of dialogue in the 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when Rob (played by John Cusack) is rearranging his albums autobiographically. “If I want to find the song ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

While I have no patience for filing my records with any system of organization, their origin stories can be recalled with the same amount of detail as those in Rob’s collection. For instance, I couldn’t possibly get rid of the crap albums from any of my musician ex-boyfriends; it would do them a service to put their music out in the world. Better to let them sit inert on the shelf, instead. I realize that I don’t rationally need two copies of Keith Jarrett’s Concerts LP, but one I bought off of a nice street vendor in a strike of serendipity, and the other was a gift from that cute record shop boy I used to date. Plus, one is a boxed set!

The same emotional “reasoning” applies when it comes to my promo copy of Elvis Costello’s 1977 debut My Aim Is True. I wouldn’t dare swap it for a different pressing, as that would rewrite the terrible history of how I acquired the album in the first place.

It was May of 2005 – May 21st to be exact, the fifteenth birthday of my adolescent best friend, Daniel. Daniel was one of the few people in school who shared my obsession with music. We (very) briefly played in bands together, but spent most of our free time lying in his dark bedroom, listening to entire records in silence. On heavy rotation were albums like Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell, and anything siphoned from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. I showed him the raw pop power of Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and he singlehandedly introduced me to The Pixies with a burned copy of Doolittle.

Naturally, Daniel wanted to spend his birthday in Seattle. We were of the few cultured people in our high school, you see, and sought the finer things in life… like the Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop at 4301 University Way. But we also sought record stores – places that didn’t exist in our hometown. And so, Daniel, his dad, and I spent the day gallivanting around Seattle’s University District, digging through bins. It was within these bins that I found it: an original pressing of My Aim Is True – used, but in fine condition, and priced at a fair $4.99.

Within milliseconds of me raising the LP from its vinyl neighbors, Daniel’s hawkeye spotted it three sections away. “Can I get that?!” he asked, beaming. We had both commenced our Elvis Costello phase within the past year, so this discovery was like striking gold. Hmmmmmmmm. This would take some judicious thinking. On any other occasion, a staunch finders-keepers law would apply – but this was his birthday after all. I decided to be kind, to do what any loving, considerate friend would do…

Oh, no. No I did not. I laid down the finders-keepers law hard and mercilessly. “But, it’s my birthday!” he pleaded. With the stony resolve of a miserable 15 year old, I stood my ground, and kept the record for myself. I have never felt more selfish. This memory stings me, makes me cringe every time I hold that album in my hands. I’ve considered shipping it to him, but it would probably be too little, too late. Besides, the record has become a symbol; it’s a painful but necessary reminder to be less of an asshole. And that’s certainly something worth holding onto.

ONLY NOISE: Summertime Blues

The shorts are out. The pasty, prickly legs wearing the shorts are out, too. It’s sunny every day and we’re starting to remember that we own arms, and shins, and sandals. Birds chirp in the morning, cats moan at night, and hemlines rise with the temperatures. Isn’t it great?

That all depends. Sure, we’re in pleasant weather now, but before you know it you’ll be sweating through pants and underpants, kicking your bedmate away at night, and trying to schmooze your way into the esteemed echelons of friends with air conditioning units.

Summer is upon us early this year, prompting me to address my fellow shade seekers. Don’t worry, I can’t #summer either. How could I? I don’t play ultimate Frisbee. My surfing lessons started and stopped on a wave-less day at Rockaway Beach. I can “ride a bike” only in the capacity that I can “cook” – for survival purposes alone. And until they can make a bikini out of a black turtleneck and a motorcycle jacket, I will feel perpetually out of place in summer outfits, or as some call them, “dresses.”

So what are we supposed to listen to on the 85-degree days, crouched under patches of shade while everyone else at the BBQ dances to “summer jamz”? Don’t we get an anti-Ibiza anthem? In fact, there are plenty of songs commiserating with our Heliophobia. And yes, most of them are by Morrissey. The lugubrious Brit couldn’t have possibly maintained that sallow glow by overexposing himself to the UV Rays, now could he?

Songs like “The Lazy Sunbathers,” “Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning,” and Morrissey’s cover of Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach” wink at the singer’s grotesque relationship with warm weather and those who enjoy it. The former seems to correlate catching a few rays with mass public ignorance. “The lazy sunbathers,” Moz croons, “Too jaded/To question stagnation/The sun burns through/To the planet’s core/And it isn’t enough/They want more.” Only an Englishman could vilify sun seekers so much.

But it’s the melodramatic “Lifeguard On Duty” from 1990’s Bona Drag that injects a common summer job with existential weight.

“The work you chose has a practical vein/But I read much more into your name/Lifeguard” Morrissey intones.

The only mention of Moz getting wet at this beach, however, is when he walks back through the center of the town, “Drenched in phlegm every time that I come home/Lifeguard save me from life/…Save me from the ails and the ills/And from other things.” Other things…like phlegm.

Another known hater of the heat is Philly’s oddball balladeer David E. Williams, whose menacing “Summer Wasn’t Made For You And Me” really sums life for the sunless.

Stalking a snowy Coney Island in a suit and tie, Williams drones, “Summer wasn’t made for you and me/With its screaming children and the heat’s obscenity/And all the stupid palefaces from town/Ridiculously fashionably brown.”

It’s a real beach party.

In my defense, I’ve gotten much better at summering in the past 15 years. My black clothing and I have come a long way since our first punk rock summer together in 2003, when I refused to wear anything but a patched hoodie and skinny jeans regardless of the season. I went three full years without revealing more than my hands and head to the sun, covering myself like a Victorian aristocrat.

Come freshman year of high school I decided it was finally time to embrace my Spanish heritage and get a tan. This was largely prompted by the fact that my best friend at the time, Daniel, criticized my forced paleness. “You tan naturally. Trying to force yourself pale is the same as all of the pale girls in school going to tanning beds.” Touché. Cocky with the knowledge that I’d never sunburned before, I lay out for hours one day sans sunblock – and subsequently turned a painful shade of cooked crustacean.

Since then I’ve found a safe space between full-body coverage and UV searing, but it’s still a struggle to exist in the summertime. Perhaps denial would be a wise approach to our collective heatstroke; it certainly worked for The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt in the deliciously sullen “I Don’t Believe In The Sun.”

“So I don’t believe in the sun,” Merritt wails. “How could it shine down on everyone/And never shine on me/How could there be/Such cruelty.”

Whether it is the sun, or summer love that left you scorched, Merritt assures us that ignoring our problems will definitely make them go away. Like Morrissey, The Magnetic Fields write recurring fuck-yous to the hi-temp months. In “Summer Lies” we hear a tale of deception.

“All the sweetest things you said and I believed were summer lies/Hanging in the willow trees like the dead were summer lies/I’ll never fall in love again.”

Perhaps summer-lovers are better at summer love, but Merritt and his Magnetic Fields may never know.

The odd thing about both Merritt and Morrissey is that although they are insufferable miserablists, they write such goddamn catchy pop songs that their melodies often outshine their dour lyrics. So bring the boombox to the beach, and from beneath your umbrella and wide-brimmed hat, sing along:

“The only sun I ever knew/Was the beautiful one that was you/Since you went away/It’s night time all day/And it’s usually raining, too.”

I bet no one will even notice.

The greatest betrayal of summer is one we don’t understand until we graduate and join the workforce. Summer becomes a myth; a vestige of childhood when adults paid our rent, fed us, and all we had to worry about was what to do on Saturday night. But now we have what Eddie Cochran (and Robert Gordon, and Joan Jett, and Marc Bolan) referred to as the “Summertime Blues.”

“I’m gonna raise a fuss, I’m gonna raise a holler/About a-workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar.”

As kids we used to play in the woods (where there’s plenty of shade), go on long camping excursions, and eat ice cream without an ounce of regret. But here we are: staring at desktops and clicking away, still waiting for the school bell.

But at least we have The Magnetic Fields and Morrissey to crouch in the shade with – what’s that you say? Moz moved to Hollywood, got a tan and abandoned us? He is a Lazy Sunbather now, too?

Well, in the words of David E. Williams:

“Was summer made for them?/Well, yes, maybe/But summer wasn’t made for you and me.”

And let’s not forget, that in addition to sunburns and heatstroke, summer also=SHARKS.


“Teenage, teenage/I want a car, I want a girl.”

It’s 10am, and the 1979 hit “Teenage” by L.A. punks The Weirdos rotates maliciously in my head. I meant to wake up hours ago, but the weighty fuzz of last night’s beer kept me tucked in.

“Teenage, teenage/Don’t wanna work, don’t wanna go to school.”

I don’t believe it. I’m being mocked by my subconscious – and I haven’t even had coffee yet.

My dream state has produced an apt song to score the morning. It must have known that I’ve been feeling “Teenage, teenage…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the teen image in pop music lately – and wondering if it is to blame for my arrested development. It’s not the most reliable theory, but hey, it’s possible.

The teenager is a relatively new concept to Western history, and yet the moment it was introduced like a sparkly new car model near the close of World War II, the identity found a home in popular culture. Born in 1944, Seventeen magazine was the first periodical to specifically target this new demographic. Naturally, the film, fashion, and music industries weren’t far behind in glossing their products for teen appeal. Teen-themed songs shined especially bright.

Early instances of the teen hit included “Seventeen” by Boyd Bennett and His Rocket (1955), Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958), and “A Teenager In Love” by Dion and the Belmonts (1959). Of course the trope has persisted into contemporary music, although teenagers themselves often sing the songs, which is far more comforting. When The Undertones released “Teenage Kicks” in 1978, the band members had hardly touched their twenties. When Chuck Berry sang “Sweet Little Sixteen,” however, he was 32 – not so sweet, Chuck!

More recently, Cherry Glazerr’s “Teenage Girl” was written by 19-year-old Clementine Creevy, and Lorde’s “White Teeth Teens” from 2013’s Pure Heroine was recorded when Lorde was still a teen herself. These tracks are just a couple of current reminders that the motif isn’t going away any time soon. And why would it? It seems now more than ever the teen and tween sectors hold an influential hand over the pop culture marketplace. Goliath hit makers such as Katy Perry (“Teenage Dream”), Drake (“Teenage Fever”), and Khalid (“American Teen”) know this too, though their own ages render the subject matter a bit tired and sad, if not creepy. I guess “Early 30s Dream” and “Millennial Fever” don’t roll off the tongue too well.

But who am I to judge? I’m 27 and still wearing band shirts. In fact, I pretty much wear the same outfits I wore in high school, just pared down to feature fewer spiky things. Maybe I do this because I hate shopping, or because I’m clinging to the fact that the clothes still fit (thank you Lycra!), or maybe – and this is a far more embarrassing possibility – I still feel like a fifteen year old. In many ways I am perpetuating a similar state of arrested development as pop culture en masse…and I’m not even getting paid for it.

At 27 – an age already loaded with music mythology and tragedy – you can do one of three things. 1) Die horribly of a drug overdose or in a plane crash. 2) Cling to the idea of your bountiful 20s and become a (Wo)Man child. Or 3) Become an “Adult” with a capital “A.” Follow in the footsteps of my old co-worker, who despite being two years my junior, makes monthly Excel spreadsheets with his girlfriend to track and budget their combined spending. This is the same person who, when I got excited about the free poster stowed within a record I was opening, earnestly asked,

“Who puts posters on their walls anymore?”

ME.  That’s who.

Looking around my bedroom, I wouldn’t say it screams “27-year-old-educated-woman!” but rather, “15-year-old-pop-culture-junkie!” “Hey!” my room shouts. “Do you wanna listen to a record?! Look at my cool stuff!”

Some people my age want to buy houses, or couches, or couches for their houses. The well-adjusted long for crockpots and a nice dining room table. Looking around my bedroom I realize I haven’t paid for a single item of furniture in it. Desk: found on the street. Dresser: left by a former roommate. Bookshelf: free pile in the hall. The things I do spend money on – records, books, movies, writing and drawing supplies, food, booze – haven’t changed a hair since high school. My monetary ambition seems stunted, and my income is in a gradual decline. When people speak about being “an adult” I spin around. “Adult? Where? Do you see one?” I ask, only half-kidding.

Because a teenager’s finest skill is not taking responsibility for his or her actions, I blame this all on pop music. How am I supposed to adult when listening to Tom Waits sing “I Don’t Wanna Grow up,” or “Teen Lovers” by The Virgins? It’s not that I want to hang out with teenagers – that would be weird – I just don’t want to be shamed for my teenage taste, and my teenage disinterest in “feeling like an adult.” Because just like the teenager, the adult is a construct, too.

ONLY NOISE: Wallflower

Self-deprecation is easy. When at a loss for things to write about, I can merely plumb the depths of my humiliating infatuations – never having to dive all that deep (more of a snorkel than a scuba, really). There are so many incriminating things floating atop that black and expansive pool; black, due to its enormity, but also because of its propensity for blackmail.

Yes, I have written about musical guilty pleasures before, but on a more theoretical level. There are always more blood-and-guts specifics to dig into. This mining urge surfaces today, as a bittersweet email drifts into my inbox like a wedding invitation from an ex:

“The Wallflowers – Just Announced”

My organs churn with schoolgirl anticipation. At long last, my decade-old fantasy of singing along to the entirety of “Laughing Out Loud” and the fairly sexist “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” will become a reality. It will be a belated teen pilgrimage. I shall go alone, wearing white and bearing floral garlands. To prepare for such a momentous occasion, it seems high time I revisit my rapturous and embarrassing affair with The Wallflowers, don’t you think? Me too. (For those of you allergic to the mention of Jakob Dylan’s glittering eyes, stop reading now.)

My initiation to the band’s discography, if I am being honest, was not entirely in order. Like many, I was introduced to The Wallflowers with their 1996 breakout hit, “One Headlight,” the video for which was a big part of my sexual awakening.

Whether it plagued or graced your TV set, was it possible to deny the beauty of that music video? From a cinematic perspective, it was pretty gorgeous with its deep blacks and sharp highlights…almost as gorgeous as Jakob Dylan’s cerulean eyes, you might say. Dylan’s charisma was undeniable from the start; he was in a meager league of men who could pull off wearing a beaver fedora and sporting a goatee. A man who knew all too well the power of his looks, he spent most of the video sulking around like he didn’t want to be there…and it worked.

My exploration of The Wallflowers in 1996 started and stopped with that song, but it made a lasting impression nonetheless. Somehow the lyrics, “But me and Cinderella/We put it all together” suggested ripe sexual innuendo, causing my older sister to air hump while singing along with them. I naturally followed suit. It was one of the forbidden things we did while our parents were in the other room, like curse and make our Barbies have sex.

Jakob Dylan and his Wallflowers didn’t reenter my life until I was sixteen, and had long since forgotten them. One day, while cleaning out the CD drawer at my mom’s house in 2005, a copy of Bringing Down The Horse appeared in a pile of jewel cases. That black square stared up at me, spangled with goldenrod stars. It was so instantly familiar – I couldn’t remember exactly what it was, but it emitted a fondness…a weighty and warm nostalgia. The thought that I would enjoy this record at that point in my life was pretty improbable – I’d barely welcomed pop music into my ears after five years of a strict punk diet.

And yet, the opening notes of “One Headlight” gave me chills while that Hammond B3 organ flooded my room, enrobing me in ‘90s alt-rock warmth – a description I’m not proud of. Each track seemed better than the last. “Bleeders” bowled me over particularly with its comparable minimalism. Within days I knew the entire record by heart. Within weeks, I had purchased their entire discography, which at that point was five albums deep.

1992’s self-titled, 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse, 2000’s Breach, 2002’s Red Letter Days, and 2005’s Rebel, Sweetheart. I poured through them all, perched on my bed across from my Sony boom box, reading the lyrics along to each track. This was my trusty method for memorizing songs in one sitting. I listened to them each day on the bus, loading up my Discman with a different record Monday through Friday, cycling through their five-CD catalog (in chronological order) during the five day school week.

Of course I had my favorites. The self-titled debut was a little too rough-around-the-edges for me – and not in a punk way. The lyrics were weaker, the song structure less complex, and Dylan’s voice far squeakier. I still love it, but am well aware of its cringe-worthy moments, like “Somebody Else’s Money,” which depicts two lovers stealing their way through life. A loaded topic for the son of Bob Dylan. For me, the artistic pinnacle of The Wallflowers can be found in their third LP, Breach, which was a commercial flop in comparison to Bringing Down The Horse, but was loved by critics (go figure).

The record’s lead single, “Sleepwalker” is a biting critique of Dylan’s own spot in the limelight, depicting him as self-aware of his “pretty boy” status. Where “One Headlight” played into his brooding, glittery-eyed good looks, “Sleepwalker” pokes fun at that posturing.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had a Wallflowers binge session, and I can’t think of a better time to revisit them than now, in preparation for their concert. I’ll start from the beginning. At this café. I will discreetly embarrass myself, praying that no one can hear the sounds of Jakob Dylan’s smoky vocals drifting from my headphones.

Here we go. The commencing snare rhythm from “Shy Of The Moon” off of their first record rattles my memory and I’m squeamishly delighted to hear it. I am smiling and wincing at once, so terrified that the whole coffee shop knows what I am doing. Before the first song is even over, I pull my ear buds out, making double sure that the sweetly bended notes of Dylan’s Telecaster are flooding my ears alone, and not the entire café. I twist the headphone jack, ensuring that it’s securely fitted in my laptop, but still I feel exposed. I am beaming by the time I reach “6th Avenue Heartache” on Brining Down The Horse – beaming far too much for a Tuesday. To my horror, the guy at the next table turns around abruptly and looks at me – he KNOWS!

Admittedly, I am exhilarated by this conflict of emotion; this bliss and shame I feel simultaneously. It is in this moment of lovely ambivalence that I decide it is time to buy my $75 concert ticket – no price is too high for such a sacred affair. And then, realizing their show at Ridgefield Playhouse falls on June 29, I am devastated.

While Jakob Dylan and co. will regale their audience with alt-rock hits, I will be far, far away, sulking on an air mattress in London. My high school dreams dashed forever.