ONLY NOISE: Real(istic) Love


ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Erin Lyndal Martin shares a selection of songs that jar her out of a sardonic mindset when it comes to romance.

There’s nothing wrong with sugary love songs. But I don’t trust them because they tend to be completely non-specific. The poet in me cries out for more details. The realist in me wonders how the people in these songs ever get their laundry done if they’re always high on love. And the cynic in me thinks of all the bad dates, all the times I’ve swiped left, all the lore about how undesirable women are after 30, all the fat shaming, all the dick pics. But I feel hopeful when I hear songs about smart, jaded people who’ve found love, often unexpectedly.

These are some of the songs that give me hope.

“Miss You Till I Meet You” by Dar Williams (from My Better Self)
Dar Williams is a talented singer-songwriter who frequently tackles real-life situations in songs that address coming of age, going to therapy, and finding one’s place among gentrification.

Bad dates are not all alike. Sometimes I’ve come home from a date feeling down because my date and I had nothing in common, or maybe it just didn’t seem like the right time, or my date asked me weird questions like if I wrote “human interest fiction” or “technical fiction.” Afterwards, it helps to think about telling these stories to someone I do want to hang around. Someone I want to hang around me.

“Papa Was a Rodeo” by The Magnetic Fields (from 69 Love Songs – Disc 2)
Helmed by Stephin Merritt, the Magnetic Fields bring an irreverent sensibility to matters of love, usually with a twist of magical realism, as on their 69 Love Songs trilogy.

At first, labeling this song as “realistic” is a tough sell. What are the chances that two people could bond over their childhoods spent roping steers, only to spend decades wrestling alligators together? But, like a lot of Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs, there’s a grain of truth here. At a certain point, you stop hoping you’ll meet someone who has zero baggage. Not only is it impractical, but it has ceased to even be appealing; instead, you daydream about meeting someone who understands your baggage, who sees you and sees your baggage and says “yeah, me too.”

“Something Changed” by Pulp (from Different Class)
Pulp is a Britpop band known for songs about perversion and classism (not usually at the same time).

I got the Different Class CD in high school and remember flipping through the booklet and seeing the request not to read the lyrics while listening to the music. I listened for the snotty Britpop protest songs and lurid perversions, and then this song came on – a love song written for acoustic guitar. I was surprised, but I trusted Pulp not to mess with me too much, and I thought about this as being a love song for the sort of people who trust sneering Britpop bands with love songs. I love that it retroactively assigns importance to all the little things done on a day that ends up coincidentally being the day one falls in love.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” by Tom Waits (from Closing Time)
Tom Waits is an iconic songwriter and musician known for his gravelly voice, rich lyrical imagery, and jarring songcraft.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a bar alone with just a novel and a notebook, nursing a drink and scribbling down ideas while watching people around me. This song always reminds me of those nights. I’ve had many nights where that’s all that happens. If I’m lucky I write a few good lines or draw a cute picture of a cat. But those nights tend to blur together and I mostly remember the outlier nights, when a conversation with a stranger just happened, and I was excited and terrified to see where it went next.

“Yellow Brick Road” by Kris Delmhorst (on Five Stories)
Kris Delmhorst is a singer-songwriter-fiddler from Massachusetts known for her pithy lyrics and lovely melodies.

Once I was at a wedding where the best man’s toast included the line “now your real life can begin.” Wow. Just wow. As if there are any parts of our lives that aren’t real and everything we do before we have an official, government-sanctioned bond just doesn’t count. This song celebrates who we are as individuals within a couple. “I’m not on a yellow brick road/Got a mind and a heart and guts of my own/Not looking for someone to set me free,” Delmhorst sings. “I’m not on a yellow brick road/I’ll find my own way home/I just want someone to walk with me.”

“Kathleen” by Josh Ritter (from Hello Starling)
Josh Ritter is an acclaimed and prolific singer-songwriter once voted among Paste Magazine’s Top 50 living songwriters.

This song makes me happy. Very happy. It’s about a guy who drives a beautiful girl home from a party. He knows they’ll never fall in love, but he’s so excited to be the one who has that time alone with her, that “only both of us know about.” When you don’t have the love life you want, you learn to make the best of these little moments of connection: driving someone home; smiling knowingly at a stranger on the bus when a passenger shows the bus driver her groceries; standing next to someone while you look at a painting in a museum.

“Reservations” by Wilco (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
Wilco is a highly regarded alt-country band, and their 2002 album is already considered a classic.

Recently, a romantic partner I hadn’t seen in years came to visit and I was really stressed out, which was funny because I realized I had zero anxieties about this particular person. We know each other well and have a great time together. But the thought of sharing my living space with anyone, even for a few days, was terrifying. I wanted everything to be perfect. In the end, he was an amazing houseguest who did my dishes and bought me good bourbon and let me play him videos of goats and magicians. And I did get sick towards the end of his visit, something I feared, but that won’t be what I remember. What I will remember is that even the worst anxieties can disappear with someone who really sees me.

“Unison” by Björk (from Vespertine)
Björk is an Icelandic musician known for her conceptual albums, creative collaborations, and quirky individuality.

Unsurprisingly, Björk is wonderful at writing songs that balance realism and reverie. She has a number of them, but “Unison” is my favorite. “I will grow my own private branch of this tree,” she sings, celebrating her individuality. But trees — and people — can bend, and the refrain continues, “I never thought I would compromise.” When you’re single, it’s so easy to get lost in thought loops about who you want to be with and if you’d even want to make room in your life for another person. Björk reminds us that we don’t have to choose between ourselves and being with another person.

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: 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.

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: 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.


“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: Love From Afar

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They say everyone is good at something. My mom can tie cherry stems into knots with her tongue. My tenth grade English teacher looked alarmingly natural in pirate shirts. I once saw a man scale a 30-foot coconut tree with his bare extremities. Personally, I have a long history of romancing incredible men…who live very far away from me. It is a history that dates back to the preteen era: my first kiss occurred at a punk show (Clit 45, inappropriately enough) in Costa Mesa, California, approximately 1,000 miles south of my hometown. His name was Kevin. It didn’t work out.

A couple of years later, I fell head over heels for a punk rock Adonis at a tiny gig in Seattle. I can’t remember my exact tactics, but I somehow acquired his email address, which was surely a Hotmail account. That was it. I would finally have my mohawked boyfriend I had so longed for throughout my rural Washington existence. I gathered the courage to e-ask him out. He e-laughed, and informed me that he lived in New Jersey.

I don’t want to sound like Ludacris by saying I have hoes in different area codes or anything, but I must admit, traveling romances and meeting men who are just passing through has turned into an unwanted skill. I think guys can just smell the unavailability when you step off the plane, ya know? Whether it’s Portland or Paris, I’ve found myself loving from afar more than a couple of times. It has turned into some cruel joke at this point, but fortunately, I have a wonderful sense of humor. Ha. Ha.

Typically, when someone sees a continual pattern in their life, they might try to thwart it, or at least analyze why it keeps happening. But I tend to just score the phenomena with appropriate songs. Which is kind of like giving someone who’s starving an issue of Food and Wine Magazine instead of making them a sandwich?

I guess my point is, this week I am saluting the long-distance love song. We’ve all missed someone, so naturally, there is an entire canon of music to nurse such a woe. One of my favorites is the unbearably obvious, but undeniably good “So Far Away” by Carole King from her groundbreaking LP Tapestry. “So Far Away” exists within a mini-theme of the album, which includes “Way Over Yonder” and “Where You Lead-” tracks that likewise express a longing for faraway things. “So Far” takes the trophy, however, as it is the only song with the required dose of hopelessness lyrically. What can I say? I don’t like half-assed sad. Might as well do it right. King laments her solitude by wryly asking: “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” No, Carole. No.

The great thing about love songs is their ability to be universal, but also to be even more universal in their specificity. I am in utter admiration not only of the fact that humans went beyond inventing the wheel and created the love song, but also that there are so many iterations and sub-genres of such. I can’t think of a more absurdly specific faraway tune than “Come Back From San Francisco” by the morose Magnetic Fields, who excel at writing a particular brand of pathetic love song. It is probably one of the most alienating miss-you tunes, with its nods to bisexual, novelist city dwellers, but, being a pretentious music journalist living in New York City, I’d say it’s right on the money for me.

When we zoom in on music this much or any medium for that matter, there is always the risk of ruining things; it’s fair to ask if we are accidentally taking the soul out of it all. Getting too close can expose blemishes, imperfections, or worse, isolate the beautiful abstract from the mere molecules; like reminding someone that gravy is essentially boiled blood. I want to keep these songs categorized as gravy, but I like to dig a little deeper. I like to see how the gravy is made.

It is funny, and also frustrating that though all of humanity has felt the sensation of longing for another person, only a select few of us can distill that longing into an art form. Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, and of course, songwriters write songs. The rest of us make playlists, mixtapes, CDs. They are in a way collages or monuments of found objects…a kind of paint-by-numbers for those of us who know dick about color theory. It feels democratic, even like recycling to use someone else’s song to express your adoration for a far off lover. Because in the age of text and email, how do you expect to get your weightiest points across? Emoji?

There is, of course, snail mail, but what’s in a letter that hasn’t been bested by Tom Waits singing about slow-grown love in “Long Way Home” off of Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards? Chances are what you pen in that note won’t be sticking in anyone’s head the way a ballad can. To forge an association between yourself and a song in someone else’s mind is like snagging free ad space during the Super Bowl. That sounds creepy, but you know what I mean.

A classic phrase for the faraway is: “Wish You Were Here,” but I will spare you the Pink Floyd and Incubus references. Nick Lowe has his own version from 1983’s The Abominable Showman, which could sneak by as an upbeat number if it weren’t for the subject matter. Because despite all of the puns and harmonies, there is still a lack that can only be answered thus: “having said that my dear/how I wish that you were here.”

Of course, at the end of the day, someone has to offer a solution to all of this wanting. Who better to lay down a piece of his mind than Bob Dylan, who closes 1969’s Nashville Skyline with one of my favorite songs in this category, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” It is the quintessential, end-of-the-romantic-comedy song, in which the protagonist disrupts some form of transportation to spend at least a little more time with the object of their affection. In movies, it’s usually a plane. With Dylan, it’s obviously a train.

“Throw my ticket out the window/Throw my suitcase out there too/Throw my troubles out the door/I don’t need them anymore/’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.

I should have left this town this morning/But it was more than I could do/Oh, your love comes on so strong/And I’ve waited all day long/For tonight when I’ll be staying here with you.”

It’s the end we all hope for, but that few can afford. Finding a new suitcase and train ticket were obviously within Dylan’s realm of financial capabilities. But I’d like to end with this one, because despite the rest, it’s the one song within this hyper-specific class that at the very least offers a modicum of hope…that maybe throwing caution, and one’s worldly possessions to the literal wind and living off impulse is a very good idea. That remains to be seen, but at least we can commiserate with a few songs before taking that leap off the train, so to speak.

ONLY NOISE: Coney Island, Baby


As the glad hand of summer tightens to a fist, I feel hungover. These three hot months we wait for all year melt us into believing that we can live this way forever; damp and in torn jeans, drinking beer at 2pm and eating hot dogs at 2am. Perhaps summer to others is less slovenly, but it’s hard to be fresh-faced in the New York sun, which radiates off black pavement and carries the scent of freshly baked garbage up your nostrils. Where else in the country does summer = hot garbage? Better yet: hot garbage juice, which I’m sure we have all stepped in, wearing sandals.

This of course, isn’t everyone’s summer in New York. Portions of the Upper East Side and Park Slope seem to be refuse-free. And while many would find the above description noxious, there is one place in New York that seems to spin all that trash into colored candyfloss every summer: Coney Island.

Coney Island was a place I loved long before I walked its busted boardwalk, jutting upwards like misaligned teeth. It was a place I knew from song, as it has been immortalized in many. It seemed to be a perpetual place of interest for Tom Waits, who recorded a salty version of “Coney Island Baby” for 2002’s Blood Money. The beachside town has achieved an honorable mention in Waits’ “Take It With Me” from the 1999 LP Mule Variations, and it seemed the rakish balladeer perhaps knew the place better than anyone else.

Yet the artistic fascination with Coney Island doesn’t start or stop with Waits. The Ramones bopped about it in “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So” from 1977, singing about going “on the coaster and around again” in the grade C theme park. The only coaster they could mean is the treacherous Cyclone, which has provided thrill-seekers with whiplash since 1927. In the same decade Coney was fetishized by the Ramones, films like Annie Hall and The Warriors tipped their hats as well. While its use in the former merely provides a comical backdrop (Woody Allen’s character grew up in a house beneath the Cyclone, hence his neuroses), the latter catapulted the area into cult status. Where Waits had provided a mood, The Warriors affronted with a forceful visual of dueling gangs in leather vests and headbands.

I knew far more about Coney Island than I should have prior to moving to New York. I knew about the Wonder Wheel, and the Freak Show, and Nathan’s Hot Dogs. I knew that it was most likely filled with large women, and men named Frank. But I didn’t fully understand the allure until I first went for myself in 2009. By then I had discovered another “Coney Island Baby,” the classic Lou Reed track off of his 1976 album of the same name.

Something churned within me as I got off the F train that summer…and I realize now that same feeling can be explained by Reed’s lyric:

“Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place/
Something like a circus or a sewer
/And just remember, different people have peculiar tastes”

It was right then that I grasped the elusive beauty of Coney Island: it is an absolute shithole. It appeared that all of the collective enthrallment with the neighborhood was very aware of this fact. What’s more, the contradiction between the dirt and depravity of such a hood and it being a place of magical, family entertainment only seemed to increase the morbid fascination.

“The city is a funny place/Something like a circus or a sewer.” This rotated in my head as I walked past a portly, sun-baked woman, the length of her strangled in a fluorescent pink fishnet bodysuit. To my left, children were running through sprays of water generated by large blow-up palm trees punctuating the beach. Seagulls dove through the mist as old men wetted their balding heads, no one discriminating against the offerings of the plastic foliage. A boom box accompanied a saxophonist blowing away to Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and pieces of garbage floated past my feet, though none of the famed “Coney Island Whitefish” I’d heard so much about, a.k.a, used condoms.

While I can’t say the same of many places, Coney Island is exactly what I’ve always wanted it to be; and it maintains its appeal almost eight years later. When I went the other day it was waiting for me, running up to say hello with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other. I accepted and sat on the cement benches at Nathan’s, listening to “Year Of The Cat” by Al Stewart and innumerable Fleetwood Mac tracks. Neither of these made any sense, and I wish I could say something like Reed or Waits was playing, but I was happy to choke down shameful food to something familiar, something un-Carly Rae Jepsen. And that is what this place is all about: shame, pleasure, and familiarity.

Perhaps the kernel of Coney Island’s appeal possesses the same molecules as comfort food, guilty pleasures, and poorly produced music. It isn’t so much about the overt, qualitative aspects of a thing, but the gut reaction it elicits. Did that hot dog feel good in my gut? No. But did it feel good in my gut’s heart? You betcha.

After waddling out of Nathan’s, where I once watched the world famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest (to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”) in another bout of poor taste, I made my way to MCU Park to take in my very first Brooklyn Cyclones game. Blaring out of the shoddy sound system were soundtrack versions of Disney songs: “Bippity Boppity Boo” and “A Whole New World” and the like.

Because Coney Island can only get weirder every time I go, the game is themed: it is princess and pirate night at the stadium, and there are hoards of terrifying children literally screaming for ice cream in sparkly pink dresses, tiaras, and pastel eye shadow. Large men with robust Brooklyn accents address their families with jovial shouting, which is later directed at the baseball team, only less jovially. As it turns out, the Cyclones are a pretty terrible team. A man behind me begins heckles the athletes while wearing a Cyclones shirt: “Come ON! My daughter hits betta than you!” he blurts. A princess-disguised hellion stands behind me, prodding my neck with something. I turn and realize it’s a chicken finger.

If it weren’t for Princess Poultry I may have stayed for the last two innings, but my companion and I were growing heavy from the heat and hot dogs. We laughed at the absurdity of such a place, and that a baseball game could be so comically bad. “You know what though?” my friend asked. I completed the thought before he could, “we would have been disappointed if they were really good.”

When I am asked to defend my bad taste, in the same way I must when my dad inquires about my preference for crappy bars as opposed to slick ones, I never have a ready-made reason at hand. But I think that it is the unrefined things that possess the most endurance. It is the rationale that against all of the information I possess about the health detriments of hot dogs, I still adore them. I know that Bob Dylan does not technically have a beautiful singing voice, but I will continue to love it. So when asked why in the hell I love Coney Island so much, I can’t help but counter:

“Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place/
Something like a circus or a sewer
/And just remember, different people have peculiar tastes”


In the 1973 film American Graffiti, restless high school students zip around in classic cars, aimlessly careening through the night for the sake of motion alone. Characters wind up in different scenarios; burglaries, burger joints, brawls…kid stuff. But the one consistent element between every car ride is the radio; specifically the station tuned to the legendary, real-life DJ Wolfman Jack. Despite the seemingly chaotic habits of the characters, their differing tolerances for mischief and crime, their ability to drag race-they all tune into Wolfman Jack regardless. His gospel is the only thing they can all agree on: the gospel of rock n’ roll from the lips of a once-revered Disc Jockey.

The kids in the ‘60s may have had Wolfman Jack. John Peel rescued youth culture in the decades after. But for those of us born into an era of pre-programmed radio stuffed to the seams with commercial content, it’s difficult to imagine a golden age of rogue radio DJs. If there was some magical frequency out there playing The Germs or Throbbing Gristle, it sure as shit wasn’t broadcasting in Arlington, Washington. It wasn’t until my dad moved almost an hour south from my small hometown for work that our antenna could pick up the station that would change the way I thought about music, and radio. That station was, of course, 90.3 KEXP.

I am thinking of KEXP now because, well, I am listening to it. Not streaming it online from afar in Brooklyn, but right here, in Seattle. Right now DJ Cheryl Waters is playing “Human Performance” by Parquet Courts. Earlier in her set, Waters spun tracks like Cat Power’s “Sun,” Beirut’s “Elephant Gun,” and the brand new Let’s Eat Grandma cut, “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms” among countless tracks I’d never heard before. Each is song different from the last, abiding by no confining genre guidelines-just exceptional music curated with a whole lotta love.

The publicly supported radio station was founded in Seattle in 1972, originally under the call letters KCMU. The switch to KEXP didn’t occur until 2001, right around the time Seattle billionaire Paul Allen commissioned that multi-colored metal tumor to strangle the base of the Space Needle: the Experience Music Project. EMP and Paul Allen partnered with the station, providing it with operating support for a handful of years. It put the EXP in KEXP, I guess you could say.

The station is now independent and operated by Friends of KEXP, and is largely funded through its audience, holding biannual pledge drives and promoting its donation-based membership program year-round. The weeklong pledge drives are a small price to pay for largely interruption free year of music. Upon first hearing commercial-free KEXP, I didn’t think it was legal to do that…broadcast sans advertising. I figured this must be some pirate radio, Pump Up The Volume starring Christian Slater shit. These guys must be in a bunker somewhere. Surely no one else had stumbled upon this gem. I may have been wrong, but it did feel like my own secret station-a safe and nurturing place I could curl up into.

For someone crawling out of a sleepy lumber town, the thought that any contemporary DJ could possibly spin a Wire song was unfathomable. Not only did KEXP play Wire, they would do so at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. They didn’t have to hide their more obscure selections in the wee hours.

Each afternoon returning from high school, I would shut myself in my room, spread out the night’s homework, and turn on the radio to soak in the invaluable musical lessons KEXP had to offer. Sitting at my little desk it was often difficult to focus on the seemingly useless algebra and inaccurate history chapters. How could I when there were far more interesting things floating out of my speakers? Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, Fela Kuti, The Cramps, Art Brut…I would jot down lists of the bands I liked, later making a trip to Tower Records (R.I.P.) in the University District or Silver Platters to scavenge for CDs.

The most critical turn in my relationship with KEXP came about in that familiar scenario: sitting at my desk doing homework some weeknight…I think I was preparing for a debate the next morning. I sat, reluctantly flipping through note cards, when a storm rolled over the speakers of my Sony boombox. It was a simple gospel melody, but the voice preaching was nowhere near saintly. It sounded like gravel in a blender, like a diesel truck with emphysema, like an ex-convict whose diet consists solely of petroleum and wing nuts. The song was “Lord I’ve Been Changed” by Tom Waits. Nothing was the same after that. Waits has since become my favorite artist of all time, completely altering my perception of what makes music great, and what makes art worthwhile. I think it’s safe to say that that night changed my life forever, and it was of course all because of the good people at 90.3 FM.

KEXP not only exposed me to music I’d never heard before and to the records I would grow to love, it also taught me how to re-contextualize my tastes and break free from the boundaries of genre. After trying on a new subculture every few years for the better part of a decade, strictly adhering to each one with sonic intake and dress code, it was a relief to let the edges blur a little. I was no longer militant about remaining within the confines of what was punk, or mod, or rockabilly, or ska, or glam-I could eat all of them in one meal and add other flavors should I so desire. KEXP taught me that listening to The Dead Boys one minute and Dolly Parton the next was not only ok, it was totally badass, and far more realistic for the diverse needs of the human mind.

The versatility KEXP champions is not new to the station. Back in the KCMU days amidst a heavy indie rock rotation, they were the first station to play artists like Grandmaster Flash, which is no small thing. Yet another milestone for KCMU, just on the heels of the name change, was that it was the first station in the world to stream high quality (128 kilobit per second) online audio 24/7. That may sound a bit jargony, but think of all the online radio platforms that have followed suit since, and it’s rather impressive.

When people learn that I am a native Washingtonian, they often want to talk about music. And why wouldn’t they? Our alumni include Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Neko Case, Bing Crosby, Rickie Lee Jones, Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan, Mia Zapata, Carrie Brownstein, and countless others. But despite Seattle’s rich musical history, it is maintaining a fruitful present as well. 90.3 provides a sort of congealing community approach to nourish that kind of progress. Music is a main artery here, and I like to think KEXP is the heart of it all, pumping blood for the love of it.

ONLY NOISE: Love Songs (Without All That Baggage)

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Love. Loss. Heartache. Pop music. These four things, among others like adultery, arson, and death, have all found homes in The Love Song. The tumultuous narrative has scored popular culture from the moment man could mouth words. Consider Helen of Troy, whose tale could be looked at as a large-scale “Jessie’s Girl” long before Rick Springfield ever sang to himself in a mirror. Kate Bush literally lifted her inspiration from the written word with her breakout hit “Wurthering Heights” in 1978.  The song, like the novel, recounts the turbulent relationship of literary Sid and Nancy Heathcliff and Cathy. A personal favorite is Aaron Neville’s “Over You,” in which Neville threatens to kill his lover should she deny him, so that no other man may have her. Perhaps a bit of Henry VIII in there, no? All of this drama is unavoidable in storytelling because, well, drama is enticing. It keeps people on the edge of their seat; there’s a reason soap operas still exist after all.

But what about when you do the work, and grow up, and want to reserve the drama for your television set? What love songs can you turn to that aren’t jealous, or sexist, or murderous? Those are, after all, for the breakup. This week, while listening to Townes Van Zandt’s 1969 LP Our Mother The Mountain on repeat, a record packed with unruly love songs, a levelheaded track caught my ear. “Second Lovers Song” is, perhaps one of the sanest cuts I’ve ever heard, and a progressive one at that.

As the song commences, Van Zandt sings of waking next to a woman who whispers that he “ain’t the only one” softly in his ear. The male narrator responds by cooing: “Do you think I really care? Do you think it matters?” It might not sound so revolutionary, but if you consider the artistic canon-especially that of country music-it’s pretty damn forward-thinking. “Second Lovers” is a song about acceptance, realistic expectations, and removing the perceived ‘angel-woman’ from her heavenly pedestal. Van Zandt’s narrator is seeing his lover as a human being, not as an untouched virgin child who’d be a whore if she’d ever bedded another man. In the song’s last verse he croons: “My lady can’t you see I love not jealously? But for all you are to me and all you’ll be tomorrow.” If only there were more voices in contemporary pop music like Van Zandt’s, singing of a woman’s past without resorting to words like “bitch” or “ho.”

I was in the mood for more. More love songs that extol the virtuous aspects of relationships, even if that means knowing when they must end. Don’t get me wrong; I like to relish in gritty breakup numbers by the likes of Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello too, (especially if you can’t tell immediately just how mean they are) but every once and awhile it’s nice to hear some sense coming out of those speakers.

Below is my guide to a few love songs without all that baggage.

“Kentucky Avenue” by Tom Waits

Puppy love. Could another love be more pure? The final cut off of Tom Waits’ 1978 masterpiece Blue Valentine is a real showstopper.  While the song is technically about Waits’ childhood friend Kipper (who was wheelchair ridden due to polio), and not a grade school crush, the same foundations of loyalty and unconditional love apply.

There is a strong sense of “us against them” in this track, as the narrator dotes upon his companion with gifts and acts of care-taking: “So let me tie you up with kite string and I’ll show you the scabs on my knee.  Watch out for the broken glass, put your shoes and socks on and come away with me.”  Waits goes on to promise that he’ll “get a dollar from my mama’s purse and buy that skull and crossbones ring, and you can wear it around your neck on an old piece of string.”  “I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpies wings. And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet. I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs and we’ll bury them tonight in the cornfield.”

It is a song that revels in shameless adoration; the kind of worts-and-all romances that occur so rarely in adult life, and so often when we are naive enough to let them happen.

“Wannabe” by Spice Girls.

Though we may always be eluded by the etymology of “zigazig ah” the mission statement of 1996’s “Wannabe” is pretty straightforward and commendable. I speak from personal experience when I say that dating a socially inept log who, literally cannot “get with my friends,” is nothing short of excruciating. Some never talk. Others you just wish would never talk. Critics in the mid ’90s may have been skeptical of the miniskirt wearing Fab 5, but the Spice Girls’ message was always unabashed, unapologetic Girl Power. Their breakout hit is exemplary of that ethos; stating that they’d be fine to take a lover, but they’re not about to halt their lives for one.

“I won’t be hasty, I’ll give you a try. If you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye.”

And who could forget the simple power in the words:

“If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.  Make it last forever, friendship never ends. If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give. Taking is too easy, but that’s the way it is.”

It’s not exactly Chaucer, but I’m behind what they’re saying.

“Praise You” by Fatboy Slim

Another simple, cut-to-the-chase track. While lyrically the song owes nothing to Fatboy’s Quentin Leo Cook (the repetitive lyrics are taken from the introduction to Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise”), the unrelenting loop of words grows with meaning each repetition: “We’ve come a long long way together, through the hard times and the good, I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should.”

“Praise You” relays a dense message via omission. The repeated phrase is enough to build an empire of love and understanding upon, but what the song does not say is just as fortified. Lyrically it is void of so many codependent tropes that plague love songs.

Things you do not hear:

“I need you”

“I can’t live without you”

“I was nothing before you”

Whether or not it was intentional, Fatboy Slim’s lyrical restraint has left us with a simple, healthy, and drama-free mantra.

“Take Time To Know Her,” by Percy Sledge

The tragic tale of a man who commits a supreme mistake while conducting his romantic life: not listening to his mama.  Percy Sledge’s “Take Time To Know Her” is a ballad exalting the value of taking things slow, not rushing it, and really getting to know the (wo)man you love.  Contrary to his mama, and the preacher’s advice to “take time to know her,” the song’s narrator beelines into a marriage with a beautiful woman, only to find her cheating on him not long after their vows.

“And then I came home a little early one night and there she was kissing on another man.  Now, I know what Mama meant when she took me by the hand and said, ‘Son, take time to know her.  It’s not an overnight thing.  Take time to know her.  Please, don’t rush into this thing.'”

Even Elvis (and wise men) knew that “only fools rush in.”  But so did mama.  Please listen to mama.

“To The End,” by Blur

A big part of a healthy relationship is knowing when to call it quits.  Maybe you bring out the bad in each other, or the sex has gone sour, or worse, there isn’t any sex to go sour anymore.  No one knows that breaking up is hard to do more than songwriters, but some breakup tunes are less vicious than the rest.

A favorite is Blur’s “To The End” off of 1994’s Parklife.  The song is a reprimand of both players in the relationship, citing the faults they’ve committed together:

“All those dirty words, they make us look so dumb.  We’ve been drinking far too much, and neither of us mean what we say.”

The narrator goes on to honor the relationship’s good moments, while unfurling its inevitable demise.

“Well you and I collapsed in love.  And it looks like we might have made it.  Yes, it looks like we’ve made it to the end.  What happened to us?  Soon it will be gone forever.  Infatuated only with ourselves, and neither of us can think straight anymore.”

There will never be a shortage tear jerking, wrathful and jealous love songs.  Love is hard.  Being a romantic is hard.  But being a sensible romantic is the hardest.


ONLY NOISE: Pop Of The Tops: Extended Remix


With Father’s Day around the corner, Madison Bloom revisits her dad’s record collection.  A version of this article originally appeared on the site in 2013.

My dad has more records than your dad. Roughly 4,000 of them. And as the former owner of a record shop located in Eastern Washington, he used to have many more to his name. The Chelan-based shop was only his for a few years in the late 1970s, and it was aptly titled: The Music Store.” Among other fads, like men shopping in the women’s section to find the coolest threads, my dad also predicted titular minimalism before it hit the mainstream. Or perhaps the moniker was a nod to the simplicity found in his favorite band’s name: The Band.

Dad used to stock The Music Store with stacks of pop/rock, country, bluegrass, jazz, folk, blues, and countless sub-genres. A large portion of his inventory was accumulated secondhand, as he would peruse thrift stores for rare finds as well as record discount sections, then known as cutout bins due to the rectangular chunk punched out of the LP’s sleeve. He’d buy milk crates full of albums for a few bucks.

To this day the cutout bin records are my dad’s scapegoat of choice when defending ownership of such releases as A Flock Of Seagulls’ 1986 release Dream Come True, and a surprisingly large body of the Huey Lewis and the News discography. “Must have been a cutout bin!” he always says. Yet the crates and bins were also responsible for some of the most strange and obscure gems. Take for instance my dad’s album of whale songs, narrated by none other than the late and great Leonard Nimoy. Or perhaps Ambrosia’s 1982 release Road Island, which, although sonically terrible, boasts a Ralph Steadman illustration on the cover. He also has an original pressing of A Tribute To Uncle Ray, an album released by (Little) Stevie Wonder at age 11, in which Wonder performs the songs of Ray Charles in his signature, sugar-sweet voice.

Giving the milk crate hauls and cutout bins all the credit would be unfair. The truth is the majority of my dad’s collection, in all of its diverse excellence, is due to his shameless, unrelenting love of music. It’s the reason he has everything from Todd Rundgren’s Runt to Marlene Dietrich Returns to Germany, an album of the starlet singing in her native tongue over Burt Bacharach’s orchestra. It’s the reason he has Tom Waits’ first seven albums, and T-Bone Burnett’s first two. He owns every record Harry Nilsson released, and as much of The Kinks’ output he could locate. He has an unopened copy of an interview with The Beatles, which could probably pay a few bills here and there if he could part with it, as well as a sealed collection of speeches from the 1934 Olympics, featuring monologues by American gold medalist Jesse Owens, and Axis leader Adolf Hitler.

As lucky as I feel to have this massive archive essentially at my fingertips, I have earned the access.  In the span of ten years my dad and I moved that hulking collection five times.  With each move the records would be put in orderly boxes, keeping their alphabetical ranks and genre-specific confines. A box for Christmas LPs, a few for country, soundtracks, jazz, etc.  The collection was always the first thing I wanted to unpack, as our new house never felt like a home without that tower of vinyl watching over.

I realize that these are niche bragging rights, especially for someone born after the invention of the CD, such as myself.  It is true that I’ve been surrounded by more iPods than turntables throughout my life. But the objects of our childhood fascination rarely lose potency over time.  Mine just happened to have an “adult” application as well as a visceral one. Records, you see, were as good as my baby blanket. More than that, they were road signs for me all the way through adolescence, and they’re still guiding my infatuation with music today. In the same way I fervently rummage through my mother’s closet each year and find something previously overlooked, I spend hours in front of my dad’s massive library of albums during the holidays, eyeing each spine for a hidden pearl. Unfortunately, our steady rotation of house cats over the years has left most of the spines illegible and shedding their own skin.

Shamed as I am to say it, I have spent the majority of my eight years in New York sans turntable, and therefore have not allowed myself the indulgence of purchasing any vinyl for over six and a half years.  Then, one birthday I was gifted a flimsy little dollhouse of a record player; a 1980s suitcase model by Vestax that I refer to as “Fischer Price My First Turntable.” It’s no collector’s item, but it does the trick. Ever since then I’ve allowed myself the occasional purchase-an occasional purchase which has swiftly escalated to weekly purchases, a subscription to a monthly vinyl club, and the slow but steady transplantation of my original collection in Washington to my growing one in Brooklyn.

One time, while selecting some records to take back to New York from the small corner my collection occupies in my dad’s shelving unit, I noticed something amiss.  Dad had filed a handful of-go figure-my favorite albums in with his behemoth pop/rock section. As I started plucking my copy of Wire’s And Here It Is Again…Wire from the W’s he caught me. This immediately spawned an argument about whether the album was in fact mine, gifted to me by my mother, or his from before they were married-a promo copy from the Music Store days.  I was tempted to challenge pops to name five Wire songs as proof that he even liked them, but instead simply pleaded, saying it was one of my favorite records of all time. This ended up being far more effective.

When my parents separated 18 years ago the retrieval of records was a painful order of business. Was that copy of The Pretenders’ first LP mom’s or dad’s?  What about The Specials, or Hunky Dory? These disputes still surface, but I like to look on the bright side, which bears a simple fact: my parents have amazing taste in music. What if they were bickering about who ended up with the Kenny G record? Things could be worse.

He may not own a record store, or play in a country rock band, or wear navy suede cowboy shirts anymore, but my father has reintegrated music into his life in a whole new way. He never stopped writing music, or listening to music, or loving music, but now he nurtures the music of others in the restaurant-cum-club he owns with his wife. It has become a welcoming home to many Northwestern artists in its two years as a Bloom establishment. The bistro is just one more facet, one more excuse to talk about music, which we do more than anything, sending each other songs via email and watching the ever-impressive musical career of my older sister.

Recently I asked him what some of his most prized records are.

“Wow, that’s kind of a tough one,” he texted, responding almost immediately after with “of course my Harry Nilsson collection would come to mind. I also think my Mills Brothers collection and my collection of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli are treasures.”  The former two were easy guesses, and yet I had no idea he even had Django Reinhardt or Grappelli on wax.  I suppose that is the constant allure of his collection.

A few months ago, my dad and I were on the phone, and I expressed to him a conundrum I often find myself in while record shopping.  “It’s like, I want to own Astral Weeks on vinyl, but I’d feel stupid buying it,” I said.   “Because you already have it, and then someday I will inherit all of your records, and then I will have two copies of Astral Weeks.” 

They will all be yours soon enough,” he replied, sounding oddly resolved.

“Hey!” I barked.  “Don’t talk like that!  Jesus.  I’ll just buy a copy!”

“Oh, no I don’t mean that,” he laughed.  “I mean when Sharon and I pick up and move to France one day.  I don’t want to move all that shit again.”