I am not a religious person but if the world was in fact created by a deity there is no doubt in my mind that the deity in question was a female. Women produce life; men play a part but we tend to exaggerate our role in the production of life. A woman created the universe and She was pleased with the slow unveiling of everything. She was most certainly patient and a nurturer (what would’ve been the hurry back then anyway?). If a man created the universe it would have been instant chaos right away. He would’ve tinkered obsessively: T-Rexs with wings and chickens the size of lions, women with six breasts. The first stock market would have been started twenty millenia before the birth of Jesus, who would have been part dragon because why the hell not.
A woman created the universe and She was repaid with contempt by men with inferiority complexes and minds defined by revisionism. Is it any wonder that it was men who came up with the “only men are allowed to read” rule and made themselves the only gender capable of transcribing the word of “God” back in the day? Men are builders in life, women are deliverers of life. I digress.
I am not a religious person but if the world was in fact created by a deity there is no doubt in my mind that the deity in question was a female because I have heard it said and seen it written in different ways many times that Aretha Franklin has the voice of God, and this statement is one hundred thousand percent true. And men don’t typically think that a woman’s voice should represent them, in song or in life.
Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis TN in 1942. Her father was a Baptist minister who built his own church and would eventually become friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Aretha started singing at the church at age 10, which was the same year her mother died. By age 18 she had been discovered by John Hammond at Columbia, who was convinced he had found the greatest singer since Billie Holiday—something that Hammond was in a unique position to lay claim to as he had discovered Holiday when she was 18 also.
By any normal measure Franklin’s years at Columbia were strong but she generated no consistent hit singles at a time when generating consistent hit singles was paramount. In 1967 she signed with Atlantic and Jerry Wexler and this marked her ascension to the well-deserved monikers “Queen of Soul” and “Voice of God.” Her first single “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” was her first Top 40 hit. Her second Atlantic single, “Respect,” became a landmark song. Written by Otis Redding in 1965, Aretha’s cover of “Respect” forever catapulted Franklin into another stratosphere and it almost single-handedly altered the trajectory of soul and R&B in terms of mainstream music.
Though this song revolves around Aretha’s voice, the music on “Respect” is really nothing short of amazing. Produced by Wexler, the music has a full-bodied quality that sounds like it’s been created by more than the seven musicians who are playing on the track. Cornell Dupree’s guitar is virtually indistinguishable from Steve Cropper (which is an immensely high compliment if you don’t know who Cropper is); the saxophones work flawlessly in tandem, and the solo is perfectly soulful and moving; Dewey Oldham’s piano nearly steals the damn show; Franklin’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma, are perfect background singers. Everything here is perfect but still falls short of Aretha’s perfection. Aretha doesn’t bellow or try to play all of her vocal range cards at once just to show you that she can. All she does here is sing perfectly, hitting all of the appropriate highs and lows that a perfect song such as this requires. She knocks you out by being herself and not by being someone who wants to show off. All Aretha has to do is spell a word out and it flattens you and it instantly transfers ownership of the song to her from Otis Redding (which is nearly impossible to do—ask anyone else in the world).
I am not a religious person but if the world was in fact created by a deity there is no doubt in my mind that the deity in question was a female because only a She would set things into motion culminating with this song being created. She would make sure that this power resided in a fellow woman. “Respect” couldn’t have been made without men but we all know who’s playing second fiddle to who. Men built this song, a woman delivered it.
I don’t understand people who eat insanely spicy and hot foods for the sake of its spiciness and fire and ability to make your forehead sweat uncontrollably. I understand why shows like Man v. Food exist and would be interested in showing you places that make things like Fire Death Hot Wings (or whatever) and I can understand why there would be people who attempt to eat 8 of these sauce-covered burning coals in order to get their name on a board, or a celebratory t-shirt (or whatever), on television. I don’t, however, understand what motivates people to eat these things when a camera, or copious amounts of booze, is absent.
I love spicy food—when there is flavor. I am willing to burn my mouth for something that tastes good and is comprised of something more than meat and hell sauce; I have no room for masochism when I’m eating. Nuea pad prik? Delicious. A hot dog with habanero ketchup and mango slices on top of it? HELL AND YES. Not to sound like a foodie or an Iron Chef guest judge but I need a flavor profile here when dealing with spiciness. But then I also realize that what is only somewhat spicy to me might be a four-alarm fire to others, and vice versa. Maybe habanero ketchup to you is like Fire Death Hot Wings to me. I get it.
I bring up spicy foods because I think it is an apt analogy to use when talking about electronic music. For a lot of people, even before they take a bite of something that has the potential to be hot or spicy, they will ask “How hot is it?” or say “I don’t like things that are super spicy.” Electronic music tends to elicit similar cautious things like “I don’t like it all crazy or super fast” before a note has been played. If something is too spicy you’ll be fanning your open mouth, reaching for the water, and saying things like “Holy shit that’s hot!”; if an electronic song is too fast or chaotic you’ll probably think of strobe lights and pacifiers. I get it.
The first time I heard “Sugar Is Sweeter” by C.J. Bolland (born Christian Jay Bolland) my initial reaction was that it was a chaotic strobe-lights-and-pacifiers song; something that I’d only appreciate under the influence of pills that I don’t take that are dispersed at places I don’t go to. On first listen the song is abrasive. Jade 4U (born Anita Dominika Cornelia van Lierop) screams at you right from the get-go (“Sugar daddy, come on and sugar me/I want your lovin’ so come on and give it to me/Sugar daddy, sugar daddy oh/Look at me I’m begging for more more more”) and the music for the first twenty seconds is nothing more than sounds that could be described as mutated dial tones before the drum beats kick in.
A lot of times with electronic songs that are chaotic you get consistently high beats per minute rates with frenetic elements piled on to it. “Sugar Is Sweeter” is under three and a half minutes and it has definite downshifts and upshifts. The music has movement, flavor—everything from the nebulous sound in the middle while Jade 4U sings softly to the notes that sound like baritone lasers being pew pew pew‘d at you. It’s one of the best European electronic songs of the ’90s and proof that chaos can be concise and set to a great beat.
The US has never really embraced electronic music in a mainstream sense like the Europeans do. “Sugar Is Sweeter” hit #1 here on the dance club charts but it hit #11 on the UK singles chart. Bolland has scored other hits in the UK and has worked with everyone from The Prodigy to Tori Amos but this song is his defining song I think. It’s a song that keeps getting better every time you listen to it—if it connects with you.
Like nuea pad prik “Sugar Is Sweeter” isn’t for everyone; it’s kind of a love-it-or-hate-it kind of song. Regardless of its polarizing nature this is one of the best and most inventive electronic tracks of the ’90s. Pass the habanero ketchup and the mango slices.
 While I like trying new foods when I go out and like watching anything that involves Anthony Bourdain or Geoffrey Zakarian, I think I’m pretty far removed from being a foodie. My love of Tombstone pizzas and Tostitos with Frito-Lay’s jalapeno cheese dip probably instantly disqualifies me from being a foodie I would imagine. And I’m okay with it.
“River Deep – Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner is a song filled with so much power and perfection that its inability to climb the US charts figuratively killed Phil Spector’s career. (It only peaked at #88 in the US, while in the UK it was a hit that reached #3.) The story goes that Spector became so disillusioned with the lack of public embrace of the song—the song that he felt was his masterpiece; the song that he poured (in 1965) $22,000 in to studio time, musicians, and backup singers; the song that he paid $20,000 to Ike Turner to keep him away from the studio during recording; the song that he required hundreds of takes out of Tina Turner until he found the perfect ones to use—that his notorious reclusiveness was forever kicked up many notches.
This story certainly seems and feels right, as one can easily hear the blood and sweat that was expended by everyone involved on this track that so effortlessly works in concert to create something that is the dictionary definition of the words classic and masterpiece. “River Deep – Mountain High” is such a tour de force that it does seem a bit unfair that this song never debuted comfortably in the Top 10 on the Billboard charts. Few are the songs that have ever been recorded in mono and uses an orchestra arrangement (and does not use a distinct bass riff or drum beat) that sound this lush, this moving, this powerful and danceable. But this story—this legend really—is a bit of a fallacy in the name of narrative.
The reality is that by May of 1966, which is when this song was released, there was also a big shift occurring in the music industry, namely that it was moving away from being a single-driven market to an album-driven market. 1965 had seen Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, and Rubber Soul by The Beatles released; early 1966 saw Aftermath by the Stones (the first album wholly comprised of original music) and Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys released. The tide was turning. Albums were no longer just LPs with 2 or 3 potential singles framed by filler or updated retreads; they were becoming experiences (regardless if you were on drugs or not), complete with arcs and atmospheres and concepts. Albums were becoming novels—not always in terms of scope but certainly in terms of structure—and you can’t make a novel out of 45s. 1967-1969 would see all 3 of Jimi Hendrix’s studio albums and the first 3 Velvet Underground albums released, as well as the releases of some of the greatest albums ever made (Sgt. Pepper’s, Astral Weeks, Beggars Banquet, Tommy, Led Zeppelin, etc.). So while the lack of chart success that defined “River Deep – Mountain High” might have been the straw that broke Phil Spector’s back, he was bound to become disillusioned in the very near future as even his genius as a producer, or as “The First Tycoon of Teen,” was accelerating towards an unmovable monolith on the horizon. Yes, Spector would eventually produce albums (Let It Be among them) but his bread and butter was cutting singles and writing them with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.
The Spector-Barry-Greenwich troika wrote “River Deep – Mountain High” and Spector brought in twenty one musicians and twenty one backup singers for the song (the symmetry here is almost biblical, even though it was most likely unintentional) and everything that they all did is perfect. The music is perfect, the backup singers are perfect, and, of course, Tina Turner is perfect—I get goosebumps when she unleashes “and it gets higher!” Turner has so much electricity inside of her and, lucky for us, she knows exactly how to release and harness it; the highs have beautiful levels of voltage output but the song is never in jeopardy of breaking.
Whether you are talking about a diamond, an orchid, the cosmos, an exotic animal, a song or a movie, or whatever, if you love it there is a separate core perfection that exists inside of the overall perfection when explaining it. If you work with diamonds you probably don’t think Oh, pretty to yourself when you come across a large loose diamond. You probably put on your little eye-sized magnifier and study the cuts looking for the flawless areas. Likewise with an orchid: there will always be something specific that is the most beautiful/perfect thing about it; etc., etc.
The core perfection of “River Deep – Mountain High” for me resides in a block of time that starts at the 2:18 mark and ends right around the 3:03 mark. The beginning of this block is when the song slows down into a hip-swaying, finger-snapping melody while Turner sings the following lyrics: “I love you baby like a flower loves the Spring/And I love you baby like a robin loves to sing/And I love you baby like a schoolboy loves his pet/And I love you baby river deep – mountain high.” After this the song hits its full-on crescendo with Turner screaming while the music hits its climax, and then resumes its normal melody. The shifting of tempos and the highs that the music and Turner achieve are goosebump-inducing and it does this, somehow, in mono. The music of the slow part of this block is the stuff of slow dancing and the crescendo is like a Broadway number but it never loses its luster or sexiness at the expense of swinging for the fences.
You’ve probably noticed that Ike Turner has hardly been mentioned here. Though Spector paid to keep him away from the studio (both men were control freaks and Spector didn’t want to deal with Ike on their first single) he lobbied to make sure that Ike’s name was credited on the song.
Phil Spector was the motive power behind “River Deep – Mountain High”: he was able to conjure amazing music and vocals from everyone involved. This is probably the definitive song of his “Wall of Sound” technique. It may have accelerated his ennui, but it catapulted Tina Turner into instant stardom and it also represents the last of the great pre-Counterculture era singles. Any discussion of music of the ’60s has to include this song, and it has to be included pretty early in the conversation.
Son House was born Eddie James House, Jr. in 1902 in Riverton, Mississippi. The first twenty five years of his life were defined by religion, a common path for a Southerner at that time. House was a preacher then a pastor and then, uncommonly, became a blues musician. From 1927 until 1942 House recorded and produced what could very easily be called the origin of the blues as we know it. If you think I’m reaching over to the land of hyperbole with that last sentence then you need only to be reminded of this: it was Son House that had the most influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters—something that no one who’s ever walked this earth can lay claim to. (If you don’t know who Johnson and Waters are they are the reason Hendrix and Richards exist.)
The last two years of House’s first blues playing era (1941 and 1942) found him recording music for the Library of Congress and Fisk University. He recorded sixteen songs during this time and then he just abruptly walked away from music, just like he had abruptly decided to jump in head-first into blues years earlier. House moved from Mississippi to upstate New York in 1943 and by all accounts that’s where his story would have most likely ended in terms of music. Groundbreaking blues singer decides to stop playing and move away, lives out rest of his days in anonymity in small northern town, his music becomes lost to history; cut scene.
But with the blues revival movement of the ’60s—sparked by folk and blues festivals in the US and guys like Mick and Keef plumbing through the catalogs of Waters and Wolf, et. al.—Son House became a sought-after individual. A group of blues researchers, inspired and awed by House’s records from decades earlier, finally tracked House down in 1964 at his home in Rochester NY. One of the people in that group was Alan Wilson who would later go on to form the band Canned Heat and be called the greatest harmonica player ever by John Lee Hooker before dying at age 27 in 1970.
Wilson had to teach House how to play guitar again, which I can only imagine, aside from the fleeting moments of frustration, had to have been an amazing experience. (Or at least in my mind I picture it being an amazing experience. Who knows, maybe Wilson was underwhelmed by it.) After House got himself up to speed and relearned his brand of slide guitar playing he became an ambassador, a living legend, of blues revival tours throughout the US and Europe. He recorded three singles and saw his entire catalog re-released in various ways through a number of record labels during the mid and late ’60s. He continued to tour internationally and make live TV performances until 1974 when his health took a turn for the worse and he moved to Detroit, which is where he lived until he died in 1988.
Before I get into which song of House’s I chose for this post I have to preface it by saying this: every song that the man did is important. You could queue up a YouTube playlist or throw any one of his compilation albums on random if you have never heard of him and his music will punch you in the face and it will open a window to a bygone era that still resonates in powerful ways. In almost every sense Son House is the image of what an old school blues player should look and sound like; he’s raw, weathered, spiritual, authoritative. Truly, you could pick any of his songs and it would represent modern music (and America, frankly) but to me the live recording of “Death Letter Blues” from 1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark is otherworldly and indicative of House’s genius and ability.
“Death Letter Blues” (sometimes referred to as “Death Letter”) was originally recorded in 1965 and for whatever reason(s) not released as a single until 1985. The song is from House’s second era, but don’t let its recording and release date fool you into thinking that this song isn’t as powerful as anything he did in the ’30 and ’40s. “Death Letter Blues” is one of the darkest songs in the canon of American music, a song that Paul Du Noyer described as “one of the most anguished and emotionally stunning laments in the Delta blues œuvre.” It’s a song with a darkness that haunts in cerebral and dreamlike ways; it’s not blunt with imagery about the killing, which is how some of the scariest things attain their gravity.
“I got a letter this morning/How do you reckon it read?/It said ‘Hurry, hurry, the gal you love is dead’” is how the song begins. Just House and a guitar, in Copenhagen, on the set of a television show. When he was 65 years old. Three years removed from having to be taught how to play guitar again. It doesn’t matter that we never find out how the gal Son loves is killed, or who killed her; “Death Letter Blues” is an exploration into grief and regret that only a novel or short story could match. Son confesses in the song that he didn’t know he loved her until they began to lay her body down, which on the surface seems like the exact wrong thing to sing but, again, we aren’t told anything about her—What if they just recently met for the first time? What if they were separated by decades and just reunited? You could think about these things if you want but Son is more interested in the aftermath because that’s all that matters, all while he strums his guitar in a way that sounds simple but is most certainly not. You can think about the killer if you want to but it will be at the expense of missing how Son sings about how he’s hugging the pillow where she used to lay.
If you are well-versed in blues you no doubt already know who Son House is and there’s even a good chance that there a couple of songs of his that you would put on par with religious experience when you listen to them. If you are not particularly well-versed in blues—especially old school blues, or even pre-WWII musicians in general for that matter—this song is an excellent place to begin.
Son House is one of the most influential and significant figures in American music history, and “Death Letter Blues”—specifically this live recording of it—shows a proper glimpse of the man at the height of his renewed powers. Almost forty years after he jumped into the blues and spread the gospel of Robert Johnson’s soul-selling to the devil he still had this in him. It all transcends the word jaw-dropping, and it’s also indicative of the talent that a man amongst boys possesses.
Funkadelic began as the name of the backup singers that George Clinton assembled for his band The Parliaments in 1964. When Clinton eventually had to rename The Parliaments to Parliament over legal concerns the Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk) dual acts took root a few years later. Funkadelic released their eponymous album in 1970 and for the first few years their albums, now considered classics of the psychedelic funk and funk genre, rarely sold well. Maggot Brain (1971) is worth the price of admission because of the title track alone. America Eats Its Young (1972) has some of the best message funk you’ll ever hear (“You Hit the Nail on the Head,” “Everybody Is Going To Make It This Time,” “Biological Speculation”).
As much as a band whose second album was titled Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow and that was partially defined by their LSD intake can be, Funkadelic was the more serious wing of the P-Funk music structure especially in the ’70s. “Maggot Brain,” the legend goes, was the result of Clinton telling Eddie Hazel, while both were on LSD, to play the guitar as if he had just found out that his mother had died. They produced songs called “Whole Lot of BS” and “Wars of Armageddon,” and the aforementioned Free Your Mind… was an LSD-soaked attempt at pissing on religion. There was a method to their hallucinogenic madness.
Fast-forward to 1978 and Funkadelic releases their magnum opus One Nation Under a Groove, a six-track LP in its original vinyl incarnation. The brilliance of One Nation is apparent right from the start with the self-titled opening track “One Nation Under a Groove,” a song that hooks you immediately—it takes exactly two seconds for the famous lyrics “So wide can’t get around it/So low you can’t get under it/So high you can’t get over it” to begin. Musically, this song has no flaws. It’s lush, it’s danceable, it’s the perfect song to intro and anchor an album whose sum is greater than its individual parts (the same thing that typically defines a nation).
“One Nation Under a Groove” is a song that can make you dance, rather easily actually, but it’s also the kind of song that you can listen to ruminatively like you would a jazz song. Sit back, gently nod to the rhythm, steeple your fingers while listening to the lyrics. This is the balance that Funkadelic was always very good at striking: music that can move your body while also being really thoughtful. Music that is at home in a wild club with sex and drugs all around you, or in an apartment sharing shelf space with Giant Steps.
Space, in an abstract sense, is a theme of the song both in musical and lyrical terms. Clocking in at just under 7 and a half minutes, it has plenty of time to explore with the plethora of instruments that make appearances all throughout the track, and the lyrics are all about direction and movement—up, down, high, low, moving, grooving—with the core of the song (and by extension the whole album) being best exemplified by the lyrics “Here’s a chance to dance our way/Out of our constrictions.” Space can be a funny bitch sometimes in that you almost always have space—personal space, mental space, societal space—but there are always forces trying to get into your space, either to learn more about you or to take something away. I forget who it was but somebody once wrote that every relationship is a triangle, the first two points are the connections between you and the other person and the third point is everything else that externally hits both of you. It’s unavoidable. You can’t block out the third point; it always exists whether you can see it or feel it or not.
And so dancing our way out of our constrictions can take on any number of meanings. The constrictions could be banal (the boredoms and annoyances associated with work, family members) or heavy (societal unfairness or hostility). I interpret this song as falling under the latter as I think Funkadelic has always been smart enough and aware enough with their handling of social issues to sing about social concerns that are packaged with music in such a way that the endgame is music that opens people’s minds up, wakes them up.
The word “constrictions,” from a societal perspective, conjures up different images, emotions, and personal anecdotes for white people and black people. This should surprise no one. Because unless you are the type of person who actually says out loud things like “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” you will probably agree that black people have (and have had) it worse than white people in America, and if you don’t believe me then I’d like to guide you to the prison system we’ve created that disproportionately incarcerates black males at staggering rates in this country. (Of course, you are free to deny or not believe this and I will, in return, let out the most sarcastic “okay” I can muster.)
If the ’60s taught us anything it’s that trying to change the world with music is oftentimes a laughably quixotic notion. Music is a powerful force and a powerful integrator but it’s not always well-equipped at sustaining movements; the drugs, the bullets, the suits, the government usually break up the momentum. It’s also worth nothing too that the Counterculture ’60s was primarily music made by white people for white people that talked about problems that unified white people. Black audiences always had black artists to listen to in the ’60s (and before) but it was the ’70s, I think, that black musicians really connected to black audiences in powerful and direct ways; funk was spawned, soul became much more polished, and the roots of hip hop were sown because of both. Music that spoke to whole swaths of people in ways that went over the heads of most white people who enjoyed dancing to it. Something like Soul Train was far more life-changing, on average, to a black kid in the city than to a white kid in the suburbs.
On the surface One Nation Under a Groove seems like it would be a gimmicky album: after the opening track you’re asked to pledge allegiance to the United Funk of Funkadelica; the fourth track has “Doo-Doo Chasers” in the title; the album cover is a drawing that has astronauts and space creatures riding an earth that’s falling apart while holding a flag that says R&B. It all seems a little weird or a little corny, or both. But then you hear the opening track, especially that gorgeous shift at the 2:06 mark that lasts until 2:40, and you not only think that there is something really different and fun and wonderful about the sound but if you listen closely you can also hear how truly ahead of their time these crazy dudes were.
 “Just because you win the fight don’t make you right/Just because you give don’t make you’re good” has a concise power to it that could be applied effortlessly to the inherent hypocrisies that will always define factions of religious and political followers.
 If you buy the album today, or have bought it within the last 15 or 20 years the album includes “Lunchmeatophobia (Think! It Ain’t Illegal Yet!)” “P.E. Squad/Doo Doo Chasers,” and a live version of “Maggot Brain” peformed by Michael Hampton. These three songs were initially part of a bonus EP but are now automatically included in every available format of the album.
When I was sixteen years old I had a hopeless and unreciprocated crush on a girl who was a year younger than me. She had blonde hair that stopped right around her shoulders. She had dark eyes and a laugh that sounded a little bit like a stoner’s laugh, the kind of laugh that might sound fake to those who aren’t paying attention. But if you made her really laugh she let out something so infectious she reflexively covered her mouth with her hand (probably out of habit to conceal her braces—I knew that trick all too well) almost as if to pre-emptively contain a snort that might slip out. She had a mellow gait and sleepy eyes and was nice enough to treat me like the puppy I was.
I’ll call her Abby.
I remember that Abby loved “Sweet Jane” by Cowboy Junkies which meant that I loved “Sweet Jane” too. She loved Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and Out of Time by R.E.M. too. Like any guy born in the ’70s I made her a mix tape because that was definitely a normal thing to do back then. It had “Sweet Jane,” as well as the Unplugged versions of “Pink Houses” and “Half A World Away,” on it. I don’t remember the other songs that were on it but both sides of a 90 minute Maxell blank tape were filled. Abby fell in love with “Sweet Jane” by way of its appearance on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack which, at the time, was enjoying a small resurgence on the radio because of the 1994 Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis vehicle.
The Natural Born Killers soundtrack version is shorter and intercut with a lot of movie dialog; it’s not a good version actually. But its revival meant that the original version, the one that appeared on the Cowboy Junkies’ second album The Trinity Session back in 1988, got some radio play once again. I remember hearing “Sweet Jane” for the first time—don’t remember if it was ’88 or ’89—and just being mesmerized by Margo Timmins’s voice. I was 11 years old the first time I heard the song and Margo’s voice was the main thing that resonated with me. Her voice is a different kind of silky on this track: there’s a dreaminess and sleepiness that few singers have ever been able to capture. I fell hopelessly in love with Margo’s voice. I would’ve made her a mix tape for sure.
When I was in high school, right around the time I was making Abby’s mix tape, I started to really notice, and become intoxicated by, the music of the song. I still loved Margo’s vocals and found them to have a sleepy sultriness that my grade school head never noticed but I realized that the music was just as sultry and sensual as the vocals. There’s a warmth and a sensuality in there that was (obviously) lost on me previously. Michael Timmins’s guitar and Alan Anton’s bass evoke images of deep, lush red colors and every few seconds you hear Peter Timmins teasing out short cymbal hits like brief slices of light blue. The music by itself is like the auditory equivalent of making out while all clothes are still on; the warmth, the slow movements, the eyes-closed sensuality. The song hits its crescendo when Michael Timmins’ guitar becomes more pronounced with riffs that move with a mellow and serpentine ease, all while Margo unleashes her dreamy la la la las.
One of the things—I would argue one of the best things—that’s made its way into movies and television shows since the ’90s is the awareness to focus on sex being the awkward force it is that imposes itself on teenage characters. There was a run there where sex was always shown as something that was always amazing and effortless between characters, that, to a guy, you could be wanted like James Bond or an action star if you said and did the right things. To be sure, unrealistic portrayals of sex and sex appeal still exist but reality about sex has made its way into mainstream art—Freaks and Geeks is an excellent example of this; the awkwardness and nervousness associated with dancing with a girl and talking to a girl is shown in painstakingly and pitch-perfect brilliance. Mainstream art has done a terrific job recently with reflecting the mirror on us and our inner nerds and inner fears about sex in ways that I think are more realistic than Woody Allen’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s breed of neurotic attitudes towards sex that became de rigeur for a while. Even the Cool Guy persona in many ’80s movies that centered around high school has mostly been thrown by the wayside. We guys in high school had much more in common with Seth Rogen (minus the sleeping with Katherine Heigl) and Sam Weir, whether we’d ever admit it or not.
Which brings me back to Abby.
I had braces every single day of high school. A few weeks before my freshman year I had 8 baby teeth removed (how the hell I still had that many baby teeth that late is something that my dentist and orthodontist weren’t even able to explain) and right before high school started I had braces on like 5 teeth in between a whole lot of empty pockets in my mouth. One tooth decided to wait three years before it came down. It was one of my canine teeth, naturally—a glaring enamel omission that was impossible to hide. Oh, and I was like eighty pounds. Add it all up: I was terrified of girls and sex, basically. No self-confidence whatsoever; the über Sam Weir or Bill Haverchuck.
The thought of making out was pretty terrifying to me but I dreamed of making out with Abby, making out with her while “Sweet Jane” played; a cover that subtracted whole swath of lyrics from the original and was recorded in a church (the album The Trinity Session is named after the Church of the Holy Trinity in Ontario where all the tracks were recorded around a single microphone). It never happened but that didn’t mean that the dreams weren’t vivid.
Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane” is not only the best Velvet Underground cover ever made. It’s not only one of the best songs of the ’80s in general. Its real greatness lies in the fact that it’s the type of song that creates an atmosphere that can completely envelop you in ways that have nothing to do with the lyrics or the backstory of its production. It has the capacity to project sets of imagery and feeling inside of you that makes you love it new and different ways as time goes by. On paper, it seems somewhat absurd that a song about how people change as they age, sung by a then-unknown Canadian band tucked inside of a church, can make a teenager living in a suburb of Chicago think of it as the perfect make-out song with an unattainable girl. But it also makes perfect sense too as music sometimes has the ability to insert itself into our internal soundtracks in myriad ways. I mean, just listen to how sensual and gorgeous and warm the music is. It can make you think of your Abby, whoever that person was from years ago who was briefly the center of your (dream) world.
 But it did fit in with the chaotic nature of the movie that producer Trent Reznor tried to emulate with the soundtrack, the idea of songs being cut short and having to battle with dialog from the movie. I can appreciate the idea behind it but I prefer to hear “Sweet Jane” in its entirety and without dialog.
Sonny Boy Williamson can refer to two people, both of whom were blues musicians. One, colloquially known as Sonny Boy Williamson I, was born John Lee Curtis Williamson and produced music on the Bluebird label; the other, Sonny Boy Williamson II, was born Aleck Miller and produced music on the Trumpet and Checker labels. Both musicians were known for their harmonica playing. This post is about the second Sonny Boy Williamson.
There are two Sonny Boy Williamsons, just like there are two blues. The first blues is the origin of the blues—the Delta blues, the Southern blues, the Tennessee blues—and the second blues is the next step—the Chicago blues, the Chess Records blues, the Northern blues. The first blues does nothing short of partially defining the soul of America and the first half of the 20th century; it’s the origin, always and forever the starting point of any historical context regarding the genre. The second blues is the beginning of the modern era of music, the second half of the 20th century; the origin of modern rock. The catalog that white kids like Mick and Keef plumbed through and caused them to make music that pretty much changed the world. The first blues started everything but the second blues… I mean, holy fuck, Chicago in the mid and late ’50s attracted some of the greatest talent in the world, to the point that an accumulation of that much talent may never be seen ever again regardless of genre.
Like most of the other first blues giants, both Sonny Boy Williamsons were born in the south and made their way up to Chicago to record some singles and perform live. Both men didn’t like each other and they mostly adhered to an unspoken truce—Williamson I never filed any legal actions regarding his name being used, and Williamson II never came up to Chicago or recorded any albums until after the former died in 1948.
Fast-forward to 1957 and Sonny Boy releases the single “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” an absolutely killer track that can hold its own against the top-heavy catalog of the entire Chess era (which is more amazing than you think if you aren’t well-versed in Chess history). Other Chess artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters made songs that directly altered the trajectories of blues and, by proxy, rock. “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” will probably never be thought of as a landmark song like Wolf’s “Spoonful” or ever be written about as a touchstone of the second era of blues, but none of that takes away from this song’s perfection.
It starts out with a ripcord riff, some easy drumming, perfect foundational bass, and effortless harmonica playing by Williamson. The core of the melody has a perfectly tuned metallic guitar that goes one-two-three, one-two-three over and over. Williamson’s voice is a finely calibrated blues voice: aged and authoritative yet loose, smooth over gravelly. The solo has all of the elements of the loud sound that set apart the Chicago blues from everyone else at the time. The title of the song is a great metaphor for not wanting to put up with the bullshit that external forces throw at us. (I know that this song is not about corporate culture but “I’m not fattening no more frogs for snakes” could easily be applied to today’s work culture. In a lot of cases, upper management are the snakes feeding off the work of others while everyone is terrified of being laid off. When I first heard this song the first image that came to my mind was a modern-day Bartleby telling his boss “I’m not fattening no more frogs for snakes” rather than saying “I would prefer not to.”) In the song Sonny Boy tells us that he found out his downfall was in 1930 (he started checkin’) and that 1957 is when he’s correcting all of his mistakes. And at the end he’s letting everyone know—his friends, including his wife, and everybody else—that he’s not fattening no more frogs for snakes.
Williamson was a bit of an enigma: his birth date (or year) and his birth name have never been confirmed. What is known about him is that he was one of the few men who existed in both the first and second blues spheres to the tune of playing with Robert Johnson and Jimmy Page. And, for my money, he made one of the best blues songs ever. If you are an admitted neophyte to the second blues/Chess Records era I would recommend this song for your introduction. If you are a fan of the blues I think you will find little fault with this song.
This is one of my favorite blues songs of all time; it is perfect on every level. It also illustrates why the second Sonny Boy Williamson is the only Sonny Boy Williamson we know.
 Checker Records was a subsidiary of the Chess Records label. So any mentions going forward of Chess also takes into account Checker, which was the home of Williamson and, oh yeah, some other artists that you have may have heard of before such as Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, and Little Walter (just to name three).
“John Saw That Number,” the track that opens side two of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the fourth solo album by Neko Case, is so jaw-droppingly beautiful and gorgeous that it creates its own sort of powerful duality: it’s a song that could be slipped into a rotation on a Christian radio station and cause listeners to call and ask “Who was that?” while also buttressing the argument amongst her fans that Case is in fact one of the best singers alive right now, decision to record a traditional religious song or not. Case sings this song with a verve that could conjure up a backstory of her youth involving performances in church choirs and county fairs; if you knew nothing about her one could easily assume she was born in the South and is probably your typical blonde God-fearing singing soul.
Instead, she was born in northern Virginia and was in the Canadian indie band The New Pornographers and has red hair and is not at all religious. Because of all of this, Case kind of perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the atheism vs. religion debate.
Life has a funny way of convincing those who stand on one far end of an argument or perspective that they are nothing like the people who stand on the other far end when in fact both sides are hopelessly blind to their similarities. I’m not talking about people who privately or dispassionately lay claim to their sides—I’m talking about the hyperbolic personalities who are so thoroughly unaware of their public hyperbole that they are unable to notice the Nimitz-class sized blind spot in their worldview(s).
Religion plays into philosophical and conversational blind spots pretty easily because, well, it’s religion. There are hundreds of different religions throughout the world and regardless of your denomination you are being asked to take intellectual leaps of faith that Science/Atheism will never really understand. Thus, you get a lot of passionate arguing between Team Science/Atheism and Team Religion folks that at best devolves into the kind of pretentiousness that would give MLB Hall of Fame voters pause and at worst becomes a fiery orgy of solipsism that ritually murders objectivity within seconds—two groups of people lined up side by side furiously masturbating while screaming at each other “No! You’re doing it wrong! Watch ME!” every 10 seconds.
I’m an atheist but I get why religion exists too, and so long as people’s religiosity doesn’t directly translate to other people being physically hurt or deprived of life’s essentials then who am I to judge anyone? I might get into disagreements with religious people but that’s the price of admission as far as I’m concerned, both from my perspective as well as theirs. At the end of the day, though, I don’t think that God created everything; that when you die you simply die; that religion and science can coexist, like other opposites, when you have level-headed principals involved; that religion is better suited to be a mentor and not a leader; that everyone’s reality has a lot of built-in subjectivity and why should I give a damn about someone who believes in the Book of Psalms or someone who believes that there exists, somewhere, a currently-unknowable particle if I don’t know them personally, provided they aren’t willfully trying to harm anyone?
The white elephant in the room is that orthodox atheists are just as insufferable and wrong-headed as their orthodox religious counterparts. No, I’m not talking about the atheists who want Christmas displays pulled from town squares and the like (though they have every right to ask for that in my opinion). I’m talking about people who hiss when you use the word “faith” even in a secular context. People who think that if organized religion had never occurred our world would be a better place. People who are just as delusional as the Westboro Baptist people. Remember, both parties do have “evidence” to back up their thoughts, which is nothing more than make-believe being converted into dogma; the alchemy and mental gymnastics that all polarizing opinions require. Furiously quoting the Bible, or Richard Dawkins, at your nemesis will accomplish about as much as Michael Moore ringing Sean Hannity’s doorbell and asking him if he’s got a few minutes to discuss corporate welfare. Both sides look like fools for even being in the general vicinity of the same door.
On an album that injects fairy tale and cryptic elements into its lyrics and relies on mood and visualization that Case’s vocals can evoke rather effortlessly, “John Saw That Number” is a show-stopper. It is the auditory equivalent of discovering St. Elmo’s fire.
The first twenty five seconds is nothing more than Case singing, shadowed gently by a ghostly chorus and slight echoes; no instruments playing. A low, dull drum beat starts after a short silence which sets into motion a menagerie of drums, piano and organ notes, and perfectly strummed acoustic and electric guitars. When the acoustic guitar corrals the song in earnest and Case sings the title of the song and the piano notes dance around like liquid movements you have something that transcends the perceived religiosity and the grounded secularism of the artist and the art. And then you have the galloping movement of the chorus and then it ends with Case singing solo again with her echoes at the end and, my God, the absolute unalloyed beauty of it all.
“John Saw That Number” possesses a beauty quotient that is staggering; it stuns life into you. And in some small way that is what the essence of life is: to not cling to a side or an idea or a philosophy with such vigor so as to automatically dismiss the other side so much as to always search for things that make us see and hear the world in different and ever-changing ways. “John Saw That Number” is a reminder that beauty is beauty and that, sometimes, the theme associated with beauty simply does not matter. Just let it consume you as it is.
This is one of the greatest songs of this nascent century.
 Read: the person or people directly harming others and not blaming them for the sins and history of their religion that are beyond their control. Today’s mega-churchgoer didn’t sign off on the Inquisition as far as I can tell. But the people who would rather see businessmen get wealthier at the expense of cutting programs for the poor—and back this up with votes? The people who want to control women’s bodies—and back this up with votes? Now we’ve got some problems in my book. If nothing else, in my eyes (for what it’s worth), these are two things that are antithetical to what Jesus represented. I’m pretty sure Jesus was about helping the poor and people who needed help the most and not casting judgment on anyone, regardless of their situation and/or mistakes.
 This is the most patently absurd stance I’ve ever heard. The idea that the theoretical removal of organized religion centuries/millennia ago would’ve resulted in our world being filled with all sorts of objective meritocratic societies is wholly ridiculous. It defies logic and human nature on a delusional scale. If you went back in time and removed corn from the world that would have a significant impact on the world, but I’m supposed to believe that the removal of religion (something that is a byproduct of human nature and adaptation, by the way) would have nothing but a huge net benefit? That something just as powerful—and corrupt—wouldn’t wind up taking its place anyway? This is an Elmer Gantry sermon disguised as Critical Thinking.
 In “Margaret vs. Pauline,” the album’s opening track, you can visualize the two women because of the vocals in a way that reading the lyrics simply cannot convey. Yes, you could say this about most great songs—reading the lyrics to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is nothing compared to hearing Daltrey’s vocals, etc. But rare are the songs in which how the lyrics are sung really resonate to the point of being almost literary. Like this part of the song:
“Girl with the parking lot eyes
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake
Of the make-believe monster whose picture was faked
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her love pours like a fountain
Her love steams like rage
Her jaw aches from wanting and she’s sick from chlorine
But she’ll never be as clean
As the cool side of satin, Pauline“
M/A/R/R/S was the collaboration between A.R. Kane and Colourbox—the former a dream pop band, the latter an electronic band; both of whom were British groups. The name M/A/R/R/S was simply an acronym comprised of the first letters of the first names of the principals involved. The collaboration didn’t last long as both groups soon realized that they didn’t really like working with each other, and didn’t really like each other in general—they recorded tracks in separate studios. They wound up only making two songs together. One was “Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance),” an A.R. Kane-driven song.
The other was a Colourbox-driven song called “Pump Up the Volume.”
“Pump Up the Volume” might be the most unexpected worldwide hit single in recent memory—possibly ever. Instrumental electronic songs rarely chart well in general (especially in the ’80s and earlier) but “Pump Up the Volume,” amazingly, had a peak chart position of no lower than #14 in the US, Canada, and the primary European countries; it reached the top spot in 6 countries, all during a year (1987) which saw the releases of hugely popular and ubiquitous music that followed pretty standard successful pop/rock blueprints (The Joshua Tree, Faith, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, Rick Astley, the La Bamba soundtrack, Whitney, Appetite for Destruction, Hysteria, Bad, Kick, Document). Also, the fact that it enjoyed international success without being a blatant novelty song is all the more impressive in hindsight.
“Pump Up the Volume” isn’t your typical one-hit wonder, not only because the band never bothered to produce anything else (or even tour) and not just because it was a unique song that stood out amongst the standard fare, but because it was actually a game-changing song. This song not only helped to bring the British house music scene to an international audience, it showed people how far the boundaries of music sampling could be pushed when sampling was still in its mainstream infancy. It helped to expand and introduce house music (and even hip hop) to a global casual music audience. Again: not bad for an instrumental electronic track made by two groups who could barely tolerate each other.
Because of legal issues “Pump Up the Volume” has a handful of different versions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard all of the different versions and I’m relatively sure that the only version I’ve ever heard is the US single (which is the mp3 below) so it’s the only one that I am going to focus on for the purposes of this post.
The first thirty seconds of “Pump Up the Volume” has an array of sounds that sets the table for the whole track: a ping-ponging of different beats, a random (but somehow fitting) sample of a shout out to the Bronx, some record scratches, some semi-ominous sounds that are somehow danceable, the always popular “Brothers and sisters!” sample from The Soul Children, and an air raid-like siren. Add in some shrill guitar riffs (the only part of the track that wasn’t sampled), some more wizardry with sampling, some more record scratches, and an out-of-nowhere vocalization towards the end and you have one of the most ingeniously constructed electronic songs ever made.
When “Pump Up the Volume” was released it was simultaneously strange and alien (its strangeness compounded by a music video that was pretty weird for 1987) and accessible. As a ten year-old who knew nothing about British (or American) house music this song struck me as a really enjoyable oddity the first time I heard it on the radio—the kind of song that initially makes you cock your head like a confused dog but eventually settles in and makes sense and, thankfully, becomes a song that enjoys a heavy rotation on the radio. Twenty six years later “Pump Up the Volume” still sounds, amazingly, really fresh and polished. The samples don’t sound dated and the interweaving of all of them still sound flawless.
What was supposed to be a broad collaboration between two bands only resulted in two songs. Listening to “Pump Up the Volume” over the years has always made me curious if A.R. Kane and Colourbox could’ve ever topped themselves with a song better than this one. It would have been a remarkable feat if they had but most of me realizes that they probably could not have made a song better than this. This is one of the best electronic songs ever made, which by default kind of sums up its importance and influence.
All we have from M/A/R/R/S is this song, and that’s still pretty amazing.
 Normally, I loathe the term “one-hit wonder” but I use it here because in this instance—band only writes two songs, one of which becomes a hit—it seems totally appropriate because the band’s existence was extremely brief. Every other instance of the term comes across to me as subtly contemptuous, like we’re supposed to mock a band that only scored one hit over the course of multiple albums. Those bands still wrote a hit single, enjoyed some success, and saw parts of the world they otherwise probably wouldn’t have because of the song they wrote. We should all be so lucky. Suck it.
A few years ago I read something or was watching something on TV (I forget which) and someone said, or wrote, that the nascent years of hip hop was the perfect kind of music to listen to if you were the type of person who loved words. To this day it’s one of the best ways I know of to describe hip hop, a genre that doesn’t give a shit about your desire to hear a guitar solo.
Regardless of where in the world you live, the ecosystem of art and culture, if it is to fully thrive, relies on exchanges between the upper and lower socioeconomic classes. Each class, however unintentional, provides slang for the other. Each class typically has very different musical outlets (think: opera for the rich, country folk/blues for the poor). The differences between both classes also serve as inspirations. It’s why some trust fund kids become hippies temporarily and some poor people ascribe expensive eyewear to “making it,” just to name two very simple examples. And in a place like America where a very high value is placed on freedom of speech, the poor can skewer the rich verbally or in writing and make more friends than enemies. (Which is exactly how it should be by the way: the non Man gets to give it to the Man because that’s human nature; vice versa just comes across as the oppressor acting like a giant, unaware dick.)
I can’t speak for the specifics of these exchanges in other parts of the world but here in the US our history of art and culture changed drastically during the days of slavery and has been evolving and expanding ever since. On a macro scale America has always been pretty fluid with the artistic and cultural exchanges between the rich and the poor, even if the societal outlook of the former towards the latter has been repulsive. For example, Memphis TN and West Memphis AR in the ’50s: during the day, whites looked at blacks with contempt (all while borrowing their slang and being absorbed by their music on the radio and on the jukebox); at night, tensions subsided considerably (all things considered) anywhere live music was being played. To be sure, it was hypocritical as fuck, but what can one expect from a country founded on the idea that everyone is created equal, according to the white architects of our government that owned slaves?
Words can be bold, funny, polarizing, galvanizing. The pen is mightier and all that. Actions may speak louder than words sometimes but certainly not all the time. Words have the power to punch you in the face with better accuracy and precision than a fist and they can make you laugh louder than any facial expression. Words are what are needed for movements, change. Get the message out. This is why we’re right and they’re wrong and so on. An army of people ready to take action is nothing if they can’t speak. The pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement stressed objective education over whim-based action.
When looked at through this prism it makes perfect sense that rap and hip hop were born out the social turbulence of NYC in the late ’70s and early ’80s. You had obscene levels of wealth and poverty defining the city. Crime, murder, and drugs were rampant within the black community. And then… crime stats, which were trending up to never-before-seen levels, suddenly took a nosedive downward in the early/mid ’80s.
The popular narrative as to why this happened was NYC’s “broken windows” theory of crime reduction. This theory held that if you arrest, or give out warnings to, the perpetrators of small-scale crimes (jumping subway turnstiles, breaking windows of abandoned buildings, etc.) you restore an order in the grand scheme of things. And while I am sure that this played a part in reducing crime in NYC there were other important, if smaller, factors that were in play too. I believe that the rise of rap and hip hop was one such factor.
Men will typically choose to not kill themselves or be reckless or kill a stranger when they feel that they are being heard, or when they are part of a group of people that share and talk about experiences similar to their own. Fun and hope can be powerful societal antidotes to poverty and crime. It’s no fluke that black people who were near Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and hip hop’s epicenter had less and less of a desire to harm themselves or others, even though you may think of the two as existing in different atmospheres. If you were black in the late ’70s and early ’80s in New York, rap and hip hop most likely became a new second voice (just like the Beats with the white kids in New York a couple decades earlier, and countless other examples throughout history of newly-packaged words speaking to the disaffected and/or the socially disenfranchised).
DJ Kool Herc may have been the first artist to start hip hop as we know it but “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang was the first to bring hip hop to the mainstream consciousness in a large meaningful sense. Released in 1979 and using as its foundational beat a sample of Chic’s “Good Times,” “Rapper’s Delight” is nearly six and a half minutes of words—the most famous of which are I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop a-you don’t stop the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie the beat. If you were near this epicenter you knew what this song was all about; if you lived outside the epicenter you wanted to find out more about it.
In the ’60s Jefferson Airplane brought Haight-Ashbury to Middle America with “White Rabbit,” which in turn opened the door for Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin (and many many others) to gain easy access to suburban record players. “Rapper’s Delight” brought rap and hip hop to Middle America, which in turned opened the door for Prince and Grandmaster Flash and N.W.A. (and many many others) to gain easy access to suburban stereos. And in both cases, a lot of white suburban record players and stereos. See how that works, the socioeconomic art-and-culture exchange?
It’s almost impossible to convey how significant “Rapper’s Delight” is in the canon of modern American music. This isn’t just some one-hit wonder party song to be looked at fondly simply because it’s old school and, hey, remember when hip hop wasn’t so serious? It was the mainstream representation of a movement, of a collective voice, of an inspiring voice that spawned the genre that defeated rock in the mainstream consciousness. Rock is not dead today, but it’s certainly not the dominant genre anymore.
Hip hop has toppled rock, an unthinkable thing to many people a couple of decades ago. It toppled rock because it does a better job of speaking to people. It’s better at using words, creating its own slang; facilitating artistic and cultural exchanges. The origin of this can be traced to a song that makes fun of Superman, dancing all night, and the bad food your friend served at their house. And if you can’t understand that then you’re not listening to the words.
 I’m not apologizing for our country’s worst moments of racism, but this post is about the art and culture exchanges in our country between rich and middle class white people and poor and working poor class black people so that is what I’m going to focus on. If you are looking for anything outside of the macro scope of art and culture here you will need to look elsewhere. Start with the archives of the late Ralph Wiley and move up from there would be my advice. Numerous are the writers who have tackled this subject more in-depth than I ever could.