When you’re somewhere near that midpoint between sorta high and almost baked–it might be one or two medium-sized hits from good product, or a few big hits from something of lesser quality–is when making out feels the best. Being near the midpoint is important, though, because you nor the other person can’t have cotton mouth or sudden, overwhelming lethargy. You have to have some energy while feeling those gentle ripples or waves move in your head when you close your eyes, in the dark, kissing that other person, touching their hair, feeling their legs move, feeling their tongue (and adjusting yours accordingly). Regardless of what the room you’re in looks like it can all feel like you’re being enveloped by deep cadmium oranges and reds.
I guess this is one way I’d describe Mazzy Star.
I know that somewhere an alternate universe exists in which lead singer Hope Sandoval is a household name. There has to be. Her voice is simply too surreally erotic and dreamy to be relegated to the overlooked status she currently holds. Mazzy Star’s most recent album Seasons of Your Day, which was just released a couple months ago and was the first album from the band in seventeen years, continues in the same dreamy, neopyschedelic vein that defines the band and at 47 years old Sandoval sounds as perfect and gorgeous as ever. If you were to play “Lay Myself Down” off of the new album for someone who has never heard of the band, they would probably assume that she was in her twenties. To say that Sandoval’s voice has aged gracefully is an understatement. She is a treasure, and her obscurity is frustrating for me as a fan (even though she probably prefers it that way as she is admittedly shy and has a degree of stage fright).
Mazzy Star is basically Sandoval and guitarist David Roback. The band has and has had other musicians but Sandoval and Roback are essentially the face of the band; both are the primary musical, songwriting, mixing, and producing forces of the band. They are pictured above. Roback is also criminally overlooked: he played a large role in the mid ’80s “Paisley Underground” genre in Los Angeles with his band Rain Parade, then he later joined Rainy Day, and formed Opal with Dream Syndicate member Kendra Smith. When Smith left Opal it opened the door to Roback and Sandoval meeting and collaborating. Roback is an astute student of psychedelic music, whether it be mellow (which it usually gravitates toward, especially with Mazzy Star) or the more controlled chaos aspect of the genre that Roback loves so much from that ’60s garage rock variety of it (“Wasted” off of So Tonight That I Might See is a prime example).
So what you have here with Mazzy Star, from a bird’s eye view, is a guitarist who is a disciple of psychedelic music and a singer who can take that type of music to levels that exceed the inherent parameters of it. (Typically, it’s the sound itself that acts as the canvas for parameter-exceeding. See: “Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.) As I wrote in the post about MGMT one of the most important characteristics that can define psychedelic music is providing an ocean of texture, or making the minimal feel like a lake. Mazzy Star fits into the lake part of that description. Songs like “Blue Light” or their breakthrough hit “Fade Into You” may not sound like psychedelic music if your conception of psychedelic music is Iron Butterfly but, by subtly playing with drum beat spacing and sparingly using things like oscillating organs and twangy riffs, they are using minimal elements to make lush psychedelic songs (even if dream pop is probably a more accurate description than psychedelic, but whatever they come from the same musical tree).
Normally, when it comes to picking a song from a band that has only one hit single, I go with that recognizable single. “Fade Into You” is their highest charting song and it is truly a gorgeous song; an unexpected radio hit that could stop one in their tracks with its polished sound. It sounds as if they took “Be My Angel” (from their debut album She Hangs Brightly) and slowed it down and stretched it out, but if you’re unfamiliar with that song or that album what “Fade Into You” did was slow down and stretch out the typical ballad in general and inject dream elements into it. It’s the kind of song that the people in Chagall paintings would slow dance to. The twangy slide riffs, the spare piano notes, the acoustic riffs, the tambourine, Sandoval’s voice: it all conspires to be the auditory equivalent of a home movie or a powerful dream. It comfortably resides near the top on the list of best songs of the ’90s.
And while “Fade Into You” is a remarkable song that is indicative of much of Mazzy Star’s catalog it is “Into Dust” that is the true show-stopper of their catalog and of the last twenty years of music in general. This song is so minimal as to be bare-bones or even deconstructed but it shows you without a shadow of a doubt how powerful Roback’s mellow guitar and Sandoval’s voice can be. Roback’s guitar plays like rain drops hitting a window, an intermittent cello renders a bass guitar and drums unnecessary, and Sandoval makes lyrics like “I could possibly be fading” sound like something to aspire to.
A misconception about psychedelic music is that it needs to chaotic and/or overlong (hello, thirty minute live version of “Dark Star”) but the early days of psychedelia, the days when Haight-Ashbury was just a coastal thing, was rooted in a kind of folksy sound. Jefferson Airplane brought Haight-Ashbury to the rest of America with Surrealistic Pillow, their groundbreaking album which included “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” That album also had “Today” and “Embryonic Journey” on it too—both mellower folksy sounding songs indicative of that era (the latter is a beautiful instrumental that leads up to “White Rabbit”). “Into Dust” borrows from that psychedelic sound.
You don’t have to be stoned to enjoy this song, obviously. Sometimes music has its own transformative power for the listener or the artist; Van Morrison getting stoned from water comes to mind for the latter. If you have never heard this song before you might listen to it and think of it as just another song, which is fine. But if you were to listen to this song while slow dancing with your significant other, or while kissing them with your eyes closed in a dark room, this song may in fact stone you.
Never underestimate the power of a mellow song, sung by a woman with a gorgeous voice.
Live Through This by Hole was released four days after Kurt Cobain’s body was discovered in his home (the electrician discovered his body on April 8 with the coroner later officially saying that Cobain had died on April 5). I was a junior in high school when these two things happened and at the time I wanted no part of the Hole album. It sounded like some sort of Diet Nirvana to me at the time, and I thought “Doll Parts” was waaaay too overplayed on the radio anyway. Actually, no, it sounded like Nirvana was being blatantly ripped off—a shocking reality that could only unnerve a teenager before they’ve heard and understand Eliot’s famous quote about poets who imitate versus those who steal. If Cobain hadn’t killed himself when he did, Live Through This would be just another album I would have bought and listened to repeatedly at the time.
Nine or ten years later I wound up buying the album as one of my many albums through BMG that only cost a penny or a nickel. In the time between the release of it and my purchase the band had broken up and Courtney Love had embarked on an erratic journey that saw her probably almost die a few times and be nominated for a Golden Globe. Love’s media attention often felt like the kind of self-destructive circus that followed Anna Nicole Smith to her death. I still didn’t like “Doll Parts” when I revisited the album but the album intrinsically made more sense to me on just about every level.
The album cover: something that I simply saw as ironic when I was younger I now saw as brilliant social commentary in a single iconic snapshot. An abrasive-looking wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl winning a beauty pageant with her exaggerated smile, feathered hair, smudged mascara and eyeliner, and corny tiara represents an interesting paradox about our society with regards to girls and women and beauty in that to some people someone who looks like Courtney Love winning a pageant would be shocking or concerning or offensive—but, somehow, the pressure that society puts on (pageant or normal) girls’ and women’s images and self-worth isn’t concerning. Courtney Love doesn’t make sense to the people who equate dress sizes with allure, choice of cosmetics with sexuality, clothing with self-worth, beauty with intelligence. This is what should not make sense, not the other way around.
The back cover: a picture of young, barefoot Love standing outside. We all went to high school with someone who looked like that. Someone who probably got ridiculed for how they dressed, or if they were poor, or if they said “weird” things—the latter being the vaguest, and probably worst, of all social crimes you could commit in high school. (“Who is that sitting by herself at that lunch table?” “Oh, that’s Melissa. No one really talks to her because, she just, like, says so many weird things.”) My own experiences in high school were that the people who fit this bill were usually the sweetest and nicest ones around; people who, unfortunately, usually bought into the misunderstood label that others created for them; people who you hope will find comfort with themselves after graduation instantly turns them into memories. Courtney Love once auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club and she read a Sylvia Plath poem at it. You A) can see her doing that from this picture and B) knew someone who would do the same thing. The back cover grounds the album.
The music: a very polished album that is not only one of the best of the ’90s, but arguably the greatest and most accessible riot grrl albums of all time (even though Love was not a huge fan of the riot grrl genre). Have you listened to “Softer, Softest” lately? When was the last time you listened to “Asking For It”? Do you remember the opening riffs on “Violet”? Has it been a while since you heard “She Walks On Me”? If this album has been gathering dust you might be pleasantly surprised by how well it has aged. “Asking For It,” which was never released as a single, might be the crown jewel of the album. “Rock Star,” the last track which was really supposed to be titled “Olympia,” is pure manic delight as Love yells at you “Please don’t make me real/Fuck you.” “Violet” is one of the best album openers of the ’90s. I can do without the intro on “Credit in the Straight World” but everything after that is nicely calibrated killer. The personal nature of the album is something that ages well; it’s a great snapshot of a small static era.
Nirvana’s greatest accomplishment was that their success blew the doors open for a plethora of bands that would otherwise have not gotten any mainstream love. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” begat many things, from the obvious (Pearl Jam and Soundgarden getting heavy airplay) to the forgotten (Teenage Fanclub appearing on SNL). Musically speaking, Nirvana’s footprint isn’t as large as their legacy suggests. Obviously, part of this is attributed to their brief catalog and existence but the other part—the part that I think has been obscured over the years—is that their music wasn’t ripped off or stolen on the type of large scale you would expect from a band that reached the top of mainstream consciousness (and who single-handedly killed off a couple of genres to boot). One could argue that Nirvana was so good at making Nirvana’s music that no one bothered to try to steal it outright—kind of like how My Bloody Valentine effectively killed the shoegazer genre because, well, who was going to make an album as great as Loveless? I would submit, however, that Live Through This represented the true pinnacle of the genre that was referred to as grunge (which was really just an updated punk/garage rock hybrid).
That many people, mostly men, insinuated that Courtney Love needed Kurt Cobain to make the album—some even go so far as to suggest that Cobain ghostwrote most of it—is not shocking. This is shallow sexism at its finest, the idea that Love obviously wasn’t smart or driven enough to make a critically acclaimed album. If a man makes a great album using his recent marriage as a creative catalyst it’s (mostly) accepted as part of a normal narrative involving its production. But a woman doing this whose husband is also a musician? Obviously she needed assistance because ladybrains.
This is unalloyed bullshit.
Just listen to “Miss World,” a song that encapsulates the early ’90s musical aesthetic while also lyrically containing the kind of humor you’d hear on Roseanne: “I’m Miss World/Somebody kill me” is something I always pictured Roseanne or Darlene saying. The first thirty two seconds of the song plays slow with an acoustic guitar but then it shifts into electric with the help of a metallic sounding riff, the kind that Nirvana made ubiquitous for a little while. That riff is in large part why Live Through This is better than any of Nirvana’s studio efforts—because that riff is not too fast, not too loud; it has equal parts pop and rock sensibilities. That riff is then rejoined by the acoustic guitar and the rest of the band, complete with the aforementioned lyrics above which start the song. “Miss World” eventually gets faster and louder near the midpoint of the track but the riff that bridges the intro with the foundational melody is a microcosm of why Hole is important and why Courtney Love is smarter than most people think. Love knew when to reign in the sound; she knew when to play it loud, play it soft, play it in between. “Miss World” hits all the notes and shifts perfectly. It’s a song that is handled by someone who knows exactly what they are doing, someone who expanded on a sound and made it more accessible—especially for women.
My high school self played into a knee-jerk reaction with this album in that I could only look at it through a lens that had Courtney Love pretending to be Kurt Cobain. With age I not only realized that that view was bullshit but also that Live Through This was the moment that Love surpassed Cobain in the studio.
 None of this should be confused with how the marketing of fashion and cosmetics and sex works on some basic, default level. Any advertising that deals with a cosmetics or clothing product that changes the way a person looks has some of amount of sex appeal built into it. It’s unavoidable. Nobody ever buys something with the goal of looking more plain, or a little bit uglier (“This scarf looks terrible on me. I think I’m going to buy it.”). I’m talking here about people who are already lost to the orthodox marketing of fashion and beauty and sex—the people who think that self-esteem and intelligence are tied directly to their definition of beauty. I’m talking about assholes, basically. Assholes who usually fat-shame, but also the assholes who see an attractive person and think they can’t possibly be smart, or they’re inherently smart, because they’re attractive.
The first job I ever had was a strange one: I worked at a place that tested top soil samples from farms in IL, IN, IA, and WI. An overwhelming majority of the farmers and companies we worked with simply wanted pH tests run on their soil samples but other tests could be run if they wanted more information and were willing to pay a few extra bucks too. I didn’t do any of the testing (obviously); I primarily cleaned all of the test tubes and cylinders and other equipment, and every now and then I would work a Saturday morning when they needed help crushing the original samples into refined dirt that made it easier to test. The crushing machine was (not surprisingly) covered in dirt and dust. I had to wear a mask and goggles. It was so loud that ear plugs were a necessity, in spite of the fact that the machine wasn’t very big—all things considered—and that it is probably every young man’s natural inclination to think that they don’t need ear plugs for anything. I’ve seen Nine Inch Nails in concert. Twice. I don’t need ear plugs. Ear plugs are for old men. (Turns on soil-crushing machine) Oh holy fuck where are the ear plugs?!—And the power switch?! Make it stop!
But I only manned the crushing machine every once in a while, a few weekends here and there during the spring and summer when everything was chaotic and busy and overtime was allowable. My primary job was dishwasher. I had to clean the test tubes that were aligned 6 or 8 in a row (I forget which) that all sat inside of a Styrofoam block that kept everything in place. We even had an attachment to the sink with 6 or 8 nozzles that made it waaaay easier to clean them all quickly. If you ever get the chance, check out a product catalog for lab equipment: it’s filled with things that make you go “What the hell is that used for?” to “Oh, how BRILLIANT IS THAT!” in 5 seconds once it’s explained to you what you’re actually looking at.
I wasn’t very good at this job, actually. I was young and stupid and more prone to wanting to play basketball or football with friends rather than working—typical teenager stuff, minus the cool stuff like drugs and sex. It also didn’t help that some days I would race to work after school and be told by my boss, “Oh yeah, I meant to call you and tell you not to come in today. There’s no work for you today.” Hello, laissez-faire attitude toward cleaning test tubes.
But when I did work I had my little station with the sink and enough counter space for piles of Styrofoam-encompassing rows of test tubes to stack up on busy days. To the left of me was a corner of a wall that was set aside for the radio. To the right of me, a few counters and testing machines away, was a co-worker named Justin who was like ten or twelve years older than me (I forget which). Justin and I bonded over a love of rock (which he had a significant head start over me on), dick and fart and “yer mom” jokes, and obscure pop culture and music references (one day, another co-worker was talking about something they read in an article that said 1974 was the first year in the US that saw a prison breakout spike or something and Justin, without missing a beat, said, “Well, OF COURSE! It was because of the ’74 Jailbreak. Duh”).
We mostly had similar tastes when it came to the music of the early ’90s, though he had a penchant for enjoying bands like Ween, The Flaming Lips, and Pizzicato Five—bands whose weirdness, ironic or otherwise, was just too much for me. On many occasions a new release would play on the radio and when it was over we’d look over and give each other a “Holy shit, that’s a good song” face. Some of the songs that got these approving nods were “Closer” and “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, “Miss World” by Hole, “Whir” by Smashing Pumpkins, and “Sour Times” by Portishead.
Dummy, Portishead’s 1994 debut album, became a cult hit over here in the US largely because of “Sour Times” which acted as a nice bridge to the album’s overall surreal spy movie atmosphere. Blue Lines by Massive Attack is still the gold standard of trip-hop albums to me but Dummy did the better job of bringing the genre to more people, especially in the US. “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Lately” by Massive Attack—both of which feature Shara Nelson singing lead, an oft-overlooked and powerful singer—are on other levels in my book, but as great as they are they don’t have the unique pop sensibilities that make “Sour Times” the more enduring song.
Lead singer Beth Gibbons already sounds like a chanteuse on this track, but combined with Adrian Utley’s guitar and Geoff Barrow’s everything else you have a song that sounds otherworldly in its textures. “Sour Times” sounds like a soundtrack to espionage as much as it does love or heartache; it feels like the kind of song that plays while walking/running down labyrinthine hallways, or in smoky night clubs trying to evade someone; smoke screens and opaque windows; the quintessential stranger-in-a-strange-land feel.
I still remember hearing this song for the first time while working and marveling at how different and cool it was and how it balanced itself between being soft and heavy, a sound that paid tribute to old school arrangements through modernity instead of wax lookalikes. “Sour Times” is a song that in a lot of ways does a better job of encompassing the first half of the ’90s than any song from Pearl Jam or Nirvana or [your favorite band's name here], not because I think that Portishead is somehow more authentic because they weren’t as popular but because, albeit briefly, the radio landscape was really fertile. In every other circumstance this song would have been a single in the UK only. Instead, it somehow got picked up over here in much larger-than-expected quantities (almost a quarter million albums were sold before Portishead ever toured here, which is pretty amazing considering that its highest chart position in the US was the lowest of all the main country charts).
When people my age continue to grow older and all of the Baby Boomers are dead, a large majority of people will take the torch passed on from previous generations and complain ad nauseam about How Things Are Now and how Things Were Better When We Were Younger. People will make tons of money on the lecture circuit and the literary circuit pining for the simpler days of Bill Clinton and Y2K and ABC’s TGIF lineup. Yeah, I know, these things are probably happening now too but, again, wait until the Baby Boomers are out of the picture. It’ll be worse. When it comes to music, people will no doubt exaggerate their concert experiences from their youth (“I saw one of Nirvana’s first live shows”) and write about early ’90s radio and MTV the way Mitch Albom writes about heaven. Whatever, fine. That’s the kind of stuff that happens all of the time and it’s not going to end. Absolutely, the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was transcendent. Hell yes, “Girlfriend” by Matthew Sweet should still be a ubiquitous song. Sure, Pearl Jam is like Springsteen for people my age I guess.
But you know what else really did a great job of defining the music of the first half of the ’90s?
Listening to Q101 in Chicago and having to endure fucking Green Day and fucking Bush and once in a while being rewarded with something as radiant and unique and creative as “Sour Times.” If you were washing test tubes in a place that smelled like sulfuric acid most days it’s a song that can snap some life into you for a few minutes and make you realize that, yes, there is a shitload of talent in this world and when you hear something unlike anything you’ve heard before, if it connects with you, that those songs really resonate with you. It cuts everything down to slow motion.
Listen to Beth Gibbons’s voice. Listen to how she sings the word “true.” Listen to this song with your eyes closed while imagining movie scenes that this would be a soundtrack to. Isn’t it perfect?
The phrase “the day the music died” didn’t become part of any mainstream consciousness until Don McLean released “American Pie” in 1971, a song about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson that occurred twelve years prior. Since then I have heard that phrase either retroactively fitted for Hendrix, Morrison, or Joplin, or applied to the death of Lennon or Cobain. I am sure that someone somewhere has said or written the same thing about the early deaths of Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley. Or about Joe Strummer because London Calling is the kind of album that people could point to and say, “That’s the last start-to-finish rock masterpiece.” Depending who you ask there may in fact be multiple days in which the music died.
The death of John Lennon is arguably the most shocking death of a musician and the one that carries the most weight and has the biggest impact on the widest swath of demographics of people in the US and the UK in particular. One, he was murdered and didn’t die of an overdose or alcohol poisoning or a plane crash like so many other iconic—or possible potentially borderline iconic—artists. Two, the announcement of his death, in America, was broadcast during a Monday Night Football game and was delivered to us from Howard Cosell, which had the kind of reach and gravity in 1980 that could never be duplicated now even with the ubiquity of Twitter and Facebook.
When a young musician (or actor or writer) is alive their potential always hangs over them in the minds of their fans. They release something and their fans can’t help but to think that their next work might continue an upward trend that puts them alongside exclusive company. Potential is an intangible, except when you’re the one who thinks you can quantify it with an artist—then the sky’s the limit. When they die young that potential gets multiplied and takes on a life of its own. It becomes obvious that they would have been greater and more iconic and legendary if they hadn’t died so tragically young.
Patsy Cline died on March 5, 1963 near Camden, Tennessee when the private plane she was flying in crashed in a forest. Though she was not the first female country singer to break through to mainstream success (Kitty Wells and Brenda Lee and Maybelle Carter, just to name three, were very well known before and during the ’50s), Cline broke many crossover country and pop barriers while she was alive. In death she became a giant, casting a huge shadow on country music to this day. It is not hyperbole to suggest that in terms of musical legacy (despite a sparse catalog), marketing, and sales that Patsy Cline is the female equivalent of Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash. Her first major label single was “Walkin’ After Midnight,” a song of such jaw-dropping perfection that if that were the only song she ever recorded you would still understand why there would be a market for her memorabilia and records.
Patsy Cline was born Virginia Hensley in Westchester, Virginia in 1932. Her mother was sixteen and her father was forty three when she was born. She could not read music but taught herself how to sing and a throat infection at age thirteen changed her voice drastically. Cline sang at local clubs and on local radio and television programs, including one hosted by Jimmy Dean. Her first record contract was draconian in that she could only sing songs written by the label’s writers but she was later discovered by Arthur Godfrey and, more importantly, Owen Bradley who owned Decca Records.
At Decca, Cline underwent the transformation that made her Patsy Cline, though she expressed doubts early and often. Owen Bradley convinced her to shed the cowgirl attire that her mother made in exchange for evening dresses; he convinced her to record “Walkin’ After Midnight” (a song she considered to be “just a little old pop song”); he convinced her to embrace pop and just sing without the banjo and steel guitar arrangements she was used to. He (and her husband) convinced her to record a song called “Crazy” written by a little-known songwriter named Willie Nelson even though she apparently despised the song initially and was afraid she was never going to be able to sing it right because of injuries to her ribs suffered in a car crash months earlier. Once everything was figured out and smoothed over Cline recorded her vocals for the final track in one take. “Crazy” wound up being the most played jukebox song ever.
Bradley was unabashedly defined by a desire to make country music ever-evolving; guitars could be replaced with string sections and mellow background vocals in his mind. It all made for a much more polished sound, even if it was probably decried as sacrilege by old timers at the time (similar to how Taylor Swift is considered by some today as inauthentic because she has the gall to record songs about breakups that sound at home in your local Claire’s store in the mall).
“Crazy” starts with a piano that tiptoes like a rippled pond and is fragile and amazing like an expensive crystal glass; it is one of the most beautiful intros in modern music. The other instruments have a presence but like the background singing they are only gently noticeable. This song puts Cline’s vocals front and center and despite its myriad subsequent covers it is her version that is considered the defining one. Listen to how she sings “Worry/Why do I let myself worry?” at the 01:07 mark and the softness and beauty of that range. Listen to how she transitions a sustained “do” into an “oh” at the 01:28 mark and how it possess the musical equivalent of saudade, a palpable something that defies description. Listen to everything she sings after 02:01 and how she and the piano melts your soul at the end as her voice fades away and the piano sticks around for a couple more pirouettes.
Maybe saudade isn’t the right word to describe this song, or a small part of it. Maybe saudade is better applied to her early death (and the early deaths of other musicians and entertainers). All I really have of Patsy Cline is her recorded catalog and her childhood homes and her grave site. I suppose that this is all I have with most of the iconic singers of the first half of the 20th century but it seems wrong that this is all I have of her. I want to peek in to that alternate universe in which she records a few more songs written by Willie Nelson, or possibly forges a long-running collaboration with him; in which she records a single with a young Dolly Parton; in which she gets to complete the circle image-wise and embrace the Countrypolitan look and sound of the ’70s. Though I feel safe in assuming that “Crazy” would still be her masterpiece if she had not died when she did, I still feel like she would’ve been an amazing singer even with her inevitable failures.
But I am only thirty six years old as of this writing. She died fourteen years before I was born. If you really want to see the gravity of her death, ask someone who’s your grandparents age about her: you’ll probably see the saudade in their eyes and hear it in their voice. I’ve heard old timers talk about her and say things like “I love Sinatra and Elvis and Glenn Miller—real music—but Patsy…”
This is only hyperbole if you’ve never really listened to her.
 From Wikipedia: “Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word that has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or deeply melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return. A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing.” In Portugal it is pronounced sa-oo-DAD. In Brazil it is pronounced sow-DODGE-ee.
At the 02:33 mark of “Because the Night” by 10,000 Maniacs Natalie Merchant’s voice changes ever so slightly. It could have been by design like a way of conveying that old school Hollywood way of a woman putting the top of her hand to her forehead and nearly fainting with desire, or, conversely, like a woman grabbing a man’s collar before a passionate kiss—take me now. Or it could have been a complete accident; something caught in her throat for a split second and it caused that unintended vocal inflection. Maybe she can’t ever listen to this recording anymore because she knows that she messed up singing that word.
Part of me genuinely hopes that this was an unplanned hiccup not only because I, like the rest of us, am sometimes conditioned to gravitate towards the accidental humanness of professional entertainers, but also because I think that split second singing of the word “take” has such a hidden beauty to it. I probably listened to this song hundreds of times before I really noticed it. I heard it but I never noticed it. Never assigned an element of story to it. It is a split second thing that feels like more than that once I noticed it.
Originally written by Bruce Springsteen and intended to be on his album Darkness on the Edge of Town he scrapped it and was eventually given to Patti Smith by their mutual producer. Smith re-wrote some of it for her album Easter and it wound up becoming one of the most successful songs in her catalog. Darkness on the Edge of Town was Springsteen’s answer to the success of Born to Run, a more stripped-down, back-to-Earth album that critics and fans loved but wasn’t embraced by the same large audience that his previous album found. Easter was an answer to Radio Ethiopia, an album that confused and befuddled fans and critics; Easter is one of Smith’s most accessible albums. By the time 10,000 Maniacs came around to recording this song for their Unplugged performance they were already in the midst of their swan song. Natalie Merchant left the band within months of this show. “Because the Night,” a song about young lovers and the power of night—Springsteen’s bread and butter—didn’t make the cut on Darkness but helped propel Easter and closed out the original lineup of one of the more under-appreciated bands of the last thirty years. Love is a banquet on which we feed.
When I was growing up the easiest way to describe 10,000 Maniacs was to say that they were R.E.M. with a female lead singer. Both bands even had guitarists with the last name Buck. Though this description is overly simplified one can certainly see how people would’ve have arrived at that opinion—the music of “Grey Victory” and “Can’t Ignore the Train,” the opening tracks on their debut and sophomore album, respectively, could have been slipped on an I.R.S. era R.E.M. album and it might fool casual music fans. The first time I heard the name 10,000 Maniacs I just assumed they were a punk band. And then I saw them on David Letterman, and I saw that Natalie Merchant kinda looked like one of my neighbors and their music was decidedly not punk.
Patti Smith, on the other hand, is punk. She’s been called the “Godmother of Punk” and she possesses the kind of energy and physique that Iggy Pop has. You can’t get much farther on the opposite chart with Patti Smith and Natalie Merchant without delving into death metal waters to find an opposite for someone like Anne Murray. Merchant has a soft voice with a detectable New York Italian hint. She has the perfect voice for a song like “Like the Weather.” Smith’s voice is raw and she loves Rimbaud. She has the perfect voice for an overhauled, expanded cover of “Gloria.”
The 10,000 Maniacs’ Unplugged is one of my favorite live albums of all time. You get the hits (“Candy Everybody Wants,” “These Are Days,” “Trouble Me,” “Like the Weather”) mixed in with some overlooked gems that sound better on this album than their studio counterparts (“What’s the Matter Here?” “Jack Kerouac,” “I’m Not the Man,” “Stockton Gala Days”). Left off the CD release was three covers (“Let the Mystery Be,” “Jolene” and “Dallas”) in which David Byrne made a guest appearance on.
“Because the Night” is the only cover on the official release of the album. Some of the lyrics are different from Smith’s version—in particular “take me now” (it was “touch me now” in the original). This cover is softer than the original but I think that’s what makes it more beautiful and unexpected; the spiraling piano in the intro and outro is better and more polished than the original. The crescendos in both are about equal but, again, I think everything comes back to that “take” at the 02:33 mark. To people who were born in the late ’50s/early ’60s it’s probably sacrilege to suggest that Natalie Merchant did a better job with Springsteen and Smith’s words but I think she did. Springsteen is all about trying to capture people trying to overcome their environments; teenagers and young twenty-somethings trying to conquer the limits of their town and all that. He’s obsessed with making you feel like you’re in the car enjoying your distraction. If Springsteen had never met a guitar he’d probably be writing novels and short stories with scenes involving kids laying on the hoods of the cars, staring at the stars, talking about their dreams. Smith doesn’t share that same ambition but she delivers on capturing that atmosphere with this song. Merchant does the better job with the atmosphere of this song, though, because she captures the urgency of youth with that single inflection of the word “take.” When you’re young there is always a feeling that your losing time, a restlessness that exists that you can’t describe. You fall in love with someone in high school and almost immediately you’ll be seized by the fear that it’ll all end soon (because, I mean, high school love doesn’t last forever right?).
In the movies and on TV the teenagers (who are usually played by twenty-somethings) always wind up saying the right things and their relationships somehow work. Or if they don’t work it’s understood why it doesn’t work. In real life nothing makes sense during the aftermath of a relationship falling apart when you’re young. Your skin isn’t skin: it’s wired emotions that are powered by things like restlessness and high risk/reward decisions. Whether it’s love being professed to someone or picking up the pieces afterward sometimes our voice cracks and we change the words to better fit what we are trying to say. This is what catapults the Unplugged performance of “Because the Night” to the top of the 10,000 Maniacs’ catalog: take is a better word than touch in this song, a song that includes desire, lust, banquet, command, yearning, and burning, and the inflection—mistake or not—cements everything this song was aiming for. This is easily one of the fifty best covers ever made.
“She insists on being heard as she is—not raunchy and hot-to-trot or sweet and be-yoo-ti-ful, just human, with all the cracks and imperfections that implies.”
— Robert Christgau
On March 15, 1972 at the Felt Forum in New York City the 14th annual Grammy Awards took place and were aired on television. All Carole King did that night was win Song Of The Year for “You’ve Got A Friend” (the first time a woman ever won that award), Record Of The Year for “It’s Too Late,” and Album Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Tapestry, her magnum opus that was released the previous February and which has gone on to sell over twenty five million albums since.
I will be the first to say that I love my iPod and I love that it exists. That I am able to go to Amazon and download an album for $5 and copy it over to a device that is smaller than a remote control is something that would have blown my mind had anyone told me when I was in high school that this technology would exist before I turned 35 years old. I truly love that this technology exists; I am not a Luddite. But in order for technology to get better and smaller and sleeker it must kill something off. This is the natural transaction of things: medicine is better today than it ever has been, but a house visit by a doctor is never going to be a thing again any time soon.
And so the iPod has made it so that the vinyl album and the record store is never going to be a thing again any time soon. Oh sure, you can still buy vinyl online but that demographic is mostly comprised of DJs and more-than-casual music fans and older people buying nostalgia; it’s a pretty static marketplace. What I am talking about is a mainstream prevalence of vinyl, to be able to walk into a store and see about 30-40% of its floor inventory be in the form of 12.375″^2 album covers. I would love to be able to have that aspect back again because album covers—the great ones, at least—are works of art. To hold an album cover is like holding a French door to the album and the music itself.
Look at Tapestry.
If you had this on vinyl, before you ever hear a single note on the album, you see a woman sitting inside of what is presumably her home, barefoot, and with a cat. She is an Everywoman. She is not trying to be sexy or a fantasy, she’s simply naturally beautiful. If this picture is meant to be seen through the lens of her boyfriend’s or husband’s camera then you see a perfect candid moment—the kind that causes fleeting bouts of envy. If this picture is meant to be seen through the lens of her record company then you see an artist that wants to connect to you in a personal manner before the notes and the lyrics solidify the connection. I’m just like you, the album cover says to you without irony. It’s something you can fall in love with when it’s front of you, like a Renoir painting.
Tapestry is such a loaded album. “I Feel the Earth Move,” the track that opens the album, is start-to-finish perfect; the kind of song that absolutely zero of us music fans could write but can sing along with like it was written it for us. Oh, and if you don’t move at least one body part during this song you are beyond help. “So Far Away” is something that generations of songwriters have tried to write and can’t. “Home Again”: so perfect I sometimes wish there was a 15 minute version of it. “Beautiful” is so unabashedly sincere and musically beautiful that it can damn near reduce me to tears at the right moment. “You’ve Got a Friend” is an undisputed classic (“Winter, spring, summer or fall/All you have to do is call”—if you live to be 200 years old you won’t come up with something that is better than that). In between 01:22 and 01:57 of “Where You Lead” is lyrically and musically gorgeous. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” taps into something that resides in all of us. Anyone who doesn’t like “Smackwater Jack” is a fundamentally untrustworthy person and you should run from them immediately. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the album’s last track, seems like a strange choice—trying to wander on to Aretha’s playground and all—until you realize that, oh yeah, King co-wrote it to begin with which just reinforces how amazing Carole King and this album is.
When it comes to the personnel on Tapestry the focus seems to always shift first to the big names like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Gerry Goffin (King’s first husband and collaborator at the Brill Building and with Phil Spector), but Charles Larkey’s (King’s future second husband at the time of recording) bass and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar’s guitar and Ralph Schuckett’s electric piano and the drum work of Steve Barzyk, Russ Kunkel, and Joel O’Brien are all amazing and polished and have more of a hand in the soul of this album. Kortchmar’s guitar in particular is played with precision, is always noticeable, but is never overpowering. It speaks to the brilliance of both King and “Kootch” that their communion manifested itself just as flawlessly in rhythm as when the solos kick in. As for Larkey’s bass and Schuckett’s electric piano abilities just listen to “Smackwater Jack” and let the skipping and galloping hug you.
“Pacific rock, sure, but with a sharpness worthy of a Brooklyn girl—if there’s a truer song about breaking up than ‘It’s Too Late,’ the world (or at least AM radio) isn’t ready for it.” This is the first sentence of Robert Christgau’s review of Tapestry. (The quote at the top of this post is the fourth sentence from the same review and, yes, AM radio used to be the domain of rock music. Now it’s where Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh masturbate at you while an eagle squawks in the background.)
In the forty two years since the release of Tapestry I don’t think anyone’s written a truer or more honest song than “It’s Too Late.” Ironically, this is a song that King didn’t write—”It’s Too Late” and “Where You Lead” were written by Toni Stern and are the only tracks on the album that King did not write or co-write. But the lyrics “There’ll be good times again for me and you/But we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it too/Still I’m glad for what we had and how I once loved you,” especially that last lyric were made for Carole King to sing. The whole song is profound in its ability to succinctly convey something that is very complex and emotional and King owns all of it because of how utterly and unabashedly human she sings it. There’s no biting aspect to this song, no celebratory verve, no over-the-top bellowing, no disaffection; there’s simply a je ne sais quoi about how she found the sweet spot in how to sing this song. A natural ability to be personal and inviting and accessible that most artists would sell their souls for. Again, look at that album cover.
Like all iconic art at some point Tapestry ceases to be just an album but the embodiment of something personal, in whatever capacity that may be to each person. It’s not merely a classic or a part of the soundtrack of someone’s life it’s a work of art about relationships with a greatness that few works of art—including novels or poetry—have ever achieved, especially on a mainstream level. Carole King produced a perfect album, one that is so direct and devoid of irony and metaphor that I don’t think a man could ever make an album like this for fear of being sentimental. This album is filled with lyrics that reside in all of us, tucked away and unformed; we just needed Carole King to be the voice of them. “It’s Too Late” is Exhibit A.
“Go” is what you get when you sample from a Tones on Tail song of the same name, Jocelyn Brown’s “Love’s Gonna Get You,” and “Laura Palmer’s Theme” from the cult classic TV show Twin Peaks. Overlay these “GO!” shouts and “Yeah!”s and elegiac synthesizer, respectively, on top of some beats that move from side to side and some piano and organ notes that range from gloomy thunder to trying to mimic the foundational side-to-side beats and you’ve got one of the most important electronic songs in the canon of American music.
In 1982 Moby (born Richard Melville Hall) joined a hardcore punk band. In 1999 he released Play, an electronic album that catapulted him into the upper levels of international success (it’s still the biggest-selling album of the genre, having sold twelve million copies worldwide). Almost at the midpoint between these two disparate events he produced “Go,” the single that put a mainstream face to the electronic music scene in the States, especially in New York. It also wound up being an unexpectedly big hit in the UK, which pretty much cemented a solid following before Play took him to the main stage and made him a target by Eminem for reasons I’ll never know and will never bother to investigate the back story behind.
“Go” was originally released in late 1990 as a single and included eight other remixes of the song. The radio edit version (the version that you will hear below) was also included on his 1992 eponymous debut album. Its use of “Laura Palmer’s Theme” was particularly deft because that show was such an unexpected hit and water cooler show just months prior to the single’s release. The “Palmer” theme sample also helps cements the track’s timelessness too because A) if you watched that show when it was on you more than likely had a strong devotion to it, even if it was ultimately temporary, like everyone else that was absorbed into its surreal atmosphere, or B) it’s simply a unique piece of music that just kind of hits you in a pleasantly odd way, regardless of whether or not you ever watched the show when it was on.
As you would expect from a song titled “Go” it is a track that is all about movement. Even without the “GO!”s and “Yeah!”s the music can definitely move you, with or without the strobe lights, ketamine, or MDMA. I think this is an important distinction to point out: while “Go” was born out of the club scene and house parties, it doesn’t have many of the chaotic and loud qualities that that genre had in the early ’90s. Again, maybe it’s the “Palmer” theme that grounds it so well and keeps it timeless. Moby has had a knack throughout his career of making the obscure sound recognizable (many of the samples on Play are taken from Alan Lomax’s field recordings from about a half century prior) and “Go” is not only his first big foray into the electronic genre but it is also his masterwork.
If you are looking to get your feet wet in American electronic music “Go” is one of the first songs you should listen to.
 A few words about Twin Peaks. I didn’t watch it when it first aired (I was twelve years old, it didn’t interest me) and I’ve never seen the full series since but it is still truly amazing that this show was aired on network television. Go watch the iconic dream sequence. It still seems so ahead of its time and fucked up as all get out. You watch that scene now and it’s just a scene (for the most part). If the show were on the air now there would’ve been no less than 937 billion words written about that scene alone in the two hours after it aired. There’s something about just watching a show is what I’m trying to say; something about networks taking a truly bizarre risk occasionally; something about not binge-watching a show.
This is where I tell you that Joe Hill Louis was born Lester (or possibly Leslie) Hill on September 23, 1921 in Raines, Tennessee. Raines doesn’t exist anymore—it was incorporated by Memphis—and it is probably fair to say that to most people Joe Hill Louis doesn’t exist anymore either unless you were around Memphis in the ’50s or you have a purple belt in blues knowledge. (Full disclosure: I do not have a purple belt in blues knowledge. I’ve just been lucky in some of my compilation disc purchases.) To the casual music fan Joe Hill Louis became a victim of the nameless, faceless forces that lifted other blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House away from our cultural consciousness. Sometimes, those forces were merely a function of absence: if a blues musician’s name wasn’t mentioned by Clapton or Keef or Hendrix in the ’60s they slowly became invisible. Buddy Guy knows all to well about this. Louis might have had a fighting chance against those forces had he not died so young; he was only 35 years old when he died, of all things, of tetanus due to an untreated infection on his hand.
This is where I tell you that Joe Hill Louis got the Joe and Louis parts of his name from a fight he had against a kid when he was younger, as if you probably didn’t already guess that if you know who the boxer is.
When he was younger he left home and became a servant for a wealthy family in Memphis. He also worked at the Peabody Hotel, the historic landmark that still has the daily tradition of walking the ducks into the main lobby. He became a musician and eventually ended up on Columbia and then the Phillips label. The Phillips label was Sam Phillips’ very short-lived label before he founded Sun Records. In fact, “Boogie in the Park” by Louis is the only song ever recorded under the Phillips name. Eventually Louis wrote his own music, co-wrote others’ music, and was a session musician at Sun. He co-wrote “Tiger Man (King of the Jungle)”—a raw and fantastic version done by Rufus Thomas that was eventually watered down, and made more popular, by Elvis—and he played guitar on Rufus’s “Bear Cat,” in addition to recording his own songs. Louis also took over for B.B. King on the Pepticon Boy program on radio station WDIA.
This is where I tell you that I think “She May Be Yours (But She Comes To See Me Sometime)” is Louis’s greatest song, above the aforementioned “Boogie in the Park” or “We All Gotta Go Sometime” or “Hydramatic Woman,” the songs that most people who know who Joe Hill Louis is would probably pick as his best song. “Hyrdramatic Woman” is a great song; it’s clearly inspired by “Rocket ’88′” and that is never a bad thing. “Boogie in the Park” and “We All Gotta Go Sometime” are great too; required listening if you like the blues especially with the former as it is a very loud song for the year it was released (1950).
What makes “She May Be Yours (But She Comes To See Me Sometime)” so great and why I consider it to be Louis’s masterpiece is that it’s like this perfect combination of Memphis blues and Chicago blues. One of the traits of Chicago blues is that it’s louder in just about every facet (which is why so much of the Chess Records roster had more of an effect on the young English rockers than Sun’s blues roster did) and its sound is a little more polished. The Memphis blues is more old school. It sounds a little more earthy and raw; it’s a portal to back in the day, the roots of most of it all. Don’t get me wrong: Memphis blues is fucking gorgeous (listen to Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” sometime) it just sounds older than Chicago, because it is older.
“She May Be Yours” starts out with an electric guitar riff that is almost immediately overshadowed by a towering harmonica. If you love harmonica-driven blues then Jesus this is a song right in your wheelhouse. The drum beat shuffles along and a piano is played with the touch that evokes a saloon or a jook joint. Louis’s voice sounds much older than his age. For years I just assumed that a 50-55 year old man sang this song. The sound of this song feels like it was recorded in a tin can, or with older equipment. The harmonica and Louis’s voice are loud in a way that makes this song feel older than it really is.
Every note of this song is perfect and perfectly loud and a perfect encapsulation of blues, Memphis or Chicago, in the ’50s. The harmonica is the star of the song as Louis was damn fine with it. If he hadn’t died so young he might have made a name for himself with the harmonica if nothing else. The drumming speeds up at the right moments before shuffling back; the drums are also hit and thumped just hard enough. The guitar disappears at times but that’s okay because the piano fits better here anyway. For a loud raw song all of the musicians seem to be on the same page, as they made one of the best overlooked blues songs of all time.
But this is where I tell you that Joe Hill Louis was a one-man band.
A few co-workers at a job I was at in early 1998 were into electronic music, a genre that I wasn’t totally in love with at the time mostly because I thought it was loud and fast for the sake of being loud and fast (though Daft Punk’s Homework won me over pretty easily after hearing “Around the World” the first time). Prior to this, “Firestarter” by The Prodigy was the only song I had ever heard of by the band and it was a song that I kind of actively hated (I thought the vocalizations were cartoonish). But one of the guys I carpooled with on lunch breaks would semi-regularly play a compilation disc called Urbal Beats. It had Orbital’s “The Saint” on it, which I had heard before and had enjoyed modest success by way of the commercials for the movie of the same name, so I eventually bought it not really caring if the rest of the disc was mediocre. The co-worker mostly played “The Saint” so I really never heard most of the other songs on the disc. The disc opens with “Poison” and I was pretty much blown away by it instantly.
The Prodigy is a band consisting of three guys who look like the kind of guys you probably would not want to bump into in a dark alley. From left to right in the picture above is Liam Howlett (DJ), Keith Flint (lead vocals), and Maxim Reality (born Keith Palmer, vocals). From left to right in the picture above are three guys who, if they walked into your bar, you would most certainly stay clear of them. Unless you are pushing a .20 blood alcohol level I guess.
So it’s no surprise that their music is a little harder than your average electronic music. What is surprising, though, is how melodic some of their songs are, especially “Poison.” The Prodigy are similar to Megadeth in the sense that, while both have their hallmarks (Flint’s odd vocalizations, Mustane’s high note riffs), they can be arranged so that even a casual music fan can appreciate the melody (see: “Peace Sells” by Megadeth).
“Poison” starts with a pulsing sound that sounds like it would be used to convey electricity, or be used in a dark David Fincher type scene involving a crime. Some drum beats appear and signal the beginning of Keith Flint’s “yah!” being looped. Thirty five seconds in and the drum beats appear again to kick off the foundational melody. At around 1:20 the mutated dial tone sound and the intermittent whirring noise that sounds like a wheel spinning are introduced, followed by the first time Flint says “I got the poison” and the drum beats getting louder and heavier; it almost becomes borderline industrial. At 2:17 everything stops and the song shifts into a completely different sound—it still retains a little bit of the pulsing sound from the beginning but mostly it sounds like you are being rained on by a keyboard. It’s during this part that the interplay of Flint’s “I got the poison” and Maxim Reality’s “I got the remedy/I got the pulsating rhythmical remedy” begins and continues throughout the rest of the song. At 2:58 is when the drum solo begins.
The drum solo is what will make this song for you if you are a casual music fan. If you’re not a fan of electronic music or The Prodigy (or bands like them) I can understand how you would be turned off by the “yah!”s or the dial tone sounds or the heavy beats and loud cymbals. I can totally get that. But… the drum solo is so great it might have the power to make you love the song retroactively if you were unimpressed with it for the first three minutes. This is the part of the song that blew me away the first time I listened to it. This is the part of the song that my co-workers would talk about in reverent tones, like how stoners used to talk about “The Rain Song” or “Dark Star.”
The drum solo lasts just under a minute and it’s not anything that’s crazy complex (if you primarily listen to rock I don’t want you to think that some Peart-esque theatrical drumming occurs) but it’s just so damn perfect. The almost tribal beats that are added in the background, the cymbals being reduced to just a couple of loud hits every time, the scratching textures: it all fits together so incredibly well. And when the dial tone sound is reintroduced it sounds better than it did before because the faux tribal beats bracket them so well. The rest of the song finds more interplay between Flint and Reality, the whirring sounds become more pronounced, and the music downshifts a couple more times.
The whole song is brilliant, but the drum solo is really the focal point of the track. If you like that you’ll probably love the song. It’ll be stored in your head forever. If it does nothing for you then the rest of the song probably won’t do anything for you either (you probably don’t like “Dark Star” or “Peace Sells” either, you no-fun sonuvabit…).
This is one of the best big beat songs of all time.
 “Who’re these guys? Who do vey fthink they are?” one drunk bro in an Ed Hardy shirt slurs to the other.
One of the things that happens as you get older is that you start to forget that a difference of six or eight or ten years in pop culture terms sometimes feels like at least twenty years in actual people age terms. I am thirty five years old as I write this and there have been many occasions over the last few years where talking to someone who is only six or eight or ten years younger than me has resulted in befuddlement that they have never heard of Pavement or Neutral Milk Hotel or Liz Phair (or even older bands that I think might be borderline gimmes, like The Replacements or Sam and Dave or Joy Division). Not like “I’ve never heard their music” but like “I have never heard that name before.” But you’re only six years younger than me I think to myself, but a six year gap in pop culture is longer than that. Then they will name off TV shows I have never heard of. You’ve never even heard the name of that show?—You’re only six years older than me they’ll say. I start to wonder if I’m actually forty five years old, just for those few moments. Or am I the swimmer in Cheever’s short story? I don’t expect you to know that reference off the top of your head either. Maybe I’m actually sixty five.
So if you are reading this and you are in mid twenties and you don’t know who Sly and the Family Stone are, then you probably don’t know that they were responsible for the psychedelic funk that caused established bands like The Temptations to change their sound in the late ’60s while also setting up the groundwork for Parliament/Funkadelic to become what they would become. They were responsible for setting the groundwork for later artists such as The Jackson 5 and Prince—you may have heard of them. They were ahead of the game as far as funk and fun-loving dance music went; if listening to “Dance to the Music” doesn’t make you happy in some capacity you are probably not a human being. Watch an episode of SNL from the ’70s and the intro music is trying to capture what Sly was doing ten years previously. They had just about everybody beat on the diversity front too.
They also produced one of the ten greatest songs ever made—“Everyday People.”
Here is everything you need to know about “Everyday People” from a macro sense: years ago, Toyota used this song in a very prominent national TV advertising campaign in the ’90s. They used a song about diversity—one of the greatest pop songs about diversity ever penned—and tried to assimilate it to their status as a #1 auto maker. In hindsight, it was a truly ridiculous thing but indicative of how marketing and advertising changed for the worse starting in the ’90s because you had a song about acceptance and community being co-opted to prove that why yes more Americans are happy that their Camrys last longer than all other comparable mid-sized sedans. And the commercials were a success. The red one and the yellow one and the white one and the black one were all powerless to Toyota’s quality in the ’90s, which jived with the overall transition that was happening in which people had pretty much stopped gathering in crowds and instead followed along with the idea that their purchases could do their talking for them. Despite all of this the song never lost its power, horrible application of it and all. (The same goes with with Nike using Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” I’m sure the kids at the sweatshops admired David Fincher’s aesthetic.)
Here is everything you need to know about “Everyday People” from a micro sense: it is a perfect song. Perfect beat, perfect bass, perfect lyrics and vocals, perfect use of horns. The piano notes are perfect. “Everyday People,” compared to the other singles that Sly released around this time, was a bit of a departure in that the previous singles, such as “Life,” “Dance to the Music,” and “M’Lady,” either had a fair amount of tonal shifts to let each band member have a bit of a solo or had a very upfront energy to it. “Everyday People” is mellow, clocks in at under two and a half minutes, has no solos, but has a beat that will move your feet and your arms. The desire for social cohesion and mocking judgments has never been so danceable.
There is a veritable treasure trove of perfectly written lyrics here too which is remarkable considering how concise the track time is. Before succumbing to the ghosts and paranoia of drug use frontman Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart) had a run of about seven years wherein he could basically do no wrong. He was immensely talented, forward-thinking, and musically gifted. He sang a cover of “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” for Christ’s sake and it fucking worked. But in “Everyday People” you see up close the workings of a guy at the height of his powers. The song starts with the lyrics “Sometimes I’m right but I can be wrong/My own beliefs are in my song.” Later on: “I am no better and neither are you/We are the same whatever we do/You love me, you hate me, you know me and then/You can’t figure out the bag I’m in.” And when he sings “I am everyday people” alongside Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson’s tenor sax and trumpet, respectively, it all works in communion to the point that it sounds like conviction rather than trying to sell you something. (Which, again, made Toyota’s use of the song so egregious in retrospect.)
Sly and the Family Stone would follow up “Everyday People” with a run of jaw-dropping singles; jaw-dropping because “Sing a Simple Song,” I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everybody Is A Star” and “Luv N’ Haight” were all originally B-sides. (If you are too young to remember records the A-side was the radio single and the B-side oftentimes was a throw-in track.) All of the aforementioned songs are classics in their own right and act as parts of the mosaic that cements the band as one of the greatest and influential bands of the last fifty years. If you have never heard of Sly and the Family Stone go buy their greatest hits or Stand! or There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Or just listen to “Everyday People” first and take it from there. If you are a fan of Sly but haven’t revisited their music in a little while then dust off the cobwebs of your record or CD collection, or iPod.
Bands like this don’t come around very often and songs like this—the truly timeless ones, the ones that deal with race and diversity in meaningful ways—are rarer still. The great art of the world is like a magnet that pulls you back in after you have found it, or will pull you in or hold a trance over you once you find it. Revisit or introduce yourself to Sly and the Family Stone, whichever one applies to you. They are one of the very best bands in the catalog of American music regardless of your age.