This is a video of Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling duetting on a song from his most recent album. The music is so melancholy that at first, before I had paid attention to the lyrics, I thought it must be about hopelessness and drowning—but it’s actually a very hopeful song, maybe a kind of modern-day sea shanty, about drawing sustenance from the natural world. When I watch this video, though, which was filmed in Laura Marling’s garden, I spend more time thinking about the garden than I do listening to the song: Why don’t I have a garden like that? How does one come to have a garden like that? I will probably never have a garden like that. I bet maintaining a garden like that takes a lot of work. I really wouldn’t have the patience to keep up that kind of garden. No garden for me, alas.
Last week I made a mix of songs and foisted it upon two new friends who are in their mid-20s. (Not a tape, not a CD, but just an arrangement of songs, sent as a zip file and untethered to any concrete object. I should probably be sad about this abrupt switch to the purely digital, and I do mean abrupt—one day not too long ago I was talking about making a mix CD and Caleb said, incredulously, “A CD? Nobody makes mix CDs anymore.” But I’m not. For one, I was always messing up the hand-lettering on the blank labels.)
My plan was to introduce these friends to some great but currently only semi-famous singer-songwriters whose work I imagined they might not know: Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, Judee Sill. I sequenced three Rickie Lee Jones songs at the end, but not without pause. I thought, who doesn’t know Rickie Lee Jones? Isn’t she kind of a household name? And then I realized that the question was, why would people in their 20s know who Rickie Lee Jones was? Where would they be exposed to her music?
The answer became, in this case, the same way that I was. I first began to listen to Rickie Lee Jones in my senior year of high school, when my friend Tristi made me a mix tape. At some point I lost the tape, but I still remember what was on it: The Big Chill soundtrack on one side, More Songs From The Big Chill on the other, and a few assorted non-Motown tracks appended to fill out the extra minutes on each end: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue Motel Room” and “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” something by Phoebe Snow, and the title song from Rickie Lee Jones’s album Pirates. (My pen hovers above the page—should I write this next part? At the end of the year, I copied out the following lines from “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)” when I signed Tristi’s yearbook: “And I know we’ll get the chance to make it/Nothing’s going to stop you, you just reach right out and take it.” What can I say? We were graduating, sentiments were riding high.)
“Pirates” was the song that hooked me, but I’d actually been hearing Rickie Lee Jones for some years—”Chuck E.’s in Love,” the first song on her self-titled debut album, was a big radio staple back then. There were many songs that I heard and heard and heard, over store p.a. systems and while skipping around on the car radio—”Brass in Pocket,” “Seven Year Ache”—songs that I didn’t pay attention to until one day something else, usually a review in a newspaper or a mention from some older friend whose musical taste I admired, got me interested in the band or artist; then the old radio hit fell into context. Tristi’s tape made me a Rickie Lee Jones fan, and I went out and bought her first album and Pirates, but by then, the mid-’80s, she had already moved on to new kinds of songwriting and musical styles—by then she was already losing that big radio-hit audience. Still, over the years, whenever I mentioned her name to friends, they would say, “Oh! I know, ‘Chuck E.’s in Love’!” That song became Rickie Lee Jones, and as such, I kind of resent it. The other songs on those first two albums are wondrous, though. “The Last Chance Texaco,” from Rickie Lee Jones, is one of three songs I put on that mix last week. (The video above is a particularly excellent rendition.)
About ten years after her debut, on the cusp of the beautiful, wide-open ’90s, Rickie Lee Jones got another burst of attention for Flying Cowboys, an upbeat, blue-sky kind of album, and then she gradually settled into being a cult artist, for want of a better term, with a substantial but probably unfluctuating core of fans. I even wonder if her early fame was perhaps a kind of fluke, as sometimes happens to singers with idiosyncratic voices—if people liked “Chuck E.’s in Love” because it was good, yes, but also for some other, extra-musical reason. Maybe at that moment she was telling the culture something it wanted to hear. Maybe people felt the need to connect with some kind of bohemian ideal. When she dropped the L.A.-boho persona, when she became just a lady, the larger public wasn’t as interested in the music, with its poetry and complicated time shifts and experimental moments, or her intermittently slurry phrasing.
I used to want her to have that fame back again—I remember seeing one of the very first dates of the Flying Cowboys tour, at a Boston club packed with stringy hipster kids (well, hipster in a pre-grunge kind of way—I can’t recall what that looked like anymore), and love just bounced back and forth between Rickie and the crowd. But that might just be me wanting my ’90s back again. Times change, people get older. One of the other songs I put on the mix was this one, “Bonfires,” from Balm in Gilead, her most recent album. Hopeful last verse aside, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anything so world-weary. Still, it’s one of the most gorgeous things she’s done, and the best I can do is pass it along.
I recently wrote an essay for Bookforum about record album cover art, ostensibly a review of a handful of books that collect classic examples of the form. You can read it here. The essay starts out with a personal remembrance of spending a lot of time thinking about the cover of Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira, from which the above song is taken. I think that the jacket was one of my first exposures to something like surrealist art, and I try to argue that for a lot of people of my generation, growing up far from good museums, the album cover was an essential introduction to the visual. In many cases, it really was mind-expanding! You could read the Hejira cover like a good short story. All that’s changed now, of course, for better or for worse.
If you follow this blog, you’ve probably gathered that I don’t listen to much loud music. (That is, music that is performed loudly—I’m very happy to turn softly performed music up to to a loud volume.) I don’t think this has to do with age, though in general I’ve trended toward whisperiness and finger-picking as the years go by. Loud music has always kind of scared me. So I’m a little surprised by how much I love 50 Foot Wave, who are extremely loud but not scary. The band is made up of two-thirds of Throwing Muses, who play medium to medium-loud, and its singer is Kristin Hersh, whose solo work is generally on the quiet side, but no less intense for that. I’ve been a long-time listener of both, but my feeling toward 50 Foot Wave is more than just brand loyalty. The band records sporadically—they’ve released four EPs since forming in 2003, and you can download them all for free, here. (A fifth, called With Love From the Men’s Room, is supposed to come out later this year.) My pattern of music consumption usually follows this arc: acquire, play for a season or two, retire, let another few seasons pass, rediscover, play for a week, retire, let a year pass, repeat. I have an iPod with a dainty memory, so I’m always having to rotate songs on and off. Not 50 Foot Wave songs, though; they’re on there all the time. And when one comes up in the shuffle, I am happy. And as the song proceeds, I feel like my guts are being wrung like a wet washcloth, and that feels great. Because you go about your day-to-day, and mostly things are good, and every so often they’re much better than good, but there’s a little tedium in there, and a fair amount of worry, and a lot of having to keep your soul in line, so that a part of you wants to break out, to explode. Not explode with anger or anguish, or even joy; there isn’t necessarily an emotional shading to it; but just a self-transcending explosion, all over the universe. And not just at certain times, when things are, for whatever reason, particularly trying. The part of you that wants to explode is there all the time, kept in check. And 50 Foot Wave songs are, for me, little detonators.
Last weekend I saw Kristin speak on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival titled “Culture Vs. Cash,” about how musicians might support themselves now that the record industry is in tatters. Kristin read a very funny excerpt from her new memoir, Rat Girl, and then answered some questions from the moderator and members of the audience. I’m paraphrasing, because I’m working from memory, but some of the things she said in response to queries about the conflict between making art and making money were: Don’t try to get famous, just try to get good at what you do, because in order to become famous, you probably have to suck at least a little. Having a day job that you do to support your artistic life is an honorable thing. Ambition (to do more than just excel at your art) is suspect. Kristin said she sometimes plays “house shows” for … I want to say fans, but she’s careful to draw a distinction between fans and listeners, the first being people who latch onto your music because it’s the hot thing and move on just as quickly, the second being people who absorb what you’re doing and give it careful consideration and appreciation over a period of time. At these shows, listeners get together at one person’s home to hear her perform, and she’s struck by how many of the people who show up are musicians who subsist in small communities, who play for and support each other, and by what an ideal situation this can be.
I thought afterward how much of this could be applied to writing, or to any art form. Especially the not-thinking-about-fame part. Because the truth is that ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to be famous. After all, is this not America? I used to watch television and imagine that I was cast in a sitcom as a smart-alecky adopted orphan, the kind who used to show up in the fourth or fifth season, when the ratings were going south. (Why such a marginal part? Why not a starring role? Why not my own show?: To be saved for a future therapy session.) The particulars changed over time, but the fantasy never went away. At the bottom of my mental list of things to do over the course of my life, right beneath “Travel a lot” and “Be good to other people” and “Read all of Dickens” and “Dress better,” is written, in invisible ink, “Get famous.” To be known and loved by everyone! It always seemed like a great idea. But as I’ve grown older and watched some friends gain fame, I see that it can also become loaded with problems. It’s not like fame has been banging on my door, begging to be let in, but lately I’ve taken up the slow process of crossing out that particular bullet point. And, really, everything’s fine without it. Family, friends, a close partner, a dog who does a crazy dance every time you walk in the door—that’s famous enough.
I’ve listened to “Sally is a Girl” countless times, but only this morning did I look up the lyrics, on one of those shifty-looking lyrics websites. The last lines are “I’m Rose Marie/A boy/But Sally is a girl.” Some further research turned up, delightfully, that these lines and the title are a reference to this episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
This summer, I sang this a lot in the shower, especially the part that goes “All summer, drink water.” I don’t, enough.
I wanted to post one of my favorite end-of-summer songs, like Kirsty MacColl’s “Last Day of Summer” or Saint Etienne’s “Summer Song” or Dusty Springfield’s “Summer is Over,” but none of these were on YouTube, so I settled for a live video of Belle & Sebastian’s “I Know Where the Summer Goes.” Then while I was watching it I saw a link in the margin to this new song from their upcoming album, Belle & Sebastian Write About Love, and decided to post that instead, end of summer be damned. I have the World’s Biggest Crush on this song right now. The video is the closing few minutes of a half-hour TV special the band made to whet Scottish appetites for the record; you can watch the whole thing here.