To Misters Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman,

This letter concerns your 1970 LP, Nilsson Sings Newman.
First of all, I would like to inform you that this LP played a large part in breaking up my former band, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sue you. I’m actually writing to thank you.
I was the titular front man of Ezra Furman & the Harpoons from 2006 through 2011. We were a great band and I had a great time. However, we were very unsuccessful (which was, to be honest, probably a larger factor in our break-up than your record was), and this caused some unpleasantness. We were on tour all the time and were very poor because we didn’t have jobs and being on tour barely paid. A common story, one we’ve all heard. I loved playing rock and roll with my band. As you put it in NSN‘s opening song, “Vine Street”: “That was me / Third guitar / I wonder where the others are.”
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But after about five years as a loud rock and roll band, one starts to wonder about a softer kind of music. Amid the crashing cymbals and rowdy crowds, I ached for gentleness, and found it on Nilsson Sings Newman. Before our third album came out, we took a long chunk of time off touring, and that’s when I heard it. I was so ready for it. I must have listened to it a thousand times over the course of a couple years.
Harry: I know some people scratch their heads trying to fathom why, at a relative peak of your own career as a brilliant singer/songwriter, you decided to make an album of Randy Newman covers. To me, it’s very clear. Randy Newman has got to be one of the best and most original songwriters of the twentieth century. Which is saying a lot. I love your commitment to him, and your devil-may-care about what was “right for this moment in your career” in the face of the realization that you could make something idiosyncratically great.
Nilsson-1970
Randy: In 1970, you must have seemed criminally underappreciated to people who loved your work. You’d written tens, maybe hundreds of great songs for others to sing, but had only made one record of your own. That record was so weird that it could never have been a hit, but it was so good that it should have been one anyway.
Anyway, R., you’d be the first to admit that you’re not what anyone would call a dazzling singer. In the midst of my love for the records under your own name, I occasionally wish I could hear someone belt our your words and melodies rather than charmingly mumble them the way you do. And Harry’s one of the better singers that’s ever been recorded, so to pair these two people together was an exciting idea.
Newman 1970
The record turned out way more satisfying than even I would have thought, being a massive fan of both of you. Harry, your voice is like honey, and never better than on this album. It’s seriously medicine. Just to hear you go “whoa-la-la-la” in harmony on the first track can turn my whole day around. You are a genius interpreter of others’ songs, and the rare singer who’s not just a virtuoso technically, but emotionally as well.
When the singing/writing combination really fires on all cylinders, there’s just nothing like it. It’s so emotionally and musically powerful, but without any of the bad writing that so often goes with the saddest music. “Living Without You,” for example, makes me feel the pure beauty of depression, a self-aggrandizing blind withdrawal from the cruel world, in a way that very few songs are capable of. “Everyone’s got something / They are trying to get some more / They’ve got something to get up for / But I ain’t about to. / Nothing’s gonna happen / Nothing’s gonna change / It’s so hard living without you.”
It’s a little bit awkward to gush about this album, because part of what makes it so good is its insistence on understatement. For one thing, it’s only just over twenty-five minutes long. The songwriting is wonderfully concise. Understatement is one of the key tricks to Randy’s effectiveness. He couches his satire in so much casualness and everyday talk that when you get it, it’s like a sneak attack. And it makes you feel clever, too, because you know that someone not listening as close would have missed it. “Love Story” tries to disguise itself as something utterly average, but if you pay attention you are smacked in the face with absurdity, tragedy, dramatic irony—all the good stuff of depressing art. “We’ll play checkers all day / ’til we pass away,” it ends. A meaningless and banal slow death disguised as a happy ending.
I know I’m describing all the sadness of the album, but it’s clear after the first five minutes what a joyful thing it is. The pleasure factor is so strong here that I can hardly have a serious conversation when one of these songs is running through my head.
Part of why this record derailed my band is because it is so clearly an insular creation. You guys made this album alone in a studio, and put in all these self-conscious references to the fact that it is a studio creation, not played live. You end the record with “So Long Dad,” where multiple versions of Harry are instructing someone to turn up one or another of the singing voices. I read that you did upwards of 100 vocal overdubs on some of these tracks. That’s insane, particularly on pre-digital recording technology.
So I ditched my band and made a studio album with almost none of it played live, and sang complex harmonies with myself. I thought I’d come back to the Harpoons and we’d keep on playing together, but by the time I resurfaced they’d all gotten into law school or started selling real estate or otherwise living happy and interesting lives. As for me, a solo career was born. Now if I only I could sing and write as well as you two, I’d really be getting somewhere.
Thanks for the album, guys.
Ezra
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Vine Street

Dear Bill Stevenson,

In the early 90s, there were few better places to discover music than the used cassette section of Record Connection. At $3 a pop, this was a cost-effective method to keep your ears busy in the pre-streaming era. I managed to dig up Fugazi Repeater, Bad Religion Against the Grain and NOFX Ribbed before finally stumbling upon one that really clicked: Descendents’ I Don’t Want To Grow Up.

After my first listen, I was hooked. A single and love thirsty teenage girl, I nearly always flipped to side two and started with “Silly Girl” and fell in love with Milo before “Good Good Things” ended. I listened to him in the morning on the bus, on the way home from school and eventually in my car. Milo was the perfect counterpoint to my nerdy, somewhat angsty art girl persona. He sported the thin, bespectacled, slightly disheveled emo look long before it came into fashion. He was in a really cool band yet somehow managed to seem accessible. AND HE SANG ABOUT GIRLS.

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“I think about you every night and day, and when I could have asked I let it slip away. I’ve got to get to know you, but I’m so afraid. Well it’s so hard to be a friend and be in love this way.” COME ON! How could I resist? Maybe someday, I thought, a guy like Milo would fall in love with me.

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So why is my letter to you, Mr. Stevenson, and not to Milo?

Descendents are one of those bands from which I never felt compelled to disassociate myself (I’m looking at you, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy). It’s a badge of honor to be a fan. People who like Descendents like them with all their heart—not only nostalgic gals such as myself but actual punk dudes.

I’ve always wondered why that was the case, and a recent viewing of Filmage answered my question. You are the man behind the magic. It seems almost obvious that someone with your passion and energy would produce music that stayed with me for decades. You poured everything you’ve got into the music and are deserving of all your loyal fans (and particularly the one who brought you back to health). My fandom has reached new levels, and I even bought my baby girl (and a friend’s baby boy) an I Don’t Want To Grow Up onesie.

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So, now that I have your attention, here’s a quick anecdote:

In 10th grade, I participated in a class trip to see Macbeth at a local playhouse. Jackie sat next to me on the bus. Jackie was captain of the soccer team, tall, thin, peppy and blonde—everything I was not. Did she want to talk? Even though I was weirdly excited someone actually wanted to sit next to me, my walkman and trusty I Don’t Want To Grow Up cassette were waiting for me.

Jackie didn’t exactly want to talk, but asked if she could listen to my music on the way back to school. Considering the contents of my walkman, I politely warned her that it might not be her thing. My warning lead to her increased curiosity so I set it up for side two (of course) and reluctantly handed it over. After side two ended, Jackie seemed a bit nonplussed and asked “Do you really like listening to stuff like that?” Perhaps she thought I was pretending in order to be different. I was not, and I’d let her into my world exactly long enough to feel exposed, embarrassed and wondering why I didn’t bring a different cassette with me. What about the Cranberries—something I enjoyed that was safe, feminine and mainstream?

I could feel my face getting red and my self-consciousness increasing by the second. Would she tell people what happened, ensuring that my classmates continued to see me as an outcast? Most likely yes, and although it stung like hell at the time, the very thing that made me an outcast as a teen makes me special(ish) now. A Milo bobblehead sat on my corporate desk for years. Everyone who came in asked who it was, and I was delighted to tell conservative men in dark blue suits all about the Descendents.

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Descendents are a reminder of how happy I am to be unlike everyone else, and for that, Bill Stevenson, I owe you a great big thanks.

Much respect,
Christine

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Silly Girl

In Love This Way

Good Good Things

Dear Jens Lekman,

It was pretty overwhelming trying to decide what to focus on for this first letter. There are so many loves I have connected to music. Love(s) of particular songs, albums, venues, specific sounds and/or snippets in songs. What to pick? Where to start? But, I was driving in the rain yesterday and “Higher Power” came on and I teared up. That seems to be a good enough reason as any to begin this project with a letter to you. Isn’t that the purpose of creating art after all? To communicate or express the creator’s feelings with the hope that it will move someone at some future point of contact? Well you did it. It worked.

I began listening to your music in a random sort of way. Random, in that I went through a phase several years ago where I would check out albums from my local library system that were unknown to me. Side note: Pittsburgh has a really wonderful public library system. This library system is the result of Andrew Carnegie having made oodles and oodles of money and, wanting to look good postmortem. So, in a not so roundabout way he unknowingly contributed to your art reaching my ears. Anyway, one of the albums I checked out during that time was “Night Falls Over Kortedala.” I immediately liked it and after the first listen thought “This sounds like Barry Manilow.” and then, “This sounds like Burt Bacharach.” Those were complimentary thoughts. Especially the Bacharach one. That guy is just fantastic! But maybe more about him at another time, as this letter is supposed to be focused on you.

I won’t bore you with a play by play progression of the next albums/songs I began to acquire from your discography. Instead, here are a few snippets of how your music ended up being incorporated into my life.

I will tell you that I have a very pleasant memory from the fall several years ago where I was riding my bike to, and through, a cemetery while listening to “Maple Leaves.” It was a beautiful day and I played the song again and again, enjoying it more and more with each subsequent listen.

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Once, during the summer, I was at my friend Amanda’s house and her brother played “Black Cab” for me after we discovered that we had a mutual appreciation for your music. Amanda’s brother and I worked at the same summer camp and I perceived him to be infinitely reserved yet gentle. He was responsible for working as a one on one aide with a camper who could be quiet challenging (this was a camp for kids with varying abilities) and despite this was consistently patient in all situations. He was considered unusual by some of the other counselors because he would always bring a book with him to camp each day and read quietly before our morning staff meeting. On the night he played “Black Cab” for me he was drunk as a skunk and suddenly transformed into someone quite different than the empathetic quiet guy who read literature before camp meetings, and I was sort of scared. As he thrashed around the room and occasionally insulted his sister/my friend I misheard him and assumed the title of the song was “Black Cat.”

Finally, I am amused to tell you that upon first listening my husband declared that your music “sounds like it was made for people who read books.” He wasn’t intending to be complimentary or dismissive, but I think meant to communicate that you weren’t really his cup of tea (he is also a great lover of music, that’s part of why I married him). I’m also aware as I share his summation, that I have a fear that this statement makes him sound like some type of uneducated skeptic with a too small shirt and a big belly which is the result of spending too much time lying around on a couch drinking beer. Do you have people like that in Sweden? It is a stereotype here in the U.S. He actually does not exemplify that cliché at all. You might be pleased to know that eventually you won him over several years ago when we drove 8 hours from Pittsburgh to Chicago one weekend in October to see you play at Lincoln Hall. We had the misfortune of being ticketed for speeding somewhere in Indiana, but even so, it was worth it.

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Can I tell you that I think the way you use samples in your music seems like nothing short of magic to me? There is a part of me that would like to know how you do what you do and then there is another part of me (that part has a louder more emphatic voice) that doesn’t want to know at all. Because…..I want the magic to stay magic. That sample from The Left Banke in “Black Cab” is just seamless. So seamless that I didn’t even know it was a sample at first. I also just found out, literally just now on whosampled.com, that there is a Glen Campbell sample in “Maple Leaves.” You tricky devil!

I could go on and on but I don’t want to babble too much lest I lose your interest. While I’ve got the platform I want to make sure I express how much I appreciate how you chose to be interactive with your audience. I just recently found out about your Ghostwriting project via your website. What a lovely idea! Personally, I would be way too shy to even consider submitting a story, but I love that you are continuing to find new ways to write songs and make music. Back in 2013 you also saved your albums from being discarded by your distributor and provided fans the opportunity to obtain them directly from you. You took something that could have been disheartening and turned into something interactive and positive. Thanks for that.

In summation, I feel grateful to be alive during a time period where you are creating and sharing art. Please keep up the good work.

Thanks for everything,
April

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Higher Power-Swedish Radio P3 Live Session (2007)

Maple Leaves (7” Version)

When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog