Dear Teenaged Me,

Beatles and me001.jpg
A portrait of the writer as a young man. By Dan Bacich


First off, I need to tell you that it gets better. No, really. A letter to one’s teen self often starts off with that tried and true sentiment, because it fits. It’s real. Writing decades later, I know things improved, but you haven’t discovered that yet. It won’t be better all of the time; there will be both good days and bad days, awful times and celebratory times, and all the shades of experience in between. But you make it through. I’m you, writing to you from more than forty years in the future, so yeah, you survive it all. Not unscathed, possibly not quite intact, but you make it.

Ah. I’m getting ahead of myself. The perils of hindsight.

It’s January 17th, 1977. A Monday. You’re a senior at North Syracuse Central High School, but there’s no school today. The weather outside is frightful, and everything is cancelled all over Central New York. As you look through your window at the quiet suburban street, you see that the frigid elements have transformed Richardson Drive into a chiseled sculpture of ice, its frozen beauty both breathtaking and dangerous. On the radio, WOUR-FM is giving away a free James Montgomery Band LP to the first caller who can identify the U.S. city that was home to the first traffic light; some memory of visits to your sister in Ohio compels you to call and say CLEVELAND!, the correct answer. The album is yours–Happy Birthday, Carl! This is how your 17th year begins.

It’s a scary time all around you. That same day, killer Gary Gilmore is executed in Utah, the first time that the death penalty is carried out in the U.S. in nearly ten years. Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer and Governor from Georgia, will be sworn in as President in a few days. And you’re going to college soon, sooner than seems possible, far sooner than you’re ready, yet not soon enough to meet your need for something–anything–positive to happen to you.

You’re lonely. You feel alone, in spite of the presence of a family that loves you, and a smattering of friends with whom you share some good times. Is it teen drama? Is it clinical depression? Is it both, or neither? The vantage point of four decades gone has not clarified the answer in my head. Nor could anything I say now at 57 have any real meaning for you at 17. The twisted, uneven path before you remains only yours to tread. Tread carefully.

You have music, and it helps you. Your favorite group is The Beatles, and that will never really change. Your current affection for Boston and Fleetwood Mac will abate somewhat over time, but you’ll remain a steadfast fan of The Monkees, and your burgeoning interest in The Kinks will grow stronger. You’ll still like KISS, though they won’t remain at the very top of your pops for long.

But, within the next year or so, you’re going to hear two groups who will join The Beatles as your all-time favorites. You know The Ramones, that group you’ve been reading about in Phonograph Record Magazine? Yeah, that’s right–the scary guys with the leather jackets, and the songs about sniffin’ glue and murder and similar fun in the sun. They frighten you now, but once you finally hear them? You’re gonna start calling them The American Beatles, the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me, young man! Just wait. You’ll see. And then just over a year from now, you and your friend Jay Hammond are going to see a local band called The Flashcubes, and you’re going to feel like you’ve just seen God.

You’re going to mature, but you’re not going to mature all that much. I wish you would, or could. The music you’re listening to right now, all that Beatles and British Invasion stuff, plus Sweet and The Raspberries and about a billion others, are going to dovetail with the punk rock you’ve been reading about, and it’s all going to come together as Your Music in this crucible of 1977. Pretty soon, you’re going to hear a band called The Rubinoos, and you’ll think Heaven formed them just for you. You’ll hear The Sex Pistols, and think that your notion of what is and isn’t rock ‘n’ roll is due for redefinition. You’re going to forsake The Bay City Rollers, briefly, but you’ll come back to them almost immediately.

In later years, you’re going to develop an appreciation for some pop sounds that might not be relevant to you just yet. I know you don’t really care about The Who; you will. I know you don’t like The Beach Boys, at least not the way you like The Dave Clark Five or Paul Revere & the Raiders, but someday, you’ll regard The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as the greatest album of all time. Yeah, even more than that Christmas gift you got last month, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Believe it or not! You’re going to like David Bowie more than you do now. You’re going to like Bob Dylan less. If I recall the timeline, you’re almost ready to start hating The Eagles. You’re going to discover Stax; you’re going to discover reggae; you’re going to discover rockabilly. And you’re going to discover a name for your favorite music, the music you’ve loved the most for the longest time, but never thought about what to call it; it’s called power pop. Power pop is going to be almost like a religion for you.

Before this year is done, you’re going to write your first article about rock ‘n’ roll music. You are going to write many, many, many more after that, over a span of decades. You’re going to get pretty good at it, but you’ll come to bristle whenever someone calls you a rock critic. (The only exception you’ll ever make will be when you’re thumbing through a book one evening, and discover that you’ve been quoted, as in “according to rock critic Carl Cafarelli.” Yeah, you’ll make an exception for that one.)

A little over a year from now, you’re going to give up on comic books; you’ll come back to them after college. You will not marry Lissa DeAngelo, nor will you hook up with Suzi Quatro. Sorry, man. But you will have girlfriends. In fact, a girl will seduce you, rather eagerly, in the not-too-distant future, and I don’t intend to spoil that surprise. Later on, you’ll meet a young woman with whom you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, and she’ll feel the same way about you.

You’re going to keep on making mistakes. You’ll say things you regret, you’ll do things you regret, and I wish I could prevent all of that. But I can’t, and I shouldn’t. Because fixing even one of those bad, bad things could divert you from the path that leads to your greatest joy: your daughter. Your daughter is something else, man, and just being her father will earn you more pride and fulfillment than anything else you will ever do in this life. You won’t even mind that she becomes a better writer than you, because all of her accomplishments make you happier than you can even imagine now.

And you will share a love of music with your daughter. You won’t like the same kinds of music–let’s not get crazy–but music will fill every fiber of her being, just as it fills yours now.

Keep listening to your music. Keep reading about new sounds. Keep faith in the sounds you already know and cherish. Keep writing. You’re gonna get published. You’re never going to make much money at it, but you are going to find people interested in what you say, and in the way you say it. I know you lack confidence in yourself, but I know you believe in your writing. Others are going to believe in it, too.

Very soon now, you’re going to write a short story that reads like a suicide note. It’s just a story; I know. I know. There are people you know right now–at least three of them–who will choose to end their own lives, and will follow through with that fatal decision. You can’t save them. You will look back and wish you could. You will look back very often and wish you could have done…something. But it is within your power to save yourself. You can do it. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve already proven that you can do it. It will not be easy, but you will succeed.

You’ve been listening to Sgt. Pepper. You’ve been singing along, It’s getting better all the time. It will get better. You will have triumphs, perhaps modest ones, but you’ll feel that elation nonetheless. You will also battle depression. I can’t promise you the paradise you crave, because it ain’t coming. But you’re going to have a good life, marred by disappointments, devastated by tragedies, yet still a life worth savoring, a life that will touch the lives of others in, I hope, mostly positive ways.

Oh. And you’re gonna get to see The Animals and The Searchers and The Kinks and The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Tina Turner, The Beach Boys. You’re gonna get to meet Gene Simmons, and he’s going to be an absolute dickhead to you. You’re gonna see The Monkees. As I write this, it looks like you’re gonna see Paul McCartney. You’re going to ask Ringo Starr a question at a press conference, and he’s going to answer you. You’re going to see The Ramones nine times! You’re going to see a bunch of acts you haven’t even heard yet, like Prince and The Lords Of The New Church and The Bangles. There’s a lot of music ahead of you.

And this year is crucial. Everything starts for you in 1977. Keep your head held high. You won’t get the reference just yet, but keep your head held high. Your life will be saved by rock ‘n’ roll.


Much Older (Little Wiser) You (Carl)

PS: That hope to die before you get old? Stupid notion. Discard it now.

Dear Sparks,

You don’t know me, my name is Eric and I’m one of your biggest fans. I’m not your biggest fan, I know there are individuals throughout the world, I’m thinking of a particular few from Ireland, the UK, and the Netherlands, who have collections and live viewing numbers that put mine to shame. I’m a relatively new Sparks fan having only discovered you in 2004 thanks to a Morrissey-curated CD that came free with an issue of NME (Moz selected “Barbecutie.” Were you returning the favor four years later with “Lighten Up, Morrissey”?). A co-worker of mine at the time was already a fan, he lent me Interior Design as well as a collection of bootleg DVDs of Sparks videos and thus a [healthy] obsession was born.

In the event that this letter is happened upon by an unintended or uninitiated party, say in an estate sale or via a gust of wind, I’ll take a brief moment to provide the basics: Sparks are brothers Ronald and Russell Mael and they’ve released 23 albums since 1971 with their 24th arriving later this year (there are some fans [myself not included] that don’t count their most recent two outings for reasons of nitpicking, the musical/pop opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand dubbed FFS [btw, Franz Ferdinand was another band featured on that Morrissey comp]). Their lineup and sound have constantly evolved over the decades, to oversimplify: eccentric/adventurous glammy rock band that experiments in both genres and styles (1970s) eventually become pioneers of synth-based disco pop music with the help of Giorgio Moroder (late 70s/early 80s) then begin heading in a dancey…

…80s-single direction (1980s) that morphs into some serious electronic pop tracks (1990s) that…

…give way to operatic experiments in repetition and patience (2000s). Russell’s falsetto and…

…fashions are legendary, he is a front man like no other whose importance can’t be diminished even when they’re intentionally playing with role perceptions (see the video for “When I’m With You” [below] or the cover of Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat). It’s truly impossible to convey the…

…songwriting brilliance of Ronald Mael, the type of guy whose appearance and mannerisms serve as the antithesis to the machismo of tracks like “More Than A Sex Machine” and “All You Ever Think About Is Sex” thus knowingly allowing their humor to be lost amongst the unfamiliar. I could go on and on, but back to me.

I’ve met Sparks fans who choose to only listen to certain stages of your career, but I love it all (never mind the haters, Terminal Jive has some great stuff on it). I see your catalog as a natural and organic evolution that has successfully maintained what I find so attractive about your group: the dark humor, the light sadness, the niche appeal. I love the world of Sparks and the denizens who pass through it, most of which tend to cross over into my own interests. You’ve written songs for filmmakers as esteemed as Jacques Tati, Tsui Hark, and Guy Maddin. And…

…really, how many other rock bands even know who Tsui Hark is? Or Meiko Kaji? Your songs have appeared in films both great (Valley Girl, Fright Night) and not-so-great (Get Crazy, Bad Manners). You appeared in the 70s disaster flick Rollercoaster and, 30 years later, on an episode of Gilmore Girls.

Your songs have been covered by everyone from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Depeche Mode to Morrissey himself. And your musical collaborations have introduced me to so many incredible groups like Belgium’s Telex, France’s Les Rita Mitsuoko, and Lio, the Belgian who is loved in France.

You co-wrote one of the Go-Go’s best songs…

…and in recent years remixed Yoko Ono’s “Give Me Something” into an absolute masterpiece.

As for my Sparks-related accomplishments, I’ve made trips to see you perform live in Tokyo, Stockholm, London (twice), Los Angeles, and several other U.S. cities. A few years back I organized a Sparks-themed evening at the venue I run with Sparks art on the walls and bands covering Sparks songs all night, from an accordion player to a violin quartet (I sang “The Ghost of Liberace” that night, the only time I’ve sung in public; also of note that night was my fellow Sparks fan/friend Paul who recreated your Saturday Night Live appearance in a diorama with taxidermied mice).

When you performed in Philly during the Two Hands, One Mouth tour an attendee came up to me and said that he thought I was to thank for your choosing to perform here and it made me blush. In New York City the following night I was able to secure the “Ronald” sign from your keyboard, a prized possession. My wife and I spent a magical late night with some true Sparks fans after your first evening performing with the Heritage Orchestra at the Barbican in 2014, we sat in beanbag chairs above a bar while a real superfan DJ’d rare tracks for us and I left that night with a collection of Sparks newsletters that dated back far before my introduction to you, a kind gift from the bar’s owner who had seen you perform live that night for I believe he said the 97th time. I was hanging out with some friends after your performance of Ingmar Bergman at the L.A. Film Festival in 2011 when a married couple asked if I wanted to take their six-year-old daughter to try to get backstage and meet you guys. A strange arrangement that seemed fitting, my fake daughter and I took turns taking pictures with Ronald, “She just adores you” I told him.

That was really as close as I’ll ever want to get to meeting you guys in person though, I’ve learned from my 10+ years of curating and programming that it’s best to keep your distance from the people you admire, not necessarily because they’ll disappoint, but because they’ll incite some sort of change. And I like you guys just as you are now, as you were then, and as you will be. Thank you so much for everything you have given me over the years, you have been and will continue to be the soundtrack to my adult life.


Dear Leon & Karen,


As all “good” music obsessives know, there are many, many factors that cause a song to really resonate with a listener. If we can momentarily suspend the fact that any given song will or will not appeal to any given listener based off of a myriad of human factors which are too amorphous and varied to even attempt to quantify such as; life experiences, quality of hearing, interest in particular topics or themes, recording quality preferences, size of ear holes, etc. etc. etc. then for the sake of this letter please just allow me to focus on two factors, the song writing and the recording.

This letter is addressed to the song writer (Leon Russell) and the performer (Karen Carpenter) of one version of “A Song For You.”

The Carpenters: A Song For You

Those of us who voraciously devour music know that sometimes amazing songs are written but that often recordings and/or artists are fallible which results in the recorded version of a song somehow just missing the mark. Conversely, sometimes the actual song writing quality is questionable but with cool production tricks it suddenly morphs into something really great (think songs being played on Top 40 radio at any given moment in any given decade). “A Song For You” as covered by The Carpenters is, in my opinion, a grand slam, because the recording/performance is so beautiful (dare I say perfect?) and the songwriting is so strong. With no further musical nerdiness, here is my letter to Karen and Leon.


I am so embarrassed. I didn’t know who you were until I listened to “A Song for You” and then read the liner notes. I’m so ashamed because as someone who has been obsessed with music since childhood, and particularly older, less modern, music it seems that I most certainly should have known about you. Oh! But! Leon! I bet you already know this, but this is one of the joys of being obsessed with music. You can constantly discover new artists, who actually aren’t new at all.

Leon Russell in the studio

So, now I know who you are, and you can’t escape me. I have yet to delve into your recordings or discography because The Carpenter’s cover of your song “A Song for You” has been more than enough as of right now.

When I talk about music with people who really like to talk about music I have certain preferred topics that I believe never get old. One of these topics is the concept that if a person writes one good song in their lifetime that this might be enough. Maybe not enough for them personally as an artist, but enough in terms of contribution to the world. I’m sorry to even have to write this next line Leon, because clearly you already get this, but there are other people who will be reading this letter so forgive me. MUSIC IS POWER. One song, one recording can have so much impact. I truly believe this. And again, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but once a song is recorded and distributed there is no limit to what it can do. In some way, songs are like viruses, they could lie dormant and undiscovered for years, but once they are revealed there is no controlling the impact they might have.

We are so lucky to live during the age of recorded sound Leon! Do you agree?

Ok, I need to focus here. I don’t want to waste too many words on the glories of recorded sound (save that for another letter). I want to acknowledge to you that I am blown away when I think about the art of being a song writer. I like to imagine song writers as conduits for THAT SOMETHING that is transcendent and bigger than all of us puny humans. When it comes to serving as a dowsing rod for that unspoken/unseen magic in the world, you’re a darn good one Leon!

I feel both envious of and sorry for the person you were focusing on when you wrote “A Song for You.” The lyrics are so honest, a real heart snatcher. If I imagine I’m the focus of the song I don’t know if I can even tolerate listening to it. Too many feelings! You manage to capture a combination of self-deprecation, nostalgia, regret, indebtedness, love, an acknowledgement that life is time limited, and the experience of being in the moment/connected to someone else in less than 200 words. How Leon?!?!?!? This is magic Leon!!!!

I’m going to reign in my wonderment for the sake of sanity and trying to be succinct.

You did it Leon. Per my perception, you wrote a song that would win a gold medal if writing songs was an Olympic sport. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but you cracked the door between the mundane human world and transcendence.

I’m in awe, and I thank you.


I’ve been interested in you as a person and have enjoyed your music since the age of 10. You see, in 1989 they released a made-for-TV movie about you called The Karen Carpenter Story and I watched it with my family.

I don’t remember full details of the plot, but I do remember the feelings I experienced during and after the movie. Per the events depicted in this film (and perpetuated in popular culture) your story is tragic. Here is someone young, talented, and driven who has one of the world’s best singing voices and yet she cannot accept herself. This lack of acceptance manifests as an eating disorder which eventually kills you. Sad, sad, heartbreakingly flawed human stuff here. We want you to be as perfect as your voice. Maybe you wanted to be as perfect as your voice too? Did you even know how good you were? But, you’re a human and therefore you can’t be perfect and therefore you’ve got a level of darkness that eventually takes that voice away. There are certain moments in the lives of those of us who ravenously consume music, movies, art, and other pop culture that are light bulb moments. Seeing your story was one of these for me. At 10 I began to realize that you could be supremely gifted and successful but that didn’t mean what people saw on the outside matched what was going on the inside. I was shocked. You, and your story, broke my heart even though you had already been dead for 6 years when I first learned about you.

Karen Carpenter and Richard Carpenter

Well Karen, your capacity for heartbreak is, ironically, still alive and kicking some 27 years later. This summer I bought your album “A Song for You” on LP for 50 cents at a used media sale. Side one, track one is the title track and oh, it’s a killer! I almost hesitate to say this out loud, for fear that it sounds melodramatic, but I want to be honest with you Karen. You deserve honesty. When I heard this song it was a good thing that I was laying down on my couch because otherwise I feel like I might have fallen down. There are so many things that make it good. The production, the studio musicians playing on the track, the song progression, the lyrics, but the best part of course is you, or to be more specific, your voice. Smooth, sad, and in this particular case there is a tone (maybe real, maybe imagined on my part) of presage. There is something about your annunciation on the line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together,” that is too much to take. The sound is beautiful, the sentiment is nostalgic, but the feeling…goosebumps.

I will tell you that I’m really sad that you’re gone, but that’s also just me being selfish, wanting more of a good thing. I will also tell you that I am so happy that you ever existed. Not only that, but you existed at a time when recording sound was possible. What if you had been around pre-recording technology? Your voice would have been heard by so many less people, if any at all, and that would be a crime. Furthermore, you were recording music post-Les Paul which meant that your brother was able to use the technique of overdubbing to really capture and highlight the beauty of your voice.

Anyway, I’ve been really obsessed with “A Song for You” for the past couple of months. I think it might be one of the best songs ever written/recorded. I cry a little bit every time I hear it. When I’m in the car I listen to it via YouTube, but I have to be careful because it can be dangerous to drive and cry at the same time. I’m trying not to wear it out because it feels so powerful and I’m trying to sustain the experience of feeling those feelings in a controlled way.

Music is so powerful Karen. You were an amazing conduit. One of the best.


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.”
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.
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.
Vine Street