Dear Summertime Rolls,

There is no song in the entire musical universe that better encapsulates the decadent torpor of a season spent with no responsibilities. Wet bathing suits pulling at groins, Bomb Pops smeared across faces, the hush of city roads, unused, while drivers fill downtown skyscrapers.

The summertime world is languid. It is the snick-snick-snick of sprinklers. It is Perry Ferrell crooning “Tag. You are the one.”

I was an awkward child. Bookish. Isolated. My discovery of Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking is the event which separates my childhood and (early) adolescence.

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In the late ‘80s—even in North Florida—air conditioning wasn’t a guarantee. Especially not in the garage apartments grubby kids like myself occupied while parents worked. We weren’t old enough to work. We were too old for Vacation Bible School. We were left to our own devices.

I couldn’t have been more than 13. An older boy—homely, stinking of cigarette smoke—handed me a Mickey’s and dropped the needle on a record that was completely unlike the Phil Collins and Kenny Loggins that had been occupying me that year.

The malt liquor made my stomach draw in. Sour. The other kids flopped on ripped corduroy sofas, seemingly confident in their place in the universe. That morning I had—somewhat nostalgically—acted out a pretend game in my playhouse. These boys would never pretend. I couldn’t picture them acting silly, or frivolous. They were sweaty, and intense. Chain smoking and issuing guttural exclamations at random.

As Dave Navaro’s opening riffs on “Up the Beach” filled the room, the kids tipped their heads back. They affected a sense of experience. They were transported by these musicians, teleported to the other side of the continent. We were in a California flophouse sharing air with the protopunks of the west coast scene.

Later I would participate in the shoplifting of the small green bottles we used to feign inebriation until someone came across a reliable ditch weed dealer. But today I was drunk on the exhilaration of three reluctant sips.

I didn’t have a word for it, but Jane’s Addiction was sex made tangible. Ferrell’s screams, echoing against Navaro’s guitar moved my teen loins. I was uncomfortable. Sweaty. When “Had a Dad” played, I pulled in. I had lost my father the previous summer. He left only a note, then a series of postcards from across the American West.

“Dear Daughter. I saw the Grand Canyon today. I think I may drive into it.”

The odor of the boys in that garage apartment was what I deserved for not being daughter enough to keep my father close.

I heard “Ted, Just Admit It” and I wanted to live inside the bass line. I didn’t have a context for the political imagery. I lived in suburbia; we didn’t talk about the nightly news. Ferrell shouted “Sex is violent” and I tried to act like I’d heard that hundreds of times. Who’s a virgin? Certainly not me. Violent sex, yep. All day, every day. Nevermind that I still wasn’t sure what a blow job was.

“Standing in the Shower, Thinking” is such a relief after “Ted.” It’s nearly a throwaway. It’s perky. It’s guileless. It’s direct. But as a setup for “Summertime Rolls,” it’s ideal. After a Faith no More-esque crescendo, the quiet bass at the beginning of “Summertime” feels like water picking its way through an ephemeral stream, leftover after a thunderstorm.

Ferrell and his girlfriend wore no shoes. Her nose was painted with pepper sunlight. Whatever that meant, I wanted to embody it. I wanted to be as serious as serious could be with anyone, truly anyone.

(As an adult it’s easy to recognize Ferrell’s dependence on heroin as a theme throughout his music. As a 13-year-old girl I just knew I wanted someone to feel that way about me. I later looked to “Three Days” as the epitome of sexual and romantic love.)

“Summertime Rolls” builds slowly, built on the foundation of a ponderous baseline. But when the melody hits, it’s staggering. If the teen boys in that room felt it, I couldn’t tell. They were making plans to build a plywood skate ramp. I was lost in the heady psychedelia of the orange buttercat chasing after a crazy bee.

Since that day I’ve chased the feeling of being timeless, lost in a July afternoon. The closest I came was dropping acid during the day and lying in a field with a lover discussing the shapes of the clouds. But that was 20 years ago.

Listening to “Summertime Rolls” through headphones is like a courtroom sketch of the lackadaisical feeling of being trapped between childhood and responsibility—I can see the shapes, even make out a few details.

But now I have a lawn to mow, children to drive to the pool. Summertime is no longer a lazy river, carrying me prone from one experience to the next. Summertime smells of spray-on sunscreen, not clove cigarettes. It tastes like small-batch gin; malt liquor left behind as a child’s game.

Summertime might still roll, but not for me. Thank you all the same.

Yours,
Jen

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.

Best,
Eric

I’m Never Gonna Dance Again: A Love Letter to George Michael

I still remember the first time I saw him. It was by the pool. It was the early eighties, and his tiny white Speedo told me everything about him that I needed to know. He was hip, shared my taste for laid-back, sporty summer fun, and he knew how to make his Coppertone-tanned body speak the language of youthful cool. He was George Michael in Wham!’s “Club Tropicana” video; I was seven and he was. my. man.

The sensual weight of his masculine thigh emerging from his swimsuit awakened something in me. I remember the shadow of soft-looking hair on his honeyed skin and the way his leg muscles rhythmically jiggled as he tapped his foot along to the song’s beat, “fun and sunshine—there’s enough for everyone.” I wasn’t the only one that noticed that there was something different and special about Wham! right out of the gate. That something was George Michael, and he was lusciously, meltingly sexy…to me, to his ostensible commercial target audience of pop listeners, and to gay men. He was certainly my first sexual crush, but his dimples and his playfulness somehow made him more than just sexy; he was achingly loveable too.

This combination of sexy and safe, the PG-13 sweet spot for teenage fandom is what band managers have been trying to get right since the sixties. If you want details, P. David Marshall offers an incisive analysis of this cultural phenomenon in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (1997). Over the years we’ve seen this recipe play out again and again through boy bands like The Monkees, Menudo, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, and the Backstreet Boys. But George Michael so thoroughly exceeded this musical category that even to my elementary-school self, the mention of these comparisons seemed insultingly dissonant.

Looking back, something I found deeply appealing (that I wouldn’t be able to articulate for a few more years) was that Wham! videos, and later, Michael’s first solo album, told us that it was ok to like sex, to feel sexy, and to enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful men. Men! …As in, not just women! This was revolutionary in the early years of music videos and MTV. In the eighties we were inundated with images of the sexual woman-as-object, the dehumanized woman, the woman as animal/mannequin/prisoner/toy. Just start with Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” video and see how many others you can count that fit within this trope in under a minute. I’ll throw in some dry ice and shadows and light playing on vertical blinds to help you get going. But when you watch Michael’s videos from the “Make it Big” andFaith” albums, what you get is a pretty seductive inversion of what Laura Mulvey famously called “the male gaze” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (1975). In other words, instead of looking through a man’s eyes at the objectified bodies of women, George Michael’s videos let kid-me look through eyes like my own, eyes that found both erotic and romantic delight in every inch of the singer’s face and body. He allowed himself to be an actively-engaged male sex object, happily participating in the coy seduction, offering us the dark allure of his eyes and the ripples of his sleek chest during the Wham! years, and then replacing those with the denim-clad ass-shake of the “Faith” album. I guess the burgeoning feminist in me found this sex-positive objectification of Michael totally thrilling, and what’s more—it allowed me to imagine a future where my own sexual pleasure wouldn’t depend on how I looked in a neon string bikini. In Michael’s videos, women’s bodies just didn’t matter that much, they were much less interesting and received far less airtime than every inch of his own gorgeousness.

Of course, savvy fans already hear the strain of irony in these claims, since Michael’s later solo career was marked by his attempts to undo the iconic sex symbol status he had earned for himself. Setting his “Faith” jacket ablaze in the video for “Freedom ’90” and turning the camera away from him and onto the strutting bodies of supermodels seemed to rebelliously invert the inversion he had accomplished earlier. Moreover, once his LA bathroom indiscretion led him to publicly come out as gay, the complicated roles of women as love-objects in his songs and videos took on new layers of meaning for fans that hadn’t already read between the lines.

But, to me, none of it mattered. I had already spent a whole childhood’s worth of incipient sexuality lusting for one man, with more than a handful of personal milestones matched to the sound of his voice. In the bedroom of my friend’s cool big sister, I learned about what was “in” and played My Little Pony to the tune of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” As part of my fifth grade elementary-school graduation, my friends and I performed our own choreography to “I Want Your Sex.” (God knows what my teachers made of that performance. Perhaps the benign neglect of the public school system worked in my favor in this instance.) In high school my summer camp’s theme song was a Mad-Libs style anthem re-written to the tune of “Faith,” and as a senior I wielded my class status by forcing everyone else in our lounge to listen to “Freedom ’90” on repeat. Years later, in my mid-twenties I recall experiencing a feeling that, at the time, I believed was the closest thing I had ever felt to the sublime. I was driving across the country taking my life and my stuff to grad school and on a pastoral winding hillside in Wyoming, I found myself belting along to the entire “Make it Big” album while the man I loved at the time slept in the passenger seat next to me. I remember the feeling cresting like a wave in my chest that life may never get any more perfect than what I had experienced during that singular album-long moment of crystalized joy.

Memories like these also have helped me understand that although my love affair with George Michael may have begun as a purely sexual one, it was able to grow into something much deeper because of his incredible talents as a lyricist and composer. Michael’s ballads, like “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Careless Whisper” live in the ghostworld of haunting regret. He brings an irresistible pop sensibility to the repetitive spiral of raw longing that defines many of our early experiences of love and loss. Combined with the intimate appeal of his tremendous emotional aptitude, was the fact that this sexy-as-hell man seemed to be in the throes of a breakup with someone that the lyrics allowed me to imagine each time as an intelligent and complicated woman. “If you are the desert/ I’ll be the sea/ If you ever hunger/ Hunger for me/ Whatever you ask for/That’s what I’ll be” he desperately croons to the lover who wants a “Father Figure.” Then, in “One More Try” the roles are reversed and Michael, himself, goes from being the father to the child. “So you think that you love me/ Know that you need me/ I wrote the song/ I know it’s wrong/ Just let me go/ And teacher/ There are things/ That I don’t want to learn/ And the last one I had/ Made me cry/ So I don’t want to learn to/ Hold you, touch you/ Think that you’re mine.” My heteronormative teen projections allowed me to consistently picture Michael singing to a woman…maybe some more beautiful, complex version of the woman that I hoped to become, but still, a woman that he seemed to respect and care for deeply. For me these were entanglements worth aspiring to.  

Equal and opposite to Michael’s ballads were his playfully upbeat pleasure anthems. Combining openly unchaste lyrics with a kind of puppy-dog tenderness, Michael’s songs always seemed to have coy winks and sloppy licks folded into them—part camp and part youthful bravado. “I’m Your Man,” now a viral sensation from Michael’s groundbreaking car karaoke session with James Corden, woos listeners by insistently bopping into our hearts, “Baby, I’m your man/ You bet!/ If you’re gonna do it, do it right, right?/ Do it with me.” There’s a similar kind of goofy romantic inevitability that courses through “Freedom” from the “Make it Big” album: “But you know that I’ll forgive you/ Just this once twice forever/ ‘Cause baby, you could drag me to hell and back/ Just as long as we’re together/ And you do[…]/I don’t want your freedom/ Girl, all I want right now is you.” Listening to George Michael’s up-tempo hits gave me a new way to imagine adult relationships. It was a way I’d rarely seen represented in other types of pop culture, but it validated my existence as a thinking female person with real emotional and sexual needs. Michael didn’t sing to vapid babes. He sung—happily and eagerly—to women who had rich interior lives and things to teach him. Letting myself fall into the dreamworld of his songs always made me feel like he was mine, like we were a pair of old lovers, messily, irrevocably destined to drive each other nuts with our cuteness forever.

Now in the dark and terrifying early days of 2017, I’m feeling bereft, not only because last Christmas really was the “Last Christmas” for me to enjoy Michael’s perfect twinkling heartbreak wonderland in a pure way, but because we lost one more pop pioneer of gender-bending sexual freedom and queerness in a year when the departures of Bowie and Prince were already too devastating. I’ll keep George Michael and his soulful gravitas with me this year as I seek strength to fight the battles that too certainly lie ahead, but I hope I’ll also find occasions to dance again in that fiercely hopeful and defiantly sexy way that George Michael taught me.

Love always,

Emily

Dear Mark Hollis,

I bet you thought I’d write you about how good Spirit of Eden is. Or maybe about that masterpiece that was The Colour of Spring. Like everyone else does. Or even if that story about your A&R man being asked if he’d heard Laughing Stock by his boss and was it named after him was true?

I could have written to you about any of those really, or to ask you how a punk rocker who says he started “not able to play anything” could create such beautifully crafted music. Or to ask when you realised that having hits in Germany wouldn’t fulfil you anymore and that it was time to stretch your wings. Was it about the time you did you did Montreux with the jazz band…

…and stretched out “It’s My Life” into a 12-minute jam? (The video to that is blocked where I am but other people might be able to see it and dig what you were up to.)

But it isn’t that I’m writing to you about actually. I’m writing to you about the amazing and beautiful album that is Mark Hollis.

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Titled as simply as that. It doesn’t need more.

It’s sometime been called “the quietest album ever made” but it screams at me when I hear it.

Somebody said that Miles Davis was once advising another musician (I forget who) and said its not hard to know when to play, just hard to know when not to. I think your record understands this perfectly.

Silence and space are assets.

Especially if you decorate them perfectly.

But with wild musical invention.

And clarinets.

Forever I was in love with the song called “A New Jerusalem”…

A New Jerusalem

…and I don’t mind telling you it spoke to me. It had something very English about it. Now I live away from home and thrive on that.

“Reserved” might be the world, but not “shy.”

Certainty and strength are features but it’s so thin it almost crumbles.

Like the magic of Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops put into a manageable chunk and with a song attached.

And you sing it so well. With soul.

Like Vicar’s Son soul.

But this year I have been unfaithful to that masterpiece.

And been reading up on the Great War.

And this year, Mark, I have rediscovered “A Life (1895-1915)” which is dedicated to Charles Sorley.

A Life (1895-1915)

This song is a bit like “A New Jerusalem” in that it almost disappears before it starts, and is full of pastoral regret and melancholy.

All that in itself is true of Sorley, a brilliant poet who died too young. He wrote several poems that challenged the myths of Empire and duty, and dared to suggest Germans were human too. He wrote these words, which ironically seem to apply to him as if he knew his fate:

“Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat: 
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean, 
A merciful putting away of what has been. 

And this we know: Death is not Life, effete, 
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen 
So marvellous things know well the end not yet. 

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death: 
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say, 
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?” 
But a big blot has hid each yesterday 
So poor, so manifestly incomplete. 
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped, 
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet 
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.”

These are words for the ages.

Words of wisdom.

And words that fit with your soundscape.

Even though you chose not to use them.

They are words of wonderful poignancy especially when read as this plays, which is music used in a totally different way – but just as heart wrenching.

So thank you Mark Hollis, your album is something I return to again and again.

It conjures up a different age. And its wonderfully musical.

And thank you for making me search out Charles Sorley. I recommend him to others.

I hope people remember your work in 100 years.

Yours,
Tony

PS: I suppose I could have written to you asking if there will be more. But I am sure you are retired and happy. Its just we’d all like it please.

Dear Mr. Byrne,

Hello! This letter in is regards to the spoken words of the 1980 track “Seen and Not Seen” on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. This letter is also about lowercase-a art.

My belief is that art—I’m including books, movies, music (live and recorded), fine art, architecture, dance… probably not street art—is an existential wayfinding system for us to navigate and understand the universe. Or at least that’s what good art does, lord knows bad art can blindfold us and point us towards a ditch. Good art can take us over and direct our attention, like the fungal parasite that takes over ants’ heads and turns them into zombies.

Flashing back.

When I was younger, my parents would occasionally drive me to the record store after soccer practice. In the fall of fourth grade, I clomped cleats-first into The Wherehouse in Fresno, CA, shinguards sagging, and picked out Remain in Light. A year before, an uncle had given my brother and I his sun-yellowed, dashboard-melted cassette of Fear of Music, and when allowances allowed we expanded our Talking Heads collection. The ‘digital masks’ cover was instantly appealing, and I liked the upside-down A in the title (thanks, Tibor.) At home before I was called to dinner, I popped in the tape and my eyebrows were instantly raised. Ha ha – whaaa, what was this? It was instantly bewildering, but entrancing.

There are too many ideas in Remain in Light to mention, but the concept that wedged itself deepest in my psyche, without me really being aware, were the words to “Seen and Not Seen.”

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Maybe we can change our faces. I liked that idea.

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We can change our personalities.

I thought about the digital masks on the cover. What were they for? Had Talking Heads changed their faces? Did they change their personality change to fit the new appearance?

I thought about faces a lot when mine went to shit four years later. Heavily unkind skin on my face and body put my personality into retreat. Crazy acne had made it difficult for me to look at myself and I would go days avoiding the mirror. I grew my stupid floppy hair out so it would cover my eyes, and a fragile ego fell under the spell of self-loathing 90s alt rock. Teenage dismay oozed out of every engorged pore, oxidized by tears and multiple rounds of accutane. I mostly stayed indoors when I wasn’t at school, making drawings and playing guitar. Any time I caught a glimpse of myself I could only think about how badly I wanted to see something other than what I was looking it. Something in the Paul Newman – Robert Redford continuum would be great, thanks.

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Flashing forward.

Medications and the march of time pulled me out of the worst of it in time to leave home and head to college. I left the west coast for the witchy weirdness of Providence, RI, a place where no one knew me or what I used to look like. There was a moment on my first night in the dorms, sitting on the edge of my bed, paralyzed by indecision – I wanted to stay in the room and hide, I wasn’t able to shake the darkness by myself. It felt like sleep paralysis, being unable to move a muscle on your own accord, stuck in your body. A wonderful individual from Ohio who became a dear friend burst into the room to invite me out, and I jumped up. And at that moment, a concept popped into my head that I didn’t remember ever learning:

You can change your personality. You don’t have to stay the way you are.

Oh – and you can maybe change your face, if you concentrate real hard on it for long enough.

In that moment, I was able to willfully flip an internal switch from introverted/sulky to extroverted/excitable, and I haven’t gone back. I learned to appreciate my face, and I’m very happy that there is someone special who seems to like it too.

Thinking back now, I can’t help but ask – did you, David Byrne, ever envision a scenario in which a child takes the thesis of “Seen and Not Seen” and applies it to his life, over the course of two decades? Would I still look the way I do if I never encountered this song? Would I have been able to shift my personality? Is ‘force of will’ a real thing? Is there anyone else born in the early 80s who has done this, and if so, what kind of results are they getting?

Thanks for listening, and thanks for the good art. I’ve experienced the world through a Talking Heads-shaped lenses for many years and enjoy the vantage. I haven’t even gotten to the ongoing significance of “Don’t Worry About the Government” and the line ”I’ll be working, working, but if you come visit I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important.”

Love,
Wyeth

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Seen and Not Seen

Tentative Decisions (CBS Demo)

Big Business (Live 1983)

To “Left of the Dial” and to my friend, Dan McLane:

I knew about this song for ages before I actually listened to it. Ever since I started reading and writing about music in a serious way, the name would keep popping up. It always seemed like it’d be right up my street—I’d been raised on Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and discovered The Ramones and The Clash right around the time I was graduating from high school. I liked The Jayhawks, Los Lobos, and The Old ‘97s—bands who wore their hearts on their flannel sleeves. But somehow I didn’t get around to it right away.

Then I met Dan, my senior year of college. Dan was in a band—The Harmonica Lewinskies. People talk about first impressions; with him, I don’t remember having one. I didn’t know him, and then he was my friend. Suddenly, I was part of a scene, hanging out at sweaty venues in Lower Manhattan, dancing to music that was exuberant and raw and good-natured. Even after I left the city, I kept in touch.

Here’s where this song comes in. I was reading some article that mentioned it, and I thought to myself, “This is silly; I should just listen to it already.” Those chiming first bars kicked in, and I took off on the galloping drums and chugging bass as if I were on horseback. “Heard about your band/ in some local page…” Instantly, I thought of Dan and the Lewinskies. I thought of all of us, young and charging headlong toward the unknown horizon. I closed my eyes at the bridge, letting that high note fill my head.

“Pretty girl keep growin’ up/ playing makeup, wearing guitar/ growing old in the bar/ you grow old in the bar.” At the time, the spring of 2014, I was living in D.C., and it was becoming clear to me that I needed to get back to New York. I was turning 23, and I knew if I didn’t make the reckless decision then, I’d never make it. In June, just after I got back, Dan took me for drinks. He asked me if I listened to The Replacements, and I admitted I hadn’t delved very deeply. “But ‘Left of the Dial’ is a great song,” I said. His blue eyes lit up, and we clinked glasses.

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Brooklyn, NY. Summer 2014.

Over the rest of that summer, and into the fall, I went to as many Harmonica Lewinskies shows as I could. Winter came, and things weren’t going well for me, so I sort of faded from the community. On the occasion that I did make it out to see them, though, I had a good time, and they were always glad to see me.

Fast-forward to April of 2016, just a few weeks before my 25th birthday. It was a Thursday night, and I was packing for my cousin’s wedding. Around 9 p.m., I took a break to browse the internet. I was idly scrolling through Facebook when I saw a post saying that Dan had died. At first, I thought it must be some kind of prank. But then I got a message from one of our mutual friends, and the world shifted.

Somehow, I managed to get myself to the airport the next morning and fly down to Atlanta. I’d told my parents, but I didn’t want the bridal couple knowing. It was their day—a day of life renewing itself. So I put on a silk dress and a smile, and sat in the soft, humid afternoon, watching as they took their vows. And then I thought of this song, with its mention of “sweet Georgia breezes.” I thought of how he’d looked at me in the bar. I tried to hold it together.

I flew back to the cold, rainy city. I went to Dan’s funeral, and hugged and kissed and sobbed with his bandmates and all of our friends, even people I’d been too shy to speak to in the past. I tried not to think of the ten thousand conversations I’ll never have with him, or all the times I should have stuck around after shows. I listened to this song at work, trying not to cry out loud.

Even in the short time I knew Dan, we shared a great deal—this song was only the beginning. I keep thinking of the first time he kissed me on the lips: just a peck, like a deluxe “hello.” He gave me the gift of seeing myself reflected in someone’s eyes as something beautiful. He might not walk the earth anymore, but I can find him in the realm of music, with this song’s rowdy romanticism as my guide. “And if I don’t see you there/ well I’ll know why/ but I’ll try to find you/ left of the dial…”

With all my love,
Nicole

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

The Replacements: Left of the Dial

The Harmonica Lewinskies: Good Man He Come

Flashback Fives: First Cuts

Along with our letters, we also publish “Flashback Fives”—a list of five moments when each writer fell in love with a song, album, artist, genre, et al. This list was submitted by Daniel from Columbia, PA.


The Allman Brothers Band
Brothers & Sisters
“Wasted Words”

I owe this introduction, and a mound of thanks, to my parents. Best lyrics have ambiguity that can be applied to multiple subjects. Amorphous, brilliant, priceless.

“Weekday soap-box speciality, you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout now,
By the way, this song’s for you, sincerely, me.”


The Stray Cats
Rant N’ Rave
“Rebels Rule”

This was on one of my first cassette mixes. Dialed through FM, adjusted an antenna before that to receive it. Heart-warming, familiar rumble at the beginning for me.

“You look like something that the cat dragged in,
Yeah well you look something off an assembly line”


Cap’n Jazz
Analphabetapolothology
“Little League”

Sometimes friends turn you onto some wonderful things. Word play is a fascinating thing that delightfully rings my ears. I was scribbling lyrics on walls and tables when I first heard this.

“We live in quick flips, slips, tips, and taps,
To snap us outta these statue traps”


Ryan Adams
Gold
“New York, New York”

Every once and again things have a way of playing out in a timely fashion. At their most misunderstood—bittersweet and better when reflected upon. Rolling with punches, wounds, hard places. Music.

“Had myself a lover who was finer than gold,
But I’ve broken up and busted up since”


Lord Huron
Lonesome Dreams
“Ends Of The Earth”

Standing in heat, thinking about anxiety, things big and small. An air can blow over you so comforting, you slip away. I found serenity, a place in the shade, kicked my feet up.

“Out there’s a land that time don’t command,
Wanna be the first to arrive”

Life has a way of marking people and having its way with them. These opening tracks, music, lyrics, experiences, make me love everything more. Cheers to all involved.