And that will do it for this year. Lessons learned: don’t start on December 19, try to narrow down the tracklisting to under 30 songs, try to meet more people so that my writing isn’t so self-centered, have fun. I hope you did, too.
If nothing else I’m including this song just because this album artwork is so wonderful. It’s by far my favorite. The fact that this song is so short and earnest just makes it all the better. In another band’s hands this could feel like a real jewel on another album. Here it sounds almost throw-away, which actually makes me marvel all the more. Someone told me a long time ago that we’d look back and see Wilco as our Beatles. I’m still skeptical, but there’s no doubt they’ve written themselves deep into our history books at this point.
Because of family and work obligations I’ve only gone to see one movie within the last year. I went alone, during the day, and walked home with this song in my head, apropos of absolutely nothing. The film was Manchester By the Sea, which was beautiful but also the most depressing thing I think I’ve ever seen. I really liked it, though. I just can’t take any storyline that features children getting hurt. I’m a softy. And a dad. This song came out of nowhere and somehow saved me that day. Thanks, boys.
Back when I started this list around the time of the winter solstice I detailed a visit to my daughter’s class to read to them from Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods…” I don’t recall if I mentioned that I spent hours agonizing over a hand-out of the poem that I gave to each 3yr-old. I did, and I’m still happy with it even if they probably got thrown away or scribbled on with crayon later that night. Here it is:
I’ve always loved Drive-By Truckers, but their modest yet explicit attempt to attack social/political issues dead ahead through a rocking beat on this album is something more than admirable. That this earworm of a hook also tells a try story is a testament to how they make something serious look so easy.
I honestly have no idea where this one came from or where it was going, but I sorta like it. It’s been on my desktop for at least a year and I can honestly say I don’t remember writing it, but I kinda like its voice:
I just kept thinking: if I could just stay in this room it would all be all right. If I could just figure everything out before I emerge it would be fine. No knocks on the door. No trips to town. Just get to work. Figure it out.
Sometimes I would. Sometimes I’d spend a whole day focusing on my hands, on my thoughts. Sometimes I’d write things down, commit them to memory.
But, you know, sometimes. Well, most times. I’d fail. I’d fail again and again. Looking out the window, fixing something that needs fixing. Or reading. Or thinking about things that don’t require thinking about. Those are the worst things, the wicked things. The things that take up so much time but mean nothing really.
I’d be my best each new year. Like I had a new start, a fresh start. When everything around me slowed down too and we had a promise together to just keep things quiet until it was all sorted out, you know? The more it snowed, the deeper the spent stalks got buried and the hemlocks laid heavy, the calmer I felt. Not because I was doing much, but because there was still time.
The sun became my enemy then. Each warm afternoon threatened everything.
So I began to wish for the night, to wait for the night. Clear skies and partial moons, dull galaxy in the distance, while the snow crystalized and the critter tracks kept time to the weather’s movements. Silence. It was the silence that I loved most. I knew wind was good, too, maybe better. But it blew my calmness into unpredictable drifts. It exposed big patches in the ground where that other life still existed.
But in the silence nothing changed. I was the only listener. The only watcher. I could come and go as I pleased and nothing changed. Nothing changed me. Only Orion’s hunt across the sky marked the progress I was racing against. But that’s the thing, you see, it wasn’t a race during those times. There was no time. There was no people, as long as I kept away from them anyway. It was just me and my plans.
As an Austinite it’s now my sworn-duty to like Hayes Carll. Fortunately he makes it pretty easy, even if I haven’t really sunk my teeth fully into this album as much as I’d like to. The title alone would make believers our of sinners if you ask me.
I discovered this band late one autumn night, at least an hour after I should have reasonably gone to bed. But there I was in the lowlight of the stovetop listening to this song and thinking about camping trips gone by with my friend Adam up and down both banks of Lake Michigan. The music made perfect sense then, even if it doesn’t quite now.
Really nothing to see here, but this is a scrap of something that hangs around my desktop (although I see now that I could have chucked it months ago.) It was apparently a start to something that never went anywhere:
Where I’m from, the outskirts of Detroit, manufacturing didn’t just provide us with jobs, it kept us local. With such a powerful force of economic gravity, there was no reason (or hope?) to leave. And though outsiders look at our city’s downfall as spiraling from the 1960s on, what many don’t realize is that the automobile industry kept us in its good graces well into the late 1990s. By that time I was heading off to college at the nearby University of Michigan, while the bulk of my classmates stayed home. While I waited for life to happen on campus, they were driving new F150s and buying homes in the same neighborhoods as their parents. At the time, there was little doubt about who was making the more immediately smart decision.
It was far from a land of opportunity: by the time I reached junior high I had passed through three elementary schools, each one shuttered as teachers were pinkslipped after the steel workers were pinkslipped. Maritime and railroad trade halted as our region’s lifeblood slowed on area roads. But in the waning days of the 20th century, the jobs were still there.
I moved. First out of Detroit’s orbit, and then across state lines to Indiana, New York, and California. When I came back as a visitor a decade later I was suddenly alone. Both the landscape and the population had moved on. Once and local hangouts—Big Boy’s, Denny’s, near nameless bars on Fort St.—were no more. And my classmates had escaped to jobs of service and security: moving out of state to become store managers, restaurant workers, and border patrolmen.
Even though I had struggled to define myself and find success in those years, I had always hoped that I was exceptional. A prodigal son and a permanent sense of place. But I’ve come to realize in my reflection of empty storefronts that I was no exception. I left, but I was merely early. I left, and I was alone. But back in the place that I called home, no one remained, and as I returned to my life in progress in California and later Texas, I grew older (like we all do) and realized more acutely how alone I truly was.
Much like her songs, Lisa Hannigan releases sneak up on you. And though I haven’t spent much time with this one, this song in particular jumped out instantly like a soundtrack to nature that was always there among the hush and crunch of January.
I started writing this poem last year in the days after Valentine’s Day (my least favorite non-NYE holiday.) One of the few social things I had going for me in the year after moving to Austin was taking my daughter grocery shopping after school. There she’d invariably want to touch and hold every plush red and pink doll that depressed the hell out of me. But she loved them with some earnestness and sincerity that I felt shamed to ever doubt the power of stupid inanimate objects to bring out the purest emotion in the purest of hearts.
It’s incomplete, but I’d love to return to it one day:
Making room for the end-caps.
Turning over the seasonal aisle.
Dark reds and violets
Bleed out to soft pastels.
And bears and bugs
And all in-betweens
Are reborn in the harsh
Into bunnies and baskets
And chicks and
It’s too much
Love has no season.
Sadly Beth Orton, for me, will never outlive her deep attachment to my solitary walks up and down hills in San Francisco now over 12yrs ago. Still, I have a continuing very deep soft spot for her music however it comes, as long as it comes ethereal and melancholy.
Writing a best-of list from 2016 two months into 2017 doesn’t make much sense, and plus my heart just isn’t it anymore.
These were always meant to be one-offs, impromptu musings dictated more by the availability of time than the availability of inspiration. Some were fun and some were disposable, neither group was edited much.
And so dear, invisible, silent, anonymous, non-existent readers, I won’t bore you with anything that looks or feels anything like an essay from here on out. I’ll finish out the next 8 songs with some first drafts or thoughts from other enterprises, and then a quick review. The flotsam and jetsam may be fun, it may just be a placeholder for me for another time.
Either way, I think the time spent away from this for another year will do us all good. After all no one–especially me–wants a blog.
Of all the commercial hits added to this year’s list, this one deserves its place the most. It’s a break-up album that flies under the radar as something more, or something less, than love and loss. It puts up a false facade of acoustic rock in light of Radiohead’s most immediate releases prior, but at its core are some subtle sonic powers that reveal new dimensions at every listen. And the video (below) is as creepy as it is nostalgic for certain viewers of 1970s animation.
How did you know? What did you see? Was I just another man in the sea of the darkly-lit hall? Did I just happen to be closest, or in the way?
Seriously, Honky Tonk Woman (whose name I know is Nicole), I’m making this sound like a bigger deal than it is. I always do that. You should just consider yourself lucky; if I were 10yrs younger and single I’d spend the day looking for traces of you online. There’s a fine line between stalking and loneliness in our social media age, don’t you agree?
But how you knew exactly what I needed at exactly the right time at exactly the moment that I didn’t realize I needed it, I have no idea.
Maybe you saw my friend Christian and I standing there for hours, throwing back Lone Stars, watching the band and the dancers, and talking about whatever it is that we talk about when he comes around: reasons streets are named the way they are, the history of neighborhoods, bands that we watched when we were in college. It’s clockwork, those conversations, and yet they go on and on and never cease whenever we’re together.
Did you see that? Did you feel any trepidation of breaking up such a relentless, nerdy back and forth? Was is it a dare? Was it done in vengeance? I later saw you at the bar, still standing in your pretty shirt and long black hair, talking to a seated man, younger, taller, better looking than me. You left with him, though curiously you took two separate routes through the crowd, he easily 20yds ahead of you by the time he reached the door. Maybe it was just a lark. Maybe it was for his amusement.
You asked if I dance. I said no. I didn’t lie. I demurred. You stood tall, taller than me. I’ve learned enough from getting old to realize that you don’t say no to a pretty girl asking you to dance at a honky tonk. Christian held my beer and we were off.
Do I need to describe the debacle here? No. I hope not. Spare me that. It was half lesson, half sympathy, and all seemingly in half-speed. I tried to make a break for it several times, retreat to just a few feet from you. You persisted, showing me the two-step, making me twirl you, showing me how to dip you. I thanked you. I may have apologized. I dunno, I turned my back to you. Stood back next to Christian, tried to act normal, tried to get us to talk about whatever inanity we were discussing before you arrived. Ten minutes later I broke in to confess that having a pretty girl ask you to dance is still amazing, no matter how unworthy you feel.
I know it was just a dance. I shouldn’t care about the circumstances. But so much of growing old is growing invisible. My mom always warned me about that, but I assumed she was talking about women, about her, about people who weren’t me. You, Nicole, noticed me.
And it made me notice myself.
Among other things Christian and I discussed that night was the merits of Jack White. He thinks he’s a poser. I have a more complicated he’s from Detroit, he’s a master composer/producer/publisher/etc view. The White Stripes gave Detroit a reason to be proud that wasn’t named Eminem, Kid Rock, or the Juggalos. Give us that, at least.
But, seriously, this performance floors me. The first little known song was actually written to be a jingle for a new Coke ad. It played once and never again. Can you imagine a world where our biggest mass produced products are shilled by great songwriters and master directors? It’s a loss, but this gem is a reminder of what could be.
And then there’s the second song, a tune that I more or less gloss over on Elephant, but here, acoustic, lit by floor lamps, and in light of White’s very public divorce and personal issues, it feels essential. It feels raw. It feels like the truest piece of art I can imagine. How anyone could be against that?
I’m not depressed. Or sad. Or blue. Or simply an introverted asshole. Nope. I have a clinically-diagnosed chemical imbalance that is the cause of (not the result of) emotional and psychological issues. It’s depression.
(Ahh-ha! exclaim the ex-girlfriends, friends, and colleagues. That explains it!)
It’s been official for a few years now, but I’ve always felt it. Always known it. I’ve known it the way a homosexual child knows he’s gay years before he understands sex. I’ve known it the way a girl knows that he’s a boy long before he understands gender. I’ve known it the way a bird knows to flap its wings the first time it catches flight. I’ve known it long before I knew what it was.
How else can you explain my near-daily bouts of crying in elementary school, my bursting into tears during a homeroom lesson, ushered into a quiet corner and calmed down by a teacher, later unable to articulate and explain what was the matter inside of me when my mom was called in, instead only able to mutter that I was “sad”? How many hours afterward were spent trying to get me to explain what had made me sad, because surely it was something that happened, something that someone did or said, something that was external to my inner stasis, right?
How else can you explain my high school years where I was captain of teams, a darling of my after-school jobs, president of nearly every club imaginable, and even homecoming king? You know that movie Rushmore? That was based on my high school years. If you doubt me, look up the RCHS yearbook from 1997. I’ll be on every page.
And yet I had no friends. Almost literally none. I spent my free time listening to Morrissey and writing poetry. I spent my time imagining a way, and a world, out. I ate lunch with a mentally disabled kid I barely knew, a much younger kid from my rowing team, and my beard of a girlfriend. Was I gay? I wish. Did I think I was better than everyone? Exactly the opposite.
How else can you explain my need to be loved, my serial dating and hoping for everlasting faith? How else can you explain needing to be invited out, sitting at the end of large dinner party tables and feeling completely alone? How can you explain such a dichotomy of feeling, when the only emotion upon returning home is guilt, and maybe a bit of relief?
None of that is completely in my past, of course. With apologies to my Scientologist readers, modern medication lives up to its billing. Therapy works as well for me as it can for anyone, although admittedly I don’t go, and even further I kinda wish everyone did, myself included. How much more empathetic and understanding could we all be if we simply turned our focus inward for 60min segments each week?
And yet despite all of this certainty. Despite all of this self-awareness and something that borders on a nascent inner-confidence I still keep all of this hidden (well, till now, of course.) I don’t check disability boxes. Don’t share the knowledge with my closest friends and family members. I still feel as if I have to sneak into a psychiatry office. I feel inferior, and either give in to that feeling, or try to over-correct it, the way a car tries to turn against an icy road. Northern drivers know to turn with the slide. But not me. Not us.
And why? It’s a disease like any other. Mitch Hedberg had a joke along the lines of “Alcoholism is the only disease that you can get yelled at for having.” But even alcoholics are celebrated for seeking treatment for their (often behavioral) disease. It’s public and rarely rare. When I visit Notre Dame each fall for a football game, the local AA chapter meeting is right there on the weekend program, just across campus from the thousands of people binge-drinking behind their cars.
And yet here’s depression, a cruel mental suffering not unlike the equally evil cousins dementia and Alzheimer’s, and we bury it. When celebrities discuss it openly they’re often lauded as being brave. Those instances, even when celebrated, are fleeting.
Instead they’re carried silently by the kids at the edge of the playground, by the teens unwittingly trying to self-diagnose late at night into diaries, and by the adults who are misunderstood as quiet/arrogant/insecure/selfish when they’re simply trying to figure out their place in this world.
There’s no bravery in publicly admitting any of this. It was passed down to me from generations who equally combated alcoholism and myriad other diseases living just beneath the surface of my gene pool. And yet it’s been presented as my cross to bear. My personal burden.
Maybe writing this sheds that weight just a little bit.
Maybe all I need is some help carrying it.
This is an excerpt from my “Self, Help!” manuscript How to be a Good Dude.
This marks the commercial turn in this year’s list, with one of the only songs to be played across the FM spectrum with equal love. Ironic then that I almost kept it off for just that reason, eh? In our world–a world I’m very much co-creating–popularity can be a four-letter word. Well, screw that. Any song that can so expertly combine stomping melody like a drum bouncing down a mountain with folk-wisdom lyrics like:
But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time
is OK with me. If anything I wish sentiments like these were more popular, more out in the open, less shadowed in certain corners.