Songs of the Year—2001

Growing old and I want to go home
Growing old and I don’t want to know
–Nick Drake

Songs of the Year: “Black-Eyed Dog,” Nick Drake, “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads
Runners-Up: “Hash Pipe,” Weezer; “Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake
Honorable Mention: “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, Rufus Wainwright, “Smooth Criminal” Alien Ant Farm

In the year that for interesting debuts we had Gorillaz (Gorillaz) and Weezer finally returned with the Green Album, Rufus Wainwright almost made it to cool with Poses while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes delivered what would prove to be memorable albums. Unfortunately, in 2001 Britney Spears and ‘NSync still ruled the world. And they were cruel masters.

(Let’s not forget Christina Aguilera, that Nick Carter’s brother had an album, Mariah Carey’s Glitter, Destiny’s Child’s Christmas album or innumerable other indignities)

By the end of the year the Strokes and the White Stripes would be the undisputed rulers of Rockville as they tried to keep dirty little secrets like John Mayer in the closet. But generally, it seemed like a year of new pretenders (Pink), sexy older women (Janet Jackson, “All 4 You”; Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”) live albums and greatest hits collections (Busta Rhymes needed a greatest hits compilation?).

But 2001 was also a year of cataclysmic change. I found myself at my own life’s intersection and on the periphery of the event that would dominate the next decade(s). See, I moved to New York City and enrolled in school under a mile away from the World Trade Center mere months before September. When the towers were hit, I was in a park, smoking a cigarette, contemplating how much I had screwed up my life. In succession I (1) argued that the first plane was an accident until the second hit, (2) bought a second pack of cigarettes, (3) watched the towers fall from the 12th story of an administrative building and (4) joined the mass exodus northward on foot and over the Queensboro bridge to an outer neighborhood.

How can you worry about what music you’re listening to after this? How do you navigate the gulfs between remembrance and obsession, due honor and commercialism, duty and politics? How can you sing a song amid so much chaos, much less write one? To this day, I have yet to hear a song, read a poem, or witness a work of art that is remotely close to doing honor to the moment without seeming pathetic, jingoistic or just tasteless.

I had already retreated from popular music again well before September. The only new album I bought in 2001 was Weezer’s Green Album (other titles came later) and that was driven primarily by nostalgia. Weezer’s third album isn’t bad, it just isn’t that good. Despite its mediocrity, it was the soundtrack of one weekend during my summer as I attempted an inter-borough move in NYC making 5 trips on the BQE in a stuffed 1987 Buick LeSabre.

Volkswagen made me want to die (for the second time!)

Something in my life, in my mind, had embraced a somber (if not sullen) attitude earlier in the year. Like many people who flirt with depression, I wrapped myself in darkness and responded mostly to music that resonated with that mood. Over the Christmas break, the Lead Singer had gotten me in to Nick Drake. Of course, the first song was “that Volkswagen commercial song” (“Pink Moon”) but once I bought the compilation Way to Blue I was immediately enamored with sweet tunes like “Which Will” and “Time Has Told me”.

The core of that year, however, was dominated by “Black-Eyed Dog”. Its instrumentation alone is haunting and depressing. Each finger stroke, especially the third note that hangs in near-reverberation in repetition at the beginning of the song, seems to mark out isolation and by claiming ‘space’ in the silence around it to set the narrow boundaries that each one of us has around us, that separates each person from the empty infinity that will descend upon death.

Or those were my thoughts, then. The Black-eyed dog is clearly a metaphor for death—the color makes it clear, but the commonplace avidity of dogs and the place of the dog in eschatological myths supports the identification. Drake narrates the waiting, the whining, the persistence of man’s best and truest friend. The image is only more chilling when you add in the details of Drake’s own struggle with depression and untimely death.

In the year that I left college, broke up my last band, and moved to the city that was the center of the world at the time, I was almost undone by inexplicable sorrow. I can’t explain it now. I couldn’t explain it then. But I remember trembling while ironing a shirt to go to a job that I could not stand while listening to the long gone fingers of Nick Drake pulling sounds from of the emptiness.

‘Real’?

And this was before buildings started falling downtown. After 9/11, I remember only the absurdity of music from J.Lo, Ja Rule, Pink etc. It wasn’t precisely clear at the time, but rather than stalling or pausing the superficiality of popular music at the time, I suspect that tragedy extended the run of bands and artists that reminded us of simpler and happier times.

Or something like that.

When I wasn’t trying to weep with Nick Drake, I was still in a heavy Talking Heads phase. I only freaked out about living in NYC once after the attacks. My parents, who were convinced that I continued to be in danger on 9/11, tried to convince me in turn to move home. My father argued that at the very least I should accept a shotgun for my apartment. (When I asked him what good a shotgun would do against airplanes or terrorist bombs, he had no answer.)

One night I woke up, certain that I had heard a massive explosion. Through the windows, I was positive I could see the settling glow of a recent nuclear explosion somewhere close enough that I could see the blast radius but not close enough that I had already been incinerated. I ran outside of my apartment into the alley and the street (in only boxers) telling my wife that something had happened. The glow was only the streetlights in a fog. My wife says there was no sound at all.

The perfect accompaniment to this mood? The Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”:

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time
Can’t write a letter, can’t send a postcard,
I can’t write nothing at all
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around
I’d like to kiss you, I’d love you hold you
I ain’t got no time for that now

The truth is, I did stay in graduate school. I almost left nearly every month for the first two semesters. I struggled. I stopped playing music. I stopped listening to new music. I made a safe bunker out of routine.

And you, brother? This was a huge year in your life too, wasn’t it?

True Horrors: J.Lo, Destiny Child’s “Survivor”, Jessica Simpson, Sugar Ray, the title Shangri-la Dee Da (Stone Temple Pilots), the album title Comfort Eagle (Cake), Creed

15 comments on “Songs of the Year—2001

  1. For me 2001 divides neatly into two halves, musically, and, well, life as well, to a large extent. The half when we were still roommates, and I was a weird hanger on at our Alma Mater, and the half where I went flailing around into grad school, got my ass kicked, and retreated to lick my wounds in CT because I had no other option. Stuff like “Wasn’t Me” clearly recalls the first half, along with “Angel”, “Lady Marmalade”, “South Side”, “Get Yer Freak On”….recalls hanging out at bars and parties. “Kryptonite” makes me think of a dumb trip I took to Upstate NY because I still was deeply infatuated with an ex- and thought I might be able to get together with her that weekend. I think I recall you liking “Beautiful Day”….maybe that’s wrong. I recall listening to a lot of Ludakris and Nas on the radio-but whether that was in CT or MA, I can’t remember. I had no idea you were that conflicted about grad school, though….wish I’d known. I do recall listening to a lot of…was it Chuck Berry? Buddy Holly? or something with The Dick when I followed your Buick in my Taurus Wagon, the trip that proved to me I could handle city driving, even if it completely and utterly terrified me.

    • theelderj says:

      I guess I never wanted to reveal my abiding ambivalence about graduate school for two reasons: (1) to admit it was, at some level, an admission of making a very, very bad decision (and denial of this just made the emotional consequences of such an admission even greater as time went on; and (2) admitting it would, in some way, make it real.

      I won’t lie. I did like “beautiful day’, but I think “Yellow” (which I remember first hearing at the Bar across the street) is still a more original song (even though I don’t think Coldplay aged very well).

      I think, to be fair, my lack of memories for much of that music has even more to do with me turning severely introverted for a while–an action exacerbated, of course, by the solitary echo chamber of graduate school. Soon I was listening almost exclusively to music that carries the depressive load of a neutron bomb.

      Strangely, my ambivalence has by no means completely receded. In fact, the award of tenure has made it come roaring back with a vengeance. Not that I am not grateful and cognizant of my good fortune. Indeed, much of this is probably the typical low that comes with actually completing something you have waited years to do. But, the creeping feeling that too much of what I do is a solipsistic joke has only gotten stronger.

      See what the songs of 2001 do to me?

  2. […] brother wrote a few weeks ago about dealing with winters in the north and their effect on your psyche. He also […]

  3. […] was a crazy year. My brother wrote about it in pretty heavy fashion a few weeks ago and, besides the fact that I have not written a “songs of the year” […]

  4. […] After the doldrums of 2001, I actually tried to like some new music in 2002. My Elliott Smith obsession got serious; I tried to like Badly Drawn Boy. Some albums were released that I would learn to love much later (by Spoon and Tegan and Sara especially). I never did get very deeply into Badly Drawn Boy. I remember standing on an elevated platform, waiting to change subway lines, listening to a track for the second time and then just unplugging my headphones. I couldn’t connect. […]

  5. […] I am off to the scene of many of my crimes (literal and figurative), New York City for a brief weekend away from the madness. While I relive the past, I’ll let the blog relive […]

  6. […] cynical and skeptical of that community I had initially found so intoxicating. At the same time, I focused more on even sadder music. By the time I was in graduate school and spending so much time alone, I was almost an emotional […]

  7. […] some needed energy to a slow Saturday afternoon. A little bit of punk, a female vocalist (with some Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound) and the kind of raw production that value that makes the early White Stripes albums so […]

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  10. […] other day I was in the gym and I was suddenly pulled back sweating through time to 2001 by the music video for Blue Cantrell’s record “Hit ‘em Up Style”. Back in […]

  11. […] after or even before Nick Drake’s A Way to Blue was one of my depressive affectations in the dark state of NYC after 9/11 and the self-indulgent […]

  12. […] I am off to the scene of many of my crimes (literal and figurative), New York City for a brief weekend away from the madness. While I relive the past, I’ll let the blog relive […]

  13. […] After the doldrums of 2001, I actually tried to like some new music in 2002. My Elliott Smith obsession got serious; I tried to like Badly Drawn Boy. Some albums were released that I would learn to love much later (by Spoon and Tegan and Sara especially). I never did get very deeply into Badly Drawn Boy. I remember standing on an elevated platform, waiting to change subway lines, listening to a track for the second time and then just unplugging my headphones. I couldn’t connect. […]

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