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.

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Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

Songs of the Year—2000 How I learned to stop worrying and love Hip-Hop

Songs of the Year: “Yellow” Coldplay; “The Next Episode” Dr. Dre

Runners-Up: “Get Off”, The Dandy Warhols; “The Real Slim Shady” Eminem

Honorable Mentions: “Boyz N’ the Hood”, Dynamite Hack

The year with big releases by Radiohead and Greenday as well as by tertiary punk bands like Blink-182,  Sum 41 and Good Charlotte saw the charts dominated by acts from the 1980s (U2, Bon Jovi and Madonna) even as other bands released exciting albums ( Bright Eyes’ Fever and Mirrors, The White Stripes’ De Stijl, Coldplay’s Parachute, The Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, WyClef’s mediocre Ecleftic, The Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia and Outkast’s Stankonia).

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The Worst Concert Ever

“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)


While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.

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Songs of the Year—1999

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
–The Talking Heads

Songs of the Year: “Either Way”, Guster; “Psycho Killer”, The Talking Heads

Runners-up: “Steal my Sunshine”, Len

Honorable Mentions: “Thank You” Dido

At the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly, Conan O’Brien attempted to outlaw all soundings of Prince’s “1999” for 12 short months. 1999 was the year of the Y2K panic. It was the year that boy bands were triumphant and when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ruled the world. Back then, Carson Daly was on MTV and American Idol was still three years away.

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Songs of the Year—1998 The Next Big Thing

Songs of the Year: “Give Me Daughters”, Jonathan FireEater; “Underground”, Ben Folds Five

Runners up: “Torn”, Natalie Imbruglia; “St. Louise is Listening”, Soul Coughing

Honorable Mentions: “Doo Wop”, Lauryn Hill; “The Rockerfeller Skank,” Fatboy Slim

1998 was the year that alt-rock died. I swear it. Later, it was reincarnated as “Indie”, but the death throes had started the year before. Pearl Jam and 311 (!) released live albums; Green Day went soft with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and Matchbox 20 acquired yet more fans. It was soon to be Jay-Z’s world and I was merely living in it.

In the year that Alanis finally thanked India, when Shaniah Twain was kept from conquering the world by Celine Dion and Cher and while we all started to endure an overwhelming onslaught of boybands and young R&B performers (Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Brandy and Monica), I started to stop listening to the radio.

No Lisa Loeb, for sure

What a terrible year for music—one that anticipated worse years to come. The top three singles? Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, Cher’s “Believe”, and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”. Napster couldn’t be deployed soon enough. Radio was dying or dead. I was in the dishroom, or behind a bar, or carrying trays of lobsters to tables begging for the radio to be turned off.

When I wasn’t playing bad cover songs or trying terribly hard to put together a band that sounded like Guster, I was probably in a classroom or a dishroom. In abandoning the radio, the Rhythm Guitarist and I entered a seemingly endless search for the next big thing. If we were still playing cassettes, we would have worn out Guster’s Goldfly and Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss. But we weren’t. We had CDs. If you’re careful, they play forever.

The year was short on big things. What was I listening to? I loved the Ben Folds Five live album Naked Baby Photos, was slightly disappointed in Soul Coughing’s last album El Oso, Cake’s immensely disappointing Prolonging the Magic, and the wildly successful and only sometimes cloying You’ve Come a Long Way Baby by Fat Boy Slim. I wasn’t cool enough to know about Bright Eyes’ Letting Off the Happiness (which I wouldn’t hear for four years).

I was cool enough to have the short release Tremble Under Boom Lights by the soon-to-implode Jonathan FireEater. The nearly incomprehensible lyrics on the lead track “Give Me Daughters” detracted nothing from the distanced B3 organ, the throaty and deep voice of the vocalist, and the gritty dirt of the recording. The song structure is loose, but repetitive enough to be memorable.

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Springtime? Nope. Winter is Coming: Game of Thrones is Back, A Song List

TyrionLast year around this time I confessed (ok, reiterated) my own geekiness when I was hyperbolically excited about the fact that Night Riots has a song named “Berelain” after a character from Robert Jordan’s recently (and posthumously) completed Wheel of Time series. I must add, however, that my geek credentials are the real-thing: I get paid to teach about mythology and to write about ancient poetry.

(Well, the credentials are spotty. I mentioned earlier that I actually played a bard to the 21st or 22nd level in a role-playing game. At one point, I actually tried to write music for the fictional character to perform. I am so ever grateful that I don’t remember it and that the internet did really exist to record my follies back then.)

This week? I have been eagerly awaiting the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Now, as readers of this blog know, my brother and I occasionally get excited about television, but not too often. We both used to like The Walking Dead. We both really loved Breaking Bad. He gets into things like Doomsday Preppers while I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which he will not watch). But Game of Thrones is something that we share. And there is an important reason.

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Songs of the Year—1995

Must’ve been mid-afternoon
I could tell by how far the child’s shadow stretched out and
he walked with a purpose
in his sneakers, down the street
he had, many questions
like children often do
–Dishwalla

Songs of the Year: “Hell”, Squirrel Nut Zippers; “Counting Blue Cars”, Dishwalla

Runners-up: “Friends of P”, The Rentals; “Lump”, Presidents of the United States of America

Honorable Mentions: “Good”, Better than Ezra; “You Oughta Know” Alanis Morrissette

Not every year is dominated by songs that came out in that year; in the same way, the memory of a year will rarely be dictated by the songs you would like to have listened to or even the albums you actually bought. 1995 was still the year of Alanis (before she felt the need to thank India); none of us cared that she didn’t seem to understand irony or why one hand was in her pocket.

(Best suggestions from my friends at the time: (1) she’s hiding a roach; (2) sex toy in her hand; (3) she has an old woman’s hand and if it sees the light of day she’ll suddenly become an octogenarian; (4) she doesn’t have a hand!)

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The Death of a Cat

Note: Last week, my brother had to say goodbye to his dog. My sister has already finely eulogized him.  The pain was especially sharp since the dog was our father’s dog.  After our father passed away, Remy was a symbol of our grief and a daily reminder of the basic visceral nature of loss: he awaited our father’s return every day and never seemed quite to adjust to his absence.

I can’t claim by any measure that my response has been empathetic or emphatic enough. Our family has a long history with pets–our lives have in large part been defined and periodized by our animals. Animals, paradoxically, teach us how to be more human. They teach us how to feel fully, to love selfishly and selflessly, and how, finally, to die. For Remy, the case was even more tortured: he died from complications of a lung ailment three years after our father died of pneumonia. know that this is coincidence, but we cannot help but see some twisted meaning, some correlation in the living of lives and the coming of death.

And this too teaches us about the differences between animal and man. We create meanings for the world rather than just inhabit it. We memorialize pain and loss and by doing so cherish it and the passing of time. But I was estranged from this animal and this passing by space and time. But my story too is bound up like my siblings’ and parents’ in the joy and loss of cats and dogs. So, here it is:

Two years ago I had to have my cat put to sleep—she had a thyroid problem and her body was shutting down. The end rapidly approached as she retained more and more fluid and it became harder for her to breathe. I held her as the doctor administered the medicine; it seemed quick and painless. For the following few days, I lived one of those interminable moments waiting for feeling either to come back or to stop completely.

This may seem more than a bit dramatic, but I have a complicated history with cats. The Family J didn’t always have cats—our mother was allergic and both parents were dedicated dog people. When I was in fifth grade, however, a young kitten showed up on our doorstep. That cute, furry thing was the beginning of trouble. We all fell in love with her. We fed her milk, lavished attention upon her, and begged to bring her inside. When she was still at our house after two days, our mother gave in.

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Songs of the Year—1994 Geek Rock Comes out

You say I only hear what I want to.
You say I talk so all the time so.
And I thought what I felt was simple,
and I thought that I don’t belong,
and now that I am leaving,
now I know that I did something wrong ’cause I missed you.
-Lisa Loeb

Songs of the Year: “Stay” Lisa Loeb; “I Should Be Allowed to Think,” They might Be Giants
Runners-up: “Better Man”, Pearl Jam; “Animal”, Nine Inch Nails
Honorable Mention: “21st Century Digital Boy”, Bad Religion; “All Apologies”, Nirvana

1994 was the year that, for however brief a moment, cardigan sweaters were cool. Thick-rimmed glasses were no longer tokens of an embarrassing limitation but rather a sign of honor from a glorious Geekdom. Green Day were geeky punks. Weezer sang a song about 12 sided die.

1994 saw the release of albums that surprised and stuck around. I still remember the furious onslaught of the The Lead Singer as he tried to persuade me to love Green Day’s Dookie by enumerating everyone he knew (who was cool) who liked it. He should have known that this was the wrong tack to take with me. Contrarian I was.

The list of great albums that came out in 1994 is long, but a few highlights include: Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, Weezer’s Blue Album, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, Stranger than Fiction, Bad Religion, Definitely Maybe, Oasis, Ready to Die, Notorious B. I.G., Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing. Tracks from these CDs would dominate the world for the next few years. But not me. Not yet.

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