If you could distill my personality and my life into a mix tape, this
would be it.
The initial draft for this column had over a hundred songs
on it, but I cut it down to the twenty I felt said it best.
Most of the
tracks lean toward the melancholy and the nostalgic, but then, so do I.
And if you make it all the way through, you might just figure out what
I’m all about – or at least, you’ll know me about as well as I know
Jim White – Ghost-Town of My Brain
In order to tell you anything about me, I have to tell you, first and foremost, that I am an extremely nostalgic person.
Nostalgia is bullshit, and I try to avoid the bad kind of nostalgia, the kind that makes it impossible to enjoy the present or the future cos I’m too busy waxing poetic about the ‘good old days;’ the kind that makes me romanticize times in my life that were actually downright awful.
But I am nostalgic by nature, a historian of my own life, and I have been this way since I was too young for it to even make any sense. (There are journal entries I wrote when I was 12 in which I reminisced about the good old days, when I was 9.)
And Jim White knows that feel. In this number, the thundering drums and bass, the eerie banjo loop, and Jim White’s ragged whisper tell you all about some of the dangers of nostalgia – if you dwell on the past too much, it’s really easy to get lost in it. I got a confession, he says, I never ever had no appetite for pain. So it’s a mystery to me why I like walking in the ghost-town of my brain.
2. Ani DiFranco – Jukebox
If Jim White’s brain is a ghost-town, Ani DiFranco’s is a jukebox.
In the jukebox of her memory, the list of names flips by and stops. And she closes her eyes, and smiles as the record drops. She drinks herself up and out of her kitchen chair, and she dances out of time. As slow as she can sway, for as long as she can say “this dance is mine.”
Ani’s music played a large part in making me who I am today. The first non-local show I ever saw was Ani in Madison, November 1996. After a while, as I got progressively more into punk and then other forms of music, I was no longer quite such a rabid fan, and I never have liked her newer albums as well as her older ones. That said, this track, from 1999’s Up Up Up Up Up Up, does it for me in a big way. It’s tortured, in an ‘I’m lost in the past’ sense, but it’s also loud and funky and danceable. And, yes, I’m lost in the past, but Her hair bears silent witness to the passing of time. Tattoos like mile markers map the distance she has come, winning some, losing some. Winning more than losing, I’d say.
3. Concrete Blonde – Side of the Road
This sparse little number says something essential about my life, at least the latter half of it, much of which I have spent behind the wheel of a large automobile, going from one town to the next.
Sometimes alone, sometimes with a travel-partner. There is that steady drumbeat, the jangly tambourine, the banjo riff (and why is a banjo always so damn haunting?). There is Johnette Napolitano putting words to my thoughts: Never mind fortune, never mind fame. I don’t wear diamonds, I don’t drink champagne. I’ve learned a lot that I don’t want to know. Take me back where we were so long ago. Take me down easy, take me down slow, by the side of the road.
I once said, if I could have written any song already in existence, I would choose this one. When my hobo sister Emchy and I were on tour in September 2008, we often opened our show with a duet of this song – she on accordion, me on guitar and ankle bells. I suppose that’s the closest I’m gonna get.
4. Regina Spektor – That Time
Although not one of Regina Spektor’s ballads, this song gets me like a punch to the gut. No, it’s not a ballad, it’s upbeat, has a great bassline, and has some lyrics I can laugh at, in recognition of the absurdity of my life. Like when she lists all the different kinds of cigarettes she’s smoked at one point or another, and says – Hey, remember that time when I was broke? I didn’t care, I just bummed from a friend.
But there are other lyrics, ones I can also relate to, that make me cringe rather than laugh. Such as the final verse: Hey, remember that time when you OD’d? Hey, remember that other time, when you OD’d for the second time? Well, in the waiting room, waiting for news of you, I hallucinated I could read your mind. And I was on a lot of shit, too, but what I saw man, I tell you, it was freaky.
5. Tom Waits – San Diego Serenade
This Tom Waits tune is a ballad, the kind of maudlin piano ballad he spent so much of his early career on.
He was already affecting an older-than-his-years rasp, though his voice wasn’t yet ruined by years of whiskey and touring. In any case, it’s a ‘cry in my gin and tonic’ type feeling that I get from this track. It’s about not noticing the important things until they’re made obvious; or not noticing them until they’ve been taken away from you.
To paraphrase a famous song by Joni Mitchell – Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone? Or, as young Mr. Waits puts it in this song: I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west. I never saw the moonlight until it shone off of your breast. I never saw your heart until someone tried to steal it away. I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face.
6. The Tossers – Drinking in the Day
I can’t believe I like this song. It was written by Bono, and I really don’t like U2. But this is a great song, turned phenomenal by The Tossers’ Irish-by-way-of-Chicago folk/punk. It opens with a gently strummed guitar, and someone reciting a poem by Brendan Kennelly. And then Tony Duggins begins to croon and slur – as though he has been day-drinking – about youth and booze and every lovely, messy thing that matters. The song continues to build and build, and by the end, it’s a shouted anthem: Deny your friends and family. To serve, you must betray. Break and enter heaven. Well, you’ll steal, but never save. Well, you’ll squander every penny, and you’ll empty every heart. You’ll travel every darkened road, and never finish what you start. You’ll always talk to strangers, and make love with whom you may – for god will find good company for your drinking in the day.
It makes me feel okay about the ways in which I have wasted my own life. Spend your youth on poetry, and spend your cash at play. Every line upon my face is for a girl that went away. Well, a kiss and a song are fleeting things, and fame will always stray. So I’ll tell you the truth, the best spent youth is the one you throw away.
7. Flogging Molly – Rebels of the Sacred Heart
Now, I’m aiming for heaven, but probably wind up down in hell.
That’s how this Irish-American punk tune starts. And yes, I probably will, the way I’ve lived. Then again, I don’t believe that hell as a place I’ll go after death. I’ve been in both heaven and hell several times, here on earth. This song reminds me of nights at Paddy O’s pub in Kenosha, pounding my hands on the whiskey-sticky tables when this song played on the juke; it reminds me of the time I saw Flogging Molly live, and the whole enormous crowd sang along.
Rebels are we, though heavy our hearts shall always be. But no ball or chain, no prison shall keep – we’re the rebels of the sacred heart.
8. Tim Barry – Avoiding Catatonic Surrender
I fucking hate this song. Well, no, I don’t. That’s just what Tim Barry says at the beginning of the recording, and how he often introduces it live. When I saw him play it live, I knew it was one of my theme songs as soon as he got to the line where he says: I can’t stand being home, lord, I can’t stand being gone.
This song is full of contradictions like that, and so is life. It’s an ode to cognitive dissonance. I throw empty beer cans at the TV when I’m watching the news. I hate Republicans, I hate Democrats, I hate liberals too. I think pacifists are weak, and violence is wrong – but I go limp for police and I fight when it’s called for.
9. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – I See A Darkness
The album that this is the title track from is a go-to for me when I am way, way down. The whole thing is devastating. Will Oldham has a knack for writing songs that cut to the quick. When I listen to this song, in particular, I imagine I am singing it, addressing it to my best friend. Well, you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know. And you know I have a drive to live, I won’t let go. But could you see its opposition comes rising up sometimes. That its dreadful end position comes blacking in my mind. And then, I see a darkness.
I mean, yikes. But there is hope here, too: Well, I hope that someday, buddy, we have peace in our lives.
10. Peggy Lee – Is That All There Is?
I adore pretty much everything Miss Peggy Lee ever did, but no other song of hers speaks to me as much as this one.
It’s a drunken carnival romp through some of life’s little (and big) disappointments, and I adopted it as my personal philosophy in late 2004. It was one of the roughest times in my life, for a lot of reasons that I won’t get into right now. Who cares, anyway? I see a darkness, life is full of disappointments, but – If that’s all there’s is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball. If that’s all…there is.
X – Poor Girl
If you’ve read a few of my columns already, you’ll perhaps notice that X has now been in all but the first.
You may begin to think that they are my favorite band. Though not my favorite favorite – The Clash hold that distinction, forever and always – they are definitely up there on the list.
The truth is, several of their songs would have fit on this mix; several of their songs describe me and the life I lead. “We’re Desperate” for sure, and yeah I’m a “White Girl” and a “Real Child of Hell,” and “See How We Are?” But I am also a “Poor Girl,” in more ways than one. She holds a deck of cards, she wants to be alone. She still drinks in the dark, the radio is left on late. She saw a madman fight and break it all cos he hated himself, and she felt better off, cos she was only drunk.
2. Oblivion – Bob and Weave
This melodic punk rock tune from ’90s Chicago band Oblivion is a nod to my teenage years, in a way. The sound of it (that bouncy bass and those snotty ‘ah-ah-aaahhhs’ in the background), the geography of it (Chicago Chicago Chicago), the lyrics – My pride seems to get in the way of things that I would like to say, that would otherwise come out sounding right. Then again, it’s not like I can’t still relate to it, not like I don’t still have a deep affinity for Chicago and melodic punk rock. And silence is a language that I’m fluent in, cos practice makes perfect, and I spend a lot of time by myself.
3. Jawbreaker – Boxcar
I know, I know, every vaguely punk kid of a certain age and temperament loves Jawbreaker and claims this as a theme song.
I will talk about my adoration of this song (and all of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy) forever, if you let me. Just listen to it! Short, fast, loud, Blake’s bratty growl, and these words that are relevant to everything: “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone.” Save your breath, I never was one. You don’t know what I’m all about – like killing cops and reading Kerouac. My enemies are all too familiar, they’re the ones that used to call me friend. I’m coloring outside your guidelines. I was passing out while you were passing out the rules. 1-2-3-4, who’s punk, what’s the score?
4. Superchunk – Never Too Young to Smoke
This song is about the rise of the punk and indie scene in Chapel Hill, which Superchunk was part of, but it also sums up the – much smaller and shorter-lived, but just as intense – scene here in Racine and Kenosha in the mid-to-late 90s.
It makes me think of watching the local boys play their hearts out, and between bands, standing behind the YMCA or the Polish Legion, smoking cigarettes, all bored and awkward. Join our pit, surf our crowd. Here’s a pamphlet to show you how. Bad bands, worse jokes, but you’re never too young to smoke. Everybody nods their head, I’d rather be at home in bed. But you’re never too young to smoke.
5. The Replacements – Rock’n’Roll Ghost
And this is what happens when you start living the lifestyle at a young age – before you know it, you’re a rock’n’roll ghost. At least, that’s what this song means to me; I can’t speak to what Paul Westerberg was thinking when he wrote it.
This song is about as sonically far from early ‘Mats tunes like “Kids Don’t Follow” as you can possibly get, but I maintain that Paul still has that punk rock edge.
When he sings about the shit we used to know, he is really and truly wounded. And feeling too old, I’d assume, cos – I was much too young, and much too cool for words. Look at me, now.
6. World/Inferno Friendship Society – The Politics of Passing Out
It seems odd that this is the first time World/Inferno has made it onto one of these mixes, as they are my favorite still-active band.
Some other time, I’ll tell you about their witchy circus cabaret brand of punk. For now, I’ll tell you that it’s fitting for them to make their first appearance in my column on the ‘about me’ mix. Over the years, every time I’ve heard a new song or album of theirs, I have thought: “That happened to me! You’re singing about my life! Get outta my head, goddamnit.” (To which I’m sure they would reply – “no, you get out.”)
I could have made a whole playlist of theme songs using just World/Inferno tracks, but ultimately, I had to go with this one. The first time I heard it live, I cried. It is the story of my life, the story of all my friends’ lives. So take it on the chin, spit teeth, shut up, and sing. Like the veins in my arms, like the tattoos on your skin. Night upon night, blank cassettes and cigarettes. Like lilacs off the tongue, this was supposed to be fun.
7. The Weakerthans – Left and Leaving
Do you even know how brutal this song is? From the very first strummed guitar note, all the way to the fade out, it is four minutes and forty-five seconds of unadulterated aural assault on my heart. It reminds me of returning home from touring with the Perpetual Motion Roadshow in September 2003.
The sidewalks are watching me think about you; sparkled with broken glass. I’m back with scars to show. Back with the streets I know will never take me anywhere but here.
It reminds me of spending half my life on some road trip or tour, and the other half missing everyone I’ve ever known. It is sometimes physically painful for me to listen to this song, but I always return to it. To all the people and places I once knew – Memory will rust and erode into lists, of all that you gave me: A blanket, some matches, this pain in my chest. The best parts of lonely, duct-tape, and soldered wires. New words for old desires. And every birthday card I threw away.
8. The Lawrence Arms – Boat Less Booze Cruise Party
Another song of pals long gone, and nights wasted on getting wasted in the Windy City.
What should I say about this song, other than that it is more of that melodic-yet-growly Chicago punk I have such a deep love for. And that, now and again, it says everything.
I breathed, it was smoky. I cried, it steamed. I dreamed that I slept, and I actually dreamed. What it is is a sickness, what it is is regret. And I might be tired, but I’m not dead yet. So don’t forget to forget you forgot me, cuz when I show up at your door, I’m gonna remember that you are my friend, and fall asleep on your floor.
9. Wingnut Dishwashers Union – Fuck Shit Up (whananana)
I don’t believe in cops, bosses, or politicians. Some call that anarchism. I call it having a fucking heart that beats.
So sings Pat the Bunny at the beginning of this song, and it pretty much encompasses my own ‘political’ views. This little folk punk ditty is raw and hopeful and yeah, anarchistic in its way. It means a lot, because – A punk rock song won’t ever change the world – but I can tell you about a couple that changed me.
10. The Clash – I’m Not Down
Though The Clash are best known for their political numbers, those are not the ones that describe me, or have much to say about my life.
“Know Your Rights” is a killer tune, it says a lot of important things, I even have a Know Your Rights tattoo…but it just isn’t about me, dig? This uptempo dance-punk groove is, though, and anyway, I thought I’d end this mix of melancholy on a more posi note.
See, I have lived that kind of day, when none of your sorrows will go away. It goes down and down and hit the floor, down and down and down some more. Depression. But I know there’ll be some day, when I can swing everything back my way. Like skyscrapers rising up floor by floor, I’m not giving up. And neither should you.