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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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State Songs

State SongsLooking for a mix that has one song for each of the 50 U.S. states?  This isn’t it.  Nor are any of these official state songs. (Or, at least, I don’t think they are.)

Instead, this mix has 24 songs (one each for 23 states, plus one for DC), and some of them refer to multiple states. I’m well aware that many states are missing, and that I’ve skipped some obvious songs — Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” the B-52s’ “Private Idaho,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” to name but three.  Similarly, one could make several mixes worth of songs devoted to New York alone, but I’ve stuck to one song per state.  Finally, I’ve limited the length to only what would fit on a single CD.

So here’s one hour and nineteen minutes of music that references U.S. states. Some songs celebrate, others criticize, and still others merely allude to the state in question. Enjoy!

1)    Rhode Island Is Famous for You  Erin McKeown (2006)      2:46

Written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz for the musical Inside U.S.A. (1948), this song gained popular attention via Blossom Dearie’s 1960 recording. McKeown’s appears on her delightful album of covers, Sing You Sinners. Though I’ve included it for Rhode Island, it references 20 other states: Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, Louisiana, Montana, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Dakota (it doesn’t specify whether North or South).

2)    I Like the Likes of You  Kate Baldwin (2009)      2:02

Composed by E. Y. Harburg and Vernon Duke for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1944, it only references Connecticut (and, more briefly, the Grand Canyon). I’ve always loved the way the song’s language evokes the giddiness of falling in love, and even finds the time to skewer love-song clichés (in the spoken section). And Kate Baldwin’s delivery is perfect.

3)    B.O.S.T.O.N.  Bleu (2010)      3:48

This is here for Massachusetts (my home state), but it also name checks Wisconsin (Green Bay), Virginia, and California (L.A.).  Catchy power-pop celebration of Boston. I also included it in my “For Boston” mix, back in April.

4)    Maine  John Linnell (1999)      2:07

I stole this mix’s title from John Linnell’s State Songs, the EP on which “Maine” appears.  If this sounds a bit like a They Might Be Giants song, that’s because Linnell is half of TMBGs.

5)   Manhattan  Ella Fitzgerald & Buddy Bregman Orchestra (1956)      2:49

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for Garrick Gaieties (1925), this song takes you on a tour through New York’s best-known borough. Because there are so many songs about New York, it was challenging to choose just one song for this state. “Harlem Shuffle,” “42nd Street,” “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” “Boy from New York City,” “Theme from New York, New York,” “Take the A Train” are but a few others that were in the running.

6)    I’m From New Jersey  John Gorka (1991)      3:08

On this mix, some songs celebrate and others criticize — except for this one, which does a little of both.  It appears on Gorka’s Jack’s Crows. Bonus: it also references Texas and Ohio.

7)    Pennsylvania 6-5000  Glenn Miller (1940)      3:14

I like that this song doesn’t really say anything at all about Pennsylvania. It’s just a telephone exchange. The absurdity appeals to me. Also in the running for this state were Standard Fare’s “Philadelphia” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

8)   Delaware  Perry Como (1959)      2:19

Yes, the entire song is silly puns on state names. Believe it or not, this was a no. 22 pop hit in March of 1960.  In case you’re keeping track, the other states in this song are New Jersey, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, Minnesota, Oregon, Alaska, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Missouri.

9)    Washington, D.C.  The Magnetic Fields (1999)      1:54

The nation’s capitol — which has no representation at the federal level — here gets celebrated with a rousing cheer and a snare drum. From 69 Love Songs.

10) Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina  Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa (1941)      2:43

I don’t know anything about the songwriters on this one. They’re identified as S. Skylar, A. Shaftel, B. Cannon. What else have they written? The song appears on Let Me Off Uptown!: Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa.

11) My City Was Gone  Pretenders (1982)      5:25

“I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone,” sings Chrissie Hynde, the composer of this song. It appears on the Pretenders’ classic record, Learning to Crawl.  Below, the 1995 incarnation of the group performs the song … in Ohio.

12) Michigan Militia  Moxy Früvous (1997)      3:18

The late, great Canadian quartet (active in the 1990s) satirizes a right-wing American paramilitary group which, according to Wikipedia, lasted from 1994 to 2000, and then was re-formed in 2009. I’m not sure what relationship the current Michigan Militia has to the one portrayed in this song. The song appears on Moxy Früvous’s Go to the Moon.  Below, a live performance from a 1998 telethon:

13) Down in Mississippi  Mavis Staples (2007)      4:58

Yes, that is Ladysmith Black Mambazo on backing vocals. A powerful song from one of the greatest albums ever recorded: We’ll Never Turn Back. It’s one of my desert island discs. Staples’ voice, Ry Cooder’s clean production, and many great musicians (including Cooder himself).  Below, a live performance from 2008:

14) Tennessee  Arrested Development (1992)      4:33

Written by Speech (who also is doing the main rap here), “Tennessee” was a top-10 single from the group’s successful debut album (which also featured “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendal”). The song also references Georgia — in particular, Holly Springs, and Peachtree (a Street in Atlanta).  Below, the video:

15) Midnight Train to Georgia  Gladys Knight & The Pips (1973)      4:40

Another popular hit (number 1 on the pop charts), but from twenty years earlier. One of the few songs to be the subject of a Doonesbury strip:

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury, 28 July 1974

16) The Train from Kansas City  The Shangri-Las (1965)      3:21

Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, this song is on the mix to represent Missouri. There is also a smaller Kansas City in Kansas, but the larger, better-known city is in Missouri.

17) On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe  Judy Garland (1946)      3:10

Written by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren for the musical film The Harvey Girls, this song is here for Kansas (Atchison, Topeka), though I suppose you could add in New Mexico (Santa Fe).

18) Iowa Stubborn  Ensemble (1962)      2:00

“See you at the picnic. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.” Meredith Willson’s salute to his home state of Iowa, as performed in the opening minutes of The Music Man — one of the truly great musicals.  In addition to many memorable tunes, it’s just saturated with language. The lead role (Professor Harold Hill) has to be one of the most challenging in all of musical theatre.  Here’s Robert Preston, giving his definitive rendition in the 1962 film:

19) Oklahoma (Finale)  Gordon MacRae, Charlotte Greenwood, James Whitmore, Shirley Jones & Jay Flippen (1955)      3:08

From the musical (stage, 1943; film, 1955) by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.

20) That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas) Lyle Lovett (1996)      4:55

“But Texas wants you anyway.” From Lovett’s The Road to Ensenada.  Below, an early live version (from Austin City Limits, in the early 1990s):

21) Louisiana 1927  Randy Newman (1974)      2:58

From Newman’s Good Old Boys.

22) Sal Tlay Ka Siti  Nikki M. James (2011)      3:42

A (sort-of) tribute to Utah, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon.

23) Viva Las Vegas  The Grascals with Dolly Parton (2009)      3:15

Originally performed by Elvis Presley in the 1964 film of the same name, this song (written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus) here gets a lively country treatment. Indeed, I like this version better than Elvis’s original.

24) California  Rufus Wainwright (2001)      3:24

“You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed.”  From Wainwright’s Poses.  Another state for which there are many songs we might use.  I like this one because it’s interested in the idea of California, but it’s also somewhat bemused by it.

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For Boston: A Mix

Boston Marathon logoBoston is the U.S. city that feels most like home to me. I grew up north of the city, in Lynnfield. Some of my family still live in the Boston area, though most are spread out around the globe. Indeed, I haven’t lived in Massachusetts in nearly three decades. But it’s still where I’m from.

In a city that embraces its diverse population (and their equally diverse opinions), the Boston Marathon is something (nearly) everyone agrees on.  Runners from all over the world compete.  Local TV broadcasts the race, which is always held on Patriots’ Day — a holiday commemorating the first battles of the American Revolution.  It’s celebrated in Massachusetts, but not nationally. I remember, as a kid, staying home from school, and watching the Boston Marathon on TV. It’s probably one reason that my mother, sister, and I have all run a marathon. (Or to be more accurate, my mother and I have each run one marathon; my sister has run over a dozen.) So, today’s bombing also hits close to home because I and my family know what it means to run a marathon.

As of this writing, I don’t know why some sociopath (or group of sociopaths) decided to bomb the city. I assume that the choice of Patriots’ Day was not an accident.

If you want to help,…

For information, I’ve found these useful:

Finally, here is a salute to Boston in song. It’s one of America’s great cities, and if you haven’t been there yet, please include it in future travel plans. As President Obama said today, “Boston is a tough and resilient town.” It and its people will recover from this.  So. Following is a mix of songs that either reference Boston or are by a band from Boston.

For Boston: A Mix

1. M.T.A. The Kingston Trio (1959)            3:16

A song that will tell you where the “Charlie card” (used for travel on the T, Massachusetts’ public transit system) got its name.

2. Yankee Doodle   Tex Ritter (1952)            1:28

An allusion to the city’s revolutionary past, performed by the father of John Ritter.

3. For Boston   Dropkick Murphys (2001)            1:33

Great Boston band, rousing Boston song.  Appears on the aptly titled Sing Loud, Sing Proud!

4. I’m Shipping Up to Boston   Boston Pops Orchestra (2009)            2:59

Also a Dropkick Murphys song (with lyrics by Woody Guthrie), but I didn’t want two songs by the same artist on the mix and I did want to include the Boston Pops.  So… here’s their version!  And, below, the Dropkick Murphys:

5. Massachusetts   Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa (1942)            3:16

“Boston, if you please, Massachusetts.”  From Let Me Off Uptown!

6. Dirty Water   Standells (1965)            2:49

“Love that dirty water, aw, Boston you’re my home” sing the Standells, a band from … Los Angeles.  From the great Nuggets collection.

7. B.O.S.T.O.N.   Bleu (2010)            3:48

A song about Boston from a singer-songwriter who studied at Boston’s Berklee School of Music.

8. Rock & Roll Band   Boston (1976)            3:00

“We were just another band out of Boston.” Tom Scholz (the creative force behind the band) is actually from Toledo, Ohio.  However, at the time of recording this album, he lived and worked in the Boston area.

9. Let’s Face It  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (1997)            2:33

The quintessential Boston band has a message for the haters: “Be racist, be sexist, be bigots, be sure: We won’t stand for your hatred.”  An appropriate song for the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage.  More recently, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he would not let the Chick-fil-A franchise (owned by anti-gay bigot Dan Cathy) open a restaurant in the city. He later acknowledged that he didn’t legally have the power to stop them, but his claim that “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail” resonated with those of us who support human rights.

10. Livin’ on the Edge  Aerosmith (1992)            6:20

Perhaps the most famous band from the city, Aerosmith are not famous for songs with a political message.  But, in this one, they have a caustic comment for bigots: “If you can tell a wise man by the color of his skin, then mister you’re a better man than I.”

11. The Fire Down Below   Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (1976)            4:28

To give credit where it’s due, this song — and a few others here — is inspired by a medley of snippets of songs that reference Boston which (Boston’s) WBCN used to play as part of their station identification.

12. Freeze-Frame   The J. Geils Band (1981)            3:58

No references to Boston in this song, but these guys were one of the great Boston bands. People know them for this album (Freeze-Frame), but Blow Your Face Out (1976) is one of the all-time great live albums.

13. Ladies of Cambridge   Vampire Weekend (2007)            2:39

Just across the Charles River from Boston, is Cambridge (though the band is from NYC).

14. Here Comes Your Man   Pixies (1989)            3:22

Another classic song from a Boston band.

15. Pretty In Pink   The Dresden Dolls (2006)            3:58

And still another, though covering a song by the (British) Psychedelic Furs.

16. Sweet Little Sixteen   Chuck Berry (1958)            3:02

“They’ll be rockin’ in Boston.”  From The Great Twenty-Eight.  One day soon, Boston will be rocking with joyous songs — like this one.

17. Hey Nineteen   Steely Dan (1980)            5:10

Another song that references Boston and to which the aforementioned WBCN medley uses.

18. Let’s Do It   Joan Jett & Paul Westerberg (1995)            2:23

In this punk cover of the Cole Porter classic, we learn that “In Boston, even beans do it.”

19.Roadrunner   The Modern Lovers (1976)            4:09

Founded by (Natick, Mass. native) Jonathan Richman, the Modern Lovers got their start in Boston.  In February, Massachusetts Representative Marty Walsh proposed this song as the official rock song of the state.

20. Good Times Roll  The Cars (1978)            3:48

With the knowledge that the good times will roll again, in Boston, here’s a (or the?) great new wave band from Boston — possibly the second best-known Boston band (after Aerosmith)?

21. Early to Bed   Morphine (1997)            2:58

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife.” Morphine were from Boston, and fronted by the late, great Mark Sandman.

22. Night Train   James Brown (1962)            3:35

The night train stops in Boston.

23. I’ve Been Everywhere  Johnny Cash (1996)            3:15

In this song, Mr. Johnny Cash goes to Boston (among many other places).

Incidentally, if you’re a music fan, when in the Boston area, check out Planet Records (144 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, Mass.).

Peace to all in Boston today. I know the city and its people will bounce back. We always do.

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Top 12 Covers of 2012

Top 12 covers of 2012Here are the best covers of 2012!  Well, they might be.  I haven’t kept up with music as well as I’d like to this year, and so I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones.  (I’m sure I can trust you to tell what I’ve missed, in the comments below.)  Though I recognize that there is no such thing as a cassette with 22 minutes per side, I’m nonetheless dividing this into the more uptempo side A and a quieter side B.


side A

1) Acapella The Futureheads (2012)            2:28

From the FutureheadsRant, a cover of Kellis. The album, incidentally, is entirely a capella, which I think earns the Futureheads some bonus points for coolness. Below: after mucking about for a minute, they perform this song live.

2) Judy Is a Punk The New Piccadillys (2012)             1:44

I have no idea who the New Piccadillys are, but this Beatle-esque cover of the Ramones is fantastic.  The group also created a Beatles-ish video to accompany the song.  Fun.

3) Feelin’ Alright Jackson 5 (1971)             3:13

This is the sole song here that was not recorded this year.  But it’s a great cover, and the box set on which it appears was released this year.   Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls features previously unreleased material from the Jackson 5.  Listening to it, I can’t help but think that the group could have had even more hits, had these songs been released at the time.  Great stuff.  This is their cover of Traffic.

4) You Be Illin’ Carolina Chocolate Drops (2012)             3:14

From the Carolina Chocolate Drops‘ Leaving Eden, a rootsy cover of the RUN-DMC classic.

5) Time Will Do the Talking Bettye LaVette (2012)             4:05

On her latest, Thankful n’ Thoughtful, Bettye LaVette performs a song from Patty Griffin’s debut album.  Tough to choose just one cover from this album.  I also considered the album opener, “Everything Is Broken,” but I already had a Dylan cover in the second half of the mix.

6) Right Back Where We Started From Chandler Travis Philharmonic (2012)           3:25

It was also tough to choose just one cover from this CD, Superhits of the Seventies: Original Hits, Today’s Stars, a 2012 WFMU fundraising exclusive assembled by Michael Shelley.  In addition to the Chandler Travis Philharmonic‘s merrily ragged cover of the Maxine Nightingale hit, the CD includes Yo La Tengo’s cover of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light,” the Dahlmanns’ cover of ABBA’s “Ring Ring,” and many other greats.  It’s only available to people who gave $75 or more to WFMU’s latest fundraising drive.  And you can still get it.  (If you can afford to, I’d recommend giving even more so that you can get more DJ premiums.  WFMU is the greatest freeform station in the nation, and is struggling to bounce back from Sandy.  It’s managed to get back on the air, but needs more money this year than it usually does.)


side B

7) Bloodbuzz Ohio Julia Stone (2012)           5:11

Lovely cover of the National by Julia Stone, from her album By the Horns.

8) Daydream Believer Renee & Jeremy (2012)            2:25

Beautiful, gentle cover of the Monkees’ hit — from Renee & Jeremy‘s A Little Love.

9) Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) Active Child (2012)            3:27

Active Child perform this cover of the Eurythmics’ classic at Australia’s Triple J radio station.  Here’s a video of the performance:

10) Landslide Antony (2012)            3:31

From A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac, in which Antony, the New Pornographers, Best Coast, MGMT, Lykke Li & others cover Fleetwood Mac songs.

11) Simple Twist of Fate Diana Krall (2012)           3:51

One of many fantastic songs from the 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a benefit album (for Amnesty International) featuring 128 covers of Dylan songs and Dylan himself performing “Chimes of Freedom.”

12) Video Games John Mayer (2012)              3:32

An instrumental take on the Lana Del Rey song.  In Mayer‘s rendition, it sounds like Ennio Morricone’s score for a 1960s western, or maybe incidental music for John Sayles’ Lone Star.


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Essential Holiday Tunes, Vol. 2

Essential Holiday Tunes 2Happy holidays!  A couple of years ago, I posted a mix of “Essential Holiday Tunes.”  Here is the sequel to that mix — and, yes, of course these selections are also idiosyncratic.  Unlike the previous mix, I’ve ventured a little further afield here: that is, I’ve deliberately veered towards some lesser-known songs.  Like the previous mix, this one is uptempo.  (For those interested in something quieter, I also posted a quieter, more melancholic “Blue Christmas” mix.)  I’m also posting a different song each day (some of which are featured here, and some of which are not) via Twitter, using the hashtag #FavoriteHolidaySongs

1) Now Sound of Christmas Introduction   The Free Design (1969)            0:33

The Free Design were contemporaries of (and had a comparable sound to) the Association, but never had much chart success.  Indeed, one of their songs, “2002 — A Hit Song,” pokes fun at their hit-less-ness and at pop music in general.  Only “Kites Are Fun” (the title track from their 1967 debut) cracked the top 40.  But their close harmonies and beautifully arranged orchestral pop influenced many, including Stereolab, whose “The Free Design” is named for the group.  Though they disbanded in 1974, the surviving members of the group — all of whom were siblings — reunited for one final record, Cosmic Peekaboo (2001). The group’s leader, Chris Dedrick, died of cancer in 2010.

2) Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)   Duke Ellington (1960)            4:38

Duke Ellington’s Three Suites includes his version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, from which this track comes.  If this isn’t part of your music collection, get the whole album — which also includes Ellington’s arrangement of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and Ellington’s original music for John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday.

3) Hurray for Santa Claus   The Fleshtones (2008)            1:58

From the FleshtonesStocking Stuffer, this is a cover of Milton Delugg and the Little Eskimos’ theme for the science fiction film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).

4) Santa Claus Got Stuck (in My Chimney)   Ella Fitzgerald (1950)            3:07

One of my favorite Ella Fitzgerald holiday tunes (another is on the first Essential Holiday Tunes mix). I wonder, though, is it possible to listen to this song and not think of Freud?

5) (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man with the Bag   Black Prairie featuring Sallie Ford (2012)            3:35

From the new Holidays Rule compilation, which I like nearly all of.  I particularly like the way this song opens in a minor key — gives it a slightly darker undercurrent.

6) I Want an Alien for Christmas   Fountains of Wayne (2005)            2:19

The masters of power pop give us a catchy tune on Out of State Plates, their double-CD compilation of non-album cuts and outtakes.

7) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer   The Fab Four (2002)            2:03

No, not that Fab Four.  These guys do fantastic Beatles-esque versions of holiday songs.  In this one, you get Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer performed in the style of “I Saw Her Standing There.”

8) Everywhere It’s Christmas   The Beatles (1966)            0:53

This is the real Fab Four, from their 1966 record sent to members of their fan club.

9) Feliz Navidad   El Vez (1994)            2:34

El Vez offers up a rockin’ cover of José Feliciano.  From El Vez’s Merry MeX-mas.

10) Soulful Christmas   James Brown (1968)            3:09

“James Brown loves you.”  From James Brown’s Soulful Christmas, which also includes “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year.”

11) What Christmas Means to Me   Stevie Wonder (1967)            2:28

From Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas, which includes versions of “Silver Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.”

12) Mrs. Claus Ain’t Got Nothin’ on Me   Little Jackie (2010)            2:57

This appeared on The Christmas Gig, a compilation created by Target in 2010.

13) The Merriest   June Christy (1961)            2:08

Christy is perhaps best known for her Something Cool (1954), which in addition to the title track has great performances of “Whee Baby,” “You’re Making Me Crazy,” and “The First Thing You Know, You’re in Love.”   She performed with Stan Kenton’s band in the 1940s, and retired in the mid-1960s… though I don’t know why.  It seems to me that she could have had a longer career — along the lines of, say, Peggy Lee.  This song appears on Christy’s This Time of Year (1961).

14) Silver Bells   The Yobs (1980)            2:44

A punk shredding of Ray Evans & Jay Livingston’s classic.  From the Yobs’ Christmas Album.

15) Winter Wonderland    Peggy Lee (1965)            1:54

Written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (music) & Richard B. Smith (lyrics), “Winter Wonderland” has been recorded in hit versions by over 150 artists, including two hit versions in 1946 — one by Johnny Mercer, and the other by Perry Como.  Ella Fitzgerald has a version on her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960), a great holiday record.  And, yes, many great versions — Chet Baker, Eurythmics, Brian Setzer….  Peggy Lee’s recording appears on the compilation Christmas Cocktails, and (I’m sure) on several other compilations.

16) Horchata   Vampire Weekend (2010)            3:27

From Contra, the band’s second LP.

17) Little Jack Frost Get Lost   Frankie Carle with Marjorie Hughes, vocal (1947)            2:47

A swingin’ little number that deserves to be better known.  Appears on A Big Band Christmas and on other compilations.

18) Santa Claus Is a Black Man   AKIM & the Teddy Vann Production Company (1973)            3:30

An Afro-centric re-casting of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” featuring Teddy Vann’s daughter Akim.   This appears on A John Waters Christmas (2004), though without Teddy Vann’s permission.  Apparently, Vann sued Waters over it.  Mr. Vann passed away in 2009; I’m not sure about the results of the lawsuit.  I do know that the John Waters Christmas album is currently the only CD on which you can find this song.

19) Happy Christmas Baby   The Boy Least Likely To (2010)            3:31

Appears on the Boy Least Likely To‘s Christmas Special.

20) Little Drummer Boy   The Soulful Strings (1968)            3:06

“Little Drummer Boy” may be my least favorite Christmas song. I’m including it here because the Soulful Strings have recorded a really great version — the sole recording of this song that’s actually listenable.  It surprises and pleases me every time I hear it.

21) Children of December   The Slip (2006)            4:50

From the band’s album, Eisnhower, some sympathy for people born in December.

22) Just Like Christmas    Low (1999)            3:08

Here, our mix veers towards the slightly more melancholic — but only slightly.  This song, from Low’s Christmas, has an uptempo bounce (and echo-ey Phil-Spector-ish drums) that contrasts nicely with the lyrics: “On our way from Stockholm, / It started to snow. / And you said it was just like Christmas. / But you were wrong. It wasn’t like Christmas at all.”

23) Is This Christmas? [Radio Edit]   The Wombats (2008)            3:38

This appears as a bonus track on the 2008 re-release of the Wombats’ first LP, A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation.  Even more uptempo than the Low song, but with more downbeat lyrics: “Here comes our darkest end. / Christmas is here. / It’s about not extending the overdraft / to scrape out what is left / at the end of the year.”  The Wombats are one of my favorite contemporary pop groups.  I recommend both of their albums.

24) Fairytale of New York    The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl (1988)            4:33

One of the all-time great holiday songs.  Love, conflict, and a little profanity, too.  Dorian Lynskey wrote a great history of the song, which ran in the Guardian last week.  I recommend it.  The piece also embeds an early demo version of the song, which is fascinating.  But go and read the article.  It’s well worth your time.

25) Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?    The Staple Singers (1970)            2:31

“Searching for light, and can’t seem to find the right star.” A no. 2 pop hit for the Staple Singers, this song originally appeared as a single.  It later appears on The Very Best of the Staple Singers. I have it from the compilation Snow 3 — The Get Easy! Christmas Collection Volume III.

26) (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding    Brinsley Schwarz (1974)            3:34

This is the first recording of the song made famous by Elvis Costello. Written and sung by Brinsley Schwarz’s vocalist Nick Lowe, the song’s message makes it apt for a holiday mix. It’s also been a source of lots of royalties for Lowe: Curtis Stigers covered the song for The Bodyguard soundtrack, which sold over 40 million copies.

27) Christmas Medley: Carol of the Bells / Melodies for the Day / O Sanctissimo    The Swingle Singers (1968)            3:11

Ending the mix with a gentle a cappella medley.  The final song on the Swingle SingersChristmastime.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  ”Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

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Let’s Talk About Taste

There’s a new Facebook meme: “How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook.”

How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook

Click on the link, and you get a list of “Friends who like Nickelback.”

Friends who like Nickelback

The joke depends upon pervasive dislike of the popular Canadian band. At best, I find the group’s music benign. I could imagine it being used to sell soda or life insurance. Yet Nickelback’s massive success suggests that its fans are hearing something that I’m missing. Perhaps they hear vocalist Chad Kroeger’s raspy shout as emotional intensity, the bland homilies (“every second counts because there’s no second try / so live like you’ll never live it twice”) as profound insights, and the bombastic production as appropriately anthemic.

Or perhaps it’s more complicated.  Certainly, it’s a question of taste.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)In his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007), Carl Wilson tackles this question using another Canadian megastar as his case study: Céline Dion.  Most of the books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series examine a critically important album: the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Prince’s Sign the Times, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Elliott Smith’s X/O.  For his entry in the series, Wilson chose Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love because he wanted to answer the question of why “do each of us hate some songs, or the entire output of some musicians, that millions upon millions of other people adore?” (1). He picked her Let’s Talk About Love because it has that Titanic song on it.

And because it gives him an opportunity to create humorous chapter titles: “Let’s Talk About Hate,” “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” “Let’s Sing Really Loud,” and “Let’s Talk About Taste” are a few of them.  A music critic for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Wilson has a sense of humor, but the book is a serious inquiry into taste.  It’s also become one of my favorite books. As anyone who has spoken to me in the last few weeks will tell you, I’ve been evangelizing it — rather as one does upon hearing a particularly wonderful piece of music.  I want to share this book with everyone.  If you have any interest in taste or in music, you really must read it.

The book both is and is not about Céline Dion.  Wilson takes her and her work seriously, but does so as part of his larger inquiry. In “Let’s Talk in French,” he considers her Quebec roots and the province’s particular musical culture — specifically, the conflict between the chanson (the poetic, sometimes political work of “homegrown Gainsbourgs and Dylans (it was mostly guys)” that began in the 60s) and the kétaine ( “tacky” or “hickish,” pre-60s “variety-pop”) (26-27).  In “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” he historicizes the term: Yiddish for “chicken fat,” schmaltz comes from vaudeville, and it’s not a bad thing. If a song or performance lacks schmaltz, then it’s too dry. However, if it has too much, then it’s, well, schmaltzy. But schmaltz can be about big emotions… which, of course, are what defines Céline’s music.

I especially enjoy that the book engages with questions of taste — and, yes, Hume, Kant, Bourdieu, & others make appearances here (Wilson has done his homework). In the twenty-first century, we don’t talk much about taste any more. As Wilson puts it, “We don’t commend someone’s good taste because we don’t want to be caught wearing morning coats and waxed mustaches and asking what the devil is up with the wogs. We don’t use bad taste except as a jocular antagonym in which bad means good” (149-150). He’s right. Making judgments on taste feels anachronistic or elitist. We’re much more likely to use “taste” in a fuzzy, laissez-faire way, dismissing (or accommodating) difference by saying “oh, it’s just different tastes” or “well, people have different tastes.”

As a scholar, I’m constantly called upon to appreciate works that may not be to my taste. So, I read in terms of genre, evaluating a work as, say, an excellent example of a horror novel, or a picture book, or a poem, or a graphic novel — or, really, many genres.  (It’s rare to find a work that fits only one genre.)  This mode of art appreciation feels natural to me because, for as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve been listening to different kinds of music. The music I remember from earliest childhood includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  My parents must have had !!Going Places!! (1965), because I distinctly remember Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s version of “Walk, Don’t Run” — I knew that before I knew the Ventures’ original. By about 11 years old, I began to develop my own musical tastes: novelty records (“Weird Al” Yankovic and anything played on the Dr. Demento Show, really), the Beatles, AC/DC, ’50s rock ’n’ roll, and the J. Geils Band (this was 1981-1982). That soon expanded to encompass ’60s R&B, ’80s new wave, jazz, what is now called “classic rock” (but was then AOR), hip-hop (then known as rap), and, well, nearly any type of music.  Here’s a snapshot of my “Top 50 Most Played” in iTunes — or Top 35 because that’s all that fits on the screen (click for larger image).

screen shot of Phil Nel's "Top 50 Most Played" on iTunes, 21 June 2012

That’s quite representative, although it skews towards music I’ve had longer and omits the top two most-played artists in my iTunes: They Might Be Giants (292 songs, excluding covers, solo work, and podcasts), and the Beatles (194 songs, also excluding covers and solo work).

I’ve long prided myself on my eclectic tastes, but Carl Wilson has me pegged.  As he says,

American sociologists Richard Petersen and Roger Kern in the mid-1990s suggested that the upper-class taste model had changed from a “snob” to an “omnivore” ideal, in which the coolest thing for a well-off and well-educated person to do is to consume some high culture along with heaps of popular culture, international art and lowbrow entertainment: a contemporary opera one evening, the roller derby and an Afrobeat show the next.  They speculate that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization. (96)

So, while I may think my wide-ranging tastes are democratic or open-minded, Wilson would claim that I’ve just adopted the contemporary “omnivore” ideal.  In fairness, Wilson indicts himself, too: “Indeed you could fairly say that my experiment is an attempt to expand my cultural capital among music critics, to gain symbolic status by being the most omnivorous of all” (100).

I can’t think of a better or more succinct education in taste and in popular music than Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love. It’s delightful, fun, and compact (only 164 pages).  If you’re interested in music, you’ll enjoy it.

Even if you listen to Nickelback.

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It’s Good to Be Curious: Mr. Rogers Remixed

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood (title card)

Delightful remix of clips from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which (thanks to auto-tune) Fred Rogers extols the virtues of being curious.  John Boswell (a.k.a. MelodySheep) has done a fine job here.  If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of the song (“Garden of Your Mind”), it’s included on his album Remixes for the Soul.

And here are a few media stories on the project:

Hat tip to Josh Pearson (via Facebook).

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Happy Mother’s Day! Love, Bruce Springsteen

Bruce SpringsteenIn honor of Mother’s Day (May 13), here’s some footage of Bruce Springsteen dancing with his 90-year-old mother.  The clip, recorded on March 29, comes to you here courtesy of Springsteen fan TheMagikRat.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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