Jason Isbell – Anxiety

jason-isbell-wguitarbymichaelwilsonI’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember.

Admitting it makes me want to make light of this fact with a joke about how terrible my memory is. The anxiety, couched, often, in a sheen of constant critical inner dialogue, leaves me speechless, unable to find the right words to describe what I want to say. (If you knew how long it took me to type that sentence it might bring you a little bit closer to understanding.)

I am always looking to novels, memoirs, movies, documentaries, and especially music to help me move through all manner of struggle. We all do this, I imagine. To help us get past breakups, to help celebrate triumphs, to make us feel less alone.

There aren’t many songs out there that directly address anxiety, not by name at least. I know, I did a bunch of research. I created a playlist on Spotify of songs that include the words anxiety, anxious, nervous. There are a lot more out there about depression but I decided not to include those because, although the two often go together, I wanted to focus on anxiety.

A couple songs that came to mind, even before my Spotify search, were Pat Benatar’s “Anxiety (Get Nervous),” and The Ramones’ “Anxiety.” Both fantastic songs and both are worthy of a more careful dissection in a blog post, but there’s a boppy energy to these two 80s gems that seems incongruous to what anxiety actually feels like. Sure it can be speedy and manic, but, at least for me, anxiety is psychologically paralyzing. The brain so wracked with a combination of indecision, doubt, second-guessing (and third, fourth…), and self-consciousness that even basic human interactions are exhausting.

I hadn’t seen this side of anxiety captured in song, until Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released their excellent 2017 album, The Nashville Sound. At almost 7 minutes, and tucked away in the middle of the album, “Anxiety” is a hidden epic on an album filled with epics. Isbell can capture emotional truths better than just about anyone making music today. His songs are direct and heartbreaking but also subtle and poetic. They’re crafted without ever sounding overworked.

I listen to this song and I can feel that Jason (or the protagonist — he often writes songs from the POV of other people) struggles mightily with anxiety. He captures, so perfectly, so simply, how hard it can be to deal with the often misunderstood mental illness.

(the shorter, solo-acoustic version of the song — just as good if not better than the album version.)

Anxiety
How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing
Anxiety
Why am I never where I am supposed to be?
Even with my lover sleeping close to me
I’m wide awake and I’m in pain

This is the chorus, which also starts the song, breaking the usual verse/chorus structure because he needs to get it out right away, say what he wants to express before it gets bottled up again. But it’s the second verse that really resonates for me, a description of anxiousness that I’ve never seen described in a book, let alone a song.

It’s the weight of the world
But it’s nothing at all
Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall
You got to give me a minute
Because I’m way down in it
And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak
I want to be strong and steady, always ready
Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak

It’s that bared-soul quality to this song, and really, every Jason Isbell-penned tune, that sticks to, not just the ribs, but the entire body, the bones, the muscles, the tendons, the guts. I want to hate him for being so talented and so unafraid to speak about topics often considered taboo, struggles that society tells us to keep to ourselves. Don’t air your pain for others to see. But Jason doesn’t care. He doesn’t censor himself or hide behind phony masks.

Jason Isbell gets lumped into the country genre, but to me what he writes is simply music. Sure he’s got a thick, Alabama accent and plays the gee-tar, but those are just surface level traits. When you take those traits and mix them with honest song-writing chops, what you get are songs that dig deeper beneath the surface upon every listen.

 

 

 

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Joe Jackson – Happy Loving Couples

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I was a Junior in college before I had my first real girlfriend.

I probably don’t have to add that this extended delay was not by design.

In high school, I’d never fit the physical mold that most teenage girls were attracted to; I was short, wore a mullet, had no fashion sense and my raging hormones never diminished the belief that girls would never be interested in a boy like me. I was shy, lacked confidence and knew I could never assume the cocky poses the seemingly successful guys at school took.

But I seemed to have a natural gift for becoming friends with girls. I was smart, I apparently could be funny and witty (though not flirty) and this led to several platonic study sessions and friendships.

By mid-junior year of high school, thanks to the influence of one of these girl “friends”, I finally discovered new wave and punk rock, cut my hair short, shaved the sad worm on my upper lip, and started wearing 501s, Ramones t-shirts and Doc Martens. But my reputation as a sexless “nice guy” had already been defined, and no amount of outward disguise would change that. “Sixteen Candles,” the classic John Hughes teen comedy, had just hit the theaters and I identified with Jon Cryer’s “Duckie” so much, the crush of dopplegangerdom pounded in my chest. That Duckie eventually found a nerdy girl to pair off with at the very end of the film did nothing to assuage the feeling that I’d never be seen by girls through rosy, romantic glasses.

I had been caught in the sticky-trap label of girls’ best friend. Always ready, at all hours, to listen to Amy or Shelly or Cindy complain to me over the phone about how Adam or David or Brad was such an ass, how their boyfriends seemed only to want sex, and never listened to them.

“I wish they were more like you, Steve,” Amy Nelson would whisper to me, late at night over the phone, as I imagined her lithe body draped in a skimpy silk nightgown sitting up in bed. “Sensitive, in touch with their feelings. In touch with my feelings.”

I knew she didn’t really mean it. I knew I was only the equivalent of one of her girlfriends, but with the added bonus of giving her the guy perspective. “I know Brad really likes you Amy,” I’d say, putting all my misplaced energy into keeping the Brad/Amy relationship alive and strong. “He’s told me so. He’s just not so good with words.”

I was like Cyrano de Bergerac, writing love notes for the word-challenged dolt, when all along he’d actually felt the words he’d written for his friend. Living vicariously was better than not living at all, right?

“Steve, you’re gonna find the perfect girl someday,” Amy would say whenever the subject ever switched back to me, which was rare. “You’re one of the good guys.” And as she said this, I was not comforted in the slightest.

As I felt the possibility that any of the girls I had crushes on might like me “that way” slipping further and further, a tiny part of me felt grateful that I had such front-row insight into what girls wanted and liked.

I had one other thing in my favor. I liked to dance. I never went to Junior or Senior prom, but I did attend dances that were organized through my Jewish youth group, for which I happened to be president. We’d hold fundraising dances for other Jewish teens in the wider Los Angeles area and often a couple hundred kids would attend. It was a blast, and I often got to create the playlist for the DJ at the dances, where I would suggest my favorite danceable records, like New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,” and Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.”

Most teenage boys, or at least the ones I knew, considered dancing with girls a necessary evil, which would hopefully lead to subsequent makeout sessions. They would move their limbs around a little, do the white-man’s overbite, go through the motions, while hoping they wouldn’t be expected to dance to more than one or two songs at best.

Since most of the songs I’d chosen were fast-paced, having a partner to dance with wasn’t necessary. I’d just join the masses on the floor, feel the music seep into my skin and bones and muscles and ligaments, and let biology take its course. All the self-consciousness and doubt that consumed me throughout most of my waking hours was gone; I had the music in me and I didn’t hold back. I’d sink, “down, down, down” as Fred Schneider ordered in “Rock Lobster,” rising back up as the song’s iconic guitar line chimed back in. I’d spin on my toe in a perfect, tight circle, as Berlin’s “Metro” filled the dance hall.

Girls would come dance with me, happy to see a guy that seemed to actually want to be dancing. Often the ratio of girls to boys on the dancefloor would be 10 to 1; I’d take advantage of this imbalance by spreading myself around, giving each girls a few seconds of my attention before flitting off to the next. It was Just Like Heaven.

But at the end of the night, the magic would wear off and I’d be heading home by myself, sweaty and awkward, wondering if I just needed to come to accept the fact that I would be alone, forever.

Luckily, there was music to get me through these hormonally challenging times. I could always find a song that resonated with me for every emotional situation. Loneliness. Heartbreak. Anger. Confusion. But there was only one song that spoke to the boy who seemed to never have a girlfriend, who struggled to find his footing while watching all his friends pairing up.

Whenever I would feel especially depressed about my solo status, I would turn to one album —Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp”— and one song in particular: “Happy Loving Couples.”

The song starts off with a loose upbeat reggae groove —bass, snare and sharp guitar— before Joe darts in with:

I’ve just been to see my best friend/ he’s found another girl/ says she’s just about the best thing/ in the whole damn world

And in the next verse, one that still resonates with me today:

And he says can’t you see what the little lady’s done for me/ says it like he thinks I’m blind/  but the things that you see ain’t necessarily the things you can find

Joe’s narrator doesn’t let the “poor me” tag stick. He doesn’t mope around feeling sorry for himself. He responds to his friend, and later his pressuring mother, and finally society as a whole, with a confident chorus:

But those happy loving couples make it look so easy/ Happy loving couples always talk so kind/ ‘Til the time that I can’t do my dancing with a partner/ Those happy couples ain’t no friends of mine                                                 

 

 

Happy Loving Couples – The Explanation

I’ll start this off by saying that I had submitted the below blog entry as an essay for MemoirMixtapes.com. Each month they compile music essays based on a theme and post the winners as a .pdf booklet. Each “issue” is about 100 pages long, and includes essays on a wide variety of music, as well as music-inspired poetry.

I had submitted a piece for their January issue; the theme was “an album that changed your life.” That essay has been added  in their issue here (you need to scroll to page 54), and at the Warbler, here, and is about the Violent Femmes’ sophomore release, Hallowed Ground.

As much as I am happy with that essay and its inclusion in the MM compilation, I thought that my following essay, for the February issue, on the theme Love/Finding Love/Losing Love is even better. It’s less about the music, more about the story, but I find that most of my favorite music essays resonate best when they have a captivating story behind the obvious adoration for a particular song or album.

I wrote about Joe Jackson’s “Happy Loving Couples” from his Look Sharp album. But really, what I wrote about was how this song and its unapologetic acceptance of singledom, got me through a long, awkward, girlfriend-free period, from high school through my junior year of college. Essentially: those happy loving couples ain’t no friends of mine. 

So. I’ve decided to add the essay here to the Warbler, because I think it deserves an audience. An audience of three or maybe four, but better than none.

I’m gonna make the essay its own post, so check it out here, or in the tabs to the right.

And let me know what you think!

Steve

Violent Femmes – Hallowed Ground

VF-hallowedThe fall of 1983, my junior year of high-school, I finally shed my heavy metal skin; I shaved my wispy mustache, flipped my shaggy mullet into a new-wavy long-in-front/short-in-back, took out my David Lee Roth gold hoop earrings and tried on Robert Smith eyeliner and lipstick.

Sure, this all (mostly) began because of a girl. A girl who loved Culture Club and more specifically Boy George, to the point of single-minded obsession. “You look AMAZING!” I remember Julie saying to me as I sat perched on the edge of her black bedspread, as she held the small pencil up to my eye, her thin index finger gently pulling the skin beneath the lid down. “Don’t move.” I didn’t, but that didn’t stop another part of my hormone ravaged body from moving around and I started to fantasize about Julie and me conjoining our deep red and black lipsticks.

Alas, my role would remain a willing, shy boy mannequin, and when my seasonal allergies acted up—running nose, itchy, watery eyes—it would put the kibosh on my newly sculpted goth persona. And send Julie slinking off to find another eager lad to dress up.

But the makeover had begun. I craved new music that pushed boundaries—anything that represented the polar opposite of my old Van Halen and Iron Maiden records. I rode my bike to Tempo Records on Reseda Boulevard and approached the clerk—who looked like the singer of A Flock of Seagulls—and asked him who the most daring new bands out there were. “Have you heard of Violent Femmes?” I shook my head no. He rolled his eyes. “Have you heard of Hoodoo Gurus?” Again, I shook my head.

I left the store a proud new owner of the sophomore albums of both bands, Hallowed Ground and Mars Needs Guitars.

I certainly enjoyed the fun, twangy, garage-rock of Hoodoo Gurus, but “Hayride to Hell” didn’t pack the same devilish punch of the Femmes’ cowboy-noir opening track, “Country Death Song.”

Gordon Gano’s nasally and dramatic delivery sounded unlike any lead vocalist I’d ever heard before. He sang of fathers’ throwing their lovely daughters in wells; of digging black girls, oh so much more than white girls; of digging white boys oh so much more than the black boys. My suburban San Fernando Valley-boy mind was being blown. Lyrically, Hallowed Ground would cover the gamut of taboo subject matter: religion, race, bisexuality, infanticide, drug use, and other topics my sheltered teenage self could not possibly fathom.

And it wasn’t just the lyrical content that shook me to my musical core. The instrumentation—snare drum, vibraphone, stand-up bass, jew’s-harp, marimba, clarinet, saxophone, acoustic guitar—it wasn’t new wave, it wasn’t punk rock, it wasn’t folk. I couldn’t find a label for it and this both scared and exhilarated me. Brian Ritchie’s nimble bass often played the role that lead guitar usually held. The epic third track, “Never Tell”, is a veritable showcase for Ritchie’s fantastic four-stringed fretwork. And Victor De Lorenzo’s frenetic percussion, often using only a snare, hi-hat and bass drum, forced me to consider the prospect that less can be more. I’d been raised on John Bonham and Neil Violent Femmes Hallowed Ground 06/1984 Slash / Rhino 55 Peart, so for me to be so impressed by a drummer playing in such a stripped-down style really altered my whole world as to what defined a great drummer.

I was a middle-class Jewish kid, so a lot of the Christian imagery that soaks Hallowed Ground like so much holy water, may have gone over my head. But it was abundantly clear, even to me, that Gordon Gano was working through some conflicted feelings regarding his religion. That Gano, even at 19 or 20 years old could offer views both critical (“Hallowed Ground”) and celebratory (“Jesus Walking on the Water”), is a testament to the creative and spiritual fire that fed such auspicious songwriting. Jesus was a Jew, so I suppose it’s not so strange that this album would stand out for me as a musical marker.

I had never heard Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album before purchasing Hallowed Ground. “Kiss Off,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Add it Up,” “Gone Daddy Gone”—it’s no secret that the Femmes’ first was their most successful release and arguably one of the most important albums of the ‘80s. Even the 20-somethings of today know at least one of those classic tunes. But we don’t always access our favorite archronologically. I had been a metal-head in 1983, and so didn’t discover Violent Femmes until their second album’s release.

So much is about timing. If Hallowed Ground had come out a year earlier, or if that clerk at Tempo hadn’t recommended the album to me, it may never have rooted its place in my musical garden. If Julie hadn’t tried to turn me into her personal Boy George, I may still be rocking a mullet. And writing about how Scorpions’ Blackout changed my life.

You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll

ozzyThere are a lot of songs in the rock ‘n roll canon about rock ‘n roll’s inarguable immortality. Songs that proclaim emphatically how this relatively recent musical genre (really, 60 years at best) will surely never die. That those who would ever try to diminish its power, will retreat in defeat, unable even to injure, let alone kill, the unstoppable, kick-ass power of rock.

It almost seems undebatable: of course rock ‘n roll will last forever. It has been around my entire life and throughout has played the role of babysitter, best-friend, mentor, muse, consoler and savior, just to name a few.

I suppose, from a historical perspective, rock will never die. There will be archives that people can go to in a hundred years to access the Led Zeppelin and Beatles catalogs. But who knows? Maybe listening to rock will become a crime punishable by death in fifty years. I’ll be long gone by then in this dystopian scenario, so for me, rock ‘n roll will have proved its immortality. Sorry for you younger folks who might be alive in 50 years: get your rock in now before it’s too late.

But let’s get back to the music, shall we?

Long live rock, I need it every night
Long live rock, come on and join the line
Long live rock, be it dead or alive

One of the first and most iconic songs proclaiming rock’s longevity was penned by Pete Townsend and performed by The Who, yet was never released on any official album. Rather it was an outtake, added to 1974’s Odds and Sods album. Which is sort of “odd” in that I’m claiming that the first song to celebrate Rock as an undying musical genre, was never more than a B-side.

That aside, the 70s and 80s seemed to produce the majority of the popularly known songs about the permanence of rock and roll. Neil Young famously sang in “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” that Rock and Roll is here to stay. And then rephrasing in the next verse Hey Hey My My, Rock and Roll will never die.

A couple decades later, ol’ Neil would release another similarly themed classic, “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” Or maybe it’s not so similarly themed. Lyrically it’s an indictment of the Bush administration. It’s unclear whether the song is a testament to the rebellious, anti-establishment power of rock, or a sarcastic take on society’s ignoring of the horrors that exist(ed) in the world. Fodder for another post, I suppose.

One of my favorite songs from this mini-genre goes back more than 40 years. I’m talking about the title track from Rainbow’s 1977 album “Long Live Rock and Roll.” On this classic, Ronnie James Dio sings/screams/intones to us how important rock and roll is to him by repeating the song and album’s title no less than 50 times. Rock, in this amazing track, is a power, is a force. It’s like a sound that’s everywhere/ I can hear it screaming through the air.

We all can, Ronnie.

Of course just a couple years later, Ronnie James Dio would go on to replace Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath for two great albums, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. There are no songs that refer to rock and roll directly on those albums, but, as luck would have it, when Dio would leave Sabbath to start his own solo career, he would record yet another iconic song about rock, on 1984’s The Last in Line album, “We Rock.” I imagine he wrote this for all the annoying people who would come up to him in the supermarket and ask, “Hey Ronnie, what kind of music does your band play?”

But the song isn’t really about Rock and Roll’s lasting power or having to fight against the forces that would have Rock and Roll killed. No, for that, we have to go back to Ozzy.

I’ve been listening to the 80’s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal channel on Sirius XM –“Ozzy’s Boneyard” — for a few years now, and as the name would attest, they do play a fair share of Ozzy and Sabbath songs on the channel. I would guess that every hour there’s at least one Ozzy/Sabbath song played. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “Flying High Again” or “NIB” coming through my car’s speakers, I’d be able to pay for a nice dinner. But many Sabbath and Ozzy songs get featured on the channel’s rotation, and if I were guessing, I would have assumed that every song from Ozzy’s classic second album, Diary of a Madman, had been played countless times.

Yet, the other day, when I heard the gorgeous classical guitar line that opens Ozzy’s “You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll,” at one time my absolute favorite song from Diary of a Madman, I was immediately transported back to 1981, a pimply, long-haired fourteen year old sitting in my bedroom, having likely just smoked a joint (blowing the smoke out the window), putting Ozzy’s brand new album on my turntable for the first time. I can only imagine that I was blown away by each and every song, but especially the 7-minute epic third song on side A, “You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll.”

This may be the truest, most personal song of the Immortal Rock genre. Ozzy is the misunderstood teenager who feels no one understands him, who isn’t interested in fitting in, who just wants to lose himself in the music that is his escape, his religion, as he says in the songs chorus:

Leave me alone, don’t want your promises no more/Cause rock and roll is my religion and my love/Won’t ever change/May think it’s strange/You can’t kill rock and roll/It’s here to stay.

And the quieter sensitivity of the song’s opening verse gives way to a force of sheer power. It’s a slow build, a slow burn, but after the 2nd chorus, the guitars take over, and Randy Rhodes unhinged solo expresses a built-up angst that would send even the most placid listener into a head-banging frenzy.

Note: This has to be one of the worst album covers of all time, but keep it in proper context — it’s 1981, the birth of MTV, and some of the shlockiest graphical designs in history.

There are certainly other songs that fit the theme of rock everlasting, but these are the ones that come to mind. What are the others? Let me know what songs I’m forgetting in the comments and tell me which are your favorites.

Icicle Works – Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)

icicleThe recent glut of 1980s inspired TV shows — The Americans, The Goldbergs, Red Oaks, Stranger Things — have brought with them soundtracks from the 80s, for better and for worse.

I won’t go into the “for worse” here; let’s just be grateful that the Footloose and Flashdance soundtracks haven’t been mined (as far as I can recall) in any of these excellent shows.

I just finished season 2 of Stranger Things on Netflix and at the end of the extremely dramatic and intense penultimate episode, a song I hadn’t heard in years began to play just before the ending credits. I recognized it after just the first jangly chords played: “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” by Icicle Works.

I remember hearing this song back in 1984, when it was released in the US (it originally came out in ’83 in the UK), right at the time my musical landscape was being expanded from hard rock to include punk and new wave. My world was exploding with amazing new sounds, but hearing Icicle Works and specifically this song — I thought I’d found my new favorite band and song.

What solidified this song as a life-changer for me was the drumming. Chris Sharrock’s speedy and syncopated tribal rhythms were unlike anything I’d heard before. As much as I’d come to appreciate most new wave bands, I never fully accepted the prevalence of drum machines. And the bands that did have live drummers, none were particularly impressive in the showoffy way I’d preferred from years of being a metalhead. Here was the best of both worlds: catchy, jangly tunes with the propulsion of hard-rock drumming.

I would sit in my room for hours playing the song over and over, memorizing all the fills and syncopated rhythms, air drumming with wild abandon. I didn’t stop until I was certain that I knew every cymbal crash, every tom-tom roll.

Icicle Works would never put out an album as perfect and musically adventurous as their self-titled debut, but even today, when I put that album on, I still find myself air-drumming madly, in my car or on my desk, transported back to 1984, an awkward 17-year old teen, lost in the power of a great song.

Best Albums of 2017

best-albums-2017

OK, here it is.

My annual best albums list. Try not to wet your pants in excitement.

Probably half of the list has already been discussed in the top ten songs posts of the past couple weeks. But there will be surprises!

First, I must say, as I do every year, that there were way too many appealing albums to listen to in 2017 and so a lot of them I’ve never heard or barely heard. A little extra time in my day here, a longer traffic jam there, and the list might contain a different entry or two.

But these 10 albums below made me stop and listen, stop, drop and listen, and stop, drop, roll and relisten. Meaning: they floored me. Here they are, with a favorite song to check out below. For Sparks, I chose two songs because they are such perfect emotional bookends.

BNQT – Vol. 1

Actual Wolf – Faded Days

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

Sparks – Hippopotamus

Wolf Parade – Cry, Cry, Cry

Hanni El Khatib – Savage Times

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness

Moonlandingz – Interplanetary Class Classics

Quantic – Curao

Les Amazones d’Afrique – Republique Amazone

All of these albums make me feel something – celebratory, sad, curious, inspired, depressed, hopeful, silly. Some conjure many of those emotions within the same album. I have trouble accessing these feelings inside myself, and this is why music is so vital to my well-being: the songs show me a way in. By revealing their access points, by pointing the way for me to enter their gooey centers, I’m able to get a little bit closer to expressing those same feelings myself, unguarded. It’s a work in progress.