The Mountain Goats

No Children

By Mr. X

Does it say something about me that I hate love songs? That I hear the death knell of a relationship tolling when a partner suddenly announces, “This is our song!” That the roller coaster ride of emotions that a love song is supposed to present only leaves me queasy and barfing up cotton candy and popcorn by the port-a-potties?

Does it say something about me that this song, instead, with its lyrics of I hope when you think of me years down the line/You can’t think of one good thing to say and its refrain of I hope we die/I hope we both die! brings tears to my eyes?

I am not a cynic. I believe in love. I was in love, deeply. It was a fever which made my eyeballs burn and my synapses twitch.

Conversation Hears 3If I were to admit the amount of times I called her a bitch while screaming at the top of my lungs, I might be sentenced to state-sanctioned anger management training. But it could never equal the amount of times she called me “asshole”. Not by a long shot.

At the time, I thought I was in hell. But sometimes when I look back at it I wonder if it was just a rage-fueled version of heaven.

At any rate, she knew me better than anyone else has before or since. I want to say that she was my equal, but that’s not true. She was clearly my better. I liked to pretend I was smarter because I had been to better schools, but she had been to the school of hard knocks. The way that she would call me on every iota of bullshit, anyway, was worthy of a doctoral thesis.

But we were made of sandpaper. You rub two pieces of sandpaper together, and what do you get? A pile of sand.

I repeat, I am not a cynic. The reason this song moves me in a way that the “every night in my dreams I see you I feel you” drivel does not is that you get the sense that this couple really knows each other. They are either going to destroy one another, or spend the rest of their lives together. Maybe both.

We did not destroy one another. We never had the chance.

The reason she left had nothing to do with us, really, except it had everything to do with us. Her father lived on the other coast and was sick, and there was nothing to tie her here. Nothing, that is, except me. Which should have been enough.

But on the other hand, there was nothing to tie me here, either.

At any rate, she left and I didn’t. And that was the end of it. We didn’t try to continue the relationship; I for, one was too exhausted to try. Our last screaming match wore me out. She laid bare all of my faults with terrifying accuracy, but I could see in her eyes that she still loved me, despite them. Or maybe because of them.

Maybe that final screaming match, if we could have gone one step beyond it, maybe that would have been the last one, because we had exhausted ourselves into a kind of understanding.

Conversation hearts 4But I was too terrified to take that step. I was no longer sandpaper, I was the worn and wrinkled husk after the sanding has been done. Fragile to the point of translucence. Coughing up dust.

Which is what I’ve been trying to get at. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. I’ve been in a lot of indifferent relationships. I’ve only been in one which made me feel this kind of intensity.

And, ultimately, “No Children” is a song of hope. Almost every line starts with the words “I hope.” It doesn’t matter that what he’s hoping for is to cut himself shaving, or for their friends to desert them. He’s still hoping for something.

I guess I still hope that someday I’ll see her again, and that when I do I’ll be strong enough to take that next step.

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The Mountain Goats

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

christmas-1010749_1280by Meg Currell

I grew up Catholic. My South Side Chicago Irish mother had an uncle AND a brother who were priests, so family gatherings were especially holy. My Uncle John, the priest, once said Mass for us privately, in our home. I watched, amazed, as he took out his vestments and Mass supplies from his regular old suitcase. Shouldn’t they be in a tabernacle or something? A vault?

Catholicism for me wasn’t just a Sunday thing.
I went to parochial school, with the black-watch-plaid jumper and crisp white shirt with a Peter Pan collar. I absorbed the ritual of the Church with fervor; the incense, candle-lighting, First Friday Mass and the absolution of being chosen the bearer of the Gifts. It was as close as this young girl would ever get to being an altar boy or (my true wish) a priest.

The music at church was the beginning of my musical life. My mother skipped all the post-Vatican II guitar-music “crap”, instead singing all the traditional songs in her glorious voice. She drew stares that made me embarrassed; I didn’t want anybody looking at us for any reason. But the music breathed into m; it was the connective tissue that held all Catholics together in their joy and fear and wonder at God’s creation. I would come home on Sundays and pick out on the piano the songs we’d just sung. My mother got me in piano lessons right away.

nativity-596934_1280

Christmas was a time of particular musical glory. The methodical ticking off of days during Advent urged us toward the Big Day with even greater anticipation than Santa, who was an ancillary figure in my early childhood. The real deal was baby Jesus and getting ready for his awesome birthday celebration in the Church. The sanctuary and the priest were festooned in Advent purple, the parish Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by my classmates and me, Jacob’s ladders and construction paper Coats of Many Colors, the sacred tulle frothing our anticipation of the appearance of baby Jesus. A wooden crèche with its empty manger stood at the side of the altar, handmade by the father of one of my classmates, each figure a sculpture lovingly shaped by the hands of an appliance repairman.

The church rang with the haunting music of waiting, the sound of the entire Church aching for the arrival of the Savior. Advent music moves at the pace of a slow trudge through the desert, riding a donkey, thirsty and cold and looking for shelter. Much of the music reveres Mary, as she prepares to become the Mother of God; Ave Maria, Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming. My mother, who believed that singing is praying twice, would sing in her spinning soprano, eyes closed, lost, I suspect, in memory and longing not for the Christ child, but for her own child self singing songs in Latin now lost in the post-Vatican II purge.

Of the songs of reverent longing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel was the most sacred and haunting. A voice crying out for relief for a people lost. I had a vague understanding that it referred to the Jewish people lost in the desert, but as a child I knew only that we as a people were waiting for Emmanuel, and that singing would draw Him closer. With its minor key and antiphonic sway, it felt close to my mother’s Latin Mass music, the Gregorian chant that echoed through monasteries as the monks and friars walked through their daily duties, which involved gardening and cleaning and coloring in pages of sacred text.

Just like those men of God, we sang and prayed twice for the coming of this Savior.

nativity-scene-212550_1920One year, my priest-Uncle John took me—and only me—to Midnight Mass. I was the youngest child, the protected baby of the family, and allowing me to stay up so late was an honor. That I was attending church with a priest, a real man of God, made me feel holy, as if his study and devotion were conferred upon me just because I was around him. We sat near the front, down the left aisle, near the Christmas tree. As darkness fell and candles were lit, I knelt next to this priest, the “inside man” who had a key to the mysteries of the Church that was my mother’s sustaining breath. Four weeks’ anticipation of Advent collected in the cold air of the church, heavy with incense and aftershave and a fresh spritz of perfume, the one present opened before coming to Mass.

And we sang, my priest-Uncle’s wobbly tenor glossing over notes and words I knew by heart. He wasn’t the singer my mother was, but I could stand in for her, my 10 or 12 year old self only now exploring my singing voice. We sang the songs to call Christ near to us, to let Him know we were ready for Him to bestow His grace upon us for another year. “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captives,” we captives, we who spent the whole year trapped in our humanness and frailty, but four weeks before Christmas, we got our acts together and look! We’re ready now!

jesus-910271_1920At the stroke of midnight, we were allowed to sing the glorias announcing the birth. Joy to the World! Go Tell it on the Mountain! Hark the Herald Angels Sing!

But that exultation was hollow for me, less invigorating than the longing that marked His approach. We would all go back to normal now, to “ordinary” time in the Church, to music meant to beat us into compliance, not for elevating our thoughts God-ward. No music for the rest of the year would come as close to touching God as Advent music, none as full of the purpose of calling Him close to us. On Christmas, that purpose was discarded like crumpled wrapping paper, an empty box to be reused next year.

I am now a faithless, Godless heathen in my adulthood, having left the Church and then Christianity and then belief in God in progressive stages. But the effort of straining God-ward left in me a sense memory, like swinging a baseball bat or jumping off a raft: I can still feel it, even if I don’t do it anymore. The strings of Advent-music melodies pull me back into the place of longing, o come, o come Emmanuel, disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Once again, I want to sing to draw Christ near, if only for one dark sparkling night. 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

June Christy

Hang Them on the Tree

By Kedrick Rue

this-time-of-yearTalking my atheist parents into buying a Christmas tree was an endeavor that seemed doomed from the start. We didn’t celebrate this most commercial of holidays that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about”–my mother’s exact words—not with carols, not with presents, not with cookies.

It was all utter foolishness.

The Canyon in which I grew up was an unusual place, and within that place, we were an unusual family. For the most part we were a typical Eisenhower-era family, dragged into the late ’60s. My father wore button-down shirts and a sport coat to work every day. My mother was a housewife active in the PTA. She made my breakfast every morning, packed my lunch, and drove me to school. But they had been closet Communists at a time when it was the most dangerous thing to be, and were devout atheists in a country steeped in baby boomer Protestantism.

The Canyon wasn’t Christian; it was Pagan. There were the satyrs: horny old goats with connections to the record industry. There were the sylphs: groupies and junkies—often both—with long hair and flowing clothes. Every post-puberty man imagined himself as a Jim Morrison-style Dionysus, and every night was a bacchanal set to fuzzed out electric guitar, tablas, and harmonium.

june-christyBut this was in the other houses. At our house, things had stalled out in 1961. Though my parents were tolerant of the general canyon culture, even as it became more and more hedonistic, they were never friends with most of our neighbors. We would loan them a cup of sugar or flour; we even once babysat a dog for a whole week. But my parents would never leave me with them; the one time this happened the girl they had hired to babysit ended up dancing naked in our living room after she thought I was asleep. Though dancing naked was okay in pagan rituals, it was not okay in a babysitting context. Still, my mother preferred the Pagan to the Christian.

But neither moved her when it came to getting a Christmas tree.

Her fatal mistake came through a choice of friends. My father was in a branch of the Industry, and was friends with a lot of the people in the Industry. I only met June Christy once, when I was about five. I remember her as being funny and beautiful, with a mischievous sense of humor. Because I only met her once, I thought that out of all my parents’ friends she was the most intriguing.

A few years later, when lobbying for a Christmas tree, I searched my house high and low for incriminating evidence that my parents, deep in their hearts, harbored that little twinkle of Christmas that the “hoi polloi gushed so foolishly about” every December. The one crumb I was able to find was this album. And because June was a friend, I was allowed to listen to it.

the-little-red-henThe fortress had been breached. I was next able to convince my mother to make cookies (oatmeal raisin, a most un-Christmas-like cookie, as if even my mother’s baking were bearing a grudge against rampant consumerism and shallow religiosity). Then I was able to get her to buy me a gift—the Little Golden Book version of The Little Red Hen, because she liked its socialist message. Finally, I convinced her to bring a tree in from the back yard—a scrub pine I decorated with paper chains.

For that one year, I was satisfied in believing that we were just like everyone else.

I want to say that my mother’s heart grew three sizes that day. But instead she moved around the house like a caged thing, confined by the trappings of popular culture which had invaded our home. I still remember that tree as the bitterest of victories. And I also learned that there was very little—not a carol, not a cookie, not a tree—that could make us just like everyone else.

My mother stuck with the Canyon for the rest of her life, and she never fit in. But she wouldn’t have fit in anywhere. When she died I realized I could have resented her for imposing her way of life on me, but somehow I never did. Somehow I appreciated this perspective of difference, even through the bleakest years of high school.

As I was clearing out her things I found June Christy’s album. I listened to the song again for the first time in nearly two decades.

I’ll take the sorrows of last November
Make them a part of Christmas Day
Color them shiny, bright and gay
And hang them on the tree…

I still don’t have a tree in my house at Christmas—except for that one disastrous year when I dated a Pagan, which resulted in a number of broken hand-fired ornaments and a backyard bonfire—but I do have June’s song. It helps me to put the year, and the life behind me, in perspective.

June Christy

Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings

Snowbows

By Lara Shelton

When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? I also believed that I could be a circus veterinarian who doubled as an acrobat when the regular acrobats occasionally broke their legs. Oh, and a singer/songwriter, selling out packed houses and doing the Mike Douglas show in my spare time. I sang about my cat, my dog, my bedspread, how much I loved pancakes. Somehow my songs, though carefully recorded on a Fisher Price cassette tape recorder, never made it onto the radio.

song-poem-1If you haven’t ever heard of MSR there’s a good reason. The acronym comes from one of the biggest labels dealing in “song-poems”, a loose, semi-professional recording scheme popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, whereby patent amateurs would submit their song lyrics to a company, along with a fee, and a few weeks later be presented with a recording made by “professional” “studio” “musicians.” I hope the liberal use of quotation marks will not be overlooked.

Some of the musicians working in the shadow industry of song-poems had skill, even talent. Rodd Keith is revered in certain circles. Teri Summers stands out as a vocalist who could imbue even the most hackneyed sliver of a lyric with an air of gravitas. But where the real frisson occurs in these songs, what gives them their unique savor, is usually the collision between the relative amateurishness of the lyrics and the relative slickness of the musical productions. Listen to Snowbows, below. (It’s mistakenly titled Snowballs, I know. But such a mistake is entirely in keeping with the spirit of MSR.

The rhythm track is scattershot, at best, the electric piano solo meandering. But Stan Beard could have given Pat Boone a run for his money, and the melody is as lovely as anything the Carpenters ever put out.

song-poem-3When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? it’s a ridiculous concept by any stretch of the imagination. Or is it? Now that I’m an adult I still believe in concepts like Democracy. I believe in World Peace. I still believe in True Love, despite the evidence to the contrary.

What I mean to say is nothing that hasn’t been said before: we are dead without a dream. And what better dream than the one that a couple of lines, scratched out on the back of a cocktail napkin and recorded by “professional” “studio” “musicians,” can rocket you to immortality?

By nearly all metrics, Snowbows is a terrible, terrible song. And yet when I listen to it, I begin to dream. I dream of the lyricist, who may very well still be alive, keeping the 45 rpm vinyl in a special place in a heavy oaken sideboard of early ’70s manufacture, and getting it out once a year to listen to it in solitude. And listening to it unironically, as I do. And the snow begins to fall, and there is the sound of hooves on the rooftop, and for a moment everything works the way we always wanted it to. Then the record ends, and we put it away for another year.

Everything you ever wanted to know about song-poems on Wikipedia.

song-poem-2

Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings

Eric Carmen

eric carmen

All By Myself

By Tony Hidalgo

So I am a single man, never married, already forty-five years old, getting older by the minute. Yellow flags are going up in your head. I know. Presumably as a means of flattery, my good friend, slightly younger, slightly more married, with plenty of kids, asked me for his blog series to write about a song from “my time”, a song for me to muse upon, “All By Myself”. Sure, that’s a nice one for me. I am perhaps less flattered than the jazz-loving leper in his writing group he had reflect on Kenny Loggins’s Footloose and less charmed than the pretty fourth-grader he had wax lyrical on Only the Good Die Young between treatments in the oncology wing. Still, I should feel honored.

This is one of those songs that goes on for-EVER. I remember that. I can hear the singer. It was Nilsson or O’Sullivan. No, it was Eric Carmen, formerly of the Raspberries. I visualize him on the high-contrast album sleeve, pouting, or on the fuzzy Panasonic set, lip synching (it was accepted then). I can still see his open shirt, his smushed facial features with a huge coif cherry on top, a bouffant so baroque you would expect to see it on a bust in the back of a woman’s wig shop, accumulating dust more than admiring glances. Yep, way too long. I think why I recall the record’s epic length is the false fade of a verse where you think it’s finally over, followed suddenly with more drums and that maudlin chorus all over again. If you’ve never heard it, you have missed out. But you ought to thank me for the well-arranged, bombastic schmaltz I have saved you from. You really should.

In its demure, seven-minute run time, there is slack between sad-sack confessions of “all by myself” for an instrumental interlude. How about two? I always thought there was something cutting-room Beatles in this recording. Was it the seventies-era McCartney Tony Quote 1lyrical cheese? No, it was this first interlude at 1:50, the bridge with the pleasant slide guitar solo which you hope only sounds like George Harrison making a little session money. I’ll look it up later. A chorus more and at 2:54 you are confusingly entering another, grossly longer interlude which transports you this time into the Romantic era of piano, tinkling like Rachmaninoff never would, then weaving in wispy violins to try to jerk the tears out of your lonesome self one last time. Apparently the Sergei similarity I noticed is worth 12% royalties. If you need to take a nap during the song, this is the time to do it. You have two and a half minutes. Make a sandwich, brew some iced tea, then return after the pregnant pause for those slow drum taps ushering in the sweeping chorus of agony again. It’s a beautiful thing. If you hear the song in your vehicle, you’re really not respecting Eric Carmen’s memory. The radio edit crushes the histrionic voyage down to a flimsy travel guide, a 4:22, 7-inch butchering better laid to rest between drinks and tabletops. I’ve just learned Eric Carmen is alive. So that’s nice.

You can watch the song if you like. YouTube is littered with jittery videos from ’76 of Carmen in aforementioned “do” and wide-open collar behind the scuffed baby grand of a long-forgotten variety show, brooding at a fixed mike, crawling through, one chorus at a time. Before seeing it in close up, I didn’t realize how much his lower lip and underbite eric carmen 2played into how he belts out the aforementioned “by” and “my-“. He looks too young and famous to be so blue. And those audiences. Reverse shot. It’s not exactly a song they can rock their heads to. They just sit there, glassy-eyed, largely inanimate, as most Eric Carmen fans must be, like mannequins waiting for someone to put that wig on them. They can’t even be fans. This is the general lot who wanted to get into a variety show taping. Hey, there’s that slide guitar. And the beefy dude in the green suede jacket playing it doesn’t look a thing like George Harrison. The videos are full of such subverted expectations. The microphone isn’t even a dummy. It really works. In another video, on Bandstand, Dick Clark has our hero at the extreme, pantomiming and unzipped to the navel. I am redeemed but subverted again!

You can buy this song if you want. I don’t think anyone does that anymore. Buy music, I mean. But if you did, it comes in a package called “The Essential Eric Carmen”. I would not call this Tear Fest “essential” to anyone–well maybe you if you’re the kind that stays at home alone Saturday nights and you are wont to don over-the-ear Sennheisers whileTony Quote 2 dreaming up ways to romantically die. Why? ‘Cause the love of your life really doesn’t care for you. You don’t know that either because you never told her how you feel. She doesn’t really know you. The evening news has finished. Perhaps it is “essential” to this guy’s memory. I can’t imagine any other song in that collection. You are lying on the rug with a curly cable nudging your ribs and those bulky cans gripping your head and shedding sponge. You are soaking it in. You watch the title counter tick up to its ethereal 7:15, blubbering in private with quiet dignity. You’re not even dressed well. Tom-tom drums are stomping up. Violins are sailing in. The best work of this singer-songwriter is floating repeatedly into your ears and the Essential Eric Carmen is an EP of one song and you’re not even sleepy.

I guess what I am saying is that you are missing out if you don’t know the music of when I grew up, the music my friend Andy seems to think resonates with me. “All by Myself” is blessed with nice chords. But it has its flaws. Its lyrics are too simple when you read them. Its orchestration is too ambitious for its modest writing. It may, like a gastrointestinal incident, make you want to walk out of the room for a bit. But it will provide you something that the current, snide song factory cannot: a glimpse of a lost age–a soft, eric carmen 3yearning style of love song retired in English-speaking nations and a crooner whose best hair days are behind us but whose melodious, melancholic machinations refuse to leave your belfry. They transcend quality and haunt us uncomfortably. The sadness and loss shamelessly evoked through bathos repercuss within a tender side of us which we never show the crowd. So if you’ve never heard it and no one is looking, sample this ready-made recipe on the shelf. Open your heart to this track written and recorded by little Eric Carmen of Cleveland, Ohio. And if someone unexpectedly walks in while it’s on, someone who was born decades after the song came out, hopefully they will weep with you. If such newbie instead starts smirking, resist the urge to blush or unplug. Instead, toggle to a confident irony. And if you can’t pull off ironic like a pro for a few seconds, then hand this unannounced guest a home-brewed drink and politely tell her that you’ve just murdered someone. You will be in the clear. Cheers, aeons too late, to dear Eric, Sergei (verse melody), and George (yeah, he had nothing to do with it).

Eric Carmen’s Official Website

Eric Carmen

A Playlist for the Burned

By Dave Meyer

Every week MEDICINE I DIDN’T KNOW I NEEDED features a piece of writing inspired by a particular piece of music. This week Dave Meyer remembers a rocky love affair set to a playlist in his mind.

1. The Doors, “L.A. Woman”

City at night…
City at night…

We met at night. We drove up to the top of the hills. The city was laid out before us like a glittering blanket and we thought we owned the future.

Sometimes when you’re new in love you think you are above it all.

2. New York Dolls, “Puss ‘n’ Boots”

And now you’re walking like you’re ten feet tall…
Just like Puss ‘n’ Boots
I hope you don’t get shot for tryin’

Should have taken the song (a favorite of hers) as a warning. I knew I was dressing up. I knew she was slumming.

3. Roy Orbison, “You Got It”

Sometimes obsession dresses up as love.

4. Radiohead, “All I Need”

I’m a moth
Trying to share your light.

I began to sense that she needed me as much as I needed her. Every time we struggled to get away from each other we fell back into flames.

5. The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”

I’ve made a big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life

We canceled each other out. Passion was a yearning for oblivion.

6. Aphex Twin, “Come to Daddy”

Life became a fever dream and I an emaciated thing hiding in shadows. Unloveable in a hall of mirrors. Drowning in each other.

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “The Mercy Seat”

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth

8. The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”

The cacophony builds and builds until it’s unbearable. Until you can’t hear yourself think. And even when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does.

Until you hit that final chord. And suddenly it’s over, and there’s irony, and sweetness. And relief.

9. Glen Campbell, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”

She just didn’t know
I would really go.

Gentle guitars, and the whine of strings. Sunlight slanting through the windshield. A hint of regret for what might have been, and my part in the failure. And the relief that it’s really over.

A Playlist for the Burned