Monthly Obsessions – February 2023

The one constant song this month was “She Is Beautiful” by Andrew WK. This was actually a friend’s recommendation that I didn’t get into at first. Funny how that works. Now whenever I play it, I have to resist the urge to get up and pump my fist. “Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric has similar lyrical themes and is a vocal precursor to Andrew WK.

I watched an interview with Lil’ Wayne earlier in the month, which inspired me to revisit his back catalogue. I have very clear memories of watching the music video for “A Milli” back when MTV still played music. “How to Love,” though, is my favorite of his. It’s slow, smooth, and almost casual. The beat is unassuming and of course the lyrics are wonderful.

“Wake Up” by Arcade Fire is a banger if there ever was one. Those crunchy guitars at the beginning! The droning, heavy drums! The angsty classic lines, “Something filled up/My heart with nothing/Someone told me not to cry/Now that/I’m older/My heart’s/Colder/And I can/See that it’s a lie.”

I fell back into The 1975, as one does. “A Change of Heart” is just so damn catchy. It’s one of my favorite of their songs, up there with “Medicine.”

Speaking of catchy: “Lola” by The Kinks rounds out this month. “Well, I’m not the world’s most physical guy/but when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine, oh my Lo-la.” I always jumble up the lyrics when I try and sing it from memory, though.

What was on your list for this month?

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars Exhibit

I was in New York City yesterday. As part of my visit, I made sure to see the exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts that focuses on Lou Reed’s life and career. It’s titled “Caught Between the Twisted Stars” after a line from a poem that he wrote. I’ve wanted to see the exhibit ever since I saw a headline about it in the New York Times months ago. This was my opportunity to literally immerse myself in learning about an incredibly influential artist and musician.

The exhibit has prominent disclaimers that it is for mature audiences only, and that the opinions expressed may be outdated or offensive. I thought this was nice; rather than being preachy, it was an acknowledgment of time passing. Perhaps this was silly, but as soon as I even saw the row of exhibit guides, I got excited. I got to “be Clara” as a friend said: I went to the exhibit alone and could take my time in soaking up a part of music history.

“Caught Between the Twisted Stars” begins with a video of Lou Reed reciting the poem from which the exhibit gets its title. There’s also a brief biography before there are photos and promotional materials for The Velvet Underground. The exhibit wasn’t fully chronological: it kind of jumps back and forth through time. Each part of the exhibit seemed to be organized more conceptually than anything else. Photos and lyrics from The Velvet Underground are mixed with demo tapes from Lou Reed’s folk era. Later, the exhibit delves into his poetry: it talks about an influential professor from when he was at Syracuse; there are copies of his published poems; and a few handwritten lyric sheets. (Is it just me, or do all artists seem to have bad handwriting?)

I liked the way the exhibit concluded. It had a bookshelf behind plexiglass with letters from Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney as well as old 45s; the conceit appeared to be that it was part of his house. Fanzines were laid out on a desk. Old yearbooks from 1958 were open to pictures of Lou Reed in his first band, The Jades. (This, of course, prompted me to look up those recordings. I’ll talk more about that in my Monthly Obsessions post for September.)

After that, there was a wall of TVs with interviews. My favorite was one that appeared to be from the 1990s. He talked about what rock ‘n roll feels like and gestured to his heart. And that made me so happy because that’s what I feel, too.

Prep vs Punk

One of the observations I made in my first-ever post on this blog was about the tension between appearance vs. the music you enjoy. That’s been a recurring theme around here ever since. I was recently inspired to revisit the topic after I went for a drive with some friends. One of them referred to The Official Preppy Handbook and the “punk/prep” connection. That connection was admittedly something I’d never thought about before so I wanted to dive into it more.

The Official Preppy Handbook was published in 1980 as a satire of the boat shoes-and-lacrosse set. It goes into detail about what it takes to really fit in with that lifestyle: the “right” schools to go to; how to correctly hem your pants; the importance of combining kelly green and pink. And in a little column, almost hidden away, the authors talk about the punk-prep connection.

Some preps are the types who might only read about music for the shock value. Others might genuinely love its sound and would go all out if they could. On weekends they swap their uniform of Sperry Topsiders and polo shirts for sneakers and oversized t-shirts. The column also mentioned the Talking Heads, which I found to be an interesting choice: I’d never thought of the Talking Heads as being especially “punk.” New Wave, certainly, but not of the same ilk as, say, the Sex Pistols.

Maybe the authors labelled the Talking Heads as punk because some of their songs have a heavy guitar beat but are a palatable level of alternative for a traditionally buttoned-up (literally and figuratively) group of people. Someone can jam out to “Burning Down the House” on Saturday and go back to being a marketing executive on Monday.

I think one element of the punk-prep connection is rebellion. Preps have been told their entire lives how to think, dress, act, even eat and drink. Punk is the complete opposite of all of that. It offers an alluring, total escape: scream your heart out, rip your clothes, raise your finger to The Man. Do whatever you want. As Against Me! would sing, years after their forefathers yelled their way onto the charts, “The revolution was a lie!” (Coincidentally, that song, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” really spoke to me back as a youth.)

You’ve also got timing. Prep has been around forever, but in a lot of ways it was really reaching its zenith in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s of course when punk was taking shape, too. Students at prep schools would have been growing up at the same time The Ramones mumbled that they wanted to be sedated. They might have sneaked out past curfew to see a concert or two. And if they were anything like me, those beats would have hit them straight in their hearts and shown them a world far beyond what they’d known for so long.

“Litany (Life Goes On)” by Guadalcanal Diary

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I had a radio show when I was in college. It was called “Oblique Records,” I believe, in a nod to my desire to share songs that were off the beaten path. I wasn’t as interested in the rock & roll standards that my male counterparts played on their shows. Sure, I shared a few, but the focus of my show was gathering everything else I found.

It was also an interesting exercise in bravery: I was hidden behind a microphone, not showing my face publicly at all, but I still felt nervous each time it hit the top of the hour and I was on the air. I guess there’s something intimate about playing the music you like. You wonder – hope – that other people will enjoy it as much as you do.

All this is to say, I still have all of my old radio playlists. The other day I remembered a song from one of them that I played on my very last show: “Litany (Life Goes On)” by Guadalcanal Diary. They were an alternative rock band from the ’80s. I still don’t know how I found that song to begin with.

I hadn’t listened to that song in years so I put it on. And wow. It was a kick to the heart. I was suddenly, vividly transported to that final radio show: the small station, the beeping machines recording everything, the bookshelves full of vinyl records. And because my show on Sunday nights, the late evening May light was just slipping away over the hills of campus, washing everything in dull reddish-pink.

Beyond that, too, was a sense of melancholy: leaving college, the show, and everything the show meant to me, behind.

Yet: “I, I see life/Like a mirror/I, I see life/So much so clearer.” The song itself is about life continuing, evolving – “an ever-changing song.” So perhaps it was fitting that I put it on that last playlist. My life is an ever-changing song and I’m still learning how to play it.

Eddie Van Halen Passed On

This is going to be a short post since I don’t have as close a connection to Van Halen as some other groups but I still wanted to comment on what happened.

I guess what I’m thinking about right now is a comment that a friend of his made that The New York Times quoted in the initial announcement. In sum, they described the joy that Eddie brought to guitar playing at a time when the instrument’s sound was “gloomy.” That may be a reference to shoegaze, who knows, but joyful is certainly what Van Halen is. “Jump”, of course, is just such ’80s oversized hair metal that you can’t help but smile every time you hear it. Not everything has to be quote-unquote serious music and indeed, there’s significant value in getting that kind of escape.

So turn it up to 11 in memory of a great guitarist. Eddie, you’ll be missed.