Oh, friends, D has a surprising amount of great songs. I probably could have easily swapped in so many here, but sometimes my choices come down to two criteria: 1) Do I have a story behind loving this song? 2) Every time I hear this song, do I say/think, “This really is one of the best songs ever,” and feel compelled to sing along? These songs meet those criteria. I hope you like them, too.
1. “Dancing with the Women at the Bar” – Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams
She had short red hair, wore long patterned skirts and armbands in a way that seemed to transcend the usual college town bohemian. When she walked, she swayed, and on her shoulders were black, leafy tattoos. I saw her between classes because we lived in the same building, and I would occasionally make eye contact, then look away. What did I even remotely have to say? We didn’t know each other. I didn’t know her name, her floor, her”¦ anything. I knew nothing but what I saw.
Man I love the feeling when I go out
dancing with the women at the bar
One night my now-husband and I were out at one of the few bars that would let our underage selves inside, and we saw her dancing to the band onstage. We were up above the floor crowd and watched her move. “She comes into the bookstore sometimes,” he said. I said hi to her once, I said. In retrospect, it’s easy to envision some cinematic longing glance and the buildup to a moment. The reality was, I was eighteen and had only recently started saying things like, “I am also attracted to women” out loud. Inside, I was the stupid-giddy-awkward mess that I thought I’d left in middle school. We saw her there, dancing, almost every Friday night.
But there would be no big moment. I did not dance with the woman at the bar, as much as I wanted to, and we had only one conversation, in the laundry room, where I tried not to sound like the voice inside my head. Eventually, I knew her name, but after that year, I never saw her again. And though we were nothing to each other, she was the person who unknowingly pushed me towards saying, out loud, “Yes, these feelings are legitimate, and they are a part of me, and if you are to be in a relationship with me, then you must accept them.”
I listened to a lot of Whiskeytown during that year, and by some miracle, I survived both an awful breakup and an amazing, whirlwind engagement. That man who sat in the bar with me, who listened to and concurred with my sexuality, who has never asked me to be anyone different, is still next to me, ten years later. Though the themes of this song do not directly match the memories, it will always remind me of that time.
2. “Deep Dish””“ Ani DiFranco
Used to be, if I ever needed a writing warm-up, something to get me going, I would borrow liberally from this song and write a bar scene:
Cold and drizzly night
in Chicago’s Deep Dish
Fluorescent light of the bathroom
shows my hands as they are
See an eyelash on my cheek,
pick it off and make a wish
and walk back out into the bar
I find it impossible to listen to this song and not have it flicker through my mind with a cast of the familiar, down to the doorman lighting a cigarette. I love the horns, the change-ups and the steady drum beat. It may be one of the less guitar-centric Ani DiFranco songs, although there is a great blast of it at the end.
Little Plastic Castle has a bit of a different personality than other Ani DiFranco albums. In common music journalistic lore, we find her at the point where she wandered a little farther away from the political and more into the personal – never mind that the personal can certainly be political.
However, this is the album where I came in, and perhaps my view is not the most complete. I tend to prefer the more personal songs, but then, I keep my soapbox stashed only until necessary. My concentration shifts, and it depends on the year, the frequency with which the soap box comes out. While I may prefer a story, all the motions in emotion, I still appreciate that Ani DiFranco’s still out fighting the good fight.
My very first encounter with Ani was in a Rolling Stone Q&A. The generous bramble of dark brown curls with the popular mid-’90s dash of blonde near the face and a clavicle tattoo caught my attention. I’d heard of her before, but I didn’t know much about her. The article mentioned how she had previously dated women, but at the time was on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents. The not-quite-fully-realized equal-opportunist within appreciated reading that acknowledgment as something very legitimate. She was (and still is) funny, serious about her music and forever wanting to improve at it. Above all, I had a very strong gut feeling that the music would move me. I cut out that article, hung it on my wall (as you do), and mentally filed away her name as an artist I needed to acquire.
My grandmother, of all people, bought me this album not long thereafter.
Each song is a set scene, though they do not necessarily relate to one another. I don’t often see songs in a cinematic way – usually I am all about the feeling, and how I can translate that feeling into my writing – but Little Plastic Castle may as well be a series of short films. “Deep Dish” happens to be one of the best. “I raise a toast to all I see, each so badly behaved.”
3. “Drag King Bar” – Bitch and Animal
The first time I saw Ani DiFranco live, I had just moved to Missoula in the fall of 2001. Bitch and Animal, Righteous Babe label-mates, opened the gig at Adams Center. I’m not sure many attending had ever heard of them, and I certainly didn’t know what to expect. Two women burst onto the stage with hand drums, a ukulele, a violin and a bass guitar, rapping and singing about sex toys in their opening number, “Best Cock on the Block.” From there, they went on to talk about having “eggs” (instead of “balls”) to do something mighty (As in “That took eggs to tell that customer off like that!”). They had their serious songs too, but the funny ones hooked the audience and saved them from being performance artist Ani knock-offs.
“Drag King Bar” is a lot of fun – it’s sort of “Turkey in the Straw” meets The L Word.
Then he used that line that works every time…
He said, Hey, is this seat taken?
I said no,
He said, Let’s go,
I said, Where?
I don’t care
I’m a Scorpio. Take me home right now.
Who doesn’t love a good hand-clap, foot-stomp sing-along? The mister and I used to sing along to this song every time we drove out of town, complete with steering wheel drumming. It became sort of an odd good luck charm for the road, and I swear to you, our highway troubles only began when we stopped playing this song. Our kids remember everything. Not to be all Tipper Gore about it, but I had reservations about the singalongs with them there. Still, the superstitious part of me wonders if that broken oil seal, seized engine, sideways snow, deer crashing, and all manner of maladies could have been avoided.
You better believe that now, when I am in the car by myself and this pops on shuffle, I sing it loud. Keep your rabbits’ feet. I have drag kings.
4. “Don’t Change” – INXS
Allow me a shallow moment: Oh, Michael Hutchence. So hot, yet so dead. My awareness of INXS only happened about a cultural millisecond before his death, as no one in my house was a big fan. I remember the MTV News update with Kurt Loder – I miss that guy – confirming Hutchence’s death, and I remember thinking that it was sad that he’d died young. Still, being a ’90s teenager, I really only knew him as “that hot guy whose band has that one single I like.”
It wasn’t until the past five years or so that I more properly listened to INXS, albeit in a Greatest Hits sort of way. But let’s be real – their greatest hits are pretty great. “This Time,” “Need You Tonight,” “By My Side” – all are excellent songs. However, there’s something about “Don’t Change” that does it for me, even more so than the rest.
Resolution of happiness
Things have been dark for too long
Don’t change for you
Don’t change a thing for me
It’s a simple enough message about staying true to oneself, but I love Hutchence’s voice and how he is unapologetically a frontman. The long hair, the open shirts, making love to the microphone – all of it is a performance at which he excelled. I’ve included the video from a 1997 performance because it reminds me of when I first noticed the band, but the original is outstanding too. Some bands are good at recording but are lackluster live, or vice versa, but the best bands are able to do both. It’s such a shame that after this gig, he had less than a year to live, and though the rest of INXS tried to carry on with a new singer, I bet it pales by comparison. Certain types of magic cannot be replicated.
5. “Dog Days are Over” – Florence and the Machine
Oh, Florence. I love her. Her voice, her crazy fashion sense, her rather normal, awkward personality – she’s great. My first introduction to her was when Q Magazine decided she was their latest favorite person, and I read an interview with her before I’d ever heard the music. Eventually it dawned on me (because I am a slow dino), Oh right, this Internet thing. I can look up any song I want. Before long, I was binging on all the videos while trying to behave myself by not yet spending money on the album. Then, another revelation: Wait a minute, I’ll be riding around in a rental car with my mom on vacation. Obviously, we need music for that. You know, never mind all the CDs I already own.
Yes, I still buy CDs. I told you, I am the last dinosaur. I still download songs, use Spotify, and occasionally pick up some vinyl, but I like having CDs. I like having physical liner notes, and I’m the sort of person artists have in mind when they offer deluxe versions with the special case and the bonus songs. The collector in me feels compelled to support the cause in that way, and I’ve known too many people who have lost their entire music collections because their computer lost the will to live.
“Dog Days are Over” and the entire Lungs album remind me of that Florida vacation because I never swapped out the CD while we drove. Listening to it even now, the air starts to feel humid and the temperature mentally nudges upwards by a few degrees. I find a bit of irony in a song about throwing yourself into your work and staying busy-busy-busy because it was also at this time that I discovered that my mysterious illness was chronic fatigue syndrome. In a way, I suppose it marked the moment that my resting had a purpose, that it wasn’t just being lazy or that I’d somehow punished myself into feeling so tired.
Leave all your love and your longing behind you
You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive
But I did need my attachments, the love I felt in my heart towards people and things, for they were what would let me survive. I needed to gather every little thing that made me feel better, every thing that would lift me out of the bleak hole of exhaustion and tell me, There is more to life than feeling awful.
And I never wanted anything from you
Except everything you had
And what was left after that too
Yes, I will admit that, for a time, I was all about that need. I needed everyone else to heal me because I didn’t know how to begin healing myself. When faced with a chronic illness, my reaction was (and sometimes still is, on the bad days) to give into that depression and long for nothing more than to be absolved of responsibility. Please just let me lie here for awhile…
Despite reminding me of that difficult time, and the struggle I am still learning to handle, I still love this song so much. Even when Florence Welch sings her sad songs, they are sustaining. They fill me with the sense that I can be a better person, even when my body does not want to cooperate. I can adjust to this new way of life, and that it is still a life. Absorbing all the love in the world will only help me if I am able to send it back out unconditionally. It is a process, but one by which I hope to excel.
Honorable Mentions (And YES, I know, there are 5 here too. I do what I want!):
“Debra” – Beck (The lines, “I met you at JC Penny” and “Lady, step inside my Hyundai” are reasons enough to love this slow jam.)
“Down So Long” – Jewel (Pedal steel. Get in.)
“Dear Jessie” – Madonna (The strings are where it’s at.)
“D’Yer Wanna Be a Spaceman” – Oasis (All the dream stealers are lying in wait/ but if you wanna be a spaceman/ it’s still not too late)
“Daniel” – Bat For Lashes (This one nearly made the Top 5.)
Go on, tell me your Top 5. Or Top 10. Top 3? You can narrow it down to a Top 3? Well, good on you!