The Letter T
1. To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high) — Ryan Adams
Never a truer title, right? This song is made for the most excellent of bar jukeboxes. It’s full of pedal steel, tambourine and hand claps. Ryan Adams drawls the word “high” like Bob Dylan did in “Rainy Day Women.”
You were young / and man you were sad / When you’re young, you get sad / When you’re young / you get sad and you get high…Oh man!
It’s a satisfying singalong looking back at all the emotional drama we put each other through — “Young gal, you done me bad/ So I went and did you wrong” — and how when you’re young and stupid, everything is overdone, then is topped off with some sort of substance.
When I first heard this song on one revelatory drive home from Rockin’ Rudy’s, my young and unstable days were just ahead of me. Well, I may have already been a bit unstable, but I had yet to really greet my craziness full on. I did not know that when I moved to that city, I’d make decisions that I knew were wrong as I made them. I could have done worse, and others did, but at least one funny story came from it.
Hanging out with a group of people who were my friends for just a few short months, we had the bright idea to play hide-and-seek at 3 a.m. As you do. Everyone assumes that I must have been drunk, but no. In a stunning feat of clumsiness, I managed to fall over a park bench while attempting to avoid being tagged. I might have fared okay if the other side of the bench had not been a foot and a half lower than where I’d stood. I broke my arm, two weeks into college.
I react a little too well to painkillers. Given permission to take two at a time, I headed back to class that Monday completely off my head. I informed my professors of how little use I was to them for at least the next week — “Right, so I’m a little stoned right now, so I’m just going to sit here quietly, if you don’t mind.” Luckily, the professors were amused. Before class, I became more talkative with these new strangers around me. My husband says this is how I first started talking to him. One morning, trying to wrestle open a package of peanut butter crackers with one hand, I saw him sitting in the hallway with a liter-sized soda. I pointed at my liter soda and said, “Ah-ha! Breakfast of champions!”
I’m so smooth.
Everything is a learning experience, and some of the best relationships are born out of the right sequence of events and a splash of coincidence. Had I not broken my arm, I’m sure it would feel better than it does, as it never healed quite right. However, it makes for a great “How We Met” story. Though I’d shared a sentence or two with the Future Mister before that week, I don’t know if we would have started talking regularly, if I hadn’t been under the comfortable haze of prescribed opiates. Breaking my arm was only the start of a condensed period of being Young and Sad, and how fortuitous it was that he came along for the ride.
Side note: This is the song that happens to be playing during the bonfire scene in The Slaughter Rule, a Ryan Gosling movie in which I was an extra. No, I will never tire of talking about it.
2. This is Love — PJ Harvey
Do people still make mixes for each other at the beginning of relationships? Since I haven’t had to romance anyone new in quite some time, I don’t know how music fans in love handle that anymore. I’m just old enough that I made and received my fair share of mix tapes as well, lovingly compiled for maximum message in the time allotted.
The infinite space offered online takes some of the thought out of it, doesn’t it? The mix could be half an hour, or a person could profess their love for three. I suppose there’s an argument to be made for a more free-form mix, but to paraphrase Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, there are rules when it comes to mix tapes, and the rules are half the fun. They force you to concentrate. Over the course of this list, I may have broken my self-imposed rules a handful of times, but keeping everything in the range of five songs has provided the right amount of quality and insight for what I looked to explore. I had to think about what songs truly felt like favorites, and how much I had to say about them. Declaring my love of the songs is one thing; figuring out why I love them has proven quite the mental exercise.
Whatever the form mixes take now, “This is Love” would be a perfect, somewhat brave addition. Not many songs say “I want you” in such a great way:
I can’t believe life’s so complex / when I just want to sit here and watch you undress / This is love, this is love / that I’m feelin’
It’s just ballsy enough to work. I think a little straightforwardness should be peppered into song choices. “Wanna chase you ‘round the table/ Wanna touch your head” and “I can’t believe that the axis turns on suffering when you taste so good” leave much less room for the recipient wondering, “Is this getting more serious?” Subtlety may have its place, but sometimes you just gotta reach right for the zipper. The explosive mix of hope and desire may not ever be any higher than it is in the mixtape stage.
The song is both delicious and private, with the guitar gnawing along in a very satisfying way. Near the end, Polly Jean breathes:
You’re the only story that I’ve never told / You’re my dirty little secret / Wanna keep you so / Come on out / Come on over / Help me forget
A thousand stories, a thousand thoughts spring from those five lines.
3. That’s Entertainment — The Jam
Guys, I know I’m doing something right when my kids (ages 8 and 5) sing along to this song. They particularly like the “La la la” in the chorus. But really, what is there not to like about this song? I even respect Bruce Foxton’s mullet. That’s some awful/awesome 1981 hardcore shit, that.
Paul Weller assaults his acoustic guitar and sings about boredom, about ennui, and about judgment.
Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes / cuddling a warm girl / and smelling stale perfume
There are so many great lines.
Two lovers kissing marks the scream of midnight / two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude
I have no particular story or smartypants thing to say about this song. It’s the motherfucking jam. Just listen.
4. There is a Light That Never Goes Out — The Smiths (also, covers by Noel Gallagher, Dum Dum Girls)
Speaking of influencing kids’ music tastes, my son is often making up parodies to this song. The other day, it was “There is a Kitty That Never Goes Meow.” Well done, kid.
Morrissey is one of those singers I can’t really watch. I’ve grown to really like The Smiths, but seeing him sing rubs me the wrong way, and I’m not sure why. He’s just so major dramz, and even though I’m sure that’s why some people love him, I find myself rolling my eyes. Also, why have a two word song title when a ten word one will do?
And yet! He and Johnny Marr have written some excellent tunes together. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” is beautiful and so full of longing.
Take me out tonight / Take me anywhere / I don’t care…
But this is Morrissey, so let’s get morose about it:
If a double-decker bus crashes into us / to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die
I know, I know, I simultaneously make fun, but it’s also because I love.
The Dum Dum Girls’ cover is a pretty faithful one, save for making the guitars louder. Dee Dee’s vocals are the female version of Morrissey’s ethereal neighborhood, sort of as though Debbie Harry and The Jesus and Mary Chain had a singer-baby. I’m a big fan.
Of course, I have to mention Noel Gallagher’s cover, performed at a Teenage Cancer Trust benefit gig. He doesn’t try to sound like Morrissey, and he adds strings to the mix. It’s a fitting tribute that still manages to sound just like him, which is what makes it special. If for some reason he decided to work it into his upcoming U.S. tour, I certainly would not complain.
5. Talk Tonight — Oasis
(Well, if you know anything about Oasis and have been following me this far into the alphabet, you knew “Talk Tonight” was coming. I decided to go with a live performance instead of the studio recording, but I’m not remembering from when in the ’90s this footage occurs.)
The right conversation at the right time can change the course of everything. I am fascinated by moments of one-on-one introspection, the late night conversations that start out simple, then end feeling as though you understand both yourself and the other person better. The right conversation can keep a person from thinking they wander alone.
I wanna talk tonight / until the morning light / about how you saved my life / and you and me see how we are
Reading parts of Paolo Hewitt’s Oasis biography, Getting High, many years after its publication is difficult in some ways because I can see how close they came to not making it. When I was fourteen, reading the stories about the fights, the drugs and the chaos did not faze me — it seemed like a good rock ‘n’ roll story, both amusing and rebellious. The music still seemed new and never-ending. Now, it reads a bit like a series of car crashes, impressive that they made it out intact. Some of the tales were exaggerated at the time, I know, all in an effort to construct The Myth of Oasis, but here’s how the story of “Talk Tonight” is supposed to have occurred:
Ready to quit the band after an extremely high Liam bombed an LA gig, Noel disappeared to Las Vegas, only to be retrieved by friend Tim Abbot during the band’s first U.S. tour. He meets a woman from Philadelphia, who thinks he looks like George Harrison (she must have been drinking), and she is surprised to learn that he is also a musician. They begin to talk about music and how fully it affected their lives. In the book, Abbot recalls:
She said, “When your band comes to Philadelphia why don’t you come round, we’d love to come see your show.” Noel said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” And that was the watershed because he’d really been touched by this complete stranger. I think he suddenly realized the power, how he could share his love for The Beatles and for music and that he had a thing he could do.
The legend is meant to imply that “Talk Tonight” kept Oasis from dissolving, however unclear that may have felt at the time. Hewitt later writes of the woman in Las Vegas, “He was thanking her as best he knew how, that is, in a song.”
Is the story true? I don’t know, but it’s not bad, as stories go.
(I may claim that having a song written for you isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but maybe I’ve only ever dated mediocre songwriters.)
All your dreams are made of strawb’ry lemonade / and you make sure I eat today / You take me walking to where you played when you were young
The best part about having a creative outlet is being able to take all those late conversations, mixed with the solitary nights, and channel them into something bigger. Somehow, life starts to make more sense when you can speak outside yourself. Because the conversations don’t always come, sometimes, you have to hope that the ears find you.
One late night, likely around the time of that biography’s publication, a friend and I laid in the dark and talked out an entire plot to a short story I’d been working on. The ideas tumbled out. I remember feeling like I could sit down the next day and the entire thing would come pouring out of me. I had this big idea, born out of one conversation, and I felt like I could do it. From the talk, the words would come, and I knew that at least one person would provide that moment on which every creative person pins their hopes. She would bear witness, and she would understand.
To Try For The Sun — Lindsey Buckingham (“I dare anyone to say we were to young / we were only trying for the sun…”)
This Guy’s in Love With You — Burt Bacharach (Also, another Noel Gallagher cover choice: “When you smile, I can tell we know each other very well/ How can I show you / I’ve got to know you?”)
That’s Not My Name — The Ting Tings (A deceptively angry song that’s also dance party material.)
That’s Alright — Fleetwood Mac (“I must have been crazy / crazy to wait on you, baby…”)
Tonight (Live in Australia) — Elton John (The strings! Get in.)