Just maybe, just maybe, The Letter J might feature a lot of my favorite songs that start with the word “Just.” What? That’s JUST how it is.
The Letter J
1. Josephine – The Wallflowers
I like a name in a song title, and I’ve been known to lift a good name from a song for character use, even if the character does not exactly resemble the person named in the song. Call it a cheater method, but it’s not all divine inspiration, you know.
I also like the reverential song directed toward a woman. Don’t mistake this for the yearning to be the subject matter myself. I’ve had happy songs dedicated to or written for me, and while that was all very flattering, I’ve also been at the other end when the relationship goes sour. While being able to write about the beginning of love, and also sorting through the rubble at the end is beneficial and cathartic to the songwriter (and very satisfying for the listener), I’d rather not be personally involved. I get more warm and nostalgic feelings from hearing “Sara” by Jefferson Starship, and that song is on the deep end of cheesy. It goes back to keeping just enough personal distance between song and temporary relationships. I’m not about to let anyone who did not better my life (romantically or not) ruin a perfectly good song, myself included. When I’m at fault, I don’t need the punishment to extend to my musical collection.
No, when I say I like a reverential song for woman it is because women are fantastic, and it is fantastic when someone notices. We’re all flawed, but in a certain light, some women seem to rise above it all. “Josephine” is a song that gets that appreciation just right.
Josephine, you’re so good to me/ I know it ain’t easy / Josephine, you’re so sweet / You must taste just like sugar / and tangerines
I end up spending a good deal of time contemplating how to best articulate the great qualities in the people I write about (fictional or otherwise), much in the same way I have tried to talk about the songs that I love. When it comes to real people, taking the task lightly does a disservice to everyone. To write reverentially about someone is to also reveal something about yourself. While I am an open book when asked, volunteering my adoration does not come without some trouble. The awe can be so close to my heart that to open it up to criticism is intimidating. Even now, I’m not sure what to say. Public displays of affection have never been my style, nor am I a public mourner. To that effect, I often wonder if I come off insincere or indifferent when the complete opposite is true.
Bringing Down the Horse is an album that I love, yet I managed to neglect owning it. So many of my friends had it when it first came out that it seemed ever-present until one day I found myself thinking of the songs and no longer had immediate access. The Wallflowers have ended up as a tiny blip on the late ’90s musical radar, but they had good songs, save for their cover of “Heroes.” For someone who tried so hard to separate himself from his musical pedigree, Jakob Dylan had a hard time escaping comparisons, being “Jakob, Son of Bob.” Maybe if he hadn’t been the child of one of the greatest songwriters to ever live, he would’ve had a better shot at longevity.
2. Jackie’s Strength – Tori Amos
Whenever I put on From the Choirgirl Hotel, the album from which “Jackie’s Strength” hails, I think about the year I was in our high school’s production of The Wiz. One friend created some of the choreography, though most of it came from a guy who thought he was a divine gift to the theater department because he’d once been in Cats. It was the first year we didn’t quite have ourselves organized enough to do a regular dance class outside of school, but almost everyone who had been in our dance group the year before was involved with the show. We were all massive Tori fans.
Still, we were all spiraling away from each other in small ways during that time, separate personal lives drawing us in and out of the connections we had. One friend missed a few rehearsals and the director had another learn the Scarecrow part just in case, causing friction between them. The choreographer friend attended school just enough to be involved with the play. I had a tail bone injury that almost had the director sack me entirely. We were not on the same orbit anymore, instead becoming different lines of existence that would intersect on occasion. We had boyfriends, we had other friends more on our orbital paths, and we all had our own set of troubles to work out. I started to miss those afternoons in the dance studio, but that’s the nature of friendship.
Luckily, we are all still friends in some way, a decade later, but that year was challenging.
“Jackie’s Strength” has the same sense of melancholy nostalgia. Tori Amos relates Jackie Kennedy to overcoming personal struggles, finding balance in relationships, thinking back to different times in life that were at once wonderful and complicated.
So I turn myself inside out / in hope someone will see / make me laugh/ say you know what you want / you said we were the real thing / so I show you some more and I learn / what black magic can do / make me laugh / say you know you can turn / me into the real thing / so I show you some more / and I learn
Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly adjusting our presentation while desiring companionship, both friendly and romantic. In a way, friendship is romance. It’s a back and forth process of recognizing the admirable traits and wanting to be the best person for the other. And since romance is also a little about narcissism, friendship also sometimes revolves around the idea of “I like you because you have some of the best qualities I see in myself. Won’t you see them in me too?” Opposites may sometimes attract, but I find that sameness – more intersecting orbits – provides longevity.
“Jackie’s Strength” is a beautiful song filled with the slightly disjointed storytelling for which Tori Amos is known. Even when I’m not sure if she’s talking about herself or some complex metaphor tumbling from a character she’s created, I find her songwriting strength lies in making her mental fragments feel personal to the listener.
3. Janie Jones – The Clash, Bush
Yet again, I heard the cover before the original. Give me a break – I was 13 and just got my mitts on a Bush bootleg entitled Suck It and See. Despite the stupid name for the $20 CD, and despite the fact that the bootlegger decided to bleep out the curse words (Why title a CD something like that and yet bleep words?), I was thrilled to get the b-sides “Old” and “Broken TV.” This song came in near the end of the disc, introduced with “We’ll play a song we wrote a little while ago and gave away.” Of course, with my musical horizons not quite so broadened yet, I didn’t get the joke then.
(Much of that CD can be found on this YouTube rip of the 1995 Roxy gig. It’s a lot of fun.)
The guitar riff that is half-circus theme, half-whatever the “Meow Mix” song comes from (I played it once in orchestra, but I can’t remember the composer now) is wonderful, chaotic punk rock mixed with steady drums, topped off with plenty of cymbals. The bass gets in a prominent rumble, and the whole thing is a lot of fun. The Bush cover stays pretty faithful to the original, though they bleed into “X-Girlfriend” at the end, which ends up working well.
Probably the best use of the original “Janie Jones” I’ve heard is in the Martin Scorsese/Nicolas Cage film Bringing Out the Dead. The song plays over jumbled ambulance call scenes, showing the mix of insanity and weariness that comes from night after night of that type of intense employment, a funny riff on the line, “He don’t like his boring job.” In the movie theater, I couldn’t help but quietly sing along.
4. Just Like Heaven – The Cure
Show me show me show me / how you do that trick / the one that makes me scream she said
Are those not some of the best opening lyrics of all time? In fact, I’d go as far to say that this is one of the best songs of all time. Probably if you grew up in the 80s, you got a bit tired of hearing “Just Like Heaven” constantly, or if you were a die-hard Cure fan before this single, perhaps you were annoyed with newcomer pop-radio-listening fans paying attention to “your” band.
However, I was born in 1983 to parents who listened to Gordon Lightfoot and Three Dog Night, and therefore I had no preformed judgments when I came in late to the greatness that is The Cure. I admit, it took me until the mid-2000s to start paying any attention to their music, but better late than never, right?
Show me how you do it / and I’ll promise you / I’ll promise that / I’ll run away with you
The drums, the bass line, the shimmery synths – every element of this song is perfect. It’s love, lust, longing and loneliness, and I will go on and on forever about those being the base elements for an excellent work of art. Hit play, then play it again.
5. Just Like Honey – The Jesus and Mary Chain
Apparently I have a thing for bands with contentious sibling relationships? No, when I first heard The Jesus and Mary Chain, I didn’t know anything about them, much less that brothers Jim and William Reed wrote songs together and that people liked throw bottles at the stage while they played. And like that other band I mention a lot (see the Honorable Mentions below), they were also on Creation Records.
No, it’s not about contentious relationships (everyone is contentious at some point) – I just love ’80s and ’90s alternative rock. Still, I came late to listening to them as well, and to be honest, I didn’t remember that this song was used in the film Lost in Translation until I went looking for the video to embed here.
I love the drone, the slow drip of the music. It’s the sort of music one listens to while sprawled on the floor in a dark room somewhere. Depending on your mood, it’s either fuel for your existential crisis, or it is transcendent. These days, I lean towards the latter. They also make for excellent writing music.
Just – Radiohead
(Sometimes I forget how good this song is, and then I hear it again and go, “Yesss…” Also, remember when Radiohead actually used their guitars? Good times. Distant times. *cue angry Radiohead fans*)
Just Getting Older – Oasis
(“Am I cracking up? Or just getting older?” )