Song Radios #4: So You Know It’s Got Soul

9 07 2009

And the caravan is on it’s way
I can hear the merry gypsies play
Mama mama look at Emma Rose
She’s a-playin with the radio

And the caravan has all my friends
It will stay with me until the end
Gypsy Robin, Sweet Emma Rose
Tell me everything I need to know

And the caravan is painted red and white
That means ev’rybody’s staying overnight
Barefoot gypsy player round the campfire sing and play
And a woman tells us of her ways
La, la, la, la…

Turn up your radio and let me hear the song
Switch on your electric light
Then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight so I can feel you
Sweet lady of the night I shall reveal you
Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher, radio
Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul
Radio, radio turn it up, hum
La, la, la, la…

—The Band w/ Van Morrison, “Caravan” from The Last Waltz (Download)″

The Band - The Last WaltzA few weeks back, I called in to one of my favorite radio shows, Chicago music critics Greg Kott and Jim DeRogatis’s Sound Opinions, to talk about one of my favorite albums of all time, the Band’s farewell concert, the Last Waltz, and my quote made it on the air. Here’s what I had to say:″

Hey Jim and Greg, this is Matt from Irvine, California – just got done listening to your show on the best live albums of all time. One of your callers, reviewing the Dylan album, mentioned the band, but I’m wondering how you could make it through the entire show without saying anything about the Last Waltz – the band playing with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, the Staples, and, on my personal favorite track, Van Morrison performing this spastic version of Caravan … really just an epic concert a sort of farewell to classic rock, made into one of the best concert films of all time by Scorsese, capturing that sense really of a performance that’s kind of already nostalgic, already a thing of the past as soon as it’s happened, an essential moment in music history, and a phenomenal album, really just inexcusable to leave this album off the list. Thanks!

“Caravan” captures the spirit of The Last Waltz in a few ways. As a song about friends gathering round a campfire to dance, sing and play, “Caravan” evokes the sense of community that brings all of these great musicians together to consecrate this moment in rock history, the sense of camaraderie that is so apparent when everyone comes on stage together, arm in arm, to sing “I Shall Be Released.” In the same way, it evokes the experience of watching the film together with my high school friends while home from college one summer break and reliving all of those classic rock memories I talked about in Songs About Radios #1.

At the same time, as the usually sedate Van Morrison grunts about getting down “to what is really wrong, really wrong, really wrong,” it’s powerful to see him carried away by the experience into an almost epileptic seizure. This is the soul equivalent of speaking in tongues, testifying in a guttural, non-human language to the sacred power of music coursing through his body. Morrison’s scat improvisation and vocal tics make Caravan one of my favorite picks for karaoke – the opportunity to become possessed by Morrison’s ghost, “so you know you got soul,” is hard to resist.

Some of my friends chuckle at the moderation of that line, “Turn it up, that’s enough, so you know it’s got soul,” but I think they’re missing the point. Sure, this isn’t Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” (“turn it down you say / well all I got to say to you is time again I say, ‘No!'”). When Van Morrison turns up the radio, it’s not about balls-to-the-wall ecstatic excess, it’s so that you can hear the spirit of the music pass through the community. Morrison’s moderation is an instance of the sublime, the almost to big. By limiting the volume, he allows the music to delimit a finite radius around the campfire which creates a sense of intimacy and gathers the community around its light, while simultaneously pushing gently at its bounds.


Songs About Radios #3: Airwaves Pull Your Eyes Towards Heaven

30 03 2009

“I’ve seen you fire up the gas in the engine valves
I’ve seen your hand turn saintly on the radio dial
I’ve seen the airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven
Outside Topeka in the phone lines, her good teeth smile was winding down”

—Soul Coughing, “True Dreams of Witchita” (Download) (Buy Ruby Vroom)″

“This kiss, unfinished, lips to receiver in the parking lot,
a pucker shot through a fiber optic wire
to an answering machine
toward switchboards and stations transmitting
in blips to satellites…”

—Mike Doughty, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence” Slanky (Download)″

Soul Coughing - Ruby VroomI think I’m finally ready to write about this song. “True Dreams of Wichita” is, in some ways, the beginning of my love affair with songs about radios. In the summer of 1999, the summer after I graduated from high school, I fell in love. In April of that year, I had slipped a note saying “will you go to prom with me?” into a copy of Soul Coughing’s then recently released El Oso that I was lending to a friend; she said yes; we didn’t begin to date until a week after graduation. At the end of the summer, I left the midwest for the east coast, and we spent a year falling in love over the phone before she eventually decided to join me out east. Freshman year of college, “True Dreams of Wichita” seemed the perfect embodiment of everything I missed about the midwest.

During that year, we discovered Soul Coughing, a Brooklyn based “deep slacker jazz” outfit, as frontman Mike Doughty once described them, best known for singles “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles.” We worked our way backwards from the drum and bass influenced El Oso to the more eclectic Irresistible Bliss to the almost “Vaudvillian”‘ (again, Doughty’s word) jazz of Soul Coughing’s debut, Ruby Vroom, before eventually hunting down the other odds and ends scattered through Soul Coughing’s catalogue, songs like “Unmarked Helicopters” from the X-files soundtrack. We claimed Soul Coughing as our own. They were the first band I really “got,” the first band I felt I knew better than anyone else I knew.

I remember, at a prospective students weekend for the college I eventually attended, telling a girl who’s wedding I attended this past weekend that I wished I could walk around with someone playing the upright bass behind me to punctuate my sentences. Man, I was a pretentious fuck back then. But something about the phrasing of Soul Coughing’s laid back grooves and Mike Doughty’s precise over-enunciation made me feel powerful.

“True Dreams of Wichita” was different, though. There was a folky sweetness to it that anticipated Mike Doughty’s solo work on Skittish. The combination of nostalgia for an imagined, idyllic midwest, with the powerful imagery of radio waves carrying dreams through the night sky endowed music with a transformative power. Radio brought things together, made Wichita a part of Brooklyn and Brooklyn a part of Wichita, made possible an intimate shared experience between people worlds apart. In Mike Doughty’s prose poem, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence,” this intimacy is literalized as a kiss transmitted over the phone wires. For Doughty, the transmission is always incomplete, interrupted: the signal gets lost in the satellite; the kiss is “a tinny phantom of the smooch like a smack on an aluminum can.” But the static is intoxicating. Radio waves signify, in Doughty’s work, the limits of what can be shared between two people, that which bridges but also defines the gap between subjectivities.

The degree to which I’ve internalized this metaphor explains, to an extent, the fact that I will forever associate music with intimacy, both in terms of close friendship and romance. I rarely feel closer to someone than when I discover that we both love the same song. I’ve kept up conversations with people I’ve only met once based on little more than a shared appreciation for girl groups, or trip hop, or Wolf Parade. That’s why Songs About Radios is a labor of love, and why I deeply appreciate your readership. I almost titled or subtitled the site something involving “airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven,” but couldn’t make it sound right. Still, if you hear something here that pulls your eyes in that or any other direction, I hope you’ll tell me about it.

Songs About Radios #2: The Way an Unborn Baby’s Ear Unfolds in Your Belly

8 02 2009

Relax, no song is written
It’s nothing you thought of yourself
It’s just a ghost, came unbidden
To this house

This infection gets stronger every year
This seed in the water of your tear
There’s no escaping it

This seed in the water of your tear
the way an unborn baby’s ear
Unfolds in your belly

This infection gets stronger every year
This direction of a tear rolling down your cheek
And there’s no escaping it

There’s no escaping
The thing that is making
Its home in your radio.

—Okkervil River, “For the Captain” (Download)

Okkervil River - Stars Too Small to UseLook carefully under the title of Songs About Radios and you’ll notice that the site’s tagline is this quote from the mostly forgotten (and, otherwise, probably forgettable) 1999 sophomore EP by now well-established indie folk-rockers, Okkervil River. I’ve had trouble in the past communicating my love for this song, since the first aspect which my friends can’t help but notice is the truly grating quality of the vocals. So I’m going to use this second post in the “Songs About Radios” series to explain why I love this song, not just in spite of the vocals, but in large part because of them, and not just because Will Sheff’s occasional deviations from pitch are fairly forgiving of my own tone-deaf attempts to sing along.

The radio makes an appearance in “For the Captain” at a crucial moment in a chain of metaphors about the way an earworm, one of those maddeningly catchy pop melodies that you can’t get out of your head, is born. “Relax,” Sheff begins, “no song is written” – that is to say, you’re doing it all wrong: you can’t write a song, it can only unfold itself inside you, without your permission, like a ghost that “came unbidden.” It enters, abides as if in a home, unfolds (“the way an unborn baby’s ear unfolds in your belly”), grows stronger like an infection, leaks out like a tear when the fever breaks, and then makes a new home in your radio. The songwriter is not the agent of this growth, but merely the site where it takes place, with or without consent. The repetition of the metaphor of the home suggests a cyclical process: this thing that is making its home in your radio has a way of taking you over and transforming you into a host for the incubation of yet another thing.

The brilliance of this song, in other words, is that it makes all of us, even tone-deaf literary critics like myself, everyone who’s ever loved a piece of music and carried it around in his or her head on an endless loop of an invisible little gramophone, into would-be songwriters. That itching of the earworm inside your brain is the kicking of a new song yearning to be born. That joy and frustration are the awareness of an unrealized creative capacity which Sheff expresses through the literally pedestrian image of an organic beauty imprisoned under the impenetrable barrier of the pathways that make up our everyday life:

All your tiny flowers
They have sat under the sidewalk
They have waited for the pieces
Of the summer sun to show us
All that is your beauty
All and all that is your treasure

Sidewalk FlowersSheff’s delivery is perfect for conveying the emergence of these tiny flowers through the concrete. It strains and cracks as if inadequate to the task at hand, but propelled forward by an inner necessity. As the refrain about “the thing this is making its home in your radio” echos compulsively in the background, Sheff’s increasingly hoarse voice, like the house on fire at the end of the song, is gradually consumed by its attempts to exorcise the ghost.

Songs About Radios #1: And it was alright…

2 01 2009

Jenny said when she was just five years old
There was nothin’ happenin’ at all
Every time she puts on a radio
There was nothin’ goin’ down at all,
Not at all
Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station
You know, she don’t believe what she heard at all
She started shakin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station

It was alright…

—The Velvet Underground, “Rock and Roll” (Download) (Buy It)

The Velvet Underground - LoadedI don’t really listen to the radio much these days, but songs about radios still get to me.  When I first got my license at the age of 16, and my dad passed on to me his car, my first car, a black 1993 Toyota Camry sedan with a v6 engine and a tape deck, but no CD-player, driving and listening to the radio quickly became synonymous.  The freedom that having my own car implied wasn’t just about mobility – it was also the first space that was entirely my own, and nothing embodied that independence better than the radio.  When I turned up the volume way up, no one said turn it down.  No one asked me what the hell I was listening to.  The dials were in my hands.

But for all of that control, the radio was also about succumbing to something more powerful than myself, being moved by the combination of a beat or a melody and the feeling of the road, but also submitting myself to the cultural force of the musical canon. At that point in my life, classic rock was still an expansion of my musical horizons, and while I knew a lot of the big names, the classics as a whole were still wild and unpredictable. As those radio waves seeped through the closed windows and locked doors of my car, they brought new artists, new pleasures, new identities to try on for a couple minutes at a time. The unpredictability of radio also brought with it a sort of ritual temporality built around randomness. I remember driving around the suburbs with my closest friends blasting 97.9, the Loop, Chicago’s classic rock station as loud as we could bear.  We had a rule that whenever the Rolling Stones came on, the windows had to come down, rain or shine.  In Chicago, that sometimes meant singing at the top of our tone-deaf lungs as heavy, freezing winds blew snow into our faces.  But what could we do – we were at the mercy of the radio.  To this day, very little makes me happier than yelling, “Hey, you, get off of my cloud!” at a confused and unsuspecting pedestrian as I slam on the gas and speed away.

Songs about radios are songs about the experience of listening to music.  And while the walkman, the discman, and today the iPod have made that experience increasingly insular and solitary, songs about radios remind us of the social experience of music.  For those of us that don’t listen to the radio any more, there’s still a social experience of music, it’s just changed.  It now involves things like file-sharing, charts, Facebook, blogs, message boards and music festivals.  Mix tapes no longer involve waiting patiently by the radio with your finger on the record button, hoping that one song you’re looking for will come on and you’ll catch it in time.  But it’s still the same sense of sharing that animates the ridiculous number of hours I’ve put into managing my music collection over the past several years.

And so, I hope this little space where my hand is on the dial will be a chance for some of us to share our love of music. In the posts that follow, I’ll do my best to share some of my favorite artists, new and old, familiar and obscure. Rather than trying to keep up with the latest currents in music (there are already enough blogs reposting practically every track on, I’ll stick to music that is meaningful to me, and I’ll make an effort to tell you why in language that’s more heartfelt and less impenetrable than the academic blog which I’m leaving behind. At the moment, all links to mp3s are through zshare, which means you can click to hear the song immediately or to download it. (EDIT: I decided to buy storage space on WordPress, so you can now play or download each song directly from this site) If you do download something and you like it enough to keep it, please support the artist.

In order to keep my attention spread throughout the musical spectrum, Songs About Radios will bring you several regular series in addition to whatever ideas for individual posts I think of. Some of these series will include:

  • Songs About Radios – Like this first post, the songs about radios series will bringing you songs about the social experience of listening to music, songs that explicitly mention radios, radio waves, radio dials, radiomen, radio towers, satellites, mixtapes, car stereos, etc.
  • Parallel Lines – often times the best way to gain insight into music is to compare minute similarities and differences between two different tracks by different artists or even from different genres; the Parallel Lines series will focus in on one very specific point of comparison and contrast between two otherwise unrelated songs
  • Teach A Man To Fish – …and you feed him for a lifetime. I’ve spent many many hours over the past few years perfecting the art of collecting music on the internet. In this series, I’ll reveal some of the tricks of the trade – where to discover music, how to download streaming media, the best aps for converting file types and stripping DRM, strategies for organizing a large mp3 collection – so that you too can become a more active, or more efficient, consumer of music.
  • It Started With A Mixx – What are the top 10 songs about my sweet home, Chicago? What’s the best way to say “Welcome to the Working Week?” Need a mix of spooky songs for this year’s Halloween party? This is the series for you. I do take requests.
  • Best Of – In the bar under the image at the top of the page, you’ll notice a “Best Of” link. My goal is to slowly fill in my favorite songs and albums of each year, with links and commentary, starting with the present and slowly moving backwards. Given the time of year, you can expect some of my first few posts to concern my favorite albums of 2008. After that, I’ll begin reposting some of my year end lists from my last blog, but I hope eventually to cover the rest of the decade and beyond.

I also hope to introduce new series as I come up with them. Suggestions are welcome. If you’re reading this and you’re enjoying it, please leave an occasional comment to let me know!