At dinner tonight, someone will refer to Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland as “colonial trash.” They look right at you, waiting.
You think: the first song of the album, “The Boy in the Bubble,” begins with an accordion seemingly wound by a metal crank. The notes are paced like an old pickup truck driving through the desert with sunbeaten passengers riding in the back. It is then coaxed into rhythm by a fuzzed-out guitar synthesizer as liquid as a highway made of barely melted rubber. It is flexible but bound: clearly there is work at hand. That sound floods the whole record, snuffing out who you thought Paul Simon was up until 1986, and flows like slow lava by the time you hit “Graceland,” the second track of the album. And what about the trumpets that sound like they are flashing their lacy garters on “Gumboots?” Even their sweet preening is no match for whatever is happening with the saxophones on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” They are hands raised in praise. That’s to say nothing about “That Was Your Mother,” when the accordion becomes all étouffée and bayou, and you can see yourself dancing with someone who smells like pit smoke and feeling so damn happy.
Yes, you say. “You Can Call Me Al” is the worst.
No one will ever understand how stirred up you get when you hear Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” (1982). Therefore, it is instantly skipped when anyone else is present. The sneaker pace of “Steppin’ Out” only holds space for one person. It is a revelation built for one, reminding you that you can’t be in the middle of the city and look at the skyline at the same time.
You remember The Duino Elegies. Rilke’s right: every angel is terrifying.
Yesterday, in the car on the way to the grocery store, “Annie’s Song” (1974) by John Denver came on. Exhaustion wins, and you let it play.
The opening notes of the guitar could suffocate like too much sap, but his voice is too warm to let those notes harden over the lyrics. As Denver sings, his voice seems to be on the verge of breaking, but the guitar kicks in to gently pull him back by the shirttail, with the quiet help of a mandolin. That by itself is a feat since a mandolin always feels compelled to hold court. The backing vocals then affirm like a nod. This could go so wrong, but then a gentle oboe kicks in, and an oboe never fails, unless confined to an elevator or hold music. During the bridge, the strings sweep you up like a paper boat, channeling your now big feelings back towards Denver.
As the song closes, you look in rear view mirror and see your son crying in the back seat. You ask if he wants to hear it again, and he nods.
Consider the 80s via Madonna’s “Crazy For You” (1985). Before the steel-breasted Madonna of the early 90s, who is then later remixed by Lilith Fair and the mass-market feminism of the baby-tee, there was punked-up Madonna of the 80s. During this period she played through every possible iteration of her namesake and her diametric twin, exhausting every possible variation before turning to the next version of herself. She danced and writhed everywhere—in bathtubs, on pink soundstages, on a boat in Venice. In the 80s, no one was ashamed of big feelings. Every medium asked you to bring all of your emotions to the table: it was all angst or ecstasy, then layered with mousse-hardened, crimped hair and two layers of fluorescent leggings.
Boredom was not yet a currency that anyone would accept. Your credibility depended on a willingness to be game, to soak yourself in the whole spectrum of the movie montage: the defeat, the sweating, the triumph, over and over again. It was a time for joiners.
In that life, there was so little room for gentle nuance, and to get there, one had to employ unusual means, hence the oboe in “Crazy For You.” It’s a snake charmer’s tool that you, the temporarily pacified cobra, are completely helpless against. You can hear the pining—the notes from the oboe seem to unfurl some kind of tender, raw skein that you are holding in your chest. If 80s is a saxophone in the streets of New York at 11pm, the oboe is the hold music from your dad’s office where he sells life insurance. It feels like 6am on a spring morning, shot with a lens smudged with Vaseline. It sounds like a fawn using its legs for the first time, and if used sloppily, can look like a mother and daughter in a Massengill ad with a white lattice in the back for climbing morning glories.
But this isn’t sloppy. It’s Madonna at a certain peak in her career: unafraid and completely trusting in her own method.
What ruined Tom Petty was the cover of Damn The Torpedoes (1979). To anyone who asks, you are absolutely clear: the album itself is a masterpiece. “Refugee” can make anyone want to drop everything and speed down a red dirt road in a shitty car. In “Here Comes My Girl,” the twangy guitar sounds like a sunrise breaking over and over again as it mingles with Petty’s voice which, at that time, sounds like the muscles of a fist tightening. “Don’t Do Me Like That” makes you feel like you have not lived if you didn’t experience the 70s as a young adult. Even the strangely wistful “Louisiana Rain” is lovely… and nostalgia is not even Petty’s game.
So be clear: this is not about the music. This is about the fact that before this album was ever listened to consciously, its permanent home was at the very front of a pile of vinyl records, where it was studied very carefully. Petty’s shit-eating, narrowed gaze and his contrapposto stance seem both too casual and too aggressive for unnuanced eyes. A feathered, androgynous mane drapes his face, which seems to hang entirely on his cheekbones. In effect, for this person, this single image makes all of Petty’s music seem to be sung by a smirking, mildly menacing skeleton. Take then, that picture, and imagine that same sardonic skeleton singing “You Got Lucky,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” or even “American Girl,” which is the greatest of all Tom Petty songs. Later, it was easier to understand: Petty’s rock ‘n roll persona was both comical and terrifying, and the young are incapable of appreciating those virtues when conjoined. But by then, the damage was permanent.
Featured images by Anne Rubin, adapted & used with permission. See Anne’s work here.