April 7, 2010

Amy Powell's Eternal Mixtape


Family and Friends at the Ridge – Copper Kettle

You can hear the folks on this recording claiming that it is an old folk song, but it is usually credited to Albert Frank Beddoe and was popularized by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  I think this is a late ‘60s recording of my mother, my grandparents and some of my grandparents’ friends at a hootenanny in the NC mountains where they have a campground.  My mother and one of my sisters now own little pieces of that campground, and my baby sister got married there last fall.  But at the time of the recording, I guesstimate my mother is a medical student in her 20s, younger then than I am now.  She has probably met my father at this point; they may be dating.  But this was a weekend or summer trip back home to the mountains, where she sat around the campfire with family and friends and played music.  It’s not a great recording, and there’s a disagreement about what key to play in.  The other voices and sounds are friends and family who have since passed away but whose names are dear to me and whose voices vividly call to mind summer camping trips where I sat around the fire listening to them play and sing.  The main male voice here is a mountain man named Ed; he and his wife were my grandparents’ best friends.  Ed built most of the structures up on the Ridge with his bare hands, and he was the primary guitar player most of the time (also, as I dimly recall, banjo and harmonica).  I think, however, that my mother is doing most of the playing on this recording.  (I’m going to try to spare the Eternal Mixtape any further family recordings.  There are very few good ones and even fewer of them have been digitized.)
Floyd Kramer – Last Date

My father, much like me, lacks any discernible musical talent or skill.  During medical school, he took piano lessons so that he could play this song.  He then quit taking lessons and hasn’t touched a piano since.  Maybe the attempt to impress a girl flopped, I dunno. But apparently it worked.
CHILDHOOD – Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ 

Jimmy Durante – Hi Lili Hi Lo

I’m only being a little cute with this one.  My mother sang it to my sisters and me occasionally as a lullaby.  I have a vivid memory of it in the crib.
Ricky Skaggs –  Honey, Open that Door

Okay, my father was obsessed with Ricky Skaggs for awhile.  I heard this tape as a child more than can possibly be healthy.  It was constantly on in the car for driving to school.  for road trips.  Bluegrass, country, folk, and oldies (like, from the 1940s and 50s, kids) were always on in the background.  And lets not talk about yodeling tapes.

Michael Jackson – Bad

I was 8.  This is the first time I remember paying any attention whatsoever to current popular music, and it was all about the video, which seemed amazing.  I was never fascinated by MTV other than Michael Jackson videos.  I was too young to notice “Thriller” when it came out, but I distinctly remember watching it for the first time around when “Bad” came out.  I also remember my parents being briefly outraged by the later video for “Black or White” in which Michael smashes up a car and grabs his crotch.  It seemed very provocative at the time.  Some years later, I danced to “Black or White” in my last dance recital.  In a stupid costume.  And no, you can’t see pictures or videos.  Not ever.
Rosemary Clooney – Sisters

Since I have 3 sisters and we all took dance lessons, we were occasionally called upon to dance together in public.  Our original tap performance of “sisters” was stunning, endearing, and enduring.  It has also been reprised at each of our weddings.  And no, you still can’t see pictures.

Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water

No doubt introduced to me by my parents, this was the first tape I ever bought for myself.  I thereafter bought pretty much everything Simon & Garfunkel that I could lay my little hands on.  I was an awkward middle school child, as you might imagine.  I have two very vivid memories of listening to this tape.  Once, I was at summer camp, and a bunch of girls went out robi-dosing.  I found out I was intentionally not invited because I was presumably a “narc.”  I’m pretty sure I had no idea what that meant.  I know I had to ask what robi-dosing was.  But I also ditched evening camp activities and laid in my bunk alone listening to Simon & Garfunkel.  SUCH A DORK. The year I started middle school, I met the girl who was to become my bestest best friend in the unique tortured intimacy shared only by angsty teenage girls.  I recall making her listen to “I am a rock” the very first time I invited her over to my house because I thought it said so much about me.  SAD AND PATHETIC DORK.  She later told me that she found it very intimidating at the time.   We were probably about 12.

Jimmy Buffett – Son of a Son of Sailor

Another favorite of my father.  I’m pretty sure Jimmy Buffett was also my first live concert – with the family.  To this day, it takes no effort and very little beer to induce Jimmy Buffett sing-alongs.  My husband, however, finds this horrifying and generally suggests putting on some Franz Nicolay to prevent this from happening.

HIGH SCHOOL – Don’t Call Me Daughter

Nirvana – Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam

I remember the shock, the girls crying, the teachers’ halting attempts to talk to us about suicide that day.  Only 14-year-olds could have been shocked by Kurt Cobain’s death.  But we were.  I was not really a Nirvana fan; I don’t think I cried.  But one had limited choices for sub-genre identity in a small and socially segregated town.  One either liked “country” or one was “alternative”.  A few white kids were into “rap.”  But that was pretty much the range of identities available to our imaginations.  “Alternative” just sounded better than just “nerd” (which was probably more accurate in my case).  Also, fashion sensibility and I only ever intersected in the grunge era.  So, notwithstanding my general indifference to Nirvana, Kurt Cobain was a cultural icon.  One of my cultural icons.  I think my continued indifference to Nirvana is less about their music — I really rather like many of the bands that influenced Nirvana and the bands that followed them — and more about the fact I am still angry at Kurt.

They Might Be Giants – Birdhouse in Your Soul

My bestest best friend and I made all things They Might Be Giants into an important staple on debate team trips in high school.  They are charmingly nerdy, delightfully catchy, lyrically engaging.  What’s not to love?  Loud nerd sing-alongs ensued, much to the chagrin of the drama team nerds, who believed themselves ever so much cooler than the policy debaters.  This reminds me of long cross-state bus trips where the driver had to stop every 30 minutes to use the bathroom, and I taught myself how to bottom-deal (poorly) while playing Uno in the back of the bus.  After dark, the debate team bus games turned to truth or dare.  But the music stayed nerdy.  TMBG and Ben Folds Five were awesome.  I had a brief fascination with ska.  And I kept some of my parents’ non-country-sounding oldies in rotation.  Because, you know, I wasn’t “country.”
Oasis – Champagne Supernova

I rode my bike back and forth to the barn where I cared for my horse everyday.  The barn was not far at all, but it felt far on a rainy winter day.  The ride back home after dark — after a full day of school and then a few hours of intense exercise and then working in the barn — felt brutal.  I remember a winter where this song had been on the radio constantly and had become another incessant earworm.  I shouted it into the wind to make myself keep going.
James Taylor – Fire and Rain

James Taylor was the first concert I went to of my own volition, and even then I knew it wasn’t cool.  But he was so dreamy for an old guy.  This song I first heard on the soundtrack for “Running on Empty” (Oh, River Phoenix, I will always love you) which I rented on VHS.  Back then, I heard an entirely apocryphal origin story for the lyrics to this song, which I believed to be true until googling the matter in 2010 to write this paragraph.  Damn you, internets.  Damn you, Brendan.  Anyway, it was a sad and sweet song by a broody Carolina boy with a guitar, and it moved me to go to a live concert at the newly minted Virginia Beach Amphitheatre.  I think my friend’s mom drove us.
Indigo Girls – Watershed

My brief adolescent fascination with Simon and Garfunkel not withstanding, this was the first band I ever loved.  My bestest best friend and I added a third young woman to be our bestest best friend about this time and we all became completely obsessed.  We dissected the lyrics.  We tried to track down rumors.  We talked about how their bands were like our lives, how they shaped my philosophy – both personal and epistemological.  When my English teacher asked us to bring in music that we thought of as poetic so that we could dissect the lyrics, I had trouble choosing an Indigo Girls song.  I owned everything they ever recorded until someone stole my CD collection in college.  *sigh*  I’ve never entirely rebuilt my IG collection.  First scene.  Driving to the beach, 100 degrees, windows down, music cranked up, chocolate malts.  Three young women, an inseparable trio, belting it out.  We ridiculed our philosophy teacher who had derided the Indigo Girls as “average lesbian folk rock.”

Indigo Girls – Reunion

Second scene.  The three of us ditch school on a Friday and sneak out of town to go to an Indigo Girls concert at a club in Virginia.  We wanted to show up super-early to get good spots.  And Michelle Malone, also awesome, was opening.  So, yeah, we wanted to get there Brendan-early.  A tire blew out on the drive through the swamp.  The drive through the Dismal Swamp is a little less treacherous these days, but in those days there was no shoulder, a few blind turns, and no civilization in easy walking distance.  I was opining on how I thought a tire should be changed (I had strong opinions on the subject, having seen it done once) when a very nice, very drunk old man driving a tow truck stopped to help us change the tire.  He was fortunately not a serial killer. Then, we got lost in the one of the not-so-nice parts of downtown Norfolk.  Still, not killed.  Some nice young men on a street corner gave us directions.  We arrived at the concert venue a little before doors.  We eagerly rushed in, only to find ourselves directed to the “under-21 section”, where we were corralled off to the side with no decent lines of sight.  We were extremely grumpy about this development.  As the BIGGEST FANS, we were clearly ENTITLED to better treatment.  Our various complicated schemes to sneak into the drinking section were stymied by intimidating bouncers and our own compelling desire to not get kicked out.    But then the music started and it all washed away.  I have no recollection of what we told our parents.
Air Force Academy Cadets – On Eagles Wings

The February of my senior year of high school, my mother’s mother died. The next month, my father’s father died.  I was maimed. We sang the same two hymns at each of the funerals. In March, my dog died. No one sang. I have no particular attachment to the Air Force Academy version of this hymn; it sounds in my head like it is sung by as many friends and family as can be crammed into an old church.

THE COLLEGE YEARS:  Amy Discovers Classic Rock (and Napster) and tries to stop feeling like a jackass

Jimi Hendrix – Easy Rider

The boys ran the squad-room stereo on my college debate team.  No longer in control, I learned about classic rock and its slightly more recent incarnations.  There was a lot of Led Zepp, a lot of Pink Floyd . . . some Stones . . . very occasionally Bruce . . . some Guns and Roses. There was a running argument about whether Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitar player of all time.  I listened carefully and expressed no opinion, being only vaguely familiar with the names. I didn’t mind, really. It turned out that I pretty well liked guitar heavy rock and roll. Although every now and then, the women would hijack the stereo, play some “chick angst music” and drive away the boys.

David Bowie – Rebel, Rebel

My boyfriend (now my husband) was comparing some musician to David Bowie when I broke my usual stay-silent-and-listen rule and asked him who David Bowie was.  Much mockery later, someone asked me if I had seen Labyrinth.  “Oh!  Oh yeah, that guy. ”  Even more mockery later, I borrowed the boy’s David Bowie CDs to catch up.  I have jumped around to this song a lot. But I still refer to him as “that guy from Labyrinth.”
Naughty By Nature – Feel Me Flow

My husband-to-be really liked hip-hop.  I tried to appreciate it for awhile.  I found a few good lyricists, a few good songs here and there.  But this was pretty much the only song that I already knew and liked when we met.  So we listened to it together a lot.  This is the sound of young and awkward love to me.
Indigo Girls – Least Complicated

Scene Three. My senior year, second semester, the Indigo Girls played Wait Chapel, the campus church.  I secured front row seats for me, a group of college pals and my bestest best friend from high school.  She was in a rough patch and had dropped out of school.  The third of our trio was not speaking to me. We suddenly felt very distant.  But, girl, we could re-live our glory days like champs.

Simon & Garfunkel – Keep the Customer Satisfied

One of my sisters lived in Chapel Hill, a couple hours down the road from me. During my college years, we would frequently meet up in Chapel Hill and drive home together. If you start this track just as you turn off of Edgewood Drive in my hometown, crank it up really loud and drive just as fast as the music takes you, the really cathartic bit with the horns sounds as you round the big curve on our street. And it finishes up right after you park in my driveway. This works best if you both shout along at the top of your lungs. And whoever isn’t driving should mime the horns or the drums or both. We both still queue up this song like clockwork when we turn off Edgewood.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK:  Amy’s college laptop crashes; she loses all her stolen Napster tracks, and she starts over again.

Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight

This was my first dance with my husband.  Neither of us can dance worth a damn.  But still, it was our dance.  In the space of about 3 weeks, I graduated from college, got married, moved to New York, and started a new job.
Ben Folds – Your Redneck Past

I recently re-discovered a mixtape my best friend made me around this time.  It was intended to tweak me about abandoning my roots and seeking a new life.  It was sweet and funny and moving, and it had this song on it. 

Neil Young – On Broadway

A few months later, I stood in the street and watched the second of the Twin Towers come down. That’s a longer, sadder story, and it has its own soundtrack, and I don’t tell it.

The Clash – Death or Glory

I didn’t discover punk rock until I went to law school.  That may seem counterintuitive and unreasonable.  Or at least somehow hypocritical.  But it was the first time I was living in a city.  And having moved in with my husband, I had the run of his CD collection – which included heavy doses of early punk rock.   I wasn’t going out to shows at all.  Actually, for the first couple of years of law school, I wasn’t going out at all.  And I was only listening to enough new music to conclude that very little of it was interesting to me.  But the internets were a wide and wonderful place to learn about old punk music, even if you didn’t want to steal it.
Lucinda Williams – I Lost It

Studying for a tax law exam has a peculiar effect on one’s mind.  I had this song on constant repeat for about a month.  I also had an awkward conversation with my mother about what it was about.  This album — which I had owned for a long time before putting it on repeat — was actually my first inkling that I had been lying to myself for many, many years about whether I liked country music.  So, I said for awhile that I liked “alt-country”.  And then that I liked “old-timey” country.  It turns out, I LOVE country music.  So, having moved to the great Sodom in the North, I started to explore country and bluegrass music. I found an old Doc Watson cassette in my car last week; I’m pretty sure I stole in from my parents on a trip home.

The Hold Steady – Cattle and the Creeping Things

I wanted to hear more new music but I wasn’t hearing much that interested me.  A colleague at my job told me that I should check out Arcade Fire, who had just made “the greatest album of all time” and that they were Pitchfork-approved.  I glowered at him but bought the album.  It was fine.  A buddy from law school told me about the Hold Steady around the same time.  It’s hard to describe, he said, it’s like this spoken word thing but over rock and roll.  And, there’s this line about the bible “the dude blamed the chick and the chick blamed the snake.”  I glowered at him too and bought the album.  I found it kind of hard to listen to on the first run through.  But I kept coming back to it.

BANNED IN DC:  A new obsession, live music, and D.C. hardcore 

The Hold Steady – How a Resurrection Really Feels

So, not long after I moved to DC, the same law school buddy called me up to rave about the new Hold Steady album and the show he went to.  I picked up two tickets to the show at the Black Cat.  There are a lot of stories from that night, but they’re a little blurry.  Some whiskey.  Some dancing.  One fistfight.  One wholly embarrassing moment.  And a hazy light gives everyone and everything a halo.  Resurrection segues into Killer Parties and a stage invasion.  A fire was lit.  The next morning, I sent emails to everyone, everywhere about how they need to see this band.  I started to lurk on the Hold Steady message board, where I eventually started helping out as a moderator.  A year or two later, I fly to Ybor City to see a Hold Steady show, and I met the fans known affectionately as the Unified Scene.  These days, I have traveled thousands of miles and made many dear, dear friends from several countries.  I jumped the border once myself. These songs have soundtracked my life more than any other since 2006.  Next month, the Unified Scene invades Harrisburg, PA, and I’ll be there too.  Look for me up front in my nerd shirt – #0.
The Dismemberment Plan – The Ice of Boston

Having (re)discovered live music, I searched around for other shows.  I found myself in the audiences for They Might Be Giants, The New Pornographers, Lucero, Against Me, Constantines, Drive-by Truckers, the summer shows out at Fort Reno, and many more followed fast upon.  Hip indie bands. Serious noodly bands. Big band. House shows. Joke bands. Friends’ bands. Punk shows in suburban garages and urban basements. I started to consume music at a frenetic pace. Good music is great, but the perfect live show was the one sweet fleeting feeling.  There have been a few here and there.  The Dismemberment Plan reunion shows at the Black Cat have to be near the top of any list.  There was pornographic cake!  And a stage invasion!  And I did not know it at the time, but there were at least 2 Unified Scene folks in the crowd that I would soon consider near and dear.

Minor Threat – Bottled Violence

So, I knew a little about DC’s hardcore scene before moving here. But living here, I decided to explore it more – Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Teen Idles, etc., and then their current offspring.  These songs soundtracked my life as a government lawyer under the Bush Administration who drinks too much in her spare time.  If you think that involves a degree of cognitive dissonance, you would be right.  But anyone who works in government and doesn’t occasionally want to burn it all down is either dense or dissembling.  Or both.  So, imagine these songs occasionally reverberating in the halls of the Justice Department.  You can hate it if you want, but we’re better off.

World/Inferno Friendship Society – Zen and the Art of Breaking Everything in this Room

Exploring the back catalogue of Hold Steady people led me quickly to WIFS. Riveting. The fans seemed kind of toxic on the internets, but have always been pretty decent bunch of kids in person. Well, except for that first time. The husband and I were visiting NYC for the weekend; seeing some pals, some sights. Somehow, in the 6 years he lived in NYC, my husband had never visited Coney Island, which seemed important to rectify. In my zeal to spread the word about this stunningly awesome band, I planned the trip around a World/Inferno show. Also, the opening act was billed as pirate puppet rock opera; key chorus – “dirty, dirty scurvy pyrate love.” So, it was like they designed a show just for me. I took the husband and a friend. We hung in the back by the bar with the old people. The pirate band was sans puppetry that evening, but still pretty swingin. The show was oversold; the 15-year-old punks were packed in skinny jean-clad cheek to temporary-tattooed jowl. They chatted and chewed gum right through the pyrate set, which was a shame for those of us in the back. But my between-sets conversation with the professional clown was interrupted by the band taking the stage.

The tweeny-bopper punks became a single, seething mass. I was utterly entranced. I suppose it’s not possible that I really didn’t breathe for the next 20 minutes or so. The band was stunningly awesome, but the real spectacle was in the free space they created for the kids. Being kids with visions of punkdom, they used their newfound freedom to tear down the kitsch from the walls and the ceilings, to jump off the stage, the railing, the bar, each other, and to become one flesh with many flailing arms and legs, soundtracked by WIFS. When the owners asked Jack to tell the kids to settle down, he said something precatory and launched into the next song on the setlist – “zen and the art of breaking everything in this room.” The hive-mind energy was overwhelming. I passed back the crowdsurfers. I saw the broken glass and pressed closer. A boy with too much eyeliner tugged on a live wire from the light fixture he had just smashed, apparently because he enjoyed the sparks. I’m pretty sure most of the blood was fake. I was just enough outsider that it fleetingly occurred to me that I was an adult and should do something about the kid playing with the live wire; but the thought was lost in the tumult. The plug was pulled. The music kept going. When one of the owners climbed on the soundboard and begged everyone to stop destroying her bar, I momentarily thought it was a bit of performance art. They jeered her.

Peter and Jack eventually led the kids pied-piper style out of the bar. I stood transfixed until being surprised to see that I was still holding the remains of my drink. By the time the police arrived, the band had played all of about 20 minutes. The bar was all demolished stuff and broken glass and unidentifiable stains. The seabreeze soothed our crashing adrenaline and then our arguments. There was a cop with one hand on a gun, performing his best command presence and ordering people to disperse. He ignored the three of us for a while – I assume we didn’t look the type — but he couldn’t avoid our scrutiny after awhile. He gave us a funny look and glanced at our wristbands. “Uhhhh, I don’t know if you were part of all this but you need to move along.”

Faith of our Fathers

In summer 2008, my husband and I traveled to Italy. Part of the trip was with a group to study the church my mother’s family comes from. They were pre-reformation Protestants in the Alps near the French border. About 30 of us climbed the rocky slope in the rain. There was nothing but old forest, not even the occasional stone home with a garden we saw elsewhere in those hills. It was grey and cold in the wind, even at midday in June. Some of the more frail turned back to the bus, but my 85-year-old great aunt soldiered on, as did I, my husband, a sister, my mother, some cousins, both preachers, and a large crew from the church my mother grew up in. One by one, using flashlights, we ducked and clambered into the rock cave through an entry barely big enough for one, hidden by the same rockfall that formed the cave inside. Once past the dark, damp, and claustrophobic entrance, the cave opened up. The ceiling was 20 feet high at least, and the cavern could have uneasily hit 150 people. And did at one time. I have been hearing about this cave since I was crawling. They held church services in secret here hundreds of years ago. 2 thin slats of light at either end of the cavern let us see each other’s faces dimly. One ray of light fell directly on a raised rock at one end of the cavern – a natural pulpit. No one re-told the legend. We all knew it. Christ, I think I first heard it before I could read. It’s possible this cave wasn’t even actually the cave from legend but our collective imaginations made those walls echo with the screams of the slaughtered, choking on the smoke, mothers choosing between letting the children smother in here or running outside so they might be gutted. So, we beat back the darkness. A few people climbed the pulpit. The preacher said a short blessing. But only music could fill the space. We made a circle and grabbed hands. I was between my husband and my mother – both clammy-handed – and we sang faith of our fathers. And the walls sang back.

Franz Nicolay – Hi Lili Hi Lo

I like this song. I love this guy. And tonyrockyhorror for recording this guy singing this song. And DC9 for putting on a show where tony records this guy singing this song. And everyone everywhere who buys music, goes to shows, offers up their couch, some food, a drink to help this guy sing this song and any other tune he feels like playing anytime and anywhere he wants. And everyone everywhere who lends a musician a hand.