Songs for Jason
My life has been eventful: I've earned a couple of degrees, traveled to four continents as a journalist, practiced Buddhism as a lay resident of a Zen temple, studied Bengali language in Dhaka, spent time in a rural African village... it's a range of activities so wide that some people find it baffling. The guiding principles have been my sustained passions (writing, global health, and cultures in particular), my chronic craving for intellectual stimulation, and an inborn desire for novelty. But a key side effect has been loneliness, especially since I've realized that there is no one person who has been a companion through all the things I've done. Over time, I've started to wonder if I'd ever be able to explain where I've been to the person who matters most, a romantic partner. When you arrived, you made the question acute, because you are the one to whom I'd like to explain everything.
I suppose we might have a lifetime to discuss it, but this playlist is one place to begin.
In early November, I sat down and spontaneously made a list of my favorite songs, thinking of ones I'd like to share with you. I realized that I could group them by how they related to a particular time and place or particular idea. There's a playlist on Youtube, and this blog functions as the place to explain the connections between songs.
In addition, I've decided to do a thing I've never done in writing before: to set up the whole list and then write only for the length of time that a particular group of songs plays -- and then leave it at that. It's flash memoir, I suppose -- a genre that I've never heard of before. I hope it's fun to read! Here we go.
There's a feature in Pitchfork where they ask famous musicians what they were listening to when they were 5 years old, 10, 15, 20, and so on, up to whatever age they are at present. The answers are usually pretty predictable (punks liked punk all along; Kathleen Hanna was listening to women musicians since forever), and often the most interesting answer is the first of second -- the ones from age 5 and 10. The little kid years are kind of a crucial time for developing one's taste.
For me, the 5- and 10-year-old answers are pretty easy to name. When I was very small, I was a fan of the Clash. When I was slightly older (although not yet 10 exactly), there was a particular Paul Simon song I liked. And through most of my preteen years, I was a rare fan of classical music.
The Clash: who defines the early '80s as much as they do? There are maybe 50 songs I could include here, considering that even deep cuts are familiar. I imagine the first Clash song I heard was the radio hit, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" (or maybe "Rock the Casbah"). But "Police On My Back," a simple three-minute tune with a chanted chorus of the days of the week, evokes childhood the most: it has the vibe of a nursery rhyme.
When I was about 8, there was another song I liked a lot. I had trouble sleeping, and my father had the habit of lying around the living room in the evenings to watch cable news programs. I used to run downstairs, whining about not being able to sleep, and lie on his chest to watch TV. More than once, he changed the channel to MTV -- which, at the time, actually just played music videos in long blocks -- and watched the video for "You Can Call Me Al." It's sort of weird to think of it -- I don't think of Paul Simon as an MTV guy at all now. But at the time, "You Can Call Me Al" was a big video hit.
For a long time, I thought Chevy Chase was named a guy named Al. Looking back on it, though, what stands out is how the lyrics in the third verse reminds me of the life I have eventually had wandering the world. These lines sound not too far from what I've felt like while walking around Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and beyond, even though the gender is incorrect:
A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Hey, Hallelujah.
Less prophetic but just as enduring was the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I related to him, I think, because I loved history and reading and had been plied with some books on his life story (one of them, in fact, is still on my shelf today). I understood him as someone who had begun when he was just a kid, which was exciting to me then. Plus, I genuinely loved the music.
It was a fairly taboo thing to love. I remember being young, maybe 10, and going into the record store two blocks from my house alone. I picked out a cassette of Mozart with a baroque painting on the paper insert and went up to pay for it with my pocket money. "Do you actually like this stuff?" the teenage clerk sneered -- which, to my four-foot-eight-inch-tall self, seemed pretty intimidating. That was around when I began pretending that I didn't like classical music. In reality, I've always thought this aria (sung here by opera legend Maria Callas) was astonishing, unearthly, and, possibly the best thing ever written.
High School Punk Rock Years
What replaced Mozart as my (outward) favorite was punk rock. I was 11 in 1993, "the year that punk broke," as Spin and Rolling Stone and Punk Planet would call it. Green Day and Rancid were on MTV, I lived two blocks from a record store and a punk club. Friends in the neighborhood had older brothers with collections of records from the whole range of punk rockers: not just the captains of industry, but acts farther underground, local bands, and even bands who we knew personally from our own high school.
What stands out as most important in my teenage years are not the biggest names, but the ones a step down from that. The semi-famous, highly principled Ian MacKaye stands out, particularly because hearing Minor Threat for the first time was a life-changing revelation.
The bands on Lookout! Records, the label Green Day had left when it got big, meant even more. Operation Ivy, who with Green Day was veterans of the Berkeley scene and the famous punk club at 924 Gilman Street, had been the short-lived first band of Tim Armstrong, who by the mid-1990s had become famous for his work as the frontman of Rancid. Pinhead Gunpowder, a kind of supergroup involving the singer from Green Day and the legendary zine writer Aaron Cometbus on drums, were a favorite. Both of these bands weren't only sound, but a kind of mystique, an ethos, a vision of coolness.
And Jawbreaker: the proto-emo band that broke up before I heard of them, but that had such a rabid cult following that reunions were rumored for years. When I was 16, I got their latest album for Christmas. It was the one time my parents were cooler than me (although I imagine my older brother might have picked out this gift). This song became a favorite on an album filled with lyrics I loved.
And one last thing: Kristin. When I was 16, I met Kristin Vinjerui in my American history class. She was the Norwegian exchange student, and her friendship was my first window into the international world I would inhabit forever after. We have been friends ever since. This is the song (translated, the title means "Take Me With You") isn't one that we had then (she was regrettably into Dave Matthews Band at the time, but we'll set that aside). This is the song, though, that reminds me of her the most.
Adulthood and Activism
When I got out of high school, I was deeply eager not to be in school for a while. Instead, I joined the working world. In my first apartment (in Lakeview), I lived with my sister and listened to her records: including "Downtown Train" by Tom Waits. His voice is famous for its gravely qualities, but this song always seemed like honey to me. It think it might be the first time that I really thought of the guitar not as a wall of fuzz, but as an instrument that could hold a kind of conversation with the singer or offer a kind of backup to his story. It was fairly clear here: the upward lilt of the music asked its own question in replication of the question that Waits was asking ("Will I see you tonight?") and then fell when he sang of fall ("All my dreams, they fall like rain"). This song made me want to learn to play guitar.
David Bowie made me want to play the guero. "Man Who Sold the World" would rank among my picks for the top ten songs ever written. This, too, has lyrics that sound like vivid storytelling (although it's a far more surreal tale than the one Tom Waits had to tell on "Downtown Train," of course). I heard this at age 18 or 19, a time when I was also reading about spirituality for the first time, and the themes of wandering and seeking, not to mention the idea of meeting a savior figure who "must have died alone, a long long time ago," has always struck me as profound.
In April 2001, when I was 18, I traveled to Quebec, Canada, to protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a free-trade deal that would expand NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere. By 2003, the FTAA plan had died, in large part because a robust, international anti-globalization protest movement had mounted massive public opposition that triggered a leftward shift in electoral politics in Latin America. But at the time of the protest, we thought we might be losing -- and when we were driving out of Quebec City at the end of the long weekend of protesting, we were caught in a brief traffic jam for a motorcade of dignitaries while "Man Who Sold the World" played over the car stereo. The memory of it sticks in mind: the gray sky overhead; the long chain of luxurious black cars; the sense that wealthy people might crush ordinary people without a thought; the music reinforcing that feeling....
There were less depressing moments in activism. In 2002, just before I turned 20, I went to the West Bank as part of a surge in Western involvement in protest movements there. It was the second intifada (uprising) then, and I was part of a swift-moving activist media project called Indymedia that hoped to create a news website in the area. The project failed (and would later be attempted, and fail, a second time), but the summer was transformative for me. Riding in the back of an ambulance in the West Bank was the first time I felt motivated to spend my life and career in health, not just writing. I've been working on that ever since.
One weekend, on my 20th birthday, I got to go to the Place des Rois in Arab East Jerusalem and see this South African musical act perform. It turns out that Vusi Mahlesehla was prominent in the anti-apartheid movement, so his taking the gig might have been a political act. At the time, I was more aware of how soothing and enlivening the music was. This was my favorite song.
I left activism behind around the time of the start of the war in Iraq (which began on March 16, 2003). There were many reasons: I had had a rough time with people in the movement, including my ex-boyfriend; I had enthusiasm for pursuing Zen Buddhism, a habit that included philosophical concepts and rigor discipline nearly the polar opposite of hippie activism; and I was pursuing a degree, which I took very seriously.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, and I was still connected enough to activists to get called up about helping start a clinic in New Orleans. People I know did this, founding Common Ground Health Clinic in Algiers just after the hurricane. (It is still working today.) In 2007, when I transferred colleges, I applied to one in New Orleans. I ended up not doing too much with Common Ground, not least of all because I was then sick with PTSD and working on completing pre-med requirements in my biology degree.
I did listen to music, though. Someone who I had lived with in a co-op in Chicago had put Andrew Bird on a birthday mix CD she made me, and the music made me take notice. I listened to Andrew Bird sing "Sovay" while I completed research papers on malaria epidemiology, wrote extra credit essays on the neurological components of religious experience, and contemplating getting well myself.
I also listened to Aesop Rock, including one song, "None Shall Pass," that became the superstitious overture to my anxiety-ridden study of Organic Chemistry. (I have left that one out of this mix, but have included another, my favorite by Aesop Rock, which focuses on the mermaids and pirates I have always loved. Legit, this is my striptease jam. I have always fantasized about choreographing a burlesque act to this song.)
And I listened to Beirut's "Scenic World." My last year in New Orleans, I lived in an area near the bend in the river (a place that sometimes called "Little Black Pearl"). It was close to where city turned to suburb and not far from the hospital where I was being treated for PTSD. To get there, all I had to do was ride my bike along the path along the river. This song, which describes being sick and exhausted and dreaming of something better, also reminds me of sunset along the river, the semi-industrial charm of the gas plant on the far side of the river, the long wavering grasses on both sides of the path.
By the time that the end of my degree was in sight, I had discovered the Rudolph Matas Library in Tulane Hospital. As a student, I was permitted access to this medical library, which was tucked away in a corner of the second floor of a hospital building near Canal Street (in the center of New Orleans). As a huge nerd, I loved it. I remember spending late nights there, studying statistics for my psychology minor and biochemistry for my biology major, then biking home across New Orleans in the wee hours, when there was never any people or cars around. In the library, I listened to the then-new album "Armchair Apocrypha" by Andrew Bird. He's a darling of NPR, for better or worse, and the entire album was available on their website. "Scythian Empires" became a point of fascination, a song I played over and over while I studied. I still love it today.
In 2007, when I was living in New Orleans and about to turn 25, I traveled to West Africa for the first time. The impetus was simple: Kristin had a volunteer in a village in 2001, and when the project she was working with lost its founder to an unexpected heart attack, she stepped in to help carry on his work. In 2004, she had been named a ceremonial village queen (Nkosoa hemaa). She was returning once more to the village, Ajumako-Techiman, in 2007, and she invited me to come. I hawked some of my possessions to get there, thinking this would add to my desired career in public health. I was right.
It was interesting to find out how heavily New Orleans (and, although I haven't seen it firsthand, much of the Caribbean) was inflected with West African culture: carnivals, marching bands, notions of spiritual magic, even local signature dishes were echoes of each other. It was also interesting to think about how different a place it was, how heavily local circumstances, including differences in wealth, impact everything an individual can do. I had traveled internationally starting at age 17 (when I paid my own way through seven nations of Europe alone) and had by then been to Canada, the West Bank, and again to Europe (to Italy). But this was far more immersive in local culture, and by then I was focused on global health, too, and able to grasp how culture and economics related to problems like endemic malaria and anemia. It was instructive.
It was also a summer of death. An old comrade from the activist movement, the first person to teach me how to be a "street medic" and someone who had led a troop of us to the Sundance, a Native American religious festival on Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, collapsed and died that July. Doc Rosen was 59 when he had the stroke that ended his life. About four days later, the leader of the village where we staying, abusuapanyin (clan head) John Crankson, passed away. He was almost 90, and he had congestive heart failure, but the event was precipitated by a cardiac event (possibly an ascending aortic aneurysm). Within the space of a week, two people I recognized as elders died -- and, as it happened, I turned 25 that week, too. It was a moment when I felt like a real adult.
Perhaps because I felt grown, I found myself given over to skepticism often that summer. Africa had a certain magical quality, certainly; but it could also be grim, noisy, and hard to endure, not least of all because poverty was sometimes crushing to local people. I was very aware of the idea of a "white savior" or a tourist who sees things face to face and yet doesn't understand or believe them, and so acts as a drain on the community she interacts with. I saw my mission as pressing through all that to become a contributor of far more insight and ability. To me, the song that most evokes that is "African Fantasy," by the Rajasthani musician Trilok Gurtu and the singer Angelique Kidjo, who is originally from Benin. Because the one musician is from India and the other from West Africa, and because the song is obscure, I've never been able to figure out what language this song is in. An inexplicable "African Fantasy": perhaps that is the feeling of white savior complex in a song. (Notice how soothing it feels, how comfortable....)
Perhaps "Common People," by Pulp, captures the same thing (although it is about the British working class and someone semi-famous, whose real identity is actually the target of much speculation). It also makes a point that I need: my own life, my Polish family in the Northwest Indiana Industrial Corridor, are "common people" who, in some cases, have "watched their lives slide out of view." Becoming a person who could escape that fate, who had an education and a career and a future and the ability to travel, felt like a huge relief to me -- even though it brought me right back to "common people" to whom I might look like a foolish rich girl. Perspective: it's fucking essential.
Meanwhile, there is "Koni," by Baaba Maal, a musician from Senegal who has been uniquely successful for a long time. He's become a proponent of the preservation of the language in which he sings, Pulaar, a minority language even in his own small country. His work is as lyrically mysterious as "African Fantasy," and yet I can embrace it as something that I respect as having its own identity, its own reality, discoverable through sincere, arduous effort, like all foreign countries are to those who wish to know them. Baaba Maal hints at what is beyond cynicism. (And his song is soothing, too.)
In January 2011, when I was most of the way through my master's degree in public health at the University of Illinois, something strange happened: my ear began to hurt, then ring, then become so sensitive that it felt like the whole world was a vast foghorn of noise. For weeks, I didn't know what had happened, although eventually it became clear that I have a chronic disorder called Meniere's disease.
It was painful, and sometimes still is -- but I soon realized that there was a weird upside in the form of a new sensitivity to music. I think the change was potentiated by a surge in endogenous painkillers as my body tried to protect me from the pain of sound, but whatever -- point is, I fucking loved music in a way I had not before.
At the time, Robyn, the Swedish pop singer who had been around since the 1990s, had just released as a series of mini-albums on her own label. I became more than a little obsessed, and "Indestructible" is one of my favorites of hers.
I also became familiar with how musicians who rely on samples come to their craft. Before, it had seemed a little inscrutable to me: how did they pick out the perfect sample? With everything kind of sounding like a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, I couldn't intuit their sensitivity to particular lyrics or riffs or drum fills. But then, after my ear began to hurt, I got it. Here's the exact right drum break, the piano part that stands apart from the rest of the song. These three seconds. That little break. This is the dope shit.
For me, the eargasms happened twice: first, from the drum fill from 3:00 to 3:07 in "Block-Rocking Beats" by the Chemical Brothers; and second, from the drums that begin the song "Hihache," by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band. Interestingly,, the Chemical Brothers song is not only bad, but kind of brutal; listening to it all the way through would often nauseate me. But those seven seconds were so good I listened to them on repeat, compulsive as a drug user. "Hihache" is easier and more worth listening to its entirety, but that opening...!
Meniere's Disease meant many things for my life, but among them was one no one ever pointed out in a clinic: true love for music.
In 2011, I unexpectedly got a scholarship to study Bengali language in Bangladesh. It was an awkward moment in time; I had just been really sick with Meniere's disease, and that had cut me off from a lot of communities, such as my school, karate academy, and temple, that I had been participating again. Going half a planet away made me feel even more uprooted than I had been thus far -- and yet I knew that it would be a good move for my career.
I was right on both counts: it was terribly uprooting and also a rather good career move. What I remember of Bangladesh was that there were a great deal of things about it I didn't like, including the overcrowding in the city, insane traffic jams, frequent flooding, political violence, and troubling sexism. And yet there was a lot to love, too. The language classes we took were mind-expanding, and the culture of Bangladesh did a lot to refine my sense of art, literature, and politics.
There was, for example, a moment that came at the tail end of 2012, when I had completed my graduate degree, won the Fulbright, and went back to Bangladesh. I had visited a village in the south of the country and boarded an overnight bus back to Dhaka. Unaware that the ride would be frightfully bumpy, I was unprepared for the nausea I would feel. Late at night, when most of the bus was asleep, I stumbled to the front of the bus to ask the driver's mate to give me a plastic bag in case I threw up (again). He did, and then let me sit for a moment in the stairwell near the door with my head leaned against the cool metal of the stairway handrail. What I remember of that moment made me fall in love with Bangladesh: a song on the radio that seemed like one of the most beautiful I had ever heard. It was a traditional tune with Bengali lyrics and a sitar, utterly unfamiliar -- and it would never become more so, since I never found out the name of the song or artist. Nonetheless, there it was: something I loved.
Soon Bengali songs became my jams. Although some of these have fallen out of the playlist since then, a few endure. Bhupen Hazarika, for instance. Hazarika was a singer of Assamese origin who sang in his native language (which is mutually intelligible with Bengali) and became wildly popular in Bangladesh. This song's title, "Ami Ek Jajabor," means "I Am a Wanderer," and the lyrics are simple and ripe for a language-learner to enjoy, since he often repeats lines and throws in names of cities, countries, and rivers whose names anyone who speaks English would know. Uprooted, I related to it.
Then there is "Ekla Chalo Re," one of the most famous works of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore (sometimes spelled Thakur) is the most famous Bengali artist. He was born into wealth in Kolkata, became a polymath skilled in songwriting, poetry, painting, and political leadership, and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first non-European to ever do so. Among his famous songs (which include the national anthems of India and Bangladesh) is "Ekla Chalo Re," here sung by Kishore Kumar. In the hyper-collectivistic culture of Bangladesh, it is a rare call for individualism: ekla chalo re roughly translates as "go on alone," and the lyrics advise persistence in the face of total nonsupport: If they answer not to your call, walk alone / If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall, / O thou unlucky one,/ open your mind and speak out alone.
On the opposite side of the planet from my own home, possessed of rare opinions and odd strengths, I needed to hear that early and often. Thank God for this song.
And thank God for Bikini Kill, too. This band was a big deal in my youth, of course -- but I often felt at odds with them, for reasons I'll explain below. Only in Bangladesh did the full strength of their help hit me. This song, "Feels Blind," does more to evoke and empathize with the suffering that life in Bangladesh brought into my life than any other -- the requirement, in the face of xenophobic and misogynistic culture, to "eat their hate up like it's love." Listening to it now makes my stomach hurt.
Still, the country was not without its charms. While living in Bangladesh, I revisited all the punk favorites I had enjoyed and now needed. I discovered a new one by Japandroids, too -- a kind of depiction of the way it felt at times to collaborate with a local photojournalist who was my roommate and who, despite an unstable mind, a troubled family and a horrific history of trauma, was also a clear genius. His life is a story that I am saving for a book I will write someday. Anyway, listening to this song now ("when they love you, and they will / tell them all to love in my shadow") reminds me of how much I craved companionship and creative collaboration in those days. Despite its upbeat feeling, this is a song about loneliness, about reprieves from loneliness.
Amid my inner solitude, I also returned to the classic music that I loved in my childhood. I began to discover more there, too. Debussy (the "Claire de Lune" guy) also wrote a book of 12 brief songs called "Preludes," of which this one, "No. 12: Minstrels" is my favorite. It is off-kilter and a bit crazed, and therefore a high-quality depiction of life in Bangladesh -- but it also came into with a year or so of Tagore's winning the Nobel Prize. I came up with an idea while in Dhaka to write with the structure of music in mind, and this piece, and its difficulty, always struck me as the ultimate achievement in that regard. I'm still working on being strong enough as a writer to get there, but when I do, the content of the piece will be all about 1913 in Kolkata and Paris.
Ah, and of course I will have to listen to some Bengali music while I do that. This song might be just the thing. Nikhil Banerjee is a Bengali sitar player whose career was long and storied. I know little of him, but I love this instrumental song, which I have been listening to while working for years on end by now.
After I left Bangladesh in spring 2014, I traveled quite a lot for the next couple of years. I worked for a little while in Chicago, but then left for Ghana (in fall 2014), South Africa (in spring 2015), Kenya (in summer 2015), and Nepal (in fall 2015). I also traveled around America a little (mostly to Kentucky, in summer 2014, and Minnesota, in summer 2015). Overall, I was home in Chicago for maybe half of those two years.
It was all part and parcel with my work in journalism, and I had the good luck to get to connect with friends or colleagues in a number of countries. But it wasn't exactly a cure of loneliness. When I listen to Ray Lamontagne sing "I've been living out of this here suitcase waaaaay too long," I think of myself in those days. When he says, "I ain't about to go straight," I remember that my peripatetic life was in many ways motivated by heartbreak: by the loss of the relationship I had had in Bangladesh and a consequence of my sadness about the difficulties I'd faced in that country. I felt uprooted still, some three years after the first time I had gone to Bangladesh. It made me sad.
What I found after a while was that I wasn't just alone with my thoughts but also unable to move them forward. Slowly, I grew stiff, reserved to a fault, uncertain about how to share what I thought or with whom. Most of all, this meant a lack of growth. Humans are pack animals; people are people through other people, as the South African proverb goes. I found my thoughts circling around the same things over and over.
This meant something for my musical memory, too. I remembered the same few songs quite often as I traveled. Only rarely was I near anyone who really understand their significance for me, or had even heard of them at all. Some of these songs (like "Heroes," by David Bowie) were just fine to hear play in my head. Others (like "Bombs Over Baghdad") were more a product of a brain that didn't get to speak English enough, a kind of earworm that was really just my verbal mind giving itself some silent exercise. Also, when I am feeling a little rushed or pressured, I sometimes stop and think, "Hold up, slow up, stop, control," not in my own voice, but in Big Boi's.
Rihanna feat. Paul McCartney
Buena Vista Social Club
Naked and Famous, "Young Blood"
Debussy (Claire de Lune)
This is the song I have stuck in my head most often these days.