Saturday, April 29, 2023

Trying to take this all in

In the still-extraordinary "Senses Working Overtime" XTC celebrates the sublime
In 1974, Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One of the essays in it, "Seeing," astonishes me every time I read it. Essentially about the complacency of those who sacrifice the daily beauties of the world for more pragmatic concerns, "Seeing" is nearly too much with itself— it's so amazed with the world that it tugs at its own seams. As a young girl Dillard used to leave pennies around her neighborhood, giddy at the prospect of someone finding an unbidden gift, a reminder that the universe can surprise. As we grow, Dillard laments, we tend to lose sight, in both the literal and the figurative sense, of the world's astonishing wonders, its daily free gifts. In a particularly moving passage she recounts the knocked-out experiences of a group of previously blind individuals who'd been gifted with the return of their sight. The world became nearly overwhelming to them, and not always in a bad way. The world should overwhelm everyone, every day, Dillard feels.

Near the end of the essay she describes a moment while perched on a log bridge at sunset watching shiners (minnows) feed in the water. "Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! The sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared: flash, like a sudden dazzle of the thinnest blade, a sparking over a dun and olive ground at chance intervals from every direction." Distracted by pale petals floating from under her feet, she blurred her vision "and gazed towards the brim of my hat"
and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.
When she sees in this rare manner, Dillard writes, she sees "truly," as a kind of a re-set. Yet she's quick to add that she can’t go out and consciously attempt to see this way. She'll lose her mind. "All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes." The secret of true seeing, she reflects, "is the pearl of great price.... But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought."
The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.
On that afternoon Dillard was returned to her senses. What she was also doing in "Seeing" was glossing a song that she couldn't possibly have heard because it wouldn't be written and recorded for nearly a decade. 


"I thought, 'Well, everyone has five senses, what's great about that? Well, they're not just working, they're going crazy! They're working overtime! They're taking all of life in, and it's too much!' Because life is just too much. It's amazing, you know." That's Andy Partridge, talking to Todd Bernhardt about "Senses Working Overtime," a song from XTC's English Settlement released in 1982. Like "Seeing," this song lifts off the top of my head with each encounter I have with it, still, after forty years of listening. The song's in awe of the world and its ordinary extraordinariness. I'm in awe of the song.

Writing in his small flat above an empty Victorian shop in Swindon, trying to compose the next single for his band, Partridge had Manfred Mann's "5-4-3-2-1" knocking about in his head, loving the way that that song kicks into gear with an instantly catchy, singalong hook. "I thought, 'Okay, 5-4-3-2-1—I'll go 1-2-3-4-5!'"
So, I thought, "5-4-3-2-1 was like a count-down to something, 1-2-3-4-5 is like adding up—what is there five of?".... There are five senses! Right!
Partridge soon had his chorus—"these senses were just going to be going crazy at the fantasticness of the world"—and now he needed a verse. Fooling around on his guitar he landed on a graphic E-flat, the happy accident of having played an E chord wrong. To Partridge the tone sounded Medieval somehow, and he forged ahead, piecing chords together, "and I thought, 'Yeah, this sounds great, it's medieval, it's like pictures from illuminated manuscripts, tilling the soil, and wow, how hard life was in those days'." He envisioned "little figures tilling the land, and cutting hedgerows, and stuff," and hoped to describe "their woes, and their worries, and the things that they'd be singing about—or the things they'd be fantasizing about." He rescued an earlier, abandoned song for chords that helped him join "the moronic backwards Manfred Mann bit" with his Middle Age landscape of toiling workers. 

The Harvesters (1565), Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Partridge also wanted a very English vibe in the song (he tacked on the sound of crows at the end), as well as "plague-ridden backing vocals," what he described to his band and producer Hugh Padgham as the sound of suffering, "wretched land-people noises." ("It's the sort of thing you'd sing under your breath if you were trying to get your plow kick-started on a frosty morning!") At The Manor studio he also prevailed upon XTC drummer Terry Chambers to go a little Medieval himself; Chambers obliged by pulling out a rototom and "a reggae bass-drum thing," Partridge recalls, "an odd little mixture, the reggae one-drop drumming with his foot, combined with 13th-century England with his hand!" Partridge had his song. "And I came up with the words pretty quickly."

The impression at the start is that the song's waking up: a quietly plucked acoustic, a softly struck rototom. The work day begins with a thudding boom of a drum, Colin Moulding's fretless bass line wakes and stretches, getting the kinks out, and as the sun peeks over the horizon an insight arrives as the song's pulse quickens: "All the world is football-shaped / It's just for me to kick in space / And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste". Trying to take this all in. Like "Seeing," "Senses Working Overtime" nearly comes open at the seams, so in awe of and humbled by the world that it can barely contain itself. 

And in fact, it can't. The bridge is essentially a new song that bursts out of what we've hearing, Partridge dryly singing of natural tragedies, bullying, a bus "skidding on black ice" before admitting that to him it's all "very, very beautiful." The wordless passage that follows is the sound of someone giddily in love with a world that's equally tragic and exquisite, alive in that world with gratitude, in awe of everything. By the time we return to the pre-chorus ("And all the world is football-shaped...") everything's gotten bigger, more dimensional. I love that Partridge wrote "Senses Working Overtime" under the influence of Manfred Mann "5-4-3-2-1," which was used as the theme song for Ready Steady Go, the U.K television show that aired on Friday nights, heralding the weekend and its onrushing of sensations and stimuli.

Partridge has written often about ordinary folk overwhelmed by emotions and deserving of our respect. Think "Love on a Farm Boy's Wages" from Mummur (1983), "The Loving" and the fantastic "Mayor of Simpleton" from Oranges & Lemons (1989), "Earn Enough For Us"  from Skylarking (1986), and the extraordinary "Rocket From A Bottle" from 1980's Black Sea ("I've been just explosive since you lit me / I've been up with the larks, I've been shooting off sparks / And I'm feeling in love"). But nowhere else does he capture so movingly what Dillard calls the "shivering daze" after one's struck by the world's bounty, its daily treasures that we so often ignore while getting dutifully from A to Z in a straight line. Meanwhile, the church bells softly chime.

Photo of XTC in 1982 by Allan Ballard

Thursday, April 20, 2023

From the floor to the mirror ball

Two songs by Paul Weller wonder on the majesty of sound and where it goes

Reading Paul Weller's new book Magic: A Journal of Song has sent me back to the man's deep catalogue. In conversation with U.K. journalist Dylan Jones, Weller recounts the origins and personal histories of dozens of his songs, from his earliest in the mid-1970s to a few from 2021's Fat Pop (Volume 1). Never overly chatty, Weller's true to form in Magic, though he is quite forthcoming in many places, as when he considers his myriad influences, acknowledges the emotional difficulties in breaking up the Jam in 1982, and talks about his decision to quit drinking in 2010, candid about the dire places his alcoholism had brought him and quietly grateful for the renewed energy and focus he's been gifted. 

I love hearing Weller talk about music and his long career as a songwriter and performer, especially when those conversations reveal unexpected links among his songs. In 2005 Weller released As Is Now, his eighth solo album, the lead single from which was "From The Floorboards Up," a rocking, grooving celebration of live music, a kind of New Century update of the Jam's "Start" in which Weller's knocked out by the pulsations onstage and writes an answer to that very noise. In the liner notes to his 2014 best-of compilation More Modern Classics, he discussed the song's origins: it's about "playing live to an audience where, on a good night, the power seems to come up from the ground through the stage, through the band and out into the audience where the energy hangs in the air. You can't see it but boy can you feel it." 

The song came quickly: "Whilst on tour in Glasgow, after a (brilliant) gig there I went back to the hotel and wrote 'Floorboards' in my room."
The next day me, [drummer] Steve White, [bass player] Damon [Minchella] and the great [guitarist] Steve Cradock rehearsed and demo'd it in a dressing room and then played it live a few nights later. That doesn't happen that often!"
"Once you have experienced that feeling," he added, "you have to go looking for it again the next night, and the next after that and so on. It becomes the benchmark you're always trying to reach or re-gain. But it's an elusive one and not one you can plan for. You can only hope you will find it again."
So powerful a drug it is but it's a purity of feeling unmatched and important in our lives. I'm hooked that's for sure but I never wish to explain any better than that. It’s a magical feeling of spontaneity and communion amongst people who would only be strangers in any other circumstance. I'm privileged to have known and felt that in my time.
Born out of amped up bliss and adrenaline, composed swiftly, "From The Floorboards Up" speaks for itself in its driving urgency—Weller's riffing guitar churning atop Michella and White's rhythm as Cradock's solo sends splintery sparks toward the ceiling—and a chorus that sings the story more powerfully than Weller can in his description ("When we sway, we sway as one")The song is all about sweat and movement, but it's in touch with something ephemeral, as well. "I've got a feeling and I know it's right," Weller insists in the song, before admitting that it "sings in the air and dances like candle light," is there and then gone, issuing as much "from the walls and chairs" as from the guitars and amplifiers: "They tell me of the things that have always been there / And all that is not will have to go back to dust."

"Where does [the music] go once we have finished? Weller asks in the liner notes. "Maybe it just stays there in the hall or club or theatre, soaking into the walls or seats like a spirit. I mean it has to go somewhere right."
Crowd at Paul Weller's 2018 gig at Brighton Centre, Brighton, England [filtered]

Fifteen years later, he found where that somewhere is.

In July of 2020, Weller released his fifteenth album On Sunset as the world was in lockdown. The first line of the remarkable opening track asks, "Mirror ball, when will you spin?" It was a question I and millions of other live music fans were asking.

"Mirror Ball" is an accidental answer song to "From The Floorboards Up." At seven-plus minutes, it's the musical antithesis of "Floorboard"'s Mod urgency, where everything's over in a couple of minutes, yet in its dreamy conjuring of atmospheric states and unseen currents it's in touch with the same sonic sensibilities. The titular ball's a literal thing, rotating and bestowing star light upon concertgoers' heads, yet it's also an image of the spiritual state that music, especially live music, can produce: "Light up the room and our lives begin / Till we no longer feel the cold / We're now embraced by the mirror ball." Electronic psychedelic-folk-soul, "Mirror Ball" was written, and performed, in praise of the ways we're "empowered in [the] wake" of the ball's rotation, in the radiance rained down on a blissed-out crowd, of the music that sets it all into motion. "The moon's a balloon," Weller croons, "and we'll go far." "Music is the most natural thing in the world," he remarked once. "When we go to a gig and we all like it and we share that experience, it's the same sense of communion as a sacred rite in Borneo or wherever it may be; it just gets dressed up different. Its good for the soul." 'Till everyone's a shining star.

Here, Weller's on acoustic and electric guitars, longtime pal Cradock's again on board (abetted by guitarist Steve Pilgrim), and bassist Andy Crofts and drummer Ben Gordelier supply the rhythm section—but the gentle "Mirror Ball" is really a keyboard-driven track. Weller layers a Rhodes electric piano, mellotron, Hammond organ, piano, and synths, aided by Charles Rees on another organ, Tom Vam Hell on another piano, and Crofts and Cradock on Moog synths. That's a pretty crowded room creating music that might've ending up sounding fussy, or cluttered, but Weller and co-producer Jan Stan Kybert (he manned the boards for "From The Floorboards Up," as well) keep the arrangement airy and spacious, the serene programmed drums, glockenspiel, and massed backing vocals adding layers of gossamer roominess. The song's ceiling feels limitless, and that's the point. 

At the two and-a-half minute mark, something remarkable occurs. After Weller sings, via a pretty melody, the lines "And in every brick I pass I see you / In every blade of grass I feel you / In everything," the song somehow disengages from itself, and begins to ascend toward that infinite ceiling where the mirror ball spins placidly. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes this moment as the song "fracturing into space.") We've entered a wholly new song at this point, or, rather, we're inside of the song as it moves upward and outward in widening sound waves, scoring the evening for everyone who's there in myriad ways.

When Weller was a teenager in the mid-1970s he'd board the train to London with a tape recorder under his arm. Alighting from the tube in the capital, he'd press record and aim the microphone at everything around him, taping the sounds of the streets and the people of his beloved city. Back home in his Woking bedroom, he'd listen lovingly, obsessively, to the tape of traffic noise, street chatter, all of the colorful sonic bustle, and revel in the essence of the city life that the sounds evoked. He seems to have attained something similar with this trippy, otherworldly middle section in "Mirror Ball," where what we're hearing seems to be nothing less than the impossible perspective of a music venue's floors, walls, and ceilings, what they hear and have heard—the interior life of a rock club, if you will. Only the sound of a muffled crowd cheering brings the song out of the spell that it's cast. To my ears it's among the most remarkable passages in Weller's cannon, and the move back into the proper song's warm, stately melody and restrained yet pulsing playing is really moving. Weller, his band, and his producer have somehow tuned in to other frequencies in "Mirror Ball," those pitched just beyond our ability to hear them, the ones left over after the songs finish, the band leaves the stage, the crowd departs, and the venue goes dark. I mean it has to go somewhere right?

"When the heart grieves over what it has lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left," goes the old Sufi proverb. In these twinned songs Paul Weller possesses and than loses—that ancient story—but what's left behind is as magic, and as urgent and confounding, as what was once there. Plugged in, ears ringing, we'll chase it all again tomorrow night.

Top photo of Weller at The Vic in Chicago, Illinois, 2015 (by author); second photo via Brighton & Hove News

Friday, April 14, 2023

May I slash my wrists tonight?

Forty years on, the Style Council's "Come To Milton Keynes" still cuts

My interest in the Style Council has cooled considerably since the 1980s, when I followed them with near apostolic urgency. They remain very much a band of the era for me, living on as a graphic reminder of how much I was willing to forgive in the name of adoration. With the hindsight of several decades, I can appreciate Paul Weller's nervy commitment to his second band: they were as much a conceptual joke as an actual group, an observation Weller repeated often, especially during the band's waning days, but something I never really understood at the time. That felt like a cop-out, a shoulder-shrugging just kidding in the face of withering criticism. Now I see that the humor was yet another style that the Council wore.

But still. The ever changing attire, the mannered Continental poses, the willful embrace of eclectic, at times clashing musical styles and genres: much of the Council's modus operandi is frozen in time, colors fading like a Swatch wrist watch in a Salvation Army. Unique in many ways, the Style Council were also very much an '80s band, from their blend of primary-color sunniness and dour realism to the synthesizer beds and studio processing on their later records. Yet Weller is and remains a great songwriter, and many Council tunes, especially their singles, have stood the test of time: "Speak Like a Child," "Long Hot Summer," "My Ever Changing Moods," "Solid Bond In Your Heart," "You're The Best Thing," "Wall Come Tumbling Down" are all indelible records, each a winning blend of Weller's skeptical romanticism and his love for 60s-based pop and soul. His more politically charged songs—and there were too many of them by the end—tend to have withered on the vine, the predictable consequence of Weller's tendency in this era to stubbornly breed pointed, overly-earnest lyrics with whatever musical whim he was digging that week, with a self-conscious determination to remain stylistically varied and Socialistically inspired. A lot of it has not aged all that well. Few talk about the Red Wedge much anymore, let alone "Internationalists."

Weller has often said that he regretted letting the Council go on as long as he did. He's also remarked that he feels that the band's second album, Our Favourite Shop, released in 1985, is their best. I agree. To my ears it's their most cohesive album in vision and sound, though it contains one or two clunkers. ("The Stand Up Comics Instructions," anyone?) The poignant "Homebreakers" is a stark, evocative narrative of Thatcher-era desperation, and "All Gone Away," "The Lodgers (Or She Was Only a Shopkeeper's Daughter)," and "With Everything to Lose" each seamlessly weds musical fluency—the Council is an actual band on this album—with social-critical lyrics, as unlikely as it was that kids were going to dart about the U.K. singing along to Socialist doctrinaire with the same teen verve they did to Wham and Culture Club. Weller could still write a conventional love song (the wonderful "Luck"), but polished agit-prop ruled the day for him in the mid- and late-1980s, an era when he too often tread in shallow waters.


Milton Keynes lies fifty or so miles northwest of London, in Buckinghamshire, established in the mid-1960s as a prototypical "New Town" designed by the U.K. government as an answer to housing pressures in the capital. Conceived as a kind of suburban antidote to relentless city crowding, an ideal of post-war urban planning, Milton Keynes has, justifiably or not, long been derided by critics as "soulless," as a "non-place," a pre-ordained grid-facade lacking a richly organic history. Search online and you'll find posts such as "Why is Milton Keynes so weird?", and a subreddit devoted to answering the question, "Could someone explain to me why everybody seems to hate Milton Keynes?" 

A couple of years ago in the U.K. socialist magazine Tribune, Kieran Curran observed that Milton Keynes "stood out from its predecessors through its comparative lack of traditional municipal socialist elements," that the town was "fundamentally about the rising structure of feeling of 'aspiration'." Yet "from the late 1970s on, the town was also a testbed for Thatcher’s political project—a revanchist tearing-down of the post-WWII consensus, combined with a sentimental appeal to a nebulous, idealised nostalgia for a past that never was." Milton Keynes is often knocked for its U.S.-leaning style—one writer recently complained about the city's "un-British" and "vaguely American form of urbanism"—and the community seems destined to remain a target for those decrying its laboratory-like origins. 

In the mid-1980, a concerned Milton Keynes Development Corporation produced what has come to be known as the "Red Balloons" ad, a feel-good video aimed at promoting the city's civic warmth and, as Curran puts it, "the town’s youth, its community, and a profoundly rendered but profoundly nebulous 'hope'." Curran adds, "Yet when considered in relation to the era’s unfolding political upheaval, this focus-grouped bucolic narrative seems nakedly ideological."

Weller was allegedly watching, and in response wrote "Come To Milton Keynes," the title suggesting a tag-line on a tourist brochure. The premise could have gotten in the way here: reacting to what he sees as the town's tackiness and barely-disguised moral decay, Weller complicates a cheerful, sunny melody with clashing musical touches—swing band horn charts, cheap drum machine rhythms, a Technicolor orchestra with swirling harps, reverb-laden, circus-like keyboard washes—evoking a surface-level bliss nagged by something ugly underneath. Precisely because the arrangement is a melange of disagreeing, backward-looking musical styles, the song is not time- and date-stamped as decisively as other Council songs, and its satire, both in the lyrics and the arrangement, feels pretty pointed still.

"May I walk you home tonight on this fine and lovely night tonight?" Weller opens pleasantly, 

We'll walk past the luscious houses
through rolling lawns and lovely flowers,
our nice new town where the curtains are drawn,
where hope is started and dreams can be borne
Yet against the melody's affability we're soon "mad together in Community," where boys are begging for food on corners when they're not chasing heroin fixes or violence on the green. In the lilting bridge, Weller arrives at his insight:
In our paradise lost we'll be finding our sanity
In this paradise found we'll be losing our way for a brave new day
The line "May I slash my wrists tonight, this fine Conservative night?" is rendered especially nauseous given that Weller's singing in an ironically cheery, Ray Davies mode, the horns and strings dancing lightly behind the desperation. He's looking for a job, and arrives in town having "read the ad about the private schemes." He loved the idea, the buoyant red balloons and all they promised, but having lived there, alert to the dark ironies, now he's "not so Keyne." The last pun's a groaner, but Weller's been known to adhere to an idea he loves no matter how clunky it is. Or is the pun's obviousness meant to be funny, an in-joke, a facet of the Style Council's wry humor? 

"Come to Milton Keynes" was released as a single in England (it hit number 23 on the charts), the 7-inch sleeve featuring a color image from the album's cover shoot, the 12-inch (above) a dourly stylish black-and-white shot of two overcoats and hats hanging on a coat rack, more appropriate to the song's suburban skewering. Both releases featured ubiquitous liner notes by The Cappuccino Kid (the pen name for U.K. music journalist Paolo Hewitt) that echoed the song's complaints: we sour humans, rather than coming "together in sweat of all types, for fun, pleasure and toil,"
Instead, it seems,...have chosen to front on the goggle eye box, a wicked vision of children, balloons, sunshine eternal, wealth of the filthy kind, all manner of plastic crap, yanky cop shows and homes for their bombs, and aahh. . . contentment. All still more bullshit that masks the real picture of self-inflicted death, addiction, misery and mass consumering. American express? Fuck off, I'd rather walk!
Subtle stuff. I've never been to Milton Keynes, and for that matter I've no idea if Weller himself ever visited. A quick survey of the comments on the "Red Balloons" ad above reveals several residents gushing about their wonderful childhoods and adolescences they enjoyed there: 
Happy memories from when i was a kid growing up in Milton Keynes. Still love the place now. :) 
Milton Keynes is the best place i have ever lived, and if it was not for this place always providing me with all my opurtunities [sic] than i would never be what it is today. 
Great day of school-Bishop Parker RESPECT for posting this. 
long live red balloons! 
MK was so cool in th 80's
And the like. There are more than a few gripes about the town online, too, and we all know how nostalgia works. Whether Weller was fair or not in his take on Milton Keynes I can't comment on—I believe he received some flak from those in the city unpleased with his depiction. I only know that "Come To Milton Keynes" retains its wickedly satiric bite, and that there are plenty of targets around for a take on the values eroding behind a facade of municipal unity, on a Paradise found and lost, "where the sun never sets, and all is safe and sound."

The video that the Style Council produced for "Come To Milton Keynes" is a theatrical indictment of hucksterism, consumerism, American-style greed, vulgarity, and "all manner of plastic crap," Weller and Mick Talbot prancing about in tacky costumery. Great stuff. Dig the comments for more "debate" over city planning. 

Friday, April 7, 2023

Jetting into the past

Renewing memories of a town I left decades ago

I took this photo last weekend from the window of our 737, moments from landing at Reagan National Airport. The vast gray sky's appropriate, as it mirrored my cloudy memories of the Washington D.C. area and my ambivalence about having left so many years ago.

I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland and raised in Wheaton, ten or so miles from the D.C. line, a boundary I traversed countless times in my adolescence and throughout college, at the University of Maryland. I never lived in the District proper, but it's always felt like home. My wife and I visited the area last weekend to see my folks (they're in their 90s, and going strong) and my sibs and their children who are still in the area, and so that my wife could attend a baby shower for one of our nieces, who currently lives in Arizona but who was born and raised in Silver Spring. A homecoming of sorts for a bunch of us. 

I had little hope that this photo would turn out well—I snapped it through a bit of turbulence while holding my anxious wife's hand. I figured it'd be a wash. Yet gazing at it now I'm amazed at the clarity of what it brings back for me. Our plane was approaching heading southeast, shadowing the Pentagon while hurtling past the Reflecting Pool and the sprawling Mall; in this moment we're passing the south end of the White House grounds; the Tidal Basin's emerging from the right, the Capitol at the far end of The Mall. As the plane approached the landing strip it flew mere feet (or so it seemed) over Gravelly Point, the tiny peninsula jutting off of Virginia into the Potomac River, where when we were kids my parents would sometimes take us to watch the planes taking off from and landing at the then-National Airport. I recall packed lunches, an afternoon made of it. If I close my eyes, I can feel the alarming roar of the immense, down-angled jets just over our heads, filling my ears and my chest with sublime, nearly overwhelming power. An early experience in their humbling majesty of pure noise. Lay a transparency over this photo from, say, 1972 or '73, and I'm just out of frame, staring upward, mouth agape, hands shut tight against my ears, oblivious to the nascent, darkening national drama  six or so miles away as the Middle Jet Age thundered all around and through me.

At the end of the visit we drove back to Reagan for our flight and to return our car rental. We had some time so we were able to take my favorite drive in the Maryland/DC area, along Beach Road and Rock Creek Parkway, moving briskly along the green floor of the city. We passed below the stately Taft Bridge on upper Connecticut Avenue, by the National Zoo, modest horse tables, and gently rolling banks, ending at the Potomac while gliding alongside the Kennedy Center. Traffic may be a nightmare on the VA/MD/DC highways, but the city did right by Rock Creek Park. While in college, after shows or closing the bar in the city, I'd drive back to Wheaton in the early morning along this very path, sometimes worse for wear, the single-lane road twisting and turning in the dark alongside creek, cutting a swath through the District and into Maryland.


The photo also brings me back to the Bicentennial and the long day my family and some neighbor friends spent at The Mall. In 1976, only four and a half miles of the sprawling, neo-futurist Metro subway system were finished, and so from Wheaton my family were obliged to board a jam-packed bus on Georgia Avenue a block from our home for the hours-long, oppressively hot trip down to the Mall. All I remember of the blurred afternoon are endless traffic jams, the swarms of thousands, and the fireworks later that night. Yet the photo of my family marching up Arcola Avenue that morning on the way to the bus stop endures. That's me in the middle, "with piccolo fife," rocking a red-white-and-blue t-shirt and getting in the patriotic groove. Despite the analog gauze of the snapshot, that block looks pretty much the same now.

The internal soundtrack that this photo conjures? "Silly Love Songs," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "A Fifth of Beethoven," "Dream Weaver," "If You Leave Me Now," "Convoy," "Island Girl," "Still the One," "Baby I Love Your Way," "Take the Money and Run," so many more, each evoking sunny afternoons inside of infinite summers, air-conditioned balm against the humidity outside, and bike rides through suburban woods where I conjured stories and fantasies, both light and dark, some of which came true.


Yesterday in my advanced creative nonfiction workshop we discussed a woman's draft in which she explored her obsession with 1980s music, how the songs from that era instill in her, absurdly, a nostalgia for a time when she wasn't alive. In fact, the music brings her back to long family drives between Illinois and Ohio when she was a child, her parents' CD collections soundtracking those trips and those years while also evoking a decade she knows only from those songs, yet a time in history she finds herself impossibly enamored of, and identifying with. In Magic: A Journal of Song, Paul Weller remarks that “The thing I have discovered is that music in its truest sense is beyond any trend or movement or category," adding, "I’m fascinated by that and the idea that it is, in the end, like folk music, people’s music." I might only add that music, though often time- and date-stamped, more often than not moves beyond the very era in which it's produced, allowing a young girl in the late '00s to hear A Flock Of Seagulls and feel both moved in the present and saturated by a past. Descending into Washington D.C. in the present, I also elevated through my past. Magic, indeed.