“you can’t put your arms around a memory” – johnny thunders (1978)

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All of the great experiences in life are fleeting.  These experiences stemming from singular moments, feelings, or relationships are end just as quickly as they begin.  The elation and joy felt during these times are important and help shape and define us.  These experiences become memories; remnants of the past floating around our brain that conjure some feeling reminiscent of how we felt at that particular time.  For the most part, these feelings of nostalgia and reflection can be comforting.  It makes sense, right?  If you felt good then, you should feel good now.

However, there is always a bittersweet tinge of sadness because these moments cannot be relived.  It is the absence of something special that bring about this sadness.  For if something was never felt, how can you miss it?  It is a natural conclusion to come to. For some, it is momentary and the person quickly moves on about their busy lives until such a feeling returns.  For others, it can be haunting and cause anxiety, fear, and depression.

The reality is that you cannot do anything about it.  Things change.  People change.  Life changes.  I strongly believe our experiences that influence our memories define who we are, what we believe, and what we represent.  Without those memories, you lose yourself.  With those memories go our last threads connecting us to the special people and moments in our lives.

I am not afraid of much.  Of course, I have the normal concerns and anxieties that plague everyone.  Questions that make me concerned if I’m being a good person, fulfilling some greater purpose, or if I can achieve true happiness.  These thoughts and moments of self-doubt and introspection are normal.  But, you get through them.  The one thing I am truly afraid of the most is losing my memory.  Losing my memory means I am losing myself and the people, places, and experiences that have helped define me.  It is funny sometimes to think that the only thing I really fear I cannot actually touch.  Memories aren’t tangible and can easily be manipulated both unwillingly and consciously.  So much importance is placed on our nostalgia and the rose-colored glasses we view our past.  What I fear losing, I cannot touch.  What I fear losing, I cannot feel.  What I fear losing, I can’t put my arms around.

Right after ending his stint as a member of the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders kicked off his solo career with his most powerful song.  Released in 1978, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” was Thunders’ first single and a powerful message about loneliness and the fear of absence; whatever that may be.

Allegedly about his addiction to heroin, Thunders signature track is a ballad about his inability to function on his own.  He kicks off the song declaring that it doesn’t pay to try to hold onto these memories, but it still doesn’t mean he didn’t try.  Who can blame him?  We’ve all been there.  But this awareness doesn’t keep him from receding to the dark recesses of his mind.  Thunders is cold and alone all of the time.  Even when addressing the subject of the song, he feels such extreme loneliness when alone and even in his own home.

From there, Thunders is on a path of destruction that many succumb to when depressed.  He’s beating his head against a pole in order to knock some sense into himself.  Whatever it was that was comforting him is gone and Thunders cannot deal in any way other than hurting himself.  And all of this is an internal struggle; an invisible monster that no one else sees.  He has the scars to prove it even if those scars don’t show.

“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” is a punk rock classic that deals with serious themes in a shocking and heartfelt way.  Thunders sound labored as he draws out words to be unnecessarily long and loses key a few times.  His vocals are powerful as they evoke a sense of inebriation and lack of control that suitably fits with the song.  The guitar work is splendid and sounds reminiscent of his work the New York Dolls mixed with Television.

Thunders’ life ended abruptly in 1991 possibly related to a drug overdose.  He seemed like a troubled person haunted by a past he couldn’t let go of.  While memories can be amazing things, they can also become nightmares.  The key is to realize that they cannot hurt if you don’t let them.  Life goes on and so should you.  Take the lessons you have learned and move on.  If you can’t put your arms around a memory, that memory can put their arms around you either.

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“1999” – prince (1982)

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When I decide on an artist or song to write about for my weekly blog post, there are a few things I consider.  Most importantly, I take into consideration how I am feeling at the time.  I might plan to write about a particular track and then change my mind last minute.  I might be ready to discuss that song or I might have a new idea that is more pressing and I need to put into words quickly.  This happens more often in the case of one-hit wonders or artists with smaller discographies.  For artists with larger bodies of work, or artists who have had a significant impact on me, I tend to take my time.  Since I have a self-imposed rule to not repeat an artist for this blog, finding the right moment to talk about the right song can be a little overwhelming.  I knew Prince was somebody I wanted to spotlight at some point, but I didn’t want it to be like this.

Simply put, Prince was an enigma; a very stylish and purple one at that.  Notoriously private, he was able to craft a persona that was explosive and full of raw sexual energy, but tender at the same time.  Prince was also very protective over his body of work.  Lawsuits were often brought against people for infringing on his copyright and he worked tirelessly to secure all the legal rights to his music from Warner Brothers.  It was all about control and the freedom to carry out his vision and maintain his image.  After nearly four decades of recording music, I would say he was successful at keeping the public interested and engaged.

I keep a running list of potential songs to write about and I have several down for Prince.  With such a massive discography with more than 35 studio albums, there was a lot to choose from.  Popular hits like “When Doves Cry,” the masterpiece that is “Purple Rain,” or even deep cuts like “Stare” all would have been excellent to dissect and review.  Personally, I am a big fan of his album Dirty Mind and his 1987 concept album Sign “O” the Times.  If Prince was still alive and I had felt ready to write about him, I probably would have picked a track from one of those two albums.  Again, I didn’t want such an occasion to be like this.

As I read through news sites and my social media feeds, I loved seeing the tributes coming in including links to his 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Performance of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and all the references to his mastery of basketball and making pancakes.  My favorite tribute was an article written by The Onion with the poignant and perfect headline “Nation Too Sad To Fuck Even Though It’s What Prince Would Have Wanted.”  I went back and listened through several of my favorite tracks and sampled some albums.  Unfortunately, this was the time to write about Prince and I had nothing to say.  Even some of the songs I had previously considered were receiving second thoughts.  I kept asking myself, what song would be the perfect song that embodies Prince and his outlook on life?

Released in 1982, “1999” has stood the test of time as being one of Prince’s greatest tracks.  Despite the amusing date that is 17 years outdated and I’m sure leaves many kids wondering “what does it mean to party like its 1999?”, this song is the perfect representation of Prince; who he was and what he was all about.  “1999” is an amazing track, but it is overlooked as a powerful protest song.  Prince & the Revolution are dancing until the end because war is all around them and everyone has the bomb.  With absolutely no fear or cares about the evils of society, Prince’s humanist approach is to just live your life, party, and have a good time.  He may not want to die, but it isn’t going to stop him from dancing because everyone is going to die someday.

“1999” opens with an explosive array of musical noise that immediately leads into the track’s signature riff.  Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones of the Revolution join Prince on the vocals throughout the song.  With all the voices playing off eachother and taking lead over each verse, it conveys a strong sense of unity and that this is truly a party that will never be forgotten.  The track is also a testament to Prince’s genius as a multi-instrumentalist.  He plays most of the instruments on the album produced it as well.

Prince passed away in his home yesterday near his recording studio.  He had been hospitalized in Illinois just a few days prior.  I also had been reading stories about his final performance last week.  He held a party and performed to an elated audience.  Rumors and speculation regarding his health and physical appearance have been circulating.  I don’t know all of the details about his health at the party, and I don’t want to speculate and further the distribution of potentially false information.  All I know is that I’m glad he lived his life on his own terms and did so until the very end.  Prince was greatest musician in recent decades because of his musical genius and ability to craft works of art that were not only wildly mainstream and popular, but culturally significant as well.

That article from The Onion captured Prince with such accuracy.  We’re all going to die, so let’s not waste time worrying about the inevitable.  Now is the time for celebration.  Listen to Prince.  Watch videos of Prince.  Talk about Prince.  But don’t do all of that with sadness.  Do it with joy. Just as it is sung in “1999,” life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.

“oxygène (part iv)” – jean michel jarre (1976)

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Spring is a really great musical season for me.  The weather is warmer and I’m getting outside more.  Walking along the lake or through neighborhoods, I make sure to have a great soundtrack.  During this time, the excitement I feel that comes with a spring awakening manifests in a form that motivates me to explore and discover new things.  New foods, new places, and even new music.

For several years, spring has held great events and opportunities for me to indulge in musical vices.  When I was in college, the premiere event was Record Store Day which is being held on April 16th this year.  The exclusive releases and reissues were exciting and I just had to have them all.  Or whatever I could afford at the time.  Now, Record Store Day doesn’t excite me as much.  As it approaches, I’m fairly apathetic towards the releases because it always ends up being the same artists with some tired gimmick.  I think this has happened because I live in Chicago where I have a lot of options for music vendors.  In my college town, we had one record store, and that record store was life. I just don’t need a single day to celebrate record stores.  I celebrate record stores all the time.  However, just because Record Store Day has lost it’s appeal for me, that doesn’t mean I don’t have something similar to take it’s place.

This past weekend, I volunteered for an annual record fair put together by the community radio station I am involved with.  For the last 14 years, the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) has held a record fair to raise funds for the station.  Record vendors from Chicago and other states come in to sell their wares while the public mingles and rummages through milk crates looking for anything cheap, recognizable, or collectible.  It is a great event and I love being a part of it.  I talk to the vendors and peruse their collections.  While doing this, I want everything I see.  I get excited just looking through them.  The artwork and how the sleeves feel are just mesmerizing.  However, budget and apartment space brings me back down to reality.  So, I limit myself to just a few purchases.  I never buy the first shiny thing I see.  I take my time to find the right record.  While I find a lot that would earn a special space on my shelf, I hold out for the right record at the right time.

This year, my prized purchase was Jean Michel Jarre’s 1976 masterpiece Oxygène.  This particular record has an abstract air of familiarity for me.  I remember seeing the CD in my parent’s collection.  It never got played and my parents never talked about Jarre, but I have vivid memories of it being there.  The artwork is just so striking.  It features the Earth peeled away like flesh to reveal a skull.  Meat is revealed underneath the mantle. The cover art is a little grotesque, but equally fascinating.  It is the kind of artwork that leaves an intimidating mark on the mind of a young child.

I wouldn’t hear Oxygène (Part IV) until I was in college years later.  It was a featured track on the new age radio station in the 2007 video game Grand Theft Auto IV.  Admittedly, I hate to admit that I have discovered some music through video games.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it is because some may feel I could not appreciate the music outside of the context of something thematic and exciting as a video game or a movie.  Sometimes, this is that case.  I might not enjoy a song as much outside of the context of it’s use elsewhere.  However, this is not true for Oxygène.

While ambient and electronic music are not my regularly played in my sound system, the few records that have made it into my collection are prized by me.  They managed to break through my own listening bias and standalone as grand musical achievements unmatched by their more accessible and commercially successfully rock and pop contemporaries.  It makes the listening experience, for me, more special.  It is as if I stepped into an alien world.  I’m a musical tourist exploring an existence a few others have known for a long time.  Oxygène is my bridge and lifeline when I’m straying the deep waters of sound.

Oxygène is comprised of six tracks each referred to as a singular part of a larger whole.  Part IV is my favorite one.  Kicking off side two of the album, a few hushed waves of synthesizer gently crash on the shore.  A wind is gently rising as the track progresses.  Soon afterward, a drum machine track starts and the hook follows shortly.  This hook is repeated throughout and often changing in pitch and tempo while being played on several different synthesizers.  It gives the track a pop feel thus bringing in something familiar to an outside listener that beckons them to come closer.

Oxygène is a real trip and I’ve been listening to it constantly all week.  I knew as soon as I saw it at Chirp’s record fair, this was the find that would define my experience at this year’s record fair and would be one of the finest records in my collection.  I’m happy that music and the journey to find it can bring me such joy while being incredibly rewarding.  The more work I spend in finding something that stands out as being the right record at the right time, the more rich the experience.  It keeps me fresh by not being stagnant and forces me to step outside of my comfort zone once in a while.  For that, I am grateful.

“dizz knee land” – dada (1992)

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This week, I spent some much needed vacation time joining my family during their trip to Disney World. I had been looking forward to this trip for months. It has been 13 years since I’ve been to Disney World and over a decade since I’ve been on a proper family vacation. I was eagerly awaiting to arrive at the House of Mouse. 

Disney World is an excellent example of proper city planning in action. Living in Chicago, recent news about the city not being able to contribute to pensions, pay debts, or even keep from having a poor credit rating can really make things a bummer sometimes. There is just so much to worry about. 

This is not the case with Disney World. If you’re not having fun, then something is medically happening or you are purposefully trying not to enjoy yourself. What I’m saying is that it is incredibly difficult to have a bad time there. Everything is so clean and efficient. Sure, it may be crowded at times but such disturbances are only temporary. The buildings and characters are fun. Even as an adult who lives alone and pays into a 401K, I was ridiculously excited when I met Mickey Mouse while eating dinner. The magic can be felt everything. 

Dada’s 1992 single “Dizz Knee Land” has been on my mind and appropriately so. It hasn’t just been on my mind for the superficial reason that the name Disney is implied in the song, but it captures the spirit, allure, and magic of the place. Though, in an admittedly sardonic way. 

In the song, the lyrics spell out the singer’s excitement that they are going to the happiest place on earth. “I’m going to Dizz Knee Land” is a clever throwback to that trope that a football player, after scoring the touchdown to win the big game, says he is celebrating by going to Disneyland. 

The reasons for the singer’s excitement is what truly makes this song so much fun. He’s consumed a fifth of gin, crashed his car, and gave the finger to President George H.W. Bush.  What better way to revel in those victories than going to the place one would go to celebrate any achievement. It is just really funny and entertaining that the reasons in this song are destructive and anti-authoritarian. Not only is it clever, but the juxtaposition present is very funny. 

Musically, the single is simple pop fun. To modern ears, the track sounds dated. There’s no mistaking that Dada were an early 90s band. The backing tracking is an alternative jam style that sounds recycled. It is incredibly entertaining but not anything that is challenging the musical norms of the time. Just get, dance, and don’t think about it. 

It has been a great week. I’ve enjoyed spending time with people and putting myself in a place that feels so removed from the world’s troubles. I’m not sure when the next time I’ll make it Disney World, but you can be sure it won’t be because I flipped off the president no matter how funny that might be.