“hey, good lookin'” – hank williams (1951)

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One of the things I do in my spare time is volunteer for a local music school in their archives.  It is a really chill place where I do some data entry, help teachers and students find materials, and organize parts of the collection.  Sometimes, I just sip on a beer while reading or listening to one of the thousands of records available in the archives.  Other than the people who come in and out for any reason, I usually am just chilling by myself.  Though, once in a blue moon, I’ll be asked to train a new volunteer.

I received an email from the archives manager that a new volunteer was coming in and I was asked to train them.  Yeah, I could definitely train them.  I am the one who trains most of the new volunteers since I’ve been an active volunteer myself for several years.  Sometimes, these volunteers end up becoming regulars during shifts at different days or different times, or they might do a shift or two before moving on.  Usually, it is the latter.  And this was especially true for this newest volunteer, but not for a more typical reason like boredom.

Other than a first name, I had no idea what to expect from the person who was coming in.  Given that the classes tend to skew older most of the time, I was expecting someone my age or a retiree who was looking for something to do.  I certainly wasn’t expecting an extremely talkative, 23-year-old waitress sporting a cropped sweater and leather skirt, with an aspiration straight out of Hollywood.  Though, that is what I got.

Since I usually spend the three-hour-plus shift by myself, I am really unaccustomed to holding lengthy conversations in that place let alone lengthy conversations that involve me just silently listening to someone younger than me excitedly ramble endlessly about their dreams and aspirations.  I know I’m coming off as cynical and a bit judgmental, but I was not.  And the reason being is that this girl reminded me a bit of myself at that age.

It didn’t make sense to me why this girl was training with me when she told me she was leaving Chicago at the end of the month.  Within the last few months, she had developed an admiration for old country, western, and bluegrass music, which were all genres she knew nothing about and had generally avoided.  This all changed when she visited Nashville a few weeks ago and fell in love with the city.  Now, she was getting all her affairs in order so she could buy a bus ticket, carrying only her guitar and a single suitcase, and looking to make it big in the Nashville music scene.

Now, all of that really struck me as super weird at first.  Think about it.  Young women hops on a bus to travel across country pursuing her dream to become a star.  If that sounds like something you would see in a movie, it is because it is.  It is one of the biggest tropes of the entertainment industry.  However, she was so excited about all her plans and I couldn’t help but listen.

I am not naturally someone who is going to put someone else down or invalidate their feelings or aspirations.  Quite the contrary.  During the conversation, I gave her as much advice as I could as some of the things she was telling me I had considerable experience with.  For one, I used to work in Nashville while I was attending a university in Kentucky, which were only an hour apart.  And since Nashville was so close, friends and I would often go there to see shows and hang out in a city much larger than our college town.  Plus, I was super familiar with the Greyhound bus route she was taking, so I had learned all the tips and tricks to surviving a smelly, uncomfortable bus ride for ten hours.

Beyond the advice I could give her about life in Nashville and how excruciating Greyhound can potentially be, her story spoke to me on a more personal level.  She was telling me that other than that one visit, she had never been to Nashville before and she was trying to figure out everything as she went along.  I completely empathize with that because I went through the same thing at her age.  Like her, I was 23 when I made a major change in my life by moving to Chicago to work in the city’s film industry.  I had never been to Chicago before (except for when I was about five), didn’t know a single person in the city, and had no job or school or any other institution like those waiting for me.  It was as fresh of a start as you could get.  It was exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. I remember I had quite a bit of anxiety when I was trying to get settled (the economy was awful at that time), but this girl was expressing absolutely zero worry about such a move.

When I made that move, a lot of my friends were telling me how scary they though that was.  And the reason being is that people these days, especially millennials fresh out of college, just don’t do that anymore.  However, uprooting your life and moving across country with no safety net was not uncommon in generations before mine.  People still do it, but it is far less common.  So, it can be fairly typical for someone to tell you all the reasons why such a change is risky, and it can be discouraging.  While I had some concerns about this girl I was keeping to myself (like the fact she’s moving into a giant mansion owned by a couple that just happens to be in possession of a tour bus owned by the band Alabama), I told her she should go for it and watched her eagerly take notes of the advice I was giving her as someone who had went on a similar journey.  Though, my journey involved a U-Haul and was less like a movie trope than a pretty, young woman hopping on a Greyhound with a suitcase and a guitar.

When the shift ended at 9:30, we were still talking about the trip.  Since I live really close to the school, she came over to chat about it further over whiskey.  Then, I pulled out my guitar and we played a couple of songs together.  It was getting late and she had work in the morning, as did I.  So, she called for an Uber and I wished her luck.  Even though she may not find what she is looking for, she’ll be fine.  When you get that itch, no matter how scary the journey may be or how much uncertainty you may have, you just have to chase that dream.  Or else you’ll regret it.

During our conversation, she was telling me about some of the country music artists she recently discovered that were inspiring her to go on this journey.  One of them, of course, was the country legend Hank Williams. You cannot say you like country music without knowing Hank Williams. And you for sure cannot walk around Nashville without his visage emblazoned somewhere.  His biggest hit, “Hey, Good Lookin’”, recorded in 1951, is a country music staple and, frankly, one of the greatest American songs ever recorded.

We listened to some Hank that evening, though that song didn’t come up.  She was very impressed by the size and variety of the archive that we ended up listening to a whole bunch of different country artists.  I don’t remember much of what was playing because it was primarily in the background as we talked, but this Hank classic seems appropriate for this week’s blog entry primarily for its legendary status in the genre and a reminder of the time I spent in Music City. The Country Music Capital of the World.  Nashville.

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“power to the people” – john lennon/plastic ono band (1971)

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Though Donald Trump has only been in office for two years, it has seemed excruciatingly longer than that.  The election cycle for 2016 was brutal as Trump eliminated a whole group of Republicans, one by one, though he was considered a candidate to write off as a joke, his victory in the primaries ensuring a win for the democrats.  That did not happen, and now it is the liberal side of the spectrum struggling to achieve unity within an overcrowded field of democratic presidential hopefuls, debating and arguing over not only who will defeat Trump, but who also represents the diversity of the party’s constituents.  The presidential election is 20 months away, and this dynamic of a seemingly endless parade of candidates is already proving contentious.

Like almost everyone on the planet, I was shocked when Trump won the 2016 election.  After that, I took a step back and began researching what happened.  I read nearly a dozen books, countless editorials, and monitored social media trends to try to find an answer in hopes of getting closure.  All this information about Russian meddling, third party candidates, poor campaigning, and so much more, it was a lot to take and made me feel really uneasy how everything fit together to create this perfect storm that engulfed all Americans.

What I had noticed was the complete lack of accountability from the left. Hillary not winning was because it was someone else’s fault.  It was the Russians for weaponizing social media to undermine our democratic institution.  It was the Bernie Bros for being so militant in their support that they would refuse to vote for Hillary.  It was the Trump supporters who are so comfortable with their racism.  Never mind the fact the democratic party had no platform other than the virtue of not being Trump, it was not their fault.

I was left with the impression that the democratic party has a unity problem.  And the reason behind that is that they suffer from the narcissism of small differences; where the left spends more time tearing each other down over minutiae than they do targeting our ideologically opposed enemies on the fascist right.  It is interesting that lately I have been social media campaigns suggesting “Vote blue, no matter who.” It leaves me feeling rather cynical, which is a feeling I despise, because my thought oscillate between “where were you last time” and “people will throw a tantrum if their candidate doesn’t win.”

This is why the primaries are so important.  This whole “vote blue, no matter who” mentality really only works in the general election, and only if you’re willing to lick your wounds and support the candidate that may have defeated your original choice in the primaries.  And it is the importance we place on the primaries that has made the whole affair so ugly, with people arguing endlessly online over the minutiae between democratic hopefuls.  I applaud their passion and support of their candidate, but you must realize that there is a strong chance you may have to vote for someone else when it comes to the final showdown against Trump.

This primary season has been fascinating to me.  We are still seeing people announcing their candidacy for the presidency, and people being vocal for why they support their preferred candidate.  It can be quite inspiring to see people advocate for their candidate, but it can be downright ugly as well.

I voted for Bernie in the 2016 primaries but voted for Hillary in the general election.  Sanders supporters were upset at perceived corruption within the Democratic National Convention and vocalized that support.  It fueled this public conception of the archetype Berne Bro, a Sanders supporter who is so militant in their advocacy that they negatively affected the election after Sanders’ candidacy ended in concession. Regardless that the Bernie Bro phenomenon is an exaggerated misconception, an idea supported by experts including Malcolm Nance, it seems that the admiration that surrounded Sanders in 2016 is being met with a lot more resistance in 2020 election cycle. And there’s an explanation for that.

In 2016, Sanders was the outlier. Someone on the fringes who had managed to achieve a lot of momentum through grass roots efforts, and really rattled the cages of the democratic establishment.  Sanders was fresh and exciting, and top brass in the party took note.  Now, as we enter the 2020 election cycle, presidential hopefuls are looking to capitalize on that Bernie momentum from 2016 which has shifted the establishment party to the left.  Now, you have a whole bunch of candidates who are campaigning on the platforms and ideas that have become popular since Sanders’ run in 2016.

This ideologically shift in the democratic party has ignited a peculiar debate, one exacerbated by the coverage on both traditional and social media; that people just don’t want Bernie Sanders anymore that that we have so many other candidates to choose from who share the same ideals.  I’m now seeing editorials and posts from friends to support candidates who are younger, ethnically diverse, and not a man. Now that there are candidates who are not old white men who say the same things as Sanders, an actual old white man, we can now find a candidate who reflects America’s growing diversity.

I think that kind of thinking is valid, and some of the candidates are admirable, but I’m not going to risk Trump getting a second term by playing identity politics with my vote in 2020. In the primaries, Sanders will have my vote.  And he’ll have my vote purely on the facts that he has been consistent in his views for several decades.  I like many of the candidates who are campaigning right now, and I find it inspiring that we have more women and people of color running for the highest office in the land.  However, many of these candidates have taken millions in corporate dollars and have sketchy voting histories.  If push comes to shove and one of these candidates become the democratic party’s nominee, I’ll vote for them.  However, in the primaries, I’m not letting identity politics stop me from supporting the old white guy candidate who has been consistent throughout his entire career.

Last night, I attended a presidential rally for Bernie Sanders at Navy Pier.  Thousands of people were there, and the energy was absolutely fantastic. The guest speakers were passionate, inspiring, and reflected the diversity of Sanders’ supporters.  Speakers included a renowned West Chicago poet, a young organizer from a Logan Square youth organization, one of Bernie’s former classmates, and one of the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

When Sanders spoke, he reflected on his life’s work fighting for racial, income, and environmental equality.  Specifically advocating for things like an end to police violence, a $15/hour federal minimum wage, and real initiatives to slow down and reverse the devastating effects of climate change. I was certainly inspired by his words, and I cannot believe that people can be so cynical about a candidate just because he is older and white, especially when they support the ideals he campaigns on.  I know we want someone who looks and sounds different.  However, we are in the midst of an existential crisis in this country, and our biggest goal is to defeat Donald Trump.  And Sanders has garnered more money ad support than any other candidate, and that’s why his opponents are so loud and vocal. They’re afraid he will succeed.

The music at campaign rallies can be kind of monotonous.  They are powerful in their messaging and what they represent, but tend to lose meaning when you hear them all the time and they become nothing more than an election trope.  “Power to the People” by John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” is one of those songs.  Released as a single in 1971 during the sessions that would produce Lennon’s Imagine album (though this song would not be included), Sanders walked onto the stage to this liberal anthem. And I really felt excited by that.  Sure, it has been overplayed a lot of places.  Much of Lennon’s music is overplayed.  However, I really felt moved by the song last night, and that is a reflection of the context in which I heard the song.  It felt powerful because when it comes to Bernie, it isn’t just a trope.  The song means what it says, because Bernie means what he says.

“do what u want [remix feat. christina aguilera]” – lady gaga (2014)

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The Oscars aired last night and, continuing my streak for a while now, I did not watch. For me, watching the Oscars has always just been entertainment, not something to take seriously.  And while the Academy deserves to be checked for not being inclusive enough when it comes to films coming from people of color or from smaller, independent filmmakers, how seriously people take this celebrity spectacle frankly just bores me.

After the broadcast, I did check online to see the winners.  Most were standard and assumed, and a few were surprises.  And, as expected, people ended the evening upset. It always happens. No matter what, the toxic culture of social media amplifies the manufactured outrage and they rally about injustices that really do not matter. This usually lasts a few days, sometimes a week, and whatever did upset them goes into the dustbin of history to be remembered years later in some snarky op-ed about some future Oscars ceremony or in a pub trivia question.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Of all the categories, the only one I felt was an absolute 100% guarantee was “Shallow” for “Best Original Song” from Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born.  Joined by his co-star, Lady Gaga and Cooper performed the song together at the ceremony with all the confidence of people who knew their Oscar was just moments away. And while “Shallow” was the best song in the category, this win, unlike the others during the night, troubled me a bit.  Specifically, its loose connection to the other big pop culture story of the last week.

Kelly was arrested last week after two decades of committing sexual assault against minors, many of whom he had groomed from an early age and kept trapped in the cult of personality carefully crafted and cultivated by the disgraced singer. Kelly’s arrest came right off the heels of the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly that aired in January.

While I applaud that Kelly has been arrested and will, hopefully, pay for his crimes, I am deeply disturbed by how long it has taken. Kelly’s sexualizing of underage girls and women can be traced back to the early 1990s through his lyrics and comments he has made, both public and in private. In the mid-1990s, Kelly married his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah Haughton. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for emotional and physical abuse stemming from a sexual relationship with him.

In 2000, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch, two reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times published the first report of Kelly’s relationships with underage girls. Since then, DeRogatis became entrusted by these girls and young women to expose Kelly for the abuser that he was. DeRogatis was sent video evidence of Kelly having sex with an underage, immediately sending it to the authorities.

One would think that video DeRogatis received would have ended Kelly’s career and landed him in prison.  However, it did not. Kelly was sued and taken to court by multiple women in 2002, but all the cases were settled out of court and Kelly was able to continue living as a free man. Being a teenager at this time, this part of Kelly’s history will always be remembered through Dave Chappelle’s portrayal on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show, a satirical take on Kelly with Chappelle performing the song “I Wanna Piss on You.” This was a takedown from a comedic master who was truly ahead of his time, even though the rest of his industry was not. Kelly was allowed not only to continue his career but thrived within it every time he faced controversy over the years.

Now, let’s jump to 2013.  It has been roughly two decades since the earliest documented evidence of Kelly’s comments about underage girls, over a decade since his first court appearances and Chappelle’s super popular portrayal, and Lady Gaga is preparing to release her third studio album Artpop. In just a few short years, following the release of The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way, Lady Gaga was dominating the music industry with her pop hits. Designed to be an introspective look into pop stardom with a Warholian slant, Artpop was meant by Gaga to show that she was more than just the latest pop star in a long line of pop stars.

When the second single from Artpop, “Do What U Want” dropped, it was blowing me away.  Filled to the brim with raw, dripping sexuality and the freedom within, this 80s-style synthesizer-heavy track was a serious jam.  I loved it.  Or, more correctly, I wanted to love it. As hard as the music slapped and as well as Gaga performed on the track, one thing kept me from truly enjoying it as much as I could; R. Kelly was a guest vocalist on the track.

I listened to “Do What U Want” a lot when it came out.  However, with each listen, I liked it less and less.  Not because I was getting tired of it, but because Kelly’s involvement with the song really made me feel uneasy.  I was questioning why Gaga, who had survived sexual abuse herself, would give Kelly space on her album. It felt like a slap in the face to people who had experienced violence and had seen Gaga’s music as a place of refuge where they felt valid for who they were.  Gaga, in response to the criticism to working with Kelly, said

“I’ve been living in Chicago and spending a lot of time there, and that’s where R. Kelly hails from. I was working on Artpop and I wrote [‘Do What U Want’] on tour. It was about my obsession with the way people view me. I have always been an R. Kelly fan and actually it is like an epic pastime in the Haus of Gaga that we just get fucked up and play R. Kelly. This is a real R&B song and I [said ‘I] have to call the king of R&B and I need his blessing.’ It was a mutual love.”

Gaga also said

“R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us. That we were able to say, the public, they can have our bodies, but they cannot have our mind or our heart. It was a really natural collaboration.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped listening to the song and just kind of gave up on Gaga.

Within the last few years, the #MeToo movement swept through the film industry and took down some of the more serious abusers. While a lot of past behavior by many people within the industry went unchecked as the media focused on the bigger Hollywood names facing scrutiny on social media and in the courts, the music industry largely went unscathed.  And despite the massive cultural shift tat #MeToo and #TimesUp were bringing, Kelly continued to thrive.

Even DeRogatis, who had been championing justice for the young women abused by Kelly, was becoming frustrated with how Kelly managed to continue having a career.  I remember reading Jessica Hopper’s First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic in 2015, and she discussed the time DeRogatis called her out for supporting Kelly headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013. DeRogatis had questioned Hopper how, as a woman, she could support someone who had a long history of abusing women.  Like Gaga, Hopper’s excuse was that she grew up with his music.

As #MeToo continued to dominate social media and the entertainment industry, some commentaries questioned when it would get Kelly. In 2019, it took a new documentary series, largely retelling the story DeRogatis had been reporting to disinterested audiences for almost two decades, and a new tape sent to lawyer Michael Avenatti, to finally bring Kelly into custody. On one side, it is great that it looks like Kelly will finally pay for his crimes. On the other, when I consider how long it took to bring Kelly to justice, and the voices of people like DeRogatis being largely ignored because the music industry is a large fraternity organization only looking out for their own, I am also disappointed by the complicities of the music industry and the players involved.  Players like Lady Gaga who, because she grew up with his music, felt compelled to introduce Kelly to a whole new generation of potential fans.

Gaga has since recognized the error of her ways.  The track “Do What U Want” has been pulled from all streaming services, and Gaga has gone on record saying she stands by survivors.  She rationalizes the collaboration with Kelly saying, “as a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life.”

I am unsure if I can accept that given that Kelly’s history of abuse had spanned two decades by the time the collaboration was released. I don’t question that Gaga was going through a rough patch in her life, but I do have to question her judgment when there was so much evidence against Kelly. In 2016, prior to denouncing the collaboration with Kelly, Gaga performed the song “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars, a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about universities covering up rape and sexual assault cases. In the performance, Gaga shared the stage with the victims of campus rape. It surely adds some complexity to Gaga’s history when it comes to working with Kelly. So, with her being celebrated at the Oscars for her performance this year and ultimately winning the award, I’m not impressed. While #MeToo did some great things, there are still many problems within the entertainment industry.  Not only did they award Gaga who was previously complicit when it came to Kelly, but they gave an Oscar to a man who would frequently show his penis to people on set.  It reinforces to me how the Oscars are a farce and not something to take seriously as a measure of quality.

After not listening to “Do What U Want” for several years, it wasn’t until recently that I learned the song was remixed to exclude Kelly’s vocals and replaced with Christina Aguilera’s. Debuting on New Year’s Day inn 2014, this “Do What U Want” remix with Aguilera was still released during a time when Gaga was complicit when it came to Kelly and his crimes.  However, I loved the that I could now listen to this jam again guilt free because Kelly was nowhere on it.  Recorded in a session in Carly Simon’s living room, this new version elevates the song and gives it a power that was absent when Kelly’s vocal was originally included.

As people everywhere are groaning over the wrong film winning the top prize at the Oscars for being too white, let’s not forget that the industry is still problematic when it comes to sexual abuse. And Gaga’s win last night reaffirms that.  While people grow and learn from their mistakes, the media cycle moves so quickly that we forget sins of yesterday for the outrages of today. I am not saying that Gaga cannot be forgiven for her work with Kelly. I am sure she is sincere when she denounces it now. We all learn and grow and better ourselves.  However, this was not that long ago, and people are largely quick to forget when they are distracted by things that do not really matter.

“i’m still standing” – elton john (1983)

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This past week has been a real emotional rollercoaster. Some highs, some lows.  So, this blog post may be all over the map today.  And that happens.  It is OK. Not every entry will be strong or necessarily cohesive.  So, I’m treating this week as if it is a diary about my weekend.

Late Thursday night, on Valentine’s Day, a close friend from the community radio station I volunteer at passed away unexpectedly.  As of this writing, there is no known cause.  She was someone I admired because she was always full of joy and lived life in a way where she did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.  She did not give a damn.  I deal with anxiety more than I would like to admit, so I always saw her as an inspiration for the way one should feel about themselves and the life they live.  I was devastated when I got the news because it was not something anyone saw coming.  I’m still processing it.

All Sunday morning, I was feeling rather moody. It is February and that is the worst month.  I know January gets a lot of flak for being terrible, but it is nowhere near as terrible as February.  February is colder, snowier, wetter, and just generally miserable.  The earliest signs of spring are just a few weeks away and February just exists to test one’s patience.  For being the shortest month, it feels like the longest.

Sunday was also a day where I had some social commitments.  I didn’t feel like going, but I felt compelled to do so. And I’m glad I did.

First stop was to meet friends from my book club for a social gathering at a German bar in Logan Square that is closing called the Radler, a place where beer comes in boots and you can hammer nails into stumps.  I started feeling better.  Maybe it was the beer, but I really enjoyed the warmth and positivity I was feeling around me.  The energy felt fantastic.

After that, I walked about a mile through the snow to get to a friend’s place.  He’s a guy who used to work with me at this terrible non-profit when I first moved to Chicago.  We made some vegan pasta and just chilled listening to music.  First was an EP of tropical disco tracks that were just amazing jams.  Then, we moved on to Led Zeppelin’s untitled record (typically Led Zeppelin IV) before moving onto Led Zeppelin III. It was a very primal and masculine experience. We rocked out and chatted and got our stuff to go out that evening, two warriors ready to conquer the night.

We went to a bar where a friend from the radio station was DJing, playing a mix of all women and women-identified artists.  It was a very different atmosphere and energy from the one I just left.  My buddy and I just chilled and listened to the music.  It was a rather feminine vibe, but the emotion behind the music was warm.  The energy was soothing.  I talked with my friend DJing about life and missing our friend we just lost a few days earlier.

After a while, my buddy got bored and said we should hit up a nearby arcade bar.  I said sure.  However, I was not feeling the energy when we got there.  Lots of noise, plus my buddy was just working the crowd to get laid.  It felt very weird being there as I just wanted to chill and didn’t want to play games or hit on women.  So, I split and went back to see my friend continue her DJ set.

I sat there listening to the music until a friend of the DJ came and talked to me.  He was an anxious guy who seemed troubled by something.  He was asking me very deep and personal questions about me such as how I find happiness and why do I drink alcohol.  I just kept telling him that happiness comes from within and that everything is fine and that we were all there to chill and relax.  I’ve got my problems too, but I was really feeling good where I was.

After some time, I left and ordered a Lyft.  On my way back home, I spoke to a beautiful woman who was sharing the car with me.  We talked about our evenings and her studying psychology.  It was such a lovely conversation.  When the car arrived at my apartment, I turned to her said “I hope you find joy wherever you’re going” and we shook hands.

Monday, I spent time with myself.  Cleaned my apartment, made a healthy lunch, and walked around a few different neighborhoods killing time until I met with friends to play trivia.  The friend who passed away was also friends with one of my trivia partners.  We talked about that and what we appreciated about her.  I didn’t stay long.  The trivia was being held at a new venue and it was loud and disorganized.  So, I went back home to read and finish planning my vacation for next month.

On Friday, my dad came to town to visit.  I had tickets to see Elton John perform during his final tour, Farewell Yellow Brick Road. I went with two close friends.  The concert was fantastic! Elton performed well and I heard all the songs I wanted to hear.  My friend had just passed the night before, so a concert sounded like a nice way to distract myself.  Especially a concert that was a farewell tour where memories and lessons were talked about with wisdom and nostalgia.

The song I had to hear the most was “I’m Still Standing.” I wasn’t sure he would play it, but he did play it before the encore with the video screen playing clips from Elton John’s many performances and pop culture cameos.  Released as a single in 1983 from the album Too Low for Zero, the song is about Elton still maintaining relevancy as his career entered the 1980s.

When I was talking to my friend during her DJ set, we talked about how we felt about our friend passing.  I told her I was upset and that I was processing. She told me it hadn’t hit her yet but anticipated when it will.  I told her that we were still alive and the best thing to do was to continue living our lives the best way we can.  We were survivors, and we should find joy in that.  I find joy in that.  I’m still standing.

“any other way” – jackie shane (1963)

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This past Sunday, the Grammys aired much to the delight or dismay to millions of people.  Depending on who you were rooting for, the Grammys either validated your taste in the latest musical trends or served as a reminder that the famed musical institution is out of touch.  I do not remember the last time I watched the Grammys nor, considering all the relevancy jokes lobbed at the awards ceremony I’ve seen in various pop culture reference over the last three decades, should I feel any need to.  All award shows are always the same.  Sometimes deserving people win, and sometimes they don’t.  That being said, while I did not watch the ceremony, there was only one award I cared about this year.

Since discovering Numero Group for myself in a small college town in Kentucky, I have been amazed by the left of craft and detail they exhibit with every release.  When I was doing college radio from the mid- to late-2000s, I had an underwriting deal with the only record store in town.  In exchange for running a spot on the top of each hour of my two hour long show every Sunday from 10 PM to midnight, I got one free disc of my choice.  And I almost always chose a Numero Group release.

I played so much from the labels Eccentric Soul series.  The Eccentric Soul series were curated CDs, either one or two discs, that compiled rare or unheard material from soul musicians curated specifically centering on a specific artist, geographical area, or regional record label.   Not only was the music incredibly amazing, but the rarity of the music was really cool too.  No one I knew was playing this music.

Through the years I was in college radio, I amassed a whole collection of Numero Group releases (all but one of them is gone after a roommate with sticky fingers took advantage of me).  Since I left college, the label has expanded into other genres.  As much as I revered them for focusing on soul music, and felt they should stick with that, it made sense for them to expand and broaden their audience.  However, their soul music will always what I associate the label with.

So, back to the Grammys! This year, Numero Group had a compilation that was nominated.  In the category for “Best Historical Album,” Numero Group was competing for the famous gramophone statuette for what has become one of their best releases to date.  That compilation, Any Other Way, is a two-disc celebration of one of the great soul pioneers, Jackie Shane.

Who is Jackie Shane?  Prepare to be amazed and delighted.  In the 1960s, if you were in Toronto and wanted to see one of the bets nightclub acts in the city, you would for sure find you way to see Jackie Shane, a black transgender singer who disappeared in the early 1970s.  While many believed that she had die, the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced an audio documentary about the mysterious soul singer, and she started to earn revived following.  In recognition of her pioneering talent, she is even featured on a massive 20-story mural in Toronto depicting influential musicians.

In 2014, Numero Group was able to track down Shane who was now living in Nashville.  Through that outreach, she was able to collaborate with Numero Group for the 2017 compilation Any Other Way, which featured a collection of live and studio recordings from Shane. Prior to this compilation, Shane only released one album, Jackie Shane Live in 1967, and only a handful of singles during the mid-60s on labels such as Sue Records Inc., Stop, Star Shot, Caravan, and Modern Records.

In the notes for Any Other Way, Shane talks about her music career, working with Joe Tex, and reactions to her identity.  Dressed in feminine attire, Shane was just seen as a gay black man.  During performances, in between songs, Shane would play the role of a preacher with the audience as the congregation, with monologues about her identity and the state of sexual politics.  Not only did Shane make amazing music, but she championed her identity during a time when not only there really wasn’t a word for her identity but could also result in violence against her.

Ultimately, Shane left her music career behind in the early 1970s.  Her mother’s husband died, and she stopped pursuing music to take care of her.  However, there was more to it.  The whole push and pull of the industry ultimately left Shane exhausted.  SO, she resided to live a life of quiet until Numero Group came knocking, and she finally earned the recognition she absolutely deserved.

Unfortunately, Any Other Way did not win the Grammy for “Best Historical Album.”  Instead, the award went to Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris, an incredible set compiling sounds and images from people who worked forms in his community.  Voices of Mississippi is worthy of the award for its commitment to tell forgotten stories, although I believe the gender politics of the 1960s America exhibited in Any Other Way adds a significance that is less visible.  Oh well, a Grammy is just a statue, right?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Any Other Way.  Since this blog is focused on an album, I’ll spotlight the title track “Any Other Way,” a soulful, melancholy song initially released in 1963 about broken hearts and saying goodbye. Typical soul music tropes but consider the story behind it.  Sometimes, the person behind song can elevate the music.

“ted, just admit it…” – jane’s addiction (1988)

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During last week’s polar vortex, like the rest of Chicago, I stayed inside practically the entire time.  While my younger self loved snow days where I could do nothing but stay inside, play video games, and watch television, doing that now is a little more difficult for me.  While I had friends who stayed inside for up to 72 hours and got a little stir crazy as a result, I couldn’t even last a day (I went outside for five minutes to help push a car, but I would’ve gone out for another reason like going to the store). I think with living in a major city where I’m used to walking everywhere, plus the fact my I live in a small apartment, it is easier to get a touch of cabin fever than if I were living in the suburbs or a big house. Regardless, I tried to pass the time and got caught up on some Netflix.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, then you know that Netflix released a four-part documentary series called Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. In the series, the life and crimes of Ted Bundy are documented and analyzed through interviews, archive footage, and audio tape from the infamous serial killer himself. It seems that everyone was watching this series based on the number of social media posts and think pieces about the personality of Bundy I saw.  Combine that with the fact the series dropped the sane week as a trailer for a film about Bundy starring Zac Efron. For the first time since his death thirty years ago, people were buzzing about Bundy.

I had barely turned a year old when Bundy was put to death by electric chair in a Florida prison.  Later, I would learn who he was and that he was such a bad guy.  However, it wasn’t until I watched this series that I learned about the media spectacle that surrounded Bundy that turned into a fully-fledged phenomenon, one that was a reflection of the American psyche during dismal period of the 1970s followed by the excess of the 1980s.  Here was a guy that brought the term “serial killer” into the American lexicon, and during a time where the visual medium of television could sensationalize events on a scale that were very uncommon for media prior.

Watching this series, I could not believe the buzz that surrounded Bundy. Living through society in a post-Bundy world, it was so difficult to imagine for a convicted serial murderer could be his own defense lawyer, have women lusting after him, escape prison twice, garner more attention on his looks and education than his crimes, and still generate a media circus years after being convicted. It was absolutely mind boggling. Have this case happened now, any commentary about how handsome Bundy was would be drowned out by condemning editorials that would ignore due process and utilize social media to damn Bundy in the court of public opinion. It was a clear sign of the times that I would never have believed because it seemed so unfathomable.

And in some way, that buzz still is not over. Netflix issues statements that they were just generally weirded out by people posting comments admiring Bundy after they had watched the documentary. At least people in the 1970s had some excuse being that Bundy was not convicted or even admitted to the crimes yet. Thirty years after his conviction, confession, and execution, Bundy’s unibrow still manages to appeal to some dark aspect of the human psyche finds the power of murder quite attractive.  That’s a whole level of psychological analysis that I have no credibility to analyze of discuss other than to think that is just generally weird.  I cannot even begin to understand how the Bundy media circus reflected American society a generation ago, let alone rationalize it in modern times.

A year prior to Bundy’s execution, Jane’s Addiction released their first major-label studio album Nothing’s Shocking in 1988.  Featuring some archival audio from Bundy himself, “Ted, Just Admit It…” is less a call to action for Bundy and more of a scathing critique on sensationalist media.  Running nearly seven and a half minutes, this slow bass heavy song, Perry Farrell sings how the media frequently captures and broadcasts violent and sexual imagery to the point where society is desensitized to.  So much so that sex and violence converge to encompass a single act, a reflection of the lust people can have for power and serves as a reflection that we, as a society, are no longer affected by shocking violence.  Farrell sings that the news is just another show with sex and violence.

Beyond the points the song makes, I need to make clear about the type of sex that the song profiles. Very few cultural experts would argue that Americans would prefer violence over sex in their media consumption. America is frankly a puritanical country where sex is debated constantly.  From discussions about sex education in school, the sale and distribution of pornography, and sexual consent between adults of different genders and orientations, it can seem like sex is a serious taboo in American culture.  Not entirely true as there is a distinction in the type of sex.  Purely erotic, joyful, and consensual sex is challenged in all levels of our society while sex of a violent nature is pervasive.  If you don’t believe me, flip through your television channels or skim the titles on any streaming service.  You’ll find more examples of creative content that center on violent sex, specifically violent sex against women, than you will find where women, or other marginalized groups, engage in positive and joyous sex.

While the Netflix series of Bundy was entertaining and educational, I left the experience a bit disturbed about the pervasiveness of violent sex in our culture based on the sexual admiration many people had for Bundy.  Frankly, it reflects our culture’s values where we’re generally oaky with violence, really in any form. It is indicative of a misalignment of our values. I know that most people will see content like this Bundy series and see it for what it is, but too much time and bandwidth is spent sensationalizing the negative and violent reactions that it skews reality. And that is how our news, and media coverage, can be as violent as any narrative programming.

“earth song” – michael jackson (1995)

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I am sitting in my warm, cozy studio apartment in Chicago while the temperature outside continues to drop.  This week, Chicago is experiencing a string of days with below zero temperatures to the point of creating safety concerns for its residents and millions of other people outside of the city limits.  On one of those days, there is the possibility that the extreme cold will shatter several records including the coldest high temperature on record in Chicago.  Many businesses are closing, and warming centers are doing their best to promote their services to minimize that devastation such cold can bring.  I even temporarily disrupted my mail service and bought groceries in advance, so I didn’t have to subject some delivery driver to the brutal chill for the sake of my own convenience.

The extreme cold is forcing me to stay inside for several days without the need to leave my apartment.  That is situation I am not really accustomed to as I do enjoy getting out and walking around, if only for a few minutes.  However, as my weekly commitments such as my music class and volunteer shift get cancelled, I take it as a sign to just tough it out and enjoy the solitude and hiss of my radiator heat.

Though, getting cabin fever is not the only thing I have thought about concerning the weather.  Extreme cold like this comes around ever few years.  I remember the last polar vortices in 2013 and 2014 when a half inch of ice formed on the side of my window because the temperature differences between outside and inside were so vast.  These kinds of cold spells are an inconvenience, but they were the type of problem that only came about every few years.  Now, they happen with more frequency and intensity.

What concerns me most about this weather is that it is indicative of our environmental crisis.  What is proving to be the largest humanitarian issue in recent history, that has contributed to horrendous situations like the Syrian refugee crisis and more devastating hurricanes, climate change is an undeniable threat.

By nature, I am not a doomsday kind of person.  However, I don’t carry the same level of confidence I typically have when it comes to the matter of climate change. I feel this way because I think we have missed multiple opportunities to save this planet but are now left with the increasingly abysmal effects of climate change.  Through humanity’s greed and inability to come up with a solution that is not centered around profit, we have failed future generations who will inherit this planet.

I cannot stand the opinion that the extreme weather conditions currently moving across the U.S. are not a reflection of poor environmental policy.  It is a level of ignorance, and perhaps maliciousness in some cases, that I do not care to hear or entertain.  With all the evidence that exists about the serious threat climate change poses, I cannot help but think that actively dismissing it signifies one’s complicit attitude towards the deaths attributed to natural and environmental disasters. I am feeling so angry as I type this.

As I look out the window, I know that people will die.  Major cold fronts have occurred and will continue to do so, but there is a larger systemic issue at hand; one that will result in stronger and more frequent weather phenomenon and which also ignores how the most vulnerable and marginalized of society will be affected.  Libraries are a wonderful institution because they serve as a shelter to those who need it.  However, they do close.  The people who rely on them will have to leave, and a few may never return.

Released on the studio album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I in 1995, “Earth Song” is Michael Jackson’s first song to specifically address the issues facing our environment.  After a string of social conscious singles, the lyrics and music video for “Earth Song” paints a stunning portrait of the devastation our planet has and will continue to face unless major environmental policies are enacted.  What I like about this song is that it specifically calls out the effects of humanity’s greed.  It is a song that requires you to look into the mirror and understand that silence on the matter is death.

The U.S. government opened this week after the financial shutdown ended on Friday.  For over a month, various regulatory commissions and institutions were unable to carry out their duties.  We are expected to see an increase in foodborne illnesses.  Intruders trashed and wreaked havoc across multiple state parks.  The president joked about the cold asking for global warming to come back. If our government cannot run effectively, then it fails as an institution and government interference and cooperation is the only way to enact environmental policies with actual results.  However, with bullshit issues like border security, our leaders put people at risk when it comes to issues that really matter.  Issues that are proving to be deadly, costly, and irreversible.

“new song” – howard jones (1983)

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I want to preface this blog entry by stating that this will not address, comment, or analyze any one specific event that has happened in the recent days, weeks, or months.  Rather, the point behind this blog entry is to appeal, on a more general level, to a sense of rationality that has increasingly been missing in our cultural dialogue in recent years.  This is primarily due to foreign active measures that have, in the last few years, aimed to divide people within this country through misinformation and deception.  As we currently face an existential crisis in this country, I have actively worked to maintain beliefs that do not further that divide.  Criticism of this may call me a centrist or someone committed to establishment principles, but that viewpoint is narrow-minded.  As much as I want radical change that challenges our deeply rooted intrinsic and extrinsic systemic principles, I also firmly believe that now is not the time for such radical principles as they will further create a rift within this country.  One that may be impossible to bridge if it becomes too wide.  Instead, we must hit reset to return things to a sense of normalcy, where rules and traditions are valued, and then work to change the systemic problems within the establishment this country has historically know.  And the first step to doing that is through nuance.

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a friend and colleague from the community radio station I volunteered with challenged the notion of misinformation as it relates to “call out culture,” a set of patterns and behaviors using social media to shed light on and amplify a specific person or group.  While social media, and the internet as a whole, has been a wonderful tool in uniting people, bringing power to the marginalized, and spreads useful information faster than mediums before it, it has also been utilized as a weapon to spread misinformation and foster distrust.

This friend published a book in 2017, a collection of feminist mantras that over the course of a year allow readers to embrace feminist principles in deeply meaningful and personal ways.  That book has expanded into a larger project involving podcasts, road trips to meet with feminist leaders, and so much more.

One of the negative aspects of out call ouR culture is that online digital mobs react to information on social media that violates their principles and, as a result, their response is more amplified and vitriolic than if they were to address the same issue in-person or within their own communities.  Calling out, addressing, and stopping problematic behavior online is essential to achieve progress for all people, but we must remember that social media is not altruistic.  It is not a moralistic entity.  It is amoral.  Whatever you put in, you get out.

That is how misinformation can be spread so effectively through all the different channels by agents whose goals are to further divides within their targets.  Quite simply, millions of people will cause damage as a result of baseless rumors, lies, and accusations with only minimum evidence, or the appearance of evidence, that validates their prejudices, belief systems, and biases.

Since America is currently facing an existential crisis, it is important to understand that you cannot believe everything you see online.  Instead of acting on impulse, you must, as my friend put it, find the nuance.  Sure, we live in reality, and some people do awful things.  However, people will also do normal things that, through the lens of social media, can be manipulated to reflect a consequence not originally intended.

In her mantra of finding the nuance, she says

a challenge to all of us to take time to seek and understand the details of reality before succumbing to Twitter’s endless hot takes. This work isn’t easy, but I see it as so politically important and necessarily feminist in the way it promotes transparency, honesty, and empathy. What’s one thing you can pause and look a little closer at this week? Maybe it’s a current event or maybe it’s just a way you’re thinking about your own life/self that needs reexamining. Find the nuance, take a breath in those contradictions, we’re better for recognizing them.

I know this isn’t easy.  We live in an age where we want everything, and we want it now.  However, until we get the Russian agents out of the White House, we do need a return to the status quo until we can work on real radical change that challenges the systemic issues within the establishment.  And the first step is to maintain healthy skepticism and finding the nuance.

“New Song” was the debut single from Howard Jones.  Released in 1983 off his 1984 debut studio album Human’s Lib, “New Song” is about having the patience to understand the nuance of our social issues.  Jones sings about not being fooled by what you see and hear and calls for people to challenge their preconceived ideas and longstanding fears.  By seeing both sides and throwing off your mental chains, Jones sings that you can breakaway from the cynical people who try to doom your path to progress.

“New Song” is about not accepting things at face value.  In the age of misinformation, this principle is incredibly important.  It is practically an ideal we need to hold sacred.  Sure, you cannot stop from reacting at something at face value.  That’s only natural. However, keep yourself open to the idea there may be more than meets the eye.  Especially during a time where our institutions are being challenged for their authenticity.

“mo ti mo” – king sunny adé and his african beats (1983)

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While everyone is out seeing the big blockbusters and films from the Oscars’ shortlist, it seems these days the only movies I go see are obscure and generally confusing to most people.  I’m not sure exactly why I go see these movies.  Maybe it is for the camp factor.  Or even just for the curiosity.  Or perhaps even the scarcity of the screening itself.  Does it really matter?  All I am saying is that I seem to spend money for the experience of seeing some esoteric bullshit.

Monday was no exception when I went to the Music Box Theatre to see the lost Robert Altman teen comedy O.C. and Stiggs.  Altman is a major name in the world of New Hollywood cinema having directed such great titles such as MASH, Nashville, and Short Cuts.  In addition to his making films with an aesthetic that highly stylized and satirical, he was also a maverick as a director in the sense that he was difficult to work with in the sense that he became anti-Hollywood during the 1980s.  It was during this era that he directed O.C. and Stiggs.

O.C. and Stiggs is a teen comedy about two trouble-making high schoolers who plot to prank an upper-middle class suburban family they despise in their hometown of Phoenix. Though it was shot in 1983 and finished production in 1984, it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1987. The initial concept of O.C. and Stiggs was developed by the National Lampoon and meant to capitalize on the trend of teen comedies that had seen a boost of popularity a few years earlier with titles such as Animal House.

Not much is known about the film since it was a critical bomb and Altman’s least commercially successful movie having only earned $29,000+ at the box office.  Though somehow, in the film’s development, Altman was attached to direct and that is when the initial concept changed during the course of production.

While the film was intended to be a true teen comedy, Altman had the plan to derail the original vision and turn it into a parody of the teen comedy genre.  With appearances from notable talent such as Dennis Hopper and Melvin Van Peebles, plus early appearances of talent like Cynthia Nixon, O.C. and Stiggs is a bizarre examination of teenage mischief through the lens of Altman’s satirical take on the American culture of guns, capitalism, and freedom.

The Music Box Theatre was almost packed to see this obscure title. It was quite a strange experience.  The film does not age well with numerous sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic jokes and a style that obviously comes off as parody, even if that wasn’t evident to the studio and distributors at the time.  While I have seen movies of a worse quality than O.C. and Stiggs, it still stands out as one of my strangest viewing experiences.  I think with other bad movies, I sense an earnestness from the director and their thinking they were making something truly wonderful (i.e. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room).  With Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs, this was parody without irony which is something you don’t see much of.

The only thing that has stuck with me from the experience of seeing the film was the music.  In the film, the two leads are obsessed with King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, a Nigerian jùjú band.  Only two tracks were contributed to the film.  One was an original composition called “O.C. and Stiggs” which had an instrumental that appears frequently throughout the film and plays in its entirety over the ending credits.  Unfortunately, that track has never been released.  While it does appear on YouTube, I cannot include it in my blog as the focus track since it has never been officially released outside of the film.  So, for this purpose, I’ll focus on the other track that appeared in the film.

During one of the big pranks O.C. and Stiggs play on the town, they interrupt a local play production so King Sunny Adé’ & His African Beats can play a concert after being swindled by a promoter in Mexico.  They perform “Mo Ti Mo,” from their 1983 studio album Syncro System, in its entirety with everyone in the place dancing and jumping around and forgetting that they were supposed to see a play.  In an otherwise odd scene, the performance was fantastic (studio and film versions below).

I never have to see O.C. and Stiggs again.  I’m glad I saw it, but now it enters my long list of films I saw because of curiosity and scarcity.  You don’t need to see it as well.  But do check out King Sunny Adé & His African Beats.

“i don’t want to set the world on fire” – the ink spots (1941)

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It is said that January is the hardest month for people.  It follows the holidays, is typically the coldest, and is way too long.  In Chicago, January is when winter really kicks in with unbelievably cold temperatures.  January, with February coming in at a close second, makes Chicago a little unbearable.  So, I find ways to relax.

I’m a busy guy and I don’t relax much over the holidays.  I don’t believe that many people actually do feel rested up during the holidays.  There sometimes is a lot of travel involved and family can be a bit much to handle sometimes.  I always feel like I need a holiday from the holidays.  So, I try to make my January as relaxing as possible.  Both with regards to dealing with the weather and to get some me time.

When I was younger, I used to watch a lot of television and play a ton of video games.  They were just my hobbies.  However, I have new hobbies now.  I still watch some television, but I play video games very rarely.

The last few years, I have used January as a time to rewatch beloved shows that have since ended.  Last year, I marathoned Breaking Bad for its 10th anniversary.  I could not think of any shows I felt compelled to repeat, so I turned to my other former love.  I turned on my Xbox 360.

I remember purchasing Fallout 3 in 2010 after a friend’s recommendation.  I was never really into RPGs because I didn’t care for the turn-based gameplay that most of those types of games adhere to.  When I was told there was a real-time combat system, one that involved more than just pressing a button or two, I decided I would go for it.  And I loved it!

The open world, the scary creatures and environments, and the futuristic retro aesthetic really appealed to me.  Fallout 3 quickly became one of my favorite video games.  Since I was a recent college graduate and only working part-time, I had lots of free time over the summer to explore the Capital Wasteland! It was fantastic.

Fallout 3 is a massive video game with potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay.  Given the scope of the game, plus having recently moved to Chicago and focusing on finding work, I knew it wouldn’t be a game I would return to frequently.  I was also transitioning to a point a of my life, due to finances and apartment size, where video games were becomingly less and less of a priority.  It would be awhile before returned to the post-apocalyptic hellscape.

It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2014 when I returned to Fallout 3 and replayed it in its entirety.  I was nursing a breakup and didn’t have much going on, so Fallout 3 was a great escape.  It was amazing how I still remembered so much from the game, but was still left surprised by things I had forgotten or had not discovered before.  The second time through, it was still one of my favorites.

Now, in January 2019, I have returned to the ruins of Washington, D.C. for a third time.  Instead of catching up on a show, I have been revisiting Fallout 3 for the third time.  As I am playing through it, I have been taking a different strategy.  I’m exploring more than I had previously and am dedicating myself to more side missions.  I really want to get as much of an experience as I can because I don’t know when I’ll play it again.  Could be five years.  Could be ten.  Could be never.

Part of the reason why I’m getting more in-depth with it is because I’m missing out on the recent activity of the Fallout franchise.  I don’t really buy video games anymore, so I don’t have the latest system.  While everyone else has been exploring the reaches of Fallout 4 and Fallout ’76, I am being considerably more retro with my decade old game. And I am fine with that.  Maybe one day, when the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One is several generations old, I’ll purchase one used for $50, along with a used copy of Fallout 4 for $10, and see what I missed out on.  Maybe.

One of the signature qualities of the game is the music.  There are built in radio frequencies that you can tune into that each have their own characteristics.  And the music is featured in the game, and in the advertising, almost like a character itself.

While John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been the new featured tune because of the recent release of Fallout ’76, it doesn’t hold a candle to the legacy of its most iconic soundtrack choice.  Written in 1938 by Bennie Benjamin, Eddie Durham, Sol Marcus, and Eddie Seiler, the 1941 rendition of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots has become that song’s official anthem.  I remember seeing the first trailer for Fallout 3 when a radio turns on playing the song as the camera backs out of rusted out bus to reveal a nuclear devastated landscape and a Brotherhood of Steel paladin looking towards the camera saying “War…war never changes.”  Cue hairs on neck standing.

I have heard that the song has been included in Fallout 4, but it will forever bring about images of a ruined Washington, D.C. with mutants, raiders, and a shadow government running amok.  And I’ll be there, as the lone survivor, to bring peace.