“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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“the stand” – the alarm (1983)

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On Saturday night, I made my way to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago to volunteer for a concert tabling gig on behalf of a local community radio station. All of these tabling assignments are virtually the same. Supplies get picked up at the station, displayed at the venue, and then distributed to patrons as they hear about the station promoting the event. One big perk is that you can catch the show as a guest. Sometimes, it’ll be someone I’m remotely aware of enough to want to see them. Most of the time, however, I don’t know anything about the artist.

This event was one of the latter. Performing was Mike Peters, the leader singer of The Alarm. The Alarm. Where have I heard that before? Why does that name ring a tiny little bell within the deep recesses of my mind? My tabling partner was the emcee introducing the artist, so she was doing some Wikipedia research on Peters and his band. She is going over details like years the band was active, singles, and what bands Peters would play with over his career (such as Big Country since 2011). A few items were striking me as abstractly familiar, but nothing concrete.

After she introduced Peters, we made our way towards the back of the 200+ seat theater with our bags and Three Floyds. Peters had just finished a song before we arrived and was in the middle of telling a story. He was introducing his next song. I missed the first half of the story since I was settling down into my seat. He was saying that the band was forced to busk outside of a church, and that was when they played this song. He joked that not only did they look like a punk band protesting, but they looked like a Christian punk band protesting. It was then that he launched into an acoustic version of “The Stand.”

As he is powering through the harmonica intro, the little bell at the back of my head was ringing louder. I squinted at Peters and concentrated on the song. When he came to the thunderous chorus and belted out “come on down and meet your maker,” I experienced my aha moment. I leaned over to my partner saying “I know this one!” I had just spent an hour with her before the show saying I didn’t know anything about this band other than managing to spill out the title of a single (“The Spirit of ‘76” and more on that later).

I kept thinking whether or not “The Stand” was one of the Alarm’s bigger songs. I kept thinking about Peters’ decision to play it as the second song. I’ve since read it is one of their more iconic tracks, but why so early in the set? Regardless of the answer, I was pumped that I knew a song that early. I felt energized and incredibly focused during the rest of his 2+ hour set. Every single song after that was unknown to me, but I loved his energy and his amazing stories such as embarrassing himself in front of Johnny Rotten, using a urinal troth with the Clash, and opening for U2 during their career-defining Red Rocks show. For being a man who came of age in the-1970s, he displayed a youthful lust for life. It was contagious. I would’ve stood up to dance if it didn’t mean I would annoy everyone else in the small theater (everyone was seated).

So, back to “The Spirit of ’76.” When my partner was researching Peters, I managed to spit out that track. I don’t know where I knew it, but it was something I had locked away. She asked me what it meant. I had no idea what the reference to 1976 meant in the context of the song. Being the goofy American that I am, it has been programmed in me that 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial. Or ‘76 could’ve meant another century. Though, I’m sure the Welsh-born Peters didn’t have America’s year of independence in mind when he wrote the song. She asked if it referred to some kind of historical plane. As it turns out, the song was about Peters hearing punk music for the first time. It was 1976 when he first experienced punk when he saw the Sex Pistols live. From then, Peters had a dream to be Wales’ first punk artist. Now, that made a lot more sense and I felt really silly grabbing at thin air trying to ascertain what the song meant. I try not to look stupid in front of strong, beautiful women but it happens to all of us sometimes.

“The Stand” is a perfect song for me. Politically charged and forcefully driven, it conjures a strong sense of rebellion. I’ve listened to it dozens of times since Saturday. I cannot get enough. I’m not one for nostalgia, but the song makes me wish I was living in the UK during the big punk explosion. The passion! The filth! The fury! It was all there. The track is large with soaring backing vocals and a call to arms. This kind of music inspires something deep inside of me. It is simple and succinct in its musical arrangement and message. That was a magical show for me. It blended the unknown and familiar in a way that was invigorating. Perfect music at the perfect moment in time.

“total eclipse” – klaus nomi (1981)

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When I started this blog a few months ago, my main focus was to shine a light on songs I felt did not get enough attention. These could be songs that were once popular and have since fell from the public consciousness, or were never commercially successful al all. With each song, my posts tend to gravitate between an analysis of the track itself to feelings from listening to it. Lately, it seems my selections have been lesser known tracks from relatively well-known artists. I don’t think I’ve spent much time discussing obscure artists that have had significant impacts on modern music.

Klaus Nomi, a German born countertenor, was an early discover for me in college. I remember the first time I saw his likeness. He was parodied as one of David Bowie’s bodyguards in the [adult swim] cartoon show The Venture Brothers. I felt the show was extremely layered with offbeat references and I am the type of person who will investigate when I am unfamiliar with a reference. From there, I was an instant fan.

The brief cameo in The Venture Brothers was a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of Bowie’s performances on Saturday Night Live. Bowie performed “The Man Who Sold the World” and “TVC 15” with Nomi serving as one of his backup singers. Standing behind this monolith of popular music was a strange-looking man with striking white makeup and pointy black hair. During that performance, Bowie was sporting an oversized, broad-shouldered vinyl tuxedo that would become part of Nomi’s iconic image. Unfortunately, that performance on Saturday Night Live would be Nomi’s only exposure to a widespread American audience.

For me, Nomi’s signature track is “Total Eclipse.” After witnessing an electric performance on the 1981 post-punk concert film Urgh! A Music War, Nomi was a significant standout performance among an already impressive roster of performers including the Police, the Cramps, Gary Numan, and the Go-Gos. With what sounds like deep synthesized thunder, “Total Eclipse” immediately starts with a fiery intensity. The tracks features a deeply dark melodic synthesizer with a punky rhythm guitar that evokes an impending moody darkness. The pulsating rhythms and driving energy of the musical arrangement evokes a sense of danger as we feel the world turn cold as the sun is being eclipsed.

Though the music is interesting and very danceable, it sounds generic and tame compared to the operatic bravado behind Nomi’s vocals. Nomi’s voice is an instrument in itself and immediately elevates any song from mediocrity to a stunning example of the breadth of post-punk and genre blending. Nomi expresses considerable range in the track. With each verse, his German heritage becomes quite obvious as he casually sings with pep. It sounds quite similar to the vocal phrasing on much of Kraftwerk’s discography. However, it is during the chorus that Nomi perfectly shows off his vocal talent. His voice projects several octaves higher as he belts out that it is a total eclipse that you can’t come to grips with. Even pushing his range further, he closes each chorus with oscillating pitch changes that prove the seemingly easy command he has over his voice. Blending his operatic training with the underground alternative music of the era, Nomi beautifully crafts his own niche in contemporary music. His is a style that is not easily imitated.

Nomi’s career didn’t last long. Only releasing two albums during his lifetime, Nomi was one of the first musicians to die from complications related to AIDs. “Total Eclipse” from his first album was only released two years before his death. Since then, Nomi has become an icon for both his physical and musical styles. Popular musicians such as Morrissey have cited him as inspirations for their careers.

Despite his popularity among post-punk fans and musicians, I feel Nomi will never get his due beyond being known as the odd-looking gentleman standing behind David Bowie. I feel a lot of musicians are afraid to take risks these days, so they don’t bring themselves to the sound. They let the sound define them. Klaus perfectly applied his own unique talents to his music and I respect him for that. He did exactly what he wanted before there was a total eclipse on his life.

“damn dog” – robin johnson (1980)

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One of the finest pleasures anyone can experience are those few, rare moments where it feels like you’re the center of the universe; when everything has aligned perfectly and you can live free and uninhibited. I love these moments because I can forget everything else such as the mundane aspects of life like bills and work. It is within these wild moments of individual self-expression that we truly feel free, alive, and completely ourselves.

Two years ago, I picked up a double-LP soundtrack for a movie called “Times Square.” Two punk girls dominated the cover with a small image of Tim Curry appearing from the corner. I looked at the track listing and I was blown away. Talking Heads, Gary Numan, Roxy Music, Suzi Quatro, Joe Jackson, The Ramones, XTC, and more! It looked like a solid compilation of post-punk exuberance. And it was only $1.99.

I love this record and I listen to it frequently. Though there was an abundance of amazing tracks by recognizable artists, a few were unfamiliar to me. There were a few tracks by someone named Robin Johnson. Just who was this Robin Johnson”? Were they a he or a she? Was this someone from a band? What else has this person done? Upon listening, it turns out Robin Johnson was a gruff punk rock girl with a sexy. rough and tumble voice. As I researched “Times Square,” it turns out her tracks “You’re Daughter Is One” and “Damn Dog” were original songs for the film. Alright, I have to see this movie now!

Roughly a year later, I found a copy of the movie. It is fairly obscure and only one rental store in Chicago had a copy, an art-house theater that also boasted the largest rental library in the country. Tim Curry was the only star of the film, but he maintained his role supporting two young female leads, Trini Alvarado & Robin Johnson. The story follows Alvarado’s character, a daughter of a local New York politician. She’s been going through teenage anxieties on top of the scrutiny of being a politician’s daughter. Like all teenagers, she needs an escape. She runs away and ends up meeting Johnson, who plays a kickass punk street urchin. Johnson’s character lives in an abandoned warehouse, steals food and clothes, and suffers from depression. Despite coming from two different worlds, they become inseparable. Alvarado learns to let her insecurities go and becomes more wild, and Johnson finds the love and support that has been missing from her life. Alvarado supports Johnson’s dream of becoming a singer for a rock band and, with the help of Tim Curry playing a local rock DJ, the story of these two punk rock runaways takes New York.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the film, it apparently is a regular addition in many LGBT film festivals. The film has strong allusions to the girls being romantically linked. Apparently, there was more footage shot that emphasized the lesbian relationship, but that was left out of the final cut. However, it is still every apparent that “Times Square” is a teenage rock ‘n’ roll lesbian love story with awesome music to boot.

“Damn Dog” is one of a few original songs that appears on the soundtrack. In the movie, this is Johnson’s swan song; the one that validates her talent and serves as her ultimate form of self-expression and the inner peace that comes as a result. The track is fiery and the passion of Johnson’s gruff voice accentuates the anti-authority power of the song. I believe this song is a way for Johnson’s character to express affection and her insatiable lust and desires. For me, it serves as the romantic bond between Alvarado and herself. She see what she wants and it looks delicious. Beware because this bitch bites!

The movie is ok, but worth checking out. Unfortunately, it is one of those instances where the soundtrack overshadows the films. Though, I’m glad I experienced both. “Times Square” has a great story that teaches you to find what you want and to fight all the way for it. For those moments of pure oneness, they come so few if even at all.

Check out both versions!

Soundtrack version:

Movie version:

“class historian” – broncho (2014)

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As I get older, the more I believe in the adage of “everything old is new again.” It is a concept that is often paired with nostalgia, though the two can exist separately. You see this everywhere you turn. Fashion, music, television.  They all have it. I sometimes find myself frustrated by the lack of innovation and experimentation.  Boredom sets in and your mind craves a challenge.

I went through this last summer. Rock, pop, soul, and everything else in front of me was boring me. Everything I was hearing was just becoming noise.  Static amongst the static.  I tried listening to other genres to cleanse my contemporary Western-influenced rock music palette.  I engaged in various native folk, acid jazz, and most of Phillip Glass’ discography.  I wondered what was going to save me from the monotony.  I’ve since regressed back and enjoy the standards again, but I still find myself occasionally bored with the musical landscape because of its repetitive nature. However, sometimes you can relish in the irony of a mood.

In the middle of this weird phase, I first heard “Class Historian” by BRONCHO. When I heard the song open with its signature repetitive “du, du, du” refrain, I was floored.  This song was exactly what I was rebelling against, but I could not help myself.  The simplicity of its throwback style was just too cool and has since stood out as one of my favorite songs of 2014.

Everything about the recording and presentation of “Class Historian” is an exercise in nostalgia.  BRONCHO is a modern Indie rock band but model themselves after the DIY punk and new wave bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s.   The music tracks feature an unpolished, driving guitar that sounds like it was recorded in a garage.  Additional guitars paint a sonic dreamscape that lie underneath the pulsing rhythm of the lead guitar.  Imagine early INXS with some ironic undertones.

The vocals are a treat as well.  The “du, du, du” refrain adds a playful humor and mysticism that accentuate the dreamy theme.  The words are slightly distorted with an echo that adds a hazy aura over the whole song.  Ryan Lindsey’s mumbling singing style features sharp increases in pitch that add to this as well.  Much of what he is singing is hard to understand and the pitch change creates a jarring effect as if you are trying to fight falling asleep.  It almost seems purposeful in order to surround the lyrics in mystery. The vocals and music combine to create a complete dream experience.

I am so happy I found this song when I did because it is truly phenomenal.  It serves as a clever throwback to older musical styles while establishing its own independence as contemporary rock.  Sure, our society and culture is fraught in stagnation.  However, there are consistent elements that seem to transcend time and space and influence all types of musical genres.  What is now a clever homage to a particular time has the potential to blossom into something new and exciting.  BRONCHO is a very new and very young band.  If they can continue their path of resurrecting styles while crafting their own niche, I see many good things in their future.