The Beach Boys, "Don't Worry Baby" (LJ)
I was walking to work the weird way, on a Wednesday, past the houses with the purple flowers and the park with the little rock climbing wall. The wall is pale and made of stone and I always think, “One day I should come here and lay the back of my head against it.” I would pile up my hair on top of my head. I think the stone would feel cool against the back of my neck.
I was listening to Endless Summer and Don’t Worry Baby came on. I thought about how on the Astro Poets Twitter that morning they’d written a list of “Zodiac signs as Clueless characters,” and the whole thing was so bang on except for my Zodiac sign, Cancer, was Mr. Hall— lame— and I took it weirdly personally. I thought that if I were going to write a list of “Zodiac signs as Beach Boys songs” I would write Don’t Worry Baby as Cancer and felt vindicated by my decision. Sometimes Cancers get a good thing.
Don’t Worry Baby is my favourite Beach Boys song and also the most beautiful. That sentence feels redundant to write down because I can’t imagine any person disagreeing with me, at least not with the second part of the sentence: “Don’t Worry Baby is not a beautiful song!”— that’s wrong. It is a beautiful song.
Tonight I want to write about this song like nobody’s ever heard of it before, like it’s a cool new thing I’m telling you about, this new and beautiful thing that I’m the first person ever to have heard of.
Every time I listen to Don’t Worry Baby that’s how it makes me feel: like I’m the first person ever to realize how beautiful it is, and like all the past versions of me who heard it and figured out it was beautiful have been erased too.
It starts off with a bang with the sentence: “Well it’s been building up inside of me for oh I don’t know how long.” “That’s how I feel too!” I think, every time, “That is the first time anyone has ever accurately expressed the way I feel.”
(When I was a teenager and listened to Don’t Worry Baby on a cassette tape in my bedroom I would write a story in my head about bring grown up and something bad would happen to me and I’d come home to the apartment I imagined I’d live in with the man who lived there and he was in love with me and he’d play me Don’t Worry Baby to perk me up and it would fix things. What I didn’t realize when I was a teenager was that I would grow up to be a rude woman who that sort of gesture wouldn’t work on. In real life if some man tried to solve my problem with Don’t Worry Baby I would fume and say, “How could you think you could fix it all with a song?”)
Next it switches to a line where he starts to brag about his car— I like that part because it locks the song in time. The band were starting to evolve and write songs about life instead of surfing or drag-racing but they still felt as though they owed it to their fans to throw a drag-racing into a song that doesn’t want to be about drag-racing. And I like that he feels guilty for bragging about his car. I like that he’s afraid he’s fucked things up. I relate to him again.
For my entire life up until one week ago I thought the drag-racing plotline of the song ended with that lyric, and I only figured out about another drag-racing lyric in this song right now, actual right now, sitting on my bedroom floor at 1 AM next to a trashbag in an apartment I’m about to be moving out of. I am drinking a glass of Muscadet and the floor smells gross because it’s a carpet and the toilet overflowed two nights ago.
“She makes me come alive, and makes me want to cry,” I thought he was singing, like he felt so strongly toward her that it reduced him to tears, but—
NO! He says: She makes him want to drive!
He’s so into driving, this guy. The entire song is about driving. I had to go upstairs and pour myself another splash of wine, soon as I figured that out. I read the lyrics in the part of the Apple Music app where you swipe down and it shows you the lyrics. I can’t believe how much about driving this song is. It’s probably the most beautiful song about driving on Earth.
Last week, on the day with the purple flowers, I didn’t know about all the driving stuff yet. I just thought it was a regular song about loving somebody.
I turned the corner next to a red-brick house and it got to the part I like best. The man singing sings, “And if you knew how much I love you baby, nothing could go wrong with you”: but he’s not saying it, he’s repeating what the girl said.
I have always loved that lyric. I think it’s a particularly lovely way to say something that a million people have already said. “What a non-boring way to say that you love someone,” it makes me think. Like your love is a spell cast for protection.
On this particular day, I had a very strange reaction to hearing that lyric, a reaction I was surprised by; I surprised myself. I heard it and thought, “That’s exactly how I feel about every single person I know!”
I flashed through a series of photo-flashcards printed with pictures of every person I know’s face and went through them and nodded, “Yup. Yup. Yup.” It wasn’t just people at the forefront of my life that I know I love and care about. It was also, like, weird peripheral co-workers, people who’d eaten at my restaurant recently, the guy who works at the store. The guy from TouchBistro tech support I had to call the other day.
I felt overwhelmed and all-consumed by an immense and intense amount of love. It upset me to think that they all don’t know I love them. It was like the time George Harrison said, “With our love, we could save the world. If they only knew…”
If they only knew!
It’s not the same night anymore; it’s a different night. Now the part of the story that used to be the present— when I got up to pour myself another splash of wine because I found out she made him want to drive— has become the past, and the present is me sitting at a cute bar drinking a purple-colour beer called Mood Ring. My hands stink of laundry detergent because I spilled laundry detergent on my hands.
The part when I’m walking in the sun by the purple flowers is so long ago that I can’t remember it anymore, but that’s the day I’m supposed to be writing about, because that was the day I realized that I’d been procrastinating figuring out what he’s saying in the lyric that precedes “And if you knew how much I loved you…” for, you know, about fifteen years. Maybe closer to twenty.
Here is what I imagined he might be saying: “She told me baby when you wushalaylalayla all my love with you.” I knew he wasn’t saying that. I knew wushalaylalayla wasn’t a thing. But I always forgot to look up what wushalaylalayla was instead of being wushalaylalayla, because then the part about “If you knew how much I loved you baby…” would come on, and I’d get so cuted out and distracted by it. Like seeing a little puppy on the street in the middle of writing a work email, getting up to stratch its ears, and then never finishing the work email. Ever.
“She told me ‘Baby, when you race today, just take along my love with you,’” is how the song goes. It’s another driving thing! It’s the prettiest driving thing. I was so happy to find out that the sentence ends “along my love with you” and not “all my love with you.” “All my love” is so basic compared to “along my love.” Take along my love with you. Those are such strange syllables to gulp up. Take along my love… with you. I don’t want to fantasize about someone playing me Don’t Worry Baby to cheer me up; I want to fantasize about living in a world where Don’t Worry Baby didn’t exist, and I’m about to run a race, and somebody says that sentence to me. I wish I’m the man from Don’t Worry Baby, and then I write Don’t Worry Baby about my girlfriend who says weird sentences. “Take along my love with you.” Just take it along.
The morning after the Muscadet, the plumber came. It was Summer Solstice, and I sat in my backyard listening to Don’t Worry Baby on my phone, and as I went to go inside, I heard someone else start listening to Don’t Worry Baby in an adjacent backyard, evidently inspired by me— what a happening! I imagined, for a moment, that the backyard-stranger was hearing Don’t Worry Baby for the first time in her life when I played it just then, and that she’d then ‘Shazam-ed’ it, and she was only the third person of all time ever to find out about it. First was me, and second was the Shazam guy.
The Ethiopians, “Engine 54” (LJ)
The Ethiopians are my favourite band. That’s a lie. My favourite band is The Beatles. The Ethiopians are my second-favourite band, but that’s not what the algorithm thinks. The algorithm is like, “There’s no way that’s true.” The algorithm knows The Ethiopians are my favourite band, because The Ethiopians are pretty much the only band I listen to, not counting those couple of days last week when I listened to Don’t Worry Baby seventy-five times a day for two days. But I definitely didn’t stop listening to The Ethiopians during Don’t Worry Baby era. I just listened to more music, at more times, to make up for the Ethiopians deficit it triggered.
The Ethiopians are from Jamaica in the nineteen-sixties. I think they self-identified as being a ska act, but I count them more as being rocksteady in my head. Sometimes I find it difficult to designate ska from rocksteady but other day I read this tweet saying that “Ska is the sound of a thirteen year old boy realizing he is about to get more mozzarella sticks,” which is disrespectful to ska, but apt nevertheless. There’s a song by the Ethiopians called “Train to Skaville,” but it doesn’t sound like the mozzarella sticks sound. It’s so beautiful. All the great Ethiopians songs are about trains, taking a train to somewhere. Taking a train around Jamaica.
When I listen to Ethiopians songs about trains, I don’t think about trains. I imagine that I am in a hut on a beach, and the Ethiopians are in the next room over, recording their song. I imagine myself with my ear up against the wall and in my head I can smell the wet wood of the wall. All their recordings sound a little bit faraway.
“Train to Skaville” is useful to me because it is the song I listen to when I am in a phase of depriving myself of “Engine 54,” which is something I have to do from time to time. I am an anxious and high-strung person, and listening “Engine 54” is the most effective and immediate antidote to anxiety I have found. It is so much cheaper than therapy.
When I feel anxious, I think of myself as an X-ray fish. I can feel and see my skeleton lit up with energy inside of me. I feel like the flickering filament of a lightbulb, hot with its own crazy juice. It is necessary for that filament to be on fire, but it’s bad to be the filament. You have to cool yourself down and turn into the light that radiates off of it. Cool light.
“Engine 54” does that; it makes me into cool white light. I wish I could write down a list of every time listening to “Engine 54” has saved my life in the past year, but it would be so long and dull, and I can’t even remember. I’m always freaking out about something— now, when it happens, I don’t even mind. I know what to do:
Put my phone on airplane mode, stop moving, sit on a curb and listen to “Engine 54” and either smoke a cigarette or breathe. Usually cigarette. Or, sometimes I don’t even make it that far. Sometimes I’m using the restroom at an establishment I’ve popped into on my way to walking to work, and I can’t even make it long enough to get outside the restroom to begin the “Engine 54” part of my day. I need it now!
The rest of the lyrics to the song are equally uncomplicated. It is a list of all the stops the train makes on its journey round Jamaica. They don’t even bother starting the proper lyrics to the song until the song is halfway through.
The train leaves from Kingston, and then goes to a place called Spanish Town, by the wall— and then it goes to Montego Bay. My favourite part of the song used to be when they sing about Montego Bay, but now I prefer Spanish Town.
After Montego Bay, the train goes to Portland, then back to Kingston. Then the song is over. A simple and easy story.
Sometimes, when I know I have something stressful to do on the horizon, I will— like I said— purposely and purposefully withhold myself from listening to this song, accumulating its potential power for a period of time so that I can unleash it upon an extra-stressful situation in three weeks from now, or whatever. In such situations, I use “Train to Skaville” as a placeholder. It’s not as good.
Spoon, “June's Foreign Spell” (Liz)
I think Britt Daniel wrote “June's Foreign Spell” about the record industry or something, but to me it sounds like when you work all week and then get to Saturday and it's a total ripoff: one of those worst-case-scenario summer days that's gray sky and hotter than hell, and the air's so heavy it makes your hair feel like a large cat curled up on your head and took a nap. And the weather's being so passive-aggressive, so deeply pass-agg, it never even bothers to storm. You don't even get the fun or drama of a 4 o'clock thunderstorm with some razzle-dazzle lightning and the kind of over-the-top thunder that makes you feel like a five-year-old, like a dumb little baby who doesn't understand yet that scary noises can't hurt you. The whole day just drags and mostly you hate everything, but there's also a little satisfaction in being denied your perfect summer day - some residual moody-teen thing of taking pleasure in new proof that the whole world's against you. That's exactly what “June's Foreign Spell” sounds like to me: something like sulking but slightly more thrilling and active, although not fiery enough to be a full-on tantrum. It's radical moping, basking in the unfairness of losing out on some glory or magnificence you'd imagined for yourself, but was never truly promised to you in the first place.
Anyway, here's a playlist of other summer moping songs, because it's important not to waste even the stupidest of energies. These are a few of the songs on that playlist:
-“Perfume-V” by Pavement. I want this song to be about a guy who's caught in some bad-news affair-type thing with a girl who's got a boyfriend, about their late-afternoon rendezvous-ing in her gross apartment, the kind of apartment you have when you're about 22, where you make a coffee table out of milk crates and duct-tape tapestries to the windows instead of hanging curtains. But I was reading things on the internet and apparently the general consensus is that Stephen Malkmus wrote “Perfume-V” about murdering a sex worker- which, okay, maybe he did. But I don't care what Stephen Malkmus wrote it about! I care about Stephen Malkmus's inner life exactly zero percent. Stephen Malkmus is there to write his hot/drab guitar parts and to slant-rhyme Like a docent's lisp with Like a damsel's spit, and the rest of the picture you just color in yourself.
-“Calm E” by Culture Abuse. Last week I listened to an interview with a writer for the New Yorker who talked about how, if you're trying to make it as a writer, it's helpful to get a rich husband and have your dad pay your phone bill. And that's probably true but to me it seems like a bad point to make, and also kind of tacky. I love Culture Abuse's new album Bay Dream cuz it sounds like the opposite of getting your dad to pay your phone bill so you can write for the New Yorker; it sounds like the album equivalent of a zine you'd make when you're 19 or 20 or 33, fantastically ramshackle but elegant where it counts. Ramshackle/elegant is the most unstoppable dynamic.
-“Drag Queen” by The Strokes & “Out of the Blue” by Julian Casablancas. I liked it so much when everyone was mad at Julian Casablancas for saying he doesn't get why Ariel Pink isn't wildly popular, in that Vulture interview from a few months back. I scrolled past all the bores getting worked up about some whatever-y bullshit, and then I Insta-storied a pic of Julian with the words I LIKE YOU, JULES typed in all caps. In truth, I love Jules, with his acne and his weight fluctuations and his bonkers fashion sense, like a clip I just saw of him playing a recent show wearing a Canadian flag T-shirt and goddamn suspenders. What a jerk! He's perfect. The bassline to “Drag Queen” makes my molars hurt, but exquisitely so.
-“My Curse” by The Afghan Whigs. “My Curse” is one of those songs you need to listen to very sparingly, so you can preserve its ability to completely destroy you. Like how when Extraordinary Machine came out I burned myself a copy that excluded “Parting Gift” because I couldn't deal with it, especially the part that says It is my fault, you see, you never learned that much from me. And then years later “Parting Gift” came on in a cafe and it was such a beautiful surprise, such a transcendent moment of having my heart shattered on the floor of some bougie coffee place in Los Feliz. A little while ago I read a thing in Spin where Greg Dulli talks about how he had Marcy Mays do the vocals on “My Curse” because the song needed to be sung by a woman, which is so wise. You totally need a woman to sing the word hyssop, and to drag out the word me on You look like me/And I look like no one else - although one time when I was 18 and riding home from a party off-campus, the drunk and hot boy in the passenger's seat sang the hell out of that line, and that was pretty gorgeous too.
-“Coming Down Again” by The Rolling Stones. “Coming Down Again” is on Goats Head Soup, which is the quintessential summer-moping album. It's so listless and languid and lethargic, but with a cool/disgusting veneer of sleaze superimposed onto everything. You can't listen to Goats Head Soup and not instantly transform into an irredeemable dirtbag; the first notes of “Dancing with Mr. D” just automatically sap you of all respectability. But then it's so sweet, like when Mick gets all Van Morrison-y on “Winter,” which I wrote a short story about six summers ago. And “100 Years Ago,” which always reminds me of the kind of story I want to write forever: exorbitantly romantic, nostalgia-addled, heavily focused on cheap wine and constellations.
But yeah: “Coming Down Again” falls on a nice warm place on the sweet/sleazy continuum, with a dollop of self-pity to really drive it all home. It feels like drinking whiskey on the floor of an AC-less bedroom on the hottest day of the year, and then switching to some sort of shitty beer after a while, because drinking whiskey all day will make you mean (and people attuned to the Goats Head Soup way of things absolutely understand how to achieve the ideal drunkness texture). It could be argued that the Rolling Stones are indifferent to your temperament or emotional character - but I'd prefer to think they want you to be sweet, even when everything feels gross and terrible.