Playlist: Aug 24 – Aug 30: Back to School











This week’s playlist:

For a good portion of the country, this week and last week has seen children of all ages heading back to school.  For many of us parents, it’s a bittersweet moment (“Finally, reasonable bedtimes!”  “Aw, no more nights at the ballgame.”) and a transitional one.  I hope for kids from Kindergarten to college it’s an exciting time.  In my home on the first day, James was out of bed at 6:20am – dressed in under two minutes – and asking if it was time to go to school yet.

So what happened between the excitement of first grade and when these school kids grew up and started writing songs?  Except for Jack White’s quaint evocation of elementary-school friendship (and CSNY’s more general “Teach your Children”), the songs in this week’s playlist get progressively darker and more complicated.  Was high school really as bad as Patty Griffin portrays it?  For “Tony,” obviously – and sadly – it was, devastatingly so.  Of course, we all have to grow and change and face life as we move from elementary into middle school, and we cannot pretend that angst isn’t a daily presence in high school and even for some into college.  And it’s not our jobs as parents to always shelter our kids from that angst and those growing pains; but it always makes me sad when I hear someone say they hated school.  (Okay, yes, everyone hated middle school; it’s the one universal life anomaly.)  So even though Steely Dan intone at the playlist’s end that they’re never going back to “My Old School”, we parents might need to go back in our minds to when school was an autumn idyll and hope it can be for our children for as many years as possible.

Apologies for that soap-box for this week’s playlist, but the beginning of the school year for me as a parent always holds a little anxiety and the hope that the spark that makes a six year old jump out of bed for the first day of school will not burn out.

“We’re Going to be Friends” & “Teach Your Children”

Of course these two songs are going to be the rosiest of the bunch.  It surprises me that “We’re Going to be Friends” is so unique: there are very few songs painting such a picture of childhood from the eyes of the child – but written by an adult for an adult audience, because I don’t think anyone would ever mistake Jack White or the White Stripes as children’s music. That type of narrative stance – that is, the adult author using the first-person point of a view of a child – is more common in literature.  The rarity in songwriting makes it such a compelling song.  Of “Teach your Children” though, I have little to say.  At its core, it’s a pretty unremarkable song, except that it turns the imperative around asking children to teach their parents: child is the father to the man, I suppose.  Still, the song has entered our cannon, ultimately for the better, I think.

“The Second Grade Applauds “

Shamefully, no Scott Miller (leader of the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family) song will enter the cannon, at least probably not in my lifetime – and his premature death in April of last year means not in his lifetime either.  This remembrance in The Guardian and this one in Spin show the respect that the musical world had for Miller’s music and his writing.  As the Spin obituary alludes to, Miller was a highly intellectual songwriter and expected the same of his listeners.  He dumbed down nothing  (ref. “Cortex the Killer” : “I’m out in front of awful weather /Trying to hold together air that barely clings /My empire and any autumn day / are getting thought of as different things / Stained clothes cleaned with agitation / Lush earth scorched with expectation”).  Which makes “The Second Grade Applauds” a challenging song to decipher.  Yes, I know that it’s not about being a second-grader.  But what is it about?  Any ideas?

Little Joe says, “Tired of ropin’ steers”
Branding and fencing off the years
Spirit warriors dance out from the pines
Dance on the graves of our designs

Give me ground rules
You know I’ll obey
Go quietly down my resume
But all I want now is to throw it away
To see the second grade applaud all day
To see the second grade applaud all day

Causal virtue, actions neatly chained
Rule-driven heartbreak unexplained
Slips in mid-step, glass across the floor
Fine china lives to be no more

And we can’t run the film the wrong way
A thousand pieces to a glass on a tray
But it would be worth any price I could pay
To see the second grade applaud all day
To see the second grade applaud all day

“The Saturday Boy” & “Thirteen”

Oh, the challenges of being an adolescent boy.  Billy Bragg’s “The Saturday Boy” is spot-on: call it a gross generalization, but in middle school the girls all seemed much older and more mature, and we boys were helpless in trying to understand their “magic mystery,” in our desire to experience some sort of closeness we only had a visceral knowledge of.  And so much of boyhood adolescence – or at least my experience – is unrequited, even when we try desperately to make that connection.  At least in “Thirteen” there’s the sense that something is going right.  But more important than the romantic situation of the narrator in Alex Chilton’s song is the natural feel of the song – of many of these songs, actually.  When it comes to recalling school days – be it Jack White’s sentimental view of childhood, or Bragg’s bitterness at unrequited love, or Chilton’s incessant requests – these songwriters create songs that feel natural, unforced, and never watered down.  As if these experiences of fidelity and love are so important to life’s education that there can be no going through the motions when crafting songs about those experiences.

“Don’t Stand so Close to Me” & “Tony”

I had to choose at least one obvious school song, and rather than go down the Pink Floyd/The Wall road and its trite refrains, I chose a more sinister one.  I don’t know what it says about us that “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” was so well-received as a song, because contextually, it’s about as untouchable as any subject in the public domain.  Lolita, to which the song refers, never saw the success that “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” did.  Of course, the character of Lola in Nabokov’s novel isn’t exactly complicit in the nefariousness, unlike the the schoolgirl in The Police’s song.  And perhaps beyond the teacher/student indiscretion is the larger theme of a type of longing and lust that is taboo in society; the story is as old as Romeo & Juliet, probably older still.  Teen suicide – or the reporting of it – on the other hand, seems to be a new prevalence.  The link between social media and teen suicide is strong, and public awareness of it has increased in recent years.  Not that Patty Griffin was ahead of her time in 1998, but the candidness with which she told Tony’s story seemed novel, particularly in the Americana genre that she was lumped in.  It’s a brutally honest song, with lyrics like “they wrote it the local rag / death comes to the local fag” that don’t allow for any gray area; there’s no hiding behind some screen of veiled lyrics.  Songs like this cut to the quick; while listening to “Tony” this time – the first time since my children have grown out of diapers and have started to show their unique personalities – I couldn’t help crying, out of fear of the sadness they might one day face.  No one should ever have to feel so desperate and isolated.

“Graduation Day”

So let’s graduate from high school and drive some Pacific Coast highway with Chris Isaak.  Isaak to me is the quintessential Californian songwriter, as the reverb-heavy guitar evokes a rocky coast and Santa Ana breezes.  I wonder if Isaak would have been taken more seriously without that syrupy crooner voice of his.

“Campus” & “My Old School”

Finally we get to college and beyond, from two bands who are to me the torchholders of all things college.  How many Steely Dan songs mention universities and the college days?  Every one, right?  Give or take a few?  Even those that don’t mention university life directly evoke the feeling of university days or the thrill of post-graduate youth.  Ditto Vampire Weekend, who thirty years after Steely Dan manage to evoke that same twentysomething feeling to later generations.  In putting this playlist together I thought I could choose any Vampire Weekend song from their debut, because in my mind every song was about college life.  Not true, apparently, but their adherence to a New England of prep schools and designer clothing reeks of ivy-covered brick and maple-lined quads, even when they are singing of the Khyber Pass over West African rhythms.  The band’s most recent album, their third, has gracefully moved beyond the college years – naturally, as the band members were recent graduates upon the release of their debut; five years later, they’re removed from that, and their music has grown into new thematic lands.  Steely Dan, conversely, seem never to have grown beyond their university days, so that even when Donald Fagen sings that he’s never going back to his old school, you take that with a grain of salt; Steely Dan will be back in their next song evoking their college days, students gearing up for another school year, in perpetuity.