1. Deep Dish– Ani DiFranco
If I ever find myself in a pinch for a good bar scene in a piece of writing, I get liberal inspiration from this song.
Cold and drizzly night
in Chicago’s Deep Dish
Flourescent light of the bathroom
shows my hands as they are
See an eyelash on my cheek,
pick it off and make a wish
and walk back out into the bar
I find it impossible to listen to this song and not have it flicker through my mind with a cast of the familiar, down to the doorman lighting a cigarette. I love the horns, the change-ups and the steady drum beat. It may be one of the less guitar-centric Ani DiFranco songs, although there is a great blast of it at the end.
Little Plastic Castle has a bit of a different personality than other Ani DiFranco albums. In common music journalistic lore, we find her at the point where she wandered a little farther away from the political and more into the personal, though I’ve seen plenty of both in the albums predating and coming after LPC. However, this is the album where I came in, and perhaps my view is not the most complete. I tend to prefer the more personal songs, but then I keep my soapbox stashed only until necessary. The frequency at which I find a good fist-shake necessary has waned over the years. My concentration has shifted. Some would accuse me of complacency, maybe, but I don’t think that’s true. While I may prefer a story of all the motions in emotion, I still appreciate that Ani DiFranco’s still out fighting the good fight, even if I can’t be arsed to do it myself.
My very first encounter with Ani was in a Rolling Stone Q&A. The generous bramble of dark brown curls with the popular mid-90s dash of blonde near the face and a clavicle tattoo caught my attention. I’d heard of her before, but did not know much about her. The article mentioned how she had previously dated women, but at the time was on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents. The not-quite-fully-realized equal opportunist within appreciated reading that acknowledgment as something very legitimate. Ten-plus years later, I still hardly ever see romantic equal opportunity treated as anything beyond a transition or a phase, and it’s a maddening topic about which I could go on at length. She was (and still is) funny, serious about her music and forever wanting to improve at it. Above all, I had a very strong gut feeling that the music would move me. I cut out that article, hung it on my wall, and mentally filed away her name as an artist I needed to acquire.
I listened to LPC in Missoula, back when Future Shop occupied the Best Buy space and Reserve Street had a quarter of the development it does now. They had it at a listening station, and maybe I had no money or had spent it all earlier at Rockin’ Rudy’s (Yes, I’m noting the irony that I listened to such an indie artist at a chain store and not at the local place that day). For whatever reason, I did not buy the album and also had to pass on Paolo Hewitt’s Oasis biography, Getting High, at the Barnes & Noble next door. I eventually acquired the album, as I mentioned in the letter B, when my grandma bought me it and The Verve’s Urban Hymns while visiting.
Each song on the album is a set scene, though they do not necessarily relate to one another. I don’t often see songs in a cinematic way — usually I have all emotion and when it is very big and very good, I have an urge to find that feeling as it relates to something else I’m plodding through on paper — but Little Plastic Castle may as well be a series of short films. “Deep Dish” happens to be one of the best. “I raise a toast to all I see, each so badly behaved.”
2. Down So Long — Jewel
I love the pedal steel and a good slide guitar. I’m not a country music fan in the conventional sense (more on that in the letter E), but some of my favorite songs from alt-country to Tiger Army use the pedal steel sound. “Down So Long” has too big of a pop streak down the middle of it to really be considered alt-country, but it definitely rides the line.
Jewel is one of those artists who has sold millions upon millions of records, yet you still feel like you have to defend liking anything by her. With that abhorrent “Intuition” song and subsequent fourth album, even I’ve lost interest in anything new she does. In the beginning, I came to her as most girls around my age did. We were teenagers in search of a little love and a little hope, wondering if there was any great meaning to who we were and how best to articulate it. While Jewel is not the most insightful songwriter ever, she’s a very digestible one. Her weaknesses are on display and that can be very refreshing and appealing.
The song wonders if it’s possible to ever feel like you’ve really got it all together. After what seems like an eternity of setbacks, how much higher do you really get with each small success? And what happens when you’re considered a big success? “Different situation, different problems,” as they say — We always have something we need to deal with no matter the day.
One of the things I like best about “Down So Long” is how easy it is for me to sing along. My range is not too high and not super low, and if I were a better singer, I’d probably have the lilt of old country in my voice and go perform somewhere. Another life, maybe.
3. D’yer Wanna Be a Spaceman? — Oasis
“Oh my God, we are never going to hear the end of this song!” We were distressed. Amanda and I, along with a friend at the time who was temporarily “Mad fer it,” had watched the Live By the Sea VHS. (We had also dubbed ourselves cassettes by hooking up the stereo speakers to the TV at Amanda’s mother’s house, which was an improvement over my method of taping Unplugged — nearby boombox set to record with TV turned up full blast .) In it, Noel Gallagher has his usual few songs he sings himself. During the first round of the chorus, Noel sings, “And we can talk and find common ground, and we can just forget about... Well, I fucked that one right up.” He’s forgotten the words, and with a shrug, he says, “Well, that’s the end of that, then,” and her launches into “Sad Song” ...where he nearly drops the guitar. Prime fightin’ form, that.
We needed to hear the rest of the song. Amanda went about trying to order the “Shakermaker” single, but for whatever reason (and maybe she will remember better than I will), she had difficulty ordering it. It was a long time before we heard the song, and I didn’t have it for myself until the advent of Napster (sorry, but this band has definitely received plenty of my money aside from what I’ve downloaded – And Amanda has bought those singles more than once, so let’s call it even.)
“D’yer Wanna Be a Spaceman?” is an optimistic song about reconnecting with a long lost idea after the derailment of life. “All the dream stealers are lying in wait/ but if you wanna be a spaceman/it’s still not too late” — Amanda had that as her high school senior quote, and it’s an apt one for eighteen year old kids going out into the world. “You know what one thing I always wanted to do but never did?” will come out of people’s mouths more often than it really should, I think. We get so caught up in the time and effort it takes to do things “right” — be it going to a school like our parents want, finding a job that is just bearable enough so we can pay the bills, or whatever “practical” thing we must do — that we never put the effort into that “one thing.” We lose ourselves a little along the way. Now, of course most of us can’t just chuck everything and go live in a shack or that inspiring big city to write The Next Great American Novel (or insert your dream here). I’m not saluting irresponsibility, and neither is this song. “It’s all right/ Who’re you and me to say what’s wrong or what’s right?/ Do you still feel like me?”
That’s the important question — Do you still have the urge to do something? It’s never too late to make a go of it, even if all we can carve out in attempt only feels like half a step each day. Even then, we still show our motivation, and this song reminds us that we don’t have to forget.
4. Drag King Bar — Bitch & Animal
The first time I saw Ani DiFranco live, I had just moved to Missoula in the fall of 2001. Bitch & Animal, Righteous Babe labelmates, opened the gig at Adams Center. I’m not sure many attending had ever heard of them, and I certainly didn’t know what to expect. Two women burst onto the stage with hand drums, a ukulele, a violin and a bass guitar, rapping and singing about sex toys in their opening number, “Best Cock on the Block.” From there, they went on to talk about having “eggs” (instead of “balls”) to do something mighty (As in “That took eggs to tell that customer off like that!”), becoming unconventional crowd pleasers. They have their serious songs too, but the funny ones hooked the audience and saved them from being performance artist Ani knock-offs.
“Drag King Bar” is a lot of fun — it’s sort of “Turkey in the Straw” meets The L Word.
Then he used that line that works every time—
He said, “Hey, is this seat taken?”
I said no,
He said, “Let’s go,”
I said, “Where?”
“I don’t care, I’m a Scorpio. Take me home right now.”
The song has hand claps! Who doesn’t love a good hand clap, foot-stomp sing-along? Tyson and I used to sing along to this song every time we drove to Great Falls and back, complete with steering wheel drumming. It became sort of an odd good luck charm for the road, and now that I’ve considered that, I notice that our road trip car troubles seem to correlate to not playing the song. So here’s the real question: Which is the greater risk — Grace repeating the naughty bits or a broken car? Maybe we have to start playing it again, once she’s fallen asleep. Can’t hurt, right?
5. Dear Jessie — Madonna
Here I go with the symphony again, and once again I’m a sucker for the big production. I can’t help it. If I were a record producer, I’d blow the budget on too many additional studio musicians and spend too much time tinkering with them on the soundboard.
We always entertained the thought of choreographing something for this song in dance class but never quite got it together. It just cries out for what should be the Marlena-patented jump. Those of you who took dance with me know exactly the signature jump I’m talking about. I could give you the French technical terms, except the downside to being casually self-taught is that we forgot the names, if we ever learned them at all. Show us anything and we’d learn it well. Ask us to perform specific moves all in the third position, and we’d stare a bit blankly. I didn’t retain much more than plié and arabesque, but I can still do that jump.
I know, how is it possible to love a song talking about pink elephants, rainbows, lines like “sugar plum fingertips kissing your honey lips” and not be 5 years old? I suppose a lot of us were around that age when the song came out, but I never heard the song until middle school. The animated video did not get a lot of play in the US. The song is very much a children’s story, very cute and very innocent. It’s not so far removed from“Like a Prayer.” Both are about finding happiness and comfort, though one’s definitely the adult version. They’re both big productions with interesting videos.
While music this sweet all the time would get old quick, you’d never catch Madonna doing something like “Dear Jessie” now and that’s too bad. To paraphrase something I read once, I think I liked her better when she was a Catholic from Detroit.
Honorable Mention: Debra — Beck
The lines “I met you at JC Penny” and “Lady, step inside my Hyundai” are reasons enough to love this song. It’s easily the funniest “slow jam” I’ve ever heard, complete with the “Girl...” spoken word bit in the middle. The entire Midnite Vultures album is one great making-breakfast-on-your-day-off dance party.