1. United States of Whatever — Sifl & Olly
You gotta hear this song. Really. Trot off to YouTube right now. I’m just not sure I can do the song justice without you having heard it. The song’s only two minutes long. Go on. I’ll wait.
Are you back? Are you laughing? Are you all “Yeeahhh... Whatever” ?
Then I’m throwin’ dice in the alley
Officer Leroy comes up and he’s like,
“Hey I thought I told you....”
And I’m like, “Yeah, whatever!
For a brief time, MTV devoted airtime to sock puppets who spent their half hour talking and singing about everything from ninjas to pandas to being “crescent fresh.” Kristen and I got endless enjoyment from it, referencing it years after the show was canceled. I can’t see the word tangerine without mentally singing Chester’s part in their song “Tangerine.”
Tangerine! Got some cereal in my pocket
Tangerine! I can’t wait to make you nauseous
It’s just so ridiculous that it’s awesome. One of the creators tried releasing “United States of Whatever” under his own name a few years after Sifl and Olly. I saw the video once on TRL, but it wasn’t the same. I’m not sure the TRL audience quite got it, and besides, it’s much funnier coming from sock puppets. Go spend some more time tracking down the show on YouTube (after reading the rest of this letter, of course). Hilarity ensues.
2. Unsent — Alanis Morissette
“If I ever end up with another person named John, you have permission to shoot me,” I said to my friend Amy. We were fifteen and eating in the cafeteria. Whatever we had been discussing had brought me to the sudden realization that guys with that name and I were never meant to be. I hesitate to use specific names with specific situations — tossing a bone of privacy their way, whether they deserve it or not — but take my word for it. In fact, the whole letter J seemed doomed. The next year, ignoring the memory of that lunch and all that led to it, I fell face first into adoration with someone who had Amy giving me a deserved look. “Remember, you said I could shoot you,” she said.
Dear Jonathan, I liked you too much.
I used to be attracted to boys who would lie to me
and think solely about themselves
Doom. So, so much doom. Total nuclear sabotage amounts of doom resulted. Thankfully, Amy did not act on my words, and I lived to learn very important lessons about being fair to other people. We all lied and we all were selfish in our own ways. What could center around a name has never left me since.
“Unsent” takes a look at past relationships, a letter to each person that has the benefit of perspective. Alanis sings about what she learned from each of them, getting it all out in a positive and straightforward tone. They had faults, she had faults, but each relationship had value in its own way. I don’t know if she assigns the real names to the different men she mentions, but the specificity makes me think about my past and what I would say. By coincidence, she and I have more than one name that overlap, and one section of lines could be pulled straight from my brain:
We learned so much
I realize we won’t be able to talk for some time
and I understand that as I do you
The long distance thing was the hardest and we did as well as we could
We were together during a very tumultuous time in our lives
Much like putting a personal song on an album anyone can buy, consider this my not-so-unsent apology. I could have been better, and I should have let go long before we did.
3. Underneath the Sky — Oasis
When I was a kid, I started out thinking I would be an artist, the painting variety, complete with easel and beret. Then I discovered I wasn’t particularly good at it. Then I thought, Dance! That is, up until the point I realized dancers are mainly background players and I wouldn’t have any of that. Fashion design held my interest from the age of 8 until 12, which is when I hit middle school art and sewing classes. I discovered that not only was my drawing no good, but I couldn’t sew either. In fact, sewing machines had a tendency to need exorcisms as soon as I touched them. In retaliation, they seemed to transfer some sort of plague onto me because I managed to be out sick for at least three days, right about the time I really started to struggle with my assigned project. Fashion design just wasn’t meant to be, and now I’m lucky if I buy more than one new shirt in a year. I’m wearing a t-shirt I’ve had since the age of sixteen right now, and the shirt is almost older than I am.
However, through every doomed career aspiration, I wrote stories. At three years old, I found it frustrating that my hands were not coordinated enough to write down my ideas. Even once I learned how to use a pencil, it seemed like too much trouble, so I taught myself to type using a primitive version of those vTech toys kids use today. When I could, I’d have my dad drag out one of the old typewriters, preferably the one with the correction feature. I’d work away at stories about the dogs, my Barbies, or even the occasional outer space trip. The days in school that the teacher would assign a big writing project, some kids would groan, and I’d think, “Thank God we’re not doing math.” Why writing never seemed like a career option until 13, I don’t know. I suppose at that age, my family finally owned a computer, and it became that much easier to work. Of anything that has ever held my interest, writing has always felt the most natural. I’m forever working on my skills, and I feel like a hack most of the time, but it’s the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I realized I could be good at it.
Of all the professions I entertained, besides their creativity, they shared a theme of self-sufficiency. No one had to teach me unless I wanted it. Yes, schooling adds to the learning experience, but beyond learning the basics, school was a supplement, not the key. No one could take away my imagination, tutting, “Nuh-uh-uh! Not until you get that degree!” Creativity, for all its free forms, offers an amazing amount of control. I can be collaborative or disappear — there are no program requirements. I read what I want, learn what I want, and listen to what I think is necessary.
Underneath the sky of red
is a storyteller sleeping alone
He has no face and he has no name
and his whereabouts are sort of unknown
“Underneath the Sky” found its way to me around the same time I started writing with the rest of my life in mind. It ended Side A of a B-side mixtape, until it cut off before the last line of the chorus, and I’d have to flip over to the next side to hear the whole thing. “All he needs is his life in a suitcase/It belongs to a friend of a friend” caught my attention as a great jumping-off point for storytelling, and though I’ve never used it as a prompt, it would get me thinking. For me, the song encapsulates that headlong jump into the unknown, looking to see what happens next. I hear an adventurous spirit that I need to remind myself to maintain.
So wish me away to an unknown place
Am I living in a land with no name
I’ll be making a start with a brand new heart
Stop me making sense once again
I’ve always wished I could write songs. I’m crap at poetry. Well, maybe I’ve been able to eke out a decent handful of lines, but the construction of a full song around them would baffle me. I may know good music when I hear it, but I am often amazed that someone had the imagination to get it so right. How does one know to coordinate so many elements into one perfect offering? How do that many minds in the room work it out? Maybe that’s why I tend to write about musicians — I want to solve the mystery. I want to know where we overlap.
4. Under Pressure — Queen and David Bowie
Vanilla Ice ruined this song for a long, long time, especially for those of us who are young enough to have heard his song first. It’s absolutely laughable that he thought his version was different enough that he shouldn’t have had to pay royalties. The first time I heard “Under Pressure” was when Amy and I watched Grosse Point Blank in high school, and it took me a little while to warm up to the song and separate it from the awful early 90s rip-off. She had the soundtrack, and she’d play it in her car a lot on our way to the movie theater.
Amy and I spent a lot of time watching movies, both at the theater and rentals at our houses. One night, we managed to make it through seven movies— Grosse Point Blank, Conspiracy Theory, The Frighteners, Rocky Horror Picture Show (a non-holiday viewing), The Labyrinth (knowing my love for David Bowie, I was mocked endlessly for his pants in that movie), Ransom (I think...), something else I can’t recall (there’s a fair chance it had Julia Roberts in it), and I fell asleep during The Fifth Element. We drank all the Dr Pepper in the house and made a pyramid out of the cans atop the pool table, naturally. We binged on movies. I’m not sure I can think of a time where we sat down and watched only one during high school, if it was just the two of us. Groups of people would start talking about other things at the halfway mark of the first movie and they would tire of watching by the end. We weren’t serious connoisseurs and we’d do our share of talking during a rental movie (never in a theater), but movies were always our main activity. We each had actors and actresses we liked, and they weren’t always the same, but as long as I didn’t try to make her watch Monty Python, we’d watch anything. Amy was the one who pointed me in the direction of Eddie Izzard, and we got all sorts of entertainment from dropping a movie with drag queens on the unsuspecting uptight friend. I can’t imagine the ground we might have covered if Netflix had been around then. Even now when we manage to spend some time together, we usually watch a movie (Kiera Knightly seems to be a running theme), then eat something greasy at a diner and talk about whatever we’re watching on TV. I wish we could do it more often.
“Under Pressure” doesn’t always spring to mind when I think of songs I enjoy, but whenever I hear it, I’m reminded how good it is. When Studio 60 premiered a couple of years ago, they used the song to close the pilot. It fit so well with the mood of the episode and I liked hearing it so much that I purchased Classic Queen not long later. The back and forth cry of “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance” and “This is our last dance” about three-quarters through is fantastic.
My daughter giggles when she hears that this song has both Queen and David Bowie because she’s been a fan of both even before she was born. Any time I had the Greatest Hits album on while pregnant, she would go crazy with the kicking. Barely over a year old, I remember her dancing to Bowie’s “London Bye Ta Ta.” She introduced herself to Kristen by dancing to “We Will Rock You.” Something within her has always loved both, and technically, both Queen CDs in the house are hers. However, if you ask her what her favorite song is, she’ll say “Lyla.” I bet you can guess what band does that one. Yes, I’m quite proud.
5. Under the Skin — Lindsey Buckingham
My favorite male musicians become more attractive as they age. I know it’s a cruel act of nature that men can become distinguished and women, save for Helen Mirren, become just... old. Asked to choose between the early-20s or post-40s version of those men, I’ll choose the latter. I like a little grey hair, a few creases around the eyes. David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Gavin Rossdale, and hell, even Noel Gallagher all look just as good, if not better than they did the day the first album dropped. And now they have back catalogue! They have perspective, practice, and they know how to put on a show. Sobering up doesn’t hurt either.
I didn’t realize how much I liked Lindsey Buckingham until I saw Fleetwood Mac live in 2004. When the band decided to tour again, I resigned myself to the idea that like every other reunion tour, seats would cost as much as a car. Then I saw that they were headed to Spokane. Well, if I didn’t have to travel, why not take a look at ticket prices? To my surprise, the nosebleeds weren’t ridiculous. At $65 each (before fees), the seats were more than I’d ever paid for any other concert. However, for a favorite band I thought I’d never see, Tyson and I would go. My parents came to watch newborn Grace, and we had a night out. For being at one of the very top rows of the arena, we had a good straight-on view of the stage. The large video screens helped.
The first thing I thought when they started to play — aside from missing Christine already — was how great Lindsey Buckingham looked, even at 54. I’ve touched on this before in the Letter N, but the man turns 60 next year and you’d hardly guess it. We should all hope to age like him. Now, if he were just a regular guy I happened to glance at, I don’t think he would catch my attention in the same way. Talent makes other people more attractive — It’s why women say, “I want a guy who is funny.”
A bit of madness lurks behind Lindsey Buckingham’s music, and it’s especially true of his solo work. Given an entire album to fill, he gets to try out sounds that don’t quite align with the more straightforward Fleetwood Mac tone. On “Under the Skin,” his voice almost comes out in a whisper, then loops back on top of itself, creating a sound akin to fog — “I know it’s hard being so hard to find/ Your passion swallows you whole.” The entire album requires some acclimating, but hearing what happens when he’s allowed to stretch is fascinating.
When the shadows fall on the one-way wall
and you feel so small
Where do you belong
Self-examination is sexy as long as it isn’t self-absorption in disguise. The ability to learn from the past and recognizing the people who have shaped the path makes for a better person, and an interesting and more attractive person to me.