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Pickle Me This

April 18, 2019

Points of My Own

(Some items I would object to were I the “Dark Haired Beauty With Big Dark Eyes” immortalized in Bob Seger’s 1976 song “Night Moves”)

  • You were not “a little too tall.” That is not even a thing. Admittedly, yes, you were not particularly well, built, but it’s not like I’d write a song about your peculiar physique and turn the weird shape of your anatomy into the stuff of musical legend. Cuz, like, that isn’t something you and I would do to each other, right? Oh, wait.
  • You never got to second base. Anyone who listens carefully to the song will understand this. If you had got to second base, you would have known that my breasts weren’t pointy, or even particularly firm. I understand that it was 1962, and brassieres back then were a bit like armour, but there was nothing pointy about it. This wasn’t Madonna in a cone bra. I don’t even know what this is about. And the way you dwell on their height, when you yourself are still going on about how you’re too tall—you realize this makes me sound like I had tits growing out of my neck, right? Just stop it. It’s weird and embarrassing.
  • Your pants were tight, but not because of fashion. They were also really short and we used to call you “Floods”—but once again, I never wrote a song about that to humiliate you.
  • You sang, “I used her, she used me, but neither one cared.” I cared, Bob. I did. I liked you, which is why I kept going on dates with you in futile hope that you might take me somewhere that was NOT the “the backroom, the alley, the trusty woods.” The woods were creepy, Bob. Out past the cornfields, it’s downright terrifying, and I thought maybe we could go out for a milkshake, or go see a movie, and you’d tell me, “Relax, babe,” and I kept doing what you told me because my dad was abusive and I was unaccustomed to challenging male authority.
  • The most solid proof I’ve got that my breasts weren’t actually pointy is that I never stabbed you with one of them.
  • You were not a bad guy. You never made me do anything I didn’t want to do. And that I feel grateful now all these years later for the fact that I was never sexually violated in the backseat of your ’60 Chevy makes me feel depressed, Bob, about the culture we grew up in.
  • I wasn’t using you. Seriously, what exactly would I have been using you for? I thought we had something. I was flattered that you liked me. I thought the other kids were mean when they made fun of your pants, and I felt a bit sorry for you. I never used you. And if I had used you, well—and you know where this is going—I wouldn’t have written a song about it. Because that would not be very respectful.
  • Sometimes I wonder if you ever figured out that breasts aren’t pointy.
  • I don’t know what “front page drive-in news” is, but of all the things I wasn’t trying to make back then, this definitely was it. Which was why we kept going out beyond the cornfields where the woods got heavy, because if people had found out that we were necking in your Chevy, my reputation would have taken a beating. So thank goodness you eventually recorded a song about it in 1976, eh, Bob? Just to keep the whole thing really fucking discreet.
  • You got this right: we were young and restless and bored. I’ve never been so bored in my life. What I would have given to have you take me to a movie. Honestly, at the movies I probably would have let you touch my boobs. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t, because it would have made a better song.
  • I don’t remember any thunder. It was a really dry summer, if I recall correctly. It hardly rained at all.
  • Possible songs you were humming from 1962: Mashed Potato Time, by Dee Deep Sharp; Patches, by Dickie Lee; If I Had a Hammer, by Peter, Paul and Mary; Duke of Earl, by Gene Chandler; or Dee Deep Sharp’s most ambitious follow-up Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes).
  • Man, if you thought autumn was closing in in 1976… What is UP with Baby Boomers and premature nostalgia?
  • Working on mysteries without any clue. INDEED.
  • My favourite song that year was Palisades Park, by Freddy Cannon, about a guy who took his girl somewhere that wasn’t a backroom or an alley. They kiss at the top of a ferris wheel, and I don’t have any details about her breasts, because Freddy Cannon was a gentleman.

July 18, 2018

Astral Weeks

We were away last week and we brought our portable stereo and listened to the same CDs over and over, which are the same CDs we always listen to when we’re at a cottage—Bon Iver and Kathleen Edwards’ Voyageur, and the Beach Boys, and I bought Joni Mitchell Blue. And also Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which I would listen to when I was in the cottage alone in the morning when I was drinking my tea and not ready to get dressed yet and my family was already down by the water.

And those mornings listening to Astral Weeks when I was all alone were like a time machine, taking me back to 2004, when I bought the CD. My friend Kate had mentioned it in an email, I think, and I looked for it at Tower Records the next time we were in Osaka. We were living in Japan at the time, which is why my copy of Astral Weeks comes with Japanese liner notes and lettering on the CD case. I bought the CD, and immediately fell in love with it, and “Sweet Thing” has been my favourite song ever since. That lyric, which I really understood having not long before undergone a season of tumult: “And I will never grow so old again.” (I also liked that the “garden all misty wet with rain” from “Sweet Thing” is referenced in Caitlin Moran’s new novel, How to Be Famous, which I read last week in less than a day…)

In 2004, Stuart and I lived in a tiny apartment and slept on a tiny platform below the ceiling that we had to climb a ladder to reach. We were both working as English instructors and had the same work schedule, except for Tuesday mornings when he worked in the morning and my shift was in the afternoon. So on Tuesday mornings I was by myself, and I’d put on Astral Weeks, music that I am quite sure was not long after encoded into my DNA. It’s partly the flute, something about the flute. I don’t know that I know another pop song with a flute in it, or at least that I’ve noticed, but the flute on “Astral Weeks,” the opening track, is one of my favourite sounds. And that lyric, “To be born again. To be born again.” I could relate after getting my life back on track, and beginning to move forward. That momentum—it was exhilarating. And the memory of all that possibility is what overwhelms me when I listen again to Astral Weeks.

The album is the soundtrack to all my memories from 2004 (except the ones where I’m singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” at karaoke), though I’m not sure this was really the case. It could have been though, because I had a mini-disk player and later and iPod shuffle, and I’d possibly downloaded “Astral Weeks” onto both these devices, and perhaps it was Astral Weeks that was playing the very first time I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, on a trolley ride from Hiroshima to Miyajima. It might as well have been, the two are so connected in my mind—they actually came out in the same year. I feel like Joan Didion would have known something about being caught one more time, if not up on Cyprus Avenue: “And I’m conquered in a car seat. Nothing that I do.” (She probably had a migraine from the Santa Ana.) Madame George also seems like a character from one of her essays—one of the ones where the centre does not hold.

I was also discovering Margaret Drabble for the first time in that period, so her books are connected to Astral Weeks as well for me. The first novel I read was The Radiant Way, whose Esther Breuer lives at “the wrong end of Ladbroke Grove,” which is where Van Morrison saw the subject of “Slim Slow Slider” walking, and maybe he even saw Esther too. And falling in love with Margaret Drabble (and Joan Didion) was such a big deal for me as began to discover who I was as a reader and writer. It was a period in which I developed a habit that I’ve never been able to get back again—underlining words I didn’t know in books and looking them up in the dictionary. I kept a list, and one of them was “avarice,” and I’m not sure whether I encountered that one in a book too, or else it was just the line from “Astral Weeks.”

I was keeping the list because I had been accepted to graduate school for the following September, and I was hoping to improve myself enough in order to be smart enough to warrant being there. (It didn’t really work. Do you know what it is to arrive at graduate school with absolutely no knowledge of critical theory? It is NOT FUN.) I was looking forward to moving back to Canada, and I was also planning my wedding (to someone who never mentioned driving his chariots down my streets of crime, but I know he would do it if I asked him), and really, we were on the verge of everything. I knew it, so it was overwhelming to be there in 2004, the sun shining through our window and rendering everything golden, and outside a pachinko parlour on the horizon. Not long ago, I found our old apartment on Google Maps, and the parking lot next door had sprouted a building, so the sun doesn’t shine through that window anymore, but I’m so glad I was there when it did, listening to Astral Weeks.

“And I will raise my hand up into the night time sky, attract the star that’s shining in your eye, ah just to dig it all and not to wonder, that’s just right. And I’ll be satisfied not to read in between the lines.”

October 23, 2017

Leader of the Pack Conspiracy Theories

The whole thing just sounds incredibly dodgy to me: “I met him at the candy store,” Betty explains to her friends. “You get the picture?” But no; we don’t. Because what kind of self-respecting motorcyclist, let alone one who rises through the ranks to become the actual leader of the pack hangs around at a candy store? The very idea is embarrassing. What was he buying: Big League Chew? Unless it’s a candy store that’s a front for a pedophile ring, or something else just as sinister.

“Hey, Betty, are those Popeye cigarettes you’re smoking?” “Uh, uh.” 

But before we go leaping down “Leader of the Pack” rabbit holes, I want to start at the very beginning, possibly a problem of chronology. Or else the ridiculous insensitivity of Betty’s “friends” who can’t stop talking about her boyfriend and say to her, “Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking up up after school today?” Betty’s reply being negative. Because, obviously, he’s just been killed in a fiery crash, and her friends must have known about this because at school everyone stops and stares when Betty can’t hide the tears, and she doesn’t even care.

Are Betty’s friends just really really cruel and they’re merely toying with her in order to start her crying again? Are Betty’s rampant emotions just a game to them? Although another possibility is that in this era of boyfriends killed in fiery crashes (Teen Angel, Tommy who told Laura he loved her, and the poor fellow who was driving the Jaguar XKE in “Dead Man’s Curve”) Betty’s friends had come to take such incidents for granted, the same way we don’t think a lot about breathing, or gravity, and maybe Betty’s boyfriend’s recent tragic death had simply slipped their minds.

One important clue to the entire song lies in a lyric that follows Betty’s initial exchange with her friends, and after she recalls the way her folks were always putting him down, her friends pretending to play a supportive part by functioning as a literal echo chamber—and let me tell you, tonally speaking, there is something disingenuous about they way they ask her, “Whatcha mean they say he came from the wrong side of town?” Obviously, these girls know their local geography. Betty’s parents aren’t saying anything that Betty’s friends haven’t said amongst themselves. But can you blame them for their disloyalty? I’m not sure we can…

I’ve still not got to the clue yet, but bear with me. All this thinking about the complex and troubling narrative of “Leader of the Pack” has come about because my daughter is obsessed with the song (as I was at her age; it’s a song about boyfriends and candy, which is very appealing to eight-year-olds and a reason why eight-year-olds have a prime demographic of the terrible pop song “My Boy Lollipop” for decades now). And in thinking about “Leader of the Pack” in the context of having a daughter, the line that stands out for me is one that I sang with unawareness for years and years but which terrifies me now, and it is, “They told me he was bad; but I knew he was sad.”

There it is, in a nutshell.

I tell my daughter, “If you ever, ever, hear yourself uttering a line like that, don’t walk but RUN away from whatever relationship you’re in.” Never date someone who is bad but you know he’s really sad. Such knowledge is not actually knowledge at all, but instead it’s a delusion. If he’s really sad, you’re not going to be able to fix him, and then you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life riding sidecar to Melancholy Melvin, who cries all the time and hates your friends. And possibly everyone’s not wrong about him, and he really is bad—this is the Leader of the Pack who hangs out around the candy store, remember. He’s not even good at being Fake James Dean.

So what if Betty’s friends had heard her line about how she knows he’s sad, and decide there’s no other answer…but to mess with the brakes on Jimmy’s bike? Betty’s dad could also have in on the deal, making a point of informing his daughter that she has to find someone new on a day in which the weather forecast called for rain. The slippery streets and the messed up brakes meant that a crash would be inevitable. Though they’d all be also putting Betty at risk—presumably she’d be riding on his bike at some point, and maybe he’d even be picking her up from school that day…

Another suggestion is that Betty herself is responsible for Jimmy’s death, that her testimony about having begged him to go slow was completely a lie. I mean, she hadn’t even ensured that he’d heard her, right? So how earnest could she have been? Maybe the begging was a whisper in her mind. “I could speak this thought aloud,” she told herself, “or I could let him speed and die in a fiery crash, thereby freeing me from the burden of spending the rest of my life hitched to a biker who hangs around candy stores.” Betty’s obvious distress at Jimmy’s passing, as expressed in the song’s final verse, her inability to hide the tears, is mostly because Betty’s feeling guilty, but there is a part of her that also feels freed.

I wonder if the reality is more complicated, however, and doesn’t involve murder in the slightest. What if the entire song is the fantasy of a middle-aged Betty, living in the suburbs during the 1970s. She’s got five kids, one with special needs. Their ranch bungalow needs work and condensation keeps seeping in, fogging up the windows. The kids won’t stop bringing home puppies, and her eldest son is going to be drafted. Betty’s husband Jimmy can’t hold a job for more than a couple of months, and her parents have had to help them out time and time again. Jimmy’s teeth are in terrible shape from decades and decades of eating candy, but they can’t afford the dentist. He has a dream of opening a bike shop, working as a mechanic, but Betty’s lost her faith in Jimmy because his own bike’s been sitting in the carport for years and no matter how much time he spends fixing it, he can’t make the damn thing start. If the bike only started, Betty thinks, maybe her sad sorry husband could ride away, out of their life, and she’d stand a chance at a fresh start on her own.

“Leader of the Pack, and now he’s gone,” is the song’s final refrain, and the meaning is doubled here. First, as a projection, a thought about what could have been if Betty had been able to listen to her dad and break up with Jimmy—but she was already pregnant with their first child by this point, totally craving sugar, and Jimmy always had candy, which kept her coming back for more. What if things had been different, Betty wonders, almost able to see the hypothetical fiery crash in her mind, and hear the thing she  might have shouted: “Look out, look out, look out!” Or possibly she wouldn’t have shouted at all. (Also, what was he supposed to be looking out for anyway? So much goes unsaid in this scenario.)

But the refrain is also a more mundane reflection of her 1970s’ reality, about how Betty’s archetypal husband has morphed from a badass biker dude into a sad wreck of a failed mechanic whose white undershirts are stained yellow now and whose leather jacket is in tatters.

“Leader of the Pack, and now he’s gone,” and is he ever, thinks Betty, who is contemplating better things, the return to fashion of shoulder pads, and getting a job as a career gal in the city.

February 26, 2016

We Oughta Know, by Andrea Warner


The very first real concert I went to (i.e. not with my dad) was to see Sarah McLachlan on tour for Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, a CD I’d recently purchased from Columbia House for a penny. This was in grade nine, I think, 1993 or 1994, with my best friends Britt and Jennie. Britt’s dad drove us there, to the theatre in Lindsay, ON, where we were part of the amazing, intimate performance, and I saw a girl with dreadlocks who kind of looked like a boy, which left me flummoxed. There is a connection, I think, between having seen Sarah McLachlan, powerful and awesome at her piano, on the guitar, and that Britt and I would spend all of high school performing at talent shows and low-rent concerts playing pop covers on our acoustic guitars, singing in harmony. We really took it for granted, all those amazing women who articulated our feelings so well, whose lyrics we scrawled in our scrapbooks. It was the times we were living in. It seemed inevitable that we’d see Sarah McLachlan against six years later at a much larger venue, us sitting high up and far away on the grass, watching her perform with Sheryl Crow, Deborah Cox. I think the Dixie Chicks were there. Biff Naked on a side stage. Women in songs were in the ascendence. “Women in Songs” was the name of a popular CD series here in Canada in the last few years of the decade, and that the collections were feminist or even that these were women at all seemed to use kind of incidental as we drove down the main street in our town singing along with Natalie Imbruglia as she bared her heart with “Torn.”

We-Oughta-Know-Cover-300-AdjustedIn her book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, Andrea Warner articulates that whole scene, and the remarkable fact that four Canadian women were leading the charge of women in song: Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette. These four women too are (along with Diana Krall) are the only Canadians on Canada’s best-selling artists lists, coming in above the Beatles. And even more remarkably, they all made their mark during a five year period in the mid-1990s. What was going on exactly, Warner wonders? How did they do it?

Dion, McLachlan, Twain and Morrisette are not musicians usually linked together, more often viewed in terms of their differences—the good girls and the bad ones, the authentic musicians versus the manufactured ones. Warner makes the interesting point that as a teenager, she regarded these women as she regarded the members of The Babysitters Club, definitive types, not allowing for complexity of character. Making assumptions: how could Dion with her entrepreneurial skills be a Feminist with all her love schlock, and the same with Twain and her bared midriffs? Exhibiting the same narrow-mindedness that led critics to be baffled by Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” (which, incidentally, was the only album my husband and I ended up with two copies of when our CD collections merged):

‘The sweetness of “Head Over Feet,” the sensitive sprawl of “Mary Jane,” and the quirky landscape of “Ironic” were baffling to the easily confused, particularly to those who were committed to painting Morissette as a screaming, seething ball of rage. How can she be angry but so gentle here? Well, how can you have both a right hand and a left hand? It’s simple, provided you’re not someone who hates women. People contain multitudes and women are people; therefore women contain multitudes.’

In her book, Warner takes us track by track through the albums that rocketed these women to stardom, and also examines her own feelings toward them and how coming to admire Dion and Twain for their talent and hard work is a part of her coming to terms with her own notions of feminism. She also takes inspiration from 90s music heroines and blends the personal in with her cultural analysis, discussing how her parents’ separation and own ideas of love and marriage influenced her perspective on Dion’s music, or how McLachlan’s devastating Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff (which I always used to put on when I was at my most angst-full, just to feed the pain) intersects with her grief around her father’s death. She also examines how these four women were regarded by the music industry, by the media, the sexism and stereotypes and the system that is set up so that women are unable to succeed, for example, the rule against playing two songs by women in a row on the radio, which is what galvanized Sarah McLachlan to start The Lilith Fair to show that women aren’t merely to be pitted against each other, but can stand together. Fascinating too to consider the stupid Lilith Fair backlash, that it was reverse sexism. I remember being gibed about “lesbians” by certain morons in my company at the time who knew I was going to the concert, as though most rock festivals are not enormous cockfests (which are distinct from “enormous-cock fests”)  and why don’t we ever talk about that?

Warner is a music critic for CBC Music and Exclaim, and a warm, engaging writer who celebrates the power of girls and women and their voices, and critiques the culture that made all this happen. An appendix in We Oughta Know includes a long list of other Canadian female acts who made their mark throughout the 1990s—Alannah Myles, Amanda Marshall, Jann Arden, and others—making clear that the four women spotlighted in her book are not merely some freak phenomena.

“The ’90s were a remarkable decade for girls like me, and ultimately, the woman we would become. When you come of age in a time when women have voices, take up space, are visible creators and entrepreneurs, it never dawns on you that silence is the rule and these women, your idols, are the exception.”

January 11, 2016

I think my spaceship knows which way to go…

I am not a David Bowie fan. I’ve never bought any of his albums, I only know his most popular songs, and the only David Bowie song I knew for the first decade of my life was “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger; my parents were more Elton John people. The first time I heard “Under Pressure,” I thought it was Vanilla Ice, and I was nearly 20. So I’ve got no cred whatsoever (if you ever thought I did), but I’d be hard-pressed to think of a musician I’m not a fan of whose work has affected me more. This morning we heard that he had died, and I put on “Modern Love” so we could have a dance party in the living room. I played “Let’s Dance” for my dance-loving girls tonight. I’ve been humming “Space Oddity” all day, hearing those amazing harmonies. There was a time in my when everything had fallen apart, and I spent that period listening to that song over and over again, those lines resonating: “The stars look very different today.” And learning to have faith in my own direction: “And my spaceship seems to know which way to go.” Understanding so much what it was to be lonely and lost—no one can be wholly alone whilst listening to that song. And more recently, his song “Kooks” has meant a lot to me, since Elizabeth Mitchell covered it on her album, Blue Clouds (which I love so much—it also features the most gorgeous cover of Van Morrison’s “Everyone.”) We listened to this album all the time when I was pregnant with Iris, and it might have become part of her sonic DNA. “Kooks” is a song about waiting for a baby, and hoping that baby will take its chances on you: “Will you stay in a lovers’ story, if you stay, you won’t be sorry, cuz we believe in you…” And it includes the line that really is my parenting philosophy, particularly in regards to school: “And if the homework brings you down/ Then we’ll throw it on the fire./And take the car downtown.” (Listen to Elizabeth Mitchell’s cover here.)

April 9, 2015

Mix CD for the Road

We made a mix CD for our car journey. It was strange having to explain to someone what a mix-CD was. I didn’t even complicate matters by mentioning cassettes (and how you could tape over cassettes by putting masking tape over the tabs on the top edge—remember that?). We are pretty happy with how the track list turned out. We also have a giant ziplock full of candy, so we’re basically all set for days and days of travel. Wish me luck. Don’t remind me not to lose my passport this time though, or I will probably stop liking you.

Mary Ann and One Eyed Dan“, by Shovels and Rope
I Really Like You“, by Carly Rae Jepsen
Sailing“, by The Strumbellas
Dirty Paws“, by Of Monsters and Men
“Riding in My Car”, by Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower
“Chandelier”, by Sia
“Let It Go”, by Frozen
“Can You Get To That?”, by Mavis Staples
“Moonquake Lake”, by Sia (Annie Soundtrack)
“Alphabet Dub”, by Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower
“Happy”, by Jennifer Gasoi
“Twisting the Night Away”, by Sam Cooke
“Love is An Open Door”, by Frozen

See you on the other side! Of the ocean, that is.

February 10, 2014

Be the Mavis.

Things are busy here. In lieu of a post proper, I bring you Mavis Staples, whom Stuart and I had the great pleasure of seeing in concert on Friday night.

December 11, 2013

Do They Know It’s Christmas: A Personal History



In 1984, we got the Band Aid album for Christmas, a gift from my mother’s younger sister, my aunt. I was five. From that same aunt, my sister and my cousin received leg-warmers for their Cabbage Patch Dolls. I don’t remember what I got, but it was not the Cabbage Patch leg-warmers, and this was profoundly upsetting. I remember that when the Band Aid album was unwrapped, my older cousin (who would have been ten or eleven) was excited, and put it on the record player straight away. Being ten or eleven, he was hip to the ways of the world and its zeitgeist, just like my young aunt was. I thought them both impossibly cool, and decided the album was worth knowing about for their interest in it. I knew about the famine in Ethiopia, about what the singers were singing about.  I’d seen it on TV. But I have no recollection of my immediate impressions of the song itself. I was far too upset about the leg-warmers.


Every Christmas for the next few years, I would spend a huge amount of time studying the album art for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. The images were fascinating. On one side, ornate Victorian Christmas imagery, the kind that illustrates “The Night Before Christmas” or a Christmas card. This was juxtaposed with a photo of two African children with spindly limbs. I don’t know if the photos showed the children’s distended bellies or flies landing on their skin, but I’d seen enough television coverage to know all about it. The African children were in black and white, while the rest of the album was rich and red. This could perhaps be the beginning of my impression that Africa was a colourless place.

(Two decades later, I’d read What is the What by Dave Eggers, explore the website of the book’s subject, Valentino Achak Deng, and be so completely shocked by the greenery and colour in photos of his home village in Sudan. The Africa of my mind was an imaginary place. Where nothing ever grows, no rain or river flows. I suppose.)


And then I would turn the album over. On the back was a photo of all the musicians who’d come together to make the record, assembled in rows like a school class photograph. This was interesting. Even more so was a copy of the image with just squiggly lined silhouettes of all the people in it, each silhouette marked with a number. The numbers corresponded to a list of the musicians, so that I could find out who was who. This was a curious matching game, a sort of passive paint-by-numbers too.

It was also a useful game because I didn’t know any of these musicians, except for Phil Collins (who looked kind of out of place) and Boy George , who I knew from “Karma Chameleon” and remembered because he was a man who liked to dress up like a girl. But I knew he was really a man though because he said so: “I am a man without conviction. I am a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction.” Though looking back, he seems quite good at selling contradiction. It is possible that the lyrics to “Karma Chameleon” cannot be read wholly earnestly. This would not occur to me for many many years.

Here is another contradiction: In fact, Boy George didn’t even appear in the picture, which I only realize now when I double check. This is confusing. I swear he was there. I am remembering his image from the video I think. I guess he had somewhere else to be when the picture was taken..

And now I have gone off on a tangent, which is what usually happened when I stared at these images. I was obsessed with this album. I kept getting lost in it.


Actually, Boy George would not have looked so out of place in this photo though. Many of the musicians in the photo were androgynous, men (I think?) with long hair and a few women with masculine faces. Perhaps this created the effect that there were more women than there actually were, though there are only a few. Curiously, the women are all lacking surnames. They are called Marilyn, Keren, Sarah and Siobhan. I have just Googled Marilyn, and he was actually a man called Peter, so there you go. Basically there were only women in the shot because they’d invited Bananarama, who introduced themselves on the b-side, the vowel in banana pronounced like “ah” which made the band name sound much less stupid than it was. I knew Bananarama because on my Mini Pops album was a recording of “Venus”.

There was one other woman in the photo and she was remarkable for a couple of reasons: she had two names (which were Jody Watley) and she was black. This latter point she had in common with the three men on the left-hand side of the group. Which made for 4 black people in total in the picture on the back of “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, but at least that was twice as many as were depicted on the front.

George Michael is in the picture, but I would not recognize him until “Faith” came out in 1989. There is someone called Midge in the picture too, which added to my speculation about Band Aid and gender, but he was definitely a bloke. The guy in the front with the sunglasses in his shirt–he was wearing dirty white socks. And Johnny Fingers–what kind of a name was Johnny Fingers? The world was a curious place.


I love this song. Somehow it has become a classic, up there with “Feliz Navidad” by Boney M and any version of “Oh Holy Night”. I love the bells that ring a descending line right before the “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all,” lyric. I love the oomph of, “Here’s to you” and the oomphy echo of, “Raise a glass for everyone.” The rhyme of, “Underneath this burning sun” is so perfect. I love when Sting (because by now I know who Sting is) sings his name in the line he’s given. The drama behind a lyric like, “the clanging chimes of doom.” And Bono, oh, Bono. When you delivered your, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them…” line, the rest of your life story was written.

I love the juxtaposition of the song’s lyrics, as blatant as on the album’s cover. It is Christmas time and there’s no need to be afraid. We do indeed live in a world of plenty (or at least I do). I want to believe that it’s as simple as us and “the other ones.” That if we just pray for them and buy a rock and roll single, us and a ragtag bunch of scruffy pop-stars can right everything that’s wrong. It is Christmas time, and I totally want to throw my arms around the world.



If my bad taste is reflected in my terrible taste in pop music, you should probably know that I can’t get enough of charity singles. I watch the Band Aid video on Much Music, and I cry. Basically, put a pair of headphones on anyone and show me them singing passionately with their eyes shut, preferably when when shaking their fist emphatically. “There comes a time when we heed a certain call, when the world must stand together as one…” And there is nothing I love better than times like that. “Tears Are Not Enough,” “We Are the World,” even “That’s What Friends are For.” I can’t get enough of this stuff. If I think about this, it is probably because modern life is dulling and we’re desperate for feelings, even if the come from a can. I also like to kid myself that the world’s big problems have solutions (and that these might possibly begin with a bunch of guys with guitars putting on a show).


There is a gradual awakening. This has a lot to do with geography. Africa is not a place where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow. I think about the Nile and the Congo, the latter of which is the deepest river in the world. I think about snow on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (which, as you know, rises like Olympus above the Serengeti) and that it’s possible that there will be snow in Africa this Christmas after all. That even if they were using “Africa” as a synonym for “Ethiopia” in this song, the lyrics would be wrong. It was not that nothing ever grew in Ethiopia, but that was did grow was diverted from hungry people due to errant government policies.



It’s not just me who has affection for this song. Its catchy tune and inane (and factually incorrect) lyrics ring out through shopping malls across the land every Christmas time. In 1989, Band Aid 2 was recorded, featuring not only Kylie and Jason, but many other bands including Technotronic and Wet Wet Wet. The single in the UK outsold Madonna’s “Like A Prayer”. 2004 saw another rerecording, Band Aid 20, which had actual woman’s voices, including Sugababes, Rachel from S Club, Natasha Bedingfield and Dido. They were joined by Fran from Travis, Busted, Justin from The Darkness, The Thrills, Robbie Williams and Will Young–a whole host of musicians who’d been topping the charts in the UK during a time in which I’d lived there and listened to the radio incessantly. In the middle of the song, Dizzee Rascal raps. Everybody was showered, and nobody androgynous at all.

When Band Aid 20 came out, we were living in Japan. My friend bought me the single from the Tower Records on top of the FORUS shopping centre. We listened to it on Christmas Day while we drank vodka mixed with alcoholic orange juice. We hadn’t gotten the day off. The lyric, “Do they know it’s Christmas?,” has special resonance that year.


It’s more than just a guilty pleasure. If it wasn’t, I could just stop, and placate those who slag off Bob Geldof and Bono for their rockstar refusal to live in real world. It all comes down to economic explanations, but then I’m just humming along. Because I’ve been listening to this song for 29 Christmases now, and it is as much a part of the season as Jesus, the Shepherds and the Wisemen, and I don’t really believe in that story either. You get old enough and realize that Christmas is a string of fictions. One of them is that pop music can shape and save the world. And yet. It has shaped and saved just as much as anything, I suppose. Certainly, this terrible, embarrassing song has shaped me.

November 20, 2013

CD GIVEAWAY! The Sounding Joy by Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends

sounding-joy-bannerI fell in love with Elizabeth Mitchell’s music when Harriet was a baby, and suddenly the whole world was a richer, sunnier place. Her music is the soundtrack to our family life, and I love that with her folk songs she gives us roots, but also keeps us rocking out to covers by Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Van Morrison. I love how she brought us Remy Charlip. “Alphabet Dub” on her You Are My Sunshine album is hands-down the best version of the ABCs ever.

Her latest is an album of Christmas songs, The Sounding Joy. And you can listen to a preview here, the song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee  (Little Bitty Baby: A Cumulative Song)”.

More about the album for Smithsonian Folkways:

Grammy-nominated recording artist Elizabeth Mitchell releases The Sounding Joy, ann exploration of Christmas and solstice songs from the American folk tradition.  Drawn almost exclusively from the often overlooked but deeply influential songbook of revered composer and anthologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, these songs evoke an era before mass media and the commercialization of Christmas, when sacred song, dance, contemplation, and gathering were prized above all else during the holiday season. Mitchell’s fifth album for Smithsonian Folkways, The Sounding Joy features husband Daniel Littleton, daughter Storey, and special guests Peggy Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Aoife O’Donovan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Larry Campbell, Dan Zanes, and John Sebastian, among many other family, friends, and neighbors. This gorgeously reverent 24-song collection attempts to save these traditional American holiday songs from an “unmarked grave,” as Merchant puts it in her essay included in the liner notes.


Although the songs presented are specific to the Christian tradition, Mitchell’s husband Daniel Littleton cites the inclusive nature of the project, describing the assembly of musicians as an “ecumenical summit” of sorts, with participants of many religious and non-religious backgrounds coming together happily to bring the songs to life. Mitchell sums up the spirit of the album best in her notes: “However you and your loved ones celebrate the last month of the year, I hope it is filled with the sounds of joy.”

And even better than news of a brand new Elizabeth Mitchell album? Why, that Smithsonian Folkways has provided me with a CD copy to give away to one of you. If you leave a comment on this post by midnight November 30, I’ll include your name in a random draw to win the CD.

**Congrats to Suss. Thanks to all who entered. Hope you’ll get your own copies. It’s a really lovely album. 

January 16, 2013

On Elizabeth Mitchell, Blue Clouds, and storybook discovery…

blue_cloudsI discovered Elizabeth Mitchell a few months into Harriet’s life, and her music has been our family’s soundtrack ever since, the serenity of her voice making me a better mother and a happier person, her songs providing us all with a solid grounding in folk music, and their stories becoming the basis of so many of our own. And this year was a very good year to be an Elizabeth Mitchell fan–her album Little Seed came out in July and had the honour of not only being the soundtrack to our summer roadtrips (along with Carly Rae Jepsen), but was also nominated for a Grammy, and then Blue Clouds came out in October, and we managed to save it until Christmas, but we’ve been listening steadily ever since.

Blue Clouds is brilliant: a new version of “Froggie Went a Courtin'” that is Harriet’s favourite song on the album; my favourite track is her cover of Van Morrison’s “Everyone”; covers of David Bowie’s “Kooks”, Jimi Hendrix’ “May This Be Love”, Bill Withers’ “I Wish You Well”, “Blue Sky” by the Allman Brothers. We love new songs “Rollin’ Baby”, “Hop Up My Ladies”. And we love the song “Arm in Arm”, based on the verse by Remy Charlip: “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle, arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…”

arm-in-armI’d never heard of Remy Charlip before Blue Clouds, but his artwork graces the album and its liner notes, and a letter inside by Brian Selznick introduces him further: “If you don’t own any of Remy’s books, you owe it to yourself to find as many as you can.” Which is the kind of guidance I’m always happy to take, and so we’ve been borrowing Remy Charlip books from the library like gangbusters over the last couple of weeks. And we didn’t quite know what to do with them at first: they weren’t stories to be read as much as books to be used, to be engaged with. It turned out that only the first line of the “Arm in Arm” song was Charlip’s, the line all the text on a single page, and the whole Arm in Arm book is made up of similar wordplay, riddles, play and whimsy. Harriet is in love with Mother Mother I Feel Sick Call For the Doctor Quick Quick Quick, and also the cowboy story Little Old Big Beard and Big Young Little Beard. We brought home Thirteen from the library yesterday, and it blew our minds! So many stories in a single book, a book you’ll read over and over and never the same way twice.

I absolutely love art that takes you somewhere, and artists who collaborate. Getting to know Remy Charlip via Elizabeth Mitchell has been like getting to know a friend, and so when I discovered tonight via internet search that he’d died in August, both Stuart and I were oddly saddened. His work is so much the definition of life that it seems impossible that his own could be over, but then the books live on, and how they do, over and over and never the same way twice.

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