2016 might well have been the most unique year for music I can recall. Although when I say “for music” I do not mean musically, not exactly, not like you usually do for some year-end treatise where you list a few favorite songs from the year past (“Sister” by Angel Olsen, “Higher” by Carly Rae Jepsen, “Sea Stories” by Sturgill Simpson, which you should listen to here rather than Youtube to appreciate fully) and a few favorite albums from the year past (“Dreamland” by Wild Belle, “American Band” by Drive-By Truckers, “Young in the All the Wrong Ways” by Sara Watkins). No, I mean it’s been a unique year for music because my favorite moments of music have gone beyond or, more accurately, outside the normal considerations of Best Songs and Best Albums.
For me, music in 2016 centered around the death of Phife Dawg, née Malik Taylor, co-M.C. of A Tribe Called Quest, my teenage idols, my first Favorite Band, which I found out about at work, which made me have to go to the work bathroom, lock myself in a stall and cry. It was properly poetical in a melancholy way, actually, that Phife’s death was sandwiched between the untimely, terrible passings of David Bowie and Prince. After all, Phife was never the biggest name in music, or even in his own band, even if he carried himself that way. And if music, for me, centered around the death of Phife Dawg then it also pivoted around the new Tribe album, first in nearly 20 years, a total surprise, announced after his passing and which was released while I was away on vacation in the Minnesota hinterlands. My vacation coincided with a Presidential election won by a braying nimrod. So, I returned, wallowing in post-vacation and post-election depression and I listened to the first Tribe single, “We the People”, my favorite song of the year, hands down, and, well, I sat there at my desk in front of my laptop with my headphones over my ears and cried again.
What am I even supposed to say? How does a man anticipate a song for twenty years and somehow have that song surpass his expectations? It’s not vintage Tribe; it is not nostalgic Tribe; it is Tribe; it’s Tribe right here, right now, respecting the present yet sounding utterly unto themselves, and political as all get out. Its hook throbs with the hurt of all minorities, propelled by the boom bap snare and a scrummy synth line that comes in at just the right places like a wordless “Amen.” The whole song has this kind of casual velocity where it’s smooth as hell yet mad as fuck, emblemized in that quintessential Q-Tip giggle as he raps “I know, my shit is cold.” Yes, it is. So’s Phife’s. But, also warm. He raps: “Dreaming of a world that’s equal for women with no division / Boy, I tell you that’s vision / Like Tony Romo when he hitting Whitten.” Gawd, that’s so Phife, employing a sports metaphor to bring home his plea for equality. And what’s more, he breathlessly punctuates the first line with a “Huh” that is like his own version of Joe Biden declaring “C’mon, we’re America!” That “Huh” is the whole world.
My feelings on Phife, however, are not to suggest I was not also affected by the deaths of Bowie and Prince. In particular I felt Prince’s passing, remembering the glory days in which my best friend and I tore around in his indestructible Dodge Aires listening to “Starfish and Coffee.” It’s an oddity that in this year of such prominent American division, Prince’s death allowed for immense, if brief, unity. Everyone felt it. My beautiful, remarkable girlfriend wore purple tights the day after he died in commemoration. My hometown’s skyline glowed purple in his memory. I will never forget taking off my headphones piping in Prince at Starbucks the morning after he passed and immediately realizing that Starbucks was piping in Prince too. Prince transcended our petty differences, just as one might argue his spirit transcended rules, just as another might argue his music transcended genre, just as another might argue he himself transcended space and time. That makes it fairly hard to pull off a Prince musical tribute. He was so often playing all his own instruments on records because who else could do it? No one, obviously, but that never meant Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band weren’t going to try.
The Saturday after Prince passed away Springsteen paid tribute by opening his Brooklyn show with “Purple Rain.” I hastened to find an audience video of it because this is 2016 and that’s what you do. The video quality was a bit rough, yet that was just right, reflective of the world being out of focus and of Bruce’s raggedy, rustic version of The Purple One’s unassailable masterpiece. But Bruce was all in and he went all out, never more so than when he growled, “Honey, I know, I know, the times are changing.” That’s how it felt. Bowie had left; Phife had left; Prince had left; Bozo the Spray Tan Clown was running for President; what’s going on? And then…..Bruce called on Nils Lofgren for the guitar solo.
Look, I’m an avowed E Street Disciple, but while I’ve had a moment with pretty much every seminal member of The E Street Band, I’d never really had one with Nils. That’s not a knock against him. He’s always been the best guitarist in that band and I have always found my straight-ahead guitar pleasures in other places (see below). But this moment called for straight-ahead guitar. No one, of course, but Prince can play the “Purple Rain” solo, but, Lord, did Nils come as close as anyone else ever could. It was was a guitar solo as primal scream, a primal scream metamorphosing into an aural cleansing. And then it ended, and then Bruce came in with the concluding howls that in his grizzled, aged voice felt like a man crying out for what was lost and, in some Boss-ish premonition, everything that was still to be lost.
I selfishly hoped they wouldn’t play “Purple Rain” at any more shows. It seemed to me the ultimate embodiment of a one-off, of-the-moment cover, strictly for the departed and then gone into the mists of Youtube. Alas, it wasn’t to be. They kept playing it. That’s how it goes, I suppose. Of-the-moments in music anymore are hard. And yet, my sister and I happened to catch one of those ultra-rare “Did that really happen?” moments when we saw Damien Jurado at Lincoln Hall on Memorial Day weekend. I liked Jurado’s music and his music was really good live, but this show went beyond the music. For the first half, he never bantered, which is typically how I like my music shows. Unless you are a skilled ribald comedian like Neko Case, the best concert banterer who ever lived, or a rock 'n' roll pentecostal preacher, like Springsteen, I have no interest in between song banter. And so I loved it when Jurado said to some fan shouting who-knows-what, “I don’t have to talk to you.” But then a funny thing happened, he did talk. And I loved that too.
He talked a lot. He opened up. I have no idea what caused this conversational avalanche and, I dare say, he would’ve been hard-pressed to explain it too. He’d tell a story and then pause, like that story was triggering another story in the back of his mind, and then he’d tell that story too. One time, in the midst of this aching ballad, he started laughing. Really, he did, and when the song was over he explained that the song was so sad that when he performed it, he had to go to someplace funny in his mind to not let the music overwhelm him and so he told the funny thing he had been thinking of. The wide eyes and half-smile of the guitarist nearest to my sister and I during these monologues seemed to say: “I can’t believe this.” I couldn’t believe it either. It was lightning in a bottle. It was a performer caught in a truly singular moment. How often does that happen in this day and age? In 2016 I finally went to the Grand Ole Opry and I saw Jenny Lewis perform the entirety of Rabbit Fur Coat from the eighth freaking row, but Damien Jurado at Lincoln Hall was my favorite show.
That unlikely feeling was everywhere. Yes, “We the People” was my favorite song, but second place went not to any new tune but an old one, thirty-two years old to be exact, a Pat Benatar anthem you could put on at any Christmas party populated by people of a certain age after they’ve had one too many wassails and find them in a circle singing along and thrusting their fists in the air. “We Belong”, that’s the tune, which, I confess, in recent years Will Ferrell had re-cast for me in “Talladega Nights” as a psalm to comradeship on the battlefield. But then, in covering it for The AV Club, Jenn Wasner, my favorite guitarist in the world, and Andy Stack of Wye Oak took it back again.
The Benatar version always played like Drew Barrymore in “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” screaming Bon Jovi lyrics like they were the most important thing in the world, like she was full of pipe dreams that she did not recognize were pipe dreams. The Wye Oak version plays more to my advanced age, cognizant that pipe dreams are just that, yet not bitter, more wistfully defiant, wishful and hopeful but knowing, and all that is unbelievably encompassed in one of Jenn Wasner’s patented towering, wall of sound guitar solos, this one rising like a jetliner up above the gray clouds and into the sunshine for a brief moment before falling, falling back to earth.
Typically in years where I’m feeling weird, or disconnected, or adrift, or something, I send family and friends a highly untraditional Christmas letter, one harshly forgoing the medium’s conventional content for a digression on the state of my mind instead. I wanted to send out a highly untraditional Christmas letter this year. After all, 2016’s been a strange one, particularly to an American of a certain disposition. Here I am, ever more secure in the knowledge that I want to spend the rest of my life with my beautiful, remarkable girlfriend of three years even as I am simultaneously stricken for my future because of the politically and socially regressive turn my country took all year and finally took once and for all in early November. People tell me everything will be okay; people tell me to suck it up and go along; both of these statements feel so naïve that when I think about, you know, things, I just want to scream. In the face of all that, I struggled with what to say and how to say it. Then I realized what I wanted to say was Jenn Wasner’s guitar solo. So hey, everyone gets the Christmas letter this year.....