Happy Halloween! Here’s the latest installment in my annual(ish) Spooky Season mix series. As always, the real monster…is capitalism.
I’ve been getting around on crutches for the past two weeks, and believe me when I say I am now fully prepared to hurl the curse’d things into the East River. I’ve tried to make the most of the situation, decorating my crutches with cheerful washi tape to make a bad experience a little more palatable. But, dear reader, crutches suck. They’re loud, awkward, cumbersome and exhausting, and I am more than ready to be done with them. I have an orthopedist’s appointment tomorrow and I’m hoping for good news re: my foot. In the mean time, as I slowly crutch around a deeply crutch-unfriendly city, I’ve got my tunes to keep me sane.
“Crutch” is the seventh track on Pinback’s 1999 self-titled debut, which turned 20 this month. It’s not the best track on the album–that would be the unbeatable earworm “Loro”–but it’s a close second, and one that happens to be appropriate to my current situation.
Lyrically, like a lot of Pinback songs, “Crutch” is a bit of a mystery. The title comes from a brief allusion to a “rubber crutch” hitting the pavement–when, where, why or to whom said crutch might belong is unclear. Musically, though, the song’s looping structure, lurching beat and melancholy hook make a great sonic analog to the restlessness of limited mobility. “No one cares too much over what happened to you,” Rob Crow sings, and it’s true.
Part of what I find so exhausting about using crutches is not only the awkwardness of carrying my own weight in a way my body wasn’t designed for or the tedium of having to think hard about every single step I take. It’s also bearing the weight of strangers’ overwhelming indifference to my situation. Many have stopped to hold doors, help me carry things and commiserate with their own tales of injury, and to these good people I’m deeply grateful. But many is, unfortunately, not the same thing as most. Most people are far too wrapped up in the minutiae of their day to take a few seconds to help a person who is obviously struggling.
I’m trying to embrace empathy wherever I can get it, and I hear a bit of that empathy in “Crutch.”
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nail’s 1989 debut album. Relative to what Nine Inch Nails eventually became, PHM is an odd (and according to Trent Reznor, embarrassing) outlier in the NIN catalog, an artifact that sounds much more “of its time” than NIN’s iconic ’90s records. It’s also a massively influential and widely beloved album in its own right, and happens to contain two of my all-time favorite Nine Inch Nails songs–the perennially relevant anti-capitalist pop anthem “Head Like a Hole” and the claustrophobically funky “Down In It,” perhaps the Prince-iest thing Reznor ever recorded.
Written when Trent Reznor was 24 years old, mostly at night in Reznor’s off time from a job cleaning toilets in a recording studio in Cleveland, Ohio, PHM‘s seething blend of Midwestern new wave, heavy rock and sample-driven industrial sounded, for better and for worse, quite unlike anything else. Influenced by Reznor’s love of Devo and Depeche Mode, as well as the aforementioned Prince, PHM was the first step on Reznor’s journey into melding the raw, introspective darkness of industrial artists like Coil and Ministry with the extroverted, head-banging, fist-pumping energy of pop. It sounded, to many young people, like a revelation. It’s difficult to understate the impact PHM had on the next generation of artists. According to the Faint’s Todd Fink, “Pretty Hate Machine was the start of a whole new way of thinking about electronic music for me.”
Perhaps the most important thing PHM accomplished was introducing the world to Reznor himself–his figurative voice as a songwriter, blunt, dark and jaundiced–but also his literal voice, riding high atop the mix, with its incredible dynamic range from seductive whisper to bloodcurdling shriek. While Reznor has evolved significantly as a producer, songwriter and instrumentalist, his vocal chops seem to have arrived fully formed and remain one of PHM‘s strongest features.
Trent is an icon from that period of music, and he always will be. There are so many talented artists from that amazing, explosive era. Trent is way up there. He was fully committed towards chaos and was insanely upset at the world. He just was not happy—just not a happy kid, and primarily, it was because of that insanely awful record deal. Also, Cleveland is really dreary.
Pretty Hate Machine is a brooding, angry album with lots of textures and sounds. It’s all about Trent’s voice. He has the ability, when he sings, that, from the moment you hear his voice, you are sucked in, and that’s the reason why that record was so monumental.
For more insight into PHM, I highly recommend Daphne Carr’s 2011 33 1/3 book on Pretty Hate Machine. It is, no joke, the book that got me into Nine Inch Nails. Combining Carr’s personal insight as an NIN fan with her academic training as an oral historian, Pretty Hate Machine (the book) gives vital context to the splendor and misery of PHM (the album) in a way that made NIN finally make sense to me. I grew up in the heart of Nine Inch Nails country (the rural, post-industrial midwest of the 1990s) but I didn’t become a full-blown NIN fan until age 28, when I read Daphne’s book.
Shortly after reading the book and hearing the album for the first time in full, I developed my own musical scheme which–though it has yet to be sonically realized in full–I will go ahead and share with you now. It’s an EP titled p3tty h8 m4chin3, a series of atypical Nine Inch Nails covers that I can only describe as “unabashedly girly,” written from the perspective of a teenage NIN stan. I had hoped to finish in time for the PHM 30th anniversary, but it’s still very much in the nascent stages. (Turns out, making records is really hard!!) I would like to state, for the record, that my idea predates Reznor’s own upbeat girly-pop reworkings of NIN songs featured in a recent episode of Black Mirror, as performed by Miley Cyrus. Rather than changing the literal meaning of the songs by rewriting the lyrics, as Reznor did for Black Mirror, I’m interesting in seeing what I can do to bring my own meaning to the music through an unusual and seemingly inappropriate sonic approach–a disco edit of “Head Like a Hole,” for example. It could be great, or it could be a disaster. However it turns out, I’m hereby committed to sharing it with the world when I finish it.
Hello again! It’s been a minute. How are you? I’ve been better.
Last Friday night, I tripped on my way down the subway stairs, sprained my ankle and fractured the navicular bone in my left foot. The fracture typically takes about six weeks to heal, so for the next month or so I’ll be getting around on crutches. In New York City, this is no easy feat–the MTA is notoriously user-unfriendly to folks with mobility issues, and I rely on it for everyday transit from my apartment in Bushwick to my job in the East Village. My commute to my day job has effectively tripled in both time and cost. (I have to take a cab from my apartment to the nearest disability-accessible subway station.)
After just two days of this exhausting grind, I already have enormous empathy for New Yorkers with both short- and long-term mobility issues. Navigating this city is, as this Vice article bluntly puts it, “a nightmare for disabled people.” Fortunately, the people in this city have been, on the whole, remarkably kind and helpful in light of my situation. But the kindness of strangers can’t fix a horribly broken system.
In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, I’m in surprisingly good spirits. In being forced to slow down, take it easy, and find things to do that don’t involve much walking around, I’ve run out of excuses not to write. So, welcome back! Let’s talk about Fugazi again.
“Waiting Room” is an iconic Fugazi single for a reason. In just the first few instrumental bars, the song establishes a powerful thesis statement. Joe Lally’s earworm bass line and the “tick, tick, tick” of Brendan Canty’s drum hits establish a claustrophobic groove that deftly telegraphs the song’s themes of boredom, frustration, restlessness and finally joyful defiance of the stultifying rhythms of everyday life. By the time Ian Mackaye crows, “Iiiiiyam a PATIENT boy,” his voice absolutely dripping with sarcasm, you almost already know what the song is about.
A waiting room can be a literal physical space–an orthopedist’s office, say–but in many ways, it’s also a frame of mind. The “waiting room” Mackaye describes is the realm of compliance, of simply marking time without wondering why the wait is so damn long. When Guy Picciotto urges the listener to “c’mon and GET UP,” he urges us to replace compliance with defiance and demand answers.
The waiting room is built to convince you that you’re alone in your struggle, just another patient waiting to be healed. But if you take a purely stoical approach to real problems, like, say, the fact that it takes forever and a day to get anywhere on crutches in this city, you miss out on the bigger picture: the shocking lack of disability-accessible public transit. You think that you’re the broken one, but really it’s the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and the whole damn building.
So, if you can, get up and get out. Another world is possible.
Hello! If you follow me on Twitter and/or Instagram, hopefully my extended web presence has assured you that I am not dead, only extraordinarily back on my bullshit–my bullshit, in this case, being a tendency to take on eighteen new projects at once with minimal regard to my overall health, sanity, or ability to follow through on existing commitments. Please know that there is more Good Blog Content a-comin’ down the chute, and that you, the reader, may look forward to a bright future of fairly regular blog updates as soon as I get over this latest hump of Oh God What Have I Gotten Myself Into.
MEANWHILE, a brief survey of my latest ventures:
- DRUM LESSONS: I am taking them! More on that soon.
- AN ETSY STORE: I have one! Would you like to exchange some money for a handcrafted, tangible artifact produced by yours truly? I hope so! I promise not to muddy the waters of Thoughtful Popular Music Discourse with excess salesmanship, but suffice to say it’s a thing I do now, merch is where the money is, and money is, loathe though we the punx are to admit it, a nice thing to have at one’s disposal.
Anyway, as soon as things settle down a bit and I switch gears to a wordier mode of being, I have a new interview I’m excited to share, more album reviews, more Takes, and more more. Watch this space!
Alex DiFrancesco is a great writer, a voluble Twitter presence, and an all-around cool cat who I am pleased to call a friend. Alex’s new memoir Psychopomps is out now on Civil Coping Mechanisms/The Accomplices and their second novel, All City, comes out June 18th on Seven Stories Press. Alex and I originally met as coworkers and bonded over our shared love of– among other things–writing, music, and writing about music, so Alex was the first person who came to mind when I decided to launch this new interview series. Alex and I sat down for a conversation last Sunday, April 14th. Read on!
Good morning. What’s the last song you listened to?
Gillian Welch’s “The Way it Goes” in on shuffle at this very moment, and I’m quite pleased.
I just realized it’s April 14th! “April the 14th Pt. 1” is my all-time favorite Gillian Welch jam. What’s yours?
Actually, exactly the same one. I once had a partner who was a fellow writer. I put that song on a playlist for them shortly before we did a reading event in Detroit that got written up in a local newspaper. Their response to seeing the write-up was, “Holy shit, we did better than the punks in that Gillian Welch song.” The lyric they were referring to was, “They looked sick and stoned, and strangely dressed/ No one showed from the local press.”
I also love that particular verse of “April the 14th,” especially the way she ends on “…and I wish I played in a rock’n’roll band.”
Some day I want to make a mix of “songs about musicians watching other musicians.” I’ve only got two so far though. (“April the 14th,” and “Talby” by Pinback.) What’s a mix concept you’d like to realize?
I’ve been trying to round out my writing playlists. I have a few requirements for music I listen to while I write–namely that it’s instrumental and experimental, that it makes my brain kind of sink into a fertile place for creativity while blocking out the noise of the world. My two mainstays have been William Basinki’s The Disintegration Loops and The Lounge Lizards’ Queen of All Ears (minus “Yak”), but I’ve wanted to branch out more in the same vein. The experiential fiction writer Never Angel North (who also published her work under the name Sara June Woods) and the experimental poet Margo M both tag teamed a great recommendation playlist that includes 00I00, Moondog, Winged Victory for the Sullen, and more great stuff I’m still wading through. Totally my dream playlist from two of my favorite writers.
Do you ever listen to CAN while you write? I’ve always had good luck with CAN.
No, but I will check them out!
Lyrics are tricky, though. I’m the kind of person who can’t NOT hear lyrics unless I already know them by heart, or they’re in a language I don’t understand–but even then! I’m very, very tuned in to words.
I’m usually big on lyric-heavy music (Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Townes Van Zandt), so finding stuff without for writing is a challenge for me. Sometimes, as you noted, stuff like Edith Piaf who sings in French, is fine, but I usually can’t do lyrics while writing at all.
Speaking of words, you have a dang novel coming out!! How are you feeling about it?
Yeah! I have a novel, ALL CITY, coming out on June 18th! I’m amped! It’s already got a glowing review in Publishers Weekly and amazing blurbs from some of my favorite writers. My publishers are doing an amazing job building it up, and I’m really thrilled to be releasing it and doing a bit of a DIY book tour (my publicist set up events in places I have couches to crash on.) I’ll be in NYC, Philly, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit.
How would you describe the soundtrack to your novel?
I once made playlists for all the characters. I only remember that the rich art collector listens to Madonna’s–not Sinead’s–version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The main badass, who works at the convenience store chain that has taken over NYC and organizes a utopian squat after a superstorm, listens to Detroit techno, and the queer squatter who lives in an old train station listens to riot-folk and sings Woody Guthrie songs.
Hell yeah. Thank you!
Preorder ALL CITY from Seven Stories Press.
Let me preface this Take by saying that I am, in general, a huge fan of Washington Post music editor Chris Richards. He’s a great writer and a great performer. His band Q and Not U effectively jumped me into the Indie Rock Fandom of the early ’00s. But this is the internet, and sometimes even good people do Bad Takes. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to respectfully disagree with Richards’ recent editorial, “Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time?”
Richards makes some salient points about the risks of shotgunning too much glossy, overproduced audio-narrative content. There is only so much time in the day, and obviously, if you’re a serious music fan, it would behoove you to spend as much time as possible putting tunes in yr ears. But there’s something a bit “old man yells at cloud” about Richards’ rhetorical attachment to the argument that listening to music and listening to podcasts are somehow conflicting, mutually exclusive activities. It’s true that you can’t do both simultaneously; it’s also true that it can be very hard to follow a podcast while trying to do verbally-active creative work like writing. So I can see how, from a professional music journalist’s perspective, podcasts could seem like a dangerous time-suck. In my personal experience, though, podcasts can be an amazing supplement to the music listening experience.
I’m a longtime fan and supporter of Maximum Fun, a DIY, listener-supported podcast network responsible for a truly dizzying amount of good audio content (including bonafide Podcast Hits like My Brother, My Brother and Me.) I’ve been listening to MaxFun since–well, again, high school–back when the “network” was just two shows produced in the living room of MaxFun guru and Bullseye host Jesse Thorne. Thorne is a serious music fan, a hilarious dude, a fellow migraine sufferer, and an all-around great guy who, in my opinion, actively makes the worlds of both music and podcasting a better place.
In the punk nomenclature of the Minutemen, all art can be effectively broken down into two categories: “flyers” and “gigs.” The flyer is what gets people in the door, but the gig is the real creative experience. In Jesse Thorne’s case, laid-back, freewheeling comic repartee is the flyer, but the gig is Thorne’s sincere, thoughtful and eclectic love of music and pop culture. Thorne is a terrific interviewer, and his conversations with musicians have played a crucial role in expanding my understanding of popular music.
As a kid growing up a rural, intensely white part of Michigan in the early ’00s, I had less than zero real-life exposure to knowledgeable discourse about contemporary music, particularly genres like hip hop and R&B. As dorky as it sounds, Bullseye (formerly known as The Sound of Young America) was effectively my gateway into rap fandom. Beyond that, Thorne’s conversations with musicians like Meshell Ndgeocello, Betty Davis and Shamir hepped me to some truly wonderful classic and contemporary Black music.
Now, here’s the kicker: the reason I gravitated to Jesse Thorne’s work in the first place actually comes full circle back to Chris Richards and the Dischord punk scene. As a teen punk rocker, I was a huge fan of Nation of Ulysses, elder statesmen of the D.C. post-hardcore scene whose playful, genre-agnostic approach to blending hardcore punk with elements of jazz and soul paved the way for–I’m willing to wager–subsequent Dischord acts like Q and not U. And–get this–one of my favorite Nation of Ulysses songs is called “The Sound of Young America.”
My point is, none of this stuff is mutually exclusive. Podcasts and music can meaningfully coexist as art forms. In fact, I think they have a lot to teach each other.
If you, like me, are trapped in a persistent “can’t sleep, spring will eat me” cycle of late, might I recommend Philadelphia, PA’s The Spirit of the Beehive? Hypnic Jerks was one of my favorite albums of 2018 and, folks, she holds up! Lately I’ve been in a weird (but good weird) insomnia-abetted creative flow state and Hypnic Jerks is the perfect soundtrack. It’s less of an album and more of a dreamlike montage of lo-fi rock half-songs that drift in and out of consciousness almost imperceptibly, the sounds of a restless mind trying to sleep but subliminally fighting to stay woke.
Hello! Did everyone watch Chair Game Show this weekend? How ’bout them Storks(?)
I’m in the process of getting Baby’s First Tat – not literally right now, still working on the design, etc. – but, in anticipation of the event, I put together a playlist! It’s the in-store soundtrack to the imaginary cool tattoo parlor of my dreams. Share and enjoy.
Look: it’s Sunday, we’re all sleep deprived and staring down yet another hell week of crazy news, relentless narcissism and evil global machinations. We need a treat. We need “Mantra Moderne.” We need gorgeous European millennials cosplaying as bedazzled Laurel Canyon hippies. Yes to love. Yes to life. Yes to staying in more.