Monthly Archives: August 2011

“At Seventeen” — Janis Ian


I don’t remember why I bought the soundtrack to Teaching Mrs. Tingle; I certainly hadn’t yet seen the movie. The disc was probably on sale at Hastings and as I knew of the movie as something daring, risqué and above all, popular, I decided to purchase it. In it, I found my home.

“At Seventeen” was originally performed by Janis Ian, but the soundtrack featured a cover by Tara MacLean. I prefer the original but both women sing with a haunting, ethereal elegance. It’s the lyrics, though, that held—and still hold—me under their spell.

I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens

And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired”

This became my anthem. I can still see myself, literally at seventeen, ripped from the relative comfort of my hometown (where, if not exactly universally loved by the boys in my class, I was at least universally known as “that smart girl”) and placed into an overcrowded dorm hall teeming with the impossibly beautiful. To me, they seemed unapproachably perfect, leaders of lives I could only dream. It’s no accident that my Meyers-Briggs score shifted from extrovert to introvert during that first year of college. Faced with other women who appeared so much more confident, happy and special than I, I retreated into my shell. While my roommate partied, I hunched over textbooks and listened to this song on repeat.

“The valentines I never knew

The Friday-night charades of youth

Were spent on one more beautiful

At seventeen I learned the truth”

The rhetorician in me appreciates the antimetabole in lines 1 and 8. It’s a subtler form of repetition than I encounter in current songs (Justin Bieber’s sixty-four—yes, I counted, and you would too if you had to listen to it twice while chaperoning an eighth-grade dance—repetitions of the word “baby” come to mind).

“And those of us with ravaged faces

Lacking in the social graces

Desperately remained at home

Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say come dance with me

And murmured vague obscenities

It isn’t all it seems

At seventeen”

It’s easy to look back with nostalgia, isn’t it? Sometimes I long for those days, at seventeen, when the world was wide open, its realities undiscovered, a place where “vague obscenities” were all I knew to imagine because my reality was wholly innocent. This song reminds me that time has dulled the edges of my teenage angst as it has swept away the all-too-real pain, leaving only fond memories behind.

“To those of us who knew the pain

Of valentines that never came

And those whose names were never called

When choosing sides for basketball

It was long ago and far away

The world was younger than today

And dreams were all they gave for free

To ugly-duckling girls like me”

No one in my generation had to experience the first pain. After all, we were required to bring valentines to every member of the class. Remember trying to choose the non-sappy pre-printed messages for the people you simply didn’t know? I do. Besides, I’d have been absolutely grateful if my name hadn’t been called during a basketball game. Still, “The world was younger than today” because I was younger, unacquainted with the paralyzing complexities of life.

“We all play the game

When we dare

To cheat ourselves at solitaire

Inventing lovers on the phone

Repenting other lives unknown

They call and say

Come dance with me

And murmur vague obscenities

At ugly girls like me

At seventeen

At seventeen”

Isn’t that a powerful image? Cheating oneself at a game of solitaire. How utterly fruitless. You still lose, don’t you? But it’s the line “Repenting other lives unknown” that speaks to me now. Countless times, I’ve frantically reviewed every event in my life to try to pinpoint that one moment, that one decision that would have changed everything. Maybe, if I’d done it differently, I’d have become a completely different person—thinner, perhaps; happier; deserving of (and possessing) love . . .

In a little over four months, I’ll be twenty-seven. And ten years later, I’ll admit that this song still speaks to me. After all, I am single, and not exactly by choice. I miss myself at seventeen—the innocence, the earnest desire to help others, the hunger for new experiences. To me, this song is about embracing that time in my life . . . and, perhaps, leaving it behind.

Find more artists like Janis Ian at Myspace Music.


“Spider Fingers” – Bruce Hornsby

So nice to be here
With all you good people
Is anybody listening
To what we’re doing tonight
Could you give us a chance
While you hit the sauce
Might try a little flash up here
Just to get ourselves across

So sings Bruce Hornsby in the opening track of his 1995 album Hot House. The singer and his colleagues have found themselves in a situation dreaded by all entertainers — performing for a bored and disinterested audience.

I first heard this tune in high school. At the time I had only participated in performances where each of the audiences was mostly interested in what we had to share — symphonic band and jazz band concerts for the parents, siblings and friends of my fellow musically inclined students. I won’t pretend that every audience member attending these concerts was just dying to be there but they were courteous enough to listen to what was going on. So while I enjoyed listening to “Spider Fingers” — both for its narrative and its musical quality — I was unable to relate to the story shared by the singer.

That changed in the summer of 2001. Not more than a week after being graduated from Columbus High, my high school band director invited me to play bass as part of a jazz quartet for a wedding reception in Winder, Georgia. I don’t recall my reaction but I suspect that I was both excited and a little nervous. On one hand, the opportunity to play for money and to gain some performance experience in an ”uncontrolled” environment was one I am certain I would have relished at the time. On the other, I suspect I was anxious about playing for an audience that wouldn’t have told me the performance was great even if it were lousy.

Well we better do something
Before they tell us to get lost
Sometimes you’ve just got to repeat yourself
Just to get your point across

We started playing before the majority of the audience arrived — this turned out to be fortuitous because we wouldn’t have played much at all if we had waited. After the last of the guests floated in, we managed to finish our renditions of “Maiden Voyage” and “Song For My Father” before it was clear that we may as well have engaged in Tuvan throat singing for all the attention we were paid. While it’s not clear if the singer in Hornsby’s tune managed eventually to engage the audience (a la Sussudio), our jazz quartet failed abjectly to generate so much as a spark of interest. Oddly enough, I recall not minding so much that the gig terminated rather earlier than expected — in part because I still got paid the full amount promised and in part because it meant I was able to return to Columbus at a more reasonable hour than originally anticipated.

“Spider Fingers” is a song that never leaves my otherwise dynamic “Top Five Favourite Songs List.” It’s a nickname I earned in an online Star Trek group for my quick reflexes at what we called Scrambler (where the goal was to be the fastest to decipher, for example, RMTTTAEIAN TTNMNNOECIA as ANTIMATTER CONTAINMENT). It’s a tune I heard in Safeway in 2009 (much to the consternation of my fellow shoppers when they realized someone in the store was gleefully singing the lyrics to a tune they had probably never heard). It’s a reminder that I will always be on what is generally perceived as the “wrong side” of public opinion regarding what constitutes good music.

That’s just a list of its significances to me. To Hornsby:

It’s just a little hand trick
A little prestidigitation
Better get out your Hanon
Practice and repetition

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“Pancho and Lefty” — Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (written by Townes Van Zandt)

As it turns out, I don’t know any lullabies. Also, I can’t sing. This was never a problem for me before, but on the day our son Tommy was born I found myself in quite a pickle:

So my wife is exhausted and in need of sleep after the delivery. As the dutiful husband and doting father, I’m going to take control of the situation and get the baby to go to sleep. Easy enough: just plop down in the rocking chair and give the little guy a bottle. Maybe walk around the room with him. Problem solved.

So I’m holding this baby and I have my strategy to get him to sleep, and for some reason I feel like I’m supposed to be singing him a lullaby, of which I know exactly zero. I know there’s the one about a baby in a tree but that seems incredibly dangerous and I don’t know all of the words. And it’s late and I’m tired and I need to sing a song so I open my mouth and this is what comes out:

“Livin’ on the road my friend

Was gonna keep you free and clean

Now you wear skin like iron

And your breath’s as hard as kerosene

You weren’t your mama’s only boy

But her favorite one it seems

She began to cry when you said goodbye

And sank into your dreams”

Shit, this isn’t even close to a lullaby.

I should mention that I have this odd condition: sometimes when I have a few beers, I find myself listening to incredibly sad songs. I am not a sad person and I don’t get sad if I drink. I just like a good sad song with a cold beer and I am quite the connoisseur of sad songs. Unrequited love? Good. Drunk and broke in a gutter? Great. Bandit dies in the desert down in Mexico after being sold out to the Federales by his best friend who then grows old and lives with his constant guilt – in Cleveland? Fucking amazing. As far as sad songs go, “Pancho and Lefty” doesn’t stab you in the heart. It goes for the gut with a dull blade and then twists. And I love every line.

Here is how I justify “Pancho and Lefty” as a lullaby. First, I know all of the words and it only requires that you can barely sing. The lyrics are simple and meaningful. Not a single line is frivolous. It tells a story with just enough information for us to know the important parts of the story and allows us to fill in the gaps.

Second, there are several lessons to be learned. Don’t break your mother’s heart. Don’t betray your friends. Pray for those you love. Pray for those you hate. Don’t move to Cleveland.

Tommy is one and a half now. I still have not bothered to learn any lullabies. We don’t need them. We have Pancho and Lefty and the Federales and the lessons we have learned. And I know that Tommy will not remember any of the times I sang “Pancho and Lefty” to him. That first night in the hospital. All the nights at 3:00 AM when I have work the next day. Yesterday. That’s okay. I’ll remember for the both of us.

Find more artists like Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard at Myspace Music.

“The Wood Song” — The Indigo Girls (i.e., the song that saved my life)

I tried to kill myself when I was 17.  I know, I know… you’re thinking “hell, who doesn’t?”… but really.  I did.

It wasn’t a particularly dramatic attempt.  No pills, pistols, nooses or knives.  I simply lay down in the parking lot of City Park East on a bitterly cold night in January and decided I wouldn’t get up again.  Hypothermia: effective, yet kinder to the people who would find me later.

Earlier that evening, I had gone to a funeral home for the very first time.  The body of a dear friend was laid out on display which was slightly amazing since he’d shot himself in the head two days prior.  I walked up to the casket and stared; I had never seen a dead body before.  He looked strange… his face and hands looked waxy and fake… a body sans soul.  Everything that made him look like him was gone.  And it was never coming back.  Ever.

Our last interaction was a fight.  The day he shot himself, I had actually written “Call John” on my to-do list so maybe we could reconnect.  That same day, he told the last person to see him alive that he hated me and wanted to make my life a living hell. He very nearly succeeded.

The rumors spread.  He did it to spite me.  It was my fault. Or so my little grief-mortared brain believed.  And so I lay down on that asphalt, determined to make amends – life for a life, right?  I stayed there a long, long time.  Long enough that I stopped feeling my fingers.  Long enough that I stopped feeling cold.  Long enough that I stopped feeling anything.

And then an odd, startling sound broke my reverie.

I flinched… who the hell is at the park at this time of night?  Is it a drug dealer, a rapist, a psycho?  Is someone going to kill me?  And then it occurred to me… maybe I didn’t really want to die just yet.  I crawled to my car chanting “I’m gonna live so goddamn long and be so goddamn happy just to spite them…” under my breath.

That’s how the next couple of months went – metaphorically speaking.  I was too numb to walk, so I crawled.  I felt wooden.  And tired.  And old.  And every day I listened to the Indigo Girls remind me that it was supposed to be hard but that it was worth it.

…but what it takes to cross the great divide

Seems more than all the courage I can muster up inside

But we get to have some answers when we reach the other side

The prize is always worth the rocky ride


Now… I didn’t really believe them.  But I wanted to.  I wanted an answer.  And a prize at the end of the ride.  And so I listened.  Sometimes just wanting to believe is good enough to get you through.

I wish I had an answer to the great big “WHY?” that hangs over this memory, but I don’t. The song speaks of a “greater hand” and a “tricky plan,” and while that gives many people comfort, I’m not convinced that the divine plan ever includes things like suicide.  Or murder, or drunken car wrecks or childhood cancer or any number of other awful things.  I just don’t think God is an asshole, sadist or tyrant.  I don’t think S/He sends tragedy to teach us lessons.

And yet tragedy happens.  With alarming (ir)regularity.  And we are changed by it.  No other event in my life has shaped me like this one.

How are we to live with this?  This knowing that tragedy can strike unbidden at any moment?


But the question drowns in its futility

And even I have got to laugh at me

‘Cause no one gets to miss the storm of what will be

Just holding on for the ride

We walk.  We crawl if need be.  We laugh at ourselves and we hold on.  To each other especially.

Seventeen years have passed since that night.  I still miss my friend.  I include this song on almost every mix cd I ever make.  I refer to it as “the song that saved my life.”  I have tried to wring some good out of his death by allowing it to change me for the better, but you can bet your ass I would trade any virtue I may have gained for a single night at the Waffle House with him.  But until a genie pops out of some half-empty bottle of Shiraz and offers to alter time in exchange for my firstborn, I keep sailing my little wooden boat and chuckling to myself how things work out — I grew up to be a grief counselor.

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“The Suburbs” — Arcade Fire

“The Suburbs” is the heavy opener and titular track from Arcade Fire’s grammy winning latest album. It is, in my opinion, a near-perfect opening and a summary for the entirety of the album. I myself, and I believe anyone, can connect with the universal message here that is perhaps not unique, but nevertheless both heart-wrenching and beautiful.

In the suburbs I
I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys we’re leavin’

You always seemed so sure
That one day we’d be fighting
A suburban war
your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore

But by the time the first bombs fell
We were already bored
We were already, already bored

There is a clear idea here of an apocalypse, be it a literal one or rather the emotional wrecking of one’s reality. The secure bubble of childhood lost, “moving past the feeling” into the crushing sterility and starkness of consciousness, “into the night.” Right off there’s a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that for me almost becomes bitter throughout the song. The idea of a naïve sense of boredom even as “the first bombs fell” lends itself to the prominent theme of childhood.

Kids wanna be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screaming, running through the yard

There’s a heartbreaking realization there: the difference in today’s youth and that of the suburb-dwelling generation of the 1970s. The responsibilities given and the adult roles taken by today’s youth are in stark contrast to the quieter, simpler beauty of a childhood spent in what seems in retrospect a dreamlike innocence.

The poignant image of “all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall,” i.e., the death of the quintessential suburb, is I believe one of the key lines of the song. There’s a repeated reference throughout of a reverence for the past, the time before the end of the peaceful life of the suburbs. That part of life passes like “it meant nothing at all.” I see it as less of a physical end and perhaps more of a coming-of-age story, a classic pining for the days before the stifling, mind-numbing complacency of adulthood. The playful, simple chords would help suggest this; there’s a clear childlike playfulness throughout, despite the underlying melancholy of the lyrics.

After these unpleasant truths we’re asked:

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before this damage is done

This phrase almost brings me to tears. After the clear ending of an entire way of life, growing up on a natural, untouched beauty, the onslaught of adulthood and the horrors faced in this modern age by ourselves and by nature brings a desperate desire for a daughter before it’s too late. To show her the beauty of the world while it still stands, before the evils we’ve set upon it rend it to an incomprehensible form. I can’t wait to have kids, because even in my short lifespan I’ve watched my childhood playgrounds become dangerous, supervision-dependent havens in what were once green and unfettered imaginariums. Even as air quality warnings prevent us from setting foot outside with a clear head and a worry-free heart, it’s imperative that we show our children the beauty still left in this world…that we watch the cool air kick up the skirts and blow the hair of our futures as they run out to play.

Image courtesy of

Under the overpass
In the parking lot we’re still waiting

It’s already passed

So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass

Cause it’s already passed
It’s already, already passed

Whatever thing passes, be it a storm representative of the dangers we’ll face or indeed a hint of the coming end of our kid kingdom, we’re beckoned to move off the steaming pavement and feel the pleasantness of the cool grass between our toes.

Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m movin’ past the feeling
Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m movin’ past the feeling again

I know I already can’t believe the years that have passed, though I still (God-willing) have many yet ahead. Here we see that the narrator is moving past that stage of his life, moving on for better or for worse. But there’s clearly a lingering memory of a simpler time, of a better time. What we make of our future is all on us, and perhaps the only saving grace of the loss of that physical and mental world is that we learned from it what lessons we could. Regardless of how much we separate ourselves from whatever golden age we experienced, in our dreams “we’re still screamin.”

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A couple of years ago, as I made the short drive home with the divine future Mrs. Kiefer at my side, we were treated to the intense rhythmic chanting of a rising pop superstar courtesy of our local top-40 pop station.

At that moment, we were not aware it was someone new. The music was dance-able. The lyrics were a scathingly sarcastic treatment of what we believed to be the typical evening of the loosely-moraled club-going crowd. We bantered back and forth about who it was, pointing out inflections and styles we thought to be signature of Gaga or Perry. Who could pull off this brilliantly satirical, self-parodying song?

At the close of the song, we were crushed when the station DJ neglected to speak the name or the title of the song. Left in the dark, we quickly forgot about it and started singing along with the next song.

A short time later, while cleaning the house, we were tuned into the pop cable music station, and again comes the song! This time — thanks to the on-screen information provided by Comcast — we saw, we learned, we smiled.

Ke$ha, it was.

Okay… who? To the internet!

As that repository of all things possibly true revealed, it was not for no reason that we could not agree who Ke$ha sounded like. She sounds like every pop singer, having demonstrated her backup vocal talent for such household names as Paris Hilton and Flo Rida. However, armed with a notebook bursting with her own creations, the time came for this budding star to take her place among the giants of entertainment.

Her debut single, entitled Tik-Tok, first startled the sleepy pop nation into awareness in late summer 2009. Half-sung, half-rapped, Tik-Tok deconstructs the deplorable, self-destructive lifestyle of a broke, shameless twenty-something woman whose lifestyle revolves around the practice known as “clubbing.” While clearly an outsider observing this walking wasteland of humanity, Ke$ha nonetheless manages to step into the shoes of this depraved club-goer and presents us with a beautifully tragic portrait of a woman trapped in a cycle from which it is implied that the only possible escape may be death or imprisonment.

The remainder of Ke$ha’s extensive musical library contains similar glimpses into the drug, drink, and debauchery-filled life of this young woman. While one may dance to the beat and thoughtlessly ape the lyrics, I implore you to take a moment to be still and absorb the words of Ke$ha. As Waylon Jennings once admonished the country fans of the world concerning cowboys: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be club-goers.

Image courtesy of

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“Out Of Order” — Duncan Sheik

“Out Of Order” is the seventh track of Duncan Sheik’s eponymous 1996 debut album.  Fifteen years later, I am given to wonder why “Out Of Order” was not a choice for a single over the less impressive “Reasons For Living” — but I lean toward cutting Sheik some slack since the decision was probably made by Atlantic and thus completely out of his hands.

I hear what you’re sayin’
I may seem out of order
Nothing’s quite the same now
As it ever was before her
And you’re lookin’ at me
With one of those sideways glances
You say I’m givin’ up too much
And takin’ too many chances

It is tempting to presume the ensorcelled narrator is male and is being counseled by another male friend; but the genders of the narrator and narrator’s friend have no bearing upon the meaning of the tune.  It’s a situation in which most of us have found ourselves on one side:  either blinded by love or lust because someone batted his or her eyes at us and consequently having jettisoned our brain which in turn gives us license to ignore the curiously savvy advice of an outsider; or else playing the roll of the curiously savvy outsider desperately pleading with our friend to see reality but possibly with a selfish agenda of our own.  To wit:

But I won’t believe you now
I’ve got to check this out
Nothin’ you can say
Will convince me otherwise
You’re just tryin’ to be a friend
I know the message is well meant
But none of it does compare to her eyes

What is most mindbending about this scenario is that if the rolls were reversed, the narrator’s friend (who is hypothetically flummoxed by someone) would turn an equally deaf ear to the pleas of the narrator (who has magically become the curiously savvy outsider).  This is the real kicker — we so freely dispense advice to others that we would abjure with alacrity if we found ourselves in the same situation receiving the advice we so adamantly offered.

Is it really so difficult to view our own lives with the same Lecteresque clarity by which we judge everyone else’s predicaments?

Find more artists like Duncan Sheik at Myspace Music.

“Someday You Will Be Loved” — Death Cab for Cutie

In the morning I fled

Left a note and it read

Someday you will be loved.

Death Cab for Cutie consistently create amazing music and lyrics. This song, like so many of their works, uses simple words to convey powerful feelings. This power of the simple, combined with the vocals and composition, gels into a song that is haunting, emotional, beautiful.

That said, this is not my favorite song. It can’t be.

I don’t listen to it very often. I can’t.

When I do listen to it, I don’t connect much with the *speaker* of the lyrics. Instead, I think of the girl he sings about. In my mind, she is the girl I used to be: my middle school and high school self.

I like that girl. She’s really pretty cool. She knows how to have fun, she’s intelligent, she’s cute, and she makes people laugh. But in spite of all that, I can’t hang out with her too often because she breaks my freaking heart.

Her tragic flaw is that she bases about 90% of her self-worth upon whether or not she has a boy’s attention. This is a dangerous game to play, especially if you aren’t the most emotionally stable kid on the block. And she isn’t.

In this game, she can’t win. So instead she loses. Every single time.

There are lots of reasons for why she’s like this, reasons that aren’t that interesting to me anymore. The *why* of it isn’t the point, anyway. The point is the *is* of it.

Since she is cute and fun, boys do take an interest in her from time to time. When one does, she clings to this guy and tries to figure out ways to keep him interested. Inevitably, the boy one day decides that he wants to date other girls or just be single. When this happens, she can’t handle it. Her reaction is huge, irrational, broken. The hammer smashes her heart. She isn’t being fair, but she can’t see that. And the cycle happens again and again.

With a couple of exceptions, these boys aren’t *bad* guys — but they are teenagers. She is, too, but her wiring doesn’t allow her to see that school-age dating is supposed to be casual and fun. She needs it to be something else, to do something else. She needs it to fill a void. Sadly, she doesn’t understand that high school romances aren’t real or deep enough to do that.

The worst bit is that she is so fixated on obtaining and holding onto a guy’s attention (which she equates with approval), that she misses out on opportunities for some really positive teenage experiences. I don’t mean to say that she doesn’t have any positive experiences. She does. But she misses out because she can’t always appreciate them because of the control she allows this unhealthy obsession to wield over her life during these tender years. That’s really tragic, you know, because she can’t have a *do over* (unless time travel becomes a real option).

I feel an overwhelming sadness for my teenage self. She’s so wrong about so many things. But she’s also important to me. I need to remember her experiences, honor her emotions (no matter how crazy they were sometimes), and accept that she plays a crucial — maybe necessary? — role in how I *finally* woke up. (That happened in college.)

I can’t do it often, but there are times when I need to take a moment to love on this girl. I like trying to heal her wounds, because I know that I carry a part of her within me. And so, “Someday You Will Be Loved” is the vehicle I use when I need to visit her. I imagine holding her hand, wiping her eyes, brushing her hair, and telling her about all the experiences she will have that will help her to understand that she is bigger than the trivial way she measures her worth. I try to explain that in a few short years the things she’s so worried about right now won’t matter to her anymore and that she will gain a new, clearer understanding of herself. I show her pictures of the friends she will meet in college, the man she will marry, the students she will teach, the son she will have.

I stay with her for a while and then I go, and while I can never change her past, I can always acknowledge it as a part of the journey that made me who I am today. It feels nice to do that.

Oh, and that stuff I said earlier about most of those ex-boyfriends being good guys? I meant that. Really. reallyreally.

But I have to say, the guy in the song is an ass and a coward. Yeah, yeah, I know. He is saying she will be better off with someone who will love her like she deserves to be loved. Sorry, I call bullshit on that. Good intentions or not, this dude gets no respect since he essentially breaks up with this girl (who he knows is in love with him) on a Post-It.


And even though I know most of the guys I dated in high school weren’t total jerks, I do get a sick sort of vicarious pleasure in really hating the guy in the song (calling him inappropriate names, imagining ways to make him suffer, etc.).

I mean, geez, I’m only human.

Find more artists like Death Cab For Cutie at Myspace Music.