What’s an appropriate soundtrack for the end of the world? T.S. Eliot thought it would be a whimper. But maybe it should be Al Green instead.
As we head into month two of sheltering in place, some of you may be running out of things to keep you occupied. You’ve binged all the shows, done all the crosswords, finally made beef bourguignon. You’ve washed the cat. All right, maybe you haven’t washed the cat. One has to draw the line somewhere.
When not working, I’ve spent the last couple of days making a music playlist. I recommend this.
Certainly others are doing so: A search of the term “plaguelist” on the music streaming platform Spotify yields dozens upon dozens of examples. I got the idea from one of my kids’ college friends, a musician who’s squirreled away in upstate New York trying not to go around the bend from boredom. Is it a guy thing to want to make playlists — to trawl through our digital or analog milk crates of music for a lineup of songs that perfectly convey the moment in which we’re living? Not at all. Is it a guy thing to want to force other people to listen to those playlists? Yeah, probably. But since I’m not going anywhere and neither are you, I’ll share my rules for curating a musical quarantine queue. (Or you could just listen to mine by searching for “Ty’s Plaguelist” on Spotify.)
Some of these songs directly confront the black hole of annihilation. Others ignore it entirely. Still others just dance around the edge of the pit. That’s where Al Green comes in. You could string together the seven albums from 1971’s “Gets Next to You” on – plus ”The Belle Album” – and have a monumental five hours of music, but I’ve winnowed it down to one cut: The lesser-known ”Rhymes,” from 1975’s “Al Green Is Love,” in which the singer manages to make even a violent home invasion sound cuddly. Let’s hope this doesn’t become music for our times.
But first you might want to start things with jaunty ironic complacency — say, with “Sunshine,” a retro-swinging-'60s instrumental from Louis Philippe, little known in these parts but sort of France’s answer to Harry Nilsson. After that it’s advisable to downshift into that celebratory bleakness of which only the great British folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson is capable, with his 1973 ode to kicking the bucket, “When I Get to the Border” (recorded with then-wife Linda Thompson).
Next up, Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” with its pertinent warnings about what happens when you kiss a guy (“You get another chance to catch pneumonia”). Then Jonathan Richman’s “Twilight in Boston,” which is exactly like taking a long sunset walk from the Public Garden out to the Fenway with a dorky childhood friend who grew up to be the coolest person you know. After three weeks of home-stay, I listen to this track and practically weep.
To keep your mood buoyed, you really need to load up on relaxing instrumental stuff, like “Ricercar,” a gorgeous, undulating track from the reconstituted version of the beloved Penguin Café Orchestra. Or “Rolling,” an acoustic piano number from the German electronic pioneer Roedelius that somehow moves forward and stays in place at the same time.
“Swamp and Bay” from the indie rock duo Girlpool, because sometimes we all feel like exhausted, pissed-off 20-something women and because the song’s fuzz-tone power chords are Novocain to the pain in my heart.
It’s important to include love songs for our new era of Zoom-enhanced disconnect. Hoist one for American treasure John Prine and his waltz-time classic “Donald and Lydia,” which tells of two misfit lonelyhearts who can only make love “ten miles away.” (And thank the powers that be that Prine himself, last we heard, is out of critical condition after contracting the virus.) Lowell George could have penned the heartbreaking Little Feat ballad “Long Distance Love” for this very moment in time. Johnny Thunders may have checked out, but “You Can’t Put Your Arms Round a Memory” is immortal and, more startling, newly relevant.
Times like these prompt big thoughts and existential ponderings, and the best song I know about The Deity – or whatever you want to call Him/Her/It – is “Big Sky” by the Kinks, in which Ray Davies imagines a God too occupied with other matters to take much notice of human woe.
Alternately, times like these can drive a person to drink, so cue up “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,” The Magnetic Fields’s literate paean to the juniper berry: “You just get out what they put in/And they never put in enough/Love is like a bottle of gin/But a bottle of gin is not like love.“
You need comedy, dark or otherwise, which is why I have on my plaguelist Andy Irvine and Paul Brady’s 1976 version of the traditional Irish folk song “Arthur McBride,” a tale of a rumble between two roustabouts and three of Her Majesty’s soldiers that has the distinction of being both hilarious and meltingly beautiful.
You need tongue-in-cheek surrealism, which calls for a song — any song, really — from British rock eccentric Robyn Hitchcock, but for these purposes the pure pop candy of “(A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations) Briggs.”
More than anything, you need a few cuts that stare into the abyss — that acknowledge the great ever-present Chaos we paper over with civilization, and by so acknowledging help us come to terms with our night terrors, if only for the length of a song. Here’s “Demon Host,” a haunting, echo-laden 2009 track from Canada’s Timber Timbre in which a dying man wonders what’s waiting for him across the divide. Here’s The Mountain Goats’s “Harlem Roulette,” about the last day on Earth of the doo-wop singer Frankie Lymon and how “the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again.”
Here’s “Surf’s Up,” the rarely heard piano demo version of the Beach Boys song available on “The Smile Session” compilation; just Brian Wilson at the keyboard singing to himself as if he were the loneliest person in the whole wide world. And here’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard: “Gun,” from the 1974 John Cale album “Fear,” in which the real wild card of the Velvet Underground (you heard me) dives head-first into the Chaos for eight solid minutes, with Brian Eno mutating Phil Manzanera’s epic guitar solos into sonic horsemen for a new apocalypse.
After that, a respite for the ears is called for, if only to clear the blood off the floor. “Wildegeeses,” by the ancient folk trickster Michael Hurley, is a lovely slow dance about geese and ex-lovers disappearing over the horizon. And let’s end things with “Close My Eyes” from the late Arthur Russell, a protean talent who moved between disco and the avant-garde but who here sings a surpassingly simple tune of his Iowa roots, of wandering into a cornfield at night and asking “who know what grows in the morning light?” As we hunker down for the long darkness, I think we’re all wondering the same thing.
Do you have your own playlist for these dire times? Please share. It’s a good while before dawn.