Thanks, Julianne, for those warm thoughts about Turning the Tables. When my co-organizer Jill Sternheimer and I hit on the concept one New Orleans night during the Ponderosa Stomp—a gem of a festival honoring the pioneers of rock and soul’s forgotten byways—we had no idea it would resonate with so many. We just both really wanted to hear Rickie Lee Jones perform Pirates all the way through. (She did, at our launch party. I wept all the way through “Skeletons.”)
Our canon-shaking challenge was motivated most deeply by the knowledge that women making music had changed our own lives. Carole King’s Tapestry had been to the teenage Jill what Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was to the mostly-male rock criterati. The wild tales Kate Bush etched into vinyl on albums like Hounds of Love shaped my youthful bravado, just as the Clash’s London Calling did for so many punk boys I knew. I loved that Clash album, too, though. Deep listening works against essentialist gender divisions—sound seeps in, and like a hallucinogen, alters the listener’s sense of inner space, dissolving habitual boundaries around the self. (I saw 2,000 teenage girls lose themselves in the rock ’n’ roll fantasies of Harry Styles at his Ryman show this year. They yearned for their idol, but it was clear that even more than that, they wanted to claim his easy confidence as their own.) Turning the Tables simply sought to remind people that albums by women were as central to those ch-ch-ch-changes as the men’s masterpieces generally acknowledged as cultural milestones. Many people have thanked me for the list, specifically because an album they hold as dear as a diary is on it. “That album was everything to me,” Gaby Moreno, who stole the show singing Roberta Flack’s “Angelitos Negros” at our launch, said of the elder singer’s First Take. She was just happy, she said, that others might have the chance for it to touch them, too.
That’s the thing that doesn’t change about recorded music, whether it comes to us via a playlist or a 180-gram vinyl special edition. It guides us through our changes. I want to use the rest of my time with you to talk about a few songs that served that fundamental, precious function for me this year.
In March, my mother died. She was 93 and had been slipping into twilight for a while. Still, the virus that claimed her came fast, and we were inevitably unprepared for her exit. (So was she. When the kind doctor at Evergreen Hospital told her she wouldn’t be making it through what had, a day earlier, seemed like a normal winter bout, she kept repeating, “I’m so surprised.”) As my visit to a sickbed turned into a funeral trip, I wandered around the wet Seattle streets, listening over and over to Aimee Mann’s song “Goose Snow Cone.” With its circular chord progression and plaintive stair-step melody, this little song mirrored the gray wash of my emotions. “Should be shaking it loose, but you do it alone,” Mann sang in her measured, tremulous way, her tone offering comfort while acknowledging the obvious: Comfort can only go so far. “Every look is a truce, and it’s written in stone.” When I heard this song for the first time, I didn’t know what a goose snow cone could possibly be. Yet somehow, after my mother died, I was living in it: a spherical, blurred, glassed-in psychic environment. Mann captured this dulled experience of grief perfectly, though in fact she’d written the song “about” a friend’s cat.
“Goose Snow Cone” did what only songs, I think, can do: It built a little environment that could carry me around, like an invisible self-driving car. I could rest in it, look through its windows, let it show me a new way to get from A to B. Mann may have not meant her song for this purpose, or for any particular one beyond recording something she found poignant. But her song opened its door to me, and I’m grateful for the shelter.
A few months later, another death broke my family’s heart. When we moved to Nashville in 2015, Jessi Zazu became my daughter’s caretaker and a crucial friend. I’d known her laugh and her snarl from the music she made with Those Darlins, the band she’d founded out of love for the Carter Family and punk rock. We got to know her sweetness and her remarkable energy: A central player in the Southern Girls Rock Camp, our family’s personal mother church, Jessi always had a new plan to make more music, more art, a world more like the one in which the outsiders she loved could thrive. She showed my daughter that you could be cool and strong and sober and wildly creative, and make an adult life that way. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2016, we signed up to make her vegan soup and took her word that she’d fight this ridiculous roadblock until it was dust.
Time revealed that Jessi would not win her mortal battle. But she triumphed in a different way. In her last year on earth, she became astoundingly prolific, not only as a musician (Those Darlins broke up shortly before her diagnosis, but she completed enough songs for a solo album before her death in September) but as a visual artist, writer, and activist.* To the Nashville music community that treasured her, she became a symbol of resistance: not political resistance, though she was a fighter in that field, too, but the spiritual kind. She would not settle into a demise defined by hospital visits; instead, she made enough drawings to totally redecorate the chemotherapy ward. Aided by her astoundingly creative family—all artists, from her mom and dad to her brothers and cousins—she staged art shows and made merch to help fund her treatments, but also to spread her message: AIN’T AFRAID. The T-shirts emblazoned with those two words, taken from an eerily prescient Those Darlins song—“there’s a tumor growin’ on my body, I don’t know what lays in store,” Jessi sang with a trademark crack in her voice—came to symbolize not only the chosen family supporting Jessi as she exercised her right to keep living to her fullest capacity, but her legacy: She embodied and demanded that we all strive to maintain the resolve to keep acting on dreams, even—especially—when they come closest to the crusher. I have a hard time watching videos of Jessi now. It’s still too much to comprehend, that I won’t see her dimpled grin in the flesh again. But I listen to “Ain’t Afraid,” because I have to. Not in her memory, but for the better world she wanted us all to keep burning toward.
That energy can be hard to maintain in 2017, a wallop of a year, like the one before it. Carl, you spoke of the unfathomable tragedy in Las Vegas—as Julianne had of Puerto Rico—and the life-cycle losses of favorite artists, which never feel easy, despite their inevitability. There was also the act of terror at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May, all the more horrific because it victimized such young fans, many attending their first concert ever. I didn’t know those kids, but I was one of them once, and my precious child is one of them now. I fear for her, and for myself in midlife as I watch the GoFundMe sites pile up for my peers, many musicians, many ailing and without adequate health insurance. I’m not special because I struggle with the barrage of doom that fills my laptop screen: I’m just another American. Just now, I opened up Facebook just to see what would pop up, and there was a post from an old musician friend: “I was assaulted this morning by a guy with an 18-inch lead pipe.” My friend’s shocking encounter with the void (thank goodness, he’s OK) is just another post on a Wednesday night.
Which brings me with the last song I want to share with you, dear commiserators, as we ring in what we beg the universe, on our knees, will be a better year. Really, it’s a whole album, one I wrongly neglected upon its release and turned toward after my year-end lists were done. Witness is the second studio album by New Orleans cosmic bluesman Benjamin Booker. The 28-year-old made a splash upending roots-music expectations a few years aback, then spent time in Mexico, hiding out from other people’s expectations. Eventually he made this album: an enrapturing, skittish, evasive, in-your-face reckoning with a time and place—the present—bubbling with peril and injustice. Booker turns to Deep South gospel music and Chicago guitar breakdowns to locate the history supporting his sense of life gone awry. When he sings “Can I get a witness,” echoed by Mavis Staples herself, in the title track, he’s calling down justice for wrongs older than this nation. But Booker is ultimately more interested in chronicling his own unrest, and that’s the album’s gift. I’ve heard no other music this year that so directly inhabits the contradictory feelings 2017 raises in me, and I think in so many of us. The fight intertwined with the sadness. The hope that sticks its feet out from other the soft, poison bed of despair.
The final cut on Witness is the shortest. It’s called “All Was Well,” and it begins with a scream of dissonant guitar and drums. “If I have my way, they’ll sanctify it,” Booker growls in his tenor, an instrument that’s tough but a little wheezy. “I’ll tear this building down.” Right off the bat, he’s mixing metaphors, calling down the gospel in the midst of a punk tirade. The song’s noise narrows as it pace accelerates. “Made excuses all my life, till I just believed it,” he yells. “Believe that all was well.” We’re in a present under siege from the past, running wounded and blind toward tomorrow. Then the song skids and lands soft, on the shoulder of a church organ. “I’m gonna try, I’m gonna tear this building down,” Booker murmurs. Dazed, walking away from the wreck, he’s suddenly realized he’s still alive. And he can act. In that moment of clarity, I hear a future.
I hope we meet again in that tomorrow, I don’t know if it will be better, after the smoke clears.
Correction, Dec. 28, 2017: This post originally stated Jessi Zazu died in June. She died in September. (Return.)