It’s Halloween! An Introduction To The Surreal World of The Shaggs

It’s Halloween, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only WXNA DJ with The Shaggs’ 1969 Philosophy of the World album as their seasonal soundtrack. The band of sisters from Fremont, NH may not have looked as witchy as Stevie Nicks or sounded as ghoulish as Sunn O)))– but Helen, Betty, Dot, and (sometimes) Rachel Wiggin possessed something much deeper beneath the surface. And isn’t that, after all, the spookiest place imaginable?

The Wiggin sisters were managed by their father, Austin Wiggin, who organized their concerts in Fremont and depleted his savings on their studio sessions. It can be said that perhaps their cult following began with him, who may have bordered on obsessive in his attempt to make his daughters rock stars. Since Philosophy of the World was released in 1969, record collectors and music heads across the world have fulfilled his dream by becoming similarly obsessed with and possessed by this record and this band. The Shaggs’ sound demands a response in this way– you can’t listen to their angular, artless rock n’roll without feeling something. There’s a declarative kind of joy that emanates from their sing-song melodies. The obtuse jangle of it all is beautiful, like the broad strokes of a de stijl painting.

It’s time for games
It’s time for fun
Not for just one
But for everyone
The jack-o-lanterns are all lit up
All the dummies are made and stuffed
By just looking you will see
It’s this time of year again
It’s Halloween!

I’m not sure who made these dummies and what they’re stuffed with, but they sure sound terrifying! Even more terrifying to some might be the evidence of a recurring Shaggs theme– that something might be for everyone. In the title track of Philosophy of the World, they outline their worldview with a disarming simplicity:

Oh, the rich people want what the poor people’s got
And the poor people want what the rich people’s got
And the skinny people want what the fat people’s got
And the fat people want what the skinny people’s got
You can never please anybody in this world
It doesn’t matter what you do
It doesn’t matter what you say
There will always be
One who wants things the opposite way

In form and content, The Shaggs were champions of the everyday person– they didn’t have expensive equipment, glitzy outfits, or beautiful harmonies. They were sisters that sang about the universal struggle of obeying your parents, losing your cat, heartbreak, and God— but did so with an unnerving singularity. Sometimes they’d sing the melody, all at once, but each with different phrasing. What could be more witchy than that? These weren’t seances, perhaps, but spellbinding all the same in their dissonant, wide-eyed wonder.

Further reading/listening:

 

DJ LT
Shout, Sister, Shout!
Sundays 1-2 pm

 

Listen And It All Begins To Fit: On Dory Previn

Let’s be clear: I’m not here to discuss Father John Misty. However, I owe it to him to begin this piece by mentioning a playlist he began curating via Spotify a couple years back (in true Father John Misty form, it’s titled Father John Misty’s Father John Misty Playlist). I remember cueing it up with my boyfriend on a road trip one weekend in college, skipping the tracks we already knew and loved from folks like Harry Nilsson or John Fahey, hungry for new sounds to sink into. At some point in the shuffling, Dory Previn’s “Atlantis” began to play:

I lie in bed
beside him
and I know him
outside in
I’ve learned his body’s
line and length
and memorized his grin
I’ve counted
every crease
at the edges
of his eyes
I know his soul’s
complete circumference
I know
his lies

She unfurls these lyrics by way of a sensuous melody, yet her voice remains a bit withheld and guarded; there is no glimmer of a “come hither” sexiness. There’s a show tune-ish-ness to the melody, but no “All That Jazz” cuteness. She sounds kind of in awe, a little bit afraid, maybe wounded. She sounds wild, too.

Hearing “Atlantis” was all I needed. I immediately researched all that I could on Dory Previn née Dorothy Lanagan and learned that she’d passed away on Valentine’s Day in 2012. I found that her life was as complex and winding as her songwriting. She’d been both a writing partner and a life partner to the famous Hollywood composer André Previn before he had an affair and child with actress Mia Farrow in 1969. Dory’s already fragile mental state reached a breaking point when the couple divorced. And when André Previn married Farrow, Dory was hospitalized for her psychosis. Eventually, she began writing her own singer-songwriter tunes as a part of her healing process. One of the first was a song outlining her ex-husband’s affair called “Beware of Young Girls”:

Beware of young girls
Who come to the door
Wistful and pale of twenty and four
Delivering daisies with delicate hands

This track, among others exploring other vulnerable themes such as her childhood trauma (“With My Daddy in the Attic”), fear (“Scared To Be Alone”), and psychosis (“Mister Whisper”) appeared on her debut solo album On My Way To Where (1970). She went on to record five more solo albums in the ‘70s, and one live album at Carnegie Hall.

On her 1974 self-titled album on the Warner Bros label, her voice seems to have reached a new peak of gumption and ease. Tracks such as “Coldwater Canyon” and “Brando” present as a direct commentary on Previn’s zeitgeist in ’70s L.A., both lyrically and musically. Her observations and descriptions are as sharp (and often funny) as ever, but shadowed with a sinuous, poignant longing and self-awareness. Folky instrumentation like steel guitar and Latin-style drums are punctuated with a show-tune-ish urgency that Previn reappropriated from her past to support sophisticated and catchy melodies that effortlessly wield an emotional narrative.

These songs are at once self-deprecating, profound, feminist, dark, funny, sweeping, strange, unique to their time, and ahead of their time. One of my personal favorites is the last track on Dory Previn, “Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?”:

Did she long to be the saviour
Saving everyone
She met?
And in private to her mirror
Did she whisper:
Saviourette?
Saviourwoman?
Saviourperson?
Save your breath!

The background vocals are searing on this track and the chord changes sound intuitive but are quite complex. There is a less groovy but equally probing song called “Woman Soul” off of 1976’s We Are Children Of Coincidence that brings wonderful nuances to the love song form. I think it speaks to what we might today call “toxic masculinity” with great empathy:

I love him ‘cause he questions all the roles he’s forced to play
‘Grown men don’t cry’: he sees the lie, and cannot change his way
Oh, but he does the best he can; that’s why I love that man
But I also love the woman in his soul

In addition to her records, Dory Previn also published a trio of autobiographies in her lifetime: “On My Way to Where”, “Midnight Baby”, and “Bogtrotter”. They feel like extended liner notes, her lyrics interwoven with stream-of-consciousness narratives and an occasional poem. Her books overlap non-linearly and further explore her troubled childhood and her rise to songwriting in L.A. after several odd jobs including salesgirl, secretary, and chorus girl. She details her inner world and psychosis with a disarming vulnerability. One of my favorite poems included in any of her books is titled “Listen”. I was thrilled when I came across a clip of her on Irish television reading this poem in her inimitably playful yet serene tone:

The feeling in my blood-flow
Is a simple thing you see
I am it
I am it
We are everything and nothing
But that’s how to play the game
In these weatherbeaten bodies
With these godforsaken brains
We can listen
Listen
Listen to the universe resounding
In the pulsing and the pounding
Of our infant ancient veins
Listen
Listen
Listen and it all begins to fit
You are it

Dory’s records have become an anchor for me when I yearn for music to be a space for making meaning beyond sounds and words alone. I find myself enchanted by her snarky honesty, her wistfulness, her admissions of uncertainty and her occasional turns toward nurturing. I am simultaneously shocked and comforted by her voice. And when I’m feeling weatherbeaten I will watch that funny little video, sometimes on repeat. Listen, and it all begins to fit. You are it.

Lauren Turner
Shout, Sister, Shout!
Sundays 1-2 pm

It’s A Nice Day to Start

July 24, 1983

Dear Diary,

I’m in love! Oh, Diary, I’m in love. I haven’t told anyone, only you. And you will keep my secret, won’t you? Oh, Diary, I’ve never felt like this before. The world just seems so much brighter and louder and so alive and it’s all because of him. Oh, I love him, Diary. I love him so much and it makes me so happy!

It’s every girl’s dream to be a beautiful bride. It’s as close as you ever get to being an actual princess. The billowing white dress, the mysterious veil that hides as it reveals . . . a glorious culmination of your existence up to this point. That’s what a wedding is. The height of being, of life. What could be better?

Well, I’ll tell you: A dangerous man, that’s what. A blonde, spiky-haired rebel on a motorcycle. A black-leather-clad man who will take you by the hand and pull you staggering toward him in your beautiful dress, then push a ring onto your finger until the blood wells up. Isn’t that what every girl dreams of? A white wedding?

I watch MTV for hours at a time, waiting for him. I wait for as long as it takes. One music video fades out, another begins . . . and my heart leaps when that guitar intro skitters across my nerves. I lean forward toward the TV, knees pressed hard into the rough carpet, eyes unblinking, brain on fire. I scrutinize every scene, his every move. What does it mean, the ring and the blood? I see the picture in my head on the way home from school. I think about it before I fall asleep at night. For me, there’s no intermediary between the man and the message. I don’t know what a director does. I don’t know who David Mallet is. Every image, every action is a secret delivered straight from the magical man with the sneer to me. I MUST decipher it to discover my destiny.

I used to sit like this on the carpet when I was 5, enthralled by Bert and Ernie and Sesame Street. Now I’m 15, and the world still comes to me in just the same way, via 21-inch screen. It has not occurred to me to question its authenticity. Cable TV is new and exciting. MTV is changing the world. Watching reality unfold inside a glass square is as natural as eating and sleeping. Those images tell the truth. Bert is a grump, Ernie’s a goof, and Billy Idol is the man for me.

“Sexual stereotyping comes to a glorious head in Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ video, which opens with a chorus line of women in black leather waving their fannys at the camera.” (Kristine McKenna)

“Women are depicted in many videos as bitches, teases, castrators, and all-around sex things.” (Elayne Rapping)

“I shudder at the thought of analyzing Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding,’ with the wedding ring of thorns that makes the bride’s finger bleed, the coffins, the exploding kitchen appliances. This one would have made the Marquis de Sade’s top 40 chart.” (Marvin Kitman)

“They expect it, but they don’t like it . . . they want excitement, as long as it’s not at their own expense. They don’t mind if someone’s outrageous with somebody else.” (Billy Idol)

Inside MTV by R. Serge Denisoff, p. 314

Oh, Diary, I hope that someday that can be me.

Until then,

TTYL,

LYLAS,

XOXO,

Ashley Idol

 

Ashley Crownover

Set Records to Stun

Fridays, 6-8 a.m.

Music Feels Pride

Being a gay man and deejay on WXNA (Slings & Arrows, Tuesdays noon to 2), and it being the month of June, I was asked by the station manager if I would consider writing a blog for Pride. My first thought was, Why not? I like to think I might have something to say on the matter. But then my mind went blank. So, it was suggested I might want to discuss music that affected me as a closeted youth and the powerful pull music can have to open hearts and minds, to be a solace or a catalyst.

Well, after wracking my brain, I couldn’t think of any music that spoke to me as a youth on that level. Of course, music enters the soul in ways unknowing, and surely the inner self hiding within was listening to the music that passed my ears in a way differently from the outer self. Dancing queens like ABBA and Donna Summer, or the witchy swirl of Stevie Nicks, were scratching an inner itch, and music my brothers brought into the house—The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Pretenders—scratching an outer.

The PretendersI remember my 12-year-old self hearing Pretenders I for the first time in my brother’s room. He brought it home, excited to listen, as a friend of his had suggested he get it. When that first song came on with its driving drums and thrashing guitars, I was hooked. But it was Chrissie Hynde’s vocal attitude that sealed the deal. Her incisive intensity scared the bejesus out of me, and I loved it. 

When she sang, “but not me baby, I’m too precious, fuck off,” I was (1) blown away by the fact that such language could be said on a record, and (2) excited that it was a woman who would say it. It was my first “fuck” in music. The lacey frills of Stevie Nicks twirled away. I wanted the staunch leather of this badass woman to reach into places I didn’t yet know existed.  On that album I discovered the essence of the preciousness within (a resource not to be wasted) and the rowdy and lawless swagger without. Selves coalesced. 

Of course, time moves on, and Tom Petty’s drawl prevails over Hynde’s as I get older. One can’t change the vicissitudes of time. Just like one can’t change the crucial way music makes you feel when you’re young and alone and scared and hiding within yourself. When you feel that the world rejects you. 

The music on the jukebox at the Stonewall Inn must have had that kind of powerful effect. It was stacked with the songs of its time, 1969, a year of revolution. (In 1969 it was illegal for gay people to congregate and drink—let alone dance—together. The Stonewall Inn was a place where they could do all three.) Witnesses claim that shortly before that historical raid, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was played. It has also been noted that one of the favorite songs to dance and sing along with on the Stonewall Inn jukebox was “Aquarius (Let The Sunshine In)’ by The 5th Dimension. Clearly, it is a song about transcendence: 

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation

The word “liberation” must have struck a chord and reverberated in the hearts of the young queer men and women and transgender individuals who frequented there. Along with “This Is My Life (La Vita)” by Shirley Bassey, with its refrain of “let me live, let me live,” and others, these songs must have forged feelings of rebellion, independence, and hope. 

So, when the cops came (with little backup at first, it must be noted) in the post-midnight hours on that hot New York City night, something burst. Liberation enflamed the dark. Love steered the stars. And here we are, a people on a road to vindication. Pride.

Michael Roark
Slings and Arrows
Tuesdays, noon-2pm

Freeform Love: WXNA Turns 3

My indoctrination into music nerd-dom came rather late in life. I spent my high school years as a science fiction/comic book/movie/comedy nerd. My primary access to new music was what I heard on mainstream Top 40 radio, most of which left me cold in the late 1970s. My only source for records was the Russellville, Kentucky, Big K (a local discount store chain that was devoured whole by Walmart in 1981) where I scoured the racks for movie soundtracks, comedy LPs, and Beatles records, the one musical group I was truly passionate about during my high school days.

Growing up in the boondocks of Western Kentucky meant I had no access to a local record store to discover artists I’d never heard before, and I lacked a music “mentor” to say, “You’ve never heard fill-in-the-blank? Here, listen to this!” Occasionally I might see an interesting act on TV like Blondie or Devo, but the musical infrastructure to nurture a budding fascination simply did not exist in my world.

My first year of college at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, changed my life more completely than I could ever imagine. Not only did I feel like I was free from the rural “prison” of my high school teenage years, but I suddenly found the perfect means to express my teenage angst and frustration – punk rock. My first few weeks of college led me to records by the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello (back when he was one REALLY pissed-off skinny geek), and more. But along with the punk rock, I was also discovering 1960s rock beyond the Beatles: glam, ’70s hard rock, classic early rock’n’roll, and more. Albums like London Calling, Jerry Lee Lewis Original Golden Hits, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars all arrived in my growing collection within weeks of each other.

The result was that I quickly developed very egalitarian tastes in music. For me, Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay was just as much “new music” as X’s Under the Big Black Sun. At the same time, I became aware of just how boring and timid mainstream commercial radio was. Records like R.E.M’s Chronic Town knocked my socks off, but you sure didn’t hear it on the big radio stations.

“Someone should start a radio station that just plays great music, no matter when it came out or what style it is!” became one of my frequent rants. “It might not be the highest rated station in town,” I bellowed at passing clouds, “but there are enough people who would dig it if someone just had the balls to just do it!”

It would take me three decades to finally put my time and money where my rant was. Of course in the meantime, I’d discovered college radio, but even it often fell victim to the “format” infection, and its entanglement with university politics and dependency on a young, inexperienced and constantly rotating management team meant that even the best station could be decimated with one graduation ceremony or an arbitrary decision by an institutional bureaucrat.

Around the same time I secured a community-volunteer spot on Vanderbilt University’s WRVU in 1997, I also discovered WFMU and other like-minded freeform stations that were just beginning to extend their programming to the internet. A similar station was what Nashville truly needed — an independent, community-focused radio station, founded on a belief that good programming, no matter how eclectic, would find its audience.

The death of WRVU as a terrestrial broadcast station in the summer of 2011 was a tragedy for Nashville’s cultural scene, but it also presented an opportunity. That’s why I jumped at the chance when Heather Lose called me in the March 2012 to ask if I had any interest in starting an independent, listener-supported community radio station in Nashville. At our first meeting, I said we had to be totally freeform, every DJ programming their own show, and I was pleased and surprised to find that everyone else felt the same way.

Seven years after that first meeting, and three years since WXNA officially began broadcasting that vision of freeform, people-powered radio is not only still going strong but is growing. WXNA is a testament to both our volunteers and our listeners. It demonstrates that real human beings sharing their passion for music, the arts, and the human condition can inspire hope, bring real change to the world, and share our humanity in the moment, right here and now, along with proving that punk fury-powered rants sometimes turn out to be right.

Randy Fox
Randy’s Record Shop
Mondays, 7-9 a.m.

Shout, Sister Shout!

Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the reason I titled my radio show Shout, Sister Shout!. I have my pal Joey to thank, introducing me to her music years ago while working together at the since-defunct J&J’s Market & Cafe, where all of us baristas frequently played things not only as cafe music, but as our own form of conversation: “Have you heard this?! Listen to this one while you’re doing the dishes!” not unlike many other no-frills haunts in Nashville, I’m sure.

“Have you heard this?!” is something I’m postured to ask every Sunday from 1-2pm on WXNA FM, where I host the show named after Tharpe’s song Joey played for me that day. I delight in asking that question and hearing that question, being surrounded by fellow DJs and listeners who teem with that obsessive curiosity about where sounds come from and what they can mean to us. 

Born Rosetta Nubin on a cotton plant in Arkansas,Tharpe came of age playing thunderous electric guitar in traveling gospel groups and married an evangelical pastor in the 1940’s. Her voice is both cloud and lightning bolt: chilling wisps of tenderness alit by hollers of fury. She would bring gospel tunes to the nightclub via her signature Gibson SG and record all sorts of songs that defy the clarity-grubbing confines of genre. She was at long last inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame just last year. Later in life, she became musical and life partners with another woman in a time when that was unspeakable—especially for a woman of color. Her voice continues to cross every kind of boundary.

* * *

When an opportunity arose to host an hour of programming on the community radio waves of Nashville, I thought about existing radio shows and attitudes around the sharing of music. I considered how I would love to have a show defying genre and celebrating the nuances of form as it shape-shifts throughout tradition and culture in our rapidly globalizing world– and did so experimentally, yet accessibly. I thought about what my experiences could bring that maybe others could not, and my female-ness became difficult to ignore.

I felt that sense of delight seeping into my thoughts and my record collection, seeking out women I hadn’t heard of or had previously passed by for whatever reason, mining record shops and deep corners of the internet. I listened for sounds to play in conversation with Tharpe’s, voices of women and non-binary folx who were (or are) complex and genre-defying, marginalized and silenced–people like Beverly Glenn-Copeland or Nashville’s own Jackie Shane. I also looked for records by women that are celebrated but maybe not played as often as their brothers on the radio, for whatever reason. The music I’ve been choosing is personally inspiring, musically exciting, and culturally relevant– and there is almost always a new sister waiting in whatever crate I choose to dig in.

Despite this excitement and sense of certainty, approaching Shout, Sister, Shout! during #metoo and a clamoring, confusing call-out culture was tough. I wanted to approach it with a spirit of thesis more than antithesis, with joyful revolution more than reactionary rebellion. I didn’t want the show to feel exclusive to anyone, men included. The intention was to center the show around the sounds & stories of women, but trace their influences to all kinds of human experiences. It wasn’t necessarily designed to be explicitly radical, but if I’m honest– the show is radical simply by existing in a man’s world.

Playing majority women and nonbinary artists for an hour on the radio is noticeable, where playing all male voices for an hour is just– not. The airwaves tend to reflect the status quo rippling throughout everything else– in festival lineups, media coverage, and opportunities to make music without experiencing harassment. Recently a fellow DJ at WXNA (Hey, Heather!) brought to the community’s attention the sexist attitudes of a self-described commercial radio “consultant” who argued that if women made up 50% or more of programming on the radio, people would start to lose interest and touch the dial. He also added that in his astute opinion, female DJs are great to have for their “mom factor”, another gross condescension that masks as… I don’t know, being a mama’s boy?

* * *

There are endless complexities and nuances to hold in imperfect hands when we speak of gender, sexuality, and art. There are ever-evolving approaches, even in Nashville alone, on how to make safe space for women and nonbinary folx in music specifically. These are exciting times! I am in no way an expert or an authority on inclusivity, and I am not offering my records prostrate at the virtue-signaling-altar of the Goddess of the Politically Correct, who isn’t a substantial entity after all! However, I do think these communities (my communities) need representation– and that representation is more than a buzzword that lands corporate sponsorships and approval from the right kinds of people.

I think representation, like I saw articulated so well by NPR’s Jess Skolnik recently, needs to be paired with revolution. It’s not as simple as playing Joni in equal parts to Dylan or inserting Betty Davis into every conversation about Miles. Maybe it’s noticing the ever-spinning web between all of these artists, and when women are spun with duller thread, inspecting it a little closer and with tenderness. Keeping in mind that history has not been kind to her threads, that they may need some repair and restoration; and that they are not to be objectified on a pedestal of exclusivity, but rather recognized as part of the complex web of human musical history. Being intentional about the voices of women is difficult, painstaking work. It’s delicate and powerful, like I’d imagine adjusting the gears of a clock might be.

* * *

Let’s use The Rolling Stones as an example here. I haven’t played The Stones on my show. I don’t need to expound on this, obviously, something like “Brown Sugar” is not a counterpart to the sounds and stories of black women, not to mention it being overplayed and lyrically offensive. And yet, I don’t think I should “cancel” The Rolling Stones or burn every copy of Sticky Fingers as a listener of American music. But oh boy, do I listen to it with a critical ear, and think about what they continue to mean to our zeitgeist while tapping my toe. Here’s a thought– maybe I would play “Gimme Shelter” and discuss oft-overlooked, dynamite-vocalist Merry Clayton, how her name was misspelled as “Mary” on some of their releases, and play another one of her recordings in the same set. And hell, I’d throw in Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville next to that too, and the whole show could be a self-referencing historical conundrum, and it would sound dynamic and great. As a DJ, I think it’s my responsibility to the community not to censor but to curate, and to play the voices that are less likely to be heard in elevated spaces such as these. Maybe it’s also our responsibility to explore how those voices can respond and add to the existing conversation. Isn’t recognizing the humanity in someone or something you don’t relate to the most radical thing we can do in a world of ever-dividing divisions?

* * *

In Nashville specifically, conversations around music can tend to feel pretentious and stilted. It is sometimes intimidating to do live radio for a city of musicians and critics, to know that my transitions may likely be analyzed, to know that as I struggle to pronounce someone’s name correctly, there is a listener out there in the void– driving their Volvo down Gallatin and cackling at my best. In this cultural moment, specifically in Nashville, I think we need to be able to fumble in front of one another. We need to dig for what delights us and unabashedly dust it off and spin it for our neighbors.

Looking into past generations and histories for the show has been such an enticing and inexhaustible adventure, but I think the most fulfilling points have been connecting them to people and music that are active now. The most meaningful moments of the show thus far have been the live interviews and in-studio sessions featuring women in Nashville who are doing really cool, important shit: Meg Pharr (of riot grrrl punk band Depression Breakfast), Sean Della Croce (singer-songwriter and co-founder of a print publication called Broadside), Ziona Riley (singer-songwriter & bassist for local band Heinous Orca), Kate Haldrup (local drummer and audio engineer), Eve Maret (synth wizard and Hyasynth House co-founder), Dream Chambers (electro-pop musician and other Hyasynth House co-founder), Wu Fei and Celine Thackston of chatterbird, and Peggy Snow (matriarch of the decades-running local experimental folk band The Cherry Blossoms and virtuosic painter of Nashville’s condemned buildings). Each of these women has brought wildly different playlists and perspectives into Martha’s Chicken Shack. Having them with me in that space feels electric and energizes me to ask more questions, to seek out more women, and ultimately to turn people onto more beautiful, meaningful shit.

In these moments when someone else is sharing from behind their particular lens of experience, I feel like I am getting to create the kind of space I intended to make on the show and that I long for more of in the world. I experience this as a listener, too– It makes me feel like the ever-spinning, ephemeral web of musical history is being held to new light, refracting incessantly for whoever chooses to turn the dial and tune in.

DJ LT
Shout, Sister, Shout!
Sundays, 1 p.m.-2 p.m.