006: Music for Being With

Our writers talk about the people they care about, with the help of some songs and albums that matter to them

Welcome to the sixth issue of Organ Grinder. For our last issue of the year, we wrote about music that evokes or reminds us of people in our lives—of parents, friends, significant others. We often use music as mirrors or rooms, as means of examining ourselves or spaces for us to think, move, and be in. It’s a mode I easily get caught up in, so I like being reminded about all the ways music helps us be with people—whether listening together or not, whether it connects us with others or helps us better understand differences with them (or both). Reading and writing do these things too, as a matter of process. But it’s as vital to reflect on understanding and communication as it is to understand and communicate. Not all songs made with love are love songs; those that talk about love are. These are ours. —Jinhyung Kim

Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing (Alchemy Live)” (Vertigo)

This might be the first song my dad ever showed me. His lifelong favorites were my early ones: Chopin, The Beatles, King Crimson, and most indelibly of all, Dire Straits, whose greatest hits records will take up space in my cranial RAM until the day I die. He taught me how to rip CDs, pirate stuff, and tag audio files—I have him to thank for becoming the music nerd I am.

He also gave me my first MP3 player; this 10-minute live version of “Sultans of Swing” was already on it. It’s funny that a tune about some local band playing Dixie and Creole in an English pub finds its best life as a stadium banger, replete with all the indulgences of ‘80s rock (‘n’ roll?). The studio cut presents a polished facsimile of a pub band, but at the Hammersmith Odeon, Dire Straits don’t even bother with the pretense. The song barges right out of the gate as a high-octane crowd-pleaser and only escalates from there; every bar is full to the brim with rich keyboard flourishes, mad drum fills, and Mark Knopfler’s lustrous lead guitar, which sings and soars effortlessly. You just know it’s impossible for these guys to miss a beat—and they never do.

Whenever I listen to “Sultans of Swing,” I can’t help but count the degrees of separation between me and the Sultans’ “Dixie / [in] double four time.” They were just some blokes imitating Black players on the other side of the Atlantic; a younger Knopfler channeled these imitators and other white blues artists. An older Knopfler adapted his band's sound for sold-out arenas across the globe, and my dad, a teenager living in middle-of-nowhere Korea, listened obsessively to albums of what he understood, at the time, to be bona fide Americana. Does that make me four times removed? Five?

I was embarrassed about the stuff I listened to in middle and high school for a long time—and for a long time, I was embarrassed by my dad. I couldn’t stand his ribald humor, penchant for melodrama, dissatisfactions with ambiguity… his taste in music lined up with all the other stuff I wanted to do, like, or be the opposite of. I’ve come back around to Dire Straits by now, but I’m still working on not letting what irks me about my dad get in the way of being more open with him. I really love that he took the time to share his passions with me; if it weren’t for him, Organ Grinder wouldn’t be a thing, and I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. In fact, yesterday, I remembered where I got the name for this newsletter in the first place. —Jinhyung Kim

A. Savage, Thawing Dawn (Dull Tools)

In January of 2019, the Chicagoland area experienced a two-day period in which the temperatures dropped to a frigid -23° F. As I cranked the heat up and buried myself in a mountain of blankets, it suddenly dawned on me that this was my last winter living in my hometown and I would likely never experience the cruel antics of Chicago weather again. For the first time, I considered the fact that I was about to leave behind everything I’ve known.

During this two-day period of isolation, I discovered Thawing Dawn by A. Savage. This record helped me cope with the inevitable loss I felt when I left behind my family. Savage’s lyrics poignantly depict the pain and loneliness that accompany love. “Ladies from Houston” seems to mirror Leonard Cohen’s lyricism in its half-spoken vocals and vulnerable story of finding comfort in love and loneliness while tracks like “Eyeballs” and “What Do I Do” convey a more jaded view of relationships with lyrics that describe abandonment and frustration with change. Thawing Dawn showcases Savage dropping the bravado and outspoken nature that’s indicative of his work in Parquet Courts and substituting it for soft spoken alt-country, creating his most intimate record to date.

My favorite track, “Phantom Limbo,” sonically recreates the comforts of home with its rustic and charming twang from the pedal steel guitar. The hearty warmth of the nostalgic lyrics and folk-rock aesthetic envelop the listener in a state of comfort. As Savage sings “And at night when my bones surrender / to the wind blown from the sea / and I’m sure that you’re the sweetest breeze / that’s ever blown through me,” I think of my family and the circumstances I had growing up. The surrender that Savage sings of reminds me of the radical acceptance I had of my parents. My parents are both immigrants and the cultural differences between us often created tension in our household. Growing up in a predominantly white suburb made me feel so alone and when I was young, I resented my culture for making me feel like an outsider. I resented my parents most of all for making me feel so alone. As I was about to leave home, I finally began to understand my family. Listening to Thawing Dawn made me feel nostalgic for a place I had not yet left. It helped me to realize how much I’d miss home. The resentment I harbored for so long was swept away when I realized my parents felt just as isolated and misunderstood as I did. Throughout the emotional turmoil, they still supported and loved me. My “sweetest breeze” has always been my parents.

Thawing Dawn describes relationships with such fondness and delicacy while also adhering to the truth that love is flawed and oftentimes misunderstood. Most of all, I connected to Savage’s poetic lyricism and his commentary on the nuances of love and trauma. I see my family in the lyrics of Thawing Dawn. This record led me through a tumultuous time in my adolescence and ultimately helped me accept my family as they are. —Grace Ann Natanawan

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Blood Sermon (Arbor)

The summer before my last year of college, I stayed on campus to work for the school’s housing department. It was a fine enough job. I spent the summer first cleaning dorm rooms, then replacing mattresses, dressers, wardrobes and desks. The work was physical enough that I got pretty strong but not particularly hard, especially considering how easily my coworkers and I could get away with cutting shifts short, taking naps in the bed of our pickup, and hiding to read or play hours of 2048 in empty bedrooms. The school housed us—me and three coworkers—in an old house owned by the college but rarely used for students. We’d sit on the porch and drink beers as the afternoon rain started, and for at least part of the summer we were occupied, there on the porch, in cleaning every vacuum cleaner on campus, using x-acto knives to cut through the mats of hair and grime. A few times someone would untwist something unlikely from the rollers, maybe a whole pop can or a dead mouse.

My best friend Adam was in town that summer too—I can’t remember now, but I think he might’ve been working at the library, scanning books and transcribing audio recordings. Adam is one of the best people I’ll ever know. He’s warm and empathetic and curious, ready to talk about anything, anytime. As far as I can tell, he’s darn close to universally well-liked, and that’s exactly as it should be. Plus, we agree about most everything in music, and we share lots of the same reference points, so it’s fun enough to argue when we don’t. That summer, I had downloaded this album, Bloodstream Sermon, from some blog or message board. At that point, I don’t think I had heard much of what you’d consider drone music. Maybe I’d heard Accordion and Voice by then, but I hadn’t heard, for example, Eliane Radigue or La Monte Young. In the coffee shop one day, I opened the album on iTunes, skipped through the two tracks, playing bits of it through my laptop speakers. I think both of us felt skeptical about the whole concept: “see, it doesn’t change!”

Another day, some Sunday afternoon, we sat in my bedroom, which was always uncomfortably warm. I’d keep the windows open and the shades closed, at least two fans running at once. Adam made us coffee, which I only remember as being impossibly hot and very bitter. Somehow, it hit the spot. We put on Bloodstream Sermon. Why not? I’m sure we were shooting the shit that afternoon—maybe roasting each other or telling funny stories about classmates or getting into it over my disdain for The Big Lebowski—but soon we were quiet. I remember how yellow the light looked on the wood-paneled walls, and how perfect it was the way the music, by the end, became indistinguishable from the buzzing fans or a lawnmower outside. It sounds goofy, but it seems to me that, that day, our attention turned together. Each detail of the shifting, oscillating drone felt amplified by the presence of my friend’s listening ears.

Sometimes, when a piece of music is seriously special to me, I get shy in talking about it. I guess it becomes clearer than ever that I can’t be (shouldn’t be) objective—that if, say, Bloodstream Sermon isn’t a perfect depth, swimming with new sounds waiting to be discovered with each listen, I’d be the last one to know. But if you’d been sitting in that room with me and Adam and burned your tongue on that coffee maybe you’d have heard what we heard that day. —Kevin McKinney

Glocca Morra, Just Married (Kind of Like Records)

This last semester was dull and uneventful. I spent the majority of my time either in my suite or directly outside it—eating, hanging out, trying to work, whatever—while the latest class of freshmen mingled loudly in the quad, making the best out of a messed-up year. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d already graduated, coming back to visit a place that’s no longer my own. In a sense this was true. The “college life,” at least that part of it I’d always looked forward to, is basically over, with only grad school ahead. An eleven-song confessional on the struggles of a newlywed may seem like the least relevant album out there, but there’s something about Glocca Morra’s Just Married that really struck a chord with me these last few months. The Florida group’s second and final full-length is an ode to life at a crossroads, conveying the ensuing inseparable feelings of nostalgia, anxiety, and hope. “Here’s your anniversary, ten years down the drain” captures the sentiment of day-to-day life in 2020 about as well as one could expect from a 2012 record. “And everyone knows everything about being alone, but I still don’t” might be a bit too on the nose. But it’s not totally true. I picked this record because the upbeat house-show attitude it evokes reminds me of my suitemates more than anything. We made it through the semester together—classes, quarantine and all—determined to enjoy whatever we could. So a big shoutout to Ben, Jack, Brendan, and Adulfo for time that went anywhere but down the drain, and here’s to one last semester to top it all off. Cheers. —Jack Ahrens

Pacific Sounds, “Raucous Birds, La‘ie, O‘ahu” (Aloha Got Soul)

I’ve developed a fondness for Hawaiian music, partially because my girlfriend is from Hawai’i. I always show her anything interesting I find and ask tons of questions about how significant it might have been to someone that lived there. I’m probably more interested in this stuff than her at this point, honestly, but she particularly loves anything that reminds her of home. In the month of August this year I got really into Kit Ebersbach’s Pacific Sounds series of field recordings from the Hawaiian islands, and I showed her the track titles to ask if she’s familiar with any of the locales the sounds were collected from. She knew some and told me what she could remember about the places she’s been. I told her to pick a track that sticks out to her and press play. She’s interested in birds, so naturally, “Raucous Birds, La‘ie, O‘ahu” particularly stuck out to her; we’ve got bird field guides all over the place, after all.

Immediately, tears started streaming down her face. I was surprised, because she’s not a person that emotes even in the most dire situations. I can only remember a handful of times I’ve ever seen her cry. She told me that it sounded exactly like the bird song she used to hear coming through her window every day at her family’s house. The chair in her bedroom was under a window that she kept open all the time, and those birds would call night and day. The zebra dove is one of the most common birds on the Hawaiian islands, and you hear these little guys everywhere, apparently. I recently watched a documentary about slack key legend Sonny Chillingworth, and sure enough, you can hear one cawing its little brains out during an outdoor interview.

My girlfriend is easily prone to feeling homesick, and we do our best to keep those feelings from getting too overwhelming. Flying back to Hawai’i is prohibitively expensive, so she’s only able to do it once every few years. We go to the local Asian market to get her the snacks she loved to have back home and order from the local poke place as often as we can afford it. It's not unusual for her to get nostalgic for the life she left behind, but hearing such a familiar sound must have been a little too much for her. Listening to this particular field recording makes me a little sad now, too.

Sometimes I feel a little jealous that I don’t have such strong memories of a place that I want to go back to; my childhood is full of things I want to forget. It’s wonderful to have memories that you hold dear enough to make you emotional, but there’s another side to that: it can be really painful to have a deep yearning for what you can’t have anymore. Maybe she’s jealous that I don’t get homesick. I don’t know; it’s probably complicated. Something I’m 100% sure about, though, is that I want her to feel comfortable wherever she is, and however I can manage it. If it means keeping stocked up on snacks I don’t particularly like, I will happily do that. If it means I should keep my zebra dove recordings to myself, well, that’s fine too. I want her memories with me to feel as good as the ones that make her miss home—but I don’t think they’ll turn into wistful memories, because I’m not going anywhere. —Shy Thompson

Daniel Johnston, “Got to Get You Into My Life” (Shimmy Disc)

My mother is the first person this makes me think of. As one does when work is slow, she spent a few nights perusing an editorial on the best Beatles covers. “Get a load of this!” she texted me, attaching a link to the song. I tend to be curt with her. Sometimes I take hours to respond. “It’s terrible,” I eventually replied.

Guess I was sick the day they talked about outsider art legend Daniel Johnston in school. He’s fucking great. His rendition of “Got to Get You into My Life” is pure puppy love. You know right away something is… off about the guy, making his naive romanticism all the more captivating. Depending on who you are, the song is even more compelling if thought of as an ode to cannabis, the way McCartney originally intended. Take a look at the first few lines:

I was alone, I took a ride
I didn't know what I would find there
Another road where maybe I
Could see another kind of mind there

You’re telling me this song is about a person? Earlier this summer, before I met my current girlfriend, work was slow, and as one does, I spent a few nights perusing Kurt Cobain’s 50 favorite records. I smoked every night that week, and as the THC compounded in my brain, Yip Jump Music made more and more sense to me. Its lo-fi sound was so obscure and fragile, yet everything from his squeaky yodel to those sustained organ chords buoyed with an unmistakable playfulness—it sounded like the music Betty Boop and Felix the Cat must groove to when no one is looking. And Johnston, the elf-man at its center, sounded so incredibly vulnerable. I mean, “King Kong”? Christ on a cracker, is that song heart wrenching. I was learning to respect the outsider.

Just recently, I found myself on break, and as one does, I spent a few nights working on a playlist for my girlfriend. My first instinct was to make it as jagged around the edges as I could. The Shaggs, Yoko Ono, Beefheart, you name it. If you would be fired for playing it at work, it was there. I promise my intention wasn’t to serve up a litmus test disguised as a loving gesture. When Beefheart growls “you used me like an ashtray heart,” you know he damn well means it. You may be able to get away with murder in terms of taste in outré circles, but it’s rather hard to mask insincerity.

I know Daniel Johnston’s probably not singing about drugs here. He sounds like he simply wants someone to know how much they mean to him. He conveys that message the only way he could, in a way only he was capable of. That resonates with me. I slapped it on the playlist. I’ll understand if my girlfriend isn’t keen on being associated with this atonal train wreck, but I know she’ll give it a fair shake. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that true love does find you in the end. —Zachariah Cook

Thanks for reading the final Organ Grinder issue for 2020. Happy holidays, and see you in the new year.

Share Organ Grinder