Transcript

746: This Is Just Some Songs

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Prologue: Prologue

Sean Cole

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole, sitting in for Ira Glass. Back when Erin was in high school, she had this friend, Josh. They'd known each other practically since they were born. Their parents were friends. This was in a small, small city in Wisconsin. Fun was going down to this park with buffalo in it and throwing them hunks of bread.

Anyway, Erin was 15, Josh was a year older. And one particular day--

Erin

He gave me a mixtape, like a mixed CD-ROM.

Sean Cole

Just to say, this was long enough ago that the word "ROM" naturally followed the word "CD." We're talking maybe 2007, 2008.

Erin

I can see-- I can see the CD-ROM.

Sean Cole

You can see it in your mind's eye, you mean. You're not looking at it, right?

Erin

No, certainly not. I can see, like, Sharpie scribbled all over it in sort of scrawled handwriting and squiggles, is what I can recall.

Sean Cole

Josh was into theater. He and Erin did plays together, actually-- musicals at this little community theater in town.

Erin

He was like, if there was a jock of theatre kids, like, that would be him.

Sean Cole

Hm.

Erin

So charismatic. You know, like, the star of every play. Really, like, grabbing everything he could out of life. You could say he was a little bit dramatic.

Sean Cole

She only remembers a couple of the songs that were on the mixtape. She does remember the exact number of songs, for reasons that will become clear in a minute. There were 12 of them. 12 songs.

Erin

I dutifully uploaded it into my iTunes and listened to it, and didn't think much of it. I definitely didn't read into it as I should have. I mean, literally.

Sean Cole

Literally, because of what happened next. Mind you, this next part was months after he gave her the CD-- solidly months.

Erin

Oh, I was, I don't know, poking around in my iTunes library, reorganizing something. And I'm looking at it, and it dawns on me that the song titles spell out, like an acrostic, "I love you, Erin."

Sean Cole

Wait a second.

Erin

Yeah.

Sean Cole

So down the left-hand side of the track listing in iTunes--

Erin

Mhm.

Sean Cole

--the first letter of every song as you read downward spelled out "I love you, Erin."

Erin

Yeah, it did.

Sean Cole

Erin had missed it at first because, loading it into iTunes, somehow the track listing had been reversed. So instead of spelling out "I love you, Erin," it said, "Nire ouy evol I." Not quite as romantic.

The two songs she still remembers? One was "Yellow" by Coldplay. That was the Y in you. The E at the end of love-- or maybe the beginning of Erin-- was "Elephant Love Medley" from the movie Moulin Rouge, which itself works a little like a mixtape. These two characters, Christian and Satine, just hurl lines from famous love songs back and forth at each other.

[MUSIC - "ELEPHANT LOVE MEDLEY" FROM MOULIN ROUGE]

Christian

(SINGING) I can't survive without your sweet love. Oh, baby, don't leave me this way.

Satine

(SINGING) You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.

Sean Cole

Erin got all cringey about that one. And you might think "Elephant Love Medley" alone would be a dead giveaway. But to her, that was just Josh being Josh. Like she said, dramatic. A thing about mixtapes, they're like the emojis of yesteryear. You couldn't always be sure what the intended meaning was, or if the recipient would comprehend said meaning. Like, does he love me, or does he just love these songs? So in that way, Josh literally spelling it out, leaving nothing to the imagination, was a decent strategy. Except even that was lost on Erin due to some dumb hiccup in the machine.

Erin

It was-- you know, it was a lot. It was a lot of emotion, which I felt terrible for missing. Even if you're not going to reciprocate, at least you feel like you should be getting the gesture.

Sean Cole

Right.

Erin

But I just hadn't seen it.

Sean Cole

He was strictly a friend?

Erin

He was a friend. We had like, kind of a thing.

Sean Cole

You had kind of a thing?

Erin

Yeah. Nurturing a crush. We never dated. But friends for a long time.

Sean Cole

May I ask an indelicate question?

Erin

Um, you may.

Sean Cole

Did you ever kiss or anything?

Erin

Yeah.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

Erin

I think we probably made out. I mean, I turned out to be gay, so it wasn't my cup of tea.

Sean Cole

Right.

Erin

But-- revelations for the years to come. Just wasn't the time or gender. Who knew?

Sean Cole

Right. Who knew?

Erin

Yeah.

Sean Cole

Importantly, Erin has no memory of ever telling Josh she saw his secret message. So he was just left in the dark, wondering. They stayed friends, moved on, saw each other a few more times after high school, but eventually lost touch. They haven't spoken in years at this point. It's funny that something that deeply felt was communicated and received, and yet remained unspoken.

Josh

I always thought of her like Hermione Granger. She was like my Hermione Granger.

Sean Cole

This, of course, is Josh. I didn't bring up the mixtape right away when I talked to him. First, I just asked him what he remembered about Erin.

Josh

She was just so smart and well-respected by everybody, and could just talk circles around anybody. And yeah, her intelligence was very intimidating to me.

Sean Cole

Intimidating, really?

Josh

But in a friendly way. She would never show off about it. I had a crush on her, to be honest. Any time I would happen to drive by her place, I would think, like, the one that got away. You know, that was always like the feeling.

Sean Cole

Wow.

Josh

But-- yeah, we were friends.

Sean Cole

Josh, unfortunately, doesn't have a copy of the mixtape anymore either. Didn't remember any of the songs that were on it. But he did remember spelling out his devotion with the titles. He was bashful about it, as a lot of people would be when talking about stuff they did as a teenager.

Josh

I guess I was reading, like, Dan Brown and all of these kind of spy things, and just, like, throwing hidden messages into things. And yeah, I guess I was trying to do it in my own way.

[LAUGHING]

Sean Cole

And you could practically hear him blushing when I told him that he had put "Elephant Love Medley" on there.

[GIGGLING]

Josh

Yep. That's because I thought I was Christian from Moulin Rouge. Yeah. I just loved the kind of level of seriousness he put on romantic love. I always had a thing about that.

Sean Cole

Clearly.

Josh

And much to my detriment at times, honestly. And you know, there's a million ways we could psychoanalyze that, but--

[LAUGHING]

Yeah. Did I-- did I tell her that it spelled that? I really hope I didn't.

Sean Cole

No, no, no.

Josh

OK. I hope she found it out on her own.

Sean Cole

Well, OK. So here's what happened. Erin brought the CD home.

I took Josh through everything Erin told me. After all these years, he was only just now learning what happened with his little Da Vinci love code. That she had seen it, the message got through. She just hadn't felt the same.

Josh

Wow. OK. Well, I guess I couldn't have asked for it to go any better than that.

Sean Cole

Wait. How is that it going well?

Josh

Well, because it's a happy accident, you know? It's kind of cool that it happened in its own time.

Sean Cole

I don't know. I picture a lovelorn Josh sitting in his bedroom, like waiting, like wondering, like, when is she going call me?

Josh

Yeah, I mean, that's true. As I said, I was kind of intimidated by her, you know? And I think, particularly at that time, for Erin to be the person that I would date was, like, beyond something that seemed realistic, I guess.

Sean Cole

Oh, you thought she was out of your league.

Josh

Totally.

Sean Cole

Oh, I see.

Josh

I wanted her to know somehow on some level, but I also didn't want to push the matter or make her, you know, feel uncomfortable, or-- I don't know. I always thought she'd probably turn me down.

Sean Cole

I guess I just wonder-- I mean, other than it being a sort of very opaque and, one could argue, ineffective way of conveying one's love, to put it in an acrostic on a mixtape--

Josh

I don't think it was ineffective. I challenge that. I think it's like-- it's not even about if it got through, in terms of a really, really clear communication. It's like, if it was there, even if it was out of order, you know, when she first popped it in, it was somehow there, I think, in my mind-- like energetically, you know? And I still see the transmission, even if it was kind of quiet, you know?

Sean Cole

I don't want to sound too grand, but I think that right there is the power of mixtapes when you put them together a certain way-- the power of music, even. Or at least the power that we believe it has. That it can confess devotion on our behalf, even in the form of an exploded puzzle. Even the most casual mixtape-- or playlist these days-- that you make for a friend, you're saying, this is what I like. Or a lot of times, this is what I'm feeling right now. In a way, you're saying, this is who I am.

Songs gathered together like that are a kind of parlance, a language. The words are someone else's, but they're also our own. So that's what's coming up on today's episode, kind of a mixtape of its own, because we have a crush on you, and because the particular songs in this show tell you a surprising amount about the people listening to them. We can't wait to play them for you. Stay with us.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Track One: Just Be Good to Me

Sean Cole

Track One, Just Be Good To Me.

So you use music to connect with other people or send a message a la mix tape, but there are all of these other times, of course, when you sort of communicate with yourself through music. Putting on a song to revel in some feeling, or feeling like this or that band or singer is speaking directly to you. This next collection of songs works like that. They're all of a piece in a way that writer Nichole Perkins really related to. Here's Nichole.

Nichole Perkins

There have always been songs about cheating spouses and their lovers. When women sing them, they tend to be from the point of view of the disappointed and hurt wife. In Dolly Parton's unforgettable "Jolene," she begs a woman not to take her man. In Shirley Brown's bluesy, confrontational "Woman to Woman," Shirley lets the other woman know she's not letting her ruin her happy home. But how happy can your home be if you have to call another woman and tell her it's happy?

Songs like these make the other woman a Villain with a capital V. Those songs weren't for me. I was more interested in "auntie songs," the songs from the point of view of the other woman. They were what women in the wrong corner of love triangles sang about finding good love in the middle of bad decisions. They were old-school soul and R&B hits that our mothers, aunties, and older play cousins used to listen to with shining eyes and far away expressions, holding sweating glasses of drinks that were off limits to us kids. We were too young to be singing those songs, but we felt their power anyway.

We heard the longing in the singer's vocal acrobatics, and it moved us, even if we weren't sure why. We'd hear them on the radio, played during every quiet storm, sometimes with dedications, like "From Denise to that special someone. She says you know who you are." And then the ultimate side chick anthem, "As We Lay," by Shirley Murdock, would begin to play, a song about everything that happens in the moments before your man has to go home to his wife.

[MUSIC - "AS WE LAY" BY SHIRLEY MURDOCK]

Shirley Murdock

(SINGING) Morning, and we slept the night away.

Nichole Perkins

Auntie songs are where we got to hear from the other woman and realize maybe she's actually a human being with emotions too. We're hearing the perspectives of women who know their love is futile, but they'll take what they can get for as long as they can get it.

Shirley Murdock

(SINGING) We both belong to someone else as we slept the night away.

Nichole Perkins

One of the most famous auntie songs is an undercover one that most people don't realize is from the perspective of the other woman. In "Saving All My Love For You," Whitney Houston calls out her lover's lies, even as she continues to wait for him. "You used to tell me we'd run away together. Love gives you the right to be free. You said be patient. Just wait a little longer. But that's just an old fantasy."

[MUSIC - "SAVING ALL MY LOVE FOR YOU" BY WHITNEY HOUSTON]

When Whitney hits that beautiful extended high note on "fantasy," it feels like we're all falling back into an ocean of her lover's lies with her. And like her, we let ourselves be carried away anyway.

Whitney Houston

(SINGING) But that's just an old fantasy.

Nichole Perkins

When I was 25 years old and living in New Orleans, I met a man with a voice made for night. He was a lovely, nerdy thing with a shaved head and freckles, a sprinkle of joy across his nose and cheeks, and a few dots on his lips that were clearly targets for my affection. He wasn't yet 30, but he already had the look of a hip-hop professor in line at Whole Foods. I'll call him Bayard.

At dinner with him and a friend, I laughed too often and too hard at something Bayard said. He slipped me a questioning glance after one giggle too many, and I tried to pull myself together. But it was too late. At a club later, we ended up sitting next to each other, trying to talk over the music. At midnight, we sat in my car, talking. And then the sun reminded us our deodorants had been working for 24 hours.

I decided to shoot my shot. Is there anyone back home waiting for your morning call, I asked him. He took a long time to answer, which was answer enough. Yeah, there is, he finally said. He looked down at his hands, and I looked at them too. Of course he was involved with someone. He was smart, cute, and funny, and I'd met him at the wrong time.

We exchanged email addresses because that felt safe. There was nothing wrong with having a pen pal, was there? Soon, we were exchanging pages of text almost daily. He'd call me at work and have me crying from laughter. And sometimes, he'd call me at night when that someone back home was out with her girls, and he'd talk to me with that voice saying what his words wouldn't.

After about three months of constant communication, he came back to New Orleans for another visit. I don't know what he told that someone back home, but he told me he loved me. I said it back to him. We kissed. My memory tells me I had candles lit, and that's probably true. I do love candles. I remember his face as he looked at me and told me I was beautiful. I believed him.

He was engaged to be married, and for the most part, I didn't care. I definitely had some woman-to-woman guilt, since I'd had my own heartbreaking experiences with cheating exes. But Bayard and I started seeing each other when I was firmly in what we'd now call my "hot girl summer" phase. I also knew I wasn't the first woman he cheated on her with. I decided I couldn't care more about his woman than he did. I refused to take responsibility for his decisions, but I had no problem benefiting from them.

Those auntie songs I had swayed along with because I appreciated a talented voice and good music appealed differently to me during this time. Now they were pep talks. In "Secret Lovers," by Atlantic Starr, a pair of lovers are both devoted to other people, yet unable to stop their attraction. I didn't have anyone I was committed to, but there was a particular verse I kept going back to while I fancied myself in love with Bayard.

[MUSIC - "SECRET LOVERS" BY ATLANTIC STARR]

"Sitting at home, I do nothing all day but think about you and hope that you're OK, hoping you'll call before anyone gets home. I wait anxiously alone by the phone." This is the stuff of schoolgirl crushes, of clumsy rom-com heroines, of swooning damsels everywhere. And that's how I felt about Bayard. It just so happened he was committed to someone else.

Atlantic Starr

(SINGING) Secret lovers, that's what we are. Tried so hard to hide the way we feel.

Nichole Perkins

A few weeks after that candlelit visit, I was unexpectedly hospitalized and Bayard was there for me. He called my mother, cleaned up my apartment, and made sure my cat had a fresh litter box. He stayed with me the entire week, even after my family arrived. The care he showed me was a fantasy I'd never allowed myself to indulge.

He was married a few months later. He emailed me from the honeymoon. And several months after that, we made plans to spend a weekend at a hotel together. He left the hotel website up on his laptop, and his wife found a book I had inscribed with something sneaky. She eventually reached out to me via email and AIM, instant messaging of old. The exact messages have been lost to time and anger, but the gist remains.

What did he tell you about me? He didn't talk much about you. Why you? You'd have to ask him. Why did you do it? I wanted to. Do you love him? I think so, yes. Do you want him? No. I'm not trying to take him from you. I saw your pictures. OK. Does he love you? Ask him. Why did he do it? Ask him.

I ping-ponged between a strange loyalty to him, the need to defend myself, the desire to protect her, and the need to be catty. I wanted to tell her to leave, that he cheated before, that if it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else. Bayard's wife reminded me of the petty girls in school who couldn't understand why guys would be interested in me. I didn't have the things I was supposed to in order to be attractive.

I got in a few stingers, but I let her have her shots, whatever she needed to feel better. In giving myself what I wanted, I'd hurt another woman. I felt guilty, even as I would not allow myself to feel ashamed. When I wanted to brush away any concerns about how he was treating his wife, or when I'd start to feel bad about not having a man of my own, I'd put on the SOS Band's "Just Be Good To Me" to gas myself up and keep me focused on myself.

[MUSIC - "JUST BE GOOD TO ME" BY SOS BAND]

"I don't care about your other girls, just be good to me." His wife didn't understand how I could be with him and claim to love him, but not want to take him from her. I was no fool. I firmly believe in the adage, "How you got him is how you get got."

Sos Band

(SINGING) I don't care about your other girls. Just be good to me. Oooh.

Nichole Perkins

I think I stopped loving him first. He was the only man I was saying "I love you" to in a romantic sense, but he couldn't say the same, so I stopped answering his emails and calls. He wrote me a letter and I burned it, unopened.

After I made the decision to let my relationship with Bayard go, I found myself holding a sweating glass and staring at a blank wall. The auntie songs once gave me strength, and now they gave me permission to cry. I missed someone who was never mine, even though I had made a good decision in moving on from the affair, a decision that had been mine.

In most auntie songs, we hear the other woman passively waiting for the man to make time for her. But in "Everything I Miss At Home," the singer Cherrelle tells the story of a woman who initiates her infidelity and lets us know she is the one dissatisfied in her main relationship. She cheats without regrets and is grateful to have found someone who gives her everything she's not getting at home. She was not the object of desire, she was in control of it. The song is a groovy slow jam made for a two-step and eye contact, perfect for a woman who refuses to feel remorseful about receiving love from unexpected places.

[MUSIC - "EVERYTHING I MISS AT HOME" BY CHERRELLE]

Cherrelle

(SINGING) You give me attention. You're someone who understands my needs.

Nichole Perkins

I let these songs guide me through an affair, but they didn't tell me what happened after I'd moved on. I started reading romance novels when I was very young and became addicted to the promise of happily ever after. Forever was found in fiction and fairy tales. But in auntie songs, forever was a stolen night.

Does the other woman get her happy ending? Maybe it's enough to stay in a loop of borrowed time. I still haven't figured that out yet. But I know I can be loved any way I want.

Cherrelle

(SINGING) I was just out on the town in search of some fun. I wasn't looking for love.

Sean Cole

Nichole Perkins is a writer from Nashville, Tennessee. Her memoir, from which this essay is adapted, is called Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be, and it's out now.

Coming up, they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it can also make you a beloved rock critic, at least in one case. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Track Two: Music is Easy

Sean Cole

It's This American Life. I'm Sean Cole. Since Ira's was away this week, we made you a mixtape. It's called "This is Just Some Songs." And it's just some songs. Don't get excited.

We're at Track Two, Music is Easy. It struck me that most of the songs in the show today are from a long time ago, and I wanted to play you like a minute of this one tune. It's a little newer. It's from early last year. And for me, it's just one of those earworms that I'm, like, delighted to have in my ear all the time. The artist calls themselves Josephine Network, a self-described "shapeshifting yenta" in drag. It's a song about unburdening yourself, getting whatever it is off your chest through music.

[MUSIC - "MUSIC IS EASY" BY JOSEPHINE NETWORK]

Josephine Network

Music is easy, it's a laugh. Play with a melody, make it last. People are crazy. They change every day. What price would you pay to get your way? Oh, music is easy. Sing what you dream. What would you feel? Say what you mean, oh. Some make you happy. Some leave you scarred. Living is hard. So play your guitar. Oh.

Sean Cole

Isn't that something? I also wanted to play that for you because where they say "say what you mean," this next track on our mix tape is about saying explicitly, indisputably, what you mean with music-- although, the people in the story might argue that it is not always easy. Part of their job is hunting for exactly the right song for the occasion.

Track Three: The End of the Road

Sean Cole

So this is Track Three, The End of the Road. And I think the only other thing you need to know is that my colleague, Chana Joffe Walt, is a big fan of those slideshows that schools put together at the end of the year for graduations and that kind of thing. Retrospective slideshows. Loves them. Here's Chana.

Chana Joffe Walt

I got a bonus end of the year slideshow last spring. I wasn't expecting it because it was for my second grader, and he wasn't graduating anything. Still, I was pleased when his teacher wrote the class to say she wanted to mark the end of the year, we should all join their morning meeting by Zoom, and there was going to be a slideshow.

Like Sean said, I do love slideshows, and not in a normal way, I don't think. I always cry, every time. And I'm really not a crier, but these stupid slideshows always work on me. I will cry when it's not my own child graduating. I will cry even if I don't know a single kid in the slideshow. For instance, here, I was at an elementary school that my kids do not go to. I was there reporting.

Woman

It wouldn't be a graduation without a slideshow. Enjoy.

Chana Joffe Walt

And it takes 10 seconds. The pictures of the kids at work at their tables, out on their field trips in matching t-shirts. I love when they do the photos from the beginning of the year and then the end, and you see the kids get teeth and long legs. In the front row, there's a grandpa wiping his eyes. I was done.

One more, and I promise I'll get to the point here in a second. This one was the most embarrassing one for me. I went to this graduation at a different school I was reporting on. Oh, my god.

Man

Now we'll have the rose ceremony.

Chana Joffe Walt

Do you guys know about this diabolical thing they now do at some high school graduations, where they give each kid a rose?

Man

Each graduate will present a rose to one person who helped them on this journey.

Chana Joffe Walt

And then they asked them to bring it to someone in the audience who got them to this moment. Then you see all these kids stumbling over their robes trying to find their mom in the audience, and you see mothers just absorb their daughters in hugs, both of them sobbing.

I watched this one awkward 17-year-old boy walk up to his grandma, shove the rose toward her, and mumble "Thank you." And she grabbed him by the neck and pulled him in. Brutal. The woman from the main office in the school, she saw me and came over to pat my arm to tell me it would be OK. Remember, I was not related to a single person graduating in this ceremony.

Anyway, this year, I joined my child's class by Zoom, and I knew what to expect. We all watched a very sweet slideshow the teacher put together, and I felt nothing. Nothing. We saw pictures of the kids reading in beanbag chairs, learning math, nothing. Making volcanoes, nope. I just felt sort of numb. My attention drifted, I looked at my phone, I looked at everyone in the boxes on Zoom.

And a bunch of slides in, a kid on Zoom unmuted himself to say something random, like my dog smells. And just hearing the sound, I realized, oh, there's no music. That's what's weird about this. There's no song.

Bess

There was no music in her slideshow? Oh no. That's unacceptable. I've never heard of that before.

Chana Joffe Walt

Bess Massey is a school social worker, the maker of many slideshows and the most enthusiastic fan of them too when she's in the audience. Bess cheers for every person in the slideshow, every activity. She cheers for the days of the week.

Bess

That's definitely why you didn't cry. 100%.

Chana Joffe Walt

You think that's why I didn't cry? Yeah, I think it is why I didn't cry.

Bess

Yes, absolutely.

Chana Joffe Walt

I did talk to the teacher in my son's class. She says she just forgot to put music in. I called Bess, and I also called my friend Rachel Lissy. Rachel and Bess combined have probably put together dozens of slideshows over decades of working at summer camps, running after school programs, and graduations. I asked them both, what does it mean that I didn't feel anything without the music? Here's Rachel.

Rachel

Yeah, I don't-- I can't-- I mean, without music-- first of all, like I feel like even though, at this point, we wouldn't be having slideshows actually using, like, slides in, like, an old rotary, I still feel like if you're doing it without music, you can't help but hear, like, a clicking sound. Like, just this, like, sound of just emptiness.

[LAUGHING]

Chana Joffe Walt

No, that's exactly what this slideshow felt like. Yeah, it felt like time was moving so slowly, and the pictures didn't have any of their meaning, or at least not the meaning that I wanted.

Rachel

Yeah, it's interesting because it's like, there is a way in which the slideshows are celebrating the growth, like the passage of time, like we're a year older. But with music, that feels like wondrous and full of possibility. And without music, it feels just like the clicking of us all towards--

Chana Joffe Walt

Just aging.

[LAUGHING]

Rachel

Yes, totally. Exactly. Like, I've aged in this slideshow, and I've watched aging, and I feel connected to my own fragile mortality. Thank you, slideshow.

Chana Joffe Walt

The right song, it can tell your mind what to think about when you look at a bunch of pictures. Of all the possible things you could be thinking about and feeling, the music tells you, no, no, no, this is the one to pick.

That said, imagine the rose ceremony without music. It'd just be awkward, like watching a bunch of people stumble over chairs, trying to find their seats. So I thought I'd try. Play the same slideshow, but just put a song under it. See if I felt the right things.

I was skeptical, though, because this slideshow had a lot of other things getting in the way. For one, we weren't all together watching it in a crowded auditorium. And honestly, mostly what I saw was not the pictures of the kids being cute. I just noticed their masks, and the fact that their desks had plastic partitions. And in some pictures, they're wearing winter coats indoors because they have to have the windows open for ventilation. It just felt dystopian. And I could not really imagine a slideshow on Zoom overcoming all that.

Bess

No, no, I think it can work.

Chana Joffe Walt

Bess, ever faithful in the medium, believed this was absolutely fixable. She and Rachel both gave me lots of suggestions of songs they thought could work, that I could play during the slideshow to feel the right things. It's not complicated. Bess says basically any song everyone knows can do the job. Pop songs, high energy songs, those are the best.

Rachel thinks it's all about the lyrics. "I hope you had the time of your life." "As we go on we remember all the times we had together."

Rachel

But then there are also the songs like "End of the Road," "Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," or like that Sarah McLaughlin song, "I Will Remember You," whatever.

Chana Joffe Walt

I forgot about "End of the Road." "End of the Road," that's--

Rachel

Oh, yeah, "End of the Road."

Chana Joffe Walt

Yeah.

Rachel

Where it's just, like, hitting the nail right on the head.

[LAUGHING]

It's just like, let's have some big feelings about something ending.

Chana Joffe Walt

Yeah, it's so on the nose.

Rachel

This is a particular kind of art form.

Chana Joffe Walt

Yeah.

Rachel

And it doesn't call for much subtlety.

[MUSIC - "END OF THE ROAD" BY BOYZ II MEN]

Boyz Ii Men

(SINGING) Although we've come to the end of the road, still--

Chana Joffe Walt

There is one song-- Bess and Rachel both mentioned it-- that was the perfect slideshow song in all the ways. It was poppy, everyone knew it, had the right energy, and the lyrics tell you exactly what to feel.

Rachel

The R Kelly song, "The World's Greatest," which for a number of reasons, you can no longer really do. But it's a perfect, perfect slideshow song.

Chana Joffe Walt

That was in heavy rotation for many years.

Rachel

Right? Like, this man who did these terrible things and should not be the hero of any child happened to have written, like, two of the greatest slideshow songs ever. And I don't know why, but it hits me every time. Like, the idea-- like, I am a marching band, I'm a mountain. Something about that and seeing the faces of kids, "I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky," that sense of just, like, each of us having this sort of bigness to us.

Chana Joffe Walt

Obviously, I'm not going to play R Kelly under my second grader's slideshow. But all the other songs Bess and Rachel recommended, they all just feel too sentimental. And I don't feel sentimental about the last year. I don't think I want to feel sentimental about the last year of school. Like "End of the Road"-- I [BLEEP] wish it was the end of the road.

But I did give it a try. I sat with the slideshow and tried to put music under it. Bess had suggested a Beatles song, and there is a Beatles song that I sing to my kid at bedtime. It's sappy, has all the right lyrics, but it didn't work. It's too much about him and me, not his class or his school. I did not believe this slideshow was salvageable.

There was one other kind of slideshow song that Bess talked about, one she'd seen work recently at her mother-in-law's 90th birthday party. And it didn't work because it was a song everyone knew or because the lyrics tell you how to feel. She said it works because it makes you think of a particular place.

Bess

She comes from like, this little town, and it's like Un Bolero-- you know, like just a traditional like, small town ballad that was sung about the town that she was from.

Chana Joffe Walt

I started to think about that and what song I associate with this specific group of people and this specific place. There's really only one. Every year since my oldest was in pre-K-- so, seven years-- at the end of the year assembly, the kids sing a song called "This Pretty Planet." I've never loved the song, and I did not miss it when a new music teacher came in recently and retired it. But it did seem like it might work for this. And it did.

[MUSIC - "THIS PRETTY PLANET" BY TOM CHAPIN]

Tom Chaplin

(SINGING) This pretty planet spinning through space, your garden, your harbor, your holy place.

Chana Joffe Walt

I know. They do hand motions and everything. It actually felt like watching a slideshow I had never seen before. The masks and the heaviness of the year were still there, but my brain didn't focus on them. Instead, I saw a picture I had totally missed of my kid leading a group of friends in some sort of stomping game in the yard. I saw a girl who couldn't read last year standing at the board with the pointer stick reading to everyone.

Mostly, I just saw the incredible resilience of all the people in that classroom and marveled at the teachers smiling and leading and so skillfully masking all the fear and chaos of the entire school year, so they could create something that looks like school.

Choir

(SINGING) The morning light.

Chana Joffe Walt

It's not easy being with kids all the time. It's tedious and boring and hard, even when there's not a global pandemic. But there are these flashes of bigness. The slideshow takes all those flashes and bottles them up, so that you can look back over the past year for a few minutes-- ideally, no more than six-- with the right song playing, and actually see all the things you missed.

Sean Cole

Chana Joffe Walt is one of the producers of our show.

Track Four: What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

Sean Cole

Track Four, What's the Frequency, Kenneth? So, so much musical discovery happens when we're kids, like you really find the songs that form your tastes when you're young, for the most part, or at least that's what happened with me. This last story is about someone discovering music who is much older, a guy named Ken Eglin, who was actually living in a nursing home in Boston-- the Duplex Nursing Home, it was called. This was decades ago, by the way.

There were 45 residents in the facility, all men. My friend David Greenberger was the activities director there in the late '70s and early '80s.

David Greenberger

So I started the job the beginning of '79, and I'd met Ken probably immediately because he walked with a walker, and he would sit himself right by-- there was a desk for the activities director, and there was, like, a cabin with stuff in it. And it was in the corner of a room where they also would have lunch and stuff.

So Ken was always seated right by it, because he's like, hey, you, what are you doing? So whoever was an outsider was like, I got to know what's going on out there. He never saw himself as a guy in a nursing home. He's like, if it weren't for my leg, you know, and these spells that I get. You know, so he--

Sean Cole

Pointing to his head, he got some sort of spells?

David Greenberger

He would have seizures, so he had had some kind of brain surgery, and you could see the scar on his head from that, so that affected how he could walk along. And he just started talking to me.

Sean Cole

Ken was a talker. You wouldn't know it looking at him, but he had been a tap dancer in nightclubs back in the '30s, part of the jazz scene in Boston. He said he had met jazz icons like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young, who he called Prez.

During a saxophone solo, he would be the guy in the audience yelling go, go, go, go, go. Ken also drank a lot back in the day. According to his intake papers, the surgery he'd had was for subdural hematoma, a leaking blood vessel in his brain, probably from falling down the stairs one time when he was drunk.

He also had diabetes, semiparalysis on his left side, and he had no family to speak of. His siblings and parents had all died. And even given all of that, he was still this upbeat, smiley charmer. Said that if David didn't go ahead and marry his girlfriend, he was going to meet up with her on the corner with two bottles of John Jameson.

David was a denizen of his own very different kind of music scene. He played in a band in the heyday of Boston rock, a skinny, arty, 25-year-old white guy with a mustache. Compared to Ken, who was Black, a World War II vet in his mid-60s, and for whom going to shows was well in the past. Still, music was something they easily bonded over.

David Greenberger

Ken wanted to hear music. And specifically, wanted to know what was I listening to? There was an element in him where he was like, what's going on out there? And he'd point out the window. I got to know what's going on out there. And first, I just played him some stuff, and I think the first thing I played him was The Shaggs.

Sean Cole

Sort of the outsider art trio of sisters from New Hampshire. They sounded like this.

[MUSIC - THE SHAGGS]

Women

(SINGING) All the rich people want what the poor people's got. And the poor people want what the rich people's got.

Sean Cole

Ken had a lot to say about The Shaggs. We actually know exactly what his reaction was because David wrote it down, this whole rapid-fire soliloquy. David read it to me.

David Greenberger

I couldn't dance to that, not regular dancing with a woman. I could soft shoe with that. Any of this music you're playing for me, I could soft shoe with or buck and wing with it, or off-time with it. Personally myself, I could do it. I don't know if everybody else could. I know for a fact that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire could dance to that. And if they could, I damn sure could do it myself. And I pray to God someday you can see me dance to that, that I'm well enough to do it. Let me tell you something, Dave, any time anybody--

Sean Cole

I just need to pause here for a second and talk about the reason David wrote down what Ken had to say about The Shaggs. Early on in his job at the nursing home, David started a small magazine, a zine, called The Duplex Planet. It was mainly quotes from the residents and snippets of their conversations that he thought were surprising, or funny, or poignant.

It was self-published, hundreds of subscribers, not thousands, but it had this devoted following. It lasted decades after David left the nursing home. He interviewed old folks all over the country. There was a comic book version, live performances, CDs, everything. And Ken Eglin was one of the early standout regulars that readers look forward to hearing from every month.

David created a special section for him, actually, a music review column called "Ken's Corner." He'd play Ken songs on a cassette Walkman, Ken would say what he thought of them, and David would sit and take notes. In the first official Ken's Corner column, Issue 29, he reviewed "Money Won't Buy You Happiness" by The Incredible Casuals.

David Greenberger

He says it's crazy, it's really groovy-- or as you say today, it's really nice. And I say--

[LAUGHING]

Cracks me up. As you say today, "nice." As if we'd gotten rid of the word "crazy." It's like he was used to beatnik talk. You guys don't do that anymore, right? But I say, it's slang, it's groovy. It had a beat, and the beat was beautiful. I like it. I like what I hear. Give them a chance. They'll be up there. These kids can go up. They can go. There's no stopping them now. If they stop, I'll tell them they're fools. There's that old saying now, you probably never heard it. Peg Leg Bates, he said, don't stop right there. Keep going.

[MUSIC - "MONEY WON'T BUY YOU HAPPINESS" BY THE INCREDIBLE CASUALS]

The Incredible Casuals

(SINGING) --don't force that. Money won't buy you happiness.

Sean Cole

A lot of the reviews are like that, in a good way. There's this poetic repetition to his gushiness. And he's so encouraging. He'll be like, "those kids are going places," whether he's talking about The Incredible Casuals or a much more famous band, like The Clash.

Quote, "Should I go, huh? No, no, don't go. Stay there, baby. These boys are all right. They're going to swing." Sometimes David would play an artist Ken had heard before, like Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. But mostly, it was stuff that was all new to him. And like those first-time-listening reaction videos that are on YouTube and TikTok now, it helped if you already knew the song he was talking about, because it allowed you to hear it through new ears, Ken's ears.

David Greenberger

There was a complete lack of knowledge of context. He doesn't know anything about the history of the person, which can be freeing. He's just like, whoa, this thing's just rolling over me. It's really about how you would talk with a friend while you're listening to music.

He was my friend. It was never in a ironic way. I don't even like that whole thing that gets done sometimes like, let's see what Grandpa says about Kiss, or the Slits, or whatever, just some thing that you normally wouldn't be playing for Grandpa.

Sean Cole

Out of the mouths of babes, except for it's not babes, it's old people.

David Greenberger

Yeah, the reverse babe, whatever.

[LAUGHING]

But a lot of times, he would relate himself to it. I mean, basically all these things, while they are music reviews, the whole thing together is a portrait of Ken, described in these funny little ways, like piecing together a puzzle, or the little bits of it are all coming together.

Sean Cole

That's what it really is.

David Greenberger

Yeah.

Sean Cole

Not just a portrait of his personality, which is palpable, but practically Ken's whole life is depicted in the reviews. Reacting to "The Lord's Prayer" by the Beach Boys, he said, "I was a Methodist, and then when they sent me to school they switched me around and made me a Catholic. That was the Matron. She didn't like me because I was too popular and too good a dancer, but I didn't care."

Ken was a rebel, crashing parties, no matter what floor they were on. He talks about climbing the sides of houses to get in. The words "raising hell" appear at least a couple of times. But there were more placid memories too. He's down at the Charles River in a couple of the reviews, sleeping on a blanket. Or he's at Magazine Beach, where he used to be a lifeguard. This is from when he listened to Captain Beefheart's "Tropical Hot Dog Night."

David Greenberger

"I'm sitting there, laying on my blanket, and I got the beat in my body and my blood. And I look over to one side of me, and there's a blonde girl with long hair way down her back, and she's got those tight bikinis on and shaking it up. She's tearing up the world. And you got to get up and get the same beat that she's got. And there you are--"

Sean Cole

Apparently, there were a lot of women in Ken's life. He never married. Seems like he rejected all of that. But he had girlfriends, and not always happily. "It Was an Accident" by NRBQ got him talking about the time one woman told him she was pregnant with his baby, and he skipped town. Turned out it wasn't his.

And sometimes all of the carousing and carrying on intersects with America's troubled history. This is what he said in response to Bunky and Jake's, "If I Had A Dream." "If we played music like that back in the '30s, the police, the Irish cops, would raise hell with us. Now what I'm trying to tell you, segregation was a bitch. They couldn't stand me dancing with the white girls.

We'd be doing the Lindy Hop in Boston Common, going wild, smoking reefers-- we called them reefers back then. Now they call it marijuana. We'd be dancing, and along comes a pounder, which is a cop, and he says all right now, break it up. Sometimes you run into a cop saying, hey, that's my cousin you're dancing with, boy."

[MUSIC - "IF I HAD A DREAM" BY BUNKY AND JAKE]

Bunky And Jake

(SINGING) Don't ask me what do I mean if I had a dream.

Sean Cole

To be clear, Ken did not like everything David played him. Some of the reviews begin with "it was weird," or "I don't buy that." "Cat Food" by King Crimson was a hard no. And then this one review was such an intricate, multilayered, yet subtly murderous pan.

David Greenberger

Oh, here.

Sean Cole

David had to read it to me.

David Greenberger

"This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. "That I wouldn't buy, but it sounds all right. Some more horns in there would have helped a little bit, and change the tempo a little too. A better singer too, who could have come more clear with it. A lot of those words I couldn't get. You could change the lyrics in there too. He was corn. He had a tempo in there, but I just couldn't get it. They got to switch it around. I don't mean all the way around, just halfway."

So basically, he's now asked about adding horns, changing the lyrics, the tempo, and getting a different singer, but it's not totally bad. I mean, he's basically trying to be-- I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, you know.

[MUSIC - "THIS DIAMOND RING" BY GARY LEWIS]

Sean Cole

I should also say, everyone at the nursing home knew about the zine. The owner told David he was really proud of what he was doing, and David showed Ken the Ken's Corner column in The Duplex Planet, but Ken was completely uninterested. He was like, why do I need a souvenir of myself talking?

Sean Cole

Did he know how many people were reading these?

David Greenberger

I don't know if it really registered. I would tell him stuff, but it's such an abstract thing. All that mattered to him was he liked what we did.

Sean Cole

Meanwhile, Ken's following swelled well beyond the readership of The Duplex Planet. Other publications started picking up the column. A rock sheet in Boston called The Noise, two alternative papers out of the Northwest. Rounder Records had David submit some of Ken's reviews for their mail order catalog.

Granted, David had a lot of music world connections from playing in his band, but he wasn't pushing for any of this exposure. And when Ken got to meet some of the musicians he reviewed, weirdly, it was Ken who was the celebrity in those interactions.

The Del Fuegos got in touch asking if Ken could produce them. A local Boston band called Pastiche dedicated a song to him, which he later reviewed. He and David appeared on a local TV show in Rhode Island together. David even read a couple of Ken's reviews on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Whereas Ken had always said he wanted to know what was going on out in the world, now Ken was what was going on out in the world.

Chandler Travis of The Incredible Casuals told me he liked Ken because Ken talked like a musician. David brought Ken to one of their shows. And The Casuals played at David's wedding party, where Ken was a guest. There's a Super 8 film with just a snippet of Ken at the party on it. He's wearing a gray suit jacket and a white shirt with a wide collar, no tie.

You can't hear what Ken's saying over the crowd noise, but he's joking around, gesticulating. People lean in and laugh. He's a hit, and he knows it. "I had a ball that night," he said, in his review of The Easy Beats "Friday On My Mind." "Then I had to come back here and who's waiting for me at the front door but the gorilla. And that wine hit me when I got out of the car."

Another result of Ken's widening popularity, other people wanted in on the action. Started sending their own mixtapes for Ken to listen to. Cassettes. David still has them. All the songs are listed on the J-card or typed onto these little sheets of paper and folded up and shoved into the jewel case. One of the lists has a little note on it that says, "Dave, is it OK to put your own thing on here? If not, skip over it." And this tape was from the guitarist Glenn Jones. It's got Jelly Roll Morton on it and Elvis Presley and this tune.

[MUSIC - "STRANGER" BY LEFTY FRIZZELL]

Lefty Frizzell

(SINGING) Stranger, you're no stranger to me.

David Greenberger

"Stranger" by Lefty Frizzell. "I was crying a little bit during it. Man, that's a Western song if there ever was. That is one. 'No Stranger To Me.' Oh, man. That's what the cat said. Oh, man, take me back, take me right back to the Arizona desert. That kind of music gets you. So help me, it does. You've got the moon, and a sucker singing like this, and girls walking around in little slips that you can see right through.

It's music that's like this that takes you, their voices so plain, that you can understand what they're saying. To me, I know what they're singing. There's lyrics in there you may not know, but you will put them in there yourself. I've done that so many times, just sat there and listened to bands play and put the words in myself, the way I hear them. It's easy to do if you got the music in your body. Man, you're going to do it. That's from the heart."

Lefty Frizzell

(SINGING) Stranger, you're no stranger to me.

Sean Cole

In all, Ken dictated 692 music reviews, give or take, over just a couple of years. And then his health got worse. He developed cancer. He was transferred from The Duplex Nursing Home to a local VA Hospital. David kept visiting him, encouraged other people, Ken's fans, to do the same.

David Greenberger

He was at the VA. It was clear he's going to be there for a while. He was-- maybe he knew he was never going to leave there. Maybe he knew he was getting worse. He certainly wasn't going back to the nursing home. And so, it was really just a request. He asked me, he said, those reviews, could you bring them in here for me?

Sean Cole

Not all of them or anything, but just a selection of them to have.

David Greenberger

He wanted them in a folder by his bed at the VA hospital because I think, well, he knew, I'm an old guy that's just being moved around. And so he would tell people, that's me. You know, the nurses and stuff at the VA hospital. He wanted some identity outside of just being a frail guy whose body's breaking down.

At the nursing home, he was Ken. He had a level of respect. But at the VA hospital, he wouldn't have had any of that. It was like, you know, you'd get moved into the hallway. Now we got to do this for him. We're sending you down to this room for whatever tests. And especially for somebody who doesn't really have family or an advocate.

They were in touch with me, I got my name onto his chart. And I remember I got a call late at night. maybe it was 2:00 in the morning or something. And just, it was just, you know, just wanted to call and let you know that Ken died tonight.

Sean Cole

It was January 29, 1984. Ken was 68. A featured obituary ran in the Boston Sunday Globe, headlined "Kenneth Eglin, rock music critic, began as tap dancer in '30s." It didn't mention his seizures, or his diabetes, or that he used a walker toward the end of his life. It did quote from one of his reviews. "No matter what instrument you're playing," said one of the quotes, "You can't lose that first beat, or you're through."

David, at the time, was 29. He'd only been to one or two funerals at that point, other guys from the nursing home. He'd certainly never had to organize one before, but it was David who called the funeral home to work out the details of the wake. Fans of Ken cycled in and out, paying their respects, some who had met him in the past and others who hadn't.

David arranged for some of Ken's favorite music to be played-- Sun Ra, the Beach Boys, Jonathan Richman. And he took care of this one other detail that felt important.

David Greenberger

I gave them the tape, the last mixtape that Ken never got to hear. Came too late. There just wasn't a time. You know, his condition was deteriorating. I would go and see him, but I wasn't trying to get headphones on him and have him listen to stuff. So I then gave it to the funeral director, and I had him put it in the pocket of his jacket. So he was buried with it. He's buried with the tape. So I don't remember-- know what was on it.

Sean Cole

You don't remember any of the songs?

David Greenberger

No. That was meant to be a thing that I would have done with him. It was for him to hear, and that wasn't possible. So--

Sean Cole

It's like it belongs to him in a way.

David Greenberger

Yeah. What am I supposed to do with this?

Sean Cole

There's this thing that happens when two friends sit and listen to music together a lot. It happened with my friend Paul and me when we were kids and he turned me onto some of the music I still listen to. And it happened with Ken and David. Even when you go your separate ways, in whatever way that happens, it's like you take that person with you. You're forever informed by that friendship. Certain songs will always remind you of that person, even when they become associated with other people in your life.

And when you hear those songs, you think about other aspects of that friendship, of that person, that you really loved. Stuff that maybe didn't occur to you as much back when you were hanging out with them. I asked David what Ken's last review was. He said he wasn't sure because he'd collect so many at once, and then mete them out in batches as he published the magazine. But this is the last one in the last Ken's Corner column in Issue 55. That's a song by Ted Hawkins.

David Greenberger

His song "TWA." He couldn't get the name of it. I told him it was "TWA." He nodded and he said, well, "happiness" was in there, anyway. I know "happiness" was in there. All right. I liked it.

[MUSIC - "TWA" BY TED HAWKINS]

Ted Hawkins

(SINGING) --laid out in the sky. Special steps were taken to please you, so you know they cares about you. Expert--

Sean Cole

If you want to know more about David and his work, you can go to DavidGreenberger.com. and Berger is B-E-R-G-E-R. There's also a documentary film about him in progress called "Beyond The Duplex Planet."

Ted Hawkins

Your true happiness means their success. Your true happiness means their success.

Track Five: I Talk in Tunes

Sean Cole

Track Five, I Talk In Tunes. So I was sitting with Chandler Travis of The Incredible Casuals, who I mentioned in that story. And he was just sort of thinking out loud at one point and knew what I was working on. And he's like, I wonder if you guys might need a song, like a mixtape song for the end of that show that you're doing.

And I was like, yeah, why? You got one? And he's like, no, but I could write one. It's actually where the title of the episode comes from. Enjoy.

[MUSIC - "THIS IS JUST SOME SONGS" BY CHANDLER TRAVIS]

Chandler Travis

(SINGING) This is just some songs. I hope you like songs. In a way, to me, they're medicine. It's stupid that pop that made my IQ drop, I can't get them out of the head they're in.

This is just some songs. You probably hate songs, but I wanna know who I'm talking to. And if you understand the sounds we make, you leave the ground. And fine, if you don't, well, never mind. Checking in, nothing ventured, calling out, just stuff.

I know you don't know me, and I don't really know you. Maybe we should not get married yet. But first, you need to hear the stuff I got to give you to show you where the treasure's buried at. No big deal, a couple things to listen to, tell you how deep inside I am. Maybe you can tell me why, when I try to communicate, you probably see another fancy dan.

I wanna know who I'm talking to. And I talk in twos. I talk in twos. I talk in twos. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. I made you a mixtape.

Credits

Sean Cole

Today's program was produced by Nadia Reiman and myself. The people who put our show together include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Zoe Chace, Chana Joffe Walt, Seth Lind, Tobin Low, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ari Saperstein, Laura Starcheski, Lilly Sullivan, Matt Tierney, and Chloe Weiner.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Senior Editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Fact checking by Andrea Lopez Cruzado, Rudy Lee, and Christopher Swetala. Rikki Bates played drums and was the mix engineer on "I Talk In Tunes."

Special thanks to Kelefa Sanneh, Hanif Abdurraqib, Neil Drumming, Mallory Zuckerman, Geoff Muldaur, Georgia Webber, Dan Brier, Beth Harrington, and The Josh Craig. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks also and always to our boss, Ira Glass. He got drunk on the set of Wheel of Fortune, passed out, and when he woke up, he saw Vanna White smiling and the completed puzzle. He was so confused.

Josh

Did I-- did I tell her that it spelled that?

Sean Cole

I'm Sean Cole. Join us next week for more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "I TALK IN TUNES"]

Man

(SINGING) I talk in tunes. I talk in tunes.

Ira Glass

Next week on the podcast of This American Life, one of our producers, Parker, grew up in Baltimore like I did. And she explained to me that she and other Black kids of her generation were terrified going to this history museum called The Great Blacks in Wax.

This week, Parker goes back.

Parker

I'm sorry. I just got distracted by them trying to shove the guy in the oven. Sorry. What?

Man

What?

Parker

No, that's the Underground Railroad. That's a fake oven.

Man

Oh, OK.

Ira Glass

What's Suitable for Children? Next week on the podcast or on your local public radio station.