A guy wearing a ten-gallon hat in a bar called the Dugout on Third Avenue near 14th Street once told me and my roommate, Lisa, that we were the funky-freshest girls in New York City. He was using the term “funky fresh” ironically, but his compliment about our level of cool was sincere. Since this is more than 30 years ago, I can say this: We really were the coolest chicks in Manhattan for a minute there, wearing our vintage 1970s pleather jackets and nonconformist retro-blue eyeshadow. You can see a glimpse of the Dugout in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” but it has long since disappeared from the concrete world.
It’s gratifying to have memories of a youth ill-spent. I’m old enough to remember when we called a place like that just a “dive,” not the redundant millennial “dive bar.” We drank beer at the Dugout and at a true Bowery-bum gin mill, Hank’s Crystal Palace, where the toilet was a hole in the floor. We engaged in kasha-varnishkes fights at 4 a.m. with rock-and-rollers at the Polish and Ukrainian restaurants of Alphabet City. We stood at the back of the room — the far, far back — when G.G. Allin took the stage at the Love Club.
I’ve invested considerable time in trying to convince my children to listen to music that can’t be heard on top-40 radio. It’s not going well. When they were small, I bought them a portable turntable, handed off my pile of 45s, and encouraged them to dance around the living room to Lee Scratch Perry’s “Jungle Lion” and Nervous Norvus’s “Transfusion,” but they remained vocal in their preference for “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. (Nervous Norvus? Look it up!)
Now that my daughter is 13, I am trying to inform her about the history of subcultures with the aid of documentary photographs — “This is a Mod. He was the enemy of the rocker” — and to impress upon her the ideas that teenagers used to D.I.Y. their fashions and their music, rather than receive them from their corporate overlords. This will probably go about as well as any motherly attempt to form the taste of an adolescent has ever gone.
The other day, my friend Antonia emailed, rather belatedly, to tell me that she’d been listening to a mixed tape I made her 14 years ago — a compact disc, really — and was wondering if I could make her another one. (Yeah, we olds used to say “mixed tape,” not “mixtape.”) And so my 2020 Pandemic Playlist is in the works. That aural mood for the quarantine summer tends toward raw-edged melancholy. Whiskey-and-abandoned-hope songs. It’s mainly what my favorite radio D.J., Ralph McLean of BBC Radio Ulster, calls “American roots.”
I recommend Calexico’s “Splitter” for single moms angrily washing pots in the sink after dinner, thinking of the Miranda rights of protesters in Portland, Ore. “Total Entertainment Forever” by Father John Misty is the tune for members of Gen-X who feel a slow-dawning realization creep up their spine that democracy might not survive the advent of the internet. Thin Lizzy’s version of the ancient Irish outlaw tune “Whiskey in the Jar” is on the list because many of us, especially Enemies of the People like me, are beginning to identify with outlaws.
Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover” is for those who have indulged in one too many Covid Cocktails — botanical gin and Fever Tree aromatic tonic, for its medicinal properties — and plan to cry themselves to sleep. John Prine’s live version of “Lake Marie” and “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show hit the right note the next morning, when you don’t want to get out of bed and face the front page of The New York Times, but have to soldier on.
Around about midday, when your remote work is becoming existentially insupportable, your rear end is sore from so much sitting, and you wonder if all the Atlantic right whales are truly dying off, tune in to “Wilder Than Her” and “Cigarette Machine” by Fred Eaglesmith. Fred Eaglesmith? Look it up!