Songs you never asked for

Back in the day, in the Wild West of the internet era, my father discovered Napster, with its slightly sinister logo, and the surreal and risky idea that you were hooking up your computer to thousands of other people’s record collections, their scratchy, copy of Malvina Reynolds singing “Little Boxes,” my father’s Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall. Who were these people? Why would you want to correspond with someone you didn’t know? Was it safe?

My father and I embarked on a greedy period of musical nostalgia. I tried to remember the songs we had sung together when I was little and my weekend treat was a trip in the car down to the town across the river to buy the New York Times at the supermarket. We sang “Home on the Range” and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” He searches for the beach music of his youth. All of these songs were out there, little points of light, constellations flashing on a thousand modems, to work out and reconfigure.

He burns CDs for me, writing the names on them in Sharpie, “Protest & Western,” “Songs for The Wertis,” “Songs You Never Asked For,” making cases out of paper, which have the file names printed out and some kind of music-themed graphic that comes with whatever ASCII commands he was using to format CD sleeves, the names of the songs in large Helvetica type. He prints, folds and glues them together. Some CDs will have several versions of the same song or a song that has only partially downloaded—the downloads take a long time—but they are like postcards from my childhood, now dogeared in the sideboard where we keep the CDs, anachronistic in this wireless digital Pinged up, Pandoraed time. CDs and books, our artifacts from the 1900s.

Time moves on.

My older daughter’s school is 20 minutes away, which, when you add up the road time is too many hours to spend listening to pop music. We have been subscribing to podcasts. The other day I discovered “No One’s Listening.”

Host Irene McGee’s voice has a slightly Janice-from-Friends edge at times but it’s an interesting conversation that she and her guest, the author of a book about an anonymous photo/talkboard site, are having. They consider the moral implications of anonymity, the appeal of the site, the agenda of its users, how they united against MasterCard to defend WikiLeaks.

What are the rules in a community that defines itself in terms of not having or not needing rules? Following the flow of their conversation is a better way to spend the time than singing along to “Wonderwall.” The podcast is 50 minutes long. I listen to it throughout the day as I drive between meetings, these thoughts about how we behave online, what is right, what is privacy, where the line is, threading between the bright, green stalks of the day.

At the beginning of the show McGee says that she had asked her guest not to Google-search her until he’d been on the show. He has agreed but says that basically he knows the backstory on her. The whole thing is a bit high school flirty, no, I just wanted to see if you could do it. I thought it would be cool. I mean, I don’t care…

I wiki her when I get home. She was on the Real World Seattle and there was some kind of furore when she left, about which Jello Biafra, (what’s he doing here?), also a guest on one of her podcasts, is quoted as saying:

“I recently met a woman named Irene McGee who quit this show and said not even the house was real. The fridges were all filled to the brim with Vlasic pickles delivered daily by the crate load along with gallons of Nantucket Nectar. If she drank anything else, the crew took it from her hand and made sure the Nantucket Nectar label was facing the camera instead.”

She gets hit by one of the other contestants and MTV sues her. McGee’s experience is almost weirder than the Dead Kennedys’ vision of California/America.

On another podcast, on Four Thought, Russell M Davies recalls another online community, GeoCities. Like the original Napster, these are important ghost towns for the civilization that now reigns, in the same way that MTV and the Real World were important to understand the evolution of reality television. It makes me want to see if I can find the Loud family.


The other day as I was leaving the house I grabbed one of my dad’s Napster CDs that he had titled “Protest and Western.” I almost skipped over “Alice’s Restaurant,” who hasn’t heard that song enough? It takes stamina to listen to it, but actually it doesn’t. It has been years since I have heard it.

I associate the song with a boy I met in California my senior spring in high school when I spent a month on an exchange trip, attending school in Haight-Ashbury. The Haight was already running with the times, with boutiques and fancy restaurants, shedding its deep hippie cred. But this one boy was like the good soul of the class. He had a beard (having a beard is quite a statement for a high school boy.) I am sure I am conjuring this out of the haze of memory but it is not impossible that he drove a Microbus. He presented himself as this countercultural throwback dude, though he had genius SATs, was brilliant and hard-working and was going somewhere impressive for college. He was good friends with my host, who was hard-edged, athletic, competitive and generally a bit pissed off at everyone, including me. He had a guitar on which he would play and sing, with very little or no encouragement, “Alice’s Restaurant,” with all the lyrical embellishments and the paragraphs and the arrows on the back of each one.

Just cue the strumming and I hear the SF classmates laughing and groaning, “Oh no, not that song again!” The song was like a symbol of the kind of person he would have been born 10 years earlier.

Pete Seeger unwinds his tale of the arrest for littering and we have just gotten to the part where the narrator and the army psychiatrist are jumping up and down together saying “Kill, kill, kill,” when we get home.

The word “draft,” which used to conjure up so many specific images, is not an idea with which my children are familiar. What is it, do they still have it, could they make you go? Could you pay not to go? For 10 years our country has been at war and there are a lot of people who object to it. Where is the protest music? Instead we have WikiLeaks. We post links to videos and news as our status updates.

The next morning my daughter says she wants to hear the rest of the story. As it’s a CD, I have to start from the beginning.

From the first chord to the final verse is how long it takes to get to school. I am not sure what she makes of it, if she gets the jokes or the irony, which are flagged up by the appreciative, knowing laughter of the 60s audience on this live recording. It is a song that she easily could have gone another 10 years without hearing. It is out of fashion, not referenced or sampled in the music we listen to, but now she knows it.

The circular, cyclical path of folk songs is an aspect of handed-down music of my parents’ generation, the flowers picked by the girls that cover the graves of the soldiers; the children who will “go to summer camp and then to the university,” but who will “all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same.” As a child, the connection at the end is a thrilling epiphany, a glimpse through the door of childhood into the joined-up meaning of the world, even if those joins take you, innocent and devoid of understanding, back to the starting point.

If you listen to NPR, have you noticed that the tagline for one of their sponsors is a line from “Little Boxes,” only “business executives” have been changed to “business professionals,” to make it more democratic, one assumes? Is there intended irony there? Surely their aging demographic recognizes this line. Or have the words been picked like fresh flowers by innocent young interns?

I had forgotten about the call to action at the end of “Alice’s Restaurant,” a flashmob style protest whereby young men would appear for the draft all singing this song so that one person would be deemed mad, two gay (sophisticated laughter), three a political movement and fifty an uprising. It’s not actually that different from 4chan bringing down MasterCard.

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