Because it's a New Moon on Monday;
Because it's a three-day weekend;
Because I kept saying I would;
Because rip off the Band-Aid;
Here is the first (slapdash/imperfect) of many essays I've been writing and reading.
I think they're better listened to, but that's because I write as a speaker.
Here goes nothing.
Is there anything more luxurious, more sumptuous, than the ritual of selecting an album, then letting it take you away? Trusting producers to guide you through nine or so songs in the best possible order, giving into it? No need to skip tracks or <3 anything or further hone an algorithm with input. Just sit and enjoy side A, then flip and repeat. Put your phone down. Look at the liner notes if you don't know the words. Sit between the speakers and let the long-neglected gods of analog music reward your trust and patience with high fidelity and fuzz.
I think listening to an album straight through is an act of quiet rebellion. I am voting with my attention, something every app and website has taught me is my most exportable and valuable asset. Some albums are better for this than others, and take their curation to a level of sublimity.
Rio is one such record. Considered Duran Duran's master stroke, the sophomore album from the Birmingham quintet encapsulates so much of not only their signature and oft-copied sound, but a flashpoint of a moment. A pinnacle of one particular style. 1982, in bleached glory, obsessed with Bowie and Jane Fonda and channeling disco, punk, sex, and space all at once out of smoky, lined eyes.
You start with the titular opener, and it sits your thighs, sticky, on a convertible leather seat. The opening riff is so shiny you want to shade your eyes and adjust your feathered bangs. Saxophones buoy up synthesizers that sound like traffic and a bass line almost belches along with more funk that it has a right to. You’re suddenly in a thong. Your tits have tan-lines.
For five Brits, they sure capture what I imagine Los Angeles looked like on a Betamax...silver and magenta, coked up and fixing its lip gloss, palm trees silhouetted by bird-of-paradise colors. Sometimes Simon Le Bon sounds like a youth trying to push his voice lower, a boy imitating a baritone. I find this charming, especially knowing that on Rio, they're all under 24, an age that at 31 already feels as foreign to me as the notion of Siam or the difference between centrifugal and centripetal force.
I won't dwell long on this first song, the eponymous “Rio,” except to make two observations. When I hear Rio described (not by curves or hair length or how tight her dress is, but) by the way she dances, her self-actualization, you know you're something special and you look like you're the best.
That, and her "Cherry ice cream smile."
This puts me straight back in AP English, in 2008, when sweet and paper-skinned Miss Bucher, a true spinster (57, never married), taught Tess of the D'Urbervilles. She rubbed her tiny hands together, inside immaculate white moisturizing gloves that prevented them from cracking in the dry administrative air, and pointed to Hardy's romantic description of Tess's smile: "roses filled with snow." I've never reread Tess, never watched the Polanski film, never thought much of Hardy at all to be honest. Still, I've never forgotten how Miss Bucher would swoon when she read it out to us.
Maybe Rio is a distant descendent of Tess, luckier in love but no less desirable. She's the ideal the band is chasing, after all. But the chase, the hunt, the driving basslines and hired drivers, this predatory theme and urgency woven through the album belie’s Rio’s true strength - it’s surprisingly vulnerable.
I'm gonna save it all up and explode, like a prize fighter saving his jizz
It was that black hole week between Christmas and New Years, and due to a cold, wet spell, even in Los Angeles singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” made more sense than usual. I’d foregone a new year’s resolution and settled on a single-week mindfulness exercise dedicated to two things: rest, and inspiration. There was not a single priority, personal or vocational, that couldn’t wait until the new year.
For a week, I slept 14 hours, dreamt vividly, and woke each day still tired. It felt like my brain was treading water, craving some task I could procrastinate, just itching to turn around and incriminate me. I’ve been fueled by shame so long, resting was interchangeable with laziness.
Chris was on board with the cooking, the sleeping, the 1960s musical films with built-in intermissions; he sensed my need to replenish something. However, he bristled at the idea that I wouldn’t write during my convalescence. As a non-writer he still considers writing to be a passive activity, and I don’t see how I can convince him otherwise.
I struck a compromise. I wouldn’t write until the new year, but i would write a big thing, in a big burst. “I’m gonna save it all up and explode, like a prize fighter saving his jizz.”
When asked what I would write, I remained aloof. I would stay open to the whims of the universe or some such Silverlake Shamanism. Inspiration would drop by when I stopped hunting, I was sure. Better to keep stretching and cooking vegetables - after all, a pregnant vegan would be coming over New Year’s Eve, and besides guacamole I was woefully unprepared to host anyone with dietary scruples.
On the fifth day, I returned home from walking the dog to see one of Christopher’s LPs next to the record player. Rio. Curious choice, I thought. Usually he preferred the chiptunes soundtracks of indie platformers, or Paul Simon. New Wave was more my style. I was a Duran Duran fan by virtue of being a latchkey kid. Walmart-branded 1980’s compilation CDs; Dance Dance Revolution; The Donnie Darko soundtrack. (Never doubt my commitment to Sparkle Motion.)
A schoolyard contrarian, I co-opted the hits of yesteryear so that I could lord it over my friends. See, this is what I have. It’s special and old and I appreciate it and you don’t. Enjoy your boy bands, ya preps. I thought this all, completely oblivious to the fact that Duran Duran were, um, basically a boy band.
Having finished my work, put the slow cooker on, and smoked my evening bowl, what better way to settle into my night than a full album, on vinyl, while I let my mind wander and gathered vials of blood or sacks of grain or whatever the video game would ask of me? When the needle hit the groove, I sank into the sofa and into the piebald nostalgia of a band I never experienced firsthand, but enjoyed in my youth in a sugary, sloppy way, like fried oreos that only teenagers can eat with impunity.
An hour later I looked down at my notebook and marveled.
I had crowd surfed on free associations, drawn arrows and lines and squiggly hearts. In lieu of “writing,” I scratched down fragmented theses. Keeping my spunk handy, I wasn’t going at it, just playing with myself. No ejaculations of eureka, just placeholders for next year’s brilliant observations. I was practicing some serious edging.
New Religion liner notes bold face dual dialogue
CTRL-D (that’s a good album title)
Save a prayer first chorus, takes the f# minor and my heart with it
Stairway last chance
Espirit d’escalier -- chuck palahniuk -- don’t meet yr heroes
Sexiest voltaire reference in pop history
chauffeur -- straight line + 30yrs to Nightcall (kavinsky). Car sex.
AFTER, after miss Julie (Strindberg/marber/me?)
gatsby level class porn
Why do we want to fuck the help? - Lady Chatterley
royalty feasting on the poor
Hungry like a wolfman - hair of the dog - juices like wine a cure for lycanthropy =/= lust?
"Rio's" followup is "my own way," pictured in the liner notes with an asterisk indicating it was copywritten a year before the others. It’s manic, assertive, and feels like a dress rehearsal for “The Reflex,” with chirpy verses that are wildly overshadowed by the chorus. This is a formula they’ll repeat throughout the record.
The lyrics of Duran Duran have a life of their own. Part of it is because so many of them read like free verse poetry. The beats are so vibrant, so vital, that it’s hard to follow the words. On Rio, the verses and bridges of songs are a shimmering thicket you willingly plunge into; then, each time it feels like your sleeve might be snagged on the thorn of a half-rhyme, they launch into the glorious chorus, those earworms with simple, infectious melodies that beg you to bite your lower lip and toss your hair a little.
I don't know if it was the early 80s at large or the cocaine, but ballads are hard to find. "Lonely in your nightmare" is close, but the drums still subdivide the beat and ask you to dance, albeit the swaying dance of a drink in one hand, a stranger in the other. It's the first on the album that advances Duran Duran's voice from simply sensitive to empathetic.
Beneath those minor third triads and soaring Moogs, they're begging a lover to open up, not physically but emotionally. There's heat beneath your winter, let me in. It's barren in your garden, let me in.
Just let that juxtaposition sit for a second. This isn’t “let’s dance.” This isn’t “let’s fuck.”
It’s lonely in your nightmare. (What a terrifying discovery. It makes me feel exposed.)
Let me in.
If you’ve got attachment issues, that shit gives you chills.
If we skip "Hungry Like The Wolf" (and we should), the last song on the A-side echoes this attachment to cathartic language, the softer side. Enough has been written about this song, its video, its everything - I won’t call it boring but I’ll call it basic. However, it’s worth mentioning that on vinyl, it's 5:33, and if that sounds long, you're exactly right. In 2023, it feels like a long remix, with a minute and a half instrumental up front. It makes you appreciate the old school DJ’s, lining up the next song, mixing the flavors. It makes me think I might have gone out dancing if I’d just been born in the 60s.
“Who is that clown next to Anderson Cooper?”
I'm snapped from the cheese board to look at the screen. It's New Year's Eve and most of us are a little too stoned to understand why we can't find the ball dropping on YouTube. The answer is because it was nearly midnight, west coast time. We'd all missed the ball drop and were stuck witnessing what I can only suppose is a hearts-and-minds-campaign to spruce up Miley Cyrus's image and prepare her to enter country music by pairing her with Dolly Parton, whose grace and class did even more hard work than her Spanx.
“I don't recognize him,” I said - we were back on CNN and I don't watch the news anymore.
“I think it’s a recording from earlier in the n--”
My heart sank. No way. Fast as my toked-up fingers could fly, I googled “duran duran nye ball” and there they were, headlining the night. They’d been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year and I, fairweather fan that I am, missed it. I rolled my eyes when I recognized LIFE magazine’s entire issue dedicated to the "New Wave Trailblazers." as the goofy pouting faces that have been staring back at me in the checkout line at Ralph's.
I childishly smacked a pillow and actually said, "well that just tears it!" because apparently I am a comic-strip grandpa. The party guests asked what the hell I was doing, and I tried to explain.
"I'm writing an essay about Duran Duran. Specifically Rio. It turned 40 this year."
Nobody could see the crisis I faced. None of them understood - I'd been scooped! I missed the boat! Everybody was talking about Duran Duran now - I didn’t have anything to offer, anything to add to the discussion. What can I possibly say that LIFE wouldn't? What've I got that they ain't got?
“Hold back the rain” is driven by arpeggios and a four-note riff that's just scuzzy enough to cloak the fact that it's a song about depression. Once again we're being begged, but from the other side, to commiserate: you've had that feeling too, you can't laugh all the time. It's downright plaintive by the end, a synth-pop cry for help: sometimes you're needed badly, so please come back again. This lover is all that is keeping his sadness at bay. She holds back the rain.
It’s also a play on words: hold back the reins - indeed the beat aggressively begs to be held in check, and the horseback hunt, the fox chase, is echoed in “My Own Way:” running like a fox to keep up with me. It’s a British image with Hollywood press-on nails.
Is it any wonder these heartthrobs have a trail of lovesick women in their wake? This is some teenage angst and burgeoning male sensitivity at its finest. By the end of Side A an inexorable transition has begun. “Rio” and “Hungry” are songs of pursuit, of carnal attachment, but as you get up to flip the record, neuroses begin to creep in.
Done is the engine of more, says my writing partner, quoting a software development article.
Let's start at the beginning, a very good place to start, says Maria von Trapp quoting Oscar Hammerstein who’s basically quoting Plato.
You miss 100% of the shots you don't take, says my little brother quoting Reddit quoting Michael Scott because he's too much of a twink to know who Wayne Gretzky is.
Everyone is encouraging me to finish, because they assume I’m writing something important. But what if it’s like New Year’s Eve, and I spend 15 minutes telling everyone that story about how my ex ruined an orgy by bringing up Uncrustables? Maybe I am just playing with myself.
This isn’t a particularly rocky hill to die on, but I’ll go ahead and say that Side B of Rio is superior to Side A. It’s more experimental, more tender, more interior. “New Religion” starts us off with a puzzling subtitle: a conversation between the ego and the alter ego.
The liner notes are juxtaposed like Dual Dialogue in a screenplay, alternatively italicized and boldfaced, an actual debate. When Andy and Simon sing on top of each other, it’s an indistinguishable breaker hitting you in the face. I imagine Rio, the avatar of the album herself, with no nose and earrings that can slice your carotid. She’s sauntering to the record player, hostess of the party, but gets a little lost in an anecdote and starts to spiral…
Looking up, and realizing her guests are losing interest, she delicately bends down and rips another rail off the kitchen counter. She starts the party in earnest again, Miss Good Times herself. I’m talking for free…I can’t stop myself.
That’s what “New Religion” feels like, when you’ve listened to the album 8 times in a single weekend. If I spend enough time with anything, I find reasons to love it. It’s either loyalty, curiosity, or Stockholm Syndrome.
Back at the New Year’s Eve party, after half of us have toasted with tepid champagne, Abby says I'm manifesting the essay's relevance.
Shane says as long as I reference the South Park Christmas special where Santa Claus sings "Rio" with Jesus, it'll be awesome.
Chris says this is the PB&J thing all over again. I am still the 13 year old contrarian I always was. I’ve never eaten a PB&J, and now that I’ve made it this long, I never will. This queer fact about me is more satisfying than the tastiest sandwich ever would be.
Emma says I'm avoiding the other essays I've promised to write.
"You mean the one about Robert A. Heinlein? Or the one about Moulin Rouge?"
They say, “The one about your dead stepmom and sexting with your teacher --"
I brush these off and offer them more soft-ripened cheese. Those essays, pah. They are ill fitting for a New Year's post. Hell, they're ill fitting in the New York Post! (Rim shot) They would be wasted on a brand new blog. Why, they're still specimens in backlit jars of formaldehyde!
After the chaos of “New Religion,” “Last Chance on the Stairway” is another carefully hidden song of desperation. In it, the singer chronicles his obsession with the object of his affection, while admitting he knows nothing about her. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t even know what you’re drinking, but it keeps this heaven alive. He’s taken ages to muster up the courage to say anything, and Roger Taylor slams his snare when he begs, “Can you look at me?”
There’s a clumsiness here, a switching of meter that actually conjures up the scene - leaving a party, stumbling drunk, hoping for one shot as the beauty departs. A marimba (or xylophone) solo barely makes it through a full eight-count, like a tipsy sonnet composed on a cocktail napkin.
I’ve begun telling people I like aging, because it complements the vibe I give off. Good skincare, no makeup. Nice watch, hates heels. I’ll never grow up, I say with confidence and all my original parts. It helps that I don’t really associate with young people anymore, but I worry that’ll turn me into a traitor. A cultural relic or worse.
The last time I spoke to a 22 year old she gave me the rundown: "side parts out, middle parts in. blue eyeshadow is back, so are chunky highlights, basically anything Y2K as long as it isn't cheugy"
"what the fuck is cheugy because it sounds like an extra thick loogie."
"oh like a loogie you can chew. Gross. I like it."
My best friend yelled across her remodeled kitchen to remind me - "Cam is NOT the best sample of a Gen Z, do not take her word for it."
"Kayleen that's not fair."
"What was your dad's nickname for you, in high school?"
Cameron's face lit up, "Oh! Cunty McCuntface?"
Kayleen levels a dead-eyed stare at me. "See? Not normal. We are ground down by poverty and dark Irish humor."
Cameron nodded enthusiastically. "Like, lots of trauma. It's whatevs. I like me."
I drink some more of Kayleen’s husband’s homemade pumpkin wine and conceal my jealousy. “But what is cheugy?”
Cameron has this locked and loaded:
“Cheugy is Millenial+Cringe+Bougee. Cheugy is, “so I did a thing…” Cheugy is a comically large wine glass with “Fun Mom” stenciled on it. Cheugy is a sad millennial woman who wants kids but her husband doesn’t want kids so she posts her dog on Insta every day so we think she’s happy.”
“Well, that escalated quickly.”
I look in the entryway mirror and attempt a middle part. It’s hideous. I remember my mom has booked us both botox appointments after Thanksgiving and am suddenly consumed by self-doubt. Youth is bullshit. This 22-year old might have dewy skin but she’d be useless in a corporation. Then again, since when do I give a shit about some kid’s work ethic? Am I turning into the enemy? Am I getting old? Who am I, some, some cheugy, neo-J. Alfred Prufrock? Shall I wear my hair parted to the side? Do I dare to use the peach emoji?
In the room the women come and go,
Singing "Is There Something I Should Know"
Please, please, tell me now.
Sorry, wrong album.
The last two songs on Rio are my favorite. They’re a treat for making it through, an achievement unlocked, a rich dessert. “Save A Prayer” is the record’s emotional pinnacle, a man putting out all the stops to “keep a promise, melt the ice,” and connect.
You wanted to dance, so I asked you to dance, but fear is in your soul.
Well, that escalated quickly.
Compare this to an album of five years prior, Van Halen I. These were also bleached teens, setting trends and breaking hearts, but these were guys that fucked. There’s an incredibly potent, incredibly recognizable energy to young men who fuck. I hate to bring high school politics back into a musical context but if David Lee Roth is a chisled burnout fingerbanging cheerleaders, Simon Le Bon writes--and sings--like a loner in the back of the library reading Slaughterhouse Five and fantasizing about the substitute French teacher’s melancholy smile. Say what you will about Duran Duran - they’re so doggone earnest.
For all the sexual posturing of Side A the last two songs are far more erotic. The Chauffeur, which absolutely feels like a progenitor of “Nightcall” by Kavinsky, is a poem swaddled in smog. It’s got the exact same tempo as a turn signal, something pretty genius if it was intentional. Somehow a song that mentions aphids swarming and Western isles, slowly building from a minimalist synth line to a crescendo of panpipes, feels timeless. The liner notes indicate it having been written in ‘78 - maybe it's a poem 20 year old Simon wrote, one he pulled out of a messenger bag at the end of rehearsal and shruggingly handed to Nigel or Nick. It’s a strange choice for a final song, but the most brilliant. The chorus doesn’t resolve, and the earnest, indecipherable keening of “Sinnnnnnnnnng blue silver,” prompts more questions than answers. The song itself drives away, leaving you behind, letting you live with your choices.
“Rio again baby?” Chris remarks as he gets home. I haven’t stopped playing it, trying to read between the lines.
“Why did you put the record out?” I demand. “Did you see the LIFE magazine? Did you know they were having a moment?”
Turns out he’d just been reminiscing about boarding school. It was his RA’s favorite album. Chris doesn’t know this, but I have viewed his involvement in this essay as entrapment. Somehow he is responsible for me backing the wrong horse. I should have been writing about something, anything else. The zeitgeist is no place for me.
I tell him what Emma said on New Year’s Eve, that I was avoiding the other stories.
He heaves a heavy sigh and says, “you’re still writing about that?” and I feel like I’ve disappointed him somehow. I don’t explain that there’s a continuum of “being over something.” I don’t explain that these other stories, I can’t give them away, not yet. To do so would be to release them. If I write it all down, they’ll make me obsolete. My writing partner points out that saying you’ll do something on the internet is a ghost of done. Well, color me haunted then.
“Not everything you write needs to be an exorcism. Can’t you just be happy that something you love has turned 40? Isn’t that enough reason to write something? Something older than you still makes people smile and dance. Isn’t that enough?”
I hope so.