All Our Pretty Songs

Gabe Durham


When I left for work Thursday morning, the CD player picked up St. Vincent's Strange Mercy where it had left off the day before, about a minute into track 5, "Northern Lights," in which Annie Clark repeats,

I saw the morning northern lights
convinced it was the end of time,

a lyric that batted my attention to the Mayan enthusiasts who thought we had just one more year here together before the apocalypse, a topic I filed under Things We Laugh At to Distract Us from the Many Authentically Looming Apocalypses. The track I'd often found myself humming all week, though, was the album's catchy and subversive single, "Cruel." I liked the way Clark drew out the word "cruel" in the chorus, softening the "oo" to an "ah" so it sounded like "crawl," and I especially liked the ethereal interludes that preceded each verse, the way those interludes resisted the mid-tempo pop thump of the drums.

Liz and I had been given the album by friends who'd bought the record on vinyl, which came with three digital downloads. I was not sure whether it was legal for someone other than the purchaser to use the downloads, though I guessed probably not. What record companies never admitted about music piracy was that it was not stealing in the traditional sense, it was duplication—a miracle, technically—albeit one that further obliterated the viability of Musician as a career path. Like Christ with his loaves and fish, anyone with a computer could rip the tracks from a single disc—a single flash—and feed the multitudes.

Today the Illinois Department of Natural Resources tried to convince the multitudes that Asian carp made a delicious entrée by holding a public carp tasting. The carp was ruining Great Lakes' ecosystem, eating too much plankton and growing too large, and it was also high in protein and low in mercury and one teen said it tasted like salmon, so the state figured it'd be win-win if people got hooked on it. Unfortunately, the very thing that kept locals from wanting to eat the carp was its bad PR—they preferred to eat meeker creatures, ones not so prone to proliferate. The more rare a fish was, the more special it became, like gold and oil and water and oxygen.

Today Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) spoke on the House floor against the TRAIN Act, a bill that would indefinitely put off clean air standards in the coal and oil industries. She pointed out that since 1970, the Clean Air Act had caused a 60% decrease in air pollution and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Pingree was in the minority. A new and influential strain of conservatism had taken a foothold in the House of Representatives called the Tea Party Movement, which was founded and funded by billionaire brothers David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch. Born into business as the sons of a genius engineer who came up with a new, more efficient way to refine oil into gasoline, the truth the Koch brothers most believed in was deregulation: They wanted the government out of the way of business.

This philosophy often found itself at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency, a major government agency charged with keeping Americans alive through environmental regulations that was today far less powerful than it had once been, and thus having a difficult time reducing emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, and ozone, pollutants that cause asthma, birth defects, heart disease, lung disease, and premature death. Always most affected by air pollution are children, whose lungs have not yet fully formed.

Of the TRAIN Act, National Petrochemical & Refiners Association President Charles T. Drevna said, "Many of EPA's costly regulations threaten America's economic and national security and job creation, while providing little or no significant environmental benefit," adding, "Existing regulations also need to be examined so those that do far more harm than good can be eliminated." Jane Goodall asked a USA Today reporter, "If we're not raising new generations to be better stewards of the environment, what's the point?" and in the number one song in America, Adam Levine sang,

You say I'm a kid
My ego is big
I don't give a shit
and it goes like this,

and the next day, the House voted 249 to 169 to approve the TRAIN Act, which was especially good for certain old coal plants like Virginia's Potomac River Generating Station, which polluted at such high levels that it would have been shut down, cutting jobs.

What we'd been learning about ourselves in recent decades was that we almost always tended to play the short game as a species. We wanted one marshmallow now instead of two marshmallows in ten minutes. We preferred for the Gulf of Mexico not be flooded with 4.9 million barrels of oil, but we had to do risky deepwater drilling to get the oil we needed. We preferred for our grandchildren to be able to breathe in forty years but we needed to pay the rent today.

The good news, some agreed, was that we were not absolutely sure that air pollution kept us from breathing or that our actions had caused the earth to heat up. Or if we did "know," we knew because of science, and we weren't sure we wanted science to complicate any of the truths God had already gifted us. (The most persistent argument against the existence of global warming: If it was a real thing, God would've mentioned it.) And while the Southern Baptist Convention agreed on this point, today they disagreed on whether they ought to drop the word "Southern" from their name.

Other Christians liked science just fine and tended to say things like, "I just think it's awesome how much we're discovering about God's world," and my mom's local paper, The Acorn, said today that soon Rev. Michael Dowd would come to Thousand Oaks, CA, to deliver a lecture based on his book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, which posited that anti-science theories like intelligent design "trivialize[d] God and dishonor[ed] science," and Dowd cited the success of books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, as evidence of intelligent design's bankruptcy. "No one would write a book… called, The Life Delusion, or The Universe Delusion," he said. "Why? Because 'Life' and 'the Universe' are not trivial concepts—they are undeniably real. 'Do you believe in water?' is an absurd question precisely because water is real, not imaginary. The truth is that it doesn't matter whether you 'believe in' water or not. The demonstrable fact is that we are each 50-70% water. Without water we wouldn't exist, whether we believe in it or not. In the words of Phillip K. Dick: 'Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.'"

A poll conducted by the Public Religion Institute found that 57% of Americans believed in evolution and 69% of Americans believed in climate change, and the two groups that least believed in evolution and climate change were the Tea Party and white evangelicals. Evolution did not need people to believe it, but continued to exist in nature with or without our say so. Climate change, on the other hand, existed more the less we believed in it.

The rain picked up as I drove 91S toward Longmeadow, and I slowed and merged out of the left lane, where the water had begun to pool near the median. Liz and I shared a red Mazda 3 hatchback, a gift from her parents to Liz just a couple months after we met. It was a good car but a light one, unfit to chance higher speeds in heavy rain. When we'd moved back to Massachusetts from Nashville, we'd elected to only take the Mazda with us and left our white Taurus in my dad's driveway to save on gas and insurance, but this was a mistake. We often needed both cars.

The Taurus had been a loan from my grandmother the previous year in the stretch of months between when everyone but my grandmother knew that she needed to stop driving and when it she herself knew. In the end, it was a doctor's authoritative, "You shouldn't be driving," that convinced her, and so she signed the Taurus over to me. On one window remained a sticker voicing my grandmother's support for the South Carolina Police Department, which I imagined might one day get me out of a ticket. "I'm glad the car has stayed in the family—I'm not going to use it," she would tell me on our frequent visits, but then occasionally she'd forget, telling the neighbors in her posh Nashville retirement community, "My grandson took my car. And now I have no way to get groceries."

I switched to the radio and caught the tail end of a "Morning Edition" story about Ebony, the African American news and entertainment magazine founded by John and Eunice Johnson in the fall of 1945, just after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 246,000 people, or maybe only 150,000, and ended World War II. Ebony and its smaller counterpart Jet's circulation and ad revenue had begun to dip in recent years until they slashed prices, outsourced circulation, and sold an equity share to JPMorgan Chase, a multinational banking corporation and one of the Big Four banks, which in the last decade acquired Bank One, Bear Stearns, and Washington Mutual, and paid government fines for using biased research to deceive investors (2002), for pushing through a derivatives deal by making undisclosed payments to friends of the county commissioners in Jefferson County, Alabama (2010), and for their role in financing Enron, a corrupt corporation that in 2001 collapsed in disgrace.

"I really wanted this business to grow," Johnson Publishing's Company Chairman Linda Johnson Rice said on the radio, "and I really stopped and I thought, you know, if we really want to expand, and we want to expand Ebony and Jet and Fashion Fare cosmetics as brands, right now we just can't do this alone."

Soon Liz began her own journey to work, a short walk through light rain to the bus stop on Route 9, exposed to the elements because she'd left our sole umbrella in the car with me. She ducked under the bus stop awning and waited alone until a UMass student named Walter arrived and (likely failing to notice the ring on her finger) introduced himself. She said, "Hi, I'm Elizabeth," which was not the name I usually called her but was the name with which she most closely identified. They said nothing more, though Walter did sit behind her on the bus, which stopped several times—Wal-Mart, Hampshire Mall, UMass (bye Walter)—before dropping Liz off at the end of the line: Amherst College.

With a bit of extra time before work, she doubled back and bought a bagel at Bruegger's and an umbrella at CVS. What Liz knew about umbrellas was that she could buy as many as she wanted and I would do my best to abandon them in the libraries, coffee shops, and friends' cars of Western Massachusetts.

The next story on my radio, as the rain's assault continued, was on the break-up of the Georgian rock band R.E.M., who had released 15 albums over their 31 years together. The announcement that they had "decided to call it a day as a band" came yesterday on their website along with thanks to "anyone who ever felt touched by our music," and today the media exploded with brief and often dismissive band retrospectives, most of which punned on either "It's the End of the World as We Know It" (a roundup of these puns was collected tonight for The Daily Show's "Moment of Zen") or, as NPR chose, "Everybody Hurts," with the lead-in, "Some fans of the band R.E.M. may be relating to this song today."

"I don't know how that band does what they do," rock musician Kurt Cobain once said of R.E.M. "God, they're the greatest. They've dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music."

We were two days from the 20th anniversary of the release of Nevermind, the breakthrough album of Cobain's band, Nirvana, and when I arrived on the small, manicured campus of Affluent Suburb College, NPR had a segment on them too. Butch Vig, Nevermind's producer, told host David Greene of a Nirvana who'd been rehearsing every day for months leading up to the Nevermind recording sessions in Los Angeles, and who was enormously excited to be recording these songs they'd learned so completely. Vig cautioned against buying too much into Cobain's accidental superstar mythology—he was ambitious, Vig said. "He wanted that golden ring."

In a separate retrospective interview, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl said, "My entire life is pre-Nevermind and post-Nevermind. When it came out, my whole [expletive] world was changed forever," and the expletive Grohl used was almost certainly "fucking."

Blogs today shared old photos of Cobain with his baby daughter, Francis Bean, and then also of an adult Francis Bean in a series of recently-released brooding and sexy black and white photos, and the blogger of  "A Loveless Day" wrote of Francis Bean, "Growing up & into her own. She's working on Art & Modeling. Not sure there is anyway she can go wrong. The sperm that made her simply says it all."

By the time I parked the car before my first class, the rain had let up. The Affluent Suburb College parking lot was emptier than usual, and I had my pick of spaces. Instead of the space closest to my classroom, I chose a space out of the way where I could listen to Butch Vig hold forth for a few minutes longer without feeling watched by students.

Vig, in the interview, told of popping a copy of the unreleased Nevermind into a boom box at a 4th of July barbecue, and how everyone stopped talking, crowded around the boom box, and listened to the album all the way through. "And when it was done," Vig said, "there was silence for about 20 seconds. And somebody said, 'Oh my God, play that again.'"

Vig went on to say that fans often didn't understand the lyrics to songs like "Lithium" and "In Bloom," though it's unclear whether he was referencing the fact that "In Bloom" is itself about a gun-toting rock music fan who sings along to "all our pretty songs" without ever understanding the lyrics.