Music, Nostalgia, and the Power of Being Present

May 29, 2023

I have a very specific memory from the summer of 1980. I was 16 years old, driving west on North Decatur Road in my 1973 Gran Torino to do some record shopping at the Wuxtry. Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” was blasting on 96 Rock. I had the windows down and the volume all the way up. I stopped at the red light at Church Street. The car to the right of me and the car in the turn lane to the left of me were both playing 96 Rock at full volume. We all looked at each other and screamed, “Check it and see!” – united by technology, generation, and a great chorus.

I can’t imagine anything like that happening today, with everyone locked in their algorithmic streams.

Nostalgia is a dirty drug. There are countless memes that will tell you that music, cars, TV shows, and culture were better “back then.” It’s a lie. There was crappy music that you conveniently forget, death trap cars that were unsafe at any speed, stupid TV shows, and a culture that rewarded the bullies and marginalized everyone else. Donald Trump’s “great” America was 1950 (as he told CNN in 2015), the peak of Jim Crow, before civil rights movements for women, gay and trans people, and Americans with disabilities. And the top song was “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley. No thanks.

The truth is the past was great and super shitty. Just like now.

I love it when Boomers yearn for the days when you could ride in the back of a pick up or ride your bike without a helmet. That’s because they are alive to yearn. A bunch of kids got bounced out of the bed of the pick up and are not yearning because they are in yearn-free graves.

So what is it about music that locks us into these powerful memories of yesteryear? Incredible research with Alzheimer’s Disease patients has demonstrated that music can activate incredibly specific memories in people who can’t even remember their spouses and family members, because music exists in a part of the brain the progressive disease can’t reach. I’m guessing 90-year old me, in 2054, might not remember you, but play “Hot Blooded” and I’ll tell you all about that day on North Decatur Road in the summer of 1980 with great clarity.

The reason for my curiosity is the mindfulness practice of being present. Buddhism warns of being lost in the past (and worrying about the future). We spend scant time being in the present. Being present allows us to see our internal state and manage our emotions. Like Ringo said, sometimes you gotta stop and take time to smell the roses. As I’ve written about in this blog, there is great value in stopping.

So, to all the people of my generation, think about how we would listen to music. I have such clear memories of going over to Doug Warringer’s house to listen to a Kiss album or going over to Ed Overstreet’s house to listen to a Clash album. And we would JUST listen. We were present in the moment of listening to the songs. There was no, “This track reminds me of when,” or “This track makes me think about what I need to do.” There was just that moment. Then, when the album was over, we would do something else. But listening was the activity.

Our songs take us to those moments when we were fully present. It’s a weird nostalgia trick about memories of the present. I write this on Memorial Day, thinking about veterans whose brains are often frozen in those traumatic battlefield experiences. I know the songs that were blasting as we raced through the Ukrainian war zone last year are still in my ears. There is a direct link that connects what was playing during our first dance and our first war, present moments sealed in amber for all time. When I was 16, I didn’t have much of a past to ruminate over and my future was wide open so it was easy to absorb the moment. All these years later, being present is handicapped by memories of what was and what could have been and concerns about the future for me and my child. 

Here’s where music can help.

I’ve been kicked off of numerous “Classic Rock” Facebook pages for arguing with old timers who all think music today sucks. I remind them of what their parents had to say about AC/DC and they sound just like old people. “These kids today!” They point of youth music is that is separates young people from their parent’s generation. Then they’ll go on and on about autotuning and profanity and the “that’s not music” about the Cardi B’s of the world in rants that seem more racist than music purist. And I’ll say, there are countless new rock bands putting albums out and if you love 70s pop, have you tried Harry Styles? And bam, I’m banned again by classic rock old farts who are prisoners of their nostalgia, forever blocked out of being present with a great song.

I have the best moments with my daughter and her friends driving around with the Top 40 station (Z100 in Portland) turned all the way up, listening them sing along. I know the hits of 2023 will resonate with them the way the wonderful/horrible songs of 1973 do for me.

So here’s the assignment. If you were born in the twentieth century, I want you to go straight to the pop charts. Find a hit that speaks to you. My third grade daughter’s favorite song of the moment is “Flowers,” by Miley Cyrus (currently #3 on the charts). Listen to that song while doing nothing but listening to that song. How does that tune make you feel? Try not to get nostalgic or concerned about what’s to come. Just be in the moment. Then put it on a playlist. Make it your song for late spring 2023. Every time you hear it take a deep breath and think, I am here now.

There’s so much amazing music happening right now and so many opportunities to just stop and take in the moment. Be here now.

Dad’s Top Discs of 2022

December 14, 2022

I’m not sure if there has been a musical theme this year. I’ve spent a lot of the year listening to Polish and Ukrainian music during and following my trip into the war zone. Replaying “Szal Niebieskich Cial” by Maanam in my Krakow hotel room, waiting for my ride to Auschwitz, or blasting “Бабушка” by the Russian rap artist L-Jane as we sped towards Lviv with the smoke from Russian rocket attacks in front us will always be powerful musical memories.

The best concert of the year was easily the DhakaBrakha show in Beaverton on September 30. The Ukrainian band enchanted us and compelled us to act. Their other-worldly sounds had Andi squeezing my arm and me in tears thinking of the people I left behind there. The images behind the quartet conveyed that this was more than just a concert. It was a desperate plea for global action. In Beaverton.

Like last year, I was devoted to making endless playlists on Spotify. This included 35 playlists for Andi while she was living in her apartment, with titles like, “Tied to the Whipping Post” and “So It’s Come to This, Barry Manilow.” Andi’s back home but we’re still not back together, so I will step up my playlist game in 2023.

As part of my Spotify playlist obsession, at the end of each month, I listened to at least one song of the 100 to 200 albums that were released that month (thanks to Wikipedia), making a playlist representing that month’s music. So I have quite literally listened to at least one song from each major release in 2022. That’s a lot of K-Pop and death metal. But it gave me a good overview of the year and lots of new discoveries, like Norway’s Blood Command. While I was looking for love lost songs, I found plenty of punk and metal albums that gave me the energy to swim forward.

So here is my annual “Top 20” list. Maybe not the twenty best albums, but the albums I enjoyed the most this year. The top three reflect the diversity on the list. Wet Leg’s debut album brought me back to the clever wordplay that I loved in 80s new wave music. The Smile’s A Light for Attraction Attention is essentially a Radiohead album and it transported me the to the ambient beep bop boop that helped be drift off on those endlessly lonely nights. At the top of the pile is the New Jersey punk band, Titus Andronicus. Their sweeping opus, The Will to Live, was joyous, earnest, and empowering. I played “I’m Screwed” a thousand times, always at full volume. It’s exactly what I needed to survive 2022.

The rest of the list has some old friends, like Harry Styles and Miranda Lambert, and releases I just lost myself in, like Soli’s beautiful tribute to Miriam Makeba. Giles Martin’s remix of The Beatles’ Revolver was orgasmic, especially when experienced with a gummy or two. I’m sure 2023 will have some favorite artists I don’t yet know exist. No doubt I will be listening to more music with my daughter who will turn nine in nine months. But here’s my soundtrack this year that has been like no other.

1. Titus Andronicus – The Will to Live

2. The Smile – A Light for Attraction Attention

3. Wet Leg – Wet Leg

4.  Blood Command  – Praise Armageddonism

5. Harry Styles – Harry’s House

6. The Linda Lindas – Growing Up

7. Somi – Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba

8. The Beatles – Revolver Super Deluxe Edition

9. Adrian Quesada – Jaguar Sound

10. Todd Rundgren – Down with the Ship

11. Viagra Boys – Cave World

12. Rosalía – Motomami

13. Natalia Lafourcade – De Todas las Flores

14. Drive-By-Truckers – Welcome to Club XIII

15. Miranda Labert – Palomino

16. Bebehoven – Light Moving Time

17. Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

18. Beyoncé – Renaissance

19. Father John Misty – Chloe and the Next 20th Century

20. Various Artists – Elvis (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2020

December 28, 2020

My joke about this year has been that 2020 will make 1968 look like 1954, but without the soundtrack. That’s not quite true. There has been a lot of great music this year, including full albums recorded while on lockdown (or “rockdown,” as Paul McCartney called it). Unfortunately, a lot of us where not in the mood to search out new music this year, especially when all live shows were cancelled. I found my muse in creating numerous Spotify playlists, like chronologies of Prince and The Kinks. My music highlight of the year was Beyoncé’s musical film, Black is King, released during the summer. Visually stunning and perfectly timely as the streets were filled with Black Lives Matter protestors.

The truth is that my most listened to album in 2020 was released in the summer of 2019. Lana del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell was on repeat play through the year. It’s 67 and a half minutes of epic soundscape offered endless layers of discovery. Like an arthouse film that reveals a different interpretation with each viewing, Norman Fucking Rockwell was an expansive chasm of wordplay and music pulled from the dreamworld.

Similarly, some of my favorite albums of 2020 came out at the very end of 2019 (Harry Styles, The Who).  Others were the casualties of COVID (Toots Hibbert, RIP) or commenting on the meaning of it (Bob Dylan’s sweeping tome). The death of George Floyd gave us the most clear musical moment, including powerful releases from Run the Jewels and Black Thought. But nothing sounded more like 2020 than the third album by the British band Sault. Untitled (Black Is) brought the themes of being locked down and tearing down racism into a hypnotic swirl that was both backward and forward looking. I didn’t quite get the Taylor Swift album but the Sault album seemed to be the right album at the right time.

Flipping back through the new music I dug in 2020, here’s my top 20 albums of the year. I expect that, with massive vaccinations, 2021 will kick off our swinging ‘20s.

1. Sault – Untitled (Black Is)

2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

3. Harry Styles – Fine Line

4. Black Thought – Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able

5. Drive-by Truckers – The Unraveling

6. The Who – Who

7. Paul McCartney – McCartney III

8. Shelby Lynne – Shelby Lynne

9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions

10. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters 

11. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You

12. Paul Weller – On Sunset

13. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

14. Toots and the Maytals – Got to Be Tough

15. Lido Pimienta  – Miss Columbia

16. Various Artists – PDX Pop Now Vol.  17

17. Pearl Jam – Gigaton

18.  Haim – Women in Music Pt. III

19. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud 

20. Neil Young – Homegrown

And a special mention of The Chicks “March, March” single, which gave us the most needed video of the year, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” which the girls in the neighborhood mimed endlessly this summer.

Reelin’ in the Tens: What was this decade about anyway?

December 29, 2019

Decades used to have a definitive feel, a look, a sound. The Eighties were so different from the Seventies, which shared little with the Sixties. As we put this decade to bed, there’s no real sense of collective experience. We don’t even have a name for the last ten years. The Teens?

2010 began with the Obama presidency digging us out of the Great Recession and the quasi-fascist Tea Party movement and ended with the impeachment of the quasi-fascist Donald Trump and another recession looming. The first #1 song of 2010 was “Tik Tok” by Kesha and the last #1 song of 2019 is a Mariah Carey Christmas song from 1994 (and then a dozen Post Malone songs). Do those bookends offer any clue to the history that unfolded in the intervening days, weeks, months, and years between?

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I imagine the historians will dub this the Decade of Social Media. People retreated from cruising malls and bars to shopping and dating online. The fashion of the decade was the laptop and the smartphone. It was the decade where people stayed home and when they went out they were permanently hunched over their devices while the world burned down around them. Why look for a scene when you can just Netflix and chill?

It was a fairly epic ten years for me. I became a parent in 2014, which completely changed my connection to the outside world. And becoming a parent of a girl grounded my feminist ideals into a moral imperative in a world of “Grab ‘em by the pussy” presidents. 2014 was the also the year I pushed my faculty union to strike against a bloated administration which was a factor in that bloated administration cancelling my secure faculty contract. But after a few years of scrounging, that freedom gave birth to a professional and creative revival. I got to spend the second half of the decade traveling the globe and writing volumes, including books, academic chapters, an ode to Bowie published in the Gay & Lesbian Review, and an article in Huffington Post on masculinity and right wing violence. Having a wonderful partner, who never tolerated my decades old bullshit, pushed me to unexpected accomplishments.

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I have a theory about decades (discussed in my 2011 book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart). There are two albums released in the seventh year of every decade that define both what’s happening on the surface and what’s bubbling underneath. For 1967, it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Velvet Underground & Nico. 1977 was Saturday Night Fever and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and so on. For 2017 it would have to be Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. Both represented the dominant themes of the decade, the empowerment of women in the face of institutional abuse (hats off to artists like Kesha and films like Bombshell) and the transformative Black Lives Matter movement (much love to artists like D’Angelo and films like Moonlight).

It was a decade that moved the ball on the leveling playing field, for transgender kids that need to pee and black kids who don’t need to get shot by the cops. But there was a massive attempt to turn back the hands of time to the bad old days, when America was (right) “great.” The rebellion against the global community sparked nationalism across the world; Trump and Putin, Brexit, mass murdering racists in Norway, neo-Nazis in Ukraine, and on and on. 2020 seems like it will be the beginning of decade of civil war. Can Harry Styles save us?

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It usually takes a while to get a feel for what a decade was all about. Give it a few years before we determine the relevance of The Bachelor and brand new pants pre-torn in Chinese sweatshops. The last decade of the “American Century” will have an official haircut and dance (Twerking?). There will be 2010s nights at clubs where they play all your old Katy Perry favorites and people dress like various Kardashians and joke about apps and Tim Tebow and they play the “Gangnam Style” video over and over again. I’ll remember it as the decade where I found my real purpose. There was no app for that.

Dad’s Top 20 Favorite New Spins of 2017

December 21, 2017

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This has been a weird year for music for me. The budget tightened as Cozy got bigger and the sabbatical cushion got smaller. Weekly trips to Music Millennium were replaced by lots of speaking engagements and news interviews about the rise of fascism in Trump’s America. I buried my ears in old John Coltrane albums as I read Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest by Eric Nisenson. I spent a lot more listening time in 1964 than 2017, perhaps as an escape from the endless bad news of America going into the ditch. Just turn on KMHD radio and forget about the train wrecks (both literal and not) for a moment.

In my book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, I posit a theory about the music of the seventh year of each decade. There is one pop album and one underground album that truly defines the decade. 1967: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s and The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1977: Saturday Night Fever and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bullocks, 1987: U2’s The Joshua Tree and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1997: The Spice Girl’s debut and Radiohead’s OK, Computer. The theory sort of falls apart with the death of the album in the 2000s. (You could make the case that 2007 fell to Kanye West and the White Stripes). But what will it be for 2017? It wasn’t exactly the Summer of Love 2.0. It may take years to figure out how we survived a year without a new Beyoncé album.

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We did make it to a few great shows this year. Paul Weller in Seattle was probably my favorite and Solange in Portland was pretty epic. Beck and Spoon on the Portland Waterfront were mass entertaining. Runaway Lita Ford rocked Dante’s and getting to sing with Drivin’ N’ Cryin in Marietta, Georgia was a hoot. (Kevn Kinney introduced me as “Randy Blazak from U2!”)  Herb Albert gave a master class in pop history at the Aladdin and Sting and Michael Kiwanuka brought some neo-soul to town. Bomba Estereo and Y La Bamba covered our Latin fixes. We had a great night with Shannon & the Clams and Portland garage kings The Shivas. However, I missed a ton of great gigs, choosing stay home and sing Frozen songs with Cozy.

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I missed a lot of great music this year. I hear both the War on Drugs and Roger Waters have brilliant new albums out.. I know everyone has Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN at the top of their year-end polls. I loved his last one but I’m just tired of rap albums where every other word is “bitch.” It shows a lack of imagination, no matter how brilliant your commentary might be. The anti-Trump music is finally coming out. Jason Isbell’s “White Man’s World” is a chilling take on election day and I must have played “Fuck Donald Trump” by YG a hundred times on the binks jukebox. Maybe 2018 will be our 1968. You say you want a revolution? Well, you know. Is it streaming?

So this isn’t the best new albums of the year, just the ones I enjoyed the most, while Andrea painted and Cozy built increasingly impressive towers of blocks. I’ve already written about my complete submission to the joyous Harry Styles album, so it should be of no surprise that it tops my heart’s charts. We lost some greats, like Chuck Berry and Sharon Jones, and some old friends returned to remind us that, despite our foray into the Upside Down, great music will always sustain us.

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  1. Harry Styles – Harry Styles
  2. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Soul of a Woman
  3. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
  4. U2 – Songs of Experience
  5. SZA – Cntrl
  6. Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris
  7. Tim Darcy – Saturday Night
  8. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
  9. Dhani Harrison – In///Parallel
  10. Ringo Starr – Give More Love
  11. Paul Weller – A Kind Revolution
  12. Algiers – The Underside of Power
  13. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
  14. Drivin N Cryin – Mystery Road Expanded Edition
  15. Portugal, The Man – Woodstock
  16. Chuck Berry – Chuck
  17. Cheap Trick – We’re All Alright 
  18. Waterboys – Out of this Blue
  19. Big Thief – Capacity 
  20. Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here?

And Special Portland Topper:  Jared Mees –  Life is Long Besides being a perfect album, it gave me the theme song for my podcast, Recovering Asshole.

How I Learned to Stop Fearing Teenage Girls and Started Loving Harry Styles

June 8, 2017

I love the new Harry Styles album and I don’t care who knows.

Obviously gender socialization has played a role in the music I’ve loved (I was a sergeant in the Kiss Army in 1977, after all), but it has also played a part in the music I am supposed to hate. So much of the “Disco Sucks” movement in the 70s was steeped in deep-rooted homophobia (and racism). Real (white) guys liked ROCK and anybody who liked the Bee Gees must be a “fag.” I chanted “Disco sucks!” with the rest of the boys but secretly thought “Staying Alive” was a pretty damn good song.

This was especially true with teen idols. I was taught to hate them the most. If teenage girls loved them, they must be devoid of any musical quality whatsoever. Those screaming girls care more about their haircuts and cute smiles than their musical chops. I mean, seriously, what kind of name is “The Beatles”? What will they ever accomplish?

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So here’s a secret. Circa 1973, 9-year-old Randy was seriously into The Osmond Brothers. (If you’ve never heard “Crazy Horses,” listen to it now, loud.) They had a cool Saturday morning cartoon (as did the Jackson 5 and Rick Springfield), and since there was no MTV, it was how I first “saw” my music. I would put their records on on my parents’ hifi and go into my bedroom and pretend “my brothers” were rehearsing in the living room. I was the Osmond they never talked about, Randy Osmond. I even had Donny’s album, My Best To You, so “Puppy Love” played in my house.

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I would read Tiger Beat magazine to keep up on all the latest news about my Saturday morning stars, including Michael Gray (Shazam!), Vince Van Patten and Kristy McNichol (Apple’s Way) and Johnny Whitaker (Sigmund & the Sea Monsters). I even learned a bit about religion. The Osmonds were Mormons and the Jackson 5 were Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I’m not sure what Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were. Lutherans?) That was until one day in late 1974.

I remember it as clear as a bell. I was standing in the hallway in our house with a copy of Tiger Beat trying to pull out a pinup of some fresh faced star (Anybody remember the DeFranco Family?). I already had one of David Cassidy on my wall. Then my 32-year-old father said, “Randy, you know those magazines are for girls, right?” It was a gender bomb dropped on my world. He signed me up for Boy Scouts, got me a subscription to Boy’s Life magazine and I quit the Osmond Brothers and switched my allegiance to Elton John. (I really hope you can see the irony in all this.)

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It was the beginning of bashing of all things teen idol related. Selling my soul to rock and roll was, at least in part, a way of publicly affirming my masculinity. When teen heartthrob Leif Garrett set a concert at Six Flag’s Over Georgia my friends and I made plans to go and throw tomatoes. (We didn’t.) And it’s been like that for every moppet that’s come along since then. Bay City Rollers? How about the Gay City Rollers. O-Town? More like O-Crap.  N’Sync = N”Suck. All the way through to Justin Bieber. I started a Twitter account to troll him called “Justin Bieber’s colon” and the Biebs himself started following my snark.

Now I couldn’t name you a single One Direction song. I know the tween lassies went potty for them in the early 2010’s, so they must suck, right? I just knew that they had stupid haircuts (unlike the stupid haircuts I had at that age that were perfectly cool). Just that week’s version of the Osmond Brothers filling the need for poster material in Tiger Beat.

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Then I saw the one with the stupidest haircut perform a track from his “solo” record (barf) on Saturday Night Live. It was Harry Styles and the song was “Sign of the Times.” Fuck me, it was good. Really good. Like Elton John good. It’s the kind of music that has been missing from Top 40 radio this millennium. Could there be more? The second song on SNL, “Ever Since New York,” was even better. Young Harry was playing guitar and there was a serious Badfinger influence. I wanted more.

When the album came out I wanted it and so did my wife. We were at Music Millennium Record Store and I completely chickened out and made her buy it. What would these lords of vinyl think of me if I plopped this CD down on the counter? Even if I stuck it between CDs by Sun Ra and Flogging Molly. Guys don’t buy this kind of dreck. She was slight angry at me about that one.

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Harry Styles has been spinning non-stop ever since. Pure pop bliss, with a dose of T. Rex and 70’s flair to sail over the heads of the One Direction Fan Club. It’s still the modern production formula with teams of songwriters helping Harry write the songs (Beyoncé does the same thing), so you never know if the sentiment belongs to the artist or one of the other five other guys credited. The producer is the guy who gave us “Uptown Funk.” There are plenty of reasons to hate it out of gate, but somehow it works. Every song is a gem and I am fully out as a Harry Styles fan.

The whole thing has caused me to reflect on over 30 years of a knee-jerk reaction that anything embraced by teenage girls is, by default, crap. It’s steeped in patriarchal thinking that somehow the musical tastes of 13-year-old boys are inherently superior to their female “teenybopper” counterparts and that the tastes and emotional lives of girls are irrelevant and to be devalued and mocked. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964 was the first real flush of feminism for many baby boom girls. They were loudly proclaiming their sexual freedom as a collective voice. “Ringo! We want to rip your clothes off!” When I see the boys in the crowds at those Fab Four mob scenes, I always think they must really have been secure in their fledgling masculinity to be there (and incredibly lucky).

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Evolving is all about checking the crap you do without thinking. It’s time to stop writing off music because “girls” like it. I bet there might be a New Kids on the Block or Jonas Brothers song that’s not too bad. Frank Sinatra and The Monkees were in this category once. Maybe I actually should be paying more attention to what these screaming girls like. They were right about The Beatles. So thanks, Harry, for helping me to see the light.

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