Here are my annotations to the playlist of songs I’ve compiled so far during the Covid-19 Pandemic, which might help get you through these dark days, and the dark days to come. They certainly help me.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #1: “(In My) Solitude,” sung by Billie Holiday: “With gloom everywhere, I sit and I stare,” Lady Day sings, “I know that I’ll soon go mad.” Enough said.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #2: “You Were Right,” by Built to Spill. “You were wrong when you said, ‘Everything’s gonna be alright,” Doug Martsch sings, his despondent delivery suffusing the lyric with an ache perfect for these times, the song as a whole cleverly and comically, if bleakly, casting shade on the aura of rock and roll icons, the many ways people vicariously live through the lives of celebrity, which can only be a kind of death.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #3: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” as performed by the John Coltrane Quartet. Amazing what can be done oscillating in waltz time over vamps on two tonic chords: E minor and E major. Put this one on infinite repeat.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #4: Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You.” Oh, oh, oh, Dylan at his most plaintive while Knopfler’s guitar gently weeps.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #5: Moses Sumney’s “Don’t Bother Calling.” Key lyrics: “I’m not a body, the body is but a shell. I disembody but suffering is sovereign still.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #6: Brian Wilson and Gary Usher’s “In My Room,” as performed by Jacob Collier.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #7: Van Hunt’s “Hearts Made of Air.” Key lyrics: “One foot on the earth, one on the moon, tied together like birthday balloons, with hearts made of air, with hearts made of air.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #8: Xenia Rubinos’s “Right?” Key lyrics: “What is it gonna take to make us feel safe, when we got that whole world up in flames? When we’re gone, we’ll all be dust in space. Did I get that right? Did I get that right?”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #9: Fiona Apple’s “Anything We Want.” Key lyrics: “We don’t worry anymore ’cause we know when the guff comes we get brave. After all, look around, it’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening now.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #10: System Of A Down’s “Lonely Day.” Key lyrics: “Such a lonely day and it’s mine. It’s a day that I’m glad I survived.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #11: Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #12: “Che Gelida Manina,” from Puccini’s La Boheme, as sung by Luciano Pavarotti. Key lyrics: “Chi son? Sono un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo. E come vivo? Vivo.” (“Who am I? I am a poet. What do I do? I write. And how do I live? I live.” Listening to the Maestro sing “la speranza” (“hope”) at around 3:40 makes you reach out to the very word like the lifeline it might actually be.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #13: “We Are the World.” Kind of corny, okay, and all the god stuff is ridiculous, but it’s true: “We’ll make a better day, just you and me.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #14: “Mercy, Mercy Me,” by Marvin Gaye. Key lyrics: “Whoa, ah, mercy, mercy me. Oh things ain’t what they used to be, no no. Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #15: Thom Yorke’s “The Clock.” Key lyrics: “Time is running out for us. But you just move the hands upon the clock.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #16: Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely.” Key lyrics: “I’m not here. I’m not here. This isn’t happening. I’m not here. I’m not here.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #17: Birthday celebrant Chaka Khan singing Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good,” which Stevie wrote for her. Key lyrics: “Tell me something good. Tell me that you love me, yeah.” Seriously, tell me something good.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #18: Iron & Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger.” Here is musical architecture at its finest: it’s all about how this four-chord song builds and builds: tiny bells or tone bar chimes then tambourine and acoustic guitar then vocalise and hand drum (bodhran?) then sung lyrics then slide guitar filigree and on and on and on, instruments and rhythmic and melodic figures appearing and disappearing.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #19: Ben Harper’s “The Will to Live.” Key lyrics: “We must all have the will to live. O you got to have the will to live. O the will, O the will, the will to live.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #20: “Amazing Grace,” as sung by Aretha Franklin. “I’m satisfied with my life,” my daughter once said to me, explaining why she doesn’t go to church. “I like to sing what I like to sing,” she continued. “I do like ‘Amazing Grace,’ though. That’s a beautiful song, right?” I agreed, and then played Aretha’s version of it for her, which will make a believer of anyone, well, at least for the song’s duration. And if it doesn’t for you, well, I won’t say you’re hopeless but you definitely need to do some work.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #21: Elliott Smith’s “Oh Well, Okay.” Key Lyrics: “Climbing hour upon hour through a total bore with the one I keep where it never fades, in the safety of a pitch black mind, an airless cell that blocks the day. Oh well, okay.” It’s not how I’m feeling these days but it captures a certain sense of isolation, of captivity, self-imposed or otherwise.
Songs for Contagion, Song #22: Bright Eyes’s “Road to Joy.” Key lyrics: “I read the body count out of the paper. And now it’s written all over my face.”
Songs for Contagion, Song #23: Sarah Vaughan’s version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Key lyrics: “I used to visit all the very gay places, those come what may places, where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life”; and “Life is lonely again, and only last year everything seemed so sure. Now life is awful again.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #24: “I Will Survive,” as performed by Gloria Gaynor. Key lyrics: “Oh no, not I, I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive. I’ve got all my life to live. And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive. I will survive, hey, hey.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #25, U2’s “Bad”: I find U2’s music barely tolerable (that is, anything they’ve released since The JOSHUA TREE, that is, in the past thirty-three years) and Bono absolutely insufferable. Here, though, the band is transcendent, and Bono not just passable but believably impassioned. Key lyrics: “Isolation, desolation. Let it go.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #26: Talking Heads’s “Once in a Lifetime.” Key Lyrics: “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down. Letting the days go by, water flowing underground. Into the blue again after the money’s gone. Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground?”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #27: Television’s “Marquee Moon.” Key Lyrics: “Life in the hive puckered up my night, a kiss of death, the embrace of life.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #28: Joy Division’s “Isolation.” Key lyrics: “But if you could just see the beauty, these things I could never describe, these pleasures a wayward distraction. This is my one lucky prize: isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #29: Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.” Key lyrics: “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #30: Karen Dalton’s version of “I Love You More Than Words Can Say.” Because you can’t have enough love songs sung by a singer who sounds like they’re falling apart. Dalton sounds like last days Lady Day with echoes of Aaron Neville. Key lyrics: “I just can’t wait, no, not another day. I love you more than words can say. Yes, I do. Living without you is so painful.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #31: Donny Hathaway’s “Let’s Groove,” because sometimes you need a song that just, well, makes you feel good. “Take a listen,” Hathaway sings, “and you’ll see that pain and misery is something that we all can do without.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #32: Marvin Gaye’s version of “When I’m Alone, I Cry.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #33, Max Richter’s SLEEP. It’s not a song but a composition, an eight-plus hour-long composition, in fact, which to my ears sounds more like a slow awakening, which maybe sleep always is, which maybe life always is, especially life now, life in caesura, where countless people are reflecting on and perhaps even intermittently enjoying distance and quiet and solitude, many, though, also suffering from the separation, suffering from desperation and loneliness, a loneliness borne of foregrounded alienation, an alienation, yes, from the acts of our labor and the products of our labor, but also, and most devastatingly, an alienation from each other, this distance and solitude, though, foregrounding intimacy, too, the vitality it brings, the love, hope, faith, reciprocity, inspiration, imagination, creativity, and more that bloom from it. Listening to SLEEP now, I am thinking it might actually be a song, just one in slow motion. And maybe our lives now is a song in slow motion. May its coda be awesome.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #34. Birthday celebrant Al Green’s “I Can’t Get Next to You.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #35. Birthday celebrant Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #36: Heartless Bastards’s “Sway.” When I first heard this song around ten years ago, I played it over and over and over again. I’m playing it over and over and over again right now. Key lyrics: “I tell myself these bitter, these bitter days will end. You gotta, you just gotta let them go, oh, just let go. So, I stumble and I sway, oh, into the room and I fade. I hope my darkest days are behind me.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #37: David Bowie’s I’m Afraid of Americans.” It’s my national anthem. Key lyrics: I’m afraid of Americans. I’m afraid of the world. I’m afraid I can’t help it. I’m afraid I can’t.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #38: Curtis Mayfield’s “Never Say You Can’t Survive.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #39: Alice Coltrane’s “I Want to See You.” Because I miss you and I want to see you.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #40: Alice Coltrane’s “The Firebird.” Coltrane’s soaring interpretation of excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s THE FIREBIRD is so achingly beautiful it conjures not only the magical glowing or burning bird from Russian fairy tales but also the Phoenix, its mythological antecedent, that gains new life by arising from its own ashes. May the day come when we become this firebird.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #41: Joe Henderson’s “Earth.” Because of the incredibly funky, hypnotic pocket Chancler and Haden create. Because of the narration, my favorite part of which is this: “Time, the suffocator of the moment now, dreams of tomorrow, where we will find the missing pieces, another new journey to wholeness.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #42: Blondie’s “Dreaming.” Key lyrics: “Dreaming is free. Dreaming, dreaming is free. Dreaming, dreaming is free. Dreaming, dreaming is free.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #43: Nate Smith’s “(If Love Won’t) Can We Forgive Ourselves?,” featuring Van Hunt.
Songs for the Contagion, Song #44: Ben Harper’s “Better Way.” Key lyrics: “Reality is sharp; it cuts at me like a knife. Everyone I know is in the fight of their life. And I believe in a better way.”
Songs for the Contagion, Song #45: David Bowie’s “The Last Thing You Should Do,” featuring birthday celebrant Robert Smith. Key lyrics: “Nobody laughs anymore. Nobody laughs anymore. Nobody laughs anymore. It’s the worst thing you can do.”