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Three Easy Pieces

Love Songs by Punks

Ezra Furman may wail and howl, but love is never far from the edges. Photo credit: Josh Terzino,

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Time for another Three Easy Pieces, where I examine a witheringly small strand of pop culture, from its inception to today. This time: love songs by punks. While the song in question may or not be of the punk rock persuasion, these are tracks by artists that had spent so much time in the cool shade of punk (or punk adjacent) music that being emotionally vulnerable could be seen as a big risk. For my purposes, I'm trying to focus on songs that err toward utter sincerity, because Lord knows there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek punk tunes that touch on love. And again, as if it needs to be said, this could easily be an unending list of songs, so take this selection as my personal favorites, and not a definitive list (though you're free to take it as that, too).

BIRTH: "Perfect Day," Lou Reed (1972)
Honorable mention: "I Want You Around," Ramones; "Baby Baby," the Vibrators; "Whole Wide World," Wreckless Eric

It was unknown to me, until recently, that Lou Reed has long been burdened with clarifying the record that his very moving classic, "Perfect Day," is not, in fact, a love song to heroin. Color me and plenty of other people who saw Trainspotting shocked, then, to hear that "Perfect Day" is exactly what it says it is: a very nice, leisurely day spent with someone Reed loved. It's almost impossible to remove "Perfect Day" from its cultural saturation, ignoring its deliberate placement in media, and really hear the sweet strings and melodramatic piano that outline a peaceful, if uneventful outing: drinking sangria in the park, visiting the zoo, catching a movie, all along with a person who could make you forget your faults. Reed sweetens his monotone just enough, cracking his voice when the swelling chorus comes around. In the most simplistic terms, this may be one of the most relatable love songs of the 20th century.

DEVELOPMENT: "Not Given Lightly," Chris Knox (1989)
Honorable mention: "The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss," X; "Please Do Not Go," Violent Femmes; "Why Should I Love You?," R. Stevie Moore

Here, we have the song that inspired this month's topic. I often think of Chris Knox's "Not Given Lightly," and especially its fourth wall-breaking bridge: "This is a love song to John and Leisha's mother. This isn't easy; I might not write another." Knox, one of the godfathers of New Zealand indie rock, crafted a bedroom pop masterpiece that achieves a kind of lo-fi grandiosity and a disarmingly intimate emotionality. Steadily building over sampled handclaps and an acoustic, ‘50s-indebted guitar line, "Not Given Lightly" builds to a towering crescendo of this repeated refrain: "It's you that I love, and it's true that I love, and it's love not given lightly." You can feel Knox fighting against his cooler instincts to tell the woman he loves just what she means to him, even if words might fail him: "What can I say? The words destroy all meaning. There's only cliché to get across this feeling."

TODAY: "Love You So Bad," Ezra Furman (2018)
Honorable mention: "Oh!," Sleater-Kinney; "Maps," Yeah Yeah Yeahs; "Darling, I Love You," AJJ

Ezra Furman made a name for himself, first, as a sort of loquacious combination of Bob Dylan and Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, but has since expanded his repertoire far beyond what anyone expected. Descending into fiery punk, and emerging with 2015's Perpetual Motion People, Furman suddenly had a lot more tools at his disposal: skronking ‘50s rock, forlorn country, jittery chamber pop, and a whole load of more personally revelatory lyrics. In 2018, Transangelic Exodus was another huge leap forward, functioning as a coming-out party, a concept album, and a sonic transformation. While new tricks like industrial noise are found on the album, the lead single is string-led and very straightforward: "Love You So Bad" finds Furman reflecting on his first flame, recalling huddling together away from mindful eyes, like bad kids trading notes or hiding out beneath bleachers. That his love ends up moving away to college, leaving him alone and pining, is just more fuel to keep his fire burning.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Unlikely Blockbusters.

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