[Note: Skip down 10 paragraphs if you just want to get to the stuff about this album, Revol by Sons of an Illustrious Father. -Lorrie Kim]
Lin-Manuel Miranda got me through 2016, the year we slipped into the darkest timeline. When the pointless cruelties toward people of color and queer people made me feel more bitter than I had in years, Hamilton’s cleverness was a respite and a balm. I could still laugh in startled pleasure at wordplay, glory in the exuberance of Miranda’s fusions. Genius was in the air, polyglot stars spinning out of his brain into the skies over us all, and it felt so good.
That spring, ten blocks from my house, the university in my neighborhood hosted a near-palpable collision. (Could it really have been only last year? We have grown so haggard since then, as a nation.) Joe Biden and Trump, then a malevolent racist political candidate, sat under the same tent to witness graduation. The following day, to roars of relief and welcome, Lin-Manuel Miranda cleansed the space when he gave a commencement address. At his remarks about the importance of American immigrants, the crowd — including the university president and provost, onstage — leapt pointedly to a standing ovation.
Of all the horrors of 2016, nothing anguished me like the Pulse nightclub shooting. Gay clubs have been, for me, sacred spaces to celebrate beauty and the erotic divine; celebrations for people of color at gay clubs, immeasurably more so. When I watched Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Tonys, delivering the elegiac sonnet he had composed in less than a day, I understood for the first time why civilizations want poets laureate. This was the poet of my heart and my country.
My book Snape: A Definitive Reading got published the following month — could it really have been only a year ago? — the same month that my city hosted the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The week after the convention, an exhausted-sounding but lovely reporter from the local paper of record called me for a quick Q&A about my book. When I wrote the book, I had assumed it would be of extremely limited interest. But by the time it was published, the Harry Potter stories had gained new relevance in the American popular discourse as dystopian allegory alongside other political books such as 1984, The Hunger Games, and The Handmaid’s Tale. There was open talk of rounding up religious minorities and people of color; we couldn’t avoid comparisons to Death Eaters, Snatchers, and the Muggle-born Registration Commission.
But I still thought, back then, that we would vote our way out of this timeline. I was still able, sometimes, to withstand the sound of Christopher Jackson, as George Washington, singing “One Last Time” in the Oval Office to Barack Obama. My president was still black; reason still counted for something.
The November election dealt a staggering blow to my neighborhood of mosques, immigrant churches and businesses, poets and translators and scientists, parents with strollers, anarchists and queers and trans communities all within blocks of my house. Every day was a new attack on something beautiful and whole. The weekend after that hellish election, the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them premiered in New York. A friend who had a ticket to J.K. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall appearance had to walk past Trump Tower to get there, and reported thousands of protesters. At the press events, the actors and creators appeared to be in a bit of a daze, as I was: their movie, which I’d intended to view as an allegory, was suddenly looking more like a documentary.
After that election, it became Rachel Maddow, then, and not Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got me through the days. I still loved Hamilton, although a friend of mine, a woman of color who grew up in Queens, could not listen to that soundtrack anymore after the election. She felt betrayed by her own hope; it was too painful to have believed, really believed, for a few months, that the kind of people she grew up with could be seen as the face and the brains of the country. I was arrested by the heart-in-throat spectacle of actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, addressing vice president-elect Mike Pence from the stage as Pence exited the theater. It seemed too much to ask of artists alone, to do the heavy lifting every day of my spirits. I was glad to witness the long-overdue respect for journalism as a profession by the American public, who had grown complacent in demonizing the press while taking for granted the painstaking way that journalists fact-check and pursue the truth. I was only a full-time journalist for a short while, but I will always be proud of the profession. The sight of Rachel Maddow bracing herself and plowing through to the truth no matter what, her cleverness tempered by her matter-of-fact resistance to hyperbole, helped me hold on to reality. The quiet, intense mutual knowledge between her and Dan Rather, the times I saw him guest on her show, as they clasped hands and understood each other: that is one of the most powerful versions of love I’ve ever seen. In this ugly war against all that makes sense, they showed me that truth still exists, connection between human minds still exists, and it is worthwhile and good.
The ugliness worsened. There were days when I couldn’t make myself do much more than absorb the news and cry over the brutishness. On those days, I would knit. I wasn’t going to make pussyhats at first; among my loved ones, it doesn’t work to correlate gender and genitalia. And whatever energy I did have to knit or crochet was going toward the felted octopus toys I was making for my then-tween daughters to sell at craft fairs. But when I saw how my daughters and the other schoolgirls reacted to the pussyhats, how angry they were and how proud, I reversed my policy. I made them hats in classic hot pink, and then for their friends, and then more and more, in the colors of rainbow pride and trans pride and ace pride and bi pride and pan pride and nonbinary and genderqueer pride.
When I wasn’t making hats, I was knitting pride-colored coffee sleeves or illusion scarves that looked innocent from one angle but spelled out F U C K T R U M P from another. With every completed project, I posted photos with the hashtag #MadameDefarge. My friends and I raised hundreds of dollars in donations for GLAAD with our rage-knitting.
I had learned the story of Arachne in second grade, but I didn’t understand until decades later why Athena destroyed Arachne’s weaving and turned her into a spider. I thought it, when I was a child, just another instance of the Greek gods punishing mortals for equaling or bettering them. Sometimes, though, in 2017, I have thought of Arachne and lifted my spirits by reading the titles of Chuck Tingle’s political satires. Pounded in the Butt by the Sentient Manifestation of My Own Ignorant Climate Change Denial. Domald Tromp Pounded in the Butt by His Fabricated Wiretapping Scandal Made Up to Redirect Focus Away from His Seemingly Endless Unethical Connections to Russia. Pounded in the Butt by Covfefe. This generous spirit provides his titles for free, as a gift, to lift the spirits of the masses.
I was good with having Rachel Maddow and Chuck Tingle as my sanity savers this year; I have many supports and privileges in my life, and it seemed it would be enough. But then I stumbled into something extra and unexpected, a windfall, a gift of grace.
Sons of an Illustrious Father
I first read of the band Sons of an Illustrious Father while I was researching a talk about abuse in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I had noted the humility and protectiveness in the character Credence Barebone, who howled through establishment New York like the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, enraged by hypocrisy. I looked up the actor who played him: Ezra Miller, who was also, it seemed, a musician in a band. The article by Bradley Spinelli lamented that “the scary part” of Miller’s acting success is that Sons of an Illustrious Father might become a “casualty” of his filming schedule.
“The” scary part? What was this band, to inspire such concern?
Curious, I downloaded Revol, their 9-song album from 2016. I hadn’t listened to new music in ages.
Three or four ethereal bars into the first track, “ppm,” and I was hooked.
Three band members. Nine songs, sung three apiece. Three concentric shapes on their album art: equilateral triangles, circles, squares. Steadfast harmonies on every song, rotating duties on instruments so that each musician plays several interchangeable roles. The tripod is a stable structure. The collective is a dynamic that I trust and love for its ability to ensure that each person’s voice gets heard.
Excuse me; have I slipped into reverie already? The band’s music has had that effect on me during this painful year. On morning drives, when I’ve sought solace from the news and switched on Revol, my brain has calmed and and my thoughts have turned associative … happy … restored.
The band says, in interview, that they begin concerts with a group hug, synchronizing their breathing and thanking each other.
Just visualizing this brings me some balance. It reminds me to thank the people who make things with me.
The cerebral harmonies of “ppm” re-set me, let my thoughts breathe again. I could hear myself think. My mind could play as I listened, the way Hamilton had allowed my listening self to play. I could take pleasure in guessing what each of the individual musicians contributed to each song and where their ideas blended. Revol, the title, is the kind of wordplay they do: lover backwards, of course, and a revel but more playful with that “o” suggesting “gambol,” and of course revolt as in uprising, and the beginning of revolution, giving space to playfulness and love and sexuality and movement and dance in order to rise against oppressiveness. Band member Lilah Larson calls their style “genre queer” — you can feel the many times her mind has played in the etymological connection between gender and genre. Or at least, I like to imagine her enjoying that connection, the same way I’ve often treasured the kinship between textile and text as someone who works in both writing and the fiber arts.
(The cover image for Revol would work beautifully as a quilt block in reverse appliqué.)
The tranquil, celestial harmonies of these opening bars have soothed me on those nights when I’ve been too frightened to sleep, thinking, Please don’t bomb Korea. What has Korea ever done but give the world movable type, skincare, and frozen yogurt? Please don’t bomb my parents.
So, this must be Ezra Miller singing, yes? What is he singing about? I…can’t exactly tell, but the people singing with him seem unconcerned, so they must know. “Your heart will know; your head won’t be sure.” Ohhh…the richness of the alto is making me swoon. I check the name again: Lilah Larson. She looks pleasantly radical. Precise. You want this woman singing backup for you.
Oh, and here’s a surprise. The music picks up: tempo change. Then the song nearly pauses in contemplation. Done with that thought, it changes tempo again. What is this song about? Sea, stars, fuel, miles, minds: its scope feels light and nearly limitless. I breathe easier after listening.
Driving synth beat, a different masculine voice, wry lyrics:
He said, “Let’s go for a ride and see what we can be.”
I said, “I’m not ready to die, so I guess it’s time to leave.”
This must be Josh Aubin, announcing himself with understated humor. Deadpan, reticent. Then an assertive peal of guitar, I’m guessing from Lilah Larson. What is he singing about — who is he singing about? There’s a “he” and a “she,” talk of running, of leaving. Is this about romance? Maybe not; it sounds more like a broken home, like fear and sadness, “waging all my hopes on what I couldn’t believe.” Unlike “ppm,” there aren’t tempo changes to signal shifts in the wide-ranging emotions. There’s a stoic sameness to the narration, so I have to listen closely to the lyrics to catch the mood, and the act of drawing closer creates a marked sense of internal monologue, of reserve. Something happened; the singer remembers and will sing about remembering it, but he will not reveal all of it.
New verse: “She said, ‘You must think I’m crazy if you think I can leave.’” On crazy, a whine of meticulously controlled feedback joins the lyrics, and a new strain of hummingbird-rapid drumming. This must be Larson and Miller, adding their own witness to the story. It hits me: that’s the song. It is not for me to know the private details, but Aubin’s bandmates know. He isn’t alone anymore when he remembers. The song feels stronger here.
The chorus hurts a little: “This is real, but it’s not what we believe.” There have been times this year when that line has brought tired tears to my eyes. All the unprovoked attacks on people we love, on safety, on fairness: this is happening, but we are better than this. I don’t think the line was intended to be about the first months of post-Trump America, but that’s where I’ve been when I’ve sung along under my breath.
Everything else falls away. Spotlight on Lilah Larson and a brooding torch song that is magnificent in its focus. Her rich voice, the drawling guitar, the restrained lyrics all serve a single goal; the guys recede into steady backup as everything falls into line. This song feels like a humid summer night, airless whether the windows are open or closed. This is star quality.
And those three songs complete the first row of the nine-patch quilt block that is Revol, one lead per singer. I know the band has said that they are moving more toward collaborating on their songs, but part of my joy in being a listener is in trying to hear the individual contributions and how they harmonize. It looks like the drumming and percussion are primarily Miller, although also from the other two. Guitar is usually Larson; you can tell by the confidence. Synth and bass are usually Aubin; keyboards, Aubin or Miller, although I haven’t yet learned to distinguish between their sounds. Fun.
Sometimes, something is so exactly what you need that it helps you exhale. The instrumentals in this song are one good decision after another. The lyrics remind me of the comfort of awe, of humility.
You know how people sometimes say, “Be kind to yourself”? What can we tell ourselves that is kind?
These words have helped me get through 2017:
We’re not yet out of time.
No, we’re not yet out of time.
We can still recover.
It is right for all of us to hold ourselves accountable, to be stern — but mercy is good, too.
Oh. Oh. That is the genre of this song: prayer.
One note of this song is my favorite. Song — that’s the word, song, from the line “Song sung deep in our hearts” — it’s an unexpected sharp semitone, astringent and clean like horseradish.
I love what lyrics I can make out in this song. I did a search for the rest of them so I could get to know them, too. That turned out, through no fault of the band’s, to be…a mistake. I couldn’t find any official lyrics, but I did stumble across some unsettling ravings about one of the band members. Oh, hello, elephant in the room. The music itself makes the argument that this band rests equally on the dynamic between all three members, and the power of that give-and-take is exactly why I find their music so welcoming, but how to counter the distraction of imbalanced outside attention toward one of them?
It helps to return to the unhurried preoccupations of this song itself. I can’t remember the last time I noticed that a song’s lyrics include an aside that is clearly set off by em dashes. It makes me laugh in geeky delight every time I hear it.
But if it’s more — and I think it’s more — self-realization in the context of the whole.
At least, that’s what I think the lyrics are saying. Seriously, dear Sons, is there anything we could do to persuade you to release official lyrics? Can we…fundraise for causes of your choice? Send proof of political protest or acts of kindness?
Here is a live recording of “Tendrils” so you can see the three musicians making quietude together, although do listen to the studio version as well, which has different strengths.
The Opposite of Love
Hurty love songs feel different when they’re by or about queer women.
There’s a genre of women’s lovesong that can make listeners wince, true but painful songs about what we’re willing to give up of ourselves for love. They can be hard to listen to when the loved ones are men. But how does it feel to make the conscious offer to diminish the self, to cede the lovers’ quarrel, when both are women?
Among other things, it can feel like this. Jangly guitar, a thick slow tempo like trying to draw breath during depression, and at one point, a masterful guitar arpeggio that shows exactly how much potency the singer is holding in check.
There’s a video to go with the song. On probably half a dozen occasions in 2017, after politics delivered another blow to queerness in the U.S., I’ve played myself this video for comfort.
And this song once made me laugh out loud. Clearly, it’s about a relationship that has had its conflicts, but that line, “I always take you back” — OMG. Imagine wanting to date someone who was once with Lilah Larson and might not be over her. Imagine trying not to feel insecure about it! This thought once led to my kids asking me, “Mommy, what’s so funny?”
One of my favorite things about this song is the stealth optimism in the title line. There is no opposite of love. There’s beauty in that.
Excuse me for a moment. *googles*
Oh, so it’s not pronounced like French. Excuse me again. *googles pronunciation*
Josh Aubin’s voice is strong and rich on the deep notes here.
A great pleasure of getting to know this band’s music: it lets you luxuriate in thought. Wherever the music takes you, maybe — I hope — this band would not say you’re overthinking it. It feels more likely that there would be stories behind the songs.
And those three songs are the interior third of the Revol nine-patch.
I got to see three American plays this year. The touring company of Fun Home came to my town and I dropped everything to sit in the audience and marvel that I have lived to see Alison Bechdel hailed as a genius. Decades ago, I was the first editor to syndicate Dykes to Watch Out For in a college publication. I’m still proud of that. Somewhere, I probably still have the canceled checks with her signature on them.
Last month, I saw Puffs off Broadway. I’ll say more about that day later.
In between, I took a Bolt Bus day trip to see Indecent on Broadway, three days before it closed in August. It wasn’t an easy trip to arrange, but I had friends who begged everyone to go to any lengths possible to see it, so I heeded. It’s exactly the story for this American year: Indecent chronicles the suppression and censorship of the 1907 Yiddish play God of Vengeance, about the romance between two young women who live under the same patriarchal roof. Yankl is a pimp; his daughter, Rivkele, lives in the family home upstairs, and she loves Manke, one of the workers in Yankl’s basement brothel. God of Vengeance was shut down for indecency when it opened on Broadway in 1923. Indecent tenderly restages the love scenes of God of Vengeance as part of its story. This revolutionary love finally got to declare itself on Broadway, almost a century later.
If I ever make it to a concert by SOAIF, “Conquest” is the song I hope to see most. More than once, while watching Indecent, I heard the opening bars in my head:
When the maiden fucked the whore
Took the old crone’s name in vain
Said “Oh my god, what insidious sin
To spread repression and shame”
The song is powerful enough on the album, but live, it would undoubtedly be scorching, an all-out three-person rage against the patriarchy. Sometimes, anger purifies spoken language. Larson sings that forced sterilization keeps populations “to an amenable minimum” — the scansion in that line is always so satisfying.
The band’s web page features the graphic art version of this song by Larson and Aubin.
I didn’t like this song at first. I wasn’t on board with the title pun. I wasn’t on board for the journey.
I soon learned that this song didn’t care if I liked it or not. It was going to set its own pace, sometimes trudging, sometimes surging, sweeping me along with everything else before it. It was no use to resist. Ah, I did pay attention to the contemplative bridge, like a pause for water and reflection, and when the song got to its feet again to resume the march, I followed. By the time the voices swelled to the defiant cry, “We won’t give in to fear even as they draw near — and we know they are legion”…
Okay, okay. You win, song. I stopped resisting. I no longer even wanted to resist.
When Dionysus is captured or denied, things do not go well. From the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus:
They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet: and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes.
I can’t make out 80% of Ezra Miller’s lyrics. Is it safe to stop resisting this song if I don’t even understand what it’s about? Well, it’s too late to be asking such questions, isn’t it?
And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands.
I don’t know what this song is about. I do know that when Dionysian ecstasy took hold, maenads ran wild, dancing to flute music, striking the ground with their pinecone-tipped staffs so that water or milk or wine or honey flowed forth. And that men who tried to resist Dionysus or suppress the maenads ended up wearing women’s clothing and either joined in the ecstasy or were torn to pieces.
Trust Josh Aubin to find a tangible analog medium to communicate song lyrics digitally. Check out the words to “Post-Future” as an artist graffities them in immaculate lettering (and, bless, pristine spelling) in this lyric video.
This song is the right bookend to the album. It starts as a lament, but there’s a lightness to it, matching the lightness in “ppm,” and it ends with a question. In this year, when every day has been a struggle to find answers — What will it take for me to maintain equilibrium today? — Aubin reminds us that answers aren’t big enough.
But I want to live just to do something beautiful
And I want something to believe
I need something to believe
Revol lifted me out of answers and back to playfulness this year. I had to pull myself up again several times a week, but that’s okay; albums are meant to be heard on repeat. Listening to these songs, I could remember how it felt when my president was black and thoughtfulness had a place and I could relax in the world enough to listen to Hamilton and let my mind revel along. I could swoon over Lilah Larson’s disciplined voice, or laugh to realize that Ezra Miller’s high-frequency vibe reminded me of a fidget spinner in its surprising stability and stamina, or let Josh Aubin remind me that words are tangible things we create.
Sons of an Illustrious Father kept reopening the portal for me. That’s some strong magic.
I listened to songs other than the ones on Revol, of course. I love every track on their EP Sons. I love the rage they hammered into their song and video “U.S.Gay.” My throat ached with pride at the line “I want fag tattooed in red on my forehead/A revolution in my bed.” It whisked me into pure time travel, suddenly 1991 again and I was chanting with ACT UP alongside my loved ones, many of whom are still here. I listened to Lilah Larson’s hoarse-voiced interview with Maia from BTRToday from their 2017 post-inauguration concert tour, three “coastal artist-types” driving all night to sing for “young queer kids” in red-state basements. Gutsy, and so dear. I listened to Larson’s solo album Pentimento, which brought me back to the women’s music of my early adulthood, like Ferron and Sweet Honey in the Rock, ordered on cassette from the Ladyslipper catalogue.
Autumn 2017 was busy. I had writing deadlines, but also, an unconscionable amount of my time went to… well, I had committed to making inventory for my children to sell at a craft fair, and I found myself crocheting and felting 400 woolen octopus toys in under two months.
(We will not attempt that pace again.)
~A brief word about octopods.~
The kids had asked to try vending for years, and I had promised someday to develop a product. I started making octopods as tree ornaments while I was researching and writing the Snape book, and I never stopped. All my household is mad for octopuses, and long hours reading left my hands free to do craft, and they just kept multiplying, and people kept requesting more. It turns out that, apparently, the world had a heretofore unidentified need for octopus friends shaped like tomatoes or three-eyed aliens, and I was put on earth to fulfill it. We had found our product.
I met my writing deadlines. The octopod sale was a wild success. I decided I would do something only for me, then, and indulge in writing about Revol. I amused myself by making octopod versions of Sons of an Illustrious Father, too: who they would be if they entered the octopod mirror universe. One with hat and embroidered glasses, one in black and red, one with a double-L logo. I was halfway through this write-up and those octopods when I put them down to take a one-night trip to New York.
In mid-November, the Group That Shall Not Be Named, the vibrant HP meetup group in New York, invited me to deliver a talk. I spoke about how I used Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to teach literary analysis and empathy to fifth graders, guiding them through brewing and taking their own Polyjuice Potion — lentil soup, in Muggle terms — in order to understand how it feels to be in another person’s skin.
I figured since I was in New York and doing Potter things, it was a good time to see Puffs. I laughed the entire time, went for late-night pizza, and headed for the subway with my weekend hosts.
You can decide for yourself if this part really happened.
Then Lilah Larson walked by, with a friend.
The next few seconds in my head went like this.
- I should leave her alone. Privacy.
- I should tell her what her music has done for me this year. She’s right there.
- That would be so creepy. I’m a total stranger.
- She might like to know. Would she? I might, if I were her…? But…creepy?
- Do I have anything for her to sign?
- Oh my god. I have my Pentimento CD on me.
I dropped to the Manhattan sidewalk, ripped open my suitcase, extracted the CD, begged my hosts, “Watch my stuff,” ran after her, held it up and asked if she would sign it.
She and her friend saw the CD, laughed, and stopped.
And I told her how this year, when one precious thing after another has been attacked by our government, when grief and fear have been too heavy, I have restored myself by listening to her songs.
And I uttered these words to another human being: “I have an octopus doll of you at home, partially finished. I have to sew eyes on it.”
And the other human being didn’t seem fazed by this sentence in the least.
And started singing the praises of octopuses. “Have you been following the news? They’re taking over!” (It’s true. They are. They’re amazing.) She has loved them for ages.
And I didn’t want to keep her and her friend from their evening for too long, but they were funny and kind, and I thanked them and said I would run back to my friends now and explain why I had abandoned them with my suitcase on the sidewalk.
And I did, and they laughed, and they marveled with me that I got to say thank you in person.
[It’s not that I always carry that CD with me. I must have thrown it into my suitcase the last time I traveled somewhere, and because I am lazy and a slob, I had noticed while packing for this trip that it was still in there, and I didn’t bother to unpack it. I have never even listened to Pentimento on CD, only downloads. I bought it in both formats to thank the artist, and because I thought, maybe, someday I would make it to one of her concerts and get it signed. I didn’t plan this. If I had, I would have packed a better pen for signing.]
The artists have kept me going. I am fortunate; I don’t feel alone in my daily life and neighborhood. But nationally, it has been a bewildering year for those of us who think that individuals matter, that free thought is good, that humans deserve to have art and have joy.
Sons of an Illustrious Father reminded me that we’re not alone. There are as many of us as there have always been. As a gift from myself to me, to be kind, I took the time from my work and my family to write down how their music did that for me.
Lorrie Kim, Philadelphia, PA
November and December, 2017.