Along The Watchtower, the debut novel by Constance Squires, is a story of an Army brat whose tumultuous upbringing was kept steady in part by her discovery of rock and roll. It’s published Tuesday, and in honor of its impending release and the coming holiday—don’t forget, Monday’s America’s birthday!—we asked her to select 10 songs that, were she to program the music for this country’s celebratory pool parties and barbecues, she’d put on everyone’s playlist.
1. X, “Fourth of July”
One of X’s smoothest and most accessible songs, “4th of July” isn’t one of the band’s zooming, cranky, full-throttle moments. Instead the song shows the band growing up, harnessing their powers for vivid, concrete narrative. The holiday-song pattern yields humane and searing results here as John Doe uses the holiday to reveal how myopic a personal relationship has become: “Hey baby/ We forgot/ It’s the fourth of July/ Baby take a walk outside.” The urban Southern California imagery is sharp as a photograph: “On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone/ Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below.” John Doe’s voice is full of longing—and I swear it’s for the woman he’s singing to as much as it is for the chance to be one of those kids.
2. Youth Lagoon, “July”
A slow, roomy opening mimics the portentous emptiness of dusk on the Fourth, when people impatiently wait for the night to get dark enough for fireworks. The song builds and bursts, then complicates itself, the way the sky fills with wisps of smoke and ash as the fireworks continue going off. The opening lines establish the theme: “Like fireworks pinching the night/ the fireworks on the fourth of July,” and the sound quality, muffled as if recorded outside a garage door by a peevish neighbor getting proof for the cops, evokes a suburban summer.
3. The Descendents, “‘Merican”
When I was growing up in Lawton, Oklahoma, in the ’80s, the only way to get new music from the crappy mall record store was to buy blind anything on the SST label. This is how the Descendents came into my life. “‘Merican”—a patriotic anthem that’s open-eyed and pissed off about the country—came way later, in 2004. “I’m proud and ashamed on the fourth of July.” Who can’t relate? The Descendents have that quintessentially punk-rock gift of grabbing your body and brain, bruising both a little, and making you feel cooler for the experience.
4. Los Lobos, “One Time, One Night”/“Wake Up, Dolores”
In 1988, Los Lobos lent all kinds of cred to Colors, Dennis Hopper’s film about gang violence in their home of East L.A. “One Time, One Night” is a high point. (The song, not the video, which is a bit literal-minded and pretty dated.) A series of vignettes about American lives cut short that uses lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner” as its ironic refrain, the song critiques the American dream without giving up on it. Another Los Lobos song, “Wake up, Dolores,” evokes the Fourth of July with the freshest imagery I’ve heard: “Oh sacred night/ On quetzal plumes/ Of dying suns/ And purple moons.” A staggeringly gorgeous song with one foot in East L.A. and one in a much older, less white America.
5. The Breeders, “Saints”
The lyrics are paratactic, the Deal sisters strolling through a fair registering details like Bloom perambulating Dublin. The Breeders would have made great modernists, the lines “I like all the different people/ I like sticky everywhere/ Look around, you bet I’ll be there!… It’s a lot of face/ A lot of crank air” always recall for me Ezra Pound’s “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough.” Just pare away the narrative and let the images tell the story; it’s a brilliant technique that compresses the pure sensory data of a collective summertime experience into a song that goes off like a firework.
6. Luna, “4th of July”
It’s a funny song about a bad Independence Day in New York City from somebody whose dreams aren’t coming true: “I got drunk and looked at the Empire State Building/ It was no bigger than a pencil.” The formula of holiday-as-backdrop-to-personal-stuff is an outfit that Luna wears ironically, taking the self-pity that’s implicit in the formula and making fun of it. “I stayed at home on the Fourth of July/ And I pulled the shades so I didn’t have to see the sky/ And I decided to have a Bed-In/ But I forgot to invite anybody.” The light touch and a self-deprecating sense of humor vault this track to the postmodern moon.
7. Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner”
So much comes together in this song. Hendrix, a former soldier and son of a soldier, up there at Woodstock reappropriating national iconography to patriotically question the war. A black man (also part Cherokee) claiming America and making it new through the filter of his own stunning talent. But it’s not the technical virtuosity that gives this song its staying power. It’s the loneliness in the voice of the guitar, the way the air around the sound vibrates. It achieves the effect of a lone individual singing a solo, but with all the sonic complications of rock. Somehow, it maintains the grandeur intended in the song, the flag flying through the battle, dignifies it with a rock treatment that refuses to ironize or make light of it.
8. Bruce Springsteen, “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”/“Independence Day”
“Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is one of the most hopeful Springsteen songs I know. It offers a panoramic view of a Fourth of July down on the Jersey Shore, as Springsteen introduces precisely observed characters in a Dickensian way. The energy is unflagging and the disillusionment is elegiac and gentle, even funny, with lines that will make you laugh out loud: “Sandy, that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me/ I spoke with her last night, she said she won’t set herself on fire for me anymore.” “Independence Day,” from “The River,” is darker, sadder, the music stripped down, and the problems less solvable. It’s about a son leaving his father’s home and all that will never be made plain between them. There’s acceptance in his voice, but not necessarily the kind that brings peace.
9. Aimee Mann, “4th of July”
The loneliest song on the list, this beautiful acoustic lament takes the holiday formula and presses it to the edges of an ego that would love to burst its own boundaries but can’t quite do it. Testifying to how hard it is to get out of your own head when matters of the heart won’t let up, Mann’s “4th of July” narrator decides the fireworks are “a huge waste of gunpowder,” which makes you wonder where the arsenal is that’s doing without. The internal, figurative arsenal seems well stocked, but there’s no joy in the solipsism, and you feel the boredom and frustration as the narrator wonders why she’s compelled to replay the same thoughts–even as she replays them. Outside, it’s the 4th of July.
10. Soundgarden, “Fourth of July”
If you’ve ever found yourself, on Independence Day, in a smoke-filled room with a bunch of friends and suddenly realized that the cops and the fireworks had arrived simultaneously—this is your song. There’s a strange energy to the way the murky guitar drone clashes with the ambiguously apocalyptic lyrics, and real helplessness in Cornell’s voice as he seems to watch something he can’t control or see clearly: “And I heard it in the wind/ And I saw it in the sky/ And I thought it was the end/ And I thought it was the 4th of July.” It could be about drug paranoia or politics; either way, you don’t want to answer the door.