Hear Enchanting Mixes of Japanese Pop, Jazz, Funk, Disco, Soul, and R&B from the 70s and 80s

Franz Kafka’s unfinished first novel, published by his literary executor Max Brod as Amerika, tells the story of a young European exiled in New York City. He has a series of madcap adventures, winds up in Oklahoma as a “technical worker,” and adopts the name “Negro.” Amerika is a novel written by an artist who had never been to America nor met an American. His impression of the country came entirely from his reading. And yet, Kafka leaves readers with an authentically vivid, lasting impression of the harried din of American life.

We may feel similarly when watching the films of Sergio Leone, who had never seen the West when he started making Westerns. Detached from their cultural origins, Western tropes in the Italian director’s hands reveal their archetypal depths as avatars of lawless violence.

Europeans have been dreaming imaginary Americas for hundreds of years. And given U.S. popular culture’s global reach in the 20th century, nearly every place in the world has its own Americana, an homage from afar made up of local ingredients. Nowhere, perhaps, is this truer than in Japan.

“Jazz and Japan shouldn’t mix,” notes Colin Marshall in an earlier post on Japanese jazz, quoting the book All-Japan, which alleges a lack of improvisation in Japanese culture. But they have mixed particularly well, as you can hear in the 30-minute mix of 70s Japanese jazz above from Coffee Break Sessions, a YouTube channel filled with introductions to genres and styles from around the world. What’s more, jazz arrived in Japan as a double import, two steps removed. It “dates back to the 1920s,” writes Marshall, “when it drew inspiration from visiting Filipino bands who had picked the music up from their American occupiers.” When Japan itself was occupied by U.S. soldiers two decades later, the country already had a jazz tradition.

Japanese culture has long since surpassed the American influences it absorbed to create hybrid genres Americans have been furiously importing at a seemingly exponential rate. One of the newest such genres was actually created by an American DJ, Van Paugam, who aggregated a collection of Japanese records into what he calls “City Pop.” In another Open Culture post on this YouTube phenomenon, Marshall describes the music as “drawing influences from Western disco, funk, and R&B, and using the latest sonic technologies mastered nowhere more than in Japan itself.” Like Japanese jazz, city pop comes from music that began in the U.S. but become globalized and cosmopolitan as it traveled the world.

Paugam characterizes his City Pop mixes as infused with “themes of austere feelings, melancholic vibes, and a sense of having memories of living in a different time and place.” The cultural dislocation one might feel when listening to these songs comes from their uncanniness—they sound like hits we might have heard on top 40 radio, but their idioms don’t exactly click into place. This is especially apparent in the Coffee Break Sessions mix of late 70s, early 80s Japanese pop singers, above.

But there’s something too provincial in calling City Pop—or the disparate types of smooth pop that fall under the designation—a Japanese take on American music, since American music is itself a hybrid of global influences. YouTube phenomena like City Pop have themselves become part of a universal internet pop culture that belongs everywhere and nowhere. Someday everyone will experience the historic 80s pop music of Japan just as they'll experience the historic 80's pop music of everywhere else: as part of what Paugam calls a “false sense of nostalgia" for a past they never knew. Hear more mixes of Japanese pop, jazz, and funk over at Coffee Break Sessions.

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How Youtube’s Algorithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japanese Song Into an Enormously Popular Hit: Discover Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tom Morello Responds to Angry Fans Who Suddenly Realize That Rage Against the Machine’s Music Is Political: “What Music of Mine DIDN’T Contain Political BS?”

I, Dancing Bear,” a song by an obscure folk artist who goes by the name Birdengine, begins thus:

There are some things that I just do not care to know

It’s a lovely little tune, if maudlin and macabre are your thing, a song one might almost call anti-political. It is the art of solipsism, denial, an inwardness that dances over the abyss of pure self, navel gazing for its own sake. It is Kafka-esque, pathetic, and hysterical. I love it.

My appreciation for this weird, outsider New Romanticism does not entail a belief that art and culture should be “apolitical,” whatever that is.

Or that artists, writers, musicians, actors, athletes, or whomever should shut up about politics and stick to what they do best, talk about themselves.

The idea that artists should avoid politics seems so pervasive that fans of some of the most blatantly political, radical artists have never noticed the politics, because, I guess, they just couldn’t be there.

One such fan just got dunked on, as they say, a whole bunch on Twitter when he raged against Tom Morello for the “political bs.”

That’s Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, whose debut 1992 album informed us that the police and the Klan work hand in hand, and that cops are the “chosen whites” for state-sanctioned murder. That Rage Against the Machine, who raged against the same Machine on every album: "Bam, here’s the plan; Motherfuck Uncle Sam."

The poor sod was burned so badly he deleted his account, but the laughs at his expense kept coming. Even Morello responded.

Why? Because the disgruntled former fan is not just one lone crank who didn’t get it. Many people over the years have expressed outrage at finding out there's so much politics in their culture, even in a band like Rage that could not have been less subtle. Many, like former lever-puller of the Machine, Paul Ryan, seem to have cynically missed the point and turned them into workout music. Morello's had to point this out a lot. (Ditto Springsteen.)

This uncritical consumption of culture without a thought about icky political issues is maybe one reason we have a separate political class, paid handsomely to do the dirty work while the rest of us go shopping. It's a recipe for mass ignorance and fascism.

You might think me crazy if I told you that the CIA is partly responsible for our expectation that art and culture should be apolitical. The Agency did, after all, follow the lead of the New Critics, who excluded all outside political and social considerations from art (so they said).

Influential literary editors and writing program directors on the Agency payroll made sure to fall in line, promoting a certain kind of writing that focused on the individual and elevated psychological conflict over social concerns. This influence, writes The Chronicle of Higher Education, "flattened literature" and set the boundaries for what was culturally acceptable. (Still, CIA-funded journals like The Paris Review published dozens of "political" writers like Richard Wright, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and James Baldwin.)

Then there’s the whole business of Hollywood film as a source of Pentagon-funded propaganda, sold as innocuous, apolitical entertainment….

When it comes to journalism, an ideal of objectivity, like Emerson’s innocent, disembodied transparent eye, became a standard only in the 20th century, ostensibly to weed out political bias. But that ideal serves the interests of power more often than not. If media represents existing power relationships without questioning their legitimacy, it can claim objectivity and balance; if it challenges power, it becomes too “political.”

The adjective is weaponized against art and culture that makes certain people who have power uncomfortable. Saying "I don't like political bs in my culture" is saying "I don't care to know the politics are there."

If, after decades of pumping “Killing in the Name,” you finally noticed them, then all that’s happened is you’ve finally noticed. Culture has always included the political, whether those politics are shaped by monarchs or state agencies or shouted in rap metal songs (just ask Ice-T) and fought over on Twitter. Maybe now it’s just getting harder to look away.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Is This the Most Accurate Fan Cover of the Beatles Ever? Hear a Faithful Recreation of the Abbey Road Medley

I once thought I might be from the last generation to have spent a good part of their youth in front of a pair of speakers, playing their parents’ Beatles records until they memorized every note. Abbey Road was a special favorite in our house. I must have heard the outro medley a hundred thousand times or more. Now that reissue vinyl is everywhere, or something resembling the original records, there are loads of people who can say the same thing—and loads more who have streamed Abbey Road on repeat until it’s seared into their memories.

I ask those people now, young and old and middle-aged, whose familiarity with Paul McCartney’s voice on “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End” comes from this kind of obsessive listening: do you think the cover version above posted on YouTube by AndyBoy 63 sounds exactly like the recording made at EMI Studios (renamed Abbey Road after the album) in 1969? Answer before listening to the original “Golden Slumbers,” below. A fair number of YouTube commenters say they mistook this for the album version or an outtake.


By far the most accurate cover ever of any song.

I thought this was the Beatles for about three minutes.... I knew it wasn't Abbey Road but thought it was some track off the anthology. This is good enough to make me think it's actually the Beatles!

It sounds to me like a cover version that approximates the timbre of dynamics of the original, impressively so, but is also clearly not The Beatles.

We can hear the differences between Sir Paul’s voice and piano and Andy’s recording in the first few phrases, but it’s not as if Andy has set out to deceive listeners, marking the songs as covers in the description. His intention is to pay tribute. “As a child,” he writes on his YouTube channel, “I always wanted to learn to play guitar, bass, drums and piano so that I could play and sing my favourite Beatles songs.” You’ll find several more, including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help from My Friends,” just above. Again, it sounds to me like a faithfully earnest cover created as a labor of love. And again, for many reasons, not the Beatles. (His cover of "Help!" on the other hand is scarily good. I think he does a better Lennon impression.)

You’ve got to hand it to Andy for taking his fandom to this level of imitation. The sincerest form of flattery may not produce the best cover version, but it is an excellent way to show off one's musicianship. Still, no one does McCartney better than McCartney (see him play himself below).

Other artists playing his songs might sound best doing it as themselves. But as an exercise in studious recreation of Beatles arrangements, AndyBoy 63’s proves he’s even more of a fan than those who can hum every bar of Abbey Road without missing a note. While we warble “Here Comes the Sun” in the shower, he’s single-handedly, persuasively rerecorded some of The Beatles’ most famous songs. He's also covered Lennon's solo hits and songs by Buddy Holly and Elvis, as well as releasing original music. Check it out here.

And for an absolutely fab version of the Abbey Road medley, watch the Fab Faux's pretty impeccable version right below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Lucy Lawless Impersonated Stevie Nicks & Imagined Her as the Owner of a Bad Tex-Mex Restaurant: A Cult Classic SNL Skit

What we wouldn’t give to travel back in time to Sedona, Arizona for a non-socially-distanced $2.99 Tuesday night burrito special at Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup, the hundredth best restaurant in this 161-restaurant town according to one ratings site.

Alas, the closest this Fleetwood Mac-flavored Tex-Mex establishment has ever come to physical existence was in October 1998 when actor Lucy Lawless, famous then as now for playing Xena the Warrior Princess, was hosting Saturday Night Live.

The day before the Wednesday table read to determine which sketches will make it on air, writer Hugh Fink got wind of Lawless’ Stevie Nicks impersonation (she also does a mean Chrissie Hynde…)

Fink thought this was something to build on, inspired by his dad’s Fleetwood Mac fandom, and the fact that Nicks’ star had dimmed a bit since the band’s 70’s heyday, when its members’ interpersonal relations were a hot topic and Rumours, still the 8th best selling album of all time, dominated.

He joined forces with fellow staff writer, Nicks fan Scott Wainio, tarrying ’til the wee hours of Wednesday morning to begin casting about for comic ideas of how the sexy, shawl-draped fairy godmother of rock ‘n’ roll might spend her off duty hours, now that “Lindsay Buckingham and cocaine” were in the rear view.

They decided that having her own a bargain-priced local eatery similar to the ones Fink remembered dining in as a touring stand up was their best bet…and what more fitting locale than New Age mecca Sedona?

Plot-driven SNL skits often peter out en route from a strong opening premise to the ending.

As a commercial parody, Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup has no such trouble.

As Fink recently recalled in an interview with The Ringer’s Dan Devine:

I wanted this commercial to come off as not a classy, nationally produced ad, but clearly a cheap, locally produced commercial for a shitty restaurant and that’s why, even in the script, at the time, I put in those cutaways of, like, really unappealing, bad-looking food with the price, and advertising specials. Comedically, I thought it’d be even funnier if the restaurant was cheap. The research department had to get me photos of the Mexican food, which I would approve. I would tell them, ‘No, I want it to look shittier than that. That looks too good.

The research department definitely delivered. As did New Zealander Lawless, though she lacked the cultural reference points to get the joke, and game as she was, discreetly tried to get producer Lorne Michaels to pull the skit, worried that it was a lead balloon.

It came by its laughs honestly in performance, the audience eating up retooled Fleetwood Mac hits promoting burritos and nachos, but with Youtube some 8 years away, Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Round Up faded into obscurity….

It took a man with vision and a long memory to bring it back.

In 2012, Matthew Amador truffled up the fondly remembered clip and started a Facebook page for the hypothetical restaurant, largely so he could claim it had catered the end-of-year intern-appreciation buffet at the casting agency where he was working.

The first likes came from the dutiful interns, but eventually the page attracted other likeminded fans, who’d caught the original performance over a decade before.

It has since migrated to Twitter, where “Stevie”—the first female double inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame —is eagerly awaiting reopening while reminding her followers that the Roundup’s tables “have always been a MINIMUM of 6’ apart, giving you a safer dining experience you’ll never forget and giving me plenty of room to twirl depending on the length of my fringe.”

View the full transcript here. And yes, you are correct, that's Jimmy Fallon at the piano, in his 3rd SNL appearance.

via The Ringer and Metafilter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

—Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus”

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided that integration—mandated three years earlier by Brown v. Board of Ed.—constituted such a state of emergency that he mobilized the National Guard to prevent nine black students from going to school. An outraged Charles Mingus responded with the lyrics to “Fables of Faubus,” a composition that first appeared on his celebrated Mingus Ah Um in 1959.

Those who know the album may be puzzled—there are no lyrics on that recording. Columbia Records, notes Michael Verity, found them “so incendiary that they refused to allow them to be recorded.” Mingus re-recorded the song the following year for Candid Records, “lyrics and all, on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.” The irascible bassist and bandleader’s words “offer some of the most blatant and harshest critiques of Jim Crow attitudes in all of jazz activism.”

Mingus’ experience with Columbia shows the line most jazz artists had to walk in the early years of the Civil Rights movement. Several of Mingus’ elders, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, refrained from making public statements about racial injustice, for which they were later harshly criticized.

But between Mingus’ two versions of “Fables of Faubus,” jazz radically broke with older traditions that catered to and depended on white audiences. “’If you don’t like it, don’t listen,’ was the attitude,” as Amiri Baraka wrote in 1962.

Musicians turned inward: they played for each other and for their communities, invented new languages to confound jazz appropriators and carry the music forward on its own terms. Candid Records owner Nat Hentoff, longtime Village Voice jazz critic and columnist, not only issued Mingus’ vocal Faubus protest, but also that same year Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, which featured a cover photo of a lunch counter protest and performances from his then-wife, singer and activist Abbey Lincoln.

Roach recorded two other albums with prominent Civil Rights themes, Speak Brother Speak in 1962 and Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1971. Jazz’s turn toward the movement was in full swing as the 60s dawned. “Nina Simone sang the incendiary ‘Mississippi Goddam,’” writes KCRW’s Tom Schnabel, “Coltrane performed a sad dirge, ‘Alabama’ to mourn the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in 1963. Sonny Rollins recorded The Freedom Suite for Riverside Records as a declaration of musical and racial freedom.”

Every Civil Rights generation up to the present has had its songs of sorrow, anger, and celebration. Where gospel guided the early marchers, jazz musicians of the 1960s took it upon themselves to score the movement. Though he didn’t much like to talk about it in interviews, “Coltrane was deeply involved in the civil rights movement,” writes Blank on Blank, “and shared many of Malcolm X’s views on black consciousness and Pan-Africanism, which he incorporated into his music.”

Jazz clubs even became spaces for organizing:

In 1963, CORE—Congress of Racial Equality—organized two benefit shows at the Five Spot Café, [featuring] a host of prominent musicians and music journalists.

In the wake of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington and with the church bombing in Birmingham that killed 4 little girls only the month before, the benefit attracted a host of musicians like Ben Webster, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims in support of the organization, which, along with the NAACP and SNCC, was one of the leading civil rights groups at the time.

The new jazz, hot or cool, became more deeply expressive of musicians’ individual personalities, and thus of their whole political, social, and spiritual selves. This was no small thing; jazz may have been an American invention, but it was an international phenomenon. Artists in the 60s carried the struggle abroad with music and activism. After a wave of brutal bombings, murders, and beatings, “there were no more sidelines,” writes Ashawnta Jackson at JSTOR Daily. “Jazz musicians, like any other American, had the duty to speak to the world around them.” And the world listened.

The first Berlin Jazz Festival, held in 1964, was introduced with an address by Martin Luther King, Jr. (who did not attend in person). “Jazz is exported to the world,” King wrote, and “much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.” Music still plays the same role in today’s struggles. It’s a different sound now, but you’ll still hear Mingus’ verses in the streets, against more waves of hatred and brute force:

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremacists
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Gil Scott-Heron Spells Out Why “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Consider the influence of television, even in the digital age. Consider the power that networks like Fox and CNN continue to wield over that nebulous thing called public opinion; the continued dominance of NBC and CBS. These giants don’t really inform so much as sell packaged ideological content paid for and approved by corporate sponsors. There's really no need to update poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s radical, 1971 classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” unless we wanted to change the names. His voice still speaks directly to the moment we live in.

We exist on a continuum of conditions that have worsened since the late 1960s—despite promises and appearances to the contrary—until they have become intolerable. Scott-Heron wrote and sang about those conditions since his fiery 1970 debut. “Dubbed the ‘Godfather of Rap,’” notes Brooklyn Rail in a 2007 interview, “Scott-Heron has become a ubiquitous and practically de rigueur influence for everyone from hip hoppers and indie rockers to aging literati and dyed-in-the-wool academics.”

One might think Scott-Heron’s classic spoken-word testament "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" speaks for itself by now, but it still creates confusion in part because people still misconstrue the nature of the medium. Why can’t you sit at home and watch journalists cover protests and revolts on TV? If you think you’re seeing “the Revolution” instead of curated, maybe spurious, content designed to tell a story and gin up views, you’re fooling yourself.

But Scott-Heron also had something else in mind—you can’t see the revolution on TV because you can’t see it at all. As he says above in a 1990s interview:

The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. The thing that’s going to change people is something that nobody will ever be able to capture on film. It’s just something that you see and you’ll think, "Oh I’m on the wrong page," or “I’m on I’m on the right page but the wrong note. And I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to find out what’s happening in this country."

If we realize we're out of sync with what's really happening, we cannot find out more on television. The information is where the battles are being fought, at street level, and in the mechanisms of the legal process. “I think that the Black Americans are the only real die-hard Americans here,” Scott-Heron goes on, “because we’re the only ones who’ve carried the process through the process…. We’re the ones who marched… we’re the ones who tried to go through the courts. Being born American didn’t seem to matter.” It still doesn’t, as we see in the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many before them, and in the grievous injuries and deaths from unconstitutional, military-grade police escalations nationwide since.

Scott-Heron asked us to question the narratives. "How do they know?” he sang in “There’s a War Going On” at Woodstock 94, above. How do the self-appointed guardians of information know what’s really going on? Television spreads ignorance and misinformation, as does radio and, of course, social media. This much we should know. But we’ve misinterpreted “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” if we think it’s really about mass media, Scott-Heron always maintained. Before we can engage meaningfully with current events, a revolutionary change must happen from the inside out. No one's broadcasting the truths we first, most need to hear.

via BoingBoing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Afrobeat Legend Fela Kuti Collaborated with Cream Drummer Ginger Baker

At the end of the 60s, superstar drummer and angriest man in rock Ginger Baker was on the verge of collapse. Strung out on heroin, deeply grieving Jimi Hendrix’s death, and alienated from his former Cream and Blind Faith bandmates, he needed a new direction. He found it in Nigeria, where he decamped after driving a Range Rover from Algeria across the Sahara Desert. (A madcap adventure captured in the 1971 documentary Ginger Baker in Africa). Once in Lagos, Baker started jamming with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti.

The meeting of these two musical forces of nature produced a suite of recordings. “Baker’s drumming appeared on several albums alongside the Nigerian king of afrobeat,” writes Okay Africa, “including Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971), Live! (1972) and Stratavarious (1972).”

Kuti’s longtime drummer and arranger—and inventor of the “afrobeat”—Tony Allen was highly impressed with Baker's range, and Nigerians, as Jay Bulger writes at Rolling Stone, loved him.

Arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, Baker set up west Africa’s first 16-track recording studio and formed a lifelong friendship with Afrobeat star Fela Kuti. Performing with the musical icon for crowds of 150,000, Baker became famous throughout Nigeria as the “Oyinbo” (White) Drummer. “If Ginger wants to play jazz, he plays jazz,” says the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. “If he wants to play rock, he starts Cream. If he wants to play Afrobeat, he moves to Nigeria. Whatever he plays, he brings his own pulse and sound. He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.”

High praise, but Baker didn’t seek the spotlight, his enormous ego offstage notwithstanding. He trained and he learned. Always a collaborative player, by his own description, Baker adapted himself to the needs of the music. In Kuti’s band, he found a well-drilled ensemble and in Fela himself, a kindred spirit with a personality as grandiose and captivating as his own, though Baker’s particular charms were maybe best appreciated at a distance. Hear the loose, sprawling Live! above, with annotations telling the story of the two legends in brief.

Baker and Kuti first met in the early 60s in London when Fela studied at Trinity College of Music. Once they finally connected musically, the sound was explosive, thanks to Baker’s recording studio and Fela’s New Afrika Shrine, the performance space where the live magic happened night after night. Then there are the war stories—not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but also the actual Nigerian Army trying to shut down Fela’s compound, which he called the Kalakuta Republic, and which housed his 27 backup singers and his studio. The bandleader was beaten and jailed over and over, and the commune was finally burned to the ground in 1977.

The video above from YouTuber Bandsplaining gives an entertaining synopsis of the Baker/Fela story, though beware, as several commenters have pointed out, it contains several inaccuracies, including at the outset the suggestion that Fela has only recently received widespread recognition. This, of course, is totally false—Latin American musicians have celebrated his fusion of African polyrhythms, big band funk, and psychedelic rock for decades; in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, Fela was as big a musical god as Clapton in England, as well as a powerful spiritual and political symbol of Pan-African socialism; and in the US and UK, New Wave bands like Talking Heads made entire albums building on Fela’s inspiration.

One might think of Baker’s collaboration with Fela Kuti and the Afrika ‘70 as an early international supergroup, of the kind that would become commonplace in later decades. But Baker didn’t use Fela’s music as a backdrop for his own brand. He was thrilled just to be there in the band.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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