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May 26, 2009 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

The persistence of Memorial Day

This past Memorial Day weekend I was out of town (as per the American tradition), but on the Friday before the holiday I spent a few minutes walking through Arlington Cemetery, thinking about sad topics like the perpetual wars we continue to fight and all the good-hearted Americans who are so loyal to the military but so strangely unwilling to criticize the wars that endanger said military or the government that sends young people halfway around the world to kill other young people. But the cemetery itself, as ever, is serene and moving.

Arlington National Cemetery

I like the idea, at least conceptually, of having “memorial days.” Days of remembrance. Días de los Muertos . Armistice Day. In Poland (and apparently other parts of Catholic Europe) there is a lovely All Saints Day tradition of visiting cemeteries and putting candles on family members’ graves. In the hubbub of daily life, I acknowledge that it is important to take stock of things, look back and salute those who brought us here. I make that effort on occasion. But I don’t think Memorial Day, U.S.-style, really fits the bill.

A youthful, forward-looking, and shallow nation, the U.S.A. has a Memorial Day much more focused on going to the beach, cooking out with the radio blaring, and starting summer off with beer and sunburns. This is also a great thing, though it maybe doesn’t leave a lot of room for remembrance-ing of things past. But it’s got some nice features of its own.

My favorite Memorial Day tradition, hands-down, is the rock-radio staple of playing a 500-song list of top classic rock songs over the course of the weekend. When I was growing up, I would listen to Q94 and they would call it the Memorial Day Listeners’ 500, and presumably you could call in and vote for songs. I find it hard to imagine that enough people called in to vote for 500 different songs, but the DJs must have had something to work with, and I guess you could always rely on Keyser, West Virginia, to have enough serious Kansas fans to make sure “Dust in the Wind” made the top 20.

Since I never listen to the radio anymore, I wasn’t sure whether or not this tradition still existed, and was pleased to find out that it does. I tracked down a few examples, including this one which is pretty solid. “Sweet Emotion” is an awesome choice for #1. I’m scrolling through this list and I think it’s quite possible that I know every song on the list — even “Lay It on the Line” by Triumph (!!). It’s like a canon of sorts for any aspiring hard rock specialist. (Ok there are a couple I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised if I could sing along on the choruses…)

Triumph — “Lay It on the Line”

I don’t listen much to classic rock these days either, but I still like the idea of songs to kick off the summer. Few could top “Sweet Emotion” obviously, but the classic rock canon needs a serious facelift. I nominate, as a perfect song to head a hipster version of a Memorial Day 500, the sugary punk of “ Plenty for All ” by San Diego’s sadly departed Hot Snakes:

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This song is perfect for Memorial Day… it reeks of school’s-out exuberance; it has that swaggering “nothing to work with, nothing to do” defiance; it talks about moving to southern California which is pretty much the ideal American summer dream. “Southern California, let’s go! There’s room for us all!”