There’s a lot going on in the world that could inspire a column, even if I already wrote one of them in advance. But, like most of the rest of the West Coast, it’s hard to muster the energy to do much of anything on account of being surrounded by fire and blanketed by thick smoke.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of living through a week where the sky wasn’t the same color in any two consecutive days with none of those colors being blue, trust me when I say that it’s emotionally exhausting. Waking up to orange-red light streaming through the blinds is bad enough, but the light deepening to a blood red as the day goes on? Extremely unnerving! Moreso than the orange the day before and the sickly yellow the next day. It’s like every fiber of your being, every instinct in the depths of the most primitive parts of your brain, is telling you that everything is wrong and you should run. But you can’t! Because there’s nowhere to run from the sun itself!
Also, you may have a job, though these days that’s decreasingly likely.
What I’m saying is that as I write this, the air quality is purple, though the sky is mercifully only a brownish-gray, and the air itself burns my eyes and sinuses. So this column is of songs about smoke. Because that’s pretty much all I can focus on anymore is the suffocating blanket of smoke so that’s what you’re going to get.
Deep Purple — “Smoke on the Water”
Not only am I writing the laziest possible column topic, I’m starting with the laziest possible song. But, you know what? It’s a great song. And Deep Purple is a great band. So, as on-the-nose as it may be, that’s how we’re starting.
Did you know Deep Purple is still making new music? Most of the band is in their 70s but they just released a new album. You’d know about it if you had a Google News alert set for my byline since I reviewed it. For a bunch of old guys they can still rock, they’ve barely slowed down at all since their prime. May we all be that metal at their age… though unless the air becomes breathable soon, we may not make it that long.
Johnny Winter — “I Smell Smoke”
Did I promise subtlety? No! I promised songs about smoke!
Lack of nuance behind my selections aside, Johnny Winter is underrated as both a performer and a producer. His brother Edgar Winter is arguably more famous, most notably for “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein,” but I’d argue that Johnny is the superior musician in terms of talent.
By the way, most people assume their white hair is a play on their last name, or that “Winter” is a stage name playing off the hair. But both are real. Their actual, legitimate last name from birth is Winter, and they both happen to have albinism. It’s just a strange coincidence. The more you know.
Meat Puppets — “Smoke”
Few bands have mellowed as much over time as the Meat Puppets.
They’re most well-known for appearing on Nirvana’s Unplugged special and album. And rightfully so—it’s one of the greatest live albums of all time and the Meat Puppets covers are among the high points. But they actually came before Nirvana, with most of the songs they covered from 1984’s Meat Puppets II.
It just so happens that years later the runaway success of their appearance with Nirvana seemingly encouraged them to slow it down a bit.
See, originally they were a hardcore punk band. They shifted to a country influence from there mostly to irritate their fans, because that’s what punk bands do, but it was still extremely aggressive. Post-Unplugged, and with the mellower “Backwater” being their highest-charting song off the appearance’s success, they kept bringing it down.
This song? It’s from 2009. It’s about as far from hardcore punk as you can get, but pretty great nonetheless.
Iron Maiden — “Holy Smoke”
So, yeah, this isn’t actually about smoke. It just has the word in the title. But do you know how hard it is to find songs about smoke that aren’t about pot? It would be hard enough if the air was, you know, mostly air. Because right now it’s not. It’s smoke with some air mixed in.
Anyway, the reason I put this in wasn’t only laziness, though I admit that was part of it. The main reason I included it is because the extremely metal lead singer of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, first appears in this video popping out of a field of bright yellow flowers wearing a hot pink T-shirt. Which he somehow makes super metal? Look, I can’t explain it, but it’s true. There’s a whole sequence where a dude’s playing a guitar while standing in a tranquil babbling brook in the English countryside and it’s still more metal than I will ever be. It really is all about attitude, I guess.
The Platters — “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
This was originally a showtune from 1933, and has such been covered about half a million times, but I’m picking the Platter’s version for a very specific version: Dystopian sci-fi.
From the “Fallout” video game series to “The X-Files,” this style of song from early rock and roll vocal groups has become the official soundtrack to techno-dystopias. Something about bands like the Platters and the Ink Spots just feels ominous when paired with tension and ruined landscapes. And, since Californians now live in a techno-dystopia riddled with tension and ruined landscapes, why not lean into it. At least the music is good.