This American Life: Five Must-Hear Music-Themed Episodes Of The Cult Podcast

If you’ve never listened to This American Life – where have you been? Hosted by the gentle-voiced Ira Glass, picking at a different strand of American living in compelling weekly hour-long bursts, the show has been running for nearly 20 years now, originally on US public radio before gaining a new lease of life on iTunes. Each episode has a different theme: some dark, dealing with child abuse and school shootings, others light-hearted and pondering. Across its two decades on air, there’s been some memorable music moments. Here’s five of our favourites…

Miles Davis reveals his antagonistic side (April 19 1996)
Never meet your heroes, as the old adage goes. Given the opportunity though, you might not be able to help yourself. Writer Quincy Troupe, from St Louis like Davis, thought the trumpeter was “clean as a broke dick dog”. Davis was Troupe’s idol. So when Troupe moved to New York and found out his friend was Davis’ doctor, he insisted on getting to meet him, eventually becoming one of his best friends. Troupe’s impersonation of Miles’ sandy whisper is pretty mesmerising – as is the revelation of his flaws. “He was always testing you,” he says. “If you couldn’t [stand up to him] he would just run you over… he was like a king.”

Ira Glass takes a scornful second look at the “magic” of The Beatles
“They’re basically just a bunch of aging dullards without any particular magic to them at all.” Hold up, Ira. What? It was 1996 and the Fab Four had just released a collectible CD entitled ‘Beatles – Rare Photos & Interview CD’. Glass isn’t happy that his own “keepsake” is numbered 130,862. But it’s not just about the phoney ‘collectible’ marketing. In this series of unheard interviews The Beatles are just… dull. They come across as “exhausted, irritated,” rants Glass. “They are no more glamorous than you or me. They have been rendered in human scale and not one inch bigger.” The result is a blasphemous but on-point look at how the Beatles’ legacy has been dilluted by the endless money-grabbing repackaging of their myth and music.

The story of Johnny and June Carter Cash
In which the voice behind The Incredibles’ Violet, Sarah Vowell, tells “The Greatest Love Story of the 20th Century” with a blend of brutal honesty and tender insight, from Johnny’s first sight of June performing with her family in Nashville to his time as a “pill-popping speed freak”. At that time, June – an engaged, devout Christian falling in love with Cash – wrote fearfully about the brimstone awaiting her in the delicate ditty ‘Ring of Fire’, sung by her sister Anita. Johnny later flattened it with Mariachi horns, possibly inspired by “the barbiturates he took before bed to take the edge off the amphetamines.” Curiously though, after the two divorced their respective spouses, they shared 35 years of happy marriage. Vowell cuts through the love-story fluff to the real story.

Phil Collins helps a heartbroken journalist write a break-up ballad
Break-up music is everywhere, something Starlee Kine didn’t actually realise until a particularly bad break-up with a man with whom she had shared a love of Phil Collins. Immediately, she surrounded herself with cheesy ballads. “It’s not that you overlook the cheesiness,” she says. “You embrace it.” To get over her former flame, she decided she had to write a break-up song about him – one lacking all self-respect, pleading desperately for her ex’s return. Through an amazing series of coincidences, she ends up getting advice from the Genesis man himself in a lengthy confessional phone call about the cathartic power of song when you’re down. Phil comes across like a total dude.

Comedian Tig Notaro plays The Rolling Stones to a Sixth Grade class
In sixth grade, Tig Notaro took a weekly music class. At the end of each lesson, one student could play any record they brought into school. Renowned in school as a huge Stones fan, she advised cool kid JD to pick ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ from ‘Let It Bleed’ – but the bell rang under a minute in, before the London Bach Choir’s intro finished. Naturally, JD was fuming. Notaro still insists “It gets better!” Short and very sweet, the segment starts at 46:50: