MY LIFE IN 10 SONGS

16 Nov

MY LIFE IN 10 SONGS

 

  1. “That’s All Right Mama” : Elvis Presley (1954)

 

First there was Elvis.  As it should be.  My earliest musical memories involve a musty upstairs bedroom in Muskegon Heights an old record player and “That’s All Right Mama.”  For the first three and a half years of my life I was an only child.  My dad taught school during the days and my mom worked nights at a large grocery store.  That meant most bedtimes, it was dad tucking me in and, as I was transitioning to a big boy bed, perhaps in order to train me to sleep on my own, dad would tuck me in, read me a story and then he’d put a record on the turntable and lie beside me until I fell asleep.  I had several favorites in my parents’ collection.  “I Want To Hold Your Hand” off “Meet the Beatles”, “This Diamond Ring” from Gary Lewis and the Playboys” and Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day,” via Bobby Vee’s 1961 tribute record recorded with the Crickets.  

But when push came to shove, it was Elvis who was king.  It was the “For LP Lovers Only” album,his first for RCA, consisting mainly of sides licensed from Sun.  Even as a toddler, I think I could sense the energy–the raw electricity in the grooves.  Something about that record was so different from anything else.  I’d guess when push comes to shove, it was those nights as a 3-year-old that turned me into the music junkie I became.  In a way, my whole musical life has been chasing that rush I got back on 8th Street in the Heights.  If nothing’s ever been so powerful since, it’s been a helluva lot of fun on the chase.

 

  1. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (1780-something)

I must have been in first or second grade when Mrs. Blakey, our district’s itinerant elementary music specialist started giving presentations about the great composers.  She’s basically give the standard biographical talk, augmented by some recordings.  I loved a good story, so the tales of Haydn’s surprise symphony or Mozart’s precocious youth were highlights of my school week.  The one that really stood out was Beethoven.  In part, because the disco version of his Fifth Symphony had been a hit on the radio, so I actually felt like I knew his stuff.  I was also blown away by the fact that he finished his composing career as a deaf man.

At some point later that year, while accompanying my mom on a grocery shopping trip, I stumbled acoss the Funk and Wagnell’s great composers series.  For like $2.99 a week, they put out a record every week or month or whatever.  The first in the series was Beethoven’s Sixth.  I begged mom to let me get it–usually a surefire way to try mom’s patience when she was shopping with me and my sisters, three and one, in tow.  However, maybe because it seemed educational or like something my grandparents would approve of, she said yes.  The record came with liner  notes with a biography and a big old picture of a bust of Ludwig Von himself on the cover.  I was transfixed and the music hooked me further and does to this day.  I’ll never forget the day in 1995  when a senior who had taken my AP US History class the previous year came back to lecture to my students about pastoralism and used “The Pastoral” symphony as backing.  (He’s now the concuctor of the St. Louis Symphony.  I like to think I played a small role in that.  To this day, one the few rituals I observe regularly is, on the first spring day Saturday when it’s warm enough to open the windows, I crank the 6th and engage in some hearty spring cleaning.  Somehow, I think my spirit ends up more cleansed than the house.      

More than that, the way I stumbled on to it from Mrs. Blakey’s recommendation was a significant  marker in my life.  To this day, I’m obsessive in trying to seek out opinions about the “good stuff  from smart people whose ears I trust.  It’s why every morning, one of the first things I do is load up Pitchfork’s site to check in on the day’s reviews and why I never miss an episode of WBEZ’s “Sound Opinions” podcast.

Side note. The last time I listened was on a newer CD version I picked up last spring.  I was

driving to a workshop in Ohio on a sunny July Sunday, taking the long route through rolling vinyards in southwest Michigan’s wine country.  I could almost see the peasants playing by the side of the road–and, at precisely the moment in the fourth movement when the storm hits, it started raining.  Perfect.

3.“All Along the Watchtower”: Bob Dylan (1967)

In 1977 my dad traded in his royal blue 1970 Ford Mustang on a Chevy Malibu Classic station wagon.  Whatever my second grade self intuitively grasped about how that made our family significantly less cool was overcome by the fact that the wagon had an 8-track tape player and I was fascinated by it.  Soon thereafter, our family purchased one of those gargantuan, dark wooden console stereos and it also had an 8-track, which meant I could listen to tunes at home.  (I’d long since trashed most of what was left of mom and dad’s record collection).  And then, at some point, I’m guessing early 1979 or thereabouts, within the span of a couple of weeks, Dad brought home copies of Steve Martin’s “A Wild and Crazy Guy” and “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II.”  By that point my lifelong love of words had already taken root, but this meant there was no turning back.  I must have spent about half my third and fourth grade years wrapped up in the sacred texts of those albums.  One of the benefits of mom working second shift was that if dad was coaching his varsity baseball players in a summer league game or wanted to take his rabbit dogs out to run on a warm summer night, he’d have to drag us along with him.  That meant long car rides where the kids got to choose the music.  We chose Dylan often.

The second Dylan Greatest Hits is a mish mash of a double album.  It doesn’t have the “hits” of  the first greatest hits platter.  It’s a strange mix cobbled together from album tracks, singles, alternate takes–in other words a really interesting collection with a wide range of strange and wonderful sounds. The one that grabbed me first and hardest was “All Along the Watchtower.”  In many ways, it’s the weirdest song Dylan ever wrote–perhaps one of the weirdest ever.  It’s only 12 lines.  It starts in the middle of a story and ends long before the finish.  Nothing really happens and we never quite find out what’s going on–but we know it’s dire.  A few years later, when as a seventh-grader I read “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time, the song kept popping into my head during the scenes where Gandalf and Pippen would be up on the towers of Minas Tirath, staring out over the plains, waiting  for the shit to come raining down.  For a song so sparse, it contains universes of possibility.  It’s flat out terrifying, yet also funny and, to a degree, a source of hope, all sung in a voice that seems like it came from a 10,000 year old teenager.  Rob Sheffield once described it as his “Deuteronomy  Howl.”  That fits.

Dylan’s never been far from me since and, once or twice a year I’ll go on a binge where nothing else will do and he’s all I care to hear for a week or two.  It all started with “Watchtower” the song that taught me how infinite the world of a song can be.  I doubt I’ll find another one like it.

 

4.”AROUND THE DIAL”: The Kinks (1981)

Let’s get one thing straight.  I hate SPOTIFY.  I hate PANDORA.  I hate any streaming service that can be programmed to lazily give me exactly what I want, exactly when I want it.  I’m a DJ guy.  I like to get my music programmed by a connoisseur.  Somebody who’s as passionate about music as I am and who likes to talk about it.  Growing up, I had a decent radio station within listening distance.  WLAV was an independently programmed progressive rock station with a herd of smart, opinionated and personable jocks.  To a verbally precocious 12 year old, they were gods and goddesses.  When I was in sixth grade I got a cheap Lloyd’s console stereo for Christmas.  From that day until I moved out of my parents house, that old stereo was tuned to LAV every day.  More than any other source, I owe my eclectic music taste to LAV’s wide-ranging programming and those DJs.    

At the start of my seventh grade year, one of the older kids in my subdivsion turned my on to the Kinks 1981 album “Give the People What They Want” a high-spirited, guitar driven romp that seemingly stands as a group of aging rockers’ response to the ways punk pilfered the sound they pioneered back in the mid-60s.  The lead track is a paen to a DJ who “never got into fashion, never followed any trends.” He’s gone off the air, unexpectedly and the narrator is committed to a lifelong search to find him.  Anybody who ever thought of a DJ as a friend or part of their world gets it.  I did.  I still do.

 

  1. “CARNIVAL OF SORTS” : R.E.M. 1983)

Confession.  I was a junior high metalhead.  I liked my music loud, bratty and sexist, mostly because I was 13 and didn’t know any better.  But, even in those dark days, seeds were planted that would lead someplace better.

In those days, one of my epic pastimes was fighting with my younger sisters for control of the TV.  The problem was, through persistent lobbying with parents, they pretty much won exclusive rights to the set for a block of prime Nickolodeon, culminating with “You Can’t Do That on Television” a sketch comedy made by and for tweens.  It was actually pretty good, if you didn’t mind the green slime.

The lead in to that show was a program called “Livewire” which I can only describe as some sort of unholy combo of “Donahue” and “American” bandstand but it could be fairly intellectually engaging and since my main strategy was to hang out in the TV room hoping to make my sisters uncomfortable enough that I could watch sports or hope something with the ever titillating “brief nudity” was playing on HBO, I caught that show often.  It wasn’t bad, especially when it featured weird bands as guests.  

One day, during 7th Grade, they featured some unknown with a funny name: R.E.M.  The sound those guys made was as weird, striking and flat out wonderful as anything I’d ever heard.  They dressed like ragamuffins (or stoners) and in the interview segments came off as thoughtful and down-to-earth and, really, the kind of guys that I could be some day–or at least the kind I could have a conversation with and who might actually talk to me. I didn’t have enough background to be able to pick out the now obvious influence of The Byrds, The Velvet Underground or any of a few dozen indie underground bands whose names I hadn’t yet learned. All I knew was that this was somehow different from Rick Springfiled or The Cars and it was different in a very exciting way.

Since you couldn’t hear R.E.M. on commercial radio in those days, even on LAV, that performance stands as something as an evolutionary cul-de-sac in musical development–or, at least, it looked like it did. I didn’t become an R.E.M. junkie for two more years, but I never forgot it.  The genie was out of the bottle and in a few years, my tastes and the rest of the world would catch up in a big way.

  1. “HOLIDAYS IN THE SUN” : The Sex Pistols (1977)

In August 1987, Rolling Stone published its list of the top 100 albums of the Rolling Stone era 1967-87.  Life as I knew it changed immediately.  I thought I was something of a rock historian.  Turns out, I knew squat beyond the obvious stuff.  And my life’s mission became to hear every album on the list.

Of the 75 or so albums that I hadn’t heard, the first one I tracked down was #2 on the list.  “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols,”–I dubbed a cassette copy I filched from my buddy Chris’ vast collection.  From the album’s first sounds, the jack boots goose stepping across the pavement that opens “Holidays in the Sun” I was hooked.  I’d never heard anything like it.  Holidays rips into high gear with a guitar riff that sounds like Chuck Berry after huffing paint thinner and gobbling a few packets of white crosses. If that’s not jarring enough, then Johnny Rotten snears his way onto the scene.  I didn’t understand what he was railing on about it at the time (after multiple attempts to work my way through Greil Marcus’ “Lipstick Traces” I’m still only vaguely sure, some commentary about how tourism to Belsen and other Nazi death camp sites is an affront to the sanctity of life on the planet) but there was no mistaking how disgusted he was. It rocks like the dickens and shocks like a terrorist attack.  Generations of punk rockers have tried to capture the magic of those early Pistols recordings.  None have.  Later, in P.I.L. Rotten would proclaim that “anger is an energy.”  Listen to 30 seconds of this one and you won’t need him to tell you that.

 

  1. “CAN’T HARDLY WAIT”: The Replacements (1987)

September 1988.  My first full day as a college student.  It was something called “Welcome Week” so there wasn’t any class.  Just time to drink and get acclimated to my new surroundings.  My buddy Chris, a year older, a sophomore and a guy I looked up to as a big brother, took me on a tour of downtown East Lansing.  The highlight was a stop at “Flat Black and Circular” a magical used record store.  There, I spent the ten bucks that would define so much of my college career, picking up second-hand cassette copies of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and “Pleased to Meet Me” by the Replacements.  The album closer “Can’t Hardly Wait”, with it’s opening lines about loneliness and missing the one(s) you love (“Write you a letter tomorrow/tonight I can’t hold a pen/someone’s got a stamp that I can borrow/promise not to blow the address again”) hit home hard to a guy alone at school in an age where pen and paper or cost-prohibitive long distance calls were the only way to stay in touch with long lost friends. A lot of ‘mats fans slag this song for its horn charts and pop aspirations.  They don’t get it.  On an album that’s basically a mash note to idol Alex Chilton (there’s even a song about him and Chilton himself plays guitar on “Can’t Hardly Wait”) this stands as the greatest song the Box Tops never recorded.  It might be my favorite song of all time.

And the ‘mats are one of my favorite bands.  They coulda been huge if they’d played the game.  Instead, they self-sabotaged every chance they got, including a legendary SNL appearance where they showed up so drunk, they got banned for life (although their reckless, feckless performance of “Bastards of Young” stands with more famous performances by Elvis Costello and Neil Young as the greatest musical moment in SNL history.  They didn’t want to play the game, even when the game came with respectability, financial security etc.  I dig that.

Bonus:  The ‘mats, half of ’em anyhow, reformed for a reunion tour last year.  There’s something heartwarming about crowds in the 10s of thousands screaming out every word a quarter century after nobody paid a lick of attention when it was originally released.

 

  1. “THUNDER ROAD”: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1975)

I fell in love with the song “Born to Run” in the summer after my 7th Grade year but it wasn’t until after college that the album as a whole really took root.  As great as the album as a whole is, “Thunder Road” stands out from the pack. When I taught AP U.S. History, I used to start Day 1 with a close reading of the song because, for my money, nothing encapsulates the American dream more clearly: the longing, the hard-won victories and the sense of discontent that comes from always needing to see what’s around the next corner.  Springsteen is rightly praised as a performer, but he doesn’t always get enough credit as a writer.  For my money, this is the most perfectly written song in the rock canon.  From the first line (“The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves/like a vision she dances across the porch/as the radio plays”) it has the precise images of a great short story or, at least, a screenplay for the movie that plays in my mind every time I hear it–and it just gets better from there.  It takes guts to put forth the total commitment needed to get away with a line so potentially embarrassing as “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road and the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets” but Bruce pulls it off (it helps that he’s backed by the greatest band in rock history putting across a ferocious wall of sound that even Phil Spector couldn’t improve on).

The song keeps popping up at key points in my life.  I’ve seen a friend buried to it.  At wit’s end, while questioning almost everything about my existence, I once detoured hundreds of miles out of my way to blare the song as I drove the backstreets of south Jersey. And, on those warm summer evenings, just before twilight when the light is just right for seeing the certain type of way you need to see to imagine a future that holds just a little more joy than present seems to make possible, it’s always the first record I reach for.  Nothing ever captured the romance of pure possibility better.  Perhaps nothing ever will.

Side Note (that font on the album cover is exquisite)

  1.  “RIPPLE”: The Grateful Dead (1970)

If I could only listen to one band/artist for the rest of my life, the choice would be easy.  It would be the Dead.  All of the musical roads I travel (early rock, blues, jazz, country, psychedelic 60s freak outs) meet on Dead Street. The performances can be inconsistent, but the songs, especially the Garcia/Hunter compositions capture the entire American experience. In my book there’s a direct line from the transcendentalists to the beats to Kesey and the Dead just set it all to music.  Many a summer day, I’ll get up, brew a cup of coffee and head to my porch with a book or the morning papers and Sirus’ Dead Channel and still find myself there several hours later, the coffee having yielded to microbrews while the sun moved from my right side to the left. Yet at first I didn’t care for them (and the three shows I saw in 93, 94, 95 featuring a burned out band and nearly dead Garcia did little to restore my faith).  But I kept going back and, originally, Ripple was the song that got me.  It’s simple, direct, beautiful and easy to follow–yet if I didn’t know that it had been penned in 1970, I’d guess it had been around about a million years.  (And it gets bonus points for being used as the backdrop to the final scene of “Freaks and Geeks”, probably the third greatest TV show in American history).

This “Playing for Change” version is pretty amazing too

10.” I AM A SCIENTIST”: Guided By Voices (1994)

Robert Pollard IS Guided by Voices.  He’s also my hero.  His story reads like the imaginary bio I’d have written for myself, had I the talent and ambition.  Blue collar kid grows up in midwestern city (Dayton).  Is All City in Football, Basketball and Baseball.  In his spare time, he collects records and makes up fictional bands, going so far as to design albums for each band he invents, complete with song titles.  Attends D1 university (Wright State) on a baseball scholarship, throwing the school’s first no hitter along the way.  Gets married. Becomes a fourth grade teacher. Goes on to a pleasant, unremarkable life.  Except that he kept coming up with those song titles and, in his spare time, started writing songs to go with them and then actually recorded them on a cheap four track in the basement, mostly as an excuse to drink beer with the guys and escape from the mundane things that come along with growing up and being responsible.  But sometimes, strange things happen and by the 90s, Pollard’s little hobby begged the question: What if the guys who went down in the basement and got drunk and pretended to be the greatest band in the world actually became the greatest band in the world?  Over the  two decades since GBV broke, Pollard’s probably written more great songs than the Beatles and Dylan combined–and you could probably add the Stones on top of that and it will still be true.  Given that he’s released somewhere between 60 and 100 albums in that time, not to mention dozens of EPs, singles, one-offs and four box sets of demos and rarities, he’s had plenty of chances and with that much out there, his batting average is far from perfect:  there’s also several hundred unlistenable songs in that oeuvre.  (Supposedly Pollard’s been known to boast that he can write three songs while on the toilet in the morning and two of them will be good–but that’s still one bad one a day).  Along the way he got divorced, quit his teaching job, became an indie rock icon, picked up a legion of die hard fans that will buy anything he puts out, making him one-man cottage industry.  He’s also played some of the greatest (and most alcohol soaked) rock shows ever–GBV in its prime gave Springsteen a run for his money when it came to concert length, often pushing four hours and 60+ songs. Unlike Springsteen, they also dive-bombed their way through several cases of Miller Lite during a typical show, not to mention a fifth or more of Crown or, in later years, Cuervo, so even the great nights could get a bit unpredictable quickly.  He’s also made an honorable living, resisting the urge to prostitute his singular melodic gifts on commercial jingles and other such profitable causes (although “Teenage FBI” one of his catchiest ever did get licensed to a Madden video game soundtrack).  Now pushing 60, he still lives and works in the same working class Dayton neighborhood and shows zero signs of slowing down, putting out three solid records with new band “Ricked Wicky” in 2014, along with a solo disc and some new albums from a couple of other side projects.


Of all these tunes, “I Am A Scientist” is maybe the best and certainly the most GBV.  It’s also the one whose lyrics resonate deeper with me than any other song, especially “I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with Rock and Roll/The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free.”  That one’s going on my tombstone.

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