Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume I, Letter A

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I have often thought of my record collection, now mostly a compact disc collection, supplemented by the occasional download and maybe 100 vinyl LPs, as a kind of musical autobiography. Listening to records for me has always had the same kind of effect as looking through a photo album, or reading old journal entries. The music contains vivid imagery and memories of nearly my entire existence so far on this planet. Only in my earliest years, up through about the 2nd or 3rd grade, are my memories not infused with music. Even then I know, and I bet I’ll discover more explicitly, I was surrounded by the music of my older siblings. At any rate, by now, 50 years young, I have amassed quite a collection, most of which gets listened to on very rare occasions, favoring, as I do, the most recent musical acquisitions over my old favorites.  Thus, I have decided, since I now have a kind of chill listening area in the basement close to the music cd library, to jettison the iTunes mind hive for awhile and listen to at least one cd by every artist in the collection from A to Z.

So much music has been neglected. I don’t blame iTunes entirely, because, in truth, I think the iPod technology has allowed me, through the mighty powers of the shuffle, to listen to more of my music then I did before.  But so much of my collection in compact discs has not been digitized and catalogued on to the hard drive, so a lot of it is languishing on the shelves in the basement studio.  So I embark this evening on this project.  It’s ambitious.  I don’t know if I have the stomach (or the time) to finish, but that’s not stopping me. I guess I have to convince myself that there’s a good reason to keep and store all of this music–and that this music, since I have it still, must be somehow meaningful to me.  As I listen, I’ll post some thoughts about how each artist has made an impact on my life–or not.  Maybe this might be a good opportunity to conduct some late winter, early spring musical purges.

If I actually accomplish this task in the way I’ve envisioned it here, this blog post might end up somewhat book-lengthy, and no blogger on the planet in his or her right mind would submit readers to these kinds of shenanigans.  So I propose to do one letter at a time.  Even this, it seems to me, may be pushing the limit, and I may discover that each letter may need multiple entries. Oh well, here goes: Volume I, Letter A.

First up:  ABBA, “Mas Oro.”  A bit of an embarrassing first stop, this is music from my late childhood and early adolescence, heard on the radio a billion times right before I became a serious young music consumer, but influential, no doubt, with it’s indelible pop orchestrations and sweet harmonies and lyrics that could really tug at you if you let them, and as a grade-schooler, a sensitive little boy suffering perhaps from one or two of my very first experiences in “love,” I was all over it.  I only added Abba into my collection as an adult, feeling that any serious pop music collection could simply not do without it. I must have been 10 years old when I first heard these songs.

AC/DC, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It.” In the same way I discovered Cheap Trick when they opened for Kiss, I discovered AC/DC when they opened up for Cheap Trick.  I didn’t really have a concept of hard rock or metal; I mistakenly identified these Aussie rockers as a punk band. Without the staying power for me as some of my other teenage idols, this, AC/DC’s first live album, is the only record of theirs I decided to buy on compact disc to replace all the vinyl AC/DC records I lost when I sold the whole kit and caboodle in a  lust for little silver plastic things that everyone was claiming as a far superior medium in the mid 80’s.  At any rate, I love the sizzle of this record.  The energy is palpable. I was jumping up and down with glee.  I lost my hat. And I remembered, when my parents were out, thrashing about the living room with my air guitar, a Wilson tennis racket.

Adam and the Ants, “Prince Charming.” It’s 1981. I’m a sophomore in high school, one of two or three kids in my entire suburban neighborhood listening to punk and new wave music. I start dating (crazy to think) the girl who would become, only five years later (also crazy to think), my wife. This may have been my first (and last) musical conquest—forcing her to listen to and appreciate all that jungle drumming, yodeling, swashbuckling, theatrical, gun-toting, new romanticizing, Native American and Mexican music appropriating Antmusic. It was “our” album that year. It’s a nutty, infectious record, uncharacteristic of 80’s production stink. I gotta say, it holds up. I don’t think Adam Ant has done anything since that is as good.

Nichole Arden, “Under the Skin.” I’m only four artists into the collection and I find a record for which I know nothing about. I didn’t buy this disc. Someone gave it to me, I’m sure, but I don’t know who and I don’t know why. I have no memories or associations with it whatsoever. It’s 2001, the year my band Here Comes Everybody was on the “Astronauts” tour, and maybe we wandered into her territory and somehow came upon this record. The woman on the cover, Nichole, I assume, is lovely, ghostly, and mysterious. I like her. Let’s listen: It’s groovy folk rock, venturing into heavier territory, nicely executed, beautifully sung, smart words, strong musicianship, high production value, but pretty pedestrian, no surprises. I likely listened to it once and put it away, a photo in the photo album of people and places I don’t recognize, but good enough not to toss.

Alice in Chains, “Self Titled.” During the 1990s, I took to grunge hook, line, and sinker as the new new wave, the new punk, and I listened to “Dirt” over and over again–but I didn’t own it on cd; I made a pirate recording with my new DAT machine! I no longer have a DAT machine so I can no longer listen to “Dirt,” my favorite grunge record of all time, sadly, still not back in my collection. But I have this thing, the fourth record from the band, a record that does not figure hardly at all in my musical memory. Perhaps, I bought it too late, when I was over the nineties, onto other things. I put this baby into the player and the display immediately tells me the record clocks at 64:53. The nineties was the decade of the stupidly long record. I’m over that now, too. I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way through. Dark, dirty, minor, moody, melodic, almost medieval, groovy, but it’s no “Dirt.” The only tune that feels familiar to me is “Heaven Beside You,” an almost perfect Nirvana derivative. While it doesn’t ring very many bells, it’s undeniably good. The second band already in my collection of albums under “A” (that I know of) to have lost one of its members to drug or alcohol addiction. Presciently, the last tune on this record begins with a rendering of “Taps.”

Tori Amos, “Little Earthquakes.” It’s 1991, and before grunge kicks into full throttle, we discover its antithesis and epicenter, all at once, in this brave, edgy, beautiful singer songwriter piano player. I was still twenty-something, straight out of a lefty liberal arts college education, on the cusp of my budding new career as a high school English teacher, and thinking here was the Joni Mitchell of my generation, or at least, or more appropriately, Kate Bush 2.0. While we were still renting, climbing ourselves out of poverty, making new friends, charting new territory in every conceivable way, this record rocked our world. It’s been forever since I last spun this album. The production is decidedly eighties: big reverbs, huge drums, dramatic string arrangements. This was still a daring record, and seems so still to me tonight. “Silent All These Years,” I think, is a classic, and “Me and a Gun” is still absolutely terrifying.

Laurie Anderson, “Strange Angels.” Of all my records filed under the “A” category, I have the most Laurie Anderson titles of any other artist. I think I have almost everything she has done. I discover Laurie in the late eighties, see the concert film “Home of the Brave,” and I become a true convert. She does the things that most resonate with me as an emerging adult artist and music fan. She’s arty, she’s political, she’s visual, she’s literary, she’s funny, she’s bizarre, she’s experimental. But I followed the trajectory up to this particular album as her output began to resemble more and more something like actual pop music, and I completely dug it. Even though it’s her most accessible record, it’s unapologetically far from commercial, but nevertheless, hooky, smart, toe-tapping, funny, inventive, and spooky. Before I even spun this one, I knew the opening lines by heart: “They say that heaven is like t.v., a perfect little world that doesn’t really need you.” Yeah.

Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe, “Self Titled.” When is a Yes album not a Yes album? Or: When is a Yes album filed, not at the end of the alphabet, but at the beginning? When it’s titled “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe” and is released in 1989. I am surprised how familiar this record is to me when I start to spin it. I must have listened to it a lot when it was new, for a few months at a time, maybe longer, before I filed it away for 25 years. I was newly married, newly employed, newly financially independent; I must have been feeling very progressive indeed.

Andrew Sisters, “Ultimate Legends.” This might have been a study record for my wife René as she prepared a couple of years ago to drum in the pit orchestra for a musical called The Andrew Brothers in which a trio of hapless Andrew Sister male roadies have to do the show dressed in drag when the real McCoys all get sick and can’t perform. Hilarity ensues. My parents may have listened to this music as teenagers or young adults. Dad, off to the Navy for service in WWII and then Korea, would certainly have heard this. I don’t know when I would have become aware of its existence—some music simply becomes so ubiquitously famous, one would have to be living under a rock not to hear it somewhere, some time, in some place or other.

Angel, “White Hot.” It’s 1975, and the country needs a response to Kiss, and so this band, instead of dressing up like clown-faced devils in black, dresses up as, well, angels. They’re lovely. Their music, decidedly macho, belies their feminine attire. Very confusing for an adolescent. But, from my vantage point, the musicianship and the songs were stronger than any Kiss album. But the production on “White Hot” in 1977 is almost identical to that of “Destroyer” and “Love Gun,”  the greatest Kiss albums ever. So they were the Angel yin to the Kiss yang and I loved them, saw them in concert, one of my first. Listening tonight there is much headbanging and fistpumping. A truly good, rocking, overlooked band, unfairly picked on by Frank Zappa.

Angel City, “Face To Face.” Maybe it was an Australian thing, but I mistook this hard rock outfit, in the same way I mistook AC/DC, as a punk band. Doc Neeson’s stage presence was more new wave than metal, manic, frenetic, but undeniably geeky, unlike most of the metal posers of the day. He was for a time my absolutely favorite front man and gave me tons of inspiration and material for air band performance after air band performance. Peers that didn’t know me well would remember my high school assembly antics posing as Doc Neeson more than they would remember anything else about me. The album still rocks. It’s a little pedestrian in the song department; there’s not much inventiveness here, but for Doc Neeson, in memory of Doc, and his indelible influence over my own stage persona, I would not part with it for the world.

Animal Logic, “Self-Titled.” I was heart-broken when the Police split up, but given the enigmatic and goofy Klark Kent project and the truly inspired collaboration with Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway for the Rumble Fish film, I was excited about what my favorite drummer, Stewart Copeland, might be up to next.  It’s 1989 and here we have Stewart Copeland and bass genius Stanley Clarke with a singer named Deborah Holland.  Another cd in the collection that I haven’t listened to in 25 years.  It’s immediately familiar, so much so that I can practically sing along–especially with the choruses, hooky, clever, poppy.  Stewart’s drums are louder here than they ever were on a Police record, Stanley Clarke’s bass work is phenomenal, and Deborah has kind of a Martha Davis thing going on.  The record rocks pretty hard, is full of really strong songwriting, but lacks the adventurousness that I was hoping for from Copeland.  I forgive him.  I don’t know how many rock records he drummed on after the Police; I totally lost track of him, it seems. But this is one, and it’s a good one–even though it might be another 25 years before it spins again.

Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine.” Oh my gawd.  I don’t care how eccentric or weird or how unpredictable she is as a live performer, her recordings are nothing short of marvels, every single one, and this one in particular, a masterpiece, I think.  Her lyrics are raw and honest, her vocal performances almost completely free of any kind of studio wizardry, and her bands, or the musicians that help her flesh out her records, invariably stellar and inspired.  This record is perhaps my favorite Fiona record and I might even go so far as to say that out of all the compact discs in the A section, this one might be the greatest.  There’s never a dull moment.  That 50 minutes felt like 25.  And when this record came out, my son was on the way.  He was born in November and I’m guessing that I listened to “Extraordinary Machine” through most of the pregnancy–and a lot. For some reason, though, this music  does not stir memories of these months, of these specific experiences–rather  the music stands on its own, outside time, outside my experience, as something inviolate and pure. Weird.

The Apples in Stereo, “New Magnetic Wonder.”  The most contemporary thing in my entire A section.  This record was released in 2007. What a beautiful mess. It’s undeniably some of the happiest music you’ll find in the psychedelic, lo-fi, anthemic nerdy pop, alternative rock vein.  24 tracks over a little more than 50 minutes, there’s plenty of snippets, lovely little non-sequiter instrumentals in the middle of all of this Beatle-Byrd-esqe-Robyn-Hitchcockian melodic pop. I remember listening to this record in the 16 foot Airstream in my first year with it.  It was a good soundtrack to those years when I was happier than I had been in a long, long time, and happier than I have likely been since. So it’s good to listen to it now, and a good reminder, despite this particular song’s commercial abuses, that “the world is made of energy/and the world is electricity/and the world is made of energy/and there’s a light inside of you/and there’s a light inside of me.” Amen. Maybe one of the coolest records of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The Association, “The Greatest Hits.” I was only four years old when this greatest hits compilation came out, but I don’t know how early in my life I would have been listening to it.  I guess it would depend on when my older sister Janet would have been allowing me to spin records on the little portable suitcase turntable she kept in her bedroom.  Probably later, two years, three years, no matter. It would have been before I was ten, and I would have my sister to thank for introducing me to good pop music: The Association, The Monkees, and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits. She likely has no idea how much in debt I am to her for allowing me into her musical world.  “Cherish,” “Never My Love,” “Along Comes Mary,” and “Windy,” would have indelible influence over my pop instincts. There’s a lot of really goofy things on this record, however.  All of it painfully earnest and serious.  It’s funny looking at youtube videos of these guys: in between their very earnest and serious tunes, their banter was irreverent and comedic. I had no idea. But listening closely now, there are clues–in particular, “Time For Livin,'” which may have found safe haven on an XTC record. No wonder I remembered liking them enough as a child to buy the cd as an adult.

Audioslave, “Self-Titled.” The lead singer from the recently defunct Soundgarden joins forces with with the remaining members of Rage Against the  Machine. What could be better, right? Well, with this, the last compact disc in my A collection, we’ll see.  I have, before spinning this disc, absolutely no memory of this music released in 2002, maybe for good reason, and maybe having nothing to do with the quality of this band or this music.  Let’s see: As expected, impeccably performed, groove-laden, crunchy, angular, and unlike the Rage music, containing something like melody, but nothing as hooky and memorable as the last Soundgarden record.  In fact, as good as it is, for whatever reason, it is fairly unremarkable, difficult to remember, lacking any sustaining hooks and memorable moments.  I suspect that this may be as much if not more my fault as it is Audioslave’s fault.  I did not give this record the attention it deserved, perhaps, as it fell on the precipice of an enduring personal crisis that would not lift for another couple of years. But listening with new ears, remembering almost nothing from it, it seems now fairly skippable, although not without illuminating or inspiring moments.

Holy crap!  Only being able to commit a few late evenings here and there, getting through the A section of my cd library took me three weeks.  At this rate, this could go on for a very, very long time.  And I have no idea if any of this is interesting to a single soul, or if it is singularly a self indulgent exercise for an audience of one.  It was fun to do. It was somewhat revealing: in the A section alone I found a little mini-history of myself and a  microcosm of my musical tastebuds.  The B section looms large, is easily twice as musically voluminous, covers every decade of my life and then some, includes many of my most influential heroes, will be, if I can muster up the courage and the time, a grand adventure.

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February 8, 2015 · 11:00 am

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