Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume III, Letter B

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I’m betting you gave up on me.  I almost gave up on myself.  What with a trip to Disneyland scheduled for spring break, National Poetry Writing Month, and some illness in the family, it looked hopeless that I would ever get through the project of listening to at least one CD from every musical artist in my collection, let alone finish the damn B section.  But let me say, oh those of you of little faith, that I am back at it.  I continue chipping away at those B bands and artists, but with this difference:  I did a whole lot of listening without any writing at all.  So, here I am, trying to catch up this particular nutty blog project with the progress I have made into my collection of B music.  These notes will likely be shorter, more cryptic, in honor of National Poetry Month–maybe even poetic, although, as of this moment, we’re half way through May and Napowrimo is over.  But let me assure you that each of the albums listed here were listened to IN FULL by yours truly, even the really stupidly long ones from the 90’s, unless otherwise indicated.  I reserve the right in this blog post, however, to expound to a greater degree around those bands or records that truly rocked my world.  Here goes the rest of the B’s:

Tony Bennet, “Playin’ With My Friends, Sings the Blues.” Really famous old guy becomes hip again, singing duets with a bunch of artists from subsequent decades. I’m not sure why I have this record.

Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself.” Here’s a guy with a beautiful voice and prodigious multi-instrumental musical talent, staggering lyric skill, and perhaps the greatest whistler in the history of pop music. Really, he whistles. He’s progressive and nutty. His arrangements are dense and beautiful and feel simultaneously traditional and modern. Good stuff, Maynard.

Frank Black, “Self Titled.” The Pixies were the shit. Frank Black, Black Francis’s first solo album, was not so much the shit. There’s good music here, though. It rocks and it’s got serious hook material. But it’s not nearly as manic and wild as a Pixie’s record; it’s not a record that had any kind of staying power for me past the first twenty listens or so.

Perry Blake, “California.”  Must listen to this Perry Blake guy with a martini. This is martini music. And for me, it’s coming-down-from-an-early-onset-mid-life-crisis music.  2002.

Bleu, “A Watched Pot.”  Not a band, but the project moniker of a guy named William James McAuley III, a power pop genius and a genre hopper and an exquisite imitator of things he loves.  Great tunes.  A happy, funny, sweet and sour record. I recommend more highly “Red,” the album before this one, a record I downloaded, and thus, not a choice for this listening/writing experiment.

Blondie, “The Platinum Collection.” I was so smitten with Deborah Harry as a teenager, and those two titles, “Parallel Lines” and “Eat to the Beat” were phenomenal records.  This collection features those two albums generously. I’m grooving in nostalgia, hopping up and down in the basement to Clem Burke’s explosive drumming, resting now and then for a perfectly legal sip of wine.

The Blow Monkeys, “Animal Magic.” Remember the tune, “Digging Your Scene?” It killed me the first time I heard it, and continues to kill me now. An anomaly of mid-80’s new wave music, these guys were like some kind of blue-eyed white boy soul band from England with an adorable singer/philosopher who had the audacity to adopt a stage name after a famous Beatles tune, Dr. Robert. This record kills from start to finish.

Blues Traveler, “Save HIs Soul.” God, I hate the harmonica, but Jesus, this guy can really play the harmonica.  And he’s a great singer.  But I still can’t understand why this band is in my collection.  They rocked? Yes.  The drummer was good? Check.  They were an alternative to the alternative in the 90’s? Check. Still, I now find I could live without this band for a very long time.

So on the weekend of April 10 I took a little solo road trip to the coast for a writing retreat which afforded me about four and a half hours in a car.  I don’t like driving, especially, so if I’m driving a long way by myself I typically play very loud music to keep myself alive.  It was a happy coincidence that my road trip falls while I’m about to listen to one of my all time favorite bands, another band, only the second, for which I cannot listen to just one album, a band that had no less than a monumental influence on me as a teenager.  So three in a row on the way to the beach, The Boomtown Rats, “Tonic for the Troops,” “The Fine Art of Surfacing,” and “Mondo Bongo.” All three pivotal albums for me.  This band may be deserving of it’s own post, because I’m not certain I can even scratch the surface here.  These guys almost single-handedly revolutionized my musical tastes, moving me from a kind of classic rock fan into a punk, a new waver, a goofy clothes, purple converse, skinny tie-wearing, mullet-sporting music fan with an attitude, a penchant for all-out weirdness, and the budding awareness that there were ISSUES in the world that were larger, more important than me that might need my serious attention. Not only did the Boomtown Rats completely satisfy my developing and specific musical tastebuds, they gave to me in the person of Bob Geldof a rock star who was worthy of the HERO mantel. He’s been knighted for Christ’s sake.    

David Bowie, “The Last Day.” I don’t have a ton of Bowie in my collection, few of the classics, “Scary Monsters,” a greatest hits collection, and almost everything he’s done since “Let’s Dance.” I chose his most recent thing.  I am consistently blown away by Bowie’s ability to grow and continue to make music that is vital and inventive and interesting.  A couple of tunes on this record, including the single “Where Are We Now” are so good it hurts to listen to them.  And–there’s some filler.

The Breeders, “Last Splash.”  Outside the undeniable hookitude of “Cannonball,” This is mostly an awful record.  Kim Deal, from the Pixies, her sister Kelley, Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses, and some drummer dude.  It’s messy, sometimes interesting sonically, but mostly dumb. One for the hopper, perhaps.

Edie Brickell, “Shooting Rubberbands at the Moon.” I’m not aware of too many things.  I know what I am if you know what I mean. Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box; religion is a smile on a dog.  ‘Nuff said.  A fun record, whimsical, silly, sometimes sad.  Edie’s lyrics can be goofy but sometimes profound, her habitual note-dropping at the end of almost every line can be tiresome, but boy that drummer is good and the rest of this band is top notch.  It was truly enjoyable to listen to this again.

Bright Eyes, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” This weirdo is irresistible.  And this record, almost a kind of electronica thing, so completely stylistically different from the rest of his mostly folky oeuvre, feels just as authentic as any of that other stuff.  A really cool, interesting record that holds up very well.  Lyrically, super smart. Perhaps, worthy of the name poetry.

Jon Brion, “Meaningless.”  If John Lennon were alive and still interested in pop music, he might sound like this guy.  Brion is a brilliant songwriter, and while I don’t know his entire pedigree, I know he was in the supergroup The Grays, a band that made only one incredible record; I know that Brion did the soundtrack for the nutty film “I Heart Huckabees;” I know he produced some of Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine;” and then I know there’s this record, which is, I think, the only full length Jon Brion record out there. We love the power pop.  We love the intelligent and slightly snarky lyric. We love the infectious melody.

Jonatha Brooke, “Steady Pull.” She’s just so undeniably good.  It’s hard to criticize, except to say that she’s an artist that’s so undeniably good that I bought three of her records before I realized that I just wasn’t all that interested.  This one, though, pretty rocking, edgy in places, funky, is undeniably good, but I will not likely choose it for another play for a very long time. If it comes up in an iPod shuffle, I’ll be happy to hear it again.

Bill Bruford, “One of a Kind.” I first heard Bill Bruford play the drums in the 70’s prog rock band Yes when I was but a wee lad. I had no clue at that time what I was listening to. I dug the music.  “Roundabout” was on the radio for crying out loud; it was just pop music to my naive little ears. But as I reached my teen years, transitioning from a rocker to a new waver and a blossoming young musician to boot, I also found myself gravitating toward the prog rock genre, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to show off virtuosic musicianship. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I know that at the time that was the thing that sucked me in.  So my real discovery of Bill Bruford was his work in King Crimson in the 80’s, and then I found this solo record from ’79, and then I’d end up going back to all those early Yes records, listening with fresh ears, ears that understood incredible drumming when they heard it.  So, it’s a real pleasure to go back to this record, “One of a Kind.”  I totally geeked out on this record as a teen, and I’m totally geeking out on it now. Allan Holdsworth on guitar, Jeff Berlin on bass.  Extraordinary still.

In the middle of the grunge era, there was this, Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” The most beautiful, rocking, but grungeless record of this era.  I don’t know when I first came across this album.  It may have been late, after Buckley had already met his tragic fate in an accidental drowning. There would be only one more record of new studio recordings, released, I’m almost certain, posthumously.  This guy sang like an angel, an angel with a meat cleaver. I’m not sure, before this guy, that I had ever heard in rock music singing so technically precise and yet so emotionally raw and incisive. This is a record that is worth weeping through and over.  A classic, for sure.

Kate Bush is a goddess.  And this record, “The Sensual World,” while it may not be my all time favorite Kate Bush album, holds a special place in my musical heart.  It wass 1989.  My wife and I were so broke in our third year of marriage that we moved into the basement of her parents’ house.  We were there almost a year, a year where my desperation for new music and my empty wallet drove me to the BMG record club where I ordered 10 compact discs for a penny.  I believe this was one of them.  As bleak as all of this sounds, it was not an entirely dire situation.  I had just been hired in my first teaching job.  Things were looking up. I was young, newly married, newly employed, on the verge of my illustrious teaching career, and despite the economics, I was extremely optimistic and had every right to be. This record by Kate Bush enchanted me and excited me. Kate Bush, as great as she is as a musician, composer, and singer, seems really like a storyteller more than anything else. Her songs embody story.  It’s easy to get lost in them in the way you’d get lost in a great piece of fiction. Eclectic, strange, haunting, and beautiful, these songs transported me. It’s still difficult not to absolutely break down before the end of “This Woman’s Work,” the Bulgarian singers on several tracks of this record are out of this world, and Mick Karn’s bass playing is, as usual with Mick Karn, revelatory.  I remember reading that the first track originally took the lyrics from Joyce’s Molly Bloom monologue in Ulysses, but Bush couldn’t get permission from the Joyce estate and ended up writing her own words.  You can still hear Molly Bloom in there.  Bush is the sexy Joyce of pop music.  Yes I said yes I will yes.  

David Byrne, “Self Titled.” Post Talking Heads, this, I believe, was Byrne’s third solo record.  I’ll have to go into this guy’s impact on my life at a later time, maybe years later when I reach the T’s, but for now, let’s just say that I chose this particular David Byrne record (I think I have them all) because this, 1994, was another pivotal year in the life of Michael Jarmer.  It was the summer I went to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.  It was my first solo travel experience.  My first cross continental flight.  My first writer’s conference.  I had begun my first successful effort at writing a novel. And here at Breadloaf I discovered my immediate and transformational future as a fiction writer: I learned about the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College, where I would apply and be accepted for the following winter term. It was a heady, trippy, exhilarating experience; it changed my life.  And this David Byrne record, buoyant, lively, rocking, and nutty, was the soundtrack playing over and over again on my little walkman cassette player! Could it be that at this time, if I wanted to travel with music, I had to record my compact discs to cassette?! Memory fails. I’m pretty sure it was a walkman–but I suppose it’s possible that it could have been a portable disc player.

A suitable ending to the B section of my compact disc collection, a transition and a transformation.  The B’s were bountiful.  The C section of the collection, not nearly as much, but perhaps containing artists and bands every bit for me as earth-shattering and mind-blowing as the ones back there in the B part. I don’t know when I will get to it. No promises. I realize, looking at the collection all orderly and alphabetical over there against the basement studio wall, that I am not quite 1/7th of the way through the collection–which does not include, because I have them stored in a separate section, local music from Portland, Oregon. Who knows how I will handle that. I can’t ignore it, that’s certain. That just wouldn’t be right. First world problem.  We will cross that bridge when we get to it.

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