Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VII, Letter D

Devo-Are-we-not-menjpg

Ahh. The letter D. D is for Dali’s Car. D is for Miles Davis. D is for Death Cab for Cutie. D is for the Decemberists, Deerhoof, Destroyer, Devo, Neil Diamond, Thomas Dolby, The Doors, and Mike Doughty. Taking up only two small shelves, four little cubbies of the ikea compact disc cabinet, the D artists in my collection are few but fantastic. Glancing over the roster here, there is nothing to which I am not looking forward! The letter D in my collection spans nearly six decades and represents some pivotal moments in my musical memory. It also represents at least one artist of significance to me, one of my current favorites, for which not a single cd exists in the collection.  Downloads and vinyl make up for the majority of my musical purchases now over the last year or two, so when it comes to a letter that features one of these, what am I to do? I may have to break the rules and bust out a record here and there–otherwise I would have to neglect discussing almost ANY of my current favorites in this wacky project of mine. That just doesn’t seem right. Does it? On the other hand, my most recent musical excursions don’t necessarily represent this “autobiographical” approach. The very new music for me represents the NOW and hasn’t had yet an opportunity to sink itself into memory, hasn’t attached itself to experience.  So I’ll be selective then about the current music and the vinyl and I won’t even begin to dive into the hard drive for recently downloaded material.  This project is also about rescuing the cd collection from oblivion, right?  So let us proceed.

Dali’s Car, “The Waking Hour.” For some reason, I missed the phenomenon of Peter Murphy’s Bauhaus; I discovered David Sylvian’s Japan instead, so when Japan had ceased to be a thing for a number of years and I had exhausted all the solo albums, I found Peter Murphy’s solo work, and then late, perhaps a decade after its release, I discovered this supergroup collaboration between Peter Murphy and Japan’s bass player Mick Karn, arguably the greatest bass player ever to emerge from the glam/punk/new wave movements of the late 70’s and early 80’s. It’s awesome to hear them together, but the tunes are not strong, and after the incredible work of Steve Jansen’s drumming in Japan, these dumb electronic drums and programs are really disappointing.  There are beautiful moments, though, and the bass playing alone is worth the price of admission.

Miles Davis, “Amandla.” Jazz music you can dance to.  Not a record that was spinning in heavy rotation when I first bought it, nevertheless, this evening I find it very enjoyable.  And I find myself dancing to it.  And grooving on the drums in a big way.   

Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism.” An early mid-life crisis record for me that brings back some painful memories around 9/11 and various personal catastrophes of the years that followed.  Nevertheless, I don’t feel sad listening to this record. It was 2003 and things were on the mend. I remember listening to “Trasatlanticism,” my first Death Cab record, over and over again in the car as I made my way to the offices of various therapists. Perhaps Ben Gibbard’s honesty, his comforting Kermit the Frog delivery, the psychological disequilibrium nearly always present in his lyrics were better medicine for me at that time than anything else. A beautiful, rocking, poignant record.     

The Decemberists, “Castaways and Cutouts.” I both love and hate the Decembrists.  I love them because they’re very good.  They’re interesting.  Meloy’s lyrics are literary and fun, although they’ve become on recent albums less daring, almost pedestrian, he’s still very much a writer’s lyricist. I hate them because I’m jealous of their success.  My band shared a stage with these guys in the late 90’s somewhere on a weeknight on a tiny stage playing for next to nobody.  A few years later they would be giants locally and on their way to stardom.  They worked really hard, though, and because they’re very good, their success is deserved.  I have everything they’ve done, I think, so my love for them overshadows my hatred. That’s a good thing.  Hey, let’s begin a record with a lyric in the point of view of a dead baby! That’s bold. This record, not as refined sonically as what would follow, is nevertheless bold and great.     

Deerhoof, “Friend Opportunity.” My first and still my favorite Deerhoof album. These guys are nuts. There’s no other way to describe them. Lead vocals by Satomi Matsuzaki are strange, surreal, nonsensical, and cute (in an adorable way, not precious), even if she’s singing about complete weirdness, which is usually the case. The guitars are noisy, angular, poly, and the drummer is nuts, so nuts, at times I think he’s one of the greatest drummers in rock and at other times I’m not sure if he knows what he’s doing. He never does the obvious thing. I wish my drumming was more like this. This album, for me, successfully marries a perfect balance between experimental music and great pop. I fear my descriptions are inadequate.  Here’s a video for the opening track:

   

Destroyer, “Poison Season.” Time for vinyl.  Destroyer, Dan Bejar’s solo venture, a singer-songwriter with a band name, is a recent discovery of mine. I first heard this guy on the first album I bought by the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers and four or five years ago now I picked up my first Destroyer album. I’ve downloaded or purchased on vinyl everything I have from this guy, but I couldn’t ignore it for this project as I might ignore some of the other music in the alphabet that appears in my collection only on vinyl. Destroyer’s kind of impossible to ignore. One of the most unique male singers, stylistically speaking, in recent memory. His voice is super distinctive, strange, imprecise, nasally, a bit whiny at times but always engaging, poetic, rhythmically unpredictable. And his lyrics. “Oh shit, here comes the sun.” My new favorite line.  Think Al Stewart meets Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits on helium.  That’s terrible.  I can’t describe it.  Like a lot of things I really love, it’s weirdness is central while it is inescapably memorable, hummable, melodic, and super well-crafted. It’s an album I’ve only had for a few weeks now and I’m listening to it over and over.

Devo, “New Traditionalists.” This record: because it was the first concert my wife and I, barely out of high school, saw together and it was this particular tour with the conveyer belts and the fake hair and I remember we were in the balcony of The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (then The Paramount) and it was shaking and we thought we might not get home alive.  Great concert. A few great songs, but really, for me, this is the first Devo album that was not great all the way through.   

Devo, “Are We Not Men? We Are Devo.” I had to go back to the beginning with this band.  I first heard/saw Devo on Saturday Night Live in 1978 and I didn’t know what I was seeing.  I was 14. It was, for me at the time, the strangest thing I had ever witnessed in pop music.  Their cover of “Satisfaction” is for my money the best cover rendition of any song ever.  That drum pattern, over and over again through verse and chorus with only a simple 16th note snare fill here and there, changed my life. Hey, where’s two and four? Fuck two and four. And lets wear yellow jump suits and pretend we’re machines. They rocked. Every tune on this record bizarre and beautiful. And that album art. Are we not men? We are Devo indeed. And as I reflect on my first reaction to this music, I’m fascinated by the fact that at first it repelled me. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand that this was something musicians could do. It seemed to break all the rules of the known universe. Same with my first Talking Heads record, “Fear of Music.” I took it back for a refund! It later became for me, as this record from Devo did, one of the most important records of my youth. Some of us are intrigued by what we don’t get–and we go back for more eventually. There’s a disposition for you. It explains a lot.

Neil Diamond, “His 12 Greatest Hits.” Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies. It’s Neil Diamond time. What a hoot. Great, complex, lovely songs. Another album I didn’t have as a kid, but these tunes, all of them, etched on my little radio head.  It’s strange. Many of these tunes I can sing along to from memory still. But these lyrics. Pretentious or dumb or both, completely at one with the era, blatantly sexist sometimes, especially in “Cracklin’ Rosie,” they seem downright funny to me now. But I can hear The Monkees in almost every one of these songs.  They were meant for each other. Was “I’m a Believer” never a hit for Neil? I don’t remember hearing it the first time until The Monkees did it.

Ani Difranco, “Dilate.” I admire much about Ani Difranco: her courage, her guitar playing, her distinctive voice, her feminism, her righteousness, but I cannot really say that I dig her music all that much.  I love all the various ways she can sing “fuck you” in that opening track, perhaps the best song on the album, but after that, all the songs sound the same and her delivery is often way more over the top than it needs to be and I just get tired.  60 minutes. Not necessary.

Thomas Dolby, “The Flat Earth.” The first Dolby album, featuring the iconic new wave of “One of Our Submarines” and “Blinded Me With Science,” was a big hit with me, but this record, perhaps the first monumentally influential record of my post-high school life, was a game changer. The songs were so good, the arrangements were a huge leap forward in sophistication from “The Golden Age of Wireless” and perhaps from any other new wave music of its era, and the lyrics were so literary and smart, I spun this record again and again. Maybe the first new wave record worthy of study–for songwriters, engineers, lyricists, singers, and synthesizer wonks. Dolby seemed to have found the perfect hybrid between the machine and the man–so much sonic information from synthesizers and drum machines but with a warmth and soul you’d expect from, say, a 70’s era Elton John record.  Every song on what was once side one of the LP, “Dissident,” “Flat Earth,” and “Screen Kiss,” as I listen to the album tonight for perhaps the hundredth time over the 30+ years since I bought it, is equally fresh, as emotionally poignant, as inspiring as it ever was.  Only five albums of new pop tunes released in three decades, Thomas Dolby takes his time with his music.  The rewards have always been worth the wait.  His most recent record, “A Map of  the Floating City,” is every bit as vital and interesting as “Flat Earth,” if not more so. I remain a huge fan.

The Doors, “The Best of the Doors.” One of my elder siblings had a Doors record or two when I was a wee lad.  I remember distinctly “Morrison Hotel” in the collection. As a kid, they didn’t really float my boat: too sober, too much rock for my childhood bubblegum palate–but as a young adult they fascinated me, and without having any particular affinity for any one Doors album but having all of the hits in my consciousness as a child growing up with the radio, this anthology of the greatest hits was a good bet. The mystique of this band was half the draw: the strangeness of Jim Morrison, the unhinged quality of his work and his life, those crazy words, that Oliver Stone film in the early 90’s with Val Kilmer, the incorporation of many of these tunes in all of those Vietnam War films that came out of the 80’s–somehow I just figured The Doors had to be a part of the collection.  And then I realized that I really liked them.  They were a good band, an original American thing, experimental, odd. Tonight I listen to the whole collection, all 19 songs, an hour and a half of glorious psychedelia.

Mike Doughty, “Golden Delicious.”  Goddamn, I miss Soul Coughing. I know Doughty hates them and his history with them, but I haven’t finished reading his “Book of Drugs” and I don’t understand why he left the band and half suspect he’s a bit kooky.  That’s not fair, I know.  But I have heard stories that the guy won’t even sign a Soul Coughing record for a fan and I think that’s just stupid. There’s groovy stuff on his solo records, but this one, my favorite of the two I have, is glitchy, it skips, and the best song on the record, “I Wrote A Song About Your Car,”  is unplayable.  Go figure.

Mon Dieu!  Sacre Bleu!  I am through the D section! I started this project in February of this year and it’s taken me seven months to get through 4 letters of the alphabet.  Not bad, actually.  I find that each time I finish one of these entries I feel the internal nudge to continue.  It’s a project that interests me. I realize, though, as I look at my blog entry stats comparatively, that I may be alone.  This may be a thing I am doing entirely for myself.  I accept that.  “You are writing primarily to please yourself,” says William Zinsser. In most cases, but in this case in particular, I know this is true for me.

2 Comments

Filed under Music

2 responses to “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VII, Letter D

  1. Not alone, Jarmer. I thoroughly enjoy these posts. I just can never remember my password so that I can “like” or comment. xoxo

    Ann Folwell Stanford, PhD, MFA Vincent dePaul Professor School for New Learning DePaul University 1 E. Jackson Blvd Chicago, IL 60604 312-362-5498

    ________________________________

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