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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XVII–The Impactful Album Challenge

What follows, dear reader, is a revised and slightly expanded version of my participation in the Facebook Album Challenge that’s been making the rounds of late in this merry, merry month of May in the year of our pandemic, 2020.

I include it here so that it’s all in one spot for quick reference for anyone who cares to take a gander, but mostly for me, as a record of how I responded to the challenge, the challenge to post a photo of 10 album covers over 10 days of records that had a significant impact, whatever that means. These could be records that influenced your musical tastes. If you play an instrument seriously or are a songwriter, maybe these could be records that had the most impact on your own path as a musician. For me, it was both of the above, but also I considered records that intersected with my life during important moments of development or growth, that enriched my spirit, and also, that have withstood the test of time for me. I could listen to any of these records right this minute and experience that same sense of wonder and joy and giddiness. For example, when I was a kid, Kiss records were impactful–but very little of their music is on current rotation, so they’re not here. Similarly, The Sweet–a profound early influence–and yet, their cringe-worthy lyrics offend my 21st century sensibilities. But unlike the Kiss omission, that was a super difficult call, one that I’m still struggling with, one that I may have to amend.

I also thought that this might be an accessible reentry for me into a blog series I started years ago, the purpose of which was to listen to a single compact disc from every artist represented in my collection, A to Z, and then to write a little reflection on the experience. I wrote 16 volumes of that series over several years, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words, and I managed to get to, but not finish, the letter H. At this rate, I thought to myself, I might not live long enough to finish, and then I’d never get to write about Frank Zappa! Oh, the horror.

So here they are, my entries to the challenge, revised a bit, with the photos of the “10” most impactful albums on my life and times.

Photo on 4-25-20 at 10.44 AM

XTC, Apple Venus Volume 1: I was nominated by my friend John Stanford to play the album game. I accept begrudgingly, only because I don’t like being “called on” and I’m not too keen on the rules. Nevertheless, I accept, because who could turn down John Stanford. So I vow to break the rules all over the place. Here’s me, with, perhaps, my favorite pop record of ALL TIME, a record that never gets old and seems to me as timeless as Sgt. Pepper. The band is XTC. It’s the second to last record they would ever make together. It’s 1999. I am one decade into my teaching career and I am feeling brash and optimistic and unstoppable, just like this record, just like almost any record from XTC, who are, it’s safe to say, my favorite band ever. They were, to me, The Beatles of the 80’s and 90’s. I could have chosen a half a dozen of their albums for this challenge. For now, I would say, though, “Apple Venus Volume 1” is tied in first place with this one: “Skylarking.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Day 2 of a record album game in which I ignore the established rules. This was maybe the first album I ever obsessed over. I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor with her tiny little portable suitcase turntable and I played this album over and over. This was the beginning of my love affair with music. Maybe the first album for which I ever memorized every word.

The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones LTD.: Day 3 of the record album game. Right alongside Sgt. Pepper, I spun this again and again as a child, and, like Sgt. Pepper, it has had the same kind of staying power for me. The neighbor girl and I liked to pretend we were radio disc jockeys. There was this odd little nook in her family’s attic that became our “station.” The requests for this record kept pouring in. We played it over and over. It’s a dream of mine to do a song-by-song cover album of this baby.

Photo on 4-28-20 at 4.13 PM

Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Day 4 of top 10 most influential, pivotal, earth-shattering, mind-bending, life-altering record albums. This one blew my little 4th grade mind right open. Adventurous, varied, naughty, literate, literary, beautifully performed; every tune a gem. Not a clunker in the bunch. I was so hard core about Elton in elementary school, some kids called me Elton Jarm. This record was the pivotal one, and shortly after that, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the first LP I ever bought with my own money. Two favorites to this day.

Photo on 4-29-20 at 5.56 PM

Laurie Anderson, United States Live; Kate Bush, The Dreaming: Day 5. Let the cheating begin in earnest. No serious music fan could name just 10, so I’m squeezing in a two-for. I can think of no two women who had more impact on my musical life than these two. They both enlarged for me the possibilities of pop music, what it can do sonically, and what it can do for the head and the heart. Anderson’s record, the first box set I ever purchased, a live album over 5 lps, brought so much of what interested me in my early adulthood into one brilliant package: she was funny, super literate, poetic, absurd, a trailblazer of music technology and for the marriage of the literary and the pop culture. Pure brilliance. And Kate Bush? This is her fourth album, but it’s the first one that I heard and I found it absolutely magnetizing and sexy and weird and theatrical and I loved it for nearly all the same reasons that I loved Laurie Anderson. But man, Kate could really sing. One of the most distinctly original female voices in rock music.

Photo on 4-30-20 at 8.59 AM

Talking Heads, Fear of Music: Day 6. Talk about an appropriate title, the first time I heard this record I totally freaked out, thought it was the weirdest, ugliest, most unlistenable thing I had ever heard. I took it back, claimed it was defective. It haunted me. A couple of years later, after easing myself back in by trying their first two albums, “77” and “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” the “Fear of Music” album worked its way back into my collection and summarily changed my life. It is, still, by far, the weirdest Talking Heads record–but in the best, most beautiful way. “Electric guitar gets run over by a car on the highway. This is a crime against the state. This is the meaning of life: to tune this electric guitar.” Need I go on?

Devo, Are We Not Men? Oingo Boingo, Nothing To Fear: Day 7. Between these two I could not choose. By the time I had accepted Talking Heads into my heart, Devo and Oingo Boingo were busy carving out space in my mind for full on Nerd Rock New Wave devotion. And these two weirdo bands have the distinction for me of the best cover renditions of all time, Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Oingo Boingo’s “You Really Got Me,” both tunes on each band’s debut, respectively. This is not Oingo Boingo’s debut, but their sophomore effort. It kicks more ass; it’s less like a West Coast Devo. I wore out the grooves on this one and years later replaced the record with a CD. Watch me replace it on vinyl again if it ever reappears there. Who knew then what Mothersbaugh and Elfman would have in their musical futures? No body.

Joni Mitchell, Wild Things Run Fast; Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth: Day 8. It was 1984. I was a community college freshmen. The Dolby album was brand new that year, and simultaneously, I discovered “Wild Things Run Fast” from two years before, my first serious listen to Joni Mitchell. I immersed myself inside both of these albums, both artists becoming giant influences. Both records were imbued with this beautiful infusion of pop and jazz in a way that I don’t think I had ever heard before. In the next year or so, these two heroes of mine would collaborate on Joni’s “Dog Eat Dog” album, in hindsight, kind of a failure, but at the time I was over the moon. I love it when heroes collaborate. David Byrne and St. Vincent? Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock? Brilliant. More please.

Photo on 5-4-20 at 8.52 AM

Cheap Trick, The Dream Police: Day 9. I could have posted any one of their first five studio albums. This band–a childhood favorite that continues to blow my mind and continues to make great music. Check out anything from “Cheap Trick ’97” onward. Robin Zander, I think, is one of my all time favorite ROCK singers. Even their Christmas album rocks. Yeah, they made a Christmas record. Sad to see that Bun E. Carlos is out of the fold. He was such a force in this band. I loved his drumming, especially his tendency to put the eighth note bass drum hits on the other side of the snare in the rock beat. He and Rick Neilson were the perfect foils for super models Robin Zander and bass extraordinaire Tom Peterson.

Here’s my story: I saw Cheap Trick open up for Kiss without ever having heard a single song of theirs–this was before the Budokan album made them famous–and I thought, even as a young tike, that if you took all those pyrotechnics and motorized platforms and blood spitting and make up and crazy outfits away from Kiss, Cheap Trick was clearly the superior band musically, in every way.

The Boomtown Rats, The Fine Art of Surfacing; Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model; Japan, Tin Drum; Gary Numan, Telekon:

Day 10 of breaking all the rules. Appropriately enough, today I share my own personal New Wave Holy Quadrumvirate. There’s no way I could leave any of them out of a group of songwriters or bands or albums that ultimately shaped me into the musician and lyricist I became. Bob Geldof, from the Boomtown Rats, in particular, was my first political songwriter. The wit of Elvis is incomparable. David Sylvian from Japan may have been my first rock star spiritual guru. And Numan was just freaky, a perfect role model for awkward and nerdy teens.

It feels wrong to cut out too early here. It’s hard to express the impact all four of these records made on my young life. It’s worthy of its own blog entry, perhaps. I have been loyal to them all over the years. The Boomtown Rats just reunited after 37 years for a new record and I’ve followed everything Geldof did as a solo artist. Elvis is frighteningly prolific. He’s the artist in my collection that is most plentifully represented, second behind only one other artist. David Sylvian’s solo work has been super exciting to follow, challenging, far reaching, deeply spiritual and literary, and Gary Numan continues to make great, really great records.

Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch: Day 11. Zappa much? While not a completist, I have more Zappa in my collection than any other artist, 37 albums in all, many of which are double and sometimes triple cd collections. This one may not be my all time favorite, but, as it was my first Zappa record, it has a special place in my memories of all-things-Frank. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch, indeed! The best musicians in the world playing the weirdest, most difficult rock music ever composed. Zappa also has the distinction of being the first artist, while living at home, that I felt I needed to hide from my parents. I listened at relative low volume in my bedroom or cranked it up when they weren’t at home. The line in particular from “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” comes to mind, a song I would never want to play within my mother’s earshot. Iconoclastic. That’s the word. The music, the words, the thought–he was in every way a musician’s musician and a thinking person’s musician. Everything he did was daring, astounding, funny, intelligent, incisive, brilliant. Cancer sucks, by the way. What might he have done had he continued to live?

Photo on 5-7-20 at 9.07 AM

The Police, Message in a Box (The Complete Recordings); Rush, A Farewell to Kings: Day 12 of the Album-Game Cheat-fest. Today, it’s about the drummers, man. These two guys, more than any other drummers, shaped my musical brain. Copeland maybe more so, because I never did develop anything close to Peart’s chops. Stewart’s chops likely dwarf mine as well, but I cut my teeth playing to Police records and could pull most of it off. The Rush stuff I had to fake. In my Cheaty-McCheat-Face way, I’ve included the entire Police catalogue. And then this, I think, my favorite Rush album of all, in it’s original cover artwork glory. I wanted to take a picture of the 40th anniversary edition–but you know, they’ve reimagined all the artwork. I don’t know how I feel about that. I DO know how I feel about Neil Peart’s untimely passing, and you can read all about that here.

Photo on 5-8-20 at 9.22 AM

Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings: Day 13. They were punk, they were ska, they were funk, they were soul, they were metal, they were pop, they were super smart; their energy was frenetic, palpable, and, while they chronicled our American ugliness, their music was undeniably joyful and life-affirming. I am somewhat embarrassed that Black American Music is not more widely represented in my collection–but I am so appreciative of this band for bringing to my twenty-something white boy privilege some awareness and consciousness that, truly, I had little of before encountering this band.

Photo on 5-9-20 at 10.11 AM #2

They Might Be Giants, Flood, Apollo 18: Day 14. “Penultimate” is one of my favorite words. It’s a word that I have been guilty of abusing, but not this time. 😁These guys were my antidote to the grunge movement of the 90s. I needed the nerd rock to cleanse the palette in between all that Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. And I loved those bands, but I am uniquely aware of their conspicuous absence on this list. Nevertheless, here it is, my penultimate offering in the Most Important Records In Your Life game, cheater version: They Might Be Giants.

Photo on 5-10-20 at 11.11 AM

The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin: Day 15. To conclude the 10 day, one-album-a-day challenge, about which I have bent the rules considerably, I choose this 1999 classic, a record I did not hear for the first time until 2001, a record that came to me at a perfect time in my life, a record that matched the absurdity, the profundity, the magnitude of my world, externally and internally. It is, perhaps, with a half a dozen XTC records, one of the most important records of my life. “Suddenly, everything has changed.”

I have penned more words on this blog site about this band than perhaps any other band. Check out the “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography” under F and “A Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of Oczy Mlody.” They have consistently challenged me, intrigued me, touched me in really surprising places, but also, from time to time, pissed me off. Unlike XTC, they have made terrible records. But I appreciate their fearlessness. I appreciate how successful they have become while being so undeniably weird and counter to most of what you might call mainstream pop music. Wayne Coyne, I think, is really something else.

And that’s it for my list of the “10” most impactful records of my life. But, I’d like you to notice, I have included only music from the 20th century. I have continued to listen avidly and to actively seek new music out. New music continues to shape me and move me. So maybe, I’m thinking, there may need to be a 21st century edition, again, not because anyone is holding their breath to know what my favorites are, but because this activity of writing about music that was meaningful to me is a little bit therapeutic and life-giving. I feel like I’m doing what Whitman was doing in his SONG: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” My record collection, though, is way better than Whitman’s, but serves in many ways, both literally and figuratively, as my Song of Myself.

Postscript: Honorable Mentions in no particular order. “Destroyer” by Kiss, “Give Us A Wink” by The Sweet, The Pretenders debut album, “Life’s Too Short” by The Sugarcubes, “Parallel Lines” by Blondie, “Powerage” by AC/DC, “Face to Face” by Angel City, “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie, “Call of the West” by Wall of Voodoo, “The Big Heat” by Stan Ridgeway, “True Colors” by Split Enz, “Temple of Low Men” by Crowded House, “From the Inside” or “Flush the Fashion” by Alice Cooper, “Ten” by Pearl Jam, “Dirt” by Alice in Chains, “All You Can Eat” by K.D. Lang, “Discipline” by King Crimson, and “Thrak,” also by King Crimson, “Songs from the Big Chair” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, “So” by Peter Gabriel, “Globe of Frogs” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Whatever and Ever, Amen” by Ben Folds Five, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths, and “Spilt Milk” by Jellyfish. I’ve forgotten something. I know I have.

Until next time, happy listening!

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#72: Potter Author Trending

JK-Rowling-SUM_2348620b

First of all, I’m embarrassed
that I took the bait, hook, line,
and sinker, in the sidebar list
of stories “trending” on the
Mighty Social Network; secondly,
I’m ashamed I clicked on this
particular subject matter,
an author I am only nominally
interested in–an author for
which only in the very
most minimal way could I say
I am a fan. I am vicariously a fan
because I have a young son
interested in The Potter and must
admit also to having personally
enjoyed the films, and must admit
also again of not liking her
mostly because everyone
in the universe liked her, and
somewhat because she learned
to write in public and that just
makes me jealous.
No, all of that
is pretty much a non-starter.
This is what caught me:
J.K. Rowling regrets the romantic
pairing up of two characters,
Ron and Hermione, wishes she
had not written that romance.
And I think, on the one hand,
that this is hilarious–but then, on
the other hand, that this, more
than anything else she has done
as a writer, instills in me finally
an enormous and new respect
for J.K. Rowling, who says the
romance was wish fulfillment
and not literature. This is decidedly
not hilarious. All of my
fiction is wish fulfillment, I think,
and I feel bad now, for my fiction,
but also because I think I have
not been fair to the author of
The Potter. Listen, you naysayers,
you Harold Bloom thumping elitists
of which I used to be one:
She’s serious.

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Filed under Culture, Literature, Poetry, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading