Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Rock & Roll Confession: An Audiobiography

I’ve been thinking about making a mix like this for some time, but hadn’t really had the guts to pull the trigger until now. So here it is: a chronological set of all the major musical touchstones from childhood to the present (or at least a decade ago), the tunes that shaped my rock & roll development and led me to where I am today. Truly mortifying in spots, sure, but it only works if you’re honest. So, without further ado, my rock & roll audiobiography – the setlist & the stories:

1) The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Ennio Morricone) [1966]: I’m always jealous of people who grew up with a killer rock & roll record collection in the house. Me, I had to discover what was out there all by myself, with no help from my folks. My dad’s collection, such as it was, consisted primarily of movie soundtracks and instrumental pop – Henry Mancini, Herb Alpert, etc. And, sure, these days Ennio Morricone has all sorts of musical cred, but I was born in the midst of the British Invasion, and it’s kinda sad that while other kids were growing up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, and the Who, I had a bunch of Spaghetti Western themes playing at home. (No disrespect of my parents intended, as they’re great in all other respects – but probably two of the only people who were teenagers in the 50’s yet completely missed out on Elvis. Ugh!)

2) Hurting Each Other (The Carpenters) [1972]: The other thing that I had to grow up listening to – icky adult contemporary. Can I still hum the entire Carpenters catalog, some 30+ years later? You bet your ass. I appreciate there’s some kitsch value to this music nowadays (ditto Burt Bacharach), but subjecting a six-year-old to “Sing” is simply cruel and inhumane.

3) Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Paul & Linda McCartney) [1971]: During my formative years, Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram was the only rock album (actually, 8-track tape) we had in the house. I’m pretty sure my parents got it by accident, maybe forgot to return the postcard to the music club in time and had this show up in the mailbox at the end of the month or something. To this day, it remains one of my favorite albums, not necessarily on the merits – though I do believe that, artistically, it’s seriously underrated – but because for several years it was the only thing in the house I really liked. Particularly this song, which I would demand they play repeatedly on road trips (though, being an 8-track tape, you had to wait for the “program” to complete to hit rewind – pain in the ass, for those of us who remember the damn things).

4) Crazy Horses (The Osmonds) [1972]: Terrible, terrible album. The neatly-scrubbed Mormon boys go Led Zeppelin, particularly on this title track, which was a faux-metal pro-environment song of sorts, I think. However, it was also the first album I bought (not counting children’s albums), based entirely on the fact that the Osmonds had a Saturday-morning cartoon at the time. (At the same time, my brother bought a Jackson 5 album for the same reason – and, yeah, he got the better deal.)

5) Convoy (C.W. McCall) [1975]: It sounds crazy, but I probably owe my lifelong love affair with rock & roll to “Convoy,” a cheesy country-ish novelty track playing off the 1975 CB radio craze. My dad was big into CB’s at the time (he had one installed in his Buick), and he’d somehow heard about the song, so we left the radio on the Top 40 station waiting for it to come on. Which was fine with me, because it meant, for the first time in my life, that there was real rock & roll playing in the house. Sure, mid-70’s Top 40 wasn’t exactly the height of rock’s artistry – we’re talking the era of Captain & Tennille, not Hendrix. But still, the cat was out of the bag, and I was hooked. Got an AM transistor radio for my birthday, and the rest was history.

6) Rock & Roll Love Letter (Bay City Rollers) [1976]: Ok, fine, once I started getting into Top 40, I didn’t exactly have the best taste. The Bay City Rollers were probably my favorite band at the time (edging out Abba, the Village People, and Barry Manilow). But, hey, when you’re 9 years old and there’s no other music in the house, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

7) Fox On The Run (Sweet) [1974]: Another fave from my pre-teen Top 40 days. I remember saving some money, and my dad took me to Sears, where they were having a sale on Sweet albums. Their then-current single “Action” was big at the time (and, let’s face it, the song still kicks ass), but I opted for their earlier Desolation Boulevard lp (based on the presence of both “Fox on the Run” and, of course, “Ballroom Blitz.” Turned out not only to be a killer record, but the first album I owned that my parents truly hated. And that, my friends, is when I learned the real power of rock & roll.

8) Meadows (Joe Walsh) [1973]: The first concert I ever saw – Joe Walsh, 1978, 12th birthday present. Poplar Creek arena, just outside Chicago (which I think is long gone). My mother knew I liked the song “Life’s Been Good” from the radio and bought the tickets – all four of ‘em. Meaning my parents stayed (but, thankfully, sat apart from me & my brother). Nearly 30 years and literally hundreds of concerts later, I still remember it as both the loudest show I’ve ever seen, and the show with the hugest pot consumption (and, let me tell you, I’ve seen a lot of Dead and Phish shows). Or maybe it just felt that way because I knew my parents were about ten rows back. Cool show, though. (And, say what you will about Walsh, but “Meadows” is a great song.)

9) Baba O’Riley (The Who) [1971]: By 8th grade, I was getting pretty sick of Top 40 radio. Fortunately, my junior high school had a listening room and a decent record collection, and I started spending free periods exploring bands I’d heard about but hadn’t really listened to much. The first time I played Who’s Next was probably the closest thing to a musical revelation I’ve ever had – holy shit, all this amazing music I’d never heard on the radio! (Time to toss the ol’ AM transistor and get a real stereo.) I spent the next few years soaking up 15 years of classic rock history. But for me, nothing else came close to the Who – not the Beatles, not the Stones. Maybe Floyd...

10) London Calling (The Clash) [1979]: I’d love to say that the first time I heard the Clash it changed my life. But it didn’t work that way. Since I was still working my way through ancient history when punk found its way into Midwestern suburbia, I wasn’t quite ready for it. So while I had a general fondness for bands like the Clash, the Jam, and the Ramones, they didn’t immediately cause me to move away from classic rock. It was more of a gradual thing – as I grew steadily more tired of mainstream rock during high school, punk and new wave started to feel fresher and fresher. And the London Calling album became the one album that I turned to more and more – and to this date remains my favorite album, the one I can still reach for whenever I need an instant pick-me-up.

11) Run Like Hell (Pink Floyd) [1979]: Yes, still in classic rock mode here. And Floyd was second only to the Who as my personal fave during the early teen years. I spent massive hunks of time during eight grade and freshman year secluded in my bedroom with a pair of headphones and my well-worn copy of The Wall. And Animals. And Meddle. And Dark Side of the Moon. Hey, when you’re still working your way through rock history, hearing what Floyd was creating in the studio can be pretty damn impressive.

12) Harlequin (Genesis) [1971]: Before kicking the classic rock jones, I served my obligatory time in the prog world. Kinda stumbled into it, actually. When Genesis’ Duke album came out in ’80, I had a friend named Cecille (yes, she was French and no, I don’t know whatever happened to her), and we’d go to her house after school and listen to her sister’s Genesis albums. While they were into the Collins stuff, it was the earlier, Peter Gabriel-era stuff that caught my attention. I remember biking into town one day and buying Nursery Cryme. (The same day I also bought the first Velvet Underground album and the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society – it was a 3-for-$15 sale at the local record store -- and, yeah, I had to bike the two miles back home with 3 slabs of vinyl stuffed into a backback.) And while those other two albums have since surpassed Genesis in my own estimation, Nursery Cryme was the one that totally wowed me. The music, the lyrics, the cover art, the whole package. Became something of a Gabriel-era fanatic. Worked my way through King Crimson next. Checked out other prog bands I read about. And by the time I’d worked my way to the bottom of the prog barrel towards the end of high school – Tull, ELP, etc. – I was definitely ready for something new. Which, fortunately, I started to discover around that time.

13) Mumbo Jumbo (Squeeze) [1981]: I first heard Squeeze junior year of high school, when I went to visit my cousin at college in Ann Arbor. Listened to East Side Story a lot that weekend, and was totally blown away. Here was cool, fun, CURRENT music that somehow never got played on the radio. Gave me hope that there was a whole underground of new music waiting to be discovered, and that college was going to be this hotbed of people with cool taste in music. (Alas, when I got to college myself, it turned out everyone was listening to the same mainstream music – Dire Straits, Springsteen, Prince – and you had to dig pretty deep to find the indie/alternative scene.)

14) Kiss Off (Violent Femmes) [1983]: Senior year of high school was kind of a struggle (musically). I had tired of classic rock and prog, and was spending a lot more time listening to the Clash, Jam, Talking Heads, Undertones, etc. But this was before “alternative” radio, and it was tough to find new non-mainstream music out in the ‘burbs. Plus, in the pre-Internet days, if you did hear or read about something interesting, you pretty much had to plop down $7.98 for a new lp and take a chance on it. Fortunately, I had a couple friends who turned me on to stuff you couldn’t hear on the radio. The Violent Femmes’ first album in particular was one of those shared discoveries that gave me hope for the rock & roll future.

15) Don’t Go Back To Rockville (R.E.M.) [1984]: If the Who were the band that turned me on to all the music that had come before, it was R.E.M. that turned me on to everything yet to come. If Squeeze was the promise that there was great new music outside the mainstream, R.E.M. was the fulfillment of that promise. Once I heard them freshman year of college, the floodgates opened. The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, everything else that was going on with college radio – it all followed from R.E.M. Murmur and Reckoning, the 2 albums out at the time, remain timeless to me. I can’t listen to them without still feeling like I’m an 18-year-old kid stepping in to a whole new world of great music.

16) Take The Skinheads Bowling (Camper Van Beethoven) [1985]: Joined the college radio station freshman year, and all of a sudden there was a ton of great music waiting to be discovered. Hard to pick any one song to sum up the college radio years, but this is as good as any – the sort of thing that reminded me that there was fresh, fun music that (seemingly) nobody else knew about. (Sonic Youth’s “Catholic Block” is a close second, I suppose.)

17) Franklin’s Tower (Grateful Dead) [live 1975]: Bit of a diversion here. I’d always dismissed the Dead, and I realize that most indie rock types still do. But I can’t deny that there were those sunny afternoons in college when we’d kick back with some… er, refreshments… and play live Dead tapes out on the lawn. Saw my first Dead show at the New Jersey Meadowlands in ’87, with many more to follow all the way up through ‘94. No excuses – I can still use a fix of live Dead now and then, and it would be dishonest to slight this contribution to my rock & roll life.

18) Scotty’s Lament (The Connells) [1987]: Still a great reminder of the later college years. These jangle-popsters from North Carolina were a virtual house band for us, playing regular shows before heading into NYC. Nice guys, great music, and fond memories of a lot of late nights of live music.

19) Christine (House Of Love) [1988]: The law school years (’88-’91) coincided with a bit of a down period for rock, at least for me. Or maybe it was just the mixed downer of (a) being in law school and (b) being apart from my college girlfriend (now my wife of 16 years). Sure, there was plenty of great music, but nothing revelatory. While the bands from my college days continued to release decent music, about the only thing new that I spent much time with was the batch of UK shoegazers and Manchester acid-house neo-psyche bands cropping up at that time. And while bands like the Stone Roses made a more lasting impression (with much of the other music from the era sounding a bit dated these days), this song seems to best sum up the general vibe of what I was listening to during this period in my life.

20) In The Mouth A Desert (Pavement) [1992]: Pavement were the third (and likely final) band that I considered truly revelatory (after the Who and R.E.M.). After moving to San Francisco following law school, I saw the music scene seeming to improve. But seeing Pavement live (opening for Sonic Youth) was one of those rare holy shit! moments. I thought I had been keeping up with the scene, but here was one of the coolest bands I’d ever heard, and I’d never even heard of ‘em ‘til that night. Proving once and for all that there is always something new and cool around the corner if you’re lucky enough to find it. (Ran out to buy their album the morning after the show, and it’s still a fave, one of those things that never grows tiresome.)

21) Sugarcube (Yo La Tengo) [1997]: I’d heard their debut while I was still a college radio dj, and bought their albums during law school, but it was in the mid-90s that YLT really took off, moving from just another Velvets-inspired college radio band to a truly accomplished indie rock stalwart in their own right. I still see ‘em live any chance I get, and I’ve probably listened to their albums more than anybody else's over the past decade.

22) King Of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3 (Neutral Milk Hotel) [1998]: Finally, can’t close the set without a nod to the whole Elephant 6 scene. Though indie bands like Pavement, YLT, Sebadoh, Luna & Guided by Voices played a big part of my musical life in the 90s, the neo-popsters of the Elephant 6 collective (Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.) were one of my favorite discoveries of the era, probably the last “movement” of any sort that’s really made a difference for me. NMH’s second album was probably the last album that floored me on first listen, and which I listened to easily every day for a solid month. There have been great albums in the decade since, but few that have done as good a job at confirming the transformative power of rock & roll.


At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Víctor said...

I’m amazed with your disc collection, your homemade mix-tapes and your reviews. And will most definitively be back to find more.



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