21 December 2007

Birthday Shuffle

Last summer, when I was still tentatively considering hosting a big birthday party myself in October, I stayed up late one night putting together an iTunes list of some songs that had been important to me at one stage or another of my life. The plan was to shuffle the list and let it play throughout the night.

As you will know, if only from not having received your invitations, the party never happened, but I still have the never-used sound track for it, and like to listen to it on those infrequent occasions when I find myself feeling especially reflective. Like, say, winter solstices...

And for some reason, I decided to jot down some thoughts about the various songs as they played, what they meant to me, for example, or how I came to know the band involved, or why I should probably delete that song from my playlist but can't quite bring myself to, etc.

WARNING: The list is continuing to play as I type, and like another famous list, is "thousands long," so there's no telling when or if this post may end. As long as that's understood, here we go:

"Claire Monet" - Screeching Weasel. This came out right as my longtime friendship with Ben Weasel was starting to sour (thankfully it's since been restored), and I also worked on the mixing of the album, which made it kind of doubly or triply poignant for me. No matter how bad relations between Ben and me got, and they were pretty bad for a while there, I never stopped appreciating his ability as a singer/songwriter/performer, and never more so than on his more thoughtful/reflective songs. "If she can't go on being Claire Monet, who can?" rang like a heartfelt epitaph for lost idealism and vanishing youth.

"Runaway" - Del Shannon. This was #1 in the spring of '61, when I was 13 going on 30 and couldn't wait to break loose from the constraints of church, home and family. It was ringing in my ears that bright April day when I went aimlessly wandering down the creek at the end of my street and met up with the Vandals (later to become the Rebels and still later the Saints), who would become my first street gang. That haunting organ riff in the middle was my personal chime of freedom, but of the tragically doomed variety.

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" - Joy Division. I was only vaguely aware of Joy Division when Tim Yohannan half-jokingly ("I guess he hung himself, heh heh") announced Ian Curtis' death on the Maximum Rocknroll radio show. Soon afterward I had copies of nearly everything they'd recorded, and that discography has faded in and out of my life in more or less inverse proportion to my degree of despondency. Once I tried to will myself dead (helped along by a dozen codeine tablets and a quart of whiskey) by putting "The Eternal" on endless repeat in the belief that the sheer sadness of it all would eventually overpower any desire to live. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is probably the ultimate Joy Division song; when I finally saw New Order perform it at Reading in 1998, I nearly expired then and there.

"There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" - The Smiths. Total random coincidence that these two popped up together: from the greatest Joy Division song to the greatest Smiths song, with both having served as soundtrack to countless teenage tragedies. My own band covered this song once, inadvisably, as it turned out, for though our musicians did a credible job of reproducing the sound of the Smiths, my vocals weren't quite up to the job. They were... adequate, which is nowhere near the level of mastery one needs when tacking a magnum opus like this one.

"Trinidad" - Brent's TV. One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands ever. Brent's TV, who played on the streets and in the laundromats of Arcata more than they did in actual clubs or venues, were the original inspiration for the Potatomen (but please don't hold that against them). Singers John Denery and Virgil Shaw later formed and sang for the Hi-Fives and Dieselhed respectively, and though a handful of Brent's TV songs, this one among them (even though it's a fairly straightforward borrowing from Elvis' "Marie's The Name (of his Latest Flame") (but then so is the Smiths' "Rusholme Ruffians") deserved to live forever as rock/pop classics, the band itself was too quirky and eccentric to have much hope for commercial success. They sold about 2000 7"s and a similar number of a split CD with Sweet Baby. Consider yourself lucky if you own one.

"America The Machine" - Surrogate Brains.
Hailing from Stockton, California, the Brains were one of Lookout's lesser known but by no means lesser bands. I don't think they ever put out much besides the 7" this song appears on and one other 7". This particular song is a haunting, moody one, sounding more 60s psychedelia than 80s punk, and always reminded me of "End Of The Night" by the Doors in the slow parts and something more like the Jefferson Airplane or It's A Beautiful day in the more upbeat bits. Don't be put off if you hate hippies; it's still a basically punk record, just a little more adventurous than most of its contemporaries.

"Devoted To You" - Everly Brothers.
Beautiful guitars, beautiful harmonies, simply beautiful. Sonically and harmonically, it's a bit of a cousin to the much better known "All I Have To Do Is Dream." I used to constantly play and sing both songs, to the consternation and/or annoyance of many around me.

"Out In The Streets" - The Shangri-las. The Shangri-las were Bad Girls, or at least they managed to give that impression. All their best songs were epic tragedies about girls and/or boys and/or the course of true love gone wrong, usually involving motorcycles, street corners, and the like. "He don't hang around with the gang no more, he don't do do the wild things that he did before," the singer observes, noting that he's given all this up for the sake of being with here, only to tearfully conclude that she's going to have to let him go because his heart is "out in the streets."

"Blank Generation" - Downfall.
From the mysterious "lost" album that was recorded, mixed and remixed, but never came out. It would probably have been a milion-seller if it had; rising out of the ashes of Operation Ivy, Downfall played a handful of shows, recorded about ten songs, and promptly disintegrated. This song, with a few echoey dub touches and a modified ska beat, has nothing to do Richard Hell and the Voidoids' track of the same name. I'd put my money on this one as the better of the two, by a considerable margin.

"Doctor Jones" - Aqua. I don't care what you say - hey, I just unconsciously quoted Black Flag while talking about Aqua - I just love the cheesy dance pop this Danish group produced toward the end of the last century. It's relentlessly silly, upbeat, and happy, happy happy. Unfortunately only about five songs from their first LP - it also contains "Barbie Girl" - fit that description; the rest of it is slow, soppy dreck. But the good stuff is very good indeed, and this is one of their best.

"Beauty Changes Everything" - Pushups. The very last song recorded by this late 70s San Francisco new wave band who could and should have been the Next Big Thing. Their first single won a Bammie (Bay Area Music award) as best debut, and they were packing clubs with their perky, skinny-tie dance-pop, but in what could have been a made-for-TV film about the perils and pitfalls of the music business, fell apart in a welter of conflicting ambitions and strategies before their music got a proper hearing. I have what I think is their total recorded output, consisting of seven songs. This one is more of a rough demo than a finished product but is especially touching because of that: although it's ostensibly an elegy to a doomed love affair, just substitute "money and fame" for "beauty" and you've got the tale of the Pushups' own demise.

"Diogo A Go Go" - The Steinways. I've made no secret of my belief that the Steinways, from Astoria, Queens, are one of the best and most exciting bands in existence today, and this song, from their first album, is vintage Steinways. It's the classic pop-punk formula, true, but with a special Grath McGrath twist. Along with the Zatopeks, they're today's answer to classic-era Screeching Weasel.

"Comin' Back To Me" - Jefferson Airplane. I first listened to this while sitting - seriously - in a strawberry field on a sandbank overlooking Lake Huron. It's one of the only semi-technically demanding guitar songs I ever learned to play, and it's been background music for more messed up love affairs than I care to contemplate, including the one that was going on in June 1967 when this song entered my life.

"I Got No" - Operation Ivy. One of two songs the band recorded in autumn of 1987 for the Maximum Rocknroll Turn It Around Gilman Street compilation, which more or less laid the groundwork and set the pattern for what would become Lookout Records. It was later tacked on to the CD and cassette versions of Energy, and because it's the very last song, I always associate it with endings and silence.

"Steal A Kiss" - The Spazzys. The Spazzys are and have been Australia's greatest musical treasure for a few years now, and only a series of unfortunate management decisions and the fact that the three girls involved seldom stop partying long enough to focus on their "career" has prevented the rest of the world (or, for that matter, the rest of Australia) from finding that out. Almost everything they do is great.

"Institutionalized Misogyny" - The Mr. T Experience. It may say "Mr. T Experience" on the cover, but this song is King Dork author "Dr. Frank" Portman at his semi-acoustic best, using his breathtaking facility with language to skewer one of his bĂȘtes noires, the post-structuralists whose bleatings about institutionalized misogyny are "all that comes between my baby and me."

"Sidekick" - Rancid. I went for years thinking he was singing "I had a dream I was a missionary sidekick" rather than "vigilante's sidekick," but for me the most memorable line has always been "My name is Tim, I'm a lesser known character." I'm still not sure I have any clear cut idea what he's talking about, but it's catchy as hell nonetheless.

"Falling Apart" - Screeching Weasel. This one has some of the same poignancy as "Claire Monet," mentioned earlier, but with the added fillip that it accurately described the state of my relationship and my life at the time of its release.

"The Green Hills Of England" - The Lookouts. Possibly my favorite Lookouts song. It's about the Roman invasion of Britain in 65 A.D. What else do you need to know?

"Lullabye" - Blatz. "Sleep, little one, sleep, take comfort in the night's embrace, for the morning sun will open your eyes and you'll see that you live in a fucked up place." This is Blatz's stab (probably the appropriate word) at a heartfelt ballad. Can you imagine having one of them for a parent?

"Ursula Finally Has Tits" - The Queers. Moronic as all get out, and an absolute classic. Even if you hate its, erm, institutionalized misogyny, you can't help singing along. Possibly the best song from the best Queers album ever.

"Lost Highway" - Hank Williams. Greatest singer-songwriter of the 20th century? Know anyone else who comes close? That Dylan character might have provided some worthy competition if he hadn't cluttered up his legacy with all that less-than-sterling post-1966 stuff. Hank had the smarts to die before he started to suck. Not that I'd wish death on anyone for putting out a bad or mediocre record; stay alive, by all means, and just don't put out that record. "Take my advice or you'll curse the day you started rolling down that lost highway."

"Agape" - The Lookouts. Another of my favorite Lookouts tracks, this one, written and sung by bassist Kain Kong, features me playing dueling lead guitars with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. Go on, listen to it and see if you can tell which of us is which (if you can't, you need an ear and/or brain transplant). Kain, who was about 18 when he wrote this, was probably taking a philosophy course at the time, which is no doubt where the slightly pretentious title originated. It scans and rhymes just perfectly, though, so no complaints from this quarter.

"Cumberland Blues" - The Grateful Dead. Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead were actually a very good band for at least a couple albums (American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, to be specific). Unless you just plain hate country/folky/bluegrass type music, you owe it to yourself to check these two out. And as an added benefit, just think how you'll be able to piss off the by-the-numbers punks when you start telling them about it.

"Words And Smiles" - Tiger Trap. One of the best all-female bands ever, fronted by the most beautiful voice in North America, that of one Rose Melberg. With better production and marketing, they could have been bigger than the Go-Gos. As it is, they're a relatively unknown classic.

"Beachwood 4-5789" - The Marvelettes. They also had "Please, Mr. Postman" and "Playboy," not to mention "Too Many Fish In The Sea" and more, but this might be my favorite. High school kind of sucked for me, but not when music like this was playing. The fact that it was being made by our hometown/Motown heroes made it all the sweeter.

"Some Town In Northern France" - The Zatopeks.
Will DeNiro (aka Will Zatopek) is a genius. That's all I have to say about that.

"Hats Off To Larry" - Del Shannon. What else do I need to say? The follow-up to "Runaway."

"Confessions Of A Futon Revolutionary" - The Weakerthans. Hey, I sleep on a futon, too! Not that I have any idea what that has to do with anything. The Weakerthans have been my favorite favorite band (as opposed to my favorite, like the Steinways or the Zatopeks) for almost ten years now. I've seen them about 30 times in half a dozen states and provinces and three countries, and it's still not nearly enough. They keep getting better and better, and anyone who doesn't appreciate them probably enjoys torturing small kittens.

"Looking At You" - The MC5. One of the first bands I ever saw live (the other was the Supremes) back in the mid-60s. They grew up about a mile from me and appeared in a neighborhood battle of the bands, which they lost to the Satellites. Yeah, those Satellites. If it hadn't been for coming up against such stiff competition so early in their career, who knows what kind of legacy the MC5 would have left for us.

And I think that's about enough for now. Congratulations on your patience and/or masochism if you got this far. P.S. The birthday shuffle list has been playing the whole time I was writing this. I could do another even longer piece tomorrow. But probably won't.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Even if we all don't agree with their selections (the curse and blessing of these lists), The Detroit Metro Times recently posted the "100 Greatest Songs Ever":


Looks like some possible candidates (that go beyond the usual Good Times/Great Oldies' "Motown Weekend" fare) for next year's birthday or tomorrow's shuffle.