Inspired by all of those “25 Things” memes floating around Facebook right now, I thought it might be fun to put together a mix CD that would be a kind of musical autobiography. But it turns out that reducing 36 years down to 80 minutes leaves too many holes, so, instead, I’ve coined a new term: “blipiography.” Each day in March I’m going to Blip a song. 31 days, 31 songs, ordered sequentially. I’ll update this post throughout the month, and you can also follow this little experiment on Blip.fm and Twitter. Each song will remain available online as long as Blip is able to find them. The blipiography is a fleeting gesture, I guess.
- “Artistry in Rhythm” by Stan Kenton
I am my father’s son. He still tells the story of how when he and my mom would put me down for naps, they’d tune the radio to the easy listening station and leave it beside the crib. I’ve been listening to Stan Kenton, The Four Freshman, Burt Bacharach, and a hundred big bands since I was in utero, and I suspect it’s the main reason I still need musicianship, harmonic complexity, and melody in my music. It’s certainly to blame for my too-long obsession with prog rock, but we’ll save that for another day (or three) midway through the month. This recording of “Artistry in Rhythm” now sounds to me like the soundtrack of a killer film noir — something with Ann Savage and Glenn Ford, maybe. And that piano break? Kenton’s hands must have been massive.
- “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers
I doubt I heard “Flowers on the Wall” more than once or twice between 1979 and 1994. As a kid, though, in the late-’70s, I used to pull out my parents’ Statler Brothers record, place it as delicately as I could on dad’s console turntable, and lower the needle again and again on this song. I think my audiophilia was probably born in those moments. Those of us who are buying up vinyl today — or, at least those of us over the age of 30 — are all nostalgists. We’ll argue the necessity of dynamic range and the virtues of old school mastering, but I think we’re really after the physical gestures — lifting the turntable cover, choosing a side, dropping the tonearm, reading the liner notes. It’s only fitting then, I guess, that cinema’s nostalgist par excellence, Quentin Tarantino, would drop the needle on “Flowers on the Wall” in Pulp Fiction. Sitting in that Tallahassee theater in 1994, I was shocked to discover I still knew all the words.
- “Tom Sawyer” by Rush
I’ve written about this song before, but the short version of the story is this: a week or two after the release of Rush’s Moving Pictures I was at my friend Dave’s house, and his older brother played “Tom Sawyer” for us. I don’t remember now if we listened to the rest of the record, but we listened to “Tom Sawyer” over and over. And then I went home and told my mom I needed a copy of that Rush record — the one with the creepy cover and that awesome song on it. “Tom Sawyer” is probably more responsible for my love of rock music than any other song. Seven years later Rush was also my first big rock show — the “Hold Your Fire” Tour, featuring a video display, laser lights, an epic drum solo, and all the decadence a 15-year-old could handle. I still don’t have a f—ing clue what this song means.
- “Magic” by Olivia Newton-John
When I began mapping out a playlist for this blipiography, the two periods that were hardest to pin down to just a few songs were my college years and pre-adolescence. College makes sense. I left home, started forging my own life, fell in love. Pre-adolescence came as a surprise, though. I suspect the music of that time is so vivid because it’s the moment when we first become aware of popular culture as an identity-defining marker (not that kids are able to describe it that way, of course). There are, for the first time, “cool” songs and “not cool” songs. Songs become directly associated with social experiences in ways they never have before. Picking one pop single from 1980-81 was tricky because all of them invoke for me the same kind of nostalgia. They all taste like pizza, sound like Space Invaders, and smell like roller skates. I settled on “Magic” partly because, like “Flowers on the Wall,” I haven’t heard it often over the years, so its affect hasn’t been softened by repetition — certainly not in the same way Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” have. Also, it’s a nice tune. And Olivia in 1980? Hot.
- “Rosanna” by Toto
Again, I could have chosen a dozen other songs. I turned 10 in 1982 and got a small stack of classic rock albums for my birthday — Led Zeppelin IV, Van Halen I, Exit . . . Stage Left, Blizzard of Oz — but I was totally obsessed with pop music. On the way to church every Sunday morning I’d hear numbers 40-37 of Casey Kasem’s countdown, and we’d be back in the car, headed for lunch, just as he began the top 10. I mean, just look at the top songs of 1982. “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Centerfold,” “Don’t You Want Me?” “Eye in the Sky”! “Rosanna” is a big one for me, though, because: a. Toto IV was one of the first cassette tapes I owned and b. that synth solo. I was five years into my failed life as a pianist then and already owned my first Casio keyboard. The guys in Toto, I could tell, were musicians in a way that, say, Human League clearly weren’t. “Rosanna” is still a great pop song. Plus, it gets extra props for giving us the Porcaro shuffle.
- “Panama” by Van Halen
I can so clearly picture me and my seven friends sitting around a table in the Magothy Middle School cafeteria, all of us wearing identical Van Halen concert t-shirts. They were baseball-style t’s, with 3/4-length black sleeves and a white body. It was the 1984 tour, the last one with Diamond Dave, and it made a one-night stop at the Capital Centre over in Largo. They played “Running with the Devil” and “Jamie’s Crying” and “Jump” and all of our favorites. It was awesome. Probably. I wouldn’t know, actually, because I didn’t go. In fact, only one of us went — Jason, who had an older brother and was willing to collect our money and buy our shirts. He handed them out the next day in our first period history class, and each of us walked a bit taller for a couple hours. In my memory, I associate all early-80s pop metal (VH, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot) with that history class. We talked about music constantly in there and did our best to dress the part, which, regrettably, in 1984 meant leather Nike hightops with dayglo laces, denim jackets with rock band pins (pre-Facebook flair), and, occasionally, tiger-striped bandanas. Yes, really. Eddie Van Halen was not only our guitar god; he was a fashion icon. Good times.
- “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees
In the summer of 1986 Mtv ran a Monkees marathon, and like thousands of other kids here in status symbol land, my sister and I became obsessed fans. My dad had the patience of Job on our family vacation that year — 14 hours from Maryland to the midwest, 14 hours back, and all we wanted to listen to were the two Monkees tapes we’d been able to find. (Mickey, Peter, and Davey were as shocked as anyone by their newfound fame. Most of their music had gone out of print.) In late-August, just before school started, we even managed to see them in concert (my first) on a bill with Herman’s Hermits (minus Peter Noone, a.k.a. Herman), The Grass Roots, and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. Like most young crushes, my interest in The Monkees faded quickly. But years later, after I went off to college, I heard a band cover “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and realized for the first time what a smart and killer pop song it is. Like so many of The Monkee’s hits it was written by hired guns, in this case Gerry Goffin and Carole King. For the record, my favorite Monkees song is still Mike Nesmith’s “Sweet Young Thing,” which, unfortunately, can’t be found by Blip right now.
- “Pretty in Pink” by The Psychedelic Furs
That John Hughes wrote and produced a film of the same name in 1986 is totally a coincidence, I assure you. Thanks to the greatest radio station ever, WHFS 99.1, I’d been made aware of the Furs long before Molly Ringwald sewed that dress and broke Duckie’s heart. Young love is the reason for this selection, though. In the spring of ’87 my folks took my sister and me on a European vacation, and while there I met a girl in our tour group. My first real crush. She was there with her high school French class, and by the end of the second day of the trip we were sitting together on every tour bus, learning how to talk to each other. It all came rather easily, which was a pleasant surprise given how shy I was. We exchanged letters for several months afterwards and then, eventually, inevitably, fell out of contact. I bought two tapes in a little store near Canterbury Cathedral, U2’s The Joshua Tree and The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk, and listened to them constantly that summer. Every song from both albums, but especially “Pretty in Pink” and the last few tracks on side 2 of Joshua Tree, still remind me of young love, which is a feeling worth remembering, I think.
- “Sheep” by Pink Floyd
So many ways to write about this song. There’s my first job at Subway, where I worked with a girl who had a huge music collection and who one day handed me a 90-minute cassette tape with Animals and Wish You Were Here on it back-to-back. There’s the night in the spring of ’88 when I stood somewhere around the 50 yard line of RFK Stadium and watched the reunited Pink Floyd work through so many of their songs (though not this one, regrettably). There’s all those nights throughout high school when we’d listen to this and other albums in Paul’s bedroom or while driving around in his old Camry. I hope all young music fans still go through a Pink Floyd phase, and I hope they still listen to Animals. I picked “Sheep” because of Rick Wright’s opening solo (I still play it to test a keyboard’s Fender Rhodes patch) and because it’s Roger Waters at his most misanthropic.
- “Medicine Show” by Big Audio Dynamite
I could put together an exhaustive “Darren working fast food jobs” playlist, but no one would want to hear it because it would consist mostly of late-’80s pop hits like “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Got My Mind Set On You,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and “My Prerogative.” Lord help me. How did pop music get so bad, so fast? Fortunately, someone at Subway had managed to wire an old tape deck into the store’s audio system, so we’d get a reprieve from the “freshest mix of 80s hits!” as soon as the manager left. One of my coworkers at Subway — the same girl who gave me the Pink Floyd cassette — brought in This is Big Audio Dynamite one night, and it was really unlike anything I’d heard before. Like every other suburban white kid in the ’80s I’d learned about sampling from Fat Boys records and Licensed to Ill, but I’d never heard it used in the context of rock or new wave music. I wonder how much cred I’ll sacrifice by admitting that I came to The Clash by way of B.A.D.?
- “Heart of the Sunrise”
Next week, when I get to the college years, I’ll probably be so distracted with all the talk of meeting Joanna and falling in love and, oh yeah, going through my jam band phase, that I might forget to mention the fact that for two years there I planned to become a composer. I managed to not suck just enough in my audition to be admitted to Florida State’s music school but quickly discovered, upon arriving there, that I did not — and would not ever — possess either the chops or the desire necessary to be anything more than a casual musician. For a short time, that realization broke my Rick Wakeman-loving heart. In high school nearly all of my closest friends were musicians (and I’m pleased to discover through the magic of Facebook that many of them have managed to make a career of it). And because we were real musicians, we loved prog rock — the more obscure, syncopated, and navel-gazing, the better. Incomprehensible lyrics? Yes, please! Concerts performed on ice? Absolutely! Tolkein-like album covers? Totally! I still pull out several of those records from time to time — the first King Crimson album holds up really well, as do the ones from the 80s with Adrian Belew and Tony Levin; I like parts of the Gabriel-era Genesis records; and there are three or four Yes albums that still make me want to get out my Hanon. “Heart of the Sunrise” is as good as prog rock will ever get.
- “Terrapin Station” by The Grateful Dead
To quote our President, “I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”
- “Three Days” by Jane’s Addiction
Like every other 19-year-old music fan in 1991, I played the hell out of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s 10, but I never felt a connection with the grunge movement. I was still living at home in our middle class neighborhood, going to a community college, and feeling relatively content. I was too pampered and naive to be alienated. It was only a couple years later, after I met Joanna and inherited her copies of Facelift and Dirt, that I made any personal connection to the Seattle sound. It’s still a good day for us whenever “Man in the Box” comes on the radio. In the summer of ’91, I did go to the first Lollapalooza, though. A couple random memories: drinking beer in the parking lot beforehand and regretting it almost immediately; watching my friend Andy run headlong into the pit during Henry Rollins’ opening set and not finding him again until eight hours later; chatting up Ice-T, who was out exploring the fest after his set with Body Count; seeing thousands of empty water bottles being tossed around while Siouxsie and the Banshees were on stage; retreating to a tent during Nine Inch Nails, due to a screaming headache (beer + heat = wicked dehydration); finding a comfortable spot 100 yards from the stage, taking a seat, and watching Jane’s Addiction close out the night.
- “Two Trains” by Little Feat
I’ve written several times before about my deep love for Little Feat, so I’ll keep it short. If told to pick just one album before shipping off to a deserted island, I’d almost definitely grab my copy of Waiting for Columbus, their epic live recording from 1978. Lowell George died too young, damnit. He was barely 34, two-and-a-half years younger than I am now, and still had so much great music left in him. (Plus, I bet he would have gotten a real kick out of seeing his daughter’s recent successes.) This live recording of “Two Trains” from 1974 catches him near his peak.
- “I Got the News” by Steely Dan
Yes, this blipiography now includes a guest vocal from Michael McDonald. Somewhere, Joanna is rolling her eyes. My love of Steely Dan is untarnished by irony, I assure you. Midway through my first year at the local community college, I abandoned my efforts to swallow the overwhelming, soul-destroying boredom I experienced each time I walked in to Calc 2 and, in the process, also abandoned my plans of becoming an engineer. Instead, I found the music department, registered for a couple theory and history courses, joined the jazz band, and declared myself a music major. All of us in the rhythm section were rock fans first, jazz second, and Steely Dan was the perfect middle ground. One day one of the guitarists (there were three, as I recall) challenged me to pick out the chord clusters in “I Got the News,” which I proceeded to do, and we hacked our way through a few measures. Aja is still one of my favorite albums.
- “Goodbye” by The Sundays
Today’s selection came down to a three-way race between “Sister Cry” from Hollywood Town Hall by The Jayhawks, “Try Not to Breathe” from Automatic for the People by R.E.M., and this great track from The Sundays’ second album, Blind. All three came out in 1992, and all three were in heavy rotation in my Cawthon Hall dorm room. Although it’s been a while since I tried, I bet I can still sing along with every word of that Jayhawks record, which was my first exposure to alt-country and which is full of brilliant pop songs that even a hack like me could play on an acoustic guitar. I remember buying the R.E.M. album solely on the strength of the 5-star review in Rolling Stone. It’s still my favorite of theirs. I went with The Sundays, though, because many of my fondest memories of that first year away at school revolve around live music. The Sundays played a show at The Moon in early-’93, and it was on that night, standing just a few feet from Harriet Wheeler, that I first understood the groupie phenomenon.
- “Driving Song” by Widespread Panic
I think I may have mentioned earlier that I smoked quite a bit of weed in the early-90s. Hence my jam band phase. It all started with the first Blues Traveler record, which led me to the first H.O.R.D.E. festival, which led to The Aquarium Rescue Unit and Phish and, yes, The Spin Doctors, all of whom made frequent stops in Tallahassee. My favorite, though, was Widespread Panic, who I must have seen 7 or 8 times, including once at the legendary and long-demolished Hammerjacks in Baltimore, where John Bell and I drank some beer together. I totally get the jam band scene — I remember experiencing some fairly ecstatic moments at those shows — but even a relatively interesting track like “Driving Song” just doesn’t do much for me these days.
- “A Different Drum” by Peter Gabriel
One of the bigger challenges of this blipiography was deciding where to insert Peter Gabriel. I considered mentioning the release of So in 1986, which was the first album of his I ever owned. Or I could have put him in my high school years, when I threw myself into his earlier releases (Security remains one of my desert island discs). Us is another album I associate with dorm life, and that tour was the only time I’ve ever seen him live. But Passion, Gabriel’s soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, is probably the recording I’ve listed to most often over the years, and it’s also the first CD I ever gave to Joanna. We were just hanging out together as friends then, and I remember suggesting it might be good music to help her fight through some writer’s block. The next semester she used another track from the album to score her first short project in film school. This will be the first of three or four entries that all remind me of young love.
- “When It’s Raining” by The Samples
I think I first heard The Samples in the summer of ’93, when they played at the second H.O.R.D.E. festival. That was a tough summer. Joanna and I had begun seeing each other as friends that spring, so the last thing I wanted to do was return to Maryland for three months of summer school at the community college. I’d get up most mornings around 10, make deliveries on the lunch shift at Pizza Hut, sleepwalk through physics class, then go out with friends. I remember coming home one night and telling my mom I might be having a breakdown. I spent a lot of time alone in my car that summer, listening to the Cocteau Twins, Chris Isaak, the massive collection of Stax singles, and No Room by The Samples. That CD remained a permanent fixture in my car throughout the fall, when I returned to Tallahassee and fell desperately in love with my wife.
- “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan
Sarah McLachlan’s 1997 release, Surfacing, won a couple Grammys and sold 11 million copies, and that success repositioned her in the music marketplace. Her first two records were played on college radio stations, and her early vidoes (“Into the Fire”) could only be spotted on Mtv’s 120 Minutes. I say all of that to say this: It’s difficult now, more than a decade after McLachlan became Ms. Lilith Fair and that singer your aunt really likes, to remember how impressive a single “Possession” was when it was first released. I still don’t know how to write about love, but it occurs to me suddenly that Fumbling Toward Ecstasy was an appropriately-titled soundtrack for Joanna’s and my early years together, when we struggled to drop our guards and trust each other.
- “Strange Waters” by Bruce Cockburn
After we got married, Joanna and I moved to Wilmington, NC, where I spent a year-and-a-half enjoying myself in graduate school and she spent way too many days working crap jobs and praying for it all to end. God bless her. Wilmington just wasn’t the right place for us. It never felt like home. Which is maybe why I’m only picking one song to represent our time there. “Strange Waters” is one of my favorite songs, and I’m in the habit of calling it my all-time favorite hymn. “Everything is bullshit but the open hand” is just about a perfect summary of my theology. When I asked Bruce about the song years later, he said, “I’m saying to God, [laughs] ‘Somebody said you would lead me beside still waters.’ But that hasn’t been my experience. These waters are fairly troubling. And yet it’s going where it has to go, and so clearly. It feels clear to me, anyway.”
- “Pyramid Song” by Radiohead
I lost track of Radiohead between “Creep” and Amnesiac, which is the album that made me a fan. And, honestly, I might not have paid too much attention to it either if some editor at TCM hadn’t cut together this brilliant promo for their Tarkovsky series. I launched Long Pauses in 2001, inspired largely by my obsession with Tarkovsky’s films. At the time, only a few were yet available on DVD, so TCM’s series was an event for me. It was my first opportunity to see Ivan’s Childhood and Chris Marker’s brilliant essay, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, and was a significant catalyst in my cinephilia. Generally, Joanna is not a great fan of live music, but seeing Radiohead a couple years later was a thrill for both of us.
- “Lowdown” by Wire
I was a late-comer to punk and post-punk. Maybe this is related to my earlier comment about grunge — that my life was too sheltered and polite to ever allow any acknowledgment of profane emotion (not that the exercise of profane emotion is the only appeal of loud, fast rock and roll). Anyway, through an alignment of the stars I can only describe as Divine, I happened upon punk and post-punk just as Napster hit, which meant that I suddenly had a hard drive full of The Clash, Pavement, The Fall, The Minutemen, Television, The Stooges, and The Ramones. But Wire’s Pink Flag was, and is, my favorite of the lot. “Lowdown” gets the nod for its unexpected and miraculous appearance in Pedro Costa’s film Ossos.
- “I Heard You Looking” by Yo La Tengo
Years ago, I wrote about my first Yo La Tengo show, which also happened to be the first and only time anyone has ever threatened to kick my ass. I’d made the mistake of telling some drunk asshole to shut up. Didn’t he notice that Ira was singing a quiet song? Or that Ira was standing ten feet away? Anyway, my newfound love of YLT seven or eight years ago coincided with my newfound love of noise, and Ira can orchestrate distortion with the best of ’em. Painful remains my favorite of their albums.
- “This Is Love” by PJ Harvey
- “Carry Me Ohio” by Sun Kil Moon
- “Political Scientist” by Ryan Adams
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Sufjan Stevens
- “Drunken Butterfly” by Sonic Youth
- “Remember the Mountain Bed” by Billy Bragg and Wilco
- “Like a Rolling Stone (live)” by Bob Dylan