Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My Parents Can Beat Up Your Parents. Spiritually, I Mean.

Meet Barb and Dick Howard, me mum and dad. A sweller pair of parents I never coulda had. They’re retired (Dad was a church historian for 30-odd years; Mom was a writer/editor of church publications; both were ordained ministers), and heading toward their 80s with vim and verve, still doing the odd guest minister gig, the occasional wedding, baby blessing, funeral. Scads of their friends seem to be checking out, so my folks have been writing and delivering a lot of eulogies lately.

A wacky offshoot of the wacky LDS (Mormon) tradition, their church is now called the Community of Christ. When I was growing up, it was called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But everyone knew it as Nancy.

By the time I was rebellious enough to reject it (age 15), the church had liberalized tremendously, in part because a few influential members like my parents were less interested in Bible-beating than in actual theology and social justice. When I was little, though, it was a very conservative sect, a lot of scriptural literalism, a lot of fear, a lot of “thus saith the Lord” prophetic mumbo-jumbo. I had some Sunday school teachers who were like Saturday Night Live parodies. Many weeks of my youth were devoted to trekking around the country from church camp to church camp, because my dad, despite being way less insane than many of his fellow preacher mans, was a hot ticket. He had charisma and he was funny. And my mom had a welcoming, chatty, Southern charm that ingratiated our family to church communities around the world.

By now, Dick and Barb gracefully accept the fact that none of their kids stuck with the RLDS church (only one actually goes to church at all) and simply dig us for the heathen weirdos we are. They really are splendid human beings. I didn’t always think so. Nay, I was an early subscriber to Philip Larkin’s basic thesis in “This Be The Verse,” viz.:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.

Actually, I still believe that. But a little fucking-up and fault-filling make for interesting kids. Like a lot of creative people, I’ve leaned heavily on my flawed personality, mining its absurdities and paradoxes for the gold that is always lurking in the Shadow. Imperfections = good texture. Whatever complaints I may have had over the years about my upbringing, I don’t think there’s anyone who knows our family who’d deny that my folks raised four interesting, creative people. I’m lucky to be one of them.

One advantage we had, I think, is books. Visitors to our house were always stunned by the sheer tonnage of books. Not many split-level homes in suburban Independence, Missouri, can claim a library. Ours was basically built around one. I don’t ever remember being bored as a kid (except in church). When there was no baseball, football, basketball, swimming, ice hockey, or kick-the-can to be played, I could always find a book. Neither the Bible (I side with Joseph Campbell, who called it “overrated”) nor The Book of Mormon (“chloroform in print,” according to Mark Twain) ever really had a chance with us kids, because there were so many more compelling books around, and the inevitable reading of them was a central fact of life. Come to think of it, one of the books was “The Facts of Life and Love,” where I first learned about copping a feel.

The day I discovered the Kama Sutra in an unlocked file drawer in my folks' study was a mindblower. I looked around their study (they had two long desks made from doors on top of file cabinets, and long shelves of yet more books) and realized there was more going on in there, and elsewhere, than I'd ever imagined. Yikes.

I remember tripping my brains out in high school, coming home late, going into the library, and turning the lights on low. (The library had the only dimmer in the house, unless you count the wildly unreliable rheostat of drug use.) Wow, the library. The books glowed around me like magic embers. I ran my hands over rows of them, briefly believing I could absorb their contents without opening them. Ah, the collected Shakespeare — a beautiful, shelf-wide set of small blue volumes, tiny print — and there was Hamlet. I flipped to its most famous soliloquy. (If you ever happen to be on acid in the middle of the night, I don’t necessarily recommend this, but it worked for me.) I began memorizing it on the spot, and having forgotten most of it the next day, resumed my existential brain calisthenics. Want to hear “To be or not to be” in its entirety? I can still recite it. Thanks, Ma & Pa.

That library is also where I discovered C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Santayana, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer, and (thanks again) Carl Jung.

My parents are, among their peers, famously well-read, curious, informed. All four of us kids caught their bug for reading, for ideas and vivid language and storytelling, the power of words and imagination to convey and transform experience. Having traded on it to pay the rent for nearly three decades now, I’m particularly grateful to them for that. And I’m sure having these shared frames of reference gave us something to hang onto during my adolescence and turbulent twenties.

My shift in attitude toward my parents has as much to do with their own transformation as it does with my becoming an adult and parent myself. These are two people who examined some of their most deeply-held assumptions and decided that some of them were not good enough, not true enough, and certainly not Christ-like enough. They evolved. And they brought a lot of their church friends with them, through the power of their ideas and their generosity of spirit.

A few didn’t come along, of course. The RLDS church splintered into a number of smaller groups some years back, with the homophobes, the women-shouldn’t-be-priests crowd, and various other fundy factions shearing off to form their own little clans, deflating the mythic grandeur and beauty of Christianity one small-minded pinprick at a time.

I don’t meet many committed Christians who make a first impression of openness and curiosity, and my folks would be the first to admit that, well into their thirties, they had more answers than questions, too. But they just keep opening up. Like the two decent bottles of wine I’ve managed to cellar for more than a week, they’re improving, adding layers, deepening, little by little, over time.

Unlike wine, they show no signs of peaking. This summer, they’ll be the featured sages at a couples retreat arranged by my daughter. She and her boyfriend, along with two other couples, plan to spend a weekend with Dick and Barb, talking about how to keep a relationship alive and growing for a lifetime. Could you ask, in old age, for any greater confirmation of your journey through the vicissitudes of life and marriage, than that kind of love and respect from your grandkids?

Well, maybe to have earned it from your kids, as well. I’ve seen a lot more of my folks than my kids have over the years, up close and personal, and my own view is clouded by that history. But the weather’s been clearing up, these past two decades. I look at them and I see the sun. I be the son, and proud of it. They still drive me nuts sometimes, but mostly I marvel at my good fortune.

So here’s to you, Mom and Dad. (I know, you hardly ever drink. I’ll knock back a couple extra to compensate.) If you ever need a little validation, a little proof that your kids’ appreciation of you has grown since the family struggles of yore, here's some. Just look at the difference between how I blogged about you and how I blogged about Ted Haggard, Alberto Gonzales, or Rhonda Byrne. They suck. But you guys! You are superfine. I love ya.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Law of Attraction

Before I make fun of something, I usually try to understand it. Not today! I refuse to read The Secret or watch the DVD of it or look up the Oprah shows devoted to it. So I’m doomed to a life of failure and thwarted dreams. At least I have a blog from which to issue half-assed judgments. What does Rhonda Byrne have? A few million bucks, a tan, and accusations that she stole The Secret from a psychic who lives in an RV and channels the spirit of some guy who knows everything.

From press coverage (skimmed and snorted at), it all looks silly. The book/DVD is obviously a millennial version of The Power of Positive Thinking, which I made the mistake of reading years ago. I’m not saying that positive thinking is a bunch of crap, per se. Better a loving, caring, receptive, hopeful attitude than a fearful, sniping, rigid, bitter one. Being responsibly generous makes more sense than sewing money into your pockets. Thinking good thoughts about your health probably beats keeping a hearse on stand-by. But to quote someone other than Norman Vincent Peale, shit happens, man.

One of the shits that happens is that sooner or later, books full of fatuous bromides top the nonfiction bestseller list. If you can distill some long-proven principle like The Golden Rule into a simplistic philosophy with a big, obvious hook, you too can make a millionaire ass of yourself by going public with it. Take a couple hundred pages to say “what goes around comes around” and give it a catchy title. Promise material wealth, and you’re gold, baby. Law of Attraction, shmaw of shmattractshmion. (Hmmm... it won’t be easily mocked....)

I remember when pre-eminent New Age philosopher Ken Wilber wrote about his wife’s death from cancer. They’d both been proponents of the idea that “we create our own reality,” until reality itself created a deadly tumor right in her brain. It was unexplainable within their old paradigm, and in order to be compassionate through her dying days, they had to give it up and admit that, well, maybe it wasn’t some wayward sliver of carcinogenic negativity that infected her POV. Maybe illness isn’t all about burning off karma from past lives, either. Maybe any number of wifty little theories about co-creation and personal responsibility are or aren’t true. But let’s see how well we can live our lovingkindness and Be Here Now. This shit is cancer, and it happens even to the most spiritually evolved.

The boulevard of broken dreams is littered with people who thought for positive-sure they were creating an entirely different reality. A study should be done to determine if adherents to The Law of Attraction achieve financial success, marital contentment, etc. at higher rates than the average nattering nabob. The criteria would have to be objectively measurable, cuz one thing’s for sure: Positive thinkers will lie their asses off.

For me, The Law of Attraction is this: Petite, dark, curvy women exert a power that I am just about helpless to resist. This has been so from the time my testes dropped and I cannot explain it. By “petite,” I mostly mean short. But there’s also a certain delicacy -- little bird-bone hands and a way of moving that suggests a small amount of wine swirling in a bell-shaped glass. Dark eyes so big they make the face look small. And ideally, a thick mane of dark Sephardic kink.

The first time I saw my petite, dark, curvy, curly darling was a moth-to-flame moment. That she was sensitive, hilarious, Thoreau-quoting and a great writer/kisser/cusser ultimately torched me. The first apprehension is somatic and kinetic, though, and this kind of physicality embodies a particular feminine archetype. Nell Carter’s a fatty, and I don’t care. When I saw how light on her feet she was, it was all over. Closer to the center of the camp, the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"-era Elizabeth Taylor. Natalie Wood, sort of. Helena Bonham Carter? Don’t even start. My fireplug ninth-grade Spanish teacher. My tenth-grade typing teacher, although she lacked pudge. Penelope Cruz is at the skinniness and height limit for the archetype, but in “Abre Los Ojos” (the original “Vanilla Sky”), she’s it. Ming-Na should be chubbier and less wholesome, but still. Even Jennifer Lopez, whose mystique is long gone, but who undeniably Got Back, Baby.... And if Salma Hayek walks into my office right now and orders me to buy The Secret, I’ll ask her to accompany me to Waldenbooks. Not the one across the street, but in Mexico.

I have some kind of radar for the soma-type. We were at B’nai Jehudah temple last night for the pre-K play (Jonah’s an alumnus of this storied theater program, and all the alumni return every year to take the stage at the end of the play and talk about which productions they were in – playing Cinderella 25 years ago or, in Jonah’s case, King Achaverosh in last year’s Purim classic, “My Fair Esther”). Anyway, it’s priceless to watch costumed toddlers chew the scenery and cry and sing off-key and forget their lines. But my point is, there was in attendance a woman who looked a bit like my darling, only slightly taller (5’2’ or so, about Hayek-height) and a bit Jewier in some way. Ah, the dark curly hair, the olive skin, the voluptuous hint of wanton aging here and there — I kept stealing glances, which was crass, I know, but I’m sorry, there’s no point in pretending that I’m oblivious to this particular kind of beauty. It IS my oblivion. It gets me in the gut the same way Caesar’s gut got it on this very day long ago. You can Ides, but you can’t run. The Law of Attraction dictates that I will make a fool of myself looking at certain women, and I will get busted for it, except in those cases where my darling herself points them out, which she’s been known to do, God love her.

For anyone who thinks the dainty, petite qualifier suggests a control issue, I refer you to my second-string obsession, which is the large-scale version of this same feminine type. Lisa Nicole Carson, Sofia Milos, Maria Grazia Cucinotta (the bombshell from "Il Postino"), Anna Magnani even after she grew a moustache, yea verily even Queen Latifah before she scaled herself down -- the kind of woman who could beat the slop out of me with one hand tied behind her back. Tied with her hair, perhaps. And she's standing on one foot, so she has to hop. Okay, maybe I’m a little controlling. At least I know what I like.

So. That’s my Secret. Now you show me yours.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Top Ten Songs, Honorable Mentions, Exhaustion

That Zen master who says that having favorites of anything prevents you from being alive to everything, maybe he's onto something. I feel dead. Still, some songs make you feel more alive than others do, and thinking about why brings up all kinds of socio-psycho-aesthetic questions. The songs may not answer them, but they give hints.

10. In Your Eyes (1986), Peter Gabriel. This song is welded to the iconic image of John Cusack in trenchcoat with boombox, but I don't have any trouble separating it from Say Anything (though I like the movie a lot, and hey how come this photo takes up so much space?), having swooned the first time I heard it, right before I took a trip to England in 1986. So I associate it more with Full Metal Jacket, on the set of which this album got a lot of play. Matthew Modine was a big fan, except compared to me. I'd been a huge, obsessive fan since Peter Gabriel's Genesis days, and then after that first solo album, my fandom turned more or less to idolatry. When I visited Bath, I knew he lived nearby. But I didn't stalk him, whatever the constabulary reports may say. I was listening to this album night and day, though, and this was the cut that I thought might trump "Solsbury Hill," the 7/4-time Robert Fripp wonder from the first album, and "San Jacinto," my fave from the Jungian-flavored "mask" or Security album. I remember driving through the English countryside at sunset, listening to this on a cassette tape, and marveling (still, after a zillion times) at the arrival of that first chorus, "In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches / The resolution of all the fruitless searches." That's what a decent British education'll give ya. By the time Youssou n'Dour takes over the singing at the end, I'm a goner. No wonder Rosanna Arquette slept with him. I probably would, too. Peter Gabriel, I mean. OK, I might sleep with Youssou n'Dour, too, if he'd sing me a lullabye.

9. Inca Roads (1973), Frank Zappa. My college years come back to me now like a wayward whiff of spilled beer and bongwater. The One Size Fits All album was an ear-opener for me, as a music student slowly realizing I'd be better off studying literature. I listened to George Duke's vocal and keyboard wizardry and Ruth Underwood's torrential xylophone on this record and despaired of ever attaining any real musical accomplishment. There are blistering Zappa guitar solos on several tracks, too, and the verbal ingenuity of "Evelyn, A Modified Dog." This is the opener, and it's so zippy and fun, you can't wait for the rest of the album.

8. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) (1983), David Byrne. This is from Speaking In Tongues, the Talking Heads album with the Rauschenberg cover. I confess, I actually prefer Shawn Colvin's live acoustic version (from Cover Girl, 1994), because her guitar-playing is so freakin' good, and she's a better singer than David Byrne, which is like saying Shakira can out-dance Fat Joe. Shawn Colvin makes it slow and open, so it can really work on you. The Talking Heads original is quick and tight. I think David Byrne was suspicious of his own effusive sincerity on this, so he hurried it into a party tune. When you have a line as good as "You've got a face with a view," you should really give it some room. She does. But he wrote it, and I love it either way.

7. A Case Of You (1971 & 2000), Joni Mitchell. One of my college roommates and I had a huge crush on Joni. We wore out the grooves on Blue while staring dreamily at the naked photo of her on another album cover. In the three decades between the two recordings of this song, chain-smoking wrecked Joni's voice in an awful, beautiful, terrible, ravishing way. (She says she started smoking at age 9.) The original is pure, just Joni and a dulcimer, James Taylor on guitar and Russ Kunkel on hushed drums -- an archetypal '70s folk-rock trio. The Both Sides Now version from 2000 is dark and husky, orchestrated by Joni, and the strings make you want to cry before the woodwinds arrive to reinvent the original intro. And then her voice destroys you. A spectacular reimagining of the song, and by now, every note has really been lived. It's one of the richest odes to heartbreak ever created. "So bitter and so sweet." If only my roommate and I had gotten the chance to make her happy.

6. Take It With Me (1999), Tom Waits. Tom divides his work into "Bawlers, Brawlers, and Bastards." This is a Bawler, a heartfelt valentine to his wee Irish bride Kathleen Brennan, although she helped write it. On the album (The Mule Variations, my fave Tom record to this day), it follows a raucous barbecue holler called "Filipino Box Spring Hog" (definitely a Brawler). When the blurry little piano intro of "Take It With Me" starts, it's like a shock to the system after that wild thing. In as profundo a basso as Tom has ever sung, the words offer intimacy, history, hope, faith, the works. It's not a perfect song -- you can hear the creak and thump of the piano pedals (Tom prefers "the pulp and rinds and seeds left in") and the lyric drifts a bit in the middle -- but so much the better. A lot of my favorite art insists that romantic love is the royal road to spiritual truth, and in this song, Tom Waits reaches (strains, even) for something absolute and transcendent: "There's got to be more than flesh and bone / All that you've loved is all you own." Slays me every time.

5. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (1987), U2. This song helped me survive the five years between the end of my first marriage and the actual divorce. There were stretches in there when I played nothing but The Joshua Tree and Springsteen's Tunnel of Love album. That Cowboy Junkies debut crept in there, too. But this was my backbone. Has an album ever opened with such mind blowing tracks back-to-back? As much as I love this song, I never jump past "Where The Streets Have No Name" to get to it, because then you lose that chiming guitar outro that this seems to grow out of. I'd always found Bono a little off-putting before this album, because my image of him was based on some concert footage that seemed pretentious. The Joshua Tree made a believer out of me. This song was the spiritual anthem of my thirties.

4. Visions of Johanna (1966), Bob Dylan. I'm talking about the live version from Biograph, not the Blonde on Blonde. In a previous post entitled "Bob, Bob, and Bob," I described the organic unity of guitar, harmonica, and voice on this enigma wrapped in a shadow stuffed in a Symbolist knish. It's one of the most sublime mysteries of folk music. What the hell is he singing about? Thank God he's never explained it. The song simply Is, like a mountain -- in this case, one made of images and characters and associations that triangulate your ass into a sling and fire you like a stone at the foreheads of Philistines, laying waste to every other songwriting giant via killer rhymes, elaborate stanzaic structure, and the most expansive musical ambition since, I dunno, Leonard Bernstein's. I vote this song most likely to win over a Dylan skeptic, because that's what happened to me. A virtuoso piece without being show-offy, it's funny as well as deadly serious. "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face." When you can write like that, you don't have to explain a goddamn thing.

3. A Day In The Life (1967), The Beatles. I called "All You Need Is Love" a John Lennon song, because it was something he cooked up with George Martin. Here's a true Lennon/McCartney, but as with most of my favorite Beatles stuff, it originates with John. One common thread between these three songs at the top is an absolute mastery that gives way to wide-open, child-like, creative innocence -- almost as if the creators had no idea how songs were written, so they just followed every worthwhile impulse that came along. When my dad brought Sgt. Pepper's home from a business trip in the summer of '67, my brother and I put it on and listened, spellbound, from start to finish, looking at that amazing cover and rummaging through the little cutouts and album extras. I'll never forget, having listened to all but the last song, hearing John's echoey opening words: "I heard the news today, oh boy...". I was only eleven, but even then I knew something vast and completely unique was unfolding for me. The Beatles had opened a door to another world.

2. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (1969), Crosby, Stills & Nash. If I had been a couple of years older, I'd have heard this at CS&N's first performance together. As it was, I was 13 and couldn't run off to join the Woodstock Nation with all the freaks from the head shop where I had my first job. Then again, if I'd gone, who'd haveswept the floor by the bulk organic grain bins? Who'd have handed out the burlap bags to people who wanted to ride the giant slide out back? Who'd have sat around staring uncomprehendingly at the hookahs and Kama Sutra oils, waiting for everybody to come back and tell me all about Woodstock? My Day In The Life point about creative innocence goes double for this song. It's like Stephen Stills grew wings. Has the illusion of unbounded spontaneity ever been more convincing in a pop song? Intricately constructed as it is, you feel it's being written as you listen. It's that free. Want to throw in some Spanish? Bueno. Want to meander through a guitar interlude with David Crosby? Why not? And if marrow must be thrilled, then by God, just build up to a crescendo and hit the most glorious series of vocal triads in history on the phrase "thrill me to the marrow." The song is about the demise of Stills's relationship to Judy Collins, but it's effervescent. I challenge any songwriter to Beat This Song. Or just try to come close. Write something this adventurous, playful, fiercely joyful, regretful, multi-layered, wild, free -- something this singularly, fabulously alive. I dare ya.

1. Little Wing (1967), Jimi Hendrix. I'm surprised to find this at the top. My favorite song? Yep, it feels true. Nothing like it anywhere in music. There are other good versions of it, though. Sting takes it for quite a ride on Nothing Like The Sun. His voice soars in a way that Jimi's never could, on a song that's all about soaring. Nobody can play guitar like Jimi, but My Best Friend Dominic Miller gives him a run. Still, my first taste was Jimi's, about a year after it came out, when I was getting my first taste of girls. The idea of this fantasy woman kind of freaked me out. "Take anything you want from me"? Uh...I'm 12 and I don't know what that might actually mean, but I'm willing to learn.... Turns out, he wrote it about his dead mother. But still. I love the carefree way he piles up the words up over a guitar phrase that he knows is going to extend over a couple of bars, so it's "Butterflies and zebras..." but there's still room for more, so he adds "and moonbeams...and fairy tales...are all she ever thinks about...riding with the wind..." OK, he was high as Halley's comet -- but free within the cosmos of his musical imagination. The "circus mind" was his, and his mother is the eternal feminine, inside, pushing this song out, newborn and screaming like feedback. It's a pure product of America, going crazy (to steal from William Carlos Williams) and a pure expression of the Muse. What would Jimi be doing today, if the Muse had vanquished the demons? Three years later, he was dead at 27. Which reminds me: Where are the 24-year-old artists now working at this level of originality and virtuosity? Who are the Mozarts of pop?

BONUS TRACKS: Here are others that vied for the top 25 but were ultimately pushed off the list. HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order)...

1. I'm Gonna Be (1990), The Proclaimers. Well, you gotta have your double shot of Scotch. Here's the finest pair of hard-drinkin' twins ever to bellow a love boast from the British isles. What a great little thumper of a song.

2. Hallelujah (1984), Leonard Cohen. Like many people, I'd really rather listen to Jeff Buckley's cover than the original. In fact, why is there no Jeff Buckley on my list? Or Tim Buckley, for that matter? Or Tiny Tim? Something has gone terribly wrong. And how do you pick a favorite Leonard Cohen song? I could put "Anthem" or "If It Be Your Will" or "Famous Blue Raincoat" or Willie Nelson's cover of "Bird On A Wire" here and be equally sure (not) that I'd made the right choice.

3. Save It For Later (1982), The English Beat. I can't listen to this without thinking of my little brother Kip, who turned me onto the album (Special Beat Service) and my friend John Dill, who revels in the occasional Tourette's burst of '80s Britpop. This whole record is habit-forming, and Save It Fellater (alternate spelling on the lyric sheet) puts the dic in addictive. It's the quintessential English Beat number, with an infectious guitar, thumping rhythm section, and horns that pop out of a trap door somewhere between the Mos Eisley cantina and a ska sockhop. It's as queer as a three-dollar bill, and twice as rare.

4. The Mayor of Simpleton (1991), XTC. Another fine Dillio, an anti-intellectual apologia from one of the smartest songwriters ever, Andy Partridge. Basically a list of all the stuff the song's narrator doesn't know, it features one of the cleverest run-on couplets in pop music: "And I don't know how many pounds make up a ton / Of all the Nobel Prizes that I've never won." Smiles guaranteed.

5. I Can't Make You Love Me (1991), Bonnie Raitt. A crushing blow of romantic resignation, actually written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. But it's all Bonnie. And Bruce Hornsby, whose massive chords are like a battering ram to the heart. If you've recently been dumped, this song could literally kill you.

6. One Mo' Gin (2000), D'Angelo. Voodoo would be on my list of top 25 albums. I think of this song as the best of the bunch, but it could as easily be "Devil's Pie" or "Send It On."

7. I Want You (She's So Heavy) (1969), The Beatles. Forever imbued with the memory of deflowering a splendid girlfriend in Denver back in 1976. This is the simplest, most relentless piece of altered blues erotica ever wrought by the hand of man.

8. If These Old Walls Could Talk (1987), Jimmy Webb. A note of apology and gratitude, strictly for long-time lovers. No teenager could ever fully understand it. For years, I myself didn't understand that it was not a John Prine song. Shawn Colvin also does a great cover of this. Jimmy Webb is a tower of talent.

9. Beautiful Boy (1980), John Lennon. If you're a John Lennon fan and also a parent, you probably have a soft spot in the exact shape of this song.

10. Sultans of Swing (1979), Dire Straits. Remember what this was like, after that wretched stretch of the '70s when progressive rock grew ridiculous and disco almost made us commit suicide and A&R cokeheads ruined everything at major labels? And then this, like a pint beer glass full of wonder thrown at your head? Mark Knopfler will forever be enshrined in the afterlife as the guy who saved pop music in 1979. Nobody else plays guitar like he does, and we knew it the first time we heard it, on this ripping tune. I mean, it's no "Three Times A Lady," but it's pretty good. (Actually, I kinda like the Commodores, but I don't like to admit it...)

11. Little Red Corvette (1982), Prince. Is "I guess I shoulda known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn't last" the greatest opening of a song ever? Maybe. And of course, once you've seen him perform, you can never get the image of Prince out of the music. Bob Dylan was once asked what he thought of Prince, and he said, "I think he's a wonderboy." What Bob says, that is what I say.

12. Open (2003), Bruce Cockburn. I almost listed "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" in my top 25, so why this instead on the H.M. list? Because I saw Bruce live last fall and he opened with "Open" and it cracked me wide open. But it's too new for me to trust it to the top 25. It's from You've Never Seen Everything, which is not the best of his 30 albums, but this song is a knockout. Did you know that Bruce's old band opened for Jimi Hendrix and Cream in the '60s? See, it all comes back to Jimi.

13. Good Vibrations (1966), Beach Boys. I never much cared for the Beach Boys back in the day. They seemed so clearly a second-class act compared to the Beatles, I sort of felt sorry for them. But this is one of those rare songs that you just can't wear out. Has it ever been sampled by a hip-hop artist? Somebody should take that wild Theramin siren at the end and build a song around it.

14. Lose Yourself (2002), Eminem. The most thrilling, inspiring, grab-you-by-the-throat, Oscar-winningest rap song of all time. "Cleaning Out My Closet" may be better-written, but the power of this song is undeniable. He says he wrote it during a quick break on the set of 8 Mile, a brilliantly edited (my pal Jay Rabinowitz at the Avid) movie about rappers rapping 'n shit. Only three songs from the 21st century made Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest songs, and this was the highest-ranked of them. (Yay, Wikipedia.) It's kind of pathetic, isn't it, to have only a couple of hip-hop/R&B songs anywhere on my list -- and one is by a white guy? Let's amend that...

15. Love Rain (2007), Jill Scott & Mos Def. This is from that album of collaborations the divine Ms. Scott did with a bunch of guys. Mos Def has never seemed like a great musician to me, but he's actually one of my favorite actors, and there's nobody except maybe Tom Waits with a cooler stage persona. Plus, if I may quote Burt Reynolds from "Boogie Nights"... what a great name! Anyway, this is an amazing collage of sound and words, and The Chick Can Sing.

16. What I Be (2003), Michael Franti. His band is Spearhead. This song is splendid. My son Oliver treated me to it. "If I were the rains, I'd wash away the whole world's pains and / Bring the gift of cool, like ice cream trucks on sunny days..." It'll make you glad to be alive.

17. Out of Range (1994), Ani DiFranco. I tire quickly of Ani's gasping delivery, but gee whiz what a musician, what a personality, and what a writer. That thing I said about the opening lines of "Little Red Corvette"? Maybe I mean it about this song instead: "Just the thought of our bed makes me crumble like the plaster where you punched the wall beside my head...." Ani's a feisty little righteous babe. My daughter Emily turned me on to her. Speaking of which....

18. I Do (2006), Emily Howard. My daughter wrote it and traveled to India to sing it at the wedding of two college friends. "It's the secret we're all in on / On the brink of the beyond." The first time she played it for me, I was a puddle by the end.

So, it's really a top 40. Or 43. But that's the list. Despite my dissatisfaction with its mainstreamness, mostly-maleness, and Anglocentricity, it feels pretty much like my aesthetic on parade -- as of this week, anyway. Comments? Quibbles? Derision? Addenda?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Bottom 15 of Top 25 Songs

Before I compile my Top 25, I should address the question, Why Bother? Cuz it’s self-revealing, which is kind of the point of bloggery. As we learned in "High Fidelity," you are what you like. So any list like this is a bit autobiographical.

Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (not on this list, but great) says “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I think music both cracks you open and then shines the light. That’s why it means so much in adolescence. The cracks are the cocoon of childhood opening up, identity morphing. Music moves you, and then shows you where you went and who you'd were by the time you got there.

The first song that ever did this to me was “The Sound of Silence” (also not on this list). From “Hello, darkness, my old friend” to the cryptic line about a sign that said “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”), it just blew my little mind. I turned ten the year it was a hit, and I was trying to teach myself to play guitar on my Sears Silvertone. I couldn’t really play the song, but I remember trying to figure it out, singing the phrases, and feeling that I’d discovered a huge secret.

Anyway, this is all popular music from my lifetime -- no Nessun Dorma, no Ella in Berlin, no Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I am the Casey Kasem of my castle, counting down to #1:

25. American Pie (1971), Don McLean. It’s easy to forget the impact this song had when it came out. There’d been nothing remotely like it since "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and I didn’t even make that association. Everybody else did, though. Don McLean was the next Bob Dylan. No, he wasn’t, but even if you think this song is ridiculous, you can’t deny its ambition and the combination of verbal and musical ingenuity it took to go after it. So many mysterious references! If you have a spare weekend, make your way through the Wikipedia entry.Few songs provoke that kind of curiosity and speculation. And let’s face it, Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” would never have gotten radio play if this song hadn’t proven that a single didn’t have to be three minutes short. American Pie is 8+ minutes of amazing songwriting. Don’t miss it. Don’t diss it. Just dig it.

24. Brown Eyed Girl (1967), Van Morrison. This was the song my wife and her dad danced to at our wedding. Had to get the band to cut out the “behind the stadium with you” verse, but it was perfect. Everybody sang along to the “La la la la la” part. It’s just a glorious tune. I was completely into The Beatles when it was a hit, so it didn’t mean much to me until later. But I always liked it. It seems like the perfect song of its kind.

23. Brand-New ’64 Dodge (1996), Greg Brown. See previous blog entry.

22. Purple Rain (1984), Prince. In which the little fellow is revealed as the most enormous talent of the ‘80s. I’m not saying that Paul Simon and Sting and Springsteen weren’t writing better songs or that Michael Jackson wasn’t still doing remarkable stuff. But nobody else at that time (and maybe before or since) combined so many talents into one unique persona. To confirm this, look over a list of music from the mid-eighties, and then rent the movie again. “Purple Rain” is unto itself as a song and album -- and as a movie, well, the lame bits are even lamer now, but the performance of this song is one of the great movie moments of the 20th century.

21. Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes (1986), Paul Simon. An irresistible groove from an album that completely shook up pop music, waking it from the Reagan-era delusion that America was the only place where anything of value existed. Remember how new this sounded, with that propulsive guitar (Ray Phiri) and fluid fretless bass (what’s-his-name Khumalo) and of course, the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo? This is the kind of song that lifts spirits in the way that hymns should and hardly ever do. If listening to it doesn’t make you happy for at least four minutes, see a psychiatrist.

20. All This Time (1991), Sting. This came along as my interest in authentic spirituality swerved into a new obsession with masculine psychology and father issues of various kinds... OK, I was in the middle of a divorce. I just remember thinking, no pop song has ever dealt with death in such an interesting way. It pays respects to his dying/dead father (as the rest of the album does), looks askance at religion, throws in a little local history, and wraps a kind of philosophical resignation with a ribbon of buoyant tunefulness. When the Soul Cages tour came to K.C., he opened with this at a breathtaking clip, about half-again as fast as on the recording. He was all muscled-up in a black t-shirt and he just blew the roof off the place. Wait, it was Starlight Theater, so no roof. But he kicked ass. That was the first time I ever saw Dominic Miller play guitar. Who knew we'd be bosom buddies years later? See photo in October 2006 archives.

19. Birdhouse In Your Soul (1990), They Might Be Giants. I wonder if Sting was listening to this before he wrote “All This Time”? Both have the same kind of bounce. But this is more circular, less narrative. Who writes better melodies than They Might Be Giants? They’re almost a throwback to Tin Pan Alley, and if they were more interested in commercial success, they’d be zillionaires, because their hooks are better than any mainstream band’s. They’re just too weird. Most of their songs outweird this one considerably, although the VIDEO makes up for it. It’s surely the only song ever written from the point of view of a nightlight.

18. Mad Mission (1996), Patty Griffin. This concludes our upbeat, buoyant program, at least for the moment. In the middle of Patty’s grimly brooding first album, Living With Ghosts (mixed straight off her demo tape, goes the story) comes this splendid little jewel of a song about how love is worth the risk. Like the rest of the album, it’s just her and a guitar. I love her hardheaded optimism, and I even stole an idea for a card I wrote from the opening stanza, where Casablanca is playing on a bar television and all the patrons get caught up in the poignant drama. A little masterpiece.

17. If I Should Fall Behind (1992), Bruce Springsteen. Out of all the great love songs I could have had a burly trio of gospel-inflected soul singers perform at my wedding, this was the one I chose. It’s one of the greatest statements about commitment ever set to music. Springsteen’s approach is almost country-sounding, and I love it. But you should hear the a capella version arranged by my guys (see Shane Evans link in sidebar for a taste of how good the singing must be, and indeed was). You’d cry, like everybody at the wedding did. And then you’d go off to get married or renew your vows or maybe eat some cake. The song’s on the Lucky Town album.

16. Wildflowers (1994), Tom Petty. (I know, that's not Tom Petty there on the left. It's the late, great Michael Kamen, who in addition to many notable film scores, wrote the beautiful orchestral arrangements for this album.) The title song was written for my daughter. Well, that’s how it felt to me when I first heard it. I think Tom actually wrote it for his own daughter. And I wrote a little essay about my daughter after this song got under my skin. I always resisted Tom Petty because he looked so white-trash and his band seemed lackluster. But the guy can write. I think I only own three rock & roll t-shirts. One is from the Wildflowers tour, even though I didn’t go to the concert (my son did and gave me the shirt). The others are from one of U2’s tours, and then a John Lennon shirt I never wear because it’s, y’know, sacred.

15. Tangled Up In Blue (1976), Bob Dylan. How can anyone not have this on their top 25 list? It’s a short story with a soundtrack, and surely one of the best-structured refrain lyrics ever written. I have a long live version on my iTunes, and it’s kind of a mess, shifting back and forth between first and second person. But it’s still great. You kind of can’t ruin a song this good.

14. Old Soul Song: New World Order (2005), Bright Eyes. This is maybe my favorite song of the 21st century, despite Conor Oberst’s quavery voice getting on my nerves. I do like it when he goes apeshit at the end. The song describes walking 40 blocks to a New York political protest, taking pictures as cops try to contain the crowd, and then coming back to develop the film in a darkroom. A simple, guileless idea, just about perfectly organized into a three-minute story. The end of the song takes the top of your head off, with one of the most amazing similes ever written by a Nebraskan -- that's Ted Kooser country, so you know it’s a good simile -- delivered in a hysterical shriek. Anyway, Conor Oberst reminds me a little of Kurt Cobain, except I think he’s a drinker instead of a shooter. He’ll probably die young, but man, he can write him some songs. The album is I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.

13. America (1968), Simon & Garfunkel. So Paul Simon makes the list twice. This whole album would make my list of top 25 recordings. I could probably endure a desert island if I had nothing but Paul Simon songs to listen to, and this one's a national anthem like no other. I love the mix of loss and hope and playfulness and utter desolation in it. The words are so perfectly fitted to the tune, you don't even notice that there's no rhyming. The guitar part, according to friends of mine who have tried, is surprisingly hard to play. The guy is a master.

12. Me & Bobby McGee (1971, since the version I love is not the original Kris Kristofferson, and certainly not the Roger Miller, but...), Janis Joplin. From the Pearl album. The older I get, the more I realize how hard it is to achieve the kind of simplicity that makes this song great — and the more I appreciate how rare a gift like Janis Joplin’s is. Nobody ever sang like her, and nobody ever will. Freedom’s just another word for never having to hear Joss Stone try.

11. All You Need Is Love (1967), The Beatles. How do you choose your favorite John Lennon’s songs? He remains the greatest rock star of all time, in my book. Here you get shifty changing time signatures, George Martin’s wacky orchestration, lyrical playfulness like nobody else’s, and an unimpeachable philosophical credo from a guy who, through the sheer magnitude of his personality and the titanic achievement of his artistry, earned the right to tell it like it is to everybody. Somehow, it all goes down like candy. It’s nothing short of a cultural miracle.

Next, the Top 10. I'm going to work on this awhile, though, and load some pix 'n links 'n stuff. Meanwhile, based on this list, are there any predictions about what might be at the top?