Thursday, November 16, 2006

From the vault

Professionally I’m a film and music librarian, but generally I write about films or television or pop culture in general. Music reviews are not usually my thing. Truth is, I have a problem with music reviews in general. I read them in my professional life to get a handle on what is coming round the bend, but I rarely rely on them as guides to what I’m going to personally like. I think that writing about music is like writing about sex. Very few people do it well. Even when someone does it well enough that it’s interesting to read, they are writing about what turns them on. It’s only luck if it happens to be something that blows your skirt up too.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to discover Nick Hornby’s collection of essays called Songbook. Songbook collects Hornby’s writings and musings about music, some of which have been published before. Hornby, of course, is no stranger to writing about music, at least in a fictional forum. His work High Fidelity is a paean to music, relationships and the mix tape. Even his more recent About a Boy uses music as a major supporting character.

One of things I like about Songbook is that Hornby writes about music as a regular Joe who loves music. He has as much use for music critics as I do, which is to say not much. He appreciates that the value one gets from a song is entirely individual. Maybe it reminds you of a great moment in time, or a bad one, or maybe it helps you forget. Maybe it inspires you. Maybe it just makes you happy. Good, bad or indifferent is, ultimately, entirely within the ear of the beholder.

People get quite passionate about music. Certainly I do. When you L-O-V-E something it’s impossible to believe that love should not be shared by everyone. I once curtailed a potentially promising friendship because this person complained about a Tori Amos concert, which they had used FREE tickets to go see. They clearly had not been impressed, complaining that she swore too much, and then compared her, negatively and dismissively, to Madonna. I mean…..ARRRUUGGGHHH! I can’t even articulate how…I mean…ARRRRUGGGHHHH!

Conversely when you HATE something, it is impossible to imagine there are people who could get great joy from it. My music ‘hates’ tend to come from any musical category for which the word “smooth” can be a descriptor. Genres that involve lanky haired men playing instrumental solo concerts in the Parthenon also disturb me as do teenage opera singers and albums involving a numerical group of tenors greater than one. (Seriously, I just had to purchase The Ten Tenors for the library. Ten Tenors! I mean, why? Why is this necessary?) And yet, there are people who I love and admire who find this music pleasing, even inspirational.

Hornby tries to downplay the role of memory in his discussions of music, wanting to focus instead on “what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs.” I appreciate his point, and even agree with it on some level. Great music transcends memories. But the impact of memory on music appreciation can’t be dismissed, although perhaps more for songs I don’t like than those I do.

I really dislike the song Free Bird by Lynyrd Sknyrd. I like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Gimme Three StepsSweet Home Alabama…these are kick ass tunes. But Free Bird, along with Zep's Stairway to Heaven, were the bane of my adolescent wallflower existence. If you too were a wallflower during the late 70s and 80s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Do you know how many trips to the bathroom and refreshment table can be made during a thirteen minute song? Not nearly enough. We may never know how many young teens got hooked on smokes just to give themselves something to sneak out back and do while all the cool kids slumped against each other moving in molasses slow circles to this music.

Lord knows I can’t change how I feel about that song. And yet, maybe for you Free Bird inspired you to tell your parents to hell with med school, you were going to be an artist. Or to marry your first wife/husband, or leave them, or both. I get it. I’m not going to tell you that you have poor taste in music because I was a teenage spaz. Music is personal. It taps the deep well, not the surface.

Hornby gets this stuff. These silly but really not so very silly responses that music can evoke. His book takes the form of 31 songs. Not 31 of the best songs of all time, or ever written, or that you should know or else you’re a twat. Just 31 songs that Hornby loves and would like to tell you why. Hornby knows that nothing can annihilate music appreciation faster than a music snob. When you love it so much, it can be hard not to go there, but as Hornby says firmly: “…if there’s a piece of music out there that has the ability to move me, then I want to hear it, no matter who’s made it. You’re either for music or against it, and being for it means embracing anyone who is good.”

Inspired by Hornby, I’ve found myself compiling my own list of songs I love. These are the songs that always stop me when I’m scrolling through the radio channels. They’ve stuck with me over time, most of them, and are all too precious to be featured on a mix tape.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the songs that help make my world go around.  As Hornby says: "All I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don't like them as much as I do"

Dixie Chicken – Little Feat
Who among us has not longed to be another’s Dixie Chicken and/or Tennessee Lamb at one time or another? This song is great musically, with the rag piano lilting away in the background; it begs a person to two-step their way to Dixieland. The lyrics are of the “met a mysterious hot sexy woman” variety. However unlike Gimme Two Steps or Last Night or much of the Rolling Stone oeuvre, the end result of Dixie Chicken is not a beating, a robbery, or a euphemism for heroin addiction. Instead the narrator gets to make friends with a bar full of fellow travelers with a common interest. It’s like a very special musical episode of Cheers.

Life’s Been Good to Me – Joe Walsh
Once upon a time, some time before heroin became the chic rocker drug of choice I believe, there was a sense that becoming a world famous rock star could actually be entertaining. Gen X rockers like Kurt Cobain, Billy “McWhiney” Corgin and Pearl Jam worked hard to set us straight on that score. Being a world famous rock star is Hard Work. People just, like, totally misundestimate you all the time, and they force you to take drugs you don’t want to, and they act like they know you just cuz they like your songs and the record companies pay you, like, billions of dollars except they put all sorts of catches on it, like they want you to actually produce records, and stuff. It’s hard man. It’s a hard knock life.

But fortunately, we have this record from the past. This stone tablet if you will, reminding us of a happier time. A coke fueled time, when being a rock star meant, well, it meant you had a Mazarati that went 185, and a limo to drive you around after you lost your license, and you got to go to parties, sometimes until four, and you had accountants who paid for it all. Dang, it almost sounds like fun. Someone should tell Eddie Vedder.

One Tree Hill – U2
I’m a big U2 fan. I’m stupidly fanatic about them, actually. I bought the U2 IPod. I paid full price at Christmas time for it. I could have waited 2 months and gotten one of the new fancy IPODs that show movies for about half what I paid for the U2 one, but I didn’t. I got their entire music catalog too, of course, which made the mix function on my IPOD decidedly unbalanced for a while.

With this sort of goofy devotion, you might expect that I’d have difficulty picking a favorite U2 song. I’ve got fifteen hours of their music to choose from, including B-sides and outtakes. But I do in fact have a favorite U2 song which stands, in my heart, head and shoulders above the rest. One Tree Hill is, in one song, everything I love about U2. Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it’s describing. I don’t know if music can be considered onomatopoetic, but if it can One Tree Hill is. The song runs like a river runs to the sea.

The key to this song is The Edge and his guitar. Forgive me for waxing stupid, but the melodies and harmonies that Edge produces are the sort one usually equates with pianos, orchestras or thousand voice choirs, not electric guitars. Bono is unmistakably a rock star, and he does what the face of a super group should, but The Edge is the heart of U2, and of this song.

Sun Is Shining – Bob Marley
I had a difficult relationship with Bob Marley for a long while. Some of it can be traced to attending college in the early 90s when every frat house had his music blasting from boom boxes in their windows and Marley seemed to become the patron saint of poseurs. Most of my Marley aversion, however, can be specifically traced to a Thanksgiving trip I took with my family when I was a Junior in college.

The trip was a Disneyworld/Bahaman Cruise extravaganza. I was a very young 21 year old stuck on a boat with my parents, my younger siblings, lots of senior citizens, honeymooning couples and other young families. The weather was bad so swimming and tanning were out. I was old enough to drink, but not old enough to drink in front of my parents with any kind of elan. I was too cool to enjoy bowling or bingo. I was soooo bored.

The boat had closed circuit radio stations which, apparently, no one had preprogrammed before this trip as every single one played Bob Marley’s Legend on a continuous loop for three days. Not only was this the only music option available within one’s cabin, it was the only music which played in all the common areas over the loudspeakers in a continuous loop for three days. By the end of the trip, I wanted to wall the three little birds into a coal mine. I no longer cared about the plight of the Buffalo soldier, and I wanted the sheriff to shoot back. Cry woman! Cry!

It took a long time for my Marley aversion to wear off. I was, admittedly, first drawn to the dance remix of Sun is Shining, but it captured my imagination enough that I sought out the original. As my brother, who was similarly scarred by our three day music torture cruise, told me with wonder in regards to Sun is Shining, “There’s more to Marley than just Legend!”

Tougher than the Rest – Bruce Springsteen
The Tunnel of Love album came out my freshman year in college, and it was in constant rotation that year. There’s a lot on that album for a young romantic head in the clouds sort of girl to glean to like All That Heaven Will Allow and Tunnel of Love.  In library land, we often discuss the fact that children will “read over” what they don’t understand. They don’t spend a lot of time mulling something that’s confusing, they just skip to the next part. Although I listened to that album repeatedly that year, I “listened over” quite a lot of it.

Tougher than the Rest was not my favorite song when I first fell for the album. The line “Round here baby you get what you can get” sounded too much like settling to my young ears. A few miles down the road now, I hear the voice of a man who knows what it means to let something good slip from your fingers, because you were too busy counting on the tide to wash in something better.

Linus & Lucy – Vince Guaraldi
Childhood. Spinning around til you get dizzy. Laughing til you’re fit to bust. Years later, pull out the album and play it as background noise at a cocktail party. People smile. You pretend like you’re appreciating the smooth jazz styling of Vince Guaraldi, but really, inside, you are doing the Snoopy dance.

I Feel Love – Donna Summer
I believe that rock music, despite it’s moniker as “popular” is inherently elitist. The people who appreciate a particular artist or kind of music are, to their way of thinking, inherently better than those who don’t. The people that perform the music are, obviously, inherently better than those who listen to it. This dynamic is understood and accepted by the audience and the performers.

Then disco came along and fucked with the paradigm. Lots of people hated disco, some violently, and I think it can all be traced back to disco fucking with the paradigm. For, if a disco song is played in an empty room with no one to shake their booty to it, does it make a sound? Disco demands audience participation. Disco is the great democratizer and voting is done with your feet, baby. A loner standing frozen at the edge of the crowd at a rock concert is “cool”. At a disco, they’re a “creep”.

I Feel Love is as good an example as any for a great disco rump shaker. It is the blessing and the curse of disco that the songs are more or less interchangeable with one another. I could have picked Love to Love You or MacArthur Park or Lady Marmalade or Funkytown to fill the same void, but I choose thee, I Feel Love, to provide the strobe lit disco ball ending to my list.