Saturday, May 05, 2018

Ten days that shook my world -- or, the albums that changed my life when I first heard them.

It finished 11th.

Facebook is insidious for numerous reasons stretching far beyond data harvesting and election rigging. The ten-day album challenge is a classic time-sapper, though it's true that some versions insist an album cover is enough, with no explanation necessary.

That's no fun, is it?

Here's my list of albums that changed my life, as of mid-March. Ask me next year, and it might change. They get longer as the days go by; links lead various places. As directed, I wrote these spontaneously in the morning over coffee over a ten-day span, so I've lightly edited them.

Welcome to the weirdness of my musical world.

---

Day 1 - Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac
Sprawling, eccentric and obtuse; just the way I like my artistic concepts. Two gals, three guys; three songwriters, one resident musical genius and a hand-in-glove rhythm section; and an Everest-tall mountain of cocaine, combining to spend unprecedented money and studio time to create a masterpiece that few bought, and those who did scratched their heads listening to. But for me, nothing captures a personal epoch of unrequited possibilities quite like this.

---

Day 2 - Guide to Jazz, companion LP to the French jazz enthusiast Hugues Panassi├ę's book of the same name. The NA-FC public library had both album and book, which I discovered at the approximate age of 12. I'd just gotten my first clunky prehistoric cassette recorder, and Guide to Jazz was one of the first albums I recorded by propping up the microphone in front of the console stereo in the living room.

It's a representative sampler of pre-bebop jazz styles, featuring an exclusively African-American roster of famous names, and it was a tremendous influence on me.

---

Day 3 – Forever Delayed, by Manic Street Preachers
Greatest hits albums are a throwback to the pre-digital musical landscape, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. These days you choose your own favorites and arrange them on your own device. Furthermore, for the die-hard fan, the greatest hits release always was a redundancy, given you already owned all the band’s or performer’s albums.

However, there can be merit in the idea. In 2002, I was vaguely aware of Manic Street Preachers by virtue of my on-again, off-again fixation with all things English (although in the band’s case, Welsh). “Forever Delayed” was on the rack at Ear x-tasy, and I took a chance. The result was an introduction to lasting love – and now I own all their albums, and no longer listen to the greatest hits package … because that’s the way it works, or at least used to.

---

Day 4 – Taken together, these two 12-album sets are the soundtrack of my life prior to the first grade.

The Golden Record Library: A Musical Heritage for Young America (1959)

My First Golden Record Library (1962)

The 1959 set takes precedence in my (by now subconscious) memory, which now is a mash-up of folk songs and stories, as well as a couple of the classical excerpts (Handel and Mozart) which remained lodged in my brain for twenty years until the formal musical repertoire became of interest.

Surely the selection was culturally biased; there were Biblical tales and hymns for “all faiths” (so long as they were Christian), and the American history epics were lily white. Still, the influence of these LPs on my formative outlook is incalculable.

---

Day 5 – Quadrophenia, by The Who
The basic facts about Quadrophenia are well known. It was conceived by Pete Townshend as a concept album, embracing aspects of post-war British cultural history utterly remote from the American experience.

But Townshend, that distant Englishman, actually addressed me personally – one listener out of millions – with Quadrophenia, an album I first heard in 1973 at 13 years of age and found bafflingly impenetrable, but a few short years later, gratefully embraced as fully capable of addressing the innermost labyrinths of my far-off Hoosier world in a way that was just plain uncanny, and remains inexplicable these many years later.

Obsessional much? I’ve written whole columns about this album, including this 2017 remix. In truth, I think it’s one of my best pieces of writing ever about music's primal effect on me.

---

Day 6 – Jesus Christ Superstar (Original London Concept)
Whatever scant traces of theology have managed to sneak past this atheist’s filters owe entirely to the original JCS. It was a pop culture phenomenon at the time of release, and some of the songs were well known even in the South Hoosier wilds, but for me the big impact came in 1974 or maybe 1975, when I borrowed the LP from a friend’s brother and made a cassette copy.

During the summer prior to our senior year, several of my beer-drinking compatriots and I would cruise the Knobs, popping tops and singing the parts, even scheming to convince Mittner Neely to allow us to stage Jesus Christ Superstar as a choir project. Nothing came of it, but more than 40 years later, I know most of the lyrics – and that says something.

More background here

---

Day 7 – Fifteen Years On, by The Dubliners
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, my seventh day of ten in my old pal Barry Sears’ challenge to name the albums that changed my life is devoted to the best Irish band ever – and yes, this includes Thin Lizzy, U2, Boomtown Rats and the Pogues.

In the 1980s, my cousin Donald “Beak” Barry – educator, traveler and tippler – spent every other summer in Europe. When not overseas, he’d come home to visit and my liver’s odometer would register “tilt.” Appropriately, once he brought his collection of Irish music with him, which I committed to cassette tape (CD copies came much later). I was immediately enamored of The Dubliners, and remain so.

During the band's most fabled and productive period in the 1960s and early 70s, it functioned as the Rolling Stones of traditional Irish music.

"Whereas the Clancys were well-scrubbed returned Yanks from rural Tipperary, decked out in matching white Aran sweaters, the Dubliners were hard-drinking backstreet Dublin scrappers with unkempt hair and bushy beards, whose gigs seemed to happen by accident between fistfights."

Fifteen Years On (1977) is a double-album hybrid, with 15 previously released and nine unreleased tunes. As such, it documents The Dubliners at the band’s peak, and of all the “introductory” albums Don allowed me to record, this is the one that made me a fan.

It couldn’t have been the same following Luke Kelly’s untimely death from brain cancer in 1984, but The Dubliner forged ahead, incorporating various skilled musicians as replacements when original members died or moved on, and making it (just barely) across the finish line of a 50th anniversary tour in 2012 before calling it quits.

Fifteen Years On at Wikipedia

Fifteen Years On at Discogs

On the Avenues column about Irish music

---

Day 8 – The Brink, by The Jezabels
As a guy prone to overthinking just about everything, and in my determination to remain aligned with the stated theme of the past week – identifying albums that changed my life – I’m finding this challenge very challenging, indeed.

As an example of a “for instance,” if the object were to select the most ENTERTAINING albums in my life, Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” (1987) might well finish first. I’ve listened to it dozens of times in recent years, and it remains forever fresh to me. However, I can’t say it has changed my life.

The basic conundrum seems to be that as we grow older, there is less change in our lives. Consequently, and inevitably, life-changing music belongs to previous epochs in our lives – in short, the records we played endlessly a long time ago.
Today I’m making a conscious effort to pick an album from the new millennium. Contestants include “Futurology” by Manic Street Preachers (2014); “Subtlety & Passion” by Robert Lamm (2003); “How We Operate” by Gomez (2006); and “Marks to Prove It” by The Maccabees (2015).

I’m going with “The Brink,” primarily because I’m at a complete loss to explain the hold this Australian band subsequently has exerted on me.

I knew nothing about The Jezabels until I saw a reference to this album and bought it on a whim. Now both it and the group’s 2016 follow-up (“Synthia”) render me powerless. The songwriting perspective is from a female point of view, something I readily concede generally eludes me in music. And yet these songs just grab me.

Overall, 2014 was a powerful musical year in my world, which I suspect was an outgrowth of big changes at Bank Street Brewhouse and certain wheels being put into motion that led to my departure from the company in 2015, and maybe that’s because for me, music as ever-present personal soundtrack serves as a mirror to the soul in times of stress, growth and evolution.

As Pete Townshend once observed, “I know what I mean, but I can’t explain.”
And there we are.

---


Day 9 – Jazz Odyssey Volume III: The Sound of Harlem (1964)
It’s a story I’ve told many times, and so only a brief reprise is merited. In the 1960s, my parents were avid consumers of multi-album big band era compilations, including "The Great band Era" and “In the Groove” (one of Barry’s album challenge selections).

Consequently, I was raised on swing, but once it dawned on me that the public library loaned LPs as well as books, the wider range of jazz became open to me.
For this challenge, I might have plausibly opted for another library staple, the 3-record set of “The Bix Beiderbecke Story” (circa 1963), but the Jazz Odyssey series ultimately had more wide-ranging resonance.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these albums (accompanying releases dealt with Chicago and New Orleans; too bad Kansas City and the West Coast didn't make the cut) introduced me to urban issues and African-American history of the sort we weren’t taught at school.

A modest beginning, but important nonetheless. 45 years later, I still carry these tunes in my head, and this fascinates me.

---

Day 10 – (tie) Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) by Oasis

I’ve come to the end of this 10-day challenge feeling a tad frustrated, having been compelled to omit quite a few influential recordings, ranging from symphonies to world music.

Ultimately, we can speak with genuine authority about ourselves alone, and our own consciousness. Mine is constantly filled with music, which never ceases playing in my mind. I decided long ago that when my soundtrack stops playing, it will be when I know the end is near (I’ve always accepted that Earth will implode following a planetary-wide broadcast of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings).

In early 1992, I returned from my gig teaching English in soon-to-be independent Slovakia and smacked headlong into grunge, to which I’d already been listening via a strange and glorious post-Communist phenomenon called ROCK-FM, originating in Bratislava, and relayed to Kosice.

Within months, the Public House was my full-time job; all those hours tending bar and discovering great beers meant ample time to absorb music. Within a year, I was married; the business proved more viable than the relationship. So it goes; timelessness can't always be timely.

What I know now that I didn’t know then is that I’m an inveterate late bloomer. Predictably, dropping these anchors of adulthood just as I felt myself morphing into a different stage of being always was going to be a tough trick to pull off. Much like my elders in the 1960s, conceding the limitations of their memory when so many drugs were involved, my alcohol intake was fairly extreme, and the visions in the rear-view mirror are distorted.

But the unvarying backdrop to the unceasing tumult was all sorts of invigorating music, which it included regular purchases of classical and jazz CDs. The years of the 1990s at the pub were like graduate school for my musical appreciation, and it would be futile to attempt the selection of just one exemplar from a list that would include these cross-stylistic favorites (in no particular chronological order):

Nevermind (and In Utero), by Nirvana
Achtung Baby (and Pop), by U2
Recovering the Satellites, by Counting Crows
Automatic for the People (and New Adventures in HiFi), by REM
Saturation, by Urge Overkill
Stars, by Simply Red
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, by Van Hagar
Ten (and Vs), by Pearl Jam
Stone of Sisyphus, by Chicago
OK Computer (and The bends), by Radiohead

And literally dozens more BUT there is an album number ten to be chosen, and I’ve declared a tie between the first two Oasis records – not grunge at all, but Brit Pop, and after all, I’ve always been a misplaced European.

Musically, Oasis reconnected me with my love of all things British Isles. There is an adage to the effect that while Americans invented rock and roll, the English perfected it, and I find this to be the case more often than not. 20+ years later, dwelling on what Oasis eventually became, it’s easy to forget the impact the band had when young and fresh. Rightly or wrongly, Oasis defines an epoch -- and Noel was on an unholy roll in terms of songwriting.

It worked this way with me, too; Oasis symbolizes a place and time. At this late date, it would be impossible for me to disentangle the threads of joy, depression, exhilaration and angst; what’s important is that Oasis' music got me through it, perhaps a strange thing to admit for a guy who was 35 years old at the time, but there it is. I've completely recovered from the 1990s, except when I haven't recovered at all. I'm delighted to Be Here Now.

Thanks to Barry Sears for nominating me. Roz Tate, even if you don’t drop your list here, I’d love to hear about it some night over beers.

No comments: