Friday, February 27, 2009

The 15 albums that changed my life

This is one of many silly exercises that’s been going around Facebook ever since old fogeys like me discovered the site, and I find the idea very intriguing. But I maintain that most people who post their lists, as the lolcats would say, r doin it rong.
Most of the lists I’ve seen are just lists of people’s favorite albums—which is just fine, but it doesn’t answer the question.
Anybody can make a list of their favorite albums. I’ve done it several times. But the exercise is asking you to list those albums that changed your life in some way. The idea that a collection of songs could somehow change you from a crack addict to the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation is absurd. By “changing your life,” I’ll settle for something along the lines of introducing you to a certain type of music, helping you get through a particularly difficult time, or providing the soundtrack for an important or happy time in your life.
They do not have to be your favorites. They may not even be albums you like. There are titles below that I don’t own on CD—and don’t really care to.

1. The Archies

Some of the most dishonest of these lists contain only albums from artists who’ve been around over the past 10 years or so. Which means that the writers apparently listened to no music until about 10 years ago. I asked myself, “What was the first pop music you remember hearing?” That’s why this list starts with the cartoon avatars for a group of nameless session musicians singing facile odes to young love. This was my introduction to pop music. I could have done a lot worse.

2. The Beatles (the “White Album”)

This was my introduction to adult pop music, and what an introduction it was. The White Album is often docked for being a sprawling, disorganized mess, but that’s what great about it. Consider that the Paul wrote both “I Will” and “Helter Skelter”—and that John wrote both “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Julia.” Did any other band cover so much ground in so short a time?

3. Elvis’ Golden Records, Elvis Presley

I was too young for all the hysteria that accompanied Elvis’ entry into the national consciousness, but this album made me feel as if I’d been there. It contains the first evidence that proved that Elvis was The King.

4. Rubber Soul, The Beatles

It’s hard to believe now, but when I was little, any rock music that came out between, say, 1955 and 1966 was considered too sweet for more “modern” tastes. Even The Beatles seemed like two different bands to me then—the cute mopheads who sang “She Loves You” and the post-Sgt. Pepper group that my grandpa called “long-haired hippies.” This album showed me that the early incarnation had just as much substance as the late one—arguably, more.

5. My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello

This was the first album I bought with my own money. I was 12. I’d seen Costello on Saturday Night Live and read a glowing review of this album in Hit Parader, so I knew I had to get it. It introduced me to a wonderful world of music that I wasn’t about to hear on Top 40 radio—and a lot more than music, but more about that later.

6. Let There Be Rock, AC/DC


I could have picked any Bon Scott-era AC/DC album, but I chose this one because I gained the nickname “Angus” in high school for playing the opening riff to “Whole Lotta Rosie” on the piano when I entered the band room. The name stuck with me well into college. Musically, it was heaven for a 15-year-old boy—three chords, basement sound, and lyrics full of unsubtle sexual metaphor. But it showed me that rock, above all else, should be fun.

7. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon

I first heard this album not long after Lennon died, and I still feel its impact. Here was a Beatle—a fucking Beatle!—going through the same kind of pain I went through in adolescence. From his unstable childhood to the Beatles’ breakup, it’s all right here. Sort of like a celebrity reality TV show, except it’s real.

8. The Doors

Like most public school educated 16-year-olds, I couldn’t tell the difference between stoned gibberish and real poetry. I thought Jim Morrison was a poet, and it wasn’t long before I thought I was one, too. Thanks a lot, Jim. But Ray Manzarek’s mesmerizing keyboards and the album’s overall spooky vibe keep me coming back to this day.

9. The Best of the Manhattan Transfer, The Manhattan Transfer

A college roommate had this cassette. It always brought me peace when I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown—which was about three times a week. Their a capella version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” still sends a chill up my spine. This record taught me that rock ‘n roll’s not the only music that can save your soul.

10. Shadowland, k.d. lang


lang was the first artist I discovered completely on my own, without the recommendation of a friend or music critic. I first saw her on the Tonight Show, singing “Tears Don’t Care Who Cries Them.” I thought, “Well, she’s weird looking, but damn!—what a voice!” And the rest of this CD is just as stellar.

11. My Favorite Things, John Coltrane


I bought this around 1990 or so, but it would be years before its impact would become apparent. It was the first jazz CD I owned, and it was an anomaly in my collection for years (in my traveling CD case, it’s on the same page with Nirvana and the Sex Pistols). But it presaged a time when rock would no longer be my basic unit of musical currency.

12. The Velvet Underground and Nico


As clich├ęd as the word “mind-blowing” is, it fits here. Heroin, sado-masochism, you name it—Lou Reed can write a song about it without flinching. Rock has many poets, but Reed might have been its first journalist.

13. Nevermind, Nirvana

I had abandoned contemporary rock during the hair-band era in favor of country and ‘60s classic rock. Hair metal struck me as phony and formulaic, and I wondered if rock wasn’t finally dead after all. This CD brought me—and the world—back to rock ‘n roll.

14. BloodSugarSexMagik, Red Hot Chili Peppers


I think this was the first CD I bought that bore a Parental Advisory sticker. Between its f-bombs and its hot mix of punk and funk, it was a great introduction to the freewheeling aesthetic of ‘90s alternative-rock culture.

15. When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello


While it was Costello’s best record in years, it changed my life for more personal reasons. I mentioned on a Yahoo! group that I was about to see Costello on his tour supporting this CD. This started an extended conversation with Jamie, the woman who would become my wife.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Marxism—or just common sense?

Anybody who thinks C-SPAN is boring has never listened to the phone calls on its morning show, “Washington Journal.” It’s become an outlet for extremists on both ends of the political spectrum whose computers haven’t warmed up yet.

There’s just something about actually hearing crackpots’ voices that makes them even sillier than reading their blather in print. I’ll never forget the time I came into the show in mid-tirade and heard the following conclusion:

“It’s time for us right-wingers to forget about the ballot box and start thinking about the bullet box.” Charming, eh?

The other day, the topic was the proposed limits on executive salaries for those companies that are being bailed out by the U.S. Government. A proposal by President Obama would limit their salaries to $500,000 a year. The horror.

One caller vehemently opposed this idea, calling it “Marxism.”

I’ll bet you even money that caller has never read The Communist Manifesto, and learned everything about Marxism from Rush Limbaugh.

I certainly learned a thing or two about Marxism just from its Wikipedia entry. I had no idea there were so many different schools of Marxist thought. If it interests you, feel free to read the entry. For these purposes, I think the overview will suffice. It says that most forms of Marxism share these principles:

• an attention to the material conditions of people's lives and social relations among people
• a belief that people's consciousness of the conditions of their lives reflects these material conditions and relations
• an understanding of class in terms of differing relations of production and as a particular position within such relations
• an understanding of material conditions and social relations as historically malleable
• a view of history according to which class struggle, the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests, structures each historical period and drives historical change
• a sympathy for the working class or proletariat
• and a belief that the ultimate interests of workers best match those of humanity in general

What does any of that have to do with asking for some accountability from some fat cats who are begging for corporate welfare? Would Marx have approved of taking money from the working class and giving it to capitalists? If anything, the bailout is as anti-Marxist as it gets. Measures such as a salary cap just give the bailout the same sort of checks and balances that is the basis for the U.S. Government.

I assume that those crying “Marxism” are not corporate executives, because they would be too busy to be jamming the lines at C-SPAN. Would they feel better if the corporations were just written a blank check?

I think we’d be better off if America were more Groucho-Marxist. But that’s a theory of another color.