Like everybody else in the world, I’ve become a compulsive shuffle-player. To date I’ve loaded 2,849 “songs” onto my iBook and iPod, and while I occasionally pick and choose from them at will, I usually let myself be surprised. One evening last week, iTunes unexpectedly served up a string of selections fraught with personal associations. Listening to them put me in mind of the scene in High Fidelity (I can’t remember whether it’s in the novel as well) in which John Cusack explains how he arranged his LP collection in “autobiographical order”:
If I want to play, say, Blue by Joni Mitchell, I have to remember that I bought it for somebody in the autumn of 1983, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.
Me, I’m a chronological kind of guy, so much so that the upper left-hand corner of the first CD shelf in my office-bedroom is actually occupied by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Nevertheless, I very much appreciate the theory of autobiographical order, and I thought it might amuse you to hear some of the long-lost memories summoned up by my iBook:
• The Classics IV, Stormy. This must have been the first 45 I bought with my own money. I know the year was 1969, and the other singles I remember buying around that time were Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Sergio Mendes’ “Mais Que Nada” (good choices both). I liked Dennis Yost’s soft, furry voice much more than well enough, but it was the song’s minor-key, modally tinted harmonies that caught and held my ear. They still do.
• George Strait, I’ve Come to Expect It From You. New Yorkers are almost always surprised to learn that I like country music. In fact, I grew up with it–I played in a country band in high school–and my appreciation for its clear-eyed view of romance and its discontents deepens as the years go by. I heard this tight-lipped, no-nonsense lament (I guess that I should thank my unlucky stars/That I’m alive/And you’re the way you are/But that’s what I get/I’ve come to expect it from you) on a car radio as I skidded over ice-covered highways after a performance of Turandot in Buffalo, and I picked up a copy of the CD as soon as I returned to Manhattan in one piece.
• Neil Young, The Loner. This is from Young’s first solo album, which I bought after reading about it in The Rolling Stone Record Review, a paperback anthology published in 1971. Some of those reviews were so vividly written that I can recall them to this day, and I thumbed through my heavily dogeared copy until it disintegrated. (Too bad I didn’t hang onto the loose pages. According to Alibris, used copies now sell for as much as $199 apiece.) I lost my youthful taste for the inside jokes and insipidities of Crosby, Stills & Nash a quarter-century ago, but Neil Young’s best songs still speak to me, and this was one of the first tracks I downloaded from iMusic last year.
• Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock. My family used to vacation at the Howard Johnson next door to Graceland (it’s long gone) back when Elvis Presley was thin. Alas, I already thought Elvis was irredeemably square, and it wasn’t until I saw Jailhouse Rock on TV as an adult that I caught on to what I’d been missing. Lilo was soooo right: the man rocked.
• Lou Reed, White Light/White Heat. This is from Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, one of the fieriest and most furious live albums ever recorded. I heard it at a 1974 kegger where everybody but me was getting drunk, high, or laid. I, on the other hand, stuck close to the living-room record player, marveling at the slashing interplay between Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, Reed’s guitarists. I was such a geekazoid avant la lettre, but at least I knew a good thing when I heard it.
• Cole Porter, Anything Goes. Porter recorded several of his own songs for Victor in 1934, accompanied only by his own clumpy piano and sounding rather like a dapper, effete gnome with slicked-back hair, which is pretty much what he was. I first heard this scratchy old 78 being played over the opening credits of The Boys in the Band, a film which then struck me as the acme of sophistication. I had a lot to learn, including the fact that Porter was singing the original, uncensored lyrics to “Anything Goes”: If old hymns you like/Or bare limbs you like/If Mae West you like/Or me undressed you like/Why, nobody will oppose. Nobody ever penned a craftier rhyme.
• Spike Jones, Cocktails for Two. Spike Jones is one of my earliest memories: he had a Sunday-night TV show in the late ’50s and early ’60s that my parents watched from time to time. Decades later, my friend Tim Page introduced me to this wildly funny record, and though I must have played it a hundred times since then, its lunatic incongruities still make me laugh out loud. (Just yesterday I noticed that one of the characters in I.Q. uses “Cocktails for Two” as a demonstration record for his sound system.)
• Dwight Yoakam, Honky Tonk Man. I fell out of touch with the country-music scene in college and for a long time afterward, thus missing out on the rise of the New Traditionalists, of whom Yoakam was one of the most significant and influential. Unlikely as it may sound, I discovered this wonderful song on a Smithsonian Institution box set of country records. I went right out and bought Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., subsequently becoming a lifelong fan.
• Sidney Bechet/Rex Stewart/Earl Hines/Baby Dodds, Save It, Pretty Mama. I found out about jazz from my father’s big-band 78s, but my high-school record library also had a surprisingly varied selection of jazz LPs, among them a Sidney Bechet anthology on RCA Vintage that contained this strutting, suavely self-assured 1941 performance. Bechet has occupied a prominent place in my pantheon of great jazz soloists ever since the day I checked out Bechet of New Orleans (thank you, Fred Huff!). The best thing about “Save It, Pretty Mama,” though, is Baby Dodds’ immaculately swinging drumming. Press rolls are way cool.
• The Grateful Dead, Casey Jones. I was never, ever a Deadhead (eeuuww!), but I made an exception for Workingman’s Dead, whose clean, spare, mostly unamplified songs were praised to the skies in a review published in the late, lamented Stereo Review, the first music magazine to which I ever subscribed. (It was in Stereo Review that I also learned about Bobby Short.) I bought the LP on the strength of that piece, and I bought the CD version a quarter-century later on the strength of my fond memories. Some of the songs haven’t aged well, but I like “Dire Wolf” and “Casey Jones” as much as I ever did.