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[Continued from part one.]
This morning I took you through the first ten albums to have a pretty deep influence on how I listened to music, and how that music changed the way I look at the world, and who I am. At this point it’s 1977. I’ve graduated from high school, and am getting ready to go away to college. You could say I am now an adult — I certainly thought so at the time — but you’d be wrong. Charitable, but wrong. Whether or not I should be classified as an adult at 50 is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader.
- Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick — In college I took a class called “Oral Interpretation,” which was basically a guide to public reading. As part of the class we had to adapt excerpts from various works of memoir, fiction, and poetry for performance. I selected a chunk of lyrics from Ian Anderson’s loopy parody of concept albums, itself allegedly based on the poetry of a child in a small and quaint English town. After three minutes of solemnly intoning such classic lines as “I may make you feel but I can’t make you think. Your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink,” my instructor applauded and asked the name of the poet. Without missing a beat I replied,” Gerald Bostock. He’s new.” The instructor dutifully noted the name as the class snickered.
- Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — I’m not altogether certain which Floyd album I heard first, but the sad story of Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration came to me at a time in my life when my own psychic landscape was getting a bit rocky. The slick production stood out, as did the careful structure of the long-form work “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The title track, though, is one of the few songs consistently able to wrench my heart each and every time I hear it.
- Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Center of the Earth — When I first heard that the keyboardist from Yes was recording a concept album based on one of my favorite proto-science fiction novels, I had to have it. While prog rock has gotten a bad reputation over the years, I will always have a soft spot for the nexus of rock instrumentation and classical forms. Throw fiction into the mix, add an orchestra and a narrator, and let it simmer until the pretense and absurdity have largely boiled away; what’s left is a semi-soundtrack album I spun until I could practically play the horn parts from memory.
- Steely Dan: Aja — In my freshman year of college I met a sophomore girl named Amy, a music composition major like me. She loved the films of Woody Allen and the music of Steely Dan. The first time I visited her she put on this album. When side one finished she flipped it over; side two played over and over and over and over…. and that’s enough about that.
- The Residents: Duck Stab/Buster and Glen — “So you like weird music, do you? Have you heard The Residents yet?” And so an innocent question from my friend George Pearson introduced me to an art and music collective that changed the way I thought about creativity. Like Don Ellis, The Residents deserve an entire post of their own. For now, suffice to say that knowing a group existed that jealously guarded their identities by wearing surreal costumes and performed quasi-punk songs like “Constantinople” kick-started my fascination with performance art, experimental music, and underground culture. I recently satisfied a life-long wish, and saw them perform live at DC’s storied 9:30 Club. It was worth the trip.
- Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells — You probably know this album, even if the name is unfamiliar: an edited version of the primary theme was used as the music for The Exorcist. By the time I bought this my college education had gone off the rails, leaving my compositional aspirations strewn alongside the tracks, but I still heard large scale works in my mind’s ear. The idea that these two side-length pieces were all performed by the composer himself, that one person could compose and perform something that richly detailed was new to me, a kind of auteur theory of music. Absorbing the structure of the work, and doing some reading about how multi-tracking worked, helped keep my dreams alive a little longer, and made me love it even more. Plus, tubular bells!
- Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice: Jesus Christ Superstar — I came to this one a bit later than usual — probably via one of my progressive Christian friends — and didn’t start obsessing over it until after high school. Having been raised without any particular religion, this was my first exposure to many of the details, and I was fascinated by both the story and the controversy. Musically I was once again drawn to the synthesis of prog rock, orchestra, and operatic vocals. (Trivia note: Even though JCS is subtitled “A Rock Opera,” it isn’t an opera at all. An opera requires costumes, staging, and acting (even if the rules on the latter are somewhat lax), while a cantata is purely musical and based on a religious text, as well.)
- David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — If there was ever an anthem for disillusioned, artistic, young outsiders, this would be it. Loosely a concept album, Bowie’s full-throttle glam-rock portrayal of the possibly alien Ziggy blurred the line between fiction and reality, while the songs themselves varied between the nihilistic and the hopeful. By this time my numerous romantic failures, being exacerbated by my continuing struggle just to make rent, had pretty thoroughly alienated me from a world that was simply never going to understand me. In Ziggy I found an ally, and knew I wasn’t alone.
- Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy — Discovering Warren Zevon was a revelation to me. Sure, it was his kitschy “Werewolves of London” that attracted my eternally adolescent attention, but the other songs kept it focused. Here was songwriting with meat to it, songs with lyrics that told stories that meant something, sometimes funny, often tragic, occasionally both at once. The idea of songwriting itself as a form of micro-fiction was new to me, as obvious as it seems in retrospect. I saw him perform live once on a solo tour, but it was during his darkest days of addiction; I don’t think he even finished his set. I wish I’d seen him again after he cleaned up, but soon after he got straight, he got cancer. Sometimes great storytellers don’t get enough time on stage.
- Tom Waits: Small Change — I won’t even try to lie to you. Peaches Records and Tapes in Fort Lauderdale had this album on prominent display, proudly showing off its cover photo of Waits in a stripper’s dressing room. Once my eyes were sufficiently satiated to allow me to flip it over, I was intrigued by the description of the album’s poetry and jazzy style. Once it hit my turntable it didn’t come off for days. From “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” one of the greatest American songs ever written, through the slurred patter of “Step Right Up,” and to the heartbreaking “The One That Got Away,” Waits used unparalleled lyricism, blues riffs, and his whiskey-wracked voice to create a vision of a broken life that ripped at me even as it mesmerized me. Stories, music, poetry, and the ugly truth all coming together to let a unique talent craft something timeless from the ruins of the past. That’s America.
And with that, we’re done. I hope you enjoyed this recounting of a personal musical evolution. Perhaps it introduced you to a couple of artists or albums that are new to you, or let you see some albums in a new light. If so, let me know in the always-appreciated comments.
Tomorrow: Part three of two, and a bonus.