LIT & CRIT : MUSIC
Here are the stories behind 17 seminal albums and the people who introduced them to me
In a way, these are as much about the people I shared this music with as the music itself.
1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
Almost any Pink Floyd will do. My big brother, Dave, was of course very influential on my musical tastes. He was into electrical engineering and high fidelity, so I was proud to tell my friends in grade school he had an audiophile quality Carver amp and huge speakers. Perhaps only Jim Carlson understood what that meant; we're still friends today. Dave would blast the first Boston CD all the time, along with the first Van Halen and stuff, but I remember he had this tape labelled "headphone music" and on that tape was stuff that made my head swim in aural water including Dream Weaver by Gary Wright and Fly Like An Eagle by Steve Miller with the extended delay/synth/airy FX intro and the "wash the dishes" style Hammond B3 organ. On that tape was also "Us and Them" by Pink Floyd. I went and bought that album via Columbia Music Club, and it came with a green poster of pyramids which I promptly put on my wall. I immediatly sympathized with the humanist and antiwar sentiments on that album. Later when The Wall came out I was heading into high school and of course it resonated with me as well (being anti-war, operatic, and trenchantly revealing of the fascist nature of commoditized media, etc). Once my best friend at the time Steve Gardner trapped his erstwhile girlfriend Jill Wilson over at his house for a full four-side discourse on the meaning of The Wall when we were in 8th grade. I'm not sure she appreciated it as much as we did. Their dreamy soundscapes, stabbing guitar, and lyrics put them miles above the vapid pop of the time (big hair bands) and are still the target I shoot for when writing much of my own music. I of course like all the contemporary iterations of psychedelica such as Spirtualized, Dandy Warhols, Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail, etc etc.
2. Led Zeppelin - The Song Remains The Same
I only use this album because its sort of a greatest hits, and its hard to choose from their nearly flawless oeuvre. Not only psychedelic, but also folky and bluesy, and I guess metaly. And its the band that basically defined modern rock and roll, what it could do, where it could go, (other than the beatles and the stones and going back to the 50's Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and Elvis and such). But its more than that, too. If you look closely Zep was a jam band. Almost every concert contains some improvisation. They have the best rock and roll drummer in all of rock and roll bar a few. And its not all guitars, they throw some keys in there. And of course there's our dear friend the theremin. But this entry is really about one of my neighbors, Dave Whedbee. A year or so older than me, and cooler than anyone else I knew, he was a budda who imparted insight and got any girl he wanted too. He once hosted a Food Not Bombs meeting at his house, and later read outloud the entire Howl by Allen Ginsburg because that's what that poetry was for. He was fearless and charmed. When he played soccer with us he would shout "pass the bawl" like he had a British accent. His dad was a professor at the Claremont Colleges. His dad had a stereo set up on cinderblock shelves, and we'd listen to all kinds of things. The Police, Coltrane, Bob Marley, Beethoven. He'd always come over to my house with hidden knowledge that only the high priests knew of... Kal, listen to this Lloyd Cole and the Commotions I found at Rhino. Kal, check out the tribal drums on this Peter Gabriel's Security. Kal, are you crazy, listening to Night Ranger? My Bloody Valentine, man, as if it was Pabst Blue Ribbon. And Zeppelin. We'd eat oreos and play chess and listen to the whole 25 minute Whole Lotta Love. Listen closely to that... Sometimes on many bootlegs of that jam Plant calls out "Do the James Brown" and they improvise trying to play funk with Marshall stacks. I now have a fairly large collection of songs that have no names from bootlegs of Zep that have all kinds of stuff they'd play off the cuff in their shows in addition to all of their regular covers such as the Elvis tunes they'd regularly do like I Don't Care, Baby You're So Square!
3. Saturday Night Fever- Soundtrack
I loved disco. Not really because I went to dance clubs often, but because the funk influence and the pop choruses and propulsive beats were too good to keep me sitting still. In fourth grade, when disco was at its height, the nuns decided that our annual class party could be a disco party. We were to have a dance / singing contest of some sort. When it came time, no one really wanted to get up in front of the class and dance. I think I was the only one other than Chris Caldera who was fearless enough to actually get up and try. I picked "Disco Inferno" by the Trampps to dance to, perhaps not understanding the black power slogan "burn baby burn" embedded in it but responding viscerally to the fire imagery as a metaphor for the overthrow of the entrenched orthodoxy of Nixon's America via liberating your booty. (I still harbor a lot of anti-authoritarian ideals, but now I temper them with a realistic understanding of politics). So I still have a soft spot for disco; even today I'll pull out KC and the Sunshine Band for fun.
4. Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
This is a good representation of the middle of the road rock and roll which I cleaved to from single digits to my teens. Offering lovely melodies, soaring arrangements, well-written songcraft, fantastic musicianship and outstanding stage craft skills featuring a giant duck suit, Elton is the epitome of what I thought music was in the 1970s. I remember looking at the album cover... it had a wild panapoly of images collaged into it, including a phonograph trapped in a pot of honey with feet which was shitting little lumps out the back; meanwhile one of Elton's legs was encased in a metal boot for some reason. Under this category would go all the Niel Diamond and Paul Simon I liked which was the only stuff my parents would tolerate listening to in the car... so I do have some appreciation for the singer songwriter genre and musicians who can actually play their instrument vs. those who flood the market with machine made nonsense and image over substance.
5. Van Halen I
This was what masculinity and rock and roll were all about. My first big show arena concert...where I snuck backstage after the show and saw David Lee Roth walk right past me in the hallway, carring a fifth of bourbon. Of course this selection encompasses all of the other classic rock of the time, Stones, Who, Beatles, Queen etc. I loved Edgar Winter's Frankeinstein, for example. In eighth grade our teach asked us all to write down what we thought was the greatest music ever written, and I wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. I still think Freddie Mercury has the greatest voice of the rock and roll era. Power, control, and tights.
6. Spinal Tap
Sure rock was full of flamboyant fools who felt their every utterance and fashion was charmed despite the wearing of leather pants or teased hair; this is what Van Halen had inexorably created. "Peacocking" was Ok for Diamond Dave, the scarves and the hairy open chest, the pinky ring or the tight spandex were just what the girls liked from Alpha Males who were performers. That way you could see his bulge, and it was just athletic. So you put a roach clip in your feathered hair; girls like to comb smooth shiny things. At least VH had their manly boozing. But I never was a metalhead. The hell bent for pleather posturing, the excessive attention to high maintenance images, the obsession with childishly dark themes (satan, monsters, and occult, oh my) and their clear lack of social skills seemed clues that it was too much fantasy and not enough pure music. Then Spinal Tap came along and skewered the whole thing. I could never look at rock and roll royalty the same way again. So funny and quotable and intertwined with real rock history, Tap will always remain at the top of rock's "I wonder where are they now?" file.
7. fIREHOSE - Ragin' Full On
By college I was ready to embrace alternative music. In high school alternative was the Smiths or Tears for Fears, which I liked but I didn't buy into the image of wearing black or being a "New Romantic" which was against the masculine Van Halen image I felt was the model for every young man in America at the time. (Our friend, Dave Miller, was way ahead of me... he showed me Prince's 1999 once and I told him it struck me as blasphemously sexual contraband... which turned out to be its biggest strength, only in a way I couldn't understand at that age). I had passed over punk as a totally stupid movement of violent thugs and nihlists who'd pogo and put safety pins through their nose and who couldn't really play their instruments. But when I hit college, Loyola Marymount, there was a on-campus radio station KXLU 88.9 FM and a roommate, Tomas Palermo; both opened my eyes that punk could also be about the rejection of commercialized pop rock music and the DIY ethic. Tomas was into making zines and reggae and he introduced me to the limitless possibility of the avant. (Can't believe he put up with me, after I tried seeing what would happen if I turned the dorm room into the Northwoods Inn). My buddy Jon Roa, with whom I self-published my novel Salvation Road a few years after college, also in my senior year of high school gave me a tape of X's More Fun in the New World after I had been dismissive of punk (he was already singing in his own local punk band, Justice League). It made me realize that punk was just rock and roll shorn of the commercialism. (Though I still cant stand the Ramones strain of the stuff. Too simplistic.) Then Jim Carlson the first week or so of College bought the Firehose album and it blew me away... jazz punk rock, with a DYI ethic and great musicianship. Suddenly I was open to any and all post-punk, though the hardcore stuff bored me and I didn't really take the image/dress to heart. Mike Watt and the Minutemen were Bob Dylan to me.
8. Cocteau Twins - Treasure
The radio station KXLU was where I started to spend a lot of time and they had this extensive collection of rare Cocetau Twins imported 12"s. Man, who was that angelic voice? Man, listen to those textured guitars whipping up a feral din of beautiful soundscapes. And she doesn't even sing words, she just emotes, melismatically for the people. That opened my eyes. Once my roommate Tomas noted, "every cocteau twins song has a treat... a line or two, a trill, a swooping vocal or a vocal gymnastic trick" that still makes me slackjawed with awe at the hooks that Elizabeth Fraser writes, and yet no one's ever heard of them because all the hooks were lacking intelligible pop lyrics. Still my favorite band of all time. I guess you could say that by that time I had finally matured enough to not just dismiss all English pyschedelic rock of the era as punk or something. I thought the image of all those Bauhaus followers et all were more important than the music, but after KXLU took my alternative rock virginity I opened up to all sorts of stuff I thought was too goth or something before. I ceased to care what the image was if the music was good.
9. Sly and the Family Stone - Stand
Now, I loved funk and disco, but I only had scratched the surface. I loved the Ohio Players and Earth Wind and Fire and all that, but I didn't know where to find the real true raw funk of the late '60s until one day I was over at a friend's place and he put on "Fresh" by Sly. What is that? I asked. It was so low-fi but had so much soul and funk packed into it. Look at those spangled bell bottoms! Of course I knew Sly, but I didn't really know. Oh my god, this is the source of all that 70's disco I loved! This was the wellspring. That Sly was breaking barriers and uplifting progressive America at the same time was awesome; his later infamy was just part of his legend. Now it was time to find old Parliament records. After that I dug deep into the funk crates... Maceo Parker, Parliament, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Prince, Tower of Power, Billy Preston, Stevie Wonder, all of em, and later the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
10. Stevie Wonder - Greatest Hits I and II
Nothing is as catchy, funky, and sweet, melodic and body movin. Nothing. Jim Carlson once had some girls over to our dorm room in college, and it was going kinda iffy, and then we put on the Stevie and couldn't stay seated, our bodies were incapable of resistance. Nothing tops this stuff. Who doesn't love Stevie? Along with Stevie came an appreciation for jazz, Steely Dan, anyone who could play the Clavinet, and soul music like Marvin and Aretha etc.
11. Janes Addiction - Ritual De La Habitual
I remember when Janes was so totally underground that you could only find the single for Pigs In Zen on the Scream Club LP which gathered together some songs from various bands who played this dark hollywood club. And all he wanted to do was what I wanted to do too. Then I went to seem them open for Love and Rockets on the Earth Sun Moon tour and during the middle of Jane's set Perry ripped his bicycle shorts down the crotch. Then decided to just rip them off and sing while his willie whipped around in the wind. The energy was banshee-hot unrelenting hedonism, and that was what I was into rock and roll for... the ecstatic release, the anti-authoritarian impulse, the freedom. That Perry survived and thrived instead of burning out is a tribute to his intelligence in taking the road less travelled and making it the new hiking trail for those seeking a path to the top of the mountain, one of many children. And of course there's all kinds of indie rock that said goodbye to the rock and roll era too, Pavement (who are now officially overrated), etc
12. The Stone Roses - first album
Juinor year of college 1987 I went abroad to live in London for a semester. We saw that the Manchester scene was just beginning to gain steam but we didn't care that much about it. We used to watch Movie Mahal which was on BBC tv in the AM hours which would air Hindi and English Language Bollywood Flicks, and those were cool. Then there was a British music video programme on after that. I remember hearing "I Wanna Be Adored" and liking the ambient Tube (British slang for the subway) track screeching it starts with. When I got back home, Jim Carlson had bought the album and then over time I realized that it was a perfectly written debut... folk rock touches, funky long form jams, straight up rock, mellow vocals, dance music organically amalgamated even. This is still the album I am trying to recreate in a lot of my own music that I write.
14. The Girl Next Door - Jeff Felman & James Reese
Near the end of college Jim and had formed a band with our buddy from high school Lance Wawer. Lance had friended a guy, Jeff Felman, who had his own 16 TRACK home studio. Jeff was into hip hop, and he introduced me to a lot of hip hop I might have dimissed otherwise... Ice Cube, Son of Bazerk, Public Enemy, DJ Quik etc. Then I dug some of my own out: Freestyle Fellowship, Jamalski, Paris, Busdriver. Some of it is well-written, some of it is just fun to listen to. He taught us everything about making music. I bought a synthesizer with a sequencer, he showed us how to record music, and I've been hooked ever since.
15. Ben Folds - Whatever and Ever Amen
This guy is another genius. I love his wit, and his improvisational ability. Simply a great musical mind with a great sense of humor.
16. Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue
Loved this one since I was a kid... the starting clarinet, which just keeps going up and up, and the amazing iterations of a simple theme... beautiful jazz, beautiful for listening to at the Hollywood Bowl, which I love more than life itself.
17. The Undertoad/Extablisment Media
My own band and label, natch. Includes recent iterations Kal, and Great American Tools with Ed Tessier and Jim Carlson, John Crawford and Katy Stone Wallace. Really this is just a stand-in for all of the music my friends make... all of whom can be found on the greater internet. Jon Crawford (Moonwash Symphony, Goldenboy), The Moultries, Jerry O'Sullivan (Claremont Voodoo Society), the Carlson Brothers and Mike Erlinger,Tomas (Slug, Umoja Soundsystem), Jeff Felman and James Reese, Gary Stanonious, etc etc. It is just amazing that I have so many friends all in bands or playing and writing music. Maybe it is not so surprising as it really is the common thread that has stitched through my life over the last 30 years more than any other single factor. --Kevin Salveson