In February of 2009 I encountered one of those "tell us a little bit more about yourself" interview memes that had begun circulating on Facebook with some frequency: "Think of 20 albums that had a profound effect on you. They made you love music more. They made you want to scream out the window, weep, break something or proselytize friends and strangers about their redemptive powers, even after more than 20 consecutive listens. Or they might have marked a significant time in your life (or, due to their existence and your discovery of them, made that time in your life more significant). Please list these albums, tag me and nine other people and blah, blah, blah." As is my way, I had embellished the language used in the original question when I recreated it for my own purposes.
I forget who infected me with this particular request five years ago, but I took the thing and ran with it. Now the question has come back in a slightly different form but still the same basic idea. A Facebook friend tagged me—15 hours ago at the time of this writing—in a post with this request: "Don't think too hard on this. List 10 records that moved your world. Tag me and nine others. It only takes a minute."
Perhaps it will take me even less time since I've already done it (times two) back in 2009.
1. KEN NORDINE'S WORD JAZZ ON THE DOT LABEL.
The Fred Katz Group's impeccable jazz provides backdrop, framework and essential equally powerful partner for Ken Nordine's mysterious and inspired narratives, spoken word portraits and small scale skits delivered in his instantly recognizable, big-enough-to-swallow-the-earth-itself, radio and television commercial voiceover voice.
My parents listened to this album (I think I may still have their actual vinyl squirreled away somewhere) during their living room be-ins when I was six or seven years old, maybe younger. I was at a tender enough age to be seriously frightened by the repressed insane introspection revealed in the cut LOOKS LIKE IT'S GOING TO RAIN.
Every one of Nordine's spoken word masterpieces here—his economic, vibrant and flawless elocution buoyed by the très cool tasteful bachelor pad jazz—have stayed with me to this day. This is not a one-time kick, not a disposable listen in the way a lot of spoken word or comedy albums can be (this is decidely not a comedy album; it is so much more. But it is perhaps a cousin of that genre for lack of a better connection to describe it).
I've turned several good friends on to WHAT TIME IS IT? over the years and it has stuck in the memory of most. The whole crazy story builds to an absurdist punchline but once you've arrived there, and all along the way, you look back and realize there's layers of meaning in the tale that might remind you of Franz Kafka or Nikol Gogol.
Other notable moments of brilliance on this disc include ROGER (surreal, creepy, intriguing and ulitmately inscrutable) and THE FLIBBERTY JIB (a parable of timeless truth).
Compare and contrast spoken word works by the likes of Henry Rollins or Jello Biafra to Nordine and you'll see how they are just angry white guys bitching boring didactic bullshit into a microphone while Nordine shows mastery of a form he helped to create and, to this day, holds as uniquely his own. I was recently surprised, although not mystified, to learn that—in the more cerebral or at least doggedly visionary area of punk rock—Pere Ubu's David Thomas mentions Nordine as an influence on more than one occasion. In fact, he reveals his familiarity with this very album when he explains the influence of one of his other muses: Ghoulardi. "Ghoulardi was the Flibberty Jib Man - Ken Nordine's drifter who enchants the populace of a town with nothing more than the sound of his voice," he said in this (gulp!) lecture.
Rollins and Biafra would have created something a little more intersting had they checked their egos at the door and done their homework: Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley and—at the top of my list for sheer creativity and an always evident amazing writerly mind—Ken Nordine. Just listen!
2. Dave Van Ronk and the Hudson Dusters
Please put In the Tradition, his split personality album with the Red Onion Jazz Band, on your "to listen to" backburner for now. Forget for a moment about trying to find and listen to that demonstration of his wide ranging diversity within traditional American folk styles Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jazz Stompers. The Mayor of MacDougal Street has never ever sounded as cool and accessible as he did in this unique (in other words, as far as I know "only") flirtation with rock and roll. Must thank Mom and Dad's record collection for turning me on to this one, too.
MR. MIDDLE is simply one of the best sixties socially conscious songs ever. By comparison, the lyrics to BLOWN' IN THE WIND are so much friggin' froth.
I've also never heard a more poignant version of Joni Mitchell's oft-covered CLOUDS (FROM BOTH SIDES NOW) than the one on this LP (not too shabby a version of CHELSEA MORNING either). My first encounter with the song CLOUDS was the one on this LP. It will always be the definitive version of the song for me. Ronk's vocals on it (and on DINK'S SONG) are two of the most memorable, dear to me moments of a human voice raised in song I've ever heard in my life (so far).
Ronk explained in an interview what made his singing on DINK'S SONG so special this way: "I had a nasty flu when we cut this one, and my voice had gone pre-laryngitic. This had the effect of opening up an octave valve I didn't even know I had." He also said it was "probably the best piece of singing as such I've ever done on record." Amen.
Unfortunately, fat chance you'll find this anywhere other than in some manic vinyl hoarder's collection. Going Digital, my ass.
3. The Who's MEATY BEATY BIG AND BOUNCY
When the Who were the perfect quad-elemental symmetry of Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon and Townshend (to borrow Dave Marsh's observation), they were simply untouchable as the definitive (nay, archetypal) British rock and roll quartet. Beatles begone with your boom, boom, boom, your groovy clothes and your Tiger Beat personality profiles (the cute one, the sad one, the wistful one, the bastard). Led Zep go etch some runes into the stones that you've gathered from the sandy shores of Middle Earth. Gimme PICTURES OF LILY or THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT any old day. With the early sixties Brit-Mod scene as their incubator, the Who's super-powers were forged in that sweaty ethos that would become key for several variants of Punk from both shores a decade or so later: not much distance at all (metaphoric and actual) between the band and the fans. At least that's how they started. And this album showcases some of their best early moments along with later triumphs.
The surviving members of the Who have not had as graceful or dignified an aging in the public eye as, say, Bob Dylan or Neil Young, but the two who are still alive and the two who are now passed away have and had been to the mountain top where the power entered into them and then many times after passed directly through them to lucky listeners like us. Every one of the 14 songs on this LP counts as one of those times.
When I first entered my hormone-charged teen years and began to develop my individual musical tastes, I had heard my hippie parents play Tommy countless times (and I dug it), but when I learned from my dad that early in their career these boys had become notorious for smashing their instruments, I felt a new and stronger gravitational pull. Something inside the souls of most little boys is drawn to intense exhibitions of energy that end in pointless destruction—it's that paradox where the destructive and the demiurgic meet. Go read Freud or Focault to figure out why. I'm just pleased that when I first felt that odd testosterone-fueled whatsis coursing so strongly through my veins I also found its ideal soundtrack. My dad gave me the compilation LP Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy as a birthday gift when I turned 13 years old or thereabouts. Overplay it? Impossible to this day. A Who fan? For life—from the moment I first heard the opening chord of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT and I've never looked back. Have they done silly shit such as bring big cartoonish rubber spiders (which Townshend would attack with his guitar) into their stage show (as my friend Todd once said, "it's kinda hard to get over big rubber spiders.") or—my 2014 self must add—their 2010 Super Bowl performance? Yes. But you're all forgiven.
As the usually trustworthy Robert Christgau said of the album: "I'd love it if only for Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, which in 1965 redefined the punk machismo of Blue Suede Shoes and The Wanderer against pioneering break-'em-up feedback that has rarely been surpassed. Also welcome are the original Substitute, the self-explanatory I Can't Explain, and songs about masturbation, dressing up like a girl, and other spiritual quests."
4. Blue Öyster Cult's On Your Feet or On Your Knees
You know, I see it more as a simple fact than as fodder for boasts. And I realize that there's nothing deep or noble about it, just as there's no reason to pretend it was anything more than a harmless activity that I managed to stay mostly on the harmless side of. The fact is some of us have chapters from our youth that involved hanging out in our bedrooms or basements or treehouses with our buddies and ritualistically consuming a certain controlled substances as a pastime (insert the telltale gurgle and bubble of an 18 inch bong here) if not a passion. You need a soundtrack for that sort of thing if you want to do it right, and this album was mine.
For many people around my age who engaged in the same activities, that soundtrack was likely also a live recording with four sides of vinyl to it (or it came in an eight track tape format). At one point the double live album seemed almost as obligatory as the MTV video would soon become for band's vying for mega-commercial success.
After BÖC's double album didn't quite bring the same level of commercial success as, say, Frampton Comes Alive (gag! if that was your soundtrack.), they had their big money shot with Agents of Fortune (featuring their Billboard Chart zenith, DON'T FEAR THE REAPER and THE REVENGE OF VERA GEMINI with a cameo from collaborating songwriter Patti Smith).
Then their career drifted to seemingly unintentionally cartoonish low points (GODZILLA) and deliberately funny highs (JOAN CRAWFORD HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE). I think this particular double live album demonstrates that, even in their most excessive moments, the BÖC boys had chops great enough to interest a discerning listener (would D. Boone and Mike Watt have liked 'em so much if that wasn't the case?). If you've never given them a chance, don't be too quick to relegate them to the slag heap of crap favored by the mullet sporting, acid-washed denim crowd.
Now, decades after those long ago days when I slowly wore my phonograph needle straight through the grooves on my vinyl version of this LP, something like Ted Nugent's Double Live Gonzo, for example, (which I liked back then but never held in as high a regard as On Your Feet or On Your Knees) comes off as some stupid, hyper-testosterone, unimaginative jock (who has since proven to be a racist and all around mutton-head) shooting off his mouth. But all four sides of On Your Feet or On Your Knees is still a part of my regular diet (key track BUCK'S BOOGIE).
5. Sparks' Indiscreet
I am weird.
Or perhaps more accurately, without any special effort on my part, from a very young age people have always readily considered and called me "weird." After repeated exclusions from their kickball game sects and minibike worshipping cabals (which I was never all that interested in anyway), I decided if being "weird" means I am at some remove from what all these other people were all about—that's just peachy keen with me. In fact, if it meant that I was not like them, not one of them—I was grateful to be weird. I wanted to be weird. A stark sentence that I recently came across in William Seward Burrough's prologue to Junky, where he explains a crystallizing moment from his youth, strikes me as the best way to describe what I'm trying to convey here: "I saw there was no compromise possible with the group."
I selected the song HOSPITALITY ON PARADE from Sparks' Indiscreet album for my contribution to a share-a-song exercise in my seventh grade English class (during which each member of the class had a chance to proffer a song, the lyrics of which would be discussed and analyzed for their meanings). When it was my turn, during this song's four minute duration girls' lips curled, jocks giggled as they poked one another in the ribs with knowing nods and at the guitar crunching fadeout even the teacher deeply frowned as much, I guessed at the time, at the song itself as at the palpable revulsion that was spreading like a wave through most of the student body in the class he had thought he would so cleverly control with his hip gateway-to-literary-analysis ruse. In between the end of that class period and the next, a small but enthusiastic contingent from the East Pennsboro Junior High branch of the "Kiss army" nearly convinced many others who had been in the class that it was high time to beat me up on the spot.
This moment and my discovery and incessant listening to this album overall was when I first realized that we, the weird, (for not too soon after that I would discover that there were others similarly invisibly marked to be exiled from the larger hive mind of the tribe) were not only delightfully doomed to never comprehend or much care about professional sports or internal combusion engines—we could also, with some effort, find our very own music.
When I discovered and fell in love with Indiscreet it was not as some overt badge of weirdness that I wore after desperately appropriating as much as earning. It was no symptom of syndrome de poseur. This was no acquired taste, nor stance laboriously studied in front of the bedroom mirror to be later trotted out at the mall or local pizza parlor to impress the gals (not a case of, as Jello Biafra later sang, "only at night to score is your leather uniform exhumed").
This was weird music for weird people! At last.
What exactly is it that makes Sparks such challenging listening to "the great conforming others" who pick their lips while they squat on their haunches drinking watery corporate beer and listening to 38 Special?
First of all, there's Russell Mael's vocals with powers derived from his perhaps mutated genes and a touch of finessed studio production. Wikipedia describes his range as "a far-reaching falsetto." No, that would be Barry Gibb. Russell Mael's voice, on the other hand, is a sonic force not duplicated elsewhere in nature which, when electronically reproduced at sufficient decibel levels, will sterilize all mammals within earshot.
It is inhuman.
Secondly, Sparks' lyrical subject material does not exactly fall anywhere in the spectrum that runs from Kiss's COLD GIN on one end to Bruce's ROSALITA at the other. I vaguely recall Creem magazine describing Sparks' lyrics as "perfect for the child psychology major down the hall" (whatever that means). Then, on a visual level for those exposed to the group in performance from repeated appearances on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, there was the fact that Ron Mael seemed to be deliberately striving to wear his hair and mustache in the manner of Adolph Hitler. He certainly was menacing and maniacal looking enough to evoke the Führer more than Charlie Chaplin as he sat behind his keyboards bending his face into goofy and grim expressions while silently mouthing the bizarre lyrics his brother sang at his high pitch and frenzied pace.
While the musical style and structure of Indiscreet is something that might be described as Mandarin cabaret, when carefully listened to the album's lyrics do exactly what all the best novels, pop songs, movies, etc. should do: tell a story. Only UNDER THE TABLE WITH HER is an arguably poor example of this. If you have a better song about high school sexual frustration than HAPPY HUNTING GROUND, let me know. If there's a scarier song about an adulterer discovered by the husband of the wife with whom he's cheating than TITS, I'm all ears. If Ray Davies' flirted with the idea of a man intimidated by a woman's (?) sexual aggression in LOLA, Ron Mael turns up every single stone you can find in the same creek with THE LADY IS LINGERING.
After storytelling, simply establishing a mood is the next best noble aim of art. Indiscreet does that too. For sheer fun, PINEAPPLE. For pure sonic exuberance, IN THE FUTURE:
Convenience and pleasure
all blended together
and culture and madness.
You think you've seen it all ...
You've seen it all, except the future.
Not sure whether this clip is lip synched or audio out of synch with video or both, but it gives you a sense of the madness. Oh, excuse me, the weird madness:
And then there's GET IN THE SWING, never has there been a more clever and seemingly hoity-toity, hyper-intellectual paean to the joys of shedding intellectualism than these lyrics (at least not one set to a musical arrangement that is best described as the unlikely collision of a talented high school marching band on LSD and string quartet and a rock and roll band):
Well, I ain't no Freud; I'm from L.A.
But I know certain things
That they also serve who sit and wait.
They're cheaper than paintings
And don't need explaining.
If you'd be interested in reading parts two through four, please let me know. If you made it this far with a minimum of skimming, I congratulate you and thank you for your time and attention.