George Scarlett on The Beatles

The album that means the most to me, and the one I most enjoy hearing sequentially, is The Beatles. Double album, all-white cover, early pressings individually numbered. Its authors were big for awhile, but not built for the long haul. Drugs and dissonant temperaments. Happens.

The whys and wherefores of my choice follow. Eventually.

Every music lover has something to lament about the recent paradigm quakes: Record stores are endangered. For a long time they served as community centers for tastemakers and fanboys and girls.

Tastes are splintered. Rarely is there widespread excitement about an artist or a burgeoning popular music form. (I’m certain I need not mention that ‘American Idol’ does not count.)

Sensual pleasures are lost. Holding a new LP, slitting open and savoring the new album smell, gazing at art on the cover and session notes on the rear (or inside): gone. Piracy decimates the landscape. Few artists can make a living from their recordings. Who knows what potentially great albums will not be made due to the bleak economic realities?

The album form is nearly extinct, reduced to individual tracks and random play. To these and others on the list, I’ll add my own:

I miss 1960s-style Top 40 radio.

I was born in the year Rock & Roll truly arrived, 1955. My early years (only child, rural upbringing, tiny grade school) served to keep me in the dark about most popular culture, although I loved the music my mom and Aunt Martha liked (classics, show tunes, folk, jazz). In the fall of 1968, though, I started high school in the nearby large town. Every day I rode the bus for an hour each way. That bus, to my eternal gratitude, was equipped with a radio and speakers throughout, blaring The Big 610 KFRC, the San Francisco Top 40 powerhouse.

A switch in me was flipped. (As I like to remember it, when I embarked on my first school day, the song playing on that radio was “Magic Bus.” This may be apocryphal; while it makes for a great anecdote, I cannot verify it. But that song was on the charts at the time, and in heavy rotation. So why not?) I became an avid listener and 45s collector.

Recollections of formative times come prepackaged with their own sets of rose-colored specs. 1968-9 was my first golden age of music appreciation, and the one about which I have the fondest memories. So, admittedly, I have very little objectivity when discussing the era.

However, I do hold one opinion from which I will not budge: in radio history, for round-the-clock musical variety and eclecticism, late-60s Top 40 was second only to early-70s free-form FM. For instance, in that fall of ’68 I might have heard Jimi Hendrix, Jeannie C. Riley, The Supremes, The Beatles, Tom Jones, and The Everly Brothers back-to-back.

That is how music was listened to in the 50s and 60s: grab a stack of 45s, load up the changer, and let’s get this sock hop started. Back then, in the singles era, it was all about random play.

The album era changed all that, of course. Creative palettes became broader as artists’ concepts moved beyond the three-minute form. I’ve long held that albums became important for a couple of other reasons, too: the lack of alternative playback methods, and pot.

In the 70s and well into the 80s, the only way to randomize one’s listening was to make mix-tapes. Otherwise, it was a bit of a nosebleed to custom-craft one’s own playlist on the spot. The standard was: drop the needle on side one, hit the beanbag, fire up the bong, and let Grand Funk Railroad have its way with us for twenty minutes. The bummer was getting up the gumption to flip to side two.

The point is, album squencing became crucial because the listener generally had no other choice in song running order. A new listening paradigm took root, and it flourished for a quarter century.

The CD allowed listeners to mess with a disc’s track sequence. Multi-disc changers enabled cross-genre mixing. CD jukeboxes with their multi-hundred capacities practically demanded random play. Cultivation for change had already taken place well before the mp3 era began. The singles era had returned.

It is my belief that the individual song is the natural order. That was the standard when I was growing up, and it will be when I am shrinking. If I beat the actuarials and tenaciously clutch my small bag of marbles, I will likely live to a point where I have the perspective to see that the album era was, in fact, an anomaly.

Oh, yes, The Beatles. It stands as the last album I listened to all the way through. This would have been on a day in September of 2009, when the remastered editions of The Beatles’ catalog were released. I situated a chair between a pair of good speakers and allotted myself a block of time to really *listen* to that album, with all its genius and flaws and redolence and crucial tracking order.

It was the first pop album I ever bought, you see. On November 25, 1968, a couple of schoolmates brought a freshly-purchased copy of The White Album into my Spanish class. The teacher, a Miss Suzanne Read, was of optimal Beatles-loving age, so for her the release of their first proper album since Sgt. Pepper constituted an event. So, after about twenty minutes of the usual “¿Dónde está la biblioteca, Pedro?” Miss Read shut it down, placed side one on the classroom turntable, and let ‘er rip. We sat and listened the whole way through. At the end of our 50 minutes, she turned it over to side four. As we filed out of the classroom, I turned to see her dancing alone to “Revolution 1.” I was heavily influenced. At the end of the school day, I walked across the street to K-Mart and bought a copy of my own.

At the time, the only record player in our house capable of playing an LP was the console in the living room. It was an ancient thing with a checkered service history. The amplifier was blown; no doubt one of its tubes needed replacement. So, when I got home, I put the first record on the changer, started it up, and then leaned in real low to get my ear as close to the stylus as I could. And I listened.

Fast-forward more than two generations. I now have in my digital library well over 55,000 tracks, and am adding to it at the rate of about 250 a month. About 98% of this bounty is comprised of full-length albums. This allows for seemingly infinite possibility, not least of which being that I can listen to any of those albums all the way through, track-by-track, in their original running order, if I choose.

If I choose. See, this is a key point here. Listeners nowadays have an almost intimidating menu of options before them. And one of those is to listen to albums as their authors intended them to be heard. For anyone who wants it so, the album era can still flourish.

I go a different way. Ever since those early days with Top 40, I have been seeking to recreate that genre-hopping, “I wonder what’s next?” experience. I randomize my entire library daily, keeping everything active and maybe only a song away. This, in fact, is a major contributor to my optimistic nature: every day holds the prospect of a unique musical journey, with my imaginary disc jockey at the helm.

And yet, even still, I venerate The Beatles as a work of art. There are crucial associated memories. It is impossible for me not to be subjective about the album’s contents.

But there is something else, another factor in my holding it aloft: the thing is scattershot. There are four lead singers. Genres include (and are not limited to) country, ska, metal, and avant-garde. The dynamics range from whisper to scream. The White Album is all over the map.

Random, in fact.

I am George Scarlett. In a prior life I worked for Tower Records for 24 years, in stores and at the corporate office. For the last several of those, I was the Chief Merchant, in charge of all product procurement and merchandising for the chain. I am now retired, although I do operate a small CD-to-mp3 music conversion service. I also blog as Veronica Fever for the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

I live in Davis, California with my wife Christine and our two Corgis, Morty and Luke.

Lee Houck on Ani Difranco’s Dilate

Every morning for the last nine days on my subway commute, I’ve been listening to Ani Difranco’s 1996 record Dilate, which is her most devastating, most lonely (and still best-selling) album. I can do this because I’m a crazy, rabid, overdoing-it kind of fan. I have 24GB of Ani’s music on my laptop. (Most of it is bootleg recordings, from every year since 1990. Email me if you want something rare; I have it. Really.) I have seen her in concert 37 times.

First, a little background.

In 1994, I had a friend who decided she was a lesbian. Because of this temporary shift in her sexuality–-she’s dated men exclusively after that phase, and is now heterosexual married–-she started buying Out Magazine. In the back pages of that summer issue of Out, there was a small square ad for the then-new Ani record Out of Range. We’d never heard her music before, but she looked, from the picture at least–nose ring, shaved head, defiant–like she was one of us. Or at least who we imagined ourselves to be. We listened to that album a thousand times, driving oursevles around Chattanooga, our rollerblades in the trunk, drinking strawberry malts from the drive-thru near Suck Creek. The cassette tape (cassette tape!) would turn over, playing one side after another, and we’d listen again and again to the same songs we’d heard not an hour before. In the song “Overlap,” an acoustic ditty laid right in the middle of the record, Ani sings “I build each one of my days out of hope, and I give that hope your name.” We built our summer out of hope, too, we had built our friendship out of it. We soared through 1995 in love with each other and the world.

Then, without warning, came Dilate.

It was devastating. First was the cover art: sour green and sun-bleached letters, black platform shoes, long blue braids, and Ani curled in a ball, her face hidden, like a captive creature, as if she’s rocking herself back and forth for comfort. I put the disc–we’d upgraded now to a portable CD player–in and turned up the volume. It opens like this: a warbly electric riff, bent and shakey from…haze? from waking up too early? from something else? Then, Ani’s voice:

think i’m going for a walk now
i feel a little unsteady
don’t want nobody to follow me
‘cept maybe you
i could make you happy, y’ know
if you weren’t already
i could do a lot of things
and i do

What came after that, the chorus of “Untouchable Face,” was like someone driving a hammer into my chest:

so fuck you
and your untouchable face
and fuck you
for existing in the first place
who am i
that i should be vying for your touch
who am i
bet you can’t even tell me that much

But it was also like this: You know in The Matrix when Neo learns to fly, and he explodes off the ground into the stratosphere? It felt like that, too. Someone had articulated the pain of love and loss in such a way that my insides, my soul, my teenage self had never felt reflected before. (See, I had fallen in love with a friend of mine who was straight–or, at least, identified that way in public, despite our sexually ambiguous relationship, and not really in the usual teenage boy way; by the way, he’s married now–and so I had felt all those things that Ani was talking about.) Ani was writing about how your sense of self gets warped by your feelings for another person. The way you pray for that person to swoop in and make you feel all these things, and then you resent them for making you feel anything at all. Fuck you and your untouchable face.

The album passes through all levels of grief, longing, intimacy, vengeance, scorn–it is the most tortured, beautiful, sad, striving music she had ever made, and maybe still has ever made. But you can’t get to the sunlight at the end unless you pass through the layers that came before it. And the record is so full of pull quotes that you could practically paste every word here and it wouldn’t add up to what you want it all to say.

A sampling:

when i say you sucked my brain out
the english translation
is i am in love with you
and it is no fun

oh now that, now that there’s a problem
you call me up to confide
and you go on for over an hour
about each one that took you for a ride
and i guess that you dialed my number
because you thought for sure that i’d agree
i said baby, you know i still love you
but how dare you complain to me

like how could you do nothing
and say, i’m doing my best
how could you take almost everything
and then come back for the rest
how could you beg me to stay
reach out your hands and plead
and then pack up your eyes and run away
as soon as i agreed

i put a cup out on the window sill
to catch the water as it fell
now i got a glass half full of rain
to measure the time between
when you said you’d come

and when you actually come
and i wonder what of this
will have meaning for you
when you’ve left it all behind
i guess i’ll even wonder
if you meant it

at the time

Then, finally, emerging at the end of the record with “Joyful Girl”–the scratchy sound of the guitar pick against the strings, that mysterious thing musicians call warmth–and those soaring voices, ghostlike, nebulous, but true.

everything i do is judged
and they mostly get it wrong
but oh well
‘cuz the bathroom mirror has not budged

i do it for the joy it brings
because i’m a joyful girl
because the world owes me nothing
and we owe each other the world
i do it because it’s the least i can do
i do it because i learned it from you
and i do it just because i want to
because i want to

The self is still present here, re-built, re-imagined, sustained, redeemed. Even after all that. And what more can we ask for? What else do we want from a great record, from music, from any work of art, but to be redeemed?

Lee Houck was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. His debut novel, Yield, was the winner of Project QueerLit 2008, and was published by Kensington Books in September 2010. His writing appears in numerous anthologies published in the U.S. and Australia, and in two arty chapbooks: Collection (essays, 2006) and Warnings (poems, 2009). He is currently at work on a new novel, and blogs at www.grammarpiano.com.

Collin Kelley on Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love


I’ve gotten some great essays back from people about albums they love to listen to straight through, and I’ll start posting them throughout the week.

If you want to participate, there’s still time! Send your essay to me.

First up:

Hounds of Love – Kate Bush
By Collin Kelley

I succumbed to the digital age of music more than a decade ago. In the late 90s, I reveled in the illegal glory of Napster and Limewire, filling endless numbers of blank CDs with favorite songs and albums. I’ve since moved on to legal downloading thanks to iTunes, but I still have a soft spot for vinyl records and CDs. If it’s an artist I truly love and support, I will buy the physical record – sometimes in multiple formats. Kate Bush is one of those artists.

I discovered Kate in 1981 after I snuck into the living room one Friday night to watch the old Night Flight show, a precursor to MTV and one of the few places you could actually see music videos. Kate was already a cult favorite in the US, but was a star of Lady Gaga-type proportions in her native UK and across Europe. Thirty years later, that cult status remains. Kate’s literary and cinematic pop has never caught on in America, which is both a shame and a blessing.

When Kate somersaulted across my television screen, causing the vertical hold to roll along with her, in the video for “Wuthering Heights,” I was hooked. Her music has become as much an inspiration to me as any poet or writer. Kate’s 1985 album Hounds of Love is not only my favorite of her albums, but my favorite album by any artist. Ever.

The first single from Hounds of Love was the urgent and stirring “Running Up That Hill,” and I bought the vinyl single and nearly drove my parents up the wall playing it on the stereo. The photo of Kate holding an archer’s bow with the lyrics written across her arms and back is still one of the most arresting images in music. The lyrics still have the power to thrill and chill:

You don’t want to hurt me,
But see how deep the bullet lies.
Unaware, I’m tearing you asunder.
There is thunder in our hearts.
Is there so much hate for the ones who love?
Tell me we both matter don’t we?

When I finally got my hand on the album, I listened to it from start to finish. Over and over and over. Hounds of Love is not an album you can snatch a few songs from, but must be listened to as a whole for it to reveal its motivation and majesty.

On the vinyl version – and you really should listen to it on vinyl for the warm, rich sound – the album is divided into two halves: Hounds of Love and The Ninth Wave. The Hounds side contains “Running Up That Hill” and a clutch of Kate’s well-known songs – “Cloudbusting,” “The Big Sky” and the title track.

But it’s The Ninth Wave conceptual song cycle, where Kate takes on the voice of a person hovering between life and death after an accident at sea, that cements her reputation not only as a musician, but a storyteller. Discordant voices rise and fall and helicopters buzz as the nightmare of being trapped under ice gives way to hallucinations and, eventually, leaving the body to hover over Earth with the satellites. The gem is “Watching You Without Me,” where the drowning woman’s spirit goes home to see her husband/lover one last time:

You watch the clock
move the slow hand
I should have been home
hours ago, but I’m not here…

The vocal track moves backwards and forwards, devolves into nonsense as her soul prepares to move onward. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful.

When I sit down to write, Hounds of Love invariably finds its way onto my stereo. For me, it’s a ritual: removing the record from the sleeve, putting it on the turntable and setting the needle onto the vinyl followed by the satisfying moment of crackle and hiss before the opening synth line of “Running Up That Hill” fades in. Hounds of Love is still the only album that transports me to a different place every time I listen to it. That’s the power of timeless lyrics and music.

Collin Kelley is the author of the novels Conquering Venus and the forthcoming Remain in Light. His poetry collections include Better to Travel, After the Poison, and Slow to Burn, which is being reissued in August by Seven Kitchens Press.