Thursday playlist: Forty song a-go-go, or, Musical roulette

My first impulse was to approach this playlist in the same way I’ve approached reading list requests for various magazines. You’re certain (when you agree to do it) that your recent intake includes Camus, Hofstaeder, and first-edition Russian novels – then are horrified when a quick look at the nightstand reveals the latest thriller by Preston and Child, a Robert Silverberg paperback from around 1967, and the complete Far Side.

(Okay, to be fair, it’s the leatherbound limited edition of the complete Far Side, signed by Gary, but I’m not sure if that clarifies or muddies my point.)

I’m no musical connoisseur – I tend to like what I like, and don’t stray to far from those tastes. But when I do encounter something new that presses my buttons, I can become pretty passionate about it (which is why my itunes list includes an all-acoustic song with the improbable title “Six Dildo Bobs and the Bluegrass Samba From Hell”).

As of last week, I just finished a nine page comics story for a prominent alt-pop musician, so I called her up and asked what I ought to do here (and realized that none of her songs, or indeed, no songs by musicians I’ve worked with or know, are on my current playlists) and the response was: “Whatever your current playlist is, and the reasons you chose those particular songs are what will be interesting to people.” I agreed, for reasons along the same lines of why I like to put first-person essays in between segments of my comics material – the reasons for the mix might be more compelling than the mix itself (or at least add context via the juxtaposition).

So I offer my four current mixes. Not startling in their innovation, but perhaps revealing in the meaning they have to the groups in which I placed them: Work (writing), Work (drawing), Comfort, and Conquest. Liner Notes follow each list.

The Studio Workmix (Writing)
1. The Way It Is / Bruce Hornsby & The Range
2. Precious / Depeche Mode
3. All Along The Watchtower / The Jimi Hendrix Experience
4. Theme from Somewhere in Time / John Barry
5. Lie To Me / Jonny Lang
6. Tonight and the Rest of My Life / Nina Gordon
7. Closer / Nine Inch Nails
8. Possession / Sarah McLachlan
9. The Old Apartment / Barenaked Ladies
10. The Valley Road / Bruce Hornsby & The Range

To be perfectly frank, this could just as well be an all-Hornsby list and I’d scarcely see a difference in the quality or volume of my writing. Same with the John Barry soundtrack. If I’m being selective (as above), it means I’m trying to find an atmospheric balance in my Studio. I have an unusual predilection for hating static spaces. There is a radio or some other noise-generating device in every part of my Studio, producing sound at all times. It makes me crazy to walk into a static space – it must be, MUST BE, kinetic. And sound is the best way to achieve that. In my workspace (my private Studio), I’m more choosy, but no less eccentric. I wrote half of a novel last year listening to nothing but the Nina Gordon song. Over. And over. And over. But at one point, I was doing 1000 words an hour of tight prose, so apparently it was what I needed. Others on this list are songs I’ve heard enough that they are almost background noise – some, like the Depeche song, are going to be crucial to upcoming writing jags.

The Studio Workmix (Drawing)
1. Loser / Beck
2. It Ends Tonight / The All-American Rejects
3. In The Midnight Hour / Andrew Strong
4. What I am / Edie Brickell & New Bohemians
5. Suicide Blonde / INXS
6. No Myth / Michael Penn
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit / Nirvana
8. Pets / Porno For Pyros
9. Connected / Stereo MC’s
10. Where The Streets Have No Name / U2

The drawing playlist is a bit more frenetic, but the work is different, so I can afford the shift. I don’t really pay more attention than when I’m writing, but this list channels a different type of energy through my fingertips. Some songs are connected to emotional and/or nostalgic tipping points from my past: “What I Am” and “Pets” transport me utterly to the time they were prominent; “Connected” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” represent cultural shifts, as does “Loser.” And the Andrew Strong song is simply a brilliant representation of an artist working at the peak of his ability. This thought alone is enough to pull me through a tight deadline: to be working at the peak of one’s ability, confident in the knowledge that one is equal to the challenge. My exposure to U2 (which would have happened eventually, given their ubiquity) came about because of Bryan (more on his influences below) and I still have several cassettes he gave me. INXS is also a taste I credit to him, since we saw them in concert together the year after high school.

The Linus’ Blanket Security Mix
1. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing / Andy Williams
2. Cool Water / The Sons of the Pioneers
3. You’re The Inspiration / Chicago
4. I Can’t Go For That / Daryl Hall & John Oates
5. Girls Just Want To Have Fun / Cyndi Lauper
6. The End of the Innocence / Don Henley & Bruce Hornsby
7. The King of Wishful Thinking / Go West
8. We Are In Love / Harry Connick Jr.
9. You Are / Lionel Ritchie
10. It Ends Tonight / The All-American Rejects

This list is nothing but the musical equivalent of comfort food. When I was a child, my mother would put two albums on an old automatic turntable and I’d go to sleep listening to Andy Williams and The Sons of the Pioneers. (In fact, the songs listed can be interchanged at will with “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and “Maria”; as can “Private Eyes” with the Hall & Oates selection.) The Lionel Ritchie song was playing in a bookstore in Flagstaff the weekend I bought my first copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey, on a school trip. (Bonus memory: in seventh grade, I asked Bryan who he thought was the best rock artist currently performing, confident in my belief that he would answer “Lionel Ritchie.” When he replied “Eddie Van Halen,” I was suddenly relieved I hadn’t mentioned my actual first choice, which was Barry Manilow.)*

*Footnote to the aside: my youthful preference for Barry Manilow is easily explained by a very strong and influential memory. My greatest childhood mentor, a Presbyterian Minister who also taught English and Philosophy, would play Manilow albums while we played chess, drank Vernor’s Ginger Ale, and discussed The Urantia Book, William James, and Flowers for Algernon. Among other things, he taught me to respect the beliefs of others, never open with a knight, and to never inhale while drinking Vernor’s.

The World Conquest Mix
1. My New Haircut / Freak Kitchen
2. Ocean Avenue / Yellowcard
3. The Wrong Side / Abney Park
4. Forever Man / Eric Clapton
5. New Sensation / INXS
6. True Faith / New Order
7. Closer / Nine Inch Nails
8. We Will Rock You / Queen
9. Love Is Strong / The Rolling Stones
10. Elevation / U2

Everything here is designed to evoke a specific emotional response. Freak Kitchen (who also produced the Bluegrass Samba From Hell, and whose entire album is available here, as it’s more likely to be new to TGW readers than almost anything else I’ve listed) created a song which is a work of delirious genius; several others are pure energy; and the Stones’ song is here as much for the iconic video as for the song itself (same with “Closer” and “Elevation”).

This is the mix I play before a Hollywood meeting, or a big signing event, or a major convention. This is the mix I play to raise my heartrate and my confidence. This is the mix that inspires, and powers through doubt and fear. This mix, in the right circumstance, inspires manifestos:

“I am the Leviathan of Pop Culture.

“My stride is mighty, encompassing continents of fiction. My footsteps reshape mythologies; I clap my hands, and history trembles. I inhale fragments of story, and exhale epics that make Kings weep. I paint the world as it should be, and the very atoms of the earth reassemble themselves to emulate the perfection of my vision. No empire has existed that cannot be recreated in my image, and no future can escape my influence, for my paper is the Universe, my Pen the hand of Creation, and the words and images I create the fabric of existence itself.”

Bonus Selection: The Main Title Theme from John Williams’ Superman score may be added as needed to any of the above playlists. At any time. There are, after all, reasons that I wear a Superman ring as a wedding band, and travel with a battered old paperback I once bought in a hospital. But that’s another essay entirely.

(Here are some of the songs.)

19 responses to “Thursday playlist: Forty song a-go-go, or, Musical roulette”

  1. It makes me crazy to walk into a static space – it must be, MUST BE, kinetic

    I feel the opposite way — I like music a lot, but it has to be the primary activity. If I’m doing something not-music, I tend to find music distracting and annoying. This leads to a lot of disputes between my wife and me over whether the radio should be playing when we are not actively listening to it.

    Your drawing playlist should totally have “Walkin’ on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves on it. The fact that you have strong nostalgic connections for “What I Am” makes me think you must be about exactly the same age as I. A lot of people our age have nostalgic connections for Hall & Oates and for Lionel Ritchie; for me too, but primarily negative ones.

  2. James says:

    My wife and I have the same discussions, and seem to have reached some compromises. She’s got your POV, whereas I don’t need a particular song on (for the most part) just sound.

    It took us a long time to figure that out. It seems when I was around 2, I was diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic. My mother has several journals documenting those days (early 70’s), and the concerns they had about my development (never crawled; didn’t speak until late), and the biggest revelation from reading her entries was that I was unable to screen out sensory input. Just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t distinguish sounds, or separate them – it all came it at the same intensity.

    I had to learn to screen input – primarily sound – and seemed to then progress normally as a precocious toddler. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that a writer friend of mine (who had co-authored a paper on autistic studies at Cambridge) figured something out: when I’m under the most pressure, I have four or five different things playing in the same room. TV, radio, itunes, CD player… all at once. And My focus was perfect. She said that I was basically reverting to my default state – massive input, all around – because that was the state from which I learned to differentiate and focus.

    A lot of creative and personal floodgates opened after that.

    And re: the Edie Brickell song – it’s sometimes rotated with “Straight Up” for the primary reason that both songs were pretty ubiquitous when I left home after high school. Both represent independence to me (I guess in the same way as that PARTICULAR Lionel Ritchie song). but the only person who doesn’t give me grief about listening to Paula Abdul is my daughter.

    The download I provided is the full Freak Kitchen album (because “My New Haircut” is my current anthem, and I thought you guys would like the whole experience) and some of my key personal songs, the never-get-old songs, including “The Way it Is” and the Superman theme. Abney Park is better as a live show, but they still do some keen stuff.

  3. Dave says:

    Interesting background, James. I find I often have a hard time doing something else when I have music playing. WFMU has a couple of great shows on Monday evening when I typically write my TGW posts, but about half the time I have to turn off the radio because the music is just too energetic and noisy for me to concentrate on writing. Of course, I then distract myself with my RSS reader and a million other things, so maybe there’s no net gain.

  4. James says:

    I think that’s where the repetition comes in – I need the noise, but nothing that’s jarring. I don’t know how many days running I played Nina Gordon, but it worked. My editor would call up and comment on it (hearing it in the background), but the prose was good and I was on deadline, so he never pressed me on it.

    Apparently the illustrator Franklin Booth could draw in the middle of a party – can’t picture how he did it. I need more solitude to draw than right (and my accompaniment is usually WEST WING tapes – because it’s a dialogue-driven show, and I don’t have to watch the screen).

  5. while i have to admit that most of the music on your lists isn’t the music from my teen years that i return to on a regular basis, i can’t agree with modesto on this score:

    A lot of people our age have nostalgic connections for Hall & Oates and for Lionel Ritchie; for me too, but primarily negative ones.

    I am not ashamed of the gospel of Hall & Oates. And there’s no reason to be. That stuff gets more people happy than just about anything else you can pull out. And as for Lionel Ritchie, I can’t say I have much of (or any of) his music about, but “Hello” provided the soundtrack to one of the most memorable slowdances of my middle school career, and I’ll always have a soft spot.

    It’s funny — although I still have a fond spot for the Cure and New Order, when I go back to the 80s I often turn to music I *didn’t* like then. — bad pop metal, R&B, early rap, late New Order and Cure, etc. But Van Halen was always a bit of a guilty pleasure. I don’t remember the conversation you recount, but I’m pleased that my seventh grade, Sword of Shannara-toting self would have known to pull out an answer like that.

    The other night, a friend who shall remain unnamed (okay, it was Lane) stopped by to pimp an iPod he’d just purchased. Out of a dozen albums or so that I quickly dropped onto the iPod, I was happy to have Van Halen II at the ready, thanks to Scott’s Satan/God playlist, which had put me in the mood. I have a feeling it was probably the highlight, even though there was cooler stuff on there.

    Other quick responses: I have to have music on when I work, but I need it to be unfamiliar, so it doesn’t distract me. Hence my devotion to WFMU. At the same time, when I’m under an intense deadline, it usually helps to play the same thing over and over, and in that case it can be familiar. I played a lot of late 60s music while I wrote that academic freedom book — Hendrix, Joplin, etc. to put me in the right groove.

    And as for that manifesto. Damn, are you sure you weren’t listening to Moby-Dick on CD when you wrote that thing?

  6. Now that I think about it, if I saw a Lionel Ritchie LP on the street I’d be happy to pay a buck for it and take it home.

    And I love the song “Cool Water.” I remember this choir of older ladies in town called the “Liberty Bells” who would always pull that one out at 4th of July celebrations and such.

  7. And there’s no reason to be

    I’m not suggesting there is — a while back I got snarky about H & O and was schooled about their objective quality by somebody a lot more musically literate than I. I’m just saying my own personal references to Hall & Oates (and specifically to the album “Private Eyes”) are negative; they are a nostalgia trip for me but not one I enjoy.

  8. James says:

    My middle school slow dance anthem was “Eye In The Sky”, so I relate to your memory of “Hello.”

    Hall & Oates represents my idea of timeless music which is also timely.

    My friendship with you provided a lot of musical awakening in those years: hence my affection for New Order, but some groups I loved then I can’t countenance now (OMD? I really LIKED OMD?)

    I also had the good fortune to marry someone utterly devoted to Depeche Mode. I got seats on the floor in front of the stage for their show at America West Arena, and earned major spouse points on just the prospect that Dave Gahan might have sweat on us.

    And as to that Manifesto: I’ve been doing a series of pieces on my journal (and recently did one reminiscing on that San Diego trip from ’86, as I’m preparing for this year’s show) about the realities of publishing. I did several a couple of years ago when everyone wanted to know how I’d managed to get some impossible book and film deals done. I said it was because the idea was improbable, not impossible. I wrote that manifesto as a reply to the question “what do you do?” and as an example of what kind of attitude I think a creative individual needs to have to forge a career.

    The Moby Dick idea is interesting. I had some friends who insisted (after two months) that the producers I was meeting with on the DRAGONS film were never going to close the deal. And it took me two years to do so. (Which was two years longer than anyone I knew would have spent on it). But my take was, I’d gotten what I set out to get – I got my white whale. So what did the two years matter, now? And if it took my wearing the mantle of artistic obsessiveness to see it through, well..

    Can’t argue with the result.

    So far, so good.

  9. Hmm … I actually quite like early OMD, esp. Organisation. I probably liked the later stuff more back then, and I agree that stuff didn’t age well. But there’s some pure post-punk minimalism going on w/ Organisation.

  10. Dave says:

    So the rest of the blog was more excited by Heidegger than by popular music. Interesting.

  11. maybe you should curate a Heideggerian playlist.

  12. 8: I can get sqaurely behind the Alan Parsons Project any day as well. Eye in the Sky reminds me of roller rinks in the best way. It was the centerpiece of my winter mix several years back, coming off Grandaddy’s “The Crystal Lake” if I remember right.

  13. James says:

    Dave: I knew I should have included my fan letter from Glenn Danzig.

  14. re: 12

    so i dug out that mix, which was dated Dec. 2001. since it plays off an 80s vibe that slightly overlaps w/ the one you’re mining (it had a rubik’s cube on the cover), and since it did, in fact, begin with an OMD song, i’ll offer up the playlist:

    1. enola gay / OMD
    2. penthouse & pavement / heaven 17
    3. the crystal lake / grandaddy
    4. eye in the sky / alan parsons project
    5. miss america / david byrne
    6. what will you do when your suntan fades? / beulah
    7. move me no mountain / dionne warwick
    8. fantastic voyage / david bowie
    9. climbing up the walls (zero 7 mix) / radiohead
    10. the air that i breathe / the hollies
    11. first we take manhattan / leonard cohen
    12. IMpossible / figurine
    13. fascination / the human league
    14. what is life / george harrison
    15. nite & fog / mercury rev
    16. can megan / gorky’s zygotic mynci
    17. the number one song in heaven / sparks
    18. through my sails / neil young & crazy horse

    while i was, in fact, roundly criticized by some friends for including some of those tracks, i stand by it as a damn fine playlist. which is why i encourage you to love your nick hornsby, even if i wouldn’t go there personally. (i think we disagreed on this back then as well.)

  15. My middle school slow dance anthem was “Eye In The Sky”

    Hello? I bought every record by APP. I was so excited a few years back, my parents-in-law subsidized a family vacation in Atlantic City, the first night there I saw posters for “A Walk Down Abbey Road”, Beatles nostalgia concert featuring Todd Rungren and APP as headline acts, plus somebody from Wings who was not Paul McCartney. That was excellent and weird.

  16. “somebody from Wings who was not Paul McCartney” s/b “Denny Laine”. The internet reveals that John Entwhistle was also involved in this tour; but he was not at the show I saw.

  17. James says:

    14: Okay, Enola Gay is a very good track. My cd collection from around the same time included David Byrne, Neil Young, George Harrison, and Human League. So I stand behind your 2001 playlist.

  18. Dave says:

    The mix in 14 is one of my favorite mixes ever.

  19. James says:

    14: I know you didn’t like Bruce Hornsby back in the day, but you were very diplomatic about it. Conversely, I remember thinking “we paid money for THIS?” when Fishbone was playing before INXS came out at Compton Terrace.

    (Which was owned by Stevie Nicks’ dad, which gave me the thought that I ought to have done a playlist of musicians I know whose music I rarely listen to. That would be eclectic as all hell. Next year, perhaps.)

    Hornsby put me through my own aesthetic trial by fire a couple years after high school, when he toured as the keyboardist for the Grateful Dead. Talk about readjusting personal tastes…